You Are Not Alone – And Neither Is God

I 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.

An Orthodox hymn for the Annunciation 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. 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!”

32 comments:

  1. Best short summary of the Gospel I have ever read. Full of life, love, hope, purpose and mystery.

    It is the complete antithesis to the nihilist vision the world offers.

    Thank you Father.

  2. Amen, amen and amen.
    I agree with Michael Bauman, it is a the best, concise, accurate and short explanation/synopsis of the Gospel I have ever read. The Lord assumed everything including our brokenness and shame to heal us of the consequences of Sin. That is the deepest and most perfect expression of His love for mankind.

  3. This is off topic, but I wasn’t sure where to pose my question. You once wrote 2 articles referring to C.S. Lewis’ use of the Tao as a synonym, almost, of Tradition. Recently, I’ve had occasion with two of our grown children to refer to “the Tao” as a way to help explain (perhaps), the concept of complementarity in our understanding of human sexuality, marriage, roles, etc. It seemed to resonate in a way that allowed them to hear a note they were deaf to in more traditional language. Given the general popularity of Eastern concepts, this idea…even using the terms yin and yang…was easier for them to hear. Is it appropriate to use these ideas and terms? It seems so obvious that there is a “Way” of the Universe that is being ignored to our detriment as a culture…It’s almost like everyone wants what’s natural and non-GMO for everything except humans. If you could elaborate more fully in an article about the Tao, that would be wonderful.

  4. Regarding falling alone, I realize now this is a reference to communion with the other. For a while I was reflecting on this saying and thinking we didn’t really fall alone either in that being that we are all connected, one’s fall is suffered by all. I think the “alone” is only true from the perspective of the awareness of the one who has fallen. God and all those in communion remain aware of and suffer with even those who are fallen, as you say.

  5. Regarding the Tao of which CS Lewis writes…my understanding is that the Greeks believed in an underlying principle that undergirded all of existence and called it the logos. They were trying to figure out what exactly that was. Paul identifies the logos as Jesus Himself. Lewis uses Tao the same way as Paul. How, then, is the Tao equated to tradition? Is it that tradition affirms this understanding?

    I am a Protestant drawn to, and grappling with Orthodoxy, so there is very little I know. I do not understand what tradition is to you, exactly, and what its proper place is in the scheme of things. I hope my question above is taken as true inquiry.

    I would love to read your previous posts on the Tao as well as tradition if you would kindly direct me to them.

  6. Can you explain what you mean by “conciliar action of God”? I am new to Orthodoxy, and it is my understanding that conciliar is a council decision from men.

  7. To Karen’s comment–Amen! Being saved(the ongoing process) in the Church has also been for me a growing awareness of my connectedness to others. There is no such thing as private sin. That awareness has many times been the prompt that has me root out sin, even as it only a thought trying to take root.

    Father, thank you for this reflection on our existence in God’s saving community. It continues to correct the idea that we can experience being a person by ourselves. God doesn’t, neither can we. May the perceptions and actions of our lives grow in the richness of common counsel.

  8. I have a question Fr. Stephen about the DNA of our Christ. I know He had Mary’s genes but did God give Him the genes of Joseph? One of those things I wander about. Mary G.

  9. Geri, there are a lot possibilities with the Tao. Hieromonk Damascene wrote a book, Christ, the Eternal Tao. Have not read it but have gotten good feed back from folks I trust. You can get it on-line from Eighth Day Books: http://www.eighthdaybooks.com

    Perhaps the best approach is that of the missionaries to Alaska who listened, concentrated on the truth in what they heard and completed the story. The more grounded you are in the fullness the better you can respond appropriately.

    Keep in mind two things: at best the Tao is a pre-incarnate description of Christ and is not as personal. There is a great more in Christianity to complete the understanding.

    As to Yin and Yang – one has to steer clear of the dualism and approach it from an antinomical basis (they combine to make the truth) such as God-man; man-woman, etc.

