The Death of God and the Transfiguration of Man

icon_of_the_transfiguration

Among the most lucid Orthodox thinkers in the contemporary world is Fr. John Behr, Dean of St. Vladimir’s Seminary. I recently listened to him for several days during a conference in Florida. He has a new book coming out this fall in which he takes his readers to the place of death – the death of Christ – and shows there the truth of our union and our resurrection in Him. I missed one of his key talks this week, but greatly look forward to the book (which I will doubtless review and post on the blog). This is a short meditation on the Transfiguration occasioned by some of his reflections. As always with Fr. John, what is new and unique is not the original thought (for that belongs with the Fathers and ultimately with Christ) but with his ability to help us see what we too easily overlook.

The story of our creation in Genesis is interrupted. The Divine Council says, “Let us make man in our own image,” and the work begins. But man’s creation is not like the creation of anything else. For the stars and trees, the earth and the sky, God says, “Let there be…!” And so it is. God looks at what He has made and declares, “It is good.” But for man, there is the discussion, “Let us make…” There is the formation from clay and the breathing of life. But God does not stand back, look at man and say, “It is good.” Indeed, God stands back, looks at man and says, “It is not good…”

The first “not good” in all creation is man alone. “It is not good for man to be alone.” This is followed by a parade of animals being brought to the man, “But there was not found a helper that was fit for him.”

The first answer is found in the creation of woman, “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” The man who is no good alone is now not alone. But it is not the final good. The creation of man, male and female, is derailed and goes awry. Placed in the Garden, they are warned not to eat of a certain tree, “For in the day that you eat of it, you will surely die.” St. Athanasius says that this death comes about as the result of Adam and Eve’s refusal to live according to the likeness of God. We fall back towards the nothingness from which we were made. Sin is the disruption of man’s creation.

But the creation story continues for there is a Second Adam, a New Creation. And it is in the New Man that the prophecy, “In the day you eat of it you will surely die,” is fulfilled. For the provision of death was not God’s plan for the punishment or destruction of the wicked. The original counsel of God remains, “Let us make man in our own image.” But it is in Christ, God made man, that the original direction and form of man is accomplished.

We must note, however, that the work of man’s creation is not accomplished in the fact of the Incarnation. It is not until the Cross, and the moment of His death that Christ says, “It is finished!” For it is in the fulfillment of the prophetic warning that the Divine Irony, the image and likeness of God-in-man is accomplished. In Christ’s death we find true life. And it is in conformity with the death of Christ that humanity finds its true image.

I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me.

It is not our intellect, nor moral perfection…it is not our rationality or creativity that make us like God. His likeness is accomplished in our daily death when it is embraced in love with trusting faith in the death of Christ – the Death that tramples down death by death and unites us with the life that will never die.

The Transfiguration of Christ, celebrated on August 6, is a feast in which the re-creation of man is shown forth.

On the Mountain Thou wast Transfigured, O Christ God,
And Thy disciples beheld Thy glory as far as they could see it;
So that when they would behold Thee crucified,
They would understand that Thy suffering was voluntary,
And would proclaim to the world,
That Thou art truly the Radiance of the Father!

The transfiguration of man is realized in our union with Christ’s death and resurrection. It is there we can say, “It is finished!” It is there that we can hear the Divine affirmation, “It is good!”

Comments

  1. says

    Father bless,

    Thank you for this new post. Although I’m not sure I fully understand it yet.

    I have been reading from “The River of Fire”, by Dr. Kalomiros, the longer fragment that is posted on this blog (http://glory2godforallthings.com/the-river-of-fire-kalomiros/). I can honestly say I was surely and rapidly derailing from Orthodoxy before I discovered this blog. I was derailing from faith in God altogether… I was beginning to make many mistakes in the way I understood God and His love. I couldn’t find the strength and lucidity to understand the love of God. Now I have more courage and a welcomed help for when I’m in need – this blog.

    All I can say is… Thank you, and may God bless you! May God bless all of you!

    Glory to God for all things!

  2. Arnold says

    “God created humanity in God’s own image, in the divine image God created him, male and female God created them… God saw everything he had made: it was supremely good.” Gen. 1:27,31a. CEB
    I’m not sure what use there is in conflating two clearly incompatible creation stories. The one in which the man is created alone has him made before all other life. Woman seems to be an afterthought when none of the animals the Lord makes are suitable mates for the man.

