Posts Tagged ‘Grace’

The Moment of Small Things

June 1, 2011

“On the night in which He was betrayed…”

These words echo hauntingly through the centuries – this phrase which begins St. Paul’s account of Christ’s institution of the Eucharist. Later usage in the liturgy will make a play on the Greek word for “betray.” Strangely, it is the same word used for “tradition.” It is a word which simply means to “hand over” or to “give over.” Thus the liturgy will say, “On the night in which He was given up, or rather on the night in which He gave Himself up…” It is a quiet recognition of Christ’s teaching, “No takes my life from me; I lay it down freely of myself.”

Nevertheless, in St. Paul’s usage, and as translated in many languages, the event is framed in the language of “betrayal.” It is a pivotal moment in Christ’s ministry. The energy and dynamic move away from teaching and towards the drama of sacrifice. Christ will become, before the eyes of all, what He has always taught. The Word indeed becomes flesh!

For the eleven disciples, it was only a moment amid so many moments. Christ’s warning fell on very sleepy ears. They are asked to remain awake. They are asked to pray. St. Peter is warned that the “enemy has sought to sift you like wheat.” None of Christ’s stern warnings, none of His plaintive questions, “Could you not watch with me one hour?” have any effect. It is just a moment among moments – until it is defined by the actions the disciples had refused to accept as possible. Christ is betrayed and the disciples fall into disarray and cowardice. The Shepherd is smitten and the sheep are scattered.

Our lives consist of trillions of moments. The are “one thing after another.” Occasionally we recognize that this moment is deeply significant and we remain awake. A young man and woman at their wedding – awake – alert – and yet probably blind to much that is taking place. A parent at the birth of a child – mother or father – everyone knows this is significant – but none of us begins to imagine just how significant. Nothing will ever be the same.

Over thirteen years ago, my family was received into the Orthodox faith. My oldest daughter was seventeen – my youngest was only seven. We were surrounded by friends, strangers, some family…but I recall the utter silence that fell across the congregation as my seven year-old daughter read the traditional words of promise at her Chrismation:

This true faith of the Orthodox Church, which I now voluntarily confess and truly hold, that same I will firmly maintain and confess, whole and unchanged, even until my last breath, God helping me. And I will teach and proclaim it, insofar as I am able. And I will strive to fulfill its obligations with zeal and joy, preserving my heart in good deeds and blamelessness. In witness of this, my true and pure-hearted confession, I kiss the Word and Cross of my Savior. Amen.

In the silence, everyone wept. The purity of a seven-year-old’s confession caused us to blush. The innocence which spoke such solemn phrases as “even until my last breath” took the breath away from all who stood around. It was a moment of which the witnesses knew far more than the child whose moment it was.

Our lives move from moment to moment – and only rarely do we recognize a moment to possess a singular character. But this is a great oversight on our part. The betrayal of Judas was more than a single moment of indiscretion. His doubts, envy and greed had been defining the trajectory of his moments from long before. The betrayal was a culmination, not an accident.

There are some who would reduce the Christian life to a single moment – that time at which we first profess faith in Christ. For those who have a clear memory of such a moment – it is significant indeed. But a lifetime of significant moments follow (“even until my last breath”). The race is finished when it is finished.

However, as we move from moment to moment, we do well not to live in moments of the past (for they are not our present), nor in moments of the future (for they are yet to come, even as we ourselves are yet to come). “Today is the day of salvation…”

The Wise Thief (as he is called in Orthodox hymns) found salvation in a single moment – God is indeed gracious and willing to accept us even in such a last moment. But we ourselves must be willing to allow such moments to occur. Ever idle word, every careless thought, creates its own moment. From idleness and carelessness we can create within ourselves a heart of stone. The fathers refer to this “lack of care for our salvation” as akedia – it is sometimes known as the “noonday devil.” Such a name sounds rather innocuous – but it is the small moments of our “noonday” lives that form the arena in which our salvation is worked out.

God give us grace in the small things – even to our last breath.

