“Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit; and her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:18-21)
This is a series of reflections on the names of Jesus. In theory, this could be a short series with just one offering. After all, Jesus really only had one name, strictly speaking. Jesus answered to ‘Jesus’ -- or at least to the way this name was pronounced by, say, his mother in first century Palestine.
‘Jesus’ is the name of Jesus because, well, God commanded through the archangel Gabriel that it be so (Luke 1:31). God chose the name, so the name must be rather important.
In Scripture, names are *always* important. A name captures a person’s important features and functions. Here are just a few examples.
Adam, means ‘from the earth’
Eve, means ‘source of life,’ or ‘the living/breathing one’
Moses, means ‘drawn from water’
David, means ‘the beloved one’
Abraham, means ‘father of multitudes’
Israel, means ‘struggles with God’
Saul, means ‘the asked-for one’
Elijah, means ‘Yahweh is my God’
Satan, means ‘the accuser’ or ‘adversary’
Remember the old westerns? White hats on the good guys, black hats on the bad? The same is true of names in Scripture. They are signals. They tell you how the person will function in the story, what job that person will perform.
And so what about ‘Jesus’? Well first, it might surprise you to learn that ‘Jesus’ was not our Lord’s original name! ‘Jesus’ is actually a Greek word. But Jesus did not speak Greek. He spoke Aramaic, which is close to Hebrew. No one around Jesus ... ever called Jesus ... ‘Jesus’.
Instead, he answered to something close to ‘Yeshua.’
‘Yeshua’ is an Aramaic name that means ‘the one who saves.’ His name, literally, is Savior. ‘Jesus’ is just the Greek version. It too means Savior. This pretty much sums up the function of Christ in Scripture!
Yet more than this, Jesus is the only one who ever accomplishes the meaning of his name. For example, David is ‘beloved by God,’ but we know that David did some rather upsetting things.
Not so with Christ. Jesus perfectly fulfills his role in Scripture. Jesus is the only one who ‘Jesus-es’ -- he is the only one who saves us, and who saves us perfectly.
There is much more to say about ‘Jesus’ as a name. In fact, we will linger a bit and dwell tomorrow for a second day on ‘Yeshua’. If ‘Yeshua’ sounds like ‘Joshua’ to you, that’s no mistake! There is an important connection between the Old Testament Joshua and the New Testament Jesus.
We said yesterday that Jesus was known as ‘Yeshua’ to his friends and family. This name, we remarked, means ‘Savior’.
‘Yeshua’ is also the name, in Hebrew, for the Old Testament hero Joshua. Joshua is the one who succeeds Moses as leader of the Hebrews. Moses, we remember, is the one who delivers the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt. Moses is the one to whom God gives the ten commandments and all the laws of the Old Testament. Moses is the one who leads the Hebrews for 40 years as they wander in the wilderness.
But Moses is not the one who brings the Hebrews into the promised land. God does not allow Moses to complete the journey. Moses dies in old age before reaching Canaan, and he appoints Joshua as his successor.
Joshua is a man who is wedded to Scripture. God says that “the book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth,” and Joshua obeys. Joshua embraces Scripture and “meditates on it day and night” always being “careful to do all that is written in it” (Joshua 1:8).
Joshua is successful, we learn, because Joshua follows the teaching that Moses reveals. Moses delivers the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, but Joshua leads them into the promised land. Under Moses, the Hebrews are fed with the manna that falls from heaven. Under Joshua, the Hebrews are fed with wheat. And once there is bread, the manna finally ceases (Joshua 5:12).
Joshua himself has no successor. He completes the work begun by Moses. He fulfills the promises made by God to the children of Israel. After Joshua, another such leader is not needed. After Joshua, the Hebrews receive their territorial inheritance and settle. Their wandering has come to an end, and there is new life in the promised land.
The Old Testament Joshua is a deliverer. He completes the passover from slavery to freedom. A passover that begins with Moses, but which needs a ‘Savior’ -- a Yeshua -- to ensure a final victory.
Jesus is the New Testament Joshua. It is no accident that Jesus shares a name with the Old Testament hero. Jesus and Joshua -- these two Yeshuas -- accomplish the same work. The work of deliverance. The work of bringing bread -- truly the bread of life -- to the people of God. The work of completing the passover from death to life.
The work they do in parallel is important, but so too is the character they share. The Old Testament Joshua is a man of Scripture. He meditates on the law of Moses day and night. The commandments and promises of God never depart from his lips.
