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.

 

48 comments:

  1. Picture of trash pickers in Mokattam Mountain, Egypt is most appropriate. I have been there and to their church of St. Samaan.

  2. The history of the world as taught and understood is often the “great” and powerful. Even the Church succumbs at times. In parish life it often seems that the folks who have money and power are listened to and appreciated. And yet, that is not really the nature of the the Church in practice.
    I have to question my own heart first of all: whom do I desire to be? If I am honest with myself, I can only implore God in tears to forgive me and have mercy on me. I am an unprofitable servant.
    The point of hope is that, to the extent I do that His mercy abounds.

  3. Michael,
    A useful thought to consider is that even the rich and powerful hold within themselves the poor and weak, though usually well-shielded from view (which is likely problematic for their inner life). Thus, when we see them, and are tempted by their public personae, we should recall what is not seen and pray for them, and God’s mercy.

  4. This picture reminded me of back streets of Mumbai, India. Back in 2008 in my humble mind thought to touch these humans God created to make sure they are alive. Shocking to me that I lived in the west that this is their home and food supply leftovers not far in the trash is all what they need. This was humbling lesson stayed deep in my heart. God image so precious nobody recognised. Strangely, they are happy putting it mildly!!!

  5. Father, yes. But I must also realize that I am little different even though I do not have the outer trappings.

  6. Enjoyed this one again.
    Father, have you thought of collecting your blog posts, organizing them according to the categories you give above and publishing them in volume form? They would make a welcome addition to the libraries of many people, I think.

  7. Thank you for yet another encouraging and helpful post. Your writings inspire me.

    Regarding making a book or books of your posts, you may know that there are ways of extracting the text content of sequential or tagged posts and editing them into book or web form. I am no expert but have found a way to make a large text file of sequential or tagged blog posts quite quickly. I can then read this on my portable e-reader. If you need an example let me know by email. I believe there are special tools for blog owners to do this too, but I have never used them.

  8. I would love to see that happen as well, Father! I’ve thought of trying it myself but I don’t have the time (or energy) to get it done correctly….

  9. Byron,
    My wife has volunteer to take this on – and she’s very well-suited to it. It’s a matter of her schedule allowing her to move it to the front burner. It’s encouraging, nonetheless, to see the interest in such a project.

    Something I learned this weekend as a speaker at a young professionals conference (Antiochian), was that, generationally, podcasts are far more popular than blogs. I met lots of young people who listen to the podcasts (which are based on the blog) but do not read the blog. I’m completely opposite. I like to read and don’t like to listen.

    But, I’m way behind on podcast recordings. This told me to up my game and get serious about this ever-present opportunity. So, there’s that.

  10. I’m a long-time reader and only recently discovered your podcasts, but they’re extremely helpful and complementary to the blog. I discovered them while on a road trip but subsequently listened at home as well. I’m not surprised that they would fill a niche and be helpful for many people.

  11. Fr, Just my opinion (which combined with $6 will get you a fancy drink at Sbux), I sure hope you never sacrifice this great blog for podcasts. There are a million podcasts out there, a few of them are even worth listening to. But, I think I speak for virtually all of your readers when I say, this blog is one in a million.

  12. Alan,
    Thank you for your encouragement. There is no danger of my writing not taking the form of this blog. It’s sort of my bedrock platform. Mostly, I was thinking about putting a bit more energy into the podcast version of the blog (it takes about 30 min. to an hour) at least once a week. I used to do that, and I need to get that back on my weekly schedule of tasks.

    I am always energized when I’m able to go out and meet with people – do some speaking – and listen to questions and reactions, etc. I was in Austin, TX, this past weekend, from Thursday through Sunday morning – with “young professionals” which seemed to range from early 20’s to early 40’s. Just hanging out with them was a joy and I very much appreciated their thoughts.

    But, the blog will continue unabated.

  13. Fr. Stephen,
    listening to your podcast has given me a better reading experience of your blog. It adds a bit more hearing the voice behind the written words. Mostly I prefer reading, but books are not so readily available here. Reading on a phone is something I do out of necessity. Listening to a podcast is a welcome alternative at times.

