The Blessedness of Mary

Jesus replied:  “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, and sister, and mother.”  (Matthew 12:48-50)

The great Orthodox poet and hymnographer St. Ephraim the Syrian in one of his beautiful poems has the Virgin Mother talking to her child, Jesus about jealousy.  Mary is often aware in Orthodox hymns of the theology of her child – she understands Him to be the incarnate God and Lord of the universe.  Knowing Him to be Lord of all, is she jealous that everyone has a relationship to Him, not just her?   Does she regret that she will always have to share His love, attention and affection with every single human on the planet – and so will she?  Mary shows her humanity in reflecting on the passion of jealousy, but also how she rises above human passion, pathos, sin and hubris – which is why she was chosen by God to be Theotokos.  She rises above the limits of her own humanity to share in the common humanity of all people.  Her role in human history is unique, yet it is what connects her to all humans who will ever live.  God could see her love for all which reflects God’s own love for the world.

I shall not be jealous, my Son,

that You are with me, and also with all people. 

Be God to the one that confesses You,

and be Lord to the one that serves You,

and be Brother to the one that loves You,

that You may gain all!  

(adapted from Hymns and Homilies of St. Ephraim the Syrian, Kindle Loc 3100-3102)

The hymns reflect an idea that Mary is Jesus’ mother not just because she physically gave birth to Him, but because she embodied God’s love for all humanity.  God chooses Mary not for her body but because of her soul and heart.  It is not only her womb which was heaven and able to contain the uncontainable.  Jesus Himself reflects this thought in response to something a woman once shouted at Him.

A woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to Jesus, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that you sucked!” But he said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!”  (Luke 11:27-28)

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Jesus recognizes in His Mother that is her having heard God’s word and kept it when enabled her to be Theotokos.  Her role in salvation is both physical and spiritual – she indeed is a bridge between these worlds.  As is sung in the Akathist to the Theotokos:

Rejoice, initiate of ineffable counsel;
Rejoice, faith of silent beseechers.
Rejoice, introduction to Christ’s miracles;
Rejoice, consummation of his doctrinal articles.
Rejoice, heavenly ladder by which God came down;
Rejoice, bridge leading those from earth to I heaven.

Rejoice, marvel greatly renowned among the Angels;
Rejoice, wound bitterly lamented by demons.
Rejoice, for you gave birth to the light ineffably;
Rejoice, for the “how” you taught to no one.
Rejoice, surpassing the knowledge of scholars;
Rejoice, dawn that illumines the minds of believers.
Rejoice, O Bride unwedded.

The words and the Word of God

Though for many Christians today “the Word of God” means a book of Scriptures or the Bible, in the Bible itself the Word of God is associated with a spoken word or a word we hear but not a written word.  Or, as early Christians would come to understand it “the Word of God” means the Second Person of the Holy Trinity especially obvious in chapter 1 of John’s Gospel but also in the Old Testament prophets when the Word of the Lord comes too them and speaks to them.  The Word of God has power to act and enact while the written word bears witness to the Word of God which is heard and obeyed.

Just read the Acts of the Apostles to get a sense of this.   The Word of God is spoken (4:31, 13:46), preached (6:2),  received (8:14, 11:1), proclaimed (13:5), sought (13:7), heard (13:44), glorified (13:48) and taught (18:11).  The Word of God both increases (6:7) as well as  grows & multiplies (12:24).  Clearly the Word of God is not a book but something more.  As it says in Hebrews 4:12 – “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”  There is a relationship between the written letters on a page and the Word of God, but the Word of God is living, is a spiritual force.  For Christians the Word of God is Jesus Christ, the God who becomes incarnate as a human (John 1:14).

Look at 2 Chronicles 34:21-

“Go, inquire of the LORD for me and for those who are left in Israel and in Judah, concerning the words of the book that has been found; for great is the wrath of the LORD that is poured out on us, because our fathers have not kept the word of the LORD, to do according to all that is written in this book.”

