Pentecost and the Liturgy of Hades

pentecostkneelPascha (Easter) comes with a great note of joy in the Christian world. Christ is risen from the dead and our hearts rejoice. That joy begins to wane as the days pass. Our lives settle back down to the mundane tasks at hand. After 40 days, the Church marks the Feast of the Ascension, often attended by only a handful of the faithful (Rome has more-or-less moved the Ascension to a Sunday to make it easier). Some excitement returns with the Feast of Pentecost, 50 days after Pascha, which conveniently falls on a Sunday making its observance easier in a too-busy-to-notice world. Lost in all of this, however, is a subtext (perhaps it is the main text).

It is a liturgical practice that in Orthodoxy begins some weeks before Great Lent. It is a frontal assault on Hades.

The traditional name for these celebrations is “Soul Saturdays.” They are celebrations of the Divine Liturgy on Saturday mornings offered for the souls of the departed. Most of the Saturdays in Great Lent have them. They make a fitting prelude for Holy Week and Pascha. At Pascha, Christ Himself “tramples down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestows life.” This is the Great and Holy Sabbath – the true and Great Soul Saturday. This is the great theme of Pascha itself. Christ’s Resurrection is, strangely, not so much about Christ as it is about Christ’s action. Many modern Christians treat Pascha (Easter) as though it were a celebration of Jesus’ personal return after a tragic death. Orthodoxy views Christ’s Holy Week, Crucifixion, Descent into Hades and Resurrection as one unending, uninterrupted assault on Hades. This is the great mystery of Pascha – the destruction of death and Hades. Death is the “last enemy.” Those who forget this are like soldiers who have forgotten the purpose of the war in which they fight.

And so the battle forms a significant part of the liturgical effort of the Church. The boldness of the third prayer is quite striking (this is the first portion):

Priest: O Christ our God, the ever-flowing Spring, life-giving, illuminating, creative Power, coeternal with the Father, Who hast most excellently fulfilled the whole dispensation of the salvation of mankind, and didst tear apart the indestructible bonds of death, break asunder the bolts of Hades, and tread down the multitude of evil spirits, offering Thyself as a blameless Sacrifice and offering us Thy pure, spotless and sinless body, Who, by this fearsome, inscrutable divine service didst grant us life everlasting; O Thou Who didst descend into Hades, and demolish the eternal bars, revealing an ascent to those who were in the lower abode; Who with the lure of divine wisdom didst entice the dragon, the head of subtle evil, and with Thy boundless power bound him in abysmal hell, in inextinguishable fire, and extreme darkness. O Wisdom of the Father, Thou great of Name Who dost manifest Thyself a great Helper to those who are in distress; a luminous Light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death; Thou art the Lord of everlasting glory, the beloved Son of the Most High Father, eternal Light from eternal Light, Thou Sun of justice! … Who also, on this all-perfect and saving feast, dost deign to receive oblations and supplications for those bound in Hades, and grantest unto us the great hope that rest and comfort will be sent down from Thee to the departed from the grief that binds them.

Please forgive my editing of a very long prayer, thank you, St. Basil.

I can recall the first time I offered this prayer in my priesthood. I had a copy in front of me, but had not read it before the service, nor had I ever heard it. I trembled as I offered the words above…astounded by their boldness. I had never heard such boldness before the Throne of God within the walls of the Church itself. It is also a reminder of the weakness and infirmity of the legal imagery of salvation. The legal view requires of God that He be the enforcer of Hades. To such a prayer He could only reply: “I cannot grant such things because of my Justice!”

The Descent of Christ into Hades itself demonstrates God’s willingness towards our salvation. And the prayer’s imagery here reveals God’s strength:

Who didst descend into Hades, and demolish the eternal bars, revealing an ascent to those who were in the lower abode; Who with the lure of divine wisdom didst entice the dragon, the head of subtle evil, and with Thy boundless power bound him in abysmal hell, in inextinguishable fire, and extreme darkness.

On the Saturday before Pentecost, some 49 days after Pascha, the Church offers the last in the cycle of Soul Saturdays. And on Pentecost itself, and now on bended knee, it boldly goes where only Christ has gone before in victory. As was proclaimed in the Paschal homily of St. John Chrysostom:

Christ is risen! And not one of the dead is left in the grave, for Christ having risen from the dead, is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

I will extend this meditation to moments of practicality that are bound to meet all of us in coming days and weeks. Confronted by an enemy (whether self-proclaimed or only imagined) the temptation is to join in battle. The arguement begins, whether in earnest or only in your head. The day begins to slip away as the darkness of resentment and the remains of unresolved conflict abide. You have entered Hades whether you know it or not. You have entered the place that would fain leave our planet a smoldering moonscape. It is now time to pray.

