Archive for August, 2009

The Death of Christ – The Life of Man

August 30, 2009

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.


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.

How Simple Should Christianity Be?

August 26, 2009

_44604810_0cfa7112-54f0-4015-a9b0-29f58a4fab29There is a tendency in our modern world to make things as simple as possible. We hide the complexities behind a keyboard (I don’t know how my computer works – or not very well) or we treat things that seem complex as unnecessary obfuscations. This same drive to simplify was very much alive in the 16th century as Christianity underwent reform in many places of the world.

Thomas Cranmer, the English Reformer, railed against the complexity of the service books required for a Roman Catholic Mass and managed to bring everything down to one small book. Every service required by a cleric could be found in the one Prayer Book, which also contained the book of Psalms.

Cranmer’s work was often outdone in other places – some eventually discarding the use of any book but the Bible. Following Martin Luther’s lead, the Scriptures themselves were limited to 66 books (discarding those Old Testament books which did not have a Hebrew original – the so-called “Apocrypha”).

This, of course, is not all of the story of the Reform. At the same time that services were being simplified, there were massive productions of new commentaries and works of theology. Thus there was both a simplification and a new layer of complexity.

As centuries have gone on, the drive to simplify has not disappeared. Frontier preaching in America had little place for complexity and the proclamation of the gospel became quite straight-forward indeed.  A common tool in use throughout various religious movements in post-Guttenburg Europe, was the religious tract. Produced by the thousands and millions, these small summaries of the faith or of a point of doctrine were spread throughout homes and the streets and occasionally played important religious roles in religious movements (I’m not sure how much they do today).

How simple should Christianity be? Should it be reduceable to four spiritual laws or summarized in a paragraph or two? Is John 3:16 the perfect summary of the perfect faith? If you were shipwrecked on an island and could only have one chapter of Scripture, what would you keep?

I would like to suggest several principles that might be of help in thinking about such things.

1. Christianity is not an idea.

2. Christianity is not part of the religious annex of planet earth.

3. Reality cannot be simplified.

On the first point – Christianity is not an idea. I could say that it is also not a philosophy. It is a faith about how things (all things) are and Who God is, and what God has to do with us (or us with Him). It is thus a full account of reality, even though much of that account may remain unspoken. Christianity is either everything or it is nothing.

This leads easily to my second point. Christianity is not part of the religious annex of planet earth – that is, it is not a subset or comparment of something else. Since it is the fullness of reality in its truth – there is not a larger fullness (other than God) in which it may be contained.

My third point – reality cannot be simplied – may sound obvious – but we frequently live in simplified, digitzed, simulacra of the world itself. Given the choice between life on earth as we know it, and life in a holo-deck as pictured in the Star Trek movies and series – many people would gladly choose the holo-deck, some already opting for its current low-tech version in various games and such.

The invitation to another human being to embrace Christ as Lord, God and Savior is thus an invitation not to a religious hobby, but to the truth of the world as it is and as it shall be. Christ reveals reality in its fullness. Thus Christianity can never properly be a diminishing of human life.

Care should be taken never to diminish the faith – to reduce it to something less than all that is (and more). Glory to God for all things.

What’s the Point?

August 25, 2009

For a man who does not believe in God – nothing points to God.

For a man who believes in God – everything points to God.

So who’s right? There is almost no argument between these two experiences. For someone who does not believe in God my own contention that everything points to God is pretty much meaningless. In extraordinary cases we can listen to each other and struggle to understand what the other sees – but I cannot tell a man that he does not see what he sees.

Having grown up in the modern secular world I can perhaps more easily understand the man who does not believe in God than liturgy_ysuch a man can understand me. Belief in no God is the default position in a secular culture (despite the many polls in which people profess belief in God). Thus the average “believer” will likely see the world about him and not see it pointing to God. Indeed, a hallmark of secular Christianity is its restriction of religion to specifically “religious” items or matters. Existence in such a mode is an on-going crisis of faith.

In a world in which everything points to God, belief is not a crisis but existence itself. Some things may point more intensively than others but everything points.

This, I believe, is the great witness of Christianity in the modern world. The challenge will not likely be between Christianity and atheism – but between Christianity-as-true-belief-in-God and Christianity-as-a-religious-option-for-secularists. The latter makes no difference for it is little more than a lifestyle option. It has no point.

