Archive for December, 2008

The Freedom of Love – Two Selections

December 20, 2008

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“God created man like an animal who has received the order to become God,” says a deep saying of St. Basil, reported by St. Gregory of Nazianzus. To execute this order, one must be able to refuse it. God becomes powerless before human freedom; He cannot violate it since it flows from His own omnipotence. Certainly man was created by the will of God alone; be he cannot be deified by it alone. A single will for creation, but two for deification. A single will to raise up the image, but two to make the image into a likeness. The love of God for man is so great that it cannot constrain; for there is no love without respect. Divine will always will submit itself to gropings, to detours, even to revolts of human will to bring it to a free consent: of such is divine providence, and the classical image of the pedagogue must seem feeble indeed to anyone who has felt God as a beggar of love waiting at the soul’s door without ever daring to force it.

From Vladimir Lossky’s essay “The Creation”

Such a mystery – that God should stand at the door and knock – like a beggar of love – never daring to force it.

The Agony

Philosophers have measur’d mountains,
Fathom’d the depths of the seas, of states, and kings,
Walk’d with a staff to heav’n, and traced fountains:
But there are two vast, spacious things,
The which to measure it doth more behove:
Yet few there are that sound them; Sin and Love.

Who would know Sin, let him repair
Unto mount Olivet; there shall he see
A man so wrung with pains, that all his hair,
His skin, his garments bloody be.
Sin is that press and vice, which forceth pain
To hunt his cruel food through ev’ry vein.

Who knows not Love, let him assay
And taste that juice, which on the cross a pike
Did set again abroach, then let him say
If ever he did taste the like.
Love is that liquor sweet and most divine,
Which my God feels as blood; but I, as wine.

George Herbert (1593-1633)

The Wisdom of Man and the Foolishness of God

December 19, 2008

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The Feast of the Nativity, known sometimes in Orthodoxy as “the Winter Pascha,” is one of the great examples in the story of our salvation where the “foolishness of God” defeats the wisdom of man. It is not the story of an underdog defeating the mighty, but a revelation of who God is, and who we are – and what our salvation is all about. Nothing in the story of our salvation is accidental or incidental. All of it proclaims the Gospel.

The story of the Nativity is utterly shrouded in the cloak of weakness. In our own time we understand just how vulnerable is the life of an unborn child – apart from extreme old age, it is the most vulnerable time of our existence. Christ is incarnate as an unborn child in a world where infant mortality would have been astronomical by our modern standards. He becomes the most vulnerable of all human forms. The God of the universe, to use modern scientific terminology, becomes a Zygote.

Nurtured and sustained through the pregnancy – itself fraught with anxiety and questioning – his birth becomes an event which must take second place to the needs of the state. A census was ordered, and his mother and foster father make a journey that is difficult in the best of times (the lay of the land between Nazareth and Bethlehem is a constant negotiation of desert hill country.

The greeting in Bethlehem is less than kind for a babe in the womb. In a crowded village, his mother is forced to take refuge in a barn – indeed, in a cave which is used to house animals. Nothing could be more removed from the modern cocoon of sterility that greets the newborn. Born into our world, his first bed is a manger – a place where animals take their food.

It is not for nothing that the icon of the Nativity is written in such a way that everything mirrors Christ’s later descent into Hades. The cave – everything – shares a common semi-non-existence with the shadow world of Hades. Indeed, He who would become the Bread of the World finds his first resting place in a manger (“manger” comes from the word for “to chew”). Bread of the world, He is born to be eaten.

Greeted by angels, shepherds and wise men, his birth goes largely unnoticed – except by the authorities who seek to kill Him.

I have stood near the cave of St. Jerome in Bethlehem, and seen the recently excavated graves of the Holy Innocents. There are a mass of infant burials, clearly made in haste, with evidence of violence, all dating to the first century. It is not a Biblical myth but a crime scene as gruesome as any that we could imagine. This is the Wisdom of Man.

The Wisdom of Man measures strength and power by the ability to administer brute force. Whether a sword or  nuclear weapon – power is defined by physics. Were the power that confronted us measured in the same manner, victory could be as simple as a mathematical equation. But the power of God, the Wisdom of God, that confronted King Herod and all the so-called “rulers” of this world, belonged to a realm that is wholly other.

