Archive for September, 2010

Servanthood and Freedom – A Word to Neurotic Christians

September 29, 2010

Be both a servant, and free: a servant in that you are subject to God, but free in that you are not enslaved to anything – either to empty praise or to any of the passions.

Release your soul from the bonds of sin; abide in liberty, for Christ has liberated you; acquire the freedom of the New World during this temporal life of yours. Do not be enslaved to love of money or to the praise resulting from pleasing people.

Do not lay down a law for yourself, otherwise you may become enslaved these laws of yours. Be a free person, one who is in a position to do what he likes. Do not become like those who have their own law, and are unable to turn aside from it, either out of fear in their own minds, or because of the wish to please others; in this way they have enslaved themselves to the coercion of their law, with their necks yoked to their own law, seeing that they have decreed for themselves their own special law – just when Christ had released them from the yoke of the Law!

Do not make hard and fast decisions over anything in the future, for you are a created being and your will is subject to changes. Decide in whatever matters you have to reach a decision, but without fixing in your mind that you will not be moved to other things. For it is not by small changes in what you eat that your faithfulness is altered: your service to the Lord of all is performed in the mind, in your inner person; that is where the ministry to Christ takes place.

St. John the Solitary, Letter to Hesychias, 25-28.

I have entitled this post, in part, “A word to neurotic Christians.” We all suffer from our personalities, that cluster of fears and fearlessness, of anxiety and over-confidence, of false images and hopeful dreams, guilt and cares – and our “religion” is often lived out precisely in that arena. My meager understanding of modern psychology uses the term “neurotic” to describe those who tend to take more responsibility upon themselves than is appropriate. Those who take too little responsibility are far more difficult personalities – falling generally somewhere in the category of “narcissists.” Neither is the path of true freedom as a Christian.

The “neurotic” path can seem extremely religious, precisely because of its deep sense of responsibility. Those of us who are “neurotic” always feel responsible. The troubles of the world are not something we ignore – and the closer the troubles come to our doorstep the more responsible we feel. Many clergy are neurotic – if we didn’t care so much we would never have yielded ourselves to this level of responsibility. Sometimes – even often – those reponsibilities crush us.

The words of John the Solitary seemed particularly appropriate to many in our modern age. Not satisfied with striving to keep Christ’s commandments, we create laws for ourselves, our internal rules, which hound us and persecute us and grind us into dust (greatly driven by the enemy of our faith as well as our own proclivities). Frequently, we give more weight to these self-made laws than to the true law of Christ (love).

We establish a rule of prayer (sometimes without so much as the blessing of a spiritual father). Our failure for even a few days (sometimes just one) can send us into such a spiritual funk that rather than repent, we simply quit.

Most of us would never be so hard on another. We find ourselves able to extend mercy to all but ourselves – or we extend mercy to ourselves where we should be strict and strict with ourselves where we should be merciful.

John the Solitary’s words (from the early 5th century) demonstrate how unchanged the inner life of human beings has remained despite the passage of time. The outward concerns of our culture are perhaps little more than phantasmagoria, while our inner lives remain the same. And thus his sane advice to our modern neurotics continues to read true.

There is indeed a marvelous freedom vouchsafed us in the mercy of Christ our God. His liberty is often more than we are willing to grant to ourselves. And thus we remain slaves – indeed worse than that – we become both Pharaoh and slave.

But the freedom that is ours in Christ abides forever. It is not an idea nor an ideal, but the truth as it has been established in Christ. Thus, if we err, and submit ourselves again to a yoke of bondage, our true liberator remains by our side, speaking a word of liberty and calling us to the life of the Spirit which is manifest in the life of love.

Many of us are tormented by the continuing process of life that confuses us and returns us to various yokes of bondage. But the good God, who loves mankind, is persistent and steadfast. He will not yield until every yoke of bondage is destroyed and we are established in His true freedom.

Glory to Christ who has made us free!

Silent Sentinels

September 28, 2010

On October 1, the Church will celebrate the feast of the Protection of the Mother of God. Icons of this feast portray the Mother of God extending her veil over the whole Church – a graphic presentation of her prayers and maternal love. A similar love and prayer belongs to the saints of heaven, who stand as “a great cloud of witnesses,” urging the Church forward and always surrounding us with their prayer. The small reflection below concerns the saints who live among us on earth – almost unanimously unknown. It should be remember that Sodom and Gomorrah would have been spared had only 10 righteous men be found. As it was, the prayers of the righteous Abraham were not without effect. His kinsman, Lot, and family were delivered from that destruction at the hands of angels. It may be that none of us who read this post are among the “silent sentinels” whom I describe. But we can and must join our prayers with theirs (and with the hosts of heaven) as a veil of protection in a world that often seeks its own destruction. May God make is fervent in prayer on behalf of all and for all.

Like many, I recall my highschool years somewhat vividly. Our school was of moderate size with a personal history for most students that increased its impact. It opened in 1965 with grades 7 through 12, among the earliest accomodations in our county to the “baby boom” phenomenon. Existing schools simply could not handle the growing mass of young people. By the time I reached 9th grade, plans were made and shortly implemented that placed students under the ninth grade into a middle school. But by my last year, our class consisted of students who had been together for six years, some longer than that. And so it was that we knew one another. For good or ill, we knew one another. I recall in particular a student who came to our class somewhat late – probably around the tenth grade. What was striking was not that he was the best student (though he was among the best), nor that he was a great athlete, though he made a contribution, nor that he was necessarily a “hit” with the girls, though I recall him as the sort of guy who usually had a date to school dances.

