ZOЁ: For the Life of the World



On the night when He was betrayed, or rather when He gave Himself up for the life of the world, He took bread in His holy, pure, and blameless hands, gave thanks, blessed, sanctified, broke, and gave it to His holy disciples and apostles saying, "Take, eat, this is my Body which is broken for you for the forgiveness of sins."

The Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom


ABOUT THE TITLE

Zoё is Greek for "life." Used in a properly theological sense, it stands for the divine life. I take it to refer to the Holy Spirit, who is appropriately titled Life-Giver in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. More broadly, it means true vitality that leads to well-being and eternal being (alluding to Saint Maximus the Confessor). The subtitle - for the life of the world - is a biblical reference to Jesus' sacrifice, cited from the Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom - that great liturgical prayer recited by the priest before faithful Orthodox Christians during the Eucharistic celebration.


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Sat Dec 13
Remembering, therefore, this command of the Savior, and all that came to pass for our sake, the cross, the tomb, the resurrection on the third day, the ascension into heaven, the enthronement at the right hand of the Father, and the second, glorious coming … Divine Liturgy of Saint Chrysostom

How Do We Hope?

You sweep and mop the floors, scrub the toilets, throw out the garbage, and make sure the house is neat and tidy. You wash the bedsheets and linens, hang them up to dry. You take a trip down to your local grocery and fruit stores. The refrigerator should well stocked with their favorite snacks, you tell yourself, and don’t forget tomorrow’s breakfast. 

The minutes tick away as you watch the clock now and again. You go online to confirm the airport terminal, flight number and arrival times. You already know those details but you want to make sure. “I’m going to leave the house early so that I’ll be there to receive them,” you tell yourself.

Meanwhile you continue to wait … to wait in anticipation.

Many of us go through that sort of a ritual. We prepare ourselves and our homes for the arrival of a long-missed friend, significant other or family member. We long to see them again.

How do we wait for the Advent of our Lord? 

As Christmas is just round the corner, both the consumer culture and the church are making preparations to celebrate the First Coming of the Lord. But as we do that, let us not forget his Second.

We need not wait for Christmas to be alerted to Jesus’ return, as we are reminded of this every time we partake of the Lord’s Supper. We should be recalling not only Jesus’ birth, death and resurrection, but also his soon-coming. Our participation in the consecrated bread and wine is our ongoing public testimony or proclamation of his life-giving death “until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26). Too many of our churches fail to bring out this aspect during Holy Communion.

Hear these uttered by the priest during the Eucharistic part of the Orthodox service just before the prayer for the Holy Spirit to grace the elements (the epiclesis):

“Remembering, therefore, this command of the Savior, and all that came to pass for our sake, the cross, the tomb, the resurrection on the third day, the ascension into heaven, the enthronement at the right hand of the Father, and the second, glorious coming …”


I’ve always thought it strange that the communicants are asked to remember Christ’s second, glorious coming. How does one remember something that hasn’t happened yet? For that matter, how do we remember events in the past which none of us have been party to? 

Were we at the foot of the Cross when Jesus died? (John 19:25) Did we go to the tomb to anoint his body? (John 19:39-40) Did we mistake him for a gardener? (John 20:15) Did we see him ascend into the clouds? (Acts 1:9-11)

But it was the Lord himself who had asked us to remember him by partaking in the Supper (Luke 22:19).

The word “remember” in the original Greek is transliterated anamnesis

Surely, this recollection (anamnesis) is not like our individual memories of past events in our lives. It is not merely a rational act whereby be dive into our mind’s recesses to dig up and picture a past experience. How could we when none of us today were living two thousand years ago?

It is a very robust word, which I always picture in terms of a total opposition to significant loss of memory and identity or amnesia.

Anamnesis may be understood as a cultural, communal memory. We re-live the events of Christ life and death as presented by the Gospels and apostolic writings. But this is not like looking at a cultural artifact in a museum. The texts pointing to Jesus’ narrative are made alive and re-presented to us by his Holy Spirit. In a mysterious but true sense, we are made present at these events because we are really party to them.

