Monday, October 1, 2018

Water & Life

by Fr. Micah

It is thought that when our earth was first formed it was dry, a land with no water. We can only imagine the first rain.  It came in the form of cosmic ice crashing into the surface of the earth; ice born from stellar amniotic detritus, a byproduct of birth on a cosmic scale.
An epoch of unprecedented violence slowly covered our planet’s surface with oceans.  Every child upon hearing the word earth envisions a sapphire jewel suspended in space.  An image delightfully contrasted with cold dry Mars.  A image of life and the other, if it had ever lived, death.  This peaceful and silent image of our planet seen from space belies the violence that begat it.
In the book of Genesis we read that in the beginning, “the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” Science confirms what Genesis intimates, life arises from water. From the moment of conception we are inextricably linked to water until the day we die.  In fact we are to a large extent constituted by water.  We need water.  This most basic and profound need has shaped human culture and civilization as well as each and every person.
This need teaches us a most profound lesson; we are not nor can ever be autonomous.  A wise man of the last century once wrote, “Acute discomfort compels primitive man to look for nourishment. Then, as he advances towards rational cognition, suffering discloses to his contemplative mind both his own imperfection and that of the world around him.”
This need leads to desire and causes us to look outside of ourselves.  Our first instinct is to move towards our mother and to drink.  Here we are nourished, sated, and rest.  Life begins, moves, and by necessity we drink.
Early humanity’s desire for water led them to streams, rivers, and lakes.  Groups of people, tribes and families were confronted by others as they approached the shore of the lake.  This desire has forever led to both conflict and communication.  We learn that to survive we must adjust the rhythm and place of our existence, otherwise life will end.
Our desire for water acquired a new and profound depth as humanity began to plant seed.  These seeds, as with all life, must have water to grow.  Here, perhaps for the first time, humanity looks to the heavens not merely from fear, curiosity, or admiration but from a deep desire for rain.  With agriculture comes the prayer, “let it rain.”
From the fruit of our labor and the art of civilization a new drink is made.  This drink is not contingent on need but is desired none the less.  We desire to share a cup with others even if it is not necessary for survival.  We desire to drink with others because the shared cup is a celebration of the presence of the other.  Families do not need to gather together and share wine, friends do not need the beer they enjoy with one another, and it is not necessary for a husband and wife to begin there day together with a cup of coffee.
However despite the lack of need, the desire remains.  This separation of desire from need distinguishes us from every other living creature.  We no longer drink to live; drinking is now an event of life that is intertwined with relationships not based on necessity but rooted in the desire to hear, see, touch, and know the other. 
Sharing a cup of water is sharing existence with others.  We taste from a stream that leads back to the coldness of space and the birth of a star.  In the glass of wine we taste the labor of the vinedresser, the culture of a people, and the distinctiveness of a soil brought about by a volcanic eruption millions of years ago.
Need and desire... Desire that has not need…  Now we arrive at the quintessence of tragedy, desire without fulfillment. We drink and live.  We drink and share life.  Life ends and we thirst for more.
We cannot accept dying.  Even if the individual is capable of quietus, we fight and rebel against the death of those with whom we once drank.  We find in humankinds most ancient epic the hero Gilgamesh bitterly weeping over the death of his beloved comrade Enkidu.  Orpheus descends into the bowels of the earth to rescue the wife that fate had robbed him of.  Juliet strikes herself with a dagger upon seeing her beloved dead.
Our thirst for life and more significantly the life of our beloved is not sated by metaphysical belief in an afterlife. Religion and philosophy does not preserve the voice, sight, and touch of the one I love.  What comfort is there for a mother who cannot hear the cry of her child?  No idea or mere belief can grant the husband a single glance of his wife’s smile.  What religion can restore the caress of my grandmother’s hand?
 Here we arrive at an impasse, the only real impasse, death.  Even on a cosmic scale we know that entropy holds sway and that just as every voice will fall silent every star will one day be extinguished.
We ask ourselves, what is life? What answer is there other than that it is a cup of water poured out upon sand.  In the end, so it appears, we are left with nothing more than a valley of dry bones.  Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. What profit hath a man of all his labor which he taketh under the sun?”
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As wise as the Preacher was who spoke such words, we can no longer concur with him when later on he says that there is nothing new under the sun.  There is something new, a person who I believe has made all things new.  “He,” a holy sage has said, “does not hold heaven and hell in His hand.”  He does not promise an ephemeral heaven any more then He condemns to hell those who have violated some legal code.  He was before time with God His Father and the Father’s Spirit.  He was the Word that God spoke and brought the universe into being.  He was born of a Virgin and has shown us that, while remaining one with the Father, He has become one with us sharing fully our life and existence even unto death.
He, having shown that the relationship with the eternal Father was greater than death, has risen.  He waits for us in a city at the end of time desiring to embrace all those who have chosen to live as He lived, die as He died, and will have been raised as He was raised.
Though His Kingdom is yet to come or rather- is coming, He has not left us alone. His Father’s Spirit, who shares equally the pre-eternal counsel and communion with Father and Son, is with us.  He is the Spirit of Communion who frees us from every division and distance.  He brings to us the cool breeze of the Kingdom to come and a taste of Life eternal.
The Spirit grants us freedom.  We are born no longer from necessity we are given the gift of a new birth.  In the waters of this new birth we receive a new name, a new identity no longer wrapped up with the vicissitudes of a biological life which from the moment of conception is inextricably bound with dying. 
As it was with the ancient temples we are anointed and set apart.  The Spirit imperceptibly seals us, giving to us as a priceless gift all that the Father has shared with His Son since before the beginning of time.
In the end all that was done by the Son of Man was to lead us to this table and to drink and eat.  In this cup we do not partake of wine magically become a supernatural collection of blood cells and plasma.  Rather, we become one with the body that by its Resurrection and enthronement at the right hand of the Father has revealed itself to be the bearer of the fullness of divine existence.
