Friday, March 30, 2018

Patristic Wisdom for Good Friday

Into Your hands I shall entrust my spirit;
You redeemed me, O Lord God of truth.
I am forgotten like one whose heart is lifeless;

I was made like a vessel that is utterly broken.
For I heard the blame of many who dwell round about
When they were gathered together against me,
When they plotted to take my life.
But as for me, I hope in You, O Lord;
I said, “You are my God.” (Ps 31:5, 12–14 LXX)

Let us consider why these words have been placed here which the Gospel text quotes.… Certainly so that you may recognize that here too he spoke who so many centuries later would speak the same words when fixed on the cross. “Into your hands” means “Into your truth” by which you always perform what is kind and just. In this way, he commends to the Father the inestimable treasure, namely, that soul that regularly carried out the Fathers desires in complete compliance with the Father’s intention. It was therefore fitting that such a spirit be commended to such a great guardian. Next he testifies that he was redeemed. But let us examine at what price; it was the price which the Apostle indicates: “He emptied himself, taking on the form of a servant.” You see how great the price was that he brought his majesty as low as human flesh, and he emptied himself in order that he might fill human things with heavenly things.

Those who do not believe the Scriptures at all saw the Lord fixed on the cross and walked away from his divinity, anticipating that their expectation was ended by this death. Likewise heretics, who hear the divine Scriptures in the church and who see miracles, walk away from the church to hear wicked proclamations, fleeing from the truth in which they have little tolerance to continue on.… “A ruined vessel” is one that is broken and without purpose, and so it is always thrown away. So also Jesus, when he died, was considered by unbelievers to be like a broken vessel that should be thrown away. How could it be said more humbly than that the almighty Majesty be compared to fragile jars? But consider that it was those who were mad who thought about Christ this way. But there always existed in him a unique omnipotence and an amazing divine fullness.

The order of the words is wonderful and most holy. When his enemies … held on to a hope in their own strength, he says that he put his hope in the Lord, since he knew that their power was nothing and by the plots they were attempting they would kill themselves rather than him.… The Lord Christ says: “You are my God,” but he says this from the perspective of the human nature that he assumed, which, as he says later, was subject both to time and to death. He does not, as his enemies were thinking, mention that his life was going to be ended by their persecution, but he commends the times of his life to the Lord. For we exist by his work as our Creator; we are enlivened as he determines, and we also pass on when he gives the command. For this reason, it is necessary that his hope be set on the Lord, for he knew that his life and his death were under God’s control.

Cassiodorus, Explanation of the Psalms

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Patristic Wisdom for Maundy Thursday

And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them and said, “Take, eat; this is My body.” Then He took the cup, and when He had given thanks He gave it to them, and they all drank from it. And He said to them, “This is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many. Assuredly, I say to you, I will no longer drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” (Mark 14:22-25)

That bread which God the Word confesses to be His own body is the Word that nourishes souls, the Word proceeding from God, the very bread that comes from the living bread which is set out upon our table of which was written: “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” That drink which God the Word confesses to be His blood is the Word that gives refreshment and exhilarates the heart.… This drink is the fruit of the true vine, the blood of that grape cast in the winepress of the passion. So also the bread is the word of Christ made from that corn which, falling onto the good ground, brought forth much fruit. He was not speaking of the visible bread alone which He was holding in His hands as He called it His body. It is the word in the mystery of which that bread was to be broken. Nor did He call that visible drink as such His blood, but the word in the mystery of which that drink was to be poured out. For to what else could the body and blood of the Lord refer other than the atoning Word that nourishes and gladdens the heart? Why did He not say, “This is My bread of the New Testament” just as He said, “This is My blood of the New Testament?” Because the bread is the word of righteousness, by the eating of which souls are nourished. The drink is the word of knowledge of Christ according to the mystery of His birth and passion.