  3. fatherstephen says

    Arnold, orthodoxy does not pay much attention to historical/critical issues unless it serves the purpose of something that is already a fixed matter of doctrine. We read the Scriptures according to Orthodox tradition and not according to something else. We conflate those stories because the Tradition conflates them. We wrote the Scriptures, so we read them as we will. We’re not Protestants or others who profess a historical principle of interpretation. Jesus taught in this manner…and we still do.

  4. says

    Beautiful Fr. Stephen! Fr. John really is an amazingly insightful thinker.

    Your post reminded me of something St. Ignatius says in his letter to the Romans, referring to his martyrdom: “Now I begin to be a disciple.” (Rom. Ch. 5)

    St. Ignatius’ enthusiasm for martyrdom always struck me as a little bit morbid to be honest, but I’m coming to see that he isn’t really saying that violent death is a good thing in itself. Like you said, “[God's] likeness is accomplished in our daily death when it is embraced in love with trusting faith in the death of Christ – the Death that tramples down death by death and unites us with the life that will never die.” Our death in Christ is where death gets defeated by the image of the immortal God – so Ignatius is not embracing death, but declaring war against it.

    It also reminds me of something that CS Lewis says in The Problem of Pain (quoting George MacDonald I think): “For in self-giving, if anywhere, we touch a rhythm not only of all creation but of all being. For the Eternal Word also gives Himself in sacrifice; and that not only on Calvary. For when He was crucified He ‘did that in the wild weather of His outlying provinces which He had done at home in glory and gladness’.”

    Thanks again for a great post
    Sam

  5. fatherstephen says

    Sam,
    I understand the wonderment at St. Ignatius’ love of martyrdom. He says of it: “I will become a human being.” Indeed, the title of Fr. John’s book is Becoming Human. But as bizarre as it seems, I think we should read St. Ignatius in that very strong manner. It is bizarre, unless you have seen and know the risen Lord, in which case it comes to mean something different.

    Christ’s death transforms death itself. It doesn’t just make life after death “ok.” More or less, life after death was already ok (at least in some accounts – cf. Wisdom chapter 3). But it is death itself that is transformed – and with it a whole host of things. The gospel is full of an “ethic” that only makes sense if death itself is changed. Thus St. Francis can say, “It is in dying that we are born to eternal life.” He doesn’t say, dying’s not so bad because after it we have eternal life. No, the eternal life is found right there in the dying.

    In Orthodox iconography, the Cross with the Crucified Christ does not have a placard on it reading, “Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews.” That’s the historical placard. Instead, we have the theological placard: “The King of Glory,” which reflects St. John’s gospel where Jesus’ speaking of being glorified always means His crucifixion.

    Thus the irony is portrayed – His death IS HIS GLORY. This is something quite different than saying His death is noble (which is the most that is usually meant). Some would want to say, “His death was an act of love – it was really terrible, but He brought something really wonderful out of it – in spite of it…” etc. But this is not nearly as offensive and radical as the proclamation of the gospel.

    We tend to say, “He trampled down death” (Yay God!) But that’s not what the Church says, “He trampled down death BY DEATH.”

    And so St. Ignatius understands that he, too, will trample down death by death. He understands not that God will take care of him despite his noble, tragic, and even sacrificial death. He believes that his own death will be a good thing – a trampling down death thing – a smashing the gates of hell thing – a kicking the devil out of the Roman Empire thing – a united with Christ in His Glory thing – yes, he runs to it!

    Imagine if we not only reluctantly, but nobly accepted the sacrifices that are forced upon us – but actually ran forward voluntarily to embrace the sacrifices. Then we might actually be accused of being Christians!

  6. says

    “Imagine if we not only reluctantly, but nobly accepted the sacrifices that are forced upon us – but actually ran forward voluntarily to embrace the sacrifices. Then we might actually be accused of being Christians!”

    Touche, Fr. Stephen!

  7. says

    “Thus the irony is portrayed – His death IS HIS GLORY.”

    Yes! That’s the amazing, rebellious thing … I suspect that’s what CS Lewis was getting at in the quote above. There’s a line in O Monogenēs (or at least the version of the hymn that my Church uses) which reads, “Holy Mighty, who by weakness showed forth what is greater than power.” I love that idea – that Christ’s weakness and death IS His power. I totally agree that Christ’s glory isn’t achieved despite the Cross, but through the Cross; it’s the Cross that truly tells us that He is God, even more than His Transfiguration or Resurrection.