The former is indeed a crisis, a turning point. For to believe in God in such a way that everything points to Him, is to change the entire point of our own existence. In Him we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28).

A driving force in my thought and writing is to find ways to speak about belief in God, all-encompassing-belief-in-God, in the context of our modern secular culture. It is the point within my work with the metaphor of a “one-storey” universe. It is the point of my efforts to extricate our language from the secularity of cause-and-effect. It is the point of writing intensively about the place of the heart. It is because I believe that God is the point.

The Agent of Change

August 23, 2009

A continuation of the series on culture and the individual.

Southwest Trip 317As inhabitants of our modern culture, we find ourselves trapped in a world of “cause and effect.” It is a physical explanation of the universe that has, for all intents and purposes, become a universal metaphor, dominating religion and the most personal aspects of our lives.

We see ourselves as the agents of change – or responsible for the disasters that litter our lives. Those who “succeed” imagine that they are the masters of their fate, or, perhaps the ones who responsibly “chose” God.

For the weak, the addict, the genetically impaired, the myth of choice and the power of freedom are often experienced as a merciless taunt. We not only fail – it is judged that we fail because we have not willed to succeed. Our weakness becomes a curse, while the blessed enjoy their prosperity and their health. Choice is a myth believed best by the young. Old age almost invariably makes a mockery of its boasts. The “pro-choice” movement and the growing acquiesence to legalized euthanasia are but natural extensions of our “free will.” These last manifestations of our “freedom” are the freedom to kill and to commit suicide, which, of course are only illusions of freedom.

There is an important and occasionally subtle difference between these modern concepts of freedom and choice – man as the agent of change – and the traditional Orthodox understanding of the world and the place that free will plays within it. On the most fundamental level, the world of cause and effect (the realm of our willful choices) is an insufficient arena for the Truth as revealed in Christ. God cannot be described merely as an agent in a world of cause and effect. He cannot be described as First Cause – because He cannot be described by a term of which there is a Second. God is not the First of anything – God is the Only of which there is no other.

The God Who has made Himself known in Christ Jesus is rightly identified as the Creator of all that is. However, how God creates is not a proper subject for scientific study. Cause and effect are simply insufficient as a description of God as Creator. Instead, an interesting verse in the LXX translation of Exodus offers the suggestion of a better starting point for understanding the role that our choices do and do not play:

Now Moses built an altar and called its name The-Lord-My-Refuge; for with a secret hand the Lord wars with Amalek from generation to generation (Exodus 17:16).

God’s secret hand well describes His involvement in our world – a metaphor which is a recurring theme in the images of Scripture (particularly as understood by Orthodox Christianity).

An excellent example of this theme can be found in the account of the Three Young Men, in the book of Daniel and its continuation in the Song of the Three Young Men (LXX). There, the faithful youths are confronted with the command to commit idolatry, to fall down and worship before an image of the wicked King Nebuchadnezzar. If you will, the threat is typical of those who view the world as simple “cause and effect.” Power is defined as the ability to cause your own will to be done. As such, the Three Young Men are powerless. They are able to do nothing against the power of the King. His threat, of course, is death in a furnace of fire. They refuse, adhering to the commandments of God and trusting in His goodness. Their reply to the king is classic:

So they brought these men before the king. Nebuchadnezzar spoke, saying to them, “Is it true, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego, that you do not serve my gods or worship the gold image which I have set up? “Now if you are ready at the time you hear the sound of the horn, flute, harp, lyre, and psaltery, in symphony with all kinds of music, and you fall down and worship the image which I have made, good! But if you do not worship, you shall be cast immediately into the midst of a burning fiery furnace. And who is the god who will deliver you from my hands?” Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego answered and said to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. “If that is the case, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and He will deliver us from your hand, O king. “But if not, let it be known to you, O king, that we do not serve your gods, nor will we worship the gold image which you have set up” (Dan. 3:13-17).

Thus power, as defined by the world, confronts the power of God, and His secret hand.

Then King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished; and he rose in haste and spoke, saying to his counselors, “Did we not cast three men bound into the midst of the fire?” They answered and said to the king, “True, O king.” “Look!” he answered, “I see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire; and they are not hurt, and the form of the fourth is like the Son of God.” Then Nebuchadnezzar went near the mouth of the burning fiery furnace and spoke, saying, “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego, servants of the Most High God, come out, and come here.” Then Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego came from the midst of the fire (Dan. 3:24-26).

