Archive for May, 2010

God Has Gone Up with a Shout

May 12, 2010

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all. But grace was given to each of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it is said, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is he who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.)

Ephesians 4:4-10


Tomorrow marks the feast of the Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ, 40 days after His resurrection. The icon of the feast notes the mystery of the event by placing Christ within a circle, known as a Mandorla, the traditional way to denote that something is beyond or normal vision or understanding. The Scriptures say that among the disciples who were present at His ascension, there were some “who doubted.”

It is a remarkable statement for those who presume an “objective” character to all forms of true knowledge. Obviously, the authors of Scripture did not share such a presumption.

Christ’s Ascension affirms that He has carried our humanity into the highest heaven and that it is seated “at the right hand of the Father.” It is a promise of a fullness to come and of the fullness which is made known to us, even now, in Christ Jesus.

The traditional greeting on the feast, taken from the Psalms: “God has gone up with a shout; the Lord with the sound of the trumpet.”


The Mystery of Love

May 10, 2010

It is common to both the writings of Dostoevsky [particularly in the Brothers Karamazov] and in the teachings of the Elder Sophrony and St. Silouan, that each man must see and understand himself to be responsible for the sins of all. This can be a statement that troubles some – as if doing this were a mere spiritual game – or a violation of others’ responsibility. It is, in fact, a profound understanding of what it means to be a human, created in God’s image. The following short passage from the Elder Sophrony’s St. Silouan the Athonite provides some excellent commentary on the subject:

On the Difference between Christian Love and the Justice of Man

People usually interpret justice in the juridical sense. We reject the idea of laying one man’s guilt on another – it is ‘not fair’. It does not accord with our idea about equity. But the spirit of Christian love speaks otherwise, seeing nothing strange but rather something natural in sharing the guilt of those we love – even in assuming full responsibility for their wrong-doing. Indeed, it is only in this bearing of another’s guilt that the authenticity of love is made manifest and develops into full awareness of self. What sense is there in enjoying only the pleasurable side of love? Indeed, it is only in willingly taking upon oneself the loved one’s guilt and burdens that love attains its multifold perfection.

Many of us cannot, or do not want to, accept and suffer of our own free will the consequences of Adam’s original sin. ‘Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit but what has that to do with me?’ we protest. ‘I am ready to answer for my own sins but certainly not for the sins of others.’ And we do not realize that in reacting thus we are repeating in ourselves the sin of our forefather Adam, making it our own personal sin, leading to our own personal fall. Adam denied responsibility, laying all the blame on Eve and on God who had given him this wife; and by so doing he destroyed the unity of Man and his communion with God. So, each time we refuse to take on ourselves the blame for our common evil, for the actions of our neighbor, we are repeating the same sin and likewise shattering the unity of Man. The Lord questioned Adam before Eve, and we must suppose that if Adam, instead of justifying himself, had taken upon his shoulders the responsibility for their joint sin, the destinies of the world might have been different, just as they will alter now if we in our day assume the burden of the transgressions of our fellow man.

We can all find ways of vindicating ourselves on all occasions but if we really examine our hearts we shall see that in justifying ourselves we are not guileless. Man justifies himself, firstly, because he does not want to acknowledge that he is even partially to blame for the evil in the world, and secondly, because he does not realize that he is endowed with godlike freedom. He sees himself as merely part of the world’s phenomena, a thing of this world, and, as such, dependent on the world. There is a considerable element of bondage in this, and self-justification, therefore, is a slavish business unworthy of a son of God. I saw no tendency towards self-justification in the Staretz. But it is strange how to many people this taking the blame for the wrong-doing of others, and asking for forgiveness, savors of subjection – so vast the distinction in outlook between the sons of the Spirit of Christ and non-spiritual people. The latter cannot believe it possible to feel all humanity as a single whole to be incorporated in the personal existence of every man, without exception. According to the second commandment, Love thy neighbor as thyself, each of us must, and can, comprise all mankind in our own personal being. Then all the evil that occurs in the world will be seen, not as something extraneous but as our own.

If each human person-hypostasis, created in the image of the absolute Divine Hypostases, is capable of containing in himself the fulness of all human being, in the same way as each of the Three Persons of the Godhead is the bearer of all the fullness of Divine being (the profound purport of the second commandment) then shall we all contend against evil, cosmic evil, each beginning with himself.

