Unbelief and Good Friday

Christmas and Easter are often difficult days for those who do not believe in God. Christians are more public about their faith than at other times of the year and this brings with it an annoyance. Christmas bespeaks the birth of God as a human being. Easter bespeaks a resurrection from the dead. For those who do not believe, such miracles, spoken of so glowingly and with such assurance by Christians, only increases the rub of the whole thing. Thoughts of “how can people be so gullible?” or any number of failings of Christians easily come to mind. The more the celebration, the more prominently the fact of unbelief grows in the inner thoughts.

I do not think of unbelief as a result of reason or philosophical principle. I have spent too many years observing my own heart and listening to the thoughts of others to accept such a simplistic notion of how we behave as human beings. One person professes faith on the ground of “reasonable” arguments, while another, on similar grounds, professes unbelief. The fault is not in the reasoning. Reasoning is, in fact, something we largely do “after the fact.” Indeed, this psychological reality has itself been the subject of study and has been shown to be largely true. Reason is one of the sounds we make after the fact of the heart. It is a symptom of something else and we do one another a deep injustice when we reduce faith and unbelief to something they are not.

I believe that the death and resurrection of Christ are utterly universal in their reality. They are not isolated events, significant only within the Christian belief system. I believe they are the singular moments within space and time (and outside space and time) that reveal the truth of all things, of all people, and of the heart and nature of the God who created all things and sustains them. I believe this is true whether I or anyone else believes it. The death and resurrection of Christ are the most fundamental and foundational facts of reality.

I believe that Christians make a serious mistake when we begin to speak first about God rather than first about Christ and His death on the Cross and resurrection from the dead. It is a mistake because it presumes we know something about God that is somehow “prior” to those events. We do not, or, if we think we do, we are mistaken. The death and resurrection of Christ are the alpha and the omega of God’s self-revelation to the world. Nothing in all of creation is extraneous or irrelevant to those events.

This is to say that unbelief and faith are equally a part of the death and resurrection of Christ. The death and resurrection of Christ contain the utter and complete emptiness of hell, the threat of non-being and meaninglessness, the absurdity of suffering and of injured innocence. They also contain the fullness of paradise, the complete joy of existence and the ecstasy of transcendent love. Everything is there.

When we stand before the Cross of Christ, or kneel before it and honor it, we honor as well everything that is contained within it. We honor the unbelief of atheists, the anger and bitterness of the wounded, the shame of those who dare not look at themselves. For Christ has not distanced Himself from such things. The Cross is God’s single point of ingathering, where “all things are gathered together into one in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 1:10). Unbelief is a wound of the human heart, a disease of perception, a noetic blindness. The Cross is not a stranger to cruelty or every form of mockery and perverted delight. All such things were and are present in that single moment.

As we live in this life, we are constantly tempted towards the divisions that threaten us. We see the world as “them and us.” These believe; these don’t. These care; these don’t. These behave; these don’t, and so on. The divisions are frequently quite insignificant. These divisions are primarily the symptoms of our failure to love. The people surrounding Christ were consistently scandalized by His persistent comfort and ease with those identified as “sinners.” No doubt, many of them were “unbelievers.” Somehow, Christ embraced all and announced this as central to His life and purpose.

The appearance of the Cross is also the first appearance among us of the Judgement Seat of Christ. As such, those around it indeed begin to separate themselves. Of the two thieves, one clings to Christ and the other reviles Him. But Christ offers no condemnation from the Tree. The Centurion, responsible for His crucifixion and the lance thrusting into His side, later becomes a saint (Longinus). Our task, however, is not to assume the position of Christ. The judgment that occurs as those around Him react, is also the revelation of their own wounds and brokenness of soul.

Christ said:

And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God. (Jn. 3:19-21)

It is for us to stand in the light, where our own deeds, of whatever character, can be revealed. I think that if we actually do “what is true,” it will not be in our heart to condemn, but to weep and to long for the healing of all.

Unbelief is a soul-wound whose location likely lies much deeper than the fiction of choice. It is often hidden deep within the hell that has formed in the pit of a soul’s shame. That wound will require Christ-in-Hades probing and questing, and perhaps fierce battles that are hidden from our knowledge. When the Church proclaims, “Christ is risen, trampling down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowing life,” it is deeply important to remember that we have the souls of those so wounded in mind.

It is ours to celebrate, to sing and to dance, even if some, for now, refuse to join together with us. The true Christ revealed by the Cross, is a saving God, a seeking God, a knocking God, a trampling God, a healing God, a raising-from-the-dead God who refuses to be ignored.

This is the good God who loves mankind.

