Friday, 18 April 2014

THE DESCENT INTO HADES

An anonymous fourth century homily

Today there is a great silence over the earth, a great silence and stillness, a great silence because the King sleeps; the earth was fearful and was still, because God slept in the flesh and raised up those who were sleeping from ages before. God has died in the flesh, and the underworld trembles.
Truly He goes to seek out our first parent like a lost sheep; He wishes to visit those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death. He goes to free the prisoner Adam and his fellow-prisoner Eve from their pains, He who is God and  Adam’s son.
The Lord goes in to them holding His victorious weapon, His cross. When Adam, the first-created man, sees Him, he strikes his breast in terror and calls out to all,“My Lord be with you all.” And Christ in reply says to Adam, “And with your spirit.” And grasping his hand, He raises him up, saying, “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.
“I am your God, who for your sake became your son, who for you and your descendants now speak and command with authority those in captivity: Come forth! and those in darkness: Have light! and those who sleep: Arise! 
“I command you: Awake, O sleeper; I did not make you to be held a prisoner in the underworld. Arise from the dead; I am the life of the dead. Arise, O man, work of My hands. Arise, you who were fashioned in My image. Rise, let us go hence; for you in Me and I in you, together we are one undivided person. 
“For you, I Your God became your son; for you, I the Master took on your form, that of a slave; for you, I who am above the heavens came on earth and under the earth; for you, O man, I became as a man without help, free among the dead; for you, who left a garden, I was handed over to the Jews from a garden and crucified in  a garden. 
“Look at the spittle on My face, which I received because of you, in order to restore you to that first divine inbreathing at creation. See the blows on My cheeks, which I accepted in order to refashion your distorted form to My own image. See the scourging of My back, which I accepted in order to disperse the load of your sins which was laid upon your back. See My hands nailed to the tree for a good purpose, for you, who stretched out your hand to the tree for an evil one.
“I slept on the cross and a sword pierced My side for you, who slept in paradise and brought forth Eve from your side. My side healed the pain of your side; My sleep will release you from your sleep in Hades; My sword has checked the sword which was turned against you. 
“But arise, let us go hence. The enemy brought you out of the land of paradise; I will reinstate you, no longer in paradise, but on the throne of heaven. I denied you the tree of life, which was a ­figure, but now I Myself am united to you, I who am life. I posted the cherubim to ­guard you as they would slaves; now I make the cherubim revere you as they would gods. 
“The cherubic throne has been prepared, the bearers are ready and waiting, the bridal chamber is in order, the food is provided, the everlasting houses and rooms are set; the treasures of good things have been opened; the kingdom of heaven has been prepared from before eternity.”


Tuesday, 15 April 2014

JUDAS AND THE HARLOT

An extract from my book,
Meditations for Holy Week: Dying and Rising with Christ
Chapter 5
 
The former prodigal suddenly turned chaste, despising the base acts of sin and carnal pleasure, reflecting on the profound shame and the judgment of hell that harlots and wantons suffer. I have become the worst of these and am terrified, yet, fool that I am, I persist in my ugly habit. But the woman taken in sin, troubled and in haste, came crying out to the Redeemer, "O compassionate lover of mankind, free me from the foulness of my deeds." (Oikos, Matins of Great Wednesday)
 
“Wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done will also be told as a memorial to her” (Matt. 26:13). So said our Lord of the penitent harlot who fell before His feet in tears and anointed Him in love. Every Great Wednesday we remember this woman's repentance, and in so doing, we are reminded of our need to repent:
 
Though I have outdone the harlot in sin, yet I have offered You no shower of tears. So I fall before You, fervently kissing Your immaculate feet, praying silently that, as Master, You will remit my debts as I cry, O Savior, "Free me from the foulness of my deeds." (Kontakion, Matins of Great Wednesday)
 