Origen, Commentary on Matthew 85.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Patristic Wisdom: Looking to Palm Sunday

Entry into Jerusalem, 12th Century Mosaic, S. Marco
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Proclaim it aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Behold, your King comes to you;
He is righteous and saving;
He is gentle and mounted upon a donkey, even a young foal.
He will utterly destroy the chariots out of Ephraim
and the horse out of Jerusalem.
The bow of war shall be utterly destroyed,
and there shall be abundance and peace among the nations.
He shall rule over the waters as far as the sea
and over the rivers to the ends of the earth.
And by the blood of your covenant,
you freed your prisoners from the pit having no water.
You prisoners from the congregation,
you shall live in the fortress,
and for one day of your exile,
I will repay to you double. (Zech 9:9–12 LXX)

Be glad, therefore, O Jerusalem, since of such a kind is a king appointed for you by God, and he has come to you, capable of saving his own on account of the divine influence accruing to Him and justly inflicting total punishment on the adversaries. While he is riding a lowly animal for the reason that He has just arrived back from captivity, he assumes great power through divine grace, and so from Ephraim and from Jerusalem he will remove all the chariots of the adversaries, every war horse and every battle bow—that is to say, he will drive off all enemies so that there will be no longer any adversary against the country of Judah. He will also wipe out a great multitude of the adversaries and completely deprive them of peace, crushed and destroyed in a war waged by him.

Theodore of Mopsuestia, Commentary on Zechariah 9.8–10

It was fitting that the herald of his resurrection is reported to have been sitting, so that by sitting he might prefigure him who, having triumphed over the author of death, would ascend to his seat in the everlasting kingdom. Concerning this he said a little later, as he appeared to his disciples: All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me; and the evangelist Mark says: The Lord, after He had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at God’s right hand. [The angel] was sitting upon the stone with which the tomb was closed, but which had been rolled away, to teach that He had cast down and triumphed over the closed places of the lower world by his power, so that He might lift up to the light and the rest of paradise all of His own whom He found there, according to the prophet’s You also because of the blood of your covenant, have led your prisoners back from the pit, in which there is no water.

Venerable Bede, Homily on the Gospels 2.7

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Making Way

But when Herod heard, he said, “This is John, whom I beheaded.” (Mark 6:16)

There are occasions in Scripture that make us stop and think to ourselves, “What a waste.” Recently, we were reminded of John’s beheading at the hand of Herod (Mark 6:14–29). The king had stolen his brother’s wife and was confronted by John. While that did not sit well with Herodias, Herod had a high regard the prophet and refused to do more than imprison him—perhaps hoping to keep him quiet for awhile until his new wife’s temper could be assuaged. It was all for naught as the “Queen of Hearts” triumphantly eliminated what had stuck in her craw.

We see this as wasteful, not just because John died in his thirties, but because this prophet was instrumental in pointing people to Christ. He knew his place and duty:
Behold! 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 is preferred before me, for He was before me.” (John 1:29–30)
and seemed perfectly content to give Jesus full honor: He must increase, but I must decrease (John 3:30).

Here, a powerful witness for the Lamb of God is cut down in early adulthood, and we are left wondering why God did not ensure that John was released from prison to assist as one of Jesus’ disciples. This is not the first time that the Lord has removed the forerunner that His anointed one may prosper.

In the days of a united Israel, King Saul had a son named Jonathan who was best friends with the future king, David. Because of a deep love for the Lord and David, Jonathan did everything in his power to impede Saul’s plots and to keep David safe. His singular desire was for David to take his rightful place and to be a faithful subject.
Then Jonathan, Saul’s son, arose and went to David in the woods and strengthened his hand in God. And he said to him, “Do not fear, for the hand of Saul my father shall not find you. You shall be king over Israel, and I shall be next to you. Even my father Saul knows that.” (1 Sam 23:16–17)
Sadly, Jonathan was killed in battle with the Philistines (1 Sam 31:1–2; 1 Chr 10:1–2). We can only imagine how well this union would have worked out, although, we can be assured that Jonathan would have been a more trustworthy general than Joab. Again we question why the Lord removed such a promising individual.

Out with the old

John the baptizer and Jonathan, son of Saul, shared a common problem: they were sinners, though righteous through a life of faith, leading those who were called to be the same. Whether or not the followers acted righteously, what we know is that had the forerunner lived, a division in God’s work was certain.

After Saul and Jonathan died, others in the royal family attempted to wrest the throne from David. Initially, Abner, commander of Saul’s army, made Ishbosheth the son of Saul king in Mahanaim (2 Sam 2:8–10) for a two-year reign. Later, when David is fleeing Jerusalem from Absalom, Ziba the servant of Mephibosheth, Jonathan’s son, attempts to ingratiate himself to the king by reporting of his master: Indeed he is staying in Jerusalem, for he said, “Today the house of Israel will restore the kingdom of my father to me” (2 Sam 16:3)—a falsehood made evident upon David’s return to Jerusalem (2 Sam 19:24–30). Finally, Bichri the Benjamite, Saul’s tribe, declared himself leader over Israel save for Judah (2 Sam 20:1–2). What we discover is a lingering loyalty to the house of Saul that was ultimately eradicated when the remaining sons of Saul were executed by the Gibeonites (2 Sam 21:5–9). Had Saul’s house (save for Mephibosheth) been allowed to continue, a long-term division, if not civil war, would have ensued as occurred after Solomon’s death.

