Archive for April, 2008

Literally Wrong

April 30, 2008

I have written on a number of occasions about the interpretation of the Scriptures and particularly about the problems of Biblical literalism. I have also, on occasion, made a link between Biblical literalism and a sort of “literalism” about the world and the universe about us. I believe that both are deeply connected and share a world-view which is, ultimately, grounded in ideas of the modern world (rather than historic, traditional ideas of the Christian faith). As such, both will yield a false picture – both of Scripture and its meaning and of the world and the nature of its being.

The Scriptures, particularly those of the Old Testament, are frequently misread (from a classical Christian point of view) in a literal manner, on the simple evidence that the New Testament does not read the Old Testament in such a manner. Rather, as is clearly taught by Christ Himself, the Old Testament is “re-read” from a Christological point-of-view. Thus Jonah-in-the-belly-of-the-whale is read by the Church as Christ in Hades. The first Adam in the Garden is but a shadow and antitype of the Second Adam – the One who truly fulfills existence in the “image and likeness” of God. The Passover and the deliverance from Egypt are read as icons of the true Passover, Christ’s Pascha and the deliverance of all creation from its bondage to death and decay. Such a list could be lengthened until the whole of the Old Testament is retold in meanings that reveal Christ, or rather are revealed by Christ in His coming.

Of course, this is a peculiar claim of Christianity – one which accepts the identity of Christ as the Only-Begotten Son of God, who, emptying Himself, becomes man and in this humility destroys death and Hades and unites man to God. Having accepted that Identity, the ability to read the Scriptures according to that Identity becomes possible.

A “literal” reading of the Old Testament would never yield such a treasure. Instead, it becomes flattened, and rewoven into an historical rendering of Christ’s story in which creative inventions such as “Dispensationalism” are required in order to make all the pieces fit into a single, literal narrative. Such a rendering has created as well a cardboard target for modern historical-critical studies, which delights itself only in poking holes in absurdities created by such a flattened reading.

In the same manner, modernity has succeeded in re-reading space and time, creating an historical narrative of the universe, absent God (for some), or at least with an isolated God (for others). Religion becomes subjectivized, a choice or a “lifestyle.” It is little wonder that it has also become synonymous with various political points-of-view, since such a secularized universe can only be affected by the common will of those who inhabit it. Thus, in the name of God, secularized Christianity must rescue the world, even if it must kill in the effort (easily justified by a wrong-reading of the Old Testament).

These renderings of Scripture and the Universe are literally wrong – at least from a classical Orthodox understanding of both.

Scripture is far more than literally true (though in the sense that many people use the word, it certainly teaches what is literally true of God and the universe.) But it does so in a way that is itself Christocentric. In the prologue of St. John’s gospel he writes:

No man has seen God at any time – the only-begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him.

Interestingly, St. John’s choice of words here is that the only-begotten Son has exegesato the Father (rendered as declared in the KJV, and interestingly as enarravit  in the Vulgate (Latin). Christ has “exegeted” the Father or “narrated” the Father to us – far more than simply “told” us about the Father. The Incarnation of Christ, His ministry, His death and resurrection, provide the primary narration of God, by which we read and interpret everything else. Christ Himself is not interpreted – but is the One Who Interprets. He is God the Logos.

But Christ must not be isolated as an event among other historical events (as would be done in many literal accounts -even though these accounts would readily agree that He is the most important historical event). Though Christ is God become man in such a way that He may be circumscribed (thus we may make icons of Him), He nevertheless deifies the humanity which He takes unto Himself (in a neo-Chalcedonian sense for those of you who are wary of incipient monophysitism). The man, Christ Jesus, walks on water and raises the dead. He stills the storm and pays His taxes with a coin drawn from the mouth of a fish. He raises harlots to the place of sainthood and promises immediate entrance into paradise to a dying thief.

Such a One cannot be confined within the bounds of “literal” for the word is not meant to describe the indescribable. The very coming of Christ into the world declares the world to be a place far different than we might imagine. As was settled in the debates with Apollinarianism in the 4th century – the world is capable of bearing God. Were this not so, the Incarnation would not be possible. We are created in the image and likeness of God and thus, though fallen, are capable of being raised up to that image.

And not only we ourselves, but all of creation is made in such a way that it bears a relationship to the Logos, the Fathers teaching us that everything created has its own logos which bears a unique relationship to the Logos. Or as St. Paul would say, “In Him we live and move and have our being.” Creation, far from being a neutral, natural, self-existing, secular event – is instead something which “groans and travails” in anticipation of the liberty that awaits it when all things are fulfilled (cf. Romans 8).

Thus neither we nor the world should be thought of as “literal,” if by that one means what the modern world thinks of the term. As St. Nikolai Velimirovich is quoted: “A man is not that which can be put into a grave, but is rather that which the universe cannot contain.” I would add to that – that the universe itself is not the sort of thing that can be “contained” by the universe (in the literal sense) but has layers upon layers of meaning and possibility that are only revealed in the presence of Christ.

