07 June 2011

Romans 12:1-3 & Paideia

This is a text I have written up based on the notes for a speech I gave at the graduation of my 6th-grade students, who are moving on from the Grammar stage of the classical trivium to the Dialectic stage (in fact, I am moving up to 8th grade next year, and so will be making the same transition myself as a teacher!). The Biblical passage with which it begins was read by one of the students just prior to my taking the podium. I dedicate this post to Kaye Wilson, who was quite vocal and insistent that I produce a written copy of the speech for her to peruse at leisure.

Romans 12:1-3: ‘I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewal of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God. For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith.’

When I was probably twelve or thirteen years old, my dad wrote the first part of verse 2 of this passage from Romans on a hand-written note to me: just ‘And be not conformed to this world: but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.’ Now, although I don’t recall him ever explaining it, I think I know why he did this. When I was that age, I was a bit of a rebel, a nonconformist—and I think dad thought that Romans 12:2a could show me how a rebellious spirit could be ‘baptised’ and made subject to Christ.

I must admit I still have a certain fondness for such a use of the verse, but having come to know me a little bit over the past year, you might well expect me to offer a more complicated exegesis. That’s just what I’m going to do. Like C.S. Lewis, but to a much lesser degree, I am a bit of a dinosaur. In talking about this passage, I will, of course, use some Greek and talk about the Church Fathers a whole lot. You have Mr Carr to blame for this speech taking such a turn. He suggested the idea of having a student read a bit of Scripture, and I immediately thought of this passage, and then this whole speech just kind of snowballed from there. The only comfort I have to offer is that this is the last time you’ll have to listen to me waxing on about Scripture in this way all summer.

So, to begin just taking the passage one thing at a time:

When St Paul calls our bodies ‘a living sacrifice’, among other things we might say that he is emphasising the importance of taming our unruly passions, a particular problem for youths.

The phrase ‘reasonable service’ in the King James is a perfectly passable rendering of something which is to me much more interesting in the Greek—logiken latreian—which we might also translate ‘rational or logical worship’. In other words, by disciplining our bodies, we our enabling our minds to participate in the glorification of God.

When St Paul speaks of not being conformed to ‘this world’, the word he uses is not the usual biblical word for ‘world’, kosmos, but aion (‘aeon’), which might also be translated ‘age’. Elsewhere, in Galatians 1:2, St Paul uses the same word when he speaks of ‘this present evil age’.

The ‘mind’ that is to be renewed is a word with a very interesting history: nous. In the Scriptural context, it can usually be pretty well translated as ‘mind’ in something like our modern sense, but in the Fathers the nous is much more. It is the ‘eye of the soul’, in other words the human faculty for perceiving God and ultimate truth.

When St Paul speaks of proving [dokimazein] ‘what is that…will of God’, the word he uses specifically means ‘to put to the test, examine, or prove by testing’. And when he exhorts us ‘not to think more highly, but soberly’, he is of course indicating the importance of exercising the mind in humility and temperance.

Now, I would like to suggest that Romans 12:1-3 be read tonight as an illuminating description of the effect of initiation into what we might call culture, or education, or that paideia which St Clement of Rome says ‘is in Christ’ (I Clement 21:8), calling it the ‘oracles of the paideia of God’ (I Clement 62:3).

By the taming of the passions, reason is incorporated into the glorifying of God (which as we have all heard many times is ‘man’s chief end’!).

Our aion (age) is completely opposed to this, ergo we turn away from ‘this present evil age’.

We are moulded by our mind being made new in a prosaic sense, but even more by the cleansing and renewal of our faculty for knowing God and Truth.

With such a mind, we examine and prove through testing what is the truth and how to act.

But even at the pinnacle of learning, we must preserve our humility (the sine qua non of learning) and the cardinal virtue of temperance or self-control.

Now, I hope you see the application of all of this to your Christian classical education.

