Saturday, October 08, 2011

Why Are We Following? (Matthew 4:23-25)

In the text prior to this portion of Scripture, we see Jesus identifying select individuals for a specific purpose, i.e. His Disciples. In this passage (Matt. 4:23-25), we see that Christ’s message is not just for a select few, but that the gospel of the kingdom is universal; for all people, everywhere. We also see Jesus becoming, not only well known, but followed by many. But why are so many people following Him? Or WHAT are the people following?

Notice in the text, that it says Jesus went about teaching, preaching, and healing. At a first reading, we might tend to think of these actions as separate, or disassociated. On the contrary, every aspect of Christ’s ministry was connected, associated into one holistic message. His teaching, preaching, and healing were the same message, and not separate actions. In other words, the gospel of the kingdom that He was teaching and preaching was attached to His signs, which in turn made His signs a message of who He is; the Person of Christ, the incarnate Word of God; redeemer and healer of the world.

Perhaps, out of the crowds that were following Jesus, some of them were just following Him as a magician, ignoring the message of the gospel that was communicated through His works. We do know that many abandoned Him at the last hour, and many even advocated for His crucifixion. Perhaps, at times, we are like those who follow the signs of Christ, and not the Person of Christ. It’s easy for us to reflect on specific trials in our lives, in the past or in the present, where this could be the case. In my own life I can recall a very definitive trial, where I was so focused on receiving a sign from God, that most of the time, I missed out on the “joy” of my trial as James writes about in his New Testament epistle. So, what are we to do?

With God’s grace, we need to see the biggest sign of all, which is even found within this text of Scripture. That Christ is revealed among us, and is present in the world. Kreesdos ee mech mer haydnetsav! That is the gospel of the kingdom! When we see who He is, through His signs and works, we trust and follow the Person of Christ, not just His signs, and we enter into and experience His kingdom.

Remember, Christ’s works and miracles were, and still are always about Him, and are always meant to draw us closer to Him, in order for us to become like Him. They beckon us to follow Him, because of who He is; because by His Word and through His works, He is revealed. His signs, and the Person of who He is, must not be separated. His preaching, teaching, and healing are one. We must be careful to not just follow a mere sign, but instead desire to become like Christ, the Person performing the signs. Otherwise, we run the risk of seeing Jesus as just a magician, someone void of a message, merely a performer of 'signs', and not a healer of our soul/body.

So what are we following? Why are we following? Or…WHO are we following? Are we following Christ for what He can do for us, or are we following Him because of what He has already done for us; for the world? By following Him, are we bringing the message of the gospel to the world through our works, just as Christ did? Do our works function as a message, pointing and directing others to Christ, and to His kingdom, just as Christ’s works pointed to Himself? Does our teaching and preaching bring healing to others as Christ's did? As Christ revealed Himself, are we revealing Christ to the world?

May we see Christ as who He is; Emmanuel; ‘God with us’, everywhere present...

...always giving glory to the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

The Ascension and Return of Christ

"And when he had said this, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven." – Acts 1:9-11

What do we picture in our minds when we read this section of Scripture? Specifically, how do we picture the return of Christ when we read, "…will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven."? Do we picture Him returning in/from the clouds? Is that the part of His ascension on which we focus, or is there another aspect of His ascension that escapes our attention?

…didn’t Christ ascend from/within the midst of His people?

Yes, but what significance does this have in contrast to Christ returning from the clouds? Perhaps we can understand this liturgically. During every Badarak (Divine Liturgy), the promise of Christ’s return is manifested. That is, just as Christ left, He returns to us in the Badarak, within the midst of His people, as a foretaste of what is to come, and what is already here. Eternal life -- present now, and in the future when we live with Him in His presence forever.

Here is further insight from an Eastern Orthodox priest, blogger, and author...