In the LXX Song of the Three Young Men we hear this added description:

And the flame streamed out above the furnace forty-nine cubits, and it broke through and burned those of the Chaldeans whom it caught about the furnace. But the angel of the Lord came down into the furnace to be with Azariah [Shadrach] and his companions, and drove the fiery flame out of the furnace, and made the midst of the furnace like a moist whistling wind, so that the fire did not touch them at all or hurt or trouble them (Song of the Three Young Men 24-27).

Thus, like the bush that Moses saw on the Holy Mount that burns but is not consumed , or the womb of the Virgin that gives birth to Christ and yet remains a virginal womb (and so the image may be multiplied), God acts in a manner that cannot be described. If we say that He causes these things – then the word “cause” has a meaning other than what we normally mean.

Azariah states it this way in his prayer:

Do not put us to shame, but deal with us in Thy forbearance and in Thine abundant mercy. Deliver us in accordance with Thy marvelous works, and give glory to Thy name, O Lord! Let all who do harm to Thy servants be put to shame; let them be disgraced and deprived of all power and dominion, and let their strength be broken. Let them know that Thou art the Lord, the only God, glorious over the whole world (Song of the Three Young Men 19-22).

I have added emphasis – “deliver us in accordance with Thy marvelous works.” This is a proper description of the work of God. The power of God is not a power to be compared to the king’s, only bigger. For however the king works, he does not do so in a “marvelous manner.” Such works belong to God alone.

This phrase, “Thy marvelous works,” is echoed in the service of the Great Blessing of the Waters (used at Theophany, Baptism, and all blessings of Holy Water).

“Great art Thou, O Lord, and marvelous are Thy works. There is no word sufficient to hymn Thy praises.”

Calling such words over the waters of the Jordan [as I experienced on pilgrimage in September] only emphasizes the secret handof the Most High. For in the course of the Blessing of Waters, we specifically call down upon the waters “the blessing of Jordan.” It seems strange, at first, to ask God to make the Jordan to be the Jordan. It is an illustration of Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s statement that in the sacraments, we do not ask God not to make things to be something they are not, but to be what they truly are. Thus a blessing is not added to the Jordan, but in the prayer, the Jordan is revealed to be what it is: an icon. It is the place where the people of Israel cross to enter the Promised Land. It is the place that reveals the Pascha of Christ – who descends into death to lead the dead to the Promised land of life. An icon does not symbolize, in the modern sense of the word, but makes present that to which it points. Thus, “as many as are Baptized into Christ are Baptized into His death.” The Jordan and all water so blessed are an entrance into Pascha.

Icons do not cause, but reveal. To cause would be a magical understanding (magic itself being something from the early modern world – see alchemy).

When we bring this understanding of God’s work to bear on the human predicament – the will is revealed to be other than what we imagine it to be. Rather than the agent of change, it is simply one part of the human creature which is itself in need of redemption and healing.

I can no more will my salvation than I can will my resurrection.

Like everything else in the human life – the will is in need of redemption, even though it plays its own small role in its cooperation with grace. We cannot be saved except by grace – even though grace requires our cooperation. That cooperation, however, can sometimes be as minimal as a cry for help. It is the voice of the thief on the cross crying, “Remember me!”

We are not the agents of change – but subjects in need of change. The world of cause and effect in which we can imagine ourselves (like Nebuchadnezzer) to be people of great power, is not, after all, the realm of true power. That realm, ruled by God’s secret hand, became flesh and dwelt among us – doing for us what we could not ourselves do. We could not ascend into heaven and become Divine. He descended among us and became Man – that we might ascend with Him and become partakers of the divine nature.

God cannot be chosen or consumed as though He were a product among products. Neither is He an idea or slogan to which we may give allegiance. He is the God to Whom we may cry for help and Who has manifested His love and assured us of the ready answer to our feeble call.

Among the truest insights within our culture (although itself the product of Christian theology rather than modern culture) is the understanding found within the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. The first step recognizes that we are powerless over the addictions which bind us. Strangely, the alcoholic who wants to be sober, must begin by recognizing that he is powerless to become so alone. The second step recognizes that “only a power greater than ourselves could help us.” I would say that only a power that is utterly unlike anything we know as power can help us. The third step is to turn oneself over to that power. Strangely, millions of men and women have found sobriety, not because of the power of their will, but through the recognition of the weakness of our will. It is the most non-consumer community within the whole of our culture – aside from Christianity rightly lived.

