The Sacrifice of Worship

When God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac (Genesis 22), there was no questioning on Abraham’s part about what was intended. He understood precisely what was involved in such a thing. There was wood to be gathered, an altar of stones to be constructed, the victim to be bound, and then the slitting of its throat with the gushing forth of blood, all consummated in the burning fires of the now-completed offering. What Abraham did was repeated in a variety of forms throughout the ancient world. Homer writes about Poseidon being absent from the Hellenic scene in order to attend a massive sacrifice in Libya. Sacrifice itself was part of the universal language of ancient religion. What differed was what/whom was being sacrificed and to Whom/What the sacrifice was being made. This was worship.

Today, “sacrifice” has passed into more generalized cultural metaphors that have nothing to do with worship. “Worship” itself has become a vague concept, generally associated with prayer/praise and hymn-singing. As such it has become increasingly difficult to distinguish what many contemporary Christians describe as “worship” from the treatment of various Rock, Sport and Entertainment stars (or patriotism and ideological fetishes).

At a large gathering of some tens of thousands, hands are lifted in the air, people are singing, the music swells. If I stop the description at that point it is possible to assume that this is a moment of praise/worship. If, however, I note that the venue is a concert, then it’s mere adulation of a celebrity. But the grammar of the action is utterly the same.

Fast forward to the setting of an Orthodox Church. Here there are numerous icons of holy men and women (saints) adorning the Church. Candles and lamps burn before them. A non-Orthodox contemporary Christian, visiting for the first time, becomes distinctly uncomfortable and thinks to himself, “They are worshipping saints!” Somehow, the psychological confusion that is contemporary culture can distinguish between the worship of God and the adoration of celebrities but accuses traditional Christianity of violating the second and third commandments.

What we have is a clash of grammars.

I suggest a working definition for contemporary worship: any number of activities, including singing, dancing, waving hands, shouting, weeping, when in a religious setting. The same actions in a non-religious setting are not worship.

In the grammar of Orthodoxy, and in the grammar of Scripture, worship has a different definition. Worship may be defined as the offering of a sacrifice to a Deity.

The trouble comes when one grammar seeks to understand the other. That which the Orthodox render to saints and holy objects (relics, the Cross, icons, etc.) is understood to be honor or veneration. No sacrifices are ever offered to saints as though they were gods. This distinction is difficult for contemporary Christians because the notion of sacrifice, in its original meaning, has been lost.   It is certainly the case that honor and veneration are given to God, but they do not, of themselves, constitute worship.

The contemporary roadmap of religion consists almost exclusively of various psychological states. The honor given to a Rock Star is understood to differ from that given to God based on the intention within the person who is giving the honor. To an outside observer, the actions might appear indistinguishable. But, “God knows the heart.” And so, “God can tell the difference between the two.”

My son was around eleven or twelve when he first encountered a patriotic event within a Church. He had grown up in the Church (Episcopal) and had become Orthodox a year or so earlier. However, we were on summer vacation with family who were faithful Baptists. That Sunday was also July 4th. The Church service consisted of patriotic songs and a sermon on Christian America. My son was deeply upset. On the way home, he expressed his distress and kept insisting, “That’s idolatry!” In hindsight, I think he was right and I think the seamless ease with which that particular group of Christians could move from religious event to patriotic is more than a little problematic.

Sacrifice has largely disappeared from the experience of contemporary Christianity. The Protestant Reformation mounted something of a frontal assault on medieval Catholicism’s treatment of the Eucharist as a sacrificial offering. Catholics were accused of “re-sacrificing” Christ, despite the clear statement of Scripture that His sacrifice was once-and-for-all (Heb. 7:27). Catholics defended their practice by explaining that the Mass was not a re-sacrificing, but the re-presentation of that once-and-for-all sacrifice. Their arguments fell on deaf ears.

It is all well and good to say that Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross was once-and-for-all, and to file it away as such. However, such historicizing of the Cross places ever more distance between the believer and the event. “Do this in remembrance of me,” (as mere memorial) has come to be a means of forgetting.

The Scripture reminds us that the “Lamb” was “slain from the foundation of the world.” That, is, the death of Christ occurs within history, but has an eternal reality that transcends history. The Catholic contention that the Eucharist is a re-presentation of that sacrifice in the present was, in fact, correct and a restating of the received teaching of the Church. The Orthodox to this day continue to emphasize this understanding. The Eucharist is described as the “bloodless sacrifice,” meaning that there is no “re-shedding” of the blood of Christ.

The mystery of our salvation, as well as the mystery that we describe as worship is found within the sacrifice of Christ. Abraham, and all of ancient Israel, would have understood worship to largely be identical with sacrifice. The Psalms of praise were written for use within the context of the Temple and its sacrifices. Praise could be described as “sacrifice” only by analogy.

Let my prayer be set forth in Your sight as incense,
The lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.

Christians of the first millennium-and-a-half understood that the “bloodless sacrifice” of the Eucharistic offering was the central act of worship. Their hymns and psalms happened as part of that context. We no longer offer the sacrifice of bulls and goats. But we continue to offer the bloodless sacrifice of Christ’s death. It is the single, perfect offering of all humanity, made through the Person of God’s Son. Because he is also God, that sacrifice is eternal, always present and able to be offered and shared by His people.

Look at this piece of Scripture. St. Paul is explaining our true worship to the Corinthians:

The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion [koinonia] of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion [koinonia] of the body of Christ? For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread. Observe Israel after the flesh: Are not those who eat of the sacrifices communicants [koinonoi] of the altar? (1 Cor. 10:16-18)

St. Paul’s entire understanding of the Eucharist is rooted in its sacrificial character. As St. Paul notes, the purpose of sacrifice is communion – a true participation in the life of the One who is worshipped. The Eucharist is the Christian sacrifice, once and for all. This is also at the heart of Christ’s teaching that whoever eats His flesh and drinks His blood has communion with Him (Jn. 6).

By a strange twist of history, the praise that took its meaning from the sacrifice itself, by analogy, has come to displace the sacrifice and made praise itself the essential element of worship. This confusion not only creates false accusations against those who offer praise and honor to the saints of the Church as well as all holy things, but also makes all praise and honor, including that accorded to celebrities more than a little problematic.

We do not give thought to the acts of communion in our lives (certainly we fail to see them in their aspects of sacrificial worship). I read a passage recently in a book that suggested that money is the “ontology” of the modern world – that is – it defines for us what is real, what matters. St. Paul described acts of fornication as as acts of communion (1 Cor. 6:16). It can thus be seen as an act of idolatry. All the many places that we imagine ourselves to find our life – our sustenance and our meaning – are subject to becoming places of false communion – false worship.

Christ bids us to come to Him. He bids us to eat His flesh and drink His blood and to have no other gods but Him.

75 comments:

  1. Father Stephen,

    Are worship and sacrifice synonymous? Or is sacrifice a means by which man worships? More importantly, communion seems to the be the underlying purpose of both. The purpose of creation is communion. The essential context of communion does not then appear to be the sacrifice itself, but rather the one who offers and the one who receives. It’s not the sacrifice that’s desired, but rather the communion of the giver and receiver. This begs the question: is the intermediary sacrifice even required? What does God require, but our own complete self-offering? Isn’t this self-sacrifice of our very being worship and communion?

    There is indeed a contemporary confusion about worship, yet the inherent desire for communion is the same. Man was created for communion. We’re just looking in all the wrong places to satisfy our innate desire. Ultimately, man has nothing to give which can satisfy. Only God can give that which truly satisfies. The key is realizing that the purpose of our life is communion with Him, and no intermediary sacrifice or false worship can make us whole. What’s needed is our own self-sacrifice. In offering ourself, we receive Him and fulfill the purpose for which we were created.

  2. Is the act of repentance–the offering of one’s heart at the core of worship? Turing one’s back on idols? Or is it just the cleansing preparatory to worship?

  3. Aaron,
    “Are worship and sacrifice synonymous?”

    It’s a good question. First, I think that we over-psychologize things – inasmuch as we tend to reduce “communion” to a psychological act – sort of like “intentionally thinking about” someone. With that in mind, I would tend towards saying that worship and sacrifice are largely synonymous.

    I will use the example of marital relations. Sadly, we have separated sex and love in which one is an act of pleasure and the other is a feeling. We then treat marriage as little more than legal permission to have sex. It’s obviously so much more.

    If you read through the prayers of an Orthodox marriage service – procreation is very much at the heart of it. The two enter into a communion that is the whole of their new existence – with the blessing of children as a possible result. Communion is, indeed, the inherent desire of us all, but marriage is a good example of what that looks like. But communion is the whole thing – including the sacramental act of physical union.

    In worship, communion (union with God) is the inherent desire. But, again, it is the whole thing. Just thinking about God is not communion. We are psycho-physical beings. The classical statement in the desert fathers is that the “soul follows the body.” If you want your soul to be humble, then humble the body. By the same token, I do not think we should imagine communion/worship without the sacrifice. If we were speaking of union without a sacrifice, the question would be, “But what’s the body doing?”

    St. Paul speaks of presenting our bodies as a living sacrifice – our “logikon worship.” It’s quite interesting that that verse (Romans 12:1) uses a word for worship together with both the word “logikos” (usually associated with the mind) and the word “body.”

    We have something of an analytic habit that wants to tease things apart and label them. It makes for good science, sometimes. But communion, because it is communion, is not about taking things apart – but about uniting them.

    In the Holy Eucharist (the whole Liturgy of which eating and drinking are but two actions within it) there is a bringing of things together – even, it would seem, a bringing of all things together. It is fittingly described as the “marriage feast” of the Lamb. It is the sacrifice appointed by God – who is the “Offerer and the Offered, the Receiver and the Received.”

