“Take care, brothers and sisters, that none of you may have an evil, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” so that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have become partners of Christ, if only we hold our first confidence firm to the end. As it is said, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.” Now who were they who heard and yet were rebellious? Was it not all those who left Egypt under the leadership of Moses? But with whom was he angry forty years? Was it not those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? And to whom did he swear that they would not enter his rest, if not to those who were disobedient? So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief.”
– Hebrews 3:12-19
“I was glad when they said to me,”Let us go to the house of the LORD.” Now our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem.”
– Psalm 122
I didn’t get to writing this until late last night, and it was largely on my phone, so I apologize both for the brevity.
The second Psalm reading for the evening is one of my favorites. Also called Lætatus sum, it is one of the fifteen Psalms that bear the title, ‘Song of Ascents’, also commonly called ‘Gradual Psalms’. It is believed that these particular psalms were sung by the worshipers as they ascended the road to Jerusalem to attend the pilgrimage festivals of Passover, Shavout, and Sukkot – a time when Israelites living in Judea would make a pilgrimage to the Temple of Jerusalem.
In many ways, this particular psalm calls to mind the scene of Christ in the wilderness where the Adversary tempted Jesus with food, domination, and all sorts of worldly powers only to fail. Probably the most poignant scene where the Adversary takes Jesus to the top of the mountain, tempting him with control of all the kingdoms of the world – if only Jesus bow down and worship the Adversary. Personally, I don’t believe in a singular, monolithic ‘devil'; but I think that the struggle of Jesus in the Desert speaks to each of us and our own dealings with the Adversary.
Throughout Lent, we’ll all have our moments of temptation. Maybe we had a bite of meat on Friday when we swore it off. Maybe we forgot that we weren’t going to have candy and took a piece of toffee from the bowl at the waiting room. In and of themselves, these things aren’t bad, but they’re not good either. In Jewish thought, humanity is said to have two naturally occurring inclinations – the yetzer hara, or, evil inclination; and the yetzer tov, a good inclination.
Since these things are naturally occurring, it’s difficult to put an entirely moral dimension to them, but they can be conveniently spoken of as psychological and spiritual realities which eventually we must face, sublimate or avoid. When I read the story of Jesus’ temptation, I see it personally as one of the best examples of a person struggling with these urges. In the Berakhot 32a, the Talmudic sages clearly give an example of the evil urge which is not unlike that what Jesus was tempted:
“To what is it like, the evil inclination in man? It is like a father who takes his small son, bathes him, douses him with perfume, combs his hair, dresses him up in his finest accoutrements, feeds him, gives him drink, places a bag of money around his neck, and then goes off and puts his son at the front door of a brothel. What can the boy do that he not sin?”
– Sages of the Talmud, Berakhot 32a
Many of us I imagine, often forget that while fully divine, Jesus was also one hundred percent human, and struggled with many of the same problems that we struggle. It could have been very easy for Jesus to give into his evil urge and done a great many more worldly things that we could begin to imagine, yet, at the end he chose the narrow gate and submission to the Good.
In a few weeks, we’ll witness Jesus’ triumphant arrival into Jerusalem as he ascends through the gate not on a noble horse, but on a mule, yet greeted none the less as a king and shaking the religious and social authorities to their knees. Until then, like the psalmist writes, we wait in silence on the the loving kindness of God, in the midst of the Temple. If we make any errors in the instance we’ve made a mistake in something we’ve given up, or something that we’ve knowingly done that might draw us slightly away from the path. Don’t be angry with yourself, but like a pilgrim, pick up your staff, dust off and continue on the road to the heavenly city.
Another weekend has come and gone. Lest one think I was slacking in my commitment to write, the simple fact is, is that I wasn’t near any reliable internet where I could make my posts. That said, today I will be posting my reflections from Saturday and Sunday, as well as today’s reflection later on this evening.
Part One: SATURDAY
“My soul is athirst for God, athirst for the living God; when shall I come to appear before the presence of God?”
– Psalm 42:2
One of the interesting aspects of Lent is the preference for readings that many Christians today might find at least a little uncomfortable. We see many references to the legal codes such as Deuteronomy, Leviticus, and other texts which seem to make one wonder about how much God is really a god of love and not some sort of tyrant who’s worshipers suffer some form of religious Stockholm Syndrome.