In all three stages of the trivium, many ‘subjects’ are of course studied, but the first of these is Holy Scripture, which is why I maintained the practice in the 6th-grade class of daily reading directly from Scripture. So I will use this ‘subject’, the subject par excellence of Christian pedagogy, to illustrate what I’m talking about.

In his De doctrina Christiana 2.9.14, St Augustine beautifully describes the move from the Grammar to the Logic or Dialectic stage in the reading of Scripture: ‘The first rule in the laborious task [of studying Scripture] is…to know these books; not necessarily to understand them but to read them so as to commit them to memory or at least make them not totally unfamiliar.’ [1]

This is the Grammar stage—represented by the Veritas Press cards, worksheets, and tests, but most importantly, reading and memorising the text itself. St Athanasius the Great, under whose banner Joel sits now, says of the young St Anthony, ‘For he paid such close attention to what was read that nothing from Scripture did he fail to take in—rather he grasped everything, and in him the memory took the place of books.’ [2] So the recitations and memory work we do has clear patristic precedent.

Next, St Augustine says, ‘Then the matters which are clearly stated in them, whether ethical precepts or articles of belief, should be examined carefully and intelligently. The greater a person’s intellectual capacity, the more of these he finds.’ [3] Here we see the transition from Grammar to Dialectic—still familiarising, but also ‘examining’ (dokimasein) ‘intelligently’ (with reason—logiken latreian—and nous). I’ve tried to do this more and more over the last year: hence the sometimes mystifying essay questions I’ve given!

To complete the progression, St Augustine goes on to write:

Then, after gaining a familiarity with the language of the divine scriptures, one should proceed to explore and analyse the obscure passages, by taking examples from the more obvious parts to illuminate obscure expressions and by using the evidence of indisputable passages to remove the uncertain of ambiguous ones. [4]

Here we have much more pure Dialectic. I have tried to do this above all with our recent study of Revelation, where I was greatly assisted by the many notoriously obscure passages in that book! We did not of course entirely do away with the Grammar approach, but we had little choice but to begin moving into a more dialectical mode of reading.

But pay attention to the next line: ‘Here memory is extremely valuable; and it cannot be supplied by these instructions if it is lacking.’ [5] Did you see when we were reading Revelation how much easier it was to follow when you recalled the Old Testament references, the connections to other parts of the New Testament, or just earlier parts from Revelation itself? Grammar, which relies on memory, is the foundation, while Dialectic builds the structure of true knowledge on top of it.

Joel, you have a powerful imagination, when you’re not forgetting your work.

Ethan, you ask some penetrating questions, when you’re not distracted by Read.

Read, I thought for a long time about what I was going to say about you! You have a quick mind, which is a great help for picking up on exactly what you need to know and accessing it immediately, but this is only truly an asset when you’re not abusing it with corny jokes.

All of these things can serve well at the Dialectic stage, but for them to do so you must:

First, tame your passions.

Second, glorify God with your reason, not from emotion or habit only.

Third, resist the lures of ‘this present evil age’ (Gal 1:2), something we’ve learned a lot about in history, literature, and most recently, in Revelation.

Fourth, ask God’s grace to renew your mind and clease the ‘eye of your soul’ to perceive Truth.

Fifth, pose questions, think things through, and examine the facts before you to know what is true and how to act.

But above all, sixth, no matter how much you think you may know, no matter how keen your intellects become, acquire a spirit of humility and self-control.

St Gregory the Theologian, speaking at the funeral of his 'bff' (my apologies for the slang!), St Basil, said:

Who had such power in Rhetoric, which breathes with the might of fire . . . ? Who in Grammar, which perfects our tongues in Greek and compiles history, and presides over metres and legislates for poems? Who in Philosophy, that really lofty and high reaching science, whether practical and speculative, or in that part of it whose oppositions and struggles are concerned with logical demonstrations, which is called Dialectic . . . ? [6]

But he adds that his friend had become ‘excessively puffed up by his abilities’. [7] Interestingly, it took a woman—his sister, St Macrina—to cure St Basil of that, but cure him she did, so that he himself wrote: ‘I wept many tears over my miserable life, and I prayed that guidance might be vouchsafed me to the doctrines of true religion.’ [8]

I pray that the Lord grant all three of you such guidance as you embark on this new stage in your education.

