Judas Loves Money

JudasJudas has always presented a problem for movie-makers. How do you create a believable character who carries out the greatest betrayal of all time? Some movies use a political motivation – this usually has Judas “accidentally” betraying Jesus in an attempt help Him politically. Others puzzle with him in other ways. The Scriptures are quite clear about the nature of Judas betrayal: he was a thief and he did it for money.

Then one of His disciples, Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, who would betray Him, said, “Why was this fragrant oil not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” This he said, not that he cared for the poor, but because he was a thief, and had the money box; and he used to take what was put in it. (Joh 12:4-6 NKJ)

It’s fairly banal and prosaic. People do bad stuff for money all the time. The most common motive for betrayal of one’s country is – money. We often compromise our beliefs and practices for money, whether it is at work or elsewhere. If values cost us money, they quickly become too expensive for our taste. Righteousness is a luxury for most – one they can ill afford.

I also think that it goes far to explain Judas. No one usually starts out with full-blown betrayal – we have to work our way up to it. Every act of pilfering from the common fund was an act of betrayal, but easily justified. “It’s not much…I deserve it…I’ll put it back…”

A hymn from the Bridegroom Matins of Holy Week says, “Judas loved money with his mind (nous).” This declares a relationship that goes beyond the mere yielding to temptation. Judas became obsessed with money. Mammon was his God.

Thus, when the extravagance of the woman’s gift of an alabaster box of ointment poured over the feet of Jesus provokes Judas’ wrath, he was protesting on behalf of his God.

“Why was this fragrant oil not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?”

It is very striking throughout the gospels how often the question of money comes up. Christ offers very little comfort on the topic. He generally says one of two things: share, or give it away.

He warns that we cannot serve God and mammon (money). We see the example of the Rich Young Ruler for whom money becomes a stumbling block – he cannot follow Jesus if in doing so he must give away his money.

What did Judas need money for? He traveled with Christ and the other disciples. From what we can tell, they bought almost nothing, living hand to mouth. Did Judas have a retirement plan? Was he building up his portfolio? But as the Church sings, “Judas loved money with his mind.” It’s a spiritual disease.

Who doesn’t love money? Perhaps our attitude towards money would change if we noted that the fingerprints of Judas are on every penny. Caesar (in all his guises) has his face displayed – but Judas goes to the very heart of it all. If you search your heart for the place where the desire for money resides – then you’ll find the face of Judas staring back.

Money is the anti-Eucharist. Like the Eucharist, it is a way of life. The Eucharist is the way of giving thanks. Money can only be marked by thanksgiving when it is shared or given away. Unless shared, it always becomes an end in itself – the opposite of giving thanks. And unless money is shared, becoming eucharistic, then it becomes the currency of betrayal, spent in the Gardens of our lives (Eden, Gethsemane).

Christ gives His disciples the Eucharist on the “night in which He was betrayed.” Judas loves money. Christ loves the Father – and all that the Father has given to Him. The bread that Christ gives is life, and life more abundantly. The bread of Judas is money – and it is death. God give us life!

More Thoughts on Hell

hell_joyceIn my recent article on hell, I offered what I called a “lesson in ontology” (the study of being). It was a way of understanding what it means to say something is real and true, and the nature of existence as a gift.

But in describing hell as not “real,” many readers immediately concluded that I was saying that there is no such thing as hell. This occasioned legitimate questions about those verses in Scripture that speak of hell and judgment. Is there truly a judgment? Does it matter what we do with our lives?

The one figure in Scripture who says the most about hell and judgment is Christ Himself. Though many like to think of St. Paul as the “bad guy” of the New Testament (because of things he says about women, sexual activity, etc.), it is actually Jesus who speaks of “hell fire,” the “worm that does not die,” “outer darkness,” and such things. I have been asked to write specifically to these references.

But again, some basics.

Sin is not a legal problem. If we understand sin as the breaking of a rule, even a Divine commandment, then we will fail to understand the whole of our life with God, including salvation, heaven – everything.

Legal problems, however real we might perceive them, are not real. If I break a rule (say in civil society) then there is no problem unless and until someone enforces the rule and extracts a penalty. If I break the speed limit and no one sees me, there is no legal problem. If I break the speed limit and the police officer gives me a warning, there is no legal problem. If I break the speed limit and the police officer accepts a bribe, there is no legal problem.

And even if the legal problem is enforced, my problem, at its worst, is not legal. I might have a money problem (a fine), or a jail problem (incarceration), etc., but “legal” is simply a word that describes the nature of my relationship with those in charge of extracting money from me at the point of a gun (or other forms of violence). We permit such forms of violence through a social contract (the state).

But none of this has anything to do with God. To use legal understandings to speak of the Kingdom of God produces a caricature and only promotes deep misunderstanding (even heresies).

The Law of God is not a legal fiction. Instead, it describes the actual nature of things. The commandments of God describe how things are, such that consequences are quite “natural.”

The Law of Gravity is not a legal problem:

“I didn’t mean to walk off the cliff.”

“Then legally you shouldn’t have died.”

The same is true of sin. Sin is not a legal problem. In the Garden, when God warns Adam and Eve concerning the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, He says, “In the day that you eat of it, you will surely die.” This is not a legal statement. Were that the case, God would have said, “In the day you eat of it, I will kill you.” But the consequence is not legal but natural – it is inherent – intrinsic to the very nature of things.

Adam and Eve die, not as punishment, but because they have broken communion with God who alone is the Lord and Giver of Life, the source of our very being. Death is not punishment, but the natural state of a human being who moves in a direction away from God.

Much of the imagery (and thought) that surround judgment and hell are rife with legal imagery. Some of this is completely natural (doing no damage to the text) but much of it is from a centuries’ long habit of reading legal imagery into almost everything (such is our cultural heritage).

But sin, and its punishment, are not legal in nature. Were our punishment of a legal nature, then there would be no disagreement about hell as a temporary matter. For if our sins are finite in nature, then surely our punishment would be finite as well.

I have listened to hours and hours of explanations of how humanity’s sin is infinite and how the offense against God’s honor (or justice or righteousness) is infinite – but this is all “after the fact,” a poor human effort to justify an image of an eternal, infinite, punishing hell-fire.

Again, our problem is not legal in nature.

Sin is ontological – it goes to the very heart of our being and existence. St. Paul uses the word “corruption” (phthora) in a number of places to describe the work of sin:

For he who sows to his flesh will of the flesh reap corruption, but he who sows to the Spirit will of the Spirit reap everlasting life. (Gal 6:8 NKJ)

Corruption is the word for what the body does when it dies – it rots. It is also a description of what happens in our lives when we live out of communion with God – things rot – they fall apart – they dissolve ever more completely – morally, spiritually, physically. It is like a disease process. It can only be arrested (and healed) by grace.

Every attempt to describe sin and hell with legal/penal imagery fails to do justice to the inward, ontological nature of our fall. It reduces the consequences of sin to externally imposed penalties and runs the risk of ignoring the entire body of Scripture (and human experience) that bear witness to a deeply organic character of sin and consequence.

Justice models tend to major in external imagery. Thus the fires of hell (as external punishing flames) and hell as a place become very important. The teaching of the Orthodox Church, as expressed famously by St. Mark of Ephesus, holds that the fires of hell are immaterial. The fathers of the Church often pierce the flames of hell with discernment and wisdom revealing their inner meaning rather than dwelling on crude images of torture and punishment. Thus St. Ambrose:

That gnashing is not of bodily teeth, nor is that perpetual fire made up of physical flames, nor is the worm a bodily one. These things are spoken of, however, because, just as worms are born of massive overeating and fevers, so too, if anyone does not boil away his sins…he will be burned up in his own worms. Whence also Isaias says: “Walk in the light of your fire, and the flame which you have ignited” (Isaiah 50:11). It is a fire which gloominess of sins generates. It is a worm insofar as irrational sins of the soul stab at mind and heart and eat the guts out of your conscience.(Commentary on Luke, 7, 205)

St. Isaac of Syria says that the fires of hell are nothing other than the love of God:

As for me I say that those who are tormented in hell are tormented by the invasion of love. What is there more bitter and violent than the pains of love? Those who feel they have sinned against love bear in themselves a damnation much heavier than the most dreaded punishments. The suffering with which sinning against love afflicts the heart is more keenly felt than any other torment. It is absurd to assume that the sinners in hell are deprived of God’s love. Love is offered impartially. But by its very power it acts in two ways. It torments sinners, as happens here on earth when we are tormented by the presence of a friend to whom we have been unfaithful. And it gives joy to those who have been faithful.

St. Isaac’s words are very helpful. The “punishment” is nothing other than love. But the tormenting character of God’s love is produced by the state of the soul, not by the external character of the love itself. It is a consequence of our own making.

When understood in such an intrinsic manner, hell does not cease to be a “threat” (as some fear), but the threat becomes more immediate and does not rest on the external action of a punishing God. It is a reflection of something already begun within us:

For the time has come for judgment to begin at the house of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the end of those who do not obey the gospel of God? (1Pe 4:17 NKJ)

However, the nature of our inner corruption often makes us blind to the very judgment at work within us. I often think of the character in Lewis’ gray town (The Great Divorce), who though in hell, has a small theological discussion group and needs to leave his excursion in heaven in order to return to present a paper. Its irony is too true to be humorous.

The caricatured wrathful, punishing God is the product of poor theological reflection (or none at all). His hell, no matter how justified, does not serve the intended purpose of its defenders (provoking sinners to repentance). It instead provokes skeptics to unbelief.

The subtleties of the inner torment and corruption of the soul may fail to satisfy those who prefer the punishing God. But they would do well to tend to the subtleties of their own souls and the corruption worked by envy and the joy at the punishment of others.

Judgment has indeed begun in the house of God.

 

Saving the Atonement

6a00d8341c511c53ef01127946ed5928a4-800wiI am speaking this week in Mississippi, in a place where Orthodoxy is thriving, but not a place where you would expect to find it. The parish (a former Presbyterian facility) has a sign with variable letters, where a changing “message” can be displayed. It reads something like, “Father Stephen Freeman speaking Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday on Salvation, Heaven and Hell.” Those are indeed the topics, but the sign fits so well in the culture of Mississippi that it brought a smile to my face.

I spoke this evening on “Saving the Atonement.” I was not discussing how to fix a doctrine, but rather how to speak to a culture that increasingly doesn’t care about the Scriptures or even know them. I suggested that we are more like St. Paul in ancient Athens than St Paul in Jerusalem. The arguments that spoke well several generations back fall empty today.

And it may seem strange to think of Orthodoxy in such a context – a world that has become a stranger to the gospel encountering the Church that wrote the gospels. But that is precisely where I think we are. My experience of Orthodoxy has not been with a new way of arguing the same old things (though it is possible to force it into such a position). Rather, reading and praying the fathers has been a path back to something prior to all of the arguments.

I used passages from St. Athanasius to guide my thoughts tonight – and was struck particularly by something he said in On the Incarnation of the Word: “Man was in danger of disappearing.”

He was describing the existential position of the human race after the fall. Refusing communion with the only truly existing God, we began to fall back towards the nothing from which we were created. Either we are sustained by grace and flourish, or we increasingly cease to exist.

I can see that human life is almost always in such a danger. I have lived all of my life under the shadow of complete, planetary destruction. Mine was the first generation to live with such a possibility. The end of the world has never just been a cosmic theory. It has always been a clear and present danger. I have also lived during a time when Western culture has been rushing headlong towards a changing future that appears less “human” somehow, such that “man” in a primary sense is in danger of disappearing. C.S. Lewis described this as “men without chests” (an image that never quite made sense to me).

But these and other forms of disappearance have felt palpable and real for me. And as I age, the same disappearance becomes quite personal. I can see rather clearly a personal end that I once only imagined. It is not frightening nor morbid, but sobering and concrete. The existence which matters for me cannot be those things that once mattered to a younger man: my job, my family, my place in the community, my writing. And now I’ve learned that my ego itself is not so precious and that if something of me is to exist it is not the “me” I prize so deeply.

Crucified with Christ, a different me now lives, and if I am to live at all I must find that me and unite myself to Him, or disappear completely. Though I suspect that the finding of that “me” comes in finally disappearing. “For it does not yet appear what we shall be…”

And so I’ve been speaking on “saving the atonement,” finding a way to understand our reconciliation with God that is not the same set of arguments (wrath, debt, justice, etc.), working from the same set of tired, misused Bible verses. What has God done in order for us to not disappear? What does it mean to disappear? What would it mean that we should appear?

And to all of these things Orthodoxy bears a rich witness. And the richness of that witness is beautiful. For, as Pavel Florensky rightly wrote, “Beauty is the criterion of truth.” For the first tell-tale signs of disappearing come in the forms of ugliness. For our existence, from the beginning, came in the form of the image of God, the truly good and beautiful.

God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, who took upon Himself our ugliness that we should take upon ourselves His beauty. It is a tell-tale sign of my sinfulness that I would be satisfied (I lie) with an existence that is mere appearance – that I should merely not disappear. But God will not be satisfied (and this is the true satisfaction theory) with anything less than my appearance in beauty and truth, for to exist in anything less than beauty is to begin to disappear.

And knowing this is part of “saving” the atonement. For hearts everywhere cry for beauty even as they pursue something less. Something less always has the nature of idolatry (which is why the icons are not idols). Though the culture shifts and forgets its original roots in a Christian view of the world, man himself does not shift. He abides (God is merciful). And the disappearing man knows and fears that he is disappearing even as he rushes headlong towards it.

His knowledge and his fear are gifts from God, echoes and memories of paradise. Saving the atonement is changing idols into icons. Just as Christ the Pantokrator saved Zeus, and the Theotokos saved a thousand variations of the Mother with her child.

It is the greatest irony that God made Him to be sin who knew no sin that we might become the righteousness of Christ. And richer irony that even the shape of our sin never completely obscures Christ Himself for He Himself has entered sin that He might reshape us. Strange wonder, the Atonement saving the atonement.

With Envy and Justice for All

evil_eye_by_vintagexxrose-d5fxqy8We use many words and concepts in our daily lives without bothering to consider their true content. In my experience, few words are less examined than “justice.” It is a word that is foundational in the modern world with deep roots in religious tradition. Most people would agree that the desire for justice is virtually innate in human beings. However, it has a dark side of which very few seem to be aware.

In the religious tradition, justice is usually grounded within God Himself. Some associate this justice with God’s demand for right conduct from His creation. There is also the sense that justice has a way of “balancing the scales.” An evil done brings an evil reward (punishment) while good brings blessings. In theory, at least, justice plays a role in the legal systems of almost all cultures. We desire to make things right.

Or so we tell ourselves.

There is a darker desire that masks itself as justice – and I would contend that it is this desire that most people experience when they speak of justice. It’s name is envy.

Envy is not the desire to have what someone else has – that desire is named covetousness. Envy is the desire we have for the other to “get what’s coming to him.” It does not mean that things will, in fact, be made right. But there is a feeling that wants the other to suffer, to be deprived, to be shamed, to be punished, to be plundered or suffer loss. All of these things are the work of envy.

In the Tradition, envy is considered by some to be the primary sin. The Scriptures say that Christ was put to death on account of envy (Matt. 27:18).

Envy is also associated with what is popularly called the “evil eye.” Though many of the things associated with the “evil eye” are purely superstitious, the evil eye itself is quite real. It is referenced by Christ Himself (Matt. 6:23). Pagan cultures of antiquity believed that the eye emitted something like “rays” or “influence.” Thus a wrong look could cause harm to another. This was rejected by Christianity and Judaism. Christ describes the eye as something which “receives” rather than “projects.” Thus the “evil eye” does its primary harm to the one who is doing the looking. Nevertheless the envy of others is quite dangerous and we do well to pray for protection.

Our instinct for equality (even children complain when someone is not sharing) is easily translated into envy. We no longer look for equality. If you will not share with me, then I will at least be satisfied if what you have is taken away from you.

In the course of our day we see the world through this lens of envy. Someone annoys us and we quietly, even secretly wish them harm.

A pro-football player makes public remarks that seem arrogant. We quietly think that it would be quite fitting if he would fail in his game and be shamed before all.

This desire for the failure and shaming of others, however, is often interpreted as “justice.” When we say that someone has gotten what they deserve – we perceive this as justice and we do not see ourselves as doing anything wrong in having such thoughts.

Here the full quote of Christ regarding the evil eye is worth noting:

The lamp of the body is the eye. If therefore your eye is good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in you is darkness, how great is that darkness! (Mat 6:22-23 NKJ)

How we see the other is essential. The only manner of seeing the world that is commanded by God is to see the world with blessing. Everything else is born of sin. And sin, when properly understood, is not about the breaking of rules and legal or moral debt. It is always about death – our own death – physical and spiritual.

When we see the other as the object of our desire (other than the desire for blessing) that desiring quickly becomes envy. We want them to get what they deserve. We want them to do what pleases us. Even our desire for others “to behave” is frequently still a form of envy. And these desires darken the eye. They harden our hearts.

And the eye is the “lamp of the body.” The look of envy darkens the soul and makes true discernment impossible. It is in this lack of discernment that people fall into the delusion of “justice.”

Those who call for the “justice” (or “wrath” etc.) of God to fall on others only succeed in darkening their own eye. I have noted that few in our culture refrain from such pronouncements – only in the nature of the crimes for which they call for justice to fall.

The path to the light is difficult. We refrain from judging not simply because it’s “wrong.” We refrain from judging because it darkens our very soul. I would suggest as well, that Christians who ground their view of our relationship with God in ideas of justice seriously reconsider. It is a theological pathway that will darken the soul. Rather than revealing the true and living God, it will distort our understanding.

In the words of St. Isaac of Syria: “We know nothing of God’s justice.”

 

The Death of Christ on the Cross – the Life of Man

twelve_gospelsSeveral years ago, someone wrote and asked, “Why did Christ have to die on the Cross?” It is the question that prompted this article. On September 14th (New Calendar), the Church marks the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross. It is a fitting time to ask, “Why did Christ have to die?” His death and resurrection are the utter foundation of the Christian faith. Either we can answer this question, or we have nothing to say.

Preliminary Thoughts

Part of the information accompanying the question was the experience (of Mary K) with teaching on the atonement that centered largely on the wrath and anger of God. (I paraphrase and summarize) We sinned  (both ourselves and Adam and Eve) – God punished us. God sent Christ whom He punished in our place. Now through faith in Christ we can escape the punishment we deserve. Along with this were a number of questions about the blood of Christ. How does it cleanse us from sin?

Of course such a question could be the occasion for a book. As is, it is the occasion for an answer of readable length (barely). Readers who feel that more should have been said about one thing or another are asked for patience. The heart of things, it seems to me, has to do with the primary images used to understand both what is wrong with humanity and creation (sin) and what it is about Christ that saves us and heals us (His death and resurrection). If there were only one way of speaking about this or thinking about this, then the question would not have been asked.

The truth is that Scripture, including within the work of a single writer, uses many images to describe the reality of what Christ has done. Some of those images are simply useful analogies or metaphors, others seem to have a more “literal” character about them – though nowhere do we find a definitive account that sets all others aside.

I want to also add a preliminary word (for our questioning reader) about the language of Scripture. Though many Christians would agree that the words of Scripture are “God-breathed” (inspired), this does not mean that every statement in Scripture is to be read literally. There are many things that are read figuratively, metaphorically, and otherwise. That is to say, the Scriptures cannot be read without help and a guide. This has always been true. For this reason the Scriptures, when read in a traditional Christian manner, must be read with Christians who themselves have been taught to read them in a traditional manner.

In this matter, you will find great diversity among Christians, for the interpretation of Scripture has been a major point of division between Christians for almost 500 years. Much of what was described in the background to the question that was posed are examples of modern, fundamentalist Christian interpretations (of which there are a variety). What I offer here is the general understanding of Eastern Orthodox Christianity.

The Problem

What is wrong with humanity, and creation, such that we are in need of anything from God? What is sin?

At its most fundamental level – sin is death. For the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). The fact that we die is not a punishment sent to us from God but the result of our having broken fellowship (communion) with God. God is Life and the only source of life. Created things (humanity included) do not have life in themselves, it is not something we have as our possession and power. Rather, life is the gift of God. It is not just our life that is the gift of God – but our very existence and the existence of all that is. God is our Creator. The Scriptures say, “In Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

Genesis offers us the story of Adam and Eve in which we hear described their disobedience from God. He had warned them: “Do not eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”

Many early commentators on Scripture were careful to note that God did not say, “In the day you eat of it I will kill you,” but “in the day you eat of it you shall die.” Rather we are told: “God did not create death, nor does he delight in the death of the living” (Wisdom 1:13).

St. Athanasius explains that when humanity chose to break its relationship with God (through disobedience) we cut ourselves off from the source of life. However God did not take life from us (He does not take back the gifts He gives) but we removed ourselves from it. And so we die. We not only die physically, but we have a process of death at work in us. St. Paul speaks of this process as “corruption.” This movement away from and towards death and destruction reveals itself in the many broken things in our lives. We hurt and kill each other. We hurt and destroy creation. We are weak and easily enslaved to powerful things such as drugs and alcohol. We are dominated by greed, envy, lust, anger, etc. We cannot help ourselves in this matter because we do not have life within ourselves. Only God can give us the true life that alone can make us well.

The Answer

Above all else we should remember that “God is a good God and He loves mankind” (from the Orthodox dismissal). This we hear clearly in Scripture: “God is love” (1 John 4:8) and “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

We hear this echoed in the words of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom:

You [God] brought us into being out of nothing, and when we fell, You raised us up again. You did not cease doing everything until You led us to heaven and granted us Your kingdom to come.