We are meant for more than we can “literally” imagine. Dumitru Staniloae cites St. Maximus the Confessor when he says:

Ignorance, in other words, Hades, dominates those who understand Scripture in a fleshly (literal) way.

Thus, we pray to understand more – and not be literally wrong.

The Kingdom of God Is Not A Choice We Make

April 29, 2008

Part of the spiritual landscape of American religion is the sizable role played by choice in a culture shaped in the free market – with freedom as a mythic symbol. It is not unusual to hear American politicians describing solutions to social problems as a matter of “trusting Americans as consumers.” It is as though we could “shop” our way out of life’s difficulties.

And thus it is that Calvinism, as a Protestant option, has never quite captured the mind of the American religious “consumer.” Our culture has long been driven by its own sense of freedom and the inherent right of every individual to make his or her own choice. Thus Christian teachings which do not give heavy weight to the importance of free-will (such as classical Calvinism) have never come to the place of dominance in American life. For Americans, religion is about a choice.

This is not all wrong – human beings do have freedom and it plays an important role within the life of salvation – even in Orthodox understanding. However, Orthodoxy sees our freedom as something flawed – we do not always choose as we should – nor do we always know what the good is to be chosen. Freedom has a role to play in the life of salvation – but is not itself what constitutes salvation. Indeed, our freedom is itself in need of salvation.

This brings me to the title of this short piece: the Kingdom of God is not a choice we make. There are many ways to describe the Kingdom – a variety of metaphors employed in the New Testament – but in every case the Kingdom is God’s Kingdom – not our response to God.

I occasionally state in sermons that “the Kingdom of God is coming whether you like it or not.” In this sense, particularly, it is not a choice we make – it is a gift that is given from God. In Christ, particularly in the fullness of His death and resurrection – the Kingdom of God has come. Though we still pray, “Thy Kingdom come,” we are not devoid of its presence now. “Thy Kingdom come” is a prayer for its fullness – but not for its inauguration.

The Kingdom of God is a reality already among us – though we frequently are oblivious to its presence. The heart of secularism is its assurance that the Kingdom of God is not here now, not yet, and perhaps only refers to something somewhere else or even nothing more than a utopian vision of the future. Of course, secularism and its infection of Christian thought is commonplace in modern culture. The world is not seen as sacramental, capable of bearing the Divine, but at best as a neutral playing field in which human beings choose sides in the religious contest of Christianity (or other religions or none of the above).

But the fullness of Christian truth and revelation is that the Kingdom of God has already broken forth among us, and the Christ who brought it forth promised that it would remain. Thus we eat and drink His Body and His Blood – not reminders of a historical event – but a foretaste of the fullness of the Kingdom. It is the Bread of Heaven – food, though not of the world yet in the world.

The whole of the sacramental life has this character of the Kingdom. And the sacramental life extends far beyond the Seven Sacraments that are traditionally described. The Kingdom has a quality that breaks into all of life unable to be restrained or hindered by man. We are not in charge of its arrival nor are we the masters of its growth. We may participate in its life and serve as its witnesses – even as citizens – but it is not our creation or something we offer to God. It comes from God and bears God.

I reflected on the song shared in the last post, written by St. Nikolai Velimirovich. There it seems clear – “Christ is risen, joy has been given.” Everything is made bright with the resurrection of Christ. It is not a choice other than for us to say: “Indeed He is risen!”

Christos Voskrese! (Christ is Risen)

April 27, 2008

This delightful youtube video was shared in comments yesterday. I thought it worth posting up front. Our reader Dejan has offered a translation in the comments. The words are from a poem by St. Nikolai Velimirovich who served for a time as the Rector of St. Tikhon’s Seminary – truly one of the great Serbian saints of the modern era. Please ignore the “automatically generated” stuff, I don’t know enough about it’s appearance to make it disappear.


People rejoice, nations hear:
Christ is risen, and brings the joy!
Stars dance, mounts sing:
Christ is risen, and brings the joy!
Forests murmur, winds hum:
Christ is risen, and brings the joy!
Seas bow*, animals roar:
Christ is risen, and brings the joy!
Bees swarm, and the birds sing:
Christ is risen, and brings the joy!

Angels stand, triple the song:
Christ is risen, and brings the joy!
Sky humble yourself, and elevate the earth:
Christ is risen, and brings the joy!
Bells chime, and tell to all:
Christ is risen, and brings the joy!
Glory to You God, everything is possible to You,
Christ is risen, and brings the joy!

Christ is Risen!

April 27, 2008

Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death,

And upon those in the tombs bestowing life!




God’s Great Sabbath

April 26, 2008

One of the most immediately puzzling passages in Genesis is in the creation story where we are told that God “rested on the Seventh (Sabbath) day.” It obviously cannot be taken in the literal sense that God needed rest. There is a deeper mystery. In the interpretation of the Christian Fathers and in the life of the Orthodox faith, God’s Sabbath is fulfilled in Christ, who rests on the Sabbath (Saturday) in the tomb, after His death on the Cross from which He said, “It is finished.” But the Sabbath of God, His rest, is not a non-fruitful cessation of activity. As Adam slept and God removed from his side his rib and fashioned Eve, so too, Christ “sleeps” in death on the Cross, and from His pierced side flows blood and water, the Eucharist and Baptism, from which God forms Christ’s bride, the Church.

