Blood Brothers of the Incarnation

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My childhood in the 1950’s had the innocence of the time, fed by stories of our elders and the clumsy movies. We played soldiers (everyone’s father had been in the Second World War) and “Cowboys and Indians.” Despite the clear bias of the movies and the slanted propaganda that passed for history, almost everyone wanted to be an Indian. Cowboys never seemed terribly romantic, while the Indians clearly knew how to survive in every wild environment. They were tragic figures in our imaginations, with a sad mourning that acknowledged that their disappearance had been no accident.

Of the many fantasies that we understood, one has remained very vivid to me – the phenomenon of “blood brothers.” Two individuals, unrelated, but sharing a deep bond of the heart, would seal that bond in a simple ceremony. Both would cut across the palm of a hand with a knife, revealing a flow of blood. Every child in the neighborhood winced at the bravery of the act, and somehow, knew that the pain was as important as the blood itself. Bloody hand clasped bloody hand, blood mingling, and the two unrelated now became “blood brothers,” as solemnly bound as any two sons of the same mother.

The Scriptures are filled with images of blood, from that of righteous Abel to that of Jesus Himself. “The life is in the blood,” we read in Leviticus. In the Scriptures blood can “cry out.” It stains but also cleanses. It is the stuff of a solemn offering. It is an image and reality that stretches beyond the bounds of Scripture and holds a place of primacy in most of the religions of the world. The Native American practice of “blood brotherhood” seems instinctively true, immediately understood by anyone who hears of it.

Our contemporary culture has a strange relationship with physical things, including our bodies. Modernity has moved decade-by-decade towards an increasingly abstracted notion of what it means to be a human being. We are driven by a contractual, legal concept of relationships that downplays the role of biology. In a world in which freedom is valued above all else, the tyranny of biology (it simply is what it is) is almost intolerable.

This contractual/legal understanding has found its way into Christian thought as well. In many modern accounts of the Incarnation, Christ becomes a man only in order to have legal standing for His payment for our sins. This is not the thought of the early fathers.

When you read St. Athanasius’ seminal On the Incarnation, the emphasis on the complete solidarity involved in the physical reality of Christ and all humanity is so strong that it would be easy to wonder whether the Incarnation itself alone would have been sufficient to bring about our salvation. Of course, St. Athanasius does not draw that conclusion, but the very union of God with our humanity, the Divine joined to the created, is explored in its depths.

It is difficult for modern people, nurtured in the abstractions of the contractual/legal world, to come to their senses and grasp the simple realities of their own biological existence. God did not create us as legal entities. He formed us from the dirt and breathed into us. The modern creation myth ignores biology and proclaims: “All men are created equal [a legal concept] and endowed with certain inalienable rights, including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Increasingly, these legal abstractions are seen as superior to and preferable to human biological existence. Despite the undeniable biological reality of human life, an unborn child is conveniently excused from contractual/legal standing, making its destruction a matter of no consequence. Abortion is the sacrament of contract, celebrating the triumph of legal freedom over biological reality.

This same contractual/legal model also underlies the modern language of “personal relationship with Christ.” This language has no standing or origin within the Tradition. Rather, it is wholly the construct of the false consciousness of the modern world. Modern Christians say, “I have a personal relationship with Christ,” and exalt this above all else. It often means nothing more than a psychological construction, itself understood in contractual/legal terms. But the life of the Church as given us by Christ Himself has a very different understanding.

Christ says, “Whosoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in Me and I in him.” This is rooted and grounded in flesh and blood. We are spiritually and organically related and united to Christ. “Spiritual,” “Spiritually,” and their cognates are words that I refuse to give up, but they should be relieved of their psychological/contractual/legal meanings and restored to the more concrete world of biology/substance/concrete. St. Paul, in describing our relationship with Christ, draws on the imagery of sexual union:

Do you not know that he who joins himself to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, “The two shall become one flesh.” But he who is united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. (1Co 6:16-17)

This statement makes no sense within the contractual/legal world. It presumes biology as the primary reality of our existence and sees spiritual relationships as governed by the same imagery. The modern imagination is repulsed and confused by the suggestion that we eat God. It has no problem, however, imagining contracts and legal arrangements with Him. We have forgotten the true nature of our existence.

Take this verse in St. John’s First Epistle. I have rendered the translation myself:

If we say that we have communion (koinonia) with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have communion (koinonia) with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin. (1Jo 1:6-7)

Contemporary treatments of this verse reconfigure everything into contractual language (it is almost the sole language of our imagination). Koinonia is rendered as “fellowship” rather than “communion,” changing a very physical/organic meaning into a vague psychologized one. “Walking in the light” is taken to refer to the moral life, with a resulting abstraction invoking the atonement.