[1] St Augustine, On Christian Teaching, tr. R.P.H. Green (Oxford: Oxford, 1999), p. 37.

[2] St Athanasius, The Life of Antony & the Letter to Marcellinus, tr. Robert C. Gregg (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist, 1980), p. 32.

[3] St Augustine, p. 37.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Oration 43.23 (here).

[7] The Lives of the Three Great Hierarchs: Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, & John Chrysostom, compiled & tr. Holy Apostles Convent (Buena Vista, CO: Holy Apostles, 1998), p. 8.

[8] Ibid., p. 9.

06 June 2011

‘Even So Send I You’—A Homily for the 1st Sunday after Pascha

This was my last homily of the school year, preached on the Monday after the first Sunday after Pascha, using the BCP readings for that Sunday. Orthodox readers will note a larger number of quotations from non-Patristic sources, including Jim Elliot, Corrie ten Boom, and John Keble. I don’t apologise for this, since these are sources that I thought my audience might be able easily to relate to and which expressed ideas that I do not find at all opposed to the Patristic tradition. I do ask that sensitive readers please excuse my paraphrase of the first quote from St Isaac the Syrian. I was afraid a great deal of my audience might find it difficult to follow Dana Miller’s rendering of the passage, and so attempted to simplify without—I hope—distorting the meaning.

I John 5:4-12
St John 20:19-23

‘As My Father sent me, even so send I you.’

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Christ is risen!

When preaching on a text from Scripture, I’m nearly always tempted to explain the passage as whole—looking for a structure, drawing out a dense complex of ideas. But today I want to focus closely, and draw out my homily from one fairly simple idea.

In today’s Gospel, Christ shows His disciples the wounds in His hands and side—glorious scars of His suffering and death. It is then that He speaks the words I have quoted: ‘As My Father sent me, even so send I you.’ What I want to point out today is that these two things—the action and the words—are not unrelated.

Commenting on this passage, St Gregory the Great writes:

As the Son is loved by the Father and yet is sent forth to suffer, so also the disciples are loved by the Lord, Who nevertheless sends them into the world to suffer; that is, ‘I am loving you with the love with which the Father loved Me, Whom He sent into the world to undergo sufferings.’ [1]

Today’s message is that just as Christ was sent to suffer, so He sends His disciples to suffer too.

The showing of His wounds confirms the Resurrection, it builds that faith by which the world is overcome, according to the first verse of today’s Epistle reading. But this overcoming of world, though it is by faith, is nevertheless a struggle which requires suffering. In other words, God’s grace enables us to overcome world, but only through much suffering: physical, emotional, and spiritual. And what I am struck most by is the implication that this is the normal life for Christ’s disciples. Thus a line has long stuck with me from the journal of the famous Protestant missionary, Jim Elliot:

‘We are the sheep of His pasture. Enter into His gates with thanksgiving, and into His courts with praise.’ And what are sheep doing going into a gate? What is their purpose inside those courts? To bleat melodies and enjoy the company of the flock? No. Those sheep were destined for the altar. [2]
In other words, they are destined to be slaughtered as a sacrifice.

Similarly, the great spiritual teacher of 20th-c. Serbia, Elder Thaddeus, says ‘there is no life other than that of serving others and patiently bearing sorrow and pain’. [3]

I’m afraid that more than at any other time or place, we Americans in the 21st c. fall into the trap of thinking that a life of ease and comfort, material prosperity and the respect of society, doing fun and pleasing ourselves, is somehow compatible with Christianity.

Make no mistake: Christian life is a cross!
Christian life is sacrifice!
Christian life is difficult!

St Paul writes, ‘That no man should be moved by these afflictions: for yourselves know that we are appointed thereunto’ (I Thess. 3:3).