We are not the agents of change, though without change our very existence will become moot. The change for which we, and the world, hunger is finally dependent upon the secret hand of the Most High, Who created us, sustains us, and redeems us through His marvelous works. In Him the weak become strong, the meek inherit the earth, and those who weep laugh, while the mighty fall from their thrones.

From the midst of the flames we hear the Song of the Three Young Men, who see the true freedom of creation – not as inert objects or brute beasts to be coerced by wordly power, but as a joyful chorus of grateful creatures, whose voices unite in the great song offered to the God Whose secret hand sustains us in His presence:

O all ye works of the Lord, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever,
O ye heavens, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O ye angels of the Lord, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O all ye waters that be above the heaven, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O all ye powers of the Lord, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O ye sun and moon, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O ye stars of heaven, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O every shower and dew, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O all ye winds, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever,
O ye fire and heat, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O ye winter and summer, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O ye dews and storms of snow, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O ye nights and days, bless ye the Lord: bless and exalt him above all for ever.
O ye light and darkness, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O ye ice and cold, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O ye frost and snow, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O ye lightnings and clouds, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O let the earth bless the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O ye mountains and little hills, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O all ye things that grow in the earth, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O ye mountains, bless ye the Lord: Praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O ye seas and rivers, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O ye whales, and all that move in the waters, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O all ye fowls of the air, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O all ye beasts and cattle, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O ye children of men, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O Israel, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O ye priests of the Lord, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O ye servants of the Lord, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O ye spirits and souls of the righteous, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O ye holy and humble men of heart, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O Ananias, Azarias, and Misael, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever: far he hath
delivered us from hell, and saved us from the hand of death, and delivered us out of the midst of the
furnace and burning flame: even out of the midst of the fire hath he delivered us.
O give thanks unto the Lord, because he is gracious: for his mercy endureth for ever.
O all ye that worship the Lord, bless the God of gods, praise him, and give him thanks: for his mercy
endureth for ever.

Dostoevsky on the Individual

August 22, 2009

The following passage from The Brothers Karamazov is taken from one of the “Talks and Homilies” of the Elder Zossima – one of the key characters in the novel. His thoughts echo earlier articles here that contrast man as “individual” (isolation) to man as Person (brotherhood and communion). I plan to offer a series of thoughts on the position of the Christian in a consumer culture.

dostoevskyLook at the worldly and at the whole world that exalts itself above the people of God: are the image of God and his truth not distorted in it? They have science, and in science only that which is subject to the senses. But the spiritual world, the higher half of man’s being, is altogether rejected, banished with a sort of triumph, even with hatred. The world has proclaimed freedom, especially of late, but what do we see in this freedom of theirs: only slavery and suicide! For the world says: “You have needs, therefore satisfy them, for you have the same rights as the noblest and richest men. do not be afraid to satisfy them, but even increase them” – this is the current teaching of the world. And in this they see freedom. But what comes of this right to increase one’s needs? For the rich, isolation and spiritual suicide; for the poor, envy and murder, for they have been given rights, but have not yet been shown any way of satisfying their needs. We are assured that the world is becoming more and more united, is being formed into brotherly communion, by the shortening of distances, by the transmitting of thoughts through the air. Alas, do not believe in such a union of people. Taking freedom to mean the increase and prompt satisfaction of needs, they distort their own nature, for they generate many meaningless and foolish desires, habits, and the most absurd fancies in themselves. They live only for mutual envy, for pleasure-seeking and self-display. To have dinners, horse, carriages, rank, and slaves to serve them is now considered such a necessity that for the sake of it, to satisfy it, they will sacrifice life, honor, the love of mankind, and will even kill themselves if they are unable to satisfy it. We see the same thing in those who are not rich, while the poor, so far, simply drown their unsatisfied needs and envy in drink. But soon they will get drunk on blood instead of wine, they are being led to that. I ask you: is such a man free? I knew one “fighter for an idea” who told me himself that when he was deprived of tobacco in prison, he was so tormented by this deprivation that he almost went and betrayed his “idea,” just so that they would give him some tobacco. And such a man says: “I am going to fight for mankind.” Well, how far will such a man get, and what is he good for? Perhaps some quick action, but he will not endure for long. And no wonder that instead of freedom they have fallen into slavery, and instead of serving brotherly love and human unity, they have fallen, on the contrary, into disunity and isolation, as my mysterious visitor and teacher used to tell me in my youth. And therefore the idea of serving mankind, of the brotherhood and oneness of people, is fading more and more in the world, and indeed the idea now even meets with mockery, for how can one drop one’s habits, where will this slave go now that he is so accustomed to satisfying the innumerable needs he himself has invented? He is isolated, and what does he care about the whole? They have succeeded in amassing more and more things, but have less and less joy.