The passage has a very different meaning when seen in the more primitive concrete/biological understanding. Communion refers to a true coinherence, a co-participation in the life of another. “To lie” is to “walk in darkness,” to break life-giving communion with Christ and others. Repentance and true communion with Christ restore this co-participation which is concretely manifested in the Holy Eucharist (“the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin”). The modern imagination is deaf to the most obvious meanings within Scripture.

Biology is easily the most fundamental aspect of our human existence. We do not “have” bodies – we “are” bodies. The fictional reality of contractual/legal thinking alienates people from the very ground of their humanity. Life becomes an ersatz conglomeration of ideas and abstractions, while the body abides with its ceaseless demands (reality is like that). We live as though the truth of our existence transcends our bodies – even seeking to deny the body’s demands in death. A local mega-Church in my area has now forbidden the presence of the body at funerals in the Church. The service, a “Celebration of Life,” can maintain the happy fiction of our abstracted reality much more easily if the embarrassment of a dead body can be avoided.

A true and faithful practice of the Christian faith should be grounded in the body and in the givenness of life. Biology is not our enemy nor is it something to be overcome. It is the vehicle of our existence. Our hope of the resurrection is not something lived apart from the body, but sees the biological raised and transformed to the dignity of eternity.

In the Incarnation, God has made us “blood brothers.” We are bone of His bone and flesh of His flesh. Our humanity, in the most concrete and literal form, has been united irrevocably with Him. The classical tradition of the Christian faith has maintained its loyalty to this reality (though the modern world certainly strains it). The doctrines of the Great Councils can only be understood within this framework.

And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth…” (Act 17:26)

In His great love, that one blood is now His as well.

 

 

35 comments:

  1. I used to have many ‘blood brothers’ in my western childhood.

    The Orthodox concept of ‘theosis’ better explains the ‘sanctification’ of my protestant days. I am grateful to the church fathers for giving us a better understanding.

    We certainly live in a legal state among legal minds.

    “We do not have bodies; we are bodies.” That is a an eye-opener for me.

    Thanks for another thoughtful article.

  2. Several people I know who were Protestant have told me they miss the fellowship of their former community and we Orthodox don’t seem to have it. While some if this is based on the real perception that we, at least in my parish, don’t seem to share our lives with each other a great deal, I cannot help but say: “What about the Eucharist?”.

    There is an incredible diversity in my parish yet we gather all the time to partake of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ–together. Blood Brothers for sure.

    Yet still the divisions of the world that are foolish and even hateful abide as well.

    Sin is in the Church, but not of her.

  3. Amen Father,
    This post speaks for many of my thoughts in the past and why I found the Protestant narrative of salvation so contradictory. It is an excellent summary of all that I considered on my way to conversion. Thank you for reminding me.

  4. Nicholas,

    As a former Protestant myself, what did you find contradictory in their view of salvation? I wonder if our journeys parallel.

  5. Michael,

    I don’t think many, if any, Protestants truly understand the concept of the church. At least, that’s been my experience.

  6. Father Stephen,
    It was finally John 6 which drove me out of Protestantism. I could no longer in good conscience spiritualize Jesus’ words there. Like a hammer, at least 5 times in that passage, he drives home the fact that we must eat his body and drink his blood to have eternal life, to abide in, be joined to him. After reading some in the early church fathers, I had to relent. I still recall driving along, turning to my wife and saying, “Honey, I can no longer stay in the evangelical church.” After these not a few years as Orthodox, I had never for some reason linked as you do here, “The blood of Jesus Christ cleanses us from all sin,” with the eucharist. However, as you suggest, that same life blood which flowed from the cross is the same life giving flow in the chalice, the medicine of immortality. Through it we are organically joined to Christ, body, mind and spirit. “He who eats me will live because of me.” Thank you so much Father Stephen for the truths you present in your writings, bringing us here from the abstract to the organic reality of our faith.

