Winter Lent

We are now a week or so into the season of “Winter Lent,” Fr. Thomas Hopko’s felicitous name for the Nativity fast. For Eastern Christians (Orthodox, Oriental, and Eastern Catholics), the Nativity Fast is pretty much the same thing as Great Lent: forty days of fasting leading up to the Nativity Feast (Christmas). I am enough of a romantic (and born and raised northerner) that it doesn’t feel like the Nativity Fast until it looks like winter outside. Today is our first real snow of the season. (The picture accompanying this essay is from the window I look out while typing away.) With snow on the ground, my mind is finally beginning to turn toward Winter Lent.

In the Latin and Protestant West, Advent focuses on preparation for the coming of Christ. The Sunday before Advent is all fire and fury, with the readings about the Second Coming, the Judgment, and the end of the world. The four Sundays of Advent then focus on preparation for Christ coming into the world as we prepare to celebrate his First Coming.

While this sense of preparation for Christ’s coming is certainly present in the Nativity Fast, there is another element that plays a major role: giving. The theme of giving certainly centers around the gift of Jesus Christ, offered to us by the Father. But while Christ is central, the imagery and thematic content is then rounded out with a focus on the gifts of the Magi, which are also celebrated at Nativity. (The Magi are not celebrated until Epiphany—twelve days later—in the West.)

Watching a schmaltzy and saccharine seasonal advert foisted upon the television watching public by Apple, I was reminded how the whole concept of giving has been largely emptied of content in contemporary culture. It is a promotion of the god of consumerism, all dressed up in a Christmas-y costume that I find to be at best banal, but in my secret heart of hearts, to be rather repulsive. The advert is a metaphor for how God’s chrism of grace (that quietly insists on a response!) has been transmogrified into a world of presents, decorations, parties, and no doubt a bit of wassail or rum punch consumed to dull the ache of emptiness that lingers in this dark and cold season. … But enough Grinch-iness, let’s ponder what giving truly means in these darkening and joyous days of Winter Lent.

The Magi brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. All three give us glimpses into the true meaning of giving. Gold relates most closely to our contemporary practice of giving gifts. Giving gold costs the giver something significant. Such a gift requires a commitment the giver has to the receiver. Just as the incarnation was terribly costly to God, so our response back to God is costly to us. Gold also represents permanence. It’s a reminder that Christian giving (not just of wealth, but of time, and emotional sharing) is not just a Christmas thing, but something defines who we are and ought to be year round as Christians.

Frankincense (a particularly expensive form of incense) symbolizes prayer. “Let my prayer arise before you as incense” (Ps. 141:2). If gold is a symbol of giving, then incense is a symbol of fellowship or communion. I remember my father inviting a drunk to dinner one night. My mother was furious. The dinner was uncomfortable. The guy spent all of his money on booze and needed something to eat. Dad could have bought him a hamburger and sent him on his way. Instead he brought him into our home. Buying him a hamburger would fall under the category of gold. And that would be a worthy gift. Bringing him into our home took that act of charity up to the level of incense. It was an attempt, not only to give, but to connect in the very act of giving. Authentic giving almost always has facets of this sort of connection and fellowship and Frankincense is a reminder that we need to be intentional about this connections.

Myrrh was used, among other things, for anointing the dead. It is both a fragrance and a preservative. The Magi’s gift of myrrh pointed toward Jesus Christ’s death. And this is truly where the rub is when it comes to giving. Authentic giving is not only costly, it empties us. Other people resent givers. Other people take advantage of givers. Give too much without protections in place and it leads to death.

But this last gift is not a call for purposeless martyrdom, it is rather a snapshot of the deepest mystery of the Christian life. Just as Christ sacrificed his life on our behalf so that we could enter into fellowship with God, so we are called to to offer our bodies as living sacrifices to God (Rom 12:1-2). The mystery of giving is that if it is halfhearted, it is all for naught. Giving is an all-in sort of proposition. And as unpleasant as that sounds, it turns our that when we do this, true fulfillment and joy results.

Presents under the tree, secret santas, dropping a few coins in the bell ringers kettle can all point us in the direction of authentic Christian giving and the essence of Winter Lent. But those things can also become substitutes, giving us a momentary sense of goodwill, but helping us avoid the bigger question of giving. So during this season, the challenge is not to settle for the trinkets, but use them as a springboard to the real thing: kneeling before God’s gift to us with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.


