The Psalms Challenge for Great Lent

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From a liturgical point of view, one of the most important sections of Scripture are the Psalms. They are read in their entirety over the course of one week during all of the services the Orthodox Church has during the week. During Great Lent, the entire Psalter is read twice.

The reason for this liturgical emphasis can be seen in the Letter to Marcellinus from St. Athanasius the Great (quoted here). The Psalms offer us everything that the rest of Scripture does with that “very special grace” of imbuing Scripture with the full width and breadth of human emotion. St. Athanasius tells us that we are then able to see ourselves in the words of the Psalms — we are able to make the words of the Psalms our words. In so doing, we then allow the Holy Spirit — He who inspired these words — to form us according to the pattern He has given us in the Psalms.

Usually, however, one only sees the reading of the entire Psalter at monasteries because the burden of doing every service of the Orthodox Church over the course of a week is too much for a parish. While true, this reality need not stop us from experiencing the “very special grace” of the Psalms.

Great Lent is upon us and our fasting regimen, if done within context of its original intent, is supposed to give us more free time to spend in prayer and in reading the Scriptures. This year, I propose we take up the challenge of this original intent and find time within our busy schedules to read the entire Psalter.

Thus, this Great Lent I will be encouraging all of us to undertake what I will call The Psalms Challenge. The goal of this challenge is for all of us to read the entire Psalter, not just once, but over the course of one week. This will allow all of us to experience the Psalms as they are intended to be: the foundation of our prayer life, not something we only occasionally read.

To that end, here is a suggested schedule for getting through the entire Psalter in one week:

  • Sunday 9-24
  • Monday 25-46
  • Tuesday 47-70
  • Wednesday 71-85
  • Thursday 92-109
  • Friday 120-150
  • Saturday 1-8; 110-119

I invite everyone who is up to taking this challenge to comment below so that we may all share our experience of reading the Psalms, our struggles and our questions. Good Strength!

St. Athtanasius the Great on the Psalms

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Quoted from the Letter to Marcellinus:

All the books of Scripture, both Old Testament and New, are inspired by God and useful for instruction [2 Tim 3:16], as it is written; but to those who really study it the Psalter yields especial treasure. Each book of the Bible has, of course, its own particular message: the Pentateuch, for example, tells of the beginning of the world, the doings of the patriarchs, the exodus of Israel from Egypt, the giving of the Law, and the ordering of the tabernacle and the priesthood; The Triteuch [Joshua, Judges, and Ruth] describes the division of the inheritance, the acts of the judges, and the ancestry of David; Kings and Chronicles record the doings of the kings, Esdras [Ezra] the deliverance from exile, the return of the people, and the building of the temple and the city; the Prophets foretell the coming of the Saviour, put us in mind of the commandments, reprove transgressors, and for the Gentiles also have a special word. Each of these books, you see, is like a garden which grows one special kind of fruit; by contrast, the Psalter is a garden which, besides its special fruit, grows also some those of all the rest.

You see, then, that the grace of the one Spirit is common to every writer and all the books of Scripture, and differs in its expression only as need requires and the Spirit wills. Obviously, therefore, the only thing that matters is for each writer to hold fast unyieldingly the grace he personally has received and so fulfill perfectly his individual mission. And, among all the books, the Psalter has certainly a very special grace, a choiceness of quality well worthy to be pondered; for, besides the characteristics which it shares with others, it has this peculiar marvel of its own, that within it are represented and portrayed in all their great variety the movements of the human soul. It is like a picture, in which you see yourself portrayed, and seeing, may understand and consequently form yourself upon the pattern given.

The 14,000 Holy Innocents

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As a way to wrap up this annual exercise of spending time with one of the Church Fathers in preparation for the Nativity, I would like to follow up on yesterday’s post with a reminder that St. Gregory isn’t the only one who brings up suffering and death at Christmas time. On December 26th, the day after Christmas, the Orthodox Church reads the story of Herod’s anger and his slaughtering of all the male children two years and younger in the environs of Bethlehem. Three days later, on December 29th, the Orthodox Church officially commemorates these victims with the Feast for the 14,000 Holy Innocents.

It is a reminder that though we are called to leap for joy, sing praises to God and stand in awe of all that will be accomplished by Christ through His Nativity, the world continues to be filled with suffering and death. There are those who are today slaughtered by their fellow man for no good reason what so ever. Every year we have far more than 14,000 innocents who succumb to a death brought about by their fellow human beings.

