Posts Tagged ‘creation’

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.

Candlewax and Hedgehogs – Groundhog Day

January 29, 2011

This article, from an earlier parish newsletter is posted here by request.

Candlewax and Hedgehogs—a peculiar way to entitle an article, I’ll admit. But both have their associations with the second day of February. The first is more important so we’ll begin there. The second day of February is one of the 12 great feasts, and is also celebrated by Christians in the West. The feast is the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, described in the second chapter of St. Luke’s gospel.

There we are told that the Christ child was brought by his mother into the temple in fulfillment of the law, 40 days after his birth (February 2 is 40 days after December 25). The Old Testament Law commanded that “every male that openeth the womb (the first born child) shall be holy to the Lord.” Thus the child was brought to the Temple in Jerusalem and an offering made on His behalf in thanksgiving to God for his birth.

The Most Holy Mother of God certainly kept this teaching of the Law. We are told that she brought her child to the Temple to make offering (and to receive her purification—another required rite of the Temple). There she was met by two people, one a woman, another a man, and both of them prophets. The woman, Anna the Prophetess, spoke to her concerning her child. The aged prophet Symeon, saw the mother and Child and exclaimed in words we repeat at every Vespers:

Lord now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace. For mine eyes have seen Thy salvation which Thou hast prepared before the face of all people. To be a Light to enlighten the nations and to be the glory of Thy people Israel.

This prophecy of St. Symeon has as its key phrase the description that Christ would be a “light to enlighten the gentiles.” It is the emphasis on light that brings these words each evening to the service of Vespers, when we give thanks to God for the Light He has given us. It is also for this reason that candles are blessed on this holy day. The candles of the Church (and especially those to be taken home and used by the faithful) are blessed on this day, because they remind us that Christ is the “light of the world.”

The associations of this feast with light is also where the hedgehogs come in. Christian cultures have usually never let the feasts of the Church stay within the Church itself, but have exported them to the house and farm. So it was that in Europe (particularly Germany) there arose a folk custom that on the Feast of the Presentation (also called “Candlemas” because candles were blessed on that day) that if a hedgehog [badgers in some areas] should come out of his burrow and see the light (and thus his shadow) he would return to his burrow because winter would last six more weeks.

German immigrants brought this folk custom to America in the 1800’s. There being no hedgehogs in North America, the groundhog was drafted to take its place. Thus the secular calendar in America celebrates “Groundhog Day.” But only the faithful Christian knows and understands the secret of the Light that shines on February 2nd. Not the light of the sun, frightening a furry creature back into his hole, but the Light of Christ, which frightens all the evil powers that would do us harm.

For an interesting theological meditation on Groundhog Day, I suggest you rent and view the movie by that title. Bill Murray finds redemption as he lives his way through a near eternity of Groundhog Days. But I will spare you.

Suffering in a One-Storey Universe

November 1, 2010

A comment on a previous post which mentioned the Biblical and patristic teaching that we should “give thanks to God for all things” has been an occasion for personal reflection – the substance of which forms this present post. For those who wrestle with the inherent difficulties of giving thanks for all things – I hope this reflection will be helpful.

The comment which occasioned these thoughts:

..I think the lines separating suffering FOR Christ/for His sake and the suffering in life as is common to ALL men have become blurred….if i suffer persecution or if i am treated unjustly for naming Christ or for righteousness sake then i partake/share in Christ’s sufferings and would have joyful reason to Thank God for it…Yet for the christian NOT ALL  suffering experienced is FOR Christ’s sake…the vast majority (if not all)of my sufferings and trials while living my life as an american christian has nothing at all to do with my being a christian but is the common ‘stuff’ of life….there is a difference.. is there not?

As I thought about this very excellent question – I began to see the familiar pattern of secular thought which marks the “default position” of our culture – for believers and un-believers alike. Secularism does not disbelieve in God, but it divides the world into separate spheres: we inhabit a natural “non-God” arena – but God may be “accessed” in prayer, etc. In earlier writings I have described this construct as a “two-storey universe.” God dwells in heaven (or somewhere) while we live here in a world which works according to its own laws, etc. Transcendent meaning and all things “religious” are thus exiled to certain moments, or certain spaces, or to events of a certain nature. Things that are not so exiled are just “the stuff of life.”