Additionally, in His journey into death, Christ “tramples down death by death,” and gains victory for all through His resurrection. The Eastern Orthodox Church has a major service on the morning of Holy Saturday in which Christ’s descent into Hades is remembered and His victory of death and hell begins to be celebrated. Some of the texts from that service are marvelously rich in their content:

Today hell cries out groaning:

I should not have accepted the Man born of Mary.

He shattered the gates of brass.

As God, He raised the souls that I had held captive.

Glory to Thy cross and resurrection, O Lord.


Today, hell cries out groaning:

My dominion has been shattered.

I received a dead man as one of the dead,

but against Him I could not prevail.

From eternity I had ruled the dead,

but behold, He raises all.

Because of Him do I perish.

Glory to Thy cross and resurrection, O Lord.


The great Moses mystically foreshadowed this day, when he said:

This is the blessed Sabbath.

This is the day of rest, on which the only-begotten Son of God rested from all His works.

He kept the Sabbath in the flesh,

through the dispensation of death.

but on this day, He returned again

through the resurrection.

He has granted us eternal life,

for He alone is good, the lover of man.


The verses are from the Stichera for the Vesperal Liturgy of Holy Saturday.

The Cross of Christ

April 25, 2008

Today, is suspended upon the Cross, He Who suspended the Earth upon the waters.

A crown of thorns crowns Him, Who is the King of the angels.

He, Who wrapped the Heavens in clouds, is clothed with the purple of mockery.

He, Who freed Adam in the Jordan, received buffetings.

He was transfixed with nails, Who is the Bridegroom of the Church.

He was pierced with a lance, Who is the Son of the Virgin.

We worship Your Passion, O Christ.

We worship Your Passion, O Christ.

We worship Your Passion, O Christ.

Show us also, Your glorious Resurrection!

XVth Antiphon from the Matins of Holy Friday

The wonder of God’s love is shown to us in the length He is willing to go to bring us back to Himself and to unite Himself to us. Pascha and all that leads to it is an utter contradiction – a paradox – an undoing of what cannot be undone. Literalism falls weakly before the wonder of it all. Metaphor is not sufficient. Only the reality can speak for itself, and before that reality we can only fall in worship. In this we know God. We cannot know the contradiction except that we fall down and worship Him. It is not an idea much less an idea about an idea. It is the deepest ground of reality and we can but worship. “Show us also your glorious Resurrection!”

Last night as we knelt before the cross, the reality of the words we sang became just that – reality. I cannot write in a way that would properly convey such a reality – only to say – this is my God!

Holy Week and Envy

April 23, 2008

As noted in my earlier post, 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 Father’s 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 frequently be 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.

A friend sent me a short video this morning. It’s from the evangelical world, and is well worth watching, particularly if you feel that you’ve come out on the short end of life and envy has power in your soul.

Just in case you thought your situation was as bad as it gets. Take a look at this video testimony and give thanks to God.


Scarcity, Abundance and the Kingdom of God – Thoughts for Holy Week

April 23, 2008

In 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 reprint will have to suffice for now.


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 now 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 the 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 wrestled to gain whatever I can and cling to it till 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 I 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 it needs no assurance greater than the resurrection of Christ. He is the abundance of life.

In the one-storey world in which we truly live it is all too easy to assume its boundaries are those set by geographically defined notions, and that, by definition, things are finite, hence scarce. 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. Even 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 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!”

How Deep Does the Journey Go?

April 22, 2008

The journey to Pascha, which is made during Holy Week, is a liturgical action that marks the path to the greatest depths of our heart and to the heart’s true home. The deeply moving image of the Bridegroom, whom we address in the words of the hymn, manifest to us in His icon of humility, as well as the the open doors of the altar, inviting us with the words, “Thy Bridal Chamber…” all seek to take us to the place of union with God, which is indeed the deepest place of the heart.

On this journey every sin can be laid aside as well as “all earthly care.” On this journey every enemy can be blessed as the good God showers His kindness on all. On this journey we also pass all the places of darkness that we most fear, including the very gate of hell and death. With Christ we pass through them and discover that death has been trampled under foot and we may now walk in the light as He is in the light.

In this journey we learn to accept the wedding garment that has been provided for us: the righteousness of Christ, as we put off the old garment (our own righteousness) which is no more than filthy rags. Thus we learn to stand not on our own – not removed from God – but now made one with God – who alone can give us light and life.

May God journey with us all as we draw ever closer to His Pascha!

Behold the Bridegroom Comes

April 20, 2008

Behold, the Bridegroom comes at midnight,

And blessed is that servant whom He shall find watching,

And again, unworthy is the servant whom He shall find heedless.

Beware, therefore, O my soul, do not be weighed down with sleep,

Lest you be given up to death, and lest you be shut out of the Kingdom.

But rouse yourself crying: Holy, Holy, Holy, art Thou, O our God,

Through the Theotokos have mercy on us.

Troparion of Bridegroom Matins