Posts Tagged ‘Cross’

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!

The Tree Heals the Tree

September 16, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Cross of Christ

September 13, 2010

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

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

The mystery is again invoked in St. Paul’s statement: “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live. Yet, not I, but Christ liveth in me. And the life that I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An additional thought:

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

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

Hymn before the Cross

The Double Mystery of the Cross

July 31, 2010

St. Gregory Palamas, in his Homily on the Precious and Life-Giving Cross (Homily 11), makes reference to what he calls the “double mystery” of the Cross. He cites St. Paul’s statement, “The world is crucified to me, and I to the world” (Galatians 6:14).

The first mystery is embodied in our denial of the world – the second mystery in our denial of ourselves. The great saint also sees the Cross as always having been at work, even before it was manifest in history. Indeed, he states that none are saved apart from the Cross. Thus Abraham’s leaving his city and his earthly father in obedience to God to go to a place God would show him is this first mystery of the Cross. The world was crucified to Abraham. Abraham’s encounter with God (the three angels) in Genesis 18 is an example that St. Gregory cites as belonging to the second mystery.

This mystery of the Cross at work throughout time and in the lives of God’s faithful people occupies a homily of great length, and far more than I can reproduce in the course of a blog post. Many would be willing to grant that there is a “principle” of the Cross that may run through salvation history, in which we can say by analogy that the world is crucified to someone and someone is crucified to the world. This is the approach of modernity. Analogies are but mere ideas, intellectual games.

St. Gregory’s contention, however, is far more realistic. Similar to the approach of other fathers of the Church, such workings of mysteries are not intellectual games or mere analogies. They are the mystery of the work of God’s salvation, in which time is overcome. The Cross at work in the life of Abraham is none other than the Cross of Christ. The Cross at work in the life of Moses (such as in the defeat of Amalek) is no mere fore-shadowing of the Cross, a literary feat, but is the Cross itself, transcending history and manifesting Christ’s victory throughout the ages.

Our own historical mindset is married to  linear chain of cause and effect. That which happens now must have a cause that took place in some before it. This is perhaps useful if the world operates like some great billiard table. However, not even physics thinks in such categories. Far less, should the faith of Christians feel bound by such out-moded models of the universe. Long before physicists had broken free of a purely Newtonian concept of reality, the Church proclaimed the transcendant power of God’s work. Bound neither by space nor time, it was nevertheless manifest within space and time.

As we take up the Cross in our lives we should not be bound by space or time. To take up the Cross of Christ (whether in our hearts by faith or in making the sign of the Cross or in taking up a figure of the Cross) is no mere recollection of a point in history. We do not excercise our memories when we proclaim the Cross of Christ – we proclaim a transcendant reality – manifest at Calvary – but also manifest in the defeat of Hades – and equally manifest in the victory of Christ in our lives at all times and places.

One of the weaknesses of the modern world is its literalism. Literalism (in one meaning of the word) can describe a particular event, but it generally tends to define the event as self-contained and as relevant only by its historical character. Such literalism is two-dimensional: it is flat.

The world in which we live, particularly the world which God created is not flat. There are depths and layers and constant connections which lead to more depths and layers and connections. The Scriptures are a particularly example of this reality. The literary character of Scripture, with its foreshadowings, types, allegories, etc., is more than an interesting form of literature. According to the faith taught in the Scriptures and upheld in the life of the Church and the teachings of the Fathers, this “literary character” is also the very character of reality.

The Cross of Christ is indeed a historical event – but many other events (such as the many enumerated by St. Gregory Palamas) embody the Cross and find the power of the Cross to be present within them. St. Paul speaks of the Cross in this manner. When he describes the world being crucified to him, and himself to the world – he goes far beyond a literal description of the events on a single day on a single cross of wood supporting the crucified body of a single man. For St. Paul the entire world is crucified on the Cross and in a manner that clearly transcends the merely figurative. In the same manner St. Paul describes himself as crucified, again in a manner that transcends the merely figurative.

If the “Lamb was slain from the foundation of the earth” (Rev. 13:8), then the Cross has stood from the foundation of the earth. Those whose view of the world cannot allow for such realities will be unable to follow the Christian testimony of Scripture. That which is real will be relegated to the imaginary or the merely  figurative. The life of faith becomes an exercise of the mind and the Cross a merely symbolic action (in such a world-view, need it be more?).

