Archive for the ‘atonement’ Category

The Holy Cross of Christ

March 29, 2008


In writing about our union with Christ I offered the following as the response some time ago to a question. It seemed to me, worth a posting of its own, though it be short. I have, however, added a few thoughts to it. This Sunday marks the Sunday of the Cross in the Orthodox journey of Lent.

There are many ways of which to speak of Christ’s work on the Cross, all of them, of course, seeing it as central. In some ways, it is the whole of the Old Testament in a single moment. Which image of sacrifice is not fulfilled in that Great Sacrifice, and yet there are many images? Christ is also the Paschal Lamb, which itself is not part of the normal sacrificial system and yet it is in the Cross as well.

Nor does the sacrificial system make much sense except by some aspect of union with that which is offered. But on the Cross, Christ completes His union with us, if I may be so bold, by assuming even our death that by death He might trample down death.

The mistake too easily made is to think of the Cross as only one thing. The Cross is everything. All things are summed up and completed by Christ on the Cross, just so, everything is summed up and healed in His resurrection from the Dead. On the Cross He is the serpent lifted in the wilderness. On the Cross He is the Lamb of the Passover. On the Cross He is the Offering of Atonement. On the Cross He is Moses’ staff stretched over the waters of the Red Sea. On the Cross He is the arms of Moses stretched out at the destruction of Amalek. On the Cross He is the ram in the thicket that God gave in place of Isaac. On the Cross He is Blood poured out on the Mercy Seat. On the Cross He is the love of God made manifest in its utter self-emptying. On the Cross He is the Bridegroom now come for His bride to bring her back from the dead. On the Cross He is man in His alienation from God and God in His union with man.

All of these are part of the fullness of what it means to be forgiven, and I have only barely touched the edge of it. God has reconciled us to Himself through the Cross of Christ. This is not to say one thing – it is to say everything.

We’ll have read my writings wrong if it is seen that I have offered “the” explanation of the Cross. The Cross is the explanation of everything else, while no one other thing can explain the Cross.

At the Annunciation – The Cause of All Things

March 24, 2008


I treasure the small volume of George Gabriel,  Mary the Untrodden Portal of God. Gabriel occasionally strikes hard at the West and the book would perhaps be strengthened with a less combative approach to the differences of East and West in the faith (my own opinion), but I liked the book and found Gabriel addressing many things, well foot-noted, that are not found in many other places. I share an excerpt.

From eternity, God provided for a communion with His creation that would remain forever. In that communion mankind would attain to the eternal theosis for which it was made. The communion, of course, is the Incarnation through the Ever-Virgin. Mankind’s existence and, therefore, that of all creation is inexorably tied to Mary because she was always to be the Mother of the Incarnate Word. The fathers say that neither the course of human events nor necessity of any kind forced the Uncreated One to join to Himself a creaturely mode of existence. God did not become flesh because some actions of the devil or of man made it necessary, but because it was the divine plan and mystery from before the ages. Despite the works of Satan and the coming of sin into the world, the eternal will of God was undeterred, and it moved forward.

History and the course of human events were the occasion and not the cause of the Incarnation. The Incarnation did not take place for the Crucifixion; the Crucifixion took place so the Incarnation and the eternal communion of God and man could be fulfilled despite Satan, sin, and death. Explaining that there was no necessity in God the Father that required the death of His Son, St. Gregory the Theologian says of the Father “neither asked for Him nor demanded Him, but accepts [His death] on account of the economy [of the Incarnation] and because mankind must be sanctified by the humanity of God.” St. Gregory is telling us that, from before the ages, it was the divine will for mankind to be sanctified and made immortal by communion with the humanity of the Incarnate God, but corruptibility and death came and stood in the way.  By His Passion and Resurrection, Jesus Christ destroyed these obstacles and saved, that is, preserved, mankind for the Incarnation’s eternal communion of the God-Man and immortal men. St. John of Damascus repreats the same idea that the Incarnation is a prior and indeed ontological purpose in itself, and that redemption is the means to that end. Thus, he says the Holy Virgin “came to serve in the salvation of the world so that the ancient will of God for the Incarnation of the Word and our own theosis may be fulfilled through her.”