    It is God alone who initiates this communion. He becomes what we are that we might become what He is. He gives us His flesh and blood, that He might “dwell in us and we in Him.” But we do not think ourselves into Him (else the coming of Christ would have been unnecessary). Christ tells us, “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no Life in you.”

    In Catholic teaching, there is the notion of a “spiritual communion” (one that takes place by intention). I only know of this through Anglican sources. I’ve never read an Orthodox version of that. I think there are lesser forms of communion (and thus of worship) that are themselves rightly seen as extensions of the Eucharist. The act of giving thanks to God is, in that sense, always an extension of the Eucharist. But it is incorrect to see them as separate from that One, true, sacrifice and as acts in themselves. Our drive to separate, to codify, to label, etc. if applied in this become “anti-communion.” Instead of bringing things together, it takes them apart.

    The unintentional evolution of Protestant practice (which has tended to move increasingly away from the sacraments in many quarters) render the 6th chapter of St. John’s gospel as too easily forgotten. I note, on the other hand, an growing return to liturgy and sacrament in many Protestant quarters.

    The Eucharist – the sacrifice of Christ – is essential in all things of our Christian life. It would seem, then, that making the sacrifice itself less than central is a loss never to be desired.

    The critique of our secularity would be to examine where our false-eucharistic acts are found. They abound.

  4. Michael,
    It is an essential part – but the part is not the whole. Christ’s sacrifice is the whole – the stability – the Reality that guarantees and secures everything we do. When I have failed to repent, to make good preparation, He is still there, the sacrifice intact and complete. And so, in such circumstances, I can still throw myself on His mercy and asked to be received (though I have no wedding garment).

  5. The weakness of communion as “fellowship”, which has been discussed before, almost creates a “slippery slope” that belittles sacrifice to the point of non-existence….

    I recall a monk saying that all lay people in the Church should take part in the Eucharist all the time–God’s grace is enough to receive us (even though, as Father said, we have no wedding garment).

    Once again, I see the fullness of Orthodoxy as something that separates it from the world. I find that very beautiful!

  6. Father, a question about the meaning of sacrifice.
    Since God does not change, is the act of sacrifice for our sake alone? It would seem God is not not literally – anthropomorphically – “pleased” with our worship, or “displeased” with our lack of worship. If this follows, what then does sacrifice do? Is it somehow for the sake of our inner change? Death to ego, perhaps?
    Thank you.

  7. Father, your words :”The critique of our secularity would be to examine where our false-eucharistic acts are found–they abound”

    I keep reading that sentence and begin to consider where mine are.

  8. Owen,
    Whatever we might mean by “God does not change,” (impassibility), we certainly cannot mean that He does not interact with His creation. There’s way in which impassibility can be so interpreted that God is aloof, inert, irrelevant (ultimately). The Incarnation argues otherwise, and has to be taken as a much better starting point than the abstraction of impassibility. The action of creation, particularly as understood by the Orthodox, is not the creation of a self-sustaining, self-existing “thing outside God.” God is everywhere present filling all things. It is obvious in Christ’s incarnation, that God has “skin in the game,” and, as expressed in the doctrine of the communicatio idiomatum (that what is true of one nature in Christ may be predicated of the other nature – such that we can say “God suffered.”) Not only can we posit this of the incarnation, but we must acknowledge, as well, that in statements like the “Lamb was slain from the foundation of the world” – the Incarnation was always relevant to who God is.

    Thus communicatio idiomatum trumps impassibility – when it comes to the grammar of theology (or so it seems to me).

    That said – I think it skews things improperly to insert the question of divine impassibility into the conversation about sacrifice. We could say, though, that, since the Lamb was slain (somehow) before the foundation of the world, what we see in the sacrifice of Christ (on the Cross and in the Liturgy) is not so much a “change” in God as a revelation of who God is. There is no God who is not the sacrificed God – just as there is no God who is not love. The sacrifice is what “God is love” looks like. Thus, if we want to have union with God, then we will offer the bloodless sacrifice. We will eat His flesh and drink His blood. It “changes us” but also in the sense that it reveals us to be who we truly are. When we eat His flesh and drink His blood, when we unite ourselves to Him in His sacrifice, we are becoming like Him, which always was and is the truth of our existence.

  9. Father Stephen,
    Thank you for your reply.

    Perhaps I’m not making my point clearly. It’s not that sacrifice has no place in worship to bring about communion. I simply don’t see how sacrifice and worship/communion are synonymous. And communion is certainly not simply “fellowship” that “belittles sacrifice to the point of non-existence,” as Byron mentions. However, if sacrifice is synonymous with communion, then we can easily “reduce ‘communion’ to a psychological act” and quickly find ourself wondering why sacrifice is required. What is required is a proper understanding of sacrifice in bringing about communion.

    People desire not sacrifice, but communion. Even more so, God desires not sacrifice, but communion. The Scriptures (Old and New) emphatically make this point repeatedly. The OT sacrificial system is also not restricted to sin offerings, but includes burnt, grain, drink, and peace offerings, as well. Too often our focus is on sacrifice, as essential to and synonymous with worship, when the focus needs to be squarely centered on communion (union with God). We are indeed “psycho-physical beings” and relationships certainly include physical aspects, such as the physical union in marriage, but these are a means of bringing about the real communion which we desire. And physical acts, especially in marriage change over time, but when used properly during the season in which they were offered can produce a marriage which bears the fruit of real communion. To make the physical aspect an end in and of itself (i.e., to make sacrifice and communion synonymous) is to corrupt it’s God-given purpose, as so tragically happens with sex.

    Sacrifice properly understood, clearly distinguishes itself from communion. The point is not to “over-psychologize things” or “reduce ‘communion’ to a psychological act.” God created man for communion. It’s the purpose of our life. Sacrifices are physical means of raising and transforming our consciousness into a higher state of being. It’s a means of bringing about our healing and making us whole (holy). It’s not about doing (sacrifice). It’s about being (communion).

    Consider this example. Say I bring a bottle of wine over to a friend’s house. I could make this offering for many different reasons, not limited to, but including 1) a simple act of love, 2) thanksgiving for our friendship, 3) for having hurt my friend by intentionally by sinning against him, or 4) for having unintentionally hurt our friendship in some way. The wine is then shared and aids in bringing about the communion we both desire. The wine is by no means the same as our deep communion with one another. Neither does my friend require the wine in order to have an unconditional relationship of love.

    God doesn’t need sacrifices. Sacrifices are given as a means to guide and direct people into repentance (i.e., a transformation which turns back and refocuses) and bring about communion with God. Sacrifice isn’t transactional.It’s transformational. Sacrifice is not synonymous with communion. It’s about offering up and entering into what’s more beyond the physical. What God desires is for us to offer up and set aside our egotistical, self-centered, pleasure-seeking desires in order to enter into a relationship of unconditional love with Him. There’s a sacrifice involved, but it’s simply a means to an end – an end which is not really an “end” but an entrance into an eternal relationship with HE WHO IS – THE ONE TRUE GOD.

  10. Sacrifice and offering both have the associated meaning “to make or declare someone/thing sacred/holy”
    The Lamb slain before the foundation of the world says to me that all of created reality is fundamentally sacred. Already in communion.

    God’s proclamation in Genesis 1: All is good confirms that.

    Clearly though, in the Old Testament and in services of the Church, the notion of a worthy sacrifice is clear.

    In Orthodox practice and belief what is a worthy sacrifice on my part or does Jesus cover that as well?

  11. Aaron,
    I do not see why you want to make the distinction between sacrifice and communion. You cite that God “desires not sacrifice” – but that’s a misuse of the term. It could be just as well said, “God desires not an improper sacrifice – He desires a sacrifice that is true communion.”

    The eternal relationship with God as made known to us in Christ – is never a relationship that exists apart from Christ Crucified. You cannot go around the Cross to get to God. Again, I would not separate sacrifice and communion.

  12. Michael,
    I think that it is our uniting whatever we do with the “one” sacrifice of Christ that renders anything and everything “worthy.” He (the Lamb) is worthy. Our “worth” is found in Him (our life is hid with Christ in God).

  13. Thanks for thoughtful reply, Father. My understanding of the “communication of idioms” is that the union of the natures allows us a new language of paradoxical proclamation — e.g. God wept, God suffered, God died — even though the latter of these is explicitly denied in scripture. I do not think the doctrine gives us license to redefine divine ontology, as if we could say, based on the Incarnation, that the eternal Word of God literally died on the cross *as God.* Rather, these statements include the implicit proviso, God died on the cross *as a man.* This is my understanding of Cyril of Alexandria, anyway: “the Impassible suffers” — not as God per se, but in the flesh as a human being. Perhaps instead of saying the “communication of idioms” trumps impassibility, we might say it incorporates human suffering and death into the church’s paradoxical proclamation of the dying One’s dual natures.

    Your second paragraph rocked me (I am passible! :). This must be right: the sacrifice of Christ reveals God rather than somehow changing God. Maybe this is what I was suggesting in the first place: concerning God, Christ in his death “reveals”; concerning humanity, Christ in his death “accomplishes.” Nothing is accomplished on the side of the uncreated, as if God was somehow dynamically moved or emotionally appeased by sacrificial death, his own or anyone else’s. However, what does Christ’s death “accomplish” concerning humanity? Perhaps it accomplishes our death, the mortification of ego: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I [ego] who live, but Christ lives in me.” When the body of death (Rom 7:24) is put away in co-crucifixion with Christ, our essential nature shines through. And the deepest truth of our being is the risen Christ, the Living Sacrifice.

    Thank you kindly for the dialogue, Father.