The great contemplative of the eastern desert, St Isaac of Nineveh, writes:

The person that wants to fulfill the Lord’s word is like someone prepared to be crucified who can think of nothing but dying, and no longer cares at all about the life of this present age. That’s what it means to ‘take up one’s cross and follow Him’ (Matt 16:24). The cross is a choice to be ready to suffer all the time. . . . Therefore by yourself prepare your soul to forget completely about this life. . . . When you struggle for Christ with this preparation, then everything that seems painful and bad will seem like no big deal at all. When your mind is prepared like this, it has no struggle or affliction when it faces death. If you don’t forget about life in this world because you want the blessed life to come, you’ll never be able to get through all the tribulations and pains that are gonna happen to you. [4]

The memory of the Church records that Christ’s words were certainly fulfilled by His immediate hearers—of the twelve Apostles, St Peter was crucified upside-down; St James, son of Zebedee, was beheaded; St John, son of Zebedee, died in exile; St Andrew was crucified on an x-shaped cross; St Philip was crucified; St Bartholomew was flayed (skinned) alive and beheaded; St Matthew was killed by an axe; St Thomas was killed by a spear; St James, son of Alphaeus, was crucified, stoned, and beaten to death by a club; St Jude was crucified; St Simon the Zealot was crucified; and St Matthias was stoned and beheaded.

Now, in context Christ’s words, ‘even so send I you’, obviously apply first of all to ‘clergy’. Our Lord is speaking to the Apostles—to whom He gives the power to ‘bind and loose’ (cf. St John 20:23). According to the English Puritan, Matthew Henry: this power ‘puts immense honour upon the ministry, and should put immense courage into ministers’. [5] Unfortunately, even the clergy often forget that it is their calling precisely to suffer.

But our Lord’s words also apply to all believers. All Christians are ‘sent out’ into the world. It is true that the laity don’t have the special task of ‘binding and loosing’—but we too can spread Christ’s forgiveness, if not sacramentally. The 6th-grade class just finished reading The Hiding Place, about a woman named Corrie Ten Boom who was imprisoned by the Nazis for helping Jews. After her release from the Ravensbruck prison camp, Corrie meets one of her former guards—who does not recognise her—when speaking at a German church. We read:

His hand was thrust out to shake mine. And I, who had preached so often to the people in Bloemendaal the need to forgive, kept my hand at my side.

Even as the angry, vengeful thoughts boiled through me, I saw the sin of them. Jesus Christ had died for this man; was I going to ask for more? Lord Jesus, I prayed, forgive me and help to forgive him.

I tried to smile, I struggled to raise my hand. I could not. I felt nothing, not the slightest spark of warmth or charity. And so again I breathed a silent prayer. Jesus, I cannot forgive him. Give me Your forgiveness.

As I took his hand the most incredible thing happened. From my shoulder along my arm and through my hand a current seemed to pass from me to him, while into my heart sprang a love for this stranger that almost overwhelmed me.

And so I discovered that it is not on our forgiveness any more than on our goodness that the world’s healing hinges, but on His. When He tells us to love our enemies, He gives, along with the command, the love itself. [6]

As I mentioned early on, by faith through grace we ‘overcome the world’. But what do we mean by ‘the world’? Is this the same as that world into which we’re sent?

In a homily on today’s Epistle delivered over 150 years ago, the great Anglican preacher, John Keble, said: ‘The world is the visible and outward course of things, amidst which we live and move. It is something different to each one of us but each one finds it the same in this respect, that by things in sight it tempts and draws him away from things out of sight.’ [7]

Thus the ‘world’ is not just outside, but, sadly, within us in the form of the passions which St Paul says ‘they that are Christ’s have crucified’ (Gal 5:24). Indeed, as St Isaac has famously written:

World is a collective noun which is applied to the so-called passions. . . . When we wish to give a collect name to the passions, we call them world. And when we wish to designate them specifically according to their names, we call them passions. . . . These are the passions: love of wealth; gathering objects of any kind; bodily pleasure . . . ; love of esteem, from which springs envy; the wielding of power; pride in the trappings of authority; stateliness and pomposity; human glory, which is the cause of resentment; fear for the body. [8]

