Why Me? – Final Thoughts

#38 of a Series on Psalm 50

“Have mercy on me, O God.”

With this reflection I’ll bring this series to a close for now.[i]  I began this reflection process several years ago as a series of Lenten sermons that were eventually written and shared.  I want to thank those who have encouraged me, especially Pani Christine and Cynthia, to kickstart the writing effort so that it might be revisited, somehow I trust, to the glory of God.

Sometimes, in the Orthodox tradition, when a prayer or psalm is ended, you go back to some verse earlier in the Psalm and repeat it, just for emphasis.  This is common in many of the services, like Psalm 102 in Vespers.  At other times, as in the Akathist to the Godbearer, we repeat the entire first stanza.  It would seem that once is never enough in Orthodoxy!

And that is how the spiritual life is, in its circular way, in Orthodoxy.  We start at one place, like the Feast of the Annunciation, and go through the entire cycle of the Nativity then less than two months later, celebrate the Annunciation Feast again.  Similarly, we begin Great Lent which leads to Holy Pascha (Easter) and Pentecost, then all the Sundays After Pentecost – then the cycle begins anew with the preparatory weeks before Great Lent for the following year.  All this, until the Lord comes in glory – or until we die – whichever comes first!

Why Me?

I just want to highlight this final segment with this thought, ‘Why me?’ Oh, how many times these thoughts pierce our minds or these words tumble out of our mouths when life grows difficult! Throughout this set of reflections, I’ve used the plural form most often – we, and indeed there is a corporate plural sense to all of this – we’re on this life journey together – as the Church. 

But it does really boil down to whether or not I am impacted personally by the words of this psalm, or of anything else said in the scripture.  Does it matter to me?  Do these really become my words – which David simply uttered millennia earlier just to show me how to do it?

I can think about all of the wonderful, mysterious and even mystical ideas embedded in the scriptures and words from the heart of David that serve as my personal invitation to participate in the restoration of my soul through penance.  The Church sets up forty days called Great Lent specifically for this purpose. 

But this does not mean that I have done penance, nor turned away from my sin, nor turned to Christ in repentance. Like Judas,  I may have deep sorrow even, for what I have done, but will I find now salvation by truly turning to my Savior and asking Him to be my Savior, from my sins.  My sinful state may in part have resulted because I’ve been turned away from God because of people (like this clergyman at times?) who proclaim religious truths but don’t come across as authentic, caring or who aren’t acting like repentant people. 

Still, the psalm says the opportunity to repent to God, through His Son Jesus, and forgiveness and restoration and all the things promised in the Psalm are for me.  If I but repent.

If I do actually repent then I walk with Jesus, to the Cross.  But I walk with David as well.  I’ll be invited to live my life like the great St. Paul, who identified himself as the ‘chief’ of sinners. (1Tim.1:15)[ii]  or like St. Peter, who denied the Lord. 

But as this reflection was about Lent and repentance, repentance does not end with us.  It ends with Christ – who accepts our repentance as our sacrifice to Him.  Repentance is all I can really offer to Him.  It’s really all that He wants!  It is the ‘worthy’ offering of the soul.

Holy Week

And so, in the fulfillment of Great Lent, we celebrate Holy Week which reaches its climax in the Lord’s initiation of our New Life at the Mystical Supper where He gives the Church the Holy Communion that will be our communion with Him until He comes again in glory, and becomes the food of the Kingdom.  On Great Friday, we climb the Summit of Forgiveness at Calvary where the Lamb of God is sacrificed for the forgiveness of sins and Life everlasting[iii] for all who would receive Him. And then we enter the Paschal Vigil – waiting for deliverance in the Resurrection.

In the Orthodox Church we look upon the icon of Christ’s Descent into Hades[iv] to glimpse what our deliverance from the bonds of sin looks like. It’s about freedom and release –  given through God’s forgiveness in His Mercy to all who repent and enter into connection and communion with God in Christ Jesus.  And so, in the so many of the icons, not only do we see the Original Sinners – Adam and Eve – receiving their release from their own personal Hell, but also the figures of the Old Testament like the prophet Moses, and yes, David (highlighted above)!  David’s release from sin and Moment for salvation and total forgiveness arrived when Christ lifted him out of his Grave of sin, and so David appears as one in the queue of Salvation, perhaps he was one of the saints seen in Jerusalem after the Resurrection of Christ as St. Matthew attests. (Mt.27: 51-53)

Knowing the Risen Christ – Knowing Salvation

It is our blessing in this life to know Christ as Messiah, son of David, in ways that David could not know – through our mystical encounter with Him beginning in repentance, but leading to Baptism, Chrismation and Holy Communion, as well as Confession.  David was led by the Spirit through the true words of the God, spoken through the Prophet Nathan that lead to his heart being restored in the truth about himself. The name ‘Jesus’ bestowed upon the the incarnate Son of God at birth, as the Son of David, means ‘The Lord is Salvation’. (Mt. 1-2)   To enter into repentance, is to come to know Jesus, and know salvation!

Why me? Why have I been afforded this opportunity to hear God’s truth and repent? I am utterly unworthy of such great forgiveness and mercy toward me and my sins. Why me? Only because God loves me.  And He sent me one whose name is David to show me just how much He loves me.

