Friday, April 26, 2019

Patristic Wisdom: Looking to the Second Sunday of Easter

John, to the seven churches which are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from Him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven Spirits who are before His throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler over the kings of the earth. To Him who loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood, and has made us kings and priests to His God and Father, to Him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. Behold, He is coming with clouds, and every eye will see Him, even they who pierced Him. And all the tribes of the earth will mourn because of Him. Even so, Amen. “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End,” says the Lord, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.”

Then I turned to see the voice that spoke with me. And having turned I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the seven lampstands One like the Son of Man, clothed with a garment down to the feet and girded about the chest with a golden band. His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and His eyes like a flame of fire; His feet were like fine brass, as if refined in a furnace, and His voice as the sound of many waters; He had in His right hand seven stars, out of His mouth went a sharp two-edged sword, and His countenance was like the sun shining in its strength. And when I saw Him, I fell at His feet as dead. But He laid His right hand on me, saying to me, “Do not be afraid; I am the First and the Last. I am He who lives, and was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore. Amen. And I have the keys of Hades and of Death. (Revelation 1:4–8, 12

He means that it was to Him who loved us that glory and might are due. For how did He not love who “gave Himself as a ransom” for the life of the world? And to Him who washed us from our sins by his blood: for He Himself removed “the bond which stood against us with its legal demands, and He nailed it to the” wood of His “cross,” paying for our sins by His own death, and with His own blood setting us free from our transgressions. He did this by “becoming subject unto death, even death on the cross,” and so healing our disobedience. And appointed a kingdom for us: and what is the advantage of our becoming, as he says, priests to God and His prophets? That human beings should have been considered worthy of these both confirms for us the kingdom to come and promises ineffable glory in the present. For this is greater and more wonderful than washing away our sins in his own blood, and deserves to be called the gift of God, just as our appointment as priests and prophets of God without having made any kind of previous offering is the mark of such a gift.

And His feet, he says, were like burnished bronze: he refers to the bronze mined on Mount Lebanon as being pure even in itself and as rendered even purer when it has been refined in a furnace and cleansed of its slight impurity. In this way the steadfastness and constancy, as well as the brightness and glory, of faith in Christ is signified when it has come to assurance. For the apostle calls Christ “a rock,” and Isaiah calls Him “a precious stone” in the foundations “of Zion.” Else he means that the burnished bronze is the copper-colored frankincense which medical men are accustomed to call male. This is fragrant when burnt; for the fiery furnace represents the symbol of the burning of incense, which is the foundation of the preaching of the gospel—for the feet are the foundation of the rest of the body, which is Christ. For He is fragrant, and with spiritual fragrance he gives charm to the things in heaven and the things on earth. Paul, too, calls Christ “a foundation” in writing the first epistle to the Corinthians, saying, “Like a wise master-builder I have laid a foundation, and another builds upon it. Let each one take care how he builds on it. For no one can lay any other foundation than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.”

Oecumenius, Commentary on the Apocalypse 1.13, 27

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Patristic Wisdom for Easter Sunday

Il Baciccio, The Women at the Tomb
Now on the first day of the week, very early in the morning, they, and certain other women with them, came to the tomb bringing the spices which they had prepared. But they found the stone rolled away from the tomb. Then they went in and did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. And it happened, as they were greatly perplexed about this, that behold, two men stood by them in shining garments. Then, as they were afraid and bowed their faces to the earth, they said to them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen! Remember how He spoke to you when He was still in Galilee, saying, ‘The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again.’” (Luke 24:1–7)

The women came to the sepulcher, and when they could not find the body of Christ,—for He had risen,—they were much perplexed. And what followed? For their love’s sake unto Christ, and their earnest zeal thereunto, they were counted worthy of seeing holy angels, who even told them the joyful tidings, and became the heralds of the resurrection, saying, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen.” For the Word of God ever lives, and is by His own nature Life: but when He humbled Himself unto emptying, and submitted to be made like unto us, He tasted death. But this proved to be the death of death: for He arose from the dead, to be the way whereby not Himself so much but we rather return unto incorruption. And let no one seek Him Who ever lives among the dead, for He is not here, with mortality, that is, and in the tomb. But where rather is He? in heaven plainly, and in godlike glory.

Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on Luke 24

Friday, April 19, 2019

Patristic Wisdom for Good Friday

O God, my God, hear me; why have You forsaken me?
The words of my transgressions are far from my salvation.
Psalm 22:1 LXX

Peter Paul Rubens
When He says: Look upon me, He begs that the aid of the resurrection may appear most swiftly for Him. Next comes: Why have You forsaken me? The word why is known to introduce a question; so the Master of consubstantial wisdom, the Spokesman of the Father is so confused by the impending death of His flesh that in apparent ignorance He asks the Father why He has been abandoned by Him. These and similar expressions seek to express His humanity, but we must not believe that divinity was absent to Him even at the passion, since the apostle says: If they had known, they would never have crucified the Lord of glory. Though He was impassible, He suffered through the humanity which He assumed, and which could suffer. He was immortal, but He died; He never dies, but He rose again. On this topic, Father Cyril expressed this beautiful thought: “Through the grace of God He tasted death for all, surrendering His body though by nature He was life and the resurrection of the dead.” Similarly blessed Ambrose says: “He both suffered and did not suffer, died and did not die, was buried and was not buried, rose again and did not rise again.” In the same way we say that man too even today suffers, dies and is buried, though his soul is not circumscribed by any end. So He attests that He was forsaken when He was interrogated, though in fact He could not have been consigned to the hands of wicked men if the power of His majesty had not allowed such things to happen. In the gospel-words: You would not have any power against me, unless it had been given you from above. He also broadcasts the experiences of the humanity which He assumed, repelling words of blasphemy and impious speech, for He says that words begotten by sins are far from Him. The salvation of His sacred soul was not to embrace the speech of sinners, but gladly to endure by the virtue of patience what He suffered through God’s dispensation. As He Himself says in the gospel: Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me. Then He added: Nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will. He also speaks of the words of my sins when they belong to His members. He who was without sins called our sins His, just as in another psalm He is to say: O God, You know my foolishness, and my offenses are not hidden from You. So let us hear from the Head’s lips the words of the members, and realize that He has rightly spoken in our name, for He offered Himself as victim for the salvation of all. Hence Paul says: Him who knew no sin to be sin for us.

Cassiodorus, Explanation of the Psalms 22

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Patristic Wisdom for Maundy Thursday

Albrecht Dürer
When the hour had come, He sat down, and the twelve apostles with Him. Then He said to them, “With fervent desire I have desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I say to you, I will no longer eat of it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” Then He took the cup, and gave thanks, and said, “Take this and divide it among yourselves; for I say to you, I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” And He took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” Likewise He also took the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood, which is shed for you. (Luke 22:14-20)

He says, “I will no more draw near unto such a Passover as this,” one namely that consisted in the typical eating,—for a lamb of the flock was slain to be the type of the true Lamb,—“until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God:” that is, until the time has appeared in which the kingdom of heaven is preached. For this is fulfilled in us, who honor the worship that is superior to the law, even the true Passover; nor is it a lamb of the flock which sanctifies those who are in Christ, but Himself rather, being made a holy sacrifice for us, by the offering of bloodless oblations, and the mystical giving of thanks, in which we are blessed and quickened with life. For He became for us the living bread that came down from heaven, and gives life to the world.

Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on Luke, Homily 141

But He is also within us in another way by means of our partaking in the oblation of bloodless offerings, which we celebrate in the churches, having received from Him the saving pattern of the rite, as the blessed Evangelist plainly shows us in the passage which has just been read. For He tells us that “He took a cup, and gave thanks, and said, ‘Take this, and divide it with one another.’” Now by His giving thanks, by which is meant His speaking unto God the Father in the manner of prayer, He signified unto us that He, so to speak, shares and takes part in His good pleasure in granting us the life-giving blessing which was then bestowed upon us: for every grace, and every perfect gift comes unto us from the Father by the Son in the Holy Spirit. And this act then was a pattern for our use of the prayer which ought to be offered, whenever the grace of the mystical and life-giving oblation is about to be spread before Him by us: and so accordingly we are wont to do. For first offering up our thanksgivings, and joining in our praises unto God the Father both the Son and the Holy Spirit, we so draw near unto the holy tables, believing that we receive life and blessing both spiritually and physically: for we receive in us the Word of the Father, Who for our sakes became man, and Who is Life, and the Giver of life.

Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on Luke, Homily 142

Friday, April 12, 2019

Patristic Wisdom: Looking to Palm Sunday

Now the Feast of Unleavened Bread drew near, which is called Passover. And the chief priests and the scribes sought how they might kill Him, for they feared the people. Then Satan entered Judas, surnamed Iscariot, who was numbered among the twelve. So he went his way and conferred with the chief priests and captains, how he might betray Him to them. And they were glad, and agreed to give him money. So he promised and sought opportunity to betray Him to them in the absence of the multitude. Then came the Day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover must be killed. (Luke 22:1–7)

By its shadows, the law prefigured from of old the mystery of Christ. He is himself the witness of this when he said to the Jews, “If you would have believed Moses, you would have also believed me, for he wrote concerning me.” Christ is presented everywhere by means of shadows and types, both as slain for us, as the innocent and true Lamb, and as sanctifying us by his life-giving blood. We further find the words of the holy prophets in complete agreement with those of most wise Moses. Paul says, “When the fullness of time was come,” the only-begotten Word of God submitted to the emptying of himself, the birth in the flesh of a woman, and subjection to the law according to the measure that was fitting for human nature. He was also then sacrificed for us, as the innocent and true lamb on the fourteenth day of the first month. This feast day was called Pascha, a word belonging to the Hebrew language and signifying the passing over.…

As then Israel was delivered form the tyranny of the Egyptians, and having loosed its neck from the yoke of bondage, was now free; and fleeing from the violence of the tyrant passed with dry foot in a manner wonderful and beyond the power of language to describe through the midst of the sea, and journeyed onward to the promised land: so must we too, who have accepted the salvation that is in Christ, be willing no longer to abide in our former faults, nor continue in our evil ways, but manfully cross over the sea, as it were, of the vain trouble of this world, and the tempest of affairs that is therein. We pass over therefore from the love of the flesh to temperance; from our former ignorance to the true knowledge of God; from wickedness into virtue: and in hope at least, from the blame of sin unto the glories of righteousness, and from death into incorruption. The name therefore of the feast on which Emmanuel bore for us the saving cross was the Passover.

Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on Luke, Homily 141.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Patristic Wisdom: Looking to the Fifth Sunday in Lent

Then He began to tell the people this parable: “A certain man planted a vineyard, leased it to vinedressers, and went into a far country for a long time. Now at vintage-time he sent a servant to the vinedressers, that they might give him some of the fruit of the vineyard. But the vinedressers beat him and sent him away empty-handed. Again he sent another servant; and they beat him also, treated him shamefully, and sent him away empty-handed. And again he sent a third; and they wounded him also and cast him out. “Then the owner of the vineyard said, ‘What shall I do? I will send my beloved son. Probably they will respect him when they see him.’ But when the vinedressers saw him, they reasoned among themselves, saying, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him, that the inheritance may be ours.’ So they cast him out of the vineyard and killed him. Therefore what will the owner of the vineyard do to them? He will come and destroy those vinedressers and give the vineyard to others.” (Luke 20:9–16)

The lord of the vineyard thinks to himself saying, “What shall I do?” We must carefully examine in what sense he says this. Does the householder use these words because he had no more servants? He certainly did not lack other ministers of his holy will. When a physician may say of a sick man, “What shall I do?” we should understand him to mean that every resource of medical skill had been tried without success. We affirm that the lord of the vineyard, having practiced all gentleness and care with his farm but without benefiting it in any way, says, “What shall I do?” What is the result? He advances to still greater purposes. “I will send,” he says, “my son, the beloved one. Perhaps they will reverence him.” Observe in this, that after the servants, he sends the Son as One not numbered among the servants but as a true Son and therefore the Lord. Although he put on the form of a servant for the dispensation's sake, he was God, very Son of God the Father who possessed natural dominion. Did they honor him who was sent as Son and Lord and as One who possesses by inheritance whatever belongs to God the Father? No, they murdered him outside the vineyard, having plotted among themselves a foolish and ignorant plan full of all wickedness. They say, “Let us kill him, that the inheritance may be ours.”

Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on Luke, Homily 134

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

The Reckoning

When we read of or hear someone mention reckoning, it is usually in the context of settling accounts. We use this in finance in relation to year-end in order to report earnings and pay taxes. In common usage the concept more often refers to an appointed time at which a debt must be repaid. In a biblical context, we see the financial aspect as it pertains to indentured servitude (Le 25:50, 52) and property (Le 27:18, 23). There is a finality in these arrangements that infer a certain objective judgment and complete separation—especially true in matters before God as in the decree to Noah after the flood:
Surely for your lifeblood I will demand a reckoning; from the hand of all the wild animals I will require it; and I will require the life of man at the hand of his fellow man. (Ge 9:5)
More poignant is the final judgment of Christ, commonly known as the ultimate day of reckoning, wherein all is made right: sin is judged, evil is banished, and all creation enters final, eternal rest. For the wicked, their reckoning is a cause of distress: It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (He 10:31), However, the righteous have a certain hope of glory because they have already received the benefit of their reckoning, which St. Paul explores from the occasion of a promise that God gave to Abram and Sarai for a natural-born son (Ge 15:6):
What then shall we say that Abraham our father has found according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” (Ro 9:1–3)
The average Christian might look at Abraham’s life (personal call and task from God, periodic interaction with Him, promise of a miraculous birth) and ask, “How does this relate to me? Abraham was obviously in a class by himself, and I am not.” While his relationship with God was indeed special (call and promise of land, seed, and blessing), he is not the only one of whom we read received a certain reckoning of righteousness.

When Israel was camped near Moab, a plague broke out because the Moabites seduced the men of Israel with their women, notably a brazen defiance to the Lord by an Israelite man who took a foreign woman to his tent. When Aaron’s grandson Phinehas noticed, he thrust a javelin through both of them thus stopping the plague, after which the Lord commended his zeal with a promise.
Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Phinehas the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, stopped My wrath from among the children of Israel when he was zealous with My zeal among them. So I did not utterly destroy the children of Israel in My zeal. Therefore say, ‘Behold, I give to him My covenant of peace; and there shall be to him and his seed after him a covenant of an eternal priesthood; because he was zealous for his God and made atonement for the children of Israel.’” (Nu 25:10–13)
The psalmist later remembered this event while comparing Israel’s incessant wanderlust with the Lord’s steadfast love and faithfulness.
Then Phinehas stood among them and made atonement,
And the destruction ceased;
And it was reckoned as righteousness to him
From generation to generation forever. (Ps 106:30–31)
At this point, we might think that something is askew: Abraham was noted for his belief, but Phinehas for his works. What accounts for the apparent discrepancy? Looking more deeply, we can see that both men receive righteousness for the same criteria. When Abraham is introduced in Scripture, he is responding to a call from God, after which he receives the definitive promise of a son through whom the originally promised land, seed, and blessing (Ge 12:1–3) would come. Later, he would be asked to offer that son as a sacrifice, a command he willingly followed though not needing to fulfill. The writer of Hebrews looks back on these events and offers the common trait:
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to the place which he would receive as an inheritance. By faith he dwelt in the land of promise as in a foreign country,… By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac,… (He 11:8–9, 17)
We are comfortable with this concept of internalized faith with God’s subsequent declaration of righteousness, however, we stumble when coming to St. James’ summary wherein he states that Abraham was justified by his works:
But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble! But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” And he was called the friend of God. You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.… For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also. (Jm 2:18–24, 26)
The key lies in verse 23: And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” Wait. Scripture was fulfilled? Yes. While Abraham received the righteous reckoning when he believed the Lord’s promise of a son, that reckoning was not fulfilled until he offered up Isaac: the act demonstrated faith in the promise. In the case of Phinehas, then, we are presented the deed and reckoning without knowledge of a prior declaration: it must be assumed. This assumption is not without warrant because we are told elsewhere that “the righteous (just) live by faith” (Hb 2:4; Ro 1:17; Ga 3:11) and “without faith it is impossible to please Him” (Hb 11:6). For Phinehas to have pleased God in such a way as to merit an everlasting reward of priesthood (Nu 25:12–13), the work he performed would have needed to come from obedience borne of faith, not that earned or merited by virtue of the person or deed.

We can see from the above examples that Abraham’s faith was not superior to that of anyone else, rather what faith he had was sufficient. This same faith from the same Source is given freely to all who believe even when the outworking appears spotty. Indeed, all who appear in the “Hall of Faith” (Hebrews 11), save for possibly Abel and Enoch, are notorious in some measure for lapsing into sinful conduct, yet all received commendation for the work accomplished. Believers today are called to live by this same faith and also are given the responsibility of walking in the good works God has created us to perform (Ep 2:10) to the end that we receive in Christ the fulfillment of our being reckoned righteous.