  14. In the Holy Eucharist (the whole Liturgy of which eating and drinking are but two actions within it)

    A great repost/treatment of a classic article, this was one of the more interesting tidbits and conclusions. Certainly it is not just worship or the Bible (eg, Sola Scriptura) which have have come be disembodied and decontextualized, but things like ecclesial relationships (which can become little more than a tribal badge—ins vs outs) and even the Gifts themselves (as a magical talisman apart from—even *against*—Jesus Christ). The latter problem is perhaps the opposite extreme of what the “liturgical renewal” is supposed to be fixing, such as infrequent communion, lax participation, etc. And this objectification of Eucharist is easily contradicted by St Paul’s words in Romans: 14.17 (…”the Kingdom Of God is not eating and drinking…”), among many others. But I’d be interested if you could unpack that thought some more here: though the Liturgy has (in one sense) no ultimate boundaries, what are the little boundaries put in place, how do they help us, and how can we “expand into” them in the situations where we’ve created much smaller, constricting, and inappropriate boundaries that limit our participation in the life of Christ?

  15. Owen,
    Point well taken in your first paragraph viz. new language.

    Somehow, I want to say more about what the sacrifice of Christ accomplishes in us. The “death of the ego,” can, again, be too easily reduced to a psychological phenomenon (and perhaps that’s not your intention). After all, “ego” is nothing more than a psychological term. What happens, it would seem to me, must be stated in ontological terms. Baptized into Christ, I am truly baptized into His death, and I die. Not just my “ego,” but something more profoundly ontological. That death is not just my “ending.” The death we die (in Christ) is not our own death, but Christ’s death. The death we die is a death which “tramples down death.” Thus the death we die, in Christ, is also our resurrection in Christ. And this resurrection (the trampling-down-death) is so powerful it also results, ultimately, in the resurrection of the body as well and our eternal life.

    Pardon my clumsy way of speaking.

  16. JBT,
    There are obvious “little boundaries” regarding the Eucharist. If the Eucharist were “everything” with nothing that could be described as a boundary, then it would, in effect, be nothing at all.

    The Eucharist (which I’ll refer to as the “Cup”) has an ecclesial boundary. There are requirements for coming to the Cup. They could be seen as “disciplinary” in some sense (repentance, for example) or, larger than that, the need to enter into and abide in the unity of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Orthodox Church. I suppose it’s much like salvation itself. In terms of human nature, for example, Christ has already saved it. There is but one human nature, and in Christ, its salvation is accomplished. But human nature is never a “free-floating” thing. It is only manifest in an individual hypostasis – in a person. It is for the person (and our healing) that the boundaries exist. So, just as God spoke to Moses and said, “remove your shoes” because the ground was holy, so He says to us, “be united to the Church, etc.” that we can recognize our errors and come to the Cup. The Eucharist might be everywhere – but the Cup must be somewhere. I might be human – but I can only know that as Stephen.

    I have no theology that can speak to the sacraments in schism. There is not a language or grammar for that, and the Church treats them in various ways (such as receiving someone by Chrismation rather than Baptism). But such actions are always an economia, never a statement about the nature of the sacraments elsewhere. And I think that our failure to understand that is among the things that creates problems around such questions.

    In our life within the Church – we are given knowledge of certain things but not all things. I’m not sure I want to say more than that.

  17. Those are super helpful points, Fr., thank you.

    On the term “ego,” I am attempting to say something more from the NT world and less from the world of modern psychology. And it’s less about the precise term and more about the concept: the false self, the egoic self. Jesus says, “deny yourself.” As he links this command with “take up your cross,” I assume self-denial refers to a kind of death to self in imitation of Christ’s cross.

    It’s an observation others have made also but: doesn’t there seem to be a duality within our selfhood, a distance in which I can (sometimes) observe my own thinking? The “I” is one thing, and my “thinking” is another. It’s that thinking part (which includes emotions), I think, Paul is referring to in that beloved passage from Galatians: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I [ego] who live…” I assume Paul is speaking ontologically here about his co-crucifixion with Christ — which just is the death of his ego, his “I,” that thinking part of us which constructs a false, sinful self we misidentify as our true self. In other words, the false self must die so that Christ can shine is us.

    None of this is meant to signal any disagreement with your last comment, Fr. I thank you again for your insightful feedback.

  18. Owen,
    Yes, I use various terms surrounding the self as well. I guess I’m just on guard viz. psychologized terms for some reason. Might have been the wrong side of the bed!

  19. Father Stephen,
    Your comments to Owen and JBT have confused the issue even more for me. I still see sacrifice as a means to bringing about communion and making our salvation an ontological reality, not merely a psychological fantasy. The sacrifice itself is not the ontological reality for an individual hypostasis. Salvation (and real communion) is ontological, not psychological.

    If “the death we die (in Christ) is not our own death, but Christ’s death” and “also our resurrection in Christ,” how is this our own ontological reality as a human hypostasis? If the Lamb was slain from the foundation of the world, what does the sacrifice of Christ (in time) or the bloodless sacrifice “accomplish”? Was human nature changed in an instant? The fact remains that we all will die and await the resurrection, just as our fathers of old. Furthermore, was there no communion (union) with God before the Eucharist? If there was, then again, what does the (bloodless) sacrifice “accomplish”? These are specific reasons why I’m making the case that sacrifice and communion are not synonymous.

    I would also insist that ego is far more than a “psychological term.” Salvation is ontological. Therefore, our healing is about becoming ontologically whole (holy). Ego is an ontological reality. Consider ego as the default operating program for human beings when we’re born. I don’t think we could argue that Microsoft Windows is not an ontological reality, but merely “psychological.” Would you say that the nous or soul is merely psychological because it is not a visible, physical reality? Forgive me if this seems like splitting hairs, but I think it is essential in understanding the purpose of sacrifice in order to bring about our healing, and ultimately, union with God.

  20. Aaron,
    I believe I am saying that the sacrifice is an act of communion. It is, at the very least, a revelation of what our union with Christ looks like. Our communion in Christ is a communion in His cruciform life.

    I am pushing back on the notion of separating the communion from the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. If I were to say that our communion with Christ is a communion in His love (real, substantial, etc.) perhaps it would help to see that the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross is the fullness of the revelation of His love.

    Was there communion with God before that? Well, to a degree, there is no “before” the Cross. Regardless of the means used to bring about or foster communion with God – it was already a participation in the Cross – even if that was not fully known (only as type and shadow).

    It is also my pushing back that there could be communion apart from the Cross. He does not give us His unbroken Body or His unspilled blood. He gives us His Body, broken for us, His blood, shed for us. And, already in John 6, well before the historical point of the crucifixion, Christ gives that to His disciples (causing them a bit of misunderstanding and distress).

    We preach the Christ Crucified. It is into His death and resurrection that we are Baptized. And, yes, this is a communion, but, of note, St. Paul doesn’t say “we are Baptized into communion with Christ,” but expresses it in terms of the Cross. It’s that communion looks like (and is) Christ Crucified. He is our communion.

    I’m going to leave the ego question aside. Much of what we call the ego is not ontological – but merely accidental. Personhood is not equivalent to the ego.

  21. Aaron,
    If I said, “Christ’s life becomes my life?” would that make sense? It is, to me, the meaning of communion. In the same manner, Christ’s death becomes my death. It is not my physical death, but a “metaphysical” death (or some such term) at work in me, in my union with Him. The death of Christ now becomes my life. My “true” life, is the life of Christ within me.

    “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.”(Galatians 2:20)

    But, let me ask a question to perhaps understand better what you are saying. How do you mean when you say “communion?”

  22. Father Stephen,
    Thank you for your responses. I think it could be said that “sacrifice is an act of communion” in that its purpose is to bring about our communion with God. However, I don’t see how we can equate Jesus’ crucifixion, and thereby our participation in the bloodless sacrifice of the Eucharist, with union with God. Nowhere do we find any such reference in the OT. Can we honestly say that everyone who participates in the Eucharist is united with God? Or rather is their participation in the eucharistic sacrifice “an act of communion,” but not communion itself? To be clear, I’m saying that sacrifice is a means of bringing about our communion, but it is not communion itself.

    Sacrifices aren’t transactional, but rather relational and transformational. They are a physical means of raising and transforming our consciousness into a higher state of being and can be a means of bringing about our healing and making us whole (holy). The sacrifice which is most necessary is repentance – to offer up and set aside our egotistical, self-centered, pleasure-seeking desires in order to enter into what’s more, beyond the physical – a relationship of unconditional love with God. Communion is union with God, not simply participation in a physical sacrifice. Just as the sacrifices of the OT were not themselves communion with God but rather a means of bringing about real union with God, so one’s participation in the bloodless sacrifice is not communion with God. Otherwise, we must definitively say that union with God was not possible in the OT, nor is it possible for anyone outside the Church. To say that God can do what he wants with those outside the Church or that those in the OT were united to God in some mystical, typological, pre-incarnate way is to skirt the truth and hand wave in utter confusion.

    Communion with God is about growing in likeness to Him and truly knowing Him in an experiential way that heals people and makes them whole. We are born good, but with egotistical, pleasure-seeking, self-willed desires. The process of healing transforms these desires into ones of selfless, unconditional love for God, our neighbor, and all of creation. This is an ontological process of transformation, not merely a categorical change of state. It involves many aspects, but at it’s core, it’s a movement from doing into being. Instead of simply saying prayers, we become prayer. The commandments change from something prescriptive into something descriptive. Instead of living like animals, we mature into the human beings God created us to be. It’s about entering into a living relationship with God and making present the life of the Kingdom here and now, not being satisfied with a hedonistic life of selfishness and sin. What part of this requires a bloodless sacrifice? What part of this requires the cross? What is required is that we open ourselves to God, invite him into our life, continuously agree to relationship with Him, set aside our egotistical self-will, and implore Him to heal us. This is the very reason God created us and He will do it.

