The Death of Death


He will swallow up death forever, and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces; the rebuke of His people He will take away from all the earth; for the Lord has spoken. (Isaiah 25:8) 

“Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:3-4) 


Isaiah’s prophecy is that God will bring an end to Death when God establishes His Kingdom. It is a wonderful prophecy to read during Great Lent as we prepare to celebrate Pascha, Christ’s resurrection from the dead which also results in the destruction of Death. 

St Ephrem the Syrian notes that while we grieve the deaths of the ones we love, in faith we realize the dead are in God’s hands just the same as we the living. While we will sorely miss those who have died, we also can take heart that they have been blessed to escape the sickness, sorrow and suffering of this world. 


It is liberty that they receive at their death, those weary ones whom you have buried, the chaste whose coffin you have followed.  . . .  But we, whose life here on earth is blended with all kinds of ills, still pray that we may be allowed to remain here, for we do not perceive how we are being strangled. O Lord, grant that we may recognize the place where we are held prisoner.  (HYMNS ON PARADISE, p 176) 


Ephrem’s words are strong – it is life which is holding us enslaved as prisoners. Death allows us to escape this ‘prison’ so that we can go and be with the Lord. His words are not trying to glorify death and have us seek it out. Rather, he is just trying to help us gain some perspective about death so that we don’t grieve as those who have no hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). We grieve as if death was the worst thing that could happen to someone, but Ephrem wants us to understand there are a lot of things we experience in this world which are worse than death. 


Other biblical scholars remind us that Christ’s resurrection from the dead is not something He experiences alone, but rather He is resurrected from and with all the dead ones who are raised to life. 

Again, therefore, in the correct translation of Romans 1:4, Paul declares that Christ ‘was declared to be the Son of God with power  . . .  by the resurrection of the dead ones (anastasis nekron).’ Paul does not say ‘by his resurrection from among the dead ones’ or ‘by his resurrection from death’ or, most simply, ‘by his resurrection.’ He repeats that Greek phrase ‘resurrection of the dead ones ‘ in 1 Corinthians 15:12, 13, 21, 42. Paul is describing a universal rather than an individual resurrection of Christ.  (John Crossan & Sarah Crossan, RESURRECTING EASTER, pp 174-175) 


Christ does not rise/resurrect alone – but rather as part of (or together with) the resurrection of the dead ones, and He is declared Son of God by the resurrection of the dead ones. Icons of the resurrection are correct in showing Christ not rising alone but rising together with Adam and Eve (who really represent all of humanity as their story is our story and our story theirs) and all the saints.


And the sea gave up the dead in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead in them, and all were judged by what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. (Revelation 20:13-14) 

In Dread of Humans


So God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth. “And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be on every beast of the earth, on every bird of the air, on all that move on the earth, and on all the fish of the sea. They are given into your hand. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. I have given you all things, even as the green herbs. (Genesis 9:1-3)


Scripture makes it clear that the world after the great flood is not the same place which God created for us. In the original creation, we lived at peace with the animals in paradise, eating a vegan diet just as they did. After the great flood, however, our relationship with animals changes according to Genesis, as they can now be killed and eaten as food. In this altered world after the flood, animals both fear and dread humans. The world is yet another step removed from what God originally created for us. When the deluge is over, there is no return to the world before the flood as the relationship of humans and all other life on earth has been radically changed. And the rest of creation is aware that human sin has led not only the downfall of humans but to creation’s downfall as well. The animals who were created to serve humans, dread humans when they see us fallen creatures imagining we are God or believing we no longer are in need of God. The animals need us to recognize the Lordship of God for otherwise they know we will consume them as we do the rest of creation.


For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8:19-23)


Humans have managed to change everything in creation by our own sinfulness. As the Beatles sang in their song, In My Life:

There are places I remember 
All my life, though some have changed 
Some forever not for better 
Some have gone and some remain

The sin of Adam and Eve, the original Fall, and all of our sins together altered creation.