The “beachhead”, if your will, of the coming of Christ and His kingdom, was the human heart – not territory nor judicial power. As noted by later Orthodox writers – the battleground between God and the devil is the human heart. It is into that human heart that Christ was born in Bethlehem: first into the heart of His mother – who “pondered” all these things. Then into the heart of His foster father, who provided a heart of welcome to a child not of his own fathering. Then into the heart of shepherds and wise men, who were simple and wise enough to hear the voice of angels and to obey the movements of the stars.

Joseph would take this weak Child into Egypt and await God’s direction before returning home. Mary would continue her motherly watch, uniting herself with her child in body and soul. She fed Him at her breast, as He fed her in her heart.

Years later, Pontius Pilate would face this Child/Man, and hear that His kingdom “was not of this world.” He did not believe and committed Him to crucifixion as if this world could destroy the Lord of heaven and earth. But in the most decisive manner the wisdom of man was shown to be foolishness – empty of strength and incapable of giving life.

Anybody can kill. The drive to non-being is a parasite – relying on Being itself to give it pseudo-credibility. The wisdom of man grows out of the barrel of a gun and always has (guns, arrows, swords, sticks and stones). Only God can give life and His gift always appears paradoxically weak in the eyes of the world. He is born in a manger and weeps in the night. He hides in Egypt and lies dead in a tomb. But as kingdoms crumble and the wise men of this world pass into dust, the Babe of Bethlehem reigns as God and continues to be born in the cave and emptiness  of human hearts – where the meek and the lowly find rest, and life everlasting.

On the Porch in Nazareth

December 18, 2008

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During my pilgrimage to the Holy Land in September, I had an occasion that has become unforgettable. I had been in the Church of the Annunciation (Roman Catholic) which contains the home in which Mary lived when she was greeted by the angel Gabriel. Orthodox tradition holds that there was also a greeting at the well – and the Orthodox Church of St. Gabriel contains that holy site.

Our pilgrimage had visited inside the Catholic shrine (very quietly for Mass was being offered). I stepped out to the front “porch” of the Church. There were many pilgrims from various countries standing about in the very large courtyard. One of them was an elderly man, standing with a group of pilgrims who wore buttons that read, “Polski.” That is simply to say they were pilgrims from Poland.

I noticed that this man was looking at me – staring would be more accurate. I looked down a couple of times, but he never broke his gaze. Our eyes met and I walked over to him. I do not speak Polish – only a little (very little) broken Russian. But I took a chance and greeted him. He smiled. I told him in my poor Russian that I was an Orthodox priest from America.

Tears came to his eyes. The smile remained. I was dressed in my cassock wearing my gold cross (which I blessed at every shrine I visited). This kind-eyed man reached over and lifted my cross to his lips. He kissed it, and I gave him a blessing (in Slavonic).

His polite reply, complete with tears was: “Znamie Bog!” (“God is with us”). Indeed He was with us that day on the porch in Nazareth. The Christchild uniting two believers with few words between us. The pilgrim’s smile and tears spoke volumes. I will never know his story or his name – but I will remember that God is with us!

Traditional Byzantine Christmas Hymn in Arabic

December 17, 2008

In Christ

December 16, 2008

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One of the most common phrases in the writings of St. Paul is “in Christ.” He uses this phrase so frequently that it is easy to overlook it and move on to something more interesting. My computer Bible program lists 73 verses in which he uses the phrase. As commonplace as it may be, it holds a world of understanding. It is interesting as well for what it does not say.

St. Paul uses the phrase as an equivalent for the name “Christian” in which he will greet those who are “in Christ.” He will also use it for some of his most profound theological assertions: “In Christ there is neither male nor female,” etc. The 73 verses that I’ve counted do not include the number in which he simply says, “in Him.”

What the Apostle does not say are many things we would perhaps substitute today in a devolution of Christian thought. We might simply substitute “Christian” reducing what it means to be “in Christ” to a notion of mere nominal membership or even simply an ethnic title.