King Josiah sees the writings in the book that the priest reads to him, not as the Word of the Lord but rather the written word in the book is what the Word of the Lord commanded.  Or, perhaps, the written word is simply what needed to be done to show that people listened to the Word of God and obeyed.  But the written word is not equivalent to the Word of God.  Rather the written word bears witness to the Word of God.  We see a similar thing in the New Testament when Jesus says to Satan:

“It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.'”    (Matthew 4:4)

What is written is not the Word of God but rather only the commandments related to how people should live.  The written word bears witness to the Word of God.   Which is what Jesus teaches in John 5:39-46 –

You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me; yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. … If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote of me.

As Jesus understands Torah, Torah is about Jesus.  Moses in writing the books of the Law was really writing about Jesus.  Moses is a prophet who bears witness to Jesus more than a historian writing the narration of human history.

We see an interesting relationship between the Word of God and a written word in Exodus.  “Moses came and told the people all the words of the LORD and all the ordinances; and all the people answered with one voice, and said, ‘All the words which the LORD has spoken we will do.’ And Moses wrote all the words of the LORD.”  (Exodus 24:3-4)    Moses comes to the people and tells them the words of the Lord – God’s word is spoken and to be heard.  Only after all the people hear the words and agree to obey them does Moses write them down.  They are not put into a written form until the people agree to do them.  The covenant will involve a written agreement, but the Word of God must first be heard and willingly accepted as that which is to be obeyed; Only then is it put into writing.   After this, the written covenant is accepted again this time in ritual worship – it is sanctified as the people once more agree to it: “Then Moses took the book of the covenant, and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, ‘All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.’ And Moses took the blood and threw it upon the people, and said, ‘Behold the blood of the covenant which the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.’”  (Exodus 24:7-8)

It is the same for us today, for in the Liturgy again we have the Blood of Christ and the spoken Word proclaimed and we agree to God’s new covenant.  And interestingly the very next thing that happens in Exodus is a meal eaten before God:

Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, and they saw the God of Israel; and there was under his feet as it were a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness. And he did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; they beheld God, and ate and drank. (Exodus 24:9-11)

It is only after Moses spoke God’s words to the people and the people agreed to obey that the covenant was confirmed in liturgical ritual that involved blood. Only after all of this does God speak about putting His words into writing.  In Exodus 24:12, we read:  The LORD said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tables of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.”  But even then another 40 days will pass before it happens (Exodus 24:18).

Only in Exodus 31 does God finally write the words which Moses proclaimed to the people and wrote down for the people.  But first God tells Moses he must once again proclaim (verbally) these words of the perpetual covenant.  Only then do we read in Exodus 31:18 – And he gave to Moses, when he had made an end of speaking with him upon Mount Sinai, the two tables of the testimony, tables of stone, written with the finger of God.

In Deuteronomy 9:10-11 we read another version of this same narrative:

And the LORD gave me the two tables of stone written with the finger of God; and on them were all the words which the LORD had spoken with you on the mountain out of the midst of the fire on the day of the assembly. And at the end of forty days and forty nights the LORD gave me the two tables of stone, the tables of the covenant.

God’s Word is first spoken, it was written down by God on the stone tablets only after the people agreed to the terms of the covenant.  Moses was to smash God’s written words, the stone tablets,  when the people disobeyed God even before Moses could bring the written word to them.  But even tablets of stone written by  God’s own hand were not permanent and cannot be equated with God’s word.  For as it says in  1 Peter 1:24 -25 – ‘The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord abides for ever.That word is the good news which was preached to you.”

God’s Word cannot be equated with a written form.  God’s Word is not coterminous with the scriptures for the scriptures bear witness to God’s Word.  The Word of God is Jesus Christ.

