Archive for the ‘Union with Christ’ Category

Salvation, Ontology, Existential, and Other Large Words

September 17, 2011

In recent posts I have contrasted morality with ontological, as well as existential, etc. I’ve had comments here and elsewhere in which people stumbled over the terms. The distinction offered is not a private matter. Orthodox theologians for better than a century have struggled to make these points as being utterly necessary to the life of the Orthodox faith. The following is a small article of mine that tries to do some of the same. In a nutshell: morality is “life according to rules or reasonable philosophies.” The Orthodox contention is that morality fails to describe the true nature of the Christian life. Rather the world ontological is more proper: it means have to do with the very being of someone – their essence. What we need is not a change in behavior (morality) but a change in who we are (ontology). Christ came to change us, not reform us. 

Morality does not use Orthodox means – it’s all in the “head.” It is rules. Ontological change requires that our very being or existence (thus the word existential) be united with Christ, His life becomes our life and thus we live a new life. Once this fundamental approach is understood, so we can begin to under the mysteries of the Church and the true character of our life in Christ. Thus this article – a meager thing meant to be of some help. 


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 state briefly 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 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 30 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 twelve 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 Day the Earth Stood Still

August 12, 2011

Orthodox Christians (New Calendar) are currently observing a two-week fast in preparation for the Feast of the Dormition, a day which marks the death (“falling asleep”) of the Mother of God. For those for whom such feasts are foreign, it is easy to misunderstand what the Orthodox are about – and to assume that this is simply a feast to Mary because we like that sort of thing. Flippant attitudes fail to perceive the depths of the mystery of our salvation. The Dormition of the Mother of God is one of many doorways into that mystery – all of which is Christ – who alone is our salvation.

The Christian life, as taught by the Scriptures and the fathers, is grounded in the mystery and reality of communion. We do not exist alone, nor do we exist merely as a collection. Our lives are a communion of lives. We share one another in ways that permeate the whole of our being. I am unique, and yet I am also the child of Jim and Nancy. Though I am unique, so much of who I am and what I am is their lives and the lives of generations of human beings and culture – not just genetic relatives – but all of humanity. Without such knowledge (whether conscious or unconscious), we do not love as we should and will not live as we should. Your life is my life; God help us.

The belief that God became man in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, makes no sense and has but little value apart from the reality of life understood as communion. It is thus crucial that the Creed confesses, “He took flesh of the Virgin Mary and was made man.” The womb of the Virgin was not “borrowed space” which God inhabited until His birth. The womb of the Virgin is also that place and that source by which God “took flesh of the Virgin Mary.”

There are many theological accounts of Christ and His work of salvation that center almost solely upon the idea of Christ as a sacrifice on the Cross that pays the penalty of our sins (the doctrine of the Penal Substitutionary Atonement). This account tends to “stand on its own.” There is nothing inherent within Christ’s birth from a Virgin to such a view of the Atonement. Nor does the Virgin herself have any inherent connection to the saving acts of God as made known to us in the Scriptures. Thus those who profess her virginity in such cases only do so because it is recorded in the Scripture – but they do not do so because they understand its true role in our salvation.

However, our salvation is not achieved by an objective payment (even if the image of payment may be found in the Scriptures). The unifying teaching of the Scriptures with regard to Christ is our salvation through union with Him, through true communion in His life.

His Incarnation thus becomes a part of reality of God’s restoration of our communion with Him. He becomes a partaker of our life, that we might become partakers of His. This reality is made profoundly clear in that God not only comes to dwell among us, but comes to do so as a man, having taken flesh of the Virgin Mary. He becomes “flesh of her flesh and bone of her bone” (Ge. 2:23). And yet another image: “And a sword will pierce your own soul also” (Lk. 2:35). Mary is united to Christ in the flesh, and mystical in her soul as well.

Her role in the salvation of the world (through union with Christ) is so profound that it is prophesied in the early chapters of Genesis (Ge. 3:15). She, and the Virgin Birth, are pre-figured repeatedly throughout the Old Testament (as interpreted by the fathers). There is a traditional hymn, sung during the vesting of a Bishop that makes reference to just a small sample of such prefigurements:

Of old the Prophets aforetime proclaimed thee,
the Golden Vessel, the Staff, the Tablet, the Ark,
the Lampstand, the Table, the Uncut Mountain,
the Golden Censer, the Gate Impassible,
and the Throne of the King,
thee did the Prophets proclaim of old.

Perhaps the greatest collection of such references can be found in the 6th century hymn called the Akathist to the Theotokos.

This prefigurement and their abundant use in the fathers, all flow from the fundamental understanding of salvation as communion. Thus she, as the Mother of God, belongs with Christ. She belongs with Him as the Golden Vessel belonged with the Manna (she is the vessel who contained the Bread of Heaven); she belongs with Him as Aaron’s Rod belongs with the buds which sprang forth (that He should be born from her virginal womb is like the life which springs forth from Aarons lifeless rod); she is the Tablet as Christ is the words inscribed; she is the lampstand as Christ Himself is the Lamp, etc.