  14. Father, I hope your wife will include some of the conversations in the comments! They are often very illuminating of the blog as well. However, that is an even more daunting task! I’ll be very happy to take whatever she provides.

    As for podcasts, I cannot focus on them, but that’s just me. I know many people who really enjoy them so go to it! May God bless!

  15. Father Stephen,
    I too would appreciate the collection of your blogs into a book. I much prefer reading than listening to a podcast. Those who can multi-task can listen and do other tasks at the same time. Reading for myself helps me to really concentrate on just that. Your writings and personal comments are so meaningful and helpful for my spiritual journey: always look forward to your new posts! Thank you.

  16. I do not believe I have ever listened to a pod cast ever. They name has always reminded me of the invasion of the body snatchers and the pod people But I have a strange imagination

  17. Fr. Stephen,
    Thank you for your podcasts. Because of vision difficulties I have listened to all of yours, especially when my eyes have had it. They were very meaningful to me while my wife was going through treatment for her lymphoma. So, I look forward to your new ones…also to new videos of your lectures on Utube.
    Michael, since you and I are old codgers,
    it may not be long before God “snatches” our old frames…a la Rosemary Clooney…”ain’t a gonna need this house much longer….!”

  18. Michael,
    Some of that is, I think, generational. Many of the younger people I meet, including the “younger” priest who is now my Rector, listen to podcasts quite frequently. I have been lazy and neglectful in recording them and have had a good nudge this past weekend (from God, I think) that says: record more.

  19. Dean, for sure. I can only pray for God’s mercy and Grace. My wife is recovering from major back surgery. She has to re-learn how to walk and all sorts of things. We each of us suffer assaults on our houses everyday, they wear out. Pain and loss ensues. And yet, it may be the only thing that has gotten me to begin to attend to God.
    I saw your name on on your post and I was joyfully anticipating what you would say. I was not disappointed.

  20. Michael,
    Yes, Praying for Merry as she goes through a long process, PT, and all the rest. Our daughter at 51 just had a hip replacement, so on some folks parts wear out even sooner! May our good God in Christ bless you both through the recovery.
    He is faithful.

  21. Old Codgers unite! : )
    My “house” required quite a few repairs this year as well.

    But my prayers are for your wife, Merry, Michael, and your wife, too, Dean. These hardships of age and infirmities we all shall endure with God’s grace.

    I have a lot to be grateful for. Nevertheless, when it gets depressing I remember St Silouan’s words not to despair. Then, I remember the great title of this blog and the people who write in it, check in, and then pray, thanking God for all things!

    Once again Father, I thank you for this ministry of this blog. But I’ve listened to your podcasts, too, in the past when I do manual work. It’s like having an “Orthodox conversation” while I’m working. Food for the heart and soul. Even if a virtual community is not ideal, it serves a very important service of love to nourish a heart who longs for such company.

  22. Dee,
    I know I’m not the only one who remembers your loved ones too! Your notes to me were so kind/thoughtful after my sister died. Again,
    thank you my long distance “sister.”

  23. Podcasts and the written word are both valuable.

    Books are hard for me now with the loss of my vision, but a large screen monitor makes blogs and websites readable. Good for me, because I much better understand things when I read them, then when I hear them.

    I find that if I’m listening to a podcast I will hear something and realize that my mind took a break, and I can’t remember how I got where I am. Then I have to try to rewind to the place where my mind nodded off. Not terribly easy on most podcast players, and especially so when listening while driving. I find at the end of things that I have only a very superficial understanding of the content, and my choice then is re-listen to the whole thing, or just go on to other things. All that said, when I am driving, an Ancient Faith Podcast is a much better choice than the local news on the radio.

    Reading – even if I don’t underline – I retain the structure of the text. Paragraphs, sentences, etc… I can go back and pull gems out that meant something to me from within the text. They’re easy to find too, because I can follow the structure and can zero in on where they are from within the context. That is very valuable to me. Incidentally, I do much better in the services when my eyes are following the text then when I’m trying to just listen, also.

    These are just my thoughts. Thake them for what they’re worth.

    Glory To God.

