The Afterlife

“Brethren, I may say to you confidently of the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day.”  (Acts 2:29)

“…have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living; you are quite wrong.”  (Matthew 12:26-27)

In the Scriptures, belief in the resurrection of the dead is not common.  When a person died, they remained dead throughout time – the tombs of the dead are still with us reminding us those folk are still dead. And yet, Jesus challenges His contemporaries to look again at their scriptures, for they do in fact witness to life after death and to the resurrection of the dead.  It is Christ who makes this belief and teaching possible.

“Still, the notion of an ‘afterlife with God,’ following death, is entirely alien to the Hebrew Scriptures. Indeed, it is also alien to the New Testament, unless a person has died in the redemptive faith of Christ. It is Christ alone who delivers man from death, including the saints of the Old Testament. Nowhere in the Bible is there an afterlife apart from Christ. Whatever afterexistence there may be apart from Christ, it is certainly no real life.” (Patrick Henry Reardon, The Trial of Job, p. 54

The Ascension (2017)

“After His resurrection from the dead Jesus appeared to men for a period of forty days after which He “was taken up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God” (Mk 16.19; see also Lk 24.50 and Acts 1.9–11).

The ascension of Jesus Christ is the final act of His earthly mission of salvation. The Son of God comes “down from heaven” to do the work which the Father gives Him to do; and having accomplished all things, He returns to the Father bearing for all eternity the wounded and glorified humanity which He has assumed (see e.g. Jn 17).

The doctrinal meaning of the ascension is the glorification of human nature, the reunion of man with God. It is indeed, the very penetration of man into the inexhaustible depths of divinity.

We have seen already that “the heavens” is the symbolical expression in the Bible for the uncreated, immaterial, divine “realm of God” as one saint of the Church has called it. To say that Jesus is “exalted at the right hand of God” as Saint Peter preached in the first Christian sermon (Acts 2.33) means exactly this: that man has been restored to communion with God, to a union which is, according to Orthodox doctrine, far greater and more perfect than that given to man in his original creation (see Eph 1–2).

Man was created with the potential to be a “partaker of the divine nature,” to refer to the Apostle Peter once more (2 Pet 1.4). It is this participation in divinity, called theosis (which literally means deification or divinization) in Orthodox theology, that the ascension of Christ has fulfilled for humanity. The symbolical expression of the “sitting at the right hand” of God means nothing other than this. It does not mean that somewhere in the created universe the physical Jesus is sitting in a material throne.”  (Fr. Thomas Hopko, Doctrine and Scripture, Vol. 1, pp. 106-107)

Lifting Adam From Earth to Paradise

In one of the hymns from the Feast of the Ascension we catch sight of the theological importance of this Feast of the Lord in God’s plan for the salvation of humanity.  Christ the incarnate God refashions human nature, lifting humanity up from the depths of sin, bringing human nature to the throne of God.

After the humans sinned, they were driven from Paradise and returned to the earth from which they had been fashioned.  Christ becomes incarnate on earth to restore humanity to God.

The hymn  in part reads:

O GOD, YOU HAVE REFASHIONED THE NATURE OF ADAM WHICH HAD FALLEN INTO THE DEPTHS OF THE EARTH.  YOU HAVE LED IT UP TODAY ABOVE EVERY PRINCIPALITY AND POWER, FOR IN YOUR LOVE FOR IT, YOU HAVE SEATED IT TOGETHER WITH YOURSELF!  SINCE YOU HAVE TAKEN COMPASSION ON IT YOU UNITED IT TO YOURSELF AND HAVING BEEN UNITED WITH IT, YOU SUFFERED WITH IT. AND A PASSIONLESS ONE, YOU SUFFERED PASSION TO GLORIFY IT WITH YOURSELF!

Salvation is the restoration of humanity in our relationship with God.  We experience a reunion with our Creator.  In the Ascension, however this event is to be understood historically and factually, God fully accepted human nature and reunited us humans to Himself in Christ. God suffers in the flesh to redeem human nature and to bring us back, body and spirit into God’s presence.  God redeems human nature to save each of us – body and soul.