May David the prophet accompany you on your journey to salvation! On the Day of when the Risen Lord appears, may the words of David be our words as well, ‘Lord, You have brought me up out of the lowest Hades.’  (Ps. 29:3) These are the the fruits of repentance. Ω


[i] I say for now because there’s something incomplete about the number 38!  I need to get to 40 which is a much more biblical number I think!  But what I have in mind is just pulling this into a book that can be used perhaps as a Lenten meditation as it was first conceived.  But here’s the thing, I don’t know if that would be worthwhile or not – a good stewardship of my time and effort.  So, if you have any thoughts about this either way, send me a note by email or Facebook or give me a call.  Your feedback on strengths and weaknesses will be a blessing to me, and to anyone who might read these reflections along the way.

[ii] It’s no accident that this sentiment is part of our prayer in the Church immediately before receiving Holy Communion.  Paul’s sin which led to the martyrdom of St. Stephen and so many of the early Church must have weighed so heavily on his soul.  Likewise, his co-apostle Peter, was the very one to deny Christ at the most crucial hour.  It is said that Peter continued to weep throughout his life at the thought of his sin and moral failure.

[iii] The priest recites these words aloud to everyone who comes forward in repentance to receive Holy Communion, as they receive – riveting this truth to our souls in the Moment.

[iv] The Descent into Hades is the biblical reference to Christ’s descent into the lower regions (Sheol) to free from sin and death those held captive by Satan. It is the central theme of the entirety of the Orthodox understanding of Christ’s saving work. In 1Pt 3:17-22 we read: For it is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil. For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits— to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand—with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him.

Repentance as Sacred Offering -Worthy is the Lamb That Was Slain


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#37 of a Series on Psalm 50

“Then you will delight in the sacrifices of the righteous, in burnt offerings offered whole;  then bullocks will be offered on your altar.”

As I mentioned above, the ending to Psalm 50 to us seems obscure, and disconnected from the intimately personal thoughts and feelings of the heart of David shared with us in the prior verses.  This conclusion to the psalm speaks of sacrifices, offerings and Jewish practices unfamiliar to us, and seemingly of little consequence.  It’s even attributed to a sentiment that arose after the Babylonian exile, long after the time of David.  But, I’ve found this verse to be very important in my own understanding of the spiritual stewardship of life – the way of sacred offering.  So let’s look at some aspects of this puzzling conclusion of the Psalm.

The Sacred Offering – Biblical Context

The language of this verse clearly reflects the Jewish understanding of how important it was for the upright believer to make a sacred offering to God.  Going back to the earliest chapters of Genesis where we hear the story of the righteous, sweet-smelling offering of Abel, contrasted to the unworthy offering of grain by his brother, Cain, we see how the moral disposition of one’s soul is reflected in how one approaches God, and religious matters.  The Old Covenant prescribed many different offerings at various times for all manner of spiritual and practical matters – from those that were regular in the liturgical schema of the Hebrew faith during the year (Passover lamb, the Day of Atonement) such as we find in Leviticus.[i]  But there were also special personal sacrifices and offerings to be made.  This included sin offerings, ‘wave’ offerings, offerings of thanksgiving, first-fruits offerings, tithes and sacrificial offerings of other sorts.

The model of sacrificial offerings prescribed for the whole of the nation also became the models for the individual’s offerings.  The prescription of the  ‘whole burnt offering’ is presented in the opening verses of Leviticus, where Moses and the people are to make offerings to God of the various (clean) animals which they raise – bullocks, sheep, goats, fowl, etc.  The manner of their offering is a joint effort by the individual and the priests/levites – whose role is deemed essential.  The whole-burnt offering is just that – wholly consumed by the fire on the altar of the temple.  It must have been a messy and smelly affair!

The dedication of the animal taken from the livelihood of the person (even from the poor – the turtledoves) indicates that in seeking God’s forgiveness and mercy every one must have, as they say today colloquially, ‘skin in the game.’  Ironically, the rise of the money changers in the temple precincts was a sign that the required religious sacrifice could somehow be ‘bought’ or brought from elsewhere.  But in its original form it was meant to be highly personal and participatory.

It should be noted however, that the New Testament does not interpret Old Testament directives and practices with perfect symmetry of each element, rather the New Testament authors, in the Holy Spirit, saw the broad practices of Old Testament offerings as a whole, and uitilized imagery of many of the distinct Old Testament offerings into a whole.  Hence the sacrifice of Christ is seen as the Perfect offering for the sin of humankind, and the fulfillment of the biblical notion of the Paschal Offering commanded at the time of Exodus and there after.  But it is also an offering of Thanksgiving (Eucharist), grain (wheat), blood (Eucharistic wine), first fruits, etc. in a spiritual synthesis of the notioin of biblical offering by us all as human offerings.

Sweet-smelling

This is a fragrant biblical term which describes God’s response to the offerings made of the righteous.  Here in Leviticus, as in Gen. 4 (Abel) and Gen. 8 (Noah), God is pleased with the faithfulness of his servants in their behaviors and obedience to Him.  It is here, that we can catch a glimpse as to why the Psalm might be ended in this way and why it has particular implications.  God is pleased with the offering of the righteous who have repented and are reconciled with Him through the offering.