"…the classical Orthodox understanding of the relation between earth and heaven; past, present and future; and the mystery of the Kingdom of God at work in the world. His universe is distinctly “one-storey.” This understanding also undergirds the Orthodox understanding of eschatology (the study of the “last things”). St. John Chrysostom, in his eucharistic prayer, gives thanks for the Second Coming of Christ in the past tense – not that he is saying that the Second Coming has already occurred in history – but that the Eucharistic celebration stands within the Kingdom of God, such that the Second Coming can be described in the past tense. The Eucharist is the “Marriage Feast of the Lamb,” the “Banquet at the End of the Age." – Fr. Stephen Freeman

This reality can also be understood through the art or icons of the Orthodox Church, such as the Armenian Orthodox image above (click image to enlarge), or this Greek Orthodox icon. "Icons of the Ascension represent Christ in such a way that one cannot tell whether He is going to heaven or coming again to earth. This captures the profound truth that we are already living under His reign while awaiting His return. Thus, the icons shows Christ being taken up, coming again in like manner, and yet continually present."
– Orthodox Study Bible (Acts 1: 9-11)

I would like to thank Rev. Todd A. Zielinski, one of my spiritual directors, for introducing me to this theological reality.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

On Baptism - Part II

Like every Mystery of the Church, Baptism is a response to what Christ has already done, and is presently doing. It’s our choice to receive (or continue to receive) the gift(s) which He has already given, and is presently giving. Although Baptism took place when we were “unaware”, our parents/guardians and Godfather believed for us, and promised to raise us in the Christian faith. When realize that Baptism is a gift from God that needs to be received, accepted, loved, and appropriated by each one of us, our Baptism needs to move beyond comprehensive knowledge and into experiential action or participation, where it is lived out through our entire being. God initiated the relationship, and we must make a personal response to commit to what God initiated. The first response is made by our parents and Godfather. Afterwards, the goal of the Christian life is for each of us to actively participate in the life and mission of the Church (our Godmother).

St. Mark the Ascetic wrote, “Everyone baptized in the orthodox manner has received mystically the fullness of grace; but he becomes conscious of this grace only to the extent that he actively observes the commandments.” Baptism is not meant to be a static event, something that merely happened in the past, and to be remembered in thought alone. It is ongoing and dynamic; a very present event. Our Baptism is to be lived out, continually at the forefront of our minds, reminding us of the words proclaimed over us, reminding us of the promise of the Holy Spirit, and our salvation in Christ through the Church. The following is an excerpt from an Eastern Orthodox Symbol of Faith which summarizes this thought – “For a Christian the path to the confession of the grace-bestowing gifts of Baptism lies through living faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, a life according to faith, membership in Christ's Church, and a constant sense of prayerful repentance.”

What are some practical ideas to help us keep our Baptism in the forefront of our minds?
  • Make it a practice to read the words and prayers spoken over you as you were being baptized. Read them often, or work them into your prayer rule.
  • Remember your Baptism whenever you see, drink, or swim in water.
  • Keep pictures of your baptism nearby, where they are visible.
  • If you are a parent, show your children their baptismal certificate, and explain to them the meaning behind their baptism, or perhaps their baptismal name.
  • If you are a Godfather, then become active. Being a Godfather is not just a status symbol, but comes with much responsibility. Spend time with those of whom you are responsible. Write letters to them. Lead, guide, and encourage them in the faith.
  • Celebrate your Baptism as a “re-birthday”.
  • Confess your Baptism through a life pleasing to God. Matthew 5:16 says, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father Who is in heaven”.
In conclusion, it is extremely essential and vital to our spiritual state for us to personally reaffirm our Baptismal pledge. Placed on the path of salvation, (a dynamic process), we eventually need to take responsibility for our faith by living out our Baptism. God initiates communion with us, and in turn we respond and pursue communion with Him through a life of worship. Have we accepted what was given to us by God at the Holy font, and if so, how are we responding? Let us commit to walking with Him on a daily basis, and in doing so, live out the eternal significance of our Baptism.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Easter and the Armenian Genocide - April 24, 2011

This year, for the very first time, Easter and Armenian Martyrs Day fall on the same date - April 24th. Which are we to recognize? Surely, Easter takes precedence, but can we somehow observe both?

