The Despised God

 

In On the Orthodox Faith, St. John of Damascus declares: ‘The Son is the image of the Father, and the Spirit the image of the Son’. Such statements are easily read and passed over as among the more obvious Trinitarian statements. I add to this statement another from St. Irenaeus: “That which is invisible of the Son is the Father, and that which is visible of the Father is the Son.” Of course, St. Irenaeus’ statement represents a very early expression, since he was writing over 120 years before Nicaea. Both statements, however, are essential to understanding the heart of the Christian gospel.

That Christ is the precise image of the Father is put forth in the book of Hebrews (1:3). This is refined in Nicaea’s language of “homoousios” (“same substance”). But while that language speaks of “being” or “substance,” we easily lose sight of what is being put forward. Christ not only reveals the answer to the question, “Who is God?” but also the question, “What is God like?” It is this latter understanding that plays such an important role in St. Paul’s treatment of Christ Crucified.

St. Paul identifies Christ as the “Wisdom of God,” and the “Power of God” (1 Cor. 1:24). And in doing so, specifically links this with “Christ Crucified.” The crucifixion of Christ for Paul is more than an event that accomplishes salvation – it is an event that reveals Him in His fullness. The Christ of the Cross is the humble and self-emptying Christ (Phil. 2:5-11). He is the God whose “strength is made perfect in weakness.” And it is this very image that St. Paul points to as the character of his own imitation of Christ.

It is also an image that is properly used for our understanding of God. St. Paul again offers this:

…God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh should glory in His presence. (1Co 1:27-29)

It is quite possible (and not uncommon) to read such a passage as God being primarily concerned for His glory. But that very thought belies its own failed assumptions. The “glory” of God is not the glory of wondrous success, shining fame and an incomparable reputation. Instead, we are told that we behold the glory of God “in the face of Jesus Christ.”

For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us. (2Co 4:6-7)

There are not infrequent attempts to create an antinomy of the theology of the Cross and a theology of glory. It is a false distinction when we understand that Christ Crucified is the revelation of the glory of God.

It is not just seen in the Cross. There is an unrelenting theme throughout Scripture in which God accomplishes His work through that which is least and broken. Whether it is choosing the second son rather than the first, Joseph as slave and prisoner to be first in Egypt, Moses who stutters when he speaks, young David rather than his brothers, Israel itself as an insignificant nation, Abraham and Sarah who are too old to have children, and so on, the pattern is clear. Mary the Mother of God says it well in her hymn of praise:

He has shown strength with His arm; He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has put down the mighty from their thrones, And exalted the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, And the rich He has sent away empty. (Luk 1:51-53)

It is easy to recognize this as the way in which God deals with His creation, but it is yet something else to recognize that this is so because it is who God is. We are told that God resists the proud and gives grace to the humble. We do well to understand, however, that this is so because God Himself is humble.

Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am meek and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. (Mat 11:29)

We are invited not only to be meek and lowly, but to learn such meekness from the heart of God.

For many, such meekness in Christ is treated as something of a disguise, or a temporary work for the purpose of salvation. They all too quickly turn away from this understanding to assert that “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead!” But there is nothing to indicate that the definition of glory is somehow being altered for the sake of the Second Coming. As for the imagery of the Revelation of St. John, it should be read through the Cross rather than used as a corrective for the Cross.

The unfailing and living witness of the Orthodox faith is that the friends of God are foolish, weak, base and despised. That is the narrow way. Interestingly, it is a way that is the most open for all to walk. We need not be wise, strong, and well-thought-of. It turns the world upside-down and our lives along with it.

Right now the world is desperate for a few fools.

 

22 comments:

  1. Wonderful good. Thanks! This mystery of the gospel, it never ceases to amaze me. I really do appreciate your blog.

  2. You are too reasonable Father and being reasonable is despised these days of ideology and rancor. Only the truly reasonable can see the Emperor has no clothes. Only the reasonable can understand that Jesus was simply stating a fact when He said, “Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”

    Yet all reason must have a premise. Christ Crucified as God’s image thereby loosing undying mercy upon His Creation is a really good premise and one which anyone can experience through repentance and forgiveness.

    Hard some days when all that is good and Holy, all whom I love are under attack. Attack from both the seen and the unseen.

    May all the saints and martyrs intercede for us. On my own, I perish.

  3. Isaiah 53:4 also speaks of this reality.
    “Surely, He hath born our griefs and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem Him stricken, smitten of God and afflicted. ”

    It has always intrigued me that the bulk of the text of great choral work, The Messiah, was taken from Isaiah.

