Becoming A Child of God

“Some Christians relate to God as slaves in the narrowest sense. They accept his will and obey his commandments and do what is required of them out of fear, out of the impending judgment, of the wrath to come (Matt. 3:7-12). But the spiritual life is not managed only through fear. Other Christians enter into the spiritual warfare as hirelings, as laborers or as soldiers in the pay of the king, as people who give themselves to God as for hire, accepting the responsibilities of the Christian life for the sake of reward (Lk. 6:35). Unlike the slave who acts out of fear, the hireling acts out of duty and obligation. He joins the ranks of God’s army to wage battle against the passions, against the evil forces of darkness that are in him and around him in the fallen world, because he is assured of God’s faithfulness to fulfill his promise to pay him just reward (1 Cor. 3:8; 2 John 8).

But greater perfection is expected of us. To be complete one must become, by grace, not only a slave or a hireling but also, and above all, a child of God, a brother – by adoption – and a friend of Christ. As a friend Christians accept God’s call with gladness of heart and act in all things out of love for the Master, who has loved them first (1 John 4:10). Friendship with God is unconditional because God’s love is unreserved, free, and absolute. Friends of Christ enjoy a deep, intimate personal relationship with him and come to know the hidden truths of the Gospel. They obey the commandments out of love, expecting nothing in return. “You are my friends if you do whatever I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I heard from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:14-15).

(Alkiviadis C. Calivas, Aspects of Orthodox Worship, p. 32)

Theophany: Reveals God and Creation

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. And John tried to prevent Him, saying, “I need to be baptized by You, and are You coming to me?” But Jesus answered and said to him, “Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he allowed Him.


When He had been baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened to Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon Him. And suddenly a voice came from heaven, saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”  (Matthew 3:13-17)

It is the events surrounding the baptism of Jesus (the Theophany) which help us understand why the birth of Jesus is significant to us.  For it is only after His baptism that Christ begins His public ministry.  Only after His baptism does Jesus begin proclaiming the Gospel and doing the miracles which we know about and which we proclaim in our Sunday lectionary.

The importance of Theophany is also shown to us in that while only two of the four evangelists tell us anything about the birth of Jesus, all 4 evangelists tell us about the baptism of Christ.  In modern popular thinking, Christmas is the big event and feast, whereas in the Church it is the Theophany of Christ which reveals the importance of Christ’s birth.  Popular piety does not always mirror theology and sometimes popular piety looms larger than life itself.

As has already been stated, Theophany is significant because it marks the beginning of the public ministry of Jesus.   Mark’s Gospel in fact begins with the appearance of John the Baptist and the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan.  This is the beginning of the Gospel for Mark, not Christ’s Nativity.

At Christ’s baptism, God is beginning to unveil His mysterious plan for the world.  In Jesus encountering God in the flesh – divining and humanity united, Creator and creation sharing a common life.   When Jesus steps into the River Jordan, this is God’s son entering into the waters, but it is also the incarnate God entering into the water which God created at the beginning of the world as described in Genesis 1.

God creates the world and the waters of the world, and then God enters into these same waters and is immersed in them.  This is the great mystery of Theophany.  Jesus Christ reveals God to us.  He reveals God’s plan for the world.

The river waters of the Jordan are not only washing God in the flesh, they encompass God as Jesus is immersed in the waters.  He who created the waters allows Himself to be submersed beneath the waters.  There is no such place in the entire cosmos where God cannot enter, including Hades, the place of the dead.  In the River Jordan Jesus shows that God can disappear beneath the waters, be buried in the waters and yet still be both alive and be God.  He is preparing us for what will happen to Him in his burial.

His very presence in the world reveals to us that God is doing the unexpected.  God is uniting Himself to us humans.  God is making it possible for us to share in the divine life, to experience holiness.  God is showing that the physical world which He created is capable of containing God and revealing God to us.  In the waters of the River Jordan we learn who Jesus really is.

