Looking like Christmas

800px-Nesterov_SaintRussia-300x187One of the most striking features of the Gospels is the frequent response of the Disciples after the resurrection of Christ: doubt. I have always been sympathetic to the doubts and hesitations that accompanied their experience during the ministry of Christ. They are almost endearing in their inability to grasp what Christ is all about. However, the same inability to grasp things after the resurrection seems to carry with it all kinds of difficulties. What was it about the resurrection that they could not or did not believe? A man dies and is buried. Then he is not buried and is not simply a resusitated man, but manifests and entirely new form of existence. Call it resurrection or what have you – but apparently Christ had mentioned this coming reality more than once before it happened. What was the problem for the disciples?

The problem seems to go to the very heart of things both then and now. Had the resurrection belonged to the classification of events that everyone can see, measure, study, reach “scientific” agreement about, there would surely have been no trouble. But the resurrection does not belong to some general classification. It is sui generis, its own classification.  There are many who want to speak about the resurrection as if it were a car wreck down at the corner drugstore. Whatever it was (is) it is very much more, even, indeed, something completely different – not like anything else.

And it is here, that the continuing problem of vision is made manifest. Orthodox Christian writers are wont to utter things like, “God will save the world through beauty” (Dostoevsky), or “Icons will save the world” (recently in First Things) all of which makes some people want to run away. But at their heart, such statements are trying to say something about the nature of the resurrection and its action in our world.

The resurrection of Christ is something completely new. It is a manifestation of God unlike anything we have ever known. It is Truth made manifest in the flesh – not the truth to be found in an average living man. I am 62 and I look very unlike what I did at 10. I look decidedly unlike what I will in another 100 years (you probably wouldn’t like to see that). Thus we never normally see anything in an eternal state. But the resurrection is just that. It does not belong exactly to the classification of “things created,” for it is the “uncreated” before our eyes.

And thus the Church paints the things that pertain to the resurrection in an iconic fashion – not like portraiture or the “truth” that lies before our eyes. Icons paint the Truth in a manner that intends to point to the resurrection. By the same token, the Church does not write about the resurrection in the way we write about other things, for the resurrection is not one of the other things but a thing that is unlike anything else. Thus the Fathers of the Church said that “icons do with color what Scripture does with words.”

And both have something to do with vision. The Gospel tells us: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” I am not pure in heart but I think I may have encountered such a person. At the least I have read stories about such a person and I know that such persons see what I cannot and they see in a manner that as yet I do not.

But this goes to the point of salvation. Salvation is not how to get people like me (or like you) into some place safe from the fires of hell. That is a transportation problem at best, or a legal problem, at worst. The point of salvation is how to change people like me (and you). It is about changing us such that seeing the resurrection becomes possible.

In this sense, God will indeed save the world through Beauty. The problem is that so few if any of us have ever seen Beauty. If you had seen Beauty, then you would not disagree with the statement. It’s obvious character would be, well, obvious. That people want to argue with it (or with icons) only means that they do not or cannot see. And neither do I, most of the time.

If I could see as I am meant to see then my eyes would not see enemies nor the like. Not that others might not intend to be my enemies or want evil for me – but there are eyes that see beyond all of that and see the Truth of a person. Had I the eyes to see, love would not be an insurmountable problem but as tangible as the Resurrection itself.

And so we draw ever nearer to the Feast of the Lord’s Nativity. Every heart should prepare Him room. More than that, every heart should beg to see the Beauty, to read the Icon of the Gospel of the Nativity, to see what daily escapes our vision and leaves us blind – leading the blind.

20 comments:

  1. I have often wondered if I were to be transported to the time of the Lord’s Earthly Ministry if I would recognize Him for all that He is, even with my Monday Morning Quarterback view of the Incarnation. I wonder if I would accept the Resurrection as well, for it, as well as the Incarnation are things totally without precedent in human history. I like to think I would recognize Him, but part of me says I would be just as confused as the Apostles. I think that part is the honest part. What comes to mind is the Scripture that says: “See I do a new thing…” Yes, He certainly did do something that is beyond all categories and all understanding. But then so is He beyond understanding. Thank You Father for stretching us with your writings.

  2. Nicholas, I have often thought much the same thing. And yet….perhaps it is the utter newness in all things that while blatantly obvious in some ways makes it hidden at the same time? So close at hand but so obscure?

  3. Michael,
    I think you are definitely on to something with the idea of obscure and also close at hand. Obscure, because the Incarnation, like God Himself, is simply a category which we cannot address. It is so totally transcendent and yet imminent that we simply have no way mentally to grasp the event other than to have faith.

  4. “But this goes to the point of salvation. Salvation is not how to get people like me (or like you) into some place safe from the fires of hell. That is a transportation problem at best, or a legal problem, at worst. The point of salvation is how to change people like me (and you). It is about changing us such that seeing the resurrection becomes possible.”

    Its easy to happily take in and digest a statement like this when you’re young and feel you have all the time in the world to be “changed” ahead of you. What advice would you give those who elderly or dying? Those who know they have only a short time left read a statement like this with a lot more urgency. A statement like this becomes the only thing that matters, while all earthly cares melt away. What should they do to attain this change in the short time they have?

