Mar 21

The Way Up is Down

Third Thursday in Great Lent

Kathisma 8 (Psalms 55-63)

“But be subject unto God, O my soul, for from Him is my patient endurance. For He is my God and my helper, and I shall not be moved from hence.” (Psalm 61)

This is a Psalm of David concerning “Idithun.” What is “Idithun?” St. Augustine comments on the meaning of the word: “one who leaps up.” He says that there are those who climb the steps one at a time, and then there are the Idithun, or those who leap several steps in a bound.

So this entire Psalm is about not only the way to ascend, but to even leap the steps of ascent by bounds. And what is that way of rapid ascent? What is the principle of this speedy climb? It is submission and patience and endurance and humility. The way up is down.

The Psalm begins by commending the subjection of the soul to God. After all, it says, He is your salvation. Then the Psalmist writes something that appears not once, but twice in the Psalm: “For He is my God, my saviour and my helper.” In both appearances of this verse, the consequence of God’s salvation and help is that the one who ascends the ladder need not fear being shaken loose from it, or losing his place.

How will we ascend to the heavens? Only by lowering ourselves before the Lord. If we try to lift ourselves up or ascend directly, as did that old serpent, the Devil, will He not humble every one that exalts himself? (Matt. 23:12) And the Theotokos sang in the Spirit: “He casts down the mighty from the thrones and lifts up the lowly.” (Luke 1:52)

This is the mystery of the cross of Christ, who said to His holy Apostles: “whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:26-28)

Great Lent is a time for God’s People to ascend by lowliness and submission. Hear the Psalmist’s exhortation to the congregation of God’s People: pour out your hearts before Him, for God is our helper. Do not set your heart on men, or those who do injustice, and do not set your hearts on riches. Instead, give alms. Do justice. Be merciful and serve others. Find the lowest place and become a slave of God. Is that not what we say when we go to the Eucharist? The servant of God…? The handmaiden of God…? When we live in those words, we not only ascend to the Lord, but the Psalmist and St. Augustine say that we take the steps two at a time.

Mar 20

One Greater than Solomon

Fourth Tuesday in Great Lent

Kathisma 10 (Psalms 70-76)

“And blessed is the Name of His glory for ever, and unto the ages of ages. And all the earth shall be filled with His glory. So be it. So be it.” (Psalm 71)

King David’s son and heir, Solomon, was the inspiration for this Psalm. Solomon would be king after David, and David fills this Psalm with prayers and hopes and prophetic promises for his son’s future reign.

If you read through this Psalm, it doesn’t take long to see that the things King David wrote go far beyond anything that could be reasonably applied to his son, Solomon. There are things that are easy enough to hear in reference to King Solomon: give him judgment and righteousness, he will judge the people, nations will bow before him. These things aren’t unreasonable, and they actually happened to Solomon. His rule was a time of peace and prosperity. He had countless wives and concubines, the seals of a thousand treaties and alliances. He received tribute from kings and nobles near and far, and his wisdom in judgment was legendary.

For all of that, King David writes some things that go way beyond anything that can reasonably be attributed, or even could have been hoped for, for his son, Solomon. The Psalm describes a king who would fill the very earth with peace and righteousness. His rule would last longer than the moon. He would rule the entire planet, and all the kings of the earth would worship this king. The name of this king would be blessed forever.

And that is where King David seems to identify this king about whom he writes, a king far greater than his son, Solomon, could ever hope to be. He writes, “All the nations shall call Him blessed,” and then he makes the connection for us, “Blessed is the Lord, the God of Israel, Who alone doeth wonders.”

This Psalm is about Solomon, but it is also about one greater than Solomon. It is about the Lord Himself. Jesus Christ our Lord and God called Himself “one greater than Solomon (Matt 12:42).” He is the eternal King who brings peace and righteousness to the earth, and the prophet Isaiah said that under His rule, “the knowledge of the Lord will fill the earth as the waters fill the sea (Isaiah 11:9).”

Read this Psalm again and then read the prophesy of Isaiah about the descendant of David who was yet to be born: Christ our Lord. You can find it in Isaiah 11. See His magnificence, and fulfill in your own person the prophecy of King David: “all the day long shall they bless Him.” So be it! So be it!

Mar 19

Young and Old

Fourth Monday in Great Lent

Kathisma 10 (Psalms 70-76)

“On Thee have I been made fast from the womb, from my mother’s womb Thou art my protector… Yea, even unto old age and the dignity of years, my God, forsake me not. (Psalm 70)

There is no stage of a Christian’s life during which God is not there. From conception until death – even beyond earthly death – God is your God. A day doesn’t come when the Lord is tired of you, or ready to put you away somewhere. He doesn’t abandon His people.

St. Polycarp was the bishop of Smyrna. He was taken before the governor, but was given great deference due to his advanced years. To put it bluntly, Polycarp was an old man. Again and again the governor tried to get St. Polycarp to renounce the Lord Jesus so that he might be spared from death. St. Polycarp’s response was filled with the spirit of this Psalm, and proved that he had not only the years, but also the dignity: “For eighty-six years I have served Him and He has never wronged me. How can I renounce the King who has saved me?”

Eighty-six years of Christian life and faith, and never once could St. Polycarp say the Lord had done him any wrong. Whether you are young or old, you may have confidence that the Lord will not leave you or forsake you, as He Himself has promised. Even your father and mother, the most unlikely of people to forsake you, may abandon you, the Lord never will (Psalm 26).

