Although I am posting this late – I had to wait for the paint to dry – the Eastern Church celebrates today the Sunday of the Myrrh-bearing Women.
In this image, we have (from l. to r.), Mary Magdalene, Johanna and Mary, the holy Mother of God. And then, of course, the angel showing them the empty tomb with the burial cloths that once wrapped the Savior’s body.
You may wonder how I know the names of the women in the icon. I wonder too. I simply recognize them by the expressions of their faces. As I have often not known that I was going to write something, so have I been surprised at times by what my paint brush leaves behind.
Some may also wonder about the presence of the Virgin at the tomb. The western (Catholic) perspective has generally been that we do not know whether Jesus appeared to His mother after the Resurrection but a pious belief is held by some that He appeared to her first.
However, an alternate view is that the Theotokos was indeed at the tomb with the other women who brought spices to finish the burial process. After all, why would she not have gone? Given that Scripture tells us that she stood at the foot of the Cross, we know that there was no physical impediment to her being with the others.
Again the pious notion might be considered that she knew in her heart that death had no power over Him and therefore there was no further need to tend to His body. She did not need to see the empty tomb to believe. If she was there, would not Scripture have told us?
Some have explained this omission by pointing out that the evangelists’ intent was to make known the existence of eyewitnesses to the empty tomb and the testimony of a mother might be regarded with suspicion.
There are many other hypotheses that have been debated through the ages but none of them really interest me.
As I am drawn further into iconography, I am increasingly aware that the truth an icon conveys is not the historicity that preoccupies our world today. Instead, it proclaims a mystical truth, a truth that is at the heart of the Christian faith.
Whether or not the Theotokos went to the tomb is not the point. The point is that she, like the other faithful women, knew. She knew and believed that her Son was the Christ, the Anointed One, risen from the dead.
The icon proclaims this with her presence. At the same time, her face portrays her humanity. Tired and worn, she was still a mother who witnessed the brutal execution of her Son.
She is one of us. She knows suffering, she knows death. Her heart is pierced with a sorrow beyond telling.
At the same time, having joined her suffering to that of her Son, she is transformed with Him to know what it means to be fully human, to share in the divine life.
Our world is broken and suffering, now on a scale larger than many of us ever imagined we would see.
Let us stand with our Mother, bringing all of our sorrows and fears.
Together, let us gaze at the empty tomb and believe.
He is risen.
He is risen indeed!
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!
Brothers and sisters:
I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you,
that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over,
took bread, and, after he had given thanks,
broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you.
Do this in remembrance of me.”
In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying,
“This cup is the new covenant in my blood.
Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup,
you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
I remember a number of times over the years when a good friend and I had a sort of running joke. It was, at best, a wry humor, but one befitting the season of Lent.
Both of us have always been serious observers of this beautiful season of repentance. However, there were times when enough difficult things occurred unbidden that it was more than enough to get through them without adding some additional act of asceticism. As the saying went, “I didn’t have to go looking for penance; penance came looking for me!”
There was an important lesson that came with this experience: the most profound sacrifices in our lives are not the ones we choose. They are given to us to embrace and offer back to God as gifts born of broken, humbled hearts. These are, of course, the gifts God will never spurn.
Although I have followed the traditional fasting rules of the Church (which are not difficult in the west), I find that the fasts that have been given to me have often been more meaningful. An example from nearly 40 years ago comes to mind.
I was in my mid 20’s and working at an nontraditional community counseling service. In addition to the professional services offered, we had a drop-in lobby with free coffee that was well patronized by the mentally ill of the inner city streets. We had a staff-only area but just a curtain of a door to separate the spaces.
One day, I went to retrieve my lunch only to discover that someone had stolen it! And, while it would have been possible to come up with something to eat, I saw it as an opportunity to fast. I had so much and they have so little. What is one lunch not eaten?
Later, John, the prime suspect for the lunch-theft, committed suicide while hospitalized in a psychiatric unit. As I think back on him – for I still remember him – I hope my lunch brought a little comfort to his otherwise tortured life of mental illness and life on the street.