44 comments:

  1. This gives me much to think about, You make a very good point about faith and unbelief not being an action of reason but produce it. I am intrigued by your statement “The Cross is God’s single point of ingathering, where “all things are gathered together into one in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 1:10) The word one or oneness is used so many times in the scripture. I get lost in things too deep for me when I contemplate what that oneness is like. It is much easier to divide everything/everyone up into nice little categories like you say. Then I try to see a way that ALL men can be saved in that oneness. Perhaps I mean ALL men WILL be saved in it. It feels like the saddest thing that anyone would or could be seperated from Christ. I certainly don’t mean to be speaking anything controversial….just wishing. May the Lord who loves mankind, have mercy on us all. Blessed Pascha Father.

  2. Thank you Father, so beautiful…

    “Unbelief is a wound of the human heart, a disease of perception, a noetic blindness.”

    May the Lord grant us healing and understanding, and to see and experience His Light, Grace and Mercy as we stay close to Him through these upcoming days….

  3. Father Stephen,
    Your words above remind of the trinity of truth, beauty and goodness. I’ve experienced all 3 today. The truth of which you write which sinks into my heart, astringent yet soothing. The beauty of the verdant hills I just knew as we drove home from the oncology center, sun streaking through grey clouds drooping heavy with rain. The goodness of nurses and P.A.’s whose love shown with a touch bring as much healing as any drug. Oh how blessed with Christ’s love shining through the pale, shoving aside darkness. Come into this sinful heart, oh Lord, that it may be resurrected on Easter morn.

  4. I am stuck for a moment on the two sentences “The Cross is not a stranger cruelty and every form of mockery and perverted delight. All such things were and are present in that single moment.”

    That is an amazing statement of hope. A light to the darkness of my soul. A support to allow me to face a bit more of my shame.

  5. Dear Fr Stephen,
    I am not Orthodox. Even so, I find your reflections to be the sanest, most beautiful, most profound that I’ve ever come across. I feel ‘judged’ by them and freed by them in the same moment. And this one in particular. Pray for me, a sinner.

    God bless and keep you.

    Stephen McInerney

  6. “Reasoning is, in fact, something we largely do ‘after the fact.’ Indeed, this psychological reality has itself been the subject of study and has been shown to be largely true. Reason is one of the sounds we make after the fact of the heart.”

    Or, as Pascal put it: “The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of. … We know the truth not only by the reason, but by the heart.”

    Thank you, Father. I think I often spend too much time in my head while neglecting my heart.

  7. On the eve of Great and Holy Friday it is good to reflect that the Lord went to battle for all of us broken and sinful people. As He breathed His last declaring “It is finished” He won the victory over Death and finished Creation by restoring it to the condition it was meant to be in. The cross is His judgment Seat because judgment in Hebrew means to restore to the perfect state that Creation was intended to be, to heal, to make right and to declare the Acceptable Year of the Lord.
    Dread, in an Eastern mind means much different than we think it to be. Dread means awesome, fantastic, wonderful according to my friends from the Eastern world. This coupled with the Eastern idea of Judgment turns something to be feared into the Great and Awesome Day of setting aright. The cross is the agent of that day, then, now and forever. It reminds me very much of what the Deacon exclaims at the Small Entrance: Wisdom, lets us stand aright… Glory to God for all things

  8. Everyone,
    Pardon the typos and grammatical errors in the “first edition.” I was writing on the fly this afternoon between services. I’ve taken time tonight to correct a few things. God give us grace to finish the Week we have begun.

  9. Such a great Good Friday Liturgy, it was unique and special for me as I was beside my long lost friend. We sang and prayed together. Listened to the Gospel of the Day together.
    Her husband was the stumbling block to our friendship.
    We adored the Cross of Christ together. What better.
    Again, thanks be to God.
    He is merciful.

  10. This was beautiful! I am sure I will re-read it many times. Thank You Father Stephen and God Bless You!

  11. “Unbelief is a soul-wound whose location likely lies much deeper than the fiction of choice. ”

    “Lord I believe, help my unbelief.”

    Thank you Father.

  12. I do believe and also know I have a wounded mind. Only Christ can help heal the wounds-can be a slow process, but well worth the journey.
    Thank you again for your words. Helps me to know there is hope.

  13. Bookmarked for many future readings. I discovered Orthodoxy through this blog in 2012, read a great deal (including your book, in one sitting, the following day), attended my first service in 2015, and recently was made a catechumen. Glory to God!

  14. “Unbelief is a wound of the human heart, a disease of perception, a noetic blindness.” and “It is ours to celebrate, to sing and to dance, even if some, for now, refuse to join together with us. The true Christ revealed by the Cross, is a saving God, a seeking God, a knocking God, a trampling God, a healing God, a raising-from-the-dead God who refuses to be ignored.