I cannot help but quote again, with emphasis,  the Elder Sophrony’s statement: the destinies of the world might have been different, just as they will alter now if we in our day assume the burden of the transgressions of our fellow man.

Our Selves, Our Souls, Our Bodies – More on Faith

May 7, 2010

And here we offer and present unto Thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy and living sacrifice unto Thee…

From Thomas Cranmer’s Eucharistic Prayer

Regardless of what opinion one may have of the English reformer Thomas Cranmer’s theology, no one can deny him a central place in the history of the English language and the impact of his phrasing on the traditional prayers offered in the English tongue. The phrase, quoted from his Eucharistic prayer, is a poetic development of Romans 12:1, “I beseech you therefore brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto the Lord, which is your reasonable worship.”

Both Cranmer’s poetry and the inspired writings of St. Paul point to a relationship with God that includes our bodies. This can be read in a merely moral manner, in which keeping our bodies pure of bodily sin is seen as the sacrifice of which St. Paul speaks. For myself, I think that Cranmer has caught the greater intent of St. Paul’s statement in his expansion: “our selves, our souls and bodies.” And, I think as well, that it is most appropriate that he included this within the context of Eucharistic worship.

The Elder Zacharias of Essex has said that the essence of worship is exchange. We offer to God what God has given to us, and receive in exchange what we could never have by nature. “All things come of Thee, O Lord, and of Thine own have we given Thee.”

In modern practice, much of Christian worship and the Christian life, has been reduced to the mental level – whether of the will, intellectual assent, or the emotions (the emotions are a part of the mind – not the “heart” as it is classically used in the fathers). These are not wrong things to offer to God – but they can be quite misleading in their imbalance. Perhaps the most serious mistake that can be drawn from these mental offerings, is the effective reduction of God to an idea. God is not an idea, and virtually every idea we have of Him is either mistaken or idolatrous.

Many have taken Christ’s statement that “God is Spirit and those who worship Him must worship Him in Spirit and in Truth,” as the basis for thinking of God as something like idea. But ideas are not spirits. There is nothing more spiritual about a thought than there is in a physical action. Thus those who oppose ritual as though it were inherently unspiritual are guilty of confusing spiritual with mental.

It is worth noting that among the most specific commandments of Christ with regard to worship are the actions of Baptism and the Eucharistic meal. Even in the area of prayer, when asked how to pray, Christ answered with a specific prayer: the Our Father. Thus there should be little surprise that the earliest texts describing Christian worship include directions for specific actions and occasional directions for specific words.

But there are further implications included within the commandment to “present our bodies as a living sacrifice.” The reduction of Christian worship to mental and emotional efforts is also a reduction of what it means to be human – or at least a reduction in what we value as human beings. “What I do with my body is my own business,” is fraught with absurdity. We are not our own creation.

Earlier discussions on faith point to this same issue. Is faith to be understood simply as a mental exercise, or is it somehow something more? The modern English language offers little help in speaking of something that is as rich as faith. The same can be said of the word know. Knowledge is often treated as though it were purely mental, but there are many things which we know in other ways: how to walk, how to ride a bicycle, etc. The word ignore is interesting. For it implies not just not knowing but willfully not knowing.

When speaking of faith, we are describing a relational trust that is rooted in our participation in the life of God. St. Paul says that “faith works by love” (Gal. 5:6). Marriage, at its best and highest moments, can have something of this experience on a human level. The relationship is more than mental and emotional. It is physical and involves a union with the other than can only proceed from trust, freedom and love. It would not be wrong to describe such a relationship as faith. The Church asks husbands and wives to be faithful – which means far more than simply avoiding sex with other persons. It is little wonder that marriage is a common image used for the relationship between God and His Church.

The old English marriage service had an interesting use of language. The groom, while placing the ring on his bride said: “With this ring I thee wed, with my body I thee worship, and with all my worldly goods I thee endow.” Yes, indeed.

Saving Faith

May 6, 2010

In a recent post I quoted Vladimir Lossky on the nature of faith. Several have asked me to expand on the Orthodox understanding of faith. I begin with Lossky’s quote:

What one quests is already present, precedes us, makes possible our question itself. ‘Through faith, we comprehend (we think) how the ages have been produced’ (Heb. 11:3). Thus faith allows us to think, it gives us true intelligence. Knowledge is given to us by faith, that is to say, by our participatory adherence to the presence of Him Who reveals Himself. Faith is therefore not a psychological attitude, a mere fidelity. It is an ontological relationship between man and God, an internally objective relationship for which the catechumen prepares himself, and through which baptism and chrismation are conferred upon the faithful: gifts which restore and vivify the deepest nature of man. (From Lossky’s Orthodox Theology).