But for our purposes, before we go further we must look at the sacrificial offering of Christ, first in God offering Himself to humankind through the Incarnation of the Logos, and secondly in the sacred offering of Christ on the Cross, the ultimate sacrifice of the Lamb of God for the sins of the world.[ii]  This was the very identity of Christ since His sacrifice, to become the sacrificial Lamb of God and Victim.[iii]  St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians identifies Christ in this way, using the same terminology of Leviticus,

“Be imitators of God, therefore, as beloved children, and walk in love,just as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us as a sweet-smelling sacrificial offering to God. (Eph. 5:2)

So in the Person of the Lamb of God, the sacrifice (in which participate) is His sacrifice on the Cross which is a communion of sacrificial Love within the Holy Trinity, on our behalf. This is the perfect sin offering – exercised not merely in juridical justice, but in divine, selfless, undeserved mercy.  In further describing our place in this sacrifice, St. Paul uses similar imagery in second Corinthians:

But thanks be to God, who always leads us triumphantly as captives in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of Him. For we are to God the sweet aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one, we are an odor of death and demise; to the other, a fragrance that brings life.                       (2Cor.2:16f)

Christ’s sacrifice has imparted to us the identity of acceptability to God, which is described through the fragrance of the sacrifice.  It is for the Christian, newly consecrated in Baptism, filled with the Spirit in Chrismation, and offering / reconsecrating himself in participatory offering of himself in the Eucharistic sacrifice which brings continuing forgiveness of sins in Christ.  As in Leviticus, we not only are receipients of the grace and forgiveness of Christ, but participants in the sacrifice, through our own death to self, and participation in the sacred offering of the Liturgy.  All other forms of offering in Christian life find their meanig only in this Christian identity  in Christ, in His High priesthood, but also as Lamb, as Victim.  Hence St. Paul’s imagery of us as led triumphantly by God as captives, shows us that it is only in our slavery/service to Him that we are participants in salvation, but also we become the very ‘sweet aroma’.  Now note here that there is no sweet aroma until there is a sacrificial fire!  Hence our self-sacrifice in the fire of holy living is pleasing to the Lord.

Now We Can Make the Sacrifice?

This final verse has a curious time element to it.  In making the ‘whole-burnt offering’ it is a ‘then’ moment, or now moment.  This moment is dependent upon the previous verse, the restoration of the walls of Jerusalem, or in our Christian understanding, the restored human person who has been purified through confession and penance.  As mentioned above, the confession, in the spirit of David, must be made prior to the ability of the people to make a worthy, sweet-smelling offering.  It’s helpful here to remember the defeated spirit of the once arrogant Israelites, who were dashed and humbled by God to do decades of penance under Babylon.  Repentance in humility is always the underlying spirit of the true prophets of this period – Daniel, Ezekiel, Jeremiah (Lamentations) and later Ezra[iv] and Nehemiah leading the restoration of offerings in the Temple and the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem.  Daniel’s prayer in Chapter 9 begins this way, as he recounts the sinfulness of his people going all the way back through the history of his people, including not only his own generation, but also that of the times of Moses in the wilderness.

 Lord, in keeping with all your righteous acts, turn away your anger and your wrath from Jerusalem, your city, your holy hill. Our sins and the iniquities of our ancestors have made Jerusalem and your people an object of scorn to all those around us. Now, our God, hear the prayers and petitions of your servant. For your sake, Lord, look with favor on your desolate sanctuary. Give ear, our God, and hear; open your eyes and see the desolation of the city that bears your Name. We do not make requests of you because we are righteous, but because of your great mercy. 19 Lord, listen! Lord, forgive! Lord, hear and act   (Dan. 9:16-19)

Having completed the full course of penance was not enough – it was necessary to return to the Temple, in the midst of the people, to take action by making a sacred offering for one’s sins and enter into the sweet fragrant aroma of communion with God once again.[v] There was a kind of impatience in the Hebrew prophets – knowing that fulfillment of their restoration would not be complete until the sacrifice could be offered in thanksgiving, leading to the experience again of communion and righteous living as the people of the Covenant. This made the ministry of the levitical priesthood essential, but not sufficient in itself.  When the offerings were not made, or made in the wrong spirit, the tainted offering was not ‘sweet-smelling’ but self-serving.  The verses from St. Paul, above, point to the reality as having been held captive by sin, Christ has saved us, and now we are His servants and in our being offer the sacrifice pleasing to the Father because it was wrought by the Son.

It’s Time

The ‘moment’ of penance for us happens in two distinct liturgical actions.  The first is in the absolution by the priest who applies the healing remedy for sin wrought by Christ to our souls, restoring us to unity with Him. This is perhaps one reason why the penitential disciplines were often tied to the reception of the Eucharist. The second moment is the ‘hour’ of Christ of which He spoke in St. John’s Gospel (Jn.17:1), the hour of His glorification on the Cross.  This the Church remembers in the Divine Liturgy, in fact, when the Divine Liturgy begins the deacon speaks to the priest the words of the Psalm 119:126, “It is time for the Lord to act.”  The moment has come when all the cosmos joins a local congregation and a local priest, somewhere, to remember “all that Christ has done on our behalf” and make the wholly sanctified, acceptable offering to the Father – the Holy Eucharist.  It could be said that, every time the Liturgy is celebrated, Daniel’s prayer, “Lord, hear and act” is answered.

