Christmas and Easter are often difficult days for those who do not believe in God. Christians are more public about their faith than at other times of the year and this brings with it an annoyance. Christmas bespeaks the birth of God as a human being. Easter bespeaks a resurrection from the dead. For those who do not believe, such miracles, spoken of so glowingly and with such assurance by Christians, only increases the rub of the whole thing. Thoughts of “how can people be so gullible?” or any number of failings of Christians easily come to mind. The more the celebration, the more prominently the fact of unbelief grows in the inner thoughts.
I do not think of unbelief as a result of reason or philosophical principle. I have spent too many years observing my own heart and listening to the thoughts of others to accept such a simplistic notion of how we behave as human beings. One person professes faith on the ground of “reasonable” arguments, while another, on similar grounds, professes unbelief. The fault is not in the reasoning. Reasoning is, in fact, something we largely do “after the fact.” Indeed, this psychological reality has itself been the subject of study and has been shown to be largely true. Reason is one of the sounds we make after the fact of the heart. It is a symptom of something else and we do one another a deep injustice when we reduce faith and unbelief to something they are not.
I believe that the death and resurrection of Christ are utterly universal in their reality. They are not isolated events, significant only within the Christian belief system. I believe they are the singular moments within space and time (and outside space and time) that reveal the truth of all things, of all people, and of the heart and nature of the God who created all things and sustains them. I believe this is true whether I or anyone else believes it. The death and resurrection of Christ are the most fundamental and foundational facts of reality.
I believe that Christians make a serious mistake when we begin to speak first about God rather than first about Christ and His death on the Cross and resurrection from the dead. It is a mistake because it presumes we know something about God that is somehow “prior” to those events. We do not, or, if we think we do, we are mistaken. The death and resurrection of Christ are the alpha and the omega of God’s self-revelation to the world. Nothing in all of creation is extraneous or irrelevant to those events.
This is to say that unbelief and faith are equally a part of the death and resurrection of Christ. The death and resurrection of Christ contain the utter and complete emptiness of hell, the threat of non-being and meaninglessness, the absurdity of suffering and of injured innocence. They also contain the fullness of paradise, the complete joy of existence and the ecstasy of transcendent love. Everything is there.
When we stand before the Cross of Christ, or kneel before it and honor it, we honor as well everything that is contained within it. We honor the unbelief of atheists, the anger and bitterness of the wounded, the shame of those who dare not look at themselves. For Christ has not distanced Himself from such things. The Cross is God’s single point of ingathering, where “all things are gathered together into one in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 1:10). Unbelief is a wound of the human heart, a disease of perception, a noetic blindness. The Cross is not a stranger to cruelty or every form of mockery and perverted delight. All such things were and are present in that single moment.
As we live in this life, we are constantly tempted towards the divisions that threaten us. We see the world as “them and us.” These believe; these don’t. These care; these don’t. These behave; these don’t, and so on. The divisions are frequently quite insignificant. These divisions are primarily the symptoms of our failure to love. The people surrounding Christ were consistently scandalized by His persistent comfort and ease with those identified as “sinners.” No doubt, many of them were “unbelievers.” Somehow, Christ embraced all and announced this as central to His life and purpose.
The appearance of the Cross is also the first appearance among us of the Judgement Seat of Christ. As such, those around it indeed begin to separate themselves. Of the two thieves, one clings to Christ and the other reviles Him. But Christ offers no condemnation from the Tree. The Centurion, responsible for His crucifixion and the lance thrusting into His side, later becomes a saint (Longinus). Our task, however, is not to assume the position of Christ. The judgment that occurs as those around Him react, is also the revelation of their own wounds and brokenness of soul.
And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God. (Jn. 3:19-21)
It is for us to stand in the light, where our own deeds, of whatever character, can be revealed. I think that if we actually do “what is true,” it will not be in our heart to condemn, but to weep and to long for the healing of all.
Unbelief is a soul-wound whose location likely lies much deeper than the fiction of choice. It is often hidden deep within the hell that has formed in the pit of a soul’s shame. That wound will require Christ-in-Hades probing and questing, and perhaps fierce battles that are hidden from our knowledge. When the Church proclaims, “Christ is risen, trampling down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowing life,” it is deeply important to remember that we have the souls of those so wounded in mind.
It is ours to celebrate, to sing and to dance, even if some, for now, refuse to join together with us. The true Christ revealed by the Cross, is a saving God, a seeking God, a knocking God, a trampling God, a healing God, a raising-from-the-dead God who refuses to be ignored.
This is the good God who loves mankind.