Basil the Great: Reading Scripture and Creation

Image 1…in the Bible to bless God is not a “religious” or “cultic” act, but the very way of life. …All rational, spiritual and other qualities of man, distinguishing him from other creatures, have their focus and ultimate fulfillment in this capacity to bless God, to know, so to speak, the meaning of the thirst and hunger that constitutes his life. “Homo sapiens”, “homo faber”…yes, but first of all, “homo adorans”. The first and basic definition of man is that he is the priest. He stands at the center of the world and unifies it in his act of blessing God, of both receiving the world from God and offering it to God…”  (Fr. Alexander Schmemann, For The Life of the World)

Fr Schmemann saw the human as basically a worshiping creature.   Yes, we are ingenious at fabricating things, we are sentient and capable of wisdom.  But for Schmemann the human was created by God to be a priest, to worship  the Lord and that is partially what we lost when we humans decided we don’t need God to know our universe.  As soon as we desired to approach the cosmos in a role other than as priest in service of God, when we stopped seeing creation as a means to our maintaining our relationship with God, we lost our unique role as humans in the cosmos and lost our communion with our Creator.

St. Basil the Great saw humans as  ‘homo legitur‘ – the literary beings – the ones, as theologian Stephen M. Hildebrand notes in his biography of the Saint, created by God to be able to read not only the scriptures but the cosmos itself.  Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins writes this ability to read is what sets humans apart as a species: “Our ability to understand the universe and our position in it is one of the glories of the human species.  Our ability to link mind to mind by language, and especially to transmit our thoughts across the centuries is another.  Science and literature, then, are the two achievements of Homo sapiens that most convincingly justify the specific name” (THE OXFORD BOOK OF MODERN SCIENCE WRITING, p 3).  Modern science agrees with St Basil that we are gifted to read.  However, a difference between modern science and St Basil would be that Basil believed God gave us two sets of scripture – the Bible and creation, both written to reveal God to  us.  We need to learn to read both while modern science only wants to focus on the empirical cosmos which it does not see as revealing divinity to us.   Hildebrand writes:

Basil sees man as a reader, but a reader must have a text. Man’s texts, for Basil, are principally two, the Scriptures and the whole of creation, including the human body. The author of man’s two books is God himself. One important implication here is that both the Scriptures and creation, being texts, are full of meaning and significance. The posture that the French poet Paul Claudel took before reality expresses well St. Basil’s too. Claudel in front of a piece of reality—a flower, a mountain, a woman—always felt the need to ask, “Qu’est-ce que ça veut dire?”‘  We might typically translate this as ‘What does it mean?’ but literally it is rendered ‘What does it want to say?’ For Basil, the Scriptures and the world want to say something, or God wants to say something through them.

So man is the reader, and creation and the Scriptures are the texts, the books. Basil tells his flock, ‘This whole world is as it were a book that proclaims the glory of God, announcing through itself the hidden and invisible greatness of God to you who have a mind for the apprehension of truth‘ (Hex. 11.4; 51).  The text, whether creation, the Scriptures, or the human body, calls for a response from the reader.”  (Basil of Caesarea, Kindle Loc 657-667)

Basil believed the cosmos, creation, including the human body were a text to be read by humans to understand what God has done, is doing, is going to do.  In every sense of the word, Basil looked beyond the literal to find the meaning and for him the meaning always had to do with discovering the Creator through God’s activity in the cosmos.

I would suggest that St Basil would have been impressed with exactly how much modern science and technology has been able to read from the text of creation including the human body.   Just think about all the things we read in drawing blood samples from people or through pathology, chemical analysis, and especially now through DNA which is literally a language that has been recording all that God has been doing in and through humans for as long as humanity has been on the planet and even in the millions of years before that.  “In the beginning was the word.  The word was not DNA.  That came afterwards, when life was already established … But DNA contains a record of the word, faithfully transmitted through all subsequent aeons to the astonishing present”  (Matt Ridley quoted in THE OXFORD BOOK OF MODERN SCIENCE WRITING, p 40).