  5. Michelle,
    I’m 62 and on the other side of a heart attack, so your question hits home. This change is utterly the work of grace. Giving myself to God, without reservation, is my side of the equation.

    St. Basil the Great once wrote about the role suffering often plays in the last days of life. He spoke about a sort of purification and such (wish I could remember the citation!). I have thought about my death bed many times, and potentially been there once (during my heart attack). It is an utterly helpless position. For once dead, what more can we do? I think the last “change” that occurs in us takes place as we commit our spirit into God’s hands. It is easily the greatest act of faith.

    For those of us who are close enough to see the end of this life, approaching it with faith, and thanksgiving are the content of the change we seek. The work of grace in our lives is, generally, completely hidden. The Wisdom of Solomon has this wonderful image and promise:

    The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment shall touch them.They seemed, in the view of the foolish, to be dead; and their passing away was thought an affliction and their going forth from us, utter destruction.
    But they are in peace. For if to others, indeed, they seem punished,yet is their hope full of immortality; Chastised a little, they shall be greatly blessed,because God tried them and found them worthy of himself. As gold in the furnace, he proved them,
    and as sacrificial offerings he took them to himself. In the time of their visitation they shall shine and dart about as sparks through stubble;

    What a great day!

  6. I’m grateful Fr Stephen for your wonderful insights and gift your blogging the most helpful thoughts.

    I’m called to respond also to Michelle’s question about urgency. Isn’t it true that we don’t know God’s plan for us and that people young in years may be called at any time. Surely therefore we should live each day as if our last?

  7. Fr. Stephen,

    For some reason one of the things come to mind is John Coffey talking about the pain people cause each other being like pieces of glass in his head: “That’s how it is, every day, all over the world.”

    I suspect one aspect of the disenchanted times we live in is this kind of seeing. It is people seeing the darkness – but not the light. When they see beauty around them, it is always tinged with sadness and tragedy. When they see truth, it is stark and leads to death. When they see goodness it is a small light that is rabidly being attacked by terrible but overwhelming evil. Their hearts mourn the loss of such wonderful things but sees it as inevitable.

    I think of the time Jesus went to make a sick girl well. When He stepped into the house and was told that it was too late, He replied that she wasn’t dead but only sleeping. They bitterly laughed and scorned Him. This reaction was from their perspective was extremely justified. He was making light of an unstoppable tragedy in their lives which was something quite bitter but also just the way life was.

    So…..if a person is able to see the light, they should share it as a candle on a lampstand – but be prepared to be reviled and misunderstood by good people. Not being such a person I can only guess that the glass in one’s head is not only overwhelmed by the vision of God’s beauty, truth and goodness in the world, but also transformed by it.

  8. Thank you for that question, Michelle, and Fr. Stephen for the response. I’m 30 years old and fear death, most of the time. Learning to take “smaller” steps of faith, though, is helping me with the fear.

  9. Ralph,
    living each moment as if our last –and living in that eternal present– is some of the best advise going indeed…

  10. Thank you Father, your words are a great comfort to me. I’m 32 with a bone marrow/blood disease that has a very real potential of transforming into a very bad kind of cancer in the future. If that should happen then my only chance of survival is a successful bone marrow transplant. I have two young children, 3 yrs and 8 months old, so I’m hoping I am given at least 15 more years. But God’s will be done. Whatever is best for my children’s salvation is actually all I want. Anyway, not trying to be a downer, but your response is a blessing to me, especially about the purification in the last moments. I want to die well, whenever that shall be. I want to be a good witness to Christ for all my loved ones, but Im afraid I will snap and become a faithless, depressed wreck. I just keep praying that I will remain faithful. The hardest part of your advice is giving myself to God without reservation. Even with this sickness reminding me of the One thing needful I still struggle to give my whole heart to God. I guess more prayer in this respect is the route I should take. I must say, though, my prayer life has increased double fold, and even if I was told tomorrow that I was miraculously healed I would try fervently to continue praying as much. In fact, I would try to keep it in my heart to continue to live as one under the threat of death that I feel now. Like Ralph said, we should live each day as our last. Repent as if its your last, pray as if its your last, love as if its your last. Good advice indeed. Thank you everyone.

    God’s Blessings

  11. Michelle,
    One way we can exercise faith really is doing it a day at a time. I do not avoid the thought of my inevitable death, but I’m not doing it today. What I trust is that grace will be there sufficient to the trial itself. And this I am sure of. I cannot think of anything in my life that has lacked grace sufficient. I had the privilege of serving as a Hospice Chaplain for 2 years here in the mountains. I saw many, many people die, and most did it very well, at peace with God and others. They were believers. They gave me great courage. Families often had struggles, but rarely the dying themselves. There is great grace from God.

    I will pray that God will sustain your health and grant you many years. To live a long life is a great blessing. May God make it yours!

  12. I have read much that relates the Nativity to the Crucifixion. It’s quite edifying to see the Resurrection as well.

    Glory to the Alpha and Omega for all things!

