Sunday of the Samaritan Woman

The theme of baptism continues in this Sunday’s Gospel, re-affirming that Pascha is a feast of resurrection and of baptism, being born into eternal life. The center of Jesus’ conversation with this unnamed woman (the Church later gave her the name Photine, the “enlightened woman”) is about water. They met at Jacob’s well, a place of great tradition, a sign and a promise of God’s love and mercy for his people. Jacob’s well provided the riches of water to a desert place, the sign that God would always provide for and bless his people. However, the encounter with the woman reveals something more: Jesus is the Messiah to come, he is greater than the Patriarch Jacob. The water of Jacob’s well is only for this world, Jesus would give “the water that would become a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14). This clearly refers to our baptisms, as it comes immediately after the comparison of Jesus with John the Baptist, and the baptisms done by Jesus’ disciples

We renew our baptism every time we receive Communion, and they are for life, for eternal life, from God, the giver of life. A couple of observations: as for Nathaniel, Jesus signs his ministry with intimate knowledge of the people he meets. He sees Nathaniel under the fig tree, and he tells the woman about her five husbands. In both cases, they become his disciple because of his knowledge of him. This is a theme of John’s Gospel, the shepherd knows his sheep and his sheep know him. Second, it should be to our wonder that Jesus always comes to the most underprivileged. To whom does he reveal the mystery of eternal life in baptism: to the paralytic who had no friends, to the woman who had led a shameful life, and came to the well at noon who no one else would be there, and to the blind man suspected of sin because of his blindness. And the disciples marvel that Jesus speaks to a woman! Not just any woman, but a heretical, decadent Samaritan woman! Are we humble enough to accept Jesus as our Messiah?

Meditation by Archpriest David Petras

The Holy, Just, and Long-suffering Job

The Prophet Job’s feast on the Byzantine calendar is May 6 and the Latin Church’s calendar on May 10.

Job is the archetype of the just man. According to the re­ligious and ethical thought of his time, which viewed material prosperity as evidence of an upright life, Job was expected to be wealthy, and yet he was afflicted with suffering. Modern scholars point out that Job was not a historical person, but an ‘epic character.’ While this is no doubt the case of the Job of the first of the Wisdom books, the author probably based his work on the Job of ancient tradition, who was believed to have lived during the patriarchal age on the borders of Arabia and Edom.

The Book of Job is cast in dialogue form between Job and three friends who come to commiserate with him over his misfortunes. They insist that his condition is a punishment from God for his sins, but Job maintains that he is innocent. Near despair, he demands a hearing from God, and this he is granted. God speaks from a thunderstorm to expose as futile all the solutions of Job and his friends since God cannot be judged and his ways are inscrutable.

The Church uses the book of Job during Holy Week, where Job’s suffering innocence serves as a prophetic re­flection of the innocent suffering of Christ.

Meditation by the New Skete Communities

Great and Holy Tuesday

The Troparion at Matins:

“Behold, the Bridegroom is coming in the middle of the night. Blessed is the servant he shall find awake. But the one he shall find neglectful will not be worthy of him. Beware, therefore, O my soul! Do not fall into a deep slumber, lest you be delivered to death and the door of the kingdom be closed to you. Watch instead, and cry out: Holy, holy, holy are you, O God. Through the intercession of the Theotokos, have mercy on us.”

This troparion is sung at the beginning of Matins on Holy Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, giving these services the name of “Bridegroom Matins.” They have become the main service in the Greek and Melkite traditions. Here Holy Week preserves the most ancient traditions of the Divine Praises. In antiquity, the Matins was a middle of the night service, and therefore this troparion expressed the Christian need for constant watchfulness for the presence of God. In Holy Week the parable of the wise and neglectful virgins in read in the Gospel for the Presanctified Divine Liturgy. We must be aware that the Lord is coming. In every Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, when the presider begs the Father to send the Holy Spirit, he prays that the Spirit may be for a spirit of vigilance. St. Paul warns us: For all of you are children of the light and children of the day. We are not of the night or of darkness. Therefore, let us not sleep as the rest do, but let us stay alert and sober” (1 Thessalonians 5:5-6). This is especially important in Holy Week, where the disciples fail in watchfulness in Gethsemane: “When he returned to his disciples he found them asleep. He said to Peter, “So you could not keep watch with me for one hour? Watch and pray that you may not undergo the test” (Matthew 26:40-41). Holy Week tests our spiritual awareness.

