Theosis: Creation and Creator Have Become One

Today, the 2nd Sunday of Great Lent, in the Church we honor the memory of St. Gregory Palamas.  As a theologian, St. Gregory is famous for defending the Orthodox faith and explaining how we participate in the Divine Life.  He is noted for having helped explicate the theology of salvation as deification/theosis.  Many Orthodox saints helped to explain theosis, or reveal it through their own lives.  St. Isaac of Ninevah writes:

We give thanks to You, O God, for Your gift to the world, (a gift) whose richness created beings are not capable of describing; seeing that I too am part of that (world), may I not begrudge my portion of thanksgiving which I owe to You. For this reason I will praise You and confess Your name. You have given Your entire treasure to the world: if You gave the Only-Begotten from Your bosom and from the throne of Your Being for the benefit of all, what further do you have which You have not given to Your creation? The world has become mingled with God, and creation and Creator have become one!

Praise to You for Your inscrutable purpose: truly this mystery is vast. Glory to You for Your mysteries which are hidden from us. Make me worthy, Lord to taste of this great mystery which is hidden and concealed, (a mystery) of which the world is not yet worthy of perceiving. Maybe You indicated something of it to Your saints who live in the body above the world and who are at all times above the impulses of the flesh.

O Christ who are covered with light as though with a garment, who for my sake stood naked in front of Pilate, clothe me with that might which You caused to overshadow the saints, whereby they conquered this world of struggle. May Your divinity, Lord, take pleasure in me, and lead me above the world to be with You.

(Isaac of Nineveh: The Second Part, pp. 13-15)

Our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ Loves You – No, I Mean You!

Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.”  (Luke 7:47)

Even if there had been only one human who ever sinned, died and went to Hades, Christ would have become incarnate, died on the cross to save that person.   Jesus is the Good Shepherd and would leave the 100 billion who never sinned to find that lost sheep.  Christ would do this because He is God, and God is love.  God loves every single human being who has ever come into existence.

If you were the only one who ever sinned, Christ would die on the cross to save you from your sin and death, because He loves you.  It is true that God loves humanity, but that love is always personal.  God loves you, not just humanity.  God may love you because you are human, but God loves you personally.

The Son of God dies for you, not just for humanity, on the cross.  Christ is willing to go to hell even for one sinner.  His love is that personal.  He comes to call you by name to raise you personally from sin and death.  We may exalt Christ for dying because of the sins of the world, but He dies for my sins, even if they are the only sins in the world.

It matters little how many or how few sins others commit.  Christ’s love is for you personally, He dies on the cross because of and for your sins and to give you eternal life.

Christ seeks each sinner personally.  So in Lent when the hymns of repentance paint “me” as being the foremost or chief among sinners, or of having sinned more than David the adulterous murderer or anyone else, they are also pointing out that even if that is true, Christ still loves me and dies for me and raises me up from hell itself.

As St. Gregory the Theologian confesses about Christ: “For He pleads even now as man for my salvation . . .”  (ON THE TREE OF THE CROSS, Editors: M Baker, S Danckaert, N Marinides, p 12)

However grave or great my sins may be, Christ still loves me enough to die for me and to continue to intercede before the Father on my behalf.  The hymns which portray “me” as a great sinner are also, and more so, pointing out the greatness of God’s love for me.

I need only to accept His love, and renounce my sins and my sinfulness.

One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house, and took his place at table. And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment.

Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “What is it, Teacher?” “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he forgave them both. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, to whom he forgave more.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house, you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.”  (Luke 7:36-47)

If I feel I have sinned little or rarely, then I do not feel much need for Christ.  I will therefore love little, as Christ predicts.  Only when I see myself as the foremost of sinners will I be able to love as Christ loves me.  When I realize that even if I were the only sinner, Christ would die for me – then do I realize the depth of His love for me.  Then I realize how grave my sins really are – not compared to what sins I might commit – but the price that is paid for them:  the death of God the Son on the cross. The Son in His love continues to ask God to forgive me my sins.

 

Lost Innocence

A week ago this past Sunday, we had the Gospel Lesson of the Publican and Pharisee  (Luke 18:10-14) .   There were tw0 hymns from the Matins Canon that caught my attention for their theological content.   The first states a simple truth in the Orthodox understanding of what it is to be human.  Humans in this view were not created perfect, but were created with the possibility of perfection, if they chose that way of life.

Adam and Eve are seen in this theological understanding more as innocent children who did not fully understand the consequences of their behavior because they lacked real world experience with evil.  This is why Satan was able to deceive Adam and Eve.  The first two humans were not created with a fatal flaw, nor did they have evil inside themselves.  They were innocent or immature and thus easily led astray by the allurement of temptation.  So the first hymn says:

I was created naked in innocence and simplicity;

then the enemy clothed me with the garment of sin and passionate flesh.

But now I am saved, Maiden, through your intercession.

The sin of Adam and Eve was not to trust God in both protecting them from evil but also leading them toward a beautiful maturity.   Satan promised them something more immediate and they trusted that Serpent whom they hardly knew at all.  God knew the path for Eve and Adam to reach the maturity of theosis, but humans rejected God’s plan and decide to follow the Serpent’s plan to deification.

The second hymn is not actually related to the first, except that both have the the Virgin Mary as part of the plan of salvation.  In this hymn we see clearly expressed the theological interpretation of the Old Testament that Mary herself is the ladder climbing to heaven which Jacob saw (Genesis 28:10-17).  She connects earth to heaven because God descends through her in the Incarnation not only into the earth but also into the place of the dead.

You are the beauty of Jacob, Holy Virgin;

the divine ladder he saw in the days of old, stretching from earth to heaven,

for you bring down the Incarnate God from on high,

and bring mortal men up to heaven.

Mary’s role in salvation is thus foretold by the Old Testament.  God promised to give us the means by which it would be possible for God to be united to humanity and for humanity to gain access to heaven itself.  This promise turns out to be the Theotokos.  In her the incarnation takes place, thus in her is realized the salvation of the world which God had promised from the earliest days of human existence.

Give to the Lord What is Yours

“St. Ambrose emphasizes that we must learn from St. Peter to confess our own unworthiness to be in the presence of the Lord. ‘You must also say, ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord,’ so that the Lord may respond to you, ‘Fear not.’ Confess your sins to the Lord, for He forgives. Do not be afraid of giving the Lord what is yours, since He granted to you what is His.’ In becoming man, the Son of God has given to men the power to become the sons of God (John 1:12) and to participate in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4), in the divine life.”

(Archbishop Dmitri, The Miracles of Christ, p 52)

 

The Sickness of Zacchaeus

The Gospel lesson of Luke 19:1-10 –

Then Jesus entered and passed through Jericho. Now behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus who was a chief tax collector, and he was rich. And he sought to see who Jesus was, but could not because of the crowd, for he was of short stature. So he ran ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see Him, for He was going to pass that way. And when Jesus came to the place, He looked up and saw him, and said to him, “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for today I must stay at your house.” So he made haste and came down, and received Him joyfully. But when they saw it, they all complained, saying, “He has gone to be a guest with a man who is a sinner.” Then Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham; for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.”

St. Nikolai Velimirovic comments on the Gospel lesson:

“Christ said a number of times that He had come into this world for the sake of sinners, and especially for the greatest sinners. As a doctor does not visit the healthy but the sick, so the Lord visits those with the sickness of sin, not those with the health of righteousness. It is not said in the Gospel that the Lord, on this occasion, visited any righteous man in Jericho, but He made haste to visit the house of the sinful Zacchaeus. Does not every sensible doctor behave in this way when he goes into a hospital? Does he not go straight to the beds of the most gravely ill? The whole world represents a great hospital, full to overflowing with sick men and women infected by sin. All men are sick in comparison with Christ’s health; all are weak in comparison with Christ’s power; all are ugly in comparison with Christ’s beauty. But there are, among men, the sick and the sicker, the weak and the weaker, the ugly and the uglier. The former are considered righteous and the latter sinful.

And the heavenly Physician, who did not come on earth for His own satisfaction but for the urgent healing and salvation of the infected, hastened first to the aid of the worst infected. To this end, He ate and drank with sinners, permitted sinners to weep over His feet, and entered into Zacchaeus’ house.”

