Begotten of the Father

orthodox_liturgy_celebrating_relics_st_seraphimNo revelation is more central to the Christian faith than God as Father. Some might immediately respond that the Trinity should be seen as the central revelation. But, in Orthodox understanding, the Trinity has its source (πηγή) in the Father.  We should understand this not only as a matter of Trinitarian thought, but as the proper grounding of the spiritual life as well. To be a Christian in the proper sense, to worship God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is to acknowledge that our life does not have its source in ourselves, but in God. Living by this, moment by moment, is what it means to have a true and authentic existence – to be truly human.

Christ, particularly in St. John’s gospel, makes frequent reference to the Father as the origin and source of all that He has and does:

Then Jesus answered and said to them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, but what He sees the Father do; for whatever He does, the Son also does in like manner. For the Father loves the Son, and shows Him all things that He Himself does; and He will show Him greater works than these, that you may marvel. For as the Father raises the dead and gives life to them, even so the Son gives life to whom He will…. For as the Father has life in Himself, so He has granted the Son to have life in Himself…(Joh 5:19-21 and 26)

The dynamic of the relationship between the Father and the Son described by Christ is also a dynamic that lies at the very heart of authentic existence. It is a dynamic that seems quite foreign in our cultural context. The modern world is a culture of “fatherless children” (sometimes quite literally). The past (and thus the place and source of our origins) is always seen as something to be overcome. The notion of “progress” includes a forgetting of the past and the reduction of its power in our lives. We seek to self-create and self-define our lives as though we had no source outside of ourselves.

Orthodoxy makes frequent mention of the “Church Fathers.” For many, the phrase is simply seen as another set of authoritative ideas. As such, in true modern form, we seek to appropriate for ourselves (and on our own terms), what we choose and prefer within their writings, and then imagine that they have authority in our lives. But this misses the dynamic that “Church Fathers” is meant to convey. For like Christ’s reference to God the Father (“the Son can do nothing of Himself”), so the Church makes reference to those who have gone before. The Christian faith is always “that which is received,” and not “that which is chosen.” And this receiving is dynamic and living, a present action within the life of the Church and no mere acknowledgement of history’s importance.

It is a dynamic that all too easily feels like tyranny to the modern mind. Modernity equates liberty with the freedom to decide and choose, to define ourselves and the world around us. In the words of Justice Anthony Kennedy (Planned Parenthood vs. Casey, 1992):

At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.

We relish this concept of unfettered freedom. But, of course, it is absurd, even for a secularist. For whether we choose to admit it or not, we “brought nothing into this world” (1 Tim. 6:7). Everything in our lives is derived and gifted. We are not the inventors of the world nor of our lives. And though we struggle to understand and even master our own DNA, it remains a primary component of our destiny, a genetic memory of the history of our coming into being across the ages. To be told that we have some portion of DNA contributed by Neanderthals reminds us that even such obscure ancestors are “selves we have received” through our genetically traditioned existence.

Of course, our genetic makeup is only one aspect of our traditioned existence. Our culture and our language are equally derived. For though most people are not aware of the history that shaped the words of their speech, the history remains. The Battle of Hastings in 1066 lives in a host of French-based words that the Norman Conquest brought into English. Indeed, the vast vocabulary of the English language is a testimony to the successive waves of invasion and immigration that shaped those island people – just as the world today labors (or thrives) under an Anglo-American hegemony that has marked speech, customs and culture across the world.

I could, of course, use other nations and languages as examples of this traditioned part of our lives. Justice Kennedy’s nonsensical musings on the nature of liberty are not an invention out of whole cloth. They (like all of modernity) are an aberration, a genetic defect, in the cultural fabric of our world.

Orthodox Christian teaching holds that the truth of our existence is only made manifest in the realization and fulfillment of our nature. Modernity, on the other hand, seeks to re-define and overcome nature. The Church’s teaching is a proper and true humanism – modernity represents anti-humanism.

“The Fathers” are indeed an “authority,” but more rightly understood by considering the meaning of authority. The root of the word has to do with authorship – with sources and beginnings. The Christian faith is never our own creation, but is gifted to us. We must receive it.

St. Paul said to the Corinthians:

For though you might have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet you do not have many fathers; for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel. (1Co 4:15)

To live a life that is “fathered” or “received” is an essential part of a eucharistic (eucharist=thanksgiving) existence. We say of Christ in the Divine Liturgy:

You are the offerer and the offered, the receiver and the received.

We cannot give thanks for that which has not been received. The modern refusal to acknowledge the giftedness of all life is an anti-eucharistic form of existence. It bears a striking resemblance to the times in the apostolic warning:

But know this, that in the last days perilous times will come: For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having a form of godliness but denying its power. (2Ti 3:1-5)

I used to marvel at this passage, wondering why “disobedient to parents” was included. At what time in the past have children not been disobedient? But this disobedience must be seen in the larger context of an anti-eucharistic existence. Indeed, the entire apostolic list in 2Timothy should be seen as an exposition of anti-eucharistic life. Every vice mentioned has its root in the failure to live in constant giving of thanks, the life of a received and “fathered” existence.

Our salvation is a return to sanity, a recognition of the truth of our lives. It is to live in the awareness and presence of giftedness:

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning. (Jam 1:17)

Giving thanks always and for all things, we acknowledge our Father in heaven. We accept and receive the “fathered” character of the whole of our life and faith. This fulfills the life that Christ has promised:

For I have given to them the words which You have given Me; and they have received them, and have known surely that I came forth from You; and they have believed that You sent Me….Holy Father, keep through Your name those whom You have given Me, that they may be one as We are…. the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me. (Joh 17:8, 11, 22-23)

19 comments:

  1. Every”thing” I am or have that has any value has been received. What a profound truth to forget over and over again.
    Thank you Father–again.
    Monica

  2. So happy to have your writing again!

    We cannot give thanks for that which has not been received. The modern refusal to acknowledge the giftedness of all life is an anti-eucharistic form of existence.

    So thankful for this! Wonderfully stated, Father!

  3. Many decades ago when I was a Luth pastor, (now 10 yrs Orthodox), I knew because it impacted me in such a way the NT verses of “Abba, Father”, and it hasn´t left me that God, the Father, is my Heavenly Father. So when I pray, I pray to the Father through the Son. This is a treasure to me.

  4. A great contribution to our theological knowledge which simply fulfills a need in our day. The view that one can live a Christian life without the recognition that the faith we hold is “that which was received” and not “that which was chosen” is simply a no-go for anyone professing Orthodox Christianity.
    Keep up the good fight, Father

  5. Thank you Fr. Freeman, very well written and illustrated.
    This reminds me of coming to the US as an immigrant. The US always gave the impression as though it had created itself out of nothing, separate from a past, which of course is not true. Europeans, and people from all over the world brought their culture, history, religions and know how together and created this country, and if not careful, on its way to destruction.. What it is today for all the people coming into the US is nothing short of a received, (a forgotten received for many) as well as all the past errors/sins, (as you have so well written about in another article, the collective) from the very hard and laborious beginnings and sacrifices that were made centuries ago, So as grant as many perceive the US to be today, so also it has it’s short comings and damaging sinful developments,

    I think that is true for the Church or Churches too. I’ve felt this forced separation from God in the worships to Christ alone Churches here… as I was looking for a God-Centered Community.
    And as much as I have looked to my own past and heritage, and trying to be faithful and/in keeping with its continuum, all the more I became aware and learned of the sins of my cultural, ethnic and spiritual/religious past, and what I needed not to pass on, but change. (Though I have to add, more good was received/ given me than bad, or I would not be here today)
    I am not sure, but I think there is no Church or Church Fathers that are without sin and error. But the sense of continuum, I agree, as well as all the knowledge that is available today, secular, spiritual or religious is given to us by the labors of our for- fathers, who studied and sacrificed to give us understanding for today, and it is not final yet what we shall be. I think every generation has a duty to work for keeping with the continuum, and in speaking to its generation.
    All life, past-present and future, is a given gift from God. And we are/I am “nothing”, but the sum there-of from the time I was born to the day I die. Culture, Language, Education, Continent, Climate, Country and Religion with some of the choices I’ve made, it is in the combinations what makes each of us unique, or one of a kind and gifted, as all is, was and ever shall be from God. I came with nothing but my DNA and God’s breath into this world, and most likely will depart this way too. What happens in-between is awareness and consciousness. Enough rambling. mho
    A heart felt thank you and blessings.

  6. Thank you for the post. The revelation that we have a Father is what liberates us from the burden of the fear of death. Reading your post I think of the prodigal son remembering his own father and returning home to receive his inheritance.

  7. When you describe the vision of modern secularism as an unfettered liberty that is antihuman, you are describing a particular vision that has enamored mankind since the beginning but has only become truly powerful in popular since the enlightenment. There is a wonderful book which you may like to read by Thomas Sowell which is called A conflict of visions. I wouldn’t be surprised if you have already read it. But the crux of the book is trying to understand the elements of what he calls An unconstrained vision, which is sort of a twisted unfettered liberty, which is led to the destructive theories of our time such as Marxism Nazi-ism Leninism, etc. He also discusses a constrained vision, which in large part helped found this nation. It is the ordered liberty that is expressed in the political writings someone like Edmund Burke. And I think it’s what you are talking about as well, that God gave freedom to his chosen people and revealed himself to them through law and order. Certainly would wonder what you thought about the book if you have read it already or if you choose to read it. It’s one of those books that I personally find important, in fact it’s one of my favorite books because it explains so much about what drives the particular outcroppings of this unconstrained vision.

