Our Conciliar Salvation

dsc00126I consider it both a strange mystery and a settled matter of the faith that God prefers not to do things alone. Repeatedly, He acts in a manner that involves the actions of others when, it would seem, He could have acted alone.

Why would God reveal His Word to the world through the agency of men? Why would He bother to use writing? Why not simply communicate directly with people? Why speak to Moses in a burning bush? Why did the Incarnation involve Mary? Could He not have simply become man, whole, complete, adult, in a single moment?

Such questions could be multiplied ad infinitum. But at every turn, what we know of God involves others as well. We may rightly conclude that such a means of acting pleases Him.

Today is the Feast of the Annunciation when the Church celebrates the Incarnation of Christ at word of the angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary. An Orthodox hymn on the feast says:

The manner of His emptying cannot be known;
the manner of His conception is beyond speech.
An Angel ministers at the miracle; a virginal womb receives the Son;
the Holy Spirit is sent down; the Father on high is well pleased,
and according to their common counsel, a reconciliation is brought to pass
in which and through which we are saved.

“According to their common counsel” is a rich phrase describing this conciliar action of God.

At the same time that this conciliar mode of action seems obvious to Orthodoxy, it is frequently denied or diminished by others. There is a fear in some Christian quarters that were we to admit that God shared His action with any other, our salvation would be a matter of our own works and not the sovereign act of God. It is feared that a conciliar mode of action shares the glory of God with mere mortals.

It is true. This understanding shares the glory of God with mere mortals. But, interestingly, St. Paul says that man is the “image and glory of God” (1 Cor. 11:7). Apparently, we were brought into existence in order to have such a share.

The failure to understand this and the effort to re-invent the Christian story with diminished roles for angels and saints, or Christians themselves, comes very close to setting forth a different gospel altogether.

The Word became flesh of the Virgin Mary. The flesh of the Virgin is also the flesh that is nailed to the Cross (when her soul was itself mysteriously pierced). The flesh which we eat in the Eucharist is also the flesh of the Virgin – for there is no flesh of God that is not the flesh of the Virgin.

And it does no good to protest that the Word merely “took flesh” of the Virgin. For Adam cried out concerning Eve, “This is truly bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” And St. Paul noted concerning the wife of a man that a man should love her, “For no one ever yet hated his own flesh.”

I puzzle at how Christians who understand that it is wrong for a woman to say, “It’s my body and I can do with it what I want,” when she is carrying a child, can at the same time treat the Mother of God as though she had merely lent her womb to God for a period of time.

God’s conciliar action in our salvation is so thoroughly established that it involves our will, our soul, our flesh and bones. He includes bread and wine in our salvation so that the fruit of this garden might become the fruit of life. Everything around you is for your salvation and has its share.

This is not only true in the Incarnation, but continues to be true for every saving effort in our lives. We cannot save ourselves, of course, for that, too, would be denying the conciliar action of God.

There is a saying among the fathers, “If anyone falls, he falls alone, but no one can be saved alone.” But I think we cannot even say that we fall alone – for the one who falls is equally bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh. Christ does not distance Himself from the one who falls, but unites Himself with him so completely that He endures the consequence of our fall, entering death and hell to bring us back alive.

The Church is nothing other than the conciliar salvation of God, bone of His bone and flesh of His flesh – His body. We are being saved together whether we will admit it or not. Those who study and quote the Bible are themselves handling documents that were written, copied and preserved by others. It is a conciliar document.

The Orthodox way of life urges us to embrace the fullness of our conciliar being. In sacraments and saints in worship and wonder we live within the cloud of witnesses and share the common struggle.

For this reason let us unite our song with Gabriel’s,
crying aloud to the Virgin:
“Rejoice, O Lady full of grace, the Lord is with you!
From you is our salvation, Christ our God,
Who, by assuming our nature, has led us back to Himself.
Humbly pray to Him for the salvation of our souls!”

 

25 comments:

  1. Father, please correct me if I am wrong, but your statements sound dangerously close to the Roman Catholic teaching that the blood Jesus shed on the Cross was Mary’s blood, thus making her the Co-Redemptrix of the world.

  2. Wonderful and full of depth, Father! Thank you!

    I am unaware of the story of when the Virgin’s “…soul was itself mysteriously pierced.” Would you share this?

  3. dobergirl,
    The Roman Catholic proposal of “Co-Redemptrix” (not their actual doctrine) is not the language of Orthodoxy. But, nevertheless, she has this undeniable share in the Cross.

