Being both At Rest and Watchful

One of the difficult things for non-Orthodox readers to grasp when they read Orthodox writings is the idea of the “passions.” The word is a technical term of sorts within Orthodoxy, but it is used rather differently than it is in contemporary culture (thus the difficulty in grasping the term). The sentence, “He has a passion for Liverpool F.C” (a soccer team from England), for instance, has no connection to the theological meaning of passions.

The original passion is the prelapsarian drive we have to be in communion with, and eventually, union with God. It is communing with God in the Garden (rather than the forbidden fruit, which was a good creation of God, and forbidden, not because it was bad, but because it was a substitute for God). After spiritual death that is a result of sin, we no longer have a connection to God because we are cut off from his presence, being cast out of the Garden. But this passion for fulfillment that can only come from and with God is part of the divine image, so those passions continue to seek a source of fulfillment. Thus it is, in the postlapsarian world, that the passions are generally bad because they are badly aimed. They are “the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life” that are commented on in 1 John 2:16. The passions are our desire for fame, fortune, control, popularity, and the illusive goal of a 1,000 upvotes on redit. At their worst they are our addictions. At their best (in our culture’s eyes) the passions are represented by the infatuation of a girl and a boy, and the ends to which they will go for love that Shakespeare commented on in Romeo and Juliet.

In the Orthodox vision of the Christian life, one of the goals is to learn inner peace (apatheia) while being fully engaged in external struggle (pathos), which is more accurately translated “suffering.” But “suffering” is generally considered a bad thing in our culture (yet another disconnect from the teachings about the passions), and is thus not generally associated with our everyday struggles in life, whether those be with our own temptations, our response to injustice, or the difficulty of paying attention in church.

Turning again to Maximos Constas (former Harvard professor and Eastern Orthodox monk), in his, The Art of Seeing, we find a succinct description of the interplay between the two. In ch. 3 he considers the great military martyr saints, and St. George in particular:

The depiction of the saint as simultaneously “at rest” and “watchful,” lends the seated figure [of St. George, with sword pulled half way from its scabbard] a palpable sense of energy and animation. This intriguing duality also expresses the central paradox of Christian martyrdom, and indeed of Christian life in general: the concurrence of inner rest (apatheia) and external sufferings (pathos), for “though the outer man in perishing, the inner man is being renewed every day” (2 Cor 4:16). [Loc 2085 in the Kindle edition]

How many times have I been filled with what I imagined to be holy rage, as I cleaned up debris in the midst of death following the political debacle of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, for instance, or the private conversation in my study with a woman abused by her husband, or the dehumanizing system of family welfare after she worked up the courage to leave said husband, to offer but a few examples from my life.

The art and gift of the authentic Christian life is to fully engage in those activities, yet remain in a state of inner rest and peace. That is what St. George embodies. That is what is necessary to slay the dragons of evil in our world.

 

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Lamb of God, Who Takes Away the Sins of the World …

The early history of icons in the Christian church is a bit sketchy because, in the 8th century, an iconoclastic Byzantine emperor (Leo III) ascended the throne. He believed his task was to destroy, and when that wasn’t possible, to deface all the holy icons that were in existence. Today there are only a couple dozen pre-iconcolastic icons that remain, along with a few frescoes, etc. In spite of this unspeakable loss, archaeologists and scholars have pieced together a basic understanding of early iconography. Most notable, for the purpose of this essay, is that Jesus Christ was predominantly portrayed as a sacrificial lamb (The Lamb slain from the foundation of the world, Rev. 13:8.) up until the 6th century.

The 4th, 5th, and 6th centuries were a time a great turmoil in the church. The hegemony of Greek ideas and the Christian worldview that grew out of those Greek ideas was coming to an end. Islam would soon be a threat from the south and east. Many of the same world-shaping ideas that led Mohamed to re-frame Jewish and Christian theology into a highly rationalistic and deterministic theology were affecting the Christian church.

Rationalism and Christian faith don’t dwell together in peace. Christian theology expresses the lived experience of God, the nature of whose existence is beyond the ability of human mind to grasp. As a result, authentic theology is a mix of negative statements (“God is not this.”), subtle paradoxes, and even seeming contradictions that Christian theology simply lets stand, because the contradictions express an aspect of our experience of God. This sort of approach drove the rationalists crazy, and they sought to “clarify” theology so that it could be understood by the rational mind and the common people.

Arianism (a heresy with many parallels to Islam) was by far the most successful of these alternative Christian philosophies during this period. Bishop Arius rejected the doctrine of the Trinity, proposing that the Son of God was the first and greatest of the created beings. Why? Because that makes more rational sense than the doctrine of the Trinity.

This quarter of a millennium period marked by the rise of rationalism (and the consequent rise in the assumption that everything was absolutely predestined…yep, the cycle happened again about a thousand years later…was the context of the great Ecumenical Councils where specific language and formulas that pointed accurately in the direction of the lived experience of God was put into place.