This young man had a different distinction: he was good. Or if it is improper to call another man good (in light of Christ’s teaching in Luke 18:19) then I will have to say of him that he was kind. He was not only a kind young man, but kindness towards others seemed to matter to him. Thus he was intentionally kind. I was many times the recipient of his kindness – never hearing a mean or demeaning comment from him. This was a person who was never the source of a bad day for me.

Time has moved on and I now live away from my home town. I do not know the stories of my fellow students to a large degree. I married someone “from the outside” and have a life that rarely brings me into contact with that part of my past. But I have often wondered about the kindness of such a young man and what became of him.

I use this memory as a way of thinking about the phenomenon of saints. I do not know that my friend’s kindness approached that category – but it is a reminder to me that we are not all alike. Sometimes, for whatever reason, we meet those who are singular in their kindness, their goodness, their generosity, their compassion, and the presence of the good God is made somewhat tangible.

I recently watched a movie on the modern saint Nikolai of Zicha. His life spanned both World Wars and included a time in America, part of which was spent as the Rector of St. Tikhon’s seminary in Pennsylvania. What was most striking about him was the recognition by others around him from a fairly early stage in his life, that this was no ordinary man. At numerous points in his life people who were no strangers to political power or wealth, described him as the most extraordinary man of their acquaintance. He was compared to the prophets of the Old Testament. In one case he was considered the equal of an army. Kings sought his advice, which was not noted for political brilliance but for goodness. His was the voice of God to many in his generation, including those who seemed to have the “power” of God in their ability to make life and death decisions.

In a famous prayer from his Prayers by the Lake, he wrote:

Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.

Enemies have driven me into your embrace more than friends have.

Friends have bound me to earth, enemies have loosed me from earth and have demolished all my aspirations in the world.

Enemies have made me a stranger in worldly realms and an extraneous inhabitant of the world. Just as a hunted animal finds safer shelter than an unhunted animal does, so have I, persecuted by enemies, found the safest sanctuary, having ensconced myself beneath your tabernacle, where neither friends nor enemies can slay my soul.

Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.

They, rather than I, have confessed my sins before the world.

They have punished me, whenever I have hesitated to punish myself.

They have tormented me, whenever I have tried to flee torments.

They have scolded me, whenever I have flattered myself.

They have spat upon me, whenever I have filled myself with arrogance.

Bless my enemies, O Lord, Even I bless them and do not curse them.

Whenever I have made myself wise, they have called me foolish.

Whenever I have made myself mighty, they have mocked me as though I were a dwarf.

Whenever I have wanted to lead people, they have shoved me into the background.

Whenever I have rushed to enrich myself, they have prevented me with an iron hand.

Whenever I thought that I would sleep peacefully, they have wakened me from sleep.

Whenever I have tried to build a home for a long and tranquil life, they have demolished it and driven me out.

Truly, enemies have cut me loose from the world and have stretched out my hands to the hem of your garment.

Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.

Bless them and multiply them; multiply them and make them even more bitter against me:

so that my fleeing to You may have no return;

so that all hope in men may be scattered like cobwebs;

so that absolute serenity may begin to reign in my soul;

so that my heart may become the grave of my two evil twins, arrogance and anger;

so that I might amass all my treasure in heaven;

ah, so that I may for once be freed from self-deception, which has entangled me in the dreadful web of illusory life.

Enemies have taught me to know what hardly anyone knows, that a person has no enemies in the world except himself.

One hates his enemies only when he fails to realize that they are not enemies, but cruel friends.

It is truly difficult for me to say who has done me more good and who has done me more evil in the world: friends or enemies.

Therefore bless, O Lord, both my friends and enemies.

A slave curses enemies, for he does not understand. But a son blesses them, for he understands.

For a son knows that his enemies cannot touch his life.

Therefore he freely steps among them and prays to God for them.

He was imprisoned in Dachau by the Nazis and persecuted by the communists after their rise to power in post-war Serbia. Thus he finished his years in America, a saint who had not sought out our company, but was nonetheless a gift to us of a kind God.

I believe that without the presence of saints the world could not continue to exist. They cannot be seen as a great political force, but I believe that the goodness that dwells within them and the kindness that flows from them, by God’s grace, hold back the approaching darkness that will come before the Light of God sweeps all darkness aside.

Like my childhood friend, I cannot explain their presence or their character without some sort of reference beyond environment. Without the hand of God, such men and women simply could not exist. But they do. In our places of work, sometimes in our families, in the cities in which we dwell, there is a quiet presence that we cannot account for. Our sociology and socio-biology easily explain the sad presence of evil in our midst. Evil disappoints and saddens us but it does not present us with a conundrum.