So too with Jesus. Jesus does not replace Moses, Jesus succeeds Moses and continues the work which Moses begins. The work of teaching and preaching. The work of speaking God’s word and revealing God’s glory. Just as the Old Testament Joshua could not accomplish his saving work for Israel apart from his devotion to Scripture, neither could Jesus accomplish his saving work for all humankind apart from completing what is required, in love, by these same commandments of God.
The Savior we receive at Christmas is the savior promised by “the law and the prophets.” Jesus in fact says that he does not bring a new message, but has come to serve us in simple but perfect obedience to the commandments already given. “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words” (John 5:46-47).
Jesus is a second and final Joshua. Not born to deliver us into an earthly, historical inheritance. But born to deliver us into an eternal, cosmic one.
Christmas music started playing on the radio before Veterans Day this year. I’m of two minds about this.
On the one hand, that is super early, you have to admit. You and I, do we really have an appetite for hearing Rudolph and Frosty on heavy rotation for 50 days? The cynic in me says “no thank you.” It’s Pavlov’s bell. Christmas music means Christmas gifts. They play the music, then we buy the stuff.
On the other hand, I like Christmas music! For me, and I suspect for many, these songs reach back into childhood. They are the last echoes of a time when the world felt enchanted and full of wonder. They have the power to return us, at least in small ways, to the feeling that Christmas is a season when the veil between heaven and earth is particularly thin, and all for good reasons.
I don’t like being of two minds, so we adopted a rule in my house. No Christmas music until the Feast of St Nicholas. (Confession. I do cheat a bit here and there. But only if I accidentally land on Feliz Navidad while scanning channels. I promise!)
There is one exception to the rule. Christmas music must wait until December 6, but Advent music is perfectly fine before then.
But what the heck is Advent music??
Is there music about waiting around for Christmas? About how it’s good to hold off on the cookies and the candy canes? About how I want to send Santa a list, but that I’ll wait, at least another 3 weeks?
Truth be told, there isn’t much Advent music. I do know one piece, but only one.
Still, it’s a good one. The well-known song is O Come, O Come Emmanuel. (You can listen to a version HERE, with lyrics.) The words were written in the 12th century, in Latin, so it’s old. In fact, the schism between the Eastern and Western Churches was not yet in full force, so the song is also Orthodox, arguably.
In any case, O Come, O Come Emmanuel is a song about how Israel must wait for centuries for the promised Messiah. It perfectly captures the spirit of these 40 days before Christmas. This is a season for recognizing our own lonely exile from the promises of God, so long as anything depends on our human efforts. It is a song that anticipates the grace brought by Christ our Savior. It sees the joy of Christmas day at a distance. We begin to experience hope as something “already, but not yet.”
The song is a gift, and its title includes an important name for Jesus.
‘Emmanuel’ is a Hebrew word. It means ‘God is with us.’ The name is found in the Book of Isaiah, where the prophet declares that a child will be born to a virgin in the House of David, and this child will be a sign that God’s protection of David and his descendants will continue.
In the Gospel of Saint Matthew, the birth of Jesus by Mary is the fulfillment of Isaiah: “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: ‘Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel’ (which means, God with us)” (Matthew 1:23).
Jesus is ‘Emmanuel’ in the most literal sense. As Orthodox Christians, we don’t simply mean that Jesus is a “sign” that God is with us. Jesus is not a lucky mascot, indicating that God’s favor or God’s blessing is with us.
We mean instead that God is with us, because Jesus is God, and Jesus is with us. In Christ, we don’t simply have a pointer to God. We have God himself.
Jesus Christ is fully God. He is divine with the same divinity with which the Father is divine.
So yes, if Jesus is with us, then truly God is with us.
O Come, O Come Emmanuel is the only Advent song we need. In my home, we sing it before blessing our food, and before we go to bed.
Rudolph and Frosty can wait.
I bet you didn’t see that one coming.
Yesterday we noted that ‘Emmanuel’ is a prophetic name found in Isaiah 7:3-9. Two chapters later, in Isaiah 9:6, we find one of the most well-known titles given to Jesus: Pele-joez-el-gibbor-abi-ad-sar-shalom.
Rolls right off the tongue, yes? Nothing says “Christmas” like Pele-joez-el-gibbor-abi-ad-sar-shalom!
Actually, all kidding aside. Nothing does say “Christmas” like Pele-... well, that name.
To see why, return to ‘Emmanuel.’ The name is Hebrew, and it’s easy for us to handle. No harm, no foul. So in our English Bibles, it stays Emmanuel.
