The Self-Giving God

“If the work of God in creation is the work of love, then truth demands an imagery which will do no justice to the limitless self-giving which is among the marks of authentic love: and the imagery which the head demands may have a new power of appeal to the moral sensitivity of the heart. As a parenthesis, we may illustrate the kind of imagery which might express the self-giving of God in creation. A doctor tells of an operation which, as a young student, he observed in a London hospital. ‘It was the first time that this particular brain operation had been carried out in this country. It was performed by one of our leading surgeons upon a young man of great promise for whom, after an accident, there seemed to be no other remedy. It was an operation of the greatest delicacy, in which a small error would have had fatal consequences. In the outcome the operation was a triumph: but it involved seven hours of intense and uninterrupted concentration on the part of the surgeon. When it was over, a nurse had to take him by the hand, and lead him from the operating theatre like a blind man or little child.’ This, one might say, is what self-giving is like: such is the likeness of God, wholly given, spent and drained in that sublime self-giving which is the ground and source and origin of the universe.” (W.H. Vanstone in The Time of the Spirit: Readings Through the Christian Year, p 5)

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The Exaltation of the Life-Giving Cross

We Orthodox celebrate the Feast of the Exaltation of the Life-Giving Cross of Christ on September 14 each year.   The epistle reading for the Feast is from 1 Corinthians 1:18-24

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.” Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

As the Roman Catholic scholar Louis Bouyer describes the crucifixion of Christ, it fulfills all the Old Testament rituals as well as promises and prophecies.  What the Jews had been given through their Temple worship was a chance to understand the sacrificial nature of the God of love.  The Christian understanding of the entire Old Testament is that it prefigures the events of the New Testament and prepares the the people of God for the reality which God revealed in Christ.  Through the Cross, Christ enters into the true temple in Heaven bringing humanity into the very presence of God once again.

“To devout Jews, like the author and the intended audience of this Epistle, Christianity must appear definitive because it realizes what had only been prefigured in the old covenant. We go from the figure to reality, because we go at the same time from the earthly to heavenly and from the exterior to the interior. The old covenant, by its expiatory rites, could confer only a purity of convention, which would have no substance at all if its rites had not themselves prefigured the Christian reality. The new covenant, on the contrary, according to the promise of Jeremias (31:31-34), is the law transferred from external practices to the intimate depth of the heart. But this is possible only because the ritual sacrifices have been transcended and replaced by that sacrifice with no analogue, wholly new and definitive, the sacrifice which is the death of Christ as the perfect accomplishment of God’s will. Thereby the way is opened up for us to the divine Presence, to the immediate Presence of God welcoming us with Christ into his rest, his eternal sabbath.” (The Spirituality of The New Testament & The Fathers, p 148)

“Through the Cross joy has come into all the world”   So we Orthodox sing celebrating Christ’s victory over death.  So we honor the Cross the instrument which brought salvation to the world and to each and everyone of us.

“For the Orthodox Church, the salvation that God offered through Jesus Christ is, first and foremost, victory over death. The Easter proclamation summarizes this core soteriological teaching: ‘Christ is risen from the dead! And death by his death is trampled. And to those in the tombs he is granting life.’ Since the incarnate Son of God effected humanity’s reconciliation and redemption, salvation from death certainly encompasses spiritual death, the condition of alienation from God. However, Christ also trampled upon physical death. ‘The death of our Lord,’ Florovsky writes, ‘was the victory over death and mortality, not just the remission of sins, not merely a justification of man, nor again a satisfaction of an abstract justice.’ Over and over, the Orthodox Church proclaims Christ’s conquering of death and granting of life. Over and over, the Orthodox Church proclaims Christ’s conquering of death and granting life. Over and over, the martyrs, ascetics, and other saints of the Church are described as enjoying a foretaste of God’s kingdom. Over and over, the promise of resurrection is held up as the core of the gospel.”  (Perry T. Hamalis, Thinking Through Faith: New Perspectives from Orthodox Christian Scholars, pp 203-204)