But this other presence – to be found even at an early age – transcends our science. Not often recognized to the extent of Bishop Nikolai, these silent sentinels are nonetheless there. I do not know even that they are all Orthodox. God’s purpose needs more of them than He has of us. Their presence in an office can make an unbearable place of work into something bearable – even at times pleasant. I have no way to estimate their number or to surmise their universality, other than to suspect that they are everywhere. And I believe that they are where they are, because God placed them there and that they are where they are for our salvation. More than saints, they are like guardian angels in our social fabric. Without them, the whole world would unravel.

The God Who Raised Jesus from the Dead

September 27, 2010

Stanley Hauerwas (Duke University) has written a fine article on who God is – or the limits by which we know Him as Christians. I studied under Hauerwas when I was a grad student at Duke and have often found him clarifying on things that should be clear (but often are not). In the article he quotes the Lutheran Theologian Robert Jensen who is also an acquaintance and a theologian of substance.

It is all too common that our culture uses the word “God” and thinks it knows what it means. Hauerwas does an excellent job of demonstrating what that name means for Christians and how it should be used carefully. There are many “gods” within our culture, all referred to be the same name. Christians only believe in one of them – the God manifest to us in Jesus Christ. This is not the same thing as the “God of my understanding,” much less the “God of the philosophers.” To know the one true God as He has truly made Himself known, is to be changed. He is a God who saves me – I do not save Him. His name is not a place-marker for certain cultural values – such gods are but mere idols.

O God make speed to save us, O Lord make haste to help us!

Mere Existence and the Age to Come

September 25, 2010

C.S. Lewis, in his marvelous little book, The Great Divorce, uses the imagery of “solidity” versus “ghostliness” to make a distinction between those who have entered paradise, and those who have not. He clearly did not mean to set forth a metaphysical model or to suggest “how things are.” But the imagery is very apt and suggestive when we take a look at what it means for something or someone to exist.

The nature of our secularized worldview is to take all that we see as a presentation of reality and truth. The daily world as we experience it is considered to be the very definition of reality. This is the natural world. Any other perception or presentation of reality is thus supernatural or something other than natural. For those who accept this definition, the onus is on those who suggest that reality is in anyway different than the daily perception of the modern secularized world. To be a “sceptic” is thus not to question everything, but to question everything other than what is perceived as normal and natural.

The Scriptures suggest a different perspective: “for the form of this world is passing away” (1 Cor. 7:31). The world in which we live is not “solid” in the sense of permanence – it is constantly changing and “passing away.”

The same can be said even of our own egos. They vary somewhat from day to day, often tossed about by fears and anxieties, shifting themselves as they encounter the trials of existence.

The Gospel of Christ speaks of a reality that is permanent and of an existence that has something of the same reality. Hebrews offers this description:

“Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heaven.” This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of what is shaken, as of what has been made, in order that what cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire (12:26-29).

St. Paul tells us:

If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory (Col. 3:1-4).

Our true life – our authentic existence – is not to be found among “the things on the earth.” Our life is something that will appear with Christ when He appears. Of course, this does not restrict our true life to a manifestation at the Second Coming. The Christ who is coming, is also the Christ who is even now “in our midst.” Thus, being in Christ is also the path to our own true existence.

This is perhaps the most difficult aspect of the Christian life. Most often we substitute the ego for our true self – we struggle to learn “to behave” as a Christian. But such efforts only lead us into the world of concepts and arguments, morality and guilt. We do not invent our true self, our authentic existence – it is a new creation and is found only in Christ.

St. John the Baptist offers the observation between himself and Christ, “He must increase and I must decrease.” Though this does not mean the disappearance of John, but the fulfillment of John in Christ. In Christ he becomes the Forerunner, the Baptizer and Prophet. He becomes who he was created to be (and prophesied in the Scriptures) and who is ever is in eternity.

Christ must increase and I must decrease. As I decrease so do the false images I cherish of myself. The anxieties that surround me decrease. Lies and deceit decrease for in Christ is only truth. Such a decrease is not the end of my existence but its beginning.

The stories we have in Scripture with regard to a number of characters are marked by this decrease and increase. St. Paul’s transformation (likely preceded by much inner struggle and pain) is one that comes easiest to mind. His decreased is expressed in the image of the Cross: “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, yet not I but Christ liveth in me…”

“Yet not I.”

The great patriarch Jacob struggles through a lifetime to realize his true self as “Israel,” culminating in his wrestling with the angel. Jacob’s decrease did not result in his annihilation but his fulfillment.

This pattern is repeated again and again in the lives of holy men and women within the pages of Scripture and within the lives of the saints. It is the not only the path to holiness – but also the path to our true humanity.

Learning to live this new existence is the heart of the Christian life. Finding language to describe a new existence is difficult. For lack of a better term, I would describe it as a new mode of existence. Met. John Zizioulas describes this as the ecclesial hypostasis (thus you can see my preference for “mode of existence”). We do not create such a mode or reform ourselves into such a manner of being – it is God’s gift, given to us in Christ. We are baptized into this existence (“raised in the likeness of His resurrection”). For a variety of reasons we often prefer the path of self-creation and reform – always a losing proposition.

And it is precisely at this point (the lost proposition) that the in-breaking of the life of the world to come becomes possible. It is not unlike the helplessness that an alcoholic admits when he says, “I came to find that my life was unmanageable and that only a power greater than myself could help me.” Of course, such moments go more easily than they come.

