Making the Sign of the Cross in the 12th Century

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sins and Debts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For he made the one worthy of worship descend

And made our worship of him ascend.

For he gave us divinity

And we gave him humanity.

He brought us a promise

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

For we have given him our alms on loan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life is Hard

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

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

Racism and the Church

I was at the Cincinnati Art Museum and saw their exhibit Women Breaking Boundaries.  In the exhibit I saw a sculpture of Phillis Wheatley  (1753-1784) who was the first Black poet published in America.  She was captured as a young girl in Africa and brought to America as a slave.  She eventually attained her manumission.   I do not remember ever learning about her, so decided to read her poetry.  It amazes me that someone can master a foreign language so well as to become a poet in that language  – and she really did excel in the King’s English.  More amazing she was able to do this despite spending much of her life as a slave and then dying at age 31.  She must have had great language skills.   She does not excessively focus on her experience as a slave, but did become a fierce defender of Christian Trinitarian theology, even though it was Christian people who enslaved her.  She had to remind her white Christian fellow believers that Blacks are humans, that Christ died for them as well because Black lives matter to the Savior.  In Christ God became human so that humans might become god – that is a Christian truth for every human being.

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Here is a poem she wrote at about age 16:

“On Being Brought from Africa to America”

‘Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,

Taught my benighted soul to understand

That there’s a God, that there’s a Savior too:

Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.

Some view our sable race with scornful eye,

“Their color is a diabolic die.”

Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,

May be refin’d, and join the angelic train.

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A good reminder to all of us to see beyond the color of the skin to see the image of God in each person.

I was struck in her poetry how little she identified herself as a slave or African and how she did identify herself as a member of His Majesty’s colonies – she was a loyalist who became an American as our country was born and she embraced the ideals of freedom.  She lived through 1776 and the American revolution.

Some might feel that she somehow fails to take up the Black cause.  But I think what is true of her is that she saw herself first and foremost as a human being, not as an African or African American or Negro or Black or slave or former slave.  She was human forcibly brought to an English colony which became the United States of America.  Her identity was not the color of her skin or place of origin but her humanity.  She  was African, British or American – it was of no matter because it was her humanity which she shared with those around her which was her self understanding.   That is how she was able to so readily identify with her fellow humans and was not separated from them by slavery, by race or nationality.

Each of us is created in God’s image and likeness.  She was able to see beyond the externals right to the heart of the matter.  One needs eyes to see what was obvious to her, despite how other treated her.

Virtues: An Extensive List

Lest after reading the Extensive List of Passions  of St Peter of Damaskos one wonders, ‘did he have nothing better to do than list sins?’, he also provided a list of everything he considered to be a virtue, though he acknowledges the list is not exhaustive.   Peter says he derived his list of passions from the Scriptures and the list of virtues from the fathers  – those earlier generations of monks and teachers of the church, many considered to be saints.  While he came up with 298 passions, he only listed 228 virtues but admits the list is not complete.   If you are wondering what virtue you should work on next in your spiritual life, here are some virtues you can consider.

It is from the fathers that I myself have learned about the virtues, and I will give a list of them, so far as I can, even though it is not complete because of my lack of knowledge. The virtues are:

moral judgment, self-restraint, courage, justice, faith, hope, love, fear, religious devotion, spiritual knowledge, resolution, strength, understanding, wisdom, contrition, grief, gentleness, searching the Scriptures, acts of charity, purity of heart, peace, patient endurance, self-control, perseverance, probity of intention, purposiveness, sensitivity, heedfulness, godlike stability, warmth, alertness, the fervor of the Spirit, meditation, diligence, watchfulness, mindfulness, reflection, reverence, shame, respect, penitence, refraining from evil, repentance, return to God, allegiance to Christ, rejection of the devil,