As the Creed tells us, Christ died, in accordance with the Scriptures. This does not mean in “accordance with the Gospel writings”, but “in accordance with the Scriptures of the Old Testament” (we first see the phrase in 1 Corinthians 15:3). Through the eyes of the fathers and the Tradition of the Church we begin to see that in accordance with the Scriptures is more than the few references that can be found that refer to payment or sacrifice or that point to the Cross. The Gospel given to us includes a very wholistic understanding of salvation and its story – and unfolds that from beginning to end.

The union with the flesh of the Virgin is the union with our humanity – indeed with the whole created order. What Christ takes to Himself in that action, He takes with Himself throughout His ministry, taking it into death and Hades and raising it again with Himself on the third day. Thus St. Paul can say:

Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin (Romans 6:4-6).

These comments on death and resurrection in the context of Baptism, in which “we have been united together,” only make sense in an understanding of salvation as communion.

The death of the Mother of God (for He who was born of her was truly God as well as truly man), commemorated in the Feast of the Dormition, is something in which all of creation shares. For the point of the Incarnation was not simply to take flesh of the Virgin, but to be united with the whole created order. And so creation itself “groans and travails” as it awaits the final completion of our salvation (Romans 8). Or as the Church sings:

All of creation rejoices in Thee, O Full of Grace,
the assembly of angels and the race of men.
O sanctified temple and spiritual paradise,
the glory of virgins,
from whom God was incarnate and became a child.
Our God before the ages,
He made thy body into a throne,
and thy womb He made more spacious than the Heavens.
All of creation rejoices in thee,
O Full of Grace, glory to thee!

Her Dormition is indeed a day the earth stood still – for the Mother of us all passes from death to life.

Miracles and Creation

July 11, 2009

Southwest Trip 116There is an aspect of the modern use of the word “miracle,” that is more than a little problematic. While it is true that a number of Orthodox hymns in referring to certain dramatic events use the phrase, “the order of nature is overthrown,” this is far from being a complete theological account of what we know as the miraculous. A common understanding in the secular world of the miraculous is that it is somehow a disruption of the natural order – something that does not belong in our world. The classic “proof” of a miracle used in some parts of the Christian world is that it must not have any “natural” or “scientific” explanation. It seems to me that this approach makes an inappropriate and radical distinction between the actions of God and the actions of nature: it is more of the “two-storey universe” about which I have written at length.

The two animal stories I have posted to the site are both explainable by natural means. Thus many, both believers and non-believers, would say, “These are not miracles.” However, in our secularized two-storey universe this is tantamount to saying, “It has nothing to do with God.” And this is problematic.

The redemption for which we await is not a redemption that destroys nature or discards nature. Our redemption is equally a redemption of the material order:

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now. Not only that, but we also who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body. For we were saved in this hope, but hope that is seen is not hope; for why does one still hope for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with perseverance (Romans 8:18-25).

The redemption of the world does not make it into something other than the world – though it raises it to a new manner of existence. So, too, we do not cease to be human in the resurrection, nor do we cease to have bodies: our bodies, however, exist in a new manner.

Miracles as the world understands them are things that prove the existence of God – and thus become points of argumentation with those who do not believe. Such argumentation based on miraculous proofs is not the foundation of true faith. The God who has made Himself known to us in Christ is “everywhere present and filling all things” as is said in the prayer, “O Heavenly King.”  Isaiah says that “the whole earth is full of Thy glory” (Is. 6:3). The present age has so constructed its worldview that the glory of God is nowhere to be seen. But this is a perversion of sight – a modern manifestation of the fall.

With such limitations even well-meaning efforts can be misdirected. Thus there is a tendency in our present moment to equate global warming with the apocalypse and imagine that failure to control and manage this phenomenon will bring the judgment of God down on our heads. That we should live rightly with creation and as stewards of what we have been given is true. But our hope is not to be found in a new technology or ecology by which we manage to control the climate. No God is needed for such imaginative projects – though many will use His name to underwrite their efforts.

A more radical transformation (as well as stewardship) is asked of us. That transformation is first made known to us in the incarnation of Christ in which “matter becomes the means of my salvation” (in the writings of St. John of Damascus). It is daily made known to us in the mysteries of the Church in which the simple elements of bread, wine, water, oil, the laying on of hands and other actions are means by which our salvation is made effective within us and made known to us. It is the transformation of Creation that beckons to us and the transformation of our very selves by the mercies of God.

The blessing of objects in this world does not make them to be something other than what they are (I make an exception of the Eucharistic elements which must be reserved for a different discussion). It reveals them to be in a unique position with God and His Divine Energies. But the Great Blessing of the Waters or the blessing of Water at Holy Baptism does not make the water to be something that is not water. This was strongly emphasized in my heart when, standing at the Jordan River last year, I heard the words of the Great Blessing from the Bishop who was presiding, “Send the blessing of Jordan…” Do we pray to make the Jordan River to be the Jordan River? Yes, in an important sense, we do.