This good God who loves mankind is not an angry God. He is not a vengeful God. He does not will us harm or punish us for our destruction. Though the Scriptures use these images, the Fathers of the Church have been consistent in understanding that this language is figurative and should not be understood literally. For instance, St. Anthony says:

God is good and is not controlled by passions. He does not change. Now someone who thinks it reasonable and true to affirm that God does not change, may well ask how, in that case, it is possible to speak of God as rejoicing over those who are good and showing mercy to those who honor Him, and as turning away from the wicked and being angry with sinners. To this it must be answered that God neither rejoices nor grows angry, for to rejoice and to be offended are passions; nor is He won over by the gifts of those who honor Him, for that would mean He is swayed by pleasure. It is not right that the Divinity feel pleasure or displeasure from human conditions. He is good, and He only bestows blessings and never does harm, remaining always the same. We men, on the other hand, if we remain good through resembling God, are united to Him, but if we become evil through not resembling God, we are separated from Him. By living in holiness we cleave to God; but by becoming wicked we make Him our enemy. It is not that He grows angry with us in an arbitrary way, but it is our own sins that prevent God from shining within us and expose us to demons who torture us. And if through prayer and acts of compassion we gain release from our sins, this does not mean that we have won God over and made Him to change, but that through our actions and our turning to the Divinity, we have cured our wickedness and so once more have enjoyment of God’s goodness. Thus to say that God turns away from the wicked is like saying that the sun hides itself from the blind.

There are many Christians who would handle Scriptures in a different manner – but I think they do not listen to the fathers of the Church and interpret Scripture according to their own opinions. In this, I think they are in error and should not be listened to.

This good God, the only Lord and giver of Life, had compassion on us when we fell away and became subject to death and corruption. In His compassion He sent His only Son who became one of us – taking our human nature upon Himself. Uniting us to Himself, He lived a life without sin (for He is Life), and taught us by word and deed the goodness and kindness of God and to become like God by loving even our enemies.

His love was so great, that He extended that love beyond the grave. He accepted death on the Cross, suffering the hatred and evil doings of those around Him.

And here, as we approach Christ’s death on the Cross, it is appropriate to ask, “Why death?”

There are many meditations on the death of Christ. Meditations that see Him as the Paschal Lamb sacrificed for us, as the “Serpent lifted in the wilderness,” and others. Here, temptation sets in and Christians seek to explain Christ’s death by comparing it to their own faulty understandings of lesser things. For it is not the shadow of things to come (Old Testament) that interprets the things to come – but rather the reality (New Testament) that interprets the shadow. It is Christ’s death that gives meaning to every type and foreshadowing and image of that death to be found in the Old Testament.

Thus it is more accurate to say that the Paschal Lamb in the time of Moses is like Christ’s sacrifice, rather than to say His sacrifice is like that which came before. As Christ said of Moses and the Prophets, “These are they which testify of me” (John 5:30).

One of the most common and helpful images in Scripture and the fathers of the Church is the image of Christ’s union with humanity. Christ became incarnate, taking to Himself our human nature. He became what we were, yet without sin. This union should be understood in more than a metaphorical manner. For Christ literally and truly became man. His humanity was not a new creation, but he took flesh “of the Virgin Mary.” He became a partaker of our humanity.

In becoming a partaker of our humanity, Christ opened the way for us to become partakers in His divinity. “For as He is, so are we in this world” (1 John 4:17). St. Paul uses this language as well in his explanation of Baptism:

Do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into His death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of His death, we shall also be raised together in the likeness of His resurrection. Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that we should no longer be the slaves of sin (Romans 6:3-6).

This imagery is common in St. Paul:

I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me. And the life that I now live in the flesh, I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me (Galatians 2:20).

If you are risen with Christ, seek those things that are above, where Christ sits on the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth. For you are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then you shall also appear with Him in glory (Colossians 3:1-4).

These things only make sense because Christ has united Himself to us, and us to Him. We are united to His death and resurrection in our faith and in our Baptism. We become one flesh with Christ. We truly become a part of the Body of Christ.

And this goes to the heart of the answer to the question posed: why did Christ die? Christ died because we were dead. We were trapped in the lifeless death of sin (which yields corruption and physical death as well). Christ is God who has come to rescue us from our prison of sin and death. He became what we are that we might have a share in what He is. We were created in the image and likeness of God – but our sin had marred us.

We did not inherit guilt and a legal penalty from Adam and Eve. We inherited a world dominated by death. In such a world we behaved as the slaves of sin and sought to live our lives apart from God Who alone is Life. God alone could rescue us from the place where we had confined ourselves. Christ enters death. Christ enters Hades and makes a way for us to follow Him into true life.

In our present life, this true life is made present within us in many ways. First, it is made present in our knowledge of God. “This is eternal life, that they might know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ Whom Thou hast sent” (John 17:3). We know God and have a true relationship and communion with Him. We also have within us the power to overcome sin. This is sometimes manifest as obedience to Christ’s commandments, and, as God pleases, it is sometimes manifest as physical healing in our bodies (and miracles in creation – Romans 8:21).

If the same Spirit which raised Christ from the dead dwell in you, He will make alive your mortal bodies (Romans 8:11).

The true life of humanity is a common life. It is common in the modern world to think of ourselves only in terms of discreet individuals. But the Scriptures and teaching of the Church bear witness to a common life in which we all partake. Thus, what happens to one of us effects all of us. This commonality is also an important part of our spiritual life and our salvation. The Church in particular is the place where Christians live their common life.

This common life is also the place where we come to understand the references to “Christ’s blood” (since this was part of the question posed). His blood carries a number of meanings. It is His death, His “life poured out for us.” It is also His life given to us in the sacrament of His Body and Blood. His blood cleanses us – just as Baptism cleanses us – for His death destroys death and makes the whole creation new. There are many links between the image of blood in the Old Testament and Christ’s blood in the New. However, it is easy to become overly detailed about his connection and miss the larger point of Christ’s death – by which He destroyed death and gave us eternal life.

There are many voices across the Christian world. Taken together – they are a madhouse of confusion. Confusion and contradiction is the only result of those who listen first to one teacher and then to another. No one will arrive at the truth by such a route.

Instead, I counsel anyone to take up the life of the Church. Be Baptized (or otherwise received into the Church) and stay put. Listen to a godly pastor who lives the Scriptures and respects the fathers of the Church. Those who have built private empires and practice ministries that are in submission to “no one except God” are frauds and live in delusion. They are scandals waiting to happen.

No Church, including the Orthodox Church, ever exists without scandal. But that scandal can be disciplined. True teaching can be found and life in union with the resurrected Lord can be lived.

A Short Word About Wrath and Anger

These are words, I believe, that are so charged and dangerous, that they must be used seldom and only with caution and careful nuance. Hate and anger and wrath are generally only experienced in a sinful manner by human beings and most people are deeply wounded already by such abuse. Those who preach such terms are often engaging in spiritual abuse and should stop. If someone who teaches or preaches the Christian gospel but cannot do so without reference to these words, then I think they need to stop and pray and see if there is not something fundamentally wrong with their understanding. I’m not trying to edit these things out of Scripture – simply to say that they are abused by most who read them. Imagine you are explaining the gospel to a 4 year old. Will the child misunderstand the concept of God’s wrath? I am rather sure of it. I have not found adults to be that much more emotionally mature. My challenge of these images (on the blog and in my writings) is, I hope, an occasion for other Christians, particularly Orthodox, to think carefully about these very powerful words. If we do that – then I’ll have done a little good.

[Of course, Scripture and the Fathers use the image of anger and wrath, generally with the understanding that such anger or wrath is an expression of an aspect of God’s love and not an effect created in God by our actions. A common example is the double aspect of fire – in which it is both heat and light, purification and illumination. Of course, the words “wrath” and “anger” are seldom used with such subtlety by many who preach or teach them and in so doing may be saying something that the Gospels do not teach.]

It is quite possible to give a very good account of the Christian gospel without the use of “wrath” and “anger.” St. John only uses the word wrath once in His entire Gospel. It is not an integral and necessary part of the theology of the Cross. To say that it is – is to make of an illustration and metaphor a matter of dogma. If you disagree, argue with St. John.

Conclusion

I pray that this answer is of help to the reader who posed the question. I also ask pardon of those readers who have been patient with me for the posting of this answer. It comes at the end of a busy week. May God give us all grace to hear the Holy Gospel.

The True Culture War

everywherepresentThe cultural landscape of the modern world is continuing to shift and change. Opinions that were but shortly ago in the minority have moved into the majority and the political world is quickly realigning itself. Positions that were once traditionally Christian with wide public support or acquiescence are being marginalized. In various places Christians find themselves to be objects of scorn – even disgust. I think that we are headed into some fairly dark days. But I do not think that such things are the true “culture wars” of our times. The ebb and flow of culture, like the rising and fall of nations and empires, are in the hands of God. Christians are called to be salt and light in the world – but we are called to be such, precisely because the world needs salt and light (sometimes more, sometimes less). But the great culture war is raging within the Christian heart.

I have written, and published, about the false structures of a “two-storey” universe. It is an image I use to think about the effects of living within a secularized culture and the temptations of a secularized Christianity. But all of the structures of a two-storey world exist in the imaginations of modern believers. God is everywhere present or He is nowhere at all.

Secularism is an intellectual construct. It has its own history – dating largely to the centuries of the early Reformation. Its assumptions are that the universe exists in a “neutral” zone. Things are just things with no particular religious significance in themselves. Religion is a matter of personal belief, but not a description of the material order.

Along with this comes a secularization of the sacraments. The significance of the Bread and Wine in the Eucharist is “spiritual,” affecting no material change in the Bread and Wine (note that the word “spiritual” is coming to mean “not having to do with everyday things”). “Freedom of religion” means “freedom of belief” since religion is simply a matter of belief (i.e. it’s intellectual).

Life lived in the “neutral zone” comes to be seen and understood as “normal life.” Today it even becomes synonymous with the “real world.” Religious practices that are publicly displayed tend to jar the neutrality of the real world. The sensibilities of the mainstream are often offended by such uninvited and unwelcome intrusions. The public square is not a religious square.

These two-storey assumptions are increasingly becoming the objects of legislation or public policy. Thus, a creche has no place in the public square or the Ten Commandments in a courthouse. But this is not the location of the culture war.

It is the fact that we ourselves increasingly feel that these things have no place in the public square. The sensibilities of believers have long been the objects of secularizing efforst. Secularism was invented in order to pacify believers (literally). The Thirty Years War in the first half of the 17th century, pitted Protestant against Catholic across the heart of Western Europe as the Holy Roman Empire came to an end and religious factions and various princes vied for power. It was hugely devastating.

The sensibilities of the 18th century and the Enlightenment were shaped to a large extent by this turmoil. The sense that religious thought was the source of interminable conflict was difficult to gainsay. Kant and other significant thinkers of the 18th century offered alternatives to a religiously shaped world. Kant wrote Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, a book whose title says it all. John Lennon echoed the sentiment when he Imagined “no religion, too.”

Nearly four hundred years have heard the preaching of a secular gospel. Stanley Hauerwas at Duke notes that one of the great achievements of the modern secular nation states was their ability to get Protestants to kill Protestants and Catholics to kill Catholics. Wars did not cease – the only change was their justification. Modern secularists are shocked at the religious nature of the Islamist challenge, as though an outright grab for territory or control of the oil market would be more acceptable. The Thirty Years War has never been repeated. Kant, and associates, were successful. Rationalism and secularism, however, have not solved the origins of war itself.

The culture war that rages within the believer is born of a double loyalty. How can Jesus be Lord of all and yet be Lord of nothing in the world around us? Some solve the contradiction by postponing Christ’s Lordship to the future. He will be Lord when He gets back. There are a variety of arrangements on this theme, but it is perhaps the dominant solution to the two-storey problem.

In the last few decades, as the gentleman’s agreement that kept nominal religious allegiance unchallenged in popular culture has broken down, religious figures have urged a frontal assault. In the ballot box and in legislatures (and frequently in some pulpits) efforts to regain a political majority have pushed the stakes in the culture wars to new highs. The result has probably been a backlash that has only hastened the marginalization of religion.

But those strategies and assaults have yet to address the heart of the problem – the heart – for it is within what the Fathers call the heart that the true war is being waged. To a large extent, Christianity has lost the war, for it has largely lost the heart and any memory of what it ever meant.

The heart is not the seat of emotions and feelings in the writings of the Fathers. Instead, it is the organ of spiritual perception, that inmost place where we encounter God and know the truth (not think the truth). The heart dwells in the present and does not judge or compare (these are faculties of the mind). But creation as a one-storey universe is entered into and known primarily as a perception. If we have lost the ability to perceive, we have spiritually lost our way.

Statements such as “all of creation is a sacrament,” makes little sense to the rational mind. “Do you mean that we should think differently about things?” And the answer is, “I mean you can’t think about sacraments at all (except as abstractions). A sacrament is a means of knowing rather than something to be known.

The Incarnation of Christ is viewed by many Christians as a visit – God became man – died on the Cross to save us – and now He’s gone. For them, the Incarnation establishes nothing of a relationship between God and matter. The womb of the Virgin was but a temporary shelter, later to receive other children conceived in the manner of any woman. The fact that Christ is bone of her bone and flesh of her flesh means nothing – for it is not the flesh of Christ that saves. The saving action of Christ is a transaction accomplished off-stage on an altar in heaven.

This is not a caricature. For the ever-virginity of Mary is rejected by modernist Christianity as a pious fiction (and as idolatry by others). Atonement theories popularized since the Reformation concentrate on the abstractions of the Father’s wrath and the debt paid by Christ. The blood of Christ is poured out on a heavenly altar, the Cross being but an instrument of death. It is perhaps fitting that the “tomb” that General Gordan declared to be Christ’s tomb (in the 19th century) – today known as the Garden Tomb – is over a thousand years too old to be true. But the fiction is better than the fact, because the fiction looks like the Tomb that Gordon (and his coreligionists imagined). Besides, the other one had an Orthodox-Catholic Church built over it and had been turned into a shrine with oil lamps and candles!

The path to a one-storey universe lies directly through the heart. It is not a path to a mental fiction, but a discipline and gift whereby we see the truth of things. God is everywhere present and filling all things. The Incarnation has revealed all of creation to be a sacrament, a means of communion and participation in Christ, for He has Himself entered into communion and participation with creation. The efforts to exile the Incarnate God from our world, whether the public square, or a loaf of bread, are futile in the long run. For it is indeed a culture war, but it was won long ago. The heart perceives the truth of this and wonders at the goodness of God in the land of the living.

 

 

 

The Pillar and Ground of Hypocrisy

RelativiteitA growing feature of the modern world is the disconnect between members of the Church and the teaching of the Church. A recent New York Times article noted a deep divide between what American Catholics believe and what their hierarchy teaches. It’s not just a Catholic phenomenon – it’s a feature of the modern Christian landscape. There is no lack of blame in this growing disconnect. Individualism, relativism, post-modernism – pretty much every possible modern philosophy and cultural trend (including my own favorite hobby-horse, secularism) can be pointed to as a culprit in the chasm between the teaching of the Church and the beliefs of the faithful (sic).

The New York Times piece focuses rather strongly on the social teaching of the Catholic Church, viz. abortion, same-sex unions, etc. Western cultures have recently embraced the cause of same-sex unions, with the Church left twisting in the wind. Though there is a continued debate in Western cultures surrounding these issues, public opinion has clearly shifted, with the strongest pro-union sentiments being among the young.

The position of the Church has been deeply undermined by very high-profile scandals within the ordained clergy and hierarchy alike. It is difficult for hierarchs to speak authoritatively about the teaching of the Church on sexual matters when they have been so publicly compromised in their own behaviors. Of course, it is true that scandals represent the actions of only a few. But the weak response to such scandals over the past number of decades has tarnished the entirety of the hierarchy. While the Church is changing (it would seem) and addressing these crimes in a more open and forthright manner – it is still the case that the Church had to change – and that the change was brought about through civil suits and insurance claims. It is hard to see this change as a triumph of the gospel.

I have heard this growing disconnect described as a break with the Church’s teaching. It is easy to point to the deposit of the faith (which is generally quite clear on matters of personal conduct) and demand that people accept the Church’s authoritative teaching. But the teaching office of the Church can never be restricted to the passing on of information. The teaching of the Church is either embodied or it is no teaching at all.

You are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read by all men; clearly you are an epistle of Christ, ministered by us, written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of flesh, that is, of the heart (2 Cor. 3:2-3).

Orthodox priests in the Russian tradition, are given a cross at their ordination. On the back is inscribed 1 Tim. 4:12:

..Be an example to the believers in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity.

Without such an example there can be no teaching.

I have written before that Christ Himself warned that scandals were bound to happen. He also offered dire warnings for those by whom the scandals come.

It is less than clear to me (as an Orthodox priest) that Rome is currently able to make the case for a celibate priesthood. In many ways, its removal of celibacy from the context of monasticism has changed the context of the original canons concerning celibacy. Monasticism may have existed from the earliest days of the Church. It is clear that it became a significant phenomenon only the the latter half of the 3rd century. Celibacy as a rule for bishops does not become a fixed canon until the 7th century. But even then, its context (in the East) is that bishops will also be monks. To this day, a priest, whether widower or simply unmarried, cannot become a bishop without first being tonsured a monk. It is many times only pro forma, but the form at least preserves the intention.

It is not a mystical cult of celibacy that informed the early canons. The practical questions of unencumbered freedom (no young family to care for) and fears of property rights (heirs demanding Church property), as well as the well-formed life of piety nurtured within monasticism that gave rise to the canonical institution of monastic bishops. It is certainly the case that the canon did not intend to create a career of institutionalized unmarried men apart from monasticism.

In the Church’s scandal-weakened condition, it is very difficult for it even to make the case against same-sex unions or abstinence outside of holy matrimony. Indeed, it is difficult for the Church to teach on the subject of sex at all. None of this is the fault of the teaching (I’ve expressed my reservations regarding priestly celibacy above), when viewed from the realm of content. But the scandal which we now endure (in the original sense of the word) is not found within the teaching: it is found within our lives.

My mind wanders to conversations with teenagers. There adults are often confronted with questions of “why?” when we seek to offer guidance or issue rules. “Because I said so!” is the weakest of all responses, followed closely by, “Do what I say, but don’t do what I do!” It is difficult to understand (for a layman) why a priest who has molested children should be slapped on the wrist and simply transferred, while a divorced and remarried layman is forbidden the cup (except he gain an ecclesiastical annulment). Explanations will and do fall on deaf ears.

The integrity of Christ’s teaching requires integrity of its teachers. This is the case universally, regardless of what group of Christians is being described. No group of Christians is free of scandal. We live today under the withering gaze of an indifferent and frequently hostile public. Early Christians gained converts through the integrity of their martyrdoms. Modern Christian groups are hemorrhaging members through the failure of integrity. Civil suits and insurance rules are the wrath of a culture brought down upon the heads of Christians for misplaced institutional loyalties and the refusal simply to do what is right.

And in the midst of this, the Catholic Church elects a Pope. I wish them well and pray for grace that we may all embrace the integrity of the gospel. There is no “good of the Church” apart from the commandments of Christ. Despite the differences among Christians, we swim in the same small pool watched by the same school of sharks. May we learn to swim well – or even to walk on water!

Note to readers: I do not wish to engage in a discussion of the pro’s and con’s of the Church’s teaching on sexual matters. It is beside the point of this article.

A Life of Thanksgiving

Everyone capable of thanksgiving is capable of salvation.

Fr. Alexander Schmemann

 

I have just completed a week in New Mexico, visiting a monastery and leading a retreat in Santa Fe. One of the retreat participants reminded me of this post on giving thanks and shared how helpful it had been for her. We are coming to a season where Americans think of thanksgiving – though our holiday is often expressed in a large meal and a family reunion. I will not say that this year I have much for which to be thankful – for as you will read – everything is the proper object of thanksgiving. But in the course of the past year, I have learned yet again and more deeply than ever that the life of thanksgiving is the life rightly lived. 

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I do not believe it is possible to exhaust this topic. I have set forth a few suggestions of how we might build and maintain a life of thanksgiving. Particular thought is given to those times when giving thanks is difficult.

1. I must believe that God is good.

I struggled with this for many years. I believed that God was sovereign; I believed that He was the Creator of heaven and earth; I believed that He sent His only Son to die for me. But despite a host of doctrines to which I gave some form of consent, not included (and this was a matter of my heart) was the simple, straight-forward consent that God is good. My father-in-law, a very simple Baptist deacon of great faith, believed this straight-forward truth with an absolute assurance that staggered my every argument. I knew him for over 30 years. When I was young (and much more foolish) I would argue with him – not to be out-maneuvered by his swift and crafty theological answers (it was me that was trying to maneuver and be swift and crafty) – but often times our arguments would end with his smile and simple confession, “Well, I don’t know about that, but I know that God is good.” Over the years I came to realize that until and unless I believed that God is good, I would never be able to truly give thanks. I could thank God when things went well, but not otherwise.

This simple point was hammered into me weekly, even daily,  after I became Orthodox. There is hardly a service of the Orthodox Church that does not end its blessing with: “For He is a good God and loves mankind.” A corrollary of the goodness of God was coming to terms with the wrathful God of some Western theology (or the misunderstandings of the “wrathful God”). At the heart of things was a fear that behind everything I could say of God was a God whom I could not trust – who could be one way at one time and another way at another.

This is so utterly contrary to the writings of the Fathers and the teachings of the Orthodox faith. God is good and His mercy endures forever, as the Psalmist tells us. God is good and even those things that human beings describe as “wrath” are, at most, the loving chastisement of a God who is saving me from much worse things I would do to myself were He not to love me enough to draw me deeper into His love and away from my sin.

The verse in Romans 8 remains a cornerstone of our understanding of God’s goodness: “All things work together for good, for those who love God and are called according to His purpose” (8:28). There are daily mysteries involved in this assertion of faith – moments and events that I have no way to explain or to fit into some overall scheme of goodness. But this is precisely where my conversations with my father-in-law would go. I would be full of exceptions and “what ifs,” and he would reply, “I don’t know about that. But I know that God is good.”

As the years have gone by, I have realized that being wise is not discovering some way to explain things but for my heart to settle into the truth that, “I don’t know about that. But I know that God is good.”