In today’s first reading, God speaks to the Israelites first about how much E loves Eir chosen people and, seemingly in the next breath, discusses how E will destroy those who displease Em as well as gives instructions of religious intolerance that would likely offend the most devout warmonger:
“If you say to yourself, “These nations are more numerous than I; how can I dispossess them?” do not be afraid of them. Just remember what the LORD your God did to Pharaoh and to all Egypt, the great trials that your eyes saw, the signs and wonders, the mighty hand and the outstretched arm by which the LORD your God brought you out. The LORD your God will do the same to all the peoples of whom you are afraid. Moreover, the LORD your God will send the pestilence against them, until even the survivors and the fugitives are destroyed. Have no dread of them, for the LORD your God, who is present with you, is a great and awesome God. The LORD your God will clear away these nations before you little by little; you will not be able to make a quick end of them, otherwise the wild animals would become too numerous for you. But the LORD your God will give them over to you, and throw them into great panic, until they are destroyed. He will hand their kings over to you and you shall blot out their name from under heaven; no one will be able to stand against you, until you have destroyed them. The images of their gods you shall burn with fire. Do not covet the silver or the gold that is on them and take it for yourself, because you could be ensnared by it; for it is abhorrent to the LORD your God. Do not bring an abhorrent thing into your house, or you will be set apart for destruction like it. You must utterly detest and abhor it, for it is set apart for destruction.”
– Deuteronomy 7:17-26
Not exactly an uplifting lesson. On one hand we are assured that God will be with Eir people though things may not exactly seem entirely optimistic, and then instructs Eir people to destroy the religious objects and essentially dehumanize their neighbors and their social order, yet in some ways this can be viewed apart from its very real social and historical context and be applied as a meaningful commentary and warning of the real dangers of idolatry and temptation of literal and spiritual materialism.
As many of my friends know, I have a deep and abiding appreciation for sacred art. Whether it come in the form of Byzantine iconography, ex votos, or statues; sacred art is a way in which we engage with the Divine – it speaks to our needs and wants as well as providing a window into the soul. One of the oldest debates within the three monotheisms of Judaism, Christianity and Islam almost always seems to come back to the problem of idolatry. Within Judaism and Islam, this resulted in the creation of aniconic sacred art employing diverse forms of calligraphy and geometry. Christianity from a very early stage contested with this problem as well.
In Christian circles, iconoclasm has generally been motivated by a literal interpretation of the second of the Ten Commandments, which forbids the making and worshiping of “graven images.” This is clearly a misinterpretation of the Decalogue because if one continues to read through the Book of Exodus one would encounter the command to Moses to build the Tabernacle: a visible icon of the invisible God. In 730, Emperor Leo II the Isurian banned the use of icons of Jesus, Mary and the saints as well as commanding the destruction these images. The Iconoclastic Controversy was fueled by the refusal of many Christian residents outside the Byzantine Empire, including many Christians living in the Islamic Caliphate, to accept the emperor’s theological arguments. St. John of Damascus was one of the most prominent of these. Ironically, Christians living under Muslim rule at this time had more freedom to write in defense of icons than did those living in the Byzantine Empire. St. John of Damascus’s teaching centered around his clarification and distinction of the terms worship and veneration, teaching that we worship God, depicted in the icon, and simply venerate the icon itself as an image of the Prototype. In his defense of icons he wrote, “I do not worship creation over the creator.”
The point made by Saint John of Damascus is important here. It’s revealed that the objects themselves are not the problem per se but rather the temptation toward coveting things that are not of use to the Israelites and could tempt them away from God’s providence and love. How often do we set up ‘false gods’ in our lives? When do things such as work overtake our lives and prevent us from engaging meaningfully with our neighbor and God? Similarly, how many times have we wasted more effort than we should have arguing about one issue or another on social media? When these things divide, we have set up idols or patterns of behavior that distract us from love for one another and the devotion we owe to the Divine in whatever form we perceive it.
Our second lesson strikes this even deeper home:
“Remind them to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show every courtesy to everyone. For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, despicable, hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. The saying is sure. I desire that you insist on these things, so that those who have come to believe in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works; these things are excellent and profitable to everyone. But avoid stupid controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless. After a first and second admonition, have nothing more to do with anyone who causes divisions, since you know that such a person is perverted and sinful, being self-condemned. When I send Artemas to you, or Tychicus, do your best to come to me at Nicopolis, for I have decided to spend the winter there. Make every effort to send Zenas the lawyer and Apollos on their way, and see that they lack nothing. And let people learn to devote themselves to good works in order to meet urgent needs, so that they may not be unproductive. All who are with me send greetings to you. Greet those who love us in the faith. Grace be with all of you.”
– Titus 3:1-15
In his letter to Titus, Paul instructs us to pay heed to that which is most important and that is aiding one another and society toward greater harmony in service of the Divine. When speaking of being subject to rulers and authorities, Paul here was most definitely referring to rightly-led civil leaders; obeying these powers is indeed important, but the key here is that in a society, the yoke must go both ways – we should be obedient, but also the powers should be obedient to the eternal law which is love of one’s neighbor.