Yesterday, a different sort of fast was asked of me – a fast from my comfort zone. I had to pick up a medication refill at my local pharmacy. More times than not, as I approach the entrance there is someone waiting to ask me if I can spare some change. I confess that I often want to duck and pretend I don’t see them. Yesterday, my unspoken thoughts were, “It’s cold out. I have a migraine. Can’t I just walk into the store without being bothered?”
I fought this temptation as I saw a tall, slender man standing near the door. His clothes were mismatched layers. His braids were unkempt and a remnant of snot was frozen to his nose. When he made the anticipated request, I stopped, introduced myself and asked him his name. “Maurice”, he mumbled. I asked him, as I often ask people, what kind of troubles he was having to be in this position. His response, a single word: schizophrenia.
I could see in his face, in his manner of dress, that he was telling the truth and I gave him something. As I walked into the store, I immediately regretted not having given him more. He had disappeared by the time I left. I can only hope that my little donation to his life eased the pain of his poverty and confusion. I am sorry, Maurice. I should have given you more. I have so much.
So many of these unsought-after fasts are so mundane that they may hardly be noticed as such. Food not eaten because of nausea or work crises that leave no time. Plans cancelled when migraines, patient needs or other unavoidable hassles get in the way. I have even been given fasts from icon painting, as time or energy runs out or God sends me off in another direction.
What seems important is that I recognize these as opportunities to fast, opportunities given to me by God to embrace the way of the Cross, accepting His way over my way. When so embraced, each little sacrifice becomes a gift I can offer my Father, uniting it to the gift of Christ our Savior.
Do I always do this? Do I recognize these opportunities as such? Sadly, most of the time I do not. But I am on a journey and each step offers a lesson. If I miss the message, it will be given again and again until I get it. God sets no limits on His invitations to love.
Amidst these minor challenges, some Lenten seasons I encounter much greater calls to fast, the kind that show me how stingy were the offerings I had chosen for myself.
Lent this year has been one of those times.
Such an unlikely fast. I would never have anticipated being asked to fast from the Sacraments, of all things. Nor would I have guessed that I would be called upon to fast from the company of my community, my colleagues, my friends, from their handshakes and hugs.
Still, unlikely as it seems, each dimension of these restrictions imposed from without are fasting opportunities from God, to be embraced and returned to Him. The evil which is the pandemic is redeemable in my own heart – in all of our hearts – when we embrace this fast out of love for God.
It is easy to forget how many people routinely experience these deprivations when infirmities confine them to private dwellings or nursing homes. Or when they live under oppressive governments that restrict their freedom of movement and worship. Or when war or gang violence makes them refugees, disconnected from any security they ever had.
It is easy to forget the Johns and Maurices of this world and to avoid helping them carry the crosses they never asked for. It is so much easier to choose my own sacrifices, to give up some trifle, to say an extra prayer or read another book.
But it is in the Cross of Christ – and only there – that suffering becomes sacrifice and takes on meaning as an act of love.
His way, the way of the Cross, is not something I can follow only when it is fits into my plans. I do not get to choose my fast, my sacrifice, my cross.
There is but one choice for me to make: will I follow?
As weak and beset by sin as I am, there is only one possible response to this question. This is what it means to be wounded by love (Songs 2:5).
(Dear Readers, my prayers for your physical, emotional and spiritual health during these difficult times. Prepare for lighter posts from this blog! April is National Poetry Month in the US which means a poetry contest is in the making! No experience or talent required and there will be prizes for all. More to follow.)
It has been quite a while since I posted anything here. I’ve been too busy painting icons 🙂
But the time has come for words – strong words.
Last week, the decision was made by the Catholic bishops of Ohio to temporarily lift our religious obligation to attend Sunday Liturgy. This move was made, of course, as part of the worldwide effort to stem the spread of COVID-19, the highly contagious and deadly coronavirus. We could attend if we wanted to but people at risk were especially encouraged to stay home.
Today, late in the afternoon, the bishops decided to temporarily suspend all public celebrations of the sacred liturgy throughout the state.