We look at the situation in Israel and think to ourselves, “Well, that might have happened back then, but if John had been able to work with Jesus, this type of thing would have been avoided.” Not so fast. During Jesus’ ministry, John’s disciples asked Him why His disciples did not fast as they and disciples of the Pharisees do (Mt 9:14; Mk 2:18; Lk 5:33), so we see a difference in thought between the two groups that the Lord needed to address. Later, Jesus’ disciples asked Him to teach them to pray as John taught his disciples (Lk 11:1). While the two groups would have a common basis for prayer, the emphases would be different since John was pointing to the Messiah, and Jesus was that One. Later, we are introduced to the teaching ministry of Apollos. We first meet this Alexandrian Jew after he begins teaching boldly in Ephesus (Acts 18:24), but as of yet, having only known the baptism of John (Acts 18:25). Because Apollos still lacked key information concerning Jesus, Aquila and Priscilla took him aside for additional teaching, after which he left for Achaia. This departure left a hole in that Apollos had made converts in Ephesus but unto the baptism of John. The apostle Paul finished the work of baptizing them into Christ (Acts 19:5–6). Though this seems fairly innocuous, the underlying issues came to a head in Corinth where believers were now defining themselves by whom they were baptized (1 Cor 1:11–13). Instead of recognizing the Lord Jesus as their head, the believers in Corinth had taken the cultural route of aligning with a particular teacher.

In with the new

We see the humility of both Jonathan and John. They knew their respective places, but their followers and families did not. Each was appointed to a particular service—loyalty to the coming anointed one—but because of the sinfulness of even righteous men, the former had to be removed so that the one to whom proper fealty was due might take his place unencumbered. The son of Jesse was to reign; the Root and Branch of Jesse is to reign forever.

These examples cause us to face the harsh truth that what man sees as a “dream team” or a “match made in heaven” can actually be a recipe for disaster. God had ordained individuals for specific purposes in His divine plan. In order to fulfill those purposes, the prior dispensation had to be removed. Returning to the scene in which the disciples of John asked about fasting, Jesus pointed forward to the inauguration of new things when He said:
No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; or else the new piece pulls away from the old, and the tear is made worse. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; or else the new wine bursts the wineskins, the wine is spilled, and the wineskins are ruined. But new wine must be put into new wineskins. (Mk 2:21–22)
While we mourn the loss of the old, we recognize the wisdom of the new as our Lord works His eternal plan to our benefit, and we rejoice in it.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Patristic Wisdom: Looking to the Fifth Sunday in Lent

“Behold, days are coming,” says the Lord, “when I shall make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not according to the covenant I made with their fathers in the day I took hold of their hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; for they did not abide in My covenant, and I disregarded them,” says the Lord. “For this is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” says the Lord. “I will surely put My laws into their mind and write them on their hearts. I will be as God to them, and they shall be as My people. Each shall not teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them. For I will be merciful to their wrongdoings, and I will no longer remember their sins.” (Jer 31:31-34)

Obviously, those who have heard the gospel and refused to believe are all the more inexcusable than if they had not listened to any preaching of the truth. But it is certain that in God’s foreknowledge they were not children of Abraham and were not reckoned among the number of them of whom it is said, “In your seed all the tribes of the earth shall be blessed.” He promised them the faith when he said, “And no one shall teach his neighbor and no one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord.’ For all shall know me, from the small among them even to the great.” He promised them pardon when he said, “I will forgive their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.” He promised them an obedient heart when he said, “I will give them another heart and another way, that they may fear me all days.” He promised them perseverance when he said, “I will give my fear in their heart, that they may not revolt from me, and I will visit them, that I may make them good.” Finally, to all without exception he promised the faith when he said, “I have sworn by myself, justice alone shall go out of my mouth, and my words shall not be turned away. Every knee shall be bowed to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.”