The heart of the spiritual life is not to be found in our efforts to do better or in other lost propositions – the heart of our true life is found precisely in our helplessness and its union with Christ. The disciplines of fasting, prayer, almsgiving, confession, etc., are not given to us for our improvement, but to bring us back to the moment of helplessness and to keep us as close as possible to that moment at all times.

I believe, O Lord, and I confess, that thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God, who camest into the world to save sinners, of whom I am first.

In such a confession we find the life of the world to come – our own true life.

Existence and Truth

September 22, 2010

Fr. Sergius Bulgakov, as a young man who returned to the faith following a flirtation with Marxism, came to an understanding that the Christian faith is not to be understood as a moral structure, but as a matter of true existence. This distinction is deeply important in Orthodox understanding, and has been a hallmark of Orthodox teaching in the 20th and 21st century. Few matters of the faith draw out this distinction as clearly as considerations of the Atonement.  Theories of legal indebtedness as the problem of sin and thus the essential nature of the Atonement, are certainly popular in some circles of the Christian faith – though they do an extremely poor job of giving a proper account of the largest portion of Scripture on the point. St. Gregory Nazianzus was not unfamiliar with the image, but dismissed it as repugnant in the extreme. He is not a minor, isolated father of the Church, but one of the primary architects of the Ancient Church’s statement of the doctrine of the Trinity. He cannot simply be dismissed as “odd” on this point. Scripture, both in St. Paul and St. John, make the strongest possible connection between sin and death. Our sin is not the result of an indebtedness, but rather the failure to live in communion with God. Humanity did not incur an unpayable debt at the Fall, but rather entered the realm of death (as God had warned). Theories of the Atonement which found their popularization in the Middle Ages in the West and more recently in the Protestant world, should not be allowed to set aside the ancient inheritance of the teachings of the fathers. We are a walking existential crisis – verging on non-existence itself. This is not a result of God’s wrath, but the result of our rebellion against the “good God who loves mankind” and our preference for death over life. I can think of nothing more central to the Orthodox faith, which is to say, the faith as delivered to the Church by Christ. May God give us grace to apprehend the wonder of His gift of salvation.

Perhaps one of the greatest contributions of Orthodox theology to contemporary thought is the correlation between truth and existence. I am not well-enough versed in writings outside of Orthodoxy to know whether this correlation is made by others as well – I have to drink the water from my own cistern.

This understanding has been a particular emphasis in the teachings of St. Silouan, the Elder Sophrony of blessed memory, and the contemporary Archimandrite Zacharias, a disciple of the Elder Sophrony. Their own teaching is nothing new in Orthodoxy, but simply a restatement in modern terms of what has always been the teaching of the Orthodox Christian faith. Indeed, it is a teaching that could be solely supported by Scripture should someone so require.

But the correlation is exceedingly important for religious teaching and understanding. The modern movement of secular thought has been to move existence into an independent and self-defining realm, relegating God and religion to a specialized interest of those who find themselves religiously minded. This is the death of religion – or rather a religion of death. For as soon as our existence is moved away from God and grounded in something else, God Himself has been abandoned. It is not possible for God to be a lesser concern. Either He is the very ground of our existence or He is no God.

There were those within liberal protestantism (Paul Tillich comes to mind) who sought to make the correlation between existence and God – but frequently the result was a God who was reduced to a philosophical cypher (Tillich’s “Ground of Being”) and relieved of all particular content. To speak of God as “Ultimate Concern” as did Tillich, is only to have spoken in human terms. I recall many fellow students in my Anglican seminary years who found Tillich helpful in a way that Jesus was not. The particularity of Jesus made the demands of existential reality too specific. Indeed, it revealed God as God and not simply something that I cared about.

Instead, the Orthodox language on the subject has been that God is truly the ground of all existence, and that apart from Him, everything is moving towards non-existence. It is the Scriptural correlation between sin and death. This shifts the reality of the whole of our lives. Prayer no longer serves as a component of my personal “spirituality,” but is instead communion with the God Who Is, and apart from Whom, I am not. It teaches us to pray as if our lives depended on it – because they do.

By the same token, it moves our understanding of what it means to exist away from mere biology or even philosophy and to its proper place: to exist is to love. As Met. John Zizioulas has famously stated, “Being is communion.” In such a context we are able to move towards authentic existence – a mode of being that is not self-centered nor self-defined, but that is centered in the Other and defined by communion. Sin is removed from its confines of legalism and mere ethics and placed at the very center and character of existence itself. Sin is a movement towards non-being. In contrast, to know God is to love and its greatest test is the love of enemies. As St. Silouan taught: “We only know God to the extent that we love our enemies.”

This is not to reinterpret Christ in terms of existentialism, but instead to understand that Christ is, as He said: the Way, the Truth and the Life. His death and resurrection are the movement of God’s love to rescue humanity from a self-imposed exile from true and authentic existence which is found only in communion with God. This is a rescue of the Atonement from obscure legal theories of Divine Wrath and Judgment, and restores it properly in the context of the God who created us, sustains us, and calls us into the fullness of His life.