‘Pele-joez-el-gibbor-abi-ad-sar-shalom’ (PJEGAASS for short??) is also Hebrew, but for most of us, it forces a fumble. Too hard to say. So the name had to go, at least in the typical English Bible. The name was translated into English, leaving all the Hebrew behind.
An epic decision by the editors, to be sure. Consider the before and after:
Isaiah 9:6 BEFORE.
For unto us a child is born, to us a son is given. And the government will be upon his shoulder, and his name will be called:
Isaiah 9:6 AFTER.
For unto us a child is born, to us a son is given. And the government will be upon his shoulder, and his name will be called:
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
See! O ye of little faith, I told you it was a famous name for Jesus!
And it’s a good bargain too (early Christmas shoppers). In Hebrew, it’s one name. In English, it’s four.
We will reflect further on these four famous English names. But for now, I’d like to extend an invitation to anyone who does not already associate Pele-joez-el-gibbor-abi-ad-sar-shalom with Christmas.
For Orthodox Christians, Christmas Day celebrations begin on the Eve, December 24. At Saint Nicholas in Salem MA, we gather at 7pm for the solemn Vigil of the Nativity. The Vigil begins triumphantly with the shout “GOD IS WITH US!” We then go on to sing these very verses from Isaiah 9.
Our celebration begins with the shout of “For unto us a child is born, to us a son is given. And the government will be upon his shoulder, and his name will be called: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
Make plans to be with us at 7pm on Monday, December 24 for the Christmas Eve Vigil. Come early for supper and carols at 5pm!
We welcome the birth of Christ by proclaiming Pele-joez-el-gibbor-abi-ad-sar-shalom!
We do so in English, but these names of Jesus are sweet in any language!
(5) The MAN (The Human Being, John 19:5)
(Happy Thanksgiving. I am writing this from State College, PA, where we will celebrate the day with family. I miss our tradition of Liturgy and Turkeypalooza at St Nicholas, which we will resume in 2019, God willing! These weekday reflections might be sparse until next week. This one is offered for deeper chewing on this American feast of Thanksgiving.)
As Orthodox Christians, we believe that Jesus is fully divine. He is God, as the Father is God. And to understand what it means to be God, we look to the biblical witness of the life and words of Jesus Christ.
But we also believe that Jesus is fully human. He is human with the same humanity with which you and I are human. You get headaches; Jesus gets headaches. I am tempted to tell my neighbor what I *really* think; Jesus is no different (Hebrews 4:15).
Set aside the Lord’s divine nature for a bit, and focus on his humanity. You might think that our faith has nothing much surprising to say about the man Jesus. (Spoiler: but you would be wrong.)
It is true that many admire Jesus of Nazareth. Not just Christians. Many people of faith hold the man Jesus in high esteem. Many agnostics and atheists also underscore the importance of his teachings and example. They hold that Jesus has much to add to the conversation about what it means to be human.
This is where Orthodox Christianity says, hold the train, let me off.
We do not say that Jesus has much to add to the conversation about what it means to be human. We say that it is impossible to understand what it means to be human apart from Jesus Christ.
Why do we say this?
We say this, not because Jesus was a “perfect human being” (whatever that means exactly).
We say this because we maintain that Jesus Christ is the only truly human being who ever lived. He is the first and (so far) only human being. And apart from Jesus, we are clueless about what it even means to be human.
Our basis for this claim is Scripture, as Father John Behr makes the case in "The Mystery of Christ" and “Becoming Human” (SVS Press).
Remember the creation story in Genesis 1. God makes day and night. He makes land and sea. He makes a range of animals that swim, crawl, and fly. God’s actions each day are complete, nothing is left over for later.
But when it is time for you and me, God says “Let us make man in our own image” (Gen 1:26). This is unusual language, used only with human beings. Our creation is not like the creation of stars and starfish. Our creation is a project. It is not finished on Day 6, it is open-ended and ongoing.
Sadly, because in time we refused fellowship with God, the process of “becoming human” halted prematurely. The project of creating you and me was interrupted.
But with the birth of Jesus, the project resumes.
On Pascha night each year, as we celebrate the light-filled Liturgy of the resurrection itself, we read the beginning of the Gospel of St John.
The Gospel of John and the Book of Genesis both begin the same way. Both open with “in the beginning.”
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God (John).
Genesis and John are creation stories. Genesis recounts the creation of the whole world, but only the start of our creation. John is the completion of our creation. It brings the project of our creation to an end.