All of this can be overcome by faith in Christ, through which His grace transforms us. The mediaeval English monk, the Venerable Bede, says that:

The commandments of God are not burdensome. If we keep them with true devotion, even though the world is difficult, we’ll pass by its temptations without being troubled, and we’ll even look forward to death, because it’s the gateway to the heavenly country. Of course we can’t achieve all this by our own efforts, so St John adds that our victory is a result of our faith, not our works. [9]

Finally, as Keble observes:

To overcome this world is really to turn away from the things which seem desirable in it and to give them up for the sake of better things out of sight, and when our faith has this effect on us—when it actually causes us to forego earthly things in order to secure the things eternal to please God and show duty to Jesus Christ—then it is a faith which overcomes the world. [10]

May we all learn to acquire and practice this kind of faith so that we can repeat in our own lives the great sacrifice that Jesus Christ made for us.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

[1] The Orthodox New Testament, Vol. 1: The Holy Gospels, tr. & ed. Holy Apostles Convent (Buena Vista, CO: HAC, 1999), p. 552, n. 365.

[2] Elisabeth Elliot, Shadow of the Almighty: The Life & Testament of Jim Elliot (NY: Harper, 1958), p. 89.

[3] Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives: The Life & Teachings of Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica, compiled by the St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, tr. Ana Smiljanic (Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 2009), p. 15.

[4] Paraphrased from Homily 37, in The Ascetical Homilies of St Isaac the Syrian, tr. Dana Miller (Boston: HTM, 1984), p. 168.

[5] Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible: New One Volume Edition, ed. Leslie F. Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1966), p. 1628.

[6] Corrie ten Boom, with John & Elizabeth Sherrill, The Hiding Place (Washington Depot, CT: Chosen, 1971), p. 215.

[7] John Keble, Sermons for the Christian Year, ed. Maria Poggi Johnson (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), p. 127.

[8] Ascetical Homilies, pp. 14-5.

[9] Gerald Bray, ed., James, 1-2 Peter, 1-3 John, Jude, Vol. XI in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2000), p. 222.

[10] Keble, p. 127.

04 June 2011

'He That Is of God Heareth God's Words'--A Homily for the 5th Sunday of Lent

I really didn’t mean to let two full months go by without posting a thing. To make up for it, here, much belatedly, is one of two homilies that I plan to post this week. This is my homily for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, preached, as usual, at chapel on the Monday morning following. I had received an indirect request through my principal to make it easier for the other teachers to take something away to discuss with their students—hence the repetitions of certain carefully enumerated points. The age and generally Protestant orientation of most of the audience accounts for the tone and some details of my retelling of the Life of St Mary of Egypt. I apologise that it is hardly a model of hagiographical narration.

Hebrews 9:11-15
St John 8:46-59

‘He that is of God heareth God’s words: ye therefore hear them not, because ye are not of God.’

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

In the second verse of today’s Gospel, these words that I have just quoted are spoken by Christ to the Jews. By ‘God’s words’, we can be sure that Our Lord means the Scriptures, of course, but the Scriptures are not only words already written but the words He is speaking at that moment.

From this ‘living Scripture’ we learn, first, that it is important that we ‘hear’ His words, not only read them silently. In the ancient world reading was always done out loud, and as often as we can we too must read the Scriptures aloud, listen to others read them, recite them, etc.

Second, we learn that merely hearing His words physically with our ears is not enough, since the Lord says to his physical audience ‘ye therefore hear them not’. It is also necessary to pay careful attention to what He says. Commenting on this text, the English Puritan, Matthew Henry, writes:

He that is of God . . . is willing and ready to hear His words, is sincerely desirous to know what the mind of God is, and cheerfully embraces whatever he knows to be so. He apprehends and discerns them, he so hears them as to perceive the voice of God in them, as they of the family know the master’s tread, and the master’s knock, as the sheep know the voice of their shepherd from that of a stranger.’
Third, and finally, we learn from these words of Christ that even paying attention is not enough—in v. 51, the Lord says that those who would never see death must ‘keep my saying’. In other words, truly hearing entails also doing.