It seems worthwhile to me, for us to meditate on the fullness of our salvation which is to be accomplished in God’s great Pascha. Indeed, it seems to me that everything always was about Pascha – the “Lamb was slain before the foundation of the earth” (Rev. 13:8) We are approaching the end of all things – and, I should add, their beginning as well.

Reposted from a year ago.

To Care for the Heart

March 7, 2008


There is a term one runs across frequently, particularly in Russian spiritual writing. It is the word; prelest. I have seen it translated any number of ways – but at its heart it’s meaning is quite simple. It is failing or ceasing to care about the state of one’s spiritual life. It is a sort of lassitutude, as though the spiritual life was of no great import. It could be that we fall into such a state because we have become distracted by other things – or even that we are living in such a state because of personal delusion – that is, not knowing anything about the true nature of the spiritual life.

Thus, continuing to think about forgiveness, I turn also to forgiveness and prelest. It is of the greatest sadness that our modern world has come to think of forgiveness in largely forensic, that is legal, terms. Either a person is guilty or innocent. If I have offended a person I ask for forgiveness as though I owed them something and am now asking a boon, a kindness, that I no longer be in their debt.

Along with the forensic understanding of forgiveness is an inherent set of ideas that belong to the same world. Thus guilt and innocence become important issues for forgiveness. Equally important is punishment and paying for our crimes. This, of course, brings in the entire concept of justice.

Writing as an Orthodox Christian, and anticipating the Sunday of Forgiveness, I tremble at these foreign ideas which have attached themselves to our most holy faith, though they do not have a place in the Church of God, nor in our relationship with Christ.

In general, the concept of justice as we have come to know it, is an inheritance in this part of the world from the Germano-Roman world of late antiquity. The early Germanic tribes (which includes my own English ancestry) had a highly developed since of justice and of how things were to work. The killing of a man, for instance, required that a price be paid, indeed the value of the man. In early Germanic this was known as weregeld, (were being the word for man, and geld, his price). Each person had a geld, depending on age, station in life, gender, etc. Justice was the eradication of such debts. This Germanic understanding was married to the Roman understanding and eventually became the language and world of the Middle Ages, including much of Western Church doctrine. Thus man’s salvation became interpreted in terms of guilt and innocence, punishment and substitution. Forgiveness thus became a transaction – something we do for those who have paid the proper price.

Lost in all of this is the place of forgiveness and the heart. The New Testament parables, such as the Prodigal Son, have no sense of what is owed, of punishment, or restitution. It has only to do with the state of the heart – for it is the heart of man which is in fact the very state of a man’s soul. And it is the heart of man that makes it possible for salvation to be received or causes it to be rejected. This is the consistent teaching of the Church.

Learning to think in the language of the heart – to see that what is important is the state of my heart – and not the balance of payments (if you will) – can be a difficult transition. However, it is utterly necessary if we are to progress in the love of God and man.

You cannot pay your debt. No good deeds are sufficient for such a transaction. And were you to pay your debt – or even if another were to pay it for you – what would the state of your heart be? You indeed, could be a hard-hearted debt-free Christian – but with a hard-heart you would be no closer to salvation than someone whose debt was monumental.

Thus we are told: “Rend your hearts and not your garments!” (Joel 2:13) To become like Christ we are told to forgive even our enemies:

But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust (Matthew 5:44-45).

This is a thoroughly consistent teaching of Christ in the Scriptures. It goes to the very state of our heart before God and before man. The transformation of our heart that is required before we truly love our enemies, is the very transformation which unites us with Christ and manifests us as having been conformed to His image. There is no other test for this in Scripture but love of enemy (and friend). Of course, this transformation can only occur through the working of grace within us. But we put prelest behind us when we turn our attention to the heart and see that it is hard and wretched and desperately in need of healing. To ignore this need is to fall back into prelest and to create a distance between our heart and God. In the worst of cases it is to fall into true apostasy.