Our redemption in the course of this life is, among other things, a recovery of our true humanity. Christ is “fully human” (and “fully Divine”). In the words of Met. Kallistos Ware, and He is the first “fully human.” At the least we may say that in comparison to the humanity of Christ – our humanity is broken. Thus this life is lived in a recovery of the glory that is proper to human beings.

I believe that glory is revealed in many ways – most of which might not be recognized as “miraculous.” Love of enemy, which is probably “miraculous” when it actually occurs, is one of the ways in which that glory is revealed. Love of friend – love of wolf and bird (and all creation) are also revelatory. The icon of the New Creation is made manifest in such moments.

I believe a proper view of our world is to see its iconic character. Creation is a “window” to heaven – the glory that is being made manifest. St. John Chrysostom once said that “he who gives to the poor is greater than he who raises a man from the dead.” It is a simple echo of St. Paul’s teachings in 1 Corinthians 13  (“if I have not love…”).

I do not know the truly full account of St. Seraphim and the Bear or of St. Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio (and similar stories). But they contain more than the story of a circus performance. The friendship of man and nature is a reflection of the God who saw creation and said, “It is good.”

I know that when I see a monk walking with a wolf, friend to friend, something in my heart leaps and says, “It is good.”

The Communion of Prayer

July 7, 2009

MonkPrayerNow it came to pass in those days that He went out to the mountain to pray, and continued all night in prayer to God (Luke 6:12).

Have you ever wondered what Jesus did when He prayed all night? Have you ever tried to pray all night? If your conception of prayer is a monologue of needs, information and requests, then your experience of prayer is either that it is very short or very repetitive.

Years ago, in my years between high school and college, I lived in a religious commune (yes, it was the early ’70’s). From time to time in our efforts to live a life based in Scripture, we “kept watch,” though we had no guidance from tradition to explain the meaning of the phrase. Our practice was first to stay awake all night. Second, we tried to pray. The monologue model made no dent in the hours of the night. We quickly learned that in order to pray all night something else had to serve as prayer. We learned to pray the Psalms. Accidentally, we had begun to practice one of the ancient forms of “keeping watch.”

Fittingly, it was one of the simplest forms of keeping watch – but the experience was instructive. We began to learn the value of simply being present to God (who is Himself everywhere present) and attentive to the words of prayer itself.

It seems to me that Christ would have had no need to hold conversation through the night with the Father. There was no information to be conveyed – no requests not already known. The need to pray in such an intense manner is simply the expression of true communion – such as exists eternally in the Godhead. For human beings, that communion is most frequently expressed as prayer. It is a need greater than food:

In the meantime His disciples urged Him, saying, “Rabbi, eat.”
But He said to them, “I have food to eat of which you do not know.”
Therefore the disciples said to one another, “Has anyone brought Him anything to eat?”
Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me, and to finish His work.


When He had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterward He was hungry. Now when the tempter came to Him, he said, “If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.”
But He answered and said, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’”

More valuable than food – such communion is greater than sleep as well. Thus Christ prayed through the night on occasion. The practice has continued in the ascetic life of the Church through the centuries.

It is prayer as communion with God that concerns me in this post. Such an understanding is not simply a description of so-called “contemplative” prayer, but is properly the understanding for all prayer. Prayer is communion, expressed in words, in songs, in a presence that sometimes transcends words. Prayer is stepping consciously into the life that has been given us in Christ – and remaining there for a period of time (unceasingly is the Scriptural goal).

Participation in the life of God (communion) is the heart of intercessory prayer.

But [Christ], because He continues forever, has an unchangeable priesthood. Therefore He is also able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them (Hebrews 7:24-25).

Christ’s “intercession for us” should not be understood as an eternal torrent of words; intercession is Christ’s union with us who have now been united to Him and thus united to His eternal communion with the Father.

This same understanding of prayer is at the heart of the intercession of the saints. Much confusion about the intercession of the saints has been wrought by poor images of prayer. We have reduced prayer to talk and intercession to talk to God about someone else. It is in this imagery that the Protestant question comes forward: “Why do we need someone else to speak to God for us? Isn’t Christ’s prayer enough?”

Of course, if prayer is just talk, then surely Christ’s words would be sufficient. But this oversimplification of prayer fails to do justice to Christ’s own prayer (as well as that of the saints). The intercession of the saints is their communion and participation in the life of Christ. By His life they live and the very character of that life is a communion with God. Rightly understood – that communion is prayer itself. When we express our own communion with the saints through asking their prayers we are giving verbal expression to what is already an ontological reality. As we are in communion with Christ so we are in communion with the saints. The Church cannot be other than the Church.

There may be those who reject the “intercession of the saints” (particularly as caricatured by inadequate understandings of prayer), but if they are truly in the communion of the Church then the intercession of the saints is inherently part of that communion. There is no Church that is not also the communion of the saints.