It presses the question upon us all: “What is the truth of my existence?” It presses us towards living honestly and forthrightly before God – not finessing ourselves with carefully wrought excuses and religious half-measures – but calling us to a radically authentic search for God.

The Orthodox faith asks nothing less of its adherents. Though even Orthodoxy can be warped into half-measures and religious distractions – this is not its truth nor the life that is taught by the Fathers, the Scriptures nor the words of her liturgies. In God “we live and move and have our being.” There is nothing that can thus be placed outside of God. There is God or there is delusion. And even delusion itself has no existence – but its mere pretence.

Knowing What We Don’t Know

September 18, 2010

The New Testament, particularly in the writings of St. John (but in St. Paul’s works as well) say much about “knowing” God. In St. John’s Gospel Christ says, “And this is eternal life: that they might know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent” (John 17:3). Thus, knowing God is equated with salvation itself.

On the other hand, we speak of God as “incomprehensible and unknowable” (for instance, in the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom). As Fr. Thomas Hopko has often said, “You cannot know God – but you have to know Him to know that.”

There is, I suggest, an unknowing that is knowing. This, of course, is a paradox, as is almost everything well said in theology. It is often necessary in the spiritual life to not know God in order to rightly know Him.

In work with catechumens (those preparing to be received in the Church), I often spend as much time helping them to unlearn as to learn. The God whom we seek to know is not the same thing as the “God of our understanding,” much less the God of our imagination. Knowing God is eternal life (now and always). What kind of knowing is paradise?

It is very difficult to find words to describe the kind of knowing that is described in the New Testament. It is certainly not an assembly of facts – nor is it the kind of knowing that can be arrived at through reason. Some describe this knowing as something like intuition, but I am not sure that this says enough.

There are two words or phrases that occur to me that have something of this sense of knowing. One is the word, “nevertheless.” The other is the phrase “and yet.” Both carry a since of hesitation. Offered one thing (as almost inevitable) and someone responds, “Nevertheless.” It is a negation that is an affirmation as well. It need not necessarily speak the ground of its affirmation, but it remains. The most famous such “nevertheless” I can recall is that of the Three Young Men in the Fiery Furnace (Book of Daniel). They are confronted with the tortuous flames of the wicked king Nebuchadnezzer, being asked to abjure their faith in the true God. They acknowledge the flames and the threats of the king, but respond with “Nevertheless.” Despite every comfort to the contrary they will not deny whom they know. They know God more than they know fear. There is no long discourse on their knowledge or great refutation of the errors of Babylon. There is the resounding sound of “nevertheless!”

Something of the same hesitation hovers about the phrase “and yet.” It is often a phrase unspoken, a hesitation of the heart. It is a hesitation that suggests there is something more than has thus far been acknowledged. Its absence in the Garden of Eden is deafening.

Confronted by the enticements of the serpent, we are told:

And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat (Gen. 3:6).

Yes, the tree is good for food and pleasant to the eyes, and to be desired to make one wise… and yet. Such a hesitation is the pause that makes sin to vanish and the knowledge of God possible. In the course of our own lives, how much room is allowed for and yet?

Both nevertheless and and yet are negative expressions – though both depend upon a positive. We yield all too easily to what we think we know and do not hesitate sufficiently before what we do not know.

That hesitation is often a moment of faithfulness or at least the moment in which faith can be born. In its negative aspect, it is an emptiness, a kenosis, that allows a true fullness to appear in its place. It is a hesitation that admits what we do not know while allowing the possibility of knowledge at the same time. It is the inner life of wonder.

The content of the Orthodox Christian faith is not an argument. It is not something to be compared to other things such that we can say, “This is better.” It is the continual life of God lived and known by His people, who through the ages, when confronted by manifold opportunities for more convenient options have been able to say, “And yet…” When pressed by their enemies, even to the point of torture and death, they have affirmed, “Nevertheless.” And in so doing have preserved the knowledge of the true and living God and kept intact the treasure of Tradition that is nothing other than that true Knowledge.

God give us such holy hesitation.

The Cross and the Cosmos

September 17, 2010

During this Afterfeast of the Holy Cross it seems worthwhile to continue with thoughts on the instrument of our salvation. In a short work, The Beginning of the Day, (I believe it was a special printing and is not generally available), Met. Kallistos Ware notes this about the Cross and its connection with the whole of creation:

…[The] created order in its entirety participated in the Savior’s Passion: the earth shook, the rocks were split, the whole cosmos shuddered (Matt. 27:51). In the words of St. Ephrem the Syrian, ‘humans were silent, so the stones cried out’. As the old English poem The Dream of the Rood expresses it, ‘All creation wept.’ This all embracing participation in the death of God incarnate is memorably expressed in the Praises or Enkomia sung in the evening of Good Friday or early in the morning on Holy Saturday:

‘Come, and with the whole creation let us offer a funeral hymn to the Creator.’

‘The whole earth quaked with fear, O lord, and the Daystar hid its rays, when Thy great light was hidden in the earth.’

‘The sun and moon grew dark together, O Savior, like faithful servants clothed in black robes of mourning.’

‘O hills and valleys’, exclaims the Holy Virgin, ‘the multitude of mankind and all creation, weep and lament with me, the Mother of God.’