What the Blind Man Could See Even Without His Eyes

“And he who sees me sees him who sent me.” (John 12:45)

This past Sunday’s Gospel lesson was John 9:1-38  – Christ healing a man who had been born blind.   Several of the hymns from Matins today reviewed the events and point out that what was clear to the blind man was that the enemies of Christ were indeed “darkened in heart, mind and soul” and were willfully blind to the facts.  Christ’s opponents found the truth to be inconvenient for them and so they tried to change, distort or destroy the facts so they could hold to their own interpretation of events.

THE MAN ONCE BLIND SAW THAT THOSE WITH SIGHT WERE TRULY BLIND, DARKENED IN HEART, MIND AND SOUL, FOR WHEN THEY SAW THAT HE SUDDENLY WAS ABLE TO SEE, THEY QUESTIONED HIM WITH PERSISTENCE: HOW IS IT POSSIBLE FOR YOU NOW TO SEE THE LIGHT OF DAY?  YOU WERE BLIND FROM BIRTH.  YOU SAT ON THE ROADSIDES AND BEGGED!  HE TOLD THEM WHO HAD GIVEN HIM SIGHT, AND IN THE MIDST OF THEIR DARKENED ASSEMBLY HE CONFESSED YOU: THE SON, BEGOTTEN OF THE FATHER BEFORE THE AGES, WHO FASHIONED THE LIGHTS OF THE UNIVERSE, AND IN THESE LAST DAYS, IN YOUR COMPASSION, BY THE HOLY SPIRIT, FROM THE VIRGIN MARY, DAWNED UPON THE WORLD AS A MORTAL MAN!

Light was shining in the darkness but those opposed to Christ preferred the darkness so that they wouldn’t have to change their own beliefs or practices.

“And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed.”  (John 3:19-20)

 

The man born blind is given not only his physical sight, but true spiritual insight.  He sees for the first time, but what he sees came not from his physical eyes but from the eyes of his heart and soul.  For he sees light for the first time and immediately recognizes Christ, the light of the world.  He was blind from birth but he was not willfully blind – given the opportunity, he could immediately see what those who had never been physically blind could not.

THE BLIND MAN WALKED THE STREETS OF LIFE LIKE ONE CONDEMNED TO ENDLESS LABOR IN THE PITS OF THE EARTH.  HIS FEET WERE BRUISED; HE HAD A STAFF INSTEAD OF EYES, AND THUS HE FLED FOR REFUGE TO THE GIVER OF LIGHT.  HE RECEIVED HIS SIGHT, AND THE FIRST THING HE SAW WAS HIS CREATOR WHO FASHIONED THE HUMAN RACE ACCORDING TO HIS OWN IMAGE AND LIKENESS.  HE CREATED ALL THINGS FIRST FROM THE DUST OF THE EARTH, AND NOW HE GIVES LIGHT THROUGH DUST AND SPITTLE, OPENING BLIND EYES TO THE SUN, IN HIS LOVE FOR MANKIND.

Usually, if we get dust or dirt in  our eyes, we cannot see and our eyelids want to close.  But when Christ puts the clay made from dust and spittle on the man’s eyes, the blind suddenly can see for his eyes were opened.  Dirt and dust did not block his view but opened his eyes to the spiritual reality that Christ is Lord, God and Savior.

Healing Our Bodies and our Souls

I was eyes to the blind, and feet to the lame.  (Job 29:15)

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The Gospel lesson of John 9:1-38 tells us about Christ healing a man who had been born blind.  We are also given in the healing miracles a chance to reflect on the nature of the human body and its relationship to the spiritual life.  I happen to be reading Jean-Claude Larchet’s newly published THEOLOGY OF THE BODY and will quote a few passages that struck me as a powerful witness to the meaning of today’s Gospel lesson of Christ healing the blind man.  Larchet writes:

“Without the soul, the body can accomplish nothing.  Likewise the soul without the body, though for different reasons: the body needs the soul in order to live and move, whereas the soul needs the body in order to reveal itself, to express itself, and to act on the external world.  For the body is the servant, the vehicle or instrument of the soul, essential to the exercise of its functions of relating to the world and manifesting its faculties in the conditions of the earthly existence.  In this setting, all of the soul’s activities, insofar as they reveal themselves, can only exist through the body.  Moreover, they remain unexpressed if the necessary bodily organs are unable to function properly.  Such is the case with some illnesses that prevent these organs from expressing certain of the soul’s capacities, something for which they had naturally been ordered.”  (Jean-Claude Larchet, THEOLOGY OF THE BODY, p 18-19)