Prosper of Aquitane, The Call of All Nations 1.9

Friday, March 9, 2018

Patristic Wisdom: Looking to the Fourth Sunday in Lent

For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. (John 3:16–17)

Many of the more careless sort, using the lovingkindness of God to increase the magnitude of their sins and the excess of their disregard, speak in this way, saying: There is no hell, no future punishment. God forgives all our sins. To stop whose mouths a wise man says, “Do not say, ‘His compassion is great, He will atone for the multitude of my sins,’ for both mercy and wrath are with Him, and His anger rests on sinners” (Ecclus. 5:6); and again, “As great as His mercy, so great is also His reproof” (Ecclus. 16:12). “Where then,” says one, “is His lovingkindness, if we shall receive for our sins according to our desserts?” That we shall indeed receive “according to our desserts,” hear both the Prophet and Paul declare; one says, “You shall render to every man according to his work” (Ps. 62:12, LXX); the other, “Who will render to every man according to his work” (Rom. 2:6). And yet we may see that even so the lovingkindness of God is great. In dividing our existence into two periods, the present life and that which is to come, and making the first to be an appointment of trial, the second a place of crowning, even in this He has shown great lovingkindness.

“How and in what way?” Because when we had committed many and grievous sins, and had not ceased from youth to extreme old age to defile our souls with ten thousand evil deeds, for none of these sins did He demand from us a reckoning, but granted us remission of them by the washing of regeneration, and freely gave us righteousness and sanctification. “What then,” says one, “if a man who from his earliest age has been deemed worthy of the mysteries after this commits ten thousand sins?” Such a one deserves a severer punishment. For we do not pay the same penalties for the same sins, if we do wrong after initiation. And this Paul declares, saying, “Anyone who has rejected Moses’ law dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. Of how much worse punishment, do you suppose, will he be thought worthy who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, counted the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified a common thing, and insulted the Spirit of grace?” (Heb. 10:28–29). Such a one then is worthy of severer punishment. Yet even for him God has opened doors of repentance and has granted him many means for the washing away his transgressions, if he will. Think then what proofs of lovingkindness these are: by grace to remit sins, and not to punish him who after grace has sinned and deserves punishment, but to give him a season and appointed space for his clearing. For all these reasons Christ said to Nicodemus, “God did not send His Son to condemn the world, but to save the world.”

For there are two advents of Christ, one past, the other to come. The first was not to judge but to pardon us; the second will be not to pardon but to judge us. It is of the first that he says, “I have not come to judge the world but to save the world.” But of the second he says, “When the Son shall come in the glory of his Father, He will set the sheep on His right hand and the goats on His left.” And the sheep will go into life and the goats into eternal punishment. Yet His former coming was for judgment, according to the rule of justice. Why? Because before His coming there was a law of nature, and the prophets, and moreover a written Law, and doctrine, and ten thousand promises, and manifestations of signs, and chastisements, and vengeances, and many other things which might have set men right, and it followed that for all these things He would demand account; but because he is merciful, for a time he pardons instead of making enquiry. For if He had judged immediately, everyone would have been rushed into perdition, for “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Do you not see the unspeakable surplus of His lovingkindness?

John Chrysostom, Homilies on John 28.1

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

The Cure for What Ails

Now a certain woman had a flow of blood for twelve years, and had suffered many things from many physicians. She had spent all that she had and was no better, but rather grew worse. When she heard about Jesus, she came behind Him in the crowd and touched His garment. For she said, “If only I may touch His clothes, I shall be made well.”… And He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace, and be healed of your affliction.” (Mark 5:25–28, 34)

One cannot help but see every person’s desperate condition. This unnamed woman, through no fault of her own, bore a grievous burden that caused her to be unclean and separated her from those around. Every human avenue had been pursued to no avail, but nothing in this world could free her from suffering and bondage. She had neither access to God nor fellowship with His people. In effect, this woman had the same status as any Gentile: without Christ, alien from God’s people and provision, and stranger from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world (Eph 2:12).

