On this Sunday in the Orthodox Church we remember the Holy Forefathers, the faithful ancestors of Christ, many of whom are named in a long list in the services yesterday and today, men and women like David, Jael, Daniel, Rachel, Moses and Ruth….
|The Land of the Living Icon at Chora
And the hymns sing of how they all, long since passed from this earthly existence, are even now “in the Land of the Living.” Thomas Hopko in The Winter Pascha mentions a church near Constantinople where a huge mosaic of Christ is named: “The Land of the Living. “I found a photo of it (above).
I learned in the short account of the life of Athanasius at the beginning of his On the Incarnation that the last and worst persecution of Christians ended in Egypt in 311 A.D., when Athanasius was about fourteen. From the age of five he had lived with the constant threat of death, and with the ever-present reality of persecution of his friends and family. The behavior of the ungodly is irrational and inhuman, and tends to cause great pain and suffering, often unto death, not only of the innocent but also of the most Christ-like. As an adult the scenes and events of his childhood seem to be fresh in his mind when he writes:
A very strong proof of this destruction of death and its conquest by the cross is supplied by the present fact, namely this. All the disciples of Christ despise death; they take the offensive against it and instead of fearing it, by the sign of the cross and by faith in Christ trample on it as on something dead. Before the divine sojourn of the Saviour, even the holiest of men were afraid of death, and mourned the dead as those who perish. But now that the Saviour has raised his body, death is no longer terrible, but all those who believe in Christ tread it underfoot as nothing, knowing full well that when they die they do not perish, but live indeed, and become incorruptible through the resurrection. But that devil who of old wickedly exulted in death, now that the pains of death are loosed, he alone it is who remains truly dead.
I started composing this post about death and the saint’s childhood before the horrific murders at a Connecticut school last week. I found the description Athanasius gives, of people bravely and even joyfully facing death daily, foreign to my 21st-century suburban self. But the topic turns out to be pertinent, and the recent stories of gutsy teachers in our own country inspiring — especially when taken with the letter from our Archbishop Tikhon after that event:
“Concerning those who have fallen asleep, Saint Paul exhorts us not to “grieve even as others who have no hope” [1 Thessalonians 4:13]. And yet, herein he does not forbid us from grieving. Now is the time for us to weep, but we must weep with the firm hope that comes from our faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. “Shed tears, but remain calm; weep modestly, and with fear of God,” writes Saint John Chrysostom. And following this example, each of us must strive to transform our sorrow into prayer.
Just this week I was asked to tell one of my favorite Bible verses, one that readily comes to mind without effort. It is always this one, that speaks of our complete dependence on the Lord as our LIFE, whether living or dying. Our leaves will not wither, because Christ Himself is The Land of the Living.
But I am like a green olive tree
in the house of God:
I trust in the mercy of God
for ever and ever.
From On the Incarnation by St. Athanasius:
…the air is the sphere of the devil, and the enemy of our race, who, having fallen from heaven, endeavors with the other evil spirits who shared in his disobedience both to keep souls from the truth and to hinder the progress of those who are trying to follow it. The apostle refers to this when he says, “According to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that now worketh in the sons of disobedience.” But the Lord came to overthrow the devil and to purify the air and to make “a way” for us up to heaven, as the apostle says, “through the veil, that is to say, His flesh.” This had to be done through death, and by what other kind of death could it be done, save by a death in the air, that is, on the cross? Here, again, you see how right and natural it was that the Lord should suffer thus; for being thus “lifted up,” He cleansed the air from all the evil influences of the enemy. “I beheld Satan as lightning falling,” He says; and thus he re-opened the road to heaven, saying again, “Lift up your gates, O ye princes, and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors.”
Here Athanasius himself writes of a phenomenon I don’t know anything about, “what happens when great king enters a large city.” But the example from ancient times, in On the Incarnation, is so eloquently given that its light shines right through any culture barrier and reveals a truth of the Incarnation in a new and bright aspect.
|Christ Pantocrator – Gould
You know how it is when some great king enters a large city and dwells in one of its houses; because of his dwelling in that single house, the whole city is honored, and enemies and robbers cease to molest it. Even so is it with the King of all; He has come into our country and dwelt in one body amidst the many, and in consequence the designs of the enemy against mankind have been foiled, and the corruption of death, which formerly held them in its power, has simply ceased to be. For the human race would have perished utterly had not the Lord and Saviour of all, the Son of God, come among us and put an end to death.
A young woman we know is trying to love people in San Francisco for the sake of Christ. In a recent prayer letter she wrote:
|San Francisco downtown
The hardest part of doing ministry in San Francisco is the cost of living factor. My rent is $1975 for my two bedroom apartment, which many in the city will tell you is a good deal. Because of the high cost of living most pastors and missionaries don’t live here. The problem is that you can’t relate to the people and become effective at reaching the city for Christ if you don’t really live among them.
People think that if they just have some fancy strategy they will see people come to Christ. These programs become like the welfare system; people just learn how to work the system, and there are so many that the homeless get to pick what they want at different meals.
They get used to sitting and allowing the word of God to come in one ear and out the other…rarely do you see any lives change. The old fashioned way of living among the people is gone from many Christians’ concept of what a missionary does. The majority of pastors live outside the city because it is cheaper. They then drive into the city where they have a reserved parking place and never spend time out in the community.
But this woman meets people on the bus and the playground, and they get to know and trust her as their lives interweave with hers. The words of her letter came back to me as I was reading On the Incarnation by St. Athanasius:
The Saviour of us all, the Word of God, in His great love took to Himself a body and moved as Man among men, meeting their senses, so to speak, half way. He became Himself an object for the senses, so that those who were seeking God in sensible things might apprehend the Father through the works which He, the Word of God, did in the body. Human and human-minded as men were, therefore, to whichever side they looked in the sensible world they found themselves taught the truth….For this reason was He both born and manifested as Man, for this he died and rose, in order that, eclipsing by His works all other human deeds, He might recall men from all the paths of error to Know the Father. As He says Himself, “I came to seek and to save that which was lost.”
|Christ heals the lepers.