Most remarkably of all in what is truly an amazing statement, it is affirmed: ‘the whole creation was altered by Thy Passion: for all things suffered with Thee, knowing, O Lord, that Thou holdest all in unity.’

Do we reflect sufficiently, I wonder, upon the environmental impliations of our Lord’s Incarnation, upon the way in which Jesus is ecologically inclusive, embedded in the soil like us, containing within His humanity what has been termed ‘the whole evolving earth story’?

Do we allow properly for the fact that our Savior came to redeem, not only the human race, but the fullness of creation? Do we keep constantly in mind that we are not saved from but with the world?

In such a fashion St. Paul can say that the “world is crucified to me, and I to the world.” Frequently our own thoughts about the things of God are too restricted, too limited. The Cross is diminished to an execution role in a very narrow atonement theory, the Incarnation reduced to a stage entrance. These great mysteries of God, manifest among us, are the gate and ladder, the entrance into the Kingdom of God and Kingdom of God’s entrance into our world. This is true not only of the Cross of Golgotha, but ultimately in every Cross that participates in its reality. A believer’s making of the sign of the cross, with faith, participates in this reality (and so the demons flee).

Christ has promised that we would have life “more abundant.” By this is not meant that we will be rich or have more material things (for these are not the true life). But the Kingdom is an endless abundance that enters our heart and world, shattering the narrowness of opaque minds and opening to us the fullness of life in Christ.

The Reality presented to us in the Cross (as with all things of God) is never comprehended in rational theory. It pushes us beyond the limits of our own poorly defined rationality and towards the greater rationality of the Truth of things. As noted by St. Gregory of Nyssa, “only wonder grasps anything.” To approach the Cross with wonder is to begin the journey that it makes possible. The life that we refer to as salvation belongs to this world of wonder – despite the banalities of much Christian conversation on the topic.

It is not surprising that silence is among the most important tools in our spiritual life. O, sweet wonder!

The Tree Heals the Tree

September 16, 2010

Readers of the New Testament are familiar with St. Paul’s description of Christ as the “Second Adam.” It is an example of the frequent Apostolic use of an allegoric reading of the Old Testament (I am using “allegory” in its broadest sense – including typology and other forms). Christ Himself had stated that He was the meaning of the Old Testament (John 5:39). Within the Gospels Christ identifies His own death and resurrection with the Prophet Jonah’s journey in the belly of the fish. He likens His crucifixion to the serpent raised on a staff by which Moses healed the people of Israel. Without the allegorical use of the Old Testament – much of the material in the gospels and the rest of the New Testament would be unintelligible.

Orthodox Christians are very accustomed to this manner of handling Scripture – the hymnography (largely written during the Patristic period) of the Church’s liturgical life is utterly dominated with such a use of allegory. The connections between New Testament and Old – between dogma and the allegory of Scriptural imagery is found in almost every verse offered within a service. Those who are not familiar with the Eastern liturgical life are unaware of this rich Christian heritage and of its deep doctrinal piety and significance.

In the feast of the Holy Cross, the hymnography at one point makes the statment, “The Tree heals the Tree.” It is one of the marvelous commentaries on the life of grace and its relationship to the human predicament. It refers to the relationship between the Cross of Christ and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The latter was the source of the fruit that Adam and Eve consumed that was the source of their fall from grace. The “Tree that heals” is none other than the Cross of Christ.

I am struck particularly by this treatment of Biblical imagery. The meditation does not say that the Cross destroys the tree whose fruit, along with our disobedience, brought the human tragedy. The Tree heals the Tree. In the same manner, the Kingdom of God does not destroy creation – it makes it whole.

There is a tendency within our lives to view failure and disasters (whether self-inflicted or otherwise) as deep tragedies that derail our lives and the world around us. Our heart becomes confused when the thought of “if only” takes up residence. But the Tree heals the Tree. In God, nothing is wasted.

It is the spiritual habit of the Church’s liturgical life to see the story of Christ in everything. Every story involving wood or a tree seems to find its way into the hymnography of the Cross. The same is true for many other images. I believe this way of reading Scripture is also a key to the Christian life. Our hearts are such that they generally do not see the Kingdom of God – we see only the tree and our disobedience. But Christ Himself became sin that we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21). He took our life upon Himself that He might bestow His own life upon us. Thus Christ has entered all things that He might make all things new. Nothing is wasted.

The Cross of Christ

September 13, 2010

The Mystery of our Salvation is contained within the Cross of our God and Savior Jesus Christ. And it is correct to say the “mystery of our salvation,” for what is contained there is more than a cosmic transaction (Christ pays for our sins): it is also the whole of our way of life. It is truly the mystery of our salvation.

The extent of this mystery is hinted at in Christ’s admonition: “Whosoever would be my disciple must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.” This clearly goes much further than a single transaction or even our faith in the efficacy of that transaction.

The mystery is again invoked in St. Paul’s statement: “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.”