Some will say, “But what of justice?” What of it? Have you ever seen justice? Have you ever received justice? Of course the state will make some approximate efforts at justice simply for the sake of order – but we should not internalize these matters as though justice had been achieved. God’s justice is beyond our understanding. He pays those who began work at the end of the day as much as those who worked all day. Where is the justice in that? From the Cross He pronounces forgiveness for all. Where is the justice in that?

St. Isaac the Syrian said, “We know nothing of God’s justice, only His mercy.” I suspect that God’s mercy is His justice and that a heart which has been truly transformed into the image of Christ will rejoice at such a prospect.

My prayer for myself and for all, is that come Forgiveness Sunday, I will truly forgive all from my heart and that all will forgive me. And so shall we be in paradise!

As the service concludes, the choir sings the Paschal verses:

Let God arise, let His enemies be scattered.

Today a sacred Pascha is revealed to us.

A new and holy Pascha.

A mystical Pascha, a Pascha worthy of veneration.

A Pascha which is Christ, the Redeemer.

A blameless Pascha. A great Pascha.

A Pascha of the faithful.

A Pascha which has opened for us the gates of paradise.

A Pascha which santifies all the faithful.

As smoke vanishes so let them vanish.

Come from that scene, O women bearers of glad tidings,

And say to Zion: Receive from us the glad tidings of joy

Of Christ’s Resurrection:

Exult and be glad, and rejoice, O Jerusalem,

Seeing Christ the King who comes forth from the tomb,

Like a bridegroom in procession.

So the sinners will perish before the face of God,

But let the righteous be glad.

The myrrhbearing women at the break of dawn

Drew near to the tomb of the Lifegiver.

There they found an angel sitting upon the stone,

He greeted them with these words:

Why do you seek the living among the dead?

Why do you mourn the incorrupt amid corruption?

Go: Proclaim the glad tidings to His disciples.

This is the day which the Lord has made!

Let us rejoice and be glad in it. Pascha of Beauty!

The Pascha of the Lord!

A Pascha worthy of all honor has dawned for us.

Pascha! Let us embrace each other joyously.

Pascha, ransom from affliction!

For today as from a bridal chamber Christ has shone forth from the tomb.

And filled the women with joy saying: Proclaim the glad tidings to the Apostles!

This is the Day of Resurrection! Let us be illumined by the feast! Let us embrace each other!

Let us call “brothers” even those that hate us and forgive all by the resurrection,

And so let us cry:

Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death,

And upon those in the tombs bestowing life!

Forgiveness and the Kingdom

March 6, 2008


I am grateful for the patience of my readers – I have written less in the past few weeks – instead mostly posting quotes from the Fathers. It’s not a laziness on my part but an opportunity to go to a well that is far deeper than myself and a great help when I am in a very busy season in the parish.

This Sunday we draw to the edge of Great Lent, and inaugurate that fast with the service of Forgiveness Vespers, at the end of which, many Orthodox will practice the “rite of forgiveness” with priest asking forgiveness from each individual in the congregation and each member of the congregation asking forgiveness of each other member of the congregation. There are variations on how the rite is practiced – but that is our pattern in my parish.

Forgiveness is not only a commandment: “Forgive and you will be forgiven;” or even “Forgive your enemies,” etc. It is perhaps among the greatest and most important commandments. For the power of forgiveness can hardly be overstated.

It has the power to change the past. Perhaps that seems like an overstatement – but a wound delivered to me in the past – can be changed and rendered harmless through forgiveness, thus changing the power of the past over the present and the future.

Forgiveness is the triumph of the age to come over all other things. Thus, in our hymnography at Pascha we are told, “Let us forgive all by the resurrection.” For in the resurrection, that is, in the age to come, what grudge would you keep? And if you would not keep it then, why do you keep it now?

In some of the stories concerning Christ’s ministry it is clear that He makes little or no distinction between the forgiveness of sin and physical healing. It is certainly true that sin can have a physical effect. But if you knew that you possessed an elixir, the result of which when taken, would heal any disease, from whom would you withhold it? Why then would we withhold forgiveness from any when in many cases it would be an elixir of health?