As I noted previously, Lossky is notoriously thick to read. I will offer a small amount of exposition.

Lossky begins by noting faith as a gift. It is what we seek (quest) and is already present and precedes us and even makes our questions possible. Quoting Hebrews he notes that we “comprehend” or “think” by faith – it allows true thought, true understanding. Thus faith is a mode of perception, not simply a side-action of our intellect. When we say, “I believe,” in ordinary conversation, we are not using the word belief in a manner that means the same thing as belief or faith (pistos) in the Scripture (it’s all one word in Greek).

Lossky defines faith as “our participatory adherence to the presence of Him Who reveals Himself.” It is a very interesting phrase he uses, “participatory adherence.” And, I think, it goes to the heart of what he is saying about faith as well as the Orthodox understanding of saving faith.

I have written numerous times about the importance of communion or participation (koinonia) in both New Testament usage and in subsequent Orthodox thought. Salvation is not mental or volitional, though our mind and will are also a part of our salvation. Salvation is not metal or volitional because this is not the nature of our problem. We are not fallen because we fail to think correctly (that would be the heretical contention of Christian Science – of the Mary Baker Eddy type). Nor are we fallen simply because we choose incorrectly. According to the fathers, there is something “fractured” about the human will as a result of our sin. Making correct choices is insufficient for salvation.

St. Gregory of Nyssa said that “man is mud whom God has commanded to become god.” The proper end of our salvation is union with God – true participation in the life of God.

Faith became a diminished term of understanding as the nature of our salvation was diminished – particularly in the developments of medieval Western theology – most particularly in the debates that surrounded and followed the Reformation. Some will point out that there is a distinction made between salvation and sanctification in Protestant thought – but such a distinction is neither necessary nor Biblical.

Saving faith is more than mental or even volitional assent because our problems are not addressed by such an understanding. Only if salvation is an external reward would such an understanding of faith make sense. Salvation as external reward fails to rise above a child’s Sunday School class in its comprehension of the gospel.

Lossky turns our gaze to a deeper place and a deeper understanding of our salvation. A “participatory adherence” speaks both of an action of our will (adherence) as well as a true participation in the Reality which is our salvation. It is difficult to find simple words to describe such an existential reality – but that reality must be expressed. It is inferred occasionally in New Testament phrases. One of the first that comes to mind is St. Paul’s statement: “…I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me” (Phil. 3:12).

St. Paul is reaching out for something that has already grasped him. Faith is not an objective acceptance of certain facts, but a “participatory adherence” in that which has laid hold on us. Even faith is the gift of God. It is true that we must respond – without a response it would not be our own selves that adhered to Him who has offered Himself to us.

In a fairly scandalous statement, Dostoevsky, following his deep conversion in prison, said that it was Christ Jesus who was everything. His scandalous statement was to say that even if someone should prove to him that the “truth” was elsewhere, he would choose Christ. Of course, Christ is the Truth, so such a choice is not put before us. But it speaks of the nature of the great author’s heart and to the heart of any Christian. Christ is not secondary to the truth. Faith is not an intellectual exercise. Christ is He who has “laid hold” on us. And apart from every mental perception, every hesitancy, the heart finally says ‘yes’ to Him, or there is nothing more to be said.

Saving faith is a “participatory adherence” – both a surrender of our heart – but also a living reality which has grasped us and made us His own.

Hidden and Triumphant – Learning the Story

May 3, 2010

Orthodox Christianity has sometimes been called, “The World’s Best Kept Secret.” There is a certain truth to this – the ignorance in the Western world of Byzantine history, let alone Russian and Balkan history – is staggering. Many Orthodox are uninformed about the full story of their faith – as well as most modern converts. There is, at times, a make-believe history, created by lively imaginations of a pure Church somehow preserved from corruption for 2,000 years. A more accurate story of Orthodox Christianity is one written in blood and struggle – against principalities and powers and spiritual wickedness of the most insidious nature.

A new book has brought a small piece of this story to light – Irina Yazykova’s Hidden and Triumpant: The Underground Struggle to Save Russian Iconography. She gives both an excellent and readable introduction to the theology of the icon, but also a wonderful summary of the modern struggles with forces that threatened to destroy the canonical tradition of Orthodox iconography.