Jesus Christ, in particular, is the completion of that project. Jesus, as God, voluntarily chooses in love to die as a human being. He does so for our sake. He refuses to break fellowship with us, even though we offer him a cross. Even though we mock and abandon him. Even though we take the life of the Source of Life.
Nothing changes the mind of Jesus. Nothing diminishes his love for God and for us.
And when Pilate in John 19 commands that Jesus be beaten and scourged, our creation nears completion.
Bloodied and bruised, naked and humiliated, ready to bear his Cross, Jesus is brought forth by Pilate and presented to the taunting crowds.
Pilate gestures grandly at the broken Jesus, wearing purple robes and a crown of thorns. With a showman’s swagger, Pilate says “Behold, the man!” (John 19:5)
In Greek, Pilate says, behold the “anthropos.” Behold the human being, says Pilate.
Jesus in this moment is the first fully human being -- he becomes the first truly human person, capable of choosing love in every way, and in every situation.
And as he dies on the Cross, Jesus cries out “It is finished” (John 19:30). The Greek more literally says, “It has been accomplished.”
Yet, it is not his earthly life that is finished. It is our creation that is finished.
The project of creating you and me, started in Genesis 1, is accomplished in the life and death of Jesus, as he chooses as God to die in love as a human being.
Jesus is the man -- the anthropos, the human being -- without equal. He is not simply the perfect human being. He is the only total and complete human person.
He is our model in all things. And as we love with Christ’s love, our humanity grows as well.
Because Jesus is the “the man,” it is possible for us to become truly human as well.
(6) Son of Man
”And a scribe came up and said to him, "Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go." And Jesus said to him, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8:19-20).
Here, Jesus uses ‘Son of Man’ as a name for himself. You can find other examples. Many others in fact. In the Gospels, Jesus calls himself Son of Man some 80 times. That makes ‘Son of Man’ by far the most common name Jesus uses when speaking about himself. In contrast, he only calls himself ‘Son of God’ about 8 times.
As Christians, we know what it means to proclaim that Jesus is the Son of God. It is the central teaching of our faith, and is even part of the Nicene Creed. To say that Jesus is the Son of God is to affirm his divinity. We have to add other descriptions -- that he is “True God of True God, begotten, not made, of one essence with the Father” -- but Son of God is certainly a title that reflects our belief concerning the divine nature of Jesus Christ.
But what about ‘Son of Man’? The Church has no dogmatic proclamation about Jesus as the Son of Man. We only have the interesting biblical data already mentioned, the noteworthy fact that ‘Son of Man’ is by far Jesus’ favorite name for himself.
If I started calling myself “Mr Waffles” all the time, you would be curious, yes? You would assume that I have a special reason for doing so. Maybe I’m proud of my waffle recipe, or of my appetite for waffles. Maybe I’m making fun of myself, choosing a name that calls attention to my lack of decisiveness. In any case, it matters to us what others wish to call themselves. And we generally believe that these preferences are based on reasons. The preferences are not random.
Concerning ‘Son of Man,’ one might say that Jesus uses this name to emphasize his humanity, just as ‘Son of God’ draws attention to his divinity.
I’m not convinced. I don’t think the gospel writers were anticipating the great Christological controversies of the fourth century. Plus, the occurrence of ‘Son of Man’ is so disproportionately large. This would suggest that somehow it was Christ’s humanity that was in doubt, which just seems silly given the totality of the four gospels in which, among other things, we see that Jesus is hungry, sleepy, sad, happy, angry, surprised, frustrated, and of course, birthed by Mary.
By using ‘Son of Man,’ Jesus is not emphasizing his humanity, just as calling myself “Mr Waffles” would not be a way, by me, of signaling that I am part waffle.
Instead, we look to the Old Testament book of Daniel for an explanation. In chapter 7, Daniel relates a vision in which he beholds the “Ancient of Days.” The Ancient of Days is a divine figure who comes to judge the world, and to bring order to the growing cosmic chaos. Daniel relates that “a thousand thousands” serve him, and “ten thousand times ten thousand” stand before him (7:10).
Daniel’s vision continues:
“I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed” (Daniel 7:13-14).
Here, the ‘Son of Man’ is introduced as an apocalyptic figure who is authorized by the Ancient of Days to bring an everlasting kingdom to all nations. The Son of Man then will lead the “saints of the Most High” in their battle against the beastly kingdoms that wage war on the righteous. In time, the Son of Man will bring a final and eternal kingdom, superseding all earthly and temporary regimes.