Our salvation is participation in the life of Christ. It is our healing, our forgiveness, our resurrection and our peace. Prayer is the sound of salvation – even in a wordless state.

Our reluctance to pray (let us be honest) is a manifestation of the primordial sin. It is not the time or effort we avoid – but communion with God that causes us to recoil. It is the hardness of our heart that avoids participation in the heart of God. But it is also His mercy that continues to call us to the life of prayer despite our selfish rebuff.

Coming out, He went to the Mount of Olives, as He was accustomed, and His disciples also followed Him. When He came to the place, He said to them, “Pray that you may not enter into temptation.”

And He was withdrawn from them about a stone’s throw, and He knelt down and prayed, saying, “Father, if it is Your will, take this cup away from Me; nevertheless not My will, but Yours, be done.” Then an angel appeared to Him from heaven, strengthening Him. And being in agony, He prayed more earnestly. Then His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.

When He rose up from prayer, and had come to His disciples, He found them sleeping from sorrow. Then He said to them, “Why do you sleep? Rise and pray, lest you enter into temptation” (Luke 22:39-46).

Salvation, Prayer and Communion with God

July 6, 2009

MACEDONIA-ORTHODOX CHRISTMASFew things are as fundamental to the New Testament as the reality of communion (koinonia). It means a commonality, a sharing and participation in the same thing. It is this commonality or sharing that lies at the very heart of our salvation. This communion is described in Christ’s “high priestly prayer”:

I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me (John 17:20-23).

The unity for which Christ prays is no mere “quality” of our life in Christ – but is our life in Christ. That this unity (communion) is the very life of salvation is made clear in St. John’s first epistle:

This is the message which we have heard from Him and declare to you, that God is light and in Him is no darkness at all. If we say that we have communion [koinonia] with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have communion [koinonia] with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin (1 John 5:5-7).

Here our communion with God is described as a communion of light – though the nature of that light is made clear: God is light. St. John uses light to say that our communion is a true participation in God, in His very life.

This same saving participation in the life of God is presented in Christ’s discourse on the Eucharist:

Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who feeds on Me will live because of Me (John 6:53-57).

Some time ago I wrote about the problem of many modern English translations in which koinonia is rendered “fellowship,” a very weak translation indeed. Our very life in Christ is trivialized by unwitting (I hope) translators into a noun used to describe church socials. It is a witness to how far removed many modern treatments of our saving relationship with Christ have become from the classic treatments of Orthodox tradition.

The compartmentalization of theology (ethics, soteriology, ecclesiology, pneumatology – and the list goes on) frequently results in a fragmented, disjointed account of the Christian life. When you view the massive tomes that comprise the average systematic theology it is a marvel that the New Testament manages to be so short.

A telling weakness of many “theologies” is their failure to give account for the most common aspects of our Christian life. Prayer is a very straightforward example. Many systematic presentations of theology have no treatment of prayer whatsoever, despite the fact that we are bidden to “pray without ceasing.” How is it that something so pervasive finds no place in a theological description?

It is just this kind of spiritual myopia that marks theology that has departed from the Tradition of the faith and set off on its own trail of creativity. Thus, much has been written on “predestination” (a word which occurs but a few times in all the New Testament) while prayer is relegated to lesser treatments in what amounts to a category of recreational reading.

The Tradition does not treat prayer in this manner. Prayer is so much at the heart of the teaching of the faith that it is stated: Lex orandi, lex credendi – “the law of praying is the law of believing.” This is far more than saying that liturgy preserves the most primitive and pure proclamations of the gospel (though this is true). It is also saying that prayer itself is a pure expression of the gospel.

This becomes particularly clear when prayer is understood to be communion [koinonia] with God. And it is not prayer alone of which this can be said: the whole of the Christian life – every sacrament of the Church – has as its foundation our saving participation in the life of God.

I offer here some thoughts from a post in 2007 on communion with God:

One of the best places to begin thinking about communion with God is to ask the question: “What is wrong with the human race?” What is it about us such that we need saving?

The answer to that question is perhaps the linchpin of Christian theology (at least what has been revealed to us). Among the most central of Orthodox Christian doctrines is that human beings have fallen out of communion with God – we have severed the bond of communion with which we were created and thus we are no longer in communion with the Lord and Giver of Life, we no longer have a share in His Divine Life, but instead have become partakers of death.

St. Athanasius describes this in his On the Incarnation of the Word:

For God had made man thus (that is, as an embodied spirit), and had willed that he should remain in incorruption. But men, having turned from the contemplation of God to evil of their own devising, had come inevitably under the law of death. Instead of remaining in the state in which God had created them, they were in process of becoming corrupted entirely, and death had them completely under its dominion. For the transgression of the commandment was making them turn back again according to their nature ; and as they had at the beginning come into being out of non-existence, so were they now on the way to returning, through corruption, to non-existence again. The presence and love of the Word had called them into being; inevitably, therefore, when they lost the knowledge of God, they lost existence with it; for it is God alone Who exists, evil is non-being, the negation and antithesis of good. By nature, of course, man is mortal, since he was made from nothing; but he bears also the Likeness of Him Who is, and if he preserves that Likeness through constant contemplation, then his nature is deprived of its power and he remains incorrupt. So is it affirmed in Wisdom : “The keeping of His laws is the assurance of incorruption.” (Wisdom 6. 18)

This lack of communion with God, this process of death at work in us, manifests itself in a myriad of ways, extending from moral failure, to death and disease itself. It corrupts everything around us – our relationships with other people and our families, our institutions and our best intentions.