One of the many canons (church rules, of a sort) that grew out of this period was that Jesus Christ should be primarily depicted in human form. Pictures of sacrificial lambs and and lambs bleeding and yet healthy and alive were not wrong, but being pictorial metaphors, they tended to downplay the sublime truth that the incarnate Christ was truly human, born of Mary, and not just a metaphor that God loved us so much that he came to us in mercy to offer salvation.

It turns out that there is a whole lot more to this story. Former Harvard professor and Eastern Orthodox monk (and renowned authority on the history and theology of icons), Maximos Constas, offers this aside in his most excellent book, The Art of Seeing:

It seems, then, that in an age of political catastrophe, social decline, and religious anxiety, the sacrificial lamb was no longer deemed an appropriate symbol for imperial self-expression. What was needed was a powerful, adult Christ, whom later ages would call the “Pantokrator,” that is, “All-Sovereign.” No longer subject to time, still less a victim of the times, this Christ promised to appear at the end of time to judge the world (cf. Rev 19:15). [Loc 675 in the Kindle edition]

The Byzantine empire was still a powerful force in the world, but Emperor Theodosius (a theologian in his own right and the driving force behind the move away from the Lamb of God imagery and toward the “powerful, adult Christ” imagery), had an ulterior motive. (At least this is so if Fr. Maximos is correct, and I have no reason to think he’s not.) Theodosius, to borrow an idea from contemporary society, saw an opportunity to advance the rhetoric of making the Empire great again.

But here’s the key take-away: Just because Theodosius had ulterior motive, this doesn’t deny the proper theo-logic of emphasizing Jesus Christ’s human form in iconography. It’s not that Theodosius made up a doctrine out of thin air in an attempt to make the Empire great again. Given that this was a rationalistic age and given that this reductive rationalism needed to be counteracted, the canons specifying that Jesus Christ should be shown in actual human form rather than metaphorical caprine form, was a theologically solid move that the bishops wholeheartedly supported. The best political manipulation is not arbitrary, but is rooted in principles that are already widely accepted. Political manipulation isn’t just pulling the wool over the eyes of the common folk (or in this case, removing the wool, so to speak), it is more typically an attempt to promote something that has been under-emphasized or even forgotten.

The period of the great Ecumenical councils, that is, the 4th, 5th, and 6th centuries (bleeding back into the 3rd and up into the 7th) is often decried as…well, to quote Fr. Maximos, “an age of political catastrophe, social decline, and religious anxiety.” The increasingly abstruse and even esoteric distinctions give the appearance of theology used primarily as a tool to exclude one’s enemies, or, at the very least, to try to make the Christian empire great again.

Fr. Maximos’s aside about the move away from the Lamb metaphor and toward the reality of the incarnate Son of God shown as a real man, might seem like an unfortunate slip, giving ammunition to those who want to dismiss fundamental theological principles as mere political maneuvering. But this misses the real point. Again, we need to be careful of a too-easy rationalism that too easily explains away the mysteries of real life.

Let’s start with the politics and embrace the likelihood that Theodosius used the change in iconography as a political tool. Let’s admit that the Emperor was trying to prop up his empire in the face of the massive threat that eventually became the Ottoman Empire. That was precisely what Theodosius was fighting against. He was a politically astute leader who understood how to manipulate both ideas and people to further his ends.

But there’s a glorious paradox in this political history. Theodosius used truth to manipulate the system. One might be dismayed that the move to de-emphasize the metaphorical Lamb and emphasize the real human body of Jesus Christ was probably a cynical attempt to prop up the Empire. One might even want to promote the use of the Lamb of God metaphor, given this history. But the paradox is that this new emphasis on the reality of the incarnation was not only important, but utterly foundational to the life of the church. True truth, even when it is used in a cynical manner to promote a political agenda, remains true truth.

And this should be of great comfort to us. Who among us can say that our Christian lives are controlled by pure motives and absent ulterior, and even cynical motives? But the story of how the rules of how Christ should be portrayed in icons gives all us hypocrites hope. Truth remains truth. Even if my motives are self-serving, God can and will use the truth that we know to further his Kingdom and even transform our lives. The fact is that our every action is unworthy of God. But God uses those very actions to transform us into the people he wants us to be. That’s why the real person Jesus Christ was willing to become the sacrificial Lamb of God. I find great comfort in this paradox.

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem.

Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.
Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.
Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant us peace.

 

There’s Something About Mary

Today (Aug. 15) is the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos, as the Orthodox name it, or the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, as the Roman Catholics describe it. It is a celebration of Mary’s death and resurrection. It is the last of the twelve major feasts and marks the end of the year in the Orthodox world. The annual cycle begins again on Sept. 8, when the Nativity of the Theotokos is celebrated.