  7. Terry,
    As a graduate of a very conservative Wesleyan Arminian Seminary I had been taught that one gets “saved” by accepting the lordship of Jesus in my life, although it was possible to lose it again over serious sin. I was also taught the forensic model of the atonement which really is only a change of status before the judge, not an actual change in my character. I often preached on salvation as I was heavily involved in Prison Ministry and it often occurred to me that I was contradicting myself when I contrasted atonement with the process of salvation. How could one be “saved” by a change in verdict and yet lose their salvation over repeating the same behavior that we were supposedly cured from?
    I would go back and reread my school notes and Scripture and see I had not misspoken myself. Then they taught me to read Greek very well. I began to see that our translations, especially the ones surrounding eternal salvation, where not faithful to the Greek text. When we insert a simple English Past Tense verb for such things as participles and Aorist verbs we begin to distort the meaning of the text. I began to realize that we were distorting the meaning of being saved into a punctilliat=r event, changing a process into a momentary event.
    I also learned definition of such things as Shophet, the Hebrew word for Judgment which is not in anyway a legal or forensic term. It means to heal and to set right. I began to see that our forensic interpretation of the process of salvation was based on a total misunderstanding of what the Ancients were actually saying. I also earned such words as fearful, dreadful and terrible were not viewed the same way as we view them. The people in the East see these words more as awesome, wonderful and amazing. So when they speak of the Dreadful Day of Judgment, we see fear, trembling and punishment. They see the amazing Day of setting things right.
    Orthodoxy contains all of this wisdom and much more. It engages me in knowing by experiencing versus having testable knowledge on the subject.
    These a just a few aspects of what I saw and why I converted. The list is much longer, but this shall do for now.

  8. I was just thinking about this topic the other day. I have been Orthodox for 20 years, but as I was going about my work, I found myself singing a hymn from my Protestant childhood.

    “Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah,
    Pilgrim through this barren land.
    I am weak, but Thou art mighty;
    Hold me with Thy powerful hand.
    Bread of Heaven, Bread of Heaven,
    Feed me till I want no more;
    Feed me till I want no more.”

    I marveled at the Eucharistic theme of this hymn and wondered how Jesus, the “Bread of Heaven” could “feed me till I want no more” in an abstract, psychological way. I am so grateful that my parents were led to the Orthodox Church years ago, where I can truly be fed every Sunday at the Divine Liturgy!

  9. Father Stephen,

    Thank you for this post!
    Personally, I’ve always wondered and marveled regarding the biological construction of our bodies. Nowadays we understand and know much more regarding the biology and functioning of our bodies. And I think that today’s science has proved even for the more skeptical person (at least for those who still are open to see and hear), that which King David prophetically said: “I will praise Thee o Lord, for I’m fearfully and wondrously made”.
    Yes, we are fearfully and wondrously made!…..I thank God for His marvelous creation.
    I always say to my husband with a smile, when we go out for a walk and enjoy God’s creation: “You know my love, for being a fallen world, this is pretty amazing!”…..
    I completely agree with you when you say “we do not have bodies, we are bodies”. It has always confused me the false presumption or notion that somehow, human beings are something and their bodies are something else added to them.
    You are right, a complete human being is body, soul and spirit.

    Father, I do have a question that might be out of theme here, but since one of commentators brought it up………
    I do have an Authorized King Jame’s version Bible that I use a lot for reading, studying, guidance ……for communing with God. But I’m understanding that this may not be as accurate as I thought. (i.e the passage from John epistle that you mention)
    Since I do not know koine Greek (and I do not expect to learn it in this lifetime, unless some miracle would happen)…..what would be the most accurate translation of the Bible in English? What would you recommend?
    Thank you so much for your post and for your help in answering my question.

    God bless you and pray for me father,

    Sophia

  10. Terry, not surprising Church revealed in Apostolic teaching is hard to grasp, if not impossible.

    I will remember to my dying day the best conversation I had as a catechumen.

    I was meeting with my priest one on one as my wife had told me she would accept whatever decision I made on entering the Church.

    I asked him what the Holy Spirit was. We proceed to talk about everything and nothing with no conclusion evident to me at all. Then Father sat back in his chair and said confidently: “I think we accomplished quite a bit tonight.”. My first thought was what?

    Then suddenly I realized he was right.

    The Church is real and living not a concept at all. She is so real that our efforts to define her only make her less than she is, a bit like a butterfly pinned dead to a specimen board.

    That is why she can only be experienced in communion.

    We are flatlanders, the Church is not of this world yet firmly and irrevocably in it because of the Incarnation, Transfiguration, Crucifixion, Ressurection and Ascension of our Lord.

    We can only participate in such real life sacramentally.

  11. Nicholas,

    I graduated from a moderately-minded Church of Christ seminary. My upbringing was in the conservative Churches of Christ. I also learned, preached, and taught the legal model of salvation.