Drinking of this cup is an event of communion that while being realized in a specific time and place sets us apart and lifts us out of the confines of that tragic river flowing unto death.  Instead it becomes for us, “a well of water springing up into everlasting life.”  All that is needed of us is that we desire this water.  If we desire this living Water we must empty ourselves and make room for it and be like the bride that forsakes every lover for her bridegroom.
I have heard it said that when man fasts He eats to live and does not live to eat.  However, it is for this cup that we not only live but came to be and will find our true rest.
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As I sit and write I hear you grumble.  This is another religion, another attempt to console with beliefs and doctrines in the face of the tragic futility of the thirst for the transcendence of death.
No my friend I have not met. This is a meal, a celebration, a looking forward to the Resurrection, a new identity begotten from a hope.
Now you do not simply grumble, you laugh. “You still die,” I hear you say.  “At least those who place their hope in some otherworldly and bodiless heaven have some comfort.  All you have is hope! Is it not easier to rationalize death or even accept it as an illusion?  Where is your proof and where is your evidence?”
I cannot prove, nor do I have any evidence that would be acceptable in a court or lab. My hope rests upon what is to come, or rather, He who is coming.
“Blind faith, groundless hope!” you shout. 
Not blind. Because:
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life; (For the life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and shew unto you that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us;) That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ.
 “All is based then on the tenuous thread of the testimony of a few fishermen?”
My faith is in a Cup.  The cup that Christ shared with the Apostles on the night He gave Himself up.  The Cup He drank with His friends and Mother after His Resurrection.  The Cup in which the Martyrs hoped, the ascetics strived to be made worthy of, Kings and Queens, poor and rich, Saints and sinners, have all tasted.  This is a cup of anticipation, of waiting, a confirmation of our hope, and a prayer that the Kingdom comes.
“What if that Kingdom does not come, if the resurrection is only a dream?”
It has been said that if there is no resurrection our faith is in vain.  Thus my faith is the substance of things hoped for and only when the dead are raised will my faith be confirmed in truth.  This is no worry for me, I am not anxious because of what I have learned from drinking.
The table has taught us, as if by the Lord’s very hand, that all is a gift.  I know the giver in part by the gift and such a gift is not given with one hand and taken by another.  Everything, from a cold drink of water on a hot summer’s day to the feel of my wife’s embrace, is a gift.  I cannot doubt God anymore then I doubt the taste of water or the touch of my wife.  The water brought to earth by the birthing of a star, life’s first step from the water onto dry land, the story of the woman of Cana, the smell of beeswax candles, the embrace of a friend, the taste of warm bread, the day I was married, the coolness of a old stone chapel, Miracle working Icons of Panagia, the blue of the sky, Pentzikis’ books, grass between my toes, the pet dog who once comforted me, a book I cannot put down, a night so peaceful I don’t want it to end, watching clouds on by back,  the parable of the prodigal Son, that one episode of the twilight zone, Holy Week, apples, seeing planets with the naked eye, the relics of St. Panagis, the smell of flowers, drawers full of memories, Bay Leaves on Holy Saturday Morning, the moment running goes from torture to fun, a good cup of coffee,  a great pirate story, knowing friends and family are only a room away, forgiving and being forgiven, the surprise of meeting someone new, sun kissed cheeks, elephants, Supernovae, beautiful old buildings, dogs, sweet potato fries, the City of Thessaloniki, the I.P.A I cannot drink, creating a piece of art that God alone will know, New York City’s first snow at Christmas time, kayaking, old libraries, the anticipation of a letter in the mail, Sunday mornings, Autumn, Winter, Icons of Panselinos, Spring, the sound of an air mattress inflating at 3 a.m., Summer, discovering new places, discussing time travel with friends who failed physics, tasting a foreign food for the first time, grass that grows between the crack in concrete, St. Nicholas Kavasilas, the ache you feel when you say goodbye, waiting for a single person in a busy café, knowing how little we know, learning something new, being tired after working hard, forgetting something painful, reading the Psalms, fishing, feeling that your prayer is heard, closing your eyes on a windy day, snow that covers dirt and softens sharp edges, visiting the house where a saint once lived, a child’s innocence, an elder’s wisdom, a cool pillowcase, the Anaphora of St. Basil…  All is a gift; all is a miracle and wonder, and what response have we but to take up the cup of thanksgiving!
Some will ask, “But what of suffering, pain, war, hate, racism, hunger, rape, genocide, cancer, burns, a child’s funeral, never knowing a parent, divorce, suicide, addiction, loneliness, violence, adultery, pride, a family broken by alcoholism, illness... what of this?,” you ask.  “Are these gifts from your God?  Doesn’t the innocent suffering of a single child call into question the very existence of a Loving God?”
I do not have an answer. I do not believe that God gives an answer.  Certainly we can speak about the gift of freedom to reject God, life, and to embrace the way of death.  But I believe that as true as this is it does not suffice in answering our question in the face of concrete and personal suffering.
I recall Job who received no answer or vindication from God.  In the end (we must remember it is the end that will judge) an answer to his question is superfluous in face of the coming of God Himself.  Again I return to the table… In the cup the King of all, spit upon, hated, and crucified comes to us as broken bread, poured wine and water, and we the broken people gather to receive our King trusting that in His brokenness all will be made whole.  This is why the prayer of His body the Church, the most essential of prayers, is, “thy Kingdom come”; this prayer is and has ever been our only need, the desire for which all creation groans, and the final fulfillment.
And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God.
And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.
And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. And he said unto me, Write: for these words are true and faithful.
And he said unto me, It is done. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely.
He that overcometh shall inherit all things; and I will be his God, and he shall be my son.
And the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. And let him that is athirst come. And whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely.  He which testifieth these things saith, surely I come quickly. Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus.
(Apocalypse of John 21:2-7 / 22:17&20)