Since my audience is predominantly Protestant, a few words about the church year are in order at this point. Just as we don’t actually know when Jesus was born (the best scholarly guess is early fall), so we don’t know when Mary was born nor when she died. These feasts (Christmas, Mary’s Nativity, and Mary’s Dormition (which is another word for death) are scheduled for theological reasons. Christmas comes near the shortest day of the year. When things were darkest, God entered into the world to bring the Light of Life to a world shrouded in the darkness of sin and death.

The order of feasts follows the plan of salvation. There is an inner and an outer layer. The inner layer (we might think of them as the Christological feasts) starts with the Annunciation of the birth of Jesus to Mary, followed by his Nativity, the Presentation at the Temple, the Baptism of the Lord, the Transfiguration, the Holy Week cycle, Christ’s Ascension into heaven, and Pentecost, or the coming of the Holy Spirit.

But the plan of salvation is not something that was imposed upon creation. Salvation requires the action of God (the inner cycle) and the corresponding human agreement (the outer cycle). It is the Annunciation that illustrates this best. The Holy Spirit came upon Mary and she was with child; not the child of Joseph, her husband, but of God. So what the church celebrates is not so much the conception of Jesus, but the human acceptance to this divine activity that immediately preceded the conception. “The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God” (Lk. 1:25). This announcement didn’t make immediate sense to Mary, so the angel explained what was going on (vv. 36-37), and once Mary understood, she said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (v. 38).

The incarnation requires a divine component and a human component. This human component is the outer cycle that wraps its arms around and nurtures the mysterious inner cycle. Mary was the person whom God chose to be the bearer of God (the meaning of the Greek word “Theotokos”) and to give him human flesh. So it is that this outer cycle of the church year begins with the birth of Mary and ends with her death.

So Dormition is a very big deal because it completes the cycle of salvation. It is a big deal because the year draws to a close, and now we await in quiet expectation for when it starts all over again in September.

For the Orthodox in America, it is also a time of much hand wringing. Why don’t Christians honor Mary as they ought? is a continuous quiet refrain that seeps into so many conversations about the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos. And indeed, Mary is, for the most part, not given her due in predominantly Protestant America. So it is that the Orthodox are always asking, “Why?”

Today I was reminded of the answer. Or, more accurately, I was slapped in the face with answer today. I prefer using the Roman Catholic breviary for daily prayer because of its inclusion of the Psalms. Orthodox prayer books tend not to include the Psalms as an integral part of the individual prayer cycle. One is certainly encouraged to pray the Psalms, and for convenience, I like the breviary because the Psalms are already integrated into the daily pattern, along with prayers, scripture, and hymns. And today, on the Feast of Annunciation, the breviary is Mariological to a fault.

Even for a guy like me, who has been Orthodox for nearly two decades, I find the Roman Catholic approach to Mary quite uncomfortable. (The theology of Mary is one of the great divides between Catholic and Orthodox that make the possibility of reunion to be very challenging.) The Catholic veneration of Mary appears to cross an uncomfortable line in the direction of worship. While I affirm Roman Catholic claims that they do not worship Mary, the language they use still makes me uncomfortable. I understand completely why so many Protestants (and more than a few Orthodox) believe that outright worship is precisely what is going on in Catholic spiritual practice.

This is the great stumbling block when it comes to Protestants (and former Protestants) giving Mary her due. Proper honor of the Theotokos is always suspect because of the excesses of a few. This is an unfortunate reality.

Salvation cannot be understood apart from Mary. Her life envelopes the life of Jesus Christ. Mary is the one who gave Jesus his human body. Mary and Joseph provided the family structure which allowed Jesus to thrive, and thus be able to grow into his own acceptance of his mission in the world (as is celebrated in the baptism). Mary is each and every one of us. And unless each and every one of us assent as Mary did, and say, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord,” then God’s work in the world would come to nothing. Salvation would then become something forced upon us.

God is a gentle God, never coercing and always inviting. When we forget about Mary, we tend to lose sight of the gentleness of God. Indeed, there is something about Mary.

 

Rising Up and Going Down

In modern Western culture we associate praying in a prostrate position (that is, on our knees, face on the floor, with hands outstretched in front) with Muslims because the Muslim call to prayer is a relatively common image on our media screens. But this is how Middle Easterners prayed (Jews, Christians, and later, when Islam came about, Muslims), and it is part of Orthodox prayer to this day.

There are certain seasons that the Orthodox neither prostrate themselves nor kneel (the fifty days from Pascha to Pentecost), and there are seasons (all the fasts) and particular feasts (Exaltation of the Cross, etc.) where full prostrations are the normal posture of prayer. Humans cannot easily separate mind, body, and will; we cannot easily humble our heart without humbling our body. The humility of full prostrations and conversely the confidence that comes from divine grace associated with standing while praying are both a normal part of the Orthodox posture of prayer.