Thus, in the midst of all this joy and all this celebration — for we Orthodox Christians do not stop celebrating Christmas on the morning of December 25th — we must remember all of those who died before ever knowing Christ. Remember all of those who died before they really ever had a chance to live. Remember all those whose lives that were cut short through the selfishness and cruelty of fallen humanity.

This is our burden and also our hope. During the liturgy, the priest says these seemingly innocuous words:

Remember also, Lord, those whom each of us calls to mind and all your people.

Then, as the priest is placing all of the crumbs that are left from the Body of Christ on the paten into the Cup he prays:

Wash away, Lord, by Your holy Blood, the sins of all those commemorated through the intercessions of the Theotokos and all Your saints. Amen.

By these two prayers, and our active participation in them we have the opportunity to ask God to not only remember but to forgive and grant everything that He gives us, His children, to those whom we bring to mind. Thus, the Church lifts up to God all those babes killed by Herod before they ever had a chance to live life or to know Christ. In turn, she invites us to lift up to God all of the innocents who have been killed throughout the ages.

May God, through our prayers, be as loving and merciful as we dare to hope. Indeed, may He marvelously exceed all of our expectations. Amen.

Victory

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Section 18 is the last in St. Gregory the Theologian’s Oration 38. Despite the challenges posed by the polemics of Sections 14 & 15, this last part of St. Gregory’s homily on Christmas may very well be the most provocative, especially for those of us who live in the relative luxury of 21st century America. St. Gregory exhorts us to intimately identify ourselves with Christ. That in and of itself isn’t very shocking; however, the kind of intimacy he demands is.

Be stoned? Get interrogated by authorities who might kill us? Seek torture? Taste gall? Seek spittings? Accept beatings? Get crowned with thorns? Get crucified and die? At first glance, St. Gregory sounds as if he wants us all to turn into suicidal masochists.

For those of us who live in societies that are relatively tolerant of Christianity, St. Gregory’s words are metaphor. The proof of this is when he asks us to “be crowned with thorns through the harshness of a life in accord with God.” Though he might be speaking of the ascetical practices of Orthodox Christianity, the sacrifices we must make in our time and treasure for a life in Christ as well as the hardship that accompanies trying to do the right thing, here is a dirty little secret: life is harsh whether you are a practicing Orthodox Christian or not.

We are all doomed to tragedy, decay and death. We will be assaulted by natural disaster, emotional turmoil and disappointment. We will all see the dreams of our youth fade into the harsh realities of adulthood and old age (that is, if we aren’t molested by some disease or accident which makes old age look like a luxury).

Thus, St. Gregory really isn’t asking us to seek trials and tribulations because we are going to have to go through them whether we like it or not. Rather, St. Gregory is asking us to go through all of our pain and suffering with Christ at our side. He does so with this litany of sufferings that Christ went through Himself to demonstrate that Christ is intimately familiar with our suffering. We do not have to go through the harshness of life alone. We do not have to shoulder all of this pain on our own.

Christ tells us His burden is light, because He has the strength to shoulder all of the pain and all of the suffering that humanity has ever, will ever and is going through. If we allow ourselves to identify with the suffering Christ went through for us, we, with Christ not only at our side but within us, can power through even the most horrendous of tribulations. Witness the martyrs.

In the end, all the pain, the suffering and the death that world can throw at us are powerless in the face of of the resurrection. This is our hope, this is our strength, this is our victory and it is all made possible because Christ is Born! Glorify Him!

Oration 38 Section 18

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St. Gregory the Theologian, Oration 38, Section 18:

You should hate only one of the events surrounding the birth of Christ, Herod’s murder of children; but rather, revere this sacrifice of those of the same age as Christ, who are sacrificed before the new victim. If he flees to Egypt, be willingly banished with him. It is good to flee with the persecuted Christ. If Christ delays in Egypt, call him forth from Egypt, where he is worshipped well. Travel blamelessly through all the stages of Christ’s life and all his powers, as a disciple of Christ. Be purified, be circumcised, that is remove the veil that has surrounded you since birth. After this teach in the temple, drive out the traders in divine things, be stoned if it is necessary that you suffer this; you will escape from those throwing the stones, I know well, and you will flee through the midst of them like God. For the Word is not stoned. If you are brought before Herod, do not answer for the most part. He will revere your silence more than the long discourses of other. If you are scourged, seek the other tortures. Taste the gall because of the taste [of the forbidden fruit]. Drink vinegar, seek the spittings, accept the blows, the beatings; be crowned with thorns through the harshness of a life in accord with God. Put on a scarlet robe, accept the reed, and the worship of those who mock the truth. Finally, be crucified with him, die with him, be buried with him willingly, so as also to be resurrected with him and glorified with him and reign with him, seeing God as far as is possible and being seen by him, who is worshipped and glorified in the Trinity, whom even now we pray to be manifest to us as clearly as is possible to prisoners of the flesh, in Christ Jesus our Lord, to whom be glory and sovereignty unto the ages of ages. Amen