    But I still feel that it’s important to remember that in some sense, evil is involved in this process. Surely those who crucified Christ were sinning – we’re all commanded not to harm our neighbour. Martyrdom doesn’t mean that violent death is ultimately a good thing; it would never be acceptable for us to violently murder people, to turn them into martyrs (even if they wanted it). Violent deaths are turned INTO something good, DESPITE the purposes of those who sinfully perpetrate them.

    St. Clement of Rome puts it rather well: “The righteous were indeed persecuted, but only by the wicked. They were cast into prison, but only by the unholy; they were stoned, but only by transgressors; they were slain, but only by the accursed, and such as had conceived an unrighteous envy against them. Exposed to such sufferings, they endured them gloriously. For what shall we say, brethren? Was Daniel cast into the den of lions by such as feared God? Were Ananias, and Azarias, and Michael shut up in a furnace of fire by those who observed the great and glorious worship of the Most High? Far from us be such a thought! Who, then, were they that did such things? The hateful, and those full of all wickedness, were roused to such a pitch of fury, that they inflicted torture on those who served God with a holy and blameless purpose [of heart] …” (Corinthians Ch. 45)

    Even Ignatius refers to his upcoming trial as ‘the dreadful torments of the devil’.

    To my mind, that side of things is important because if we forget it, we can seem to be totally indifferent to the injustice in the world. Suffering and death are ultimately the fruit of rebellion against God (they weren’t found in Paradise, and God gave us a Law to protect us from them), and the whole drama of the Incarnation and crucifixion only takes place to deal with human rebellion against God’s good plan for deathless world.

    So let me try and synthesise the two emphases: Death is defeated, as an enemy, but the mystery (which you emphasise above) is that Christ doesn’t defeat using anything else but Death ITSELF. Death itself becomes the weapon used to destroy death, so victory against Death is achieved by DYING. But it’s still ultimately a victory over an evil aberration from God’s plan, as you point out in the original post: “For the provision of death was not God’s plan for the punishment or destruction of the wicked. The original counsel of God remains, “Let us make man in our own image.”” So we certainly do embrace ‘breakings of bones and tearing of limbs’ like Ignatius did, knowing that those things are both ‘the dreadful torments of the devil’ and the only way to truly overcome those torments, and become truly human.

    Does that make sense? Or do you think this view still doesn’t give Ignatius’ enthusiasm enough credit?

    Thanks for the discussion :)

  8. mary benton says

    “Imagine if we not only reluctantly, but nobly accepted the sacrifices that are forced upon us – but actually ran forward voluntarily to embrace the sacrifices.”

    Thank you (as always), Fr. Stephen, for much to ponder.

    I find the statement above especially interesting because it describes, in a sense, an important principle of psychological healing. It is our human tendency to want to resist suffering and, often in our efforts to rid ourselves of painful realities (or to deny them), we keep ourselves stuck. Shame and anxiety are but two examples.

    It should be no surprise, of course, that what psychology finds is most healing completely coincides with the way of salvation.

    Or perhaps I should say that true psychological healing can never exist outside of the way of salvation – even if God is never explicitly mentioned.

    The fear of death and/or suffering are at the root of much sin (and dysfunctional behavior), I think. When death and suffering are understood as the point of uniting us with Christ, fear may indeed be replaced with joyful embrace.
    Suffering is “transfigured” – can I say that we are freed from suffering by embracing suffering? (a paradox that only makes as much sense as “in dying we are born to eternal life”).

    Sorry – I’m rambling. As I said, much to ponder.

  9. Jane says

    mary benton,

    I was having similar thoughts as I read Fr. Stephen’s post, and what you wrote really resonated with me, especially here:

    “It should be no surprise, of course, that what psychology finds is most healing completely coincides with the way of salvation.

    Or perhaps I should say that true psychological healing can never exist outside of the way of salvation – even if God is never explicitly mentioned.”

    Speaking as an Orthodox inquirer (I’ve been visiting in an OCA parish for a couple years) and as someone who’s been in fairly intensive psychotherapy for nearly as long, it seems the further and deeper I go in both of these pursuits, the more I find the path of spiritual/psychological healing to be one. I struggle to find a way of understanding and articulating this that is all embracing rather than reductionist.

  10. Michael Bauman says

    I find it much more difficult to embrace the petty injustices real and imagined than the big ones. St Ignatius attitude to martyrdom seems perfectly logical to me.