Some will say that they would forgive if only the other person would first ask for forgiveness. But the love of God is made manifest to us in that “while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” The nature of the forgiveness we are taught does not presuppose that repentance has preceded it. It is a gift freely given without any neccessary deserving. If you believe you are saved by grace, then why do you not extend grace to all around you?

I have made it a practice in my personal life to go back through the years, even to childhood, to remember things that were matters of a grudge. A bully who made life hard for me – a parishioner who spoke evil of me without cause, etc. I make a point of praying (secretly) for them by name each time I offer the Holy Eucharist, while I am also praying for all those others whom I would normally remember. I do not know if I can yet truly forgive all by the resurrection. But I pray for all, and I want to forgive. I pray that nothing I have done to any will be a cause for stumbling, nor that anything that has been done to me will be held against them on the day of judgment. Not for my sake would I see anyone estranged from God.

Forgiveness is the great “allee-allee-in-come-free” (as in the children’s game of hide and seek) of the cosmos. If we forgive all, are we not in paradise?

It’s Really All About Being

January 25, 2008


I wasn’t sure how to title this post. One part of me wanted to say, “It’s really all ontological,” but that would lose half my readers in the maze of theological/philosophical vocabulary. I also thought about entitling it, “It’s not what you do but what you are,” and that might have been better than what I chose. My podcast this weekend on Ancient Faith Radio will also touch on this same subject.

And the subject is this: the moral life is not about the moral life – it’s really about a matter of life or death. This is the great crisis that passes some people by while others are confronted with it square on. If you read about the life of Dostoevsky the writer, you discover that his entire life’s work really flows from a near-death experience courtesy of the Tsar. Arrested for involvement with a “revolutionary” group, he was sentenced to death. The Tsar really only wanted to teach a lesson, so, at the last minute, death sentences were commuted to a few years in Siberia’s prisons. And I mean at the last minute. Dostoevsky was standing in line for the firing squad when a rider from the Tsar showed up with the commuted sentence. He described the scene in a letter to his brother some twenty years after the event. It also shows up in veiled scenes in his novels. But standing at the abyss of death he saw the world completely transformed. Time seemed to stand still and the utter value and beauty of life flooded his awareness. The result, in time, was an Orthodox Christian Dostoevsky, who grasped the Church’s teaching on the true nature of the moral life (of life itself) like no other novelist in history.

I would have to take a reader back to St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, to find anywhere near the clarity of our human predicament.

We saw in the last chapter that, because death and corruption were gaining ever firmer hold on them, the human race was in process of destruction. Man, who was created in God’s image and in his possession of reason reflected the very Word Himself, was disappearing, and the work of God was being undone. The law of death, which followed from the Transgression, prevailed upon us, and from it there was no escape. The thing that was happening was in truth both monstrous and unfitting. It would, of course, have been unthinkable that God should go back upon His word and that man, having transgressed, should not die; but it was equally monstrous that beings which once had shared the nature of the Word should perish and turn back again into non-existence through corruption. It was unworthy of the goodness of God that creatures made by Him should be brought to nothing through the deceit wrought upon man by the devil; and it was supremely unfitting that the work of God in mankind should disappear, either through their own negligence or through the deceit of evil spirits. As, then, the creatures whom He had created reasonable, like the Word, were in fact perishing, and such noble works were on the road to ruin, what then was God, being Good, to do? (2.6)

Of course, the answer to St. Athanasius’ question is the incarnation of the Word of God and the entire economy of our salvation. But it is how he frames the question that is of importance here.

Man…was disappearing, and the work of God was being undone. The law of death, which followed from the Transgression, prevailed upon us, and from it there was no escape. The thing that was happening was in truth both monstrous and unfitting.

It is this realization that the nature of sin at work in us is not a compilation of bad test grades, a gradual legal debt being incurred by our bad actions, but, in fact, a movement away from God and a verging on non-existence: that is key. Our problem is not moral (as in keeping laws); our problem is that we stand on the edge of an abyss of non-being (from which we came). Only the free gift of life in Christ stands between us and non-being. Who cares about our legal status? We’re talking about existence!