We are participants because Jesus was born, lived, died and was resurrected for us and on our behalf. And just so, he will come back for those he came to save (Hebrews 9:26-28).

Now, if we are in the Bridegroom’s party, let us be well-prepared for his coming. Unlike our wait for a significant one’s return, Jesus’ Parousia, though announced beforehand and thus certain, does not have a date and time attached to it.

But, nonetheless, we wait expectantly … like a mother before the term of her child. We do the housecleaning not because we are awaiting in fear of that Judge, who will spot every speck of dust and grime. We prepare our homes because we want to give the best welcome to our Loved One.

We trim the wicks and make sure our lamps are brimming with oil because we desire to see him clearly when we meet each other (Matthew 25:1-13). And so, we make sure that we are well anointed with the Spirit – the divine ointment – before Christ comes to feast with us. 

And Jesus himself is waiting to come, to taste with us that cup of wine, which he has not had since he last left (Matthew 26:29). Imagine, all you wine lovers! - of having to go on a wine fast just for a year. (Of course, a few of us have been on a kind of partial fast of grape juice all these years!)

We wait but are not still. We are busy preparing for his coming but we do not busy ourselves mindlessly. We hope in active passivity. We contemplate his soon-coming yet not without action. 

Our hope must be suffused with longing and prayer, compassion and ministry. We wait together and try to get as many into the wedding party before the Lord comes again. But to do this, we must be filled with his Spirit so that we will have eyes to see him when we meet face-to-face.

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. Revelation 22: 17, 20
Sat Nov 29
Smiley

Smiley

Sorrowful Joy

Have you heard this said in church or by Christians before: “Life is not about being happy, but about being joyful.”

Why the contrast? The Bible does use “happiness” (makarios) alongside “joy” (joy: agalliao, chara; rejoice: chairo) though the first does not appear as often. In the English language, the word “happy” (makarios) can also be translated as “blessed.”

So,  pitting  ”happiness” against “joy” does not really help. In fact, writers like Jonathan Edwards, counted “the end for which God created the world" as summed up in both God’s glory and human happiness.

But, if we get behind to the intent of that statement, there lies an important distinction. The difference intended is between a happiness or joy which is superficial and ephemeral as opposed to one which is deep and lasting.

Natural happiness is something we have when things are going right for us. And this is legitimate; we laugh and are happy even as Christians, for God didn’t take away our humanity when he regenerated us. In fact, we’re to become more human when we’re Christians. 

But how do we learn to be better human beings? Who do we look to as the prime example of being human?

Jesus Christ. The Son of Man came eating and drinking with sinners, the rich, tax collectors (Matt 11:19). He laughed heartily and drank wine with many. Yet, this same Jesus wept, (John 11:35) and was called a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief (Isaiah 53:3). 

Rejoicing in the Scriptures is always set in the midst of suffering, pain and trials. The Old Testament are composed of lamentations – poems expressing grief or sorrow – like the Psalms, Job, Lamentations. The New Testament speaks of rejoicing amidst sorrow, suffering and grief (John 16:22; Rom 5:3; Phil 2:17; Col 1:24; 1 Pet 4:13).

Isn’t it unusual that Jesus, in his Beatitudes, considers those who are poor in spirit, mourn, and are persecuted blessed or happy? (Matt 5:1-12, Luke 6:20-23).  In this context then, happiness includes some element of sadness.

Biblical joy or happiness is, as the Church Fathers call it, a sorrowful joy. Paul already hinted at this antinomy: “Sorrowful yet always rejoicing” (2 Cor 6:10).

To use a musical image, life is not a bare notation or key. Why? Because it’s not one-dimensional. There are major (happy and bright) and minor (sad and dark) notes to life. Or, put differently, life contains sad lyrics played to a tune in a major key, like the Beatles’ “Yesterday.”

We frequently have the impression that when a person looks downcast and sad all the time, he or she probably has issues with depression, pain or negativity. But we think it’s fine if someone is smiling all the time. 