    It was singing portions of the work in high school that I first felt the energies of God which set me on my path to the Church back in 1963-66. Only took 23 years. I don’t suppose it is allowed in public schools anymore.

  4. Thank you Father for this very timely (liturgically, “sociologically”, and personally) reflection. It is the point of greatest scandal to our inherited pride – and of greatest liberation therefore – that it is not despite our weakness, but precisely in our weakness we are loved, healed, and saved. Glory to the precious and Life-giving Cross!

  5. This morning I was struck by the words of Saint Paul: “…let us hold fast our confession. For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sinning…”
    This is not some people’s imagining of what a God should be. Yet this is our God. In every respect, tempted. Not, (as you say,) a disguise or a means to an end, but ‘as we are.’ That is enormous.

  6. These words quoted by St Anthanasius from The Wisdom of Solomon I was reading again today also seem relevant: “God created man for incorruption and as an image of His own eternity; but by envy of the devil death entered into the world. When this happened, man began to die, and corruption ran riot and held sway over them to an even more natural degree, because it was the penalty of which God had forewarned them for transgressing the commandments.”

    Now, Anthanasius makes it quite clear he is not talking PSA here but the transforming nature of The Incarnation and the trampling down death by Death, the despised death on The Cross to preserve His Kingdom. Just as we celebrated yesterday.

  7. Dear Father Stephen,
    Thank you for both these edifying words and also for the picture of a Zabaleen. Until this post, I had no knowledge of their history nor of the circumstances they face as Coptic Christians in an Islamic culture. Indeed they provide a holy and humbling example of your words.

  8. Thank you, Father Stephen, for words of life and wisdom:
    “We are invited not only to be meek and lowly, but to learn such meekness from the heart of God. For many, such meekness in Christ is treated as something of a disguise, or a temporary work for the purpose of salvation. They all too quickly turn away from this understanding to assert that “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead!” But there is nothing to indicate that the definition of glory is somehow being altered for the sake of the Second Coming. As for the imagery of the Revelation of St. John, it should be read through the Cross rather than used as a corrective for the Cross.”

  9. Dear Fr. Freeman,

    I’m really struggling to understand this. I occasionally see glimpses of clarity which sometimes last for minutes, sometimes for hours, and sometimes even for days, but they never last long. The coin has not quite dropped for me. It is clear to me that you and several people who comment here have a good grasp of what you are talking about, and I would like to get to where you are. So please forgive any frustration that shows through in my questions. I can’t think of anywhere else to ask them where there might be the probability of getting an answer.

    “It is a false distinction when we understand that Christ Crucified is the revelation of the glory of God.”

    This is why this is so frustrating for me: here we are, human beings, trying to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps but in spite of all our achievements all we manage is to humiliate ourselves. “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity and a striving after wind.” Now God becomes incarnate to draw us up into the fullness of Life which we could not grasp by ourselves, and this fullness of life is……. more humiliation? So we couldn’t hack it by ourselves; we failed. God incarnates, and God fails too, in a manner of speaking, but we just label this as “God’s Glory” and celebrate it? I am bewildered and lost.

    What exactly does Christ offer us who try to live as his disciples?

    I personally never bought into the prosperity gospel. I didn’t expect from God fame, riches, social success and such things. But I did expect, when I was younger that God would give us other things, like visible progress in virtue, but now I’m not sure about that anymore.

    I used to think He offered us graces of infused virtues to make it easier to fulfill our duties which we could offer up to Him.

    Life is already full of randomness and entropy and barely restrained chaotic factors that try to destroy us at every turn, in addition to sabotage stemming from deliberate malice. Attempting to follow Christ and live according to the Beatitudes exposes us to these even more than usual. I used to think that the term “Abandonment to Divine Providence” implied that if one took the risk of trusting Him and living accordingly (which you have said in other articles looks very much like the life of a holy fool) He might prevent us from going and putting our foot in it, so that we might be preserved from the cruel mockery of those worldly wise persons who see the attempt to live out ones faith as naivete.

    But with more life experience, it seems to me that those who try to be friends of God are more often than not, humiliated rather than vindicated. Like God said to St. Teresa of Avila, “That’s how I treat all my friends!”

    What is it then that makes it worth it to keep living each day? What exactly does Christ offer us?

    Many of the answers to this question that I encounter seem nebulous. The standard answer is that Christ gives us Himself, and that should be sufficient for us. But what does that mean for me in the midst of the practical struggles of life? God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness, we are told. But God is omnipotent anyway, why does He need our weakness? And why doesn’t he heal our weakness? To preserve us from pride? Can’t He simply give us the grace to become stronger and stay humble? Is that so much of an impossibility?