2. I must believe that His will for me is good.

This moves the question away from what could, for some, be a philosophical statement (“God is good”) to the much more specific, “His will for me is good.” Years ago, when my son was a child, he encountered a difficulty in his life. As a parent I was frustrated (secretly mad at God) and my faith shaken. I had already decided what “good” was to look like in my son’s life and reality was undermining my fantasy. In a time of prayer (which was very one-sided) I found myself brought up suddenly and short with what I can only describe as a divine interruption. I will not describe my experience as an audible voice, but it could not have been clearer. The simple statement from God was: “This is for his salvation.”

My collapse could not have been more complete. How do you reply to such a statement? How am I supposed to know what my child needs for His salvation (and this in the long-term sense as understood by the Orthodox?). I had prayed for nothing with as much fervor as the salvation of my children. Ultimately, regardless of how they get through life, that they get through in union with Christ is all I ask. Why should I doubt that God was doing what I had asked? In the years since then I have watched God’s word in that moment be fulfilled time and again as He continues to work wonderfully in the life of my son and I see a Christian man stand before me. God’s will for me is good. God is not trying to prevent us from doing good, or making it hard for us to be saved. Life is not a test. No doubt, life is filled with difficulty. We live in a fallen world. But He is at work here and now and everywhere for my good.

My father-in-law had a favorite Bible story (among several): the story of Joseph and his brothers. In the final disclosure in Egypt, when Joseph reveals himself to his brothers – those who had sold him into slavery – Joseph says, “You meant it to me for evil, but the Lord meant it to me for good.” It is an Old Testament confession of Romans 8:28. The world may give us many situations, and the situations on their surface may indeed be evil. But our God is a good God and He means all things for our good. I may confess His goodness at all times.

3. I must believe that the goodness of God is without limit.

I did not know this for many years and only came upon it as I spent a period of a month studying the meaning of “envy.” In much of our world (and definitely in the non Judaeo-Christian world of antiquity) people believe that good is limited. If you are enjoying good, then it is possibly at my expense. Such thought is the breeding ground of envy. The ancient Greeks and Romans believed this to be true to such a degree that they feared excellence lest it provoke the jealousy of the Gods. We do not think in the same metaphysical terms, but frequently on some deep level, we believe that someone else’s good will somehow lessen our own. Within this the worm of jealousy, anger and envy devours us. The good which someone else enjoys is not at my expense.

To bless God for His goodness we also need to bless God for His goodness towards everyone and to know that He is the giver of every good and perfect gift – and that His goodness is without limit.

4. I must believe that God is good and know this on the deepest personal level.

God has manifested His goodness to us in the revelation of His Son, Jesus Christ. In Christ, we see the fullness of the goodness of God. The goodness of God goes to the Cross for us. The goodness of God searches for us in hell and brings us forth victorious. The goodness of God will not cease in His efforts to reconcile us to the Father.

My father-in-law had another favorite Bible story (I said he had several): the story of the three young men in the fiery furnace. This story is, incidentally, a favorite of Orthodox liturgical worship as well. It stands as a Biblical image of our rescue from Hades. In the midst of the fiery furnace, together with the three young men, is the image of a fourth. Christ is with them, and in the hymnography of the Church, “the fire became as the morning dew.” For my father-in-law it was the confession of the three young men before the evil threats of the wicked King Nebuchanezer. To his threats of death in a terrible holocaust they said, “Our God is able to deliver us, O King. But even if He does not, nevertheless, we will not bow down and worship your image.” It was their defiant “nevertheless,” that would bring tears to my father-in-law’s eyes. For much of our experience here includes furnaces into which we are thrust despite our faith in Christ. It is there that the faith in the goodness of God says, “Nevertheless!” It is confidence in the goodness of God above all things.

I saw my father-in-law survive a terrible automobile accident, and the whole family watched his slow and losing battle with lymphoma in his last three years. But none of us ever saw him do otherwise than give thanks to God and to delight in extolling the Lord’s goodness.

Many years before I had foolishly become heated with him in one of our “theological discussions.” I was pushing for all I was worth against his unshakeable assurance in God’s goodness. I recall how he ended the argument: “Mark the manner of my death.” It was his last word in the matter. There was nothing to be said against such a statement. And he made that statement non-verbally with the last years of his life. I did mark the manner of his death and could only confess: “God is good! His mercy endures forever!” For no matter the difficulties this dear Christian man faced, nevertheless, no moment was anything less than an occasion for thanksgiving.

I have seen the goodness of God in the land of the living.

Passionately Drunk

The Philokalia, that wonderful collection of writings by the fathers on prayer of the heart, has as its full title, The Philokalia of the Neptic Saints gathered from our Holy Theophoric Fathers, through which, by means of the philosophy of ascetic practice and contemplation, the intellect is purified, illumined, and made perfect. Little wonder it is known popularly as the Philokalia. That word, Philokalia, means “the love of beautiful things.” It is not a reference to expensive, decorative items, but to the things which are made beautiful by their union with God. All things are beautiful inasmuch as they are united to God, Who is Beauty itself.

Another important word in the title is the adjective, “Neptic” (νηπτικός). It has a variety of translations: sober, watchful, vigilant. It refers to those who, having their earthly senses purified, have become truly aware of God and dwell in Him. This title is especially used to describe the fathers of the Hesychast tradition in Orthodoxy, the tradition of ceaseless prayer and inner stillness associated with the monastic life.

To describe these fathers as “sober,” is very insightful. For our experience with the passions, the disordered desires of our body and soul, is often an experience of drunkenness.

For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk are drunk at night. But let us who are of the day be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet the hope of salvation. For God did not appoint us to wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord jesus Christ, who died for us, that whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with Him (1 Thess. 5:7-10).

The man who is drunk is famously unaware of his surroundings. He stumbles physically, mentally and spiritually, barely aware of his own imbalance. The passions have the same ability to blind us. In anger we are aware primarily of our own anger. What we see, we see through the haze of the energy that pulses through our mind and body.

All of the passions have this property. They consume us and become the primary lens through which we see the world and with which we react. Thus we are described as in “delusion.” Those who see the world through their passions do not see the truth of things. They see their own passions.

There is a social aspect to the passions – they are not restricted to an individual’s experience. Whole societies, or significant segments within it, can be drunk with the same passions. Thus a whole society can be drunk with the passion of racism (a mixture of ignorance, superstition, fear, anger, etc.). Such a passion is reinforced by being repeatedly affirmed by those around us. Many aspects of culture are simply a communion of the passions.

We live in an age where the passions are carefully studied and used as the objects of marketing. Those things that are sold to us (even those that supposedly appeal to our intellect) are marketed to our passions. Apple computer famously researches the “feel” of its packaging, presenting a sensual experience that is associated with quality, precision and value. It is a successful strategy across the whole of our culture.

However, those who are “drunk” with the passions also yield themselves as victims to their intoxication. Political parties pour massive amounts of money into their campaigns simply to create and nurture the passions by which people vote. We are not governed by reason or informed decisions. Most of what you or I think about political subjects is a description of the passions to which we are enslaved. The political cynicism of many is, to a degree, a recognition of our disgust with the politics of passion.

By the same token, most of the opinions we nurture are equally the product of our passions. We think, we believe, we decide, we act largely in accord with the passions to which we are enthralled. Theological debates are generally arguments between one person’s passions and another’s. It is a conversation between drunks.

And so the Church values the holy, sober fathers. These are the men and women who have walked the narrow way of salvation, “putting to death the deeds of the body.” Inner stillness is the state of freedom from disordered passions. The neptic fathers do not cease to desire (they are not Buddhists). But their desires have been purified and healed – restored to proper order. Sobriety means desiring the right thing in the right way at the right time. Traditionally, this purification and healing come as a result of a life of repentance, fasting and prayer. It slays demons and heals the wounds of the soul. All things are brought into obedience to Christ.

It is the life that Scripture enjoins:

Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he my devour. Rsist him, steadfast in the faith, knowing that the same sufferings are experienced by your brotherhood in the world (1 Peter 5:8-9).

There is a story in the desert fathers that illustrates such vigilance. A community of monks once heard a rumor that one of their number was harboring a woman in his cell. They went to the elder and complained. While they became yet more agitated, the elder slipped away to the cell of the erring monk. Finding the woman there, he hid her in a large earthen vessel. He placed the lid on the vessel and sat on it. Soon the angry monks arrived at the cell and began to search for the woman. Out of respect for the elder they overlooked the vessel on which he was sitting. Finding nothing, they apologized to the erring monk and left. The elder, rose from his seat and said to the monk, “Pay attention to yourself.”

It is a call to sobriety. The angry monks were drunk with their own self-righteousness. Their sin was at least as great as the erring monk. The elder alone was sober. His sobriety hid the sin of a man from those who would have harmed him, and revealed the sin to the one who needed to be healed. The word of healing was kind and without judgment. “Pay attention to yourself.” It is the simple word of St. Peter, “Be sober.”

For all of us, in every moment of the day with regard to all things and all people, it is good to pay proper attention to ourselves.

This prayer of St. Isaac of Syria, great among the neptic fathers, is one of my favorites:

I knock at the door of Thy compassion, Lord: send aid to my scattered impulses which are drunk with the multitude of the passions and the power of darkness.

Thou canst see my sores hidden within me: stir up contrition – though not corresponding to the weight of my sins, for if I receive full awareness of the extent of my sins, Lord, my soul would be consumed by the bitter pain from them.

Assist my feeble stirrings on the path to true repentance, and may I find relief from the vehemence of sins through the contrition that comes of Thy gift, for without the power of Thy grace I am quite unable to enter within myself, become aware of my stains, and so, at the sight of them, be able to be still from great distraction.

On the Foundation of the Apostles and Prophets

Now therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit (Eph. 2:19-22).

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There are a number of statements in the New Testament that deeply contradict the near “fetish” that some attach to the Bible. One of these is found in an admonition St. Paul offers to the young Timothy. He describes the Church as “the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.” Were most people in the Protestant South in which I live asked what is the “pillar and ground of the truth,” they would answer, “the Bible.” And they would be wrong.

Another example is the quote from Ephesians offered above. Though St. Paul describes Christ Himself as the foundation of the Church (in 1 Corinthians), here he expands that metaphor, describing Christ as the “cornerstone,” with the Apostles and Prophets being the Church’s foundation. In neither case does he describe the Bible as a foundation, though, in popular Evangelical culture, it would not be unusual to hear the Scripture described as our foundation.

What would be lacking in these misperceptions of the Scripture, is proper regard for the Church as a “living” temple. Christ did not come into the world to deliver a book. Such notions, sometimes enshrined in the concept that once the New Testament was complete, the task of the early Church was complete as well, are but Christianized versions of Islam. Christians are not a “people of the Book.” Such a thought is deeply distorting of the Christian gospel.

St. Paul’s vision (and the reality given by God) is of a Church that is composed of a living community of persons (the whole communion of saints). That whole living community of persons is the pillar and ground of truth. Its foundation is composed of a living body of persons (the apostles and the prophets) just as Christ himself, its cornerstone, is alive. This is the Church that reads the Scriptures and is itself “our epistle written in the fleshy tables of the heart” (2 Cor. 3:3).

Those who make a sharp contrast between the Scriptures and the fathers, as though everything was simply a text and the fathers a very inferior text, fail to understand the character of a Church that is truly alive. Were someone to ask if I believe the fathers are “inspired,” I would answer, “Of course.” How can the fathers be fathers and not be inspired? If what they wrote and said is not by the Holy Spirit then it is useless. Is their writing to be held as equal to the Scriptures? They themselves would immediately cry, “No!” Just as the mouth of a river cannot be compared to the source of a river – though they be the same river. But if someone cannot discern that the waters are the same, then something is deeply lacking.

Oddly, the Apostles themselves very likely did not regard their own writings to be comparable to the writings of what they called the “Scriptures” (grammata). But without the writings of the Apostles and the Gospels given to us, we would not know how to read the Scriptures of the Old Testament. When the Old is read through the New, then the Old itself becomes the New. Those who continue to read the Old Testament as though it were somehow not the New Testament, do not know how to read the Scriptures. They are drinking from a foreign river.

But even as we have to learn to read the Scriptures, so we have to learn to read the fathers. Not all fathers are of equal importance, and not everything written by a single father is as important as everything else he wrote. The nightmare of a loose canon!

The simple fact is that we are indeed built on the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets as a living temple. There is no substitute for the life of that temple. Only in the context and community of the living Church of God can we learn how to read, whether Apostles or Prophets or the fathers. Those who have wrenched the Scriptures out of the context of the living, Orthodox Church, have only wrested for themselves error and delusion. They are like the sorcerer’s apprentice – able to read the words of the spells but knowing nothing of their magic. They conjure up a wrathful God and fearful visions of the world’s end. The results of their faulty readings are all around us.

Oddly (not really) most of the content of the Apostles’ writings, deal with how to be the true and living Church of God. It is full of admonitions towards humility and forgiveness, patience and forbearance. It warns about those who do not obey their leaders and of the many false prophets and leaders to arise. There is no instant key to understanding the Scriptures, but whoever begins to read them in their proper and living context begins the journey on the path for which they were written.

And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name (John 20:30-31).


The Death of the Moral Man

There is no man who lives and does not sin. – from the Burial Office

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There are many reactions to the pain of our existence. I try to remember from hour to hour that I live among the “walking wounded.” As the Jewish philosopher Philo said, “Everyone you see is fighting a difficult battle.” One of the great pains for active believers is the struggle to be moral. This struggle becomes all the more painful as we become aware of our inner life. We profess belief in the commandments of Christ only to discover that within us lives a judgmental Pharisee. We constantly compare ourselves to others, and compare ourselves to an inner standard, and in these comparisons, everyone comes up short. We come repeatedly to confession, bearing the same sins, carrying the shame (often unrecognized) of another period of failure. We want to change but we don’t.

This scenario could take another thousand forms. At its core is our expectation that the mind (thoughts and emotions) can and should be brought into some measure of Christian performance. There are things at which our thoughts often excel. We can master a system of thought or belief and defend it against those things which present a challenge. We can do the same with people – maintaining a version of “canon law” in our head against which behavior may be judged. It is this comparison and judging, systemization and defense that the mind truly loves. If we occupy the mind with “religious things,” even “Orthodox things,” then we easily begin to think that we are being faithful. We start to think of ourselves as trying and judge our failures (anger, hatred, envy, etc.) as mere stumbles than can be corrected and adjusted. This is certainly better than doing nothing, but is often more harmful than good. The local parish is often a community of neurotic minds, psychically rushing about trying to do good, but hurting one another in the name of God as the ego works desperately to meet its needs and feed its narrative. The parish is not always a safe place.

For the purposes of this post, I am choosing to refer to the ego’s struggle to behave as the “moral” man. I often use the word “moral” and “morality” to describe the life lived as an effort to conform to external rules and norms. It is a struggle that even unbelievers may (and do) undertake. There is nothing particularly Christian about it. I have said elsewhere, “Jesus did not die in order to make bad men good, but in order to make dead men live.”

St. Paul takes this approach when speaking of what I’m calling the moral man. He does not counsel us to try and do better. There is no scheme of moral improvement in all of Paul’s writings. His language is quite clear:

Therefore put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry…. But now you yourselves are to put off all these: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth. Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old man with his deeds, and have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him (Col. 3:5, 8-10).

St. Paul’s language of “putting off” and “putting on” is the language of Baptism. We “put off” the old man and “put on” Christ. We are “clothed in righteousness,” etc. The Baptismal liturgy continues to display this language in its actions.

It is language that differs greatly from that of “moral” striving. To put to death “covetousness,” is quite different than trying not to desire someone else’s property. The language of “putting to death,” is rooted in our being (it is ontological) rather than our decision-making (legal, forensic). St. Paul’s language implies that something within us has profoundly changed.

The ego’s efforts to behave itself have little to nothing to do with such an inward, profound change. Non-believers can adopt a set of rules and endeavor to keep them. There is nothing particularly or uniquely Christian about moral efforts. This is one of the great weaknesses of those versions of Christianity that are largely extrinsic in nature. Theories of salvation in which an extrensic atonement is “accepted,” followed by a life of moral effort do not rise to the level of St. Paul’s “putting to death.”

The ego loves narrative – all of its greatest skills can be employed in destruction, construction and revision. Stories of conversion are extremely well-suited to such an existence. Those of us who are adult converts are easily enthralled with the story of our own conversion and just as easily enthralled by the ongoing narratives of others. Something is missing.

Our lives are like a Jane Austen novel. The narrative moves along with great drama. Elizabeth, Mr. Darcy, Mr. Bennet and the whole cast, holding our attention, now up, now down. Whom will she marry? Will she be bereft of love forever? What will we wear to the dance? Is Mr. Darcy Orthodox? And so the drama unwinds.

When the drama of the Christian life comes to a happy ending (its conversion), there stretches before it the “ever-after” years (decades) of our life. Without the drama, the thought of settling down in the heart, praying, and restoring the mind and emotions to their proper state can seem quite boring.

Of course, there will always be ecclesiastical scandals, debates and small parish dramas to feed our disorder and stave away the fear of boredom. But all of this is to move away from salvation. It is a form of “Orthodox” damnation.

Here the Macarian saying is helpful:

The heart itself is but a small vessel, yet dragons are there, and there are also lions; there are poisonous beasts and all the treasures of evil. But there too is God, the angels, the life and the kingdom, the light and the apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasuries of grace—all things are there. (H.43.7)

Life lived in the heart is a progression into the treasuries of grace. A moment of paradise outweighs all the pleasantries of the ego’s drama. Getting past the darker fears and wounds of shame and its kin, bringing thoughts and emotions to occasional calm, allows the work of the heart to begin. The dragons and lions, poisonous beasts and treasures of evil to be met there are greater than those we face in the early battles of the ego. But at the same time, we stand in the place of the angels, the kingdom and the light when we engage those struggles.

That battle is not at all the same as moral improvement. The moral man (and the immoral man) is put to death. The life that is hid with Christ in God is the new man. He is more than moral – he is good. He is no longer dead – he is alive. And it is for this man fully alive that Christ died.

The Life of Thanksgiving


This year I will make the annual pilgrimage back to South Carolina to be with family for the (American) Thanksgiving holiday. Fewer of my children will be there – a mark of the maturing of their own families and the difficulty of travel at this time of year. The year is different as well for it will be another Thanksgiving holiday without my mother’s presence (may her memory be eternal). With years, the life of my family is changing.

What does not change in this holiday is the centrality of giving thanks. These reflections make much mention of my late father-in-law, a man who was the embodiment of thanksgiving. He unceasingly gave thanks to God for all things at all times and lived as a faithful witness of the goodness of God. Glory to God for all things!

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Everyone capable of thanksgiving is capable of salvation.

Fr. Alexander Schmemann

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I do not believe it is possible to exhaust this topic. I have set forth a few suggestions of how we might build and maintain a life of thanksgiving. Particular thought is given to those times when giving thanks is difficult.

1. We must believe that God is good.

I struggled with this for many years. I believed that God was sovereign; I believed that He was the Creator of heaven and earth; I believed that He sent His only Son to die for me. But despite a hosts of doctrines to which I gave some form of consent, not included (and this was a matter or my heart) was the simple, straight-forward consent that God is good. My father-in-law, a very simple Baptist deacon of great faith, believed this straight-forward truth with an absolute assurance that staggered my every argument. I knew him for over 30 years. When I was young (and much more foolish) I would argue with him – not to be out-maneuvered by his swift and crafty theological answers (it was me that was trying to maneuver and be swift and crafty) – but often times our arguments would end with his smile and simple confession, “Well, I don’t know about that, but I know that God is good.” Over the years I came to realize that until and unless I believed that God is good, I would never be able to truly give thanks. I could thank God when things went well, but not otherwise.

This simple point was hammered into me weekly and more after I became Orthodox. There is hardly a service of the Orthodox Church that does not end its blessing with: “For He is a good God and loves mankind.” A corrollary of the goodness of God was coming to terms with the wrathful God of some Western theology (or the misunderstandings of the “wrathful God”). At the heart of things was a fear that behind everything I could say of God was a God whom I could not trust – who could be one way at one time and another way at another.

This is so utterly contrary to the writings of the Fathers and the teachings of the Orthodox faith. God is good and His mercy endures forever, as the Psalmist tells us. God is good and even those things that human beings describe as “wrath” are, at most, the loving chastisement of a God who is saving me from much worse things I would do to myself were He not to love me enough to draw me deeper into His love and away from my sin.

The verse in Romans 8 remains a cornerstone of our understanding of God’s goodness: “All things work together for good, for those who love God and are called according to His purpose” (8:28). There are daily mysteries involved in this assertion of faith – moments and events that I have no way to explain or to fit into some overall scheme of goodness. But this is precisely where my conversations with my father-in-law would go. I would be full of exceptions and “what ifs,” and he would reply, “I don’t know about that. But I know that God is good.”

As the years have gone by, I have realized that being wise is not discovering some way to explain things but for my heart to settle into the truth that, “I don’t know about that. But I know that God is good.”

2. I must believe that His will for me is good.

This moves the question away from what could, for some, be a philosophical statement (“God is good”) to the much more specific, “His will for me is good.” Years ago, when my son was child, he encountered a difficulty in his life. As a parent I was frustrated (secretly mad at God) and my faith shaken. I had already decided what “good” was to look like in my son’s life and reality was undermining my fantasy. In a time of prayer (which was very one-sided) I found myself brought up suddenly and short with what I can only describe as a divine interruption. I will not describe my experience as an audible voice, but it could not have been clearer. The simple statement from God was: “This is for his salvation.”

My collapse could not have been more complete. How do reply to such a statement? How am I supposed to know what my child needs for His salvation (and this in the long-term sense as understood by the Orthodox?). I had prayed for nothing with as much fervor as the salvation of my children. Ultimately, regardless of how they get through life, that they get through in union with Christ is all I ask. Why should I doubt that God was doing what I had asked? In the years since then I have watched God’s word in that moment be fulfilled time and again as He continues to work wonderfully in the life of my son and I see a Christian man stand before me. God’s will for me is good. God is not trying to prevent us from doing good, or making it hard for us to be saved. Life is not a test. No doubt, life is filled with difficulty. We live in a fallen world. But He is at work here and now and everywhere for my good.