While the Gospel passage regarding the penitent harlot on Great Wednesday morning is the reading from Matthew 26:6–16, the Church’s hymns on this subject are inspired also by the account in Luke 7:36–50. We find in each narrative two different emphases in the story, which our hymns build upon. The account in Luke’s Gospel reveals to us the greatness of Christ's mercy. The harlot’s contrition and love alone were sufficient for her salvation. All her sins were washed away in a moment:
 
Then one of the Pharisees asked Him to eat with him. And He went to the Pharisee’s house, and sat down to eat. And behold, a woman in the city who was a sinner, when she knew that Jesus sat at the table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of fragrant oil, and stood at His feet behind Him weeping; and she began to wash His feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head; and she kissed His feet and anointed them with the fragrant oil. Now when the Pharisee who had invited Him saw this, he spoke to himself, saying, “This Man, if He were a prophet, would know who and what manner of woman this is who is touching Him, for she is a sinner.”
            And Jesus answered and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.”
            So he said, “Teacher, say it.”
            “There was a certain creditor who had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. And when they had nothing with which to repay, he freely forgave them both. Tell Me, therefore, which of them will love him more?”
            Simon answered and said, “I suppose the one whom he forgave more.”
            And He said to him, “You have rightly judged.” Then He turned to the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave Me no water for My feet, but she has washed My feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head. You gave Me no kiss, but this woman has not ceased to kiss My feet since the time I came in. You did not anoint My head with oil, but this woman has anointed My feet with fragrant oil. Therefore I say to you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little.”
            Then He said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”
            And those who sat at the table with Him began to say to themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?”
            Then He said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”
 
This woman’s actions were inspired by love. It may be possible that she spent all she had to acquire the precious ointment. But we read in Matthew that the Apostles—and in John 12:1–6, Judas—murmured that this was a waste of money which could have been used for the poor.
Many others think the same way: Why waste money on splendid churches and religious devotion when there are so many people in need? But throughout its history, the Church has always stressed the importance of both religious devotion and charity. Both are pleasing to God if they are done in a spirit of love. Our Lord acknowledged the harlot's love for Him in her act of religious devotion. It was also a divinely inspired action, for it was prophetic of His impending burial:
 
A woman pouring myrrh over Christ's body anticipated the embalming by Nicodemus. (Synaxarion, Matins of Great Wednesday)
 
While Luke’s narrative emphasizes the love of the harlot and Christ’s forgiveness, the reading from Matthew emphasizes the contrast between the penitent harlot and the traitor apostle:
 
And when Jesus was in Bethany at the house of Simon the leper, a woman came to Him having an alabaster flask of very costly fragrant oil, and she poured it on His head as He sat at the table. But when His disciples saw it, they were indignant, saying, “Why this waste? For this fragrant oil might have been sold for much and given to the poor.”
            But when Jesus was aware of it, He said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a good work for Me. For you have the poor with you always, but Me you do not have always. For in pouring this fragrant oil on My body, she did it for My burial. Assuredly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done will also be told as a memorial to her.”
            Then one of the twelve, called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, “What are you willing to give me if I deliver Him to you?” And they counted out to him thirty pieces of silver. So from that time he sought opportunity to betray Him.
 
Our hymns, while praising the repentance of the harlot, at the same time express our bewilderment at the betrayal of Judas, who lived with Christ, ate with Him, witnessed His miracles, heard His words, and even worked miracles in Christ's name (Matt. 10:1–4):
 
What was it, O Judas, that turned you into the Savior's betrayer? Did He separate you from the fellowship of the Apostles? Did He withhold from you His healing grace? Did He banish you from the table when you all supped together? When He washed the feet of the others, did He overlook yours? Oh, how many blessings you have forgotten! And so your ingratitude will be inscribed in history, while His unfathomable forbearance and great mercy will forever be proclaimed. (Kathisma of the sixth antiphon of Great Friday)
 