“In Christ” presents us with assumptions about the nature of our relationship with Christ. We are not related to Him as one thing to another; we are not related to Him as subject to object; we are not related to Him even as creature to Creator (in a minimalist sense). Our relationship is something that is best described by being “in Him.” Elsewhere, the New Testament will describe this realtionship as koinonia (communion). To be in Him, is to not be outside of Him. It is to dwell within the fullness of Christ Himself. It is to be in Him such that nothing of who we are is outside of Him.

Christ is thus not a reference point apart from us but a dwelling place (which has no limit). To be in Christ is to be in Him Who is the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. Thus to be in Christ is, to some extent, to exist beyond space and time. The meaning and reference for our life is not to be in this world, but in the world to come. Thus our inheritance is not a name derived from history, nor even an ethnicity derived from genetics, but something which is laid up for us in the Kingdom, in Christ.

“If any man is in Christ, there is a new Creation” (2 Cor. 5:17). Thus whatever we are in Christ, we are not what we were, but increasingly what we shall be.

In His nativity we celebrate that Christ has come among us. But greater still (if I may be so bold) is that His coming also means that we can come to live “in Him.” The incarnation is our re-creation.

The Smallness of God

December 15, 2008

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An annual December posting:

Whom have we, Lord, like you –

The Great One who became small, the Wakeful who slept,

The Pure One who was baptized, the Living One who died,

The King who abased himself to ensure honor for all.

Blessed is your honor!

St. Ephrem the Syrian

We draw near to the Feast of our Lord’s Nativity, and I cannot fathom the smallness of God. Things in my life loom so large and every instinct says to overcome the size of a threat by meeting it with a larger threat. But the weakness of God, stronger than death, meets our human life/death by becoming a child – the smallest of us all – man at his weakest – utterly dependent.

And His teaching will never turn away from that reality for a moment. Our greeting of His mission among us is marked by misunderstanding, betrayal, denial and murder. But He greets us with forgiveness, love, and the sacrifice of self.

This way of His is more than a rescue mission mounted to straighten out what we had made crooked. His coming among us is not only action  but also revelation. He does not become unlike Himself in order to make us like Him. The weakness, the smallness, the forgiveness – all that we see in His incarnation – is a revelation of the Truth of God. He became the image of Himself, that we might become the image we were created to be.

It seems strange to speak of God as humble, and yet this is what is revealed in Scripture. Cultural references to God are full of power and mankind’s own claim to wisdom that somehow the all-powerful God has not straightened things out yet. On this basis some will even come to reject the very existence of God. The power of God is nothing like our power. Though He created all that is, He did so out of nothing. This bears no resemblance to anything we think of when we “create.” And He who created is also He who sustains, and yet in His humility we cannot directly see His sustenance, unless He has given us eyes to see.

The all-powerful reveals Himself in His weakness, and not, I suspect, because it was a “backdoor” plan. Rather I believe the all-powerful revealed Himself most fully, most completely on the Cross because this is indeed what the power of God looks like. I do not know how to fathom the reality that the power that can only be seen in the Cross of Christ, is the same power that created the universe, but I believe it is so.

We never know fullness, until we empty ourselves into His emptiness. We never know love until we are drowned in the waters of His mercy that do not kill but make alive. We cannot see the great until we see Him very small. He who enters the womb of a Virgin will also enter the waters of Jordan, and will also enter infinitessimally small spaces of hades’ yawning gape. And there we shall see greatness indeed, He who is everywhere present and fillest all things.

Lossky on Freedom and the Person

December 15, 2008

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Vladimir Lossky, who can be notoriously difficult to read, offers this observation on freedom and the person. It is taken from his essay, “The Creation,” in the small collection, Orthodox Theology: an Introduction.

A personal being is capable of loving someone more than his own nature, more than his own life. The person, that is to say, the image of God in man, is then man’s freedom with regard to his nature, “the fact of being freed from necessity and not being subject to the domination of nature, but able to determine oneself freely” (St. Gregory of Nyssa). Man acts most often under natural impulses. He is conditioned by his temperament, his character, his heredity, cosmic or psycho-social ambiance, indeed, his very historicity. But the truth of man is beyond all conditioning; and his dignity consists in being able to liberate himself from his nature, not by consuming it or abandoning it to itself, like the ancient or orental sage, but by transfiguring it in God.