In his commentary on this Gospel passage, St Gregory the Great emphasises all three of these points:

Let each one of you then consider within himself if this voice of God prevails in the ears of his heart. Then he will recognize whether he is now of God. There are some who do not choose to hear God’s commands even with their bodily ears. There are others who do this but do not embrace them with their heart’s desire. There are still others who receive God’s words readily, yes, and are touched, even to tears. But afterwards they go back to their sins again and therefore cannot be said to hear the word of God, because they neglect to practice it. [2]

Hearing the Word means listening, paying attention, but most importantly, doing the Word.

In the Anonymous Collection of Desert Fathers sayings, we read that:

A woman came to [St] Antony [the Great] and declared that she had endured great fasting and had learned the entire Bible by heart. [Amazing, huh?] She wanted to know from Antony what more she should do. Antony was less sanguine about her accomplishments than she was and put a series of questions to her. He asked her, ‘Is contempt the same as honor to you?’ She answered, ‘No.’ He then asked her, ‘Is loss gain, strangers as your parents, poverty as abundance?’ Again she answered ‘No.’ Antony said to her, ‘Thus you have neither fasted nor learned the Old and New Testament, but you have deceived yourself.’ [3]
By contrast, consider the story of the monk who—

came to St Basil [the Great] and said, ‘Speak a word, Father’; and Basil replied, ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart’; and the monk went away at once. Twenty years later he came back, and said, ‘Father, I have struggled to keep your word; now speak another word to me’; and he said, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself’; and the monk returned in obedience to his cell to keep that also. [4]

Hearing God’s Word means listening, paying attention, but most importantly, doing God’s Word.

Indeed, I have already mentioned that in v. 51 Christ says, ‘If a man keep my saying, he shall never see death.’ Does He mean we won’t die, but be taken to heaven like Enoch and Elijah? Clearly not. According to St Augustine: ‘It means nothing less than He saw another death from which He came to free us—the second death, eternal death, the death of hell, the death of the damned, which is shared with the devil and his angels! This is real death; the other kind of death is only a passage.’ [5] So Christ promises that if we keep His saying, we shall be delivered from this eternal death. But there is a more subtle, positive promise as well: If we hear (that is, do) the Word, its mysteries will be revealed to us.

Recall that the Jews respond to Christ’s promise: ‘Abraham is dead, and did he not keep God’s Word?’ What the Lord says in reply is rather strange. In v. 56, He tells them, ‘Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it, and was glad.’ Happily, the author of Hebrews, traditionally believed to be St Paul, helps us to understand this.

First, in a passage not found in today’s Epistle, but in chapter 11, v. 13, St Paul, having spoken of Abraham, writes: ‘These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them.’ In other words, yes, Abraham died the lesser death, and he died before Christ brought deliverence from eternal death, but he foresaw the deliverance, and he obtained this through faith—through hearing (that is, doing) the Word of God. St Irenaeus of Lyons says, ‘Righteously therefore, having left his earthly family, Abraham followed the Word of God walking as a pilgrim with the Word so that he might afterwards make his home with the Word.’ [6]

Now, the Fathers say many things about what Abraham saw—the mysteries revealed to him for his faith, like the Holy Trinity and the Incarnation. But most Fathers specifically connect what Christ calls ‘my day’ with His crucifixion and death. St Irenaeus writes, ‘Abraham was a prophet and saw in the Spirit the day of the Lord’s coming and the dispensation of His suffering’; [7] St Chrysostom says Abraham ‘was gladdened at the cross’; [8] and St Gregory Palamas says the ‘mystery of the Cross was working in Abraham’. [9]