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The Symphony of Salvation

“Thus God, from the beginning, fashioned man for his munificence; and chose the patriarchs for the sake of their salvation; and formed in advance a people, teaching the uneducated to follow God; and prepared the prophets, accustoming man on the earth to bear his Spirit and to have communion with God; he himself, indeed, having need of nothing, but granting communion with himself to those who stood in need of it. To those that pleased him, he sketched out like an architect, the construction of salvation; and to those who did not see, in Egypt, he himself gave guidance; and to those who were unruly, in the desert, he promulgated a very suitable Law; while to those who entered into the good land he bestowed the appropriate inheritance; finally, for those converted to the Father, he killed the fatted calf and presented them with the finest robe. Thus, in many ways, he harmonized the human race to the symphony of salvation.” (Irenaeus of Lyons – d. 202AD –  in Asceticism and Anthropology in Irenaeus and Clement, p 53)

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Being Human Before the Fall (III)

This is the 9th blog in this series which began with the blog Being and Becoming Human. The previous blog is Being Human Before the Fall (II).

Augustus Caesar

In the Roman Empire there was a special office known as the Pontifex MaximusWhile this office underwent several changes in meaning and purpose over the centuries, at the death of Julius Caesar (44BC)  it came to be applied to the Roman Emperor himself and among its connotations was that the Emperor as a god was the main bridge builder between the Empire and the gods  of heaven.   The Emperor was a god, a high priest, and the person who united earth to heaven.

As we have already seen in the previous blogs, Christians on the other hand understood that from the time of Genesis and the creation of the world, God intended to be united to all humans and to have humanity be the bridge between divinity and the rest of creation.  Humans according to the Christian understanding of the ancient Jewish Torah were created to be kings, priests and prophets.  This was not limited to the elite emperors and ruling class but was the destiny of all humans. Humanity however chose not to realize its potential perfection and instead rebelled against any designated role in creation and decided to follow its own path which led to mortality becoming part of the human condition.  Mortality is specifically defined as a separation from the life-giving Creator God.   It is only in the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of the God-man Jesus that humanity is restored to its original purpose.  So Derwas Chitty writes about the goals and aims of those who embraced the monastic life in the early days of the Christian desert fathers:

“Note, too, how we see [St] Antony’s perfection as the return to man’s natural condition.  This is the constant teaching of Eastern Christian ascetics.  Their aim is the recovery of Adam’s condition before the Fall.  That is accepted as man’s true nature, man’s fallen condition being … ‘unnatural’.”  (THE DESERT A CITY,  p 4)

“… the Orthodox consistently make their anthropological formulations about human beings as they existed before the Fall.  To define human beings as they are after the Fall, the Orthodox believe, will have one reproduce the effects of the Fall and make those effects normative”  (Edmund Rybarczyk in ANCIENT AND POSTMODERN CHRISTIANITY: PALEO-ORTHODOXY IN THE 21ST CENTURY  , p 92)

As the Fathers understood Genesis, mortality which is such a part of the Fallen world was not part of what  God originally intended for His human creatures – death is not natural to us but rather marks our unnatural separation from God, the source of life.  We have become unnatural through sin and death.  In the Orthodox writers “natural” when applied to humans means our condition before the Fall, before humans reshaped the nature and direction of humanity through sin and disobedience to God.  In one highly influential 6th Century monastic writing we see that the human’s original purpose and nature remained as the ideal for all Christians as being normative for humanity.

“Do not, Beloved, consider lightly the intellectual quality of the human soul.  The immortal soul is like a precious vessel.  See how great are the heavens and the earth and yet God did not take pleasure in them but only in you.  Consider your dignity and nobility since not on behalf of angels but for you the Lord came to your protection in order to call you back when you were lost, when you were wounded, and he restored to you the first created condition of the pure Adam.  For man was lord over the heavens and things below.  He was the discerner of his passions and was totally alien to the demons.  He was pure of any sin or evil, made in the likeness of God.  But by the transgression he was lost and was wounded.  Satan darkened his mind.  In one thing this is so, yet in another way he still lives and can discern and possesses a will.”  (PSEUDO-MACARIUS, p 164)

Many Orthodox writers have described what the natural human, before the ancestral sin, was like and what entered into us humans as a result of the Fall which distorted our nature.  St. Gregory of Sinai (d. 1346AD) portrays humans as originally being free of passions, especially of anger.

“When God through His life-giving breath created the soul deiform and intellective, He did not implant in it anger and desire that are animal-like.  But He did endow it with a power of longing and aspiration, as well as with a courage responsive to divine love.  Similarly when God formed the body He did not originally implant in it instinctual anger and desire.  It was only afterwards, through the fall, that it was invested with these characteristics that have rendered it mortal, corruptible and animal-like.  For the body, even though susceptive of corruption, was created, as theologians will tell us, free from corruption, and that is how it will be resurrected.  In the same way the soul when originally created was dispassionate.  But soul and body have both been defiled, commingled as they are through the natural law of mutual interpenetration and exchange.  The soul has acquired the qualities of the passions or, rather, of the demons; and the body, passing under the sway of corruption because of its fallen state, has become akin to instinct-driven animals.  The powers of body and soul have merged together and have produced a single animal, driven impulsively and mindlessly by anger and desire.  That is how man has sunk to the level of animals, as Scriptures testifies, and has become like them in every respect (cf Psalm 49:20).”   (THE PHILOKALIA Vol 4, p 228)

Other Orthodox writers have pointed out that the alienation between the genders is also a result of the Fall.  Men and women were created simultaneously and as one in Genesis 1:27-28:

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

Humans were not created asexually, but were gendered and were commanded before the Fall to be fruitful and to multiply, which by nature for humans would mean sexual reproduction between two equal beings, one male and one female. The fact that there are two genders is not a sign that one gender is to rule the other (several Fathers note such inequality and tension occurs only after the Fall).  Male and female were both created to particpate in the divine life.

“As Panayiotis Nellas declared: ‘Man is understood ontologically by the Fathers only as a theological being.  His ontology is iconic.’  It is for this reason that none of the early church fathers believed that men and women have different souls; in fact, most explicitly  rejected the idea that sexual differentiation exists on any level beyond the physical body.  . . . In fact, the idea that there is a particular ‘charisma’ or ‘gift’ of maleness/masculinity or femaleness/femininity—what is called ‘essentializing’ because it claims there is an irreducible male or female essence—comes from modern Orthodoxy theologians; it does not exist in the patristic tradition.   Elisabeth Behr-Sigel critiqued this modern tendency of both Western and Eastern theologians, reflecting that ‘to make this biological differentiation and then to transpose it into the spiritual domain, is this not to ignore the dignity of Anthropos, that which distinguishes humanity from the animals among whom, according to the biblical account, Adam did not find one with whom to communicate what he needed., another like him?’”   (Valerie Karras, “Orthodox Theologies of Women and Ordained Ministry”, THINKING THROUGH FAITH, pp 149-150)

All humans, male or female were created and called by God to the same life and task. Both genders were created by God to share in the divine life, to attain theosis.   As St. Paul says,

“ …in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.”  (Galatians 3:26-29)

There is in humanity an innate common nature of all humans, male or female.  We are related to one another, and reunited to one another in Christ.  In Christ those divisions, the alienation and separation which occurred between men and women, or between nations and tribes making enemies one of another is overcome for all who live according to the Gospel command to love one another.