My father-in-law had a favorite Bible story (among several): the story of Joseph and his brothers. In the final disclosure in Egypt, when Joseph reveals himself to his brothers – those who had sold him into slavery – Joseph says, “You meant it to me for evil, but the Lord meant it to me for good.” It is an Old Testament confession of Romans 8:28. The world may give us many situations, and the situations on their surface may indeed be evil. But our God is a good God and He means all things for our good. I may confess His goodness at all times.

3. I must believe that the goodness of God is without limit.

I did not know this for many years and only came upon it as I spent a period of month studying the meaning of “envy.” In much of our world (and definitely in the non Judaeo-Christian world of antiquity) people believe that good is limited. If you are enjoying good, then it is possibly at my expense. Such thought is the breeding ground of envy. The ancient Greeks and Romans believed this to so much be true that they feared excellence lest they provoke the jealousy of the Gods. We do not think in the same metaphysical terms, but frequently on some deep level, we believe that someone else’s good will somehow lessen our own. Within this eats the worm of jealousy and anger.

To bless God for His goodness we also need to bless God for His goodness towards everyone and to know that He is the giver of every good and perfect gift – and that His goodness is without limit.

4. I must believe that God is good and know this on the deepest personal level.

God has manifested His goodness to us in the revelation of His Son, Jesus Christ. In Christ, we see the fullness of the goodness of God. The goodness of God goes to the Cross for us. The goodness of God searches for us in hell and brings us forth victorious. The goodness of God will not cease in His efforts to reconcile us to the Father.

My father-in-law had another favorite Bible story (I said he had several): the story of the three young men in the fiery furnace. This story is, incidentally, a favorite of Orthodox liturgical worship as well. It stands as a Biblical image of our rescue from Hades. In the midst of the fiery furnace, together with the three young men, is the image of a fourth. Christ is with them, and in the hymnography of the Church, “the fire became as the morning dew.” For my father-in-law it was the confession of the three young men before the evil threats of the wicked King Nebuchanezer. To his threats of death in a terrible holocaust they said, “Our God is able to deliver us, O King. But even if He does not, nevertheless, we will not bow down and worship your image.” It was their defiant “nevertheless,” that would bring tears to my father-in-law’s eyes. For much of our experience here includes furnaces into which we are thrust despite our faith in Christ. It is there that the faith in the goodness of God says, “Nevertheless.” It is confidence in the goodness of God above all things.

I saw my father-in-law survive a terrible automobile accident, and the whole family watched his slow and losing battle with lymphoma in his last three years. But none of us ever saw him do otherwise than give thanks to God and to delight in extolling the Lord’s goodness.

Many years before I had foolishly become heated with him in one of our “theological discussions.” I was pushing for all I was worth against his unshakeable assurance in God’s goodness. I recall how he ended the argument: “Mark the manner of my death.” It was his last word in the matter. There was nothing to be said against such a statement. And he made that statement non-verbally with the last years of his life. I did mark the manner of his death and could only confess: “God is good! His mercy endures forever!” For no matter the difficulties this dear Christian man faced, nevertheless, no moment was anything less than an occasion for thanksgiving.

I have seen the goodness of God in the land of the living.

Existence and Truth

Fr. Sergius Bulgakov, as a young man who returned to the faith following a flirtation with Marxism, came to an understanding that the Christian faith is not to be understood as a moral structure, but as a matter of true existence. This distinction is deeply important in Orthodox understanding, and has been a hallmark of Orthodox teaching in the 20th and 21st century. Few matters of the faith draw out this distinction as clearly as considerations of the Atonement.  Theories of legal indebtedness as the problem of sin and thus the essential nature of the Atonement, are certainly popular in some circles of the Christian faith – though they do an extremely poor job of giving a proper account of the largest portion of Scripture on the point. St. Gregory Nazianzus was not unfamiliar with the image, but dismissed it as repugnant in the extreme. He is not a minor, isolated father of the Church, but one of the primary architects of the Ancient Church’s statement of the doctrine of the Trinity. He cannot simply be dismissed as “odd” on this point. Scripture, both in St. Paul and St. John, make the strongest possible connection between sin and death. Our sin is not the result of an indebtedness, but rather the failure to live in communion with God. Humanity did not incur an unpayable debt at the Fall, but rather entered the realm of death (as God had warned). Theories of the Atonement which found their popularization in the Middle Ages in the West and more recently in the Protestant world, should not be allowed to set aside the ancient inheritance of the teachings of the fathers. We are a walking existential crisis – verging on non-existence itself. This is not a result of God’s wrath, but the result of our rebellion against the “good God who loves mankind” and our preference for death over life. I can think of nothing more central to the Orthodox faith, which is to say, the faith as delivered to the Church by Christ. May God give us grace to apprehend the wonder of His gift of salvation.

Perhaps one of the greatest contributions of Orthodox theology to contemporary thought is the correlation between truth and existence. I am not well-enough versed in writings outside of Orthodoxy to know whether this correlation is made by others as well – I have to drink the water from my own cistern.

This understanding has been a particular emphasis in the teachings of St. Silouan, the Elder Sophrony of blessed memory, and the contemporary Archimandrite Zacharias, a disciple of the Elder Sophrony. Their own teaching is nothing new in Orthodoxy, but simply a restatement in modern terms of what has always been the teaching of the Orthodox Christian faith. Indeed, it is a teaching that could be solely supported by Scripture should someone so require.

But the correlation is exceedingly important for religious teaching and understanding. The modern movement of secular thought has been to move existence into an independent and self-defining realm, relegating God and religion to a specialized interest of those who find themselves religiously minded. This is the death of religion – or rather a religion of death. For as soon as our existence is moved away from God and grounded in something else, God Himself has been abandoned. It is not possible for God to be a lesser concern. Either He is the very ground of our existence or He is no God.

There were those within liberal protestantism (Paul Tillich comes to mind) who sought to make the correlation between existence and God – but frequently the result was a God who was reduced to a philosophical cypher (Tillich’s “Ground of Being”) and relieved of all particular content. To speak of God as “Ultimate Concern” as did Tillich, is only to have spoken in human terms. I recall many fellow students in my Anglican seminary years who found Tillich helpful in a way that Jesus was not. The particularity of Jesus made the demands of existential reality too specific. Indeed, it revealed God as God and not simply something that I cared about.

Instead, the Orthodox language on the subject has been that God is truly the ground of all existence, and that apart from Him, everything is moving towards non-existence. It is the Scriptural correlation between sin and death. This shifts the reality of the whole of our lives. Prayer no longer serves as a component of my personal “spirituality,” but is instead communion with the God Who Is, and apart from Whom, I am not. It teaches us to pray as if our lives depended on it – because they do.

By the same token, it moves our understanding of what it means to exist away from mere biology or even philosophy and to its proper place: to exist is to love. As Met. John Zizioulas has famously stated, “Being is communion.” In such a context we are able to move towards authentic existence – a mode of being that is not self-centered nor self-defined, but that is centered in the Other and defined by communion. Sin is removed from its confines of legalism and mere ethics and placed at the very center and character of existence itself. Sin is a movement towards non-being. In contrast, to know God is to love and its greatest test is the love of enemies. As St. Silouan taught: “We only know God to the extent that we love our enemies.”

This is not to reinterpret Christ in terms of existentialism, but instead to understand that Christ is, as He said: the Way, the Truth and the Life. His death and resurrection are the movement of God’s love to rescue humanity from a self-imposed exile from true and authentic existence which is found only in communion with God. This is a rescue of the Atonement from obscure legal theories of Divine Wrath and Judgment, and restores it properly in the context of the God who created us, sustains us, and calls us into the fullness of His life.

It presses the question upon us all: “What is the truth of my existence?” It presses us towards living honestly and forthrightly before God – not finessing ourselves with carefully wrought excuses and religious half-measures – but calling us to a radically authentic search for God.

The Orthodox faith asks nothing less of its adherents. Though even Orthodoxy can be warped into half-measures and religious distractions – this is not its truth nor the life that is taught by the Fathers, the Scriptures nor the words of her liturgies. In God “we live and move and have our being.” There is nothing that can thus be placed outside of God. There is God or there is delusion. And even delusion itself has no existence – but its mere pretence.

The Instinct of Repentance

Repentance is a difficult journey in the modern world. Our psychologized culture has lost the language and the instinct of repentance. When such language and instinct last existed is itself a significant question.

A large measure of the language of repentance is found in the word repentance itself. It is a Latin cognate (coming into English through the French). Rooted in the Latin word paenetentia, repentance has long held associations with crime and punishment. Our prisons are penitentiaries, though repentance of a true sort is rarely their result. To be given a penance also has had a sense of a punishment given for sins forgiven.

This differs greatly from the original language of the New Testament in which repentance is metanoia, a change in the mind (nous). The word nous, in Eastern Christian tradition, is often used interchangeably with the word heart. Repentance is an inner change of heart. Repentance is not concerned with clearing our legal record but with being changed – ultimately into the likeness of Christ.

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me (Psalm 51:10).

The language of repentance is part of a forensic legacy within a segment of Christian history that has marked our culture. To hear Christ say in Scripture, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand,” is often misheard – with the forensic message embedded in our language replacing the language of the heart proclaimed by Christ. Thus the Christian who seeks to follow the gospel (in English) finds that he has to make an effort to re-translate what he hears. This deeper matter of repentance (metanoia) is heard even in the prophets of the Old Testament:

“Now, therefore,” says the Lord,“Turn to Me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning. So rend your heart, and not your garments;return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness; and He relents from doing harm (Joel 2:12-13).

The inner life of the modern world has largely been surrendered to the practice of psychology. I have no argument with psychology – its goal of mental health is important and the relief offered to many is a great mercy. But psychology has long worked with a variety of “inner roadmaps,” in which one theorist’s guess is as good as another’s. Freud’s theories of the human inner world have provided many of the words and concepts of our modern, inner-life. Ego and complex, obsession and projection, introvert and extrovert, and a host of other such words are the legacy of theorists such as Freud and Jung as well as others. Not all of their maps agree (in fact most don’t). They are imaginary accounts of how the mind works –  are drawn out of reflection on actual cases but are still the work of imagination. Other “inner” words have even stranger origins. There are words such as melancholy and unbalanced (and others) that are rooted in medieval theories of the bodily humours. These theories seem laughable to the modern mind – but their language persists.

The fathers of the Church – particularly those who strove the most deeply for repentance (found predominantly in the desert tradition of the ascetics) – borrowed the language of their own day, as well as that of Scripture. Terms from neo-Platonism were borrowed and redefined in accordance with Christian tradition. The result is the language of the canons and the patristic writings. Most of the “road map” that is attached to these words is an experiential map. It is a reflection on how the heart changes in practice that dominates the teaching of the desert fathers and the tradition that flows from their labors. Theory is not driven by a priori assumptions about the constructs of man’s inner life. Thus there is no particular account of the mechanics of the inner life, other than a description given from experience – what works.

But the coherence of this patristic language is found in its common assumption that the human heart (nous) – the core of our being – is capable of change and can indeed be conformed to the image of Christ. Thus the goal of repentance is this very metanoia – a change of heart. There is nothing within modern psychology that reflects this particular concern (although some existential theorists come close).

Modern man is not predisposed to think about a change of heart. We think of psychological wholeness or well-being, but we do not have a language of conformity to Christ. We do speak of “hardness of heart,” but we know very little about how such a heart is changed.

This creates difficulties for us. Our temptation is to translate the language of the Church into concepts with which we are more familiar. Those coming to confession often give evidence of our psychologized world. We not only confess our sins, but we often want to give a small psychological analysis of where our sins came from and a progress report on how we are doing. (I have often thought that this makes a confession sound much like a monologue from Woody Allen, the comedian).
So, how do we repent?

The Scriptures give one of the clearest examples of how we should think about repentance. The encounter of John the Baptist with the crowds who came to and heard his message of repentance contain an interesting exchange:

Then he [John the Baptist] said to the multitudes that came out to be baptized by him, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

So the people asked him, saying, “What shall we do then?”

He answered and said to them, “He who has two tunics, let him give to him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.”

Then tax collectors also came to be baptized, and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?”

And he said to them, “Collect no more than what is appointed for you.”

Likewise the soldiers asked him, saying, “And what shall we do?”

So he said to them, “Do not intimidate anyone or accuse falsely, and be content with your wages.” (Luke 3:7-14).

John’s response to the people who came was not to launch them into a world of introspection. The heart changes in the crucible of our actions. Generosity and kindness are begotten of generosity and kindness. If you have enough to share – then share.
I have always been bemused by the great lengths that modern interpreters of Scripture go when trying to account for sayings such as, “Sell what you have, give to the poor and come and follow me.” Or “How hardly shall a rich man enter the kingdom of God.” We are often told that such passages are really about how we feel about our wealth – that our wealth should not be the center of our lives. But if we have and do not share, then “feeling good” about our wealth is just delusion.

The commandments of Christ are not difficult because they are so complex or mystical – they are difficult because they are so clear and we do not want to keep them.

The disciplines traditionally practiced during the season of Great Lent, prayer, fasting, almsgiving, are given to us not in order to generate a season of introspection. They are given to us as a call to a season of action. Prayer is something we do. It is a struggle, but it is an action (Orthodox prayer is particularly marked by action – even physical action). Fasting is an action as well. In our psychologized culture, it is hard for many to understand fasting as having anything to do with repentance. But it is the experience of Scripture and generations of the Church, that the discipline of fasting (abstaining from certain foods and eating less) has a clear effect on the heart – our inner disposition – particularly when that fasting is coupled with prayer and almsgiving. Almsgiving is an action that is all too often ignored in our thoughts about repentance. Charitable giving (in our culture) is even perversely thought by some to be a way of getting more money, such that “give and it will be given unto you” is seen as a success formula. We are indeed a brood of vipers.

Giving is an action. Give money away. Give sacrificially of your time. Give mercy and kindness to others. Forgive the sins of others as if your own forgiveness depended on it (it does). If we would see our hearts change in the direction of the image of Christ – the “roadmap” is not hidden. Pray, fast, be merciful and give.

This is the instinct of repentance. With practice it becomes the habit of the heart. Kindness, practiced consistently over a period of time, by the grace of God results in our becoming kind. To be kind is to be like God (Luke 6:35). Repentance is the path to the kingdom of God. The actions of repentance (under grace) – given to us in the Tradition of the Church – are the means by which such a changed heart will be formed within us.

What’s In The Cave

It is traditionally understood that Christ’s nativity was in a cave (not in a stable). The cave served as a stable – not unusual for the area of Bethlehem. However, the traditional icon of Christ’s nativity reveals the cave in an unmistakeable manner. The cave of Bethlehem resembles the cave of Hades into which Christ descends at His death. It also resembles the space framed by the rocks in most icons of Christ’s baptism. The same space can be seen on most icons of the crucifixion (beneath the cross and framing a skull). This iconographic similarity is not accidental. The cave of Bethlehem is meant to resemble the cave of Hades (just as the child in swaddling clothes resembles a body wrapped for burial). It resembles the cave of Hades for the same reason that the space framed by the rocks at Christ’s theophany resembles the cave of Hades. They are pointing to one and the same thing: Christ Incarnation is God’s descent into our world where sin and death reign. The incarnation of the Word is immediately a challenge to the darkness of death and hell.

St. John makes this clear in the prologue of his gospel. He speaks of Christ as the “Light of the world,” and within the same breath brings that Light into conflict with the darkness: “the Light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.”

The story of Christ’s nativity is certainly marked by elements that have become popular in our greeting-card world. Angels sing to shepherds. Wisemen journey from afar. The ox and ass know their master.

But in typical fashion, greeting cards leave Christmas with pleasant thoughts. After all, the cultural Christmas looks no further than the presents beneath the tree.

The Church, however, sees the cave of Bethlehem for what it is: the darkness. No sooner is the Child born than His life is in danger. The wicked king Herod seeks to kill Him and, failing in his first plot, turns his wrath on every child under the age of two in the area. Tradition holds that the number of the innocents slaughtered by Herod’s men approached 14,000. Such is the darkness.

The same darkness marks the world to our day. The Light still shines and the darkness does not overcome it – but it is in darkness that the Light shines. The cave is the world – make no mistake.

Those who are baptized into Christ are baptized into His death according to St. Paul. It is also true that those who are baptized into Christ “receive the Light of Christ.” But to participate in the Light of Christ in this world is to be light in the midst of darkness.

But the great joy of Christmas is that the child born in the cave is indeed the Light of the world – and though we find ourselves in darkness – the darkness cannot overcome the Light. The revelation of Christ at Christmas is the same as the revelation of Christ at Pascha. Every revelation of Christ is victory over sin and death.

What’s in the cave? God Himself.

Thanksgiving

This year I will make the annual pilgrimage back to South Carolina to be with family for the (American) Thanksgiving holiday. Fewer of my children will be there – a mark of the maturing of their own families and the difficulty of travel at this time of year. The year is different as well for it will be the first Thanksgiving holiday without my mother’s presence (may her memory be eternal). With years, the life of my family is changing.

What does not change in this holiday is the centrality of giving thanks. These reflections make much mention of my late father-in-law, a man who was the embodiment of thanksgiving. He unceasingly gave thanks to God for all things at all times and lived as a faithful witness of the goodness of God. Glory to God for all things!

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Everyone capable of thanksgiving is capable of salvation.

Fr. Alexander Schmemann

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I do not believe it is possible to exhaust this topic. I have set forth a few suggestions of how we might build and maintain a life of thanksgiving. Particular thought is given to those times when giving thanks is difficult.

1. We must believe that God is good.

I struggled with this for many years. I believed that God was sovereign; I believed that He was the Creator of heaven and earth; I believed that He sent His only Son to die for me. But despite a hosts of doctrines to which I gave some form of consent, not included (and this was a matter or my heart) was the simple, straight-forward consent that God is good. My father-in-law, a very simple Baptist deacon of great faith, believed this straight-forward truth with an absolute assurance that staggered my every argument. I knew him for over 30 years. When I was young (and much more foolish) I would argue with him – not to be out-maneuvered by his swift and crafty theological answers (it was me that was trying to maneuver and be swift and crafty) – but often times our arguments would end with his smile and simple confession, “Well, I don’t know about that, but I know that God is good.” Over the years I came to realize that until and unless I believed that God is good, I would never be able to truly give thanks. I could thank God when things went well, but not otherwise.

This simple point was hammered into me weekly and more after I became Orthodox. There is hardly a service of the Orthodox Church that does not end its blessing with: “For He is a good God and loves mankind.” A corrollary of the goodness of God was coming to terms with the wrathful God of some Western theology (or the misunderstandings of the “wrathful God”). At the heart of things was a fear that behind everything I could say of God was a God whom I could not trust – who could be one way at one time and another way at another.

This is so utterly contrary to the writings of the Fathers and the teachings of the Orthodox faith. God is good and His mercy endures forever, as the Psalmist tells us. God is good and even those things that human beings describe as “wrath” are, at most, the loving chastisement of a God who is saving me from much worse things I would do to myself were He not to love me enough to draw me deeper into His love and away from my sin.

The verse in Romans 8 remains a cornerstone of our understanding of God’s goodness: “All things work together for good, for those who love God and are called according to His purpose” (8:28). There are daily mysteries involved in this assertion of faith – moments and events that I have no way to explain or to fit into some overall scheme of goodness. But this is precisely where my conversations with my father-in-law would go. I would be full of exceptions and “what ifs,” and he would reply, “I don’t know about that. But I know that God is good.”

As the years have gone by, I have realized that being wise is not discovering some way to explain things but for my heart to settle into the truth that, “I don’t know about that. But I know that God is good.”

2. I must believe that His will for me is good.

This moves the question away from what could, for some, be a philosophical statement (“God is good”) to the much more specific, “His will for me is good.” Years ago, when my son was child, he encountered a difficulty in his life. As a parent I was frustrated (secretly mad at God) and my faith shaken. I had already decided what “good” was to look like in my son’s life and reality was undermining my fantasy. In a time of prayer (which was very one-sided) I found myself brought up suddenly and short with what I can only describe as a divine interruption. I will not describe my experience as an audible voice, but it could not have been clearer. The simple statement from God was: “This is for his salvation.”

My collapse could not have been more complete. How do reply to such a statement? How am I supposed to know what my child needs for His salvation (and this in the long-term sense as understood by the Orthodox?). I had prayed for nothing with as much fervor as the salvation of my children. Ultimately, regardless of how they get through life, that they get through in union with Christ is all I ask. Why should I doubt that God was doing what I had asked? In the years since then I have watched God’s word in that moment be fulfilled time and again as He continues to work wonderfully in the life of my son and I see a Christian man stand before me. God’s will for me is good. God is not trying to prevent us from doing good, or making it hard for us to be saved. Life is not a test. No doubt, life is filled with difficulty. We live in a fallen world. But He is at work here and now and everywhere for my good.

My father-in-law had a favorite Bible story (among several): the story of Joseph and his brothers. In the final disclosure in Egypt, when Joseph reveals himself to his brothers – those who had sold him into slavery – Joseph says, “You meant it to me for evil, but the Lord meant it to me for good.” It is an Old Testament confession of Romans 8:28. The world may give us many situations, and the situations on their surface may indeed be evil. But our God is a good God and He means all things for our good. I may confess His goodness at all times.

3. I must believe that the goodness of God is without limit.

I did not know this for many years and only came upon it as I spent a period of month studying the meaning of “envy.” In much of our world (and definitely in the non Judaeo-Christian world of antiquity) people believe that good is limited. If you are enjoying good, then it is possibly at my expense. Such thought is the breeding ground of envy. The ancient Greeks and Romans believed this to so much be true that they feared excellence lest they provoke the jealousy of the Gods. We do not think in the same metaphysical terms, but frequently on some deep level, we believe that someone else’s good will somehow lessen our own. Within this eats the worm of jealousy and anger.

