What Was Christ’s Love Like?

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:5-9)

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For thy sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.(Romans 8:35-39)

St. Maria of Paris writes:

What was Christ’s love like?  Did it withhold anything? Did it observe or measure its own spiritual gifts? What did it regret? Where was it ever stingy? Christ’s humanity was spit upon, struck, crucified. Christ’s divinity was incarnate fully and to the end in his spit-upon, battered, humiliated and crucified humanity. The Cross — an instrument of shameful death — has become for the world a symbol of self-denying love. And at no time nor place — neither from Bethlehem to Golgotha, neither in sermons nor parables, nor in the miracles he performed — did Christ ever give any occasion to think that he did not sacrifice himself wholly and entirely for the salvation of the world, that there was in him something held back, some “holy of holies” which he did not want to offer or should not have offered.

He offered his own “holy of holies,” his own divinity, for the sins of the world, and this is precisely wherein lies his divine and perfect love in all its fullness. (Mother Maria Skobtsova: Essential Writings, pp. 179-180)

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Does God Speak to Us?

For the monk as well as for any human being, the fundamental question at the core of our existence is not whether or not God exists (in fact, a reasonable case for this can be made on purely natural grounds); the real issue is whether or not God has spoken – indeed, speaks – and if so, what does he say?

If God does communicate, then the most pressing issue in our lives is to learn how to hear and to respond to this. Silence is no less a part of this than speech. As in any language, we have to learn to understand what the silence means.     (The Monks of New Skete, In the Spirit of Happiness, p. 144-145)  

The Tranquility of Creation

St. Gregory of Nyssa in his book describing the creation of humans, ON THE MAKING OF MAN, gives us a very idyllic picture of the world in the moment before humans arrived on the scene – the calm before the storm.

“Now all things already arrived at their own end: the heaven and the earth (Genesis 2:1), as Moses says, were finished, and all things that lie between them, and the particular things were adorned with their appropriate beauty;

the heaven with the rays of the stars, the sea and air with the living creatures that swim and fly, and the earth with all varieties of plants and animals, to all which, empowered by the Divine will, it gave birth together;

the earth was full, too, of her produce, bringing forth fruits at the same time with flowers; the meadows were full of all that grows therein,

and all the mountain ridges, and summits, and every hillside, and slope, and hollow, were crowned with young grass, and with the varied produce of the trees, just risen from the ground, yet shot up at once into their perfect beauty;

and all the beasts that had come into life at God’s command were rejoicing, we may suppose, and skipping about, running to and fro in the thickets in herds according to their kind, while every sheltered and shady spot was ringing with the chants of the songbirds.

And at sea, we may suppose, the sight to be seen was of the like kind, as it had just settled to quiet and calm in the gathering together of its depths, where havens and harbors spontaneously hollowed out on the coasts made the sea reconciled with the land;

and the gentle motion of the waves vied in beauty with the meadows, rippling delicately with light and harmless breezes that skimmed the surface; and all the wealth of creation by land and sea was ready, and not was there to share it.”  (pp 20-21)

St. Gregory pictures the perfect creation, tranquilly settling in from the more violent creation which brought the chaos under control, separating the waters from the land and causing the dry earth to emerge.  That tumult and turmoil lasted only a brief moment for St. Gregory – things instantly attained their finished state – trees reaching their heights instantaneously.  In his understanding, the first trees grew but not over years but immediately attaining their height.  His view is that the world we are in today emerged both spontaneously but not yet in completed form.  Things had to grow but did so instantly.  Things didn’t have to follow what we now know as the order of nature in those opening days of creation – they were exempt from the laws of nature that we know.

Humans were created last to be the crown of creation – the earth was a Paradise created by God for His human creatures.  Humans were not made to wait for the world to emerge – it was all there, perfectly, before humans were placed in it, according to St. Gregory.  Humans had nothing else to do but maintain the  pacific serenity and blessed placidness.  They, however, were about to undue all that God had planned.

Early Autumn

You have made the moon to mark the seasons;
the sun knows its time for setting.  (Psalms 104:19)

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The first day of fall 2017 came on September 22.   The Autumnal Equinox marks the beginning of autumn with there being approximately the same amount of daylight and nighttime darkness.  We have been in a dry spell with unseasonably warm temperatures.  So far the color change has been slow in coming.  Though I do see brown, dry leaves on the ground, the trees are still mostly green with color only slowly appearing among the leaves.

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Daniel said:
“Blessed be the name of God from age to age,
for wisdom and power are his.
He changes times and seasons…
(Daniel 2:20-21)  

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I really do enjoy fall weather – the passing of high humidity days brings a drier warmth and pleasing breezes.  I love to see the colors of the leaves as they mark the passing of the seasons.  They are a harbinger of winter but I enjoy their current beauty, not what they are pointing to.