Just think about ways we read creation today:  paleontology, archaeology, radio waves, molecular structures, laws of physics,  history, anthropology, biological evolution, quantum mechanics, chemical structures and signatures, mathematical equations, binary code,  the remnants of the Big Bang, just to name a few.  Creation has been recording all that God is doing from the beginning, and we are just beginning to learn to read the text which is the cosmos and to understand God’s creation and God’s activity from the beginning of the universe.  God has His hand in creating the cosmos and that cosmos is the record of what God was and is writing.  God’s narrative is God’s creation just as Scripture is – God’s word for those who could read to comprehend what God is willing to reveal.

We can read today so much more from the cosmos and about creation than St Basil ever imagined was possible (as well as countless things he couldn’t imagine at all).  As we sing in the Akathist “Glory to God for All Things”: “The breath of Your Holy Spirit inspires artists, poets, scientists. The power of Your supreme knowledge makes them prophets and interpreters of Your laws, who reveal the depths of Your creative wisdom. Their works speak unwittingly of You. How great are You in Your creation! How great are You in man!

Of course, just like in scriptural interpretation there is the danger of reading what we believe into the text rather than seeing what the text reveals.  Eisegesis instead of exegesis is a risk for scientists as it is for biblical scholars.

We are the creatures who have learned not only to read, but also to write, to create literature.  This is part of what Dawkins says sets humans apart.  But in creating  literature, we also are not only using our reading skills, we are participating in creation and in the creative process.  Chemist Peter Atkins who says all creation is moving toward chaos and collapse notes that literature, as well as music and architecture really are ways in which we slow down nature’s slide into chaos.  “The emergence of consciousness, like the unfolding of a leaf, relies upon restraint.  Richness, the richness of the perceived world and the richness  of the imagined worlds of literature and art – the human spirit- is the consequence of controlled, not precipitate, collapse”  (quoted in THE OXFORD BOOK OF MODERN SCIENCE WRITING, p 16).

The Genesis creation account has God working against chaos, against entropy, to create [Greek: Poetry] order and bring life into existence.  This is a miracle in the midst of the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics.   Humans have an ability as God does to bring restraint to the universal move toward entropy.  Our ability to read and write are part of our creative abilities which put restraint, even if only temporarily on the slide to chaos.  God as the original writer or poet of creation gives to us what we can read – God brings restraint to entropy.  We humans can share in that creativity by exhibiting restraint!  And when we are truly creative, we put restraint on entropy as Atkins noted.  ‘Art’ that yields chaos is simply doing what the cosmos does naturally -move toward entropy which in the end is not art at all.  True human genius is restraining to entropy and controlled.

The second law of thermodynamics

Hildebrand continues:

“As Basil says about Genesis 1:26, ‘We have, on the one hand, you see, what looks, in its form, like a story, but is, on the other hand, at the level of power, a theology’ (Hex. 10.4).  God, then, is not concerned merely to communicate so much information, even useful information, about himself or about us. The Scriptures are not just informative, but, if you will, performative, and here the action that God wishes us to perform is the worship of him as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As a reader, man is constantly called to relate to God and to his own salvation what he finds in the two great books, Scripture and creation, that have been given to him. This is why Basil is never interested in mere history or mere observation.”  (Basil of Caesarea, Kindle Loc  673-678)

Science will only be interested in the informative part of creation, but believers are called the performative part – knowing the truth, how are we to behave?  This is where St Basil is not so much interested in history or the ‘facts’ as he is in what does it mean, especially in our understanding of God and God’s will.   Basil sees Genesis as story but a narrative with a message – revelation of God, theology.  It is the message which we ultimately want to know.  To turn Genesis into science or facts or to reduce it to history is to look at creation through the eyes of science rather than the eyes of faith.  Scripture is to open the eyes of our heart to the depths of meaning which God is revealing to us.  The study of creation can have the same purpose which is why Christians should pay attention to nature and science as St Basil recommended.