To bless God for His goodness we also need to bless God for His goodness towards everyone and to know that He is the giver of every good and perfect gift – and that His goodness is without limit.

4. I must believe that God is good and know this on the deepest personal level.

God has manifested His goodness to us in the revelation of His Son, Jesus Christ. In Christ, we see the fullness of the goodness of God. The goodness of God goes to the Cross for us. The goodness of God searches for us in hell and brings us forth victorious. The goodness of God will not cease in His efforts to reconcile us to the Father.

My father-in-law had another favorite Bible story (I said he had several): the story of the three young men in the fiery furnace. This story is, incidentally, a favorite of Orthodox liturgical worship as well. It stands as a Biblical image of our rescue from Hades. In the midst of the fiery furnace, together with the three young men, is the image of a fourth. Christ is with them, and in the hymnography of the Church, “the fire became as the morning dew.” For my father-in-law it was the confession of the three young men before the evil threats of the wicked King Nebuchanezer. To his threats of death in a terrible holocaust they said, “Our God is able to deliver us, O King. But even if He does not, nevertheless, we will not bow down and worship your image.” It was their defiant “nevertheless,” that would bring tears to my father-in-law’s eyes. For much of our experience here includes furnaces into which we are thrust despite our faith in Christ. It is there that the faith in the goodness of God says, “Nevertheless.” It is confidence in the goodness of God above all things.

I saw my father-in-law survive a terrible automobile accident, and the whole family watched his slow and losing battle with lymphoma in his last three years. But none of us ever saw him do otherwise than give thanks to God and to delight in extolling the Lord’s goodness.

Many years before I had foolishly become heated with him in one of our “theological discussions.” I was pushing for all I was worth against his unshakeable assurance in God’s goodness. I recall how he ended the argument: “Mark the manner of my death.” It was his last word in the matter. There was nothing to be said against such a statement. And he made that statement non-verbally with the last years of his life. I did mark the manner of his death and could only confess: “God is good! His mercy endures forever!” For no matter the difficulties this dear Christian man faced, nevertheless, no moment was anything less than an occasion for thanksgiving.

I have seen the goodness of God in the land of the living.

The Good Anger

vm1431My attention was recently drawn to the work of Leon Podles on anger, which asserts that anger has a very important role to play in the virtuous life. He contends:

Wrath is a necessary and positive part of human nature: “Wrath is the strength to attack the repugnant; the power of anger is actually the power of resistance in the soul,” wrote Josef Pieper. The lack of wrath against injustice, he continued, is a deficiency: “One who does good with passion is more praiseworthy than one who is ‘not entirely’ afire for the good, even to the forces of the sensual realm.”

He also cites St. Thomas Aquinas:

“lack of the passion of anger is also a vice” because a man who truly and forcefully rejects evil will be angry at it. The lack of anger makes the movement of the will against evil “lacking or weak.” He quotes John Chrysostom: “He who is not angry, whereas he has cause to be, sins. For unreasonable patience is the hotbed of many vices, it fosters negligence, and incites not only the wicked but the good to do wrong.”

Podles’ article gave me pause to think. Elsewhere on this blog I have stated:

I will say without fear of contradiction that I have never seen a single case of human “righteous indignation.” Just as I have never met a man who was pure in heart, neither have I man a man who is pure in anger.

I have great regard for the writings of the Fathers – and certainly for Chrysostom – though I often find that Chrysostom was a broad enough preacher that a quote for almost any position can be found somewhere in his voluminous writings. As it turns out, it is even easier to find a quote of Chrysostom on a subject, if you include in his writings those of the Opus Imperfectum, the source of Podles’ quote from the great Church Father. The Opus Imperfectum is so named, because, though once thought (in the Early Middle Ages in the West) to be a work of Chrysostom’s, it was, in fact, a 5th century work by an Arian Presbyter in the region of the Danube.

This is not necessarily a problem (Aquinas uses the quote most effectively) if the statement is correct. But of course, this raises the question of anger again. Is there a good anger? I offer here an alternative quote from Chrysostom (the real one):

Anger is no different than madness – it is a temporary demon; or rather it is worse than having a demon; for one who has a demon may be excused, but the angry man deserves ten thousand punishments, voluntarily casting himself into the pit of destruction, and before the hell which is to come suffering punishment from this already, by bringing a certain restless turmoil and never silent storm of fury, through all the night and through all the day, upon the reasonings of his soul (Hom. on St. John’s Gospel, XLVIII.3).

I do not mean to offer an academic argument on the definitive position of Chrysostom on anger. I am not a scholar in the area (owning a copy of his works, finding a quote and offering it does not make one a scholar). What I mean to do is bring the question of anger to the place that Chrysostom notes in this last quote. He describes an experience of anger that is a form of insanity, a “temporary demon.”

Podles has an argument – well established in Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, that there is a form of anger that is a proper energy of the soul whose absence would even be a sinful lack. The discussion in Aquinas comes from a fairly theoretical section on the passions. As an “energy of the soul,” anger certainly has a place within someone who is spiritually whole. It is possible, as St. Paul says, “to be angry and sin not” (Eph. 4:26). I will readily grant such a theoretical possibility. Nevertheless, I maintain my earlier observation:

I will say without fear of contradiction that I have never seen a single case of human “righteous indignation.” Just as I have never met a man who was pure in heart, neither have I man a man who is pure in anger.

Just because I have not seen it, does not mean it does not exist.

Podles argues that there is a strange lack of anger in modern clergy (particularly modern Catholic clergy). Podles, of course, has famously written about a dangerous “feminization” of our religious culture – thus it is perhaps possible that this lack of anger seems unmanly to him (cf. The Church Impotent). He cites in particular the failure of moral outrage in the face of sexual abuse of children within the ranks of the clergy.

My experience of clergy over the past 30 or more years of ordained life – whether Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox – is that anger is not somehow lacking. I have no idea why someone would think that there is no anger among clergy. In many cases, I have found them to be among the angriest people I know. The issue is rather – why no anger over this particular issue? And there, I suspect, the answer would be found. Try another issue and indignation will flow down like rivers.

But this presence or absence of anger is in neither case an argument for a good anger. I again agree that there may be such in the panoply of redeemed passions. However, it is the man of redeemed passions whom I find lacking.

I believe the path to virtue – to right-living in Christ – is ultimately found in the keeping of God’s commandments and the ascetical disciplines of the Church. Most especially do I think this is the case with regard to our treatment of others. In St. Luke’s gospel (6:35-36) Christ states:

love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil. Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful.

His admonition is not unlike that of St. John Chrysostom (after his observations on anger being like a demon):

Let us therefore, that we may deliver ourselves from the punishment here and the vengeance hereafter, cast out this passion, and show forth all meekness and gentleness, that we may find rest for our souls, both here and in the Kingdom of Heaven.

A last point. Podles, following Aquinas and Pieper, argues that the lack of anger results in the failure of a moral will – particularly in righting injustices and in addressing things which must be corrected. This is true, if, again, we are speaking on a theoretical level. We currently have no lack of anger in our public life. And yet, for all the anger, we have little action. Rather, we have the demon of which Chrysostom spoke:

… a certain restless turmoil and never silent storm of fury, through all the night and through all the day, upon the reasonings of his soul….

I have been witness to several major social upheavals. I think particularly of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s. There was certainly plenty of moral indignation and little lack of anger (on many sides). Martin Luther King Jr.’s political struggle often included the difficult task of urging non-violence upon those who were rising up in great indignation. It is a great moral task indeed.

My experience is that what progress has been made within the heart of my native culture has been made through mercy and the appeal to kindness and compassion. To a large extent, I believe the same is true in the modern struggle with the rights of the unborn. It is the continued appeal to their humanity and to society’s compassion that has gradually moved hearts towards their protection.

I will easily give way to those whose experience has been other than mine. I can only bear witness to my own heart, in the end. There I find that in the mercy of God I am able to love, to forgive, to do justice and to defend the defenseless.

There may be a good anger – but in the midst of the sea of anger in which we now dwell – it is hard to find.

The Death of Christ – The Life of Man

A recent comment posed a fundamental question with regard to the Christian faith: Why do we believe that Christ had to die? What is the purpose of His death on the cross?

Preliminary Thoughts

IMG_1007Part of the information accompanying the question was the experience (of Mary K) with teaching on the atonement that centered largely on the wrath and anger of God. (I paraphrase and summarize) We sinned  (both ourselves and Adam and Eve) – God punished us. God sent Christ whom He punished in our place. Now through faith in Christ we can escape the punishment we deserve. Along with this were a number of questions about the blood of Christ. How does it cleanse us from sin?

Of course such a question could be the occasion for a book. As is, it is the occasion for an answer of readable length (barely). Readers who feel that more should have been said about one thing or another are asked for patience. The heart of things, it seems to me, has to do with the primary images used to understand both what is wrong with humanity and creation (sin) and what it is about Christ that saves us and heals us (His death and resurrection). If there were only one way of speaking about this or thinking about this, then the question would not have been asked.

The truth is that Scripture, including within the work of a single writer, uses many images to describe the reality of what Christ has done. Some of those images are simply useful analogies or metaphors, others seem to have a more “literal” character about them – though nowhere do we find a definitive account that sets all others aside.

I want to also add a preliminary word (for our questioning reader) about the language of Scripture. Though many Christians would agree that the words of Scripture are “God-breathed” (inspired), this does not mean that every statement in Scripture is to be read literally. There are many things that are read figuratively, metaphorically, and otherwise. That is to say, the Scriptures cannot be read without help and a guide. This has always been true. For this reason the Scriptures, when read in a traditional Christian manner, must be read with Christians who themselves have been taught to read them in a traditional manner.

In this matter, you will find great diversity among Christians, for the interpretation of Scripture has been a major point of division between Christians for almost 500 years. Much of what was described in the background to the question that was posed are examples of modern, fundamentalist Christian interpretations (of which there are a variety). What I offer here is the general understanding of Eastern Orthodox Christianity.

The Problem

What is wrong with humanity, and creation, such that we are in need of anything from God? What is sin?

At its most fundamental level – sin is death. For the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). The fact that we die is not a punishment sent to us from God but the result of our having broken fellowship (communion) with God. God is Life and the only source of life. Created things (humanity included) do not have life in themselves, it is not something we have as our possession and power. Rather, life is the gift of God. It is not just our life that is the gift of God – but our very existence and the existence of all that is. God is our Creator. The Scriptures say, “In Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

Genesis offers us the story of Adam and Eve in which we hear described their disobedience from God. He had warned them: “Do not eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”

Many early commentators on Scripture were careful to note that God did not say, “In the day you eat of it I will kill you,” but “in the day you eat of it you shall die.” Rather we are told: “God did not create death, nor does he delight in the death of the living” (Wisdom 1:13).

St. Athanasius explains that when humanity chose to break its relationship with God (through disobedience) we cut ourselves off from the source of life. However God did not take life from us (He does not take back the gifts He gives) but we removed ourselves from it. And so we die. We not only die physically, but we have a process of death at work in us. St. Paul speaks of this process as “corruption.” This movement away from and towards death and destruction reveals itself in the many broken things in our lives. We hurt and kill each other. We hurt and destroy creation. We are weak and easily enslaved to powerful things such as drugs and alcohol. We are dominated by greed, envy, lust, anger, etc. We cannot help ourselves in this matter because we do not have life within ourselves. Only God can give us the true life that alone can make us well.

The Answer

Above all else we should remember that “God is a good God and He loves mankind” (from the Orthodox dismissal). This we hear clearly in Scripture: “God is love” (1 John 4:8) and “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

We hear this echoed in the words of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom:

You [God] brought us into being out of nothing, and when we fell, You raised us up again. You did not cease doing everything until You led us to heaven and granted us Your kingdom to come.

This good God who loves mankind is not an angry God. He is not a vengeful God. He does not will us harm or punish us for our destruction. Though the Scriptures use these images, the Fathers of the Church have been consistent in understanding that this language is figurative and should not be understood literally. For instance, St. Anthony says:

God is good and is not controlled by passions. He does not change. Now someone who thinks it reasonable and true to affirm that God does not change, may well ask how, in that case, it is possible to speak of God as rejoicing over those who are good and showing mercy to those who honor Him, and as turning away from the wicked and being angry with sinners. To this it must be answered that God neither rejoices nor grows angry, for to rejoice and to be offended are passions; nor is He won over by the gifts of those who honor Him, for that would mean He is swayed by pleasure. It is not right that the Divinity feel pleasure or displeasure from human conditions. He is good, and He only bestows blessings and never does harm, remaining always the same. We men, on the other hand, if we remain good through resembling God, are united to Him, but if we become evil through not resembling God, we are separated from Him. By living in holiness we cleave to God; but by becoming wicked we make Him our enemy. It is not that He grows angry with us in an arbitrary way, but it is our own sins that prevent God from shining within us and expose us to demons who torture us. And if through prayer and acts of compassion we gain release from our sins, this does not mean that we have won God over and made Him to change, but that through our actions and our turning to the Divinity, we have cured our wickedness and so once more have enjoyment of God’s goodness. Thus to say that God turns away from the wicked is like saying that the sun hides itself from the blind.

There are many Christians who would handle Scriptures in a different manner – but I think they do not listen to the fathers of the Church and interpret Scripture according to their own opinions. In this, I think they are in error and should not be listened to.

This good God, the only Lord and giver of Life, had compassion on us when we fell away and became subject to death and corruption. In His compassion He sent His only Son who became one of us – taking our human nature upon Himself. Uniting us to Himself, He lived a life without sin (for He is Life), and taught us by word and deed the goodness and kindness of God and to become like God by loving even our enemies.

His love was so great, that He extended that love beyond the grave. He accepted death on the Cross, suffering the hatred and evil doings of those around Him.

And here, as we approach Christ’s death on the Cross, it is appropriate to ask, “Why death?”

There are many meditations on the death of Christ. Meditations that see Him as the Paschal Lamb sacrificed for us, as the “Serpent lifted in the wilderness,” and others. Here, temptation sets in and Christians seek to explain Christ’s death by comparing it to their own faulty understandings of lesser things. For it is not the shadow of things to come (Old Testament) that interprets the things to come – but rather the reality (New Testament) that interprets the shadow. It is Christ’s death that gives meaning to every type and foreshadowing and image of that death to be found in the Old Testament.

Thus it is more accurate to say that the Paschal Lamb in the time of Moses is like Christ’s sacrifice, rather than to say His sacrifice is like that which came before. As Christ said of Moses and the Prophets, “These are they which testify of me” (John 5:30).

One of the most common and helpful images in Scripture and the fathers of the Church is the image of Christ’s union with humanity. Christ became incarnate, taking to Himself our human nature. He became what we were, yet without sin. This union should be understood in more than a metaphorical manner. For Christ literally and truly became man. His humanity was not a new creation, but he took flesh “of the Virgin Mary.” He became a partaker of our humanity.

In becoming a partaker of our humanity, Christ opened the way for us to become partakers in His divinity. “For as He is, so are we in this world” (1 John 4:17). St. Paul uses this language as well in his explanation of Baptism:

Do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into His death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of His death, we shall also be raised together in the likeness of His resurrection. Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that we should no longer be the slaves of sin (Romans 6:3-6).

This imagery is common in St. Paul:

I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me. And the life that I now live in the flesh, I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me (Galatians 2:20).

If you are risen with Christ, seek those things that are above, where Christ sits on the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth. For you are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then you shall also appear with Him in glory (Colossians 3:1-4).

These things only make sense because Christ has united Himself to us, and us to Him. We are united to His death and resurrection in our faith and in our Baptism. We become one flesh with Christ. We truly become a part of the Body of Christ.

And this goes to the heart of the answer to the question posed: why did Christ die? Christ died because we were dead. We were trapped in the lifeless death of sin (which yields corruption and physical death as well). Christ is God who has come to rescue us from our prison of sin and death. He became what we are that we might have a share in what He is. We were created in the image and likeness of God – but our sin had marred us.

We did not inherit guilt and a legal penalty from Adam and Eve. We inherited a world dominated by death. In such a world we behaved as the slaves of sin and sought to live our lives apart from God Who alone is Life. God alone could rescue us from the place where we had confined ourselves. Christ enters death. Christ enters Hades and makes a way for us to follow Him into true life.

In our present life, this true life is made present within us in many ways. First, it is made present in our knowledge of God. “This is eternal life, that they might know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ Whom Thou hast sent” (John 17:3). We know God and have a true relationship and communion with Him. We also have within us the power to overcome sin. This is sometimes manifest as obedience to Christ’s commandments, and, as God pleases, it is sometimes manifest as physical healing in our bodies (and miracles in creation – Romans 8:21).

If the same Spirit which raised Christ from the dead dwell in you, He will make alive your mortal bodies (Romans 8:11).

The true life of humanity is a common life. It is common in the modern world to think of ourselves only in terms of discreet individuals. But the Scriptures and teaching of the Church bear witness to a common life in which we all partake. Thus, what happens to one of us effects all of us. This commonality is also an important part of our spiritual life and our salvation. The Church in particular is the place where Christians live their common life.

This common life is also the place where we come to understand the references to “Christ’s blood” (since this was part of the question posed). His blood carries a number of meanings. It is His death, His “life poured out for us.” It is also His life given to us in the sacrament of His Body and Blood. His blood cleanses us – just as Baptism cleanses us – for His death destroys death and makes the whole creation new. There are many links between the image of blood in the Old Testament and Christ’s blood in the New. However, it is easy to become overly detailed about his connection and miss the larger point of Christ’s death – by which He destroyed death and gave us eternal life.

There are many voices across the Christian world. Taken together – they are a madhouse of confusion. Confusion and contradiction is the only result of those who listen first to one teacher and then to another. No one will arrive at the truth by such a route.

Instead, I counsel anyone to take up the life of the Church. Be Baptized (or otherwise received into the Church) and stay put. Listen to a godly pastor who lives the Scriptures and respects the fathers of the Church. Those who have built private empires and practice ministries that are in submission to “no one except God” are frauds and live in delusion. They are scandals waiting to happen.

No Church, including the Orthodox Church, ever exists without scandal. But that scandal can be disciplined. True teaching can be found and life in union with the resurrected Lord can be lived.

A Short Word About Wrath and Anger

These are words, I believe, that are so charged and dangerous, that they must be used seldom and only with caution and careful nuance. Hate and anger and wrath are generally only experienced in a sinful manner by human beings and most people are deeply wounded already by such abuse. Those who preach such terms are often engaging in spiritual abuse and should stop. If someone who teaches or preaches the Christian gospel but cannot do so without reference to these words, then I think they need to stop and pray and see if there is not something fundamentally wrong with their understanding. I’m not trying to edit these things out of Scripture – simply to say that they are abused by most who read them. Imagine you are explaining the gospel to a 4 year old. Will the child misunderstand the concept of God’s wrath? I am rather sure of it. I have not found adults to be that much more emotionally mature. My challenge of these images (on the blog and in my writings) is, I hope, an occasion for other Christians, particularly Orthodox, to think carefully about these very powerful words. If we do that – then I’ll have done a little good.

[Of course, Scripture and the Fathers use the image of anger and wrath, generally with the understanding that such anger or wrath is an expression of an aspect of God’s love and not an effect created in God by our actions. A common example is the double aspect of fire – in which it is both heat and light, purification and illumination. Of course, the words “wrath” and “anger” are seldom used with such subtlety by many who preach or teach them and in so doing may be saying something that the Gospels do not teach.]

It is quite possible to give a very good account of the Christian gospel without the use of “wrath” and “anger.” St. John only uses the word wrath once in His entire Gospel. It is not an integral and necessary part of the theology of the Cross. To say that it is – is to make of an illustration and metaphor a matter of dogma. If you disagree, argue with St. John.

Conclusion

I pray that this answer is of help to the reader who posed the question. I also ask pardon of those readers who have been patient with me for the posting of this answer. It comes at the end of a busy week. May God give us all grace to hear the Holy Gospel.


Beginning to Pray

I have written from time to time on the nature of prayer. I was recently asked by a reader to offer a reflection on “beginning to pray,” which seems to me to be an invitation to write about something that happens for me, by necessity, every day. I cannot write as a man of great experience in prayer. But I have had years of experience in beginning to pray. If the reader will bear in mind that I am an ignorant man – then he/she might find some word of help in these thoughts.

CommCong3IconVenStranart_EliaI remember the first time I saw someone standing stock-still before an icon in Church. It is the practice of Orthodox Christians, upon entering a Church, to “greet” the icons, offering an act of veneration (such as a kiss), and a prayer (usually accompanied by lighting a candle). What I recall about this particular instance, was the obvious concentration and self-abandonment of the parishioner. She was a visitor to our congregation and a Russian national.

There is variety within Orthodoxy, despite our common faith. The variety is often associated with different national groups. It is not the case that Russians always stand so carefully before an icon when entering the Church – but there was a spiritual “rapport” with the icon that I do not associate with American Orthodoxy – particularly in the convert-rich South.

My experience of watching the devotion of a Russian Christian within the Church is not itself an example of “beginning to pray,” but it is an example of how to begin to pray. In various editions of Orthodox prayer books (private) the following instruction can be found for morning prayers:

Having awakened, arise from your bed without laziness and, having gathered your thoughts, make the Sign of the Cross, saying: “In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” Afterwards, stand in silence for a few moments until all your senses are calmed. At that point, make three prostrations, saying: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” Then begin the Morning Prayers…”

My observation through the years is that the small instructions to “gather your thoughts,” and “stand in silence for a few moments until all your senses are calmed,” are very easily ignored, though they have ever so much to do with “beginning to pray.” All prayer is an act of communion with God. Taking time to gather our thoughts and enter in to the living communion with God that is His gift to us in the Holy Spirit has everything to do prayer itself.