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For both we and our words are in his hand,
as are all understanding and skill in crafts.
For it is he who gave me unerring knowledge of what exists,
to know the structure of the world and the activity of the elements;
the beginning and end and middle of times,
the alternations of the solstices and the changes of the seasons,
the cycles of the year and the constellations of the stars…  (Wisdom of Solomon 7:16)

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I walk in the woods, enjoying God’s creation and the changing nature of the world.  I have lived through more than half of century watching summer end replaced by autumn’s tones.  It is always the same and yet each season is new and wonderful.

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The Intercessions of the Theotokos

“The Mother of God, who is also the Mother of all humankind, pleads at the tribunal for universal mercy, not for the forgiveness of sins (which is impossible, for sins must be completely expiated and suffered through) but for mercifulness to sinners. The existence of hell is surrounded not by the cold of an egotistical indifference but by the radiant cloud of the caring love of saved humankind, that is, of the Church which abides for ages of ages in its sobornost as one, holy, and universal. In the Church, the one humankind is not divided into two and is not reconciled with the severing of its parts – hell – but sorrows over this part.”  (Sergius Bulgakov, The Bride of the Lamb, pp. 193-194)

According to Fr. Sergius, the Theotokos intercedes for us all – pleads that God will be merciful to all of us.  She does not ask God to forgive sins, but rather that the God of justice will show as much mercy, leniency and compassion as is possible to everyone who lived on earth.  She does not ask God completely to lay aside judgment, but rather to behave according to His nature – God is love.  If it is necessary that God corrects us or punishes us, may God do it in His love and His mercy, not to destroy us but to bring us to holiness.

Fr. Sergius’ imagery is most interesting, for he doesn’t envision the saints in heaven being self-satisfied as they leer down on sinners in hell.  The saints aren’t rejoicing in the punishment of sinners but rather the saints of God surround hell with their prayers and love.  Saints do not rejoice that any of humanity is punished in hell.  Saints do not rejoice that humanity can be divided between those in heaven and those in hell, but rather those in heaven continue to extend love to their fellow humans by joining the Theotokos in beseeching God: “Lord have mercy. Lord have mercy. Lord have mercy!

Be a Holy Priesthood

Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. . . .  But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.  (1 Peter 2:4-9)

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It is St. Peter who tells all of Christians to be a holy priesthood and who says we are a royal priesthood.  It is where we get the notion of the priesthood of all believers.  So how can we all be priests?  We can do with our lives what priests do in the Liturgy.

We can make everything and anything we do an offering to God.  Each of us offers to God daily whatever it is we do in our lives…

Whatever we think

Whatever we say

Whatever we do

These are our offerings to God.  If we remember that every moment of our life is an offering to God and stay consciously aware of this, we can actually transfigure all we do into something holy.   Our “Christian” life is not opposed to our daily or secular life.  We have only one life we live.  Every aspect of our lives – what we do in our bedrooms, in our living rooms, in our kitchens as well as our workshops and garages – becomes our offering to God.  We can transform any minute and every minute into prayer and into a spiritual sacrifice.  The spiritual sacrifice is what St. Peter tells us we are to offer to God.  This is not some ritual act, but rather we turn everything we do into prayer and an offering to God.

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In today’s Epistle (Galatians 6:11-16), we hear the words:  “what counts is a new creation.”  That is what we are trying to do.  We come to church and see the icons, these are people, scenes and events transfigured by God into holy events and holy people.  We come here and experience bread and wine transfigured into the Body and Blood of Christ.  We come here as individuals and are transformed by the Holy Spirit into the Body of Christ, God’s own church.

What we experience here, we can do in our own homes and lives as God’s priests.  We can transfigure and transform every moment into an iconic moment.  The icons shouldn’t just be on the walls of the church, we can make our lives iconic .  In fact we are each an icon of God – we each are created in God’s image (icon) [Genesis 1:26-27].  When we live as Christians, when we live in God’s likeness, we make each moment and each event iconic because we make God’s image present in us.

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For God so loved the world…”   (John 3 – today’s Gospel) –

Fr. Schmemann points out  it is this world God loves.  It is this life God loves.  No other.

This world and this life are to be communion with God.  God offers this to us, but we can also strive to make it so.

It is this world where there are hurricanes, and earthquakes and war and political strife and financial struggle –  this is the very world into which Christ became incarnate.  He chose to enter into this world because of His love for us.

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Mt. Saint Helens Volcano

There is something about this world which God loves and is not willing to give up on .  He wants to transform this world, not replace it with some other world.

God loves this world

God wishes to save this world

God can transfigure this world.

Even with all the problems of this world – natural disasters, human made disasters, sin, evil, human hubris, God still loves this world because He sees the goodness in it and He still sees His image in us!  God has entered into this world and share our human nature because God loves us and this world.

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We can cooperate with God by being God’s priests and transforming our lives and what we do into a daily spiritual offering to God.  We can make ourselves image bearers of God and can make our lives, our homes, our time on earth to be iconic and to reveal the presence of God to everyone.