At Easter, we celebrate life, specifically the resurrected life of Christ. On the opposite side of the spectrum, on Armenian Martyrs Day, we commemorate the death of 1.5 million Armenians during the Armenian Genocide enacted in 1915. Can we celebrate both life, and commemorate death on the same day?

What if the life of Christ's resurrection and the death of 1.5 million Armenians are not really on opposite sides of the spectrum? That is, what if life and death, for the Christian, are not so far apart? If not, then perhaps we can connect Easter and Armenian Martyrs Day in a unique way; a way that has never been attempted before.

We can reflect on the idea that death does not exist for the Christian. In the Divine Liturgy, we repeat the words, "You, the unchangeable One, became man and You were crucified, O Christ our God, and You trampled down death by death." The Armenian Christian martyrs who embraced death did so knowing that in death there is life. Today, we can also know that the resurrection of Christ gives meaning to those who kept and died for their faith without compromise.

So, as we reflect on Christ's resurrection this year, let's also reflect on the the death and life of the 1.5 million Armenian martyrs and imagine them echoing the words with us, "Krisdos haryav ee merelotz! Orhnyal eh harootiunun Krisdosee! Christ is risen from the dead! Blessed is the resurrection of Christ!"

"I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die..." - John 11:25-26


For further reading on Easter and the Armenian Genocide, please click the link below to read the 2011 Easter message from Archbishop Khajag Barsamian (from which my post was inspired):

"I have Overcome the World" (Easter 2011)

Krisdos haryav ee merelotz! Orhnyal eh harootiunun Krisdosee!
Christ is risen from the dead! Blessed is the resurrection of Christ!

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Stewardship: An act of worship

“For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” - Matthew 6:21

During Badarak*, the priest, on behalf of the people, brings the Gifts of bread and wine to the altar. In return, God takes the Gifts, sanctifies them, and gives them back to us as His Body and Blood. As the culmination of the Divine Liturgy, this transaction is an act of worship to God. In the Gifts of bread and wine, the utter basics of sustenance, we are symbolically offering to God all of what we have and all of who we are. We bring to God our most basic needs, our whole life, and ask Him to take us, change us, and give Himself to us.

The theological reality of the presentation of the Gifts also applies to spiritual giving outside of Badarak. Just as we give the Gifts of bread and wine during Badarak, we also offer our gifts to God within the community in the form of time, talent, and treasure. God then returns them to us by uniting us to Himself and to each other through the mission and practices of the Church, where the role and services of both the priest and laity are necessary for a thriving worshiping community.

It follows then; that stewardship (giving and care taking) is an act of worship lived out in the context of a worshiping community. As created in God’s image, we are first and foremost worshiping beings, or Eucharistic beings. (Eucharist means “thanksgiving”). Thus, as members of Christ’s Body, the Church, we are fulfilling what it means to be a human being in the fullest sense. As Eucharistic beings part of a Eucharistic community, we worship with our whole selves, thankfully offering ourselves to God, and to each other.

To be a good steward is to recognize that anything we possess comes from God, so when we bring our offerings to God (time, talent, and treasure) we are giving back to Him what He first gave us. In the Incarnation, Christ united Himself with humanity in order to unite us to His divinity. Thus, all worship, including stewardship, is a response to what God has initiated and done for us. Just as we bring God the Gifts during Badarak, let us bring Him our gifts through stewardship, not out of compulsion, but from a pure heart, and love for God, and His Church.

"…for the love in one's heart is made visible by the giving of one's hand." - St. Grigor Tatewac‘i

*Badarak - the name for the Divine Liturgy of the Armenian Orthodox Church; literally means 'sacrifice'.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

On Baptism - Part I

Why talk about Baptism? For all of us who were baptized, it happened in the past, and many of us, if we were baptized as infants, can’t even recall the event. Isn’t it enough to know that getting baptized was important to do, and move on to more relevant things? If this is our attitude toward Baptism, then we risk taking Baptism, and all that it means, for granted. Here are some questions to help us examine our attitude toward Baptism1:
  • Is Baptism just a necessary condition for church membership, or to be a member in good standing?
  • Is it just a formality in order to receive the rest of the Sacraments of the Church?
  • Do we think of it as a guarantee of salvation and eternal life?
  • Is it just a past event, or is it a permanent experience that permeates our lives and shapes our Christian worldview; our motivations, actions, and decisions?
In order to understand Baptism, let’s begin with Scripture. Galatians 3:27 says, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”, and Romans 6:4 says, “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” From these Scriptures, we can recall how the Church refers to Baptism as the second birth, because in Baptism we identify with and participate in the death and resurrection of Christ. We are cleansed of and die to our sinful life, and are reborn into a new, spiritual, holy life, in which we put on a new nature. We put on Christ, are clothed with Christ, and participate in His divine nature.