  8. I’ve come to the place where I’m glad to be getting rid of the burden of perpetually “creating” myself (or at least perceiving that I am). Of course the ego is like glue for these sorts of things, so some of it sticks, but as the ego diminishes, these things lose their hold as well. In the end though, I’ve seen how this ridiculous striving runs counter to the gratitude that I’d so much prefer to live my life with. Even on this very night, I found myself awake well before dawn and unable to go back to sleep because of worry and a weariness that sleep won’t fix. Yet as I write this and consider my life as a whole, there is much to be grateful for. I feel ashamed that I don’t see that more clearly and more often.

  9. I’ve tried to force myself to believe in the orthodox faith, but the reality is, is that this earth bound church with its man made doctrines are just as much the cause of division as the the other two factions of Christianity. I’ve also grown weary of all this techno primitive communication, sitting around looking into the artificial light of computer screens to find inspiration. God was never murdered; as life is for the living, the strong and the willing.

  10. Jeff,

    I am so sorry to read your words. Faith is not something you gain by forcing yourself (what would that look like anyways, did you have to force yourself to believe in gravity or electricity?).

    Just like everything in life (the point of Father Stephen’s article!), Faith is a gift from God, but God only gives it to those who ask for it sincerely (and do much more to prove they are genuine about this asking, and are not doing it as a defiant teenager would challenge a parent to prove something to them…). The Church is the only place that offers the right environment, God’s immediate presence. If you do not partake of what the Church offers, God will never get a chance to reveal Himself to you.

    I pray for you.

  11. Jeff, the Life is for the dead, the weak, and the unwilling.

    The Church back in the day was just real Power, words, and touches, and no place to go. That did not die. Just shows up when and where It will.

    Not really a matter of searching for what is all over the place.
    More get it, and try to sneak that in when and where that is willed.

    So get it. Or to be more precise, begotten.

  12. Agata,
    If you knew me, you would know that I am sincere as a person and have humbled myself in reaching out to God. In turning to Christ and the Christian faith though, I have found only a continuing pain that will not cease, a guilt and shame that has left me feeling crippled and a divided church with its various doctrines that has provided little relief or comfort. If my words sound defiant to you, it is because I have grown tired of trying to force myself into believing in a religion that is so foreign. I once believed in God in a way that felt natural, a simple faith, like that of a child, then the world raised me. However now in trying to believe the way the Christian faith says one ought to believe, makes it feel like I am having to force myself to do so and just as with mankind’s ever growing dependency on computers, machines, technology and all things opposite to what sustains the natural world, I cannot continue down this path. There is only one Creator and we all have an inherent longing for Him, He is greater than anyones religion or doctrine. It is only when we begin to remove the layers of this artificial man made world and unplug from it that we can get back to Him.
    I pray for you as well my dear friend.

  13. Jeff,
    God was never murdered; as life is for the living, the strong and the willing.

    You are absolutely right. Love God, do justice and love your neighbor as yourself. If all Christians would just practice this, we would see a real brotherhood and communities, and would not have to sit on a computer wondering ….where is Christianity in the real world, in real people, in real Life.
    Sometimes I too think Christianity is an escape for many for not being and doing. In other words they are dead, but trying to live by and thru a/some process of doctrines. They’ve become much like the pharmacies putting burdens on the people. 98 % of all Christians don’t have it….he who has the son “I am” has life. God is not dead, and for every life that is born and here on this earth God wants to reveal himself, if not killed by their fellow Christians or none-believers.

    Stay strong and live, and show the world that God is with you. Emanuel!

  14. Jeff the harder you try the more difficult it becomes.

    Rejoice in God your savior and allow Him to lead you to a place where you can receive Him.

  15. Jeff,
    Sorry to be slow to respond to your comments. I’ve been away at services for a senior priest who fell asleep. Memory eternal.

    Don’t force yourself to believe anything. First, and mostly, concern yourself with God. The religious landscape is a nightmare, with the ruins of churches and nonsense everywhere. I do not share your troubles with the Orthodox faith. I simply accept it for what it is – the original Church. And it is what I expect the early Church to be – troubled and struggling, just like the one St. Paul wrote letters to. I do not believe that the doctrine is “man-made.”

    As for all the johnny-come-lately versions of Christianity, I’m not responsible for them nor do I concern myself with them. I pray for all and let it go at that.

    God give you grace. As for the artificial light of computer screens – it’s no different than looking at the pages of a book, whose pages are man-made. You sound a bit jaded. Only wonder ever knows anything. God grant you to wonder.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.