I don’t think Archimandrite Zacharias ever talks about the posture of praying (whether standing, kneeling, or prostrate) in his book The Enlargement of the Heart, but I was reminded of prayer’s posture while reading the book. Zacharias is fond of the phrase “go down,” referring to the journey we are called to make, going down to hell with Christ where he announced his victory over sin and death. Going down to hell sounds harsh, but we Christians have become so accustomed to the traditional language of death leading to life that this turn of phrase helps us think about what the New Testament describes.

Zacharias, following and extending the thinking of both his teacher, Elder Sophrony (d. 1995), and Sophrony’s teacher, St. Silouan (d. 1938), says that one of the prominent features of the Christian church today is despondency. What is despondency or despond? If you’re like me, you might associate it with Pilgrim’s Progress and the “Slough of Despond.” If you are even more like me, you have never read Pilgrim’s Progress but guess that it means that Pilgrim was having a tough time of it. But despond has a more proper meaning than just that. Despond is a lack of concern about one’s salvation.

There is a doctrine widely held in America—the full assurance of salvation—that was originally taught by the Reformers to free Christians from debilitating fear so that they could confidently grow in Christ and be transformed. Ironically, given the modern zeitgeist in contrast to the zeitgeist of 16th century Europe, this very doctrine promotes despond. Once the cycle of despond begins, a blind trust in divine grace and assurance that everything will turn out okay tends toward a lax attitude toward growth and transformation—the very essence of despond.

It’s cliché to say that this is an age of unbelief. Talk to any honest pastor and you will hear stories of rampant unbelief among laity and clergy alike. These are people who like the idea of God and would like to believe, but just can’t do it. The heavens, having become brass, the spiritual world seems utterly cut off from them.

Zacharias argues that this is a symptom and not a root problem. Unbelief such as this, within the church, is a symptom of despond. When we aren’t faithful with a few things, we lose control over the large things, to paraphrase Mt. 25:23. The solution isn’t to try harder to believe, nor is it to just go through the motions hoping belief will come, it is to go through specific motions. Zacharias says the only path forward is to humble ourselves. This is why he is so fond of that phrase “go down.” Humility is going down below others and going down before God in prayer. Extreme humility is going down to hell with Christ.

The Apostle Paul proclaims, “I have been crucified with Christ!” (Gal. 2:20). What happened after the crucifixion? 1 Peter says that after his crucifixion, Jesus “went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison …” This obscure and otherwise incomprehensible phrase has been linked to Eph. 4:8 (Christ “made captivity itself captive”). What then becomes clear is that Christ didn’t just die, in death he went and entered into solidarity with the very lowest low that humans captive by sin and death could possibly go: hell. It is here, in this lowest of low places and most hopeless of hopeless states that Jesus announced his victory over death.

Zacharias’ argument is that it is not enough to confess that we have been crucified with Christ, we need to actually do something. We need to travel with the crucified Christ and embrace our lowest and most humiliating low: the ignominy of sin that has captivated us. And only when we humble ourselves to that level can we truly hear and embrace the proclamation of Christ’s victory.

But “humbling ourselves” has become a hackneyed commonplace. (“I am so humbled to receive this honor.”) It begs the question of just what humility is. As Zacharias says, it is to “go down.” Zacharias reiterates the teaching of the fathers that the demons want to go up, not down. They want to rise to heaven and be like God and even above God[1]. In order to free ourselves of demonic despond, we need to start by “going down.” If we are all about improving ourselves, fixing ourselves, making ourselves better, we become easy targets because we are rising up into the sphere of all that stands against God. But if we go down … go down as far as hell, we then go to where Christ is, and then are ready to be lead out of captivity and the bondage of despond.

In modern Western culture we associate praying in a prostrate position (that is, on our knees, face on the floor, with hands outstretched in front) with Muslims because that is what we see in the media. Few of us ever see it in church. Maybe this is a place to start as we seek a way out of our despond. Praying in confidence while standing upright with hands outstretched to God certainly has its place. But there’s another side to this coin. Before we can rise up with such confidence, we must learn to go down.


[1] Archimandrite Zacharias, The Enlargement of the Heart, 2nd American Edition, Mount Thabor Publishing, 2012, p. 28.

Ransom: Exchange of One Life for Another

“The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk. 10:45). Oddly, this verse regularly gives Bible scholars and theologians heartburn. The central point is sublime: In the whole paragraph, Jesus is telling his disciples, who are starting to get a big head, that leadership is expressed, not in lording over others, but in serving them. In this sentence he personalizes this and says that why he came to earth: to serve.

But then he adds that phrase, “and to give his life as a ransom for many.” This has led some to propose that the Devil was holding humans hostage and God had to pay a ransom (his Son’s life) to get them back. While this extreme position has never been the predominant view of the church, no matter which communion, it begs the question, “What’s this ransom all about?”

Over the years I have figured out that God’s work in the world is ultimately inscrutable, and human language can never do justice to what is going on. Because of this, our theological language is more suggestive than precise. The language about how the atonement works is typical. “Ransom,” (along with “justification,” “predestined,” etc.) cannot be precise in the same manner our scientific or mathematical language is precise.