Sunday, September 2, 2018

Color & Being

by Micah
What is color?  Color is a trinitarian event experienced as a relationship between the one who sees, that which is beheld, and light.  Without light there is no color.  In fact color does not exist in “objects”.  The color of everything, from the blue of the sky to the blush of a cheek, is not inherent in the object.  The color actually exists in our perception of the way in which light and an object interact. Autonomously color does not exist. This contemporary understanding of color was hinted at by the ancient Greek Philosopher Empdocles who believed that the eyes were created by Aphrodite, that sight and colors are gifts of love.  “Divine Aphrodite fashioned unwearying eyes.  Aphrodite fitting these together with rivets of love. One vision is produced by both the eyes. Know that effluences flow from all things that have come into being.”
The event of seeing color is unique; I can only see the world through my own eyes.  When I see green I see my father’s favorite color, I feel the way grass felt between my toes when I was a child, and I smell the dying plants my wife is not yet ready to throw away.  When you see green you see ________________.  Here color reveals our personal distinctiveness.  When you and I stand before the sea, we see the same blue, we watch the light play with the same waves, reflecting and refracting. Here color becomes a shared experience which unites us. In color we experience communion and otherness, diversity and unity, life, the very way of being.  
Color is perhaps the most distinctive feature of the Orthodox Icon.  In the Icon depth is conveyed not by an artificial construction of perspective but by the layering of color.  Its form is born from a complex dance of colors.  The being and existence of the Icon becomes through color.  Beginning with a dark organic color the iconographer moves to ever brighter colors… from the darkness of non-being into light.
I believe that the first color to come into being must have been blue, the blue used by Panselinos as the background of his frescoes which decorate the Protaton.  This blue is so dark that some consider it a warm black.  Those silent moments in the early morning before the sun ascends beyond the horizon, when no ray of light is yet visible, the darkness of the night sky seems to glow in anticipation of the coming light, this is the Blue given to us by Emmanuel Panselinos.
In the beginning God created light, as this light interacted with the darkness of newly created space, time, and matter- the formless waters, blue came into being.  This blue was beheld by the bodiless powers that tradition tells us were created together with the light.  Those who first beheld color were themselves immaterial and one could perhaps deduce from this that they themselves have no color. With what wonder were they possessed beholding this beautiful blue? 
The first material life capable of seeing color was aquatic, a creature that existed between the blue of sky and the blue of water.  Blue the color of water and sky, the veins beneath my skin. There is something human about the color blue.  The Theotokos robed in blue stands before the Archangel saying, “Let it be done according to thy word.”  This was the true beginning of life.  Panagia makes for her Son a blue cloak from her own blue robes just as she gives flesh to Him from her own flesh.  Our Lord in return clothes her in sacred red.
Christ came to us in the flesh, and was borne in the arms of His Mother. This is seen and confirmed and proclaimed in pictures, the teaching made manifest by means of personal eyewitness, and impelling the spectators to unhesitating assent. Does a man hate the teaching by means of pictures? Then how could he not have previously rejected and hated the message of the Gospels? Just as speech is transmitted by hearing, so a form through sight is imprinted upon the tablets of the soul, giving to those who apprehension is not soiled by wicked doctrines a representation of knowledge concordant with piety. Martyrs have suffered for their love of God, showing with their blood the ardor of their desire, and their memory is contained in books. These deeds they are also seen performing in pictures, as painting presents the martyrdom of those blessed men more vividly to our knowledge. Others have been burnt alive, a sacrifice sanctified by their prayer, fasting and other labors. These things are conveyed both by stories and by pictures, but it is the spectators rather than the hearers who are drawn to emulation. The Virgin is holding the Creator in her arms as an infant. Who is there who would not marvel, more from the sight of it than from the report, at the magnitude of the mystery, and would not rise up to laud the ineffable condescension that surpasses all words? For even if the one introduces the other, yet the comprehension that comes about through sight is shown in very fact to be far superior to the learning that penetrates through the ears. (Saint Photios, Homily 17)