  24. The word ‘despised’ finally clicked. Handel used that theme in the Messiah form Isiah 53. Singing portions of it in High School Choir back in the mid-60’s was my first encounter with the glory, power and joy of the Lord. We sang excerpts at both a required school assembly and for the public. Probably not allowed these days. Just as the Scripture fortells.
    Isa 53:3 He was despised and rejected by man; a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; like one from whom men hide their faces, He was despised and we esteemed Him not. “

  25. Matthew, I think and read faster and better than I listen. Plus, to be frank, it is easier to create my own interpretation on the written word.

  26. Fr. Stephen,
    what comes to mind after reading your article is Jesus saying ‘unless you become like little children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.’ A little child has no power, no wealth, no great success or social standing, but is completely dependent on others. As we grow up we can tend to try and have control over as much as possible; the management mentally, which you have written about.
    Ah, to be able to let go and have child like trust in God; to be humble and rely on God for all things and thus receive rest and inner peace and healing. Why is there such resistance to this within me?

  27. Andrew, my resistance comes from not trusting other people and my self will. The faith to be as a little child is inextricably bound to The Cross it seems. Tough stuff for me.

  28. ‘For many, such meekness in Christ is treated as something of a disguise, or a temporary work for the purpose of salvation… But there is nothing to indicate that the definition of glory is somehow being altered for the sake of the Second Coming.’

    It sounds as if you are saying that it is God’s nature to be broken, weak, and emptied. How then do we make sense of Phil 2, which you take note of above. How can he empty and humble himself if he is already by nature that way?

    BTW, I like the thrust of this post in recognizing the repeating theme in Scripture in how God chooses to show his power through the weak, least, etc. That is something I’ve been thinking about recently as we re-read the OT. It is definitely a recurring theme there, and quite pointedly.

  29. Ambrose,
    It’s a very good question – I’ll venture an answer. Again, what I think we have is a tendency to reduce the Cross (and the self-emptying that accompanies it) to a single, historical moment, rather than as something that truly reveals God. I would say that the “self-emptying” of the Cross, is a self-emptying that is simply true of God eternally. The Father empties Himself into the Son, Who empties Himself into the Father, etc. This is the deep truth of personal existence made known to us in Christ.

    I hope that is of help. It has been useful to me as I’ve contemplated the “Lamb slain from the foundation,” and other such eternal references to Christ Crucified.

  30. It is challenging for us finite beings to comprehend the intersection of eternity and temporality in the nature of Christ. What you say helps I think–to consider it in that context. Still challenging to think that “in time” the cosmos and humanity were created, and Christ was incarnated “in time.” Yet somehow Christ’s joint natures are “in eternity.” Anyhow, the relational, mutual self-emptying (donation?) in the Divine nature itself is an interesting way to think of that particular Scripture. Thanks.

  31. Ambrose,
    Would time exist if not for eternity? Can the finite exist without the infinite to give it substance and meaning?

  32. Ambrose,
    It is indeed challenging. As mortal beings we might not have understanding (logic of the mind) of what is eternal before time. But (and with Father’s potential corrections as needed) we become “eternal” even in the “now” in our current physically mortal state. This is the “tabernacling” work of the Kingdom of God and the Holy Spirit come to us here and now. Also, creation itself, as far as I know, will not come to a complete end but will be transformed in the eschaton, in the age to come. For my understanding that means all of creation, through the Cross and Paschal work of Christ, is now undergoing the promised transition into an eternity. And I believe we, and all of creation, are all suffering in the early stages of the “birth pangs” of that transformation.

    So in sum, I suspect we already ourselves experience the eternal, and with noetic eyes we might see it.

    Father and Ambrose please forgive my interlocution and Father, please elaborate or correct as needed.

  33. What is time? It’s very mysterious. Is it linear, or cyclical, or both? To some in the world time is money; business and the coming of the railways in the UK standardised time. Everyone living to the clock; everything running like clockwork, as smooth and efficient as the wheels of industry. A time machine devouring all in its path for profit.
    Holy Scripture tells us that there is a time for everything. Also that in the fullness of time God sent His Son.