The Psalmist says in this Psalm that he has endured many afflictions, but the Lord never abandoned him completely. Instead, the Lord has distanced Himself in certain times of trial, only to draw near again to give comfort and even “out of the depths of the earth again Thou hast brought me up.”

Perhaps this has been your experience over a lifetime of walking with the Lord. Tell others about it. That is what the Psalmist says he will do because of the faithfulness of the Lord: he will confess the Lord among the peoples. He will sing songs and declare what the Lord has done. This will be a cause for rejoicing among all those who share your experience of the Lord’s faithfulness. It will also be a boast over all who sought to do you evil. When you declare the Lord’s faithfulness to you throughout your life, you declare the shame and impotence of those who meant you harm.

If you are young, you have good reason to be confident for the future. If you have “the dignity of years,” then tell others about how the Lord has remained faithful to you throughout them all.

Mar 18

Nothing but Christ – Crucified

Sunday of the Holy Cross

“Learn to prefer nothing to Christ… to dash every temptation against the Rock that is Christ.”   – St. Benedict of Nursia

As Christians, we wear crosses. We make the sign of the cross like a million times during the Liturgy. We venerate and kiss the cross. We receive our blessings under the cross. The cross seems to be everywhere!

St. Paul wrote to the Corinthian congregation: “For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” (1 Cor 2:2) It seems a very strange thing to resolve, considering the message of the resurrection, the days with the disciples, the ascent into Heaven, and the glorious return in judgment on the Last Day. Wouldn’t have been better to resolve to know nothing but the Incarnate Christ? Or maybe the Risen Christ? Christ the Victor?

There is something very special about the message of the cross, though. It is foolishness. It is weakness and mystery. On the cross we see a dead king, crowned with thorns, and somehow we confess: “This is my King and my God!” How does this upside-down, backward message ever come to anything?! Because it is the power and the wisdom of God.

Standing before the cross of Christ we see for ourselves that God’s ways are not our ways. Nowhere is that clearer than before the Holy Cross. If men were imagining their own god, he would be powerful beyond imagining. He would be just and good to be sure, but also glorious and mighty. He would be arrayed in might and surrounded by riches. He would grant boons to those who serve him.

That is why the Holy Cross is the destroyer of all idols. All false gods are brought to nothing before the cross. Here is the true God Almighty! He is nearly the exact opposite of any god we would fashion for ourselves. He is weak, defeated, afflicted, and dead. He is humble and submissive. His crown is made of thorns. He is surrounded by enemies who mock instead of adoring crowds who cheer. The boon He grants His followers is that of martyrdom.

Here is Wisdom! Here is the Power of God! By means of His cross, Christ has cast down every idol and dashed every vain spiritual imagining of mankind. By means of a tree, the Son of Man has defeated him who once before by means of a tree had defeated man.

Save, O Lord, Thy people and bless Thine inheritance; grant Thou unto the faithful victory over adversaries. And by the power of Thy Cross do Thou preserve Thy commonwealth.”             – Apolytikion of the Holy Cross

Mar 17

Listening for Sirens

Third Saturday in Great Lent

Kathisma 9 (Psalms 64-69)

“Let God arise and let His enemies be scattered, and let them that hate Him flee before His face… And let the righteous be glad; let them rejoice in the presence of God, let them delight in gladness.”
(Psalm 67)

Imagine that there is an armed robbery happening. One person holds another at gunpoint, threatening him and demanding that he hand over his valuables. Suddenly, the blare of police sirens explodes on the scene and lights blaze on the situation. One sudden appearance but two very different reactions to it. If you are the man holding the gun, threatening a victim with violence and mistreating him, the lights and sirens of the police’ sudden appearance is a cause for terror. If you are the man held at gunpoint, being threatened and victimized, the very same lights and sirens fill you with hope and a flood of relief.

This is what happens in Psalm 67 when God arises. His enemies scatter. The law-breakers flee from Him in terror. On the other hand, the righteous are glad when God arises. They rejoice before the lights and sounds of God’s marvelous appearance. Delight and gladness burst forth from the righteous at the appearance of the Lord.

Why the different reactions to the sirens? It all depends on what part you are playing when they sound. The same thing is true when the Lord arises. Those who are the enemies of God and His People are filled with fear and flee. Sinners perish in His presence. On the other hand, those who are waiting for the Lord’s salvation are filled with gladness and rejoicing. It is a worthy discipline, often commended by the Fathers, to keep always in mind the glorious appearance of the Lord, considering whether you would flee in fear as one guilty or rejoice as one whose hope has manifest.

Keep all of this in mind tomorrow as you participate in the work of God’s People, the Divine Liturgy. In the Eucharist, the Lord comes to us in the Mystery. Let God’s enemies be scattered at His coming, but let those who hope in Him draw near. St. Augustine comments that in Psalm 2 the Psalmist speaks of that rejoicing which every mortal who lives in this passing age rejoices as “with trembling,” but in the Divine Liturgy we “lay aside all earthly cares,” and are invited to join with all the choirs of Heaven, not as those who belong to this passing age, but the eternal Kingdom. For this reason, the Psalmist does not in this Psalm speak of “rejoicing with trembling,” but “rejoicing with delight.” Let God arise!

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