St Symeon the New Theologian sees a complete disruption in the natural course of things and notes emphatically that the enslaved state of creation is not a natural development for it. Creation is presented as a victim, because on account of man it has lost its position in the scheme of things and the rule it originally followed, even though its present condition is regarded by some as its natural state. For this reason, creation refuses to be subject to man once he has transgressed. Describing creation’s attitude to man after the Fall, Symeon writes: ‘When it saw Adam leave paradise, all of the created world which God had brought out of non-being into existence no longer wished to be subject to the transgressor. The sun did not want to shine by day, nor the moon by night, nor the stars to be seen by him. The springs of water did not want to well up for him, nor the rivers to flow. The very air itself thought about contracting itself and not providing breath for the rebel. The wild beasts and all the animals of the earth saw him stripped of his former glory and, despising him, immediately turned savagely against him. The sky was moving as if to fall justly down on him, and the very earth would not endure bearing him upon its back.’  (Anestis Keselopoulos, MAN AND THE ENVIRONMENT, p 70)


Humans were tasked by God with being the mediator between Creator and creation. Humans opted instead to control creation by usurping God’s lordship. Humans wanted to relate to creation on their own terms and to see creation as unrelated to God. St Symeon has it that even inanimate creation recognizes that human sin and disrupted the relationship of the cosmos with its Creator. God intended for humans to be the mediator between Creator and the rest of creation. Humans though chose to go rogue, leaving the rest of creation without its proper relationship to the Lord.


In the relationship between man and creation, it is not creation that brings man to God, but man who ultimately ‘makes creation word.’ This task has its starting point in man’s natural potential for mediation between God and the world and is consummated when man is deified and creation is brought back to the beauty in which it was first created – that is, with the complete interpenetration of created and uncreated. It is the task which Adam failed to accomplish because of the Fall. Thus man himself disrupts the harmony of his relations with creation, since by the Fall and his disobedience to God’s command he also alters his conduct towards the rest of creation.  (Anestis Keselopoulos, MAN AND THE ENVIRONMENT, p 178)


It is in Christ that the proper balance between God, humans and the rest of creation is re-established. In Christ, we humans admit we are not God, but in need of God. We also come to understand all of the created cosmos through Christ, as in Him we have our proper relationship with both God and the rest of the created order. God is the Lord and we are to be God’s servants. [An interesting note: after the Fall, the relationship of humans to other animals changes – the animals too become food. When Christ is born in the cave which is a shelter for animals, he is laid in the manger – an animal feeding trough. And now, we Orthodox consider Him spiritual food which we eat in Communion.]

The Cross: The Joyful Sign of Salvation

40809871822_af9e1cf5b5_wThe third Sunday of Great Lent is dedicated to the Veneration of the Cross. What perhaps is not so obvioius in Lenten piety is that the veneration of the cross focuses on salvation, victory, joy, resurrection.  The focus is not on the suffering of Christ, nor is it on our joining in this suffering by taking up our own crosses. Rather the hymns of Matins focus on Christ’s victory over death and His Resurrection. In the Matins Canon for the day, all of the Irmos hymns are the same as those sung on Pascha night. For example, today’s Irmos from Canticle One joyfully proclaims: 

This is the day of Resurrection: let us be illumined, O People! Pascha, the Pascha of the Lord!  For from death to life, and from earth to heaven has Christ our God led us, as we sing the song of victory! Glory to You, our God, glory to You!  


We are celebrating the resurrection of Christ in the middle of Great Lent.  We don’t pretend that the Resurrection has not yet occurred, but rather openly celebrate it on this Lenen Sunday. We do indeed live in the world of the Fall, but also it is the world of the Resurrection!  Here is a sample of the hymns from today’s Matins that proclaim the joyous nature of this day honoring the Cross of Christ as a sign of victory not suffering. Monastic Lenten piety has tended to emphasize self-denial and suffering, but this Sunday’s hymns are about rejoicing and experiencing the salvation accomplished for us by Christ through His Cross and His Resurrection: 

This is a festival day: at the awakening of Christ, death has fled away; The light of life has dawned; Adam has risen and dances for joy! Therefore let us cry aloud and sing a song of victory!  