In such a scenario, suffering takes on a “two-storey” character. There are specifically difficult things to be borne for Christ’s sake – persecution and other heroic religious acts – but there is also suffering that is just the “stuff of life”: cancer, tsunamis, earthquakes, being lost in a bad economy, the death of a child or a spouse, etc. This division of the world in which some suffering is “for Christ’s sake” while other suffering carries no particular meaning at all, partakes of the same problems raised by the two-storey model in every other area it touches. One part of our life is capable of transcendence while most of our lives collapse into the banality of “stuff.” Thus most of life is meaningless and absurd. It also seems to me, that the islands of transcendence which we posit in such a massive sea of absurdity, run the risk of a constantly shrinking shoreline. Transcendent meaning has not only been diminished, but stands on the edge of extinction.

I will offer a few observations:

1. Either Christ’s Pascha (His death and resurrection) contained all of existence (including all suffering) or it contained nothing.

2. Either Christ’s Pascha has filled everything with transcendence or it has filled nothing.

3. Every event, every particle of existence is “for Christ’s sake,” or nothing is “for His sake.”

This “all or nothing” approach to Christ and His Pascha lies at the very heart of the gospel and alone represents the fullness of life in Christ.

Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:4-6).

St. Paul’s description of Christ’s saving work is expressed in cosmic, all-encompassing terms. In Romans 8 he describes the “whole” creation as groaning in travail awaiting the freedom that comes in Christ. In the first chapter of Ephesians, St. Paul speaks in unmistakeable terms:

Having made known unto us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure which he hath purposed in himself: That in the dispensation of the fulness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him…” (Ephesians 1:9-11).

One of the great theological aphorisms of the fathers is that of St. Gregory the Theologian, who, addressing the doctrine of Christ’s humanity, said: “That which is not assumed is not saved.” His point was that our salvation in Christ was made possible by the fact that He took upon Himself the whole of human nature.

In the same manner, all of creation would have no hope were it not for the fact that the Creator assumed creation.

The two-storey approach to the world also creates a two-storey approach to our salvation. Those acts which have significance and transcendence are ultimately connected with human choice. Thus Christ dies for our sins (our wrong choices and actions). Actions which are not “wrong” thus have no need of redemption. Cancer caused the our choice to smoke, might thus be seen as a redeemable suffering – but the mindless, meaningless suffering of a childhood cancer cannot partake of that redemption. It is simply absurd within a two-storey universe.

I would readily grant that the suffering and evil which we encounter within the created order has the character of absurdity – but this is also part of its very character. If “all things are being gathered together in Christ,” then even absurdity is being gathered into Him – and in that union ceases to be absurd.

The Orthodox approach to the saving action of Christ has always had a very all-encompassing approach. The redemption of the world is not isolated to Christ’s death on the Cross (as payment for sin), but begins with His incarnation, when the Creator unites Himself to creation. That same Creator is crucified on the cross, and within Him all creation is crucified. The same Christ takes all of creation with Him in Hades and raises it together with Him in the resurrection. “That which is not assumed is not saved.” All is assumed.

The role of the human will (in its acceptance of Christ) is not insignificant in our salvation – but the will chooses or rejects what Christ has already accomplished. The ultimate outcome of those choices are known to God alone. However, God’s will is clear: He is “not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).

The great mystery of the suffering of Christ cannot be confined to a forensic account in which His death is simply a payment for sin. The Scripture and the fathers’ understanding of Christ is far more cosmic. Evil is inherently absurd and meaningless (for God is the only source of good and meaning is always relative to Him). But Christ has taken that absurdity into Himself and ultimately transforms it. It is the Incarnation, Crucifixion, Descent into Hades and Resurrection of Christ that make thanksgiving possible – including thanksgiving for all things. Christ is the Eucharist (thanksgiving) of the world and every act of thanksgiving finds its fulfillment in Him.