So it is that each of us is a composite of soul and body, neither of these two substances alone make a human – it is only their union which cause a human being to come into existence.  Both are necessary for each of us to be fully human; neither substance can act alone without the other.  Whatever affects one affects the other.  Sin whether originating in the will or the body affects the whole human, body and soul.  And as Larchet notes when illness affects any part of the body, the soul’s capacities are denigrated.  Without the body’s physical eyes to see, the soul’s ability to navigate in the world is also affected, suffering limitation.  And so when Christ heals the man born blind, He is restoring or recreating the man’s full humanity – gifting this man so that his soul can fully experience the abundant life of grace.

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In the Psalms it is idols, not humans which are portrayed as being blind and not even as capable as any human being.

“The idols of the nations are silver and gold, the work of men’s hands. They have mouths, but they speak not, they have eyes, but they see not, they have ears, but they hear not, nor is there any breath in their mouths.”   (Psalm 135:15-17)

8480132255_5cf28fbb2f_nThe idols are lifeless, and lack not just one bodily function or sense, but all of them.  On the other hand, the Law of the Lord, just like the Holy Spirit, enlivens every soul and gives sight even to the blind:

“The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes…”  (Psalm 19:7-8)

Each and every organ in the body serves a particular role in allowing us to fully experience God in this world and also to totally serve the Lord.

“Like Scripture, the Fathers often point out the role played in our spiritual life by the different members of the body.  They stress that their purpose is not merely physiological but also one of enabling us, in superlative fashion, to attune ourselves to God and unite ourselves with him.  This is above all the case with the senses, which should contribute to our perception of God in all sensible phenomena.  Thus, the eyes should enable us to see God in the harmony and beauty of creation and so to praise him and give him thanks.  The ears should enable us to ‘listen to the divine word and God’s laws,’ but also to hear God in all the world’s sounds.  The sense of smell should enable us to detect in every creature the ‘good odor of God’ (2 Cor 2:15); the sense of taste to discern in all food ‘how good the Lord is’ (Ps 33:9).  . . . Thus the spiritual function of the hands is to carry out for and in God whatever is necessary in order to do his will, to act on behalf of justice, to reach out to him in prayer (cf. Ps 87:10; Ps 143:6; Tim 2:8).  The task of the feet is to serve God by allowing us to go to where we may do good.  The tongue should proclaim the Good News and sing of God’s glory.  The heart is to be the place of prayer; the lungs are to produce the breath that regulates and supports it.”    (Jean-Claude Larchet, THEOLOGY OF THE BODY, p 28-29)

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And though we can both experience and accomplish goodness in and through the body and its organs and part, it is also true that the same body can be used to experience and accomplish evil.

“A worthless person, a wicked man, goes about with crooked speech, winks with his eyes, scrapes with his feet, points with his finger, with perverted heart devises evil, continually sowing discord; therefore calamity will come upon him suddenly; in a moment he will be broken beyond healing. There are six things which the LORD hates, seven which are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, a false witness who breathes out lies, and a man who sows discord among brothers.”  (Proverbs 6:12-19)

Our bodies are fully capable of experiencing the Holy Spirit and theosis.  It is not only the soul which has a relationship to God’s Spirit for the body is created to be a divine temple for the Spirit. And as we see in the quotes above, there is an important relationship between certain parts of the body and the Holy Spirit.  Thus, at Chrismation, we anoint the head, ears, eyes, lips, nose, breast, hands and feet of the new Christian, saying each time, “The seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit.

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“At the same time, the Fathers refer to the spiritual benefits that our body obtains from being directed towards God in this way, for, acting under the direction of the soul and in collaboration with it, the body too receives the grace of the Holy Spirit.  ‘For as God created the sky and the earth as a dwelling place for man,’ notes St. Macarius of Egypt, ‘so he also created man’s body and soul as a fit dwelling for himself to dwell in and take pleasure in the body, having for a beautiful bride the beloved soul, made according to his own image.’  This is simply to repeat in another form St. Paul’s assertion that the body is the ‘temple of the Holy Spirit’ (1 Cor 6:19).”   (Jean-Claude Larchet, THEOLOGY OF THE BODY, p 29)

God created our bodies to be the very means by which we can accomplish His will and grow in virtue and holiness.

