Thank you to everyone who sent in questions. Keep up the good work.
The reading for next week: John 1:29-34
I apologize that I have not yet posted Parts 3 &4, as I explain in this session, cleaning up the audio on these sessions has proven to be extremely difficult and time-consuming. I pray that they will be out sooner rather than later.
In the meantime, I wanted to turn this session around quickly because so many people were kind enough to send in questions about the reading covered this week. So that we keep this momentum and participation going, I decided to publish this prior to Parts 3 &4. I hope that is not too much of an inconvenience and that this whole exercise is fruitful.
Thank you to all who did take the time to answer questions, please keep up the good work.
Next week we will discuss John 1:24-28.
Our parish recently began a weekly Bible Study focusing on the Gospel of John. One of the goals of this ministry was to make it available to members of the parish whose schedules prevented them from participating. As such, we will be recording these sessions and posting them here for general consumption.
Please note: this is the first time we have done this and the audio isn’t as good as we’d hoped. As this series continues, we will be trying various ways in which to improve the sound quality. In addition, occasionally there will be background noises of children and babies. Please bear with us as we try to balance the needs of those participating and the needs of recording these sessions. Thank you.
This coming Sunday, as the fifth Sunday in Lent, commemorates St. Mary of Egypt. Her story is read, along with the Great Canon of St. Andrew on the fifth Thursday of Lent. Personally, I love the fact that her name is Mary, which invites us to compare her with the Theotokos. One is a virgin, the other a prostitute; yet, both say Yes to God and as a result each is now a beloved saint within the Orthodox Church. It is St. Mary of Egypt’s life that we kept in mind as we discussed the Epistle Reading (Hebrews 9:11-14) and Gospel Reading (Mark 10:32-45) for this coming Sunday.
We spent most of our time on the Epistle. As we discussed this pericope from Hebrews, it quickly became clear that we needed to understand the Temple sacrificial cult of ancient Judaism:
There are a couple of interesting implications from all of this:
Some of us were offended by the whole concept of sacrificing animals to God — was such a thing necessary? Remember that St. Paul tells us that the worship of the Temple was a shadow of the heavenly worship (Heb 8:5). These things were done to prepare us for the coming of Christ. Without the sacrificial cult of the Temple, we can’t truly understand Christ’s sacrifice.
We continued to speak about sacrifice as we moved on to the Gospel Reading:
Finally, we tried to tie all this to St. Mary of Egypt. She offered herself as a sacrifice to God by wandering the desert for 47 years and in the end had one of the most holy men of her age (St. Zosimas) bow in respect to her — she received the honor due to a priest.
Apologies for not posting anything last week. Medical emergencies on top of preparation for the Feast Day of our parish prevented us from having Bible Study and me from having any time to post my own thoughts.
The fourth Sunday of Lent is dedicated to St. John Climacus, author of the Divine Ladder of Ascent, an ascetical treatise that uses the image of a ladder to describe ways of avoiding vice and embracing virtue in order to obtain salvation. The icon of the Ladder of Divine Ascent depicts Christians climbing a ladder towards Christ while demons use various tools to try to pull them off.
It is in this context that we examined both the Epistle Reading (Hebrews 6:13-20) and Gospel Reading (Mark 9:17-31) for this coming Sunday. We began by struggling through the Hebrews pericope, trying to understand how it was related to St. John Climacus. The image around which we were able to do this was Christ as “a sure and steadfast anchor” (Hebrews 6:19):
Our discussion of the Gospel was a little less focused:
For those of you who followed this blog over this past Advent Fast, you will already be a bit familiar with St. Gregory Palamas. As much as I adore him, even I have to admit that he can be a bit impenetrable at times; however, his import on the second Sunday of Lent can be easily summarized. In the 14th century, there was a philosopher named Barlaam who claimed that philosophers knew more about God than prophets and that contemplative prayer was a waste of time because God is unknowable. St. Gregory argued against Barlaam’s claim by insisting that all Christians are capable of participating in the uncreated light of God’s divine glory even in this life through the ascetic practices of prayer and fasting (to which I would also add almsgiving). In other words, our own ascetic endeavors during this time of Lent are not in vain.
This week we started contemplating St. Gregory’s import by examining the Gospel Reading (Mark 2:1-2):
In discussing the Epistle Reading (Hebrews 1:10-2:3), we focused primarily on St. Paul’s quotation of Psalm 109:1
Sit at my right hand, till I make thy enemies a stool for thy feet.
and Hebrews 2:1
Therefore we must pay closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it.