    I too am ‘well-taught’ in Koine Greek. I think Greek is like statistics in that a person can manipulate the numbers or the words to make them say anything to the unknowing person.

    The church fathers are especially enlightening.

    As I go deeper into the ocean of Orthodoxy, I find the waters are always deeper. Then when I go even deeper, I discover my spiritual sonar cannot ‘see’ the bottom.

    Thanks for replying.

  12. Michael,

    Thanks.

    There exists in my mind a concept of the church. It can be realistic or not. My aim is for my concept to mirror reality. That may require more (right) thinking and more (right) experience, but I think that concept will always be there.

    Personally, I don’t think I’ll comprehend fully while I live on earth,

  13. Nicholas,

    After actively preaching and teaching and baptizing, after becoming Orthodox, how did you handle “sitting in the pew”?

  14. Early in my Protestant years, all anybody used was the KJ version. As time passed, better translations appeared, and the version battle was on. It was fought in the Churches of Christ for a long time. Actually, the modern church looks down on any who use the KJ.

    In the Protestant world, my experience is that few use the KJ. There really are out there better translations.

    I was a little shocked to see the Orthodox Church using the KJV and don’t understand why?

  15. Terry,
    Actually, I do not “sit in the pew” any more as I am a Deacon. During the time that I did it was just so amazing to be Orthodox and I had so much to learn and unlearn I never felt like I was just attending church. I am sure that because I remained very active in ministry especially Pro Life that I never thought much about not being a member of the clergy. If you are feeling left out, as it were, you might try finding a ministry that you could get involved in. Using your former contacts to come up with people who would like to meet and hear your story of conversion might be a very good way to be involved.

  16. Nicholas,

    I get the idea from my priest that I should be passive ‘for some time’ and just listen and learn. One problem is my wife isn’t Orthodox.

    There are things I can do. I am a retired chaplain. I also have other talents and interests.

    I enjoy evangelization and teaching (I certainly have a lot to learn).

  17. Terry,
    One must be obedient to one’s priest. I am sure that in due time you will be asked to become more involved. I has a similar problem with my wife, she eventually came around so perhaps yours will come to share your joy as well. I have always found I learn more myself by teaching others so perhaps that might be a good use of your talents with your priests permission, of course. If you can sing you might find a home in the choir. I did that for a time to be involved more in the worship and I still enjoy singing with them.

  18. Terry my Godfather told me, “There is always more.” My wife whom I married seven years ago says coming into the Church is like swimming in the deep end of the pool.

    You are right, we won’t know until later. It is hard to put away concepts. Metaphor seems a much more accurate way to describe what we are.

    I find your questions pleasantly challenging. Keep asking.

  19. Michael,

    Thank you. I find this blog informative and thought-provocative.

    Also, thank you, father.

  20. Terry, I was not Protwstant. I came out of a pretty heretical cultic group. Interestingly it was there that I met Mary and began to appreciate sacrament and confirmed in my heart that I wanted Jesus.

    Nevertheless I had much to heal from and relearn in a proper context. It took a long time although much shorter looking back than it felt like at the time.

    Be patient, as your priest directs. Your patience will bear good fruit.

  21. It was a syncretistic Christian group, cultic in nature but not a full blown cult. It actually recapitulated the history of Christianity from new age nonsense back to the Orthodox. Through them I was introduced to the Church, but Jesus got me here by the route I would and could travel and protected me along the way.

    Part of the spiritual practice was a devotion to Mary. I approached her with an open and sincere heart since I had no preconceived notions.

    Learned she was real. Don’t know exactly how, but never doubted her intercession since. Still learning by God’s grace.

    God is merciful. He reveals Himself to those that seek the truth. I am not a virtuous man, but I do have that trait, again by His mercy.

  22. I first ‘met’ Mary in the Catholic Church. In fact I met (learned) too much about Mary. I woke up one morning and and seriously realized I could not be a Catholic. Also their doctrine of the pope stood in the way.

    Here we are and I’m not Catholic.

    God is truly merciful.

  23. WOW now that is some fantastic writing right there…………….Rarely do I get to read something that actually connects the physical into the spiritual in any writing in religion, especially protestant Christianity. Which is a shame, because it is such a profoundly beautiful, physical narrative, abstracted over time into childish fantasy by so many….I also just love the art work…..

  24. Would it be OK to use the King Midas story to help “explain” how God touches us…and all creation…and recreates us through that touch? One way He touches is through the Eucharist, of course. But the sacramental view sees Him sanctifying the waters and everything else…transfiguring us, not into gold, but into who and what we were created to be.