And we learn that the physical things can be sanctified and made holy.  The physical world is revealed as being capable of being spiritualized, as being the very means for us to encounter God.  Christ steps into the Jordan River and in touching the water, Christ makes the water a means for us to experience holiness, to experience God.  How is this possible?  Because God made water in the beginning to be a means to reveal Himself to us.  God is showing us what creation is capable of being.  And God is showing us we can encounter Him in and through the creation God made as a gift for us.  God shows us that even the watery depths of the earth are a place where God abides and where humans can still be united to God.

Matter, elements, the physical world are not merely physical.  The physical without the spiritual is dead, inert, void of meaning.  Christ reveals that all the physical world belongs to God is capable of life because it is spiritual as well.  Indeed when science wants to study the world as if there is no God, then the world of matter is devoid of God, it is lifeless.  In the Gospel we learn that matter, the physical world has as spiritual dimension if we care to find it.

And so we see the physical world, God’s creation becomes life giving in Christ.  Not only life giving, but giving eternal life.  And we see in Christ that not only the physical world is capable to being touched by God and made holy, but we ourselves as humans are able to be holy – to be united to God.

When we baptize people into Christ, we use the physical tools given to us by God – water and holy oil – to convey life to them, to show that we humans are not merely physical, material beings  – we are fully capable of bearing life and even giving life, we are made to be united to God.  The nature of water to give a new birth was revealed in baptism.

A final point, sometimes we Orthodox major on the minor in so many ways surrounding feasts.  The prayer of the blessing of water says:

And grant unto all them that touch it, and partake of it, and anoint themselves with it, sanctification, health, cleansing and blessing.

It doesn’t say that we should take it home and venerate it as if it is some holy object worthy of veneration.  We are not to treat it as if it is imbued with nuclear power.  We are to use it to bless ourselves and encounter God.  It’s purpose is to give us an experience of God.  The holiness of this water is that it means God is present with us.  So use it to bless yourselves and your homes and your gardens, so that the God who showed us the nature of water in baptism will be present with you in your person and in your home.  God enters our life not to give us “sacred objects” to venerate, but to transfigure us into beings who are united to Him.

Who is the King of Glory – Jesus or Caesar?

When Augustus ruled alone upon the earth,
the many kingdoms of men came to an end,

and when You were made man of the pure Virgin,
the many gods of idolatry were destroyed.
The cities of the world passed under one single rule,
and the nations came to believe in one sovereign Godhead.

Virgin Mary being enrolled for taxation

The peoples were enrolled by the decree of Caesar,
and we the faithful were enrolled in the name of the Godhead,
When You, our God, were made man.
Great is Your mercy, O Lord, glory to You! 

(hymn from Vespers of the Nativity)

The events surrounding the birth of Jesus Christ as described in the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Luke purposefully mirror images we know from historical evidence describing the celebration of the birth of the sons of Roman Emperors.  The Gospel writers want to be be clear that Jesus is not only the King of the Jews but more truly the King of kings and Lord of lords.  Caesars may rule THE Empire, but Christ rules the entire cosmos.  Sts Luke and Matthew set Christ from the time of His birth on a collusion course with the claims of the Roman Emperors.

“Ethelbert Stauffer in his work, Christ and the Caesars (SCM Press, 1955)…pays close attention to the evidence of the imperial coinage (which was regularly used as a propaganda medium) in this regard. The imperial coinage is full of the characteristic motifs of Advent and Epiphany, celebrating the blessings which the manifestation of each successive divine emperor was to bring to a waiting world. Among the adulatory formulas with which the emperor was acclaimed, he mentions, as going back probably to the first century, ‘Hail, Victory, Lord of the earth, Invincible, Power, Glory, Honor, Peace, Security, Holy, Blessed, Great, Unequalled, Thou Alone, Worthy art Thou, Worthy is he to inherit the Kingdom, Come come, do not delay, come again’ (p. 155).

Indeed, one has only to read Psalm 72 (**see below) in Latin, in the official language of the empire, to see that it is largely the same formal language which is used alike in the Forum for the advent of the emperor and in the catacombs for the celebration of the Epiphany of Christ (p. 251). Here there could be no compromise. Who was worthy to ascend the throne of the universe and direct the course of history? Caesar, or Jesus?”   (F. F. Bruce, The Defense of the Gospel in the New Testament, p. 65)

**Psalm 72:1-17

Give the king thy justice, O God, and thy righteousness to the royal son!

May he judge thy people with righteousness, and thy poor with justice! Let the mountains bear prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness! May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor! May he live while the sun endures, and as long as the moon, throughout all generations! May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass, like showers that water the earth! In his days may righteousness flourish, and peace abound, till the moon be no more! May he have dominion from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth!

May his foes bow down before him, and his enemies lick the dust! May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute, may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts! May all kings fall down before him, all nations serve him! For he delivers the needy when he calls, the poor and him who has no helper. He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy. From oppression and violence he redeems their life; and precious is their blood in his sight. Long may he live, may gold of Sheba be given to him! May prayer be made for him continually, and blessings invoked for him all the day! May there be abundance of grain in the land; on the tops of the mountains may it wave; may its fruit be like Lebanon; and may men blossom forth from the cities like the grass of the field!

May his name endure for ever, his fame continue as long as the sun! May men bless themselves by him, all nations call him blessed!

The Incarnation: Recreating Humans

Christ is born!

Glorify Him!

“The story of Job serves to renew hope within us. Even though God’s image in man has been spoiled by the sin of Adam and Eve, by the sin of Cain, and by the sins of each one of us, Job allows us to hope for the coming of One—just and suffering, patient and triumphant—who will resist with courage and perseverance the assaults of the Evil One and will triumph over him, thereby restoring in mankind the divine presence which had been lost through sin and reestablishing in us the divine image in the fullness of its beauty. To do this, God sends among us the very Model according to which He had originally created us.

Just as a faded print can be restored by reapplying the original stamp so the Son of God, who reflects the glory of God the Father (Heb. 1:3), can enter human nature by clothing Himself with it as with a garment, and thereby can create a new Adam, a perfect Man, a radiant Image of God. This occurs by what theologians call the Incarnation. This decisive event took place on the day of the Annunciation, when Gabriel, the messenger of God, visited a young virgin of Nazareth in Galilee called Mary.”

(The Living God: Vol. 1, p. 19)

When we read the Scriptures with the Church we realize how much of the Old Testament speaks of Christ.  Job prefigures Christ – as Job remains faithful to God despite his suffering Job defeats Satan.  Job shows what a true human is like.  When Christ comes to earth we realize how the story of Job helps us recognize God’s faithful and suffering servant.  The Book of Job thus prepares us for the Nativity story of Christ, in which we see evil acting against the Christ, but Christ remains faithful to God even to the point of death on the cross.  Christmas is not mostly a sentimental tale, but rather in all its details reveals to us God’s battle with the forces of evil and the price God is willing to pay for the salvation of the world.

Making Excuses to God

 
Then the Lord Jesus told this parable:   “A certain man gave a great supper and invited many, and sent his servant at supper time to say to those who were invited, ‘Come, for all things are now ready.’ But they all with one accord began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a piece of ground, and I must go and see it. I ask you to have me excused.’

And another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to test them. I ask you to have me excused.’ Still another said, ‘I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.’ So that servant came and reported these things to his master.

Then the master of the house, being angry, said to his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in here the poor and the maimed and the lame and the blind.’ And the servant said, ‘Master, it is done as you commanded, and still there is room.’ Then the master said to the servant, ‘Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled. ’For I say to you that none of those men who were invited shall taste my supper.’”  (Luke 14:16-24)

Archbishop Dimitri comments on the parable:

The first said unto him, I have bought a piece of ground, and I must needs go and see it: I pray thee have me excused. And another said, I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I go to prove them: I pray thee have me excused. And another said, I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come (vv. 18-20).

All three rather contemptuously disregard the generosity of the host, who cares for them and values their friendship. Their responses might be paraphrased, “Oh, I had intended to go, but something more important to me has come up.” The three excuses are meant to typify human concerns and priorities that, important as they may be in daily life, are nothing in relation to God’s love and care. The invitation and the response illustrate man’s neglect of what is of infinitely greater value to him – salvation and life eternal with God – than his earthly, perishable concerns. The Jews had been prepared for this final invitation by the events of their own history and by God’s speaking to them through the prophets, but since it did not offer improvement in their material concerns, they rejected it.  (The Parables, p. 128)

The Light of the Bethlehem Star is the Light God Spoke at the Beginning of Creation

The Sunday of the Forefathers of Christ

It sounds like a paradox that we should read from the Old Testament in order to discover in it the Face of Christ, and in a sense it is. But paradox is of the essence of the Christian mystery: the Increate, breaking into the creative act; the Infinite, giving number and measure to a finite world; the Timeless, yielding to the rhythm of days; the Divine, entering the family of men.

The Book of Revelation teaches us that Christ shall be the Last. This demands that we recognize him as the First, for He is the eternal Word by whom all things were made “in the beginning.” And it is no mere coincidence that these three words are read in the first verse of Genesis, and in the first verse of the Gospel according to St. John. We reckon by years before Christ, B.C., and years of the Lord, A.D.; the years under the Law, and the years of grace; the Old Testament, and the New Testament.

But the Incarnation is more than a serviceable time-divider. The light of the star which rose over Bethlehem is the same light that did shine through darkness on the first day of creation, unto the first man on earth, the fathers of the Old Law and the Gentiles, “every man coming into the world.”

We have no right to curtail the total perspective of God’s revelation. We have been taught to behold the image of Christ in the luminous pages of the Gospel, but we are not therefore to neglect or to despise the rays which have guided the Forefathers and sustained their hope. It is always His Face we should recognize, glowing amidst the shadows of the remotest past, and His voice we should hear in the reading of the sacred page, in Moses or in the prophets, as well as, in the Gospels or in the apostolic writings.

…and only under the intimate motion of the Spirit who first inspired Scripture, can we expect to discern the Face of our Christ shining amidst the shadows of the past, as it has secretly shone for the Forefathers. (Georges A. Barrois, The Face of Christ in the Old Testament, pp. 13-14, 44)

The Faith of a Physicist: The Incarnation

Christ the Divine Wisdom

“Yet the redeemer is not a gnostic Christ imparting the secrets of divine wisdom, who could indeed be a heavenly figure in human disguise.  The mystery of our redemption is something altogether deeper than that.  It proceeds, not from the outside by illumination, but from the inside by participation.  We need transformation, not information.  That is why docetisim is so totally unacceptable to Christian thought.  The Saviour must be truly and fully human.  In Gregory of Nazianzus‘ famous words, ‘what is not assumed is not redeemed.’  A heavenly figure could be of no redemptive  significance for us.  We should have no share in him.”   (John Polkinghorne, THE FAITH OF A PHYSICIST, p 136)

The Door Through Which Christ Passed

Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.   (Revelation 3:20)

“The door through which Christ passed in order to come into the world was his love for man.  It is this divine love that St Symeon the New Theologian addresses, asking that it may be for us too a door bringing Christ close to us:

‘O divine love, where are you holding Christ?  Where are you hiding Him? …  Open even to us, unworthy though we are, a little door, that we may see Christ who suffered for us…  Open to us, since you have become the Door to His manifestation in the flesh; you have constrained the abundant and unforced compassion of our Master to bear the sins of us all…  Make your home in us, that for you the Master may come and visit us in our lowliness, as you go before us to meet Him.’

The door of love through which Christ passed in order to come into the world was opened by the Mother of God.  Her holiness attracted divine mercy to the human race.  Through her ministry in the mystery of the divine economy, the Mother of God became the ‘Gate that faces east’ (cf Ezek 46:1, 12); the ‘Gate that looks towards the east’  from which life dawned for men and scattered the darkness of death.”