  4. Byron,
    Then Simeon blessed them, and said to Mary His mother, “Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which will be spoken against “(yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.” (Luk 2:34-35)

  5. “I puzzle at how Christians who understand that it is wrong for a woman to say, “It’s my body and I can do with it what I want,” when she is carrying a child, can at the same time treat the Mother of God as though she had merely lent her womb to God for a period of time.”
    Fr. Stephen, I’m curious if you could expound on this statement a bit more.

  6. “The failure to understand this and the effort to re-invent the Christian story with diminished roles for angels and saints, or Christians themselves, comes very close to setting forth a different gospel altogether.”

    I would say it does set forth a different Gospel. As the classic heresies that deny or diminish the full humanity of Christ.

    Of course, we must be aware in our own hearts of the same tendency out of sloth.

  7. dobergirl, We are not saved by the flesh but by the Incarnational reality of God becoming flesh, dying in the flesh, raising that flesh and taking both it and our fully realized human nature with Him when he ascended.

    While I see your point, there is actually a vast gulf between acknowledging that the flesh of Jesus’ human body was taken from Mary and making her co-redemptrix. The synergy and cooperation in the work of salvation is not Mary’s alone.

    We all act with each other in realizing our salvation: bearing one another’s burdens, giving thanks together, lifting each other up in prayer as we do so. We only have access to participation in the Eucharistic sacrifice because of Mary’s obedience.

    Not acknowledging her pivotal and fleshly role in the Incarnation is the mistake Nestorius made, Arius in a different way too.

    It seems to me that it is far more dangerous to minimize Mary’s role than it is to relish it.

  8. This is beautiful. Thank you. More than reading theology, living in an Orthodox country has, I feel, brought me closer to seeing the Mother of God properly (as it happens, Georgia considers itself under the special patronage of Mary). Her icons are everywhere, and over time, one cannot but recognize her gentleness, submission, and majesty.

    I have also recently come to love the Greek hymn Agni Parthene.

  9. Newenglandsun,
    Well, I think that the defense of the unborn has been a great leap forward in the thinking of many Christians (it certainly just wasn’t discussed much at all before 1973). And they have rightly understood that the life in the womb is a true life and that the mother cannot just “sever” her relationship. The implications of this (which have always been there) for the relationship of Mary to Christ seem clear.

    Her life, became His life, and vice versa. These things cannot be neatly separated and treated as though they have no connection. Mary (and even all of creation) has a role in our salvation. God wills it so. He didn’t just choose to save us, but to do so by becoming flesh. The Creator became the created in and for our salvation. This is His Divine condescension, but it is also creations exaltation.

    As Mary says, “For he that is mighty hath magnified me : and holy is his Name.” It is God who exalts Mary.

    And we must understand from the Scriptures that the union that Mary has with Christ in the womb is not severed at His birth. For she is told by the Elder Simeon (in Luke’s gospel), that “a sword will pierce your own soul also.” The wounding of Christ on the Cross is shared by Mary in the depths of her soul. This is a very profound verse, ignored by many.

    I write repeatedly emphasizing that our salvation is a matter of union (rather than a legal matter). At the heart of that union is Mary.

  10. Father,

    Any thoughts about those studies they did where they found Y chromosomes in women’s brains and the most likely cause appeared to be stem cells from their sons somehow migrating out of the womb and settling elsewhere in their bodies? I feel it really confirms what you’re saying here but I don’t want to get too carried away with it (having a crisis of faith if another study mitigates these findings, insisting that this must have happened with Mary and Jesus, etc.).

  11. Matt,
    I wouldn’t matter particularly. There is enough common biology to talk about their common and shared humanity. Besides, the Creed is quite clear, “He was made flesh (sarkothenta) of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary.”

  12. I wouldn’t be at all surprised, Matt, if there is a real physical exchange and permanent physical coinherence of some sort between infant and mother–cells go both ways through the umbilical cord. Even people who are not related by blood–namely husband and wife–are permanently altered on the cellular level through physical intimacy. They exchange neuropeptides which become part of one anothers’ brain and nervous system. Perhaps this is why some husbands and wives begin to think more alike and resemble each other more closely the longer they remain a bonded couple.

  13. Thank you Father Freeman,

    As a Protestant convert one of the major themes of the Orthodox faith that was never a part of my Christian experience was the importance of consiliar love. It is indeed this consiliar love which defines the “image and likeness” of God within us and our created purpose. I am struck with this consiliar love – the kenosis (crucifixion) of the false self (the individual)- and the restoration through faith and grace of the Trinitarian “mode of being” (as Yannaras calls it) that is consiliar love.