Indeed, the Matins Gospel has Jesus’ condemnation of the scribes and pharisees. “They tie up heavy burdens hard to carry and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them …. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You lock the kingdom of heaven before human beings. You do not enter yourselves, nor do you allow entrance to those trying to enter” (Matthew 23:4.13). This is so often the clerical sin, to neglect the welfare of people for the sake of a prideful ideology. The Holy Week is a direct challenge to our spirituality— how have we failed to proclaim the gospel. Have we learned the lesson of love? The story of the Last Judgment, read at the evening gospel, tells us what we must do for one another, and especially to see the image of Christ in the other. In the long run, this is where “keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus” leads us.

Great and Holy Monday

The Synaxarion discerns two themes in Great and Holy Monday:

1) A comparison between Jesus and Joseph, the son of Jacob:

“[Jesus] was sold by a disciple for thirty pieces of silver and was imprisoned in the dark and gloomy pit of the grave, whence He broke out by His own power, triumphing over Egypt, that is, over every sin. In His might He conquered it, and He reigns over all the world. In His love for mankind He redeemed us by a distribution of grain, inasmuch as He gave Himself up for us and He feeds us with Heavenly Bread, His own Life-bearing Flesh. For this reason, Joseph the All-comely is brought to mind at this time.”

2) the cursing of the fig tree. 

The Synaxarion said this was a cursing of the Jewish people, who did not bring forth the expected fruit. The gospel itself sees it as the power of prayer: ““Amen, I say to you, if you have faith and do not waver, not only will you do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ it will be done. Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive. (Matthew 21:21-22)” 

Many of the texts of Holy Week can be interpreted in an anti-Jewish sense. The Synaxarion is more explicitly so. I think it is a problem. But did the Church formally condone persecution of the Jews. I don’t think so, but some pretty strong texts have led weak-minded and hateful people to interpret them so, causing a series of pogroms and culminating in the Nazi holocaust. In 1998 Pope St. John Paul II wrote: “We deeply regret the errors and failures of those sons and daughters of the Church. We make our own what is said in the Second Vatican Council’s declaration Nostra Aetate, which unequivocally affirms: ‘The Church . . . mindful of her common patrimony with the Jewish and motivated by the Gospel’s spiritual love and by no political considerations, deplores the hatred, persecutions, and displays of anti-Semitism directed against Jews at any time and from any source’”

Conservative priests have upbraided me: the reality is that those who condemned Jesus were Jews, and we should not deny the historical truth. Yes, it is real that the mob that cried out “Crucify him,” were Jews, but then the apostles were Jews, the women at the foot of the cross were Jews and Jesus was a Jew.” He was not condemned by the Jewish nation, but by the pharisaical high priest (and pharisaism is an endemic disease of clerics of all religions) and by the mob misled by their leaders, and mobs are still with us. Hatred and suspicion of the other (racism) is a human disease. I remember when I was a boy, family gatherings almost always degenerated into hate sessions of “nig***s” and Jews. Racism continues to be an infection among Slavic peoples (and indeed any white race, and probably any human race, hatred of the “Other”) but it is an evil to be rooted out. We’re not doing a great job of that. At Jesus’ trial, it is recorded that the mob cried out, “His blood be upon us and our children.” This has been conceived as curse, but was it really a blessing? For we have all received redemption through drinking of the blood of the new covenant.