The Grace of Just Showing Up

February 3, 2011

There has been a tendency in much teaching about the notion of salvation by grace to ground the image in a legal or forensic metaphor. Thus, we are saved by grace in the sense that someone else’s goodwill and kindness (God’s) has now freed us from the consequences of our actions. Thus we speak of grace as the “free gift” of God.

There is no denying that grace is a free gift and that it is the true means of our salvation. But what if our problem is not to be primarily understood in legal terms? What if that which needs saving about us is not our guilt before the law of God, but the ravages worked within our heart and life from the presence of sin and death? This is probably the point where many discussions about salvation fall apart. If one person has in mind primarily a forensic salvation (I go to heaven, I don’t go to hell), while the other is thinking primarily in terms of an ontological change (I am corrupted and dying and were I to go to heaven I’d still be corrupted and dying). The debate comes down to a question of whether we need a change of status (forensic) or a change within our very heart. Of course, there are varying shades within this debate and I have surely not done justice to the full understanding of either point.

Orthodox theology, has largely been nurtured in the understanding of salvation as a healing of our heart and a transformation of the whole of our life. Others have sometimes referred to these elements as belonging to “sanctification,” but there has never been a distinction between sanctification and justification or salvation within the Eastern Tradition.

It is from within that understanding that my comments on grace are shaped. It is difficult for Christians of any sort in our modern world to grasp what it means to be saved by grace, if grace is indeed the very life of God given to us to transform and transfigure us – to change us into conformity with the image of Christ (Roman 8:29). The difficulty with this understanding is that, unlike a change in status, a transformation is slow work. We do not live in a culture that is particularly patient about anything. The political world thrives on repeated campaigns for “change,” though change is always a relatively slow thing (except in revolutions when it is usually not a change for the better).

There is a saying from the desert fathers: “Stay in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.” It is a recognition thatstability is an inherent virtue in the spiritual life, and in the constancy and patience of our prayers and labors with God, grace has its perfect work.

In the modern parish setting, particularly with my catechumens, I have translated the desert saying into a more modern statement: “Ninety percent of Orthodoxy is just showing up.” We do not live in cells nor is our stability marked by sitting quiety through the day reciting the Jesus Prayer. There certainly should be times of the day set aside for prayer – but one of the primary locations of our life of grace – as Christians living in the world – is to be found within the life of the parish Church – particularly within its life of sacraments, prayers, and patience (there is equally as much patience to be practiced in the parish as in any monastery). One mark of our struggle for stability is “just showing up.”

The life of grace is central to our existence as Christians and must not become secularized. In a secular understanding, the Church has a role to play in a larger scheme of things (the secular world). Thus the Church becomes useful to me and at the same time takes on a diminished role in my life and in the culture of my life. Secularism is the dominant form of American culture. It is not hostile to Church attendance – but sees it as having a diminished importance. Church becomes just one of many programs in which we may be involved. In some families, choices are made between a child’s participation in a Sunday soccer league and a child’s participation in Church. Adults make similar choices for themselves. But the transformation that is occurring in such choices is the transformation of the Church and the gift of God’s life (grace) into a secular program which exists to meet my religious needs or interests. Such an approach is a contradiction of the life of grace.

Our submission to the salvation of Christ is a submission of our life to the life of grace – a recognition that there is no salvation apart from Christ and the life of grace. In cultural terms, it means a renunciation of the secular life – a life defined by my needs as a consumer within the modern experience – and an acceptance of my life as defined by the Cross of Christ. If the Cross is to be taken up with integrity – it must be taken up daily and more often still than that.

The life of grace means that I have given myself to Christ and to the means He has provided for my salvation. I will confess my sins and embrace the life of repentance. I will approach the Cup of His Body and Blood with faith and with trust in His promise of Life. I will be patient as I await His coming to me – as forgiveness – as healing – as transformation from the death of Adam into the Life of Christ. All of which requires that we “show up” – not in the casual sense of the term – but in the sense that we truly struggle to make ourselves available to God.