    It’s worth mentioning that the Church upholds St. Mary of Egypt as one of the greatest saints and devotes the fifth Sunday of Lent to her celebration. After having lived a life of debauchery, she repented, received communion, and departed for a life of solitude in the desert, where she remained for 48 years, receiving the Eucharist only once at the end of that time from Zosimas. She lived a life of extreme ascesis and repentance. It is said that she was clairvoyant, walked on water, and even teleported. Certainly she was in communion with God! Was her communion with God a result of the bloodless sacrifice, which we are told she only received twice in 48 years? Or does the church hold her in such high esteem because her communion with God was a result of her profound repentance?

  23. Aaron,
    perhaps it might help (it does help me somewhat) if we used the slightly more traditional & scriptural language regarding the self, the ego, the transformative effect that communion has upon the self, and many other of those points raised earlier in the above comments: there is the ‘old man’ and the/b> ‘new man’. The first is rather ‘outside’, and the other is “in Christ”. Of course there’s a great range between the two extremes of this, but I find it clarifies the discussion a great deal to supplant these terms for those who are more ecclesiastically acclimatized, especially considering the one end is having the self as god and the other having God as God.

  24. Aaron,
    Much that you say about communion is agreeable – but I find that your view of the Eucharist, the Bloodless Sacrifice, does not agree with what the liturgical texts and the Scriptures actually say about it. Jesus specifically says that whosoever eats His flesh and drinks His blood abides in Him and He in them. It is communion in the life of God. St. Paul says that it is a communion in His Body and Blood. All of the preparatory prayers describe in wonderful poetic imagery the communion that we have as we partake in the Bloodless Sacrifice.

    As to St. Mary of Egypt, she made her communion before entering the desert, and the one desire at the end of her life was for St. Zossima to bring her communion. Her life in the desert was a life lived in the strength of that communion, a continual participation in that communion, and a consumation in that communion.

    Again, I think you are separating things that belong together and I cannot see why. What, then, is the Bloodless Sacrifice? Is it not essential? Though Christ Himself said, “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you have no life in you?” I understand that you want to speak of it as a “means” to an “end.” I would say that it is both means and end and that this is more consistent with how it is described in the Scriptures and the life of the Church.

    The whole of my week (my little desert between the Liturgies) is the Eucharistic life of communion received in the Cup. If I repent, it is because Christ has given the grace of that possibility – normatively in the Cup. If I draw near to Him, it is again a communion given in the sacrifice (the Cross). I do not know a Christ who is not the Lamb-Slain. There is no Other. And if there is a transformation – it is a transformation into the life and image of the Crucified Christ.

    You wrote:

    It’s about entering into a living relationship with God and making present the life of the Kingdom here and now, not being satisfied with a hedonistic life of selfishness and sin. What part of this requires a bloodless sacrifice? What part of this requires the cross? What is required is that we open ourselves to God, invite him into our life, continuously agree to relationship with Him, set aside our egotistical self-will, and implore Him to heal us. This is the very reason God created us and He will do it.

    All of it requires the Cross. All of it requires the Eucharist. The reasoning you suggest here would also say, “What part of it requires the Incarnation?” If the Incarnation was not for the Cross, then Jesus made a big mistake. I think you’re pushing a point so far that it passes outside of the Orthodox faith. How can anyone say, “What part of this requires the Cross?”

    St. Maximus the Confessor said, “He who understands the Mystery of the Cross understands everything.”

    A pre-communion prayer says: “Fear, O man, when you see the deifying Blood, for it is a fire that burns the unworthy. The divine Body both deifies and nourishes me. It deifies the spirit and wonderfully nourishes the mind…” This is not a temporary thing but continues within our lives. In St. Mary’s case…for 40 some-odd years.

    You are describing a Cross-less Christianity without the need of sacraments. That’s sort of turning the faith into pure ascesis. I fear that my conversation with you is leading you to make extreme statements. Forgive me.

  25. One of the difficulties I have seen in the modern approach to the Sacraments is the tendency to psychologize them. Disembody them. Turn participation into a “feeling” which can then be ignored.

    It is the same tendency in the human heart to make God an amorphous gas rather than an actual Person (3 to be precise) who both creates and participates in life; is the “substance of things hoped for.” (His Body and Blood)

    A similar problem was alluded to by Mark Twain: “God created man in His own image. Man, being a gentleman returned the favor.”

    The Euchrist, especially, is God giving freely of Himself for us. The Cross is the source of the Grace and mercy that endues the Sacraments.

    I am Orthodox because I was blessed to recognize the Person of Jesus Christ in the Church — not as some piece of abstract theology but as a living reality in the Euchristic celebration. That recognition has helped keep me in the Church despite my own besetting sins and the sins of others directed at me at times.

  26. Aaron,
    Elder Aimilianos of Simonos Petras, a rather distinguished authority on such difficult matters, often emphasised to his listeners how ‘one needs both “oars” to make one’s “vessel” paddle to its destination: the sacramental and the mystical’. The one mysteriously feeds off the other (bi-directionally). The same goes for the liturgical and the ascetic, for the ‘doing’ and the ‘being’, for the life offered through the mystery of the Cross and the participation in the mystery of the Cross demonstrated by our life, etc. Knowing that all these dyads are deeply interwoven and interdependent for me, is infinitely more useful than any analytical parsing of them.

  27. Aaron,
    As I re-read your comment, I cannot discern what purpose you think the Eucharist serves. It seems that you imagine it as just one example of many kinds of repentance, etc. It seems that the Eucharist is “too small” in your account. Also, that the Cross is an isolated thing – that the “communion” you describe is the real thing, everything else being subservient to it. But, I would suggest that your account of communion is too truncated – a communion that is not a communion in the life of the Crucified Christ. I do not know Christ apart from Him crucified (as St. Paul says). Thus, the Cross is always present. St. Maximus says:

    Every individual who believes in Christ is nailed to the Cross with Christ, according to the measure of his own strength and the type and condition of his virtue; at the same time, he nails Christ to the Cross with himself, precisely in that he is crucified with Christ in a spiritual way.(Ambigua, PG 91)

    The nature of the Sacraments, and of the Eucharist, in particular, is that it contains all of this within it. Obviously, we participate in the sacrament through our preparation, prayers, repentance, and intention as we receive, but we also participate in the sacrament as we leave and as we live each moment afterwards. It’s not just a “one and done.” It is an “abiding” as Christ Himself taught.

    The sacrifice (the Cross) is our communion. Any communion with God that is not a constant abiding in the death and resurrection of Christ is, ultimately, inadequate, and dangerously close to just being bogus. What God do we mean if not the Crucified? I do not mean to diminish communion, only to explicate it proper meaning and its fullness – and not to separate from the central act and revelation of God made known to us in the God/Man Jesus Christ.

  28. For what it’s worth, Khaled Anatolios describes the Cross as an act of representative repentance / vicarious contrition. Christ’s representative sorrow over sin is encompassed, however, by the larger impetus of his ministry: to fulfill man’s calling to receive a deifying share in the Trinitarian glory. Thus, when believers take up their crosses to replicate the repentance of Christ, they are enfolded into the mutual glorification of Father, Son, and Spirit. The book is Deification through the Cross: An Eastern Christian Theology of Salvation.

  29. Owen,
    I’ve seen the title but not read it. I would have described the Cross differently and see it described differently in the work of St. Maximus, for example, with which I am more familiar and comfortable.

    Descriptions of the atonement have never had a definitive form in Orthodoxy – so it’s certainly possible to read a lot of treatments. Many times, they all have some aspect of the truth. I prefer accounts in which the Cross and the Crucified Christ is central – something that I see to be the case both in Scripture and in the Liturgical texts of the Church. Also, I prefer to see treatments that are ontological in character – seeing that the mystery of the Cross brings about an actual change through our participation in Christ’s death and resurrection. Further, any account of the atonement (Cross, etc.) that does not require the Eucharist and Baptism to be intimate components of its ongoing work seem to me to be inadequate. Just thoughts.

    Thanks for the info!

  30. Fr. Stephen, it seems to me — though, of course, you don’t need my approval — your words about the Mysteries emerge directly from an ancient Christian phronema. The road to realizing at-one-ment in Christ is sacramentally cobbled. You may remember from previous comments I wrote my thesis on atonement in St. Maximus. As you point out, he asserts a cosmic, ontological vision of the cross in which all things find their truest meaning, applied to us through (to name only a few) ascetic endeavor and liturgical participation. I incorporated Anatolios’ observations in the conclusion. Your writings actually feature in the paper also, in the section arguing against classic Protestant substitutionary atonement. On this topic in particular, your work has been a blessing to my theological and spiritual journey.

  31. Owen,
    Sounds like good work! One of the things that I come away with from St. Maximus is the thorough integration of the sacramental life together with the ascetic life – they are of a single piece and should never be separated. Part of my emphasis on the sacramental comes out of my pastoral experience and observations. If asceticism becomes too unleashed from the sacramental life, it can become a sort of “will-worship,” in which our own efforts are temptingly over-valued. Our efforts are of use – but it is always grace at work in us that saves us. What can mud do to become God? (to paraphrase St. Gregory of Nyssa). Mud can dispose itself to the will and work of God. This is the “cooperation” the “synergy” of our lives. Our asceticism is always an effort to open ourselves to God. The Divine Liturgy is a full and complete exercise in this holy disposition – in which the whole of our being (including our bodies) are given over to Christ – who so richly gives His flesh and blood to our hungry hearts.