    Indeed, I have never known Christianity until I knew it in Orthodoxy – which strives to live – “according to their common counsel.” Trying to explain this central aspect of the Christian life to Protestants and Roman Catholics when describing consiliar accord both historically and theologically often results in blank stares. It goes to the depth of the gospel instead of hovering about it’s surface. And yet how easy to speak of it and glory at it – how difficult to LIVE it!

    You have given us all such a beautiful reminder of the truth of our created nature and our salvation from the ego of individualism through Christ into the utterly transcendent, self-offering nature of our God. Thank you.

  14. I’m sometimes surprised to hear the occasional dismayed reaction to the tremendous feats of the Saints by some, specifically the reaction: “how can I, a busy family man/ woman compare to them?” It reveals a certain deficiency of this conciliar awareness, of communion. I particularly love the way Elder Sophrony described how we are all communicating vessels to such a degree that a single good (or bad) thought of one can have cosmic repercussions.

  15. Thank you Father Freeman,

    I am a pastor in the Church of the Nazarene. I have enjoyed reading your thoughts for some time, but was especially grateful for your articulation here. Much of the dialogue about relationship paradigms within my denomination rely on language of covenant, but for many reasons fall short of the connections you make here. Too many evangelicals struggle with the scope of our salvation (I appreciate Aaron’s concise explanation of conciliar love). I think this is easily seen in terms of how protestant doctrines deal with transgression.

    Our Lord laid a foundation for understanding the heart of the law (covenant) -which is to Love both God and our neighbor- and Paul helped us to understand how this impacted all of creation, but delusion and dilution still persist. Yet if “God’s conciliar action in our salvation is so thoroughly established that it involves our will, our soul, our flesh and bones,” then the inverse of conciliar action, which is selfishness or sin (transgression), involves the violation of such things.

    Thus God, who shares our being and shares His being with us, is so grieved by sin. Thus is God’s mercy so overwhelming and the need for our transformation and holiness so thorough. We are created in his image and likeness -whole in communion not alone and yet many seek salvation void of connection. This is why I believe many of our efforts seeking social justice lose momentum and our church communities starve for deeper meaning and relationship.

  16. Pastor Joseph, you raise some interesting questions, especially the connection and differences between covenant and communion. I’m going to have to ponder that for a while.

  17. I’ve shared this before, but it fits so well into the current topic, I have to share it again:

    My father was a real pioneer, his father homesteaded 160 acres in the territory of New Mexico in 1905. It was in the eastern high plains region which is a near desert. Yet my grandfather and the family managed for many years farming, hunting, trading. My father grew up on the back of a horse in this wide open seemingly desolate prairie. It was there that he had the experiences that became the building blocks for all that he later did in the field of public health (what he called community health).

    There he experienced God and the connectedness of everything and the living presence of God in all things everywhere. He had a deep understanding of the dynamic interconnectedness of all of creation with the divine and man’s responsibility in that.

    I grew up with his incessant (or so I thought at the time) talking about the interrelationship between people in community, animals and all other created things and how healing one aspect of a community healed all of the community. Healing a particular community helped other communities to be healthier. He proved it over and over again. Few, even his closest colleagues, understood what he was doing and his approach did not survive when the next guy took over.

    My dad’s faith was primal and primitive. I accidently witnessed him in prayer a couple of times and it reminded me a great deal of Jacob wrestling with the angel (my dad was an accomplished wrestler in college too). My dad was always confused by Jesus though.

    So, when many years later my brother and I were led to the Orthodox Church much of what we found in Her was quite familiar. The dynamic conciliarity of life, doctrine and salvation was not a surprise. It was a relief not only to see it here but to be able to explore the reality of that interconnectedness to a much greater depth and to experience the communion through the person of Jesus Christ.

    One thing my dad did, not as a matter of ideology or even faith but as a matter of simple public health during his days as health department director, was prevent Planned Parenthood from coming into Wichita . He always felt that the health of the community was much better served by assisting pregnant women to find the support and resources to bring their children to term rather than killing the them and set up programs to do that. Once my dad was forced to retire in 1973, the holistic methods of my dad stopped and Planned Parenthood was setting up shop in Wichita within a year.

  18. Thank you, Father, for bringing this truly wonder-full reality to our attention. Perhaps it’s something we’d know if we thought about it, but we so often don’t.