(Hieromonk Gregorios, THE DIVINE LITURGY , p 36)

A Face Like Everyone’s Face

Mary Magdalene turned round and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”  (John 20:14-15)

“In his prose poem Kristos (1878), Turgenev dreams that he is in a village church together with the peasant congregation. A man comes to stand beside him: ‘I did not turn towards him, but immediately I felt that this man was Christ.’ However, when eventually he turns towards him and he perceives ‘a face like everyone’s face. A face like all men’s faces…And the clothes on him like everyone else’s.’ Turgenev is astonished: ‘What sort of a Christ is this then?…Such an ordinary, ordinary man.; But he concludes: ‘Suddenly I was afraid  and came to my senses. Only then did I realize that it is just such a face – a face like all men’s faces – that is the face of Christ.’”   (Father Sergei Hackel, from The Time of the Spirit, p. 77)

That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognizing him. . . .  And their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished out of their sight.  (Luke 24:13-16, 31)

Strengthening Christ

Then he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.”  Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength. In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.  (Luke 22:41-44)

The particular scene described by St. Luke in the Garden of Gethsemane presents all kinds of challenges for Trinitarian believers who see Christ as the incarnate God.  Not the least of which is that an angel strengthens Christ!  Of course all kinds of explanations are offered always trying to balance the two natures in Christ – sometimes His divine nature is being portrayed and sometimes His human nature.  I  cannot resolve all those issues, and want only to mention one thought that this event brings to my mind.

In his agony in Gethsemane, we see that Christ knows what it is to be human and knows what it is to have His heart crushed by the weight of life in this world.  He realized in this moment, in his humanity, why humans fail, why they fall in temptation and despair, why life seems more than many of us can bear.  Even His divinity could not spare Him from feeling all that we humans feel.  Perhaps even the angels could see and empathetically feel the crushing effect of the weight of the world on their Lord.  It is too much for them to bear.  But if He as Lord could not bear this weight, what could they do to help Him?  One thinks about Uzzah reaching out to steady the ark when the oxen stumbled (2 Samuel 6:6)!

The image of Christ bearing our sins and realizing the limits of human nature is moving indeed.  “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases” (Isaiah 53:4; Matthew 8:17) and “he  himself bore our sins in his body on the tree” (Isaiah 53:12; 1 Peter 2:24).  His agony is despite being God, He is experiencing our world, our life, our lives.

I recently finished the book RED RISING, which I thoroughly enjoyed.  I didn’t read it for any theological reason, but purely because one of my sons gifted it to me.  I read it for fun.  But there was one scene in the book which I thought theologically profound.  [SPOILER ALERT:  I am going to talk about something in the book which if you plan to read the book you may not want to know.  I will be a bit vague about this, and some of what I write here is what I read into the scene and how I reacted to it rather than just what the author said.]

The novel is placed in our dystopian solar system in which humans have managed to inhabit most of the planets.  But there is one class of people which rules the solar system with an iron fist.  It is a vile and violent rule and solar system where might = right, and the end justifies the means.  As one character is trying to earn his right to be in the ruling class, he realizes he has to do something spectacular to get the people to follow him instead of the other strong  and potential rulers.  He chooses a method which I was totally not expecting in the book.  He is faced with having to discipline one of his soldiers for raping another soldier.  The whole system is built on power and abuse.   All those with him are watching to see what he will do and he realizes no matter what he does, some may leave him and some may decide to betray him.   He orders the man to be beaten with 20 strokes, but then comes the amazing part – which I was not expecting at all.  He then says that they must also beat him with 20 lashes because as the leader, the failure of his followers are his failures as leader.  No one will be punished without him receiving an equal punishment.  And in the book he suffers from the punishment he receives, there is no symbolic beating.  They inflict serious pain on him.   His method so astounds everyone that they come to realize he really is special as a leader.

Needless to say, one sees Christ in this.  By His suffering, Christ says all the punishment that should be meted out to every sinner is to be meted out on Him.  Of course, Christ goes even further then the novel’s character as He takes on the punishment instead of us being punished, not in addition to it.  Additionally, this character in the story can be heroic but he also can be arrogant and foolish and wrong.  Nevertheless, in the story, the moment when he orders them to mete out his own punishment is profound.  It really allowed me to understand from a new perspective what it is that Christ has done for us.

And in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the Cross, Jesus bears the full weight of all this punishment for the sin of the world.  “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).