Without a doubt, this is the work of the evil one.
By no means am I suggesting that the bishops were acting inappropriately. On a human level, they made a sensible decision to try to protect us – as much as it is in their power to do so.
But who is it that creates pandemics? People, in their fear and suffering, often assume that it is God. Haven’t we been told that He is the Creator of all things? Who could have created the viruses (not to mention the bacterias) if not Him?
To understand this, we must return to the story of Creation for it tells us many truths.
In the beginning, as the Spirit, the breath of God (Ruah) swept over the waters, the Word was spoken. All things were created through Him and for Him. The love within the Trinity gave birth to all things and everything born of this love was pronounced good.
Hence, we know that all of God’s creation was good from its inception. Are viruses then good?
On the level of science, we do not know how viruses came about, though their origins appear to be ancient. So insidious are they that they left no footprint in history that we can study. While considered “living”, viruses seem to be a perversion of life, existing only to reproduce and yet able to reproduce only through parasitism.
And we know who has introduced the perversions we see in Creation. It was not God.
While sometimes obvious, it is often not easy to see how sin leads to such tragedies as pandemics. We know the evil one sows the seeds of sin in us – but how does this lead to illness? Is it our fault?
I am not suggesting, of course, that succumbing to illness is the fault of any individual nor is the development of a pandemic the work of any one generation. It is more the fault in our nature that has grown and developed through hundreds of centuries during which time the seeds of the enemy have grown.
We were given dominion over the earth, to be the loving caretakers of all of the life in it. Need I say that we have not done a very good job? With the perversion which is evil embedded in us, we have brought the planet with us into our death-producing state of sin.
Were it not for Christ our Savior, our situation would be beyond hope. Not only do we kill each other with our rages and our wars but we draw the rest of creation with us.
Yet Christ has given us the antidote: Himself. He has given us Himself in His life, death and resurrection. He has given us Himself sacramentally in Eucharist, the bread from heaven, that nourishes us unto eternal life.
And so now the enemy thinks he can starve us out. Create enough suffering, enough fear – then take away our Food – surely we will despair and defect to his side.
But he is wrong.
Even though I participated in the Sunday liturgy yesterday, something moved me to go to my church for Mass again this evening. I had not heard the announcement this afternoon but I sensed that time was growing short.
I would have expected myself to feel sad or dejected upon hearing of the suspension of public liturgy but that is not the case. Receiving Him one more time was immensely joyful, as His love came crashing into my heart.
In a new way, I realized that He is here to stay, whether it be weeks or months before I can commune again.
The sacraments are a great gift – far greater than we understand. I need them – but God does not. I will hunger for Him but I know He will continue to feed me. He will not leave my heart.
And my hunger will make me desire Him even more.
The enemy can indeed wreak much havoc upon us but we must not be afraid. He cannot win. The victory has already been won by Christ Jesus our Lord.
Take courage, my friends, and do not be afraid. Let us pray for each other daily that we might be strong in battle, strong in the certainty that our Savior’s love will conquer all.
All praise and glory to Him.
I never know what God is going to give me for Christmas.
This may seem like an odd thing for a Christian to say. After all, doesn’t He always give me the same thing – Himself, present in the Word made flesh?
Indeed. But He is also full of surprises. While sometimes surprises are fun and exciting, sometimes they are not. Sometimes they are confusing, even painful.
But God’s surprises are always good, even when they aren’t what I wanted and feel most unwelcome when they appear.
As I reflected on this matter last night, I found myself being reminded of so many gifts given in past years – some I had forgotten and was delighted to rediscover. Others have been fondly cherished through the years.
Going back some 30+ years, I will always treasure that one Christmas where I had a bad upper respiratory infection. My parents lived in Buffalo, NY and I in Cleveland. I wasn’t sure I was well enough to make the drive but God made the decision for me.
The snowfall was so heavy that they closed the roads between our two cities. And so I was home alone with the stillness, broken only by my coughing and the unexpected visit of a friend.
I was completely free of commercial Christmas and I could rest with the newborn Christ. I would never have asked for this gift but it was one of my favorites of all times.