In Exodus 14, Moses leads the Israelites, the chosen people of God, through the Red Sea on their way to the Promised Land. The early Church Fathers viewed this event as a foreshadowing of Baptism, in that Baptism is a passage of God’s chosen people through the waters of sin and death to the promised land of freedom in Christ. Thus, Baptism is not only an individual event, but a communal event. In fact, Baptism was not originally a private event to be celebrated among family and friends. It was a community and public event to be shared with and among the Church. Either way, we are brought to the font as individuals by the community, and we leave the font as members of the community; members of the people of God; members of His Body, the Church.

This being said, what happens at Baptism, and what Baptism means is ultimately a Mystery. In fact, ‘Sacraments’ in the Armenian Orthodox Church are more aptly referred to as ‘Mysteries’, and because the Armenian Orthodox Church emphasizes Mystery, there is no obligation to analyze Baptism, explain what it means in every detail, or have a definitive answer to what is essentially mysterious. We do it out of obedience, following the apostolic teachings of the early Church, knowing that it is a Mystery ordained and established by Christ. Thus, within this framework of Mystery, we acknowledge Baptism as an expression of what has already been accomplished through Christ; the grace that is already available to us because of Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection. Through Baptism, by faith, we lay claim to and receive this available saving grace.

1Alexander Schmemann – Of Water and the Spirit: A Liturgical Study of Baptism, 8-9.

Picture above: St. Gregory the Illuminator baptizes Tiridates III, King of Armenia

Monday, January 10, 2011

Unworthy or Worthy?

A common issue within the Armenian Orthodox Church is that we feel unworthy to even approach the Cup of the Eucharist, thus abstaining from partaking of Christ’s Body and Blood. This could be the result of false or authentic humility, or even hopelessness. There is a sense in which we are unworthy to attain union with God, and to receive Him into our body and soul, but our unworthiness should not be the central focus. Like every Sacrament or Mystery of the Church, God’s grace is what is central, and it is because of our unworthiness, and need of healing, that we need to especially partake of this Divine Mystery.

In his book, These are the Sacraments, Anthony Coniaris justifies an un-exaggerated sense of unworthiness when he writes, “Communion is never a reward for holy living but always the gift of God’s grace no matter how much we may have prepared. May we keep our sense of unworthiness so that it may keep leading us to the only One Who can make us worthy. The sense of unworthiness is just the right attitude with which to approach Communion, for it helps us accept the Eucharist as a completely free gift of God’s supreme grace. An exaggerated sense of unworthiness needs to give way to humble gratitude for God’s grace which accepts especially the unworthy to make them worthy.”

Are we unworthy to receive God’s grace through Communion? Yes! Are we made worthy to receive it? Yes! During the Badarak (Divine Liturgy), the priest prays the following: “O Lord our God, you have called us Christians…and you have made us worthy to partake of the holy Body and Blood of your Only-begotten.” (p.44) A few minutes later he prays, “Holy Father, you who have called us by the name of your Only-begotten and have enlightened us through baptism…make us worthy to receive this holy mystery for the remission of our sins.” (p. 45) He goes on further to ask God to not look upon his unworthiness, but to grant His grace through Christ’s Body and Blood.

Our unworthiness should never lead us to abstain from Christ’s Body and Blood, but should drive us toward them. As we prepare for the Eucharist through Penance, let us who are unworthy be made worthy, and freely receive God’s grace by approaching the Cup, and commune with Him and with His people. Glory be to God for this Divine Mystery!