That is the realization which struck Dostoevsky, and it is the proper realization to strike every Christian, if he or she is to be struck in the Orthodox manner. For myself, I came early to this realization through a collection of family tragedies that included the death of loved ones and the murder of another relative very close to me – all in the tenth year of my life. I was a premature existentialist. One who found the moralistic bromides of cultural protestantism absolutely insufficient.

The mystery of the Church (which I first encountered among Episcopalians) came close. And I spent twenty-eight years among them. But during that time I began to discover St. Athanasius and the tradition of the Orthodox Church (Dostoevsky included) and eventually my heart carried me to the place where the answers were stated most clearly and unabashedly. That is, I came to the fullness of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

I still think of this daily, as I contemplate my sins. I think of it daily as I serve as a priest and hear confessions. It is not the legal peccadilloes that we share in our confessions, but the evidence of death and decay at work in our heart. At every moment we stand at the edge of the abyss, and Christ alone pulls us back and draws us towards the fullness of being.

And so my title: “It’s really all about being.” It’s just that serious – but also just that saving. Our relationship with Christ is securing for us an existence that is beyond corruption and death. The healing we experience is no mere legal absolution of our sins, but the healing of our very being.

At the core of my heart I cry: “I do not want to die – but to live – and to live in the image and likeness of God!” And for that heart’s cry, Christ was born.

St. Gregory the Theologian on our Ransom by God

January 22, 2008


One of the greatest orators of his age, St. Gregory the Theologian (also known as Gregory Nazianzus), is considered among the most central of Church fathers. His work, and that of St. Basil the Great, did much to win the day for the Nicene Creed (by God’s grace) and to secure its completion at the first Council of Constantinople, where the Creed received its final and present form. He is not as easy to read for moderns as Augustine or some of the Latin Fathers. But is well worth the read. Below is a portion from his Second Paschal Oration in which he asks the question: “To whom was the ransom (Christ’s death on the Cross) paid?”

Now we are to examine another fact and dogma, neglected by most people, but in my judgment well worth enquiring into. To Whom was that Blood offered that was shed for us, and why was it shed? I mean the precious and famous Blood of our God and Highpriest and Sacrifice. We were detained in bondage by the Evil One, sold under sin, and receiving pleasure in exchange for wickedness. Now, since a ransom belongs only to him who holds in bondage, I ask to whom was this offered, and for what cause? If to the Evil One, fie upon the outrage! If the robber receives ransom, not only from God, but a ransom which consists of God Himself, and has such an illustrious payment for his tyranny, a payment for whose sake it would have been right for him to have left us alone altogether. But if to the Father, I ask first, how? For it was not by Him that we were being oppressed; and next, On what principle did the Blood of His Only begotten Son delight the Father, Who would not receive even Isaac, when he was being offered by his Father, but changed the sacrifice, putting a ram in the place of the human victim? Is it not evident that the Father accepts Him, but neither asked for Him nor demanded Him; but on account of the Incarnation, and because Humanity must be sanctified by the Humanity of God, that He might deliver us Himself, and overcome the tyrant, and draw us to Himself by the mediation of His Son, Who also arranged this to the honour of the Father, Whom it is manifest that He obeys in all things? So much we have said of Christ; the greater part of what we might say shall be reverenced with silence.

His final summation puts my garrulousness to shame.

Justice and Mercy – With Thanks to the Pontificator

January 22, 2008


Fr. Al Kimel has recently posted an article (The Injustice of Grace) on the triumph of God’s mercy that is well worth reading.  The following is an excerpt in which he quotes passages from St. Isaac the Syrian and St. Antony the Great:

The seventh century ascetical master, St. Isaac the Syrian, boldly challenged the portrayal of God as one who rewards the virtuous and punishes the wicked:

Do not call God just, for His justice is not manifest in the things concerning you. And if David calls Him just and upright, His Son revealed to us that He is good and kind. “He is good,” He says, “to the evil and to the impious.” How can you call God just when you come across the Scriptural passage on the wage given to the workers? “Friend, I do thee no wrong I will give unto this last even as unto thee. Is thine eye evil because I am good?” How can a man call God just when he comes across the passage on the prodigal son who wasted his wealth with riotous living, how for the compunction alone which he showed, the father ran and fell upon his neck and gave him authority over all his wealth? None other but His very Son said these things concerning Him, lest we doubt it; and thus He bare witness concerning Him. Where, then, is God’s justice, for whilst we are sinners Christ died for us! But if here He is merciful, we may believe that He will not change. (Homily 60)