“For the Fathers, it is by means of the virtues that we can become like God, and it is in this likeness to God, acquired by a collaboration between free will and the grace given us that we can ultimately become a partaker of divine life – a participation to which we are both destined by our nature and called by personal vocation.”   (Jean-Claude Larchet, THEOLOGY OF THE BODY, p 27)

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We become like God not by escaping our bodies, but by willfully making them instruments of goodness.  We become virtuous and holy in and through our bodies – and all who do with, in and through our bodies are potential means for us to unite ourselves to God.  We have the task to choose wisely what we do so as to invite the Holy Spirit into our bodies.

Recreating the Blind Man

Fr. John Behr notes that St Irenaeus of Lyons sees in the healing of the man born blind (John 9), Christ by whom all things were made, bringing to completion that which was lacking in this creature – his eyes were unformed.  Jesus shows Himself to be the Creator in giving sight to the blind man by recreating His eyes.

“That this is indeed the work of God is shown, for Irenaeus, by the manner in which Christ healed the man blind from birth (John 9). It was not merely by a word that he was healed, but ‘by an outward action, doing this not without purpose or by chance, but that he might show forth the Hand of God that had at the beginning moulded the human being’ (haer. 5.15.2). So, just as ‘the Lord took mud from the earth and formed the human being’ (Gen. 2:7), Christ spat on the ground and made mud, smeared it upon his eyes, ‘pointing out the original fashioning, how it was effected, and manifesting the Hand of God to those who can understand by what [Hand] the human being was formed out of the dust’ (haer. 5.15.2). As, in Christ’s words, the man was born blind not because of his own sin or that of his parents, ‘but that the works of God should be manifest in him’ (John 9:3), so Irenaeus sets this particular work within the intentionality of the economy as a whole:

‘For that which the artificer, the Word, had omitted to form in the womb, he then supplied in public that the works of God might be manifested in him, in order that we might not seek out another hand by which the human being is fashioned, nor another Father, knowing that this Hand of God which formed us in the beginning, and which does form us in the womb, has in the last times sought us out who were lost, winning us back to his own, and taking up the lost sheep upon his shoulders, and with joy, restoring it to the fold of life. (haer. 5.15.2; cf. Luke 19:10, 15:4-6).’

If all of this was done so that ‘the works of God should be manifest in him’, Irenaus concludes that ‘the work of God is fashioning the human being’. (Irenaeus of Lyons: Identifying Christianity, pp. 162-163

Wiggle Room: Wisdom and the Two Ways

“Thus says the LORD: Behold, I set before you the way of life and the way of death.”  (Jeremiah 21:8)

“Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”  (Matthew 7:13-14)

The notion that there are two ways through the world – the way of life and the way of death – permeates the Scriptures.  They are sometimes dramatically pitted one against the other, and we humans must choose which we will follow.

“O full of all deceit and all fraud, you son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, will you not cease perverting the straight ways of the Lord?”   (Acts 13:10)

And yet the same Tradition which is the Two Ways also is the Wisdom Tradition.  Wisdom is not law, but rather is the Spirit guiding us in how, when and where, with whom and to what degree we can keep the law.

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: …  a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing…”  (Ecclesiastes 3:1-5)

The Tradition which says there are only two ways also provides that we have to know what to do when we are in a grey area, when things are not and aren’t supposed to be black and white.  Between black and white there exist gradiation and degrees, some better than others in terms of doing God’s will.  All or nothing thinking has its limits and sometimes causes problems and even evil.  It can lead people to abandon a good way because of a mistake or sin which causes them to think all is lost.  Something is better than nothing is also wisdom.  I may not be able to be perfect but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try to do as much good as I can.   There always is repentance and a spirit of humility which confesses persistent spiritual failure.  We fall, and we get up.

We see this Wisdom often in the ascetic literature of the Church.

“Be as eager as you can to love everyone, but if you cannot do this yet, at least do not hate anyone.”    (St. Maximus the Confessor, A Patristic Treasury: Early Church Wisdom for Today, Kindle Loc. 6835-36)

“If you are able to bear the whole yoke of the Lord, you will be perfect. But if you are not able, then do what you can.”  (Didache, A Patristic Treasury: Early Church Wisdom for Today, Kindle Loc. 645-46)