Liturgically, this action, is always preceded by an act of repentance – a recitation of Psalm 50. May it also be preceded by the action and spirit of penance in the heart of all participating in the saving sacrifice of the Liturgy as well. Ω

_______________________


[i] For a helpful analysis of the first several chapters in Leviticus, please see Dr. Bob Diffenbaugh’s treatment at: https://bible.org/seriespage/2-law-burnt-offerings-leviticus-11-17. The details of all the sacrifices is well beyond the scope of our study here.

[ii] See John 1:18ff. 

[iii] Although the use of the term ‘Victim’ as referring to Christ as the sacrificial Lamb is used in ancient patristic literature, It’s interesting to me how the Latin West seemed to use this terminology and imagery more commonly than in the East. A number of the ancient prayers of consecration of the Eucharistic Gifts in the Latin tradition (called anaphoras) in the Liturgy use the term, but it is more rare in the Christian East. The Triumph of Christ is more emphasized in the East, perhaps, in seeing the Cross and Death and Resurrection as a victory, not Him as a victim.  Another factor may be the canons that later forbade the use of the Lamb imagery (as above) in portraying Christ, particularly after the Christological controversies beginning in the fourth century.

[iv] Ezra is notable in that he is given an extensive genealogical study in scripture *(Ezra 7) asserting his priestly credentials, as one called by God to lead the restoration efforts.  Note that he was not the high priest himself, but exercised administrative and other spiritual gifts to the glory of God as his priestly ministry.   This hearkens to the priestly people of God in the New Testament how the priesthood extend beyond just the actual ‘handling’ of the sacred gifts to many other, essential elements. The New Testament would give two distinct genealogies  of Jesus to assert his own spiritual patrimony as ‘Son of Abraham and Son of David’  See Mt. 1, Lk .3.

[v] When doing a recent podcast with OCLI, I was struck by the convergence of this theme, with the exhortation of Christ regarding reconciliation with those we have offended. The discussion centered around Judas returning to the Chief priests and scribes asserting he had done wrong, and feeling great sorrow. He wanted to give the money back but it was not accepted. It was a type of ‘sin offering’ of sorts. Yet, Jesus taught that before you make your offering on the altar you must first be reconciled with your brother.  In the case of Judas, he would have had to make his peace with Jesus first! But he could or would not do so, and fell into despair.  https://www.orthodoxservantleaders.com/doulos-podcast/your-champion-for-30-pieces-of-silver

Walls and Gates, Part 2

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#36 of a Series on Psalm 50

“Do good in Your good pleasure to Zion;  [Re]build the walls of Jerusalem.”

In the previous reflection, we looked at the walls of Jerusalem, and Jerusalem itself, as being reinterpreted by St. Augustine as representing the restoration of the Human Person, in the Church, through the Incarnation and the Paschal Mystery of the Death and Resurrection of Christ in His Body.

The person incorporated into Christ through his death through immersion in the Baptismal waters of repentance is a New Creation. (2Cor 4:17)  He manifests this new life in ways that we can see in the restored walls of Jerusalem, the ‘walls’ of the human person – in its defensive capability,  integrity, portals, strength, watchtowers, defenses, moral righteousness, greatness, purity, strength and moral righteousness mentioned in an earlier reflection. 

Let’s take a look at each of these characteristics, very briefly.

Defenses

The obvious purpose of a fence or wall is defense.  It serves no offensive purpose, rather it keeps other forces out.  The wall that is broken down is easily penetrated.  If the enemy is within, the destruction can be extensive or even total.  As this is written, there is an effort to build a wall at the southern border of the United States.  Its purpose, ostensibly, is to keep people who wish to cross into the country illegally at bay.  The threat of the people is not in their personhood per se, but moreso in the notion that unimpeded illegal entry promotes lawlessness – because there is no respect for established, undefended border.  After countless years of illegal entries, a wall was deemed to be necessary.  In human terms, the Devil has no respect for our ‘boundaries’ – a wall is absolutely necessary.

So, the human person must have moral defenses.  We all know that if we are physically attacked we will be wounded, so we attempt to defend ourselves physically by walling ourselves off from the threat.  We should realize that, for the human being, the worst of the attacks on people are through demonic falsehoods, ideologies and threats that wound the person within through sin. These forces must be walled off from ourselves, lest we fall to their power to wound us.

The soul’s defenses are outlined by St. Paul in the notable chapter (using the anatomy of a soldier) in Eph. 6:12-17)

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this world’s darkness, and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

Therefore take up the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you will be able to stand your ground, and having done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness arrayed, and with your feet fitted with the readiness of the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

Portals

Every wall has its entryways, otherwise the inhabitants inside it would be unable to escape.  But entryways are the weak link in the wall system.  In patristic literature, the ‘portals’ of the human person were likened to the senses.  Why? Well, if the wall of our defenses against the Evil are intact, he goes for the weak spot, the senses. Hence the eyes, the mouth, the touch, etc. become ways in which we lower our defenses spiritually to allow Evil to access our inner being, our heart.  This is why our portals must be ‘manned’ to do battle against intruders – spiritually of course – we must intentionally fight temptations of sight and hearing and the like.  Asceticism is training in this defensive strategy – for example fasting is cutting off the pleasurableness of taste, so that we can defeat the sins of gluttony and other abuses of food.  The eyes are particularly vulnerable – as the imagery of the world today so easily entraps the mind through instantaneous image accessibility sparking fantasies and the triggering attacks on our souls.