The goal of freedom, as St. Gregory of Nazianzus explains, is that the good belongs in truth to him who chooses it. God does not wish to remain in possession of the good He has created. He awaits from man more than a blind, entirely natural participation. He wants man consciously to assume his nature, to possess it freely as good, to recognize with gratitude in life and in the universe the gifts of divine love.

“A personal being is capable of loving someone more than his own nature, more than his own life.” Such words point to the character of our struggle – to live in freedom and not by necessity. Life by necessity is, to some degree, life that is trapped in death. Living in freedom is the triumph of Christ over death. “Where the Spirit of the Lord is there is liberty” (2 Cor. 3:17). Thus obedience to the commandments of Christ is not obedience to bondage (to law) but obedience to freedom’s call. The commandment to love – even an enemy – is a call to be transfigured – to live in a freedom that is above nature. The same can be said of all of Christ’s commandments. Indeed, to know Him is to know the Truth, and that Truth will make us free.

Living the Paradox

December 14, 2008

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The doctrines of the Christian faith are full of paradox. It is a reality that we sometimes forget – our familiarity can make us deaf to its jarring sounds:

A virgin is a mother.

Death is defeated by death.

He who seeks to save his life will lose it.

He who loses his life for my sake will save it.

I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live.

Yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.

Paradox is more than an occasional theological statement – it points to the very heart of our salvation. The commandments that we have been given by Christ call us to a life of paradox. Anyone who seeks to love will quickly face the dilemma of paradox. How do I love someone who fails me – who is less than perfect – who is not the fulfillment of my every wish? To love is to lose ourselves for the sake of the beloved.

To forgive also presents us with a paradox, for we are not commanded to limit our forgiveness to those who deserve it, or to those who ask for it, but to extend it to all. We are commanded to love our enemy – in effect, to love those who are unloveable.

It is the same paradox that marks the mystery of the love of God.

St. Ephrem the Syrian offers this observation in his Hymn on the Nativity (11:6-8)

Thy mother is a cause for wonder: the Lord entered her

and became a servant; He who is the Word entered

– and became silent within her; thunder entered her

– and made no sound; there entered the Shepherd of all,

and in her He became the Lamb, bleating as He came forth.

Thy mother’s womb has reversed the roles:

the Establisher of all entered in His richness,

but came forth poor; the Exalted One entered her,

but came forth meek; the Splendrous One entered her,

but came forth having put on a lowly hue.

The Mighty One entered, and put on insecurity

from her womb; the Provisioner of all entered

– and experienced hunger; He who gives drink to all entered

– and experienced thrist: naked and stripped

there came forth from her He who clothes all.

Paradox makes for rich theological reflection – but as illustrated in St. Ephrem’s writings, it is also the way of our salvation. It is the way of our daily life (the path of our salvation). We cannot love if we refuse its paradox. We cannot forgive if we deny its reality. We cannot truly live until we know the paradox of dying daily.

The world has entered a very stressful time – with economic insecurity on a global scale. The temptation will be to refuse the paradox. The temptation will be for the rich to remain rich; for the strong to remain strong; for the anxious to reside in their anxiety. The only way forward is the way Christ has set forth for us – who for our sake became poor; who for our sake became weak; who for our sake dwelt in the land of darkness that all might have light.

Glory to God for all things.

What Do Angels Guard?

December 13, 2008

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!

Would You Believe…

December 12, 2008

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Would you believe that this is absolutely the most popular post on Glory to God for All Things? I mean, it has about 15,000 views. The comments are quite interesting, including a comment from a direct descendant of Mother Goose. To read the comments, go here.

This delightful old English prayer said by children and their parents at bedtime has long ago been shortened to only its last verse. There is more (as I was taught):

Matthew, Mark, Luke and John,

Bless the bed that I lie on.

The are four corners to my bed,

Four angels round my head,

One to watch, and one to pray,

And two to bear my soul away.

Now I lay me down to sleep,

I pray the Lord my soul to keep.

If I should die before I wake,

I pray the Lord my soul to take.

If you know more of the tradition of this prayer please share it.