Christ’s descent into Hades signals a change for us. Hades is not the place for our fear, but the place that should fear us. And so we pray. The noise in our heads is a temptation, a feeble effort that suggests the power of Hades. It is, however, a power that is broken and can be trampled underfoot.

We can love. As we love we can pray. As we pray Hades trembles until its bars fall and the dead arise.

God give us grace.

46 comments:

  1. Joyous feast. Once again , thank you for the clarity of your writing that manifests / gives life to the boldness you write about in this article.

  2. HI, Father Stephen. It seems like some of the confusion might come in when God is seen as the author of death and judgement, especially in regards to the judgment at the end of the age. Can you comment a little bit on this distinction? I personally get a bit confused myself.

  3. Thanks for this, Father. It echoes a current struggle in my own life, where God has shown me great grace!

  4. Laurie,
    I think that many of us (most of us) have internalized a sort of narrative about the end of the age that tends to block out anything in the Scriptures or the Tradition to the contrary. Thus we have judgment as condemnation and eternal punishment (with all the accompanying imagery). And yet, St. Paul says in 1 Cor. 15:24-48:

    “Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power.For He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet.The last enemy that will be destroyed is death.For “He has put all things under His feet.” But when He says “all things are put under Him,” it is evident that He who put all things under Him is excepted.Now when all things are made subject to Him, then the Son Himself will also be subject to Him who put all things under Him, that God may be all in all.”

    This statement comes within a chapter that gives us the creed-like account of the resurrection of Christ, and is as solid a doctrinal teaching as we ever see in St. Paul. However, I think lots of Christians would read this passage I’ve just cited and quickly want to say, “Yes…but!” and go on to contradict it.

    I believe this is a solid statement of the gospel, and the End. Apart from this, I would want to say, “I don’t know about that,” when others race to contradict it. It is this statement of faith that we seem to espouse in our liturgical prayers. So, I will pray boldly, and, if need be, remain agnostic about certain “end-of-all-things” questions. Christ has given us this hope. It is enough.

    I have noted a few times that too many Christians want to “be in management” – meaning, they want to have the whole picture and be sure that everything fits and that everybody minds their p’s and q’s, etc. Instead, I feel like St. Paul has here handed me a check that is signed and dated. Like an ignorant worker, I will gladly present it and asked that it be cashed. I’ll leave the management to God. As for me, I have this check…

  5. Blessings, Father.

    While I sympathize with your criticism of some of the weaknesses of legal images of the atonement, overused by many in the West, we must also be careful not to diminish the justice and holiness of our God. (As if He needs us to defend these. But if we do not teach them, we risk prevarication by omission.) Such instances come to mind as the fate of Uzzah (2 Samuel 6, 1 Chronicles 13), God’s condemnation of the sinful world in the Flood, His response to the rebellion of Korah, and many other times in the history of Israel. I worry that if we too strongly deemphasize God’s justice and holiness in favor of a Christus Victor ‘model’ of the atonement, we play into the modern infatuation with a Marcionite view of Holy Writ. (I myself have had multiple university professors espouse this view.)

    It is the Cross which satisfies both the justice and the mercy of God. It is the Cross which becomes the Mercy Seat of the Church, upon which Christ is both victim and priest. This sacrifice is offered “to make propitiation for the sins of the people.” (Hebrews 2:17) And yet, in the same breath, the author of Hebrews paints Christ as taking on our flesh and blood so that “through death He might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.” (2:14b-15)

    A final thought on legal imagery. We do well to remember that we are creatures, created out of nothing. As such, we have no legal standing with God, no leg to stand on to expect mercy. We are vividly reminded of this in God’s answer to Job out of the whirlwind. And yet, He does have mercy. He promised a Savior, who trampled down death by His own death. And He loves us, and continues to have mercy on us through the life of the church into which He has adopted us as beloved children, no longer slaves to death and sin, but heirs with Christ. Truly, this is a great mystery, “into which angels long to look.”

  6. Jacob,
    I beg to differ. I think, for example, that the translation of hilasterion as “propitiation” is utterly uncalled for and is a reading of Western medieval theology back into the text. Indeed, the juridical reading of Scripture on the whole has this same weakness. It presumes a story and reads the story into the Scriptures where something else would do much better.

    Again, examples, the uncalled-for abuse and misconstrual of the OT sacrificial system, distorting the entire notion of atonement, has a legacy of bad doctrine and error attached to it. Over the years, I have seen that the juridical image is so enmeshed in our culture that people cannot imagine how to think without it. It is, however, both possible and necessary.

    Whatever God is doing with us, it is not extrinsic and juridical. It is intrinsic and ontological. Where, please, does the Scripture describe God’s justice as something that must be satisfied? That is a human imagination, but not grounded properly in the faith of the Fathers. Importing the idea that God has “requirements” that must be satisfied makes no sense. His justice is one of the Divine Energies – and it works always towards our salvation and the healing of all things. There is no necessity in God.