The world is not broken into sacred and profane. “Heaven and earth are full of Thy glory,” the angels sing in Isaiah’s great vision. The glory they behold is nothing other than the life of Christ which offered “on behalf of all and for all.”

For which I give thanks.

The Fullness of All Things

October 12, 2010

I am fascinated by what the Holy Tradition does with the idea of “fullness” or “fulfillment.” The Church is described as the “fullness of Him that filleth all in all” (Ephesians 1:23). And it is not unusual for Orthodox Christians to express the meaning of Orthodoxy under the rubric of “fullness”: Orthodoxy is the “fullness of the Church.”

The Scriptures do much with the concept – speaking of the “fullness of time,” or the “times being fulfilled.” It says far more than something being merely large (full) – but of a completeness in which nothing is lacking, or of a completion in which that which was anticipated is now here.

I believe that the word or concept of fullness is very expressive of what we look for in the Resurrection – not a destruction of the Person nor of the replacement of a Person, but of a Person who is finally existing in his fullness. The American Miltary may once have advertised “be all that you can be,” but such is only possible in Christ and in the fullness of time. A uniform will not fulfill you.

I use the example of a tree. I have not seen a tree in the fullness of what a tree should be. I know that in some sense all trees have been changed by the One Tree which is now the “invincible weapon of peace.” In that sense trees have seen their fullness in the Cross which was transformed from instrument of torture into instrument of life. Just as the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil once became the instrument of our death – so now the Tree of Life has become the instrument of our life. The Cross itself, and how we see it, is an excellent example. Before Christ the Cross could only be seen as an instrument of execution. After Christ we have to be reminded of its original use. After the Cross, all trees must be seen with at least a hint of their fullness.

There is a peculiar Appalachian folktale which posits the Dogwood tree as the substance of the Cross (Holy Tradition is much more elaborate, with a tree that was a composite of three different evergreens – a biological impossibility but irresistable to medieval writers). The Appalachian folktake goes on to say that the Dogwood is now a short, twisted tree as a curse, so that it could never again be used as a cross. But, of course, this runs so terribly contrary to what the Church understands of the Cross. Christ’s death on the “tree” was not an event to occasion new curses, but an event to lift all curses. Were the Dogwood the tree of the Cross, it would be the most honored tree in the forest. As things stand – we must instead give the honor to all trees and include the Dogwood (and the evergreens) among them.

After Christ, we must look at human beings differently as well. In Christ we have seen the fullness of the human. What it means to be “fully man” is revealed only in the God/Man.

All things will have their fullness – though very few yield up to us clear hints of what that fullness will be. We cannot know the fullness of a man until we see him in the fullness of Christ. Reading the lives of saints occasionally carries revelations of such images. That which seems to escape the ability of our language to describe is often a fullness for which language is inadequate.

The Mother of God comes to mind in particular. I am certain that what many Protestants find troubling about the place of the Theotokos in the Church is the problem of someone who has been made known to us in her fullness. She is “full of grace,” and we stagger before such a revelation. She is not mere mother, but Mother of God. We are accused of saying things about her, or offering a devotion which is inappropriate, but none of this is true if we are understood to be standing before someone who stands in her fullness.

Everything around us has a fullness – which also says that we do not yet see the Truth of the things that surround us. How carefully and joyfully we would move through the world if we knew or could see that fullness already – but this is the mind and the eyes of Christ. Such eyes could see a fisherman who seemed more talk than action and call him a “rock” while seeing in him a character and possibility that were years away from their fulfillment.

The same eyes could see a Publican and yet see a saint. The same eyes saw Jerusalem and wept for that great mother of all cities that has yet to see her fullness though her name is married and synonymous with the Fulness that is to come.

And so we sing with the angels, “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Sabaoth, heaven and earth are full of Thy glory!” We do not yet see such a fullness. But as St. Paul reminded us – that which we do not see we await in hope. I hope to see us all in that fullness as well as the whole world.