Gregory: The Patron Saint of Social Media

In the previous essay I explored the rather different Hebrew conception of time. I began that essay by mentioning Sergie Bulgakov, a theologian who was active about 100 years ago. Bulgakov, while brilliant, was eccentric, and his eccentricities are probably the reason there continues to be so much interest in him 100 years after his writing career. And, among his most infamous eccentric beliefs is that he was a universalist. Before I can say more, though, we need some background related to my previous essay on time.

Probably because Eastern Orthodoxy has no magisterium and is instead led by the cooperative will of all the bishops, there are far fewer things that are dogma. (In fact, I suspect Orthodoxy has fewer dogmatic statements than most Protestant churches, which, ironically, consider dogma suspicious in general.) In place of a complex set of dogmas, the Orthodox church has theologumena, which is best described as a consensus of the church fathers and mothers. While the theologumena are authoritative, it is not strictly required to hold to these beliefs and rules in the same way that dogmatic teachings (such as the Holy Trinity, the incarnation, and Christ’s return) are required.

Among the teachings that are not dogmatic is what happens to unbelievers after they die. St. Gregory of Nyssa (not only a saint, but celebrated as one of the three Cappadocian fathers—the three most significant theologians of their generation) taught that there was a possibility that everyone (including unbelievers) would be saved in the end. It is far beyond the scope of this essay to go through the details of the argument, but two things can be said about it. First, a significant piece of the argument in favor of universalism has to do with that slippery word “eternal” that we explored in the previous essay. Second, Gregory didn’t say everyone would be saved, rather he held out the possibility that universal salvation might be a possibility.

In relation to the first point, the Greek words that get translated “eternal life,” and in turn, “eternal damnation,” don’t speak primarily about the length of time, but rather about the quality of life. At this point I need to make clear that I have not read Gregory himself on this subject, only various authoritative interpreters of his work. But Gregory argued that the Greek word we translate eternal is distinctly different than our modern concept of infinite. Eternal damnation, therefore, doesn’t point to the length of time spent in hell, but rather that hell is a separate realm.

He speculated about this partly because of what Paul said in 1 Cor 15, a passage that is exceedingly difficult to make sense of. Beginning in v. 24, Paul says,

24 Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 27 For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when it says, “All things are put in subjection,” it is plain that this does not include the one who put all things in subjection under him. 28 When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all. 29 Otherwise, what will those people do who receive baptism on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf?

There are a couple of things I will note in this passage. First, in the end, God will be all in all. Gregory speculated that this might mean that God is even greater than our unbelief. In the end, God has the ability to draw, even the unbelieving to himself. Second, if our own deaths are an absolute break, after which nothing can happen (as Hebrews seems to indicate), then what about this “baptism on behalf of the dead”? To be clear, no one knows what Paul is talking about. Whatever it was he was referring to, it is a practice lost in the mists of time. Furthermore, no Christian group (except heretical sects) baptize on behalf of the dead, so v. 29 is a real head scratcher.

Gregory’s point is that we simply don’t know what happens after death. We have hints and pointers. The general arc of the New Testament is that there is such a thing as eternal damnation. But then there are other things, such as 1 Cor. 15, that don’t fit the general pattern. When this is the case, it is dangerous to be dogmatic. The only sensible thing to do is say, “I don’t know.”

This is why Gregory held out the possibility of universal salvation while more generally holding to the majority opinion that there will be damnation that lasts forever for those who reject God’s offer of mercy. His speculation about the theoretical possibility of universal salvation was his way of emphasizing that some things are beyond our comprehension and when it comes to those things, Christian humility demands us saying, “I don’t know.” Many teachers since then have been of the opinion that Gregory would have been better off just keeping his mouth shut. He should have left it at, “I don’t know” rather than speculating about other possibilities.

And this brings us to Bulgakov, who was not nearly as humble as Gregory. Using logic and exegesis that was “unique,” he felt that he had proved the point. He said that there wasn’t an “I don’t know” involved. Instead, he argued that he had proved from scripture, the teachings of the church, and logic, that universal salvation was necessarily the truth of the matter.

And this is Bulgakov’s error. It is not that he believed and taught universal salvation. His error was that he was dogmatic about a matter that the church in her wisdom has always refused to be dogmatic about.