    This is the good God who loves mankind.”

    Amen. Amen. Amen!

    Kali Anastasi Father Stephen – blessed Resurrection!

  15. Reasoning is, in fact, something we largely do “after the fact.” Indeed, this psychological reality has itself been the subject of study and has been shown to be largely true. Reason is one of the sounds we make after the fact of the heart.

    Father, do you have a reference or two for this “psychological reality” of reasoning following the heart? I would like to read a bit more on it.

    Blessed Resurrection indeed! Glory to God!

  16. Dear Fr.
    Thank you for the healing energy which comes through your words.
    All I have been able to do this Holy Week is nothing. I haven’t been to the Church I normally attend, nor any, but you have supported the hope which is in my heart and mind.
    Thanking, and giving Glory to God for you.

  17. This appears to have been a rough Lent for many. Me for sure, my son and last night during the middle of Lamentations we learned that our head chanter’s mother reposed. Memory eternal to Chafica Cohlmia.

    The loss and grief amidst the Paschal experience.

  18. Very often what is presented to me as “gospel” does not appear to be good news at all. But this does.

    That the life, death, and resurrection of Christ are universal, “true whether I or anyone else believes it”, is (paradoxically perhaps) what give me “faith”. It’s deeper than my choosing, a fundamental fact of reality, the God who loves mankind.

    Thank you.

  19. I really love your last paragraph on celebration and the true Christ revealed by the Cross. We all bear a Cross of shame and have to truly believe in the Cross of Jesus..!!

    It is ours to celebrate, to sing and to dance, even if some, for now, refuse to join together with us. The true Christ revealed by the Cross, is a saving God, a seeking God, a knocking God, a trampling God, a healing God, a raising-from-the-dead God who refuses to be ignored.

    This is the good God who loves mankind.

    Many thanks for Jesus Christ and your thoughtful message.
    Pete

  20. As a person who has stomped his feet and shook his fist at God for his pain and suffering I can attest that every word of this has been true of me.

    Well put.

  21. Fr. Stephen,
    Christ is risen! Happy you were given strength to finish holy week. My heart is full this Paschal Sunday. Two weeks ago my nephew, a master sergeant in the Air Force, and six of his 8 children, ages 5 to 16, we’re baptized and chrismated at a Greek Orthodox Church in South Carolina. My nephew had been raised in a not too consistent evangelical home. For the past 20 years I’ve sent him articles, cards, and books on Orthodoxy. We’d have long chats on the phone or text. I was bursting with joy when I saw fotos of their entrance. He’s now on a 6 month assignment in the Middle East. (Pray for him please…Douglas Gregory). His 15 year old daughter texted me that sponsors had taken them the 22 miles to the Wednesday anointing service and to Pascha last night. Must be lovely people. Our little 9 year old granddaughter went with me to Great Friday vespers (family is Presbyterian). It was precious for me as we two venerated at the Lord’s tomb. I had shown her outside how to do a metania. However, obliquely I saw her crossing herself too, something I had not taught her! I believe little ones are especially drawn to a kenetic worship experience…I am at 70. I longed to be able to worship God with my whole being. In Orthodoxy that longing has been fulfilled.

  22. I omitted something very important. In those intervening 20 years, I have been faithless many times, but God has remained faithful still. I have offered poor prayers to Christ, but He has accepted them, I’m sure, because they were joined to the powerful intercessions of His mother, the Theotokos. I still, really have no clue why some become Orthodox and others not. But I pray….

  23. Dean, “He has made all things beautiful in His time.” (Ecc. 3:11) Many, many years to your nephew and his family!

    Christ is risen!

  24. Karen,
    Thank you for your kind words. I’m partial to the name “Karen.” My sister closest in age to me bears the same name, Karen Leah. Yes, He does all things well. Truly, He has risen!

  25. Christ is Risen!

    Dean,
    I meant to say this earlier, but didn’t get a chance…
    Please know you are in my prayers. May the Lord grant you strenght and patience as you go through your difficult treatment. Remember His Grace is always with you. Call on His Name and accept everything glorifying Him and giving thanks in everything, especially in your suffering and pain. He is the Author of Life and the Lord of Death, since He abolished death for us.
    I pray for your perfect healing, so that you may praise His Name for many more years.
    Agata

  26. Agata,
    Thank you dear one for your prayers. “The prayer of the righteous availeth much.” James 5:16. We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, both the saints in heaven and all our brothers and sisters here. A great blessing and comfort to know this.

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