Most certainly, Jesus uses of ‘Son of Man’ to link himself to this eschatology in Daniel’s vision. Jesus is the Son of Man who will accomplish the will of the Ancient of Days, bringing an indestructible peace to a universal kingdom that includes all people and all languages.
By using ‘Son of Man,’ Jesus points beyond his humanity. He alerts his listeners to the divine will for eternal peace now unfolding in their midst. He signals to us that God’s boundless and steadfast love will overwhelm all earthly strongholds. Kingdoms will crumble and waste away once the Son of Man marches against the powers that enslave the saints.
‘Son of Man’ is a prophetic title that anticipates the Cross, the battlefield on which Jesus will take back death. By dying as God, Jesus will turn death inside out. He will turn death from something destructive into something creative. Death will become a consecrated womb that births us into the unending Kingdom of glory and joy.
(7) The Existing One
At the dismissal of every worship service, we hear the following:
“Christ our God, the Existing One, is blessed, always, now and ever, and to the ages of ages.”
It’s so familiar that we rarely pause and reflect on the odd quality of this name for Jesus. “The Existing One” is somewhat awkward, a little schoolish and not entirely clear. It lacks that lyrical quality we associate with the words of the Liturgy.
And yet there it is, the very last name we use for Jesus at the end of Every. Single. Service. And final impressions matter. Jesus as “the Existing One” is supposed to linger with us as we make our transition back into the world. But how often do we give it further thought?
We do see this name for Jesus elsewhere. And I use the word “see” here on purpose. “The Existing One” is written into every icon of Christ. When we look at Christ, we also see this divine name - we see him proclaimed as the Existing One.
But don’t look for the English version. Look for the Greek. And don’t blink, you might miss it. In English “the Existing One” as a name is a bit ponderous and letter-hungry. In Greek, it’s super short. It’s just three letters:
The first word (ὁ), is pronounced ‘ho’ with only a quick emphasis on the short o.
The second (ὢν) is pronounced ‘ohn.’
The ὁ is the direct article (the), and the ὢν is the participle (existing one).
And to see the name, look to the halo!
The three letters are embedded in the halo surrounding the divine face. (Capitalization varies from icon to icon, and sometimes a Slavonic ‘H’ replaces the Greek ‘N’.) Whenever you see Jesus in an icon, even the infant Christ, you will see this halo, and you will see these three letters.
So this name - the Existing One - is everywhere. In every icon of Christ, and at the end of every Orthodox service.
The answer requires just one more translation step. So hold on. We’ve gone from English to Greek, and now we move from Greek to Hebrew.
Remember the story of Moses and the burning bush in Exodus, Chapter 3? God speaks directly to Moses through the unconsumed bush, commanding Moses to deliver the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt. Moses asks for a name. “Then Moses said to God, "If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they ask me, ‘What is his name?' what shall I say to them” (Exodus 3:13).
At this point, perhaps the most dramatic in all of Scripture, God reveals his name to Moses.
“God said to Moses, ... "Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM’ has sent me to you.'"
To Moses, God speaks his unspeakable name: YHWH, in Hebrew.
It has no vowels, and pious Jews often refuse to pronounce it directly, choosing instead to substitute the name Adonai (My Lord) in place of YHWH. Scholars suspect it may have been pronounced Yahweh, maybe, perhaps.
In Hebrew, YHWH is related to the verb ‘to be.’ God is the one who “is”. He is the ‘I AM’ as it says in English. He is the Existing One. He is the ὁ ὢν. That’s not just who he is, that’s his sacred name.
YHWH in Hebrew. ὁ ὢν in Greek. The Existing One in English.
This is the divine name of the God who calls Moses. But it is also a name that Jesus claims for himself (with some variation in the underlying Greek).
“The Jews then said to him, ‘You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham? ’Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.’ So they took up stones to throw at him; but Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple (John 8:57-59).
In our Liturgy, and in our icons, we proclaim that Jesus Christ is also worthy of the unspeakable name revealed to Moses at the burning bush. He also is the Existing One. He also is the I AM.
This is the mystery we celebrate on December 25. It is not the warm fuzz of sheep and shepherds. It is a condescension that bends and trembles the knee. The grandeur of God is relocated to the fragile body of a vulnerable child. The immortal one unites himself to our mortality. The Existing One, first born in a cave and then buried in one, surrenders his existence in love for our sake.