“Reason is one of the sounds we make after the fact of the heart.”
That’s a keeper Father. Thank you.
Thanks for this, Father. I need the healing and comfort it brings.
This is the good God who loves mankind.
Indeed. Glory to Him.
John 12:32 comes to mind: “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me. “
Christmas and Easter have always had a touch of difficulty for me as well, but because of the many unbelievers in my life, and the sadness I feel that they cannot join me in celebration. I am grateful for your words. They give me hope and joy.
Thank you, this is very moving.
Beautiful and humbling. Thank you.
“Unbelief is a soul-wound whose location likely lies much deeper than the fiction of choice. It is often hidden deep within the hell that has formed in the pit of a soul’s shame.”
Thank you, Father, and Glory to God! for your skill with words. My soul burned with recognition and understanding at these lines – another one of those occasions when just a couple of lines crystallized a whole tangle of disparate and unproductive thoughts I’d been floundering in…
A wonderful reminder!
Ooof, this is beautiful.
Bless you father for your faith and your sharing of it through your writing. I am sorry if this comes across as flattery, that is not my intent, but reading your blog is very similar (for me) to reading the writings of St. Sophrony. Few things from today seem to have that substance.
Anyways, I realized that to be the case the other day and I simply wanted to say thank you. Christ is Risen! Happy Easter!
I like the writings of St. Sophrony myself. If there’s any echo there, then it must be his prayers.
Father, Thank you for this piece of wisdom. Your writings never cease to move me. I am a struggling Roman Catholic whose constant prayer as of late has been “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.” Wishing you Easter Joy!
Thank you. Belief and unbelief are far more interesting and complicated than we think. I’ve been contemplating writing a much fuller article on the topic. For one, the cry, “I believe, help my unbelief!” is deeply descriptive for many of us (most?) at many times. We struggle with lack of information, or conflicting bits of information, or wondering whether our belief is an information-based problem, or really a problem of the heart, etc.
At its deepest level, I’m convinced that unbelief is symptomatic of a soul-wound (heart-wound) that is not easily recognized and too often mishandled (including by our ownselves).
A parallel example (not a perfect one) can be seen in a marriage. If a person has been married for a long time, it’s possible to look back and see many winds blow through the heart, hot and cold. We burn with love, we sometimes go cold, etc. I suspect that love of a spouse is closer to what we mean by “believe” when we think of God. Christ’s words to St. Peter, as He healed Peter’s heart on the shore of Galillee after the resurrection was, “Do you love Me?” He didn’t say, “Do you understand?” or anything involving the intellect. It was the heart that was the problem.
Of course, St. Peter is looking at the risen Lord Himself, so, we would think, “Unbelief wouldn’t be a problem.” But, in truth, that kind of “objective” (so-called) experience is not really the issue – not when it comes to a lifetime. “Do you love me?” is the point.
Love “believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things,” etc.
Great point, Father. The deepest roots of the English word ‘believe’ are words that mean to love, care for and desire often in quite physical ways. Only quite recently has “belief” become an act exclusively of the human mind and will without substance.
Marriage, the Incarnation, all Sacrament each express both the seen and unseen nature of belief.
Belief always involves struggle but I have found, over the years, that the struggle becomes less about doubt but more and more about how to love more.
Christ is Risen!
I have read that the word for “believe” in that passage actually has the meaning of (being) “faithful” so the man’s cry is more “Lord, I am faithful; help my unfaithfulness!”. This would, at least to me, support the view of “love of…” as well. It becomes an act of the heart, played out faithfully in our lives. Just my thoughts….
“Faithfulness,” can indeed be a way of thinking about “believing,” particularly inasmuch as the word, “pistis,” can also be translated as “trust.” It is our modern world of science/fact (and the fictions that surround all of that) that tends to reduce “believe” into a mere intellection. One problem with modernity in its many guises is that it has an extremely inadequate account of what it means to be human.
Father. “One problem with modernity in its many guises is that it has an extremely inadequate account of what it means to be human”
Books and books have and will continue to be written on that topic.
I consciously struggled with finding an account that is true and complete (not merely adequate) of what it means to be human in my decades long approach to the Orthodox Church.
The assault on humanity is all over the place even when I was growing up. Once I found the Orthodox Church my struggle became (and still is) how to embody that.
St Isaac’s prayer is a good guide, I think.
“I believe that Christians make a serious mistake when we begin to speak first about God rather than first about Christ and His death on the Cross and resurrection from the dead.” I have seen theology start with a concept associated with Divinity, e.g. impassibility, and then proceed to Christ’s sufferings. Seems healthier to start with Christ.