The Cross and the Cosmos

September 17, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Babylon and the Trees of Pentecost

May 21, 2010

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.

My 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.

Met. Kallistos Ware on Christ and Creation

April 6, 2010

The mystery of Christ’s Pascha, I noted in my previous post, is the meaning and fulfillment of all things. There are many ways to consider this in the heart. One is to look at creation from within the Scriptures. Today I offer some thoughts of Met. Kallistos Ware, from a small book of his The Beginning of the Day.  His thoughts are on creation and our Christian relationship to the world around us.


The  Cosmic Christ

Before I end my reflections upon the Orthodox vision of creation – upon the bonds that unite us with the animals in a single ‘earth community’ – I ask you to recall with me how every part of the created order played a part in the story of Christ’s life and death:

  • a star appeared at His birth (Matt. 2:9-10);
  • an ox and and ass stood beside His crib as He lay in swaddling clothes (cf. Isa. 1:30)\
  • during the forty days of His temptation in the wilderness He was with the wild beasts ( Mark 1:13);
  • repeatedly He spoke of Himself as a shepherd, and of His disciples as sheep (Luke 15:3-7; Matt. 18:10-14; John 10-1-16);
  • He likened His love for Jerusalem to the maternal love of a hen for her chickens (Matt. 23:37);
  • He taught that every sparrow is precious in the sight of God the Father (Matt. 10:29);
  • He illustrated His parables with references to the lilies (Matt. 6:28-30), to the mustard bush full of nesting birds (Mark 4:32);, to a domestic animal that has fallen into a pit on the Sabbath day (Matt. 12:11);
  • He urged us to show reptilian subtlety and avian guilelessness: ‘Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves’ (Matt.l 10:16);
  • as Lord of creation, He stillled the storm (Mark 4:35-41) and walked upon water (Mark 6:45-51);

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Such, then, is our Orthodox vision of creation; such is our vocation as priests of the created order; such is our Christian reponse to the ecological crisis. Such is the deeper meaning implicit in the words that we say daily at the beginning of Vespers: ‘Bless the Lord, O my soul’.

Mystical Theology

January 28, 2010

A question was posted recently about “mystical theology.” I offer a few thoughts (written in my hotel room) that might be of some use.

My first exposure to Orthodox thought was reading Vladimir Lossky’s Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church when I was a college student. A friend gave me the book and urged me to read it. Lossky’s work read like one of the fathers from the pen of a modern contemporary. The word “mystical” in the title was new to me. It was a word that had many associations for me, none of them particularly Christian.

Mystery is an important word within Orthodoxy and fairly common. On one level, the Greek adverb mystikos, is a frequent direction in liturgical books meaning nothing more than “silently” or “quietly.” The priest is directed in the liturgy that certain prayers are to be read mystikos.

In another usage, the Church commonly uses the word mystery where the Latin would say sacrament. Thus it is normal to speak of the “mysteries” of the Church meaning nothing more than the sacraments of the Eucharist, Baptism, etc.

However, Lossky’s use of the word in the phrase, “mystical theology,” gets at a deeper meaning and a more essential part of Orthodox life and thought. “Mystical” theology is a reference to theology not as a set of ideas, but theology as a description (or verbal expression) of a life lived in communion with the living God. But the very fact that the word “mystical” is used to describe this life of communion says much about the character and reality of this life.

It is not unrelated to the article I posted a week or so ago on allegory – a reflection not simply on a literary device – but a literary device that is itself a reflection of the “allegorical” nature of reality. The modern, secular account of reality tends towards a form of literalism: what you see is what you get. In such an account, history, and some general notion of an immutable law of cause and effect, dominate the popular sense of reality. It is this same “literal” sense of reality that underlies both modern liberal theological thought (dominated by various forms of the historical-critical method) and various modern fundamentalist forms of Christian thought. The “allegorical” view that dominates the writings of the Church fathers has a completely different intuition about reality.