    Where did you do your thesis?

  32. Fr. Stephen, I recently completed a Th.M. in philosophy at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. To my knowledge, I am the only SEBTS Orthodox alumnus on earth…or under the earth!

  33. Owen! I actually graduated from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY. Of course, that was well before I became Orthodox. To be honest, I’ve tried to forget most of what I was taught, although there were nuggets of goodness in some of it.

  34. Byron and Owen good theology flows from a heart and mind loving Jesus Christ. Bad theology flows from willful minds and hearts that seek to exalt oneself and one’s idea. If one loves Jesus more than one’s own idea of Him, Truth will shine forth through the blessing of the Holy Spirit.

  35. Byron, yes, I’m familiar with Southern. I visited the school but finally chose Southeastern because it was closer to my home in NC. Within a year after matriculation, however, my wife and I converted from Baptist to Anglican . Then, six years later, we became Orthodox. I’ve been able to avert unnecessary conflict in the classroom by focusing attention on patristics and philosophy, topics more in the ecclesiastical neutral zone. That said, there are folks here quite interested in Orthodoxy. Some, including professors, have even come to church with me. We’ve been well treated during our extended stay here at SEBTS.

  36. Michael,
    I think I beg to differ. Your statement would imply that bad theology only comes from bad people…which is not true in my experience. Also, good theology would naturally flow from good people, also not the case. It’s true that a bad heart clouds theology (as it does our understanding). But, good theology is also a gift…just bless it when it comes.

  37. Father, I was thinking of Luke 6: 45: “A good man out of the good treasures of his heart brings forth that which is good…”

    Bad theology will never completely poison the heart of a man who longs for Jesus Christ. And He will give good fruit to those that Love Him.

    Likewise a man who does not long for Christ will not be saved by perfect theology. If Orthodox, he may in fact be eating and drinking damnation to himself.

    The combination is better.

  38. Father Stephen,
    Forgive me if I have pushed the issue too far. You have not led me to say anything which I haven’t consciously considered. I realize the comments I’m making are inconsistent with the Orthodox faith. However, this is a matter I think worth opening or at least considering that there could be a wider understanding that surpasses, yet encompasses the faith of the Church.

    In mentioning St. Mary of Egypt, the goal was not to create a dualistic tension between sacrament and communion or to make the case that sacraments aren’t necessary, “turning the faith into a pure ascesis.” Christianity certainly cannot become “Cross-less.” Its very foundation is the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection. Therefore, in Christianity, the Eucharist is essential and synonymous with communion (the sacrament is even called that after all).

    What I am saying is that there is a means by which we can have communion (union) with God which isn’t dependent on receiving specific physical elements, in a specific place, at a specific time, in a faith with specific beliefs in which we are an accepted member. This is why the Church has such a difficult time dealing with the issue of communion outside of her self-constructed walls. Can we really claim that God is definitively absent elsewhere? In our hearts, I think we know this isn’t true.

    Our very life is by nature sacramental and ascetical. God created it so. These are means to communion with Him. We are the ones who have “restricted” the sacramental life to a discrete number of things which we can count on two hands (and argue about their number, and how they are to be performed, and when, and whose are valid, and on and on…). We are the ones who believe some aspects of our life to be ascetical and others simply mundane. We are the ones who have constructed dualistic ideas in our minds about how things are, categorizing life, separating it, and putting it into nice, neat boxes that make sense to us. So much of this is how we see it, but perhaps it’s not how God sees it. In reality, it doesn’t matter what we think. This is simply a product of our ego and must be set aside. We are our biggest obstacle. We’ve put our own ideas between us and God, and all He wants us to do is get out of the way and allow Him to enter in. He is indeed everywhere present and fillest all things. He wants nothing more than to reveal Himself to us and for us to live a life of communion with Him. Are we so bold to think that entrance into the fullness of being is constrained to specific, discrete sacramental doors? This is an “account of communion” which is “too truncated.” What a terrible God that would be.

    Alternatively, the entire context of our life can be sacramental – a means by which God is made manifest in our life. Everything we do can be ascetical – a means by which we synergistically cooperate with God and live a life of communion with Him. This transformation requires a unitive change in consciousness which affects every aspect of our being. It’s a movement out of selfishness and into selfless, unconditional love for God, everyone, and everything. When we live from this place, life becomes infinitely precious. The mundane becomes extraordinary. This is a wholistic way of being where we truly become co-creators with God, making manifest His will in the world. It’s a life not about us, but about Him. We become a living sacrifice by which our very being is a means of communion with God and one another.

  39. Aaron,
    I deeply appreciate your candor and thoughtfulness. Your comment explains your line of thought and makes sense of your earlier comments. What you are describing is generally a relationship with God that follows the lines of “Perennialism.” That line sees Christianity (including and especially Orthodoxy) as a specific example of a more general reality – and takes the general reality to be the actual thing, while the specific example (Orthodox Christiantiy) is true as far as it goes, but fails because of its specificity (boundaries, etc.).

    This is an especially attractive line of thought in our modern, global era, where we are keenly aware that our differences separate us from others. Thus, for some, there is a drive towards something that unites us all, etc. This line would look for an “underlying” similarity in different religious approaches – seeking to find the common ground and so on.

    I believe it is a flawed approach for a variety of reasons. First, and foremost, because we do not actually know anything (including God) in general. All knowledge is an encounter with the specific, the particular. I think we can say that the God made known to us in Jesus Christ is “transcendently particular” – His utter particularity doesn’t reduce Him but neither does it limit Him. He IS.

    Second, this particularity is essential in that every word we use (God, fasting, love, communion, etc.) only have meaning when they reference something particular. When I say “God,” I mean He who is made known to us in the God/Man, Jesus Christ, the God Who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. When I say, “love,” I mean that which is defined and made known in the crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ. It is not a feeling – but a specific and particular revelation whose content would not be known, and could not be known apart from the Cross.

    You have said that God is everywhere present and filling all things, that our lives are sacramental and ascetical by their very nature and are created so by God – but none of that is known were it not made known to us through the Orthodox Christian faith. Those terms have no meaning apart from their specific context.

    I find the example of marriage to be useful. I could imagine someone expounding a male/female relationship(s) that extracted a sort of universal essence from an ideal, specific marriage and generalized on that basis. It would simply be any two people loving each other, having sex, etc. There have been cults that suggested such, and it might be similar to some of our modern ideas. But actual, true marriage, true love, is sacrificial, and discovered only within the bounds of a life-long (intended) union. It is filled with all of the hard work and suffering, etc., that only comes in such a union. Everything else really becomes only the indulgence of our own inner definitions and our using of others for our own ends.

    Jesus Himself gave us the Church – complete with its boundaries. It is the most difficult and painful gift possible. From the very beginning there were conflicts and troubles and there has never been a time without them. His gift of our Church-life saves us from our own idealism and brings us back to the truth of our existence, complete with the hard wood of the Cross.

    What about things outside the boundaries of the Church and the sacraments? That actions outside boundaries sometimes “rhyme” with what is within the boundaries is not surprising. It is true that what God gives us in the specificity of the Church’s life reveals our true nature. But it serves to reveal that nature when we would never have found it on our own (without the specific revelation). That you see it elsewhere is only evidence that it is being seen through the lens of the specific revelation. Throw away the lens, and before long, you’ll cease to see it and begin to fall into deadly errors. Even within the boundaries of the specific revelation it is possible to fall. But those boundaries have ultimately served to protect us and preserve the specific content of the revelation.

    Can those outside the boundaries find grace and be saved? Because God is a good God and loves mankind, I presume it is possible. I also do not know. None of us do. That ignorance doesn’t trouble me – because I’ve made peace, to a great extent, with the limits of knowledge. It is problematic that we press so hard to know everything that we’re willing to just make up our own version of the universe in order to do so.

    I know the specific revelation of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, and I trust that in union with Him, through the means He has taught us and given us in His gift of the Church, I may grow in that union and become like Him. My asceticism (weak and paltry) is utterly grounded in the sacramental/liturgical life of the Church. Many times it’s a struggle, unpleasant, inconvenient, and demanding. I’ve been married 46 years – it, too, has had its struggles, etc., but only by remaining within the specific confines of that union have I come to know the incessant joy of that sacrament. I have been a Christian for 62 years. 18 of those years I was an Episcopal priest. 23 of those years I have been an Orthodox priest. I feel that the movement of my life has been towards an ever-greater specificity. I want to know Jesus Himself. Not an imaginary simulacrum. By the same token, I have discovered that in knowing Him, I am coming to know my true self. Frankly, the more I come to know myself – the harder it is. There are layers of shame, deceit, ignorance, etc., that are very difficult to get through. Only in the particularity of Christ Himself could I know the uncomfortable particularity of my own self. There awaits, I have learned, a particularity of my ultimate true self that is/will be conformed to Christ. But if I left this difficult path of particularity, I am certain that I would soon begin to put back the layers of delusion that constitute my own private efforts.

    There is much that is instinctively good in your thoughts. You value many of the right things. But none of them have any true meaning, nor will they bear the fruit you desire, until you take up the “yoke” of Christ. I think that it is humility (bearing our own shame in various ways) that allows us to do this. But that is the way of Christ, who voluntarily took upon Himself the shame of the Cross.

    I hope these thoughts are of use. Again, thank you for your candor and thoughtfulness.