But, beware of being a constant joker or smiley face, because it may be just a mask to hide many things (Prov 14:13). The person who looks sad is at least honest in expressing his or her emotions, though there’s the danger of exaggerating the pain or grief he or she is going through. But there is a place for melancholy to foster creative, lively individuals and societies, as Eric Wilson has argued in his book Against Happiness.

No skin-deep happiness should lie between the joy of our very first encounter with God and when we see him face-to-face. Neither should we expect pure joy in this tainted life, except maybe on rare esctatic occassions when God specially visits.

But the sorrow mixed with joy which the monks speak of is not an earthly sort either. Joy in the Spirit dispels natural sorrow, which if left uncontrolled, could lead to depression. But a deep sorrow - a Christian sorrow - lifts us up as it brings us down.

Listen to this excerpt from Diadochus of Photike (Gnostic Chapters 60):

The initial joy is one thing, the joy that consummates is another. The former is vulnerable to imagination, the latter has the strength of humility. Between the two comes a blessed sadness, and tears without sorrow.

Beatles, Yesterday

Tears

What are some tears which may be naturally beneficial, neutral or even not good?

  1. Biologically, basal tears (the natural lubrication of our eyes or the artificial saline solution we use when wearing contacts) and reflex tears (which is triggered, say, by cutting onions) protects our bodies.
  2. Crocodile tears or grief for show. If you have children, you know what these are. Or, if you’ve attended a Chinese funeral with hired professional wailers, you know what I mean.
  3. Mere reactionary or temporary emotions (watching a movie, crying out of guilt without change). Even these may have a cathartic effect in releasing psychological tension and assisting in emotional processing.
  4. Constant tears from a heavy spirit or depression, which could be harmful in the long term.

There is a “sadness that is evil,” just as there is a false joy, which we need to watch out for. If biblical joy is what should characterize our lives, then let’s listen to what  Hermas has to say in The Shepherd:

Clothe yourself then in joy where God delights to be. Make it your delight. For every joyful person acts well, thinks rightly, and tramples sadness underfoot. The gloomy person on the other hand always acts badly. In the first place such a one does wrong by grieving the Holy Spirit who is given to us as joy. Then … the gloomy person is guilty of impiety in not praying to the Lord … for prayer offered in sadness lacks the strength to ascend to the altar of God … Sadness mingled with prayer prevents it from rising, just as vinegar mingled with wine robs it of its flavor … Purify your heart then of the sadness that is evil, and you will be living for God. And all those who have stripped themselves of sadness in order to put on joy will likewise be living for God.

There is great truth in the above, for Jesus Christ came in the power of the Spirit to free us of the oppression and weight of such sadness (Luke 4:16-21; Isa 61:1-3).

Of course, there are times when it is impossible for one to overcome this “evil sadness” on one’s own. This is when the faith, prayer and presence of the community comes in to help the one beset by the spirit of heaviness. As Jesus is sent by the Father in the power of the Spirit, so he sends us (John 20:21-23) to bind the broken hearted and to set the captives free.

But to be able to do this, we need to experience a goodly (or godly) kind of tears (2 Cor 7:9-11). These are tears that make the heart glad - happy tears, if we may like to call it, or tears without sorrow, as Diadochus called it.

Pray first of all to receive the gift of tears in order to soften the hardness of your heart by ‘breaking’ it. Evagrius of Pontus, On Prayer 5

Godly Tears

What are good tears?

I will just list two and both can be tied back to Jesus’ double love-commandment: loving God and others involves self-love.

  • Tears of repentance (Spirituality through Worship)

We need to be in honest conversation with ourselves to be honest with God. Then we can cultivate humility and receive healing.

Before the great God, we recognize our littleness; we’re humbled by God’s awesomeness and drawn to his beauty. Before the holy God, we see our sinfulness and brokenness; we’re healed by God’s Spirit. And in all this, tears should flow (2 Kings 20:5-6; Luke 7:38,44).