Ransom was on my mind because Brenda and I are reading together in the evenings, The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings, by Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski. We just read the portion about C.S. Lewis writing Out of the Silent Planet, an allegorical bit of science fiction that deals with this topic, and whose main character is Elwin Ransom.

With this fresh in my mind, this morning, I read the following from Archimandrite Zacharias in The Enlargement of the Heart, p. 52f:

In the Liturgy we are but poor instruments of Him who “offers and is offered.” So, when we say to God, “Thine own of Thine own we offer unto Thee, in all and for all,” we do not just offer him a small cup of wine and a tiny piece of bread, for in that wine and that bread we put all our love, all our faith, all our intercession for our beloved, for the people who suffer, for the whole world. … So He does the same: He receives those gifts and He puts all His life in them, the Holy Spirit, and he says to us: “The holy things unto the holy.” In the Liturgy there is an exchange of lives. Man offers his life to God, and God offers his life to man, and who can compare, or rather measure, this exchange of lives? For ours is temporal, corruptible, earthly, and His is incorruptible, heavenly, eternal. Therefore, in the Liturgy, there is an unequal exchange of lives.

To be clear, Zacharias is not talking about the word ransom, nor has he said anything about theories of the atonement. He is talking about how humans and God interact. But what he describes at this point in the lecture is quite a good description of ransom:

It is an exchange [read: ransom]. Man offers his life to God, and God offers his life to man.

To return to Mark 10, this exchange, this ransom, is the ultimate example of the humble service that is the essence of Jesus’ leadership.

As an aside, I picked up the audio recording of this conference (Fr. Zacharias speaking to the gathering of the priests of the St. Raphael Clergy Brotherhood in 2001) fifteen or so years ago and have been listening to those repeatedly for over a decade. It was turned into the above-mentioned book. I purchased it a few years ago and am finally getting around to reading it. For my learning style, the book is far superior to the recorded lectures because I can stop and reread a particularly dense paragraph here and there. I am enjoying it immensely.

 

The Holy Spirit as Transformer

I ran across a surprising twist on the idea of transformation. St. Silouan (d. 1938) changes the direction of transformation. Yes the Christian is transformed by the Holy Spirit, but he said that divine grace is also transformed by the Holy Spirit. He speaks of the Holy Spirit as “transformer” in the electrical grid sense. The glory of God is too hot or too charged or too high a voltage for us to handle. (“No one can see God and live,” Ex. 33:20.) It is the Spirit who transforms or steps down the grace into a “voltage” we can handle.

Different Christians are transformed (in the traditional sense) to different degrees. The Spirit, as Transformer, steps down divine grace that matches our own transformation. To some it comes hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold (to adapt Jesus’ parable of the Soils in Mt. 13:8).

For those who have followed me for a while, you might be reminded of the Orthodox understanding of judgment. (And this is no doubt what Silouan has in mind.) Judgment is not God’s anger, it is God’s love. For those who have been transformed, it is experienced as inexpressible glory. To those who have rejected or not taken advantage of God’s transformation, that same divine glory is experienced as burning pain. Zacharias describes it as follows:

As we are told in the Gospel of the Last Judgment, the notable appearance of the Lord at the end of the ages will be ineffably terrible: blessed for the humility of the righteous, but unbearable to the obstinacy of sinners.

Drawn from The Enlargement of the Heart by Archimandrite Zacharias (Zacharou), Mount Thabor Publishing, 2nd American Ed., 2012, p. 39 and p. 34.

Lazarus Saturday: Joy between Repentance and Mourning

It’s Lazarus Saturday today (Mar 31), which means Great Lent is over and Holy Week will begin in two days. Once again, here’s a quick overview of the differences between Orthodox and Western Lent and Easter/Pascha. First, the Orthodox will celebrate Pascha on April 8. (You can’t have Pascha until after Passover, which is Mar 30 – Apr 7 this year, so that puts Pascha on Apr 8.) Second, the Orthodox count all the days of the week in Lent while the Western Churches don’t include Sundays, so we get to 40 days in two different manners. Orthodox Lent begins on a Monday and then ends on a Friday (7 days x 5 weeks = 35 + 7 more days = 40). So Great Lent ended yesterday. The Holy Week fast begins on Monday. That leaves two days in between: Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday.

This interim time between the two fasts is an opportunity to reflect on what I have come to think of the three proper states of being for Christians. (This is my own thought; I haven’t seen it anywhere else, so consider the source and take it for what it’s worth.). Those three states are repentance, mourning, and joy. The Lenten fast is a season of repentance. Lazarus Saturday, Palm Sunday, and Pascha are seasons of joy. The Holy Week fast is a season of mourning.