Watchtowers

I mentioned how the watchtowers on walls provided the ancient city a special protection because, seeing the enemy coming from a distance, those outside the walls could flee to safety within, and the portals could be strengthened – IF you saw the enemy coming in time.  This, in the Bible and patristic literature, is for the human person called watchfulness – or vigilance[i].  We are to be on the lookout for temptations and identify them as such early on so that we can fortify our defenses and not fall victim to the attacks.  The Psalms speak frequently of ‘keeping watch’ especially at night, because the enemy would be concealed at night hence the need for special vigilance then.  Here is a sample from Psalm 141:3, which we recite daily at Vespers, says, “Set a guard, O LORD, over my mouth; keep watch at the door of my lip[ii]s.”  Here the watch is kept over oneself, to prevent sinful thoughts from leading to sinful actions.  

Before His betrayal and death, Christ invited his disciples to keep watch in the Garden of Gethsemane with him.  They failed, and we know the rest of their plight, and His. (Mt. 26:36ff)  The Church, after the Resurrection, is called upon to keep watch, not only for the attacks of the Enemy, but also for the Second Coming of Christ.  Among the Lord’s strongest words are found in the Synoptic Gospels, especially at the end of His earthly ministry,  ‘Keep watch!’ (Mt. 24:32, Mk 13:35, Lk 12:37).

Integrity

Sometimes when people have been a long day doing a difficult, dirty or fully engaged outdoor work project, they will proclaim after they’ve rested a bit and taken a shower they’ll say, “I’m human again!” Somehow performing the big effort, while carryout out the task, some things of life were amiss or out of balance – and you can feel it!  We can see that sin knocks us completely off-balance and through repentance (and its cleansing force) we ‘become human again.’

Integrity or oneness means that something is fully intact, the pieces are together and in an internal unity, so that everything can function fully as it was intended.  When integrity is broken not only is functionality compromised but the very essence of the subject is compromised. As an example, if addiction is raiding our lives, it effects everything through a dis-integrating force – relationships, health, finances, work, etc.

 Through our Baptism into Christ, the New Man, we become human again. The inner harmony of the original human within us is restored and we can begin to function again as human beings.   St. Paul exhorts his followers, ‘Don’t lie to each other, for you have stripped off your old sinful nature and all its wicked deeds.’ (Col.3:9) – because nothing destroys the integrity of the human relationships and inner life than falsehoods of every sort.

Strength

Sin always ends in destruction. The first fruits of its destructive energy, the rising of the passions, causes disarrangement within the soul, and this results in weakness and emotional frailty (depression). A sinful person has a compromised will and his desires can seem to be overwhelming. This is perhaps best exemplified in the biblical story of Samson (Judges 13-16), who was gifted with extraordinary strength to be able to accomplish God’s purposes for His people.  His hair was a symbolic source of His strength and when it was cut, his strength was lost.  Of course, this was symbolic of the loss of inner strength (and integrity) due to his sin with Delilah.  When we fall into sins, we begin to lose strength.  Even entertaining them in our mind begins to disorient the singularity of purpose in our souls, setting us up for a great fall when our strength and integrity are tested.

Repentance means a recentering, and over time inner strength is built within and translates to our ‘walls’ as well.  The process of rebuilding strength comes from a renewed practice of faithfulness to God, the disciplines and behaviors themselves are part of the reorientation.  This ‘turning around’ means reacquiring a vision of life that is purposeful and directed toward God’s will for our life.  In that we find strength through grace.

Great Walls

The walls of the major cities were impressive and formidable to the enemies. It would have been an impressive site to behold a great city like Constantinople – whose walls which could not be breeched until a more modern form of warfare emerged. .  A high wall not only cannot be scaled by the enemy, but actually serves as a highpoint from which the sieged city can counterattack with their own weapons in a highly advantageous elevation.  The Great Wall of China shows how such walls can last millennia.

Our spiritual greatness is not visible in earthly terms, but the lives of the saints who have lived the life of repentance reveal a spiritual greatness or godliness. They reflect God’s grace and strength in a powerful, but humble way as they walk the earth and live in their communities. 

Purity

The strength of materials is often directly related to their purity.  In my days long ago in studying material sciences, it was clear that impurities, like a piece of slag in a metal beam caused structural weakness if not identified could lead to catastrophic failure. Although it may look normal, the weaknesses is within and under stress the load will lead to collapse. 

The spiritual walls keep out impurities.  This was very clear in the Old Testament, when the Israelites were warned by the Lord that they were not to mingle with, let alone marry, those from the pagan nations that surrounded them.  Invariably, the pollution of their idolatry would destroy their faith in the One True God and the scriptures are replete with examples.

Moral Righteousness

There is no path to righteousness without grace, but walking this path requires a person to be first purified by grace and then sustaining that way of live through righteous moral living.  This means that the virtues of the soul arise out of the strength and presence of the Holy Spirit as the fruits of all of the virtues and graces above.  Beginning with the purification of repentance, in the spirit of David, and baptism, an ongoing way of life creates a moral radiance in the life of the one on her path to becoming a saint.

Rebuilding The Walls

All of these graces are the fruits of God’s divine love and energy being poured out upon his repentant people.  David implores this of God, “In your good pleasure…”  This restoration only begins when God’s will as revealed is seen to be better for us in our mind’s eye, and it is for us to embrace His will and begin to seek Him with all our hearts.