    St. Isaac of Syria famously said, “We know nothing of God’s justice, only His mercy.”

    I will add a word on the notion of a “Marcionite” reading of the OT. It is an accusation that is greatly misused. Marcion was a literalist viz. the OT, and rejected the depiction of God that he saw there to such an extent as to declare that this God was not the Father of Jesus Christ. Modern abuse of the term “Marcionite,” oddly, is made by those who want to insist on a fairly literal reading of the OT, and insist that the imagery which Marcion found repugnant is both true, real, and to accepted as we see it. This actually differs a great deal from how many of the Fathers, particularly in the East, tended to read the OT.

    First off: Christ and His Pascha are THE controlling image through which all Scripture is to be read and interpreted. It is in the use of the OT to contradict or modify that revelation that many early Fathers found objectionable and used other means for reading those passages for our benefit. The OT is canon, but it has to be read with understanding.

    I find it completely disturbing that Christians can read descriptions of genocide (for example) and go on to blithely justify them and explain why it was a good thing, etc. What disturbs me about it is actually what it says about the heart. Such things, nurtured in the heart, also make a place for modern sins of equal enormity. It suggests to me an intellectualized approach to the Scriptures.

    Origen is calumniated by many on account of his overuse of various forms of allegory – but he was only doing what was commonly done. Much of that condemnation is quite modern and not to be found within the Fathers themselves.

    The contradictions between some of the imagery in the OT and the teachings of Christ are obvious. It should give us pause for honest reflection rather than easy explanations. Frankly, dogmatic treatments of justice, mercy, etc., drawn from OT stories is a non-starter for me. It puts the cart before the horse. Christ is the beginning and the end and OT stories are only to be read through the lens of Christ. That’s not Marcionite – it’s patristic.

  7. Father,

    I admit I come from a fairly intellectual protestant tradition which prizes the unity of Scripture (often in a slightly more literal reading than I am comfortable with). I have only begun (barely!) to delve the depths of both Scripture and Tradition, and I appreciate your patience with a musing mind.

    Upon some further reflection, perhaps “to engender mercy for the sins of the people,” (Heb. 2:17) might be a better translation of hilaskomai to consider, which avoids bringing up all the accoutrement the term ‘propitiation’ has accumulated in Western thought. (I relied on the Liddell-Scott’s catalogue of uses in non-Christian writings to come to this translation, available free at the Perseus Project.)

  8. Father, the more I pray and live getting older and the pain that age always brings, the less I worry about “judgement” per say. I am finding, I think, that mercy is the judgement if I submit to it. Of course that entails seeing all of my sins AND some of the consequences of those sins in the lives of people I love.

    Mercy seems often harder to endure than justice. At times submitting to His mercy is a trial by fire when I recognize all of the damage I have done to myself and others and yet, there is Jesus forgiving. Only repentance puts out the fire.

    If I were punished, it would be done but in submitting to His mercy I recognize a bit of the on-going damage some of which will be in the lives of people I love after I have reposed. That too, is covered by His mercy, but the pain is real. Healing is still necessary. That is the nature of the Cross, I think.

    For me all of this is summed up in the Jesus Prayer.

    Mercy is real, solid and full of life. It is not an idea or a sentiment. It has, as you say, substance. Sin, being a product of evil, has no substance except what I give it through my failure to repent.

    If I am not correct in this, please let me know.

  9. An important part of this conversation is to have a common understanding of what sin is. Sin is death and there is not in Eastern Orthodoxy an emphasis the on a causal relationship between these, because they are one and the same. I think it is difficult or at least not as intuitive of an understanding because of what western theology medieval and modern has done with the relationship.

    Father, please correct as needed: I see you are being specific concerning medieval western theology which introduced built upon a misinterpretation of hilasterion. Is my usage too broad to include modern western theology as well? If so please correct.

    Also thank you for the last couple of paragraphs in your article about how we enter hades while we yet live. We don’t do this intentionally, but end up there without considering how we got there. (Due to our own initial attraction to a distraction or to some seeming exhilarating passion (i,e. we feed off of getting angry). This is an important reflection and helpful to us in these times when the opposite tack is encouraged, in the media and social networks.

    Forgive me of the redundancy to repeat it here:

    Christ’s descent into Hades signals a change for us. Hades is not the place for our fear, but the place that should fear us. And so we pray. The noise in our heads is a temptation, a feeble effort that suggests the power of Hades. It is, however, a power that is broken and can be trampled underfoot.

    We can love. As we love we can pray. As we pray Hades trembles until its bars fall and the dead arise.