The Eternal Now

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Section 17 of St. Gregory the Theologian’s Oration 38 and passages like it are the reason I so adore reading the Fathers of the Church. How can one not leap for joy, as St. Gregory exhorts us to do, after reading these words?

In order to understand the power behind these words, and why I love this passage so much, I need to quote the Anaphora of another of the Three Hierarchs — St. John Chrysostom. This is the prayer that immediately follows the words of institution (Eat…Drink…)

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.

Note how the second and glorious coming is referred to in the past tense. This is an acknowledgment by the Orthodox Church that what happens within the liturgy does so outside of time as we experience it. When we utter the words, “Blessed is the Kingdom” we enter into the Eight Day, the day that has no end, the day that exists outside of time where time can only be described as the eternal now.

It is in this context that St. Gregory exhorts us to leap for joy. Note that as he moves through all of the various narrative actions from the story of Christ’s birth that we are called to join in. This joining is not something which we do in remembrance of something that has happened in the past, but rather is something which is occurring right now.

When we gather as the Orthodox Church to celebrate the Nativity, we will be witnesses to the event itself. Christ is perfect God and perfect Man. As such, Christ is both in and outside of time. Thus, everything that he has done for us exists both in and outside of time. While the birth of Christ is an historical event that did happen in the past, it is also an eternal reality that we will partake of as the Orthodox Church.

Thus, we can be awed by the census, revere the birth, honor Bethlehem, bow before the manger, know our master and his crib, run after the star to bring gifts, give glory, sing hymns and witness the angels lift up the gates of heaven right now. Amen.

Oration 38 Section 17

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St. Gregory the Theologian, Oration 38, Section 17:

Now welcome for me his conception and leap for joy, if not indeed like John in the womb, then like David when the ark came to rest. Be awed at the census record through which you have been recorded in heaven, and revere the birth through which you have been released from the bonds of birth, and honor little Bethlehem, which has brought you back to paradise, and bow before the manger. you who were without reason have been fed by the Word. Know, like the ox, your owner — Isaiah exhorts you — and like the donkey know your master’s crib, whether you are among those who are pure and under the law and chew the cud of the Word and are prepared for sacrifice, or whether up to now you are among the impure and unfit for food or sacrifice and belong to the Gentiles. Run after the star, and bring gifts with the magi, gold and frankincense and myrrh, as to a king and a God and one dead for your sake. With the shepherds give glory, with the angels sing hymns, with the archangels dance. Let there be a common celebration of the heavenly and earthly powers. For I am persuaded that they rejoice and celebrate with us today, if indeed they love humankind and love God, just as David represents them ascending with Christ after his Passion as they come to meet him and exhort each other to lift up the gates.

Celebrate!

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Section 16 of St. Gregory the Theoogians Oration 38 is evidence that as early as A.D. 380, the church in Constantinople was celebrating Christmas and Epiphany as we do today — on December 25 and January 6. This is why he tells us that we will “shortly” see Jesus in the Jordan.

St. Gregory then goes on to tell in great detail of all of the things that Christ did in His ministry. He finishes this list with a very intriguing statement: “How many celebrations there are for me corresponding to each of the mysteries of Christ!” He is referring here to the whole calendar of the Church. We have feasts for all of the major events in Christ’s life from His conception, to His circumcision, to His presentation at the temple, to His baptism, to His crucifixion and, of course, His resurrection. While we do grossly neglect most of these feasts, St. Gregory also mentions events that do not have specific feasts such as His temptation in the desert, the healing of the sick or the driving out of demons. Despite the lack of feasts, these events are all celebrated throughout the year — a fact we would be aware of if we happened to attend liturgy on days other than Sunday.

