Sunday, December 21, 2014

Christ is in Our Midst!

Many folks like to argue that the East is "mystical" and the West is "rational" (as though those two are actually opposed to one another). I've argued time and again that anyone who actually believes such a statement has little to no grasp of either tradition. But the more I read the writings of the Fathers, and the closer I pay attention to what is prayed at the Liturgy, the more I realize that East and West are both incarnational! If at times one tradition has emphasized mystical experience while the other emphasized logical argument, this has only been in response to the historical and cultural circumstances at the time. In fact, however, both the mystical and the rational are "subservient," so to speak, to the incarnational. Both seek to find an adequate expression for, and a deeper encounter with, the truth of God-made-man, the Word made flesh.

Ultimately we can never fully express, understand, or experience this great mystery in this life. We are given moments. Moments where we encounter this mystery in a new and powerful way. Moments where we hear the Word speak to us where He dwells in the depths of our hearts. Moments where time stops and the only thing before us is the great mystery of Emmanuel, God with us! We are compelled, then, to give expression to these moments. We are compelled, as Fr. Thomas Loya would say, to make the invisible visible through the physical. Is this not what we are called to do as human persons made in God's image and likeness? At the first moment of creation God makes Himself, the Invisible One, visible through His physical creation, particularly His creation of the communion of persons in man and woman. All of creation manifests God to us and is stamped with His fingerprint. So when we encounter the reality of the Incarnation, we too feel that we must again make this reality present to us here and now. And so we write poems, hymns, and songs; we build churches and create artwork; we use the God-given capacity of our human reason to think through the logical consequences of the realities proclaimed to us in the Scriptures and revealed to us through the Word made flesh. All of this is nothing more or less than our limited way of trying to touch again the very flesh of God-made-man.

What we so often end up doing is focusing so much on the divinity of Christ (and He is indeed divine), that we are blinded to the reality of His humanity. When was the last time you stopped and contemplated the humanity of Christ? I know for me it has been quite some time. When was the last time you have looked into the turmoil within your own heart and then looked to Christ, confident that He understands your pain because He Himself has experienced that same pain? When was the last time you turned to Christ in your joy and invited Him to share that joy with you, know full well that He Himself rejoiced and feasted with His friends and family during His time on earth?

We like to think of "Christ the King," the "Ancient of Days," the "Incomprehensible One," the "Alpha and the Omega," the "Son of God," and a host of other exalted titles. Jesus is certainly all of these things. But He is also "Word-made-flesh," "God-with-us," the "Son of Mary," "Jesus the man," a man! He became one of us and lived like one of us. God became just another face that could easily get lost in a crowd. Imagine that! Jesus walking down a busy modern city street and nobody notices Him because He looks just like everybody else! Jesus, through Whom all things were made, gets lost in the crowd of people who were made in His image!

How great is the humility and generosity of God! Such glorious titles we give Him, and yet He loves us enough to become one of us and to be born in the lowliest of circumstances. The Maronite tradition captures this reality beautifully when it sings on the Sunday before Christmas (Genealogy Sunday):

"Infant Jesus, the Son of God,
has been wrapped in swaddling clothes.
Though a great and a mighty King,
in a manger he now lies.
God, whom heavens cannot hold
nor the seraphim behold,
is embraced in Mary's arms and is fed so lovingly."

At the same Liturgy we have another awe-inspiring example of God's humility. Have you ever thought about Jesus learning to pray? We recall easily the words from the Gospel, "Lord, teach us to pray," but do you have stop to ask, "who taught Jesus to pray?" I always just presumed that Jesus is God and so prayer was natural to Him; literally prayer was a part of Jesus' nature as the second Person of the Trinity dwelling in eternal communion with the Father and the Holy Spirit. But according to His humanity, Jesus would've had to learn to pray like anyone else. Jesus had to learn to relate to the Father and the Holy Spirit in his humanity, in the very flesh that he had assumed. So who taught Jesus to pray? His mother! In the Hoosoyo of Genealogy Sunday the deacon sings:

"You enriched creation, yet you have become poor, and your mother sang spiritual songs to you as she carried you in her arms."

What a beautiful image! Imagine Mary carrying the infant Jesus in her arms, bouncing and swaying with Him, nursing Him and singing spiritual songs to Him as He fell asleep in her arms. Now think of  how this Child, Who is "God from all eternity" as we pray in the Byzantine tradition, learns from His human mother how to relate to God through His humanity! So great is His generosity that He was willing to be stripped of all His divine glory in order to be with us! So great is His generosity that He was willing to be denied any human glory and to be born in a cave! So great is His generosity that He was willing to be stripped even of His dignity as a human person and to be hung naked on a cross after having had His flesh ripped from His bones and having been abandoned by His friends.