Much of the subsequent progress happens in a synergistic way – divine grace working through people as they exercise their human wills in righteous ways according to God’s plan.  When this process is at work, then nothing is impossible (Lk 1:37) and in the words of the Apostle Paul, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” Phil 4:13.


[i] The Greek Fathers frequently spoke and wrote on vigilance or nepsis.  The vigils of the Orthodox church are a corporate way of this kind of keeping vigil. This article gives an interesting word origin for the term nepsis, as to not drink fermented drinks – or an awareness or soberness.   There is so much wealth of spiritual experience in the Patristic sources on this topic.  https://ancientchristianwisdom.wordpress.com/2012/11/06/the-therapeutic-strategy-of-nepsis/

[ii] The ‘door of my lips’ is an example of one of the portals above.

Walls and Gates, Part 1

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#34 of a Series on Psalm 50 –  Walls and Gates   Part 1

“Do good in Your good pleasure to Zion;  [Re]build the walls of Jerusalem.”

As these final verses wind down David’s hopeful outlook after his repentance, he takes something of a left turn.  I remember maybe five decades ago when I first cracked open my New American bible[i] and read this psalm, I came across this footnote:

“These two verses were added to the psalm sometime after the destruction ff Jerusalem by the Babylonians.”

Now it would seem that the biblical scholars saw these verses as tacked onto David’s original hymn at a later date, after the exile of the Hebrews to Babylon and the fall of Jerusalem beginning in 597BC, when the walls of Jerusalem were literally torn down and their subsequent return in about 445BC as led by Nehemiah.

City Walls for Defense

We hear about the walls of Jerusalem in the founding of the city by David – in no small way was it that the site, previously a Canaan city, would be rebuilt with fortified walls, and become the ‘City of David’:

And the king and his men went to Jerusalem against the Jebusites, the inhabitants of the land, who said to David, “You will not come in here, but the blind and the lame will ward you off”—thinking, “David cannot come in here.” Nevertheless, David took the stronghold of Zion, that is, the city of David… And David built the city all around from the Millo inward. And David became greater and greater, for the Lord, the God of hosts, was with him.

2 Samuel 5:6–10

Now the walls of the ancient cities of civilized lands were the critical to their very existence.  In siege warfare, invading armies would be kept out of cities literally by the walls – the bigger and stronger, the better.  The gates of entry were few and very well defended.  Sentries were placed at key points on the walls to keep watch for invaders in the distance. When under siege, the defense of the walls and their strengthening of their ramparts was essential.  A small failure, somewhere, anywhere, providing access of the enemy to the city, was enough to bring it all tumbling down[ii].  In short, the walls were essential to the protection and survival of the city.

The walls[iii] symbolized Jerusalem’s integrity. When breached, the enemy’s presence meant that the locus of the heart of the Hebrew people’s integrity had been violated. The enemies overcoming the temple of the Lord were a great spiritual burden to the faith and hearts of the people. When enemies were approaching, the people in surrounding areas would flee to the city were supplies were stored for just such an occasion.  The entire populace surrounding the city depended on the strength and unity of the walls.

I mentioned that the walls have to have portals for entry and exit, and these were invariably weaker, and could be splintered by weapons like battering rams because of their wooden construction. These weak spots of the wall needed much more fortification when the siege came, and strength to push back the intruders when they came. To give the sentry assigned the watch help in his task, he often climbed a high point, called the watch tower enabling him to see farther over the horizon for signs of an approaching enemy – all the while, when the people working the surrounding land could be assured with a good watchman on the wall, that they would be safe, because if an enemy approached, the sound of the horn/alarm would summon all back to the city for its defense.  If the city collapsed and was overrun, the invading army could subjugate or completely slaughter the trapped residents.  The only other option was to flee to the hills[iv] during the ensuing chaos.

The history of Jerusalem and its strength is reflected in its walls, and the great leaders of the Hebrews were men who built, rebuilt and strengthened them. In addition to David, we hear of the work of Solomon and, Hezekiah.  The ‘rebuilding of the Walls’ of Jerusalem referred to in the psalm was realized in the time of Artaxerxes, when Nehemiah was charged to begin the restoration of the wall.

The Book of Ezra reports it this way,

“He extended mercy to us in the sight of the kings of Persia, to revive us, to repair the house of our God, to rebuild its ruins, and to give us a wall in Judah and Jerusalem” (Ezra 9:9)

Nehemiah only had a handful of men remaining in the area yet accomplished this work, which was deemed miraculous.  The Lord had begun the restoration of His people from exile and the walls were a visible sign of this renewal.  The Hebrew people would again become a ‘people’ with their own place and identity – both spiritually and politically. Herod the Great would do one more big project of wall-building in Jerusalem, finishing it just before it all came tumbling down in 70AD during the attack by the Romans. 

Except for Herod, the other Kings who did the work of shoring up the walls of Jerusalem displayed not only a civic zeal but a spiritual zeal as well.  The names above – David, Solomon, Hezekiah, Nehemiah, the Maccabees – are all regarded as heroes and saints. They were wise in their provision of the people practically as the direct outcome of their spiritual zeal or the Covenant which was the source of their Hebrew identity.  The preservation and restoration of the walls also allowed for the integrity of the Temple, which even Herod[v] sought to rebuild in his own strange way.