Red is a holy color, it has been so since the beginning of civilization.  The rising sun paints the heavens red.   Red is the fire that sets man apart from the animal.  Red is the color of life, the blood that flows in our veins.  The first color we see is the red of light passing through our closed eyelids.  Red roses offered in love cause cheeks to redden.  When humanity finally crowns its king we used thorns and red blood trickled down His cheek to disappear into the folds of a scarlet robe.  This of course is one of the discrepancies found in the Gospel accounts.  Matthew said the robe was scarlet whereas Mark and John write that it was purple.  I don’t know.  If this discrepancy causes you to question your faith in the scriptures as an objectifiable truth than perhaps you are on the path to encountering the Truth.  I suppose I prefer purple because when the blue and red of Christ’s and Panagia’s garments are joined, all is created anew and all creation is clothed in a royal purple.
The particularity of purple rests in that it does not seem to be a common color.  It surprises for brief moments when all of a sudden the horizon peacefully explodes into a violet splendor.  On other rare occasions the early night sky is dyed with a deep shade of purple by the dying light of the sun. This is a purple reminiscent of imperial Rome.  The Romans received their costly purple dye from the Phoenicians who have given to posterity the inheritance of a phonetic alphabet. Apart from the dye the only purple we can say is common and not entirely fleeting is the purple of certain flowers.  In the Book of Proverbs the mother of king Lemuel tells us that the virtuous woman is clothed in purple and in that great Song of Songs we read of Solomon that, “He made the pillars thereof of silver, the bottom thereof of gold, the covering of it of purple, the midst thereof being paved with love, for the daughters of Jerusalem.”  Could this pavement of love be anything but the Way spoken of in Acts in which Lydia the seller of purple rejoiced?  The same awe we experience in seeing the heavens painted purple is encountered when we come upon a purple flower in a field of green. 
Green grass… Grass is always around us, it was upon the grass that our ancestors first stood up.  Grass the foliage of the trees.  The serpent that first convinced man to drink the poisonous draught of death is depicted as green by the artist.  Fallen from the path of love which would have led to immortality, Adam and Eve clothe themselves in green leaves.  Now, until the coming of the new Adam the Archetype of the Old, Adam as all men toils and prays for the rising of the golden sun to chase away the darkness.  They did not know that this prayer is fulfilled in the rising of the second sun of the three sunned divinity.  Painted before us we find a metaphor not impeded but born from the English language.  The rising of the sun is a shadow of the rising of the Son.
When children color they have a dilemma.  What color for the sun?  Some children choose yellow; this seems to be the norm.  A few children prefer orange and if the sun is in ascent or descent perhaps red.  As we grow in stature but seldom wisdom we might realize that light is white.  If we have gained a bit of wisdom we know that white does not show us an absence but is in fact the presence of every color.  Christ upon rising from the dead is clothed in white.  These white garments do not demonstrate a naturalistic or ritual purity.  Robes of light that contain every color teach us that in Christ all creation is recapitulated.  All that is begn with a word spoken by God’s Word.  And all that is will be answered when we learn that all words find there meaning in the Word who is to come.
If I were a poet I would have stopped at purple.  If I were a theologian I would have stopped with white.  I am neither.  So I leave you with brown.  Brown is the most humble of colors.  Brown dust and mud, dried blood and waste, this is not a color I have ever heard a child call their favorite.   Yet it is also the color when mixed with red that gives us ochre the first color with which humanity painted.  I think of brown and see a tree, a cross, and remember that death is destroyed.  Now when I hide my face in my wife’s brown hair I do not fear.  The face of holiness is a rich variety of browns and baked bread is the brown by which we remember a future Kingdom.
Immediately I was in the Spirit; and behold, a throne set in heaven, and One sat on the throne. And He who sat there was like a jasper and a sardius stone in appearance; and there was a rainbow around the throne, in appearance like an emerald. Around the throne were twenty-four thrones, and on the thrones I saw twenty-four elders sitting, clothed in white robes; and they had crowns of gold on their heads. And from the throne proceeded lightnings, thunderings, and voices. Seven lamps of fire were burning before the throne, which are the seven Spirits of God.
Before the throne there was a sea of glass, like crystal. And in the midst of the throne, and around the throne, were four living creatures full of eyes in front and in back. The first living creature was like a lion, the second living creature like a calf, the third living creature had a face like a man, and the fourth living creature was like a flying eagle. The four living creatures, each having six wings, were full of eyes around and within. And they do not rest day or night, saying:
“Holy, holy, holy,
Lord God Almighty,
Who was and is and is to come!”
Whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to Him who sits on the throne, who lives forever and ever, 10 the twenty-four elders fall down before Him who sits on the throne and worship Him who lives forever and ever, and cast their crowns before the throne, saying:
11 “You are worthy, O Lord,
To receive glory and honor and power;
For You created all things,
And by Your will they exist and were created.”