The Mystery of Faith – Sacrament and Icon

August 19, 2009

Recent questions have been raised about the difference between icons and sacraments in the Orthodox Church. It is an easy place for confusion to occur – particularly when seen from the outside.

Iconostasis_in_MoscowThe Church in the West, particularly the Roman Catholic Church, developed a carefully-worded and defined understanding of sacrament during the Middle Ages. This definition depended on matters such as the authority of its institution, the intention of its performance, and the use of proper material (such as bread, wine, oil, etc.). Typical of Western Scholasticism, the definition took on something of a legal cast. During the debates of the Reformation, both the nature of the sacraments as well as their number became a topic for disagreement. Classically, Rome said their were seven sacraments. The majority of reformers argued that only Eucharist and Baptism were sacraments and offered varying accounts as to what actually constituted a sacrament. Underneath this Western understanding of sacrament (and not intentionally related) was a growing world-view which would eventually become secularism. Sacraments increasingly became defined as unique and special moments within the otherwise secular world where the presence and authority of God were made available to mankind.

The various Protestant movements sped quickly towards a secularized world-view such that in most Protestant Churches today, the sacraments have all but disappeared as interventions of God and have become “ordinances” or simple acts of obedience to Christ. Even in those places where some lingering sense of “sacrament” remains – what remains is unclear.

The place of these same sacraments has a very differing history within the Eastern Church. Among the Orthodox, those actions which the West defined as sacraments, were more commonly referred to as mysteries. This name (from the Greek word translated variously as secret or unknowable) seems particularly to have come into usage from the fact that these mysteries were not part of the public life of the Church in its earliest years, but part of its hidden, inner life. Thus to this day in St. John Chrysostom’s Liturgy, at the end of the liturgy of the word, the Deacon exclaims, “Let all catechumens depart!” etc. The liturgy of the faithful (the blessing of the bread and wine and the communion of the Church) begins with the exlamation, “Let us the faithful, again and again in peace pray unto the Lord!” Catechumens (unbaptized) were required to leave the service. Only the faithful (the Baptized) were allowed to be present for the Mystery.

In early practice, the mystery of the Holy Eucharist was only observed by those who had been Baptized and Chrismated. Baptism itself was also not observed by non-initiates in the mysteries. But these “mysteries” were not taught as speculations about the nature and character of a sacrament. The clear teaching and consensus of the early fathers was that in the Eucharist, the bread and wine, truly becomes the Body and Blood of Christ. No particular effort was made to ask how such a thing was so (indeed, I have often wondered if it is not somehow “impious” to ask such a question). By the same token Holy Baptism was understood to be a union with the death and resurrection of Christ, a Baptism into the Body of Christ, the remission of sins, the cleansing from all unrighteousness, etc. Its treatment was similar to that of the Holy Eucharist. The reality of Baptism and what it accomplished were simply part of the teaching of the Church: the how was not a particularly interesting question.

One short aside: nowhere do we find in the early fathers a teaching of a merely “symbolic” or “memorial” treatment of the holy mysteries. Indeed, mere symbolism would have to await the development of nominalist philosophy before the idea could have been expressed – the idea had no place within the canon of ancient thought.

The relation between sacrament and icon first arose as a question during the debates of the 8th century in the East that eventually resulted in the 7th Ecumenical Council. Those who opposed the making and veneration of icons (which was already a settled practice of the Church) put forward the argument that the “Holy Eucharist was the only true icon” and only the Eucharist could be venerated (some iconoclasts also held the Holy Cross to be a venerable icon). The response of the Orthodox (those who venerated icons) was that the Holy Eucharist was not an icon (image) but the actual and true Body of Christ. Thus a distinction was articulated. Icons are representations – though they are not themselves that-which-is-represented. And icon of Christ is not Christ-Himself (certainly not in the manner in which the Church holds the Eucharist to be the Body and Blood of Christ).

