The Transcendent Myth

This is the 3rd and final post based on my reading of  John Breck’s short story, “A Life-giving Myth,” found in the book, THE LONG JOURNEY HOME.  The previous post is A Life-giving Myth (II).  This post is my taking Breck’s points from his short story and reworking them a bit and connecting his ideas to baptism.

Faith is the search for that language that can describe the relationship between heaven and earth, between God and humankind. It is a relationship which ordinary language is incapable of revealing and expressing. It is a relationship which though ethereal is not merely emotional. And so we rely on ritual and symbol to lead us beyond the limits of human language to put flesh on that which is spiritual. Ritual and symbol are the interface where our physical existence encounters and is transformed by that which is outside the physical, that existence which touches us and envelopes us and yet like flowing water is impossible to grasp.  Ritual, icons, poetry and symbol together enable us to express the narrative which guides our understanding of this world.

In the Old Testament, it is dogmatically clear that God has no form, that God is invisible and transcendent, and yet if God were completely invisible to us, we wouldn’t know of God’s existence at all. God created a world, a physical creation in which we creatures can encounter transcendence. God established a temple to help us experience God. Prayer, chant, icons and incense were all used to help the people experience this transcendent God but to experience God in this altered reality of symbol and ritual and even myth. The chant and the scent of the incense and the smoke wafting through the air are all there to remind us that we are encountering a reality which is physical and yet which cannot be adequately portrayed in language or in art because it is outside space and time.  The flickering candle reveals to us the immaterial world which is yet real.

In baptism, in the church in general, we are endeavoring to open our eyes, the eyes of faith, to transcendent reality, to Ultimate Truth, to the presence of eternity within our time and space, to lead us beyond the limits of space and time, and to the presence in creation and in our lives of an infinitely powerful and all-loving God.
We believe that every atom of our physical being and every movement of our heart is directed by God toward a goal: the goal of life beyond the physical existence, with a full participation in his own divine life.

This God who is ever inviting us to experience this goal, who created a world to allow us to in some mysterious way to experience the transcendent, then enters into our world in the incarnation. God thus not only knows ‘about’ our needs, our suffering and our destiny; God shares actively and decisively participates in them.
So God creates time and space, but God does not leave us to history or history to us. The transcendent God who exists in eternity, outside of space and time, enters into history and shares our history including the pain and sorrow of this worldly existence. He accepts our destiny, becoming one with us, part of the created order. God participates in what is happening in this world and what is going to happen to humanity, to the world and the cosmos. Everything that happens or that God allows to happen has an impact or an effect on God – in fact all of it impacts God!

So God in putting on flesh in the incarnation, takes on our history, and in so doing unites us to eternity. In baptism we put on Christ, we enter into the primordial waters of the Jordan River and become united to Christ and put on eternity. Everything begins in transcendence, in God, but God shares this life with a created order in which we can experience transcendence. God enters into the creation God made in order that we might be completely united to God.  Life in the Church – ritual, symbol, icon, poetic hymns – all point to the transcendent life which is just outside our empirical world, yet breaking into it. It becomes our way to experience the transcendent and to be transformed by God.

As Fr John Breck writes in his short story: “Eternity in fact is ever-present. it is not only beyond time and space, beyond the physical universe. It embraces and penetrates, so to speak, everything that exists, including ourselves.

September 1: Day of Prayer for Creation

creationEcumenical Patriarch Bartholomew several years ago declared that Orthodox Christians should keep September 1 as a Day of Prayer for Creation.  There seems to me little doubt that considering both natural disasters and ones that are caused by humans, it is good for us to be concerned about the planet on which we live and to pray for our world.  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”   (John 3:16)

Metropolitan Kallistos Ware says that we humans are eucharistic beings in that we are fulfilled as beings when we gratefully offer creation and the blessings we have received back to God.   However, we interact with the creation we have received and transform what we have received into our common salvation.  We have to cooperate with God for our salvation.  As Metropolitan Kallistos writes: “Note that in the Divine Liturgy, we offer to God not grains of wheat, but bread; not bunches of grapes but wine.  We offer back to God the fruits of the earth, but we do not offer them back in their natural state; we offer them back transformed by human hands.

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In this process of transformation we experience the transcendent life – God active in creation and creation as a means to our communion with our Creator.  We become co-creators with God, transforming not only wheat into bread and grapes into wine, but then transfiguring bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ.  In this process we transform ourselves – God enters into our lives and we become united to God.

We are able to vivify, give life to even inanimate objects.  The bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ.  Water becomes life-giving in baptism, but it gives eternal life as does the Holy Communion.  One can see this power of love giving life if one only watches a child cherishing its favorite toy.  That toy is imbued with life by the child’s love.  How often children coming to venerate the Cross at the end of services have their favorite stuffed animal kiss the cross as well.  That toy is given life through their love.  They are not pretending, because they do not understand that yet.  They have an innocence which enables them to love something to life.  Adults pretend, but little children do not.  Adults pretend to be happy or pious.  A child simply lives the life and gives that life and love to their toy which is just as alive for them.  They are transfiguring the world, making it all full of love and life-giving.   “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3-4). We all lose that ability as we get older, jaded, more mature.   We regain that ability when we see in the Church the Holy Spirit working love in us that allows us to see one another as members of the Body of Christ, to see bread and wine as Christ’s Body and Blood.