Without intervention, the process of death results in the most final form of death – complete alienation and enmity with God (from our point of view). We come to hate all things righteous and good. We despise the Light and prefer darkness. Since this is the state of human beings who have cut themselves off from communion with God, we substitute many things and create a “false” life, mistaking wealth, fame, youth, sex, emotions, etc., for true life.

Seeing all of this as true of humanity – the Orthodox Christian faith does not generally view humanity as having a “legal” problem. It is not that we did something wrong and now owe a debt we cannot pay, or are being punished with death  – though such a metaphor can be used and has its usefulness. Be we need more than a change in our legal status – we need a change in our ontological status – that is we must be filled with nothing less than the Life of God in order to be healed, forgiven and made new. Jesus did not come to make bad men good; He came to make dead men live.

Thus God came into our world, becoming one of us, so that by His sharing in our life, we might have a share in His life. In Holy Baptism we are united to Him, and everything else He gives us in the Life of His Church is for the purpose of strengthening, nurturing, and renewing this Life within us. All of the sacraments have this as their focus. It is the primary purpose of prayer.

Thus, stated simply, to have communion with God means to have a share in His Divine Life. He lives in me and I in Him. I come to know God even as I know myself. I come to love even as God loves because it is His love that dwells in me. I come to forgive as God forgives because it His mercy that dwells within me.

Without such an understanding of communion, many vitally important parts of the Christian life are reduced to mere moralisms. We are told to love our enemies as though it were a simple moral obligation. Instead, we love our enemies because God loves our enemies, and we want to live in the Life of God. We’re not trying to be good, or to prove anything to God by loving our enemies. It is simply the case that if the Love of God dwells in us, then we will love as God loves.

Of course all of this is the free gift of God, though living daily in communion with God is difficult. The disease of broken communion that was so long at work in us is difficult to cure. It takes time and we must be patient with ourselves and our broken humanity – though never using this as an excuse not to seek the healing that God gives.

We were created for communion with God – it is our very life. Thinking about communion with God is not a substitute for communion with God. Theology as abstraction has no life within it. Theology is a life lived in Christ. Thus there is the common saying within Orthodoxy: “a theologian is one who prays, and one who prays is a theologian.”

If we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have communion with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin.

This is our salvation.

A Sacrifice of Emptiness – the Fullness of Life in Christ

June 22, 2009

IMG_1007Conversation this past week on this site has centered around mercy and justice and the understanding of the sacrifice of Christ. I began with an article on a quote by St. Isaac of Syria, who famously questions the human concept of justice and its relation to God. The Christian treatment of the atonement – what does it mean to say that “Christ died for us” – has found expression in a variety of forms over the centuries – not always compatible with one another.

I want to take the discussion into a different place with this post. Frequently the question of “sacrifice” drives the discussion of the atonement. It is a powerful presence in both Old and New Testament – though, I would suggest, the New Testament is not properly interpreted by the Old – but rather the Old by the New. Christ’s sacrifice is a redefinition of sacrifice – just as His revelation of the Father offers something that was not known before. The disciples do not “understand the Scriptures” until they are interpreted by Christ. They do not know Him to be the Christ because they first knew the Scriptures – rather they come to know the Scriptures because they know Him as Christ (Luke 24:27; Luke 24:45). 

There is an image in St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians that offers an understanding of the sacrifice of Christ – an image that has found a profound place within the inner life of the Orthodox faith:

Have this mind within you which is yours in Christ Jesus: who, though He was in the form of God did not consider equality with God as something to be grasped, but made Himself of no reputation; and taking the form of a bondservant came in the likeness of men; and being found in human form He emptied Himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Wherefore God has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:5-11).

This passage, which is generally acknowledged by scholars to be largely a quote by St. Paul from an early Christian hymn, represents an approach to “sacrifice” which suggests the imagery which plays a large role in the liturgical and spiritual life of the Christian East. Here there is no question of payment, whether to the Father or to Satan. Neither is the question of justice within the scope of its imagery. It is a passage, however, that is at one with the dominant hymn of Orthodox Pascha:

Christ is risen from the dead
Trampling down death by death.
And upon those in the tombs bestowing life!

It is an account of Christ’s saving action on behalf of humanity, defined by His emptying of Himself – His voluntary obedience to death by which He conquers death and sets humanity free.

For this reason does the Father love me: because I lay down my life that I might take it again. No man takes it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down and power to take it again (John 10:17-18).