Saturday, September 1, 2018

The Olive & Existence

By Micah
In ancient Greece the olive was called λαιος .  The first word I learned in Greek was ἔλεος, mercy. These two words are nearly identical.  Similar, sound the same, and the way they roll across my tongue causes me to think that they share a common root. I was told that it is a coincidence; scholars say that it is an accident of fate; I don't tell the scholars that I do not believe in fate.  Perhaps lost in pre-history, hidden from the scholar's gaze there is a word from which both oil and mercy were born.  Olive and mercy… λαιος and ἔλεος.
 Today when we consider the olive it is its nectar, olive oil, which we most often think.  Images of the Mediterranean bathed in the light of the sun springs to our mind's eyes.  We remember articles and studies extolling this subtle oil’s benefits for both palate and heart.  Closing our eyes we can almost taste it, feel it touching our lips, a kiss of mercy.   Olive oil is the very picture of health and nourishment, part of a diet inextricably bound up with the dawn of human civilization.
It was the gift of the first domesticated olive tree that gave the city of Athens its name.  The people of this ancient city, unique in the ancient world, were granted the freedom of choosing their fine city’s deity.  They could choose Poseidon god of the sea with all its majestic beauty and bounty ensuring a future of wealth or they could choose Athena the virgin goddess of wisdom who brought as her gift the humble olive tree.   The city demonstrated its wisdom by choosing the latter.  The story of this gift of divine wisdom and the city's sacred virgin patroness found its meaning with the Apostle to the Nations.  Paul stands upon the Areopagus and speaks of a Virgin who gave birth to the Wisdom of a hitherto unknown God.   In the crowd there is a man whose ears are opened, who for the first time sees the light that does not set.  He, centuries later, will lend his name to a man who will dare to write about the mystery of anointing performed with olive oil.
 Paul came to Athens from the east.  There we find another ancient city and like Athens a temple on a mount overlooks this city.  Not a temple dedicated to a virgin but rather the temple that foreshadowed the Virgin who would contain God.  This temple and its priesthood were set apart for God, made Holy by an anointing with olive oil blended with balms and spices.
 This blessed oil was not confined to the sacred.  Every evening quiet voices whisper in a thousand languages as lamps were lit.  A light that brightens the night and long after the sun has set allows us to see the faces of those we love.  The day is given to labor and the night to sleep. With the light of the small oil lamp families and friends could share a few moments of peace with one another not fearing the darkness.  Those newly wedded could lose themselves in the gaze of their beloved and young mothers in the silence of the night could admire the peace of their child’s slumber.
 The flesh of the olive hides in its heart a hard seed.  A seed like a stone rolled away from an empty tomb. A seed that if it falls, into the ground and die… it brings forth much fruit.”  Not only does the olive have hidden within it a seed but in its dark flesh is a golden liquid.
 Gold for a king…  The golden olive oil is poured over the head of a young shepherd.  A shepherd, become a king, remembered because he would sing of the King who is the great Shepherd and be father to this King’s mother.  When the all-holy Mother gives birth kings from the east bring gifts of gold for the advent of the new born King.  These kings of the east trace for us a future advent where this same King will come from the east bringing the gift of an eternal city of gold.  It is not only gold that they carried; they also brought frankincense and Myrrh.  
 Every ten years, or when need demands, the Patriarch of the queen city stands in a church filled with the smoke of frankincense and sanctifies the Holy Myron. In different places and at diverse times this Holy Myrrh was called oil of Thanksgiving, oil of anointing, Chrism, Chrism of thanksgiving, Chrism from the heavens, mystical Chrism, myrrh, divine myrrh, mystical myrrh, great myrrh, and holy and great myrrh.  The sacred rite begins on holy Monday, the first day we hear that the Bridegroom comes in the midst of the night. The Rite of the consecration of the Chrism is concluded on Holy Thursday the day of the Mystical Supper.
 This mystery of the Chrism's consecration begins with the Patriarch placing the charred remains of an old icon at the bottom of copper vessel to which will be added olive oil, myrrh, rose oil, oil of cassia, white wine, mastic, balsam, and spices.  The sacred form of the icon has faded with age.  The colors consumed by flame.  The hand that painted it has been forgotten.  It is the Icon wherein rests the key that opens to us the reality of the mystery of the chrism. The Patriarch blessing the Chrism is the Icon.  Looking at the Icon we see the truth, it is the Christ (the anointed) who blesses the ointment.