Instead we live in a world to which the Scriptures bear witness – a world in which the Cross has depths upon depths and layers upon layers. That reality bears the reality of Christ’s death and resurrection, His defeat of sin and death. It contains the victory we have in Christ. We sign ourselves with this victory. We proclaim this victory in the Cross we wear. We discover the Cross to be the “weapon of peace.”

We discover the mystery of the Cross at work around us – in its double mystery – crucifying the world to us – and us to the world.

The Mystery of Goodness

July 14, 2010

Beloved, follow not that which is evil, but that which is good. He that doeth good is of God: but he that doeth evil hath not seen God (3John 1:11).

One of the most common affirmations in Orthodox services is the goodness of God. Many services conclude with the blessing: “For He is a good God and loves mankind.” The goodness of God is utterly foundational to our faith – and yet that goodness is itself a mystery: it is not always apparent and remains a conundrum to those who are outside of the faith. The so-called “problem of evil” with which non-believers frequently assault belief in the existence of a good God points to the problematic character of goodness.

God is good – but not in a way that is obvious. The goodness of God can be known – as God can be known. Neither, however, are readily apparent.

In some of the early patristic writings, particularly those that can be described as “apophatic” (“unable to be spoken”) God is not only affirmed as good but as “hyper-good,” that is, His goodness is beyond anything we know – it is a transcendent goodness. The God made known in the Incarnation of Christ is indeed “unknowable.” It is the Incarnation of Christ that has made Him known.

No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him (John 1:18).

All things have been delivered to Me by My Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father. Nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and the one to whom the Son wills to reveal Him (Matt. 11:27).

We come to know the attributes of God in the same manner. The goodness of God is the goodness we see in the Incarnation of Christ; the power of God is the power we see in Christ; the kindness of God is the kindness we see in Christ; the love of God is precisely revealed in Christ.

St. Paul writes of the “attributes” of God being clearly seen through the things He created – but the passage is not necessarily the grounds for a “natural” theology (a knowledge of God derived from contemplating nature).

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things. (Romans 1:18-23).

St. Paul, I believe, is here describing the “fall” of man and the ignorance of God which it brought. The passage is consistently placed in the past tense. “Although they knew God,” etc. This is much different than saying that “knowing God” they are not thankful, etc. Instead he describes the long history of mankind before Christ as people who have become “futile” in their thoughts, and having their “foolish hearts darkened.”

However, it does seem to suggest that this knowledge can be restored as our hearts are enlightened – which is an inherent part of our living communion with Christ. But this knowledge is one that is seen only through an enlightened heart, again made possible only in the Incarnation of Christ.

It is important to approach the mystery of goodness in such a manner. The goodness of God is a goodness made known in Christ and not an intellectual category or philosophical concept that can be described apart from Christ. Such a separate concept is the secularization of goodness – ultimately a blasphemous approach (“There is none good but One, that is, God” – Luke 18:19).

The mystery of God’s goodness is most especially to be found in the mystery of the Cross. In the gospels Christ is described as “going about doing good” as well as healing the diseases of people. But the depth of that mystery is found in His death and resurrection.

The mystery of the Cross is the triumph of foolishness over man-made wisdom; the triumph of weakness of man’s perceived power; the ultimate victory of good over evil. The most common image of the death and resurrection of Christ in the Eastern Church is the icon of Christ’s Descent into Hell – for it is this icon that carries the fullest expression of the theological content and reality of His death and resurrection. It not only depicts his victory over death and evil (shown as the devil bound in chains), but also show the cosmic and timeless element of His victory as He grasps the hands of Adam and Eve to lead them out of the bondage of sin and death.

The Christian definition of good is the goodness of God. In the world in which we live we do not see that goodness in abstraction but in the fullness of its conflict with evil and its ultimate triumph. The Gospel presumes and acknowledges the presence of evil while at the same time affirming that goodness, in Christ, overcomes that evil.

In the classical teaching of the Fathers, evil is not a something, a force or a presence: it is an action driven by a distorted will. It is an opposition to God, but without meaning or substance except as an opposition. Evil is thus not a presence, but a tragic movement towards absence. It is not communion with God but a self-ward movement towards non-being.