A Temptation of Wealth

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And Jesus told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man brought forth plentifully; and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns, and build larger ones; and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”  (Luke 12:16-21)

The error of the rich fool in Christ’s parable is easy to see.  He assumed life would go on as it is forever.  He forgot he lived in a world defined by change.  And that change includes the fact that we are mortal beings – each life is bound by a beginning and an end.  His great plan came to nothing as his life ended.  There is a lesson to learn: how not to have one’s life end in nothing.  Life will end, we will die, but that doesn’t have to equate with life meaning nothing in the end.  We can live in a way that others will regret when we die, but even that is minor. To live so that in the end nothing is the only thing left might be good in Buddhism, but in Christianity there is a full life in the world to come.  We don’t want to end in nothing but rather in abundant life found in God.   [see also my post Sins and Debts.]

We of course seeing the rich fool’s error might decide that we can avoid his mistake, we can plan to win the lottery and give a sizable portion to charity, not just store up the winnings for our ease.  There is folly in this as well as St John Climacus pointed out.  Archimandrite Vassilios Papavassiliou writes:

Yet St. John of the Ladder warns us that even the idea of charity—the desire to have plenty in order to give to others—can be little more than an excuse for avarice:

Do not say you are interested in money for the sake of the poor, for two mites were sufficient to purchase the kingdom (cf. Luke 21:2). . . .

The pretext of almsgiving is the beginning of avarice, and the finish is detestation of the poor. The collector is stirred by charity, but, when the money is in, the grip tightens. The demon of avarice fights hard against those who have nothing. When it fails to overcome them, it begins to tell them about the wretched conditions of the poor, thereby inducing those in the religious life to become concerned once more with material things.    (Thirty Steps to Heaven: The Ladder of Divine Ascent for All Walks of Life, Kindle 1343-49)

One might be the rare person who would give all their lottery winnings to charity.  But then we might turn out to be like the rich young man who according to Mark 10:21-22 Jesus loved yet despite this who walked away from Jesus when the Lord told to give his wealth away in charity.  “And Jesus looking upon him loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” At that saying his countenance fell, and he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions.”   We might start off believing we wanted the wealth to help others, but how long before we decid to keep back just some for ourselves?  We might read again the Acts 5 account of Ananias and Sapphira.   Money as they saw is a good servant but a bad master.

Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, “I will never fail you nor forsake you.”   (Hebrews 13:5)

The Tree of Life

Happy are those who find wisdom…
She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her;
those who hold her fast are called happy.

(Proverbs 3:13,18)

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“… for they have not understood that the tree of life which Paradise once bore, now again the Church has produced for all, even the ripe and comely fruit of faith.   Such fruit it is necessary that we bring when we come to the  judgment-seat of Christ, on the first day of the feast; for if we are without it we shall not be able to feast with God, nor to have part, according to John, in the first resurrection.  For the tree of life is wisdom first begotten of all.”   (Methodius, The Banquet of the Ten Virgins, Kindle Location 2365-2370)

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Then he showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.  (Revelation 22:1-2)

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Faith as Synergy

 

The saints frequently describe the life of faith as a synergy between the human and God.  Each has their part to do which is part of the mystery of faith in an omnipotent God who grants free will to His creatures.  God does not do for us what we must choose to do for ourselves.  God warned Noah about the flood but did not build him the ark.  On the other side of that, we need so many things from God which we constantly seek, such as God’s mercy.  Our best efforts will fall short if we don’t connect with God.   I think the Virgin Mary expresses it well in her hymn in Luke 1:46-50 where though she is fulfilling the heights of being human she recognizes this is God’s wish and will for the world and not just for her life.  If there is no “God with us” our greatest miracles will be no more than a temporary delay of the universal decline into entropy.

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden. For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. And his mercy is on those who fear him from generation to generation.”

This cooperation between the Creator and human creatures is readily found in Orthodox spiritual writings.