    What exactly does the joy and the victory Christ is said to offer us consist in? How can we expect these to be concretely manifested in our lives, if not in accomplishment and moral improvement?

    Is the answer to be found in a purely mystical experience that cannot be described in words? Is that why all the answers usually given to this question seem tantalizingly within one’s reach but always remains beyond one’s grasp?

    Please pardon any bitterness that might be evident in my words. I am only emboldened to ask these here because you have said you encourage people to “tell you about their messes.”

    -NSP

  10. NSP,

    I can offer only a small thing to your questions. You are correct that Christ offers us Himself, and this offering makes us fully human, even as He was both “fully human…(and fully divine)”. By God’s grace, I have had some, very small, glimpses of this fullness and it is amazing to me how far my “normal” life is from it. At times I wonder why I cannot hold onto it and at other times I understand why. But we are offered to be what we were created to be in Him; to be healed of our infirmities, regardless of what the world mocks, belittles, humiliates, and hates.

  11. NSP, I have been where you are and somedays still am. It seems that I can only experience and accept God’s mercy in acknowledgement of my brokenness and utter failure. In moments of extreme duress, He has shown me His mercy. It is solid, real and living. Not an idea or a sentiment. Nothing perturbs it. Yet, I still sin. It is still my sin that humiliates me which, paradoxically become even more evident in the Light of His mercy–revealing yet more of my brokenness and depravity. Yet, I am just an average man.

    The modern mind worships the idol of “progress”. Like all idols, it is a lie yet that lie traps us all to one degree or another.

  12. NSP,
    Very good questions – and I can hear the frustration in them. I’ve been meditating on how best to answer. I think the right place to ground an answer is: love.

    I have long understood that the purpose of our existence, and our relationship with God, is union/communion with Him, to share in His life, that our existence becomes a partaker of His existence. The very ground of that is love – the very same and identical love that is contained in the statement: “God is love.”

    The purpose of virtue, as and if we acquire it, is found in allowing us to more fully love and be participants in the love of God. There is certainly a “reward” in all of that – to exist in the love of God, in union with Him, is to truly exist. There is certainly joy, etc., in it, but I find every such word (joy, bliss, etc.) to simply be inadequate to describe that state of being. And – this is crucial – it is not a sense of “I do this so that I might have that.” In that case, we would simply be using God for our own end. It is, instead, to “lose ourselves in the love of God.” It is even, I think, beyond asking, “Is this joy?”

    I have a purpose in why I write about these things as I do – why I write about weakness, failure, being despised, the revelation of God as the Crucified. It is both true, in and of itself, but it is also a very careful counter to the false mantra of our modern age in which we are constantly urged and rewarded for various “accomplishments,” “achievements,” etc. Our culture does this, on the one hand, because of the cult of money (productivity, etc.). In the course of that narrative, we forget what it is to be human, and the very many people who for various reasons get left behind by the great achievements and success of others are told that it’s their fault, they should try harder, etc. It’s very upside-down, and it seems contrary to everything I see God doing. “He has exalted the humble and meek, and the rich He has sent away empty.”

    My life experience, which includes a fair amount of time among various versions of Appalachia’s humble and meek, I see the wisdom of God revealed. I see a more profound love and sacrifice (often complete with joy) among those who have the least – and this in contrast to those who have the most (I have also ministered among billionaires at a certain point in my Episcopal ministry).

    There is a divine paradox in all of this. When I am weak, I am strong. He exalts the humble and meek. Christ emptied Himself, wherefore God has exalted Him. Lose your life for my sake, and you will find it. Etc.

    Why does God do things in this manner? My understanding is, as I’ve noted, because this truly reveals who He is. The love of God is a radical self-emptying – God “loses Himself for our sake.” It’s what His love looks like – again and again. And, if I would know love, then I need to follow that path.

    The acquisition of the virtues, is actually the gaining of virtues such that I can more fully love. That is their end and purpose – the love of/in/with God. When the world imagines virtues, it almost always turns out to be just more self-improvement for the sake of being a really “excellent” self.

    I intend in my writing to help relieve people of the burden created by the false messages of our culture, that they might be free in Christ to know the love of God.

    The “prosperity gospel” is not just about money – there’s a sort of “prosperity culture” (a sort of Christianized version of the American Dream) that wafts throughout our culture such that you can’t tell the difference between a motivational speaker and a preacher (often they cross-over very easily). Who would ever want to crucify a motivational speaker?

    I have to confess to having my mind and thoughts primarily with those who couldn’t measure-up by the standards of motivation and the American Dream. I have found, over the years, that there are vast numbers of them.

