Entries with tag scripture .

Seeing God

It’s easy to see the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, celebrated on Feb. 2, as a lovely scene of domestic bliss. Joseph and Mary bring the newborn Jesus, now 40-days-old to the Temple. Our attention is on the family. Because the Orthodox Christian practice of the 40-day blessing of a newborn is rooted in the Feast, it’s very easy for us to make this connection. When a newborn is presented in our parishes today, all our attention is on the “beautiful baby” making his or her official first entrance into the church.

The Feast also is a significant reminder that the incarnation of the Lord, celebrated at Christmas, overturns the nature of our relationship with God Himself. At the Feast of the Presentation, we remember Simeon, who was promised by God that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah, the Savior of Israel.

Many figures in the Old Testament prophets asked to see God.  Look up the following passages (or have your students look them up):

Genesis 3 – Adam and Eve could only hear God’s presence as He moved about in the Garden.

Exodus 33:18-23.  Moses, the Great Moses, was denied his request to see God. The Lord said to him, “man shall not see me and live.” But God allowed Moses to see his back as He passed by.

1 Kings 19:9-13 – Elijah experiences God in the “still small voice.”

Isaiah 6:1-7 – Isaiah has a vision of God on His throne and realizes that he is a sinful man.

In the Incarnation, at the Nativity and now in the Feast of Presentation, Wise Men, Shepherds and now Simeon and Anna see the Lord face to face. And Simeon holds God incarnate in his arms.  What a reversal! What a paradox!

From this moment on, it is possible to say we have seen God "face to face." --- in the icons, in the Scriptures, in the kiss of peace in the Liturgy, in Holy Communion, and as Christ Himself would eventually teach us, in our neighbor, in the "least of our brothers and sisters" (Matthew 25:40).

Christmas Untangled

Christmas Untangled

The icons and nativity scenes for Christmas that probably all of us display this time of year weave together two biblical narratives with other sources into a coherent whole.  An interesting activity that you can do on your own or with a group of students is to untangle the stories and look at them individually. Doing so provides an opportunity to both enrich our knowledge and appreciation of the story itself, but also hones our skills at reading the Bible and other sources.

This activity is not too difficult as there are just two Nativity stories in scripture and neither of them is too difficult or to long.  I’ll take you through the steps and in parentheses offer answers to questions that you might want to pose to others

Read Matthew 1:18-2:12 

Who is the main actor in this passage? (Joseph. Scholars wonder if the Matthew text is Joseph’s version of events, handed down through his family to the followers of Christ. No way to know with certainty, but it is an interesting thought.).

What is Joseph concerned about? (Always doing the proper thing for Mary and the newborn Jesus. Notice how Joseph is described in Matthew, “a righteous man”).

Who are the special visitors in Matthew?  (The Wise Men. They see the star and are led to search out a new king of Israel and find Jesus. This text is unclear that the Wise Men found Jesus as a baby; they find a child.)

Now do the same with Luke 2:1-19

After reading the passage:

Who is the main actor in this passage? (Mary. Scholars wonder if the Lucan text is Mary’s version of events, handed down by her to the followers of Christ.  One piece of evidence is verse 19, where Mary treasures all these things in her heart. Who else would have known what Mary held in her heart to communicate that to others?)

Who are the special visitors? (Shepherds, who are told by angels to find a newborn lying in a manger. This is the Messiah).

After reading the two, notice how we compress all of this into one event. Our icons and nativity scenes compress the stories into one coherent story for us to contemplate and celebrate.

 

Lamb of God

We will hear the phrase “lamb of God” as we approach Holy Week. It has deep roots in the Old and New Testaments. For Christians, it connects to theological questions about the meaning of Christ’s Passion and our salvation. The topic is huge and rich. I won’t be able to say everything here, and this is only one dimension of the questions about the Passion and savlation, but these points might encourage you to listen more closely to the Scriptures and hymns of the next few weeks.