St John Chrysostom says: ‘A man’s readiness and commitment are not enough if he does not enjoy help from above as well; equally help from above is no benefit to us unless there is also commitment and readiness on our part. These two facts are proved by Judas and Peter. For although Judas enjoyed much help, it was of no benefit to him, since he had no desire for it and contributed nothing from himself. But Peter, although willing and ready, fell because he enjoyed no help from above. So holiness is woven of these two strands. Thus I entreat you neither to entrust everything to God and then fall asleep, nor to think, when you are striving diligently, that you will achieve everything by your own efforts.”  (St Theodoros the Great Ascetic, The Philokalia, Kindle Loc. 11142-51)

An important point for us – even being a chosen apostle does not guarantee synergy or communion with God.  Being Apostles was no advantage to either Judas or Peter  over us in terms of cooperating with God for salvation.  If we think faithfulness is hard and would be made easier if Jesus did a bit more, we might remember it didn’t help Judas to be one of the Twelve Chosen and to walk with Jesus daily.  Faith is the willingness to cooperate with God to accomplish God’s will.  It doesn’t guarantee that were won’t be struggle or loss or sorrow or setback.  It does mean believing despite all these struggles.  It means being judged in our current circumstance, not in some better time.   “For if the readiness is there, it is acceptable according to what a man has, not according to what he has not” (2 Corinthians 8:12).  We are not told to do our best in perfect circumstances, rather we are told to be perfect in the circumstances we find ourselves.  Which means in the end we need God’s mercy.

Making the Sign of the Cross in the 12th Century

Many Orthodox are curious to know when and how our making the sign of the cross appeared and why we do it differently than Roman Catholics.  While I know that references to making the sign of the cross appear in the early centuries of Christianity, I’m not aware of the earliest sources telling us exactly how the cross was to be made.  Tertullian who dies in 225AD describes Christians tracing the sign of the cross on their foreheads but gives no further details.  St Cyril of Jerusalem in the 4th Century describes making the cross over the brow of one’s head as well as over food and drink but again without giving specific directions as to the how.  St Ephrem the Syrian in the 4th Century proscribes making the sign of the cross as our first task before any endeavor but doesn’t tell us exactly how to do it.   None of these early references to the practice describe the mechanics of what exactly the person is doing to make the sign of the cross so we can’t know exactly what they were doing.  When I first came to Dayton as the priest, the local newspaper at that time had a religion column and the editor of that column heard I was going to be doing a house blessing in January.   She came out with camera in hand and told me she was trying to imagine what it meant to do a house blessing.  She envisioned me standing outside the home in winter with hands raised praying over a house – or she hoped more dramatically climbing up on the roof to to bless the house with hands upraised.  She was disappointed to see it consisting of sprinkling holy water in a house.  Without knowing the mechanics we can only imagine what they were doing in making the sign of the cross in the early centuries of Christianity, but we know it was a commonly accepted practice.

St. Peter Damaskos  actually describes making the sign of the cross as he knew the practice in the 12th Century.  He writes:

“Then we should also marvel how demons and various diseases are dispelled by the sign of the precious and life- giving Cross, which all can make without cost or effort. Who can number the panegyrics composed in its honor? The holy fathers have handed down to us the inner significance of this sign, so that we can refute heretics and unbelievers. The two fingers and single hand with which it is made represent the Lord Jesus Christ crucified, and He is thereby acknowledged to exist in two-natures and one hypostasis or person. The use of the right hand betokens His infinite power and the fact that He sits at the right hand of the Father. That the sign begins with a downward movement from above signifies His descent to us from heaven. Again, the movement of the hand from the right side to the left drives away our enemies and declares that by His invincible power the Lord overcame the devil, who is on the left side, dark and lacking strength.    ( THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 30200-30214)

While one can certainly recognize the movement of the right hand, starting at the top and moving down and then from right to left is how we Orthodox currently sign ourselves with the cross (though he does not reference touching any body parts).  So we know that at least from the 12th Century we were doing it this way.  What might be surprising to some is that for St. Peter the sign of the cross is made with two fingers not three.  Using two fingers is the older known form of making the sign of the cross.  He has a symbolic explanation for the two fingers (two natures of Christ) versus the three finger symbolism of the Trinity.  The adherents of the three fingers might be disappointed to discover that their method is not the more ancient one nor the one used by earlier generations of Orthodox.  I do not know the history of when or why Orthodox changed from two to three fingers, but it was part of the Old Believers dispute with the Russian Orthodox Church beginning in the 17th Century when Patriarch Nikon and the Russian Church insisted on changing to the practice of using 3 fingers in making the sign of the cross.  [I did hear at one point that they mistakenly thought they were reverting to the more ancient practice by going to three fingers instead of two.]