    What gets me, for instance, an over-powering artificial scent being used in an office that made it quite difficult to breathe for me. Several patient requests to coworkers and my manager and the company owner with assurances it would stop resulted in me still being assaulted. I had to get angry to get it to stop. The only choice I had was to quit or endure and get sick.

    That’s the kind of stuff that gets me. The temptation of little things; the death by 1000 paper cuts. All of the nihilist/ secular trash that I am surrounded by, assaulted by each day and can’t help to take into my heart and mind. My connection to Jesus is so tenuous and the miasmic flood so constant, the fals promise of oblivion from the evil one sneaks up on me.

    The only places of rest: with my wife and at Divine Liturgy.

    It is not good for man to be alone.

  11. fatherstephen says

    The Elder Tadej Štrbulović (Thaddeus) Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives, suffered for a number of years from some form of an anxiety disorder (and a number of other ailments). I think often about him, having endured a similar disorder from time to time since my youth. I find it very hopeful, that despite the daily insults from his body and brain, he managed by grace to find peace and overcome these things. Our struggles sometimes seem so petty. Battling perfume, rudeness, panicky thoughts, all seem so small when compared to lions in an arena, yet the red martyrdoms of antiquity became the white martyrdoms of the desert, where almost all of the struggle was in the head. But those struggles also revealed the inner roadmap of ascesis. Our own struggle is made more difficult by the fact that we have so few true guides. We can read. Thankfully, as you note, the Liturgy is the same liturgy today that has always been. In that, we equal the greatest saints. God has given us a common consolation. To have a companion to strengthen you and share the battle is invaluable. God give us grace!

  12. Lou. says

    In “Ring of Truth”, the Bible translator J.B. Phillips wrote of the sense of the passage, “In all these things we are more than conquerors [through Him Who loved us].” Phillips explained that the sense was that the victory was found inside the struggle — that Christ’s presence was experienced not as consolation for suffering but in tie midst of the struggle.

    That insight now goes by the trivial bromide, “It’s the journey and not the destination. “

  13. Geri says

    And it is in the New Man that the prophecy, “In the day you eat of it you will surely die,” is fulfilled.

    Am I the only one who doesn’t understand this? If Adam and Eve were told not to eat of the tree and were told that in that day they will surely die; then, the fulfillment of this prophecy seemed to take place then and there. They slipped into the type of death described as a fall into nothingness. It was not good. So, how is Christ’s death the fulfillment of this prophecy? That the new Adam would be the one to die because they ate of the fruit I can “get”, but the comment here seems to imply that eating of the fruit was a good thing.
    Perhaps I am too simple-minded to “get” this…

  14. fatherstephen says

    Geri,
    It is certainly the case that Adam and Eve die (though it was certainly delayed), but the “Death,” that fulfills, ultimately is the death of the Second Adam. The “death” of the first Adam, can, at best, prefigure the “Death” of the Second Adam. And Christ’s Death does have an aspect of being a good thing – not in and of itself – death is an enemy. But just as we say, “Good Friday,” the felix culpa is the irony of God. He destroys death also by changing it. His Death becomes redemption. We we die, in Christ, we are born to eternal life. Not because death is good, but because God is good.

  15. Jane says

    About eating the fruit being a good thing. . . I was thinking, considering the story on a more symbolic level– the knowledge of good and evil *is* indeed a bitter fruit that results in the death of the earlier innocence, “exile from the garden”. However, the new life that can mysteriously rise from the surrender to that death has a wiser and more profound quality to it.

    Psychologically, this would seem to be a universal human experience. Is it permissible to apply that understanding somehow to one’s understanding of the Christian narrative of the redemption? That in the Incarnation, God became one with us, joining in (and transfiguring) this cycle of birth, death, and resurrection.

    If this pattern is simply “the way things are”, and God, as the Creator who knows the end from the beginning, ordained “the way things are”, is there a sense in which eating the fruit was, indeed, a good thing?

    In fear and trembling (seriously), I wonder if this is taking poetic license with the story too far, and if I am becoming too “Jungian” to be Christian. . .or am I glimpsing a deeper level of the truth of things?

    Fr. Stephen, I would be most grateful for any light you could shed on this. :)

  16. Dino says

    A superb insight into right into the mind of the Fathers…!
    The ‘key’ to salvation is there for all to take:

    “our daily death when it is embraced in love with trusting faith in the death of Christ – the Death that tramples down death by death and unites us with the life that will never die.”