  13. “Had the resurrection belonged to the classification of events that everyone can see, measure, study, reach “scientific” agreement about, there would surely have been no trouble. But the resurrection does not belong to some general classification. It is sui generis, its own classification… Whatever it was (is) it is very much more, even, indeed, something completely different – not like anything else.

    And it is here, that the continuing problem of vision is made manifest…The resurrection of Christ is something completely new. It is a manifestation of God unlike anything we have ever known… [T]his goes to the point of salvation. Salvation is not how to get people like me (or like you) into some place safe from the fires of hell. That is a transportation problem at best, or a legal problem, at worst. The point of salvation is how to change people like me (and you). It is about changing us such that seeing the resurrection becomes possible.”

    ————-

    Thank you father!

    The excerpt I retyped is so very important for me to remember.

    I offer up the following comment for correction where necessary…

    We are seeing the new because we have become new and are becoming more consummately new by grace.

    By virtue of our Baptismal/Eucharistic life, we dying to one reality (this world) and are being raised to the other (kingdom) reality. We are of the kingdom and yet we live in this world.

    It seems to me we are given the ability to do two kinds of seeing. We who are being purified in heart are not, primarily, those who experience some sort of “vision correction” regarding present reality. Our Baptismal/Eucharistic life is one in which, I am convinced, the grace is provided to see in the midst of the present reality the NEW reality. Having said that, purifying grace does give us the ability to see more accurately (truthfully), the present reality in which we live. The second makes possible the first.

  14. Glorify Him!

    Many years, Michelle.

    Many years, Father and everyone. May we walk humbly, with love and care, into the coming year.

  15. Christ is Born! Glorify Him!
    My love and best wishes to all of you here. May Christ shine His Light in your hearts and fill them with His joy and peace.

    Michelle,
    May the Lord grant you health and many years. I wanted to share with you a prayer that I came across once. It must have been either in the books or talks about Elder Sophrony from Essex. Maybe it was Fr. Zacharias that was saying that we need to pray ahead for the moment of our death… I also thought about it much, having been seriously ill a couple of times. Elder Soprhony’s “Prayer at daybreak” speaks about “preparing one’s soul to come before God….”.

    This is the prayer:

    “Lord, at the moment of my death, when I will be helpless and unable to pray, I beseech You: remember me. Now, while I am able, I want to entreat your help at that time. Be merciful o Lord God and at that dreadful hour, when my strenght shall fail me and I will be no longer able to cry out to Thee, when neither angel nor man can extend a helping hand to me, do Thou come to my aid and grant me the unspeakable joy of my salvation. Amen”

    Beautiful, isn’t it?

  16. British philosopher David Hume (“Of Miracles” part 2):
    But suppose, that all the historians, who treat of ENGLAND, should agree, that, on the first of JANUARY 1600, Queen ELIZABETH died; that both before and after her death she was seen by her physicians and the whole court, as is usual with persons of her rank; that her successor was acknowledged and proclaimed by the parliament; and that, after being interred a month, she again appeared, took possession of the throne, and governed ENGLAND for three years: I must confess, I should be surprized at the concurrence of so many odd circumstances, but should not have the least inclination to believe so miraculous an event. I should not doubt of her pretended death, and of those other public circumstances that followed it: I should only assert it to have been pretended, and that it neither was, nor possibly could be real. You would in vain object to me the difficulty, and almost impossibility of deceiving the world in an affair of such consequence; the wisdom and solid judgment of that renowned queen; with the little or no advantage which she could reap from so poor an artifice: All this might astonish me; but I would still reply, that the knavery and folly of men are such common phaenomena, that I should rather believe the most extraordinary events to arise from their concurrence, than admit of so signal a violation of the laws of nature.
    But should this miracle be ascribed to any new system of religion; men, in all ages, have been so much imposed on by ridiculous stories of that kind, that this very circumstance would be a full proof of a cheat, and sufficient, with all men of sense, not only to make them reject the fact, but even reject it without farther examination. Though the Being, to whom the miracle is ascribed, be, in this case, Almighty, it does not, upon that account, become a whit more probable; since it is
    impossible for us to know the attributes or actions of such a Being, otherwise than from the experience which we have of his productions, in the usual course of nature. This still reduces us to past observation, and obliges us to compare the instances of the violations of truth in the testimony of men with those of the violation of the laws of nature by miracles, in order to judge which of them is most likely and probable.

    French philosopher/mathematician Blaise Pascal (Pensees, section 7):
    He has willed to make himself quite recognizable by those; and thus, willing to appear openly to those who seek Him with all their heart, and to be hidden from those who flee from Him with all their heart, He so regulates the knowledge of Himself that He has given signs of Himself, visible to those who seek Him, and not to those who seek Him not. There is enough light for those who only desire to see, and enough obscurity for those who have a contrary disposition.

    From me: (from a prayer I once read)
    Father, Son, Holy Spirit illuminate the darkness within me.

  17. Thank you for your words and guidance, and your prayer, Father. I’m very blessed to have found your blog.

    And thank you, Agata, for the prayer. It is very beautiful. I will remember it in my prayers.

    God’s Blessings

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