On occasion I have written on topics that seem to scandalize readers, or certainly cause difficulty for many. Some of those topics have been my treatment of the wrath of God; the radical forgiveness of everyone for everything; the commonality of our life and our salvation; and most recently my posting on giving thanks always for all things (there are others as well). I am not a purposeful contrarian – I do not write in order to create any sensation. But I have an inherent instinct about the path of salvation and the part played by skandalon (a cause of stumbling).
Behold, I lay in Zion a stumbling stone and rock of offense, And whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame (Romans 9:33).
I believe that the first and great skandalon is Pascha itself: Christ’s death on the Cross, His descent into Hades, and His resurrection. Indeed St. Paul describes Christ crucified as a skandalon (1 Cor. 1:23). What haunts my thoughts is the question, “How are these things a “stumbling block” for us. Why do we so easily track our way through Christian doctrine finding our own moral failings as the only “stumble” within our life. It is as though the Christian faith has been “tamed,” brought into a religious system and lost all scandal. I suspect that this phenomenon (even among the Orthodox) to be the conversion of Christianity into a religion – a pious activity that saves none.
Pascha runs utterly contrary to this world: from death comes Life. But this “principle” of Pascha is manifest in many other ways: we lose so that we might gain; we forgive that we might be forgiven; we love those who hate us; we give thanks where no thanks would be expected, etc.
It is this “contrarian” nature of Pascha that forms is skandalon. The “Jews” would not have found Christ crucifixion to be a stumbling-block, nor the Greeks found his crucifixion to be “foolishness,” were they not contrary to all that these great cultural stalwarts expected. Pascha is not the work of man, but of God.
By the same token, the way of the Cross, is the way of Pascha, the way of “contradiction” so far as the wisdom and rationality of this world are concerned. It is the rationality of the Kingdom of God.
Without this contrary element, this skandalon, Christianity may be noble or kind, but it falls short of the kingdom. Our faith must not be only about doctrines concerning Christ and what He has done for us (which easily becomes reduced to mere religion). Our faith must be a way of living that is itself a manifestation of the Cross of Christ – a contradiction to the world and an affirmation of the Kingdom of God.
Thus it is that I find myself drawn to those practical instances in which the Kingdom transports us into this “way of contradiction.” The radical demand that we “forgive everyone for everything” is a manifestation of Pascha, a contradiction of the way of retaliation, a proclamation that something has occurred that destroys all such debts. The same is true in the commandment to love those who hate us – nothing could be more contradictory to that which seems reasonable – but it bears witness to the “reason” of Pascha. To give thanks for all things, will take us to a place of contradiction, a place where the goodness of God is utterly triumphant, despite the deep tragedies that confront our lives.
All such gospel actions bring the skandalon of the Kingdom into true focus within our lives. They are invariably the signs that accompany the saints and the invitation to every believer to embrace the Cross and become a witness of the Kingdom.
No idea, no doctrine, no words can replace such actions – united as they are with the actions of Christ and God’s holy Pascha.
There is another rationality of our faith – but it is largely expressed in ideas and words. It’s struggle is to believe one thing and not another. But as such, it reduces our faith as simply one belief system among a world of competing belief systems. The Pascha of Christ is the end of all belief systems. With His crucifixion all human efforts to explain or understand are brought to an end. Indeed, it is the end of all things. To walk into Christ’s Pascha, is to walk into the great skandalon, the contradiction of religion and the negation of the reason of this world.
I cannot do more than to suggest such points within the gospel and then to walk in them. The contradiction which we find within such points, I believe, is the very call of the gospel – that which caused Apostles to hesitate. But these very points are the points of salvation. They are the gospel birthed yet again into the world.
The stumbling block of the cross, the execution of the Eternal Son and Word of God become human, is first found in the fact that He is killed, not by the “lawless,” not by “evildoers”, but by those acting as representatives of institutions which we instinctively identify with goodness, with order, with God: these forces, symbolized by the three languages which proclaimed Jesus “King of the Jews” on the placard at the top of his cross, are the State (Latin), the revealed Religion and Law of God (Hebrew) and finally, the remainder of Culture, but especially culture as order, as psychological adjustment, as economic stratification (Greek).