Then there was the Christmas just 5 years ago… the first since my father had passed and I found my mother terribly sick with the flu. (Before I leave Minnesota). I had never seen her so debilitated. At her age, I did not know if she would live through it. Rather than go to my family’s gathering, I sat home with her. She slept and slept, waking for short intervals – until it hit her intestines and drained her further.
Never would I have asked for this. Yet it was a gift. There was a peacefulness in being her child, of staying by her even though I could do nothing to help her but be there. In some way I cannot explain, it was like being at the first Christmas.
Of course, not all of God’s Christmas presents involve someone getting sick. There was the year He gave me the poem, “I am the hay”, which became one of my favorites (When heaven came to earth). And there were a couple of years that He surprised me with stories. Only my most hardy of my readers will remember “The little hibiscus” (recording). Just last night, I reread The Infant and was deeply touched.
I had completely forgotten the precious gift He gave me on Christmas Eve, 2016 (The only gift) when He instructed me to turn off my computer and “Just become small…” Could He ever give me anything better than that?
Christmas, 2019, is but half over. Already I’ve been gifted: yesterday, by being present to encourage my mother to attempt the physical therapy that so frightens her since she fell and broke her arm last week; today, with a glorious liturgy punctuated with traditional English and African hymns.
Can there be still more? Like a child hopefully searching under the tree for yet one more present, I keep my eyes and heart open – just in case.
For the best gift is the one He is giving me right now – the present where I meet Him, whether in sickness or health, in sorrow or in joy. Every moment, every time, every place – it is all love…
As we approach the fifth anniversary of this blog’s existence, I am acutely aware that I have written almost nothing during the past year.
Although I sense a sort of wistfulness as I contemplate this reality, my regret cannot be too deep as I believe it is all part of God’s inscrutable plan. I suppose it might sound a bit pretentious to imagine that God has a particular plan for whether or not I write. Still nothing is so small as to escape His notice.
Oddly, I continue to write comments, some rather protracted, in such varied forums as Fr. Stephen’s blog and the New York Times. But, when it comes to writing original pieces, it seems as though there is little left to say.
I know, of course, that this is not true. There is still much that can be said but it seems that my heart is no longer in it. I get an idea and it drifts away like a leaf mozying downstream on a lazy summer afternoon, soon disappearing from sight without any active resistance.
Yet I am altogether obsessed with painting religious icons. God, it seems, has given me another way to proclaim His goodness and beauty.
However, it has come to my attention that I need write an addendum regarding my ever-evolving awareness of the perfection of the divine economy.
In 2016, I wrote a piece on hell, relating that agony I felt at considering that such a thing could actually be in the plan of my loving God (link to article: Hell?). In one evening, I almost lost my faith over it. But, as usual, God rescued me from myself, hushing my sobs and wiping my tears, reminding that He wants nothing but love.
Two years later, I revisited the topic from a less frantic perspective, justifying the possibility of eternal punishment with the argument that God would never force salvation on anyone, not only because of the gift of free will but because love has to be voluntary in order to be love (link to original article: universal salvation).
Now, as 2019 draws to a close, I am given pause to question why I felt such a need to defend the doctrine of hell. Was it because the Church teaches it? Or was it because Scripture seemed to support it?
Probably the latter carried the greater weight. With other issues, I have been able to consider that the Church might be mistaken about something. Guided as we are by the Spirit, we are still human and can misunderstand what God is trying to tell us. But if Jesus taught it, well then I cannot possibly contradict it.
The only thing is that now I am no longer certain that this is what Jesus taught. In fact, I am becoming increasingly convinced of the opposite. Hence, this addendum.
Without a doubt, Jesus used much imagery to convey to us that suffering was in store for those who failed to believe and thus did not love God and neighbor as the law commanded.
Indeed, He warned people of being thrown into Gehenna, a valley near Jerusalem which was a fiery garbage dump. The place was considered acursed as it was where kings of Judah had previously offered children in human sacrifice. I think we can safely assume the Jesus did not mean literally that anyone who called his brother a fool was going to end up in this valley. Just as He did not mean literally that we should cut off our right hand if it causes us to sin.