What we see is not what we get – what we see is not all there is. The mystical quality of theology is rooted in the belief that the ground of reality is to be found in communion – a reality and experience that is not an inherent part of a “literal” account of reality. If it is possible to have communion with another human being – to have communion with God – and for that communion to be something more than mere psychological interaction – what must be the nature of reality? How do we describe a reality in which such a communion is possible?

Orthodox thought and life begin and continue in the reality of communion. The Christian is “baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ,” according to Holy Scripture. The union of a believer with these historical/cosmic events in Christ’s life is no mere identification or show of loyalty, nor can the mere intellectual assent to the reality of these events that these events, be described as a “union.” Orthodoxy believes that we are truly and really united with the death and resurrection of Christ: His death and resurrection become our death and resurrection the very ground of our being and our hope.

With these things in mind, all Christianity should be “mystical,” and in many places this is indeed true, at least to some extent. The secularization of the Christian world-view has reduced the importance of communion (true participation) with both creation, other people, and God Himself. In its place has arisen a variety of forensic and relational schemes that only reinforce the loss of communion. A change in the meaning of sacrament (or the almost total loss of sacrament) has been a natural part of this shift.

The loss of “mystical theology” in the understanding of many Christians renders a fair amount of Scripture, particularly the New Testament, to be rather opaque. St. Paul writes (“cries out” would be more accurate) in Philippians:

…that I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the communion of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death (3:10)…

Such a plea falls on deaf ears where the understanding of the mystical character of our union with God is lost or diminished. St. Paul’s constant refrain of “in Christ” is an unyielding call to the life of union with God.

Lossky’s intention in writing the Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church was to present to the West (and to much of the East) a recovery of this participatory understanding of our life in Christ. Every aspect of the Church’s dogma has had this communion with Christ in mind. Even the doctrine of the Trinity was carefully spoken so that we might better understand the saving union with God given to us in Christ Jesus. It is the very heart of our faith.

A Nature That Is Less Than Obvious

January 24, 2010

In modern usage, the word “nature” generally refers to growing things – “the great outdoors.” Having been born in the ’50’s, I have been the veteran of several “back to nature” campaigns. There is a sense, at least as old as the Enlightenment, that if we could only get ourselves “back to nature,” things would be alright. Some of the present day environmental movement has this sense about things. Green is good.

Christian theology also uses the word “nature,” but in a far more precise sense. The word was borrowed from Greek Philosophy and given a different meaning – one which eventually did double service – becoming part of the carefully worded doctrine of the Holy Trinity, as well as the equally nuanced doctrine of the incarnation of Christ (Christology). Later Protestant theology would take the same word and push it into further use – or offer varying takes on its meaning. Thus it is not unusual in some strands of Protestant theology to discuss precisely what is meant by the statement “fallen nature.”

The use of the word “nature” (Greek: physis) was also used interchangeably with “being” (Greek: ousia), and by the 6th and 7th century had acquired an extremely precise usage in the Church’s continued refinement of the Council of Chalcedon (457 A.D.). Perhaps the most precise usage was that found in the writings of St. Maximus the Confessor (whose feastday was but a week or so ago). His thought is frequently difficult, occasionally almost impenetrable. But much of what he wrote is quite important, even if often neglected.

I have been reading Andrew Louth’s book, Maximus the Confessor, with great interest lately and deep appreciation. I found a particular  passage (among many) worth noting:

Willing is a natural power, that desires what is natural….But with fallen creatures, their own nature has become opaque to them, they no longer know what they want, and experience coercion in trying to love what cannot give fulfillment. For, in their fallen state, rational creatures are no longer aware of their true good, which is God. Various apparent goods attract them: they are confused, they need to deliberate and consider, and their way of willing shares in all this.

Maximus (and the Orthodox Church) teaches that the nature of something (or someone) is not fallen. Everything and everyone created by God was created good, and in its nature remains unchanged – else it would be something other than what it is. Nature is an answer to the question: what is it? If it has a human nature – it is a human. Were its nature changed – it would be something else.