But then she does the remarkable: she acts in faith to gain the only One who could heal what was ailing her as Peter Chrysologous recounts:
No seas were ever so troubled by the ebb and flow of the tide, as the mind of this woman, pulled to and fro by the sway of her thoughts. After all the hopeless attempts of physicians, after all her outlay on useless remedies, after all the usual but useless treatment, when skill and experience had so long failed, all her substance was gone. This was not by chance, but divinely ordered, that she might be healed solely through faith and humility, whom human knowledge had failed through so many years. At a little distance apart from Him stood this woman, whom nature had filled with modesty, whom the law had declared unclean, saying of her: She shall be unclean and shall touch no holy thing [Lev 15:25]. She fears to touch, lest she incur the anger of the religious leaders, or the condemnation of the law. For fear of being talked about, she dares not speak, lest she embarrass those about her, lest she offend their ears. Through many years her body has been an arena of suffering. Everyday, unceasing pain she can endure no more. The Lord is passing by so quickly. The time is short to think what she must do, aware that healing is not given to the silent, nor to the one who hides her pain. In the midst of her conflicting thoughts, she sees a way, her sole way of salvation. She would secure her healing by stealth, take in silence what she dares not ask for, guarding her respect and modesty. She who feels unworthy in body, draws near in heart to the Physician. In faith she touches God. With her hand she touches His garment, knowing that both healing and forgiveness may be bestowed on this stratagem, undertaken due to the demands of modesty, and not as she otherwise would have preferred. She knew the gain she sought by stealth would cause no loss to Him from whom she took it.… In an instant, faith cures where human skill had failed through twelve years. (Sermon 33.4)
Notice the change. Once an outsider, this one is called daughter. She who had been separate from any benefit that may come to God’s people is now in a covenantal, familial relationship. No longer on the outside looking in, she now has full benefit as a fellow heir of the promises of blessing to Abraham, drawing close to worship and fellowship with God’s people.

What might be the most remarkable takeaway from this story might be that every person coming into this world has the same basic condition—hopeless and without God. Our natural inclination is to turn to the wisdom found in this world to find a cure for our condition, yet none can be found. We might be able to ease it somewhat with a salve applied to the conscience, but our condition continues to deteriorate. There is but one Great Physician who can heal the whole person. His cure cannot be earned or purchased. Only by grace through faith might we receive what Christ has so richly provided by taking our greatest ailment, sin, upon Himself and in exchange bestowing on us every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ (Eph 1:3). This is where true healing occurs.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Patristic Wisdom: Looking to the Third Sunday in Lent

The law of the Lord is blameless, converting souls;
The testimony of the Lord is trustworthy, making children wise;
The ordinances of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart;
The commandment of the Lord is bright, enlightening the eyes;
The fear of the Lord is pure, enduring unto ages of ages;
The judgments of the Lord are true, being altogether just.
More to be desired are they than gold and a very precious stone,
Sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb.
For indeed Your servant keeps them;
In keeping them there is great reward.
Who will understand his transgressions?
Cleanse me from hidden sins,
And spare your servant from unnatural sins;
If they have no dominion over me, then I shall be blameless,
And I shall be cleansed from great sin.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
Be always pleasing before You,
O Lord, my helper and my redeemer. (Psalm 19:7–14)

He calls the Mosaic law Law, testimony, judgments, command, decrees: this is what the Law calls itself, saying in one place, “These are the judgments and the decrees the Lord gave to Moses,” and elsewhere, “You will keep the Law of the Lord your God and observe His commandments.” It is called Law in that it regulates and prescribes the best way of life; testimony in testifying against sinners and highlighting the punishment for transgression; judgments in teaching what is right, forbidding what is wrong and declaring virtuous people righteous; command in commanding what is to be done and giving orders authoritatively; decrees in revealing the divine verdicts and teaching what goods the observant will enjoy and to what punishments the transgressor will be consigned.

So he means that the Law of God, being free of every fault, corrects people’s souls and makes them faultless; the testimony gives wisdom to the immature and simple by frightening them; the judgments gladden the heart by revealing the basis of judgment; the command gives light to the mind’s eye, teaching what constitutes service to the God of all. While piety and the fear of God, in suggesting observance of these, procure enjoyment of the eternal good, it was right for him to speak of the fear of God as pure—that is, free from blame—for the reason that human fear is blameworthy, being synonymous with dread. Now, he called the decrees true and justified on account of their conferring on people both honors and warranted punishments. In conclusion, he said these are worth more than gold and precious stones and sweeter than honey—not to all human beings, however, but to those truly human, whose life is not comparable with the brute beasts.

Your servant, in fact, will keep them. Be clearer in teaching what benefits come from it: abundant the repayment for keeping them. A wonderful reward, he is saying, is laid up for those choosing to keep them. And because he claimed to keep the decrees of God, calling to mind human weakness and considering the arrogance of the claim, he immediately added, Who will understand faults? Purify me from my hidden ones: even if I intend with great enthusiasm to keep God’s commands, I am dragged down by natural weakness to many faults against my will; some faults I commit in ignorance, some when overcome by the onset of circumstances. And even if I avoid sin in deed, thoughts fill me with every defilement. Hence, I beseech You, who are able to purify me, and I cry out.

Theodoret of Cyrus, Commentary on the Psalms 19.5–7