His point, of course, was to communicate that sin has very serious implications for us. We must take even the smallest inclination to sin very seriously. Even though He was bringing the Good News that our sins are forgiven, this was not to suggest that sin is harmless or that we shouldn’t be concerned about it.
Jesus seeks to warn us, with considerable urgency, that suffering is the natural consequence of sin. And He wants to save us from this suffering and so creates dire images that His listeners will take note of. Sin leads to suffering not so much because God has a need to punish us but because it is an incorrect way of living.
It is, I grant, a slippery slope when one declares what Jesus “really meant”. Yet, I do not think it is an unreasonable stretch to say the Jesus often spoke in parables and used metaphors when describing the consequences of sinful living. However, what is more central to the focus of this article is how, if not from Jesus, we came up with the notion of hell – and more specifically, of a hell that was conceived of as everlasting torment.
It seems that this mistaken notion is the result of some rather sketchy translations of the original Greek New Testament. Although David Bentley Hart’s book “That all shall be saved” has recently drawn considerable attention for his argument in favor of universal salvation, he is by far not the first to espouse this belief. Nor is he the only one to question the Greek translation that has led so many to believe that eternal damnation is part of God’s plan.
It is interesting to note that there is only one time in the New Testament that the Greek words rendered as “eternal” and “punishment” sit next to one another. Even more interesting (to me, at least) is that this occurs at Matthew 25: 46, precisely the passage I cited when I wrote my piece called “Hell?” Jesus is speaking of the separation of the sheep from the goats and designates that the uncharitable will go off to “eternal punishment”.
While it is very clear that Jesus is instructing us to be show love for the hungry, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned, it actually is not so clear at all that what He warned of was, indeed, eternal punishment for those who failed to do so.
The translation question that is easiest to understand is that of κόλασις (kolasis). According to a good number of sources, the original meaning of this word was “to prune”, as in a botanical instruction about how to prune a tree so that it would be more fruitful. As the word gradually came to be considered a form of punishment, it largely retained the implication that the action was for the good of the person/tree, i.e. it was a remedial sort of punishment.
Ancient Greek had another term, τιμωρία (timoria), that was used when speaking of punishment for retribution, i.e. to given “satisfaction” to the injured party without regard for the reformation of the offender.
In this passage from the Gospel of Matthew, the term κόλασις was the one used. Without even examining the word translated as “eternal”, we can see the problem for interpreting κόλασις as constituting unending punishment. What would be the point of reforming a sinner if they were to remain in an eternal hell anyway?
This understanding is also much more consistent with the Judeo-Christian God taught in both Old and New Testaments. As much as the Old Covenant God with His “blazing wrath” could seem rather formidable, He nonetheless was persistent in trying to draw back His chosen people who had strayed from Him, even when they worshipped false gods. He wants all to be saved, even if they do not merit it.
It is also noteworthy that native Greek speaking people of the ancient world, both Christian and secular, made quite distinct the difference between κόλασις (kolasis) and τιμωρία (timoria). Aristotle and Plato were among the secularists. An example for our purposes, however, is an excerpt from St. Clement of Alexandria,
“But as children are chastised (kolazo) by their teacher, or their father, so are we by Providence. But God does not punish (timoreitai), for punishment (timoria) is retaliation for evil.” (Note: in Greek, the endings of words change when there is a different form of the word.)
And what about the word for “eternal”? We might wonder what it does mean, if not eternal, as it sits there next to κόλασις.
This is more complicated to explain, especially given that I have extremely limited personal understanding of Greek. But it seems to boil down to the root word, aiōn, which means “age”. When two plural forms of this root appear (aiōnas and aiōnōn), it has commonly been translated into “forever and ever”, an idiomatic expression in English that would be incomprehensible to the ancient Greek speaker. To us, this means “eternal” but it is not so clear what it meant in the Greek of the New Testament.