This runs counter to much modern Christian thought – where nature is either used in a less nuanced manner – or where the traditional teaching of the Church is unknown or rejected. It is a commonly held opinion among many modern Christians, that human beings have “fallen natures,” some taking this into a misuse of Calvin’s doctrine of total depravity and concluding that people are basically bad.

We are not basically (or naturally) bad. Human beings, and all of creation, are, by nature, good. Maximus offers a more precise understanding of our fallen state: our own nature has become opaque to us. We do not see who we are and what we are. We do not clearly see what is naturally good (the good that is naturally desired within our being). We were created for God, but this is not clear to us.

Thus, Maximus teaches, we find ourselves in a confused state. We have to “deliberate and consider.” Making choices is the stuff of our lives and we often do it badly.

None of this is to say that the confused state of humanity does not result in great evil – for it obviously does. Our confusion is more than a mental aberration. Our confusion is existential. Our own nature has become opaque to us: what it means to be human is not at all clear.

This can be taken a step further. It is the very desire of our nature to want God. But just as our nature is not clear to us, so God Himself is not clear to us. Confusion darkens our thoughts even when we turn to God.

Without the work of grace, the fathers taught, our confusion would leave us in rebellion against God (and our own nature). The Christian life, our growth in grace, is a movement from glory to glory, returning to the truth of our being, returning to union with God in whose image we were created.

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known (1 Cor. 13:12).
But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord (2 Cor. 3:18).

What is not now obvious will be someday. What is not clear today will be someday. What seems confused and opaque will someday shine like the noonday sun – when the glory of God is revealed.

Is This All There Is?

January 15, 2010

A comment deleted earlier today contained a short rant on the topic: “There is no such thing as sin.” I have no idea what the writer thought the word “sin” meant – and if I knew I might even agree. I certainly do not think of sin as a legal category. But when I think carefully about the statement, “There is no such thing as sin,” I begin to wonder how someone who makes such a statement sees the world. My conclusion was to think, “Such a person must think that this is all there is.”

It is a significant thought – not something to be ignored.

Is the world that we think we see all there is? I say “the world we think we see,” because cross-cultural conversations quickly reveal that what I think I see and what someone else thinks they see are not always the same thing. I do not argue for relative truth – only for humility in the face of reality. There is more to reality than meets the eye and our eyes often refuse to meet with many aspects of reality.

It is with some thought in this regard that I wrote the previous post on the “opacity of sin.” There is something about us that darkens our perception of reality and which obscures the truth. That darkness and obscurity are the “opaqueness” that I have described. I am suggesting, at least for the purpose of these posts, and thus for just a few minutes of any reader’s time, that we think about “sin” in a manner that is not common.

It is common in our culture to conceive of sin as a legal debt, or a guilty stain, or even a propensity for doing wrong things. These have their uses. But the Scriptures, on occasion, use the imagery of light and darkness, of translucence and opacity, to speak about the nature and character of sin. It is a Scriptural image – but one that is too often ignored.

In the terms of these images, to say, “All that I see is all that there is,”  is to utter a “sinful” statement. It is a reduction of the world to the crudest, material existence.  To say that there is more than I see is also to recognize (in terms of these Scriptural images) that there is something “sinful” about how we see the world. We (sinners) are all reductionists. We hide and obscure, darken and contaminate.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ says, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” We do not see God, the statement implies, because our hearts are impure. It is sin that hides God from us.

We are living through another week in which natural disaster provokes many to say, “Where is God?” Of course, many who will now ask, “Where is God?” said nothing the week before when Haitian children were dying of a hosts of curable and treatable illnesses and circumstances. The Christian answer to the question, “Where is God?” is “He is everywhere present and filling all things.” God is in Haiti: in some cases crushed beneath stones and in other cases removing the stones from those who are crushed. But it is doubtless true that there is more there than meets the eye. What we think we see is not all there is.

I do not offer these thoughts as an answer to the so-called “problem of evil.” These are simply some thoughts on the “problem of blindness.”