  40. Fr. Freeman,

    I remember Peter Leithart saying once that early Christians didn’t need a theory of the atonement because they had in front of them the Eucharist regularly. I think he was right. The Protestant rebuttal to the re-presentation still goes on as they cannot understand with their soteriology built on Original Sin and Guilt, why the Eucharist would convey anything more than a connection to the memory/memorial. If you are evil in Adam, are saved by the work of Christ done for the Elect, the most the Eucharist could convey is a sort of union, but not union to forgiveness, new ongoing life, etc. – as these are done and whatever we repeat that is done for them, looks like their PSA wasn’t sufficient and therefore Christ is implicated in being a weak savior. But it’s all due to Original Sin. I will be off to liturgy in a moment to partake of real life now, because that’s what I need now, because my problems arise from insecurities over death and how I have participated in the schemes of the devil doubting God to be faithful/enough, and I wish to re-unite again with God, be fed by HIm, and be disunited from this world, and reunited with Him in an ever-strengthened bond.

  41. Matthew,
    God give you grace as you share in the Holy Mysteries today. Unfortunately, I am missing the Liturgy today. I got hit with food poisoning yesterday and I’m still recovering this morning. A “slight, momentary affliction…”

    It’s fascinating – on the atonement. I recall in seminary (late 70’s), reading the classical Anglican work by JND Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines. I came to the chapter on the atonement (after all of those masterful treatments of other things) in which he noted that the Eastern Church had never developed a doctrine of the atonement. He gives the impression that, somehow, their growth had been stunted, or something.

    It seemed passing strange to me that something as essential as the atonement – how it is that Christ reconciles us to the Father – would not be expressed as a doctrine (and then, would later be so codified in the West to become its most unassailable concept). It was part of several things going on at the same time in my head/life. I was studying moral theology – with lots of models of how the Church had historically treated the topic. I was also doing a class of classic patristic treatments of Soteriology (doctrine of salvation).

    It was a mix that, combined with my interest in the Eastern Fathers, led me deeper and deeper into Orthodox thought (or certainly disposed me towards Orthodox thought). It helped me acquire the questions to which Orthodoxy became the only answer. And that was over a number of years.

    Original Sin, as such, never occupied much of my thought inasmuch as I had little to no contact with formal Calvinistic teachings (or Western Roman). There were Anglicans who were keen on the notion – but It never ignited much interest for me. Eventually, as I came to see the rather positive treatments of human nature found in the Eastern fathers, I found it pretty useless as a category.

    All my life since around age 27 has been centered at the altar (as an Anglican priest – then Orthodox). My experience of the Eucharist as an Anglican was grounded in a “High” theological approach in which I fully believed the Eucharist to be the Body and Blood of Christ. I never thought otherwise. As an Orthodox convert and priest, I have never looked back and questioned anything about my sacramental experience prior to Orthodoxy. I simply leave the matter unanswered (because I cannot know the answer). I do know what I expected and experienced at the time.

    But my daily life throughout all of this, every wrestling with sin, every victory, every failure, has been in the context of a Eucharistic life. May God preserve us in His grace.

  42. Fr. Freeman,

    Thank you for your kind and encouraging response. It’s often the things that the early church and we as Orthodox Christians take for granted (assume without a ton of need for explanation) that others expect a detailed examination of, or again like you said, assume we’ve been intellectually challenged or disinterested. One of the common claims I’ve heard is that due to Muslim restrictions on Christians the Orthodox stagnated and the only reason we can claim unchangeable doctrine is due to something we can take no credit for – forced stagnation.

    Carl Trueman, who I still like to some extent, calls our liturgy outdated and of course, way too long. But if you peeled back the layers of theological accoutrements and barnacles they have accumulated, if you just read the Bible, you’d have Christus Victor and union with Him in it, and as it relates to how salvation works, it works when you participate in union and out of union with evil or death-motivated desires. And the Eucharist unites you, either to death or life. Death by dishonesty or carelessness about the unions you have going on while also bringing those into union with Christ’s Life, or it unites you to Life and motivates continued repentance which positively speaking is the acquisition of love. This is purely logical Bible.

    Anymore I find, that when discussing these things to people, I almost never have any need of appealing to a Church Father, etc. – because, when you understand the logic of the Bible, you are participating in the same hermeneutical reading they were, and you realize the only reason the logic is not embraced is because an a priori presupposition is imposed. The Fathers are who they are, in part, for their fidelity to the authority of the Apostolic deposit/witness as “Life Preservers”. I just came up with that. I’m finishing up DBH’s new book on Tradition and Apocalypse. I left a review on Amazon, “Tradition, Traditionalism, and then what?” My review will likely get edited more, but he asserts that before St. Athanasius and the Cappadocian Fathers no one had had such a high-level interest in soteriology but credits the supposed new interest with generating their creativity and genius. And to me, this is the same question-begging as the Protestants. Why was there not (and I think a strong case can be made that the bulk of all theological writing is mainly soteriological) more soteriology before them? He assumes there was no or little interest. But again, if Christus Victor was assumed, there would be no need to spill tons of ink explaining atonement or how Christology related to it is massive detail. It would only arise (as it did historically) when the soteriology already assumed, came under attack. I can’t recommend the book.

    Thanks for your contributions again,
    Matthew Lyon

  43. Father, how and where does repentance fit into the sacrifice of worship? Or does it?

  44. Father Stephen,
    I am not claiming that we know anything “in general,” nor am I espousing a Venn diagram of world religions from which to seek the overlapping common ground to (fictitiously) unite us. I desire union with God and understand very concretely that real wisdom is experienced through specific revelation, purely as a gift. This experiential wisdom is God and is that which heals us.

    The particular to which you seem to reference everything is Christ Crucified. You say that it is not possible to know life as sacramental or ascetical “were it not made known to us through the Orthodox Christian faith.” You claim that “love” only has meaning in reference to “that which is defined and made known in the crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ.” I couldn’t disagree more. What a sad world of lost souls it is for those who don’t have the right “lens of the specific revelation.” Did Moses not know God through a specific encounter with Him? Or was that just merely a type and not actually knowledge of God specifically? Does the experience of the Divine Light have no meaning apart from Christ Crucified? Does the woman who lives a humble life of love for her neighbor, following that which is written in her heart, not know God?

    You say you “know the specific revelation of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen.” Is this something we know specifically, or believe in general? Are we asking those who have found themselves 2,000 years separated from the specific revelation of Christ to simply agree to the teachings of the Church and live the “Church-life”? Or do we actually help people heal and come to know God experientially here and now? Do we really believe that the purpose of the Church is to produce saints? Or is this just reserved for a chosen few, while the rest just settle and hope for a better life to come? Are we teaching people how to actualize real communion with God ? Or do we just “trust” in that union, go through the motions, and receive the eucharistic sacrifice as if it was an actual living relationship of communion with God?

    It’s interesting to know that, although there is “much that is instinctively good” in my thoughts and that I “value many of the right things,”…”none of them have any true meaning, nor will they bear the fruit [I] desire, until [I] take up the ‘yoke’ of Christ.” Apparently, what I need is “humility” and to “bear [my] own shame in various ways.” I appreciate your clairvoyance in ascertaining my spiritual state and knowledge of God. Is this the message of good news we should spread to those who are truly seeking God and a life of intimate communion with Him? Forgive me for being so candid.

  45. Aaron,
    I can only speak of what I know. But I have no way of thinking of God except through the lens of Christ crucified (without simply engaging in my imagination). If someone claims an experience of the “divine light” that has no reference to Christ Crucified – then – I’m not sure what they are talking about – and – for that matter – I’m pretty doubtful about all claims of such experiences. I’m an old man. I’ve seen lots of stuff – and a lot of it is pretty crazy after a while. So, the fences and borders of Orthodoxy are of tremendous use and benefit. I don’t trust claims to private experience all that much.

    I’ve been in ordained ministry for about 45 years. I sat by the bedsides of the dying (the vast majority of whom were not Orthodox, and not all Christians) around 400 times. I helped found the first food bank in the state of south carolina, and served in many such ministries through the years. I’ve talked suicides “off the ledge.” In short, I’ve been a busy priest through those years, so I am no stranger to “helping” people – not theoretically, but in very practical ways.

    About half of my ministry was in Anglican circles – where the touchstone of the tradition was not always as central as in Orthodoxy. I found it to be ground that produced as much nonsense and confusion as it did good. Eventually, I became Orthodox, and found the ground of the faith to be firm, though the Church is as peopled with brokenness and problems as anywhere in the world.

    I’m certain that every good thing that everyone does is not lost nor forgotten – by the God who is good. But I would not know the goodness of God apart from the Cross. I would not know God apart from Jesus Christ.

    So, “union” with God is itself a pretty vague thing. I even know a number of Orthodox who talk about such a thing in their experience but who seem pretty nutty to me. Union with God is not something for me to judge – certainly not for myself. We have been given the commandments of Christ. We should follow them, and follow the teachings of the Church and her life of discipline. Will that result in our union with God – that’s in God’s hands. But I do not preach a path of inner experience, per se.

    We have such things. St. Paul alluded to being caught up to the Third Level of Heaven – but noted that he would not boast of such a thing – but rather in His weakness – again – trusting wholly in the crucified Christ.

    The path that I best understand (and the only one I actually trust), is seeking union with Christ as I find Him crucified in the world at any given moment. That’s where He taught us to seek Him: the sick, the hungry, the naked, etc. It’s quite specific and guards against the nonsense of generalizations. It is also His self-offering (from the Cross) in that He has united Himself to the world in such a manner. That offering to Him in those living sacraments is also part of the Eucharistic sacrifice. I could expound on that. What I don’t see Jesus ever teaching us was to seek after a union with a Divine Light. If such a thing comes – so be it. But I think it’s wrong to seek it. His directions are pretty clear.

    I’m sorry if my comments misunderstood you, or if my suggestions (which are no clairvoyance) rubbed you the wrong way. I’m just doing the best with the very little that I have. Thank you.