The Desert Fathers speaks frequently about the gift of tears or compunction (penthos), that one should pray fervently for. And this may rightly be called a gift of the Spirit for the gift lists in Scriptures are not meant to be comprehensive (Isa 11:1-3; 1 Cor 12:4-11; Rom 12:4-8; Eph 4:11; 1 Pet 4:10-11). Any work of grace by the Spirit in our lives may be broadly termed a divine gift. Paul, who no doubt was a great Spirit-filled apostle, said, “I served the Lord with great humility and with tears …” (Acts 20:19).

Only when we are humble and contrite can we serve God and others.

  • Tears of compassion (Spirituality for Ministry)

Jesus wept when his friend Lazarus died and over Jerusalem (Luke 19:41). We are exhorted to rejoice with those who rejoice, and to weep with those who weep (Rom 12:15).

Tears of compassion in the face of suffering, injustice and pain can move us to action (2 Cor 2:4). We may not be able to alleviate all the suffering, right the injustices or remove the pain, but we can bear them with others, grief with them, be present with them (Jer 9:1; 14:17).

Hebrews 5:7 is an interesting text: “During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.”

If God heard Jesus’ prayer, why was he not saved from death?

To be sure, God promises to hear and answer our prayers, but he never said that the answer would be “Yes” always; it may be “Wait,” or “No.”

In the New Testament, it is recorded only twice where Jesus and Paul prayed three times, but the cross (Matt 26: 40-45) and the thorn in the flesh (2 Cor 12:7-10) were not taken away.

In like manner, we may intercede for the suffering someone, but healing or justice may not be finally given. In his sovereign will, God permits this to happen.

We have no rational justification for this, but God has given the decisive existential answer in Jesus Christ. And he continues to affirm this through our lives as we bear the burden and grief of another, who is unable to bear these herself.

Ministry does not proceed from the throne, but from the ground. That is what God did in Jesus Christ. The fancy term is incarnational ministry. We are to be like Jesus when ministering in the flesh, and like Jesus and his Spirit, we come alongside (not from above!) as an advocate to the helpless and the defenceless.

But in order to minister in this way with our entire being, the tears of compassion must first flow (Ps 126:5).

Let us desire and pray for living waters to flow from the very depths of our being, that we may touch the world (John 7:38). When the Spirit works through us to bring liberty to others, he will work in us to free us from evil sadness and superficial joy (2 Cor 3:17). Let us, therefore, also ask and hunger after living tears!

Hoola Van Nooten, Chromolithograph of Durian

Hoola Van Nooten, Chromolithograph of Durian

Never apologize for showing feeling. When you do so, you apologize for the truth. Benjamin Disraeli

Application

  • Make the Psalms our own prayers. We’ve lost this practice in many of our churches, of singing and praying the psalter. When we go through difficult times, let us remember Psalm 56: 8 “You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book.” Here’s a fine, little illustration by Brian Heasley:
“I have this picture in my mind that one day we will walk through a giant cellar with God, He will draw a bottle from the shelf and say “I remember this vintage, I remember when you cried these tears, I was there.” Pain, sorrow, loss - when we are in those hard places it is difficult to find God. But He’s present, bottling our tears and standing with us.”
  • If are in a position of Christian leadership, we don’t have to appear unflappable and stoic always. We’re not like the commanders of a security force. Neither should we put on a constant mask of happiness, as some expect their pastors to. God asks us to set an example of high standard as leaders but not to stop being human. Never say sorry when we really cry or laugh. If we’re not in leadership, then don’t expect your leaders to be smiling all the time.
  • If we’re fathers and mothers, allow your boys (and girls) to cry and if possible, let them see us crying.
  • When we attend a Christian funeral or visit someone sick, don’t give pat answers. “It’s OK, he’s gone to heaven - a better place.” It’s much wiser to keep silent if we cannot mourn with them. Or, we could give non-verbal responses like a hug.
  • On your next durian round, go for the bittersweet fruit. Those are the best.

Joni Mitchell, Both Sides Now