There is no need for us to “imagine” God (this is not the purpose of gathering our thoughts). But there is a need for us to actually be present where we are and to be quiet before God. This is far more difficult than it sounds. The distractions of the mind generally carry us everywhere (mentally) other than where we are. Prayer then becomes an annoyance, an activity that competes with the wandering passions of our mind. It is little wonder that we experience this competition as boring or irksome – as almost anything other than what it is. How can we experience prayer for what it is if we are not there to experience it?

The simple act of being quiet, of gathering our thoughts within ourselves, is essential to the beginning of prayer.

I pray Matins each morning at the Church. Frequently I am alone or accompanied by one or two others. I leave the electric lights off and pray by candle light. Lighting the oil lamps before the icons is, for me, part of the quiet act of gathering myself for prayer. I have also noticed that rising early for prayer has a side benefit: I am frequently too tired for my mind to wander. It’s actually helpful. It is not for nothing that monastics often curb their sleep in order to pray.

A second simple act is of equal importance: meaning what you say. There is no necessary superiority to praying with one’s own spontaneous words rather than praying prayers that are written for you. It is possible to practice either form while giving no attention to what you are saying. I have heard “spontaneous” prayers that were as “rote” as the worst misuse of written prayers. In either case – whether prayers are read or “spontaneously” uttered – it is essential to mean what we say. Reading things (or saying things) that have no connection to our heart is a guaranteed way to force your mind to wander. How can you be present with words you do not mean?

It is thus useful to be familiar with the words of our prayers (if we are reading). Spontaneous prayer is another matter – which I’ll say something about in a moment. Most of the words of Orthodox daily prayers are taken from the Psalms (or are the regular pattern of “Trisagion” prayers and the like). Teaching our heart to understand and mean the words of the Psalms is a discipline of conforming our heart to the heart of God.

Of course this requires learning how to “read” the Psalms. If read on a literal level or on a historical level, the Psalms will never rise to the place of prayer. Hearing the Psalms in their Christological meaning (and learning to unite oneself to Christ in that meaning) are essential to meaning what we say.

An example:

Matins traditionally begins with the Six Psalms (3, 37, 62, 87, 102, and 142 LXX numbering). Psalm 87 (88) reads:

O Lord, God of my salvation, I have cried out day and night before you.
Let my prayer come before you; incline your ear to my cry.
For my soul is filled with evil,
And my life draws near to Hades.
I am counted with those who go down into the pit;
I am like a man without help, adrift among the dead.
Like the bodies of the slain who sleep in the grave, whom you remember no more,
And who are cut off from your hand.
They have laid me in the lowest pit, in darkness, and the shadow of death.
Your wrath lies heavy upon me, and you have afflicted me with all your waves.
You have made me an abomination to them; I am shut up, and I cannot get out;
My eyes have grown weak from poverty.
I have cried to you, Lord, the entire day. I have stretched out my hands to you.
Will you work wonders for the dead? Or shall physicians raise them up so that they
might thank you?
Shall any in the grave speak of your mercy and your truth in the place of destruction?
Shall your wonders be known in the dark, and your righteousness in the land of
forgetfulness?
But as for me, I have cried out to you, Lord, and in the morning my prayer shall come
before you.
Lord, why do you cast off my soul, and turn away from me?
I am a poor man and in trouble.
From my youth, having been exalted, I was humbled and brought to distress.
Your fierce wrath has gone over me, and your terrors have sorely troubled me.
They came around me all day long like water; they engulfed me altogether.
You have put far away from me friend and neighbor, and my acquaintances because of
my misery.

A literal treatment of this Psalm will rarely find an echo in our heart. Certainly there are times that we feel “cast off” and that God has “turned away” from us. But this is by no means a daily experience or one that is present each time we pray the Psalm. Literal gets you nowhere. Nor is it of any use to have deep historical knowledge of the Psalm or even great expertise in the “original” meaning of each word, etc. Of essential importance is the Psalm’s Christological meaning. It is the prayer of Christ from Hades (where He descended in His death to free us from death). A useful way to pray the Psalm is to unite oneself to Christ in His descent into Hades and there pray with Him to the Father. It is also the prayer for all of us who find ourselves “in Hades,” as well as for the whole world (“which lieth in the power of the evil one”).

There are many such ways to pray the Psalms where we have entered into the prayer by uniting ourselves to Christ. Fr. Patrick Reardon’s Christ in the Psalms is a useful book for such study and preparation.

Those are just a few thoughts on beginning to pray. Be still. Be present. Let the passions calm down. Mean what you say.

I have not, in this post, said much about praying with icons, or the sign of the cross, or prostrations and the like – though they are quite important as well. I’ll say more in a subsequent note.

For the Sake of Envy

img_10073In the Praises for Matins of Holy Wednesday, we read:

Oh, the wretchedness of Judas! He saw the harlot kiss the footsteps of Christ, but deceitfully he contemplated the kiss of betrayal. She loosed her hair while he bound himself with wrath. He offered the stench of wickedness instead of myrrh, for envy cannot distinguish value. Oh, the wretchedness of Judas! Deliver our souls from this, O God.

We are also told in Scripture that Pilate perceived that Christ was being handed over to him “for the sake of envy” (Matt. 27:18). Thus, it seemed important to me to offer this small meditation on envy, or at least one of its sources – for it is rooted in false beliefs about God and His world and the hardness of our heart that keeps us from seeing the truth. There is much more to say of this primal passion. But this small re-write will have to suffice for now.

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We stand mournfully around the grave, letting the strains of the hymn find their resolution in the final chord. The priest approaches the coffin, now closed and ready for lowering into the grave. The closing of the grave begins with a single handful of dirt. The priest tosses the dirt with the words: “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.”

Fullness seems strangely contradictory to the mood of a funeral. The pain of loss and the emptiness of a life that seems to have gone from the midst of us speak not of fullness but of scarcity. I will not hear that voice, hold you close to me or listen carefully for your footsteps.

No setting could be more stark in which to proclaim “fullness.”

But it is at the grave that we are perhaps most clearly confronted with the claims of our faith. For it is here at the grave that God made His own final assault on the myths and fears of a world dominated by death. This world of death always proclaimed the sovereignty of sorrow, the ascendency of scarcity.

From the abundance of Paradise man falls into a world in which thorns and thistles dominate:

Cursed is the ground for your sake; In toil you shall eat of it All the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you, And you shall eat the herb of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread Till you return to the ground (Genesis 3:17-19).

But now, standing at this funeral, the priest proclaims, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.”

What fullness? Again it is the assault of God on the world man has made. The earth is not the kingdom of scarcity, but now the Kingdom of God. The grave is not the gate of Hades, but the gate of Paradise. Fullness can again be proclaimed for the grave has been ruptured and cannot hold its prey.

This struggle is a daily struggle. Is the world I live in one of scarcity or abundance? The answer to the question has much to do about almost every decision I make. The threat of scarcity tells me that whatever I have, like my own life, is limited. Nothing is ever enough. There is not enough money, enough food, enough love. The abundance enjoyed by another is always at the expense of myself and others because the world is governed by scarcity. Thus I must fight; I must wrestle to gain whatever I can and cling to it ’til death wrests it from my cold, dead fingers.

However, if the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof – if every good thing comes from God who is without limit – then scarcity has been defeated and abundance reigns within the Kingdom of God, now and always. In this abundance there is not just enough, but more than enough. I can share. I can give. I can love without fear that there will be too little to go around. The abundance enjoyed by another is not at my expense for those who have much are not the rulers of this world. Thus I need not fight; I do not need to gain or to cling. God knows “you have need of all these things.”

The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. The emptiness of death has been filled with such an abundance of life that it has been trampled beneath the feet of those who walk the way of Christ. In this fullness we can do more than give – we can love even to the excess of forgiveness. My enemy has stolen nothing from the abundance that fills my life.

This proclamation of abundance has nothing in common with the prosperity gospel which is all too often driven by the fear of scarcity and the need to amass material things to prove the goodness of God.

Instead, as proclamation the abundance of the Kingdom needs no assurance greater than the resurrection of Christ. He is the abundance of Life.

In the world in which we live it is all too easy to create yet another scheme of the two-storey universe. The world we inhabit we assume to be defined and finite with scarcity as one of its leading boundaries. Abundance is shuttled off to a heaven somewhere else. But this is a failure to recognize what has happened in the world in the coming among us of the God-Man, Jesus Christ. As He Himself said:

Go and shew John again those things which ye do hear and see: The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me.

In Biblical language, this was Christ’s proclamation of a Jubilee year – the great Jubilee Year – in which all debts are cancelled and righteousness is restored. He has extended this confidence of abundance even to the blind and the lame. They receive the abundance of sight and the ability to walk. Lepers, once trapped in the scarcity of their disease and shame, are cleansed and returned to the company of men. The world has changed. Christ did not do these miracles in a world removed from the one we inhabit. It was the blind and lame in the very midst of us and in this world who were healed. Thus it is with the same confidence that we proclaim the victory of His kingdom – in what we say and do.

What martyr disdained to live the abundance of this proclamation? What saint, in His poverty, declared God to be poor and this world to be bereft of its fullness? And yet in our own confidence in the material machine of modernity (not in God) we worry and are anxious about its limits. Modernity’s fullness has its limits for it is not the fullness of God but of man (and this as unredeemed). It offers a false promise. It’s fullness does not generally induce kindness and generosity but acquisition and envy.

True fullness will always beget generosity and kindness – it is a hallmark of the work of God. True fullness brought a cry of “the half of my goods I give to the poor” from the lips of the Publican Zachaeus. True fullness will always be marked by such cries – they are echoes of “Indeed, He is risen!” 

The abundance found in the Kingdom of God is not the same as the abundance imagined by a planet enmeshed in its own cycle of scarcity and envy. The abundance proclaimed in the Kingdom of God in which the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, is an abundance in which there is not enough to waste but more than enough to share. The abundance flows from the enlargement of our heart as we expand our very existence to include the other. A world constituted by love rather than the envy of individualism will always have more than enough. 

Envy plays a large role in the events of Holy Week. Strangely, it is a passion which is rarely mentioned in our culture, even though the Fathers (at least some) thought of it as the root of all sin. We frequently think of pride as the root of all sin, but some of the Fathers note that pride, unlike envy, can be completely private, whereas envy always seeks harm for another.

Many times the sins we think of as pride, are, in fact, envy, insomuch as they are directed at other human beings. We envy their success, their “good fortune,” and many other such things. If we examine our heart carefully we will discover envy to be frequently at the root of anger, our sense of injustice and unfairness. The first murder, Abel’s death at the hand of his brother, is clearly the result of envy.

Even Judas is described as envious in the hymns of the Church, as well as the rulers of Israel by the Scriptures themselves. Sometimes in our “free-market” society, our failure and the envy it engenders gets turned against us and we condemn ourselves because we are not as clever as others. The basic inequalities of life become the source of either anger towards others of self-loathing depending on our own personality (and sometime a mixture of both).

The great difficulty with having a God is the fundamental requirement that we renounce envy. As one friend told me, “The most important thing to know about God is that you are not Him.” And this is something that I must learn to be content with. God is the Lord of the universe and not me. Things work together for good according to His own redemptive plan and not according to my secret machinations.

Envy is perhaps the most subtle of sins. Even in the desert where no one possesses anything, there is always something about another that we can find to envy. Our adversary, himself dominated by his envy of God, will always have envious suggestions to make to us.

To combat envy several things are necessary:

We must believe that God is good.

We must believe that God’s will for us in particular is good.

We must believe that God’s goodness is without limit.

We must believe that God’s goodness, shed upon someone else, does not come at our expense.

Thus we can “rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.” We can see that it is possible to turn our lives over completely to God and trust Him in all things. We can bless who we are and where we are (even if our own sins and limitations have made of our lives a difficulty). God is good. We need not envy. Further, we can give thanks for all things for they proceed from the fullness of God and His kindness to us. Even those things we perceive as “evil” occur in the context of the world we have entered through Baptism. We may give thanks despite all the troubles that afflict us – for God is good, and His mercy endures forever. 

Envy has no place within the Christian life. It belongs to those who drive nails into the flesh of God and taunt Him with their perceived victory. When all is said, they will stand as mute as fish, unable to cry, “Alleluia.”

Where He Leads

img_10071The journey to Pascha is nearly complete. This weekend the Orthodox celebrate Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday, marking the beginning of Holy Week. I sat in the tomb of Lazarus last year, located in Bethany. It is not a very long journey from there to Jerusalem.

Perhaps one of the most striking features of Holy Week and Jerusalem is simply how small everything is. All the events that mark that make up Holy Week took place within a very small walking-distance. The salvation of the world – on the stage of this world – was quite intimate and compact. This is fitting. For the point at which our salvation itself occurred is small indeed – the Hades into which our Lord, God and Savior, Jesus Christ entered is infinitesimally small.

Very striking is the relatively short distance between Golgotha and the tomb of Christ. We are told in Scripture that the tomb was nearby. Today, Golgotha and the tomb are under the same roof, with Golgotha situated high in a corner of the Church, and the Sepulchre standing in what would pass for a Narthex in most Orthodox Churches. 

Standing before the altar built over the very place of our Lord’s crucifixion, I was stuck by the fact that there is an icon beneath the altar. It is the icon of Christ the Bridegroom which will be placed in the center of Orthodox Churches at Matins on the evening of Palm Sunday. I took it to be a “road sign.”

There is a path from Golgotha to Pascha – Pascha cannot be reached other than by this path. The Bridegroom icon marks the direction of the path (thus the road sign). In the architecture of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, dictated by the actual historical sites located under its roof, one must travel down from the Cross (it was in the corner of a quarry in a place called ‘the place of the skull’ (Golgotha). I would estimate the Cross to be nearly two stories above where the tomb stands and at a distance of perhaps 200 yards (my guess). In the Church, the pilgrim descends stairs back into the main body of the Church in order to approach the tomb.

In life the path is similar – but the icon indicates the way. The journey from the Cross to Pascha (Pascha being marked by the emptiness of the tomb and the fullness of our existence) goes through the Bridegroom. In that icon we see Christ in His humiliation. “Like a lamb who before his shearers is mute so He uttered not a word.”

129963405_301bb0765b2To reach Pascha from the Cross, we must go through the Cross and follow the Bridegroom to Hades and in His resurrection, follow Him out of that dark place into the brilliant light of the brightness of Pascha.

St. Paul instructs us to “empty ourselves” by having among us the “mind of Christ” – but the “mind of Christ” precisely in His humility (Philippians 2:5-11). And so the journey of Holy Week has its path clearly marked. 

The services are long. The weakness that eventually threatens to overcome us all (“I don’t think I could stand up for another minute”) is itself a physical union with the sufferings of Christ. Holy Week is exhausting. So was the work accomplished on the cross – exhaustion to the point of death. Thus in Holy Week we are conformed to the image of Christ on the cross – including His weakness.

It is time again to forgive one another. If I stand with the humble Bridegroom and hear His words of humility: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (he offers no blame), how can I not with Him readily forgive all who have reason to hate me, or who hate me for no reason at all, or whom I hate (sinner that I am) even though their sins against me justly invite my wrath? Do I even dare to think of justice when the judgment of God looms so near? No, forgiveness can and must be given now! Rush to forgive – tell them quickly that their debt has been reduced or even taken away.

The coins with which we must purchase oil for our lamps as we follow the Bridegroom into His bridal

_44604810_0cfa7112-54f0-4015-a9b0-29f58a4fab29chamber, can only be obtained by giving away the currency of our self-righteousness and the wealth of our grudges.

As Fr. Sophrony would note – we can only follow Christ to His Pascha by traveling downwards.

 The journey up is made by going down. We go down to His death and His humility so that we may rise with Him in the glory of His compassion.

Behold, the Bridegroom comes. Blessed is that servant whom He shall find watching!

St. Ephrem on Ninevah and Sodom

sainte02The use of Scripture in many of the Orthodox Church Fathers puzzles many modern readers. We tend to see reading as something that can be done in two modes: literal or figurative. In addition, we tend to equate literal with “true” and figurative as “not real and thus somehow not quite true.” It’s actually a very limited way of reading reducing meaning to two poor choices. Indeed, there is a “privileging” of the literal – by equating it with “real.” The model is literal equals historical equals objective equals true. It is, if you will, a very “flat-footed” reading that makes many assumptions about the world – most of which would support the notion of the world as a “secular realm.” In this model the question would be: “Are the Scriptures as true as the New York Times?” You can think about that question after you quit laughing.

First off, for the Fathers, “true” means “eschatological.” Things are true as measured by the end of all things. Creation has an end and a goal both of which already reside in the created order. All that exists is moving towards its end and the fulfillment of the truth of its existence. Thus, to be modern and flat-footed, the only “literal” truth has not yet been fully manifest. We live in a world of shadows, icons, hints, and signposts. Thus the Fathers tend to read things looking for something that isn’t always apparent. They are looking for the truth, but often having to look beyond the immediate presentation to find the end of the matter. Comparisons and echoes between two events are key moments in interpretation. This is especially true when the key moment echoes the life, death, resurrection, etc., of Christ – who is the End of all things.

William, one of our readers and a frequent commentator, posted a comment this morning that offered a marvelous example of this Patristic style of interpretation. His example came from St. Ephrem of Syria – one of the greatest hymn writers in the early Church. Parenthetically, it should be noted that a number of the better interpreters of Scripture in the early Church used poetry and hymn-writing as a major means of expression. It’s almost a way of saying that the world exists more like poetry than prose.

St. Ephrem finds a comparison between the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (in the book of Genesis) and the story of the sparing of the city of Ninevah (in the book of the Prophet Jonah). He also sees a comparison between the attitude of Abraham (who asked for God’s mercy on Sodom) and the Prophet Jonah (who was angry because God spared Ninevah).

The saint is not particularly concerned with any question of “did this really happen?” or other concerns that drive modern literal interpretations. The truth of the destruction of Sodom and the sparing of Ninevah is to be found in the Eschaton, when Christ will come to judge all things. And the point of that judgment is, St. Ephrem affirms, to be found in the mercy of God. It is the common teaching of the Orthodox fathers that God is merciful towards all (“not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance”). However not all desire God’s mercy. Christ said:

 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed (John 3:19-20).

Thus Ephrem sees the same mercy (light) coming to Ninevah and to Sodom. One is glad to receive mercy, but the other hated mercy (the Sodomites surely showed no mercy to their visitors) and found God’s mercy to be as fire and brimstone.

Of course any move away from modern literalism frightens some people for fear that claims for the reality of Christ’s atoning death and resurrection might be weakened. Although the Church sees the written account of the Gospels as “doctrinally shaped” narratives – nonetheless we stand on the ground of a certain literalism in the Gospels. For the Truth Himself, the Alpha and Omega, is among us in the gospel and all that happens around Him is being brought to its “literal” truth. The blind receive their sight because darkness is not the truth. The lame walk and the dead are raised because brokenness and death are not the truth of our existence. Where Christ is judgment has come. Judgment that gives sight and causes to walk. Judgment that raises the dead. But also judgment that reveals traitors and hypocrites and unmasks the false power of the princes of this world.

Thus St. Ephrem’s poetry reveals. As William noted:

…the Ninevites were faced with the same threat that Sodom and Gomorrah faced, but their hearts were different. Ephrem describes the Ninevites’ ashes and sackcloth as being like blood money and an offering that made reconciliation. The tears that flowed from their eyes were met with mercy flowing from heaven, Ephrem writes. God always meets repentance with mercy. Anyway, this describes God’s wrath as something whose very purpose is mercy:

“Give thanks to the One Who sent His anger to Nineveh
that His anger might be a merchant of mercy.
For two treasures His anger opens:
the treasure of the deep and the treasure of the height.
Urgently the fruit [repentance] went up from below to the height.
Urgently mercy rained from above to the deep.
Urgently the blood money went up to the height.
Urgently pity came down from above to the deep.”

It seems that God’s visitation on Sodom and Gomorrah that was a shower of brimstone on unrepentant souls was no different from his visitation on Nineveh that was a shower of mercy on the repentant. Abraham’s prayer didn’t change God, nor did the Ninevites’ sackcloth, because God’s will is always mercy on the repentant. Abraham’s prayer for mercy toward the righteous is in conformity with God’s eternal intent.

Here is another quote from St. Ephrem comparing Jonah with Abraham. It doesn’t necessarily answer any questions, but it’s interesting, and it suggests the difference between Sodom and Nineveh and between a merciful man and an unmerciful one:

“That Sodom not be overthrown Abraham prayed.
That Nineveh be overthrown Jonah hoped.
That man prayed for a city that abused watchers [angels]
This man was angry at a city that made the watchers rejoice.”

“Tears moistened her (Nineveh); mercy shone on her;
weeping rained in her; pity sprouted in her
The King of the height saw and desired
the fruit that a flow of tears grew.
The High One hungered very much for her tears,
since He tasted remorse in her fruits.
He came down and opened the treasury of mercy
to purchase by His mercy the fruits of His servants.”

Thank you William. Thank you St. Ephrem. Thanks be to God.

Understanding Anger

solitudevalaamThe anger of man does not work the righteousness of God (James 1:20)

I have occasionally read discussions or heard conversations in which the subject of a “righteous anger” is brought up. I understand the concept. I will say without fear of contradiction that I have never seen a single case of human “righteous indignation.” Just as I have never met a man who was pure in heart, neither have I man a man who is pure in anger.

I’ve seen anger and plenty of it. Priests are not strangers to anger, either within themselves or within others around them. But as St. James notes, it does not work the righteousness of God. In plain and simple terms, I’ve never seen it do anyone any good.

By the same token, if you have never had the experience of a righteous anger – then how would you know one when you saw one? The simple fact is that you wouldn’t. This is what makes discussions of the “anger” or “wrath” of God so academic. We have the words of the Fathers who direct our hearts properly to the love of God. St. Isaac of Syria once said, “We know nothing of God’s justice, only His mercy.” And yet there are those who are bold enough to theorize a Divine Justice to which God is bound by necessity. Those who speak of such things do not know what they are talking about. These are theories and hypotheses, not Divine Teachings. This is the blind rationalism of those who have removed the Scriptures from the Church and the living witness of the saints who dwell in light.