Christ the King –Byzantine Styled

The Roman Church has a separate feast of Christ the King in 1925, with Pius XI’s encyclical Quas Primas. It was to counter the rise of secularism by proclaiming that Christ is the only true king of the believers. The original and ancient feast of Christ the King, however, is today, Palm Sunday. The Gospels record that Jesus is received in Jerusalem, imitating King David by riding into the city on a humble donkey. This is to become a central theme in Holy Week. The Sanhedrin will condemn Jesus for blasphemy, but will give him over to Pontius Pilate for execution for political reasons, that he set himself up as a rival king to the Emperor, a crime of treason. This is, in fact, the crime for which Pilate judges him, putting the accusation on the cross, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” The feast today is of immense spiritual importance, but, unfortunately, got tangled up with the concept of “king” that the people had. They wanted a political Messiah who would free them from Roman rule. Instead, Jesus tells Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world,” and he forbids his followers to fight for him. The kingdom of God is not a kingdom of worldly power, but a kingdom of our hearts and minds given freely to Jesus, the Son of God, that we may live in peace with our neighbor and with the will of God, and may grow in wisdom and understanding. St. Paul describes what the kingdom of God is like in today’s epistle: “ … whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8). 

We must question ourselves today, do we want a king like the mobs did, a political king who will validate our nationalism and support our ideologies, or do we want a king that deifies our souls and hearts and minds? Only the one, true, authentic King can be our redemption and spiritual glorification, in a kingdom established on love of God and love of neighbor. On Holy Saturday, then, we sing, “Let all mortal flesh keep silence and with fear and trembling stand … for the King of Kings and Lord of Lords is coming to be sacrificed and to give himself as food for the faithful” (Cherubic Hymn, Paschal Vigil Liturgy).

Too gentle?

“You cannot be too gentle, too kind. Shun even to appear harsh in your treatment of each other. Joy, radiant joy, streams from the face of him who gives and kindles joy in the heart of him who receives. All condemnation is from the devil. Never condemn each other. We condemn others only because we shun knowing ourselves. When we gaze at our own failings, we see such a swamp that nothing in another can equal it. That is why we turn away, and make much of the faults of others. Instead of condemning others, strive to reach inner peace. Keep silent, refrain from judgement. This will raise you above the deadly arrows of slander, insult and outrage and will shield your glowing hearts against all evil.”

— St Seraphim of Sarov

All Souls Saturday

Everlasting life, promised in Holy Communion, is a central teaching of our faith. In the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, which we recite in every Divine Liturgy and also frequently in the Divine Praises, says, “I expect the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” It is interesting that here we say, “I expect” rather than “I believe.” This is because this life beyond death is not only a matter of faith but also a matter of hope. And both faith and hope are virtues beyond human power alone, but need also the grace of God. In a way, we do not understand this life beyond death, probably we can that just as a child in the womb does not understand what it is to live in the world.

Death is the breakdown of our secular time and space to eternity and boundlessness. We are as yet unable to comprehend or understand this. Jesus taught it would be different, “At the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage but are like the angels in heaven. (Matthew 22:30), and St. Paul cautions us, “So also is the resurrection of the dead …. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body” (1 Corinthians 15:42.44). We do have analogous ways of thinking about death, when we pray in the Liturgy, “Grant rest, O Lord, to the souls of your departed servants in a place of light, joy and peace where there is no pain, sorrow, nor mourning.” We must be humble in our concepts of death, but still live in hope, for Jesus also said, “‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living” (Matthew 22:32). We also know that we will continue to be human, that is, have a body, as St. Paul says, a “spiritual body,” which we foresee already in our Lord’s resurrection. What is also undeniable is that we can pray for the dead, for no one of us dies already perfect, but we need to be purified of sin to be in the presence of the thrice-holy God.

The communion of saints tells us that we are one in Christ, and that we can pray for one another, and in this way not only help release our brothers and sisters in Christ but also ourselves from the bonds of sin. The souls of the faithful departed were always remembered on Saturday in our liturgical worship, because Saturday was the day that our Lord rested from all his works, after his death on the cross and before his glorious resurrection, for which we also hope.

Byzantine monastic life in the USA

There is a new springtime for Byzantine monastic life in the USA happening now. Recently there was the tonsure of a new monk for the Holy Resurrection Monastery in Wisconsin.

Here is a story on a recent monastic ceremony for Father Deacon Paiisi, (Patrick Firman).

There is great need for the witness of men and women taking up the sacrifice of living the monastic vows in community saying to all of us that living the tenets of the Holy Gospel is possible and reasonable.

Our prayer this Lent ought to be for the grace to see another monastery established, particularly here in the Northeast, perhaps in Connecticut.