This distinction was lost to me as a Protestant because Lent—that period from Ash Wednesday to the day before Easter—was an amorphous whole. As a result there was no specific season of mourning, except for Good Friday and maybe on that Sunday once every three years where that verse, “Jesus wept,” came up in the lectionary. I therefore want to consider the role of each in our Christian lives.

Mourning is a recognition and response to the fact that things are not right in the world. Geo Pallikunnel, a Syro Malabar (that is, the quite ancient Orthodox communion on the Indian subcontinent, also called the St Thomas church) theologian describes it this way. “Human nature is basically good, even though sin disintegrated it.” The world was created very good and humans were created in the image of God (thus we are basically good) but sin has marred and disrupted it. I especially like Pallikunnel’s use of the term “disintegration” in this context. In his monograph he describes our life of salvation in terms of our disintegration because of sin and Jesus Christ’s integration of our beings.

In this metaphor sin is more process than act. Things are coming apart at the seams and we know that this is not right, that things once were better (“very good” in fact) and should be better. But they’re not. We too often beat ourselves up for this state of affairs. We too often rage against our own frailties, our fellow Christians’ hypocrisy, and the evil that the world spawns. But such regrets and recriminations are not a proper Christian state of being. “Blessed are those who mourn …” says Jesus, not, “blessed are the angry.”

Rather than regrets and recrimination, our proper response (the second state of being) is Repentance. Repentance is not being sorry that I sinned; that’s, just … well, sort of sorry. Repentance isn’t an attitude, it’s an action; it’s turning around; it’s changing our direction. This is embodied in three specific actions: fasting, prayer, and alms. Said another way, repentance focuses on ourselves by denying (and thus, to a certain extent, taking control of) our out-of-control desires that are causing the disintegration of our being in the first place. Repentance is also focusing on others by truly looking at them in their life situation and helping to meet their needs which grow out of their own and the world’s disintegration. Repentance also focuses on God. The disintegration that I keep going on about is a symptom of a deeper problem. Cut off from God, who is life itself, all creation is dead (in the same way cut flower is dead—still beautiful and fragrant, but severed from its life-giving source). Repentance is specifically a turning toward God-who-is-Life-itself in order to re-establish the flow of life through prayer and the Eucharist.

Lent is a season set aside to focus on this second state of being: repentance. Holy Week, in contrast, is not about repentance; it’s about mourning. It is looking at the incarnation (that is, the whole earthly life of Jesus Christ) as a prolonged death, a seeming disintegration of God. “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me!” And ironically, just as Jesus said would happen, as we mourn, we are comforted. As we mourn we see clearly the current state of affairs and that it is not the true or intended state of affairs. Furthermore we see that God hasn’t left us to our own devices, but walks besides us, suffers beside us, and is “disintegrated” (if we dare use that term!) on our behalf.

But mourning does not occur in a vacuum. We can dwell in this state of being because we know there is another state of being: Joy. Lazarus Saturday is a truly special day on the Orthodox calendar. Saturday morning there is a Eucharistic Divine Liturgy that is a foretaste of Pascha. Everything is light instead of dark. The talk is of victory rather than death. It is a foretaste of Christ’s victory over death. It is an absolute proclamation that what looked like divine disintegration turns out to be the re-integration of all creation with its Creator.

We Christians have no need to rage. (The nations rage and the Psalmist asks, “Why?”) Instead we can mourn for a season because there is a state of joy. For the most part we exist in these three distinct states of being (repentance, mourning, and joy) simultaneously. But the Church helpfully breaks them apart as three distinct seasons to help us understand this admittedly odd state of affairs. And these three seasons come together in a mysterious and wonderful manner on these two days (Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday) between the two very different fasts of repentance and mourning that precede the greatest of Feasts of Rejoicing: Pascha.

Jesus wept … Lazarus come forth … But surely he stinks and smells of decay! That is life in a nutshell. Amen.

 

Rights, Responsibility, Freedom, and Self-Control

In the previous two essays about political Liberty and Rights, I emphasized that one of the assumptions about rights built into the Enlightenment was that they were necessarily connected to responsibility. One of the early critiques of the Enlightenment that has become increasingly obvious over the decades is that many of those Enlightenment assumptions were not a result of Enlightenment ideas, but were rather leftovers from the Christian worldview out of which the Enlightenment grew. Responsibility is one of those leftover ideas. The logical conclusion of Enlightenment political theory is Libertarianism, a political philosophy in which there is very little room, if any, for responsibility for others.

While the Liberty and Rights pairing is not a specifically Christian pairing (Liberty, in Christian theology has a different set of implications, especially as Paul uses it in contrast to the Mosaic Law) there is a close analog in Christian theology: The pairing of Freedom and Self-control.

Fr Thomas Hopko, in vol 4 of a slender set of theology books designed for lay readers and church Bible Studies called The Orthodox Faith, contrasts freedom and self-control. “According to the saints, self-control is one of the main elements of the divine image in man, coextensive with the gift of freedom which is often explained as the essential and basic element of man’s likeness to his Creator.”