  34. Indeed Andrew, time itself is not so logical too!

    Michael and Father,
    For the longest time across the years of my life I did not read the “New Testament” (because I didn’t really believe any of it) but I did read the OT and particularly the Psalms. Of course I didn’t have an “Orthodox” (nor “orthodox”) understanding of the OT, but neither did I have a “western” view of it either.

    This verse that Michael quoted:

    Isa 53:3 He was despised and rejected by man; a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; like one from whom men hide their faces, He was despised and we esteemed Him not. “

    It seems to me this is one of the best verses that points to the life and Paschal work of our Lord, at least as it concerns my life. I read and re-read this verse so many times over the course of my life and cannot explain why. But I had the notion that it might describe “my guardian angel”, whom I had thought would have the resemblance of a battered “warrior-being” that had gone to hell and back again to drag me out of the quagmire I kept unintentionally entering. So strong was this vision that I even painted this vision of my “guardian angel” many years ago. And interestingly as well, (and for reasons that escape me) the painting seemed to inspire my husband. He believed this to be a true vision (of sorts to a non-believer) but that of the Native American. But to the western eye what I painted isn’t pleasant to look at. It is not a baby with wings!

    It is rather odd and humbling that I had such a perspective of it for such a long time without truly understanding the words. It’s as though the Lord was speaking into the ears and eyes of my heart, without my realizing it.

    Ephesians 5:14 : Wherefore He saith, Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light.

  35. Andrew, I think William Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury” is an excellent primer on the nature of time and man. He covers the first one you mention and two others as well including the last one you mention.

    Ambrose, and that is the heart of the mystery.

    Dee, beautiful.

  36. Dee,
    time is indeed illogical. The older I get there is the increasing awareness of more time that has passed and is behind me than there is ahead of me in this life.
    Your Guardian Angel vision is interesting. The Western mind is too conditioned not to see what is before us; it’s conditioned to quantify, measure and put everything neatly in a box.

  37. Michael,
    I have read Faulkner’s ‘the Sound and Fury.’ I did find it convoluted and difficult to keep a track of the time scale jumping about. I’ll dig it out and have another read of it. My wife reminds me at times, that when you read something, it is reading you. So the problem I had reading Faulkner may have more to do with me, than his writing,

  38. Andrew, that is especially the first part from Benji’s perspective who is totally chaotic, Jason who is obsessed by time in quite modern way. I had forgotten about the fourth narrative, Quentin who is in prosaic time and the black house keeper, Dilsey for whom everything just seems to fall into place–spiritual time. Even though O read the book in 1969, I still remember the strikingly different ways of experiencing time. It made me long for God because of the freedom only He offers. What I have been missing is The Cross and how that alone allows that kind of freedom.

    Of course the Shakespearean title from Macbeth’s last soliloquy does not hurt either. A soliloquy which has yielded more book titles than any other I think. That link helped me understand the book and its construction much better.

    Whether Faulkner meant any of that is anyone’s guess but that is what I saw.

  39. Thank you Michael. You certainly have a good memory. It will be interesting now to read ‘the Sound and the Fury’ again with a different perspective. When I read it I concentrated more on the interpersonal relationships and the perspectives of the characters and the effects they had on each other. I missed some connections and perspectives because of the story jumping about a bit.
    I have not read any Shakespeare, since the Merchant of Venice in English lessons when I was about 14. I’ll have a look on the internet to see if I can find that soliloquy from Macbeth.

  40. Andrew, just search for “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow..”
    It always pops up for me
    … Creeps in this petty pace from day to day to the last syllable of recorded time. And all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death. Out, out brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing.”

    Macbeth is in suicidal despondency since his coup to take the Scottish throne has failed and his wife has already committed suicide and Macbeth has just been informed of that right before the speech.

    Memory is usually not that good but this book left a deep imprint on my heart and I have always been a favorite. But, I will shut up now. “Give me your hands if we be friends and gentle Puck will make amends.”
    .

  41. In line with the topic the Church (new calendar) commemorates this day the greatest born of woman: John the Baptist. My priest this morning emphasized John’s purity. He called out the King and his wife for their impurity. John paid the price. What is more despised and mocked these days than purity.
    Lord, forgive us and cleanse us from evert stain of body, mind and soul.

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