The same thought is emphasized in the Eucharistic prayer of St. John Chrysostom:

On the night in which he was given up, or rather gave Himself up for the life of the world, He took bread…

The sacrifice in this account is Christ’s voluntary entrance into death – His voluntary self-emptying. 

The same image of self-emptying is a dominant image in the teaching of St. Silouan of Mt. Athos and his disciple, the Elder Sophrony (Sakharov). The union of the Christian with Christ is a union with His self-emptying. As Christ emptied Himself and entered the depths of Hades, “for the life of the world,” so, too, the Christian unites himself with Christ in prayer for the world – making himself the servant of all, entering even into the emptiness of Hades where he prays for all. Neither St. Silouan nor his biographer (Father Sophrony) can be characterized as modernizing or teaching anything other than the faith of the Church. St. Silouan’s canonization as a saint of the Church is an affirmation that his life and teaching are representative of the faith of the Church. 

Father Sophrony’s explicit teaching on this aspect of prayer is among the most revealing of the mystical life of union with Christ. It suggests a literal fulfillment of St. Paul’s command: “Have this mind within you…” It has as well the asset of removing discussion of the atonement from something that happens apart from us – and placing the atonement at the very heart of the Christian life of self-sacrificing love. Rather than compartmentalizing the Christian faith into moral theology and soteriology (atonement doctrine, etc.), everything is united in the likeness of Christ. We are not asked to offer ourselves as a penal substitute for the sin-debt of others, nor are we asked to become a propitiation. We are, however, asked to empty ourselves and to make ourselves of no reputation – to become the servants of all. And in the depths of understanding made known in the life of prayer, that servanthood extends even into the darkest corners of our existence (or near non-existence). 

Buried with Christ in baptism we are united with His death. By the same action we are united with Christ in His resurrection, trampling down death by death. And this model given to us in the mystery of baptism is not an isolated moment within the Christian life, but a definitive action by which we understand the whole of our life in Christ. It is proper that we are always dying with Christ and being united to His resurrection. In the context of our daily life – laying down our lives for others is the very meaning of love (of friend and enemy). It is the fulfilling of the gospel.

Kenosis (emptying) is not often included within discussions on the atonement – a fact which leaves such discussions removed from a major portion of the Tradition and a deeply embedded understanding within the New Testament. Christ has reconciled us to God by uniting Himself to us, and us to Himself. Through his voluntary self-emptying He united Himself with us even to the point of death – raising us with Him into new life – a life whose very definition is communion with God.

We Have Seen

June 11, 2009

DSCF0321St. John, in the prologue of his gospel, says the following:

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father (John 1:14).

In his first Epistle he says the following:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life — the life was made manifest, and we saw it, and testify to it, and proclaim to you the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us — that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship [koinonia: communion] with us; and our fellowship [koinonia: communion] is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ (1 John 1:1-3).

In a very similar vein, one of the hymns for Pentecost Sunday proclaims:

We have seen the true light! We have received the heavenly Spirit! We have found the true Faith! Worshipping the undivided Trinity, who has saved us.

This same hymn is sung every Sunday as part of the Divine Liturgy.

All of these share in common a similar theme – our witness of Christ is not a testimony to an idea or to a theory about an idea or story. The witness of the Church is rooted in our experiential knowledge of God. St. John does confine himself in his prologue to the mere “literal” witness of “the tomb was empty.” This, of course, is part of the witness. But the greater witness is to the communion with God found in knowing the risen Christ. “The word of life was made manifest, and we saw it, and testify to it, and proclaim to you the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us…” The risen Christ is known not only as the one raised from the dead, but is understood as the “word of life…the eternal life which was with the Father.”

This understanding transcends the “bare facts” of a newspaper account – indeed the witness of Scripture is that the one who was raised from the dead is none other than the Word of Life, Eternal Life with the Father. This realization is contained in the confession of faith of every Christian: “Jesus is Lord.”

All theology finds its proper root in this true knowledge of God. It should never be mere speculation based on a rational system of thought – but rather the unfolding of the mystery made known to us in the risen Christ. The hunger for this true knowledge of God is the very core of the Christian life: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled.”

The safeguarding of saving knowledge (true participation in the life of God) is the purpose of all doctrine. Every dogmatic statement of the Church has as its sole purpose the safeguarding of true participation in the life of God. Dogma is not an argument over ideas, but a statement that guards the Apostolic witness (which is living and true).

I ran across the following story from the Desert Fathers (in the parish newsletter, The Light, of Sts. Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church in Wesbster, MA, edited by Fr. Luke Veronis – my thanks):

There is a story from the Desert Fathers about a young monk who asked one of the holy men of the desert why it is that so many people came out to the desert to seek God and yet most of them gave up after a short time and returned to their lives in the city.

The old monk responded:

“Last evening my dog saw a rabbit running for cover among the bushes of the desert and he began to chase the rabbit, barking loudly. Soon other dogs joined the chase, barking and running. They ran a great distance and alerted many other dogs. Soon the wilderness was echoing the sounds of their pursuit but the chase went on into the night.