Thus, Christ is killed, executed, not by those whom we would normally deem evil, but by those who are usually seen as good, and in the name of all this is conventionally understood as good.
We may apply what St. Paul writes about the Law of God in this regard to the other factors as well: they are good, but they cannot save, they cannot re-create us, and they are liable to cooptation by sin and Satan and thus, are easily turned to nefarious purposes. Since they are the instruments of the death of God-in-the-flesh, they can no longer, with any justification, become idols in and of themselves even though they are always prone to do this, always likely to make a claim upon the ultimate allegiance of their adherents.
This is where the scandal of the cross of Jesus, and of His resurrection, begins, and we are inclined to do all in our power to sidestep it. If we do not, we instinctively know that OUR salvation depends upon our dying with Him as well and this, above all, we do not wish to do.
It seems to me that the only moments of true knowledge I’ve ever experienced – the knowledge that allows me to confess Jesus Christ, for instance – happen at the back of or behind all the ways of knowing and perceiving which I can actually identify or put my finger on. I begin to understand something of what you say, Father, that the Christian faith does not stand among belief systems as one of them.
It has been my personal experience that the first “stumbling block” is the virgin birth of our Lord. In these “modern” times where sex seems to be in the forefront of every false idealogy regarding freedom, it has been my personal experience that most can’t seem to get past the fact the Theotokos was a virgin, which, in their minds. allows them to stop there and dismiss Jesus Christ and Christianity and as a result not even consider his death and resurrection.
Borrowing from Cheryl, it seems that this modern idea about sex that you speak of has also infiltrated much of Protestant world where the idea that the Theotokos remained a virgin after Christ’s birth is so scandalous that it is to be rejected because it is so.
How sad that scandal is proclaimed in one area (i.e. the Cross) but utterly rejected in another (the ever-virginity of Mary) simply because it doesn’t follow our modern conceptions about marriage.
The scandal is ours. Trying to reason and figure these things out, such as the Incarnation or the Virgin birth (I have Father ..R.C…Raymond Brown´s, The Birth of the Messiah). He has 15 pages devoted to the controversy of the historical view of the virgin birth. Our natural mind or darken reason will always try to figure it out and if it does it will always come up on the wrong side of Holy Scriptures and historical record of the writings of the fathers. (Oh by the way, Brown says it is still unresolved)
Thank you Father. Once again I find your insights into the Gospel to be exciting. I am sure there are a lot of truths in this world, not all of them complementary.
Wonder-full! God in all things…
BTW, I received your book yesterday from Conciliar Press–also wonder-full! Conciliar Press was as good as their word-sent quickly, good packaging and FREE shipping as promised…KUDOS CONCILIAR!
I read something that comes to mind when speaking of things beyond our mortal understanding and personal experiences, “The praying mind does not think – does not reason – but lives. Its activity consists, not in the manipulation of abstract concepts but in aprticipation in being. The truly praying mind has to do with categories different in quality from those of rational reflection. It is concerned, not with intellectual categories but with actual being, which cannot be confined with the narrow framework of abstract concepts.” Elder Sophrony
I remember hearing a well known woman say the reason she didn’t believe in eternity was because she couldn’t even begin to fathom what one would do for eternity and since it was beyond her reason, it must not be true.
I pray to every momemt have faith in God’s providence because I know nothing.
I have a question: how much of following Christ is something that is intellectual and how much of it is the actual physical act? Not sure if that makes sense, but sometimes I find myself going through the motions without my mind being focused say, on the words of prayer, or on the meaning of all the things that take place at a Divine Liturgy service. Then I remind myself that God gives grace to us even if we just show up to a service or just at least take time out to pray – even if we aren’t completely mentally “there”. I just seem to always be at war within myself concerning this very thing. Especially lately, I feel so distracted and unable to discipline myself into staying focused.
There are many “scandals” out there for many trying to believe. With one foot in the secular world and another trying to find a foothold in belief, almost any miracle will provide a rock of stumbling. It’s the daily difficulty of living in a secular world.