Yazykova traces both the rise of iconography and the place it came to hold in medieval Russia, as well as its diminishment during the time of Westernization. The work of individuals who struggled to recover techniques and a way of seeing is a story of artistic genius as well as deep piety. In the Soviet period it is also the story of martyrdoms and work done in secret. The lively production of icons that marks the Orthodox world today (though still far too small) is traced as well with accounts of the connections running through the decades from teacher to student, from Russia to Paris, from Europe to America.

Of course the struggle goes far deeper  than the most recent battles with Soviet iconoclasm. By the time of Peter the Great, the Russian state looked increasingly to the West for its inspiration – militarily, culturally, artistically, and, in many cases, religiously. The Patriarchate of Moscow was reduced to the level of Metropolitan and the Church strongly subjected to the needs of the state. Fr. Georges Florovsky traced in masterful detail the theological struggles of the past number of centuries in his magisterial Ways of Russian Theology (very hard to find these days). An account of relatively contemporary theological struggles can be found in any number of volumes that trace the work of Fr. John Romanides (I am very partial to the account given in Dr. Daniel Payne’s dissertation, The Revival of Political Hesychasm in Greek Orthodox Thought. Regardless of where someone comes down on the work of Fr. Romanides – the story is extremely engaging and informative.

The general constant within Orthodox life has been its liturgical expression. Though this has evolved through the centuries, it has preserved its piety and generally enriched its content across the centuries. There have doubtless been many places within the Orthodox world, many “corners,” in which the faithful remained the “faithful.” In the recovery of the art of the icon, a number of Old Believer iconographers played an important role.

The messiness and even occasional decadence of the world surrounding the Orthodox faith over the past number of centuries is not something that has diminished the faith nor morphed it into something other than what it truly is. But this history should serve as a reminder that to be an Orthodox Christian is not to have fled the struggle but to have thrust oneself into the very heart of it.

The nature of that struggle is simply to become and be an Orthodox Christian.

In the modern world the faith is lived out in the context of a secularized, modern culture. The default position of those born in the modern world is secularism. It is in the air we breathe and permeates our music our food our fashions and most of our ideas. This secularism has a room for religion, but only a room. Thus the great temptation of modern Orthodoxy will be to hold the Orthodox faith in a manner similar to that of any modern religious man or woman. The Church becomes the purveyor of religious program, sometimes the keeper of a now lost culture.

When attendance in the Church begins to conform to the American Protestant norm (just to use an example), there is every good chance that the grip of the Orthodox faith has begun to slip in one’s life. Of course, in places like America, many Orthodox find themselves living 50 or more miles away from their parish. Attendance in such situations is problematic, at best. However, learning to keep an Orthodox home and for the family to pray as family and observe the life of the Church is always possible. If the Orthodox faith is only practiced at Church and has not become an intimate part of the home, something is deeply missing and in danger of being lost. Church attendance alone is insufficient for the maintenance of the Orthodox faith.

We will not be perfect Orthodox Christians and the outcome of modern history does not depend upon us (it has always depended upon God). But the story of the underground struggle to save Russian iconography is an illustration of the struggle that has not ceased nor will ever cease until all struggles come to an end.

We do well to know where and when we live – and we do well to be reminded of how we got here and the price of the rich Tradition that has been lived for 2,000 years. Irina Yazykova’s book is a good read if you’ve never heard the story.

Why Small Things Matter

May 2, 2010

A reader’s comment on an old posting of mine (from 2007) took me back to read the same. It seemed worth re-posting. Some things bear repeating – again and again, as they say.

Perhaps one of the greatest disservices done to Christians by the spate of “Left Behind” novels and the like, and the romanticism that is inherent in the drama depicted – is that it makes the true struggle undergone by Christians seem trivial by comparison. When the small actions, little choices for kindness, forgiveness, joy, comfort – the whole panoply of our daily struggle – are minimized, the heroism of our struggle and its importance can be reduced to insignificance.

When this is coupled with a reduced doctrine of the Atonement, in which a simple act of intellectual acceptance, a “choice for Jesus,” acquires a blood payment for sin in a once-for-all momentary encounter (I’m doing my best to describe the popular conception of the Substitutionary Atonement Theory), Christianity itself becomes minimized. One decision and you’re done. Little wonder that many have traded-in Christian ascesis for political action – at least the latter seems real to them.

