Readings: John 3:13-17; Galatians 6:11-18; Isaiah 65:17-19; Numbers 21:5-10
This weekend marks my birthday, which stands equidistant between the feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos (Sept. 8), and the feast of St. Edith of Wilton (Sept. 15/16). St. Edith is not well known to Orthodox, but is a (British) saint in the undivided Church, nonetheless. I was delighted, on visiting St. Vladimir’s Seminary, to hear her name remembered in the closing vesperal benediction, since on my reception to Orthodoxy I decided it best to retain my birth name, Edith Mary. That name was given to me by my Salvation Army, non-saint-commemorating mother, in honour of her own grandmother and my paternal grandmother; but, given the placement of my birthday between the two feast-days, the significance of the Theotokos in my entrance into the Church, and the luminosity of St. Edith’s story, I considered that the name was fulfilled for me as an Orthodox Christian, and should not be replaced.
A characteristic of both the Theotokos and St. Edith is that they valued the created, material world as well as the realm of the Spirit, in which the human spirit is called to dwell. The Theotokos both nurtured our Lord in her womb, and “treasured all these things in her heart;” St. Edith fostered spiritual discernments, and relished the wonders of this present creation. Those who read her story will notice not only her humility and the miracles associated with her, but also her enthusiasm for God’s animate creatures (she kept a bestiary), her inner and outer beauty (she was renowned for dressing well, though she retained a humble demeanor), and her love of human knowledge (she is frequently pictured book-in-hand).
Our readings for this Sunday’s Divine Liturgy combine an attention to the spiritual with delight in the physical world, while placing these in their proper order. Taken together, and with Old Testament texts that clarify them, they offer us the necessary and salutary balance that is personally evident in the teaching and life of the God-Man. He came, physically, into this world (or, if you like, he assumed human flesh) because God loves the world; he likewise reminded us that “God is Spirit, and those who worship him must worship in Spirit and in Truth.” Here, then, is a paradox which always meets us as we contemplate our faith: “God loves matter; he made it” (C. S. Lewis); yet, this natural world fulfills its purpose insofar as it is taken up into the spiritual.
Everywhere we see God’s deep entrance into the created world, a visitation that augments its reality and meaning. Everywhere we look, it is as though God says what St. Paul said to the Galatians, I am doing this “with my own hand.” (See in your mind’s eye that wonderful ceiling of the Sistene Chapel, where God’s finger meets that of Adam. Or remember the icons that show God’s activity in our midst by means of a hand coming from heaven.) Let’s think this weekend, then, about the personal contact of God with this world, the direct contact of apostles with God’s church, and the actual efficacy of the saints’ lives in our lives.
In our epistle reading for this Sunday, the apostle Paul declares,
See with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand. It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh that would compel you to be circumcised, and only in order that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. For even those who receive circumcision do not themselves keep the law, but they desire to have you circumcised that they may glory in your flesh. But far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. Peace and mercy be upon all who walk by this rule, upon the Israel of God. Henceforth let no man trouble me; for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brethren. Amen.
(Gal 6:11-18 RSV)
This is a remarkable passage. The apostle speaks about those who are misunderstanding the Torah, who think that its main significance is to require human beings (or actually, only one half of human beings) to be circumcised: and circumcision, from this confused perspective, becomes a reason for arrogance, so that some may “glory in the flesh.” He goes on to speak about his own experience in Christ, by which he “died” (“was crucified”) to the world, and vice versa. Having experienced a death to the world, St. Paul (one might expect), should have gone on to say “For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but the spiritual is all the matters!” He doesn’t. He speaks instead about “a new creation” and remarks that he “bears on” his “body” the marks of Jesus. This requires careful thought. We might be anticipating a contrast, a strong duality between the material world and the spiritual realm—and St. Paul astonishes us by speaking of “a new creation” and what can be seen in his body! (Was he referring to his divinely-given “thorn in the flesh” [2 Cor 12] or to an actual shining countenance [2 Cor 4:5] that some saw in him, or….. ? )
It is important to understand the teaching of the New Testament concerning the “new creation” by first considering the Old Testament’s anticipation of this new order. The prophet Isaiah depicts God giving this consolation to his people:
For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth; and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind. But be glad and rejoice for ever in that which I create; for behold, I create Jerusalem a rejoicing, and her people a joy. I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and be glad in my people; no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping and the cry of distress. (Isa 65:17-19 RSV)
It may be tempting to spiritualize all this prophetic talk, but a read-around the verses of this prophecy in Isaiah confirm its “earthy” intent. Life in the new creation, in the “new heavens and new earth” will not be LESS material or physical than our current existence, but MORE solid or substantial. (Here, a glance at C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce may be instructive.) We look forward to a world in which heaven and earth are joined, which does not mean the obliteration of material things any more than Jesus’ ascension meant the obliteration of his physical body. Transformation, yes; Dematerialization, no! God incarnate does not say, “Beam me up, Scotty!” and dematerialize of the planet, but takes the human body, the whole human nature, with him, so that the Holy Spirit can be with us, and so we have the hope of theosis. Moreover, this affects the whole creation, not simply the human person. We are to hope and pray for the entire glorification of this creation, as St. Paul puts it in his “little apocalypse’ of Romans 8:22-39, and as we see it in the lush imagery of Revelation 21-22. We look forward, then, not to a non-corporeal heaven, but to a “new creation” where heaven and earth are joined. The clue to this is the Incarnation—God took on human flesh, becoming what we are in order to bring it us up into his own life, joining together heaven and earth. And so, St. Paul sends to the Galatians, whom he has nurtured personally, an actual letter—rather than simply praying for them. And so, he writes this letter “with his own hand”, reminding them that the Torah has not been abolished, but fulfilled, and that they have been given eyes to see the “new creation” that will arrive in fullness when the Lord Jesus returns—in the (glorified) flesh!