    Most of all do not lose sight of the revealed nature of the Incarnate Word as fully God and fully man.

    Pray and listen internally and externally. May God guide you.

  10. Gordon,
    “conciliar” would not be my first choice as an adjective for this aspect of our salvation. But I was working from the phrase, “according to their common counsel…” in the hymn that I quoted.

    Interesting word, “Conciliar.” In Russian, it would be the word, “Sobornost.” And, interestingly, Russian uses that term to translate “Catholic” in the Creed: “One, Holy, Sobornost and Apostolic Church.” “Sobor” in Russian means “Council.”

    It’s not a bad term, actually. Orthodox understands authority in the Church to primarily be “conciliar.” Commentaries compare this to the Trinitarian Godhead. “Conciliar” can also be understood to include our own participation as well – so that it is synergistic.

    The nature of life, after salvation, is an existence in communion. By the same token, our salvation itself is by means of communion. We cannot be individually brought into communion, in that pure individualism is a contradiction of life lived as communion. Our salvation must be similiar to our salvation.

  11. Thank you Father! Your post humbles me and gives me hope.
    I would like to comment on self emptying a little bit.
    Before my immigration from Romania to the US, I’ve never heard this maxim (at least I’ve never heard it it in this small Transilvania village I grew up in): “If you want to love other people, you have to first love yourself” – which I do find true -there’s a good reason to love yourself before you could love your family, your neighbor, the world. This maxim however, got lost in translation for me, or rather my ignorance took it to another level of understanding that lead me to become an atheist, lead me to be ashamed to keeping the icons on the wall (and do bear a lot of shame for being so foolish). The way I understood this was to spare myself from effort, indulge in feeling good by means of materialistic ways. It never occurred to me that loving myself meant bearing a little shame, meant acceptance and love, cleaning up my own spirit, confess, be a giver, give thanks, and have the persistence to do all of these and more tirelessly. It never occurred to me that the upmost of love is the persistence in self denying & self sacrifice. It never occurred to me that through self emptying the fear to being “unmasked” would disappear. If God the Father accepts to be less than he is by taking human finite imperfect form, how little is asked of us?

  12. Thank you Z, for your sharing your heart here. It seems that what we do when we comment is often sharing what is in our heart. Your words are uplifting.

    Fr. Stephen, thank you so much for this post. I think it offers in a most tangible way what I mean when I say that my path into Christianity was/is an ontological path, what it means to become part of the body of Christ as a member of the Church. You have said it very well and I thank you for these words.

    Our life path in the Orthodox Church isn’t a social club, but the club atmosphere is often what I (we) see in Christian circles outside of Orthodoxy. But our lives are deeply interconnected, in contrast to the individualism we are presented in this culture. Sometimes we have moments, however, when we discover that life in its most basic elements is quite different from what this culture would present.

    When I had children, I realized for the first time that I was willing to lay down my life for another. This discovery came about in a unexpected way but for now I wish to stay on this topic of the meaning of sharing our salvation. Interestingly, when I reflected on my reaction to threatening circumstances, the awareness of my willingness to die for my children, seemed less about ‘motherly’ love as is promoted in our culture, but more about “flesh of my flesh–bone of my bone” –a reaction more in keeping with a non-thinking survival mechanism, as when one is confronted with a challenge to ones ‘own’ life. I believe this is very close to what you are describing here. Again, thank you so much for these words.

  13. Also, risking that I’ll sound “corny”, I wish to express my gratitude to the saints who have been willing to come into my home and to share my life with me and my family. Though my family might not admit it openly (they are not Orthodox nor Christian) (yet : ) ), they too have a way of showing that they understand that we are sharing our lives with the saints as a family. And thanks be to God, they’re ok with that!