The gospel dramatically turns upside down conventional, and even biblical, understandings of divine justice. “God is not One who requites evil,” declares St Isaac, “but who sets evil right.” Indeed, Isaac goes even so far as to assert that “mercy is opposed to justice.” Even when God punishes, he does so only for our good:

God chastises with love, not for the sake of revenge—far be it!—but in seeking to make whole his image. And he does not harbour wrath until such time as correction is no longer possible, for he does not seek vengeance for himself. This is the aim of love. Love’s chastisement is for correction, but does not aim at retribution. … The man who chooses to consider God as avenger, presuming that in this manner he bears witness to His justice, the same accuses Him of being bereft of goodness. Far be it that vengeance could ever be found in that Fountain of love and Ocean brimming with goodness!

The Holy Trinity wills only the good of the sinner, even at the cost of justice. But does not the Scripture speak of God’s anger and wrath against sin? These texts, says St Isaac, must be interpreted figuratively, not literally. God does not act out of anger or wrath. He never acts to harm his creatures. He never acts out of vengeance. As St Antony the Great wrote:

God is good, dispassionate, and immutable. Now someone who thinks it reasonable and true to affirm that God does not change, may well ask how, in that case, is it possible to speak of God as rejoicing over those who are good and showing mercy to those who honour 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 honour 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.

To Father Al’s thoughts (which take these quotes to other important conclusions) I would add my own. This thoroughly patristic understanding of God’s justice and the metaphorical sense that must be applied to such words as wrath, etc., is utterly essential in the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It goes to the very heart of our understanding of God. Nothing, in my mind, has done more damage to the Gospel of Christ than the loss of this understanding, and the substitution in its place of various theories in which the anger of God has been propitiated by His only Son. It is surely true that Christ’s death is a work of atonement – it makes possible and restores our relationship with God – but it brings about no change in God. The love of God is made manifest in that “while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). The death of Christ on the Cross makes no change in the love of God – but every possible change in the sinners for whom He died.

Every other proclamation of the Gospel that says otherwise seriously distorts the revelation of God in Christ and fails to properly appropriate the Tradition of the Holy Fathers as the Church has received them.

The Remembrance of Wrongs

January 10, 2008

stephenprotomarty.jpgRemembrance of wrongs comes as the final point of anger. It is a keeper of sins. It hates a just way of life. It is the ruin of virtues, the poison of the soul, a worm in the mind. it is the shame of prayer, a cutting off of supplication, a turning away from love, a nail piercing the soul. It is a pleasureless feeling cherished in the sweetness of bitterness. It is a never-ending sin, an unsleeping wrong, rancor by the hour. A dark and laothesome passion, it comes to be but has no offspring, so that one need not say much about it.A man who has put a stop to anger has also wiped out remembrance of wrongs, since offspring can come only from a living parent.

St. John of the Ladder, 9

Reading works such as The Ladder by St. John Climacus is fruitful work for the soul during seasons of repentance. Such writings often show us far more about our hearts than we are ready to learn. Associating with other human beings on a regular basis (either as a pastor, or even as an active Church member, or simply from being observant at work on any given day) offers a constant education in the ways of the human heart. The remembrance of wrongs is just one of many burdens which weigh heavily on the soul and make it impossible for it to rise above itself to anything heavenly. Such remembrance also has the capacity to weigh down everything around it.

A vast amount of our planet is engaged at any given moment in the remembrance of wrongs. It seems the older the country or civilization, the longer the list of wrongs, and the more deeply they run. For a youthful America it is sometimes baffling. But I can recall growing up as a child of the South and being taught the remembrance of wrongs from my elders as they rehearsed a heavily edited version of the American Civil War. I got over it, but the wrongs suffered by my family were few (if any). There was not so much to remember.