Just as rights and responsibility are two sides of the same reality, so self-control and freedom are two sides of the same reality. True freedom is achieved in the ability not to exercise it. Similarly, in political philosophy, true rights can only be exercised to the degree that we recognize our responsibility to others, to order, and to the polis in general.

 

Moses, Pt. 2: Eternal Security

On Reddit I follow a couple of Orthodox subreddits and a question that comes up repeatedly is that of eternal security. How can I know that I am saved? Do the Orthodox believe in eternal security? Or some other variation on this theme. In the Protestant group in which I grew up (and it seems this is pretty typical of Protestantism) eternal security was summed up by the phrase, “Once saved, always saved.” Very early I realized that there was a loophole in the logic that nullified the doctrine at a practical level, and the keepers of the faith regularly used the loophole. If a person went off the rails and became particularly wicked after “getting saved” and being a good church member for a while, someone would inevitably raise the eternal security question. The answer that I heard on many occasions was, “Oh, that person was never saved in the first place.”

So while Protestants, and the Reformed flavor of Protestants in particular, celebrate eternal security, the doctrine remains a nice theory with little real significance in everyday life. The doctrine is logical trap because when salvation is mis-defined as an event—a specific time when one crosses over into divine favor—questions will inevitably remain about this event we call salvation. When actual life is lived in the wold after Adam and Eve, the doctrine salvation as an event creates a morass of questions and ambiguities.

I am particularly fond of the pre-Reformation approach to the question. The Orthodox understanding is typical of this classic view. It begins with the affirmation that no one can escape the presence of God. Even in Sheol, God is there and “accessible” (See the parable of Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31 as well as Ps. 139). The enduring reality for all creation will be the light and love of God. For those who love God, this will be experienced as light and life, for those who love themselves far more than God, that same light of God’s presence is experienced as fire and judgment. Within this context, heaven and hell and “being saved” means something rather different and far more profound than the rather simplistic binary of “saved” or “not saved” by which it is typically described in the modern world.

What determines my eternal fate is not a particular set of actions nor is it the repetition of a simple little prayer (ie, the Sinner’s Prayer). My eternal fate is to be with God, no matter what. Whether I experience this eternal destiny as heaven or hell does not rest in any particular action, nor whether I happen to be living “in grace” or “out of grace” at the moment of my death, but rather in my attitude shaped by life-long thinking and acting. Thus all the hand-ringing over whether I am saved or not is to rather miss the point. The question is, “Do you love God? And I answer, “Of course I do!” And then my spiritual guide and confessor begins to probe my life and I begin to discover that there are quite a number of things I love more than God. (The Orthodox combine all of these earthly loves into a big group and call them the passions.) The trouble with the heart is that it is very deceitful and it even deceives us, disguising the passions as good things. But as these passions—these things I love more than God—are revealed to me, I can seek to put them aside and come to truly love God. Within this framework, salvation is the path of discovering my passions, confessing them, and turning again and again toward God.

Within the classical way of thinking that was normal long before the Reformation, salvation wasn’t a noun as much as it was a verb. It was not a question of whether you were saved or not saved, for those aren’t the two options, but rather if you were working out your salvation (Phil 2:12). Salvation isn’t a moment where you cross a line from one side to another, it is more akin to a process. It is not an instant transformation as much as it is a slow change.

Within this classical framework, eternal security is rooted in three things. First, is the sure knowledge that God loves us, looks for and longs for us like the father of the Prodigal Son, just waiting for the opportunity to run to us and embrace us. Second, is the sure knowledge that Jesus Christ has opened the way to salvation. There are no hindrances to my salvation other than my own pride and stubbornness. Third, in order to be utterly secure in my salvation, all I have to do is continue loving God and learning to love God anew every time I discover an area where I love something else more than God. There are no magic words nor mathematical formulae. Eternal security is not a mental affirmation, but a path to travel, knowing full well that along the way I’ll fall back and have to start anew.

There is a famous icon (see the top of the page) that many Protestants find horrifying because of the tendency to think of salvation as binary. As people climb the ladder to the light of Christ (on the left, note that heaven is on the right), demons are trying to pry them off, making them fall to the ground. My Protestant eyes look at that and see people losing their salvation. But that is not what is pictured. Look closely. The people are not falling into hell, they’re falling back to earth. Such a fall is not the end of the story, it’s a description of how life is actually lived. They’ll just get back on the ladder and start climbing again. The only way to “lose one’s salvation” is to utterly reject it. The danger is not accidental or secret sin, but rather despair (or “despond,” as John Bunyan described it. It would require that one begin to hate rather than love God. This scenario is never considered in this icon. It is rather a picture of the Christian life where we climb the ladder of spiritual maturity, fall off, and start climbing again.

With this more proper context in mind, I will return to Moses and his passions in the next essay.