So remember these things the next time that you feel God is removed from our "reality" or from your personal "reality." He is not removed from them. He is closer to our reality - to my reality and to your reality - than we are to that same reality. The next time you feel that God is above and beyond this world, that He is totally "transcendent," remember that He willed to strip Himself of His transcendence and to be born in a cave. He willed to become one of us in all things but sin. He has felt your pain because He has experienced human pain Himself. He has felt your joys because He has experienced human joy itself. He even knows our struggles in learning to pray because He Himself had to learn to pray in His humanity. God is not far from us. God is with us! Chirst is in our midst! He is and always will be!

Friday, December 12, 2014

Acquire the Holy Spirit?

One of the most popular phrases quoted from St. Seraphim of Sarov is as follows: "Acquire the Spirit of peace, and a thousand around you will be saved." I've heard this phrase translated a number of ways, but what is implied in the various translations always seems to be the same; the goal of the spiritual life is to acquire the Holy Spirit. I do not here want to disagree with that statement, but I would like to offer a corrective to the common understanding of that statement.

In his book In His Spirit, Fr. Richard Howard S.J. points out that there is a mentality in the Western world to think of God as something/someone who dwells outside of us, and that we draw closer to God through our own efforts. I would venture to say that this is true not only of Western Christians in general (both Roman Catholic and Protestant), but also of Eastern Christians (both Eastern Catholic and Orthodox), at least those Eastern Christians living in the western world. It is interesting to note, however, that such a concept and approach to God and to the spiritual life are not only contradictory to the Scriptures, but also to the liturgical, spiritual, and theological traditions of both the East and West. Perhaps in the future I will be able to delve into the liturgical texts of the various traditions, particularly that Baptismal texts, to illustrate the point that I am about to make.

What we see from the beginning in the account of God's creation of man is that God breathes His very own life into man. Man's life, from the first moment that he becomes a living being, is the Holy Spirit Himself! God is not something/someone that dwells outside of man, but is Himself the very Source of life within man. At the center of man's being, therefore, is the Holy Spirit!

In his marvelous work The Spiritual Life and How to be Attuned to It, St. Theophan the Recluse, referencing St. Diadocus of Photiki, points out that because of man's fall from grace, the Holy Spirit was removed from man, or rather man drove the Spirit out of him through his first sin. Sin, then, came to dwell at man's core. And thus we get the mentality that man is completely depraved at the very core of his being; that man is always drawn to sin and that his actions always stem from in inner self-interest. This is certainly true of fallen man, but Christ has introduced to us a new order of things. St. Theophan points out that, due to the very nature of our Baptism and Chrismation, the Holy Spirit has again been restored as the Source of life within us, within the very depths of our being, and it is now sin that works outside of us seeking to gain entrance.

The baptismal texts are replete with references to "regeneration," death and resurrection, and rebirth. The various exorcisms prayed over the candidate for Baptism are all geared at driving the Devil and his ways out of the candidate in order that the candidate might be united to Christ! This is a union that takes place within, at the very core of the person. It is interesting to note that in the Byzantine tradition the priest, mirroring the actions of God at the first creation of man, breathes on the candidates mouth three times in the form of a Cross while praying, "Drive out from him every evil and unclean spirit hiding and making its lair within his heart..." What is the breath if not the Holy Spirit, the Breath of Life being breathed anew into the candidate and driving out all the powers of darkness that, to this point, dwelt within the him because of the fall of our first parents!

The point I am trying to make here is that in our struggles in the spiritual life, we are not so much trying to acquire the Holy Spirit, so much as to kindle the Divine Spark that is already alive within us by virtue of our Baptism and Chrismation. This is why, when praying the Jesus Prayer, we try to seek that central and deepest place within us - that place which is traditionally known as "the heart" - in order to find there dwelling within us the presence of the Spirit that we so often ignore, and to fan into a raging fire the Divine Love that we encounter at the very center of our being! This flame, that begins in our hearts, will eventually ignite our lives so that our thoughts, words, and actions all radiate the fire of Divine Love that wells up from within us.

Hopefully I will be able to say more on this in future posts. May heaven consume us!