While meditating on this passage, the presently famous song by Hozier, Take Me to Church, came on my play list. The song itself definitely speaks to a number of the problems of living in a society which becomes oppressive – specifically speaking to the plight of LGBTQ persons and their equal person-hood. Two particular verses struck me to the core, as I was preparing to go on a further discourse of Epiphanes’ sermon On Righteousness which speaks to our paradoxal state:
No Masters or Kings
When the Ritual begins
There is no sweeter innocence than our gentle sin.
In the madness and soil of that sad earthly scene
Only then I am Human
Only then I am Clean
Amen. Amen. Amen. Amen.
On one hand, we are to obey authority, but in living out the Lenten Mysteries, there are no masters or kings: patriarch and priest, king and president, generals and lawmakers – everyone – is leveled down. We are all sinners. We have all missed the mark. There is a beauty about this, though in a round about way. While the song itself was likely referring to the ‘sin’ of being homosexual, I would be hard pressed as a human being to view someone lesser for who they love – especially being queer myself. We shouldn’t be quick to judge one another for what we perceive of as their state of sin, but rather work together toward a greater and more loving dialogue with one another, and that dialogue can only happen when we are completely and totally naked with our hearts and minds and, in cleansing our perception, come a step closer to beholding God in our fellow beings.
In 813CE, Emperor Leo V (reigned 813–820) instituted a second period of iconoclasm which seemed to be somewhat less severe than the first period of iconoclasm and having fewer martyrdoms and public destruction of icons. Leo was succeeded by Michael II, who was succeeded by his son, Theophilus. Theophilus died, leaving his wife, Theodora the Iconodule, regent for his minor heir, Michael III. Like Irene 50 years before her, Theodora mobilized the iconodules and proclaimed the restoration of icons in 843. Since that time the first Sunday of Lent in the Orthodox Church is celebrated as the feast of the “Triumph of Orthodoxy.”
We return in our Gospel reading to a similar scene which we saw on Friday. Jesus is in Galilee and approaches Philip telling him, “Follow me”, at which point Philip turns around remarking to Nathanael, telling him that he found the person who was spoken of in the writings of Moses and the Prophets, to which Nathanael sarcastically remarks, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
“The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”
– John 1:43-51
To contextualize Nathanael’s snarky comment to Philip, the Gospel of Luke describes Nazareth as ‘a city of Galilee’ and the home of Mary. Following the birth and early epiphany events of chapter 2 of Luke’s Gospel, Mary, Joseph and Jesus ‘returned to Galilee, to their own city, Nazareth’ where Jesus grows up. Interestingly, Nazareth is not mentioned in pre-Christian texts and appears in many different Greek forms in the New Testament. There is no consensus regarding the origin of the name. One conjecture holds that “Nazareth” is derived from one of the Hebrew words for ‘branch’, namely ne·ṣer, נֵ֫צֶר, and alludes to the prophetic, messianic words in Book of Isaiah 11:1, ‘from (Jesse’s) roots a Branch (netzer) will bear fruit.’ One view suggests this toponym might be an example of a tribal name used by resettling groups on their return from exile. Both of these possible etymologies seem somewhat appropriate to the Lenten season.
As during Advent we journey with Mary and Joseph through the wilds of the desert into Egypt, we find Jesus coming out of a place associated with exile and into his public ministry. One of the striking things about this chapter is how often the words ‘seek’ and ‘find’ are repeated over and over again in a variety of forms. How often do we find ourselves lost, unable to find an answer to what we’re looking for and, how often when we find that answer we immediately reject it because it doesn’t fit our preconceived notions? Nathanael’s remarks to Philip are exactly that. During this season, stripped of our notions of self-may we slowly embark on that process of coming to see things plainly as they stand right before our own eyes and seek to follow that image and come before the presence of the living God.
Part Two: SUNDAY
“All the paths of the Lord are love and faithfulness to those who keep his covenant and his testimonies”
– Psalm 25:9
While we may consider Lent to be something that ultimately we go at alone for contemplation, one of the things that scripture constantly assures us of is that we are not at all alone. Our first reading today alludes to that in talking about the importance of God’s covenant with us. At the most basic, a covenant is an agreement typically denoting some formal process of exchange. In the Bible, the word most commonly used in the Hebrew Scriptures is ‘Berith’ (ברית), referring to a legal disposition or pledge which may or may not have the character of agreement; this particular term may be familiar to us from the word ‘bris’ which is preserved amongst observant Jews as a ritual practice of setting apart in comemmoration of Genesis 17:10-14.