How was this so? The Fathers say it is especially true in the story of the Sacrifice of Isaac (found in Gen. 22:1-14). St Cyril says Abraham ‘saw the day of the Lord’s slaughter . . . when, as a type of Christ, he was enjoined to offer up for a sacrifice his only begotten and firstborn, Isaac . . . making clear the exact force of the Mystery in a type in what happened.’ [10] St Ephraim the Syrian writes, ‘“He saw and rejoiced,” for he recognized the redemption of all the nations through the symbol of the lamb. “He said, ‘Before Abraham was, I am.’” For He existed, but in hidden fashion, when Isaac was being redeemed and revealed His sign through a lamb.’ [11]

Christ is of course the true Agnus Dei, the true Lamb of God—that is the Word of God that Abraham saw, and it is this ‘Word of God’ which we ‘hear’ in today’s Epistle: Hebrews 9:11-15. In verses 13-14, St Paul writes:

For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh: How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?

This is the Mystery revealed to Abraham. Christ is the perfect sacrifice, who delivers us from death and frees us from the dead works of the Law—sacrificing animals, etc.—so we can follow ‘the Word of God’. To paraphrase St John Cassian (Conference 21.4.3), we no longer offer sacrifices of animals or mere ‘tithes of our possessions’, but ‘disdaining property, we offer ourselves and our own souls to God’. [12] We hear and do God’s Word by imitating Christ’s sacrifice. We participate in the Mystery of the Cross by denying ourselves, taking up our cross, and following Jesus. For as we listen to today’s Gospel, we ourselves must be hearing the Word of God, and if we do this, we like Abraham will learn its Mystery. The Jews to whom Our Lord spoke heard but did not hear—we have the opportunity to hear what they did not.

In St John 8:58, Christ says: ‘Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am.’ Commenting on this passage, St Gregory the Great writes:

Our Redeemer graciously turns their gaze away from His body and draws it to contemplation of His divinity. . . . ‘Before’ indicates past time, ‘I am’ present time. Because divinity does not have past and future time but always is, He did not say, ‘I was before Abraham’ but ‘Before Abraham was, I am.’ And so it was said to Moses [at the burning bush], ‘I am who I am’, and ‘You will say to the children of Israel, “He who is has sent me to you”’ (Ex 3:14). [13]

In other words, Christ existed both before and after Abraham. It was Christ Who appeared to Abraham by the Oaks of Mamre, and the sign of the Precious Cross was stamped on his life. But this should not surprise us. As one modern theologian puts it:

Theologically speaking, creation and its history begins with the Passion of Christ [His suffering on the Cross] and from this ‘once for all’ work looks backwards and forwards to see everything in this light, making everything new. Christian cosmology, elaborated as it must be from the persective of the Cross, sees the Cross as impregnated in the very structure of creation: stat crux dum volvitur orbis—the Cross stands, while the earth revolves. The power of God revealed in and through the Cross brought creation into being and sustains it in existence. [14]

He then quotes St Isaac of Syria:

We do not speak of a power in the Cross that is any different from that through which the worlds came into being, [a power] which is eternal and without beginning and which guides creation all the time without any break, in a divine way and beyond the understanding of all, in accordance with the will of His divinity. [15]

If all this theology is a bit too much for you though, I’ll tell a little story that might make it easier.

Starting about 600 years ago, the Church that I belong to began a tradition of reading the Life of a Saint named St Mary of Egypt every year on the 5th Sunday of Lent. In the West, not many know about St Mary, so I’ll tell her story briefly.

The Life as we have it was written down in the 7th c. by St Sophronius of Jerusalem. It tells of a St Zosimas who lived in the Holy Land and was a good monk who ‘never ceased to study the Divine Scriptures. Whether resting, standing, working or eating food (if the scraps he nibbled could be called food), he incessantly and constantly had a single aim: always to sing of God, and to practice the teaching of the Divine Scriptures.’ According to the custom of his monastery, St Zosimas set off to the desert across the River Jordan to spend Lent alone with Christ (so, following the Word of God).

After 20 days, St Zosimas saw a human being whose body was ‘blackened, burnt by the heat of the sun’ [16]—an image of self-denial, of suffering, of the Mystery of the Cross—and discovers that it is a woman who already knows his name through Spirit. She is too humble to speak of herself, but St Zosimas begs her to tell him her story and finally cajoles her into it.