From an Orthodox perspective, some things are quite simple. St. Silouan of Mt. Athos said, “If you do not love your enemies then you do not know God.”

It is also possible to conclude that if you do not know God then you do not know about such things as His anger, His wrath, His goodness, His power, etc. But there are many who “know” the Scriptures. But they do not know the path of salvation that has been walked by the saints through the ages.

From outside the world of Orthodox Christianity such statements can be judged as heresy (because they do not fit certain formulas of the heterodox). However, it is not formulas that save but the Divine Grace of God dwelling in us changing us from glory to glory into the image of His dear Son. The evidence of that glory will be manifest in the heart and will be manifest as love. “He who loves not, knows not God.”

Sometimes I just have to say these things. No arguments. Forgive me if I offend.

Comments are now open. Tread lightly.

What Do Angels Guard?

angelguardianIt is a commonplace in our culture to speak of guardian angels, particularly when we have come close to a physical disaster and survived. Thus, a near-miss in an auto-accident, or even a survival from a terrible accident, conversation often lightly turns to mention of “my guardian angel.” Of course, such references also raise the question about those who do not survive their accidents, or when near-misses become “head-on.” Are we to infer that one person’s guardian angel did a better job than another’s?

The task of our guardian angels, as understood in the Church’s tradition, is the guarding of our salvation. That guarding may very well include physical protection – though the greater danger for us all in each and every day is the spiritual danger that surrounds us.

These dangers are not simply the things that assault us – but those things that assault us in such a way that our soul itself is imperiled. The mystery of what is to our soul’s benefit and what is to its harm is known to God alone, or to those to whom He choose to reveal it. It is this mystery that the guardian angels serve. “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and to lose his soul?”

The traditional “prayer to my guardian angel” guides our words to this understanding:

O Angel of Christ, holy guardian and protector of my soul and body, forgive me everything wherein I have offended thee every day of my life, and protect me from all influence and temptation of the evil one. May I nevermore anger God by any sin. Pray for me to the Lord, that He may make me worthy of the grace of the All-holy Trinity, and of the Most Blessed Theotokos, and of all the Saints. Amen.

The language of “angering God by sin” is the traditional metaphor of Scripture in which our sin sets us in opposition to God and thus puts us in the path of His “wrath.” It is not a description of a God whom we make angry.

In like manner, we pray that the Lord will make us worthy of saving grace and of the help of the prayers of the Theotokos and of all the saints. Of course, they will pray for us whether we are worthy or not (else who would ever be prayed for?).

However, the Tradition teaches us all a lesson, and that is to value our salvation above all else. Greater than our wealth, our physical safety, all things in our life. For our salvation (living communion with the True God) is nothing other than our true life. Without that true life we are not physically safe or wealthy or anything that the world values. Without true life we live in a deadly delusion. It is against such deadly delusion that our Guardian Angel and all the saints work and pray. They do not do so as substitutes for the grace of our good God, but in cooperation with that very grace. All of heaven yearns for our salvation and for us to know our true life.

May God keep us!

Truth and Existence – A Second Look

The original article (which follows) was published in August (not long ago). However, questions that continue to arise tell me that I need to publish it yet again. I will here emphasize its connection with the Atonement. Theories of legal indebtedness as the problem of sin are certainly popular in some circles of the Christian faith – though they do an extremely poor job of giving a proper account of the largest portion of Scripture on the point. St. Gregory Nazianzus was not unfamiliar with the image, but dismissed it as repugnant in the extreme. He is not a minor, isolated father of the Church, but one of the primary architects of the Ancient Church’s statement of the doctrine of the Trinity. He cannot simply be dismissed as “odd” on this point. Scripture, both in St. Paul and St. John, make the strongest possible connection between sin and death. Our sin is not the result of an indebtedness, but rather the failure to live in communion with God. Humanity did not incur an unpayable debt at the Fall, but rather entered the realm of death (as God had warned). Theories of the Atonement which found their popularization in the Middle Ages in the West and more recently in the Protestant world, should not be allowed to set aside the ancient inheritance of the teachings of the fathers. We are a walking existential crisis – verging on non-existence itself. This is not a result of God’s wrath, but the result of our rebellion against the “good God who loves mankind” and our preference for death over life. I can think of nothing more central to the Orthodox faith, which is to say, the faith as delivered to the Church by Christ. May God give us grace to apprehend the wonder of His gift of salvation.

Perhaps one of the greatest contributions of Orthodox theology to contemporary thought is the correlation between truth and existence. I am not well-enough versed in writings outside of Orthodoxy to know whether this correlation is made by others as well – I have to drink the water from my own cistern.

This understanding has been a particular emphasis in the teachings of St. Silouan, the Elder Sophrony of blessed memory, and the contemporary Archimandrite Zacharias, a disciple of the Elder Sophrony. Their own teaching is nothing new in Orthodoxy, but simply a restatement in modern terms of what has always been the teaching of the Orthodox Christian faith. Indeed, it is a teaching that could be solely supported by Scripture should someone so require.

But the correlation is exceedingly important for religious teaching and understanding. The modern movement of secular thought has been to move existence into an independent and self-defining realm, relegating God and religion to a specialized interest of those who find themselves religiously minded. This is the death of religion – or rather a religion of death. For as soon as our existence is moved away from God and grounded in something else, God Himself has been abandoned. It is not possible for God to be a lesser concern. Either He is the very ground of our existence or He is no God.

There were those within liberal protestantism (Paul Tillich comes to mind) who sought to make the correlation between existence and God – but frequently the result was a God who was reduced to a philosophical cypher (Tillich’s “Ground of Being”) and relieved of all particular content. To speak of God as “Ultimate Concern” as did Tillich, is only to have spoken in human terms. I recall many fellow students in my Anglican seminary years who found Tillich helpful in a way that Jesus was not. The particularity of Jesus made the demands of existential reality too specific. Indeed, it revealed God as God and not simply something that I cared about.

Instead, the Orthodox language on the subject has been that God is truly the ground of all existence, and that apart from Him, everything is moving towards non-existence. It is the Scriptural correlation between sin and death. This shifts the reality of the whole of our lives. Prayer no longer serves as a component of my personal “spirituality,” but is instead communion with the God Who Is, and apart from Whom, I am not. It teaches us to pray as if our lives depended on it – because they do.

By the same token, it moves our understanding of what it means to exist away from mere biology or even philosophy and to its proper place: to exist is to love. As Met. John Zizioulas has famously stated, “Being is communion.” In such a context we are able to move towards authentic existence – a mode of being that is not self-centered nor self-defined, but that is centered in the Other and defined by communion. Sin is removed from its confines of legalism and mere ethics and placed at the very center and character of existence itself. Sin is a movement towards non-being. In contrast, to know God is to love and its greatest test is the love of enemies. As St. Silouan taught: “We only know God to the extent that we love our enemies.”

This is not to reinterpret Christ in terms of existentialism, but instead to understand that Christ is, as He said: the Way, the Truth and the Life. His death and resurrection are the movement of God’s love to rescue humanity from a self-imposed exile from true and authentic existence which is found only in communion with God. This is a rescue of the Atonement from obscure legal theories of Divine Wrath and Judgment, and restores it properly in the context of the God who created us, sustains us, and calls us into the fullness of His life.

It presses the question upon us all: “What is the truth of my existence?” It presses us towards living honestly and forthrightly before God – not finessing ourselves with carefully wrought excuses and religious half-measures – but calling us to a radically authentic search for God.

The Orthodox faith asks nothing less of its adherents. Though even Orthodoxy can be warped into half-measures and religious distractions – this is not its truth nor the life that is taught by the Fathers, the Scriptures nor the words of her liturgies. In God “we live and move and have our being.” There is nothing that can thus be placed outside of God. There is God or there is delusion. And even delusion itself has no existence – but its mere pretence.

Truth and Existence

Perhaps one of the greatest contributions of Orthodox theology to contemporary thought is the correlation between truth and existence. I am not well-enough versed in writings outside of Orthodoxy to know whether this correlation is made by others as well – I have to drink the water from my own cistern.

This understanding has been a particular emphasis in the teachings of St. Silouan, the Elder Sophrony of blessed memory, and the contemporary Archimandrite Zacharias, a disciple of the Elder Sophrony. Their own teaching is nothing new in Orthodoxy, but simply a restatement in modern terms of what has always been the teaching of the Orthodox Christian faith. Indeed, it is a teaching that could be solely supported by Scripture should someone so require.

But the correlation is exceedingly important for religious teaching and understanding. The modern movement of secular thought has been to move existence into an independent and self-defining realm, relegating God and religion to a specialized interest of those who find themselves religiously minded. This is the death of religion – or rather a religion of death. For as soon as our existence is moved away from God and grounded in something else, God Himself has been abandoned. It is not possible for God to be a lesser concern. Either He is the very ground of our existence or He is no God.

There were those within liberal protestantism (Paul Tillich comes to mind) who sought to make the correlation between existence and God – but frequently the result was a God who was reduced to a philosophical cypher (Tillich’s “Ground of Being”) and relieved of all particular content. To speak of God as “Ultimate Concern” as did Tillich, is only to have spoken in human terms. I recall many fellow students in my Anglican seminary years who found Tillich helpful in a way that Jesus was not. The particularity of Jesus made the demands of existential reality too specific. Indeed, it revealed God as God and not simply something that I cared about.

Instead, the Orthodox language on the subject has been that God is truly the ground of all existence, and that apart from Him, everything is moving towards non-existence. It is the Scriptural correlation between sin and death. This shifts the reality of the whole of our lives. Prayer no longer serves as a component of my personal “spirituality,” but is instead communion with the God Who Is, and apart from Whom, I am not. It teaches us to pray as if our lives depended on it – because they do.

By the same token, it moves our understanding of what it means to exist away from mere biology or even philosophy and to its proper place: to exist is to love. As Met. John Zizioulas has famously stated, “Being is communion.” In such a context we are able to move towards authentic existence – a mode of being that is not self-centered nor self-defined, but that is centered in the Other and defined by communion. Sin is removed from its confines of legalism and mere ethics and placed at the very center and character of existence itself. Sin is a movement towards non-being. In contrast, to know God is to love and its greatest test is the love of enemies. As St. Silouan taught: “We only know God to the extent that we love our enemies.”

This is not to reinterpret Christ in terms of existentialism, but instead to understand that Christ is, as He said: the Way, the Truth and the Life. His death and resurrection are the movement of God’s love to rescue humanity from a self-imposed exile from true and authentic existence which is found only in communion with God. This is a rescue of the Atonement from obscure legal theories of Divine Wrath and Judgment, and restores it properly in the context of the God who created us, sustains us, and calls us into the fullness of His life.

It presses the question upon us all: “What is the truth of my existence?” It presses us towards living honestly and forthrightly before God – not finessing ourselves with carefully wrought excuses and religious half-measures – but calling us to a radically authentic search for God.

The Orthodox faith asks nothing less of its adherents. Though even Orthodoxy can be warped into half-measures and religious distractions – this is not its truth nor the life that is taught by the Fathers, the Scriptures nor the words of her liturgies. In God “we live and move and have our being.” There is nothing that can thus be placed outside of God. There is God or there is delusion. And even delusion itself has no existence – but its mere pretence.

The Seven Holy Maccabbees

August 1 is the Feast of the Precious and Life-Giving Wood of the Cross, but also the feast of the martyrdom of the Seven Maccabees. Since Protestant Christians do not include the books of First and Second Maccabees in their canon, they will be unfamiliar with this historically accurate and Godly tale of the courage of these holy martyrs from the Old Testament. In their honor I share the story of their martyrdom. I should add that their death was preceded by their teacher, Eleazar, who, at age 90, refused an easy ruse offered to him to spare his life, fearing that the young might misconstrue him and believe that he had yielded to the wicked King (who was trying to force him to eat unclean meat). Thus he taught us that the appearance of righteousness can be as important as the letter of the Law. The mother of the seven brothers, Salome, also gave her noble life as a martyr.

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2 Maccabees 7:1-42  It happened also that seven brothers and their mother were arrested and were being compelled by the king, under torture with whips and cords, to partake of unlawful swine’s flesh. One of them, acting as their spokesman, said, “What do you intend to ask and learn from us? For we are ready to die rather than transgress the laws of our fathers.” The king fell into a rage, and gave orders that pans and caldrons be heated. These were heated immediately, and he commanded that the tongue of their spokesman be cut out and that they scalp him and cut off his hands and feet, while the rest of the brothers and the mother looked on. When he was utterly helpless, the king ordered them to take him to the fire, still breathing, and to fry him in a pan. The smoke from the pan spread widely, but the brothers and their mother encouraged one another to die nobly, saying, “The Lord God is watching over us and in truth has compassion on us, as Moses declared in his song which bore witness against the people to their faces, when he said, `And he will have compassion on his servants.'”

After the first brother had died in this way, they brought forward the second for their sport. They tore off the skin of his head with the hair, and asked him, “Will you eat rather than have your body punished limb by limb?” He replied in the language of his fathers, and said to them, “No.” Therefore he in turn underwent tortures as the first brother had done. And when he was at his last breath, he said, “You accursed wretch, you dismiss us from this present life, but the King of the universe will raise us up to an everlasting renewal of life, because we have died for his laws.” After him, the third was the victim of their sport. When it was demanded, he quickly put out his tongue and courageously stretched forth his hands, and said nobly, “I got these from Heaven, and because of his laws I disdain them, and from him I hope to get them back again.”

As a result the king himself and those with him were astonished at the young man’s spirit, for he regarded his sufferings as nothing. When he too had died, they maltreated and tortured the fourth in the same way. And when he was near death, he said, “One cannot but choose to die at the hands of men and to cherish the hope that God gives of being raised again by him. But for you there will be no resurrection to life!”

Next they brought forward the fifth and maltreated him. But he looked at the king, and said, “Because you have authority among men, mortal though you are, you do what you please. But do not think that God has forsaken our people. Keep on, and see how his mighty power will torture you and your descendants!”

After him they brought forward the sixth. And when he was about to die, he said, “Do not deceive yourself in vain. For we are suffering these things on our own account, because of our sins against our own God. Therefore astounding things have happened.

But do not think that you will go unpunished for having tried to fight against God!” The mother was especially admirable and worthy of honorable memory. Though she saw her seven sons perish within a single day, she bore it with good courage because of her hope in the Lord. She encouraged each of them in the language of their fathers. Filled with a noble spirit, she fired her woman’s reasoning with a man’s courage, and said to them, “I do not know how you came into being in my womb. It was not I who gave you life and breath, nor I who set in order the elements within each of you. Therefore the Creator of the world, who shaped the beginning of man and devised the origin of all things, will in his mercy give life and breath back to you again, since you now forget yourselves for the sake of his laws.”

Antiochus felt that he was being treated with contempt, and he was suspicious of her reproachful tone. The youngest brother being still alive, Antiochus not only appealed to him in words, but promised with oaths that he would make him rich and enviable if he would turn from the ways of his fathers, and that he would take him for his friend and entrust him with public affairs.

Since the young man would not listen to him at all, the king called the mother to him and urged her to advise the youth to save himself. After much urging on his part, she undertook to persuade her son. But, leaning close to him, she spoke in their native tongue as follows, deriding the cruel tyrant: “My son, have pity on me. I carried you nine months in my womb, and nursed you for three years, and have reared you and brought you up to this point in your life, and have taken care of you. I beseech you, my child, to look at the heaven and the earth and see everything that is in them, and recognize that God did not make them out of things that existed. Thus also mankind comes into being. Do not fear this butcher, but prove worthy of your brothers. Accept death, so that in God’s mercy I may get you back again with your brothers.”

While she was still speaking, the young man said, “What are you waiting for? I will not obey the king’s command, but I obey the command of the law that was given to our fathers through Moses. But you, who have contrived all sorts of evil against the Hebrews, will certainly not escape the hands of God. For we are suffering because of our own sins. And if our living Lord is angry for a little while, to rebuke and discipline us, he will again be reconciled with his own servants. But you, unholy wretch, you most defiled of all men, do not be elated in vain and puffed up by uncertain hopes, when you raise your hand against the children of heaven. You have not yet escaped the judgment of the almighty, all-seeing God. For our brothers after enduring a brief suffering have drunk of everflowing life under God’s covenant; but you, by the judgment of God, will receive just punishment for your arrogance. I, like my brothers, give up body and life for the laws of our fathers, appealing to God to show mercy soon to our nation and by afflictions and plagues to make you confess that he alone is God, and through me and my brothers to bring to an end the wrath of the Almighty which has justly fallen on our whole nation.”

The king fell into a rage, and handled him worse than the others, being exasperated at his scorn. So he died in his integrity, putting his whole trust in the Lord. Last of all, the mother died, after her sons. Let this be enough, then, about the eating of sacrifices and the extreme tortures.

How Can We Give Thanks?

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Everyone capable of thanksgiving is capable of salvation.

Fr. Alexander Schmemann

I do not believe it is possible to exhaust this topic and that there are many things worth saying in a second article. Most specifically I want to write on what seem to me necessary elements in giving thanks to God. If giving thanks to God is difficult these may be places to begin or to which to give attention.

1. We must believe that God is good.

I struggled with this for many years. I believed that God was sovereign; I believed that He was the Creator of heaven and earth; I believed that He sent His only Son to die for me. But despite a hosts of doctrines to which I gave some form of consent, not included (and this was a matter or my heart) was the simple, straight-forward consent that God is good. My father-in-law, a very simple Baptist deacon of great faith, believed this straight-forward truth with an absolute assurance that staggered my every argument. I knew him for over 30 years. When I was young (and much more foolish) I would argue with him – not to be out-maneuvered by his swift and crafty theological answers (it was me that was trying to maneuver and be swift and crafty) – but often times our arguments would end with his smile and simple confession, “Well, I don’t know about that, but I know that God is good.” Over the years I came to realize that until and unless I believed that God is good, I would never be able to truly give thanks. I could thank God when things went well, but not otherwise.

This simple point was hammered into me weekly and more after I became Orthodox. There is hardly a service of the Orthodox Church that does not end its blessing with: “For He is a good God and loves mankind.” A corrollary of the goodness of God was coming to terms with the wrathful God of some Western theology (or the misunderstandings of the “wrathful God”). At the heart of things was a fear that behind everything I could say of God was a God whom I could not trust – who could be one way at one time and another way at another.

This is so utterly contrary to the writings of the Fathers and the teachings of the Orthodox faith. God is good and His mercy endures forever, as the Psalm tells us. God is good and even those things that human beings describe as “wrath” are, at most, the loving chastisement of a God who is saving me from much worse things I would do to myself were He not to love me enough to draw me deeper into His love and away from my sin.

The verse in Romans 8 remains a cornerstone of our understanding of God’s goodness: “All things work together for good, for those who love God and are called according to His purpose” (8:28). There are daily mysteries involved in this assertion of faith – moments and events that I have no way to explain or to fit into some overall scheme of goodness. But this is precisely where my conversations with my father-in-law would go. I would be full of exceptions and “what ifs,” and he would reply, “I don’t know about that. But I know that God is good.”

As the years have gone by, I have realized that being wise is not discovering some way to explain things but for my heart to settle into the truth that, “I don’t know about that. But I know that God is good.”

2. I must believe that His will for me is good.

This moves the question away from what could, for some, be a philosophical statement (“God is good”) to the much more specific, “His will for me is good.” Years ago, when my son was child, he encountered a difficulty in his life. As a parent I was frustrated (secretly mad at God) and my faith shaken. I had already decided what “good” was to look like in my son’s life and reality was undermining my fantasy. In a time of prayer (which was very one-sided) I found myself brought up suddenly and short with what I can only describe as a divine interruption. I will not describe my experience as an audible voice, but it could not have been clearer. The simple statement from God was: “This is for his salvation.”

My collapse could not have been more complete. How do reply to such a statement? How am I supposed to know what my child needs for His salvation (and this in the long-term sense as understood by the Orthodox?). I had prayed for nothing with as much fervor as the salvation of my children. Ultimately, regardless of how they get through life, that they get through in union with Christ is all I ask. Why should I doubt that God was doing what I had asked? In the years since then I have watched God’s word in that moment be fulfilled time and again as He continues to work wonderfully in the life of my son and I see a Christian man stand before me. God’s will for me is good. God is not trying to prevent us from doing good, or making it hard for us to be saved. Life is not a test. No doubt, life is filled with difficulty. We live in a fallen world. But He is at work here and now and everywhere for my good.

My father-in-law had a favorite Bible story (among several): the story of Joseph and his brothers. In the final disclosure in Egypt, when Joseph reveals himself to his brothers – those who had sold him into slavery – Joseph says, “You meant it to me for evil, but the Lord meant it to me for good.” It is an Old Testament confession of Romans 8:28. The world may give us many situations, and the situations on their surface may indeed be evil. But our God is a good God and He means all things for our good. I may confess His goodness at all times.

3. I must believe that the goodness of God is without limit.

I did not know this for many years and only came upon it as I spent a period of month studying the meaning of “envy.” In much of our world (and definitely in the non Judaeo-Christian world of antiquity) people believe that good is limited. If you are enjoying good, then it is possibly at my expense. Such thought is the breeding ground of envy. The ancient Greeks and Romans believed this to so much be true that they feared excellence lest they provoke the jealousy of the Gods. We do not think in the same metaphysical terms, but frequently on some deep level, we believe that someone else’s good will somehow lessen our own. Within this eats the worm of jealousy and anger.

To bless God for His goodness we also need to bless God for His goodness towards everyone and to know that He is the giver of every good and perfect gift – and that His goodness is without limit.

4. I must believe that God is good and know this on the deepest personal level.

God has manifested His goodness to us in the revelation of His Son, Jesus Christ. In Christ, we see the fullness of the goodness of God. The goodness of God goes to the Cross for us. The goodness of God searches for us in hell and brings us forth victorious. The goodness of God will not cease in His efforts to reconcile us to the Father.