 Patriarch- Christ the ρχή (source) of our freedom to call God Πάτερ (Father).  The anointed one Himself consecrates the chrism, not in the queen city but in that golden city that awaits us.  This consecration occurs when the Bridegroom anoints himself for his wedding.  The oil that anoints the Bridegroom is a gift from before the ages given Him by His Father.  The clothes which are anointed He received from His mother.  Myrrh, and stacte, and cassia are exhaled from thy garments,” says the psalmist. In the Icon of the event the fragrant ointment is sanctified on Holy Thursday but we know that it is truly sanctified by the 8th day.
 The white haired priest touches me with the oil.  Ointment is placed on my, forehead, eyes, nostrils, ears, hands, and feet.  I look at my hands and see the faintest streak of oil; I am no longer alone but He whom I cannot see is with me…  
The smell of olive oil lingers in my nostrils.  I see the first olive tree.  Green and silver leaves dance in the breeze.  The branches sing in the wind.  Dancing and singing the little olive tree rejoices knowing what the philosophers have only dreamed.  This little tree, surrounded by wise men and standing in the shadow of the Parthenon, dances because it knows that one day it will anoint the temple named after the Holy Wisdom born of a virgin.
Myrrh smells the way we believe that the earth herself should smell.  Myrrh like frankincense is the sap of a desert tree.  This sap, the life blood of a tree which tenuously hangs on to life was found fitting to anoint those who had died.  Women filled with sorrow carry myrrh to anoint a body in a tomb.  The tomb is empty.  They set aside the myrrh because the one they came to anoint lives.  The myrrh is forgotten because it was not needed.  He has already been anointed.  The anointing of the Son of Man, planned before the ages, was the cause of the first man.
For many nations and numerous peoples the Olive meant both Peace and Victory.  How strange this must have seemed.  For much of the ancient world Peace and Victory were by nature contrary.  The Victor is the strong, he who fights the hardest, and struggles the longest.  Peace is for those who have set aside their weapons and do not resist.  The Olive branch- symbol of Victory and Peace is fulfilled in Him who is victorious by setting aside his power and not resisting those who sought to do Him harm.
 Waiting for the resurrection my tears fall to the ground because of all those whom I will not see until time comes to an end.  The tears of the entire world wash across our feet and we remember that long ago a woman anointed the feet of the Master whom the disciple betrayed with a kiss.  Sitting at the feet of the anointed one we see the one thing needful for us to be remembered. 
 A chorus raises their voices in protest.  How dare I say that what this woman has done is alone required of us?  What of individual virtue and morality, fasting, tithes, duty, honor, and the poor?
 You righteous and wise I will answer you because I am a sinner and a fool.  As the Lord was hanging upon the cross the disciple who betrayed him, with a rope around his neck, falls.  But the Lord has mercy and bends the branch, "my child whom I have loved from before the world was made, do not let it end like this.  Remember the harlot, follow her example, repent, and even you I will forgive."
The apostle with the rope still around his neck says, “I am no harlot" lifts his feet and dies. 
With his individual virtue and morality, fasting, tithes, duty, he refuses to be counted with her who was poor of every virtue and rejects Him who for our sake became poor. “The rich have become poor and hungry: but they that seek the Lord shall not lack any good.” So let us like this woman desire to anoint the feet of Him who is anointed from above, that we might not lack any good and reign with Him forever.
Thy throne, O God, is forever and ever: the scepter of thy kingdom is a scepter of righteousness. Thou hast loved righteousness, and hated iniquity: therefore God, thy God, has anointed thee with the oil of gladness beyond thy fellows.
Myrrh, and stacte, and cassia are exhaled from thy garments, and out of the ivory palaces, with which kings’ daughters have gladdened thee for thine honor: the queen stood by on thy right hand, clothed in vesture wrought with gold, and arrayed in diverse colors. Hear, O daughter, and see, and incline thine ear; forget also thy people, and thy father’s house. Because the king has desired thy beauty; for he is thy Lord. And the daughter of Tyre shall adore him with gifts; the rich of the people of the land shall supplicate thy favor.
All her glory is that of the daughter of the king of Esebon, robed as she is in golden fringed garments, in embroidered clothing: virgins shall be brought to the king after her: her fellows shall be brought to thee.  They shall be brought with gladness and exultation: they shall be led into the king’s temple.  Instead of thy fathers children are born to thee: thou shalt make them princes over all the earth.  They shall make mention of thy name from generation to generation: therefore shall the nations give thanks to thee forever, even forever and ever.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Salt & Eternity