    God give us grace

  10. Homily on Holy Saturday: The Lord Descends into Hades
    St. Epiphanius, Bishop of Cyprus (403 A.D.)

  11. Jacob,
    Yes, that is helpful. It’s a very good illustration of how juridical imagery gets read into a place where it doesn’t exist. According to Reardon, there is not a single instance in all of the OT of an offering being made in which God is “propitiated” by a sacrifice. Indeed, the Scriptures actually rebuke such a notion as repugnant: Isaiah 1:11ff.

    “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
    says the LORD;
    I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
    and the fat of well-fed beasts;
    I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
    or of lambs, or of goats.

    An example that could be multiplied many times.

    Propitiation for sins is a pagan notion and should not be seen as Christian (or Jewish). The “ilasterion” (“mercy seat”) whose variations often get rendered as “propitiation” through the perversion of bad theology is a very difficult thing to translate. It is the place of reconciliation, the place where God and human-beings meet. What is at stake in sin (and thus in justice and mercy) is that we are created for an ontological union with God – to be partakers of His very life. Sin interrupts this – like taking a baby out of its mother womb before its time. We exist by communion (and only by communion). Without communion, we die.

    Judgment is not punishment. Why would God ever need to punish us? How could He possibly derive benefit from our suffering? That is the perversion of the notion of His judgment “requiring” something. His judgment is always to our benefit – coming to our aid. Even if it seems to punish us, it is only as correction, not as retribution. That is the nature of His love.

    Those who argue that His love and mercy must be balanced by His justice have no idea what they are writing about. God is love. His love is not something that requires balance. His justice, in whatever way it is made manifest, is never anything but His love.

    Thank you for your gentle writing and questions. They are most welcome.

  12. Fr. Stephen,
    You speak of gentle writing. That is so true of what I find in your words.
    I grew up as a child hearing fire and brimstone messages in church. That, coupled with the nuclear threat (as children in the 50’s we were told to lie on the floor under our desk, with our feet pointed towards the door in case of an attack!). We weren’t traumatized by all this 😒.
    I need communion, I need a connection with God with my entire being. And in Christ’s love this is just what I experience. Long before becoming Orthodox I knew in my deepest being that the God I was taught as a child was not the One I was now experiencing. Perhaps I am different than some, but since coming to Christ at 22 I have always felt Christ’s love and mercy toward me. I know that this is God’s gift…as you say Father, all is gift.
    Just this morning I was with a friend in hospice, dying of Parkinson complications. Another friend is desperately ill with esophageal cancer.
    Yet Christ enters into each of these personal Hades and there defeats sin and death. You have mentioned I Cor. 15. I just read part of it again…”the sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
    Even in the face of death, Christ offers life, peace and hope. If God be for us, who can be against us?
    Dee often thanks you for your ministry here. Her heart and mine are strengthened by your words, as are mine.

  13. Re your call to prayer and meditation the next time we face a foe… I was reminded recently that St. Anthony the Great fought valiantly to defeat Arianism at the time of Nicea – but *after* he had sought and endured a life of prayer, fasting, isolation, and peace in the desert “close to God’s heart”, as one might say.
    Similarly with St. John Chrysostom – 3 years of ascetical silence in a cave and growing in the Spirit *before* preaching sermons.

  14. Luke,
    My assumption is that God’s providence is at work as to when, where, how, etc., we face our enemies. Living day to day, keeping the commandments, which includes our prayer and fasting, God will also allow those enemies for whom we might pray. My sense of things is that we need not go looking for trouble…it’ll come looking for us.

  15. Fr. Freeman,

    I find it completely disturbing that Christians can read descriptions of genocide (for example) and go on to blithely justify them and explain why it was a good thing, etc. What disturbs me about it is actually what it says about the heart. Such things, nurtured in the heart, also make a place for modern sins of equal enormity. It suggests to me an intellectualized approach to the Scriptures.

    Thank you for saying this. This reminds me of explanations sometimes given in Catholic circles (Just to clarify for those reading this who might not know, I am a Catholic myself) such as, “God has authority of life and death over every man, woman and child, and if He orders a certain group to execute another group, He is doing no more than He has a perfect right to do, and thus in acting as executioners those who put others to death in such a situation do not sin because they are merely obeying the explicit commands of God.” I have always been uneasy with such explanations.

    I once had a conversation with an unassuming, mild-mannered and quite traditional Catholic priest. Somehow the conversation wandered over to the topic of the Inquisition and I hesitantly expressed my dismay that many great saints in the Catholic Church had actively or passively given their support to the coercive methods (even physical torture of apostates) used in the Inquisition. To this he merely said, “But think of all those whose souls might have been saved as a result.” When I asked him whether a confession of faith wrung out by torture was really the supernatural virtue of faith, and what does one make of the permanent and compounding damage done to the minds of future generations of people who come to hate the Church and thus would never consider embracing the Christian faith, because they retain the passed-down memories of their ancestors having been subjected to torture, he merely shrugged silently.