His views are certainly eccentric. Eccentricity is something we should forgive because Christian charity demands it. But his attitude is arrogant to the point of being dogmatic. That is something Christians absolutely cannot condone. And again I emphasize that Gregory was never dogmatic on this topic. His point was quite specifically, “I don’t know.”

And the ironic thing is that even though we absolutely cannot condone Bulgakov, he may actually be right. But on that point we need to stick with Gregory and affirm that in the end, we don’t know.

And finally, I offer a concluding unscientific postscript. I believe that Gregory of Nyssa should be the patron saint of social media. Why would I say that? Well, “I don’t know,” if you get my drift. 😉


The Meaning of Time

While reading an article about Sergie Bulgakov, an early 20th century theologian, I was reminded how our modern conception of time is so different than that of the ancient world. Time, for us, is not substantive. Like a clothesline that stretches into both the past and future, time is something we hang events on. It’s how we order events.

I suspect this process of emptying out time has been going on for millennia. The Greek word aion (eon), for instance originally meant “life force” and had little, if anything, to with time. By the time of Plato, “eon” had lost this primary sense of life force and had come to mean something a bit more familiar to us, but time had not yet become the clothesline stretching infinitely into past and future; it was more akin to a realm where beings existed and less like the clothesline, or “arrow of time.”

The Hebrews had a somewhat different perspective, but it included the idea of time as realm more than clothesline. It is this Hebrew (and then early Christian) sensibility that I want to focus on. One convenient point of entry is Jesus’ Parable of the Seeds found in Mark 4.

And [some of the seeds were] sown among the thorns: these are the ones who hear the word, but the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing. (Mark 4:18-19)

Of interest here is that word “world,” which isn’t world at all. What Jesus says is “the cares of this eon … choke the word.” “Eon” is a time word, and while time (as we think about it) is not completely absent from this sentence, what Jesus has in mind is not the passage of time, it is rather the quality or realm of the time. Sometimes when “eon” is used in this sense, it is translated as “age” (“cares of this age”). Here in Mark 4, this age is marked by cares and distractions. It is reminiscent of Ecclesiastes: “I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind” (1:14),

So far I’ve talked about “eon” as a noun, but it is far more common in the New Testament in its adjectival form. Jesus speaks frequently of “eonic life” (if we turn the noun “eon” into an adjective), or as it is typically rendered in the New Testament, “eternal life.” But just as “eon” is better translated “this world” rather than “this time” or “this age” in the Parable of the Seeds, in order to get the true sense of what Jesus is saying, so the sense of “eonic life” is not best expressed with the word “eternal” because “eternal” (as we use the word today) only expresses the time sense of eon and not the sense of place or quality.

Contemporary translators are aware of this problem and render the term “eonic life” rather differently on occasion. For instance, the KJV renders the term as “eternal” in 1 Tim. 6:19. “Laying up in store for themselves a good foundation against the time to come, that they may lay hold on eternal life.” But the context isn’t about time, it’s about how we live our lives. Here is 1 Tim. 6:17-19 from the NRSV, which better catches these sense in this context.

As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life [“eternal life’ in the KJV].

Jesus expresses something similar in John 10:10. “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Here Jesus does not use the word “eternal,” but what we see is that “abundant life” is a synonym for “eternal life.”

We need to avoid thinking about this in an either/or manner. The word “eon” and its adjectival form “eonic” are both time words, so they also include a sense of time (thus “the cares of this age” and “eternal life”). My point is that in Scripture the sense of eternity (as we think about it) is a consequence of the more fundamental sense of the term. The life that we receive from God is not corrupted life that is full of cares and distractions and ultimately withers away because it lacks solidity and the proper connection to the source of life. The life we receive from God, on the other hand, is rooted in God’s being and is thus, solid, full, and complete. It is “life that really is life.” Because this is the case, it will last forever. But the forever part is a consequence of the quality of life that God gives us, not vice versa.

Remember, for the Hebrews, time is less a clothesline and more a container. For us, time has completely lost its “container” or “realm” sense and is almost exclusively a clothesline. We therefore need to work hard at thinking about the word in its fullness rather than in its stripped down and narrow sense when we are reading scripture.

Because we think about time differently than how Jesus or Paul thought about it, we also tend to think about salvation differently. Salvation, for us, tends to be something that happens on the clothesline of time, making the clothesline continue infinitely past the clothesline pole of our own death. But salvation, for Jesus and Paul, is not about the length of the clothesline, its not even about the clothesline. It’s about the container: a water pot gushing over with water or a wine skin that bursts with the bubbling expansion of new wine.