In the Greek, the word most commonly used for covenant is ‘diatheke’ (διαθηκη). In the Septuagint διαθηκη is regularly used as the translation of the covenant of God (berith), rather than the apparently more available word συνθηκη. In this there is already an expression of the fact that the covenant of God does not have the character of a contract between two parties, but curiously that of a one-sided grant.
“Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him,”As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”
– Genesis 9:8-17
The Covenant laid out in this chapter carries no stipulations, and it has the character of a one-party guarantee. It does of course require the faith of man, but is in its fulfillment in no respect dependent on the faith, an it is validly in force for all coming generations, believing and unbelieving (cf. Gen. 9:9). And in the making of the covenant with Abraham, too, in Gen. 15, the fulfillment of the law is in symbolical form made to depend wholly upon the divine deed – it’s entirely a gift. As a reminder, God places in the heavens the symbol of the rainbow in the clouds.
To those of us who are familiar with Western Esotericism and the Kabbalah, below the ethical triad of Chesed (Mercy), Geburah (Strength) and Tipareth (Beauty) there is depicted in some instances a rainbow that is referred to as the Veil of Paroketh, alluding to the Covenant made between God and humanity. It is this veil which separates our egos from our true and beautiful spiritual natures. Rainbows, as we know, are optical phenomenon caused by reflections, refraction, and disperson of light in water droplets which result in a spectrum of light appearing in the sky – they are optical illusions and cannot be physically approached.
In a similar way, the separation between God and humanity can ultimately be said to be illusory. Throughout Genesis we have multiple instances of humanity separating itself from God because we become to self-centered instead of listening to God’s gentle calls. When we stray too far, we are forced to face the consequences of our actions which take us away from God who is paradoxically always there to remind us of our own innate goodness. In setting up the rainbow, we have a reminder of the manifold mercies God has for us, if only we take a moment to reflect on them.
“For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you–not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.”
– 1 Peter 3:18-22
In the epistle, Peter addresses the various churches in Asia Minor recalling the covenant with Noah and offering a glimpse of a greater mystery. While many various movements practiced forms of ritual purity that could be comparable to baptism, Peter here makes a marked separation between the physical act of cleanliness and introduces the concept of moral purity, which if we are attentive, leads us through the veil of the illusions we’ve created of ourselves and reminds us again of God’s mercy and beauty. Eight is an interesting number in Christian thought and doubly so in Gnostic thought referring to the Ogdoad.
The earliest Gnostic systems included a theory of seven heavens and a supercelestial region called the Ogdoad. Astronomical theories had introduced the concept of seven planetary spheres with an eighth above them, the sphere of the fixed stars. In this sphere we have our primordial origins. Through contemplating on these mysteries, we are subsequently purified and able to ascend back to our origins and put to rest in Christ our lower natures that prevent us from seeing who we really are.
Our gospel reading today is rather interesting. Again we find ourselves on the river Jordan, but unlike John’s Gospel accounts, things seem a little bit off, if a little rushed even:
“In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
– Mark 1:9-15
As in the previous gospels, we’re called toward repentance but this time it is Jesus making that call instead of his cousin. When the scene begins, Jesus is baptized and the heavens open up with the Holy Spirit descending upon him in the form of a dove. For those who were present, I would imagine it would be an astounding scene – which it is meant to be. In the Greek New Testament, the word used when referring to the clouds opening up is not a gentle one, so we can rest aside the beautiful Renaissance paintings of billowing clouds. The word used is “schizomenous” – a violent tearing, and one that appears later again when Christ’s earthly mission is complete and the veil in the Temple is rent in part.
The root of this word may be familiar to some people as found in modern psychology, ‘skhízō’ – the same one as found in our word ‘schizophrenia’. Schizophrenia, as we know, is a mental disorder often characterized by abnormal social behavior and failure to recognize what is real. Common symptoms include false beliefs, unclear or confused thinking, auditory hallucinations, reduced social engagement and emotional expression, and inactivity. Naturally, schizophrenia is a very serious disorder and people with it need to be treated with common human dignity, but for the purposes of this let us consider our own bewildered states: our own false beliefs, expressions, confused thinking, and delusions when it comes to our own personal spiritual lives.
In the Gospel, the Epiphany of Jesus seems to have had a major impact, otherwise it wouldn’t have found its way into each of the synoptic gospels. Along with the transfiguration, Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension, the Baptism of Jesus is one of the major milestones in the gospel experience. In Mark’s gospel, though, instead of Jesus staying around and preaching he immediately goes into the desert and faces the temptations of the Adversary before coming back and preaching.