Ancient walls and buildings were often engineering marvels. One can see this in that so many are still standing – it’s almost impossible to get rid of them if you wanted to  – from the ancient Egyptian marvels like the pyramids, or the Babylonian ziggurats, or in our case the city of Jerusalem.  The destruction of Jerusalem was prophesied by Christ, to be so complete that ‘no stone will be left upon another’ (Mt. 24:1f)  While this was not true in its totality, as one can see in the fragment of the Wailing wall at the site of the Temple Mount, it is for all intents and purposes absolutely true.[vi] And the real ‘temple’ of which Jesus was speaking was that temple ‘not made by human hands’ which was fashioned in the body of Mary in the Incarnation.

While this reflection is not a study of ancient buildings (!) I thought it helpful to toss out some of these practical aspects to life in the ancient world, which are so different from our own.  As I write this, there are cities in Ukraine experiencing a similar siege – not from catapulted boulders and fiery darts, but high tech missiles and aerial bombardment.  Yet, the walls still can be effective in keeping an enemy out of the city especially if the number of entry points is limited.

But they have very rich, important meaning because of the use of the wall imagery not only in this psalm, but other psalms of David as well as the rest of both Old and New Testament scripture and Orthodox writings as well. Our appreciation of these walls, what it took to build them, the strength and protection that they engendered in the hearts and minds of the people were all important in understanding the spirit of the psalm as it has come to us. We’ll begin to explore that meaning in the next reflection.


[i] First edition, 1970.

[ii] I’ve always marveled at how, for centuries the city of Constantinople had incredible resilience to multiple attacks from all sides because of its walls.  The eventual fall of Constantinople after almost a millennium, finally fell to new weaponry – cannons not available to other intruders.

[iii] We intuitively understand how walls protect – but the language of siege warfare, flaming arrows, etc. we run into in the bible is foreign to us. 

[iv] This was notable in the prophecies of Jesus concerning the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans and the fate of the Jews he fled to Masada, but ultimately died there as well, preferring suicide to slaughter. https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-sites-places/biblical-archaeology-sites/the-masada-siege/  

[v] Here’s an interesting report on Herod’s work.  Note however that Herod’s ‘spirituality’ also included bring pagan practices into the temple area. https://www.biblestudy.org/bibleref/antiquities-of-jews/herod-rebuilds-temple.html

[vi] And a good warning against a biblical fundamentalism that insists that every absolute word must be literally so, or else it’s false. But’s also interesting to note that the article on the above footnote points to how the rocks were pried apart to recover gold that was melted from the burning of the temple, running in between the rocks themselves! But at the wailing wall a few stones remain.

Show me the Evidence!

http://www.wise-geek.com

#33 of a Series on Psalm 50

The psalm of David we’ve been studying has been a fascinating dive into the human mind, and spiritually, the human heart.  The study would be an interesting one, not only for those seeking spiritual meaning, but also psychological understanding.  But it’s easy to speculate about another’s thoughts or do amateur psychoanalysis, but do we really know what they thought?  Where is the evidence?  When it comes to repentance, it’s not enough to profess sorrow.  Recently, I heard it put this way by a Protestant believer, “Repentance is not just sin management.”  Our modern thinking is so outcome and ends-focused that we ignore the inner realities driving our decisions. Repentence is a re-orientation of those inner thoughts and drives. But what we do consistently serves as the roadmap to the heart.

Prove It

When I was a kid and we another kid bragged about his achievements or prowess, the response was immediate – Prove It!

The prophetic tradition of Scripture, of which Psalm 50 is a powerful part, requires evidence of repentence proven by the deeds exercised by the human will. Essentially the message is, “Believe, say, and do the same thing.

The Psalm that precedes Psalm 50 includes these words:

Listen, my people, and I will speak; I will testify against you, Israel: I am God, your God.
I bring no charges against you concerning your sacrifices or concerning your burnt offerings, which are ever before me. I have no need of a bull from your stall or of goats from your pens…

But to the wicked person, God says:

What right have you to recite my lawsor take my covenant on your lips?
You hate my instruction and cast my words behind you.

 When you see a thief, you join with him; you throw in your lot with adulterers.
You use your mouth for evil and harness your tongue to deceit.
You sit and testify against your brother  and slander your own mother’s son.
When you did these things and I kept silent,  you thought I was exactly like you.
But I now arraign you and set my accusations before you.

                                                                                                                                Ps. 49:7-9, 16-21

This repeats the theme announced by David in Psalm 50 – the deeds must match the words. Anything else is wicked duplicity.

Repentance as Action

When the Lord Jesus began his public ministry, he built on the teaching of St. John the Baptist, who preached repentance – whose message was, basically, ‘Repent, then prove you’ve repented by your deeds.’  John’s baptism was a sign of that repentance – or change of heart.

St. Luke’s Gospel[i] reports it this way,

John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?  Produce fruit, then, in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The axe lies ready at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

The crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” John replied, “Whoever has two tunics should share with him who has none, and whoever has food should do the same.”

Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”  “Collect no more than you are authorized,” he answered.

Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”  Do not take money by force or false accusation,” he said. “Be content with your wages.”