The wrongs that have been done by one human family to another are incalculable. They frequently run for centuries and carry vengeance for vengeance and wrong for wrong. As has been said, “An eye for an eye and the whole world’s blind.”

I know that on the individual level the remembrance of wrongs is a dead end – as St. John said, “It comes to be but has no offspring so one need not say much about it.” But it can be a confining memory, one whose existence grows ever smaller until we find our heart so squeezed that nothing but pain can come from it.

And thus we come to the formidable act of forgiveness. Forgiveness is the infinity of God – it has no limits. It opens the heart to light and truth and banishes the darkness of unforgotten evils. It is perhaps the most difficult of all tasks that human beings undertake. I do not believe that it lies within our power. Only the mercy of God and great grace (the very Life of God) working in us can make forgiveness possible. This is all the more reason we should seek to have our hearts filled with forgiveness – for when they are such – they are filled with God and are truly great.

Among the most godlike acts in all of Scripture are the final words of the Protomartyr Stephen, “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge” (Acts 7:60). In that single act of forgiveness he comformed his life to that of Christ. I believe as well that he sowed the seeds of the conversion of St. Paul (Saul at that time) who stood by “consenting to his death.” There was no remembrance of wrong to crush the heart of Paul, but a remembrance of a right that was so astounding that his own heart must have ached at its every echo.

In many ways, the whole of the Gospel is to be found in St. Stephen’s words, for nothing so marks the actions and deeds of the Gospel than God’s unrelenting forgiveness and refusal to remember our wrongs. Instead He is the God to whom a thief can dare to say, “Remember me this day when you come into your kingdom.”


The Nature of Things and our Salvation

December 28, 2007


The nature of things is an important question to ask – or should I say an a priori question. For once we are able to state what is the nature of things then the answers to many questions framed by the nature of things will also begin to be apparent. All of this is another way of saying that questions have a way of determining answers. So what is the nature of things? More specifically, what is the nature of things such that Christians believe humanity needs salvation? (Non-Christians will already feel co-opted but I write as a Christian – can’t be helped).

I want to briefly state several things which seem to me to be of importance about the nature of things in this regard.

1. It is the nature of things that man does not have a legal problem with God. That is to say, the nature of our problem is not forensic. The universe is not a law-court.

2. It is the nature of things that Christ did not come to make bad men good, but to make dead men live. This is to say that the nature of our problem is not moral but existential or ontological. We have a problem that is rooted in the very nature of our existence, not in our behavior. We behave badly because of a prior problem. Good behavior will not correct the problem.

3. It is the nature of things that human beings were created to live through communion with God. We were not created to live as self-sufficient individuals marked largely by our capacity for choice and decision. To restate this: we are creatures of communion, not creatures of consumption.

So much for the nature of things. (I’ll do my best to leave behind the syllogisms and return to my usual form of writing.)

Much of my experience as an American Christian has been an encounter with people who do not see mankind’s problem as existential or ontological – but rather as moral. They have seen that we behave badly and thought that the primary task of the Church (following whatever event was considered “necessary” for salvation) was to help influence people to be “good.” Thus I recall a Sunday School teacher who in my pre-school years (as well as a first-grade teacher who attempted the same) urging me and my classmates to “take the pledge.” That is, that we would agree not to smoke tobacco or drink alcohol before age 21. The assumption seemed to be that if we waited that long then we would likely never begin. In at least one of those cases an actual document was proffered. For the life of me I cannot remember whether I signed or not. The main reason I cannot remember was that the issues involved seemed unimportant to me at the time. Virtually every adult in my life smoked. And I was not generally familiar with many men who did not drink. Thus my teachers were asking me to sign a document saying that I thought my father and my grandfather were not good men. I think I did not sign. If I did, then I lied and broke the pledge at a frightfully early age.

My later experience has proven the weakness of the assumptions held by the teachers of my youth. Smoking wasn’t so much right or wrong as it was addicting and deadly. I smoked for 20 years and give thanks to God for the grace he gave me to quit. I feel stupid as I look back at the actions of those 20 years, but not necessarily “bad.” By the same token, I have known quite a few alcoholics (some of them blood relatives) and have generally found them to be about as moral as anyone else and sometimes moreso. I have also seen the destruction wrought by the abuse of alcohol. But I have seen similar destruction in families who never drank and the continuation of destruction in families where alcohol had been removed. Drinking can have serious consequences, but not drinking is not the same thing as curing the problem.