The great struggle within our world, as presently constituted, is not between ourselves and the forces of a blind and rudderless nature, but a struggle with the consequences of that relentless challenge. The Cross is not an image that excludes the brutal forces of wicked powers – it is the triumph of love and forgiveness in the very heart of those struggles.

Goodness cannot be abstracted from the human tragedy – it is known and experienced within the very context of that tragedy in the fullness of the Cross of Christ. This is a radical departure from the philosophical discussion of the problem of evil. Christianity is not a set of ideas that compete on the playing field of philosophical systems. It is event and relationship neither imaginary nor abstract. This occasionally leaves classical Christianity at a disadvantage – unwilling to grant the givens of an alien philosophy – and thus seeming silent or weak in the face of a serious intellectual challenge. But Christianity is a language that is spoken in the tongue of the Logos, whose incarnation, death and resurrection speak with the eloquence of the true and living God.

St. Paul recognized that his preaching of the Cross of Christ would either make him seem weak or foolish. It is a weakness and a foolishness that modern Christians should not disdain. For the weakness of God is stronger than death. The foolishness of God is wiser than all men.

The Grace of Repentance

March 14, 2010

From Archimandrite Sophrony’s On Prayer

There, on the Holy Mountain, my life found its right track. Almost every day after the Liturgy I knew a feeling of Easter joy.And strange as it may seem, my constant prayer like some volcanic eruption proceeded from the profound despair that ahd taken over my heart. Two seemingly totally incompatible states met together in me. I am recording facts. I did not understand myself what was happeing to me. Outwardly I was no less fortunate than most people.

Later, things became clear to me: The Lord had granted me the grace of repentance. Tes, it was a grace. The moment despair slackened, prayer cooled off and death would invade my heart. Through repentance, my being expanded until in spirit I touch upon both hell and the Kingdom…

The heart is such a strange thing – well revealed by the great Elder’s writings. To be both in a place of despair and yet in a place of prayer. It is why “technique” has so little place in the spiritual life. There are things we can do, and yet all that we do is and must be in relation to God. God is not an object or any such thing. He cannot be found by technique. Christ offers the simple formula: ‘ask and you shall receive, seek and you shall find, knock and it shall be opened to you” (Matt. 7:7).

The answer to the human heart is to be found in a relationship that is personal, a relationship that is marked by freedom and love. Strangely, we cannot change the heart by our own actions, but only by the gift of God. Thus we pray and thus we wait – ’til He have mercy.

In this sense the goal of the human life is a state of constant repentance – again, not that we can repent as an action of our own. Repentance is the state of the heart when it is in communion with God. This is the reason that Orthodox spiritual writings place such great store in the “gift of tears,” and similar attitudes of heart. It is, in my opinion, why Orthodox spiritual writings are not overwhelmingly concerned with issues of social justice and the like. One ought to do justice, with this there is no disagreement. But it may also be the case that the difficulties one encounters in life is itself are the very occasions in which repentance is born. It is a recognition that were every “wrong” set “right” the primary issue of our existence would still be unaddressed.

Nothing could bear witness to this better than the life of modern man. We enjoy a better “quality” of life than any generation previous to us, and yet that “quality” is somehow not the meaning of our life.

Thus asceticism, in which voluntarily make our lives more difficult, is seen as an utterly necessary part of our spiritual being. It may not necessarily be the “hell” which Archimandrite Sophrony writes about, but there is still the reality of true asceticism. There can be no Christian life that does not embrace the Cross, and by this is meant as well a life that is shaped by the taking up of the Cross.

The Centrality of the Cross

March 9, 2010

Fr. John Behr, in his book, The Mystery of Christ, takes a very close look at the earliest centuries of the Christian faith, and at the very heart of Orthodoxy itself which is to be found there. In particular he speaks with great clarity about the “rule of faith,” certainly known to all of the Apostles and to the Apostolic Church. If placed in words it sounds much like the Apostles’ Creed (which is, indeed, one of its earliest verbal expressions). We hear echoes of that same rule in various places in the New Testament, which bears witness that the writers of the New Testament, such as St. Paul, knew full well the “rule of faith” before ever they wrote a word. (It is also interesting that Creeds in some form are older than the New Testament).