“Consider that all men, be they Jews, unbelievers or murderers, are equal in goodness and honor, and that each one, by nature, is your brother, though he may have unwittingly strayed far from the truth. (St Isaac the Syrian)”  (Michael Quenot, THE RESURRECTION AND THE ICON,  p 220)

The astounding truth is salvation does not consist in taking us out of this world or of escaping our bodies, but rather lies is us becoming more human – fully human as God intended for us from the beginning and realized in the fully human incarnate God, Jesus Christ.

earth“… the world is called to be humanized entirely, that is, to bear the entire stamp of the human, to become pan-human, making real through that stamp a need which is implicit in the world’s own meaning: to become, in its entirety, a humanized cosmos, in a way that the human being is not called to become, nor can ever fully become, even at the farthest limit of his attachment to the world where he is completely identified with it, a “cosmicized” man. The destiny of the cosmos is found in man, not man’s destiny in the cosmos.”   (Dumitru Staniloae,  Toward an Ecology of Transfiguration: Orthodox Christian Perspectives on Environment, Nature, and Creation, Kindle  Loc. 1432-35)

As Fr. Alexander Schmemann joyfully and wonderfully describes it, the human call is not mostly to follow religious rules and rituals but to realize the Kingdom of God.  Christ did not come to institutionalize new rituals and regulations but to enable us to become free human beings in the image and likeness of God.

“Man is called not to the implementation of rules but to the miracle of life.  Family is a miracle.  Creative work is a miracle.  The kingdom of God is a miracle.”   (THE JOURNALS OF FATHER ALEXANDER SCHMEMANN,  p 272)

And so we come back to a truth we’ve already encountered from the earliest days of the Church’s existence as stated by St Irenaeus of Lyons (d. 202AD):

“’The glory of god is a living human being.’”   (John Behr, BECOMING HUMAN, p 1)

God’s glory is the humans the Holy Trinity created:  “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness…”  (Genesis 1:26)

Next:  The Fall: Inhuman and Dehumanized, The Loss of Humanity

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Wealth and Being Human

While many Americans assume that “pursuit of happiness” will involve some kind of prosperity or at least wealth sufficient to enable the pursuit of  happiness, Christians in antiquity did not assume that wealth is always identified with happiness or blessing from God.  In fact many Christian saints thought of wealth as a kind of Ouroboros, the snake consuming it’s own tail.  The pursuit of wealth can become all consuming, never satiating one’s greed but always enflaming it.  While some have good intentions about what they would do if they had a lot of money, sometimes the use of the money gets forgotten  as one pursues ever more of what one already has.  My father, a high school drop out and a factory worker, once told me that his observation in life was that no matter income level a person was at from the least paid janitor to the high paid executive, everyone seemed to imagine that if only they had 10% more income they would be satisfied.  But as he observed no matter how far up that income ladder someone moved, they continued to desire that 10% more.

 The New Testament does not present to us that more wealth would make a better world – increasing wealth does not get us closer to the kingdom of heaven or make it more possible to be a Christian.  In fact the New Testament shows Christ not just indifferent to wealth but even dubious of its goodness (Mark 4:18-19; Luke 18:24-25).  “But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evils; it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs” (1 Timothy 6:9-10).

So St. Nikolai Velimirovic (d. 1956AD) teaches:

“Wealth is not evil in itself, as nothing that God has created is evil in itself, but men’s bondage to riches, lands, and possessions is evil; and the destructive passions that riches empower and invoke, such as adultery, gluttony, drunkenness, miserliness, boastfulness, self-praise, vanity, pride, scornfulness, and denigration of the poor, forgetfulness of God and so on ad infinitum, are evil. Few are there who have the strength to resist the temptation of riches and to be in control of their wealth, not becoming its servants and slaves. […]   God would be able, in the twinkling of an eye, to make all men equal in wealth, but that would be sheer folly. In that case, men would become totally independent of one another. Who would then be saved? How could anyone be saved? For men are saved through their dependence on one another. The rich depend on the poor, and the poor on the rich; the learned depend on the ignorant, and the ignorant on the learned; the healthy depend on the sick, and the sick on the healthy. Material sacrifice is repaid in spiritual currency. The spiritual sacrifice made by the learned is repaid in material currency by the ignorant. The physical service given by the healthy is repaid in spiritual currency by the sick, and vice versa: the spiritual service of the sick (that reminds men of God and of Judgement) is repaid by the physical service of the healthy.” (Homilies, pp 123-124)

No doubt many of us would be willing to risk being slaves to wealth.  And St. Nikolai’s logic might appear strange to us – God in his wisdom does not give wealth to everyone.  Why?   It is wealth inequality which teaches us to love and value others different from us.  humans need to have some sense of dependency on each other or they will treat all other life as not very valuable and may try to do away with others.  St. Nikolai’s logic is that a world in which everyone is rich would be a world in which no one would know how to love or show mercy on others.  We would have no need for others and they would have no need for us.  It would be the perfect world for attempting to destroy all those you don’t need – a world in which euthanasia and abortion abound.


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Being Human Before the Fall (II)

This is the 8th blog in this series which began with the blog Being and Becoming Human. The previous blog is Being Human Before the Fall.

In this blog we will consider five quotes which offer us an understanding of what God intended for the humans He created.  The first from scientist Leon Kass offers thoughts about what the book of Genesis says about what it is to be human.

“The first story [Genesis 1], addressing us as seekers of natural-cosmic knowledge, documents an eternal, intelligible, and hierarchic order of the world, in which we human beings stand at the top of the visible beings; the cosmos itself is not divine, for it has a higher, invisible, and partly mysterious source.  Man, not the sun, is godlike: sufficient proof is contained in our mental ability to grasp the cosmology offered in the text. . . . Cosmic knowledge cannot… teach us righteousness, not least because—as we learn from the first story—the cosmos is neither divine nor a source of such moral-political teaching.  And—as we will soon learn from the second story—our own native powers of mind and awareness, exercised on the world around us, are inadequate for discerning how to live happily or justly.”   (THE BEGINNING OF WISDOM: READING GENESISM, p 57)

Genesis clearly presents that the human is not an omniscient, omnipotent being.  We are a creation of such a God, but we ourselves are not God.  However, we are created in God’s image and likeness and thus of all the material beings created by God humans are somehow more favored by Him and given unique gifts and talents.  There are more powerful forces than us in the physical universe, but they each are also created and are not God.  We do not worship any created thing as God.  We have a free will and have to discern how to live in this world and to serve our creator.  We are gifted with many talents and given great potential to attain God’s plan, but we also can choose not to fulfill our role and can even rebel against our Creator.

 “In the early stories, the point was that the Creator loved the world he had made, and wanted to look after it in the best possible way.  To that end, he placed within his world a looking-after creature, a creature who would demonstrate to the creation who he, the Creator, really was, and who would set to work developing the creation and making it flourish and fulfill its purpose.  This looking-after creature (or rather, this family of creatures: the human race) would model and embody that interrelatedness, that mutual and fruitful knowing, trusting and loving, which was the Creator’s intention.  Relationship was part of the way in which we were meant to be fully human, not for our own sake, but as part of a much larger scheme of things.”   (NT Wright, SIMPLY CHRISTIAN, p 37) 

As already noted, we humans were created with a specific role to fulfill on earth.  Consciousness, free will and conscience are bestowed upon us by our Creator so that we can work with God in synergy to fulfill God’s plan.  Metropolitan Kallistos reminds us of the task bestowed upon us by our Creator.

“Our human vocation, however, is not only to contemplate the creation but also to act within it. We do not merely gaze with double vision; there is work for us to do. Adam in Paradise did not simply wander through the groves and avenues, admiring the view like an eighteenth-century English gentleman; the Creator set him in the garden of Eden “to till it and to look after it” (Gen. 2:15). How, then, shall we define our active human role within this sacred and sacramental universe?”   (Toward an Ecology of Transfiguration: Orthodox Christian Perspectives on Environment, Nature, and Creation, Kindle  Loc. 2104-7)

Metropolitan Kallistos continues:

 “Our human task, as St. John Chrysostom (c. 407) expresses it, is to be syndesmos and gephyra, the “bond” and “bridge” of God’s creation.  Uniting earth and heaven, making earth heavenly and heaven earthly, we reveal the spirit-bearing potentialities of all material things, and we disclose and render manifest the divine presence at the heart of all creation. Such was the task assigned to the First Adam in Paradise, and such—after the Fall of the First Adam—is the task eventually fulfilled by the Second Adam Christ, through His incarnation, transfiguration, crucifixion, and resurrection.  How precisely do we human animals exercise this unifying and mediatorial role? The answer: through thankfulness, doxology, Eucharist, offering. This brings us to a fifth characteristic of the human animal: it is a Eucharistic animal, an animal capable of gratitude, endowed with the power to bless God for the creation, an animal that can offer the world back to the Creator in thanksgiving.   (Toward an Ecology of Transfiguration: Orthodox Christian Perspectives on Environment, Nature, and Creation, Kindle  Loc. 2162-70)


The human’s place in creation is amazing – we are to be the bridge between the visible and invisible creation, between the physical and the spiritual, between the mortal and the immortal, and between all the created world and the eternally divine.

“According to St. Maximus, man’s primary mission was to unite Paradise with the rest of the earth, and thereby to enable all other created beings to participate in the conditions of Paradise.  Thus Adam was to enable all other creatures to participate in the order, harmony and peace of which his own nature benefitted because of its union with God, and this included the incorruptibility and immortality he received.  But once Adam turned away from God, nature was no longer subject to him.  Following Adam’s sin, disorder established itself between the beings of creation as it did within man himself.”   (Jean-Claude Larchet, THE THEOLOGY OF ILLNESS, p 31)

The human was created to do all that Israel was called to do and all that Jesus Christ fulfills.

 “When God gave our forefather Adam dominion over the earth and its fullness, that act was a prophecy of the universal subjection of creation to the reign of Christ.  Such is the true meaning of Psalm 8: ‘You have made Him to have dominion over the works of Your hands; You have put all things under His feet.’

Christ is no afterthought; He is the original meaning of humanity.  Christ is what God had in mind when He reached down and formed that first lump of mud into a man.  Again in the words of St. Nicholas Kavasilas: ‘It was towards Christ that man’s mind and desire were oriented.  We were given a mind that we might know Christ, and desire, that we might run to Him; and memory, that we might remember Him, because even at the time of creation it was He who was the archetype.’”  (Patrick Reardon, CHRIST IN THE PSALMS, p 16)

Jesus Christ is the perfect human, fulfilling what humanity was fully capable of being from the beginning.

Next:  Being Human Before the Fall (III)

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The Birthday of the Mother of God

A joyous feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos to all.

“But you, O sacred audience, who listen to my words, my human flock and field in Christ, offer your exercise of the virtues and your progress in them as a birthday gift to the Mother of God: both men and women, elderly people along with the younger ones, rich and poor, leaders and subjects, those of absolutely every race, age, rank, profession and branch of learning. Let none of you have a soul which is barren and without fruit. Let nobody be unloving or unreceptive to the spiritual seed. May each of you eagerly accept this celestial seed, the word of salvation (cf. Luke 8:11), and by your own efforts bring it to perfection as a heavenly work and fruit pleasing to God. Let no one make a beginning of a good work which brings no fruit to perfection (cf. Luke 8:14), nor declare his faith in Christ only with his tongue. ‘Not every one’, it says, ‘that says unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven, but he that does the will of my Father which is in heaven’ (Matt. 7:21), and, ‘No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.’ (Luke 9:62).” (Saint Gregory Palamas – d. 1359AD, The Homilies, p 336)

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