It has been a few days since the last reflection. Life was a little busier than usual, but in a good way. Entering the weekend, we made final preparations for the 2018 Christmas in Salem Tour. The House of the Seven Gables, our nearby neighbor, is celebrating its 350th year, and to honor the anniversary the annual Tour took place in our neighborhood. Saint Nicholas was a host for the first time in about 15 years.
On Saturday and Sunday our doors were open, and we welcomed over 2000 visitors. They were looooong days, but it was a joyful and encouraging experience. Most had never been to St Nicholas, and nearly everyone said “I’ve lived in Salem for umpteen years and always wanted to come here.” Those comments always break my heart, but I was also glad that the Christmas in Salem Tour gave people the needed courage to enter the (always open) doors. Visitors came in with wide eyes and were overwhelmed by the beauty of it all. “Thank you” was said thousands and thousands of times.
In a word, our guests felt unexpectedly comforted. I wouldn’t say ‘comfortable’ -- after all, who can be comfortable when suddenly confronted by the transcendence of eternal beauty, love, and power? Our knees should always tremble, at least just a little bit, before the holiness of the one who made heaven and earth.
So not comfortable, but certainly comforted. The experience of many this weekend included the surprise of discovery. Many said they had no clue what was inside our church, and were quick to add that what they did discover was beyond their imagination. And for a few minutes at least, each of them felt welcomed. More than just visiting a site, they encountered a presence. For many this weekend, the expectation of something historical gave way to sudden wonder before the eternal.
Jesus does this. He surprises and he comforts. He brings human compassion, but wrapped in St Dionysius’s “cloud of unknowing.” Christ’s love explodes understanding, but points with clarity to the One Basic Fact that only divine love is permanent and boundless. Nothing will replace God’s love for us. Nothing will outlast God’s love for us.
An overlooked name for Jesus along these lines is “the Comforter.” Most Orthodox Christians strongly associate this name with the Holy Spirit. Our beloved prayer to the Holy Spirit, we know, begins by calling the Spirit both ‘Heavenly King’ and ‘Comforter.’
But the words of Jesus provide some perspective. In John’s gospel, before his arrest and crucifixion, Jesus promises the disciples:
“I will pray to the Father, and he will give you another Comforter, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him; you know him, for he dwells with you, and will be in you” (John 14:16-17).
The Holy Spirit is for certain a Comforter, but he is a second Comforter. Christ himself is the first.
The underlying Greek word here is ‘paraklitos’ (puh-RAH-clee-tos). It can mean comforter, but also counselor or advocate. And for this reason the Holy Spirit is sometimes called the ‘paraclete’ by theologians who feel the need to use a forty dollar term. Also, in the Byzantine traditions, there is a prayer service called the ‘paraklesis’ (puh-RAH-clih-sis), often addressed to Mary or another saint, asking help. (In the Slavic traditions, we call this service a molieben.)
In any case, ‘the Comforter’ is a name for Jesus that perfectly describes our experience here this weekend at Saint Nicholas. When we doubt, we will remember the unexpected comfort which our simple hospitality brought to thousands. When we feel weird, we will remember the countless thank-you’s offered by others for that weirdness. When we are unsure of how to love our neighbor, we will remember that to offer Christ is to offer beauty and rest that others cannot forget.
Thank you to everyone who planned, greeted, sang, cleaned and re-cleaned this weekend. (Our new bathrooms were VERY popular.) Your warmth and kindness are now beacons in the neighborhood. The light of Christ shines brightly in Salem.
(9) One Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God...
At every Divine Liturgy, we sing the Creed. I believe in one God, the Father Almighty... The Creed of course contains many names and titles for Jesus. He is the Only-Begotten. He is Light of Light. He is True God of True God. He is of one essence with the Father, and so on.
The Creed always reminds me of Saint Nicholas, partly because I have indulged in some holy speculation recently, and now I can’t get the connection between Saint Nicholas and the Creed out of my head.
Let’s see if I can convince you. I will begin with a fact, and then I will offer a theological opinion which seems reasonable to me.
First, the fact: Saint Nicholas was a confessor.
A confessor is someone who suffers for his or her faith in Christ.
Nicholas is raised by his uncle, who is also named Nicholas. Uncle Nicholas is the Bishop of Patara, and young St Nicholas is soon ordained a priest and later a bishop. St Nicholas becomes bishop of Myra, a town about 30 miles from his hometown.