That doesn’t mean that our modern sense of eternity is absent. Scripture does talk about eternity in the manner we typically think about it, but it is necessarily described a bit differently, using the phrase “from ages to ages,” If we think about the prepositions “from” and “to” as arrows, one pointing backward and one pointing forward, this phrase will make sense. The two prepositions essentially place the eons (the container of time) on the clothesline and extend it forward and backward. This, by the way, is the scriptural phrase Michael Card and John Thompson picked up in their well known song, El Shaddai, when they say “[from] age to age you’re still the same.” This is the biblical phrase for eternity.

Finally, I want to reiterate the scriptural sense of time but specifically in the context of the incarnation. Again, if we think of eon as a container or realm rather than a clothesline, God dwells in one eon and we dwell in a different eon. When the Son of God became human, he not only entered created and fallen space, he entered created and fallen time. He entered the fallen human eon. As one who properly dwells in the divine eon, but lives in the human eon, he offers us a way to enter into the divine eon. This, I would argue, is a more accurate way of conceptualizing the gift of eternal life.

An Exploration of How Paul Knew what he Knew

Saul (that is, the Apostle Paul before Jesus Christ gave him his Christian name on the road to Damascus) was a rather remarkable and faithful Hebrew who, in other circumstances, we would probably want to emulate. He described himself as a “Hebrew born of Hebrews: as to the law, a Pharisee, as to zeal, a persecutor of the church, as to righteousness under law, blameless” (Phil. 3:5f). (Remember he sincerely believed the church was teaching heresy. He was not persecuting Christians as much as he was stamping out heresy—a venerable Christian tradition in later centuries.)

Saul’s heart was in the right place. He was seeking after God through a combination of knowledge of God, faithfulness to the rituals that had revealed God through the centuries, and the sort of self-discipline that can only be called athletic in its practice. These are the very things that Christians have promoted as the means to truly know God over the centuries.

While Saul’s heart was in the right place, his intellect had led him astray. He knew the scriptures inside and out. He knew his own tradition inside and out. He knew his internal drives and desires inside and out. But in all of that, he never actually came to know God. And because he never actually knew God, our tendency is to dismiss all these facets of his life as useless. Paul’s own description can be read in this manner, but what Paul finds useless is not his knowledge of scripture (he tells Timothy to study them as “a worker who has no need to be ashamed” to the end that he can “rightly explain” them in 2 Tim. 2:15). Nor does he find his remarkable self-discipline to be wasted, calling on Christians to similar discipline, to run the race, not just to compete, but to “receive the prize” (1 Cor. 9:24). The real problem is not in the running, but rather “running in vain” (Gal 2:2).

It was his encounter with the living Truth that revealed his intellectual vanity. On the Damascus road God “was pleased to reveal his Son to me” (Gal. 1:16). What was revealed was a profoundly different sort of knowledge of God described above. It was a knowledge that defies, and in fact, shatters, human categories of knowledge.

I hesitate to call this mystical knowledge, but if we can move beyond the baggage of that word “mystical,” it is a helpful idea. A mysterion is knowledge that shuts the mouth. (Yes, that’s actually one of the historical meanings of that Greek word mysterion!) It is knowledge that is not gained through the intellect but is instead communicated to the heart (Greek, nous, the center of our being). Paul’s insights into the Gospel were so radical he did not initially trust them and therefore went to Peter and the other apostles to verify that what was revealed was indeed true Gal. 2). This mystical knowledge transformed Christianity from a sect of Judaism into something different and, while continuous with Hebrew faith, was at the same time completely new.

We almost certainly won’t have encounters as dramatic as Paul had, but this is the pattern of how we acquire knowledge of God, as distinguished from knowledge of the Bible, the Church, or theology. I am regularly accused by my Evangelical friends and family of dismissing the Bible, or diminishing its importance. That is only true if one thinks of the Bible as a source of intellectual knowledge about God and faith. I am not seeking fellowship with scripture; I am seeking fellowship with God. And the Bible is the preeminent stepping stone into the mysterious, “mouth-shutting” realm of true knowledge of God that leads to the fellowship Christians seek. There are other stepping stones: the liturgy, the insights of Christians who have gone before us, the athletic struggle of prayer and fasting, but scripture is the preeminent stepping stone. And it must be always remembered that it is a stepping stone. Again, the goal is not knowledge of scripture, but personal knowledge (ie, interaction, and ultimately, communion with God).