I had a far more profound experience, indeed a series of experiences, when I was ten years old – experiences that made a much deeper impression and framed the questions that burned in my soul about the nature of things.

The first experience was the murder of an aunt. She was 45 and a darling of the family. Everyone loved her. Her murder was simply a matter of “random” chance – she was in the wrong place at the wrong time or simply in a convenient place for a man who meant to do great harm to someone. No deep mystery, just a brutal death. The same year another aunt died as a result of a multi-year battle with lupus (an auto-immune disease). And to add to these things, my 10th year was also the year of Kennedy’s assassination. Thus when the year was done it seemed to me that death was an important question – even the important question.

It probably says that I was marked by experiences that were unusual for a middle-class white boy in the early 60’s. It also meant that when I later read Dostoevsky in my late teens, I was hooked.

The nature of things is that people die – and not only do they die – but death, already at work in them from the moment of their birth, is the primary issue. The failure of humanity is not to be found or understood in a purely moral context. We are not creatures of choice and decision. How and why we choose is a very complex process that we ourselves do not understand. We can make a “decision” for Jesus only to discover that little has changed. It is also possible to find ourselves caught in a chain of decisions that bring us to the brink of despair without knowing quite how we got there. Though there are clearly problems with our choosing and deciding, the problem is far deeper.

One of the earliest Christian treatments of the human problem, hence the “nature of things,” is to be found in St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation. He makes it quite clear that the root problem of humanity is to be found in the process of death. Not only are we all slowly moving towards some inevitable demise, the process of death (decay, corruption) is already at work in us. In Athanasius’ imagery, it is as though we are falling back towards our origins in the dust of the earth. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

And thus it is that when he writes of the work of Christ it is clearly in terms of our deliverance from death (not just deliverance from the consequences of our bodily dissolution and its separation from the soul but the whole process of death itself.)

This is frequently the language of the New Testament as well. St. Paul will write: “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me, and the life that I now live I live by the faith of the son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me.” Or even on a more “moral” note he will caution us to “put to death the deeds of the body.”

The importance of these distinctions (moral versus existential) is in how we treat our present predicament. If the problem is primarily moral then it makes sense to live life in the hortatory mode, constantly urging others to be good, to “take the pledge,” or make good choices. If, on the other hand, our problem is rooted in the very nature of our existence then it is that existence that has to be addressed. And again, the New Testament, as well as the Tradition of the Church, turns our attention in this direction. Having been created for union with God, we will not be able to live in any proper way without that union. Thus our Baptism unites us to the death and resurrection of Christ, making possible a proper existence. Living that proper existence will not be done by merely trying to control our decisions and choices, but by consciously and unconsciously working to maintain our union with God. We are told “greater is He that is in you than he that is in the world.” Thus our victory, and the hope of our victory is “Christ within you, the hope of glory.”

And so if we will live in such communion we will struggle to pray, not as a moral duty, but as the very means of our existence. We pray, we fast, we give alms, we confess, we commune, not in order to be better people, but because if we neglect these things we will die. And the death will be slow and marked by the increasing dissolution of who and what we are.

In over 25 years of ministry, I have consistently found this model of understanding to better describe what I encounter and what I live on a day to day basis. In the past ten years of my life as an Orthodox Christian, I have found this account of things not only to continue to describe reality better – but also to be in conformity with the Fathers. It is a strong case for Christian Tradition that it actually describes reality as we experience it better than the more modern accounts developed in the past four hundred years or so. Imagine. People understood life a thousand years ago such that they continue to describe the existential reality of modern man. Some things do not change – except by the grace of God and His infinite mercy.

The Smallness of God – A Rewrite

December 20, 2007


Whom have we, Lord, like you –

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

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

The King who abased himself to ensure honor for all.

Blessed is your honor!

St. Ephrem the Syrian

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

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

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

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

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

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