  25. Michelle’s comments reminded me of a quote from St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco

    “Holiness is not simply righteousness, for which the righteous merit the enjoyment of blessedness in the Kingdom of God, but rather such a height of righteousness that men are filled with the grace of God to the extent that it flows from them upon those who associate with them. Great is their blessedness; it proceeds from personal experience of the Glory of God. Being filled also with love for men, which proceeds from love of God, they are responsive to men’s needs, and upon their supplication they appear also as intercessors and defenders for them before God.” — St. John Maximovitch

    I just discovered this quote yesterday because I am amazed at this Saint’s name

    Terry’s comments earlier today on the error of sola scriptura made me think of how many centuries of Christians did not have Bibles in their homes to pour over

    Talk about a false doctrine facilitated by technology!

    If the printing press didn’t exist that idea probably wouldn’t have emerged

  26. Nicole, in regards to the printing press, it’s the computer of the 16th century. Or I should say, it creates an informational reality. It takes on a reality unto itself, just like today’s modern internet. The correlation is interesting, and we finally have a way of seeing the analogy between books, the reality they abstractedly create and computers. What’s curious religion is at the forefront of this in a certain way. This is the first article I have seen in religious context that is starting to address how disembodying hyper analyticalism can be. A word I just made up!!! We live in a (Cult)-ure of accuracy. But if I replace the intro art, with say a photograph, the individual in the photograph is not more real. We can see this issue in a lot of fields in academics. In a sense Luther didn’t realize this with his soli scriptura. It took on a whole authoritative dimension unto itself as if IT is deciding nature itself. Not unlike contemporary cosmology and physics. Religion and science are determined by nature nature itself is transcendent, Heraclitus is extremely clear on this as he states “The logos is common, but everyone seems to have their own understanding” …2,600 years later little has changed.

  27. David,

    Thanks for the above post.

    Can you please explain what you mean by ‘nature itself is transcendent’.

    A request, not a question.

  28. We tend to think today, that science, philosophy, theology are distinct separated fields. This in fact is not historically true. In the 1200’s a very very famous Saint articulated Evolution 800 years before Darwin. Now he stated it in first person, symbiotic terms, a something we know virtually nothing about today. Evolution today is understood in 3rd person, conceptual independent from Evolution. So when I say evolution our brains instantly turn towards narrative Darwin and not the St. This Saint is a BIG deal. He understood things differently. His name, St. Francis. For him symbiosis is fundamental, and as such, time is different. The New Testament has a lot about time, there is chronos, and there is Kairos. So when I say Nature is a transcendent what I am saying that cosmos is not contained by the word, cosmos, nature is not contained by the word nature, physical is not captured by the word physical. In antiquity when Physics, science, theology, philosophy were developing in our culture, we came to a belief, that reality itself was containable. As such Ex nihilo developed. We can see in contemporary cosmology and physics this problem. It’s where Words shrink into a definition, we mentally manipulate the definition and thus what we are talking about is prisoner to our thoughts. We become the locus or center of determining, but in fact nature, or about 2″ away from the pre frontal cortex is determining not us. Religion in it’s articulation of God at a base level is PROFOUNDLY accurate. But we tend to get lost in our individual and collective narratives of God. Symbiosis, metamorphism is a deep topic. This article is the first one I have read in a long long time in religious context that is pointing us down that path Embodied spirituality. “This is my body, this is my blood” which is symbiosis, is my only real connection to Christianity. That I understand very very well. Theory, ideas, hypothesis, speculation forget it, total nonsense but our child like narrative as we journey along. The New Testament is all about nature in the deepest of all ways. John Muir and other’s were onto this. So was Pope Clement I in 80 AD. My neurology is not normal.

  29. Wow, David, what a great post.

    It leaves me with many questions both where I don’t understand and where I disagree,

    I will settle for a thank you. It took you some time to write it and I’ll take more time to ponder it.

    Thanks.

  30. Terry, its my articulation its poor. Embodied spirituality is not an easy topic. The ancient world understood this better than we do today. They wrote a story about it that you might have heard.

    The story goes that god himself could come to earth, walk on water, raise folks from the dead, turn water to wine, and feed thousands and his closest followers called disciples would be clueless to what he is talking about. He would have to do a little show and tell and only then did they get it!!! For the rest of us mere mortals none of this is easy including and especially me. I tend to stick to music its much easier than writing and It feels clearer to folks!!!

  31. David,

    Your writing is good. You ‘are’ dealing with a deep subject, at least to me

    Thank you so much.

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