The clearest statement of this mystery is perhaps found in St. Paul’s description of the “mind of Christ” in the second chapter of Philippians:

Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Here the Apostle speaks of the Cross in its universal form – the mystery is being unfolded. To take up our cross and follow Christ is to have within ourselves the “mind which is yours in Christ Jesus.” That “mind” (phronema) is a complete orientation of our life – a life that understands that only in the path of self-emptying are we to find the path of exaltation. Our salvation – our deliverance from the emptiness of death – is found, mysteriously, in our willingness to be empty for Christ’s sake. The way of the Cross is the way of life, and, a way of life.

This is the path that martyrs have traveled. It is the path that everyone who would know love must travel. For love is found in “laying down its life for its friends.”

What we see in the Cross of Christ is surely everything we say of it as the moment of our salvation. There Christ died for us. There His blood was shed for us. There His life was poured out for the life of the world. There we were reconciled to God.

But the Cross also stands outside of time and for all time (the Lamb was slain”before the foundation of the earth”). The Cross was always the way of life. Love, self-emptying love, was always the love of God for all mankind – though until He made it manifest in the Cross of Christ we did not know it.

But now we know it. And now it should become our mind.

September 14 is the Feast of the Universal Exaltation of the Life-Giving Cross

An additional thought:

The Orthodox Tradition, as it developed in ancient Syria, had a great devotion to the Cross of Christ. It was believed by the Orthodox in Syria that the Shekinah glory of God, which had once dwelt in the Ark of the Covenant and filled the Temple in Jerusalem, came to reside in the Cross following Christ’s death and resurrection. There was thus a very deep and profound devotion for the Cross (any Cross) within Syrian Orthodox practice. It serves, I think, as a reminder that the Cross we wear from our Baptism, the sign of the Cross that we make when we pray, and the Cross wherever it is depicted and displayed, should be approached with great reverence and care. It is not (as the popular culture would make it) jewelry for the decoration of our bodies nor mere art. It is the sign of our salvation and the mystery of its power was ever held in great reverence by early Christians (and everywhere to this day by Orthodox Christians).

Before Thy Cross
We bow down and worship, O Master,
And Thy holy resurrection, we glorify!

Hymn before the Cross

Something from Nothing and the Apostolic Hypothesis

September 10, 2010

On September 8 the Orthodox Church celebrated the Nativity of the Mother of God. This is one of a number of feasts involving the life of the Virgin Mary, particularly during this time of the year. Many of the feasts mark events that are unfamiliar to many Christians, in that they are based on Tradition and have no direct account within the Scriptures. This would be especially troubling for some, if these extra-canonical stories changed essential doctrine or added to the faith more than was proclaimed in the Creeds.

However, I would submit, neither is the case. These extra-canonical Traditions not only conform to the Apostolic Hypothesis mentioned by St. Irenaeus of Lyons, they provide commentary and reinforcement to that very deepest heart of Christian teaching.

The situation for St. Irenaeus in the 2nd century needs to be appreciated. Though some Protestant groups constant point back to the point in time when the writings of the New Testament were finished (at the death of the last Apostle), such an artificial date is a modern configuration and was not entirely obvious to the early Church and those who succeeded the Apostles. St. Irenaeus would himself note that he knew Polycarp (the martyred bishop of Smyrna) and that Polycarp knew the Apostle John. Morever, Irenaeus cited the living tradition found in those Churches founded by the Apostles.

His great struggle was against the strongest heresy of the first two centuries of the Church – Gnosticism. This heresy was not one thing, but many things, expounded by many teachers and deeply attractive to a Roman world that was unfamiliar with the Old Testament and the traditions of Judaism. In the presentations of Gnosticism, Jesus was used as a convenient cypher to promote whatever idea a teacher sought to put forward. Some were extreme ascetics, others were extreme hedonists and all used the “phenomenon” of Jesus to justify their philosophies.

There was not a “variety” of teachings about the Christ in the early years – but a variety of opportunists who sought to exploit the growing popularity of Christ as a means to their own ends. The utter lack of unity among so-called gnostic teachers is itself testimony to the opportunistic character of their work. The unity found in the early Apostolic communities, as noted by St. Irenaeus, points to the authentic Tradition and life of the primitive Church. Gnostics did not produce martyrs – that was the work of faithful Christians who held to the Orthodox Catholic faith.

St. Irenaeus, in an attempt to describe this faith, used the term “Apostolic Hypothesis” to represent what was a mattered of settled, received teaching. Those who had been appointed as successors of the Apostles were also given the Apostolic faith (how could they not?). This faith was summarized by what St. Irenaeus called the “Apostolic Hypothesis.” He did not mean by “hypothesis” what we would mean today. It was not a “guess” on the part of the Apostles. Instead, he used the word hypothesis is its more pure Greek meaning, to refer to an underlying structure or matrix upon which the rest of the structure rests.

Such an Apostolic Hypothesis is found in documents such as the Apostles Creed, which was the early Baptismal Creed of the Church of Rome. Such Baptismal creeds were common throughout the ancient Churches, though not completely identical. However, as hypotheses, they were in utter agreement.

That primitive hypothesis can be summarized:

I believe in God the Father Almighty,
Maker of heaven and earth:
And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord,
Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,
Born of the Virgin Mary,
Suffered under Pontius Pilate,
Was crucified, dead, and buried:
He descended into hell;
The third day he rose again from the dead;
He ascended into heaven,
And sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Ghost;
The holy Catholick Church;
The Communion of Saints;
The Forgiveness of sins;
The Resurrection of the body,
And the Life everlasting.