The first part of Psalm 109:1 states, “The Lord said to my Lord” where the word “Lord” is a title for God. In other words, “God said to my God.” It is one of the explicit OT references to a Trinitarian existence within the Godhead. Thus, the Father is telling the Son these things. One of the verses for the Lauds sung next week (the Veneration of the Holy Cross) is this:
Exalt the Lord our God, and worship at the footstool of His feet; for He is holy.
In other words, the Church understands that Christ’s footstool is the Cross. Therefore:
It is the first week of Lent, which means that this Sunday is the Sunday of Orthodoxy — the celebration of the restoration of the icons to the Churches after the end of iconoclasm. This week’s Bible Study was small, short and focused on how the Epistle (Hebrews 11:24-26, 32-40) and Gospel (John 1:44-51) Readings speak to the Orthodox Church’s understanding of icons.
We primarily focused on the last verses of each pericope:
And all these [holy ones of the OT], though well attested by their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had foreseen something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect. — Heb. 11:39-40
Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man. — John 1:51
In order to truly appreciate how these two speak to each other, one much look to the Greek of St. John:
ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν, ἀπ᾽ ἄρτι ὄψεσθε τὸν οὐρανὸν ἀνεῳγότα, καὶ τοὺς ἀγγέλους τοῦ Θεοῦ ἀναβαίνοντας καὶ καταβαίνοντας ἐπὶ τὸν υἱὸν τοῦ ἀνθρώπου.
A more literal translation looks like this:
Truly, truly I say to you: you will see heaven — the one that has opened — and the angels of God — the ones ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.
Note the subtle difference in tense suggested by the participles. Nathaniel cannot see what already is; however, unlike the holy ones of the OT, for whom the heavens were closed because Christ had not yet become incarnate, Nathaniel is capable of seeing these things. He need only put away his attachment to earthly things (as suggested by his political understanding of Christ as merely the King of Israel), open his eyes and see the reality of the Kingdom of Heaven in Christ Himself.
The Orthodox Church understands icons as windows that allow us to glimpse what already is — heaven is open and angels are descending and ascending upon the Son of man. The reality of the Kingdom of Heaven has entered into the world through our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ and is available in Him. We need only open our eyes to see. Amen.
This coming Sunday is the last Sunday before we begin Lent. It is called Forgiveness Sunday and we also commemorate Adam’s expulsion from Paradise. In other words we must have these things in mind when we read the Epistle (Romans 13:11-14; 141-4) and Gospel Readings (Matthew 6:14-21):
The discussion on the Epistle this week centered around the fast and why we do it.
Our discussion of the Gospel Reading was more varied:
If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
Let me open this post the same way I opened this week’s Bible Study: it is a pet peeve of mine that this Sunday is called Meatfare. Nowhere in the hymns of the Church nor in the readings is there anything about fasting from meat. That is not what this Sunday is about. Rather, this Sunday is more properly called Judgement Sunday.
The hymns are filled with images of the Judgement Seat with its river of fire and the opening of all the books:
When You come down to the earth, O God, in Your glory, all things will cower tremulous, and a river of fire will draw before Your Judgment Seat; the books shall be opened up, and public knowledge will things hidden be. Rescue me, then, I pray, from unquenchable fire, and count me worthy to stand at Your right hand, O You, the most righteous Judge. — Kontakion of Judgement Sunday
These images come from the seventh chapter of Daniel, verses nine and ten:
I watched till thrones were put in place, And the Ancient of Days was seated; His garment was white as snow, and the hair of His head was like pure wool. His throne was a fiery flame, Its wheels a burning fire; a fiery stream issued And came forth from before Him. A thousand thousands ministered to Him; ten thousand times ten thousand stood before Him. The court was seated, and the books were opened.
While reading the Epistle (1 Cor. 8:18; 9:1-2), one might be tempted to claim that it is about fasting; however note what St. Paul says about fasting from food:
We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. (1 Cor. 8:8)
The focus of this pericope, rather, is serving our weaker brethren. We need to know each other well enough and find value enough in each other to bear one another’s burdens. Part of why we fast is so that those who are weak are not tempted into further weakness.
This seeing value in others is also a very large part of the Gospel Reading (Matthew 25:31-46) on which we spent most of our time discussing. The key verse is Matthew 25:40:
Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.
Every human being is made in the image and likeness of God. Every human being is the icon of Christ. Therefore, the criteria for being a goat or a sheep is going to be how we see and treat our fellow human beings.
Some of our other observations: