Images of Salvation (V)

“Eventually, I began to realize that the essential truth of our faith, the Good News – was not that we were suddenly made perfect and free from all danger of sin, but that the infinite source of God’s mercy and love had been opened to us in Christ.”    (Irma Zaleski, LIVING THE JESUS PRAYER , p vi)

This is the fifth blog in this series exploring ideas about and images of salvation.  The first blog is Images of Salvation and the previous blog is Images of Salvation (IV)

The Orthodox understanding of salvation is that God has been working it out over the long history of the world.   Thus we celebrate many feast days in Orthodoxy each  occurring at different times but each contributing to the beginning of salvation: Christ’s resurrection, His death, His birth, the birth of His mother, and so on through the men and women of the great genealogies found in the Gospel according to St. Matthew and St. Luke.

Likewise, the Christian understanding of salvation did not instantly emerge in one moment of time. Events unfolded, and it took time for believers to understand the events.  The women disciples of the Lord and those of the Twelve who ran to look into the tomb of Christ, did not immediately understand the resurrection let alone its implications for the world.  The empty tomb was not enough, requiring angels to explain it to the witnesses, and then their testimony was not enough to convince the other disciples.

The Acts of the Apostles and the New Testament Epistles show the early Christians wrestling with both the concept of salvation and its implications for life – both personal and communal.  The cosmos was radically changed by the event of the resurrection, and yet the first Christians struggled with sin and death.  They proclaimed the resurrection but soon faced the death of martyrdom.  It took centuries to work out some of the most basic understanding of the implications of salvation in Jesus Christ.  Even when they were sure of the terminology, the theological ramifications remained staggering and were much debated.

“The whole time he (St. Gregory Palamas, d. 1359AD) is defending communion with the living God as the only means of salvation for man, and combating the conception of salvation as an extrinsic justification which leaves man to live independently of God outside the ‘supernatural.’  That was not God’s plan for man, and it was not for that that the Son of God put on flesh and clothed himself in a nature altogether similar to our own;  He ‘became man that we might become God.’” (John Meyendorff,  A STUDY IN GREGORY PALAMAS, p 163)

The incarnation implied theosis – a partaking of and participation in the divine life (2 Peter 1:4).   Patristic authors were more able to articulate the truth precisely than to explain it’s full meaning – an apophatic mystery in which we participated without being able to find an adequate language to explicate its every meaning.

“In his great work on the history of doctrine, [Dr. Jaroslav] Pelikan makes the point that, although the theology of the person of Christ (who Christ is in relation to God) received thorough doctrinal attention, the ‘meaning’ of the saving work of Christ (how we are saved in specific terms) never received similar doctrinal focus in the patristic period.  One will not find an Eastern parallel to the West’s discussion about justification.  The Greek Church fathers wrote about the meaning of salvation in a variety of ways, using multiple biblical and particularly Pauline terminology: new covenant, sanctification, new creation, transformation and glorification.” (Theodore Stylianopoulos, ENCOURAGED BY THE SCRIPTURES, pp 121-122)

There were images in which to convey the truth of salvation in Jesus Christ, theological metaphors and philosophical poetry to proclaim the truth while acknowledging the mystery and the inadequacy of human reason to fathom salvation..

“’A new heaven and a new earth’: man is not saved from the material world but with it.  Because man is microcosm and mediator of the creation, his own salvation involves also the reconciliation and transfiguration of the whole animate and inanimate creation around him – its deliverance ‘from the bondage of corruption’ and entry ‘into the glorious liberty of the children of God’ (Rom. 8:21).  In the ‘new earth’ of the Age to come there is surely a place not only for man but for the animals: in and through man, they too will share in immortality, and so will rocks, trees and plants, fire and water.”  (Kallistos Ware, THE ORTHODOX WAY, p 183)

“He makes all things new” (Rev 21:5)

The physical is not opposed to the spiritual, but rather the secular is shown capable of bearing the sacred and of becoming holy.  God incarnate.  Humanity deified.  Creation untied to Creator.  Creator entering into creation.  God creates that which is “not-god” and then God Himself enters into that which is “not god” and unites that which is “not god” to God.   This is the salvation of the world.

Next:  Images of Salvation (VI)

New PDFs available

The blog series which began with the blog,  The Purpose of Righteousness, which wrestles with the question, “Why be righteous if God gives rain and sunshine to those who are good and to those who are bad?”, is now available as one PDF at  The Purpose of Righteousness (PDF).

Also available as a PDF are a collection of all of blogs posted with a Lenten Theme during this year’s Great Lent at Great Lent 2013 (PDF).

Also now available as a PDF are the two blogs which began with A Walk Through Holy Week (2013).  The PDF is available at   A Walk Through Holy Week (PDF) which offers a short meditation on the biblical themes and the liturgical celebrations of Holy Week.

You can find a list of all the PDFs I have created from my blogs with links to access them at   Fr. Ted’s Blogs as PDFs.

Spiritual Vigilance in Holy Week

The Lord Jesus told us the Parable of the Bridegroom (Matthew 25:1-13) :

Then the kingdom of heaven shall be compared to ten maidens who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise.  For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them;  but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps.  As the bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept.  But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’  Then all those maidens rose and trimmed their lamps.  And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’  But the wise replied, ‘Perhaps there will not be enough for us and for you; go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’  And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast; and the door was shut.  Afterward the other maidens came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’  But he replied, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’

Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”  (Matthew 25:1-13)


(Hymn of Bridegroom Matins Holy Tuesday)

A Walk Through Holy Week (2013)

In the Orthodox liturgical experience of Holy Week, we read a small portion of the book of Exodus (Exodus 1:1-20; 2:5-22; 12:1-11; 13:20-15:19; 19:10-19; 33:11-23) in preparation for the celebration of Pascha (Pascha means Passover).  The Exodus and Passover are the background and the typology for understanding the death and resurrection of Christ.  Salvation in the Orthodox Church is a liberation, like the Israelites experienced out of Egypt to the Promised Land, so now all of us follow Christ from death to life and from earth to heaven.  The Church also uses Holy Week to prepare catechumens for baptism.  This is an ancient tradition kept in our liturgical celebration of Holy Week.  The early Church Fathers saw many images in the Old Testament to prefigure Christ and so they read these old stories Christologically.   Origen the great biblical commentator of the 3rd Century already holds ideas which we find today in our services of Holy Week.  He sees in the Old Testament texts we read as prophetic signs prefiguring Christ the Lord.

“In the Homilies on Joshua Origen  (d. 254AD) takes up …  the crossing of the Red sea and the Jordan …  The crossing of the Jordan recalls to us Baptism. . . . the whole of the Exodus is thus conceived of as a type of the entry into the Christian faith, from the departure from Egypt, symbol of the break with idolatry, to Baptism, typified by the crossing of the Jordan.

‘And you who have just abandoned the darkness of idolatry, and wish to give yourself to the hearing of the Divine Law, then it is that you begin first to leave Eqypt.  When you have been included in the number of the catechumens and begin to obey the precepts of the Church, you have passed over the Red Sea.  And if you come to the sacred font of Baptism and if in the presence of the orders of Priests and Levites you are initiated into those venerable and noble mysteries which are known only by those permitted to know them, then, having passed over the Jordan while the priests are ministering, you shall enter into the land of promise….’”(Jean Danielou, FROM SHADOWS TO REALITY,  pp 269-270)

As the ancient Israelites had a special meal for their Passover, so too we Christians commemorate the Mystical Supper of Christ instituted on Holy Thursday and part of our own Paschal celebration.  St. Ephrem the Syrian (d. 379AD)  poetically commemorates that Last Supper before Pascha:

“Blessed are you, O Upper Room, so small in comparison in the entirety of creation, yet what took place in you now fills all creation—which is even too small for it.

Blessed is your abode, for in it was broken that Bread which issues from the blessed Wheat Sheaf, and in you was trodden out the cluster of Grapes that came from Mary to become the Cup of Salvation.

Blessed are you, O Upper Room, no man has ever seen nor ever shall see, what you beheld: Our Lord became at once True Altar, Priest, Bread, and Cup of Salvation.

In His own person He could fulfill all these roles, none other was capable of this: Whole Offering and Lamb, Sacrifice and Sacrificer, Priest and the One destined to be consumed.”  (in Sebastian Brock’s THE LUMINOUS EYE, p 102)

St. John Chrysostom reminds us of the mystical nature of the Eucharist and how it transforms us individually and collectively into God’s people, the Church:

“Let us learn the wonder of this sacrament, the purpose of its institution, the effects it produces.  We become a single body, according to Scripture, members of his flesh and bone of his bones.  This is what is brought about by the food that he gives us.  He blends himself with us so that we may all become one single entity in the way the body is joined to the head.” (in Olivier Clement’s THE ROOTS OF CHRISTIAN MYSTICISM, p 115)

[Next, the conlcusion:  A Walk Through Holy Week (II)]

Palm Sunday: Ushering in God’s Kingdom

“Thus, for example, if one understands the meaning of Palm Sunday as being the great messianic feast, the solemn liturgical affirmation of Christ’s Lordship in the world, and, therefore as the inauguration of the Holy Week, which is the fulfillment of Christ’s victory over the ‘prince of this world,’ if one has, in other words, the vision of the whole – the interdependence of the Lazarus Saturday, the Palm Sunday and Pascha, one has the key to all the proper ‘recreation’ of the liturgy of Palm Sunday. One sees, first of all, the central position and function within the service of the messianic greetings: ‘Hosanna’ and ‘Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord,’ the theme of Jerusalem as the Holy Sion, as the place where the history of salvation is to find its fulfillment, the constant reference to Zacariah’s dichotomy: ‘King’ and ‘lowly’ as reference to the Kingdom of peace and love which is being inaugurated, and, finally, the leit motiv of the whole service ‘Six days before the Passover’ by which this feast is set as the ‘ante-feast’ of the Holy Week, the real entrance of the Messiah into His glory.”  (Alexander Schmemann in St. Vladimir’s Seminary Quarterly: Volume 8, Number 4, pg.182)

Think About Things Beautiful and Lovely

The Epistle for Palm Sunday in the Orthodox Church is Philippians 4:4-9 :

“Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice! Let your gentleness be known to all men. The Lord is at hand. Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.  Finally, brethren,

whatever things are true,

whatever things are noble,

whatever things are just,

whatever things are pure,

whatever things are lovely,

whatever things are of good report,

if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy – meditate on these things.

The things which you learned and received and heard and saw in me, these do, and the God of peace will be with you.

Father Sergius Bulgakov writes about beauty:

“‘God saw everything that he had made: and, behold, it was most beautiful’ (Gen. 1:31). God is good; he is goodness itself. God is true; he is truth itself. God is glorious, and his glory is beauty itself. Beauty is an objective principle in the world, revealing to us the divine glory. The divine source of objective beauty is also the source of the human creation of beauty, that is, of art. God created man in his image, granting to this image three gifts: a will directed towards the good, the gift of reason and wisdom, and the gift of aesthetic appreciation. Man is meant to be the wisdom of the world, just because he participates in the Logos; he is also meant to be the artist of the world, because he can imbue it with beauty.

Man must become not only a good and faithful worker in the world; he must not only ‘dress and keep it’ (Gen. 2.15), as he was commanded in paradise, but he must also become its artist; he must render it beautiful. Because he has been created in the image of God, he is called to create. Things are transfigured and made luminous by beauty; they become the revelation of their own abstract meaning. And this revelation through beauty of the things of earth is the work of art. The world, as it has been given to us, has remained as it were covered by an outward shell through which art penetrates, as if foreseeing the coming transfiguration of the world. Man has been called to be a demiurge, not only to contemplate the beauty of the world, but also to express it. Does this not speak of a new service of the Church ,one that has not yet been fully revealed in the heart of man and in his history: the service of realizing the work of human participation in the transfiguration of the world? Is it not of this that the words of Dostoevsky speak, ‘Beauty will save the world?’ ” (in The Time of the Spirit: Readings Through the Christian Year, pg. 11)

We begin Holy Week with the reading about things of beauty on Palm Sunday and we are asked to think about them.   St. Ephrem of Syria penned some beautiful words about Paradise.  Paradise created by God to be populated by His chosen human creatures, was emptied by the sin of Eve and Adam.  Paradise like all creation groaned for the day when it would be filled again with humans, and thus fulfilled (Romans 8:19-22).

“Blessed is the person

      for whom Paradise yearns.

Yes, Paradise yearns for that person whose goodness

     makes them beautiful”  

(St. Ephrem the Syrian in TREASURE-HOUSE OF MYSTERIES, p 38)

As we enter Holy Week, we are to think about things true, pure, lovely, noble, just and of good report, so St. Paul tells us.  Passion Week is a period in time for us to especially focus on God and His work to save the world.

The Raising of Lazarus

Orthodox biblical scholar Fr. Paul Nadim Tarazi comments on the Gospel Lesson of the raising of Lazarus (John 11:1-45):

“Lazarus’ tomb represents the Jerusalem temple. In order to be resurrected by Christ the Jews must ‘come out’ of the temple figuratively by rejecting it and the Judaism it represents and giving their allegiance to the Lord instead. John offers a clear hint that he has the temple in mind by calling the tomb a ‘cave’ (spelaion) in verse 38. This noun in the singular occurs in the New Testament only in Mark 11:17 and its parallels (Mt. 21:13,Lk. 19:46), in a quotation from Jeremiah criticizing the Jerusalemites for making out of the temple a ‘cave’ of robbers (Jer. 7:11 translated ‘den’ in the RSV). Thus, when the dead Jew ‘comes out’ of his cave, he symbolically ‘comes out’ of Judaism (Jn. 11:43-44). Nevertheless, the salvation of the Jews is part and parcel of the salvation of all, and so the periscope about Lazurus’ resurrection is linked directly to the one about Jesus’ own crucifixion and ultimately his resurrection.”

(The New Testament Introduction: Johannine Writings, pg. 203)

The Purpose of Righteousness (III)

The Lord Jesus Christ teaches us:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:43-48)

This is the final blog in this series, the 1st blog being The Purpose of Righteousness and the previous blog is The Purpose of Righteousness (II).

As we have seen in the previous blogs, biblical writers, saints and monks struggle with the issue of why be righteous in this world when being righteous is so much harder than being a sinner?   If we want a perfectly just world where goodness is rewarded and wickedness is met with immediate punishment, our faith in God will be put to the test.  From biblical times they were able to observe some righteous suffering with no reward in this world while some wicked have a prosperous life with no suffering.   The goodness of God is such that He sends rain and sunshine on the righteous and on the wicked equally.  We are told to be perfect as God our Father who so showers blessings on everyone in the world regardless of their righteousness or unrighteousness.  O, we love, or so we think, a universe and a God who is only and and always perfectly just.

Yet, St. Isaac the Syrian, who we already encountered in this blog series says:

“Do not say that God is just…David may call him just and fair, but God’s own Son has revealed to us that he is before all things good and kind.  He is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked (Luke 6:34).  How can you call God just when you read the parable of the labourers in the vineyard and their wages?  ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong…I choose to give to this last as I give to you…do you begrudge my generosity?’ (Matthew 20:13).  Likewise how can you call God just when you read the parable of the prodigal son who squanders his father’s wealth in riotous living, and the moment he displays some nostalgia his father runs to him, throws his arms around his neck and gives him complete power over all his riches?  It is not someone else who has told us this about God, so that we might have doubts.  It is his own Son himself.   He bore this witness to God.  Where is God’s justice?  Here, in the fact that we were sinners and Christ died for us…

O the wonder of the grace of our Creator!  O the unfathomable goodness with which he has invested the existence of us sinners in order to create it afresh!…Anyone who has offended and blasphemed him he raises us again…Sin is to fail to understand the grace of the resurrection.  Where is the hell that could afflict us?  Where is the damnation that could make us afraid to the extent of overwhelming the joy of God’s love?  What is hell, face to face with the grace of the resurrection when he will rescue us from damnation, enable this corruptible body to put on incorruption and raise up fallen humanity from hell to glory?…Who will appreciate the wonder of our Creator’s grace as it deserves?…In place of what sinners justly deserve, he gives them resurrection.  In place of the bodies that have profaned his law, he clothes them anew in glory…See, Lord, I can no longer keep silent before the ocean of thy grace.  I no longer have any idea how to express the gratitude that I owe thee…Glory be to thee in both the worlds that thou hast created for our growth and delight, guiding us by the path of thy majestic works to the knowledge of thy glory!” (in Olivier Clément’s  The Roots of Christian Mysticism, pgs 306-307)

And so we come to the dividing point which made the Gospel so unappealing to many Pharisees and righteous Jews:  if the Gospel is for all people, as Jesus also claimed the Temple was to be, what point is there in keeping Torah?  Why be holy if in the end God is gracious to everyone and opens the Kingdom to Jew and Gentile alike?

St. Paul who converted away from the thinking of the Pharisees and embraced the Gospel and the opening of the Kingdom of God to all people writes in Romans 9:30-33:

What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, righteousness through faith; but that Israel who pursued the righteousness which is based on law did not succeed in fulfilling that law.  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.’”

What the Psalmist recognized he almost stumbled over, what St. Isaac recognizes as the great mystery of God’s love, some have stumbled upon it and cannot accept it.  They cannot accept that God’s mercy and love is given to all, but want to keep it limited to either Torah observing Jews or Traditionalist monks or Christians.

The idea of righteousness based on the observance of Torah or Tradition not being what God intended, but rather being a rock upon which the misguided stumble is not only St. Paul’s.  St. Peter himself refers to the same scripture and same idea in 1 Peter 2:6-8:

“For it stands in scripture: ‘Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and he who believes in him will not be put to shame.’” To you therefore who believe, he is precious, but for those who do not believe, ‘The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner,’ and ‘A stone that will make men stumble, a rock that will make them fall’; for they stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.”

Though we too might stumble on this stone, especially as Orthodox observing Lenten discipline, we can take hold of the garment of Christ, and accept that our salvation is in His holiness, not in ours or in ourselves.

So you also, when you have done all that is commanded you, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.'” (Luke 17:10)

Have we not heard the parable that the Son of God taught us in Matthew 20:1-16 which concludes with these words:

“Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received a denarius.  And on receiving it they grumbled at the householder,  saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’  But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius?  Take what belongs to you, and go; I choose to give to this last as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’  So the last will be first, and the first last.”

God’s justice is based in love and generosity, not in human rationalistic “fairness.” In Christ’s Kingdom of Love, those who worked the least get paid first, and those who worked the hardest and longest get the same reward as those who worked the least.  It all is about love:  God’s generous love toward humanity, and a human love for God.  It is not about reward, not about heaven or hell.

This teaching was not lost on St. John Chrysostom.  We proclaim his Paschal Homily each year in which he extols this righteousness of love and generosity:

If there are any who have labored long in fasting, let them now receive their wages! If there are any who have worked from the first hour, let them receive their fair compensation today!  If there are any who came at the third hour, let them celebrate the feast with thanksgiving!  If there are any who arrived at the sixth hour, let them have no misgivings; they will not be deprived because of that!  If there are any who delayed until the ninth hour, let them approach and not be afraid!  If there are any who tarried even as late as the eleventh hour, let even them not be alarmed by their tardiness!  For the Lord, Who is jealous of His honor, will accept the last as well as the first.  He gives rest to those who come at the eleventh hour just as He does to those who work from the first hour.  He is merciful to those who come last, even while He cares for the first ones.  He gives gifts to each of them, bestowing His grace on all of them.  He not only accepts their deeds, He welcomes even their intentions!  He not only respects their actions, but also gives high praise to what they offer!  So then, all of you, enter the joy of your Lord!  Receive your reward, whether you came first or last!  Rich and poor, dance for joy together!  Sober people with the heedless, honor this day!  Whether you kept the fast or disregarded it, rejoice today!  The table is fully laden: feast sumptuously!  The calf is fattened: let no one go hungry!

Images of Salvation (IV)

“Jews traditionally saw salvation as part of the covenant (Ps 130.8; 2 Chr 7.14; m. Sanh. 10.1), and understood continuing divine presence to be part of the ideal future (see e.g., Ezek 48.35).”  (JEWISH ANNOTATED NEW TESTAMENT, p 4 foonote)

This is the fourth blog in this series exploring ideas about and images of salvation.  The first blog is Images of Salvation and the previous blog is Images of Salvation (III).

One of the main images of salvation that we find in the Orthodox Church is that of salvation as liberation.  The ideas see the Passover and Exodus stories of the Old Testament as being prototypes, prefiguring, the reality of salvation given by God in Jesus Christ.  Then there was liberation for the Israelites from slavery in Egypt to deliverance in the Promised land.  Now, in Christ, there is liberation for all humanity from slavery to sin, death, Hades and Satan to deliverance in Heaven: from death to life and from earth to heaven.   In Orthodoxy Christ is celebrated more as the victor than as the victim, and our response to God’s saving actions is not so much feeling guilt that our sin is responsible for the death of Christ but rather is thanksgiving (Eucharist) for being saved by God from death.

“The Mosaic religion was born along with the idea of salvation. The first commandment of the Decalogue reminds us that Yahweh liberated his people from the slavery in which they languished. The general masses always understood salvation entirely concretely, as liberation from enemies and natural disasters. The Prophets inspired this hope, inserting into it eschatological contents. According to the Bible, the world has long existed in a fallen state and stands in need of healing. Human life is as short as a dream, and it is spent in fruitless struggle. People are immersed in vanity. ‘Being born in sin,’ they are drawn inexorably to destruction. This kingdom of darkness and suffering is most unlike the consummation of God’s will. Many philosophers of the West and East came to similar conclusions. In their opinion, mortal man is a plaything of blind passions and circumstances; implacable fate lords it over all, condemning the Universe to struggle along in a closed circular path.  Awareness of the imperfection of the world led to the development of ‘salvation doctrines,’ which can be grouped into three types. For some (Plato), the exit consisted in the best organization of society, for others (the Buddha), in mystical reflection and flight from life. Both solutions, however, were united by a common assumption: neither man nor God is capable of introducing radical changes in the structure of the world. It is only possible to achieve a partial easing of suffering and hope for the annulment of existence itself. The third type of soteriology arose in Israel and in Iran. Only in those places did there exist a confidence that evil is surmountable, that there would come a great change, which is the highest goal of human life.”    (Father Alexander Men,  Son of Man, pg. 120)

Salvation in Christ is not from one evil or another – Pharoah, barabarians, Hitler or communism – but an ultimate salvation from the evil itself.  Salvation is thus not a nationalistic endeavor for which patriots are fighting.  Salvation is a cosmic victory over evil not just over human hubris or “-isms.”

“The ‘new covenant’ beliefs of the early Christians meant that, in hailing Jesus as ‘son of god’, they believed that Israel’s god had acted in him to fulfill the covenant promises by dealing at last with the problem of evil.  One standard Jewish analysis of evil, represented for instance by the Wisdom of Solomon, did not believe that the created order was itself evil, but that human beings, by committing idolatry, distorted their own humanity into sinful behavior and courted corruption and ultimately death.  Death – the unmaking of the creator’s image-bearing creatures – was not seen as a good thing, but as an enemy to be defeated.  It was the ultimate weapon of destruction: anti-creation, anti-human, anti-god.  If the creator god was also the covenant god, and if the covenant was there to deal with the unwelcome problem that had invaded the created order at its heart and corrupted human beings themselves, it was this intruder, death itself, that had to be defeated.  To allow death to have its way – to sign up, as it were, to some kind of compromise agreement whereby death took human bodies but the creator was allowed to keep human souls – was no solution, or not to the problem as it was perceived within most second-Temple Judaism.  That is why ‘resurrection’ was never a redescription of death, but always its defeat.”  (N.T. Wright, THE RESURRECTION OF THE SON OF GOD,  pp 727-728)

“[St.] Paul clearly views God’s gospel and salvation as oriented to all, ‘to the Jew first and also to the Greek’ (Rom 1:16).  He knows that the one God of all humanity (Rom 3:29-30) has indeed chosen Israel, to whom and through whom came God’s Law, promises, and Messiah (3:2; 9:4-5).  But the divine election of Israel was ultimately for the blessing or salvation of all nations (c.f. Gal 3:6-9; Rom 9-11).  Salvation—God’s deliverance of Israel, according to the Scriptures—is thus opened universally in this good news, and that is the unique thematic emphasis of Romans.  The only condition for the receipt of this salvation is faith.  …  Salvation for Paul, thought oriented toward the future day of deliverance, is the total experience of being put into right covenantal relationship with God now, being one day raised from the dead, being acquitted on the day of judgment, and therefore having eternal life.  Faith, for the hearers, is the total response of obedience to the gospel (1:5).  It includes the mind, heart and body.”  (Michael Gorman, APOSTLE OF THE CRUCIFIED LORD,  p 349)

The salvation which the New Testament presents is based in Jewish thinking and spirituality.  Christianity after all believes itself to be the recipients of God’s revelation, promises and prophecies, seeing all things fulfilled in Jesus Christ.  Salvation is thus not just about some future and distant heaven, nor is it merely about an immaterial soul – salvation is cosmic, but it is also about the physical, empirical creation and the here and now.  Salvation is also not an abstract idea but deals with something very earthy – namely, death itself.

“St. Paul, furthermore, is not concerned with the specifically Greek dichotomy between the soul and the body.  Faithful to the realism of Jewish thought, he always thinks of man as a whole: for him, the body does not imply so much the materiality of human life as opposed to its spirituality, as it does the organic unity of that life, indissolubly material and spiritual.

This is why eternal life, salvation made perfect, is for him in no way a deliverance from the body, but the resurrection of the body.  Is not man’s body called to become a member of Christ, a temple of the Spirit?”   (Louis Bouyer, THE SPIRITUALITY OF THE NEW TESTAMENT & THE FATHERS, p. 79)

Next:  Images of Salvation (V)

The Purpose of Righteousness (II)

This is the 2nd blog in this series, the 1st blog being The Purpose of Righteousness.  The Psalmist ponders how he almost came himself to unbelief by contemplating how the wicked also can prosper in the world, and at least in this world are not brought to justice even when they defy God (Psalm 72/73).  He raises a question which many believers wrestle with:  what is the purpose of being righteous if in this world God gives rain and sunshine to those who are good and to those who are wicked?   For indeed sometimes, as can readily be observed, the righteous suffer for their goodness and are not blessed, while the unrighteous suffer no ill consequences in this world for their wickedness.

We can see the dilemma troubled not only the Psalmist but also saints through the ages.  St. Isaac the Syrian (7th Century), famous as we shall soon see for his great emphasis on the mercy and love of God over justice (or put in another way that divine justice is God’s mercy and love), also raises the same troubling question:

“If these people were right, what would then be the purpose of all the trouble of the solitary life and of purity from ‘the world’ or the illumination of thoughts resulting from the time of prayer?  We would be enduring all this to no purpose, and our labours would be in vain, if the object of our hope only extended to that which a secular person, despite being involved in the world and tied to a wife and children, is capable of achieving whenever he likes.”  (Isaac of Nineveh, THE SECOND PART, CHAPTERS IV-XLI, p 76)

St. Isaac’s conundrum is found in other monastic writers as well – if monks don’t receive some special benefit/reward from being monks, then why should they live such a life of ascetic self-denial?   His rhetorical question though flies in the face of what is often offered today that purpose and goal of the monastic life is no different from the life of the average lay person – of perhaps is different in degree but not in kind.  St. Isaac’s question is if God will bless and reward (secular) lay people as he does monks, then what purpose does monasticism serve?

Athonite Monk Alexis Trader raises similar concerns in his book on the Holy Spirit in the life of the church.  He is critical of Protestant movements such as Pentecostals and charismatics for believing they can receive the power of the Holy Spirit and the gifts of the Holy Spirit without first having committed themselves to a life a self-denial as monastics do.  For him, there is no doubt that the monastic effort prepares them for the Holy Spirit in a way that non-monastics are not prepared and therefore cannot receive the Holy Spirit:

“According to the Fathers, spiritual gifts are given so that the struggling believer can more fully lead the Christian life by observing ‘all things whatsoever Christ commanded the Apostles to do.’ Saint Maximus goes so far as to define a gift of the Spirit as ‘every capacity for fulfilling a commandment.’[…]God is quiet ready to shed His gifts upon His children, but his children first must cleanse and ready the vessel (i.e., their entire existence: body and soul) in which the gifts can be received. Saint Basil the Great notes that God grants His gifts not only with the benefit of others in mind, but also according to the faith, peace, and purity from the passions of the one receiving the gift.[…]Purification through repentance is required before the believer reaches the stage of illumination in which the gifts are given.[…]Thus in order for a believer to receive spiritual gifts, he not only requires a general purity from the passions, but the good soil of a ready mind or heart well fertilized with the virtue that most corresponds to that spiritual gift. The reception of spiritual gifts, like every aspect in the work of man’s salvation, is the joint activity of (synergy between) the grace of God and the free will of man.” (In Peace Let Us Pray to the Lord, pgs. 48-50)

This really is the same problem the Psalmist wrestles with in Pslam 72/73 and because of which nearly comes to disbelief.  Why struggle with being righteous either as a Torah observing Jew or a Tradition bound Orthodox monk if there is no special reward in it?

St. Isaac who raises the question quickly offers a counter thought:

“… for not many people discover it, but only a few individuals.  This is because such things do not occur in accordance with (a person’s) labours, but in accordance with God’ purpose and knowledge, for He knows to whom it is appropriate to give.  But we for our part should not cease form expectation in our mode of life during the whole extent of our lives.

Should this be found, however, we must not be proud or imagine that we have been held worthy of it because of the high quality of our mode of life.  Nor, if it is delayed for us, should we be grieved or downcast, like people who work for God for a reward: that is the opinion of those who are not trained in the labour of humility and in (earnest) longing for God.  For we realize that, as I have said, God does not grant things of this sort to a person as a result of many labours – nor does He hold them back because of a lack of such labours – but (He gives them) to those for whom He knows it will be beneficial.”  (Isaac of Nineveh, THE SECOND PART, CHAPTERS IV-XLI, p 116)

We don’t struggle to be righteous for the reward.  We are struggling to be righteous for righteousness’ sake.  We struggle with being righteous in order to witness to being God’s children:  to loving as God loves us, freely, unconstrained, expecting nothing in return.  As Jesus taught us:

“I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”  (Matthew 5:44-45)’

As is oft noted in spiritual writings from many different religions:  if we please God just to get rewards such as entrance into heaven, then we are nothing but mercenaries.  If we please God to avoid hell, we are nothing but slaves.  But if we please God in order to be His children, then we are really being like the God of love for we are acting for no reason except for love for the God of love.

Many atheists rightly criticize “faithists” for holding to morality only because they believe they will be rewarded for doing so.  There are atheists who are very moral, and they do it neither to get into heaven, nor to avoid hell – for they don’t believe either exists.  They embrace morality, the good, for goodness sake.

Is it worth it to us Christians to be good, to love, to be like the Father if there is no reward?    Do we embrace goodness out of love for God, out of imitating God’s love, or will we abandon God and His brand of self-emptying and co-suffering love if we think there is no reward for doing it?  Are we willing to love and obey God even if we see the wicked prospering and ourselves afflicted and impoverished?

Next:  The Purpose of Righteousness (III)