The Old Testament background

The “sacrifice of Isaac” (Genesis 22). God tests Abraham by asking him to sacrifice his son Isaac. The test is “Is our relationship/covenant strong enough that you will honor this terrible request?” As Abraham begins the sacrifice, an angel calls out and stops him. Abraham’s willingness to make the sacrifice proves his faithfulness to God. Abraham then sees a ram, which he offers “as a burnt offering instead of his son.” (Genesis 22:13).

Passover. In the Exodus story (Exodus 12), the tenth plague was the death of every first born child. Moses instructs the Hebrew people to kill the Passover lamb (a year old male lamb without blemish; it could even be a goat) and place some of the blood on the lintel and two doorposts of their homes, so that God would “pass over” and spare the first born. (They were even instructed how to cook the lamb and that they should eat it.) Thus, Passover saved the Hebrew people from death in Egypt and this event led to their freedom and the journey to a new life in God’s promised land.

In Leviticus.  Ancient Judaism practiced animal sacrifice and offerings of other products, such as grains and fruits. The Book of Leviticus (especially chapters 1-7) provides in great detail the instructions and laws pertaining to sacrifices. Their covenant with God required this and the Law of Moses (the Law of Moses was far larger than the Ten Commandments) provided the instructions. Different kinds of offerings and sacrifices were made for various reasons. In each case, the Law prescribed what should be offered or sacrificed, what kind of animal, what kind of cereals and fruits. For example, when Joseph and Mary presented Jesus at the Temple, forty days after His birth, they offered a “pair of pigeons” (Luke 2:24), because they could not afford the lamb that the Law required as a sin offering for the birth (itself a long story, but read Leviticus 12:1-8).

While sacrifices and offerings could be made for a number of reasons, most were made as “atonement” for sins, cleansing of guilt, and the desire for forgiveness. As one person put it, atonement means “at – one – ment.” The importance of the sacrifice was the shedding of blood, meaning death. That the person making the offering also had to kill the animal was a symbolic connection between them. Sin cost a life. The penalty for sin is death, but the animal dies in the place of the sinner.

The ritual of animal sacrifice is prescribed in detail and was designed to make the connection between the sacrifice and the one making the offering. The animal is brought to the Temple by the one making the offering; he places his hand on the animal’s head, slaughters, skins, and butchers it (Remember, these were farmers and were accustomed to this, to provide food.). Usually the fatty portions are then burned on a fiery altar. The priest would sprinkle some of the blood around the altar. In some cases, the individual and or the priests of the Temple would be able to eat the remainder of the sacrifice.

This background should help as we reflect on the Passion of Christ.

 There are two timelines in the Gospels for the events from the Last Supper to the Crucifixion. The Gospel of Mark places the Last Supper on the first day of unleavened bread (Mark 14:12) when the Passover lambs would be slaughtered. The Gospel of John places Jesus’ crucifixion on the same day as the slaughter of the Passover lambs (John 19:14). The following article explains more about this.

http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/people-cultures-in-the-bible/jesus-historical-jesus/was-jesus-last-supper-a-seder/

You should begin seeing the connections to our understanding about Christ’s passion.

Jesus is a Passover lamb. That the Passion of Christ happened around Passover should not be lost on anyone. The Jews were commanded to remember the exodus from Egypt annually. Christ is without blemish, the only sinless one, and is killed like the Passover lamb. Jesus’s death and resurrection frees us from death and leads us to a new way of life in the Kingdom of God, the new Promised Land. This is why we can say Christ is the New Passover.

Jesus is the sacrifice. As He says, “For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45). Christ also says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16).  John the Baptist cried out when seeing Jesus, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). Only a lamb that is sacrificed could do this. Jesus’s death on the cross is an offering to God. God Himself makes the offering and allows His own son to be killed.

Jesus is the Suffering Servant who has accepted the fallen condition of humanity and “paid the price” for all. As the prophet Isaiah says about Him, “But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth. (Isaiah 53:5-7).