The Divine Liturgy is not only for Sunday, even though Sunday is the day par excellence to celebrate because it is the day of resurrection and the 8th day, the day that has no end. If one visits an Orthodox monastery on Mt. Athos, they will find that a Divine Liturgy is served every day. It is during these liturgies that we hear the stories from the Gospel about the healing of the sick, the driving out of the demons and all of these other aspects of Christ’s ministry. It is also when we celebrate these events.

Thus, when St. Gregory says, “How many celebrations there are for me corresponding to each of the mysteries of Christ!” he is referring to the fact that it is proper and right for us to have a celebration and a liturgy every day.

However, the most important thing St. Gregory says in Section 16 is the last thing he says, “they all have one completion, my perfection and refashioning and restoration to the state of the first Adam.” Everything that Christ and His Church do have one singular purpose: our perfection, our return to the communion with God that Adam had prior to the Fall, a shedding of everything the Fall means.

This begs the question: Why aren’t we celebrating this awesome mystery as much as is humanly possible?

Oration 38 Section 16

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St. Gregory the Theologian, Oration 38, Section 16:

So shortly you will also see the purification of Jesus in the Jordan for my purification; or rather he is cleansed for the purification of the waters, for he indeed did not need purification, who takes away the sin of the world. The heavens are parted and he receives the testimony of the Spirit, who is akin to him. He is tempted and conquers the tempter and is served by angels. He heals every sickness and every infirmity, and give life to the dead. Would that he would give life to you who are dead through your false doctrine. He drives out demons, some by himself and others through his disciples. With a few loaves he feed tens of thousands, and he walks on the sea. He is betrayed and crucified and crucifies sin with himself. He is offered as a lamb and offers as a priest, he is buried as a human being, raised as God, then also ascends, and he will return with his own glory. How many celebrations there are for me corresponding to each of the mysteries of Christ! Yet they all have one completion, my perfection and refashioning and restoration to the state of the first Adam.

Hypocrite!

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After I made the claim that modern secularists and atheists like to brand Christians with the image of the fire and brimstone preacher, one might be tempted to point out that in Section 15 of his Oration 38 St. Gregory the Theologian sounds an awful lot like a fire and brimstone preacher:

Against which is he more angry?…It would have been better for you to be circumcised and possessed by a demon, if I may say something ridiculous, rather than in uncircumcision and good health to be in a state of wickedness and atheism.

This characterization, however, would completely miss the point of what St. Gregory is trying to say. Whereas the fire and brimstone preacher is typically urging morality (stop sinning so you don’t go to hell), St. Gregory really isn’t talking about moral behavior in Section 15.

The point, rather, is about how to answer that most important question: Who is God? and subsequently Who is Christ? St. Gregory mentions demons because they, unlike his Arian opponents, understand that Christ is God.

This section talks about how the Triune God is one in essence and distinct in persons. Father and Son have their own activities (the Father sends forth and the Son is sent), yet both have the power to resurrect. Therefore his point about being a demon possessed Jew (an illustration he calls ridiculous) isn’t about behavior, but understanding.

In order to have a proper relationship with God, and therefore be able to partake of His divine nature (cf 2 Peter 1:4), we must have a proper (aka orthodox) understand of who God is. If I go around insisting that all women are really men and that all men are really women, all of the relationships in my life are going to be dysfunctional. How can it be otherwise with our relationship with God?

To demonstrate this relational understanding, St. Gregory mitigates his own characterization of God as angry by correcting himself: Rather whom must he pardon more? God is a loving God. The relationship, therefore, is about love (who must He pardon) and not anger (who must He condemn).

Ultimately, what do the Arians and the atheists gain from who they insist God is? Nothing. If Christ is a created being (as the Arians insist) we cannot partake of divine nature — we merely partake of creation, something we already do at every meal. Since Christ would have a beginning (as we do), he must also have an end (just as we do). Therefore, both Arians and atheists really have only one hope: death.

In contrast, St. Gregory lives in hope that by partaking of Christ, who is one of the persons of the Triune God, we may all share in God’s eternity and thus overcome death. Morality really doesn’t play a role in this discussion, because we are all hypocrites and sinners. In fact, that is why Christ became a babe born in a cave.

Thus, to mirror St. Gregory’s self-admitted ridiculous statement, it is better to be a sinful hypocrite who has a proper understanding of who God is than an atheist who is unquestionably moral.

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