St. Theodore the Studite is the father most associated with the language that spoke definitively about the representation found in icons. In this case the how of representation seemed important. The Christological and Trinitarian language of Person (or hypostasis) and Essence (ousia) were a commonplace within the Church’s theological language and understanding – having become settled in meaning during the 4th through the 6th centuries. St. Theodore said of icons that they were representations of the person of Christ (or a saint) but not of His essence. Indeed, by definition, an essence cannot have a representation. There is no such thing as the picture of man, only of a man. Thus an icon of Christ affirmed that He had become a man, and not simply man in some generalized form. Christ truly took upon Himself human nature (ousia) – but that nature must be encountered in the person of Christ. St. Theodore’s teaching on the holy icons was thus an affirmation of the earlier councils of the Church and affirmed the veneration of icons as an expression of the fullness of the Orthodox teaching.

An icon “makes present that to which it refers” is also a statement of the 7th Council. But the presence encountered in an icon is a “representation of the person” (hypostatic representation in the language of St. Theodore) and not the same as the reality itself of the Holy Eucharist.

To move away from the language of the councils – it is possible to say that in the Mysteries of the Church – we participate in the Divine Life itself (in Eucharist, Baptism, etc.). In conversations with the West, the Orthodox Church sometimes affirmed seven mysteries as did the Roman Church. Sometimes there were more mysteries affirmed (monastic tonsure was a common addition). The primary affirmation of the Orthodox was that they certainly did not have anything less than Rome. Some have said that there is no limit to the number of Mysteries – this might be so – but is not a matter of dogma. Rather, it is accurate to say that the Church understands that God has united Himself to us and us to Himself and does so particularly in the Holy Mysteries of the Church (not to say that He does not do so in any other manner).

Additionally it is true that the world has an iconic character to its existence. Things not only are what they are – but they also point beyond themselves. The secularized view of the world sees things as simply things – relations existing only as mental constructs. Such a colorless view of the world has become one of the hallmarks of modern thought – and – I believe – a powerful element within the sadness of contemporary man.

The Church taught in the 7th Council that “icons do with color what Scripture does with words,” thus likening Scripture and icon rather than Scripture and sacrament. We encounter Christ iconically in Scripture – His presence is made known to us. Truth is given to us – but as representation and encounter. This is a very different way to think about Scripture – certainly not the same as the propositional truth of many Reform thinkers. Propositional truth works well and instinctively within a secularized world of just things. Truth becomes an idea rather than an encounter.

We can and do know Truth – but propositions are truth in a diminished form. The words about icons, for instance, are true (so I believe). But the words about icons are not the same thing as standing before an icon with wonder and veneration and encountering Christ personally. The Scriptures, read rightly, are an encounter with the living Lord. But frequently that encounter has no words that can express it.

At Vespers, the Church traditionally sings Psalm 104(3): “How manifold are Thy works, O Lord: in wisdom hast Thou made them all!” This veneration of the works of God (for such is the meaning of veneration in its Orthodox sense) is a recognition of what, and Who, we encounter in the works of God. Icons are called “windows to heaven.” One of their chiefest purposes in the modern Church is to teach modern man that windows exist. We do not live as a thing among things – but as fearful and wonderful creations in the midst of a manifold creation itself made in wisdom.

Heaven and earth are full of Thy glory – these are the words of angels who see what we refuse to see and what the icon of creation constantly reveals to us – if we but had eyes to see.

There is a traditional distinction between icon and sacrament (or mystery) – but both hold in common the good news of the Gospel of God’s love. Both open heaven and earth to us as encounter and participation (though in manners that differ). Learning to live in such a world (and with such a God) can be a difficult journey for modern man. We are, in the words of C.S. Lewis, “men without chests,” we have lost the knowledge of the heart. Icon and Sacrament are a restoration of that knowledge – salvation for chestless men.

The Role of Icons

August 18, 2009

St-Nicholas-DomeIcons are not about art. Icons are not about left-overs of Byzantine style. Icons are not about the idolatrous impulse within fallen humanity. Icons are about the very nature of our salvation. The history of Western theology, particularly the opposition to icons within the Protestant movement, has removed one of the most traditional components of Christian theology and handicapped the modern imagination and understanding of our relationship to God.

Our encounters with God, when icons are not present, are relegated to an imaginary world of “spiritual things,” or replaced by models of experience which can be highly delusional if not blasphemous (I am here speaking of some forms of pentecostalism). Thus the modern choice is between a God of the mental world or a God of the psycho-physical world – extremes that are brought about by the iconoclasm that has become inherent to our modern ways of thought.