As the sinful woman was offering myrrh, the disciple was scheming with lawless men. She rejoiced in pouring out her precious gift; he hastened to sell the precious One. She acknowledged the Master; he departed from Him. She was set free, but Judas was enslaved to the enemy. How terrible his indolence! How great her repentance! O Savior, who suffered for our sakes, grant us her repentance and save us. (Hymn of the Praises, Matins of Great Wednesday)
 
The hymns of our Church always lay before us the example of penitents who found salvation, revealing the contrast between them and the elect who fell from grace, the proud “insiders” who secretly hated God. The above hymn reminds us of the Communion hymn we often hear at Divine Liturgy (which was initially the Communion hymn only of Great Thursday morning):
 
Of Your mystical supper, O Son of God, receive me today as a communicant, for I will not tell of the Mystery to Your enemies; I will not give You a kiss, like Judas, but like the Thief I confess You: “Remember me, Lord, in Your Kingdom.”
 
We are thus reminded that being “insiders” and members of Christ's Church in no way guarantees our salvation. As our Lord said, after praising the faith of the pagan centurion, "I say to you that many will come from east and west, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into outer darkness” (Matt. 8:11–12).
Thus the Church emphatically warns us that we too can be traitors of Christ, while those we condemn and ostracize may have greater faith, love, and repentance than we do.
 
The Hymn of Kassiani
The theme of the penitent harlot reaches its climax on Great Tuesday evening with the famous and beloved hymn of St. Kassiani, a Byzantine nun, poet, and hymnographer. Few hymns move Orthodox Christians as much as this adored composition. In the Byzantine tradition, the music for the hymn is slow and sorrowful; it is considered one of the most demanding pieces of Byzantine chant. Cantors take great pride in singing it well, while some Orthodox Christians make a point of going to the service of Great Tuesday evening specifically to listen to this hymn:
 
Lord, the woman caught up in a multitude of sins, sensing Your divinity, assumes the perfumer's role; lamenting, she provides myrrh in anticipation of Your burial. "Alas!" she cries, "for me night is a frenzy of excess, dark and moonless, a love affair with sin. You draw from the clouds the waters of the sea; will You accept the fountainhead of my tears? In Your inexpressible condescension You made the heavens incline; incline now to the groaning of my heart. I will cover Your immaculate feet with kisses, then dry them with my tresses. Eve heard Your footsteps in Paradise and hid herself in fear. Who can fathom the magnitude of my transgressions or the depths of Your judgments, O Savior of my soul? Yet in Your boundless mercy do not reject me, Your servant. (The Hymn of St. Kassiani, Doxastikon of Matins of Great Wednesday)
 
In addition to its poetic and penitential character, this moving hymn provides us with a couple of profound theological references to the Old Testament that place Christ at the beginning of the Creation narrative. This reminds us that Jesus is no mere mortal, but the pre-eternal Son of God “through whom all things were made” (the Nicene Creed):
 
You draw from the clouds the waters of the sea; will You accept the fountainhead of my tears? In Your inexpressible condescension You made the heavens incline; incline now to the groaning of my heart. . . . Eve heard Your footsteps in Paradise and hid herself in fear.
 
Such language is typical of Orthodox hymnology, particularly in Holy Week. We are invited to reflect upon the paradox of Christ’s divinity and humanity; His eternity and mortality; His majesty and humility; His almighty power and tender mercy. We fear Him above all others, and we love Him above all others; He is our judgment and our salvation; against Him alone we have sinned, but Him alone we adore. And so, with St. Kassiani and the penitent harlot, we cry: Who can fathom the magnitude of my transgressions or the depths of Your judgments, O Savior of my soul? Yet in Your boundless mercy do not reject me, Your servant.
 
Meditations for Holy Week is available from Ancient Faith Publishing:
 

Friday, 11 April 2014

THE LIFE OF FAITH: Sin and Morality Part 1

My fortnightly podcasts on Ancient Faith Radio, The Life of Faith: Orthodoxy in the Modern World, have been launched. In this first podcast, I explain why we are expected to fight pride and acquire humility:
http://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/lifeoffaith/sin_and_morality_1