The order of events is rather stunning, and the proclamations in Mark’s gospel mirror the account we read earlier in Genesis. God reveals Emself to Humanity and initiates a covenant. The preaching of Jesus, in this account, can in many ways be said to be the start of a new covenant – the Greek for what we in English call the New Testament, Hē Kainḕ Diathḗkē, can be translated as “The New Covenant” which calls us, like the dove which descended upon Christ, to listen to what the Spirit is saying to God’s people and follow Christ together in our own personal journey.
The early Christians observed with a great degree of devotion the days of Christ’s passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting. I often like to imagine what it would be like to have been an early Christian, particularly amongst the throngs of people who saw Jesus preaching and performing miracles and then, suddenly, to have him disappear. I imagine in many ways this would create a great degree of dissonance; first, to have the person who did all these great things suddenly, and shamefully, be taken away by guards and unceremoniously crucified; secondly, to find myself filled with a sudden fear that the religious elite might soon come after me; and thirdly, waiting in hope and with fear for my life that the world will suddenly turn upside down and everything be washed in a burning fire of God’s judgement – at any angle, I’d likely be thinking, “Will I be next?”
I make no pretense, the early Christian movement was an apocalyptic one. Somewhat removed from modern expressions such as what we’ve seen in Waco, Texas or any number of the movements that came about during the Second Great awakening; the apocalyptism of Christianity is that same kind that brought about the book of Revelation. Lent, in some ways, can be seen in such a manner – a period of great fear and trembling as we await the revelation of the resurrection; yet, why that fear? Why all this talk of sin and repentance? Have we personally done something so wrong that we might as well be struck by lightning and be incinerated so something so little as taking a pen home from the office either accidentally or on purpose? Not so much.
In the first reading today we are assured:
“[You] are a people holy to the LORD your God; the LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession. It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the LORD set his heart on you and chose you– for you were the fewest of all peoples. It was because the LORD loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. Know therefore that the LORD your God is God, the faithful God who maintains covenant loyalty with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations, and who repays in their own person those who reject him. He does not delay but repays in their own person those who reject him. Therefore, observe diligently the commandment– the statutes, and the ordinances– that I am commanding you today.”
– Deuteronomy 7:6-11
Earlier on in that particular chapter, after being delivered from Egypt and into the Holy Land, the Jewish peoples are given some advice from Moses on the very real threats that might assail them if they start interacting too much with their neighbors. Far from being any kind of encouragement for xenophobia, what God is doing here is setting Eir people apart and making them recognize their own uniqueness in a vast sea of different tribes and peoples and cultures. French sociologist Émile Durkheim in writing about the dichotomy between the sacred and profane, that humans don’t simply exist; they belong. From the beginning of life, they are bound to communities: to a family or clan, a town, a church, or a political party. These social templates and ties are important to the individual as well as to the collective. He furthermore observes that the center of pre-modern religions is the worship of the totem and centers around a single sacred figure which governs all aspects of clan life. In the above reading, apart from Moses leading them, the only thing that the Jews had to go on as their totem was God’s Word – and that was all they could trust.
In the second reading, we have Paul speaking to an individual known to us as Titus who would become an early Christian leader and one of Paul’s companions. He is believed to be a gentile whom Paul converted to Christianity and, according to pious tradition, was consecrated as Bishop on the Island of Crete. Titus himself was a Greek, supposedly from Antioch, who function as Paul’s secretary and would later be sent to organize the collection of alms for the Christians in Jerusalem. He would be remembered as a peacemaker, administrator, missionary, and one of the first of the gentile converts.
Giving advice to Titus, Paul writes about God’s providence and what is required of Christian leadership:
“Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, for the sake of the faith of God’s elect and the knowledge of the truth that is in accordance with godliness, in the hope of eternal life that God, who never lies, promised before the ages began– in due time he revealed his word through the proclamation with which I have been entrusted by the command of God our Savior, To Titus, my loyal child in the faith we share: Grace and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Savior. I left you behind in Crete for this reason, so that you should put in order what remained to be done, and should appoint elders in every town, as I directed you: someone who is blameless, married only once, whose children are believers, not accused of debauchery and not rebellious. For a bishop, as God’s steward, must be blameless; he must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or addicted to wine or violent or greedy for gain; but he must be hospitable, a lover of goodness, prudent, upright, devout, and self-controlled. He must have a firm grasp of the word that is trustworthy in accordance with the teaching, so that he may be able both to preach with sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict it. There are also many rebellious people, idle talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision; they must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for sordid gain what it is not right to teach. It was one of them, their very own prophet, who said, “Cretans are always liars, vicious brutes, lazy gluttons.” That testimony is true. For this reason rebuke them sharply, so that they may become sound in the faith, not paying attention to Jewish myths or to commandments of those who reject the truth. To the pure all things are pure, but to the corrupt and unbelieving nothing is pure. Their very minds and consciences are corrupted. They profess to know God, but they deny him by their actions. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work.”