She says her name is ‘Mary’ and that she is from Alexandria, Egypt. Before she came to the desert, she was a very sinful woman—she liked to party, she wore lots of makeup and fancy clothes, and committed adultery many times. One day she went to Jerusalem and heard it was Feast of Precious Cross (at that time the Jerusalem Church still had all of the actual Cross that Christ was crucified on). Mary tried to go into the church with the crowd, but a mysterious force held her back. She realised that God was preventing her to enter because of her sins, and she promised to go to the desert and live in repentance. At that moment, she was able to enter the church and kiss Christ’s Precious Cross, upon which she immediately left and crossed the Jordan. At the time that she meets St Zosimas, St Mary believes that it has been 47 years since she left the Holy City to follow the Word of God.

When St Mary quotes Scripture to St Zosimas, he asks if she has read the Bible. Interestingly, she says: ‘I never learned from books. I have never even heard anyone who sang and read from them. But the word of God which is alive and active, by itself teaches a man knowledge.’ So Christ revealed to her His mysteries—she has heard His living voice, of which Scripture is only a record, and has been freed by grace to ‘serve the living God’. St Zosimas says, ‘Blessed is God Who has shown me how He rewards those who fear Him. Truly, O Lord, Thou dost not forsake those who seek Thee!’

The end of the story is that St Mary tells St Zosimas (who is a priest) to bring her Holy Communion. When he goes back to the Jordan he sees her on the other side, but she crosses by walking across the water to receive the Mysteries and says, ‘Now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, O Lord, according to Thy word; for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation.’ When St Zosimas goes back at her request after a year, St Mary has fallen asleep in the Lord.

Because St Mary has heard (and done) the Word of God, He has made known the Mystery of His Cross to her.

Because St Zosimas has heard (and done) the Word of God, He has made known mystery of St Mary’s cross to him.

Obviously, not all are called to live in the desert of the Holy Land, but as we get ready to celebrate His death and resurrection in a couple of weeks let’s try to remember that—

Whenever we are asked to do something we don’t like, we have an opportunity to share in Christ’s Cross just a little bit.

Whenever someone insults us or hurts us, and we are tempted to get angry and get back at them, we can share in Christ’s Cross.

Whenever we feel like fidgeting during Matins, or ignoring our teacher, we can share in Christ’s Cross.

Whenever we have to wait for something we want, we can share in Christ’s Cross.

Whenever our tie is too tight, the day is too hot, our chair is too hard, our class is too long, or the book we have to read is too boring, we share in Christ’s Cross.

If we do this, if we take advantage of these opportunities and even seek new ones, we will truly hear God’s Word.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

[1] Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible: New One Volume Edition, ed. Leslie F. Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1966), p. 1555.

[2] Joel C. Elowsky, ed., John 1-10, NT Vol. IVa of Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2006), p. 309.

[3] Douglas Burton-Christ, The Word in the Desert: Scripture & the Quest for Holiness in Early Christian Monasticism (NY: Oxford, 1993), p. 161.

[4] Benedicta Ward, Foreword, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, rev. ed. (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1984), p. xxii.

[5] Elowsky, p. 313.

[6] Ibid., p. 316.

[7] Ibid., p. 316.

[8] Ibid., p. 316.

[9] St Gregory Palamas, The Homilies, ed. & tr. Christopher Veniamin with the Monastery of St John the Baptist (Waymart, PA: Mount Thabor, 2009), p. 79.

[10] Elowsky, p. 316.

[11] Ibid., p. 317.

[12] St John Cassian, The Conferences, tr. Boniface Ramsey (NY: Newman, 1997), p. 721.

[13] Elowsky, p. 317.

[14] Fr John Behr, The Mystery of Christ: Life in Death (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 2006), p. 90.

[15] Qtd. in ibid., p. 90.

[16] All quotations from the Life of St Mary of Egypt are taken from here.