  14. Fr Stephen, I hope that you might delete this comment to Mary G. if you think it is inappropriate.

    Mary G. I’m familiar with DNA and genetics as a chemist, and I have no qualms nor concerns regarding the DNA that Christ has in His Incarnation, as that belonging only to the Theotokos. I don’t see this fact as negating our understanding of genetics either. Still it remains a Mystery. There is a lot of ‘stuff’ in chemistry, physics and science that remain a mystery. We will continue to explore and learn what we are able. Sometimes I think they are there for the sole purpose that we encounter them and wonder about them. I give thanks for these mysteries. They enrich our lives and point to the fact that life itself is far more than what we are able to behold.

  15. Geri and Michael,
    There is also the works of Fr. Pavel Florensky, The Pillar and Foundation of Love; and Robert Slesinski’s commentary on Florensky, A Metaphysics of Love in which a sizable section is devoted to the antinomy of truth via love’s oft missed ingredient: jealousy. Slesinski’s nutshell of Florensky’s depth teases us with, “…in sum, jealousy is anything but egoistic; it is rather the true pledge of love.” Putting aside his sophist speculations, Florensky further imagines the antinomic nature of beauty in his work, The Iconostasis, where he explains a visual antinomy to that of a magnet: “..when we speak of a magnet, we mean the force-field along with the piece of steel–but we don’t mean the opposite: a piece of steel and, secondarily, a force-field.” He further explains:

    “…just as the invisibility of God’s power infinitely exceeds the invisibility of the magnetic field, so too does the ontological effectiveness of His power exceed the effectiveness of not only the magnetic field, but of every earthly force-field as well…we can say this: the form of the visible is created by these invisible lines and paths of divine light.”

    Much likened to how the person realizes their true imagery or countenance (substance?) in God as each layer of the mask built in self-fulfillment is painfully pealed back. As Florensky puts it, countenance “…opens for our speculative sight the essence of that which we are seeking to comprehend.” Whereas, the mask, which clouds our countenance, tricks us into thinking we see God’s face, but in reality “…falsely point(s) to non-existent things.”

    The connection to all these seemingly distant points takes us back to the jealousy behind love as the glue or “magnetic field” to truth. Love pulled apart is the desire that makes jealousy the steel mask and “I” the self-force envious of God’s likeness as something individually attainable.
    But as Florensky points out, jealous love, as the jealous God loves–for the other like no other, is the force that gives personality it’s consistency. The force, “that cannot be self-contained,” as Slensinski interprets it, is love and the love of God (pursued like no Other) as “nothing other than the personality’s true moment of integration, vivification and fortification. It is, in fine, the true “bond of personality.””

  16. sbdn Andrew, thank you for the reminder. Been awhile since I have read Florensky. Need to again.

  17. I’m so sorry if I offended anyone by my question on the DNA of Christ. I’ve been watching on Netflex a documentary 9 Months That Made You, It was just a question I had. Forgive me.

  18. Reading this post I get the mystery of the conception of Christ…That was the intended post..I think. Many people may find verses and or discourse from the Holy Father’s that could be construed to serve some of your commentors aims. I am dismayed that Mary G was so shamed as to her question about how science and mystery come together (DNA) that she apologized for commenting. In essence the Dna of Christ is unknown, the entire miracle is outside of normal chemistry and is indeed a miracle. She was a virgin and to back that up I don’t need to therefore assume scientific DNA would be relevant. Some folks here in there comments were unkind, unforgiving, judgemental, and perhaps need to check there ego at the door. The mystery of the virgin birth, in my mind, is a wonderful part of Orthodoxy. Let us remember what trouble the Catholics got in trying to scientifically defend the changing of the bread and wine.
    Be kind to fellow sojourners on the road and if anyone’s comments should be removed let it be those who judge…Leaving little room for faith in mysteries as they are. And that is my answer to Mary G about DNA. It is wonderful to hear from a fellow orthodox Christian who sees secular shows and shares, how does this work. Again it is our faith she was a Virgin and cellular anatomy is unknown. Three cheers for the everyday Christian trying to put the pieces together.
    To the chemist, have a heart…And perhaps repent for arrogance.
    Love you all, warts and all.