   By Fr. Micah

Salt, Table Salt, Sodium Chloride, NaCI… salt we cannot live without it.  This may be a surprise for some because of how often we hear that salt is bad for us.  The danger of salt, as with most things, is in its overconsumption.  In fact overindulgence in salt is a contributing factor in the current epidemic of heart disease.  Yet without it we would not be able to maintain proper balance in our body’s fluids and most interesting of all, it is a necessary element in the transmission of information in and throughout the nervous system.
Salt is so entwined with what we are that it is one of the five basic tastes we are capable of experiencing.  This fact, which every child learns by licking their arm on a hot summer day, is quite significant from a biological perspective because it means that we literally evolved a taste for salt. Our body cannot produce it and seldom do amounts necessary for proper biological function occur in our ordinary food, it therefore was necessary that we be able to taste it and enjoy it.
To taste salt is to taste the sea from which it is believed that life first came.  It was salt that we tasted as we fled in terror from predators or in exuberance chased down prey.  “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return to the ground.”
A man, struck by the beauty of a young woman sweats.  Salt stings his eyes but despite the blur he has never seen such a beautiful sight.  Standing before an altar a man and a woman sweat- the salt of bride and groom mingle as they stand before a future of surprises, joy, and sorrow.  Two lovers entwined taste salt.  The woman in labor, at the moment that new life enters the world tastes salt.  Every day the man goes to his field, factory, office, war, and tastes salt for his wife and child.  Again and again he “returns to the salt mine.”
We have lost paradise.  Look around… you cannot argue with this simple reality.  However, I believe that in the taste of salt we are given a hint of the paradise we have lost.  A perfectly seasoned meal that we eat with family and friends and the salty tears shed in moments of sublime joy and deepest sorrow.  Fresh baked bread, the art of which rests almost entirely in using the perfect amount of salt, mixed into a cup of wine becomes a taste of that which Paradise itself waits.
Today we see a broken and fragmented Europe, divided by language, culture, and history.  Unity, always fleeting, has come through violence, broken promises, and empty treaties.  Nearly impossible to imagine there was once a time when nearly all of Europe was united by a single culture.  The Halstatt culture was named after a city by the same name which in turn received its name from the salt that was mined in its vicinity.
In recent history Mahatma Gandhi united the people of India across caste distinctions thousands of years old by calling on them to produce their own salt to circumvent the British “salt tax.” An act of solidarity which contributed not only to freedom from foreign rule but a taste, as fleeting as a grain of salt, of freedom from cultural and religious divisions.
Salt and culture…  No dish is the same without it.  Job asks the question, “Can that which is unsavory be eaten without salt?” (Job 6:6)   Curry, spaghetti, steak, sausage, and bread are tasteless without it.  As important as salt was as a seasoning, its greatest importance for culture and the history of humanity was not its flavor.  Rather, it was its mysterious power to preserve.  Without a ready supply of salt there could be no lasting city because the food for such a large number of people could not be preserved.  Salt prevents rot and decay.  Without it food is transformed from nourishment to poison.
Quite sagacious that in the Shinto temples of Japan salt is used to ward away evil because this is precisely the experience of salt for early civilization.  Its power to preserve and prevent decay is its greatest value.  Our word salary comes from salt because the Roman legionnaire was paid in salt, his salarium. When God spoke to Moses He commanded him, “And every oblation of thy meat offering shalt thou season with salt; neither shalt thou suffer the salt of the covenant of thy God to be lacking from thy meat offering: with all thine offerings thou shalt offer salt.” (Lev. 2:13) and, “All the heave offerings of the holy things, which the children of Israel offer unto the LORD, have I given thee, and thy sons and thy daughters with thee, by a statute for ever: it is a covenant of salt for ever before the LORD unto thee and to thy seed with thee.” (Num. 18:19)
Long ago on a mountain half way between heaven and earth, as all mountains were once thought to be, stands a Man who is fully present in both and has united them in Himself.  He says to those gathered before Him, “You are the salt of the earth.” (Mat. 5:13)  You are the salt because I am with you and by my Father’s Spirit I will be in you. 
Take a cup of water and mix into it a spoon full of salt.  You cannot see the salt but if you taste it you will know.  Nor is there a single drop in which the salt is not present.  So it is with the Lord and those He has gathered by His eternal Word, the κκλησία-Church.
Today, therefore the Church is called to be the Salt of the earth.  What does this mean?  The earth cannot live without the Church because the Church is the body of Him who first gave life and having died has risen and lives forever.  The Church must be present in the labor, love, and tears of the world.  The Church is the seasoning of the world because without Christ all is bland and there is nothing else that is truly new.  The Church preserves the world less it, “should perish and turn back again into non-existence through corruption.” (Athanasius, On the Incarnation- 32)  It does this because at its heart the Church is the communion in the body and blood which death could not contain.  In the end that alone which has been “salted” by the Church will be eternal.
We salt the earth when we offer our life, labor, and culture to the Father in thanksgiving. Relationships are salted when we acknowledge that they are gifts and that they become a living Icon of Christ and His bride the Church.  Art is salted when a painting becomes an Icon, a song becomes a hymn, and a dance becomes a procession. No word is in vain or will be lost if as Paul tells us, it is salted.  We salt those we have lost when we the Church, the body of the Son, ask the Father to remember our fathers and mother, sisters and brothers, husbands and wives, and our children.  The Father who is love will hear His Son in our voices and remember when the time comes for the dead to be raised.
When you pray, pray like the thief.  His prayer was salted as his eyes burned from sweat and his wounds stung from the salt.  Remember me in your Kingdom…
“…we form a community which takes from this creation certain elements (the bread and the wine [and salt]) which we offer to God with the solemn declaration "Thine own of thine own we offer unto Thee", thus recognizing that creation does not belong to us but to God, who is its only "owner". By doing so we believe that creation is brought into relation with God, and not only is it treated with the reverence that befits what belongs to God, but it is also liberated from its natural limitation and is transformed into a bearer of life. We believe that in doing this "in Christ", we, like Christ, act as priests of creation. When we receive these elements back, after having referred them to God, we believe that because of this reference to God we can take them back and consume them no longer as death but as life.”
-Metropolitan John Zizioulas