    To understand these things, my merest suggestion is that a person begin to “do” some of the things Christ asks us to do. Seek God in the poor, the weak, the hungry, the lonely, etc. Find some small ways to serve them. In these things, slowly, grace will begin to manifest itself and we’ll find Christ.

    Do love to find love. I have found, in my own life, that I can do (in small ways) such things even when I’m depressed or on the edge of falling into despair, or utterly exhausted, or confused and on the edge of unbelief. Grace comes.

  13. Dear Fr. Freeman, Byron, & Michael Baumann,

    Thank you for your kind replies.

    Father, thank you for taking the time to frame a detailed answer. However, I was wondering if it were possible to find a sort of path that simultaneously
    1. rejects the American Dream and self-centred self-improvement,
    2. Seeks God in the poor, the weak, the hungry, the lonely, etc.
    and
    3. at the same time finds a way of looking at professional work in the world as a school of spirituality.

    What I am trying to ask is perhaps, is it possible to formulate a sort of “Theology of Work” for the Christian.

    After all, when God creates man in Genesis, he almost seems to appoint him to be a sort of engineer (“to till and keep the earth”) . Tolkien spoke of sub-creation. Could that spirit it not be extended to all sorts of work other than literary work?

    The Church seems to have a highly developed idea of monasticism (both in Orthodox & Catholic spiritual literature) and sometimes it almost seems that the uspoken implication is that the spiritual life for laypeople should consist of more or less playing at being monks and nuns without actually being so.

    In the Catholic Church, Cardinal Newman seems to have grappled a bit with what the spiritual path for the lay professional would look like (“The Idea of aUniversity” etc.) St. Josemaria Escriva tried to create a spirituality for laypeople, but he and the organisation he founded are unfortunately surrounded by several controversies which make many wary of his thought.

    Have there been any such attempts among the Orthodox?

    I was thinking if perhaps the idea of “Craftsmanship” or “Mastery” would perhaps offer a viable alternative to the ideas of “self-improvement” and “progress.” After all, the idea seems to have been part of Classical Christianity, at least in the West (e.g., Artisan’s Guilds of medieval times, with the stages of apprentice, journeyman, master etc.) If the depiction of life in Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Anderi Rublev” is historically accurate, it seems to indicate that similar ideas were part of Orthodox societies too.

    Zen Buddhism seems to have succeeded in making use of several professional skills and leisure arts (e.g., archery, flower arrangement, swordsmanship, tea ceremony, calligraphy, etc) as a means of spiritual cultivation. Why have such attempts not prominent in Christian culture?

    Is there any possibility of formulating what could be called an Orthodox Christian view of Work?

    Once again, thank you for your kindness and for your time!

    -NSP

  14. NSP,
    I certainly think it’s possibly to describe such a theology. Work should not be seen as a curse – nor is it something we do in order to accumulate wealth (surprise!). An Orthodox theology of work would be well-expressed in this Scripture (Col. 4:17)

    “And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.”

    Or “do it as unto the Lord.” Another way would be to say, “Do good work. And do good work in order that it might be pleasing to God (regardless of whether people are pleased).

    I think one of the things that is lacking in modern culture is the sense of “work for work’s sake” – in the sense that if something is worth doing – then do it well. Bad work often is the result of our modern drive to maximize profits. We start “cutting corners.”

    But, we should take pleasure in doing good work. We should have satisfaction in doing good work. The humility that accompanies good work is also the recognition that sometimes we fail in our efforts – which we can accept as peacefully as possible and continue with our efforts to do good work.

    I’ve written about doing “the next good thing.” I would also describe that as “learning to be content.” It is focused, as much as possible, on the now, the near, the neighbor, etc.

  15. Dear Fr. Freeman,

    Thank you very much for your reply. This is more or less how I’ve been trying to live and work for the past 15 years or so. Could you not expand more on this and write some essays on this topic?

    -NSP

  16. Fr. Freeman,
    Thank you for this wonderful post! On a similar note, I have been wondering what to make of some Orthodox writings that seem to claim that, in some literal way, Christ bears and experiences the suffering and sin of the whole world during his passion. Do you have any thoughts on this idea? I especially seem to see it pop up in a few of the late 19th, early 20th century writings I’ve read.

  17. Lane,
    It is not just 19th and 20 th century writers who say this. Origen wrote: “Who among those who have read the Gospel does not know that Christ makes all human suffering his own?” The same thought is found in St Maximos, and, no doubt, many others. And this is not just on the Cross. The Cross is the manifestation of His suffering live, but Christ has always participated fully in our suffering. Love could do no less.

  18. Father, does that not mean that as Christians should also in prayer and repentance offer up the sins of others as our own?

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