After a little while, many of the dogs grew tired and dropped out. A few chased the rabbit until the night was nearly spent. By morning, only my dog continued the hunt.”

“Do you understand,” the old man siad, “what I have told you?”

“No,” replied the young monk, “please tell me, father.”

“It is simple,” said the desert father, “my dog saw the rabbit!”



Babylon and the Trees of Pentecost

June 6, 2009

From the Feast of Pentecost

The arrogance of building the tower in the days of old
led to the confusion of tongues.
Now the glory of the knowledge of God brings them wisdom.
There God condemned the impious for their transgression.
Here Christ has enlightened the fishermen by the Spirit.
There disharmony was brought about for punishment.//
Now harmony is renewed for the salvation of our souls.

The first time I saw trees in an Orthodox Church was at St. Tikhon’s Monastery in Pennsylvania, just after Pentecost Sunday. I was completely caught off guard. Though I had been in a number of different Churches over the years, I had never been in a parish of Russian background for the feast of Pentecost. Thus I had missed the Slavic practice of bringing trees into Church for the feast of Pentecost. It was wonderful – like going into Church only to find a forest.

Holy Resurrection at Pentecost, 1My Western background left me completely unprepared for this Eastern take on the feast of the gift of the Spirit to the Church. In Western Churches, Pentecost particularly focuses on the “fire” of the Holy Spirit lighting on the disciples in the upper room and the “empowerment” of the Church for mission. Traditionally in the West, the color of the feast is red (for the fire).

In the East, the color of the feast is green – which is also the color worn for the feast days of monastic saints. In the West, green is the “ordinary” color worn in the “in between” Sundays and weekdays of the Calendar. For the Orthodox, gold serves this function. 

But I found myself in the midst of trees on a major feast that was “green.” I was simply baffled.

In Russian practice the feast is normally referred to as the feast of the Trinity (Troitsa) rather than Pentecost, or “Pentecost” is listed as an afterthought (Pentecost). It is obvious that something quite different is at work in the understanding of the feast day. 

Both East and West keep the feast as the day upon which the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles. Orthodoxy does not ignore the various tongues with which the Apostles began to speak as they announced the gospel to those assembled in Jerusalem. However, as noted in the verse quoted at the beginning of this article – those tongues are seen as a spiritual counterpart to the confusion of the tower of Babel, when men in their hubris sought to build a tower into heaven. The tongues which came upon them only proclaimed darkness and confusion and brought to an end the last great ecumenical effort of humanity. 

The Church is God’s vision of united mankind – a union achieved through the gift of God and not by human effort. It is a union which maintains a diversity of sorts (the languages do not become one “super” language – so much for the “unity” of Latin) but a diversity whose unity is found in true union with the one, living and true God. The gospel proclaimed by the apostles on the day of Pentecost, though preached in many languages, was one and the same gospel. 

One may still wonder why the feast becomes a feast of the Trinity. Like the feast of Theophany (the Baptism of Christ), Pentecost is a feast in which the revelation of the Holy Trinity is made manifest. The Spirit is the gift of the Father – given through the Son. There were many centuries that passed before a parish was named for the Trinity.

Among the first within the Orthodox world was the Lavra (Monastery) of the Holy Trinity outside of Moscow, founded by St. Sergius in the 14th century. His vision of the common life was seen as an earthly icon of the Divine Life of the Holy Trinity in which each of the Divine Persons shared a common life. The monastery was itself a place of spiritual rebirth for the Russian land as it began to come out from under the oppression of the Tatar yoke. The spiritual life of Holy Trinity monastery was a spiritual awakening for the land when Russians remembered that they were brothers of one another and shared a common life. This common life became the strength that allowed them to assert their freedom. 

Of course, all of the above is both interesting and true but has yet to explain the trees. The Jewish feast of Pentecost (fifty days after the Passover) marks the beginning of the harvest feast. The first-fruits of the harvest are brought to the temple to be blessed of God. For Christians the harvest that is sought is the harvest of a renewed humanity and the renewal of creation. Thus the trees are a representation of the created order, assembled together with the people of God, awaiting and receiving the gift of the Spirit through whom everything is made new. 

It is a very rich feast – one that is filled with meaning (as is appropriate). But all of the meaning takes as its source the gift to creation of the “Lord and Giver of Life,” the Holy Spirit. Just as we are told in Genesis: 

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.

With a word, God speaks, and where the Spirit hovered, life comes forth.

So it is in the life of the Church and in creation today. Where God speaks, renewed life comes forth. All of creation groans and travails, awaiting the final great Word that will signal the renewal of all things.  For now, we see that promise foreshadowed by trees in Church and green on the priests and by the joy of our hearts.