  46. Repentance (offering our heart to God in all of its brokenness) – is part of the sacrifice of worship. Romans 12:1

    “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service.” (Romans 12:1)

    That offering of ourselves (which, Eucharistically, accompanies the bread to the altar) is given back to us as the Life of Christ Himself. Many times, it’s just a pittance, or even a failed attempt at repentance. But God, who is good, accepts even the widow’s mite as untold riches.

    I think what I’ve wanted to emphasize in this article and thread is our participation in the “cycle” of God’s self-offering “on behalf of all and for all.” Repentance is the offering of ourselves in union with the sacrifice of Christ. He is present in every effort we make towards the good.

  47. Fr Stephen

    The word of Christ, accompanied by His sacrifice, is the reason of my faith and my motivation to repent. Had I been a disciple of St John the Baptist, before having known Christ, what would I have based his admonition to repent on ?

  48. Nikolaos,
    St. Ambrose in the West, and St. Maximus in the East, both said that the Old Testament was shadow, the New Testament was icon, and the age to come was the thing itself.

    Before the coming of Christ (and the fullness revealed to us in His Pascha), there was the “shadow” of Pascha. It could be seen in the Law and the Prophets, sometimes more clearly (the shadow was, shall we say, “sharper”), sometimes less. In St. John the Baptist, the “shadow” was already giving way to the Image itself (in the Incarnation). So, when St. John said, “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand,” the heart could already hear, in the clearest form ever, the first clear hints of the Pascha to come. There was a great grace for those who repented on that basis.

    Everywhere, the Lord’s Pascha has given shadows (foreshadowing, etc.) and pointing towards that which was to come for all of us. St. Paul, preaching to the Athenian philosophers said:

    “Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing [he was referring to their altar to ‘an unknown god’], Him I proclaim to you:God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands. Nor is He worshiped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things. And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being,” (Acts 17:23-28)

    That was true then, and it continues to be true now. Although now, we also have the Image Himself, the clear picture of who God is, made known to us the God/Man, Jesus Christ, and in the fullness of His love made manifest in His death and resurrection. St. Paul says in Ephesians that God is “gathering together in one, all things in Christ Jesus.” Each of us is born at the appointed time and in the appointed circumstances. How God reveals His Christ to us will vary. Some will hear it clearly all of their lives. Others, only at the end. Some will “grope” and feel for Him in strange and misguided ways. How their final end might be is not made known to us (we simply don’t know everything).

    St. John preached from the Law and the Prophets, as well as the clear promises to God’s people. It would have been in hope of that promise you might have repented. St. Andrew was among those who repented at the preaching of St. John – but when He saw the fulfillment (Christ), he left St. John and became St. Andrew, the “First-Called.”

    But the in-gathering described by St. Paul is going on and will not end until it is completed. God give us grace!

  49. Thank you very much Father Stephen for your different answers given to Aaron.
    It is very edifying and clear. It gives joy ! Glory to God !

  50. Are we asking those who have found themselves 2,000 years separated from the specific revelation of Christ to simply agree to the teachings of the Church and live the “Church-life”? Or do we actually help people heal and come to know God experientially here and now?

    (Although it may not have been meant this way) It occurs to me that these two statements are of the same thing. “Living the ‘Church-life'” is indeed healing and coming to know God “experientially” through repentance and the mysteries given.

  51. Of course, there seems to be a flawed notion of being “separated” by 2,000 years from the specific revelation of Christ. This presumes that the revelation is less than eternal, stuck back in history. It utterly ignores what we believe as Orthodox Christians in terms of what constitutes the present-tense life of the Church. Everywhere present is also everytime present. The life we live at present in the Church is precisely the very self-same life made known in the specific revelation of Christ and that specific revelation abides with us and in us.

    All of it, it seems to me, is simply too abstract. In point of fact, I have never met anyone in my years of Orthodoxy who actually claimed to have had an experience of the Uncreated Divine Light. I’m sure it’s out there – but it simply is not the heart of the gospel as it has been preached and experienced in the Church. It kind of comes across as a Pentecostal-style version of Orthodoxy where experience overwhelms everything (and, frankly, is inevitably filled with delusion).

  52. Father, if such experience is expected and encountered as an event that sets one apart from everyone else as special it is indeed delusion. I was received into the Church 35 years ago. In those 35 years there have been moments in the Divine Liturgy when I know Jesus presence. There have been moments when I have clearly seen Him in the eyes of my wife and some of my brothers and sisters in Christ. But I have also experienced sinfulness in myself and others that, by Grace, have never caused me to doubt the presence of Jesus in the Church and Her people. I have seen folks leave because of their reaction to the sinfulness of others doubting the presence.
    No amount of words on my part have prevented the folks leaving, including my own son.
    I have begun to come to the belief that all of those experiences are what living in the Church, the life of the Church is all about. 28 years ago, my family and I changed parishes because we felt unwelcome and unwelcoming in our original parish. This Lent, a man of great kindness from that parish who often shines brought healing to my heart that enables me to accept my original parish once again and forgive.

    That, to me, is living the life of the Church and knowing the healing mercy of Jesus Christ both His Divine and human natures. I have no doubt the Uncreated Divine Light is/was/shall be in all of that. Yet it also appears to be quite ordinary as well despite the ongoing transformation taking place in my heart and the hearts of others. At the same time there is a profound continuity connecting me/us to our brothers and sisters who went before and shall come after that transcends mere history. The Body of Christ.

    Of course I have always known that thinking of history as linear was/is a grave mistake.

    The phrase “Christ is everywhere present, filling all things” is indicative of how foolish linearity is.

  53. Michael,
    I have come to value very richly the seemingly mundane struggles that we endure in a normative parish life. Truth be told, life in monasteries is just as mundane. We are often “romantics” when we come to thinking about the spiritual life (and expounding on the topic). My late Archbishop (Dmitri of Dallas) said that when his sister was still alive (she lived with him), and he would return from a hierarchical visit (filled with lots of honor and such), as soon as he came through the door she would greet him with, “Bubba! Take out the trash!”

    Saving moments!

  54. Thanks for sharing that article, Dino. However, Nilus never claims that the Uncreated Light was Trinitarian, nor did the Light reveal itself as such.

    I agree with you, Fr Stephen. We should speak about what we know. Everyone should also be humble enough to ask themself the following questions and be brutally honest in their answers.

    1. Do you KNOW the Eucharistic sacrifice to be the body and blood of Christ?
    2. Do you KNOW Jesus to be the incarnate Son of God, fully God and fully man?

    There are many other questions that could be asked, but I pose these because they’re most relevant to this post. The genesis of my initial comments was to open people up to consider a wider view of sacrifices. Most likely, none of us could answer the above questions with a definitive, “Yes.” Instead, like we say in the creed, we would likely respond, “I BELIEVE.” Therefore, if we don’t KNOW these things to be true, but only BELIEVE them to be true, we should be honest enough to acknowledge that there are likely many other things which we simply don’t know. Perhaps we don’t really understand the OT sacrificial system and it’s purpose or what communion really is. Perhaps we don’t really understand who the messiah is, as written in our own OT.

    It’s also possible that many people have had experiences of the Uncreated Divine Light, but we are simply unaware of it. Maybe some of these people fear their experiences would be labeled as too “Pentecostal” or “abstract” or “inevitably filled with delusion.” Maybe their priest would even say such things to them.

    I have experienced the Uncreated Light and other such things and KNOW them to be true. When we hear the doxology at the end of matins, “For with Thee is the fountain of Life, and in Thy light shall we see light” or sing in The Beatitudes during liturgy, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God,” I KNOW these things to be true. And I assure you that I don’t take sharing this lightly – at all. I can also tell you that to experience God in such profound, personal ways is not something that is “expected,” nor is it “an event that sets one apart from everyone else as special,” as Michael warned against, but rather the exact opposite is true. To have such experiences is to KNOW God and to KNOW oneself.

    If you “have no way of thinking of God except through the lens of Christ crucified (without simply engaging in [your] imagination),” that’s fine, but it doesn’t mean there isn’t MORE to which you’re yet unaware. What I do know, is that Christ Crucified was in no way referenced or made manifest in any of the experiences I’ve had, but rather the Living God who is absolutely ONE and in whom we are one. This is why I’ve made the case that perhaps sacrifice is not in fact the same as communion with God, but rather a means to real communion with Him. The sacrifice which is most necessary is repentance – to offer up and set aside our egotistical, self-willed, pleasure-seeking desires and become a living sacrifice by which our very being is a means of communion with God and one another.

  55. Aaron,
    I prefer not to make claims viz. my own inner experience. Frankly, I am extremely doubtful of your claims, though not of your belief that you know them to be true, etc. I am an Orthodox priest and I teach what I have been taught, in agreement with those whose lives and inner experience has been authenticated in many ways other than their own private claims. Basically, what you suggest is that I should teach something other than Orthodox Christianity, for what you are saying is not the Orthodox faith, or is a very inadequate account and distorting account.

    I appreciate you sharing your thoughts. I have responded as clearly as I can, in part, so that there is no confusion on the part of readers.

    Has anyone ever validated any of your private claims? You say that you know the pure in heart will see God to be true – which implies that you have, in fact, become pure in heart. Sorry, I don’t buy it.

    I do have a living experience of the bloodless sacrifice offered in the Divine Liturgy, which I do not care to discuss in such a setting. What I have written agrees with the teaching of the Church which is the living expression of the experience of the saints.

    I think perhaps this conversation has gone on long enough. Thank you.