How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? (Hebrews 2:3)

Something from Nothing and the Apostolic Hypothesis

September 10, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That primitive hypothesis can be summarized:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just Showing Up and the Work of Grace

March 17, 2010

There has been a tendency in much teaching about the notion of salvation by grace to ground the image in a legal or forensic metaphor. Thus, we are saved by grace in the sense that someone else’s goodwill and kindness (God’s) has now freed us from the consequences of our actions. Thus we speak of grace as the “free gift” of God.

There is no denying that grace is a free gift and that it is the true means of our salvation. But what if our problem is not to be primarily understood in legal terms? What if that which needs saving about us is not our guilt before the law of God, but the ravages worked within our heart and life from the presence of sin and death? This is probably the point where many discussions about salvation fall apart. If one person has in mind primarily a forensic salvation (I go to heaven, I don’t go to hell), while the other is thinking primarily in terms of an ontological change (I am corrupted and dying and were I to go to heaven I’d still be corrupted and dying). The debate comes down to a question of whether we need a change of status (forensic) or a change within our very heart. Of course, there are varying shades within this debate and I have surely not done justice to the full understanding of either point.

Orthodox theology, has largely been nurtured in the understanding of salvation as a healing of our heart and a transformation of the whole of our life. Others have sometimes referred to these elements as belonging to “sanctification,” but there has never been a distinction between sanctification and justification or salvation within the Eastern Tradition.

It is from within that understanding that my comments on grace are shaped. It is difficult for Christians of any sort in our modern world to grasp what it means to be saved by grace, if grace is indeed the very life of God given to us to transform and transfigure us – to change us into conformity with the image of Christ (Roman 8:29). The difficulty with this understanding is that, unlike a change in status, a transformation is slow work. We do not live in a culture that is particularly patient about anything. The political world thrives on repeated campaigns for “change,” though change is always a relatively slow thing (except in revolutions when it is usually not a change for the better).

There is a saying from the desert fathers: “Stay in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.” It is a recognition thatstability is an inherent virtue in the spiritual life, and in the constancy and patience of our prayers and labors with God, grace has its perfect work.

In the modern parish setting, particularly with my catechumens, I have translated the desert saying into a more modern statement: “Ninety percent of Orthodoxy is just showing up.” We do not live in cells nor is our stability marked by sitting quiety through the day reciting the Jesus Prayer. There certainly should be times of the day set aside for prayer – but one of the primary locations of our life of grace – as Christians living in the world – is to be found within the life of the parish Church – particularly within its life of sacraments, prayers, and patience (there is equally as much patience to be practiced in the parish as in any monastery). One mark of our struggle for stability is “just showing up.” Fr. Thomas Hopko quotes his mother’s advice to him as a young man: “Go to Church. Say your prayers. Remember God.”

The life of grace is central to our existence as Christians and must not become secularized. In a secular understanding, the Church has a role to play in a larger scheme of things (the secular world). Thus the Church becomes useful to me and at the same time takes on a diminished role in my life and in the culture of my life. Secularism is the dominant form of American culture. It is not hostile to Church attendance – but sees it as having a diminished importance. Church becomes just one of many programs in which we may be involved. In some families, choices are made between a child’s participation in a Sunday soccer league and a child’s participation in Church. Adults make similar choices for themselves. But the transformation that is occurring in such choices is the transformation of the Church and the gift of God’s life (grace) into a secular program which exists to meet my religious needs or interests. Such an approach is a contradiction of the life of grace.

Our submission to the salvation of Christ is a submission of our life to the life of grace – a recognition that there is no salvation apart from Christ and the life of grace. In cultural terms, it means a renunciation of the secular life – a life defined by my needs as a consumer within the American experience – and an acceptance of my life as defined by the Cross of Christ. If the Cross is to be taken up with integrity – it must be taken up daily and more often still than that.

The life of grace means that I have given myself to Christ and to the means He has provided for my salvation. I will confess my sins and embrace the life of repentance. I will approach the Cup of His Body and Blood with faith and with trust in His promise of Life. I will be patient as I await His coming to me – as forgiveness – as healing – as transformation from the death of Adam into the Life of Christ. All of which requires that we “show up” – not in the casual sense of the term – but in the sense that we truly struggle to make ourselves available to God.

How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? (Hebrews 2:3)