I have described the Substitutionary Atonement as a “reduced” doctrine because it uses only one sacrificial image to describe Christ’s work on the Cross. This single image does not begin to do justice to the many images of sacrifice given in the Scriptures, all of which are fullfilled by Christ’s death on the Cross. Christ’s sacrifice is not one thing – but all things. If its fullness makes it difficult for somebody’s systematic theology – so be it.

The reduction of Christianity to a virtual land of fantasy has granted undue power to our present age in the guise of the secular. There is, in fact, no such thing as secular – it is a modern fiction – one which Christians should not empower by granting it recognition. God is excluded from nothing whatsoever, nor does He ask for our permission in order to be present. We may do unspeakable things in His presence – but that does not render Him absent. It renders to us hardened hearts but can make no change in the changeless God.

The sooner Christians awaken to the marketing scheme of secularizing dogma-merchants, the sooner they can begin their search for the God whom they have “left behind.” He is truly near us, even on our lips and in our mouths. We should renounce the false romanticism of modern dispensationalism and the hucksters of false messianic prophecies. All of these things are removing the truth of our faith from the smallest of things before us, and placing them on the false stage of “history.”

Small things matter for it is there that we will meet Christ – and there alone. Every moment of our life, even when it is later dramatized for narrative effect, is still quite a small thing. Either we will see and embrace Christ in these moments of our existence, or we will worship a false Christ manufactured by human imagination and fantasy. For the Christian, God is here or He is nowhere at all.

Mustard Seed

May 1, 2010

Christ said: “Assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you (Matthew 17:20).


Skeptics and Naturalists through the years have always had a field-day with this verse. I recall a passage in Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, where a boy with a club foot, goes to sleep believing as perfectly and completely as possible, only to awake to the same foot he has always had – and with his “faith” in God dashed to pieces. I have seen any number of cases – some simple – some more complex – where the same sense of the world and the place that faith plays within it – essentially the same as the boy in Maugham’s classic story.

On it’s face, Christ’s statement is absurd. For if even such a tiny measure of faith would move mountains – then I have to confess to having seen less than a tiny measure of faith, and possessing even less still. But such absurd statements are not given to us simply for effect or as exaggeration. Strangely, people read this quote from Christ and immediately assume that they know what faith is.

And this, I believe, is the heart of the matter. The faith spoken of by Christ is a mode of seeing, a mode of existence, that is foreign to our experience. Certainly the intellectual certainty or confidence that is asserted in the modern world is not the faith that moves mountains. Such certainty is simply a variety of opinion and differs in no way from the many varieties of opinions which we hold about many things. Such faith (intellectual certainty, etc.) requires no particular transformation of the person who exercises it. At most, it is a shift in what we may think about something – perhaps no more significant than changing the brand of soap we use.

The Scriptures speak of being saved by grace through faith, but in the debates of the Reformation, when the entire relationship with God was largely reduced to a matter of legal status, intellectual assent was sufficient for the sake of that argument. But it is not sufficient as a proper understanding of saving faith.

Vladimir Lossky offers this observation on faith:

What one quests is already present, precedes us, makes possible our question itself. ‘Through faith, we comprehend (we think) how the ages have been produced’ (Heb. 11:3). Thus faith allows us to think, it gives us true intelligence. Knowledge is given to us by faith, that is to say, by our participatory adherence to the presence of Him Who reveals Himself. Faith is therefore not a psychological attitude, a mere fidelity. It is an ontological relationship between man and God, an internally objective relationship for which the catechumen prepares himself, and through which baptism and chrismation are conferred upon the faithful: gifts which restore and vivify the deepest nature of man. (From Lossky’s Orthodox Theology).

Saving faith, as noted above, is a means of perception rooted in a living union with God. By it, we are enabled to see in a manner that belongs to God. We have faith in God because we perceive the truth of who He is. It is an “ontological relationship between man and God.” It is immediately a transformation of our inmost being – though the transformation be ever so small.

Thus the example of Christ – that the least amount of such an existence is capable of moving mountains.

All of this presses us back to our life of prayer and seeking constant union with God through dwelling in His name. We do not need to try harder – but to try something different. Our mode of seeing, thinking, believing, choosing, etc. are all distorted and do not give us the truth of ourselves. Faith, as given by God, is a restoration of that true self.

(Luke 18:8)