Hence, it is the scholarly opinion of some, though not without controversy, that “aionas ton aionon” is better translated as something like “ages of ages” or “eons to eons”. An age or an eon is a limited period of time, though it may be a long time. Some apparently fret that translating “aionas ton aionon” in this way when referring to God would suggest that God Himself is not eternal. However, this is not so. Indeed, it tells us that God is the God of all ages, from the age of Moses to King David to today.
Of course, there are those who would argue that if aiōnas doesn’t mean eternal punishment neither does it mean eternal life for the righteous. (It is at points such as this that my head begins to buzz and I reaffirm that theology is not the field of study for me.)
For this addendum to be complete, I suppose I should return, at least briefly, to my previous argument that God would not “force” anyone to be saved. He wants us to love and, for love to be love, it must be freely chosen. Having given us free will, we do, at least hypothetically, have the option to refuse salvation.
I say “hypothetically” because it is hard to comprehend that any human being, having been show the fullness of God’s goodness and love would refuse it in favor of eternal torment. There is no denying, of course, that people do evil things – sometimes very evil. As far as we can tell, there are also many who die unrepentant or at least not accepting of Christ. How can I resolve this with my growing acceptance of universalism?
David Bentley Hart makes far more intelligent arguments than I ever could. However, as a psychologist, I certainly cannot deny that there are many limits on every human being’s freedom to choose. From our genetics to our early childhoods to the sinful world into which we are born, can any of us really make a totally free choice about love and God?
I could counter my own argument, however, by noting that, while we are not all equally free, God knows exactly what degree of freedom each person has and can thus judge their personal culpability for sin with complete fairness.
Yet this is not about “fairness”, is it? As I have been considering this topic, it occurred to me that I have never worried greatly about eternal damnation for myself. My concern has been more for others – and for my understanding of God as all-loving. I have always assumed that God would be merciful to me. Why have I not assumed He would be equally merciful to others?
There is an odd notion in our culture that has also infiltrated the Church and that is the notion that justice and mercy are antithetical to one another. While sadly this may be true in the secular world where we define terms differently, it is surely not consistent with Christianity. We act as though God’s mercy must always be tempered by the opposing force of His justice but that cannot be.
Yet it is easy to be lured into this manner of thinking. God would necessarily be merciful to me, supposedly a small-time sinner, but His justice would require Him to damn the Stalins and Hitlers of this world. How could He not? We allow ourselves to think this way because that is what the world would consider “just”.
But the reality is that God’s justice is nearly the opposite of ours. His justice is one that forgives the sins of people who do not even ask for forgiveness (e.g. Matthew 9: 1-8). He welcomes into His kingdom a public sinner whose repentance is vaguely stated moments before his death (Luke 23: 40-43). He loves and pours out mercy on the undeserving – and that is all of us.
Could anyone resist this love, this mercy, for an eternity? I cannot imagine. But, of course, all things rest in the hands of God.
I will say but a few more words. It may be concluded from their writings that a number of the early Church Fathers, including native Greek speakers, assumed that salvation was universal. Among these were Origen and St. Gregory of Nyssa.
While this does not prove anything (God forbid that I try to prove anything about the meaning of Scripture), the notion that all are to be saved in the end is neither recent nor radical. Nor does it mean that sin is without painful consequence to the unrepentant sinner. I should want to avoid “pruning” as much as possible.
And yet, sinner that I am, if God deems that I need some burning “κόλασις” is order to know Him fully, I long for it with all my heart.
To Him be glory…
An excellent poem by Malcolm Guite…
We come now to a feast of Ends and Beginnings! This Sunday is the last Sunday in the cycle of the Christian year, which ends with the feast of Christ the King, and the following Sunday we begin our journey through time to eternity once more, with the first Sunday of Advent. We might expect the Feast of Christ the King to end the year with climactic images of Christ enthroned in Glory, seated high above all rule and authority, one before whom every knee shall bow, and of course those are powerful and important images, images of our humanity brought by him to the throne of the Heavens. But alongside such images we must also set the passage in Matthew (25:31-46) in which Christ reveals that even as He is enthroned in Glory, the King who comes to judge at the end of the ages, he is also the hidden…
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