Heaven On Their Minds

June 2, 2009

mandylion_str_01Years ago, I recall hearing someone complain about zealous Christians, “They are so heavenly minded that they are of no earthly good.” The truth of the statement depends entirely on the understanding of heaven and earth. It is possible to pursue a version of “heaven” such that the spiritual life is undermined. It is also possible to pursue heaven in such a way that the world around us is transformed. It is an important difference.

The principle difference lies in a heaven of the imagination and a heaven that is an in-breaking reality. History, particularly modern history, is replete with various fanciful utopias. The promise of a “better world to come,” does not always come with a proper commentary to guide the hopeful. Thus everything from Marxist totalitarianism to America’s Shining City on a Hill have been thrust forward as “better worlds.” Both, of course, have their dark sides though I by no means draw an equivalence.

But for the Christian, a concern for the “things to come” is right and proper. Eschatology (the study of the “last things”) is an irreplaceable part of Christian understanding. The eschatology on which I was raised was a version of Darbyite Dispensationalism. There was a fascination with world events and the expectation of a soon return of Christ. But the end of things only brought another literalism – a world better than the one we inhabit – but in many ways, not so different. The imagination was not concerned with the “things of heaven” but with the events that would bring us there. Of course there are dangers associated with this form of eschatology, primarily from its inherent involvement with politics. It is a dangerous thing to vote on the Second Coming of Christ.

Orthodox eschatology could best be illustrated from Scripture:

For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known (1 Cor. 13:12).

Of course, I could choose many other passages to consider Orthodox eschatology – but, rightly read, the entirety of Scripture is eschatological. For the Scriptures bear the truth to us (which is always from the eschaton, the end). The truth of things is only to be found fully in their end.

It is this in-breaking of the truth to which the faith bears witness. Though it be seen but dimly in a mirror – it is still the Face which we shall behold ourselves when all has been done.

It is this same Face that is manifest in everything about us (though some mirrors are far more dim than others). It is the sight of a Face that does not render us “too heavenly minded to be of earthly good,” but a Face that reveals to us the true character of earthly good. 

To see the Face of Christ in the face of another human being is not becoming “of no earthly good,” but to begin to see clearly the true character of our brothers and sisters. The Face also reveals to us the true character of the sinful distortions we would cast into the mirrors around us. Only with the vision of the one true Face, are we able to correct the distortions and find ourselves corrected as well.

Orthodox eschatology makes no extreme claims of “realized eschatology” (as in Dodd’s work), but of an unrealized eschatology that nonetheless makes itself manifest to us in a manner that is frequently more real than the mirror in which it is beheld. The theology of icon and the revelation of beauty both point beyond themselves to the Image that has already come among us, is already abiding with us, and is yet to come (Rev. 1:8).

Christ offered a glimpse of the eschatological principle when he said: “Do not think that I came to destroy the law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill” (Matt. 5:17). The union of heaven and earth (which is how St. Maximus the Confessor describes the eschaton) is not the destruction of earth – but its fulfillment. The Face that we behold is the True Image – in which we were created and according to which we will be recreated. That is a great earthly and heavenly good.


May 29, 2009

IMG_0408I offer a brief apology to Buddhists – forgive me if I have mischaracterized your religious practices.

We are enjoined by St. Paul to have within us the mind that was in Christ – specifically in His self-emptying love in going to the Cross (Philippians 2:5-11). It is the very heart of humility. Of course there are difficulties when we seek to practice such a thing – difficulties for which I have already apologized.

Christians are not Buddhists.

We cannot undertake an effort of self-emptying in a vacuum. We cannot be humble merely in reference to ourself. The Christian goal is the “loss of self” in a certain context, but never in a manner in which there is nothing to be found where a self should be.

The point of St. Paul’s admonition, as well as the point of Christ’s own self-emptying, is not negative, nor may it be achieved through negative efforts. Self-emptying is an act of love – an enlargement of the heart – and extension of our person towards the person of others.

Thus self-emptying is never a matter of looking inwards – but always a matter of extension beyond ourselves.

The Christian vision of love always includes love of the other. There can be no “love” that exists apart from the personal. Even in our understanding of the Trinity – we may say, as does St. John – that “God is love,” but not in any sense of a self-existing non-referential love. The Father loves the Son and the Son loves the Father. The Father loves the Spirit and the Spirit loves the Father. The Son loves the Spirit and the Spirit loves the Son.

Thus to say, “God loves,” is something of an incomplete sentence. Christian theology would argue that only in the Trinitarian revelation does the statement “God is love” make sense.

By the same token, humility is not a negative act, a “negation” of the self. Rather it is an opening of the self that allows room for the life of the other. God, who is ‘meek and lowly in heart,’ is just so because His life is open to creation and to His human creatures as it is open, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Humility and self-emptying are not the loss of self but the gaining of a true self (where self is understood to be synonymous with “life”). I often marvel at discussions of over-population. Ignoring the Malthusian nightmares of various Cassandras, I find that we are only crowded because there is not enough room for “false selves.” The world is hardly big enough for a single false self. However, love always has room. It is how God can be everywhere present and filling all things and yet have room for us.

Is there any room at the inn?