We are propelled on to our gospel reading for this Sunday:
No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:13-17 RSV)
Here, again, we are in the world of the knitty-gritty, a world that can be seen, and touched. God actually sent his Son into the world to save it—that is, not just to rescue it, but to transform it. He descends in order to ascend. And the evangelist John sends us to a bizarre passage—to the story of Numbers, when the Hebrews were murmuring against God, and were attacked by serpents for their infidelity:
And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” Then the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. And the people came to Moses, and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and every one who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” So Moses made a bronze serpent, and set it on a pole; and if a serpent bit any man, he would look at the bronze serpent and live. (Num 21:5-10 RSV)
Why am I calling the story “bizarre”? First, let’s call attention to God’s actual modus operandi in the Bible. If God were simply interested in the life of the spirit, why on earth would he call a particular people out of a particular place? Why not simply speak to hearts and minds scattered throughout the globe, wooing them by his Spirit to worship aright? But that is not God’s way. He actually calls a particular people, and brings them physically out of Egypt, by way of the desert, into the Promised Land. The people he called are not amused by the physical ascetism forced upon them by this forty-year trek. In the biblical narrative, they lament the paucity of food and water, and despise the manna and quails that God sends them. This very drama should alert us to something: God knows that they are made to eat, and sends them what they need. Yet he has a greater purpose for them than eating and drinking in ease. In rebellion, the people long for “the flesh-pots of Egypt.” They want instant gratification, and cannot understand God’s long-term plan, not to denigrate the material world, but to give it a higher purpose. In the story, Israel resents the sacrifices she was called upon to make, and yearned for a simple life of ease. The judgment, in their case, is blatantly physical—fiery serpents—and the healing is also physical. We might ask, since they have repented , and told Moses they are sorry, why does God not simply forgive, without doing anything? Instead, he gives Moses instructions to fabricate an image of a serpent, fasten it on a pole, and direct the people to look up in hope. The image works—but, in time, the people forgot that it was meant to remind them of God’s clemency. Instead, they begin to actually WORSHIP the graven thing, until Hezekiah’s reform, when, “he broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had burned incense to it.” (2Ki 18:4 RSV)
Jesus, our Lord, was not less physical than the serpent on the pole, but more so—he actually lived and breathed, and took on flesh, unlike a fabricated serpent. And on his cross, he trampled down death by actual death, not simply by a semblance of death, such as the immobilized serpent suggested to the people. There is, of course, another difference in the gospel from the OT narrative of forgiveness and healing—God the Son is unified with God the Father, so that when we see the Son we see the Father. This is significantly different from the people looking upon the serpent as an object lesson of God’s judgment and mercy. To worship the serpent was to mistake the creature for the Creator. To worship Jesus, God Incarnate, is to worship the Father who sent him!
Our readings for this week’s liturgy, then, bring us back to basics—God’s love and plans for humanity and this world, over against the spiritualized view of an unknown and unknowable god who is believed to operate wholly outside of our sphere; God’s direct contact with his world, a contact that shows itself to be extreme and unimaginable in the Incarnation; God’s ordering of the world of the flesh below that of the spirit, while he takes up our flesh into that world, transforming it in astonishing ways; God’s ability to use even death (the negation of the material world) to bring about a new creation. We are directed, by the dynamic gospel, to embrace what would seem to be opposing truths: the knowledge that these bodies are temporary, and that what we experience and suffer in them is subordinate to a spiritual world that we normally cannot see; yet along with that, the knowledge that God has created and is in the process of recreating, so that we look forward not to sheer spiritual life devoid of matter, but to the resurrection and to a new creation. This ordering of the material BENEATH the spiritual, alongside an anticipation of the material being taken into the spiritual and thus transformed, continues to instruct us in chastening and hopeful ways. When faced with trial, we may say “Let goods and kindred go; this mortal life also;” when contemplating the Creation, Incarnation and Ascension, we may also sing in celebration, “This is my Father’s world.” God made leviathan to sport in the waters; he also calls us to value above all those things that cannot be seen.
We see this balanced perspective in the disposition of the Theotokos, who “treasured up” things “in her heart,” while continuing to nurture God the Son who had made her womb “more spacious than the heavens.” Similarly, she called others to obey God, by their actions, in the midst of a very earthy event—a human wedding.
We also see the paradox in those prayers, transcribed or possibly even penned by St. Edith of Wilton in her Prayerbook, as reported to us by Flemish monk, brother Goscelin:
“O Lord, father and ruler of my life, do not leave me in evil thoughts, do not give me pride of the eyes, and turn away evil desire from me, O Lord.” (Here my namesake thinks both about the eyes—the physical—and the heart).
“Almighty and most merciful Lord, who brought forth for your thirsty people a spring of living water from the rock, bring forth from the hardness of my heart tears of contrition”. (Here she reminds us of the Lord who actually met the needs of a thirsty people, and who, by his Spirit, brings forth repentance in his people—a matter of the heart).
God’s hand is at work in our world; the apostle’s hand continues to reach us through actual writings; his saints remind us of all this by their concrete lives and witness!
(For more on St. Edith of Wilton, see, http://aclerkofoxford.blogspot.com/2012/09/st-edith-of-wilton-nun-fashionista.html)