keeping of the commandments, guarding of the soul, purity of conscience, remembrance of death, tribulation of soul, the doing of good actions, effort, toil, an austere life, fasting, vigils, hunger, thirst, frugality, self-sufficiency, orderliness, gracefulness, modesty, reserve, disdain of money, unacquisitiveness, renunciation of worldly things, submissiveness, obedience, compliance, poverty, possessionlessness, withdrawal from the world, eradication of self-will, denial of self, counsel, magnanimity, devotion to God, stillness, discipline, sleeping on a hard bed, abstinence from washing oneself, service, struggle, attentiveness, the eating of uncooked food, nakedness, the wasting of one’s body, solitude, quietude, calmness, cheerfulness, fortitude, boldness, godlike zeal, fervency, progress, folly for Christ, watchfulness over the intellect, moral integrity, holiness, virginity, sanctification, purity of body, chasteness of soul, reading for Christ’s sake, concern for God, comprehension, friendliness, truthfulness, uninquisitiveness, uncensoriousness, forgiveness of debts, good management, skilfulness, acuity, fairness, the right use of things,

cognitive insight, good-naturedness, experience, psalmody, prayer, thanksgiving, acknowledgment, entreaty, kneeling, supplication, intercession, petition, appeal, hymnody, doxology, confession, solicitude, mourning, affliction, pain, distress, lamentation, sighs of sorrow, weeping, heart-rending tears, compunction, silence, the search for God, cries of anguish, lack of anxiety about all things, forbearance, lack of self-esteem, disinterest in glory, simplicity of soul, sympathy, self-retirement, goodness of disposition, activities that accord with nature, activities exceeding one’s natural capacity, brotherly love, concord, communion in God, sweetness, a spiritual disposition, mildness, rectitude, innocence, kindliness, guilelessness, simplicity, good repute, speaking well of others, good works, preference of one’s neighbor, godlike tenderness, a virtuous character, consistency, nobility, gratitude, humility, detachment, dignity, forbearance, long-suffering, kindness, goodness,

discrimination, accessibility, courtesy, tranquility, contemplation, guidance, reliability, clearsightedness, dispassion, spiritual joy, sureness, tears of understanding, tears of soul, a loving desire for God, pity, mercy, compassion, purity of soul, purity of intellect, prescience, pure prayer, passion-free thoughts, steadfastness, fitness of soul and body, illumination, the recovery of one’s soul, hatred of life, proper teaching, a healthy longing for death, childlikeness in Christ, rootedness, admonition and encouragement, both moderate and forcible, a praiseworthy ability to change, ecstasy towards God, perfection in Christ, true enlightenment, an intense longing for God, rapture of intellect, the indwelling of God, love of God, love of inner wisdom, theology, a true confession of faith, disdain of death, saintliness, successful accomplishment, perfect health of soul, virtue, praise from God, grace, kingship, adoption to sonship

– altogether 228 virtues. To acquire all of them is possible only through the grace of Him who grants us victory over the passions.”

(THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 29993-30050)

The Passions: An Extensive List

For those who are afraid that perhaps they have some hidden sin or passion to which they are blind, St Peter of Damaskos has conveniently provided an extensive list of all the passions he could find in the Scriptures.  Or perhaps you think of yourself as being a good person and mostly sin free, St. Peter will help disabuse you of that blindness.

His list might also give comfort to those who are afraid that someone, somehow might get into heaven who didn’t deserve it.  All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).  Or, maybe you are wondering what to say in your next confession – St Peter helps those who love lists.

On the other hand,  rather than looking for every sin someone might commit, it might be better if we just held on to a proper understanding of repentance and trust in the mercy of God.   These are all the things we need God to blot out of our lives and the book He keeps about us.