However, I wanted to speak about a different skandalon, that itself opens possibilities for our salvation. It is found in the commandments of Christ, where we are called to forgive, to love, to be thankful, etc. These are daily fraught with difficulty, not because of our culture, but because of our sin.
I write about such things for the sake of our salvation. That we might press forward in such things, despite their difficulty, and find within them the power of God. Just pulling discussion back to the posting…
I think “secular world” has both positive and negative meanings. Is the term “secular world” different from “the world,” period. If secular refers to government or culture, then I think there might be some advantages for Christians in a secular society. Throughout history, it seems that all forms of societies have been prone to corruption and incompetence–including monasteries. I find that among some Christians, the terms secularism and humanism seem to be used loosly and as a sort of catch-all category. I think when you said “because of our sin,” that is what should be the catch-all category. I just feel that too much blame, so to speak, is placed on the secular world rather than responsibility placed on the individual believer. I cannot quote it from memory: but in essence, it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of a living God.
Saved through scandal. It certainly brings a different context to ‘being scandalised’ (by less-than-perfect Church activities). The former is a scandal because we can’t understand how the laws of nature were set aside for the living God to rise from the dead; the latter because we can’t understand how people who worship this living God can then lose sight of their calling and sin.
I sometimes ponder how we would really live if we were fully converted from the pagans of this world to people who were fully living out the Resurrection, fully conscious that God would return at some point, and so joyful from the message we’ve received that we can share the news like news about a music festival…
Forgive me for going off the topic of the post.
Thank you for this post. When we say “Truly He is risen!” at Pascha this year, I pray we can do it with the joy of scandalon.
Let me assure one and all, I do not write thinking of anyone else being “scandalized.” It is I, myself, who am scandalized by the demands of the gospel. To forgive, to love, to give thanks – any and all are rocks of stumbling for me – but I give thanks, at least, for the rock Himself. That God would ask me to forgive my enemies is the promise of my forgiveness. That I am commanded to love one and all is the promise that I am loved. To be commanded to give thanks, is an assurance that even the worst of things will not overcome me, and that I shall stand at last with my Savior – and give thanks indeed! Glory to God!
Thank you, Father, especially for that last comment. It is one I can really relate to. Glory to God, indeed!
Father – for my part, I don’t think this “skandalon” can be accepted as an idea and if I had treated it as an idea I might have made something harmful of it. And as a spiritual reality I don’t see how I can discuss it in my present naivety.
It seems to me that when someone is able to speak truly of spiritual realities, the resulting words are somewhat like the scriptures – the letter kills but the Spirit gives life. What I mean is that it seems as if it is necessary to speak of spiritual realities in such a way that should the mere grammar and syntax be divorced from the spiritual body of truth they become death-dealing. But at the same time these same words, made of this same “letter,” are also composed of a single whole spiritual body of truth. And when that word touches you it does something like a seed of life planted in the heart.
This is why I, for my small part, may seem to leave aside what to you was the main point of some of your posts, while at the same time trying to touch, in a comment, whatever was there which I could experientially share. My hope is that in doing this I am coming into contact with the whole truth of which you speak and that it will bear what fruit it may, without pretending to understand ideologically, or as a separated concept, some part of it which I doubt you intended to be ideological or conceptual.
I remember talking to a Jewish man, and told him my experience of going to Federal Prison because I was being led to make a stand of truth against the IRS. I followed the counsel of my priest which also concurred with the impression of the Holy Spirit.
My Jewish friend said I would not have done that. My response was that I had to because we live by the principle of crucifixion and resurrection. And it was indeed that the ‘death’ I experienced in going to prison, and the loss of most things material, and also of my podiatric medical license, was all worth it, because so much was resurrected in my life. My marriage was dramatically rejuvenated; a compassion for people was breathed in me; new depth came to prayer and prayers, and despite being sixty and coming out in a terrible economy, God did make a way.
So, now when I say I believe in Christ crucified and resurrected I can say in some measure, that because I have seen the operation of His crucifixion in this life, and can say with more certainty that, by God’s mercy, I shall be resurrected in my body on the Last Day.