The early Christian community, despite being surrounded by false teachers, Judaizers, gnostics, and what-have-you, were nonetheless not a confused bunch. It was not the “California-believe-what-you-want” paradise that the neo-gnostics such as Elaine Pagels and some others would have us imagine. Orthodox Catholic Christianity was steady on from the beginning and silenced everyone around them, not through the machinations of the state (they were not even legal yet), nor of some plot of sinister paternalism that some modern historians like to conjure.

This small minority clung to an understanding of Christ because they both knew the “rule of faith” – that is they could recite the Tradition that had been given them – but also because the Tradition that had been given to them was itself living and true. The truly Great Tradition of the Church was and is the Crucified God. It sings through every page of the New Testament. Unknown in the gnostic writings with their Ogdoads and Aeons, the gospel of Christ was and is the good news that God became man, and became the very least of us, entering even into the depths of death and hell to rescue us from the hell we had created for ourselves.

The Gospel of the Crucified God is that strength is found in weakness, triumph in forgiveness; evil is overcome by good; losing ourselves is finding ourselves; wealth is poverty and poverty is wealth; and the list could be multiplied many times over. Most importantly these are not abstract principles, but descriptions of Who God Is and How God Is in His revelation of Himself to us.

The “dogmatic consciousness” of which the Elder Sophrony occasionally writes, is finally having the truth of the Crucified God written into the very core of your heart and soul. It is knowing the God who emptied Himself and yielding yourself to be conformed to His image.

The wonder of the writings of an Elder Sophrony, and of others like him through the years of the Church, is that both they themselves and many whom they knew, embodied this knowledge of God and became bearers of the light in their own generation. The saints are the great treasury of Orthodoxy, living proof of the rightness of our doctrine. Indeed, they are what the doctrine looks like.

St. Paul, writing to the Corinthians (2 Cor. 3:3) …”you are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart.” This gives a new meaning to the “New Testament Church.” Now we can see that it means the Church which is the “New Testament,” and this same New Testament continues to be read in the Churches who have preserved that same faith.

It is simply not enough to study the Scriptures. We must become the Scriptures so that all might read Christ in our heart and know the Truth of the gospel. Talk about the gospel will not save the world. Only the gospel enfleshed in human lives can be said to constitute preaching. This is what Christians are ordained (Baptized) to do.

In a couple of weeks we will gather again around the Cross of the Christ and remember its centrality. Orthodox Christians should never make the mistake that this event is only momentary or an accidental rescue of fallen man. It is the revelation of God that must become the revelation of our own true self.

The Systematic Theology of the Cross

March 4, 2010

The following excerpt was sent by a dear friend and a frequent reader of the blog. It is taken from Richard Wurmbrand’s With God in Solitary Confinement. Wurmbrand, a Lutheran pastor who was imprisoned under the communists in Romania, always spoke well of the Orthodox whom he encountered in those places of confinement, and brings the insight that suffering for Christ often brings. I was deeply moved by this quote.

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“I once tried to explain ‘systematic theology’ to a Russian pastor of the Underground Church, who had never seen a whole New Testament. Systematically, I began to explain to him the teaching about the Godhead, about its unity in three Persons, the teaching about original sin, about the Fall, about salvation, about the Church, about the sacraments, about the Bible as infallible revelation.

“He listened attentively. When I had finished, he asked me a most surprising question: ‘Have those who thought out these theological systems and wrote them down in such perfect order ever carried a cross?’ He went on. ‘A man cannot think systematically even when he has a bad toothache. How can a man who is carrying a cross think systematically? But a Christian has to be more than the bearer of a heavy cross; he shares Christ’s crucifixion. The pains of Christ are his, and the pains of all creation. There is no grief and no suffering in the whole world which should not grieve him also. If a man is crucified with Christ, how can he think systematically? Can there be that kind of thought on a cross?