  19. Laurie,
    Yes, I think that’s quite true. Most of the time we don’t think about breathing, do we? Until and unless we have something wrong with our respiratory tract. There are many things that are utterly essential to our Christian life that we overlook or take for granted. This is especially true about things that are not reinforced by the culture in which we live. The “conciliarity” of our salvation is one of those things. The Church tries to remind us of such things constantly by singing, “Most Holy Theotokos, save us,” or “Through the prayers of our holy fathers have mercy on us…” and the like.

  20. Pastor Joseph,

    Some years ago I made a long study of covenant and learned that middle eastern and scriptural covenant symbols and texts all anticipate the soft heart in a relationship. They don’t all get there but the path is clear. There’s often a brutally exclusive exterior that, like the temple’s walls, that gives way as you enter to a relationship of trust built through an exchange of gifts. Of course, some are entirely one-way, but the best lead to a friendship. This pattern is evident not only in covenant semantics but also in the very common chiastic structure of the texts.

    In this way, it seems to me, covenants predate and prefigure the revelation of Christ by inviting the parties into a communion that brings peace and benefits to both parties. In temple terms the holy of holies is the goal where the ultimate suzerain, God, himself dwells. Of course Christ and the Holy Spirit have inverted the whole thing, explicitly making man’s heart the dwelling place of God. Also, God in Christ reverses the approach, being more humble and giving than His vassal.

    Studying covenants helped me learn that laws, moral codes, injunctions, chastisements, and so on are all exterior. They are utterly dependent on and make no sense whatsoever without encircling, without paving a path to a dwelling place that is safe enough for intimate communion. Indeed, pointing to that place, defending that place, leading us to that place, it seems, is their highest use.

  21. Thank you Father.

    I never gave much thought about the “sword” you mentioned here, even though there are such poignant verses in the paschal services showing the Theotokos’ viewpoint during the passion. As a Protestant, teachings about the story of Abraham having to sacrifice his only son was always only about the father’s offering but in all of this, I never considered that in the new testament there was a Mother who followed her Son up the hill in the same way — not just as a spectator, but as someone who also sacrifices. But in her case there was no reprieve, no ram, it would be her only Son, and only Him. And so what ever I imagined of the emotional turmoil of Abraham, yet persevering in faith and obedience, can be said of her and of her sacrifice?

    Am I understanding this correctly?

  22. Beth,
    And that is just the emotional bond. It is even deeper. We deeply underestimate the character the the “ontological” bond, the physical/spiritual/bond of being. We experience this in only a shallow manner. But on the level of such a grace-filled saint as the Mother of God (the greatest of all saints) as well as the Incarnate Son of God, that bond would transcend anything we comprehend. She not only felt His suffering and death emotionally, but actually shared in it in a manner that we do not comprehend. The image of a “sword piercing the soul” is way beyond saying that “it will break your heart.” It is language of the most extreme sort.

    Christ was/is the Second Adam. But the Mother of God was the Second Eve. By that point in her life she is recaptitulating the whole human race in herself. She is the “Mother of us all.” I say this with easy confidence, both because of the dogma of the Church, but also because far lesser saints (such as Sophrony of Essex) have written about the experience of the “Whole Adam” in prayer. What he would have known would have been but a shadow of what the Theotokos knew.

    Many people only think of her because of her role in the Incarnation. She is also the Mother of all monks, the greatest Hesychast who ever lived. She was not just a womb, but the greatest saint. She knew and shared in the most complete total and real way the suffering, death and resurrection of her Son. It is commonly held by the Fathers that she never left Him. “Mary stood by Thy tomb, the guards became as dead men,” we sing in one of the Resurrectional Troparia. Everyone else ran away, but she didn’t. She had always “pondered in her heart” everything she heard, including (alone among all the human race) the word of Christ about His resurrection.

    She already knew, because of her utter union with her Son.

    Such a union, by the grace of God, is God’s will for us all. She only has and knows already what we shall have and know. It is pretty much impossible for the human tongue to describe or exaggerate what that reality will be.

  23. MichaelPatrick,

    The concrete illustration of the marriage covenant defending, protecting and leading to the vulnerability of the marriage bed and the newborn that will hopefully also grace that union comes to mind when reading your comment.

  24. Between the last post on superstion, and this post on conciliar salvation, I think about prayer. Particuarly my prayers. I have prayed at times, and at other times wondered why I pray for myself and for others. I have thought rather secrectly, if God know all why would my prayer matter? What I neglected to see, was that as Father pointed out, prayer is uniting the one you pray for to Gods will, essentially united them to Christ. By also, and as important, is that it is impossible for me to pray for another, without uniting myself to Christ. Thus, my prayers for others, not only are for my brother, but, simultaneously unite me. Prayer are for salvation and are conciliar. Thank you Father.

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