6995555717_d51af38f8d_wThis is the day of the veneration of the Precious Cross: now it is brought before us, shining with the brightness of Christ’s Resurrection! Let us all draw near and kiss it with great rejoicing in our souls! 

Behold, Christ is risen! said the angel to the Myrrhbearing women! Do not lament, but go and say to the apostles: Rejoice, for today is the world’s salvation! The tyranny of the enemy has been destroyed through the death of Christ! (Canticle Four) 

Today as we celebrate the joyful veneration of Your lifegiving Cross, we prepare ourselves for Your most holy Passion, O Christ our Savior; for You have wrought the salvation of the world in Your almighty power!  


Now the flaming sword no longer guards the gates of Paradise; it has been mysteriously quenched by the wood of the Cross! The sting of death and the victory of hell have been vanquished, for You, my Savior, came and cried to those in hell: Enter again into Paradise! (Kontakion) 


For those who think Lenten piety means darkness, denial, doom and death, the Third Sunday of Lent reminds us of the true message of Christianity. This Sunday is a midcourse correction for the faithful to focus on the Gospel, the joy of being Christian, and the salvation gifted to us by our Lord. The Gospel means joy and salvation not doom and gloom. Paradise is opened and hell is vanquished. We are to give thanks to the Lord for opening paradise to us and for granting us eternal life. 


Today there is joy in earth and heaven, for the sign of the Cross is made manifest to all the world! The thrice-blessed Cross is set before us; a fountain of ever-flowing grace to all who show it honor! 

Just What the Doctor Ordered 


When Jesus heard it, He said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.” (Mark 2:17)

15345027839_68a3d74802_wThe New Testament makes a most amazing claim – Jesus didn’t come into the world because of or for the righteous, believers or the spiritually perfect. Rather, Christ the Good Shepherd came into the world to seek sinners, those who had gone spiritually astray and the sick (see also Luke 4:18-19 in which Christ’s mission is not aimed at the righteous but the needy).  This may grate on some Christians today just as it did the righteous Jews of Christ’s own day, who then decided to kill Him. The righteous want Christ to come for them not for unbelievers and sinners (they want to be rewarded for their efforts), but that is not why Christ came into the world. The Word of God becomes incarnate – becomes a human – so that unbelievers, the lost and sinners might be reconciled to God. This is just as true for Christ at His birth as at His crucifixion.  Orthodox biblical scholar Veselin Kesich writes:

With the words from Luke 23: 34, ‘Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do,’ which may be taken as the first word spoken on the cross, Jesus reveals the mystery of the cross. Christ is the one who brings heaven and earth together. The cross is the source and the foundation of the gospel of forgiveness. With these words Christ was praying both for the Jews and for the gentiles, who actively participated in and bore responsibility for his death sentence. They could not claim ignorance – they needed forgiveness. Enough had been revealed to enable them to see that Jesus was innocent, and yet they unjustly condemned him. In return, he asks that they may experience the mercy of the father. Before the crucifixion his persecutors had the power to release or condemn him, and they decided to condemn him.


With this final act their power and authority was itself condemned, and the power of forgiveness was released. The words of Christ are also the acts of Christ, and these words are fully congruous with his forgiveness of sinners during his public ministry. Christ on the cross does not wait for the repentance of his executioners; he does not expect them to be moved by his suffering. Instead, he offers them forgiveness while they still remain in their sins. In this Jesus goes beyond the attitude of the Pharisees, who would approach and accept only a repentant sinner.  . . .  The first fruit of the forgiveness from the cross was the repentance of one of the two criminals who were crucified with Christ, one on his left side and one on his right. (THE FIRST DAY OF THE NEW CREATION, pp 53-54)


Christ brings heaven and earth together – Christ unites God’s heaven with the world of the Fall. He came into the world to save sinners. Christ’s death on the cross unleashes God’s power on the world: namely, God’s forgiveness on sinners, which is the means by which God unites earth to heaven. (See also my post Father, Forgive Them)

46619148951_99b6757574_wThe Wise Thief is the first to experience Christ’s forgiveness and to enter into the Kingdom. He humbly seeks the Lord’s mercy, it was too late for him to change his life (or repent). He was, however, able to recognize his need for Christ’s love and by faithfully embracing Christ, he was promised eternal life. Note that the wise thief doesn’t confess his sins or even repent (it was too late for that, he was dying). He does though express a faith in Christ and recognizes his own sinfulness and need for God’s mercy (Luke 23:39-43). In turning to Christ, he seeks the Physician of his soul, showing himself to be one of the very people Christ came into the world to seek and save.

[Some may ask, well if Christ came to save sinners, then isn’t it better to be a sinner than to be righteous? This is an argument St Paul refutes in Romans 6 – we don’t sin so that grace can abound, this is blasphemy. Interesting also that St Isaac of Nineveh makes a similar argument in refuting the idea that Christ came into the world because of sin. If that were true, Isaac reasons, then we should bless Adam and Eve and all sinners for causing the incarnation to happen. He argues that the incarnation was God’s plan but also the hidden mystery. Adam and Eve’s sin didn’t cause the incarnation but actually made it more complicated because God still planned to become incarnate and deify humanity (God creates humans in the image of His Son so that we might grow into Christ – Ephesians 4:15), but sin meant God had to deal with the evil in us to make it possible to unite humanity to holiness.]


God’s Justice 


And the Lord smelled a soothing aroma. Then the Lord said in His heart, “I will never again curse the ground for man’s sake, although the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; nor will I again destroy every living thing as I have done. (Genesis 8:21; see also Genesis 9:11-17)

At the end of the biblical narrative of the Great Flood, God promises never again to curse the earth because of humans and also never to again destroy humanity and all living things. If one is a literalist, one could argue that in Genesis 9 God only promises not to destroy the world by a flood, which leaves open the possibility of God destroying the earth by fire or some other means. Or, perhaps, God only promises not to destroy everything, but that leaves the possibility that God will destroy only evil people or non-believers even if that turns out to be almost everyone.


Be that as it may, God seems to recognize that free will humans have a penchant for sinning but that fact will not determine His relationship with His human creatures. God is love after all, and chooses to act toward His creatures in love, rather than to react to them in anger. God wishes life for humanity not death (Ezekiel 18:23, 33:11), so much so that God promises His human creatures eternal life. Nevertheless, in Scripture God continues to mention a fearsome judgment against those who persist in sin or evil.

I will punish the world for its evil, and the wicked for their iniquity; I will halt the arrogance of the proud, and will lay low the haughtiness of the terrible.” (Isaiah 13:11)


God is both merciful and just, so His judgment has to be quite refined, separating the wicked from the righteous, something very difficult to do in this world where events consume both the good and the wicked indiscriminately. The Patriarch Abraham reminds God of all of this, pointing out that a broad punishment leveled against a nation, territory or people, will sweep both the good and bad together into the same fate, which Abraham says is not just or merciful:

Then Abraham drew near, and said, “Wilt thou indeed destroy the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; wilt thou then destroy the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from thee to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from thee! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?”  . . .  Then Abraham said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak again but this once. Suppose ten are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” And the LORD went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham; and Abraham returned to his place. (Genesis 18:23-25… 32-33)


Scripture gives us two images of God, which cannot always be easily reconciled: one of a righteous God who is angry at sinners and intends to condemn them as versus a merciful God, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love who wishes to forgive sinners in order to save them. Many saints in the Orthodox tradition were awed by this second image of the God who is love and they felt this idea of God is non-negotiable. If we tend to focus on the God of judgment, we are not understanding the message of the bible concerning God’s loving nature.

St Isaac of Nineveh writes:

49978209638_4d8283b4e9_w“God chastises with love, not for the sake of revenge – far be it! – but in seeking to make whole his image. And he does not harbor wrath until such time as correction is no longer possible, for he does not seek vengeance for himself. This is the aim of love. Love’s chastisement is for correction, but does not aim at retribution …  The man who chooses to consider God as avenger, presuming that in this manner he bears witness to his justice, the same accuses him of being bereft of goodness. Far be it that vengeance could ever be found in that Fountain of love and Ocean brimming with goodness!”  (THE SPIRITUAL WORLD OF ISAAC THE SYRIAN, pp 40-41)

For Isaac we misunderstand God if we think His judgment means just punishment, vengeance or retribution. Many think this image of God as a punishing judge defends the integrity of God, but most saints thought that idea of an absolutely just God who requites every single sin was in fact to empty God of any goodness. God is not governed by an impersonal karma (demanding every sin be accounted for), but rather is a personal God of love, capable of forgiving and setting things relationships aright through mercy. God loves every human being, not just the perfect ones. Mercy triumphs over judgment as the New Testament says (James 2:13).

God is not one who requites evil, but he sets evil aright. (THE SPIRITUAL WORLD OF ISAAC THE SYRIAN, p 269)

The Joy of Being in God’s Presence 


In the Akathist: Glory to God for All Things, we offer this prayer to our Lord:

How filled with sweetness are those whose thoughts dwell on You: how life-giving Your holy word. To speak with You is more soothing than anointing with oil, sweeter than the honeycomb. To pray to You lifts the spirit, refreshes the soul.


Where You are not, there is only emptiness; hearts are smitten with sadness; nature, and life itself, becomes sorrowful. Where You are, the soul is filled with abundance, and its song resounds like a torrent of life: Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!  


In Psalm 105:1-6, we pray:

O give thanks to the LORD, call on his name, make known his deeds among the peoples! Sing to him, sing praises to him, tell of all his wonderful works!


Glory in his holy name; let the hearts of those who seek the LORD rejoice! Seek the LORD and his strength, seek his presence continually! Remember the wonderful works that he has done, his miracles, and the judgments he uttered, O offspring of Abraham his servant, sons of Jacob, his chosen ones!  (see also 1 Chronicles 16:8-13)


A Flood of Wisdom 


Noah was six hundred years old when the floodwaters were on the earth. So Noah, with his sons, his wife, and his sons’ wives, went into the ark because of the waters of the flood. (Genesis 7:6-7)

While fundamentalists like to proclaim the historical accuracy of the Great Flood, the Old Testament makes so few references to it (outside of narrating the story) that one cannot conclude that the authors of the Old Testament actually considered it a factual event rather than an edifying story. The New Testament makes limited reference to the Flood, but these references do tend to treat the Flood as a story that has meaning for us – not in terms of learning history but for understanding God’s own actions and what the future holds for us all. So, the Evangelist Matthew says of the Flood story:


As were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they did not know until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of man. (Matthew 24:37-39)

While nothing Matthew says denies the historicity of the Flood, he actually treats it as a prophecy of the end times which teaches us to be prepared for the coming end of the world. Whether or not the Flood is history doesn’t matter, the real point of the story is the lesson we are to derive from it to prepare us for the coming eschaton.


The Apostle Peter also references the flood but treats it as typology. The Flood story helps us to understand baptism – both are about our salvation from sin and death.

… who formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ … (1 Peter 3:20-21)


St Cyril of Alexandria offers several comments on the Flood narrative, accepting St Peter’s notion that the Noah story is a typology of things to come:

So the account proceeds with regard to Noah; and, since it establishes the course of events that happened as a picture and type, as it were, of the salvation through Christ, it would, in my opinion, be of immeasurable profit to the readers. Come then, and let us describe, as we are able, each detail concerning him, refining the earthiness of the literal sense, and skillfully transforming the things that occurred visibly into matter for spiritual contemplation. (GLAPHYRA ON THE PENTATEUCH Vol 1, p 81)


St Cyril sees it as his job as preacher, and our job as those hearing the Gospel to transform the literal story into spiritual benefit.  If the story is mostly history, then it is about an ancient event that may not have any significance to us today. But if it is a typology, then the narrative is full of spiritual significance, and we need to discover what message God has ‘hidden’ in the text for us. Cyril accepts that the story can be read literally but wants to move us beyond that limited reading so that we can find Christ in the narrative, which for him is the significance of the Old Testament.

The discussion has now brought us to this point, and viewing it as a narrative according to the letter and in its literal sense, nothing at all, it seems to me, has been left out. So let us now go over the things that have been said to bring out the hidden, inner, spiritual meaning, and let us trace out the mystery of Christ and present Noah himself and the ingenious and mysterious arrangement relating to the ark as a picture of the salvation that comes through Christ. (GLAPHYRA ON THE PENTATEUCH Vol 1, pp 87-88)


Cyril continues his commentary and offers us some lessons we can learn from the story of Noah and the Flood:

So then, Christ preserves us by faith, and it is as though he brings the church to abide in the ark, in which we will sail over the fear of death and escape being condemned along with the world, for the righteous Noah, that is, Christ, will be with us. I think it worthwhile to investigate in detail what interpretation might be given for those who flee with Noah into the ark, who enjoy the salvation that comes through faith and water.  (GLAPHYRA ON THE PENTATEUCH Vol 1, p 95)


If you are interested in reading more about understanding the biblical narrative of the Flood, see my posts Reading Noah and the Flood Through the Source Theory Lens and The Story of the Flood.

The Fear of God and Awe 


The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding. (Proverbs 9:10)

While the “fear of the Lord” is the beginning of wisdom and is thought to be an important aspect of our relationship with God, what this “fear” is needs further clarity. St Gregory of Sinai comments:


Divine awe has nothing to do with trepidation – by which I mean, not the tremulousness induced by joy, but the trepidation induced by wrath or chastisement or the feeling of desertion by God. On the contrary, divine awe is accompanied by a tremulous sense of jubilation arising from the prayer of fire that we offer when filled with awe. This awe is not the fear provoked by wrath or punishment, but it is inspired by wisdom, and is also described as ‘the beginning of wisdom‘ (Psalm 111:10). (THE PHILOKALIA Vol 4, pp 260-261)


The fear of the Lord is thus not groveling in the face of a tyrannical ogre, but an awe in the presence of our holy, loving and merciful Creator. The “fear of the Lord” also reminds us that there is a God and we aren’t that God but answer to God as God’s servants. We are reminded of this by the prophets who pointed out the failures of God’s people, reminding them that there will be a day of reckoning in which we will have to answer to God as our Judge. So, another scripture reading for today is from the Prophet Isaiah:


Therefore the Lord will have no joy in their young men, nor have mercy on their fatherless and widows; for everyone is a hypocrite and an evildoer, and every mouth speaks folly. For all this His anger is not turned away, but His hand is stretched out still. . . .  Woe to those who decree unrighteous decrees, who write misfortune, which they have prescribed to rob the needy of justice, and to take what is right from the poor of My people, that widows may be their prey, and that they may rob the fatherless. (Isaiah 9:17…10:1-2)

I find such words in the scripture to be a burden on my heart. It speaks of God so disgusted with Israel’s sins that He will not show mercy to Israel. Such scriptural warnings are so troubling to me because God is also portrayed as being merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.  If God gets so disgusted with His people because of our sins, what hope is there for the world? No doubt this is behind Christ’s first message to us: “Repent!” We need to change our sinful ways in order to be blessed by God’s favor.  It is also why I find the prayer “Lord have mercy!” so powerful – God is willing to hear our prayer and God is merciful. We fail in our task to be God’s servants and holy ones, but God is patient with us through our failures and is ever willing to welcome us back and to forgive us if we seek His mercy and through repentance attempt to return to doing His will. Asking God to be merciful is a beautiful form of prayer of which we should never tire of offering.


In the fear of God, with faith and with love, draw near. (Call to Holy Communion)

Standing in God’s Presence: Heaven and Hell 


 The Lord of hosts, Him you shall hallow; let Him be your fear, and let Him be your dread. He will be as a sanctuary, but a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense to both the houses of Israel, as a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. And many among them shall stumble; they shall fall and be broken, be snared and taken.” (Isaiah 8:13-15)


There are several passages in the Bible which present to us the mystery of experiencing God. While God is one, people have very difference experiences of God. In the above passage, God can be a sanctuary to protect us or a stumbling rock over which we fall or which can fall on us and crush us. God is sometimes presented as being both fire and light, or either, the experience of God  depends on who we are. St Paul, referencing the above quote from Isaiah, reminds us that what we experience in an encounter with God can depend on our own faith.


Why? Because they did not pursue it through faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone, as it is written, “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone that will make men stumble, a rock that will make them fall; and he who believes in him will not be put to shame.” (Romans 9:32-33)

If we pursue God, not in faith, but for some other purpose, we might experience God as a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:29) rather than as light. The Third Century biblical commentator Origen wrote:

… the God of the Universe himself is said to be both light and fire. To sinners our God is fire, devouring all wickedness (Deuteronomy 4:24; 9: 3; Hebrews 12:29). But to the just God is no longer fire, but light, ‘for God is light, and there is no darkness at all in him‘ (1 John 1:5).  (HOMILIES ON THE PSALMS, p 152)


Our experience of God can be determined by the state of our heart and faith. Orthodox theologian Olivier Clement notes:

At the Second Coming, God will be altogether in us, the uncreated light will transform the universe, and human nature will be healed and illuminated: or rather, the whole of life will make manifest the glorious Body of the resurrected Christ.


God can only give his love. But those who, closed in on themselves, cannot freely accept this divine love on the day of judgment, will experience God’s love as unbearable fire. The uncreated light is total awareness.  . . .   Hell is not eternity: it is nonexistence that refuses eternity. ‘It is not correct to say that sinners in hell are deprived of the love of God  . . .  But love acts in two different ways. To the outcasts it becomes suffering and to the blessed it becomes joy’ (St Isaac the Syrian, Spiritual Homilies XI PG 34).  (TRANSFIGURING TIME, p 169)


We all will experience the same God, but our experiences might be quite different, joyful or dreadful. In this sense, heaven and hell are not different locations, rather they both are our experiences of being in God’s presence. It is the exact same God, but for those who love God being eternally in God’s presence will be heaven/paradise. For those who hate God, an eternity in God’s presence will be hell. Heaven and hell are not locations, but how we encounter God and experience being in God’s presence. What we experience when in God’s presence are determined by the spiritual condition of our heart and mind.

Baptism: A Resurrection of the Soul


Today as part of the Church’s Lenten preparation for Pascha, we commemorate St Gregory PalamasGreat Lent was normally a time to prepare catechumens for baptism. Orthodox scholar Fr John Meyendorff notes baptism was a favorite focal point of Palamas: 

8603198517_a0b81057f4Baptism is one of the commonest themes in Palamas’s sermons, as it is in his theological and spiritual writings. The sheer number of his references to Christian initiation shows the importance he attached to it; for him neither Christian experience nor spirituality could exist outside the sacramental grace which, in the church, communicated the divine life to the faithful. It was ‘to make a new being of us, and to renew us by baptism,’ that Christ was incarnate; ‘he has broken on the cross the record of our sins (Colossians 2:14), and he has rendered innocent those who by baptism are buried with him (Romans 6:4; Colossians 2:12).’ Baptism, by delivering us from the original corruption, is a ‘resurrection of our soul,’ and to us ‘communicates strength to conform to the body of the glory of Christ’ (Philippians 3:21). The triple immersion is a symbol of the three days’ sojourn of the soul of Christ in Hades that it might go out thence, and rise again in the body. At baptism we receive a disposition to do good, and we conclude a pact with God, but it depends on us to give real value to this grace. ‘If a man called obeys the call, and accepts baptism to be called a Christian, but does not behave in a way worthy of the name he bears, and does not in fact accomplish the promises given at his baptism, he is called, but he has not chosen.’ Then the promises are of no avail to him, but rather condemn him. By baptism all Christians are holy – ‘If the vessel consecrated to God is holy,’ Palamas says, ‘how much more is the man holy who is joined to him by the oath of regeneration’ – and they are sons of God, but they are still required to prove by their works that they have received this gift; ‘Renewal and new creation of the characteristics of the soul are accomplished by grace and the bath of regeneration; they grow and reach perfection through just actions in accord with faith.’  (A STUDY OF GREGORY PALAMAS, pp 160-161)