– Titus 1:1-16
From a superficial glance, these words of advice echo throughout all scripture as models of good behavior and largely fulfil what we would call today virtue ethic. Yet, couched into this message, Paul brings up the famous Empimenides Paradox – to a Cretan, no less! Now, why is this significant? On one level, Paul was definitely a well-educated man with more than a passing knowledge of Hellenic thought and from the first glance it can seem to be a mere rhetorical device used to encourage Titus in keeping track on how well-behaved the communities in his charge should be. Yet, for us, I think it could refer more to that process of metanoia spoken of before where we must be constantly on our guard to be sure that we don’t, vulgarly speaking, bullshit ourselves into thinking that we’re more pure or holy than those around us.
It’s very easy, particularly in times of reflection and withdrawal, to start thinking that we’ve made it and rest on our laurels. According to Epimenides paradox, we have the assumption that liars only make false statements and so the statement attributed to Epimenides is by virtue false and cannot be accepted. This, I think, is a useful as a mode of self-analysis when thinking of our own faults. The moment we think, “I’ve got this handled” we should look deeper and see if that is really the case. Similarly, if we assume that the statement in the paradox is true, we still must conclude that the statement then is false and cannot be accepted.
In my personal life, I’m rather much a fan of the Socratic method of questioning as a way of starting to analyze whether or not something important I’m about to engage in is useful to me or could help me in my own development. First, I must clarify my thinking. I often do this by placing myself before an icon of the Christ and engaging in a dialogue, with him asking, “Why do you say that’ or ‘Let’s explore this a little more’. As I continue, I see him challenging me, like he did his apostles saying, ‘Is that the case always?’, or, ‘Is there a particular reason why you think this is true?’ and so forth. If I find myself in error or doubt, further meditation either personally or with the aid of scripture is often my default, as well as talking to fellow pilgrims on the path. This is definitely an engaging process, but ultimately a very fruitful and contemplative way of engaging my religiosity.
The Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos writes a lot about the process of engaged spirituality and the effects is has on consciousness teaching that the ‘psyche’ – far from the Freudian or modern psychoanalytic perspective – denotes the spiritual element of one’s existence. In our daily lives we are assailed by a bombardment of thoughts, images, words, noises, and preconceptions which in the Hesychast tradition of Orthodox monasticism are referred to as logismoi, or ‘thoughts’, though probably best defined as ‘intrusive thoughts’. Most people are unaware that these thoughts are nothing but images of material and worldly things – these are the images that, while we’re in the desert we must remove. The above example of Socratic questioning and meditation is a great example of how to start analyzing these thoughts and memories which, especially if we apply them to past experience, will suddenly reveal to us the need for repentance. But, it begs the question,’Repentance from what?’
Repentance, from the Greek μετάνοια, metanoia, “changing one’s mind”, found its way into modern psychology with the American thinker William James. He used it to refer to a fundamental and stable change in an individual’s life-orientation. Famous psychoanalyst Carl G. Jung developed the usage to indicate a spontaneous attempt of the psyche to heal itself from conflict, ultimately resulting in a melt-down and subsequent vision of what actually needs to be done. In many cases, this mirrors the actual spiritual process as handed down to us through scripture and the writings of holy women and men throughout the history of Christianity as well as in gnosticism.
In Gnostic teaching, Christ took a human form (Jesus), to teach humanity how to achieve Gnosis. The ultimate end of all Gnosis is μετάνοια metanoia, or repentance—undoing the sin of material existence and returning to Pleroma.In the Johannite Eucharist we find a reference to this in the Penitential Rite of the Johannite Eucharist, “We stand here immortal, the image of your own Eternity; yet often we find ourselves clothed in the garment of separation, forgetful of the Glory of our Heritage, the Light dim from the closing of our hearts.” Repentance, then, is not so much a move away from something, rather it is a reorientation, as is later revealed in the Johannite Eucharistic prayer, “When we engage the Divine Beloved in the person of our fellow human beings, we see the Kingdom of Heaven manifest where it has always been – spread over the whole of the Earth. When we engage the Divine Beloved in the person of ourselves, we see the Kingdom of Heaven manifest where it has always been, within us.” Instead of a turning away, repentance is actually a turning toward God’s love – far from an act of deprecation, it becomes a powerful act whereby we can realize ourselves for who we are in Christ – and that revelation can be scary for some, put is the first stage of the purification which we are undergoing.