The way I just described it was not Paul’s frame of reference, so this is not how he described it. But when Paul warns against human wisdom and rails against the works of the law, this is certainly a big piece of what he is railing against. Knowledge of God is a dangerous thing that drains the power of the gospel and leads to confidence in our own understanding. Knowing God, on the other hand, shuts our mouth and circumscribes our being (will, intellect, emotions, etc) while enlarging the heart so that we can take in more divine presence and thus be transformed from glory to glory.

This new (and yet older than Abraham) form of knowledge is Paul’s greatest gift that he gives to us in gasps and glimpses in his various letters found in the New Testament.

Wisdom and Works of the Law

I have been doing in-depth study of 1 Corinthians in recent months. The manner in which Paul discusses wisdom has been quite surprising to me. In his best known argument, found in 1 Cor. 1, he claims that human wisdom (what the Greeks seek) and signs (what the Jews seek) are dead ends in light of message of the cross, which reduces the former to foolishness and makes the latter a stumbling block. If either human wisdom or a demand for signs are pursued, they empty the gospel of its power.

This doesn’t mean that Paul rejects wisdom altogether. He makes this clear in 2:4-7.

4 My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God. 6 Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. 7 But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory.

One of my surprises came when I discovered the parallel between 1 Corinthians (the distinction between human wisdom and secret divine wisdom) and Galatians (“works of the law” and “the righteousness that comes from faith”). Paul’s distrust of the law in both Romans and Galatians is well known and a particular interpretation of that distrust is the foundation of the Reformation doctrine of salvation by faith through grace alone. Both the Latin and Greek traditions reject this interpretation that leads to the Reformation emphasis because both traditions consider it bad exegesis, a topic I cover frequently in this blog.

My fixation with the Reformation doctrine caused me to miss the parallels between works of the law (Galatians) and human wisdom (1 Corinthians). Both letters deal broadly with the question, “How do we know?” But Paul’s interest is not so much in how we know, it is rather a question of why we want to know in the first place. What we have come to think of as classic western theology (embodied in the discipline of systematic theology) appears to fall into Paul’s category of human wisdom. It is an attempt to plumb the depths of God in a manner not dissimilar to chemists, biologists, and physicists plumbing the depths of the physical universe. Such knowledge, while valid within its particular frame of reference, empties the Gospel of its power because divine wisdom operates in a fundamentally different frame of reference.

Divine wisdom may lead to a knowledge of God, but this is a side-show that, while profoundly attractive, is ultimately illusory. Divine wisdom, on the other hand leads to righteousness (“[God] is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption… 1 Cor. 1:30) and what later Christians described as a state of “unknowing.” This logical arc is remarkably similar to the logical arc of Galatians where Abraham receives righteousness, not by “the works of the law” (which came 400 years after Abraham), but by believing in the promise of that which was coming in Christ.

Well then, does God supply you with the Spirit and work miracles among you by your doing the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? (Gal 3:3f)

If the goal is knowledge, then it is “of the flesh” (Galatians) or “human wisdom” (1 Corinthians). But the goal is not acquiring knowledge, it is receiving the Spirit, which leads to righteousness, sanctification, and redemption, and a profound sense of knowing less than when you started. Paul calls this apprehension of that we cannot intellectually know, “things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat” (2 Cor. 12:4).

In a previous essay I observed that Paul (in Galatians and Romans, and now in 1 Corinthians) is rejecting the preeminence of objective truth in favor of personal truth, and more specifically, living truth (Jesus Christ, the Word of God, the Second Person of the Trinity), which explodes the category of objective truth because this divine, living Personal Truth, is limitless, fathomless, its fullness always being well beyond our grasp. Objective truth is something we can bring down to our level and box up in a multi-volume Systematic Theology. And to the degree we do that, we have created an idol, which is, by definition, a falsehood. The Living, Personal Truth, on the other hand, is active, changing us, transforming us, and leading us to communion with God. Objective truth, because it is something we can essentially control, becomes our “works of the law,” while Personal Truth is something that takes control of us and thereby transforms us by the “righteousness of faith.”

And this begs the question, where did Paul discover and enter into the realm of Living, Personal Truth? Fortunately, his letters point us in the right direction so that we can answer this question.


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.


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.