Icons, as stated above, are not about art. They are a way of seeing and understanding many things – indeed the whole of the universe – in which God is not absent but has made Himself present – without at the same time becoming the universe. The theology which underlies the making and veneration of icons also provides a key to the Patristic understanding of Scripture that escapes the confines of literalism on the one hand and the emptiness of modernist forms of criticism on the other.

Icons are utterly distinct from the sacraments – though in modern non-Orthodox theology the terms “icon” and “sacrament” are frequently used in a less-than-accurate manner. The Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, in offering a precise definition of icons and their place in the Church, made it abundantly clear that the Holy Eucharist is not an icon (the iconoclasts had said that it was an icon, and the only one that could be venerated). The Fathers of the Council were clear that the Eucharist is not an icon, but the true Body and Blood of Christ. Thus a sacrament offers something more than an icon.

But what is it that an icon offers that is less than a sacrament and yet more than nothing?

In short, an icon offers a means of seeing, interpreting and encountering the Truth of things, that is somehow less than the thing(for lack of another word just yet) itself. It is not a sacrament of which the Orthodox faith says, “make this bread to be the precious Body of Thy Christ, etc..” The sacrament does not point to something (or someone) beyond itself, but itself becomes the Body of Christ.

An icon does not become other than what it is – but its existence points towards something (or someone) else – and makes them present in a representational manner. [The precise theological language of iconic representation is that an icon is a hypostatic representation – in the language of St. Theodore the Studite – but I will refrain here from such a technical discussion].

In pointing us towards the Truth, an icon shows us what we might not see otherwise. Thus the icon of a saint, more than mere biography or photography, points us towards the reality of the risen life in Christ. It bears witness to the glorification in Christ of a person.

In the same manner, it is possible to speak of creation itself as icon (rather than sacrament) in that, through the eyes of faith, all of creation points beyond itself and bears witness to the glorification which it will have in Christ (Romans 8). Some particular things, places, events, have a very potent iconic function. Thus the tomb of Christ, though clearly having a pivotal historical role in our salvation, also points to more than the small edicule within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

It is, on earth, the center of our redemption, the womb of the world to come – but it points to a fullness of Pascha that broke every confine and lifted the definition of space beyond anything we imagine.

The veneration of icons is not about art, much less, idolatry. Icons are, like many things that were given us throughout the history of our salvation, markers that teach us how to see, how to know and how to love. The veneration of the saints in the Holy Icons is a lesson to the heart of how to venerate Christ in every person (who is made “in His image” [icon] ). Without the holy altar, and all that surrounds it, we would likely never learn to see the True Altar which is in heaven, and within the heart of every person. We would not know how to enter that Holy Place and sup there with the Lord.

The icons of the Church are a school for the human heart, teaching it how to see the world and yet to see more than the world. We live in a society that is quite familiar with veneration – but directed in the wrong place and for the wrong reason. We venerate talent, sexual beauty, money, even criminality at certain times. We venerate what is manufactured and sold to us – often no more than an illusion. Thus even actors and actresses frequently resort to “body doubles” in order to appear to be what they are not. We learn to venerate what is effectively – nothing. Little wonder that such veneration leaves us empty: it has the substance of cotton candy.

Interestingly, those who oppose the proper, Orthodox veneration of icons, are frequently themselves the venerators of false images presented by the world. Captive to the passions, they oppose what is true (icons of the Truth) and easily accept what is false (the images that cater to our passions). Nothing good or holy is protected by such iconoclasm. Instead, without the proper and complete understanding of icons as taught in the Seventh Ecumenical Council, Christians stand unarmed in a world where images, most of them false, bombard us and our children at every turn.

I want my children to know the good from the bad. I want them to love the one and turn from the other. The Church has given us, by God’s grace, the proper instruments and understanding to school the hearts – both of our children and ourselves. Without the Holy Icons and the theology that supports them, Christians stand poorly armed to conduct spiritual warfare in a hostile world. May God give us grace to rightly see what is rightly depicted.

Bad Icons

August 17, 2009

mandylion_str_01And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into His likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:18).

It is a teaching of the Fathers concerning the holy icons that we do not truly “see” them if we have no reverence for that which they depict. Icons are “windows into heaven,” but not in a manner that objectifies heaven. Thus even icons that some may consider badly painted reveal the very depths of heaven if they are viewed by a saint.