But Saint Nicholas becomes bishop at a terrible time. In the early 300s, the Roman empire is ruled by Diocletian. Diocletian is ruthless and cruel, and he sponsors a long period of vicious persecution against Christians. Christians are blamed for problems in the empire, and Diocletian seeks to destroy the church. He kills and tortures and imprisons thousands upon thousands of Christians.
Nicholas, as a Bishop, refuses to deny his faith in Christ. As a result, Nicholas is held a prisoner by Diocletian. Some say for five years, and some say for seven. He is tortured, mistreated, and often held in solitary confinement.
Nicholas knows first-hand the horrors of human brutality. He lives with misery for these terrible years as a confessor for the faith. Hunger, privation, beatings, intimidation. He watches friends die. He hears the weeping of the men and women and children whom he serves as Bishop in Myra.
But what Nicholas learns in prison is that mercy and generosity are more powerful than the Roman soldier’s whip. Love is a weapon that overwhelms the sword. Kindness and simple human fellowship can power people through hunger and sickness. The beauty of the Gospel washes clean all the filth and vermin of human misery.
If you have been harmed. If others have made you suffer. If you face evil. Know that you are especially precious to Saint Nicholas. And if evil touches others around you, and we know that evil touches just about everything in this world, then be like Saint Nicholas. Stand with the innocent and with those who suffer. Run to them, just as Christ as Saint Nicholas run to them. Don’t run away from them.
Second, a theological opinion: Saint Nicholas was a best-selling author… maybe.
Usually we say that all we have are stories about Saint Nicholas. We say that, like Christ, Nicholas never wrote anything down. He is loved, not for his holy writings and teachings, but for his holy deeds.
Maybe, just maybe, this is not completely correct.
Saint Nicholas is one of the 318 holy bishops who gather from all over the empire in the year 325, in the city of Nicaea, to make a statement of faith. A statement about who God is, and who Jesus is. This statement becomes our Creed.
And the Council of Nicaea is literally a fist-fight. St Nicholas himself we know gets into a punching match with Arius, the heretic who teaches that Jesus is just a man, and that Jesus is not also divine like the Father is divine.
St Nicholas is punished by his brother bishops. His bishop’s hat and vestments are taken away, and he is thrown into the cathedral’s jail cell. But in the morning, Nicholas is discovered in his cell once again wearing his bishop’s hat and his bishop’s vestments. One brother bishop even relates a vision in which it is Mary herself, and Jesus himself, who once again make Nicholas a bishop.
And so, if you are one of the 318 bishops in Nicaea, and if you need someone to create a draft of the Church’s basic statement of faith, who would you pick?
I know who I would pick. I would vote for the guy visited by Mary and Christ in his locked cell. I would vote for the guy who endured seven years of torture but still has a twinkle in his eye. I would vote for the guy who gives away every piece of gold that comes his way. I would vote for the spiritual child of the Apostle Paul (that’s another story). I would vote for the guy loved by so many in the Church that, later on, he gets his own day of the week.
This is pure speculation. I don’t have a single shred of evidence. Just a thought that makes me giggle with pious delight. But when the fathers of Nicaea needed someone to compose a draft of the Nicene Creed -- the Creed we sing at every Liturgy -- why wouldn’t they choose St Nicholas??
Just as Thomas Jefferson was commissioned to compose the Declaration of Independence, maybe Saint Nicholas was asked to write a draft of the Church’s Creed.
“I believe in one God, Father almighty” writes Nicholas.
“And in one Lord Jesus, Christ. Light of Light,” because Nicholas knows the light of Christ when everything else is dark.
“True God of True God,” because Nicholas knows the divine power of the Cross to destroy death and to bring life.
“Begotten, not made,” because Nicholas as an orphan knows that fatherhood and sonship are eternal relationships that have neither a beginning nor an end.
“And he came down from heaven and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit, and the Virgin Mary, and became man” writes St Nicholas, because St Nicholas knows the power of the Christmas story. It is a story that changes the world.
Did St Nicholas write the Creed? I don’t know. Maybe. But now every time I say the Creed, it feels like Christmas Day.
Thank you Saint Nicholas!
(10) The Carpenter
And on the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue; and many who heard him were astonished, saying “Where did this man get all this? What is the wisdom given to him? What mighty works are wrought by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him (Mark 6:2-3).
Jesus had a job. This is fascinating, and often overlooked.
He practiced a trade. He created things with his hands. He probably had a favorite hammer. (Mjölnir of Palestine!) He knew Aramaic words for terms like mortise, gable, joist, and flange.