As at the start of Epiphany, we once again see Jesus coming toward the Jordan River, within sight the radical and tempestuous John the Baptist stands amidst a crowd of his disciples with the Beloved Disciple looking on and declares:
“Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”
– John 1:29-34
Amongst the early Christians then as now, Lent is often a period in which those who are about to receive the sacrament of baptism prepare for the mystery which they are about to receive. This period of silence, away from the fanfare of the rest of the liturgical year, might be a little confusing particularly if those who are about to be initiated came to the community during other times of the year such as Christmastide when everything is joyous, well-lit and decorated to the nines. One of the earliest documents of the early Christian community, the Didache, advises:
“Concerning baptism, you should baptize this way: After first explaining all things, baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in flowing water… Before the baptism, both the baptizer and the candidate for baptism, plus any others who can, should fast. The candidate should fast for one or two days beforehand.”
– Didache 7.1, 7.4
‘After first explaining all things’ would refer to the time during this season that the one to be baptized would be taught personally, either by a priest or Bishop, about Christian morality and what would be expected of them as they would become part of the community of the faithful. In many ways, John could be seen as the prototype of the one who would prepare the way for initiation. Prior to Christ’s baptism, John had already amassed a large following with his call to repentance which seemingly contrasted the experience of Temple worship.
Important to the Gospel reading is the idea of sacrifice. In the Temple period in which Jesus lived, at any time a number of sacrifices would be made in the courts of the Temple ranging from doves, to sheep, to even throngs of cattle. Yet, here comes the Lamb of God who would ultimately become sacrificed by the very institutions of the land both secular and religious. For us, during this time, it may be worthy to think of sacrifice. What parts of our lives are we willing to sacrifice in order to more fully experience the Sacred Flame? While many give up chocolates or television or social media as a sacrifice during this period; what are the internal things that we are willing to give up?
There are a variety of ‘thoughts’ or ‘logoismoi’ that we encounter on a daily basis that may obfuscate our relationship with Godhead and one another. Perhaps we hold grudges and dwell on the Schadenfreude of those we personally dislike – they had it coming after all, right? How about the homeless person on the street, shouldn’t they just get a job? How about dwelling on that debt you’re still owed from middle school? All of these are examples of logoismoi or thoughts that can distract us from living a truly Christlike life. As the Didache suggests, here are some commandments that can easily be put into creative practice that can help you sacrifice the thoughts which come from your false sense of self:
Give to every one who asks you, and don’t ask for it back.
Do not speak evil of others; do not bear grudges.
[Speech] should not be false nor empty, but fulfilled by action.
Do not have designs against your neighbor.
Hate no one; correct some, pray for others, and some you should love more than your own life.
Some of these might be easier than others, but still try them out. If you give something, don’t ask for it back, instead view it as a form of alms-giving even if it’s to a friend. When the urge arises to gossip, perhaps step back and try to imagine what it would be like to be in the other person’s shoes when they find out what things were being spoken about them. If you say you’re going to do something, do it, or otherwise in daily speech try to talk about meaningful things – forget the small talk. Hating no one can be hard or easy – that person who cut you off in traffic a while back isn’t as bad as you think they are, and chances are you’ve done the same in the past. Also, don’t forget the fundamental – love. Love your neighbor as yourself, love God, and most importantly remember to love one another as Christ has loved us, by such a way we slowly but surely may be known as disciples.
You are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Today in the Western liturgical calendar we now embark into Lent, explained in the previous post as a period of forty-six days of fasting, prayer, repentance, and reflection. As we step into the desert, I suppose I should explain the choice of readings I’m providing. While I’m a member of clergy in the Apostolic Johannite Church, an inclusive, sacramental, esoteric, and mystical denomination with valid apostolic succession; I’m choosing explicitly to draw readings from what other gnostics may term, ‘the outer church’ – that is to say, the canons used by most Western and Orthodox liturgical Christian denominations. Why is that? Part of it is to be relatable.
As we enter into our pilgrimage this season, I join with Christians from around the world of various different heritages and backgrounds – not just my fellow Johannite and gnostic sisters and brothers. Another part is, is that it’s often all too easy to let one’s mind wander while reading the more esoteric texts when, at this time, we should be focusing on making straight the way for the Divine to enter into our hearts. I’ll largely be using the Revised Common Lectionary and following the suggested readings as laid out by the Episcopal Church in the United States from their Daily Office. While this differs somewhat from the readings found in the Roman Catholic Breviary, I have equal respect for both and, as posted in one of my blogs, I will be attending services this season at the local Episcopal Cathedral in addition to my community and the local Ecclesia Gnostica parish.