By the same token, even badly marred images of Christ in other human beings can reveal the depth of the love of God if seen by the eyes of a saint.

And so the mystery of the holy icons seems to work from both sides. For the viewer, the icon is a window to heaven (if the viewer is indeed looking for heaven). And for those who are not looking for heaven, icons, including their human forms, become opaque, and we see only the reflection of our sinful self.

I like good icons, and would gladly fill my Church with them. But I want to become the kind of viewer who could see heaven if it were shown me (else even good icons become a waste) – and I’d like to be the kind of icon in which someone could see heaven if they were looking (else I become a scandal to the name Christian).

What seems inescapable to me is that there be icons. If you outlaw them in the Church, they will still occupy the Church in the persons of the congregation. We cannot say, “Only read the Scripture, do not look at me as an icon.” Nobody gets that kind of free ride as a Christian. You’re an icon whether you like it or not. And there will be other images as well – either well done reflecting heaven itself – or poorly reflecting everything other than heaven. But there will be icons. God give us grace to rightly honor the windows to heaven He has opened for us, and to be a window to heaven for all who see us.

Originally posted in November, 2006

The Face of God

August 16, 2009

dsc_3274Orthodox Christians mark August 16 as the Feast of the Icon “Not Made With Hands,” the miraculous face of Christ first left on a cloth sent to King Abgar of Edessa. The stories of the icon are swathed in the mists of history – but the image (or representations of it on icons) remain among the most popular of Orthodox images. It is frequently the icon that graces the entrance of a Church.

On a deeper level, it is an icon that points to Christ as the image of God and the true image of man. When looking upon His face we see both what we are as creatures (created in the image of God) and what we shall be as the children of the kingdom (conformed to His image). His face is more than face – it is countenance – the very presence of God directed toward us.

The opening chapter of Genesis has the rich statement that we are created in the image of God, though the Old Testament makes no explanation or development of the statement. It does, however, refrain from extreme forms of iconoclasm (image-smashing). Although the 10 commandments inveigh that “thou shalt not make unto thyself any graven image,” the same law-giving God instructs that images of cherubim are to be carved above the mercy seat on the Ark of the Covenant, and that images of angels should be interwoven in the cloths that make up the Tent of Meeting.

Islam, on the other hand, tends towards an extreme iconoclasm, refraining from all images, and in some instances destroying images. Some interpretations of Islam would deny that man is the image of God altogether.

In Christianity the theology of the image moves to the forefront. Christ, St. Paul says, is the “image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). The God who could not be imaged in the Old Testament now gives His very image, Christ (Who is indeed fully God and fully man). Not only is Christ the image of God – and thus the one by Whom God can be known – but He is also the true image of man – that image to which we are conformed in the life of salvation: “But we all, with open face, beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image, from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Cor. 3:17).

The Orthodox devotion to icons is not to be found in some supposed likeness to pagan idolatry. It is rather to be found in the profound teaching of the New Testament and the fathers of the Church in which Christ, the image of God, encounters us “face to face,” and so conforms us to Himself. The Orthodox experience of icons is not an experience of wood and of paint, but rather of the “one who is represented.” Standing before an icon of Christ, the Orthodox Christian is aware of Christ – not as captured in the image – but as present to him in the image. Thus icons are called, “Windows to heaven.”

This same devotional habit – forged in the theology of the incarnation – reaches out towards all of creation. Thus St. Paul can say of the created world, “…for since the creation of the world [God’s] invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead…” (Romans 1:20). Thus the creation becomes a window to heaven, a reflection that “clearly” reveal God’s eternal power and Godhead. This does not confuse God’s eternal power and Godhead with the creation itself, anymore than an icon should be confused with what it represents.

But there is a proper theology of icons, of the image, within Christian theology. Iconoclasm, in the teaching of the fathers, is heresy, a denial of the truth of God’s incarnation.

The face of Christ is rightly the heart’s desire of every Christian. Albeit, those who oppose Christ, we are told, call out to the mountains and to the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of Him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb…” (Rev. 6:15). And “this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than the light, for their deeds were evil” (John 3:19).

Grant us, God, to see Thy face.

Rejoice, O Virgin – A Blessed Feast

August 15, 2009

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “Rejoice, O Virgin“, posted with vodpod