Of course, this is the text of the Apostles’ Creed. But we find echoes of this text within Scripture itself:

Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand; By which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain. For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures: And that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve: (1 Corinthians 15:1-5).

St. Paul describes this, not as his own opinion or authorship, but “I delivered to you what I also received.” The words used are specifically the words of tradition (paradosis). St. Paul reminds the Corinthians of a tradition they have received (and doubtless received by all the Churches of the Apostles) a summary of the Apostolic faith.

When this hypothesis is compared to any of the gnostic writings, the differences become clear. The gnostic writings are not clear on the nature of the incarnation or of the death of Christ on the Cross. Neither are they clear about the nature of humanity (nor even of God).

What is consistent throughout the Apostolic Hypothesis, as witnessed in the Scriptures, the Creeds, and the writings of the early Fathers of the Church (most of whom were Bishops in Apostolic Succession) is the nature of the incarnation and of human sin and of the role of Christ’s death and resurrection in the salvation of the human race and of all creation.

It is this same fundamental understanding that runs throughout the extra-canonical devotions and stories of the Virgin Mary. It does not add to that fundamental understanding or change it. It serves to underline, yet again, the very nature of our salvation in Christ.

The most simple example I can point to is the one most recent in the Church’s calendar: the Nativity of the Virgin Mary. It is a feast that is held very close to the heart of the community in which I serve – for it is named for St. Anna, the mother of the Virgin Mary. The story handed down is that the parents of the Virgin Mary were aged and childless. Thus Anna and her husband Joachim, were (in their own Jewish context) considered somehow “unblessed.” Anna’s barrenness was seen as a rebuke.

This is a common theme within the Old Testament. Sarah’s barrenness is the bane of her existence. The promise of God is not simply that He will give Abraham a land, but, more importantly, that Abraham will be “the father of many nations.” As an elderly man with an elderly wife, such a promise seems beyond belief. But Sarah bore Abraham a son and God’s promise was fulfilled.

Such barrenness occurs in the story of Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel. It occurs as well in the story of Manoah and his wife in the book of Judges (the parents of Samson).

The theme cannot be fully understood apart from the Apostolic Hypothesis. God brings forth fruitfulness from barrenness – it is a theme of His work of salvation. In modern Protestant parlance we would say, “We are saved by grace and not works.” The barren woman cannot be fruitful of herself – it is entirely the grace of God which causes fruitfulness to occur. This is very obvious in the case of the elderly Abraham and Sarah. It is echoed in the extra-canonical story of Joachim and Anne. Our salvation is a work of grace, not of human effort.

The image of fruitfulness being brought forth from barrenness is merely interesting if considered apart from the Apostolic Hypothesis. However, when placed in that proper context, it becomes a hallmark of the Gospel are type of salvation itself. The image of fruitfulness from barrenness goes as deep as Genesis 1:1 and its ancient commentaries. The God who created the world brought it forth from “nothingness.” No image of barrenness can be found that is greater than “nothing.” For many Christians, this teaching of the faith is simply a datum of cosmology: God created the universe from nothing. But to make this a matter of mere cosmology is to miss the point. The God who created the universe out of nothing delights Himself in bringing forth something from nothing. As St. Paul says, “He has chosen…the things that are not” (1 Cor. 1:28).

It is a consistent pattern throughout the Old Testament from the creation to the birth of Isaac, to the very creation of the nation of Israel. The work of God’s election is not a choice among things that are, but a bringing forth of things that never could be (apart from grace).

This same pattern is seen in the story of the Nativity of the Virgin, and of Christ’s virgin birth. Mary is born to elderly parents who are barren. God makes a promise to the elderly Joachim and Anne and they bear a child, Mary. For her, in her youth and purity we have one of the ultimate instances of barrenness: what can be more barren than the womb of a virgin. How can a virgin be fruitful? That Christ is born of a virgin (often bound up in tortuous theories about sin and sinlessness) is perfectly consistently with the actions of a God who creates out of nothing.

Our salvation comes forth from the utterly barren womb of Hades. In His death (what is more empty and barren than death?) Christ descends into death and “takes captivity captive.” As is sung throughout the Orthodox world, “Christ has trampled down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowed life.” This great theme of Christ’s Pascha (Easter) is the very theme of our salvation. We are saved by the One who trampled down death by death. The death of our sin is trampled down by the life of His righteousness.

The great miracle of God’s work in creation is of a piece: He creates where there would otherwise be nothing. Our life in Christ is a “new creation.”

The stories of the Virgin Mary, including those the Church observes which are “extra-canonical” are not outside the Apostolic Hypothesis. Our own lives and experience of Christ are not outside that same hypothesis. “Apart from me you can do nothing,” Christ says. In my sin I am empty, barren and unfruitful, incapable of true life. Only in the action of the good God, who creates from nothing, who makes the barren womb to be fruitful, who enters Himself into the barrenness of the womb of the Virgin and the emptiness of sinful man, who becomes what we are and enters into the emptiness of death and hell – only such a good God can save and make those things which are not to be as if they were.

God is glorified in His saints! The God of Israel!