He was also the son of a carpenter, perhaps expected by Joseph to take over the family workshop. And as the heir apparent, Jesus probably supervised the newbies. He was someone’s boss at some point. He taught others to make chairs and stable doors long before he taught them to interpret the Law and the Prophets.
In the passage from Mark, chapter 6, we see that Jesus is not exactly esteemed by his peers. He has switched careers, and this is not warmly received by his home town.
I imagine they even call him “the carpenter” with a sneer. It’s a dig, even an insult.
After all, the local tax collectors were not the only Jews known to work for the Romans, supporting the iron fist used by Caesar to rob Israel of its freedom.
Most likely, the carpenters did too.
Mostly the Roman conquerors were interested in two things. First, pay your taxes. Second, obey the laws. This is actually harder than it sounds. The taxes were pretty oppressive (this is why the tax collectors were hated), and the laws essentially said that if you disobey Rome, your life will end.
In particular, it will end on a cross.
Crucifixion was a terror method employed by Rome to keep conquered people in line. Crucifixion was gruesome, on purpose. It was excruciating, on purpose. (The very word ‘excruciating’ means ‘from the cross.’) It took days to die, on purpose. You were exposed to the animals and elements, high in the air for all to see, on purpose. Crucifixion was a powerful deterrent. It says, “If you cross Rome, Rome will cross you, literally.”
Still, the Jews fought back. They organized rebellions. Skirmishes and sudden outbreaks of violence to destabilize local Roman rule. One prominent faction working against Rome around Jesus was known as “The Daggers.” The name is inspired by the long knives used by members to assassinate Roman officials. The term in Latin for “dagger man” is “sicarius,” and if you belonged to the rebel group, you were called an “Iscariot.”
Yes, Iscariot as in *that* Iscariot. The Judas one.
The one who betrays Christ.
The Iscariots fought against Rome, for Jewish freedom. And they were among the many who were crucified by Rome for daring to challenge Caesar’s divine authority.
The Iscariots were the heroes of many in Palestine. They dared to disobey Rome. They understood that the penalty was crucifixion. They pressed on regardless.
Rome went through many crosses while fighting insurgents like the Iscariots. Crosses were not durable objects. The dragging from here to there, the volley of nails, the baths of blood, and the occasional bonfire for extra brutality -- these required crosses to be replaced.
And when Rome needed to replenish the supply of crosses, they looked to the local carpenters of Palestine. This is why the carpenters were, perhaps, as despised as tax collectors. They made the very crosses on which the Iscariots and other freedom-fighters were executed.
Carpenters like Christ, against their will, were required by Rome to create crosses alongside the usual commissions for dinner tables and bird houses. It wasn’t their fault, but still, the stain of association hard to wash away -- harder than blood off a cross from the trees of Lebanon.
Did Jesus make physical crosses for others to bear? Probably not. Jesus never sinned, and would not have assisted the terror tactics of Rome. But he never shunned the title “carpenter.” He willingly associated himself with his brother carpenters who faced really hard choices. The choice to obey Rome and make the demanded crosses, or to disobey Rome and watch their own family and friends hoisted high in the air.
One thing is close to certain: Christ spent nearly all his 33 years around people and places required to make crosses for the Romans. Perhaps he saw hundreds, maybe thousands of crosses.
Perhaps he saw the very cross that he would carry. Maybe he did agree to make one cross, the cross that would be his own.
In any case, to be called “the carpenter” by his peers was not necessarily a compliment. Perhaps “carpenter” was close to “tax collector” in the court of public opinion, where the Iscariots like Judas were heroes and the cross-makers like Jesus were friends of Rome.
And yet Christ never changed his path. He understood early on, as a boy really, that his own fate was wrapped up with the crosses used by Rome. Maybe the one cross he willingly made was fashioned by him as a middle-school apprentice at the knees of Joseph.
Joseph, who tearfully passed on his dreadful knowledge to the strangely-born son of Mary.
Joseph, who hated Rome but who loved his family even more so.
Joseph, who once fled with Mary and Jesus to Egypt for safety, shuttering the profitable workshop.
Joseph, who could no longer protect his adopted son from the many Iscariots flashing daggers at any and every friend of Rome, real or perceived.
Jesus did not just die on the cross. As a carpenter, he lived alongside the cross. A lifetime game of chicken with the instrument of his own torture and death.
Yet he never changed his mind. The cross was always in sight, always demanded by those letters labeled “FROM ROME” and stamped in red.
Still, Jesus never veered.
He accepted his vocation, both as carpenter, and as Savior of the world.