  19. Mary Garrison,
    I really appreciate questions such as yours in this blog, for various reasons. But I was surprised that after my comments, you expressed your impression that your question was somehow offensive. I was grateful to Fr Stephen’s assurance that it wasn’t offensive nor is it offensive in any form that I can think of either. But gathering your reaction, possibly to my response, I wish to say that was attending to a perspective that I often see in the media and conversations, and I could not discern one way or the other whether you were being subjected to this issue or attempting to introduce it. The issue is the perception of “inherent” contradictions between science and theology or the issue of juxtaposing a life lived “in” science (ie a “secular” life) versus one lived “in” faith. It is my goal to root out the notion that science is responsible for introducing the “two story” universe. That is the preview of the modernist project that has infected both science and Christianity.

    On reflecting on my own response I notice two things: First that I didn’t start my response by thanking you for your question. Rather, I started my response by addressing Fr Stephen to review my comment. This request might have looked like the act of someone who was attempting enter a confrontation. But this was not the case. I ask your patience to express what is happening regarding my engagement here and elsewhere in this blog.

    I am a servant of God. This is what I have been instructed to say when I receive the Cup. This is what I do in the Liturgy but it isn’t just an act I go through, and it’s not a psychological state, but it is my reality right down to my molecular structure and down to the very space that exists between the molecules within in me. My state, that I am materially a ‘bag of molecules’ (if I should be so reductionist) and a child of God is a unity and a reality so long as God’s grace and Holy Spirit reside in me. It is in our prayer that we praise God “Who is in all places and fills all things”.

    By saying that I am a servant of God does not mean I have stopped being a chemist, or a scientist. It is what I do. Historically there have been people and conversations which would propose or create antagonism between science and faith or between science and theology. Admittedly, when I wish to pray I don’t open a chemistry book. But the fact that I don’t open a chemistry book when I want to pray is not due to antagonism between them . In actual fact, when I first encountered Christ, and Him Crucified and Resurrected, that experience happened when I was studying sub-particle phenomena as a “physical-chemist”.

    Rather, I pray using the language of the Liturgical texts because that language speaks directly and eloquently of Christ and it is the language of the Church. What I see in nature as a scientist, is an icon of Christ.

    Fr Stephen, Michael Bauman and others speak well of the “modern project”. It is my impression, that science has suffered as much as Christianity from the introduction. And according to these writers, the introduction happened in a time line coinciding with the so called “birth” of “science”. And I cannot apologize that I know that kind of science well. For various reasons I had to know it well in order to perform my function as a scientist and professor. But the fact that I know it (that kind of modernist science) well doesn’t mean I think I know our ultimate reality well. I am an infant in the faith and that is well beyond me. But in my professional life, a number of times I was asked to help other scientists understand science. To help them get off the modernist kick, once upon a time I told them that my Seminole mother, who’s math capabilities were no greater than elementary grade level, was the first person who taught me the primary principles of science.

    Those science principles involve not only careful exploration and observation, but a willingness to ask a thought provoking question such as yours, Mary. And again this is why I appreciate your question.

    Because I am an infant in the faith, and an inexperienced blogger, I am more often than not timid to pitch my “two cents worth” into this blog. When I do it is usually in an area that I have more confidence (i.e. in my personal experiences or science). Also, due to my software situation, every one of my comments goes into mediation. I took advantage of the benefit of that lag time and opportunity for Fr Stephen to read my words before they went out. For that benefit, I put a “flag” on my comment, because I particularly didn’t want anything I said about the relationship between science, theology and faith to be published if it was inappropriate (ie that statement had nothing to do with your question but my fears about my contribution). These days and to the best of my knowledge, each one of my comments has to be manually entered, on Fr Stephen’s side. And since this is the way my comments are entered, it was/ is my hope that he read my comment and found it inoffensive, before allowing it to be published.