 

Moses, the Dark Side

For all of his good qualities—Lawgiver, mediator between God and the nation, organizer of the Exodus—Moses was not an example of holiness in this life. He was quite the opposite. When viewed from his death backwards (Josh. 1:1-2), the defining moment of his life was one of anger and pride. That incident began with a big problem.

Now there was no water for the congregation; so they gathered together against Moses and against Aaron. (Num. 20:2)

Moses and Aaron went to the tent of meeting asking for a solution to the water problem and God told them,

Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, you and your brother Aaron, and command the rock before their eyes to yield its water. Thus you shall bring water out of the rock for them; thus you shall provide drink for the congregation and their livestock. (v. 8)

What Moses did was a bit different.

So Moses took the staff from before the LORD, as he had commanded him. Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, “Listen, you rebels, shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” Then Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock twice with his staff; water came out abundantly, and the congregation and their livestock drank. (vv. 9-11)

Moses’ anger and lack of self-control shines through in these sentences. He demeans the people by calling them “you rebels.” Rather than speaking to the rock (as he was told to do), he scolds the people with a biting rhetorical question. And then, with no word to the rock, he whacks it twice with his staff. It is the image of a child striking out in helpless anger because he feels there are no options left. While immature, out of control, and childish, Moses’ response is understandable; the nation was out of water and everyone was mad at him. In spite of our sympathy with Moses, there is a big “but” involved.

But the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust in me, to show my holiness before the eyes of the Israelites, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.” (v. 12)

These petty outward actions reflect a deeper problem. God’s intent was to show his holiness. Moses, because of his uncontrolled passion and resulting outburst, diminished the moment to an embarrassing demonstration of his own failings. God was pushed into the background while Moses stole the limelight. The text then closes with these tragic words:

These are the waters of Meribah, where the people of Israel quarreled with the LORD, and by which he showed his holiness. (v. 13)

God’s holiness was still demonstrated but it was demonstrated through the lens of the people’s mistrust and Moses’ pettiness. Throughout scripture we see that God prefers to clothe his glory in some created form, and especially in human form. Once again God clothes his glory in his servant Moses, but Moses’ antics are such that what we remember is less God’s glory and more Moses’ uncontrolled passions. The place isn’t named for what should have been memorable, “God Provides,” or “God Shows His Holiness.” Instead it’s named after what was actually most memorable; it’s called “Quarrel” (or “Meribah” in Hebrew).

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other” (Mt. 6:24). This was the rub for Moses. He was a slave to his passions. When he tried to serve the Lord his passions took control and he ended up despising God’s holiness in the process of serving his own anger. Because no one can serve two masters, and because in this incident Moses demonstrated for all to see that his master was still his own passion, God told Moses that he would be incapable of crossing the Jordan River into the Promised Land and entering God’s rest.

By the end of Deuteronomy the people are near the edge of the Promised Land, but in a sort of limbo. They aren’t moving forward nor are they traveling to any particular place. And then we turn from Deuteronomy to Joshua and discover that everything changes.

After the death of Moses, the servant of the LORD, the LORD spoke to Joshua son of Nun, Moses’ assistant, saying, “My servant Moses is dead. Now proceed to cross the Jordan, you and all this people, into the land that I am giving to them, to the Israelites. (Josh. 1:1-2)

Now that Moses is gone, the nation is finally free to “enter the place of rest” as Joshua calls it (v. 13). What are we to make of this? First (and this is the bit of the story that I have been emphasizing here), Moses represents our passions. 1 John says, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; for all that is in the world—the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. And the world and its desire are passing away, but those who do the will of God live forever” (2:15-17). As the years went by Christian teachers began to describe what 1 John is talking about, along with related issues, with a single term: the passions.

One of the gifts God gave us as part of his image is an unquenchable desire to fellowship with and ultimately to commune with God. One of the consequences of sin is that our original innate connection with God was broken and God became a stranger. But the unquenchable desire remained, and it attached itself to created things. In 1 John it is described as “the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride of life.” The Fathers and Mothers of the church recognized that anger, intellectualism, and other excesses of life were the same thing with different faces. When this unquenchable desire is pointed directly at God it draws us inexorably toward him. But, as is typical with sin, when this unquenchable desire is pointed at things other than God, it prevents us from drawing close to God.

This is Moses in the story arc that stretches from Meribah to his death in Deut. 34. He, and the passions he represents, had to die before the nation could enter the Promised Land. Similarly, before we are able to enter into God’s rest, it is necessary for our passions to be reigned in and redirected toward God and God alone. Paul calls this dying to the flesh. This battle with the passions is therefore at the center of our Christian life and our struggle to enter into fellowship and union with God.

Hopefully you’ve been paying attention to the scripture text and are now thoroughly annoyed with me because of the reductionist manner in which I have read the text. This is a more complex story than what I have described, but I suspect we can’t appreciate the complexity without looking at the different threads individually. I will explore another thread of the story in the next essay.