  56. Aaron,
    I am ever thankful for having had the luxury of seeing the daily, mundane, behaviours, (the small talk, arguments, eating, doing daily jobs etc) of saints, [as in, of people who have been so ‘validated’ that they are officially canonized -recently] and these were saints who have had rather frequent, ‘validated’ experiences of the Uncreated Light.
    I wish I could have had more of that time witnessing such behaviours, as it is so uniquely instructional.
    It is worth noting that their entire attention was in hiding their “dangerously” life-changing experiences of God in their super-balanced “normalcy”. Their behaviour was very “traditionally” human and balanced. It seems they had been made wise enough to know that, it is not those desirable experiences of Light that impart the permanent transformation man needs (despite the inconceivable enthusiasm they implant in one’s heart), but it is humility that does just that. Humility is what makes one more like God and its ultimate version is to be seen in Christ.
    St Sophrony lamented the difficulty in teaching this to prior addicts who came to him. He explained that what could truly liberate and cure these deeply traumatized souls was not the experience of Light but Humility. He said that if they were to fall in love with complete obedience to a trusted guide, that path would be open to them and lead to swift healing. However, God had a “quandary” in that the only thing that could counterbalance the sway of their addiction and free them, was an experience of His paradisial Uncreated Light (even if just a rather small, premature ‘taste’ of it). And it was more common than one thinks for such people to have had some rare such experiences. But this is a terrible dilemma for them and for Him, because, as they have been deeply habituated in pleasure-seeking, they simply switch the one addiction, from, say, heroin, to another, such as the experience of spiritual elation accompanying God’s advent. Their self-absorption is retained therefore despite the unique transformative experience and it is evident that they subsequently do not seek God for God’s sake but for the pleasure His gifts impart.
    I also remember how both St Sophrony and the most recently canonized, saint Evmenios (both having had many very early experiences of God’s Light in their youth) thanked God more for His painful withdrawal of it, when an imperceptibly refined danger of pride loomed after the conscious realisation of what they had experienced (God even allowed St Evmenios to actually become possessed for a short time [!] in order to pedagogically teach him the dangers lurking in indistinct spiritual smugness) than for the gift of the Light itself! They had come to know that the humility of Christ is the goal…

  57. Dino,
    Thank you. It is very helpful and instructive to hear the experiences of the saints in our present time. It strikes me as significant that humility, as described by St. Paul, is most dominantly made manifest in the Crucified Christ. There is a reason (well, many reasons) the Church places Him at the heart of our life – always. St. Paul in Philippians 2, clearly describes it as the phronema (mind) of the Church.

    It was the excesses and utter fascination with inner experiences in the charismatic movement that drove me out of it (back in the early 70’s) and impelled me towards the traditional Church. It was, in many ways, the sobriety of Orthodoxy that gave my heart assurance. You are blessed to have known and met some of the great lights of our time.

  58. Therefore, if we don’t KNOW these things to be true, but only BELIEVE them to be true, we should be honest enough to acknowledge that there are likely many other things which we simply don’t know.

    These are the kind of distinctions I hear atheists make with regularity: no one can PROVE that God exists!, they cry: you just BELIEVE; you do not KNOW (as I do?).

    Yet, God has revealed Himself. We know only what has been revealed, and what is revealed finds its definition and understanding in the communion of the Church, not in the impressions of the individual experience.

    Perhaps another way to put it is to say that the Church provides the context for any individual experience. Me, my humanity in Christ, is never defined in isolation. And so, humility. Whatever we have received is given by God for all, not just us. Just some thoughts.

  59. Bryon, it is even more impossible to “prove” someone or something does not exist. I could argue it takes much more unsupported faith that there is no God. A lot of rationalism begins with the assumption there is no God or anything living that is unseen.

    Those whom I know who are most adamant that there is no god have been hurt by people who profess God but act in a hypocritical manner or do not allow things the person desired. “If there were a God, I would not have been hurt.”

    They expect a god without the Cross that conforms to their will rather than One who is known through humility, repentance and forgiveness.

  60. Michael, Byron, et al,
    There was a 2003 movie (Dopamine) in which a San Francisco computer programmer falls in love with a school teacher. The movie turns on the problem of whether love is merely a chemical phenomenon, and, therefore, meaningless. In some ways, it frames the God question in another manner. Can materialism really give a satisfactory account of human existence. I personally think it’s a very tiny box – a case of absurd reductionism. It is an account that cannot give an answer to the question, “Why bother?” making it just about the most useless line of thought we’ve ever entertained.

    Love (and God) stretch our language (and thought). Beauty is transcendent – so much more than the eye of a beholder. We walk among transcendent things all the time. We love them and crave them. Even a materialist wants to be loved.

  61. I couldn’t agree more about the need for humility. This is a humility which isn’t a false piety, but rather a radical acceptance of all that is. Foremost, it’s an unconditional, loving embrace of the truth of oneself. It’s also a humility which recognizes God as the source of ALL – all of which is revealed and received purely as a gift as He chooses. Yet it also comes with a faith which humbly accepts that there is so much that we don’t know, but still agrees to move forward into the unfolding of that which has yet to be revealed. Faith isn’t simply an acceptance of, or a holding onto, that which we believe to be true, but is rather our “yes” which continuously agrees to participate in a relationship with the Living God. This is our humble sacrifice which is most needed. Most of the world’s saints likely go unnoticed and unknown in such humility.

  62. I believe that Vladimir Lossky’s , Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, explains and puts to rest the false dichotomy of personal experience and the fullness of Revelation and Church dogma being opposed to each other.

  63. Actually I will be so bold as to go as step further than my last post and say, I know this to be true.

  64. Aaron,
    Again, for the sake of all my readers, I will try to be clear in this matter.

    It would be a strange thing, indeed, if the teaching of the Church, received and confirmed in the lives of the Apostles and the saints, required of every priest a personal revelation of a mystical sort before it could be offered with authority. Those of us who are ordained have not been so instructed.

    That said, I generally write what I know. Indeed, I have mentioned this before, and explained that it sets certain limits on me when I write. But, I do not generally engage in speculation or opinions without being clear that I am doing so. What I write is commonly translated into around a dozen languages, and often appears in many other places across the Orthodox world, both online and off. I take that both as an affirmation and a serious responsibility.

    St. Ignatius of Antioch, who knew Christ when he was a child, who was made bishop by the Apostles, wrote:

    “Our teaching agrees with the Eucharist and the Eucharist agrees with our teaching.” This, as well as citations I have offered from St. Paul, and could be multiplied over and over, affirm that the Bloodless Sacrifice of the Eucharist is a communion in the very life of God – and not just a means to get there. That sacrifice (and thus communion) is never separated from the Crucified Christ but dwells in that mystery and makes that mystery to dwell in us.

    I’m not about to argue my experience versus yours, because I do not preach my private revelations. However, I know (truly know) what I’m saying. But, neither do I have any notion that what I “know” cannot be questioned. I question it myself (all the time). It is as it agrees with the Church and the experience of the Apostles and the Saints, and their authoritative writings, as well as their ministry made present in life of the Church, that I have confidence. If anything that I experience does not agree with these things – then it is myself that I question and doubt.

    You rightly say that humility includes a recognition of what is. I take the holy tradition of the faith to be just such a “what is.” Thus, I push back against anything that suggests that there is another path, much less a path that somehow gets around the Cross of Christ. We are not in this as private individuals. Our life is the life of the Church.

    God give us grace.

  65. Father,
    Would you say that, since the most inescapable event of our life is death, (feasibly the most sobering and humbling one too), out of all things of ours that Christ sought to partake, he desired to participate of that the most (for our sake), in order to ontologically transform it?
    It is significant that, irrespective of one’s transcendental/mystical experiences, even they are ultimately fleeting, as death still remains at the end, and it is at death that we are given the “ticket” to permanence. And, of course, the mystery of death’s transformation ‘in Christ’, and the mystery of the Cross, are unreservedly connected.
    Furthermore, the allusion to this mysterious transformation appears consistently in all of the sacraments.

  66. Dino,
    Absolutely true. We might also note that we are told in the Scriptures of the “Lamb slain from the foundation of the world…” – a striking reference to an eternal character of the historical event – that stretches back before time began – and is a vision that describes Christ in His appearance at the world’s end. Anything that claims to transcend this, or that minimizes this, is more than suspect.

    The apostle (St. Paul) who had seen the risen Lord, and who was caught up to the third heaven, is the apostle who said, “For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.”(1 Corinthians 2:2) He did not come to preach an experience of the divine light, nor some other experience. This is the gospel which we have received. The same apostle warned us not to receive any other gospel.

    I cannot state this too strongly.

  67. Thank you Father, indeed, in light of this, we understand that nothing at all can transcend the primacy of this mystery, or claim to be able to minimize it. And ‘thank God for death’ -painful though it might be-, for guarding us against such delusions.

  68. The Orthodox funeral service is a testimony to all that you say Father. I will never forget the reaction of one non-Orthodox man after the funeral of a mutual friend of mine several years ago. The man was hard of hearing so he spoke loudly. He said: “I have never been to an Orthodox funeral before. They are different. They really DO something!”

    That funeral service is an integral part of the life of the Church and our life in it. Linked to the Crucifixion and the Ressurection in an intimate way. But we have to enter into the Death on the Cross first, don’t we?

  69. I think it would be true to say that while on the one hand it is grace and its taste that keeps a believer securely in the mystery of the Church and the Cross no matter what befalls him afterwards nd attempts to lure him away. On the other hand it is death and only death that puts the stamp on that devotion and makes it ontologically eternal .

  70. Dino, I think the stamp is one of mercy. Even if a person really struggles during their life, our Lord’s mercy is greater. “This is the day the Lord has made! Let us rejoice and be glad in it!” His mercy endures forever!

    Inexplicable, often seemingly unwarranted but given any way.

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