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Art & Memory

Our city is full of dead people… the dead change the whole aspect of the city.  Everywhere you go memory produces in you hallucinations of the smell of incense…  Paper with names on it covers the top of the narrow credence table, under the “spitted lamb”, the Christ of His final humiliation.
–N.G Pentzikis (Mother Thessaloniki, pg. 23)
A work of art always remains the logos of a person, the “logical” disclosure of a person, the “sign” of the artist’s personal coordination with the personal logos of the object which he undertakes to represent.  Artistic activity defines the facts, and reveals their truth.  That is to say, it restores their personal reference.  And this definition of the facts, in the case of a work of art, is a personal logos, a unique, dissimilar and unrepeatable witness to personal discovery and reception of the logos of the facts.  It is a witness and disclosure of a person.[1]
We have never met and yet we know one another.  Across a sea and years you speak to me.  Though you sleep the long slumber I hear your words.  Though your body rests, waiting to be awakened, dissolved like a seed in the dark soil of the earth, I listen…
Our friendship began before we were introduced, I was held in your mother’s embrace, lost in Thessaloniki’s streets.  Behind the sanctuary of the Wisdom of God I stop and your whisper is carried to me by a gentle breeze.
When we were introduced it was by a kind man who saw me holding a copy of your book.  He was a witness to the birth of our relationship.  A sparkle in his eye, he knew that I held what I was seeking.
I traveled across the pages caught up in the labyrinth of your words.  Your writing is strange but gives way to wonder.  As I travel the feeling of strangeness dissipates and I feel myself coming home.
Reading I see a million strokes of a brush made with thousands of colors.  All is new and familiar.  The way you place the words, the color you use, are unique, like a pearl hidden in a field I find you.
Reading your book I walk the streets of your memories.  They have become a path to a neighborhood where I find a home.  Your home is now my home, your words mingle with my memories and I can no longer distinguish one from the other.  Years separate me from the few days I wandered through your city but the memories have become like favored pictures decorating the inner depths of my being. 
We have never met because you have accepted the humiliation of our nature, its annihilation and material extinction and yet despite deaths intervention you say to me that we are brothers.  In your art you live, the person that you were and are; the man that you will finally truly become somehow lives on in me and those to whom you still speak.
How I wish we had met before you left us.  We would sit outside of a café.  It is October; we brave the cool air finding comfort in coffee and the warmth of friendship.  People pass by and think that you are my grandfather.  They are not far from the truth.  You call Salonica mother and it was your book Mother Thessaloniki that gave birth to a joy and sorrow that is now part of me.  Like a child who recognizes himself in the mirror I point to this joyful sorrow and say, “Look!  There I am.”
We would sit for hours and you would ask me if I have any questions.  I would tell you that it is enough just to see you.  We would then share a smile remembering the great old man of the desert.
If you ask me why I love your city, my lonely home for a week, I would tell you a story.
It was a cold and damp Christmas Eve’s eve.  The sky was a wall of gray fading into nights cold blackness.  Snow lazily drifted through the pools of light splashed on the ground by streetlamps.  Those specks of ice mocked my loneliness by dancing with one another.  Friends were in the bars sharing stories, lover’s flirting glances, and families their meals.  They do not see me; their joy is an accent to my sorrow.
I was afraid to return to a cold hotel room where my only friend beside four walls was a bottle of wine.  I needed to eat, hunger racked my stomach.  I was ashamed to go into the restaurants and buy a warm meal because the moment I uttered a word they would recognize me as a foreigner, a stranger, and another wall would separate me from my night’s companions.  I walk past a bakery, apartments, and a café and I see a door left open.
I entered that door.  It was no shop or restaurant.  It was a doorway between two buildings.  Drawn by warmth, gentle light, and the smell of roses, I entered.  It was a single room.  A small table with a vase filled with flowers.  One wall was entirely filled with an Icon of our Lord’s Mother.  There was a single chair and seated upon it was a woman weeping.  I do not remember her face.  I recall being surprised that I did not feel embarrassed or afraid that I was interrupting what was visibly an intimate moment.  I crossed myself and kissed Panagia.  The smell of roses was not coming from the flowers in the vase but from the Icon.  I turned towards the woman and wanted to say something, comfort her, help her… but I was silent and could only stand there feeling sad and share her pain.  She smiled.  The pain did not leave her eyes but she knew I hurt with her.  She got up and left and again I was alone.  I sat down in the chair and looked into Panagia’s eyes.  My loneliness remained but it was now blessed, sacred because it was shared in Thessaloniki on Christmas Eve’s eve.
You smile over your cup of Coffee and in that smile I know that you were with me together with the saint who has anointed this our city with his holy myrrh.  Brought together by Panagia and her Child who is holy now and forever and unto the ages of ages… Amen.
…the young man, who was by now already at the top of Kissavos Street, exactly behind the sanctuary of the Church of the Wisdom of God, stopped and lifted up his eyes, feeling afraid, wishing to see further.  He wanted to find a refuge in something greater, to hide.  No, he was thinking, he did not want to cease communicating with other people.  It would be a sin.  Man does not consist of the individual but of everyone together in continuous succession.  Others come and find our memory as before them we found that of others.  The individual is a container that is tested in the wider which contains us and persists.  He understood now which road he must take.  A long road which will contain in it the toil of all ages.  He went into the Church.
-N.G Pentzikis(Mother Thessaloniki, pg. 50)
Freedom from nature, as a definitive, original constituent of humanity’s personal hypostasis, provides rational/empirical support for a hope that the possibility of some kind of existence for the hypostasis of the person even after the death of his sensory atomic nature cannot be excluded. This possibility is strengthened (always rationally/empirically) by the (objective indeterminate) mode by which the personal otherness of the creative artist is operative in a timeless fashion from within his work for any other person who is able to achieve a relationship with this work.[2]

Nikos Gabriel Pentzikis (1908-1993)

[1] Yannaras, Christos. Person and Eros, 168 & 169.
[2] Yannaras, Christos. The Enigma of Evil, 132.

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