    Thank you and others like you for being a much needed alternate voice in this discussion of the Old Testament.

    -NSP

  16. NSP,
    Thank you for that example and your word of encouragement. I have endured the accusation of “Marcionism” before in that I much prefer the various forms of allegorical treatment (which is a very wide variety) to some form of literalism that then finds itself pressed to excuse the inexcusable.

    Again, I return to the heart, which should be guarded above all else. One way to express questions of the heart is to ask, “What kind of person can say such a thing?” As in, what kind of person can justify the murder of an innocent child? I do not wish to become such a person (even in theory) and I am concerned not to allow my heart to go in that direction. Better, I think, to endure a painful silence and deep agnosticism in the face of such temptations than to entertain the notion that if God orders me to kill a child (or orders someone else) that makes it ok.

    Standing at the foot of the Cross of Christ for some hours, I would find it impossible to turn away and then have the conversation that then pronounces that God on the Cross spoke and commanded the murder of a child. Nor can I find it possible to ever put Christ God-on-the-Cross in a set of parentheses so that He is somehow in a separate conversation from genocide. Given that genocide (in its so many creative forms) is going on daily in the world, I do not accept for a moment that the Crucified Christ is whispering, “It’s for their good, they’ll be better off dead.” What kind of heart can say such a thing? It is the heart of utility and a perverse utilitarianism written wrongly into the teaching of the Church (where it does not belong).

    The Cross teaches us that He is Himself the murdered child, the starving mother, the poor ground into the dust. The mystery of the Cross is present everywhere and at all times, even as the Lamb was slain from the foundation of the world. Indeed, the Crucifixion of Christ reveals the universe to be the Cross, and the Cross of Christ alone interprets human experience (and the experience of the whole creation). The voice of creation that groans echoes the groans of Christ on the Cross, and He honors them in that He unites Himself to them.

    The High Priest at the time of Christ’s crucifixion prophesied (the Scripture says) when he said, “Better that one man should die for the people than that the whole nation should be destroyed.” He, on the one hand, meant something perverse – the utilitarianism of those who imagine themselves to be managing history. God, on the other hand, (in that he prophesied) meant something quite different – Christ’s death was “for the people” and would be their salvation. It was not utility – it was God’s self-emptying love.

    If we find ourselves dumbfounded by the violence of the Old Testament – then good. When confronted and dumbfounded – don’t seek to justify what rightly dumbfounds you. Instead of explanations slowly seek to know the mystery of the Cross hidden in the Scriptures. Very likely, such seeking will yield nothing more than silence at first. If so, then be silent.

    St. Maximus the Confessor taught us that “He who understands the mystery of the Cross understands the mystery of all things.”

    I was ordained to be a priest. A priest stands before the Cross and offers the world, on behalf of all and for all. None of us were ordained to be explainers.

    Having said that, I will acknowledge that it is possible to skim through the Fathers and find various explanations given, including some that are utilitarian. That only tells me that there is an uneven quality in the writings of the Fathers. Some have greater insight than others. But for those who are dumbstruck by the sufferings of the world, much less the genocidal violence sometimes encountered in the OT, I will say that there are some among the Fathers who share such a reaction. I prefer to shelter in their silence.

  17. NSP,
    I’ll add another thought. There is for some, the problem of “the Scripture says.” What is at stake for them is the problem of Scriptural authority and reliability. I appreciate that. I readily confess that I believe the Scriptures to be the Word of God and that they are authoritative for our lives. I do not, however, believe that such a confession requires the acceptance of a kind of historical literalism at every turn. There are things that are plainly historical (such as the way St. Paul makes the historical case for the resurrection of Christ in 1 Cor. 15) and things that are less clear. When Paul is making the historical case of the resurrection, he even goes so far as to name eyewitnesses. It’s as though he were arguing a court case.

    But, as for the OT, we have a collection of material that has a wide-range of literary genres, serving a wide-range of historical purposes. In some cases, it’s hard to tell (in a historical manner) whether one is reading history or parable or something in-between (such as the book of Job). What I see in a number of the Fathers is their reverend approach to reading in which they press the fact that the meaning is “buried” or hidden within or beneath the text. They have no doubt of its inspiration – but sometimes press beneath in order to find it.

    I have written about this, off and on, for years now. I suppose I will continue to do so for years to come. Someone shared this small passage from St. Augustine:

    But in addition to the foregoing rule, which guards us against taking a metaphorical form of speech as if it were literal, we must also pay heed to that which tells us not to take a literal form of speech as if it were figurative. In the first place, then, we must show the way to find out whether a phrase is literal or figurative. And the way is certainly as follows: Whatever there is in the word of God that cannot, when taken literally, be referred either to purity of life or soundness of doctrine, you may set down as figurative. Purity of life has reference to the love of God and one’s neighbour; soundness of doctrine to the knowledge of God and one’s neighbour. Every man, moreover, has hope in his own conscience, so far as he perceives that he has attained to the love and knowledge of God and his neighbour

  18. NSP,
    Indeed, I concur with your thoughts. The God of wrath, who demands justice because he has been affronted by our sin, is not the God we see in Christ.
    It has been said here before…this caricature of God has no doubt produced more atheists than any other Christian belief. If I believed that the God of Jonathan Edwards were the true God, exacting a pound of our flesh in retribution of our sin, then today I would be at best agnostic.

  19. Father Stephen, I really appreciate everything you’ve written here in the comments. Can you comment on Psalm 137 in this context? As much as I’ve come to dearly love Psalmic prayer and imagery, this is one that still gets stuck in my throat. It is hard to pray.

  20. Laura,
    Fr. Tom Hopko addressed this Psalm in one of his podcasts. The podcast, with a transcript is here. Basically, what he says is that the Church traditionally reads this in an allegorical manner. Babylon is the city of rebellion, the city that refuses God. It is the world as a place of sin. It’s “little ones” are the sinful thoughts and actions, particularly in their “youth” – their early beginnings. It is treated as a matter of spiritual warfare in which this language is used to describe our battle against those spiritual things that war against us and God.

    St. Paul says, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 6:12) This is true now, and it has always been true. We read the OT always in light of this understanding, and, in that manner, are able to make good use of it.

    A great difficulty occurs, I think, when some kind of literal/historical narrative is constructed to make all of these things fit seamlessly. We wind up creating “dispensations” such that God behaved one way during one period of time, and a different way in another, requiring all sorts of mental gymnastics. I have never found that to be a satisfactory approach to the Scriptures – and have seen it produce very bad fruit in hearts from time to time. Of course, when you say something like that, some folks want to rush out and label someone a “liberal” or worse. It’s not “liberal” to apply allegory (in its several forms) where it is appropriate. It’s actually part of Orthodox Tradition. The Great Canon of St. Andrew is a prime example of such usage.

    I am curious if any of my readers have read Hans Boersma’s Scripture as Real Presence. I know that he is a fan of Schmemann (and requires reading him in his classes). The things I’ve seen about his book suggests that he understands the work of the Fathers in a fairly Orthodox manner. I need to put it on my reading list. He will doubtless have a number of good patristic references demonstrating the use of Christ-centered interpretation of the Scriptures.

  21. Laura,
    I haven’t heard of Fr Tomas’ explanation (I can guess though), however, it is worth noting that, as you are shocked by the (literal meaning of ‘dashing babes on rocks’ – a barbaric custom of those times that ensured the offspring of those you conquered wouldn’t one day rise up against you, the conqueror), I am, funnily enough, shocked that people can take it in that, literal manner, (“shocked you are shocked” if you like 🙂 )
    It is so well known in the tradition (being Greek myself), and reiterated quite a few times in various hymns, that the “Daughter of Babylon”, is essentially something either like Gehenna, or the destroyer of our souls (the demons) etc… So, “dash her little ones against the rock” means to dash the early thoughts/”logismoi”/spiritual assaults, that lead the soul astray and into sinful captivity, upon the “Rock” (namely: Christ).
    This is particularly relevant to the Jesus Prayer’s watchful practice, which essentially uproots these early buds of sinful thoughts before they make deeper roots (before they become big and strong and difficult to deal with) by “dashing them upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ”.
    Once you delve into the real spiritual meaning of that psalm, you will surely realise it is one of the most sublime ones…

  22. Thank you, Father! It occurs to me, after reading your comments and Fr. Tom’s article, that referring to our “little sins” as babies is actually pretty apt. “It’s only a little thing, it’s no big deal, it doesn’t know any better— it’s simply precious in its mistakes…”— that’s exactly what we pray against when we say “incline not my heart to make excuse in sins”, isn’t it? Good thoughts. Thank you, again.

  23. Dino,
    I give thanks that Calvinism is not commonly found among the Greeks. The thought makes me shudder! Barbaric cruelties, however, seem to have very few cultural boundaries. May God have mercy on us!

  24. Father,
    there have been clear influences of Calvinism and especially that type of protestant “piety” circles of non-monastic ‘consecrated lives’ (an abnormality for Orthodoxy). Throughout the 20th century such organisations flourished and much good as well as not-so-good came from them.

  25. I read and reread the Pr Thomas Hopko transcript and I think I am very much in agreement with him, even on this point:

    “””
    The most unbelievable thing in holy Scripture is that the Lord God Almighty razes Jerusalem himself. He razes it to the ground through the Babylonians, whom providentially he sends against it, for the chastisement and the purification and the repentance of his people.
    “””

    I do not see any Calvinism, PSA, or any other heterodox theology behind this statement. Rather, it is *precisely because of* the Cross that these things happen. What are people to do when they both believe that Christ Crucified interprets the OT, yet, even at the very foot of the Cross, see something [perhaps slightly] different in the Cross?

  26. JBT,
    I also do not see any Calvinism, PSA, or heterodox theology within Fr. Tom’s statement. I could have made it myself. There is a great deal, however, packed into the word “providentially.” There is, I think, always at play that sense expressed by the Patriarch Joseph to his brothers, “You meant it to me for evil, but the Lord meant it to me for good.” The Joseph story is perhaps one of the greatest accounts of providence – and is, indeed, written with a careful eye to that very point.

    I would say that in the Joseph story, the providence is revealed in a very quick manner, and given voice quickly. Often, it is not the case in much (or most) of what we see. Indeed, the providence within most of human suffering remains deeply hidden, such that, were it not for the Cross itself, we would struggle to give it any voice at all. Even Fr. Tom described his explanation as “the most unbelievable thing in holy Scripture.”

    As to whether someone sees something “slightly different” in the Cross – is in the hands of God. What I do not see in the Cross is an intellectualized account of human suffering and sorrow, something that fits ever-so-comfortably into our modern Christian ethos. America has a long history of blaspheming when it comes to providence, having used it, historically, in horrific ways. So, I mistrust us when we use the word, and tend to want to push back until it ceases to serve such self-serving ends.

  27. Laura,
    you are not alone in finding Psalm 137 troubling. You have already been given an explanation of it’s meaning, so no need for me to say anything.
    I would however draw your attention to the fact that the Roman Catholic hierarchy, when revising the Divine Office, edited out some of the Psalms and passages from other Psalms that were deemed troubling or offensive.
    It’s all about context when reading any Holy Scripture; a good commentary in line with is essential for our understanding of what we read.

  28. Andrew,
    I’ll just note in passing that, in general, the Orthodox Church chooses not to edit the Scriptures or liturgical texts in order to make them less troubling or offensive. Many mainline Protestant Churches have done so now for years, and, as you note, the Catholic Church has followed suit in a few cases. Unfortunately, this trend only re-enforces a sort of literalism, which is the preferred modern form of reading anything.

    I would argue that the more traditional approach to reading the Scriptures, where we learn to press deeper and beneath the letter, is a practice that nurtures the soul and the heart – a practice that cannot be had through using “literal” approaches. Modernity has a tendency to “flatten” everything, including the world around us. This is part of modern legalism – where we seek to regulate life by laws and policies to guarantee outcomes. We regulate but we do not cultivate.

    I would suggest that learning how we go “beneath the letter” applies not only to how we read the Scriptures, but to how we “read” the world and even ourselves. It is learning the nature of the heart and, slowly, acquiring a “noetic” view of the world. I think one of the reasons that Jonathan Pageau’s work is so appealing to many (as he speaks about the “Symbolic World”) is that for many people, “symbolic” is a concept that is like water in a parched desert. I suspect that we are all pretty clumsy about much of this – as though we were children trying to walk in our parents’ shoes. The instinct, I think, is on target.

    The manner in which many of the Fathers read the OT was not an effort to simply obviate problematic passages – it was an effort undertaken because they believed (and taught) that there was something better, richer, and more important beneath the surface. Indeed, they taught that it was Christ Himself that could be found beneath the surface and it was Christ for whom they labored.

    God give us grace to learn this path.

  29. Thank you Fr. Stephen.
    It is indeed difficult to shake off the legalistic, literal approach and God’s grace to learn the path of the heart in seeking Christ is the only way.
    I can only speak from experience of my life growing up in the UK, but it is astounding how much Protestantism and has influenced most people’s thinking, even atheists, who when having conversations about God, will quote the Bible at you with a very literalist understanding to get their point across. I even had an atheist once tell me how stupid I was because I read the Bible and did not understand it. While true on one level, like St. Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch, on another level someone who had less understanding than myself claimed to have more and decided it’s of no value anyway because their is no God.

  30. Dino— It is very good to know that such an interpretation is obvious in Greek. It’s hard to shake those sneaky evangelical American thoughts, even after 15 years Orthodox!

    Andrew– Thanks for your kind words.
    I think if the church threw out every rock I stumbled against, I’d quickly find that there would be no point in Christianity. For me, nihilism would be inevitable.
    I’ve always liked swimming underwater, though. 🙂

  31. Thank you Laura. Without Christ nothing makes sense; for me too nihilism would be the only option.
    I can’t swim🤣

  32. Nihilism is very attractive to the spiritually minded because it is crafted specifically by the evil one to draw people away from Christ. Nihilism presupposes an Incarnate Christ. If “something” real and transcendent did not exist then there would be no “nothing”.

    Nietzsche was nihilism’s strongest proponent because, as I have been told by more than one Orthodox priest, Nietzsche knew Christ and willfully turned away.

  33. Father,
    indeed, as you say: ‘learning how we go “beneath the letter” applies not only to how we read the Scriptures but to how we “read” the world and even ourselves.’
    This “noetic” view of the world (the illumined-by-the-Holy-Spirit-view) also shows us God’s inconceivable providence at work behind everything and is the one that can keep us positive in the face of adversities, and grateful in all.
    Thank you once again.

  34. Michael,
    that is something to think about, if I have understood you correctly; too consciously turn away from Christ, rather than convincing self that He doesn’t exist.

  35. Andrew, I spent my entire senior year in college reading Nietzsche plus commentaries and other ancillary material then writing a report on him as my final history project (I got an A). I drew him as a subject out of my professors hat.

    I have looked back at him briefly since becoming Orthodox. I can see what those priest told me is true. One cannot long for the death of someone who does not exist or rebel against a non-existent person. His Triumph of the Will was a statement about becoming more than God through the exercise of one’s personal will.

    His “Three Metamorphosis of the Spirit” is not unlike the monastic calling except it is a calling to oneself exclusively. It is a conscious and explicit reversal of the path of obedience to God through Jesus Christ.

    Nietzsche’s paradigm was never attractive to me even though it took 16 more years for me to get to the Orthodox Church because I had already met Jesus Christ by that point. I had to go through my own obedience training nonetheless. A never ending training BTW.

    I also never had to overcome the Protestant mind either. God gives us what we need, even when it appears as darkness and despair at times. That allows us to see a vision of what our lives would be like if we do not turn to Jesus and Him Crucified and enter into a Sacramental inter-relationship with him. Mercy is the product. Always. Through repentance His Grace bestows life on us.

    Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.

    As the Holy Scripture says and the Fathers teach if one allows that prayer to descend into one’s heart and reside there, the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.

  36. Michael,
    thank you for your clarification. Philosophy is not one of my strong points and I’m not sure at times if I properly understand some of the things that I read, I have taken many wrong turns due to misunderstanding coupled with self-wilfulness.

  37. Andrew, I suspect you do just fine with real philosophy, i. e., love of wisdom. A crucial problem with what passes for wisdom in modernity is often not the Truth. Yet, here you are asking good questions in search of the Truth. The Orthodox Church allows that search and even allows struggle otherwise I am not sure we would have a Cross to take up or any need for mercy–only sacrifice both literal and figurative. Yet Jesus said explicitly in Mt 12:7 “I will have mercy, not sacrifice.”

    A hard saying for many human beings and certain branches of Protestantism seem focused on sacrifice rather than mercy–looking in from the outside.

    Nietzsche was all about becoming becoming the high priest and continually making others a sacrifice just as his father before him.
    .

  38. Michael,
    thank you again. I appreciate your clarity and for engaging with my seeking of the truth of Orthodoxy. Mercy is hard to accept and to give. I know I need and want God’s mercy, but there is something in me that perversely has a resistance to it. Where does this originate? I would say pride?

    When you mention Nietzsche’s father are you referring to his biological father, or the devil?

  39. Andrew, the evil one. For me mercy is hard to accept because I have to repent first acknowledging that I am a sinner. It is humility of a sort but it is actually just acknowledging the reality. I do not know what true humility looks like because I have not done that yet. I expect that it will look like The Cross. The icon of Extreme Humility.

    https://images.app.goo.gl/WysSogQiiTQvFSmG6

    I do know the prayer also helps me resist temptations. Once I accept some I have a bushel or so to give.

  40. Michael,
    I was once told by a Roman Catholic priest that if I took prayer seriously and continued with it then I would begin to see myself as I really am and would not like what I saw.
    Thankfully God in His great mercy does not reveal all of who we are at once; I learned this from the glimpses I have had in this respect. Too much of reality all at once would be unbearable.
    Thank you for the link to the Icon of Extreme humility.

  41. Andrew,
    There is more to the story. If you continue yet further in prayer (past seeing yourself as you really are and not liking it) you will see yourself as you are meant to be and it will be joy unspeakable.

  42. Fr. Stephen,
    thank you for your kind words and encouragement. Your articles are a great help, as is the comment section and those that contribute to it.

  43. Fr. Stephen, thank you for your comment June 24, 2021 at 8:03 AM to Andrew Roberts. I am being given time and encouragement to meditate and pray about the person I truly am, and I confess to the same concerns Andrew Roberts mentions here. Truly we serve a good God who loves mankind and I look forward to the place where I can see myself as I am meant to be and filled with joy unspeakable.

  44. I like the idea that we are dead in sin and trespasses and God made us alive. that gives us reason to praise and give thanks. In EO there is really no Fall and redemption just a going from a good place to a better one. EO Chritus Victor is one motif among many. Flemming Rutledge’s book the Crucifixion does a good job with this.

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