  20. Sometimes I write quite poorly in my comments. It is important to me to clarify my words in the comment above.

    Fr Stephen and Michael Bauman do not “write well of the modernist project” rather, they write eloquently about the problems and issues concerning the modernist project.

  21. Dear Fr. Stephen and response from Dee of st. Hermans (the chemist). I’m sure Mary G appreciated your clarification to response. As I am also a scientist, I am aware, as you are, that theology and science were at one time studies that went together; in my mind they still do. Yes, Christ was human, flesh and bone. And yes the Mother of God was a virgin. Her DNA undoubtedly was in Him. How God performed that miracle, I don’t know. Was the egg transformed in some magical way that may have left a signature of the heavens, who knows.
    For me, the more spiritual lessons I learn and science reveals; I am heartened in my belief and also deeply enjoy the simple truth as passed on to me by my spiritual father. Let us go forth in love and understanding for all. The only gatekeeper for our words is ourselves. Mercy, forgiveness, and love is the Orthodox way. If I offended you while defending Mary G forgive me, hard words to swallow and sometimes harder to write. Not sure if you were acknowledging that by your response. Science, theology, aside, it was your request to have her question removed that broke my heart, not the answers. “Love one another, as I have loved you”. I commit to try everyday.

  22. Dear Nadezhda,
    I believe you completely misunderstood my note written to Fr Stephen. But I don’t think Fr Stephen misunderstood me, for if he had, he would have been kind enough to correct me. That note, that I’m repeating here said this: please remove this comment *to* Mary G– meaning my comment that I was writing below that sentence to Mary. I would never would ask Fr Stephen to remove someone else’s comment– only my own. Please re-read that note again to assure yourself that I had no misgivings at all about what Mary wrote.

  23. Father,
    I was unable to find the article that addresses the issue, but the thrust was that a woman retains the DNA of her children after they are born. This is scientifically measurable for fifteen years following the child’s birth and may still reside in the woman beyond that though not easily detected. So, we can say that the Theotokos had her own DNA though then “mingled” [I am at a loss for words] with Christ’s essence for the rest of her mortal existence. Amazing.
    In this light, how our Protestant brothers can conceive of a God who would merely “use” Mary as a surrogate womb and then just let her go as though she was nothing is hard to understand. Actually, it us horrible to contemplate.

  24. Paul, I share your wonder and amazement at this information. In defense of those who sometimes say the sorts of things about the nature of the Incarnation that relegate the role of the Most Holy Mother of God to the status of a dispensible thing, like any other expendable thing, I believe many of them actually have a profound respect for Mary as a righteous individual, beloved by our Lord, who is most worthy of emulation in her humity and faith. They say the things they do because, never having yet taken the opportunity to understand how the veneration of the Saints is the proper consequence of a very profound understanding of, and commitment to guard, the full reality of the nature of the Incarnation of the Word (not only in dogma, but also in practice), they are under the false impression proper veneration of Saints in the Church is idolatry, and they are parroting arguments they have heard within their own traditions. I’m sure you realize this, but I wanted to put it out there for inquirers/other readers for whom this may also be the case. It certainly was for me when I was Protestant.

  25. Karen,
    I am sure there are Protestants who have respect for the Theotokos as a devout person, but far more see her as an aside. As one Protestant put it, ” God would have someone else if Mary didn’t consent to the Incarnation”. I believe the anti-Theotokos sentiment is a byproduct of the Protestant Reformation, the “baby out with the bath water” nature of reformed Protestant beliefs. Martin Luther apparently was torn between his Roman Catholic view of the Mother of God and his heretical position on salvation by faith alone. In the end, Mary, as well as the Saints, all had to go as it was impossible to hold the new belief yet still to seek the intersession of saints, especially the Theotokos. As a consequence, it seems that Protestants are constrained in their understanding (perhaps blinded) of the beautiful mystery of the incarnation.

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