What we see here is something of the sketch of a moral code of required behaviors for the repentant. The behaviors after Repentance and baptism must be consistent with the way of life of the disciple.  As John would recognize his role as Forerunner, and his disciples would begin to become followers of Jesus, they would hear the same messages from their new Master, and indeed, more stridently 

There must be a consistency in life behaviors with that of the repentant follower of Christ.  They take the form of commands, from a superior to a disciple.  In the Gospel according to St. Matthew, the ‘moral code’ follows the baptismal narrative in the form of the Sermon on the Mount, and subsequent teachings.

Behavior Modification

I find it really easy to identify what is wrong in my personal situations, or things that are causing me discomfort.  Resolving those issues is a whole different matter.  That takes a change of behavior in many instances – not just a change in external forces.  We bring on much of our own suffering.

Repentance is even more than self-centered analysis, it’s God-focused.  My sin is against God and to be who God wills me to be I must change my thinking, my choices and resultant behaviors.  In a sense, it’s not just the behavior, but often the choice that precedes it that has come from a repentant heart.  So the internet pornography user who sees his life as offending God, must put to death his desire (lust) for it, decide that he doesn’t want to want it any more, then take all the steps necessary to so that he will not be subject to stimulating those passions in the heart, weakening and falling again into sin.  The behaviors that change would include steps like purging internet accounts, installing website blockers and filters, changing behaviors in eating and sleeping, regular confession – accountability to another such as a priest and submission to their recommendations, confronting patterns of thoughts in relationships, etc.  Sometimes this leads to a deeper journey as to where the passions arise from – psychological/emotional wounds, relational failures, etc. 

But it all starts with an act of will, bolstered by grace, to stop it all.  That, in Christianity is preceded by our awareness of Almighty God and His divine authority in my life – taking offense in me and my actions, but also affirming me on the path of penance.

St. John’s practical advice to the questions posed above –  ‘What must we do?’ – are  riveting:

  • “Whoever has two tunics should share with him who has none, and whoever has food should do the same.”
  • “Collect no more than you are authorized”
  • “ Do not take money by force or false accusation,” he said. “Be content with your wages”

What I find interesting is that in each case, the remedy involved changing behavior regarding one’s possessions – the actions required of so many of our sins boil down to curbing desire and sharing with others. Both of these are a death to self.  The ones who obeys these directives gives evidence of their repentance and if this was necessary for the disciples who received St. John’s baptism how much more for the disciples of Jesus?

Action Required!

If we don’t change our behavior, we will surely fall back into the patterns of thinking from sins from which evil actions sprout.  This is why, in penitential practice, the wise priest prescribes an epitemia, or course of activity to help serve as a remedy for the spiritual sins. To the person who stole, she must return the items and any harm caused by his action. But many sins are less simple to address through specific overt actions – things like judging others, envy, pride, despondency, etc. How can behavioral change lead to attitudinal change such things?

St. Basil the Great, in one of his homilies on thanksgiving, says this:

Have you been dishonored? Then have regard for the glory which is laid up in Heaven through patient endurance. Have you suffered a loss? Then contemplate the heavenly wealth and treasure which you have laid up for yourself through your good deeds. Have you been expelled from your homeland? Then you have Jerusalem as your heavenly homeland. Have you lost a child? Then you have Angels, with whom you will dance around the Throne of God, rejoicing eternally. By thus opposing anticipated good things to present sorrows, you will keep your soul in the cheerfulness and tranquility to which the Apostles precept summons us. Neither let the joys of human affairs create immoderate and excessive gladness in your soul, nor let sorrows diminish its exultation and sublimity by feelings of dejection and abasement.

What he prescribes is a way of thinking that leads to a change of attitude, and behavior.  It is an invocation of the World View which comes from our Faith which is focused on eternal things.  In fact, much of the grief of our lives will never leave us because, focusing only on short-term worldly pursuits, we are continuously and forever to be disappointed in this world, and the others who occupy it. We then are unwilling to forgive them of their offenses.  St. Basil describes profound deprivations that lead to despondency in this life – even losing a child!  Only a trust in the eternal love of God can deliver us from despair and despondency and restore hope so that we do not act out of such dark feelings of loss. How many sinful behaviors – like addictions,  anger-driven broken relationships, children doing self-harm, sexual sins and perversions or materialistic indulgence or any of the slough of despairing behaviors we experience in twenty-first century life – can only be healed by a fresh Christian perspective on life in this world and hereafter?[ii]  

We confess our sinful actions.  In David’s case, he confesses his adultery and murderous behaviors.  We confess our sinful actions.  David repented, and while the rest of his life was not wine and roses, his restored love and trust in God enabled him to act in righteousness in his renewed outlook and life purpose.  May we do the same. Ω


[i] St. Luke’s Gospel is replete with moral teachings, particularly those involving the relationships of those in power, with the weak and the poor. This teaching is but a part.

[ii] I ask a question here because I don’t know.  It’s possible to take the saint’s words and turn them into a form of psychological and emotional denial of the reality of the sorrow experienced.  How many of our sermons or counsel to others in times of great suffering are little more than an invocation that they  put on rose colored glasses on a situation?  This is not love – it does not share in the pain, sorrow and grief?  But in such cases, to save us from despondency, we must keep one foot of leverage on the solid ground of our Christian world view, even as we descend into the depth of the deep sorrows of a broken world.