We are given natural resources by God, in the parish we transform these God given resources into the means of our salvation.  And God gives us not only things, but people – the members of the parish.  The people God brings together into community are also a God-given natural resource for which we are to give thanks to God.  God became human in Jesus Christ so that we humans might become God.  This is far greater than just hoping that we might go to heaven someday.  We can become heaven on earth if we allow God to dwell in our hearts now.

Metropolitan Tikhon’s message for the Day of Prayer for Creation calls on us all to praise God for all that exists.

The Eucharist – The Whole Truth About God

We are in a position now to see the duality in the Christian idea of sacrament, corresponding to the duality – discussed earlier – in the Christian idea of the world. On the one hand, sacrament is rooted in the nature of the world as created by God: it is always a restoration of the original pattern of things. On the other hand, it is rooted in Christ personally. Only through the perfect man can the broken priesthood of humanity be restored. Only through Him can the dark, primordial ocean become the living waters of baptism.

Only by way of His cross can the dead world come to new life. Our task remains, but He has gone before, doing the hard work for us. If we kneel to pray, to adore, to offer our lives, we are only attaching ourselves and assenting to His own similar but all-embracing act.

(Alexander Schmemann, Church, World, Mission, p. 225)

Heaven and Earth are Full Of God’s Glory

By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth.   (Psalms 33:6)

The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.  (Psalms 19:1)

His glory covered the heavens, and the earth was full of his praise.   (Habakkuk 3:3)

One of the most wonderful things to contemplate from the Scriptures are relationships.  We have of course the mysterious relationship between Creator and creation.  Then within the Godhead there is the relationship of the Three Persons of the Holy TrinityFather, Son and Holy Spirit.  Each of the Persons of the Trinity has a relationship with creation.  In Genesis 1:1-3, the Spirit (the Breath of God) hovers over the face of the earth and when God speaks the Word (the Son of God), Light comes into existence, but not the light of the sun which does not yet exist.

“It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the LORD made heaven and earth . . .”   (Exodus 31:17)

Then there is the relationship between heaven and earth and the relationship of both heaven and earth to the Creator.   Heaven is the mysterious abode of God, and yet it is related to the rest of creation, all of it together is “not God” but created by God.  According to Christ, “Heaven and earth will pass away” (Matthew 24:35), they are not eternal and yet God the Eternal One fills them with His glory and becomes united to them.   Heaven and earth are both dwelling places.  Dwellings are temporary places, and yet significant to our eternal God.  We see the mystery in these two statements by father and son.  King David declares part of the wonder and glory of God on earth, while his son Solomon realizes the inadequacy of the earth for fulfilling its role.

King David says: “O LORD, I love the house in which you dwell, and the place where your glory abides.”  (Psalms 26:8)

King Solomon says: “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!”  (1 Kings 8:27)

The exact relationship of God the Creator to God’s own creation defies easy explanation and yet we still can experience it, as we sing in the Liturgy:

“Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts, heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest. “

Heaven and earth, though created, are full of God’s glory.  Both heaven and earth are full of God’s glory and both proclaim God’s glory to all beings who are capable of hearing and seeing.

 Do I not fill heaven and earth? says the LORD.  (Jeremiah 23:24)

Not only does God’s glory fill heaven and earth, the Lord God fills heaven and earth.  God’s glory is not something other than God.   Creation, that which is “not God” is filled by God’s glory by God’s existence.  The relationship between God and that which is “not God” is a mystery indeed.  For how can God in whom we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28) fill the heaven and earth which are created and circumscribed by God?  We are in God and God is in us! A relationship fully exemplified by Mary the Theotokos.  Mary like Christ, each in their own way, personify the mystery of the interpenetration of Creator and creation.

Then we have St Irenaeus saying: “The glory (shekinah) of God is a human being fully alive.”  So how can heaven and earth be full of a human being?  The mystery deepens for  it is Christ as the incarnate God  who fills the universe with Himself.  So St Paul can write:  “and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith . . . that you may be filled with all the fulness of God.”  Christ fills not only the entire universe but each of us.

all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the LORD   (Numbers 14:21)

Blessed be his glorious name forever; may his glory fill the whole earth.  Amen and Amen.   (Psalms 72:19)

Above him stood the seraphim; each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”  (Isaiah 6:2-3)

Our very existence makes us part of the mystery of God’s own relationship with all of creation.  We experience the glory of God, perhaps most intently and clearly in the Liturgy, but that should open our eyes to seeing God’s glory in all of creation including in our fellow human beings.  It is also why the Fall, sin  and the fallen world are so painful to us for they obscure the glory of God reducing everything to mere materiality void of its natural spirituality.

Yours, O LORD, are the greatness, the power, the glory, the victory, and the majesty; for all that is in the heavens and on the earth is yours; yours is the kingdom, O LORD, and you are exalted as head above all.   (1 Chronicles 29:11)

God Makes the World Make Itself

“When we contemplate the physical creation, we see an unimaginable complex, organized on many planes one above another; atomic, molecular, cellular; vegetable, animal, social. And the marvel of it is that at every level the constituent elements run themselves, and, by their mutual interaction, run the world. God not only makes the world, he makes it make itself; or rather, he causes its innumerable constituents to make it. And this in spite of the fact that the constituents are not for the most part intelligent. They cannot enter into the creative purposes they serve. They cannot see beyond the tip of their noses; they have, indeed, no noses not to see beyond, nor any eyes with which to fail in the attempt.

All they can do is blind away at being themselves, and fulfil the repetitive pattern of their existence. When you contemplate this amazing structure, do you wonder that it should be full of flaws, breaks, accidents, collisions, and disasters? Will you not be more inclined to wonder why chaos does not triumph; how higher forms of organization should ever arise, or, having arisen, maintain and perpetuate themselves?

Though a thousand species have perished with the mammoth and the dodo, and though all species, perhaps, must perish at the last, it is a sort of miracle that the species there are should have established themselves. And how have they established themselves? Science studies the pattern, but theology assigns the cause: that imperceptible persuasion exercised by creative Will on the chaos of natural forces, setting a bias on the positive and achieving creatures.”

(Austin Farrer, from The Time of the Spirit, p. 6)

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.

To Be Human Is To Be Like God

We can begin to expand on this by looking at what it means to say humanity is created in the “image of God” (Gen. 1:26-27; 9:6), a metaphor that is scarce in Scripture but that has come to play a huge part in Christian discussions of the uniqueness of human beings. “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image’” (Gen. 1:26). Today there is fairly widespread agreement that, as used in Genesis at least, image does not refer to a possession or endowment (like mind, reason, free will) but is a relational term. That is, it makes no sense without considering our relation to God – as God’s unique “counterpart” or covenant partner (we can know and love God in return) – and because of that, to other creatures, human and nonhuman, animate and inanimate.

Crucial also is the notion of representation: as God’s counterparts, human beings are God’s earthly representatives, his vice-regents, in the way that an ancient monarch was seen to represent a god or a physical image to represent a king. Bound up with this is the idea of resemblance or similarity: as God’s partners, humans are in some sense like God (hence the pairing of image with likeness). In short, to say that we are created in God’s image is to say that we are created as God’s unique counterparts and hence God’s representatives on earth, embodying, as creatures and alongside other creatures, the action and presence of God in and to the word.”

(Jeremy S. Begbie, Resounding Truth, p. 202)

Psalm 67

May God be gracious to us and bless us
and make his face to shine upon us,
Selah

that your way may be known upon earth,
your saving power among all nations.
Let the peoples praise you, O God;
let all the peoples praise you.

Let the nations be glad and sing for joy,
for you judge the peoples with equity
and guide the nations upon earth.
Selah

Let the peoples praise you, O God;
let all the peoples praise you.

The earth has yielded its increase;
God, our God, has blessed us.

May God continue to bless us;
let all the ends of the earth revere him.

Environmental Theology

Previous:  Creation: God’s Gift to Us

Some years ago Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew declared September 1  as a day of prayer for the protection of the natural environment.  This declaration was also endorsed by the other Orthodox Primates as well as by the Pope of Rome.  In honor of this day, here is a meditation on Environmental Theology or, if you prefer, ecological spirituality.

First, Chrysostom argues that the image of God is reflected in humanity’s control and authority over the natural world.  As Chrysostom expresses it, “God created the human being as having control over everything on earth…nothing on earth is greater than the human being, under whose authority everything falls.” This authority and control is a gift of love, given to humanity to be exercised responsibly. Indeed, the exercises of a responsible dominion, Chrysostom believes, rebukes the fallen human tendency toward irresponsibility, laziness and self-indulgence. Responsible care for the environment is to be a “stabilizing influence” in our lives, forcing us to look beyond ourselves toward the well-being of our broader world with all its varied inhabitants. To exploit or ignore that environment is to deface God’s own image in us.

Second, God has exhibited, as Chrysostom puts it, an amazing “prodigality” or extravagance in God’s creation of the world. Certain characteristics of the natural order – the seasons and their rhythms, for example – have been created to facilitate humanity’s life and understanding of God’s love and care. Other aspects of nature – reptiles and wild beasts come to mind – illustrate the abundance of God’s creation, an extravagant prodigality designed to “overwhelm” us and teach us “that all these things were produced by a certain wisdom and ineffable love out of regard for the human being that was destined to come into being.

Even if we struggle to identify all of nature’s utility and benefit, we are called to preserve it in its entirety.”

(essay by Christopher A. Hall, from Ancient & Postmodern Christianity, pp. 36-37)