My father-in-law had another favorite Bible story (I said he had several): the story of the three young men in the fiery furnace. This story is, incidentally, a favorite of Orthodox liturgical worship as well. It stands as a Biblical image of our rescue from Hades. In the midst of the fiery furnace, together with the three young men, is the image of a fourth. Christ is with them, and in the hymnography of the Church, “the fire became as the morning dew.” For my father-in-law it was the confession of the three young men before the evil threats of the wicked King Nebuchanezer. To his threats of death in a terrible holocaust they said, “Our God is able to deliver us, O King. But even if He does not, nevertheless, we will not bow down and worship your image.” It was their defiant “nevertheless,” that would bring tears to my father-in-law’s eyes. For much of our experience here includes furnaces into which we are thrust despite our faith in Christ. It is there that the faith in the goodness of God says, “Nevertheless.” It is confidence in the goodness of God above all things.

I saw my father-in-law survive a terrible automobile accident, and the whole family watched his slow and losing battle with lymphoma in his last three years. But none of us ever saw him do otherwise than give thanks to God and to delight in extolling the Lord’s goodness.

Many years before I had foolishly become heated with him in one of our “theological discussions.” I was pushing for all I was worth against his unshakeable assurance in God’s goodness. I recall how he ended the argument: “Mark the manner of my death.” It was his last word in the matter. There was nothing to be said against such a statement. And he made that statement non-verbally with the last years of his life. I did mark the manner of his death and could only confess: “God is good! His mercy endures forever!” For no matter the difficulties this dear Christian man faced, nevertheless, no moment was anything less than an occasion for thanksgiving.

I have seen the goodness of God in the land of the living.

Justice and Mercy – With Thanks to the Pontificator

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Fr. Al Kimel has recently posted an article (The Injustice of Grace) on the triumph of God’s mercy that is well worth reading.  The following is an excerpt in which he quotes passages from St. Isaac the Syrian and St. Antony the Great:

The seventh century ascetical master, St. Isaac the Syrian, boldly challenged the portrayal of God as one who rewards the virtuous and punishes the wicked:

Do not call God just, for His justice is not manifest in the things concerning you. And if David calls Him just and upright, His Son revealed to us that He is good and kind. “He is good,” He says, “to the evil and to the impious.” How can you call God just when you come across the Scriptural passage on the wage given to the workers? “Friend, I do thee no wrong I will give unto this last even as unto thee. Is thine eye evil because I am good?” How can a man call God just when he comes across the passage on the prodigal son who wasted his wealth with riotous living, how for the compunction alone which he showed, the father ran and fell upon his neck and gave him authority over all his wealth? None other but His very Son said these things concerning Him, lest we doubt it; and thus He bare witness concerning Him. Where, then, is God’s justice, for whilst we are sinners Christ died for us! But if here He is merciful, we may believe that He will not change. (Homily 60)

The gospel dramatically turns upside down conventional, and even biblical, understandings of divine justice. “God is not One who requites evil,” declares St Isaac, “but who sets evil right.” Indeed, Isaac goes even so far as to assert that “mercy is opposed to justice.” Even when God punishes, he does so only for our good:

God chastises with love, not for the sake of revenge—far be it!—but in seeking to make whole his image. And he does not harbour wrath until such time as correction is no longer possible, for he does not seek vengeance for himself. This is the aim of love. Love’s chastisement is for correction, but does not aim at retribution. … The man who chooses to consider God as avenger, presuming that in this manner he bears witness to His justice, the same accuses Him of being bereft of goodness. Far be it that vengeance could ever be found in that Fountain of love and Ocean brimming with goodness!

The Holy Trinity wills only the good of the sinner, even at the cost of justice. But does not the Scripture speak of God’s anger and wrath against sin? These texts, says St Isaac, must be interpreted figuratively, not literally. God does not act out of anger or wrath. He never acts to harm his creatures. He never acts out of vengeance. As St Antony the Great wrote:

God is good, dispassionate, and immutable. Now someone who thinks it reasonable and true to affirm that God does not change, may well ask how, in that case, is it possible to speak of God as rejoicing over those who are good and showing mercy to those who honour Him, and as turning away from the wicked and being angry with sinners. To this it must be answered that God neither rejoices nor grows angry, for to rejoice and to be offended are passions; nor is He won over by the gifts of those who honour Him, for that would mean He is swayed by pleasure. It is not right that the Divinity feel pleasure or displeasure from human conditions. He is good, and He only bestows blessings and never does harm, remaining always the same. We men, on the other hand, if we remain good through resembling God, are united to Him, but if we become evil through not resembling God, we are separated from Him. By living in holiness we cleave to God; but by becoming wicked we make Him our enemy. It is not that He grows angry with us in an arbitrary way, but it is our own sins that prevent God from shining within us and expose us to demons who torture us. And if through prayer and acts of compassion we gain release from our sins, this does not mean that we have won God over and made Him to change, but that through our actions and our turning to the Divinity, we have cured our wickedness and so once more have enjoyment of God’s goodness. Thus to say that God turns away from the wicked is like saying that the sun hides itself from the blind.

To Father Al’s thoughts (which take these quotes to other important conclusions) I would add my own. This thoroughly patristic understanding of God’s justice and the metaphorical sense that must be applied to such words as wrath, etc., is utterly essential in the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It goes to the very heart of our understanding of God. Nothing, in my mind, has done more damage to the Gospel of Christ than the loss of this understanding, and the substitution in its place of various theories in which the anger of God has been propitiated by His only Son. It is surely true that Christ’s death is a work of atonement – it makes possible and restores our relationship with God – but it brings about no change in God. The love of God is made manifest in that “while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). The death of Christ on the Cross makes no change in the love of God – but every possible change in the sinners for whom He died.

Every other proclamation of the Gospel that says otherwise seriously distorts the revelation of God in Christ and fails to properly appropriate the Tradition of the Holy Fathers as the Church has received them.

Getting Saved in the Church

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I ask forgiveness for the offense the article will give to some – it is not my intent to offend. However, in the past several days, central doctrines of the Orthodox faith have been questioned in a number of quarter relating to articles or comments I have posted, most especially those regarding certain aspects of the Church. I post this article as an answer and an affirmation of Orthodox belief. 

I grew up in the deep South where “getting saved” was a part of everyday speech and we all knew what it meant. It was evangelical short-hand for “accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior,” usually done at Church after walking the aisle at the end of the service. I did this at age seven. This action was followed by Baptism (as simply an outward obedience to Christ). It did mean I could start to take communion on one of the four Sundays a year this occurred. Though, again, communion was only meant as a meal to remember something Jesus had done once upon a time. In giving such a description, I am simply relating what I and any other member of the Southern culture at large knew. We could cite a few Bible verses that spoke of what we were doing and that seemed to make everything legitimate.

Of course in such a context, speaking about the Church in anything other than mere fellowship or accountability terms is a foreign thing. Verses such as those in Ephesians 1, where the Church is called, “the fullness of Him that filleth all in all,” either make no sense, or must be relegated to some Church of the eschatological future about which we can only dream.

Of course, all of this rural Protestant understanding presupposes human life defined in purely modern terms. We are individuals whose relationship to one another is at best emotional, psychological or affectional. We go to the same Church because we believe some of the same things (or for reasons much less noble).

Having been saved, there are really only two things left to do: help other people get saved (evangelism) and become a more moral citizen (sanctification). Sermons will usually talk about one or the other.

Of course, all of this is completely foreign to the Orthodox Catholic faith of the Fathers – the inheritance of the Church as given in Scripture and the writings of centuries. Anyone transported from our modern world into the 4th century and speaking of their salvation in the modern manner would have been judged a heretic (of a strange variety never seen before) and disciplined accordingly.

Several key elements here should be underlined:

1. Salvation is not something that happens to you as an individual in isolation from others.

2. Salvation is not a legal settlement between you and God in which, having your sins remitted, you are now permitted to enter heaven when you die.

3. The Church is what salvation looks like.

I’ll explain this third point in some detail. The Church is what salvation looks like because salvation is not a momentary matter, but a life-long event. It may be initiated by our acceptance of Christ, just as a battle against cancer may be initiated by a diagnosis and first dose of chemo. But the sin which affects us is not a mere legal problem – it is existential, ontological – it is deep in the core of us – and only a lifetime in Christ, bathed continually in grace, will we find a beginning to the healing of its destruction and prepare us for the life God is giving us.

What does St. Paul mean when he says in Romans 13:11:

Besides this you know what hour it is, how it is full time now for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.

Or in 2 Corinthians 7:8-9

As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting; for you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death.

Or most famously in Philippians 2:12-13?

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

And again in 1 Thessalonians 5:8-9?

But, since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.

In none of these cases is salvation used to describe a past experience (the word has a very broad use of meanings in the New Testament). These kinds of example can be multiplied over and over to demonstrate that the parlance of many modern cultural Christians is simply not at all in line with the Gospel as proclaimed in Scripture. It is a truncated, virtual version that does not express the fullness of the faith.

The idea of the salvation of an individual qua individual is also a modern idea. It is a modern idea, for the very concept of a human being existing as a self-existent, self-contained individual is a very recent idea. Charles Taylor in his magisterial work, Sources of the Self: the Making of the Modern Identity, carefully illustrates (in over 500 pages) the slow process whereby man as an individual came into modern consciousness. It is not surprising that the concept would come to dominate popular preaching. Preaching and preparation that has been cut off from the history, doctrines, language, and Fathers of the Church, is absolutely vulnerable to every pop cultural notion that comes down the pike. Thus it is that American Evangelicalism is mostly Americanism with a Jesus veneer. In some cases it can be as unashamedly American as Mormonism, a purely American phenomenon.

These are strong words but they are meant to be. The Gospel is a precious treasure and should not be made captive to the cultural forms of any land, whether America, Byzantium or Russia. At present, the world-wide danger is the complete and total captivity of the Gospel to American culture. American culture makes the Hellenization of the ancient world seem mild. Our culture is conquering the world, even where they hate us. And our ideas are supplanting almost everything with which they come in contact.

Thus to maintain a proper Christian understanding of what it is to be human is particularly difficult. We are not purely individuals, except as the most unregenerate sinners. We were created in the image of God, and even in that creation were declared, “Not good,” until we existed as male and female. We are created in the image of a Triune God. My life is not my life alone. Indeed, sin can best be understood as the rupture of communion between myself and God and myself and others around me. And if this is sin, then salvation will be the restoration of communion – both with God and with others around me.

Thus, the Church is what salvation looks like. It is here that we are Baptized into the very life of Christ, into His body. It is here that we are fed on His Body and Blood. Here in the Church we are restored to communion with God and communion with others. And it is here that the battleground to maintain that communion takes place. Thus God has given us the means to correct one another, to heal one another, to aid in the salvation, the complete restoration of each other in Christ.

Anyone who does not know that the Church is what salvation looks like has not begun to work out his salvation with fear and trembling. We cannot love one another unless there is another to love. Indeed, the New Testament, with the exception of the Book of Philemon and the Pastoral Epistles is written only to the Church. And those exceptions are written to men only in regard to their place within the Church. The New Testament belongs exclusively to the Church. If you are reading it as an individual and not as a member of the Church to whom it was written, then you are reading someone else’s mail.

Finally, the Church has always understood itself to be One (not an abstract “one,” dwelling mystically in some second storey, but a very concrete one). Those who establish fellowships and ordain leaders have not been given authority to do what they do. Reading the letters of Abraham Lincoln does not make one a U.S. Senator. Those who have authority in the Church were appointed by Christ and by those whom Christ appointed. Apostolic succession is real – though not merely mechanical. Those who sit in the seat of the Bishops must in fact teach what the Apostles taught. But to ordain men apart from this divinely appointed means comes dangerously close to the make-believe of cult-like groups who think nothing of proclaiming prophets and the like. Of course, the Orthodox Church treats with deference and respect those who lead Christian communities, and in most cases has graciously received converts from that number with respect (though some like myself, having been an Anglican, had to submit to re-ordination – I did not take this as an insult).

According to Scripture, it is only in the Church that we will find the “fullness of Him who filleth all in all.” Why would we want less than the fullness, and how could we dare to create our own organization and claim such a Divine reality to be its constitution? Those who have inherited their Church from their own fathers stand perhaps in a different quandary. But it is still a quandary to be pondered and not merely justified because it exists.

Some Modest Thoughts on the Atonement

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The doctrine of the Atonement, that is, the doctrine of how exactly it is that Christ has reconciled us to God, is a matter of much discussion. For some, particularly among conservative Protestants, the Atonement is defined by the model of the penal substitution (Christ bore the wrath of the Father that we deserved and thus made propitiation for us). Some have rejected this model as either bound too strongly to a model of God’s wrath and justice that cannot be supported by the Fathers or Scripture. There are other models of the atonement (I think particularly of the three different models that Gustav Aulen described in his magisterial work Christus Victor). There is some excellent work being done today that examines again the model(s) of the atonement found in Scripture (here I think primarily of Finlan’s Problems with Atonement) and offers the observation that there are a fair variety of images used but still looks primarily at the image of union with Christ.

What I offer today is something far more modest, to say the least. And it is in saying the least that I find the greatest hope in discussions of the atonement.

Though there are early discussions of the atonement, none are particularly conclusive. None of the early councils of the Church focused on this as a matter of critical debate. The various anaphora of the Church (the prayers of the Eucharist) all offered language that described the atonement, but even there some variety can be found (even in a single anaphora).

Though the Nicene Creed was not placed in its final form until 381 (not including later Western changes that carry no weight in the East) it nevertheless represents one of the earliest statements of faith of the Church. Indeed, I would argue (and I’m not alone in this) that Creedal statements (what St. Irenaeus would call the hypothesis of Scripture) predate the Scriptures themselves. Had not such hypostheses existed, Scripture could not have been written in a manner that agreed with itself.

We can find early evidences of such stated hypotheses in places such as St. Paul’s 15th chapter of 1 Corinthians:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve (3-5).

Here St. Paul uses the very specific language of Tradition. “I delivered,” (literally “I traditioned”) “what I received” (what had been traditioned to him). What follows is clearly some echo of the Baptismal Creeds that were part of the Church’s life from its beginning. These statements of the faith represented the Apostolic hypothesis, the summary of the faith, the scaffolding on which all Christian thought would be erected.

In the Nicene Creed we have a very short summary of the ministry of Christ:

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God…who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and was made man. And was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried. And the third day rose again in accordance with the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.

Please forgive the elipsis, I do not mean to treat that statement of the Creed with any less importance – but my focus here is on atonement. My modest suggestion is that the Creed in no way ignores atonement, but simply offers this short summary of the economy of our salvation as the very hypothesis by which we are to approach Scripture and its interpretation.

Thus, all that Christ did, from the incarnation to His ascension and judgement itself, is “for us men and for our salvation.” God has not acted in any way other than for our salvation.

Is this asking us to say too little? Should the details of the atonement be described more fully?

There are numerous models to be found in Scripture. Indeed, Finlan notes that sometimes St. Paul will include more than one model in a single sentence. But all of them are in agreement with the hypothesis we hear in the Creed. Why should more be required?

More may be said, if it agrees with the Creed and if it does no damage to the hypothesis offered there, but none can be enshrined as “the doctrine of the atonement.” Such a modest proposal as mine leaves us free to discuss “problems with atonement” and to see strengths and weaknesses of various images, from the point of view of the Apostolic hypothesis.

The Church’s use of councils through the centuries has ever been only to defend the understanding of salvation as given us in the Apostolic teaching. The use of councils to multiply doctrines where no need exists is an abuse of our conciliar life. Councils should be seen as “necessities” but only for purposes of crisis and where the understanding of our salvation is endangered. Thus the Eastern Church has relatively few Councils.

We do better to pray than to argue doctrine unless the latter is of utter necessity. For many, it has become something of a parlor game, and this has been to the detriment of Christianity and even of our salvation. Sometimes less is more, and sometimes less is enough. This is my modest proposal.

Whose Fault Is It Anyway?

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I am publishing this post a day early for the sake of the conversation generated by my recent atonement posts. I hope the conversation goes forward well. My recent post on “Are You Saved?” generated perhaps our longest list of comments, thus far, and, by far, the most erudite and serious. The subject of the atonement, and the picture of God presented by the doctrine have been a touchy subject between some in the Eastern Orthodox Church and others in various Western confessions over the past number of years.

Orthodox writers, following the lead of John Romanides and others, have seen the West as an easy target and have rather simplistically accused them of changing the doctrine of the atonement and, as a result, altering the image of God and the heart of the gospel all at the same time.

This has brought a flurry of responses from various sources. Some have found quotes from within the Orthodox corpus of writings to support doctrines similar to those attacked in Western writers. Others have cited sources to show that the doctrine ascribed to Western writers has been oversimplified and caricatured.

Doubtless all of these things are true. Those writing in the name of Eastern Orthodoxy have taken unfair shots and those defending the West have both sought to raise an indefensible dogma to a defensible level as well as to drag the East into the same culpability with regard to its teaching.

All that being the case I will state this much: images of the atonement which portray the problem with human sin as an affront to the dignity, honor, justice, etc. of Almighty God and in need of payment, have a problem. The problem is that it makes the issue of sin a problem centered primarily within God.

Rather, by far the Patristic synthesis, is to see the problem with humanity. God is a good God who loves mankind. We are the ones who have cut ourselves off from Him, despite the fact that He loves us. God is the God who so loves us that He gave His only begotten Son for us. Not as a payment to assuage His own offended justice, but as one who emptied Himself and became even as we are (to the extent of entering death and hell) in order to retreive us and restore us to fellowship with the Father.

 No council (of the Seven Great Ecumenical) has ever declared authoritatively on atonement imagery. Thus, in Orthodox understanding, there is no definitive atonement imagery. Christ reconciles us to the Father and that is that.

But it is essential for all, East and West, to learn to speak of our reconciliation to the Father in terms that do justice to a God who so loves mankind that He would empty Himself and pour Himself out for us. Imagery of offended justice, and ancient debts, really (lacking conciliar authority) fail in proclaiming the gospel in this modern culture. It is useless to run to an appeal and say, “Yes, but this is really what happened!” For that is to make of imagery a dogma, that even the Fathers refused to do.

It is better to proclaim the gospel as it stands: Christ died for the ungodly. While we were yet sinners Chris died for us. He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, that we might become the righteousness of God. God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself. And the verses could be multiplied.

Whatever “wrath” we have avoided in coming to God in Christ, is not a wrath of anger (God is not angry as man is angry), but rather describes a state of being in which we dwell when we set ourselves in opposition to God.

We must learn the discipline of discerning the difference between literal and metaphorical language, and learn when metaphors are helpful and when they are of no use.

We dwell in a culture that from various sources has heard but a caricature of the gospel – and the caricature has left many with a childish view of Christian preaching. It is little wonder that they reject such a God. The Church must be careful to proclaim a God who is worthy of worship, who can challenge the culture at its most existential level.

 The best of Patristic material and the best of the Tradition is capable of all these things. I don’t really care whose fault it is that the gospel became caricature in our culture. But as a minister of the gospel, one to whom the mysteries of the ages has been entrusted, I do well to struggle to present those mysteries in a way that is both understandable and truly a challenge to these evil times to repent and believe the gospel – not a poorly truncated late medieval version – but a timeless presentation of the Truth of God in Christ Jesus. Having done that, none of us will have to apologize.

Fire and Light

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Behold: I draw near to the Divine Communion.

Burn me not as I partake, O Creator,

For Thou art a Fire which burns the unworthy,

Rather, cleanse me of all defilement.

This short prayer, appointed for devotional use before receiving communion in the Orthodox Church, has always been one of my favorites. It draws out the great mystery of the Presence of Christ which is experienced both as threat and as consolation. This same mysterious presence is seen in the account of God’s intervention at the Red Sea. The Israelites are trapped on the shore and the Presence of God (described as the “angel” of the Lord) comes between them and the Egyptians (Exodos 14:19-20).

And the angel of God, which went before the camp of Israel, removed and went behind them; and the pillar of the cloud went from before their face, and stood behind them: And it came between the camp of the Egyptians and the camp of Israel; and it was a cloud and darkness to them, but it gave light by night to these: so that the one came not near the other all the night.

This experience of God plays a very large role in the writings of many of the Fathers. St. Irenaeus (late 2nd century) uses this imagery (drawing largely from St. John’s Gospel) to describe the character of God’s judgment. It marvelously reconciles the mercy of God, and our experience of His wrath. His wrath is nothing other than His mercy – just as the Angel of the Lord was Light to the Israelites and Darkness to the Egyptians. God is not different, nor does He change. The difference, the change, is to be found in the state of the human heart that confronts Him.

Here is a passage from St. Irenaeus (I apologize for the antique translation):

And to as many as continue in their love towards God, does He grant communion with Him. But communion with God is life and light, and the enjoyment of all the benefits which He has in store. But on as many as, according to their own choice, depart from God. He inflicts that separation from Himself which they have chosen of their own accord. But separation from God is death, and separation from light is darkness; and separation from God consists in the loss of all the benefits which He has in store. Those, therefore, who cast away by apostasy these forementioned things, being in fact destitute of all good, do experience every kind of punishment. God, however, does not punish them immediately of Himself, but that punishment falls upon them because they are destitute of all that is good. Now, good things are eternal and without end with God, and therefore the loss of these is also eternal and never-ending. It is in this matter just as occurs in the case of a flood of light: those who have blinded themselves, or have been blinded by others, are for ever deprived of the enjoyment of light. It is not, [however], that the light has inflicted upon them the penalty of blindness, but it is that the blindness itself has brought calamity upon them: and therefore the Lord declared, “He that believeth in Me is not condemned,” that is, is not separated from God, for he is united to God through faith. On the other hand, He says, “He that believeth not is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only-begotten Son of God; “that is, he separated himself from God of his own accord. “For this is the condemnation, that light is come into this world, and men have loved darkness rather than light. For every one who doeth evil hateth the light, and cometh not to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved. But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that he has wrought them in God.”

From Against the Heresies, V, 27.2