 

Our Salvation Depends on The Theotokos

September 8 for Orthodox is the Feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos – the birthday of the mother of Jesus.

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“Rational man suffered even more, awaiting his liberation. For this reason, mankind offers the highest gift to Christ Who becomes man: His Virgin Mother.

In fact, we men had nothing more honorable to offer God. The Panaghia(‘Pan Aghia’: ‘All Holy Mother of God’) had already offered herself entirely to God, and as a most pure vessel was ready to receive in her womb her Son and her God and so, at her Annunciation, when Archangel Gabriel told her that she would become the Mother of Christ, she could answer with confidence in God: ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord. Be it unto me according to thy word’ [Luke 1:38].

Moreover, we could not have offered the Virgin Mary to God if she had not offered herself to God. This free offering of the Virgin made the incarnation of God possible, for God would not violate our freedom by becoming incarnate without our own consent. The Virgin was able to stand before God as our representative, and to say ‘Yes’ to God. Her deed is a deed of unique responsibility, of love, and of freedom. She gave God what He Himself did not have – human nature – in order that God might give man what he did not have – deification (theosis). Thus the Incarnation of Christ is not only God’s free act of offering to man, it is also a free offering from man to God through the Virgin.

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This mutual freedom is the prerequisite for love. God offers freely without any necessity, and the Virgin accepts the gift freely without compulsion. The Virgin could not co-operate with God if she had established her own egoistic satisfaction at the content of her freedom – rather than her offering to God and man. Moreover, the Virgin is always rightly blessed by all generations of Christians, and especially during these holy days, as the: ‘cause of the deification of all.’ At the same time, she points out the way of true freedom.” (George Capsanis, The Eros of Repentance, pp. 68-70)

Jesus, the Wisdom of God

Icon of Christ the Wisdom of God

“If we proceed further into the Sacred Scriptures – not in the historical order that the books have been arranged, but in a more spiritual manner – we shall discover the name of Wisdom, which is mystically ascribed to Christ. And thus Solomon cries to the Father: Give me the Wisdom that sits by Your throne (Wis 9.4). And who sits next to God, at the right hand of the Father (cf. Heb 1.3; 10.12; 12.2), exalted above all created things, if not the Lord Jesus Christ? For He is indeed the Power and the Wisdom of God (1 Cor 1.24). Elsewhere Solomon says: I determined to take Wisdom to live with me, knowing that She would be a counselor for me (Wis 8.9).

Wisdom, then, is clearly a Person, and not simply an attribute. It is the Son of God, who is also God’s Word; His Wise Word, as the Fathers say. From ancient times, Solomon points beyond time, and reveals the Person of the Son, Who sits by the throne of the Father, a situation which expresses their inseparable relationship, since there can be no Father without a Son, and no Son without a Father. Each one, at all times, points to the other. In this way we have a common, mutual revelation, which is, in essence, a self-revelation.”  (Archimandrite Aimillianos, The Way of the Spirit, pp. 271-272).

John Donne: All Times are God’s Seasons

John Donne writing in the 17th Century offers a wonderful reflection on seasons and time as related to God’s own love for His Creation. The version below was adapted to conform to 21st Century spellings and grammar.

“God made sun and moon to distinguish seasons, and day and night, and we cannot have the fruits of the earth but in their seasons.

But God made no decree to distinguish the seasons of his mercies.  In paradise, the fruits were ripe, the first minute, and in heaven it is always Autumn: his mercies are ever in their maturity.

We ask panem quotidianum, our daily bread, and God never says you should have come yesterday.  He never says you must [come] again tomorrow, but today if you will hear his voice, today he will hear you.

  If some king of the earth has so large an extent of dominion in north and south, as that he has winter and summer together in his dominions, so large an extent east and west as that he has day and night together in his dominions, much more has God mercy and judgment together.

He brought light out of darkness, not out of a lesser light.   He can bring your summer out of winter, though you have no spring.

 Though in the ways of fortune, or understanding, or conscience, you have been benighted until now, winter and frozen, clouded and eclipsed, damped and benumbed, smothered and stupefied until now,

now God comes to  you, not as in the dawning of the day, not as in the bud of spring, but as the sun at noon to illustrate all shadows, as the sheaves in harvest to fill all penuries, all occasions invite his mercies, and all times are his seasons. ” (LXXX Sermons; Sermon II)

The Miracle of God’s Mercy

As Jesus sat at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat down with Jesus and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice’ [Hosea 6:6].  For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”  (Matthew 9:10-13)

St. John Damascene (d 780AD) composed an evening prayer in which he wonderfully expressed the joy and hope of Christians experiencing the grace of God’s salvation:

It is not wonderful if You have mercy upon the pure;

and it is not a great thing if You save the righteous,

but show the wonders of Your mercy upon me, a sinner!