Of course, some saints pointed out that it is not the mechanics that matter – whether one uses one, two, or three fingers, spiritual power is in the cross itself not in how we make it.  Other believers dispute this and think the mechanics are essential and not making the perfect cross is itself satanic.

Personally, I think it is the cross which makes demons shutter – doesn’t matter how large it is or how it is made.  There is also the fact that very early on the Christians didn’t think of themselves as signing with the cross but with the last letter of the Jewish alphabet the tau or X  which in Judaism represented the Name of God.  This conveniently was similar  to the X the first Greek letter in ‘Christ’ – Χριστός (see Jean Danielou, THE THEOLOGY OF JEWISH CHRISTIANITY, pp 154, 330).  As Danielou points out probably at baptism the earliest Christians saw themselves as being anointed in the Name of the Lord, not with the Cross of Christ but with His Name – the X not the + .   So both how Christians made the sign and what exactly they saw themselves doing (+ or X) has changed through the centuries.  This makes me think the mechanics are not as significant as what we are invoking – God’s Name, Christ or the Cross – in our spiritual struggle against evil.

That conformity in practice helps with community identity and with the unity of community is true which may also point to the mechanics of making the sign of the cross as being practical not theological.

Psalm 148

Praise the LORD!
Praise the LORD from the heavens;
praise him in the heights!

Praise him, all his angels;
praise him, all his host!
Praise him, sun and moon;
praise him, all you shining stars!

Praise him, you highest heavens,
and you waters above the heavens!
Let them praise the name of the LORD,
for he commanded and they were created.

He established them forever and ever;
he fixed their bounds, which cannot be passed.
Praise the LORD from the earth,
you sea monsters and all deeps,
fire and hail, snow and frost,
stormy wind fulfilling his command!

Mountains and all hills,
fruit trees and all cedars!
Wild animals and all cattle,
creeping things and flying birds!

Kings of the earth and all peoples,
princes and all rulers of the earth!

Sins and Debts

For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? For what can a man give in return for his life?  (Mark 8:36-37)

The Bible, especially  the New Testament takes some of its imagery for the spiritual life from the business world – from bartering, selling, trading, profit making, an exchange of goods and services, commercial transactions.  But, at least according to some biblical scholars, the use of financial transactions as a metaphor for the spiritual life is something that develops over time in Israel eventually becoming common place by the time of the New Testament.

One area where the difference between Biblical and Second Temple Hebrew is rather dramatic is that of sin. During the Second Temple period (516BCE  to 70AD) it became common to refer to the sins of an individual or a nation as the accrual of a debt.  This explains the diction of the Our Father, “forgive us our debts” (Matt. 6:12). The metaphor of sin as a debt is rarely attested in the bulk of the Hebrew Bible. But as soon as it became a commonplace to view a sin as a debt—and this took place early in the Second Temple period—it became natural to conceive of virtuous activity as a merit or credit.   (Gary Anderson, Christian Doctrine and the Old Testament: Theology in the Service of Biblical Exegesis, Kindle Loc 3901-3907)

Indeed, numerous Church Fathers explain the value of giving in charity in terms of debt – our gifts to the poor and needed are “regifted” as a loan to God, and God will repay us in His Kingdom for all the charity we gave during our lifetime.  “He who is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will repay him for his deed”  (Proverbs 19:17).  Giving in charity thus makes God indebted to us.  God will make good on this loan.  The imagery was used not rigidly to declare there is a Karma governing even God, but, rather to help us understand that our acts of charity, kindness, mercy, forgiveness are not our loss or to our detriment but ultimately benefit us in God’s Kingdom.  We are in charity not giving up things or giving away thing or impoverishing ourselves – we are providing for our future with God.  We are putting money in our retirement fund, saving up for that future.  “But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:3-4).