“’Jesus Himself thought unsystematically on the cross. He began with forgiveness; He spoke of a paradise in which even a robber had a place; then he despaired that perhaps there might be no place in paradise even for Him, the Son of God. He felt Himself forsaken. His thirst was so unbearable that He asked for water. Then He surrendered His spirit into His Father’s hand. But there followed no serenity, only a loud cry. Thank you for what you have been trying to teach me. I have the impression that you were only repeating, without much conviction, what others have taught you.’

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This story illustrates the vast distance between theology as an intellectual construct, or even the s0-called ‘rational’ interpretation of Scripture and what the Elder Sophrony once dubbed ‘dogmatic consciousness.’ The Fathers of the Church did not offer us theology as their ‘best guess’ or as the fruit of superior reason. What we know in the Church as dogma, we know because it is know truly and experientially. It is known as the Scripture knows God and as the Church knows the Scripture.

Our struggle in Lent is the daily union of body and soul in the Spirit of Christ. Within such a union and the ascesis that is natural to it, it slowly becomes possible to know God and the things that pertain to God. ‘Take up your cross,’ is the commandment of Christ. Without this ‘taking up,’ we will know nothing.

In the Shadow of the Grand Inquisitor

November 17, 2009

Perhaps the most famous chapter in all of Dostoevsky’s novels is that of the “Grand Inquisitor” in The Brothers Karamazov. It is a “poem” according to the character Ivan Karamazov, a fanciful tale that embodies all of the cyncism that Ivan can muster.

In a previous chapter, “Rebellion,” Ivan had mounted a devastating complaint against God with regard to the problem of evil. Having completed his tales of injustice (mostly involving children and for which he ultimately blames God), Ivan does not cry out that there is no God, but simply that “I refuse the ticket.” He will not accept Christ and wait for all injustice to someday be explained to him. He has had enough.

In the “Grand Inquisitor” Ivan moves to a different scene. In this “poem” he imagines that Christ has returned to earth during the trials of the Inquisition in medieval Spain. There Christ finds himself confronted with a Church that tells Him that He should leave. He is told that He has failed to give people what they want and that the Church will now have to do the job. He is no longer wanted.

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These two chapters from Dostoevsky are among the most poignant in modern Christian literature. They are particularly powerful in that that bring the full force of modern indictments against God to bear (and this in a Christian novel). Nor does Dostoevsky treat them lightly. For readers of Dostoevsky it is clear that the only answer given to these philosophical rants is the example of the Christian lives that are lived.

This is always the case. The case for power is always replete with good reasons. The case for forgiveness is weak in the extreme. It is generally the case that those who take the commandments of Christ so seriously that they actually seek to live them inevitably look like fools against those whose knowledge and cynicism wield worldly power.

In Dostoevsky’s “Grand Inquisitor,” the answer to the rage and philosophy of the old Cardinal, is silence and a kiss from Christ.

There are many modern forms of the Grand Inquisitor – or at least that for which the chapter stands. Our human lives are repeatedly tempted to take up certain “Christian” goals and implement them. Indeed, the increased organization and efficiency of modern man seems quite capable of eradicating hunger, abuse, neglect and the like. Strangely, the many efforts towards such worldly perfection (in the name of heavenly goods) has left history littered with failed schemes and occasionally vast amounts of carnage.

I have written repeatedly: Christ did not come into the world to make bad men good, but to make dead men live.

It is not a great scheme through a united world, or a united Europe that will succeed in creating paradise on earth. I find it comical (were it no so tragic) that among the earliest accomplishments of the European courts is to banish crucifixes in the schoolrooms of Italians children. How many empty bellies will that feed? The Inquisitor (now in Strasbourg) will tell us it is for the children’s freedom.

The battle lines are not political (they never have been). The removal of one Inquisitor is simply to create a vacancy for the next. Indeed, the Christian response is not a response to the actions of man: it is a response to the actions of God.

Dostoevsky’s answer to the Grand Inquisitor is not a better-honed argument – but a kiss – it is the lives of holy characters such as the Elder Zossima and the young Alyosha Karamazov. For us, it is the day to day life of the simple believer: “Greater is He that is in you than he that is in the world” (1 John 4:4). The answer of the the Church, apart from everything else, is to live the transforming life of the indwelling Christ. Christians will be persecuted in this world. They will take away our crosses, smash our icons and tell us that we are wasting our time. They will tell us many things.

But Christ tells us: “Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).