Archive for May 7th, 2009

On Behalf of All and For All – A Family Reunion

May 7, 2009

OneTable 07-16As a child one of my more common experiences was the gathering of my extended family. My mother was one of twelve children, my father one of five. Their siblings largely settled in the same South Carolina county that was home. There they settled into their careers and set about having their own families during the time known as the “baby boom.” Theresult of this stability was a very large extended family. Most of my aunts and uncles had three or more children (some with less). There were also descendants of my grandparents’ brothers and sisters – some as close as anyone in the family.

These gatherings were largely on Sunday afternoons and involved very large meals, conversation and children playing in the farm fields and at the creek. I did not see myself as only a part of my immediate family – but simply one of a very large crowd we called ‘family.’ Nothing should sound unusual about this were it not for the practical disappearance of the extended family in much of America. People have fewer children (generally for very poor reasons) and the average American family moves once every five years. The result is isolation (even in a crowd).

Being part of a larger family not only gives a proper sense of belonging to something larger than yourself – but also a sense of belonging to something you did not choose – and in many cases might have chosen otherwise. Such large ‘tribal’ associations teach us something of what it means to belong to humanity itself.

The cult of individualism that dominates much of Western culture today helps produce and is reinforced by the breakdown of the extended family. As my own extended family began its breakdown (in the late 60’s and 70’s) my life changed from large family gatherings to having cousins whose name, existence and location were largely lost to me. It is hard for a human being, socially constructed in such a manner, to understand certain aspects of the gospel.

Those forms of Christianity that emphasize the individual (including individual salvation) are well-suited to the deformities of modern culture – though they are not aware that the gospel delivered in such an individualized form is itself deformed.

In the Eucharistic prayer of the Orthodox Church, the Eucharistic offering is elevated by the Deacon, while the priest sings: “We offer you these gifts, on behalf of all and for all.” There is an understanding that what Christ did for each man, He did for every man. Indeed, there is an understanding in Scripture and in the classical doctrines of the faith that we share a common humanity – not just simply that we are “like” one another – but that we participate in a common nature. Our lives have a share in one another – which – though distorted by the fall – is the proper mode of existence for mankind. Christ did not have to be incarnate as each individual man – but simply as man – and by that incarnation took upon Himself our common human nature. What He accomplishes on the Cross, He accomplishes not just for each but for all.

Dostoevsky, influenced by the thought of the Slavophile movement, wrote occasionally about the “universal man,” by which he did not mean an abstract humanity but a common humanity in Christ. St. Silouan, particularly in his poem, “Adam’s Lament,” echoes some of the same sense of a universal man – and his disciple, the Elder Sophrony, writes on the topic as well.

Learning to hear a phrase such as “On behalf of all and for all,” and to allow it to have meaning is difficult for the modern ear. We hear “all” and we think, “the Crowd.” We do not think of “all humanity” as having something that organically and spiritually unites us – and yet it does. The Scriptural image of the “Body” of Christ carries an inherently organic and participatory element in its meaning:

if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it (1 Cor. 12:26).

Paul’s statement is not a moral injunction meaning, “If one member suffers the rest should suffer with him.” His statement is a simple assertion that if one suffers – all suffer.

By the same token, Christ’s offering “on behalf of all and for all,” is more than a moral offering in which he intends good things for everyone – but is literally an offering on behalf of all and for all (it is more than a little strange that we tend to treat metaphorically those things that are more literal and literally those things that are more metaphorical).

There is a Protestant doctrine among some who belong to the Reformed tradition that the atonement is limited: Christ died for the elect. I am certain that I am unable to do justice to a Reform doctrine. It’s counterpart can sometimes be found in Orthodox circles in which the Prayer of the Church is limited to the Church in some manner (though this becomes somewhat vague). However, Christ’s offering is not on behalf of all the Church and for all the Church – but on behalf of all and for all. 

I am aware of the verses in St. John’s Gospel where Christ prays for His disciples and not the world – and yet those same verses should not be used to correct the plain sense of other places where the intention is clearly directed to the whole of humanity (as in John 3:16). 

One of the things I learned in being part of a large extended family was that the family and its members were not chosen by me nor I by them. Had choice been involved, surely some of us would not have been invited. But God has not so constituted humanity that we are defined by our own will. My will, as a family member, had much to do with what kind of a family member I might be – good or bad – welcome or unwelcome. But my will did not have the capacity to remove me from something I did not choose. It is also certainly the case that the human will plays a significant role in our relationship to God and His Church – and yet there is much (perhaps very much) over which the will has no dominance. I did not choose to be born – my existence is a gift from God. I can will myself harm, but non-existence is not within my power. I can refuse the love of God but I cannot make the love of God to cease. God loves me whether I want Him to or not. I did not choose for Christ to die for me – but while I was yet a sinner, “Christ died for me.”

A year and a half or so ago, I was invited to speak at a Colloquium for Anglicans interested in the Orthodox faith. I was one of many speakers – most of whom, like myself, were adult converts to Orthodoxy. As our sessions went on, the various speakers frequently used the terms “converts” and “cradle-born” to differentiate between those who had converted to Orthodoxy as adults and those who had been born into Orthodox families. As I listened and thought a different understanding began to form within me. 

If Christ is fully God and fully man (indeed Met. Kallistos Ware says that Christ is the only fully man), then it must be the case that I was born to be conformed to the fullness of the image of Christ – in Orthodox parlance, I would have to say that all are born Orthodox. To be Orthodox is be converted not to a religion, but turned away from destruction and set on the path towards our true humanity.

Thus, when I introduced myself in my talk I said, “It may surprise you to know that I was born Orthodox.” There was a look of consternation around the room, for my conversion is fairly well-known. I quickly added, “However, I lived in schism from myself for 43 years.”

I think this humorous turn of doctrine is, in fact, quite revealing of the Truth. Such an understanding drove St. Silouan to pray for all people – including those in hell (which is also done by the Church in its prayers on the day of Pentecost). Adam’s children is a family that includes all. Our reunion is found at the table of the Second Adam who has invited all. It is an invitation to share in a meal that is offered on behalf of all and for all. 

Let us keep the feast.