Scholar Gary Anderson notes in St Ephrem’s hymns, this language is common.  St Ephrem (d. 373AD) says:

He Who is Lord of all, gives us all, And He Who is Enricher of all, borrows from all. He is Giver of all as one without needs. Yet He borrows back again as one deprived. He gave cattle and sheep as Creator, But on the other hand, He sought sacrifices as one deprived.  (Christian Doctrine and the Old Testament: Theology in the Service of Biblical Exegesis, Kindle Loc 4322-4327)

God gives us everything – the entire cosmos.  We are stewards of His varied graces and as such we “owe” God all that we do in the world.  We are indebted to God because God has given us everything.  When we fail to recognize we are living on borrowed time, ‘renting” space on the planet, and using God’s resources, we become indebted to God because we are not giving God His due.  God allows us to use what God has given us, but we are obligated to give back to God from our blessings since we really are the stewards of these borrowed things, not the owner.  As St Basil the Great (d. 379AD) wrote,  the Lord “’did not instruct us to throw away possessions as evil and flee them, but to administer them‘ (Sh. Rul. 92; 323)”  (Stephen M. Hildebrand, Basil of Caesarea, Kindle Loc 3203-3205).   God trusts us and entrusts to us God’s creation to use to His glory.  To be fully human we have to see ourselves as thus being obligated to serving God.  We should treat as precious life and creation because they are God’s prized possessions.

What do we owe God?  Everything, though God in the Old Testament is willing to accept a tithe from what we produce.   The Lord Jesus in speaking about love seems to lift the 10% payback limit and says that we are to give in love for God and neighbor.  Love can’t be quantified.  Anderson points out that St Ephrem uses the imagery of commercial exchange and praises it.  As Ephrem says in one of his hymns:

Give thanks to him who brought the blessing and took from us the prayer.

For he made the one worthy of worship descend

And made our worship of him ascend.

For he gave us divinity

And we gave him humanity.

He brought us a promise

And we gave him the faith Of Abraham, his friend.

For we have given him our alms on loan

In turn, let us demand their repayment. (Hymns on Faith 5.17)

(Christian Doctrine and the Old Testament: Theology in the Service of Biblical Exegesis, Kindle Loc 4336-4344)

The good things we do are a spiritual exchange.  We are constantly doing these spiritual commercial transactions with God.  God gives us His blessings and we in turn offer God our prayer.  God sends His Son to become incarnate and we give to Him our humanity.  God gives us seed, sun and rain – we in turn grow wheat and grapes and offer to God bread and wine.  God accepts our offering and transfigures it into the Body and Blood of Christ.  We receive this Holy Communion as we offer thanksgiving to God.

We are constantly interacting with God and co-creating with God, turning the natural resources God has provided to us into means for our union with God, and for transfiguration by God into communion with God.  And note the audacious boldness of St Ephrem’s hymn: “In turn, let us demand their repayment.”  We don’t merely ask or beg God’s help, we can demand it!  If we have done our part, we can demand from God that God upholds His part of the promise, the bargain, the transaction.  “Lord have mercy!” is not a plaintive and helpless cry, but a command to God to do what you have promised because we have done what you asked of us. But, of course, we can only demand if we actually did what we were supposed to do.

And forgive us our debts, As we also have forgiven our debtors; And lead us not into temptation, But deliver us from evil. For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.  (Matthew 6:12-15)

“Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”  (Luke 6:37-38)

[See also my post: The Wages of Sin is Death.  What are the Wages for Taking Up the Cross?}

Life is Hard

But as you know, everything good in us does not take place easily, but with labor, force, and effort: “The kingdom of heaven is taken by force, and those who exert effort gain it” (Matt. 11:12). Therefore, let us not be discouraged by the difficulty of this feat, but rather let us look for the means to accomplish it.

(St. Tikhon of Moscow: Instructions and Teachings for the American Orthodox Faithful (1898-1907), Kindle Loc 1181-1183)