Christians have commonly seen Christ’s death on the Cross as an “atonement.” We say Christ died for our sins and His death on the Cross saves us. But the Passover connection should remind us that the death leads to resurrection and the Resurrection of Christ opens the Kingdom of God for those who believe in Him. Salvation means being spared from death and entering the Kingdom of God.

The Church continues to use the phrase and idea “lamb of God."

In the Doxology, we praise Christ as the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, practically a direct quote from John 1:29.

In our liturgical life today, the bread of the Eucharist, one portion of the prosphoro is called the Amnos, the Lamb. It is marked with the ICXC NIKA, meaning Jesus Christ Conquers. Portions of the above verses from Isaiah are recited in the Proskomide service, which prepares the bread and wine before the Liturgy. The Lamb is stabbed with a lance. In the Liturgy, the lamb is offered to God and consecrated as the Body of Christ. And before Holy Communion, the lamb is broken before being placed in the chalice, and in Communion, we eat or consume the lamb.

In the Liturgy, we call the offering a “bloodless sacrifice.”  Christ’s death on the cross is the ultimate, that is, final, sacrifice or offering of blood and flesh. From now on, the only offering needed is bread and wine, done in remembrance of the Lord. Christ Himself told us to do this. This offering and shared meal is a sign of the covenant, the relationship, Christians have with God.

Layers in Lent

Layers in Lent

With the beginning of Great Lent, Orthodox Christians will experience many services, listen to many readings, and experience things that only occur once a year. Paying attention to them, we might wonder or notice that there aren’t always connections between them. Great Lent has many layers to it, many of which have built up and been added over the centuries on top of one another. For example, while the Church celebrated Great Lent for centuries, it was only after the iconoclast controversy finally ended in 843 AD that the “Sunday of Orthodoxy” began to be an annual celebration. St. Gregory Palamas lived in the 13-14th century, so remembering his contribution to the Orthodox Church during Great Lent had to begin after that, which it did beginning in 1368.

One of the layers is the Sunday Gospel lessons. We can assume because the readings don’t seem to point us to thinking about icons or St. Gregory Palamas, etc., that they are the older layer. Notice how the reading for the third Sunday of Great Lent is about the cross and we have the procession of the Cross that day. So we can assume that this celebration has been part of the Church from early on.

We will naturally focus on some of the more elaborate or colorful dimensions of Great Lent, processions with icons, important historical figures. But what about the readings? How can we make a connection to the Sunday Gospel lessons?

Remember that Great Lent developed as the final preparation period before a catechumen was baptized at the Resurrection Liturgy on Holy Saturday night (In present practice, this Liturgy is now celebrated on Holy Saturday morning, but in antiquity this was the Resurrection Service celebrated in the evening.). When we look at the Sunday Gospel lessons, we can see how they might have guided the catechumen. The readings are not penitential, or not as penitential as the pre-Lent Sundays of the Publican and Pharisee, Prodigal Son, and Last Judgment. Rather, we can see them in the light of preparation and participation in Baptism. I’ve taken one sentence from each Gospel lesson for you to consider.

Week 1. “Follow me.” The first step is to accept the invitation to follow Christ. That invitation was ultimately from Christ Himself.

Week 2. “Your sins are forgiven.” Christ came to release people from the power of sin and death over them and restore them to a new life.

Week 3. “Pick up your cross and follow me.” The Cross is lifted up as a symbol of hope, midway through the preparation period. But the Cross is an instrument of pain, suffering and death, a reminder that the new life in Christ requires putting away the old ways and certainly not without pain. Yet in the Resurrection Christ was victorious and the new believer will be victorious as well through the new life begun through baptism.

Week 4. “I believe, help my unbelief.” All of us struggle with issues of faith.

Week 5. “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”  Not coincidence that in the day just before Holy Week, with the last steps of preparation beginning, the catechumen would hear a reflection on baptism. Baptism is participating in death and rising to new life to becoming a new person, in Christ and the Church.

 

 

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