In any case here is his list:

“The passions are:

harshness, trickery, malice, perversity, mindlessness, licentiousness, enticement, dullness, lack of understanding, idleness, sluggishness, stupidity, flattery, silliness, idiocy, madness, derangement, coarseness, rashness, cowardice, lethargy, dearth of good actions, moral errors, greed, over-frugality, ignorance, folly, spurious knowledge, forgetfulness, lack of discrimination, obduracy, injustice, evil intention, a conscienceless soul, slothfulness, idle chatter, breaking of faith, wrongdoing, sinfulness, lawlessness, criminality, passion, seduction, assent to evil, mindless coupling, demonic provocation, dallying, bodily comfort beyond what is required, vice, stumbling, sickness of soul, enervation, weakness of intellect, negligence, laziness, a reprehensible despondency, disdain of God, aberration, transgression, unbelief, lack of faith, wrong belief, poverty of faith, heresy, fellowship in heresy, polytheism, idolatry, ignorance of God, impiety, magic, astrology, divination, sorcery, denial of God, the love of idols, dissipation,

profligacy, loquacity, indolence, self-love, inattentiveness, lack of progress, deceit, delusion, audacity, witchcraft, defilement, the eating of unclean food, soft living, dissoluteness, voracity, unchastity, avarice, anger, dejection, listless-ness, self-esteem, pride, presumption, self-elation, boastfulness, infatuation, foulness, satiety, doltishness, torpor, sensuality, overeating, gluttony, insatiability, secret eating, hoggishness, solitary eating, indifference, fickleness, self-will, thoughtlessness, self-satisfaction, love of popularity, ignorance of beauty, uncouthness, gaucherie, lightmindedness, boorishness, rudeness, contentiousness, quarrelsomeness, abusiveness, shouting, brawling, fighting, rage, mindless desire, gall, exasperation, giving offence, enmity, meddlesomeness, chicanery, asperity, slander, censure, calumny, condemnation, accusation, hatred, railing, insolence, dishonor, ferocity, frenzy, severity, aggressiveness, forswearing oneself, oathtaking, lack of compassion, hatred of one’s brothers, partiality, patricide, matricide, breaking fasts, laxity, acceptance of bribes, theft, rapine, jealousy, strife, envy, indecency, jesting, vilification, mockery, derision, exploitation, oppression, disdain of one’s neighbor, flogging, making sport of others, hanging, throttling, heartlessness, implacability, covenant-breaking, bewitchment, harshness, shamelessness, impudence, obfuscation of thoughts, obtuseness, mental blindness, attraction to what is fleeting, impassionedness, frivolity, disobedience, dullwittedness, drowsiness of soul, excessive sleep, fantasy, heavy drinking, drunkenness, uselessness, slackness, mindless enjoyment, self-indulgence, venery, using foul language, effeminacy, unbridled desire, burning lust, masturbation, pimping, adultery, sodomy, bestiality, defilement, wantonness, a stained soul, incest,

uncleanliness, pollution, sordidness, feigned affection, laughter, jokes, immodest dancing, clapping, improper songs, revelry, fluteplaying, license of tongue, excessive love of order, insubordination, disorderliness, reprehensible collusion, conspiracy, warfare, killing, brigandry, sacrilege, illicit gains, usury, wiliness, grave-robbing, hardness of heart, obloquy, complaining, blasphemy, fault-finding, ingratitude, malevolence, contemptuousness, pettiness, confusion, lying, verbosity, empty words, mindless joy, day- dreaming, mindless friendship, bad habits, nonsensicality, silly talk, garrulity, niggardliness, depravity, intolerance, irritability, affluence, rancor, misuse, ill-temper, clinging to life, ostentation, affectation, love of power, dissimulation, irony, treachery, frivolous talk, pusillanimity, satanic love, curiosity, contumely, lack of the fear of God, unteachability, senselessness, haughtiness, self- vaunting, self- inflation, scorn for one’s neighbor, mercilessness, insensitivity, hopelessness, spiritual paralysis, hatred of God, despair, suicide, a falling away from God in all things, utter destruction – altogether 298 passions. These, then, are the passions which I have found named in the Holy Scriptures.”   (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 30052-110)

Psalm 51 and Repentance (PDF)

5692629200_5d146e27c7_nI have gathered into one PDF all of the posts in my blog series meditating on repentance and Psalm 51.   For those who prefer to read it as one document rather than navigate through the blog, you can find the PDF at   Psalm 51 and Repentance .

You can find PDF links for all of the blog series I did for each of the past 11 years as well as posts for Christmas, the Pre-Lenten Sundays, Great Lent, Holy Week, Pascha and Bright Week, and the Post Paschal Sundays  for each year at  Fr. Ted’s PDFs.

It’s Not All or Nothing

For if the readiness is there, it is acceptable according to what a man has, not according to what he has not.   (2 Corinthians 8:12)

One temptation in the spiritual life is to understand perfection to mean you do everything perfectly right and then to decide that anything less than perfect is utter failure.  This “all or nothing” spirituality shows itself in people who start out to keep Great Lent perfectly, but then falter along the way and give up on the whole enterprise thinking if I can’t keep it all, why try to do anything?  The same thing happens with people who set up for themselves a demanding spiritual discipline or prayer life and soon cannot keep to their high standards and so decide to abandon the spiritual life altogether.

Additionally, it is not the one who begins the race but who never finishes it who wins the prize.  So beginning any spiritual endeavor with zeal and the mind toward perfection but then abandoning the effort  because of a failure along the way is worse than beginning the race with only moderate effort but then persevering to the end.

Between everything and nothing there is a lot of middle ground, and there are many stories and lessons in the lives of the Fathers to support that point.  The desert fathers knew that Jesus commanded us to practice charity and hospitality.  Yet some of the monks struggled in subsistence level conditions and had little to give to others.   Rather than advocating all or nothing, the spiritual advice is to keep at the spiritual life and do the best you can, fulfilling as much of the Gospel as you can, but not worrying about what you can’t do.  Here are two from monastic fathers, adpated from The Paradise or Garden of the Holy Fathers (Volume 2) :

“And if you art unable to give alms of your work at least supply all your needs by your own hands.”  (Kindle Loc. 3156-57)

If you can’t earn enough to be able to give charity, at least earn enough so you don’t have to beg from others.  There is a wisdom here to help the struggling Christian who may feel the demands of the Faith are more than he or she can do daily.  The wisdom response is do what you can.  A second example on the same theme of charity:

A brother asked Abba Joseph, saying, “What shall I do? For I cannot be disgraced, and I cannot work, and I have nothing from which to give alms.”  The old man said unto him, ” If you can not do these things, keep your conscience from your neighbor, and guard yourself carefully against evil of every kind, and you shall live; for God desires that the soul shall be without sin.”   (Kindle Loc. 1465-68)

As with many of the desert father stories, they are short and so leave out some details.  In the story above it appears that the one monk is ill or injured and so cannot work and thus cannot give alms.  Should he quit being a monk?  No, he is advised to continue on doing the things he can do – be a good neighbor, not nosey, not a gossip, and don’t do any evil yourself.   Even if you cannot practice charity because you haven’t anything to give, you can still be a Christian by following other teachings of Christ.  All or nothing doesn’t work.  There is no one shoe size for all.  Each of us has to work out our own salvation.  Do you know how Christ loves you?  Then love others as you have been loved.

… work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.  Do all things without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life…  (Philippians 2:12-16)

What Does God Ask of us?

This is the 6th and final post in this blog series meditating on Psalm 51 and the nature of repentance.  The previous post is The Prayer of Manasseh .

So, what repentance looks like is for humans to be what God intended for us from the beginning.  It is not so much remorse and contrition or thinking of one’s self as a worm wallowing in mire.   Rather, it is recognizing God as Lord, and giving thanks for that truth to God.  The change of heart and mind in repentance is making the effort to be the human that God wants us to be.  We are to accept that God is the Lord, which means I am not.  It means accepting my role and place in God’s creation, rather than trying to establish my role as I see fit.  It means being a creature of thanksgiving for blessings received.

There is another prayer of repentance frequently used in Orthodoxy which expresses this same sense that what is asked of us is to stand before God and acknowledge who God and who we are.  That prayer begins:

Have mercy on us, O Lord, have mercy on us;
for laying aside all excuse, we sinners offer to You,
as to our Master, this supplication: have mercy on us.

It is a prayer which makes it clear that we understand God is merciful and for this reason alone we approach God in prayer seeking God’s mercy.  We acknowledge our sins and sinfulness and take full responsibility for them.  We don’t give excuse for our sinfulness – bad genes, bad parents, poverty, the fallen world, suffering, lack of education, poor opportunities, fears, peers, enemies, abuse, mistakes, misfortune.  We lay all that aside and admit we do sin.  And we own our sin because we also know God is love, God is merciful, and we trust God to be God.  The prayer then goes on:

O Lord, have mercy on us, for in You have we put our trust.
Do not be angry with us, nor remember our iniquities,
but look down on us even now, since You are compassionate,
and deliver us from our enemies. For You are our God,
and we are Your people; we are all the work of Your hands,
and we call upon Your Name.

It is much in the spirit of Psalm 51.  We recognize we need God to be God for that is our only hope in God’s creation.  It is a mystical vision which all humans are capable of having.

In this mystical vision of humanity, it turns out we humans are the place where God dwells on earth.  The mystical vision is not looking for heaven out there or trying to figure out how to get to heaven.   We ourselves are to be the “holy of holies” for God to dwell in so that the rest of the cosmos can also have its proper relationship to God.  God created the cosmos to be God’s temple, but created humans to be the place within the temple where God completely interfaces with creation.  God became human so that we humans might become god.   God’s plan is and always was to abide in us.  God is not trying to establish something outside the human to dwell in – a temple, a bible, a shrine.  Those things are merely shadows of God’s intention which is to dwell in us.   We are the ones who create all these religious sites to keep God at a distance.

And this vision of being human is for everyone, not just for monks, mystics or ascetics.  It is for moms and dads and grandparents and children, friends and neighbors.  No need to go to a monastery to find it, nor on a pilgrimage to a holy place, for the Kingdom of heaven is within each of us.  The Lord Jesus said: “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, ‘Lo, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you”  (Luke 17:20-21).

We all are to live up to our God-given potential as beings created by God to be in God’s image and likeness.  We do find this simple vision in the Bible, for example in Deuteronomy 10:12-22, which some consider a summary of Torah –

“And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the LORD, which I command you this day for your good?”

Repentance means getting back to doing this very thing that God commanded.  It requires humility – recognition that God is the Lord and we are God’s creatures and servants.  Repentance isn’t sorrowing for our failures, but deciding to live up to what God wants for us and from us.  It is the way that Christ describes to us:  “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light”  (Matthew 11:28-30).   We can uncomplicate our lives by following the way of repentance.   It is the notion of “what you see is what you get” – no lies, deception, hiding, excuses, blaming.  It is the freedom of being able to stand in God’s presence knowing who I am and who God is.  The Deuteronomist continues:

“Behold, to the LORD your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it; yet the LORD set his heart in love upon your fathers and chose their descendants after them, you above all peoples, as at this day.”

However vast and grand heaven is, God still sets His heart upon people.  Heaven may be where God’s will is done, yet God still favors human beings and God’s intent is to dwell in humanity.  We are to become God’s heaven and we see this already accomplished in the Theotokos who is more glorious than heaven.  Heaven is where God dwells and God desires to dwell in us.  God created us to be heaven.

Repentance is thus nothing  more than our being human:

“Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn. For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the terrible God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. Love the sojourner therefore; for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. You shall fear the LORD your God; you shall serve him and cleave to him, and by his name you shall swear. He is your praise; he is your God, who has done for you these great and terrible things which your eyes have seen. Your fathers went down to Egypt seventy persons; and now the LORD your God has made you as the stars of heaven for multitude.”

Repentance leads us to giving thanks to God and praising God, because in repentance we recognize God’s lordship in our life and what we are to be.  We realize God’s will.  Repentance leads us to the Liturgy where we give thanksgiving to God for all that God intends for us, does for us, gives to us, and accomplishes with, in and for us.  Repentance leads to our showing mercy to all those around us including the stranger.  Repentance means we:

Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.   (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)