Probably the most defining feature of Ash Wednesday is the imposition of ashes which were made from the palm fronds blessed on the previous Palm Sunday. These ashes are placed on the foreheads of the congregation with the accompanying phrase, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” To be sure, it’s a rather strange custom to many outsiders but to the faithful, it is a reminder of our sinfulness and mortality – something that we often forget in our daily lives.
At risk of being repetitive to my readers who follow me on Facebook, a new acquaintance of mine on Facebook posted this rather timely quote from one of my favorite authors, Ernest Hemingway,
There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.
For me, immediately, it called to mind the nature of the season of Lent which begins today, particularly from a gnostic context.
As one may recall, one of the processes that we work on during Lent is that of learning humility – one need not go much further than the parable of the Pharisee and Publican in Luke’s gospel. When, today, we receive the imposition of ashes we’re engaging in something that is simultaneously a very public act marking us as elect, yet at the same time, the symbol used is that of debasement and, recalling the popular Orthodox icon, ‘Extreme Humility’.
The quote by Hemingway, in many ways, could be said to be a proper quote to a gnostic understanding of the season or repentance (metanoia) and the value of the role of remembrance (anamnesis) in the spiritual process of purification, illumination and perfection. We must descend and experience the bewildering confusion of being fully immersed in nature, while at the same time recognizing the need for our own inner purification in the process.
When we remember, as Epiphanes speaks that the ‘righteousness of God is a kind of sharing along with equality’, we can come to a gentle understanding of how we all as a species sharing in a common parent all are engaged in this process, which is ultimately redemptive and arrive at gnosis. We share in one another suffering and learn compassion, that we are all suffering with, sharing in that sympathy with the Divine Light.
This three-fold process can be viewed in many ways: spiritually, psychologically, dialectically, qabalistically, and even alchemically. Explained beautifully in his essay, The Hermetic Problem of Salt, my friend Aaron Cheak, PhD writes the following which could illustrate part of the process which we undergo at this time:
“In Paracelsus’ writings, the tria prima are often compared to the three aspects that are present during the process of combustion (i.e. fire, smoke, ash): ‘Whatever burns is sulphur, whatever is humid is mercury, and that which is the balsam of these two is salt’. Paracelsians also employed the tria prima to represent the composition of the human microcosm: spirit (mercury), soul (sulphur) and body (salt), and this correlation was extended to some extent to the Christian trinity: father (sulphur), holy spirit (mercury), son (salt).‘In this manner’, states Paracelsus, ‘in three things, all has been created […] namely, in salt, in sulphur, and in liquid. In these three things all things are contained, whether sensate or insensate […] So too you understand that in the same manner that man is created [in the image of the triune God], so too all creatures are created in the number of the Trinity, in the number three’.”
One may recall the words in the Gospel of Mark which says:
“You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men.”
Salt, here, stands as a figure of power which counteracts corruption, and preserves in a sound condition – the effect which salt has upon water, meat, and many other things. As living witnesses to the gospels we are urged to communicate divine truth to oppose the spiritual corruption of our selves and others as well as to act in such a way as to preserve the good. On another level, however, salt is used in the preservation of the dead – probably a good example would be the thirty to forty days in which many Egyptian mummies were preserved in natron (a type of salt) prior to burial – thus it becomes a reminder of our mortality.
Similarly, while a reminder of our mortality, salt also becomes a symbol of our ultimate reward in perseverance, our living salary as it were. The word salary, which comes to us via Anglo-French salarie, the Old French salaire “wages, pay, reward,” and from Latin salarium “salary, stipend, pension,” originally meant quite literally “salt-money, or soldier’s allowance for the purchase of salt”. While it may seem somewhat strange to use such militaristic terms which are seemingly opposed to the best exoteric as well as esoteric aspects of Christianity, we have to be on guard for ourselves at this time in the same way that Christ himself remained vigilant against the accuser during his period in the desert.
Within each of us stands an accuser. It can be a voice from the past which reminds us of how worthless we are when we know we’re not. It can come from obsessing over failures we’ve made however big or small. It can come from school or work in failing to uphold a passing grade or review. It can also come from our spiritual family as well. Lent is such a time, then, to drop the burden of what we’ve been carrying for the past weeks or even years and is an invitation for us to start out on a new adventure of forgiving ourselves and others as well as seeking the forgiveness of God for the barriers that we have placed in our hearts in mind which prevent him from coming to us more clearly.
Now that we have begun Lent, let us take that time to do more. To examine ourselves deeper. And remind ourselves of the healing and transforming power of the divine.
What makes us free is the gnosis, of who we were, of what we have become, of where we were, of wherein we have been cast, of whereto we speed, of what we are being freed, of what birth truly is, and what rebirth Truly is.
– Exerpta Ex Theodoto