 (Homilies, p. 339-340)

 

Caring for the Poor: Lending to God

If, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. Then as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous. Law came in, to increase the trespass; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.  (Romans 5:17-21)

Adam, Eve and Jesus
Adam, Eve and Jesus

In Western Christianity there has been endless debate about justification, especially between Reformers and the Roman Catholics but also between various Protestant denominations.  Righteousness and justice are grouped as synonymous terms, often interpreted in a juridical way.  But righteousness can also mean holiness more than legal justice, which seems to me how it is interpreted more in the Orthodox tradition.  Righteousness can also be equated with salvation.  When the first generation of Lutheran Reformers approached Orthodox Patriarch Jeremias to discuss theology, they changed the language in their documents to read “salvation by faith” rather than “justification by faith.”  They were savvy enough to realize this would sound more theological correct to the Orthodox.

Apparently at one time in Judaism, righteousness/ justice was also  used to mean almsgiving/ charity.  Certainly if one reads the New Testament substituting almsgiving for righteousness  we get a totally different view of God and salvation [Try it in the quote above from Romans 5:17-21)].  Biblical scholar Nathan Eubank writes:

“The Ancient rabbis used to tell the story of King Munbaz of Adiabene, a first-century C.E. convert to Judaism, who emptied his storehouses to feed the hungry during a time of famine.  The king’s brothers were outraged and demanded that the king explain why he would throw away the family’s great wealth.  In response, the king argued that by feeding the hungry he had acquired a greater, longer-lasting fortune.  He cited Psalm 89:15 to prove his point: ‘Justice (tsedeq) and judgment are the foundation of  your throne.’  The rabbis commonly understood ‘righteousness’ when it appears in the Hebrew bible to mean ‘almsgiving.’ Read in this light, the psalm seemed to promise that possessions given to the poor would earn treasure in heaven, under the very throne of God.

Jesus speaking with the rabbis
Jesus speaking with the rabbis

 King Munbaz explained: ‘My ancestors stored up treasures below, but I have stored up treasurers above . . . in a place where the hand cannot reach’ (Tosefta Peah 4.18).  According to the rabbis who recorded the tale, this Gentile king learned that the best way to prepare for the future is to give to the needy and be rewarded by God, if not in this life then certainly in the life to come.  The belief that God faithfully repays good deeds has deep roots in the biblical tradition, going back well before the birth of Christianity.  As Proverbs 19:17 puts it, ‘Whoever cares for the poor lends to the Lord, who will pay back the sum in full.‘”  (“The Repayment of Good Deeds in Matthew’s Sermon”, THE BIBLE TODAY, January/February 2017)

The notion that God receives every gift of alms we give to the poor and stores it up for us in heaven was widely believed and taught in the early church and is common sermon fare among the Cappodician fathers.   Whether or not they were familiar with this Jewish tradition, I don’t know, but obviously they came to the same interpretive conclusions about what the Scriptures taught about the importance of charity.

Sometimes philosophers work so hard to get a word to mean  only one thing, so that they can use that word in one and only one way.  Sometimes, to understand the Word of God, we have to move in a different direction, realizing the depth and layers of meaning found in a word or phrase.  Read again St. Paul in the text below putting in almsgiving/ charity where the text says righteous/righteousness.  We begin to hear another message about God which is consistent with the theology that God is love.

Jesus and Moses
Jesus and Moses

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from law, although the law and the prophets bear witness to it, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction; since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies him who has faith in Jesus.  (Romans 3:21-26)

Revealing Christ at Theophany

All the Great Feasts of the Orthodox Church celebrate the incarnation of God.  thus they affirm the Trinitarian Theology of ancient Christianity, and contemplate the mystery which God revealed in Jesus Christ.  We can look at three hymns from Matins of the Prefeast of Theophany   (January 2) –

You are a rushing torrent, who fashioned the sea and the wellsprings.

How do You come to the waters?

Why do you seek cleansing?

For You are the washing and purification

of those who sing hymns to You, O Christ, forever!

The above hymn, addressed to Christ, accepts the truth proclaimed in the Nicene Creed that all things were made by Christ at creation as recorded in Genesis 1.  The hymn marvels that the One who created water, the sea, wellsprings, now is immersed in water.  The hymn ponders the incongruity and divine mystery of the Holy, Pure and Sinless God accepting baptism which was associated with the cleansing away of sin.  The incarnation, indeed, turns creation upside down!

 

Seeking to dry up the streams of the enemy’s malice,

to drain the sea of the passions

and to pour out cleansing and remission upon the faithful, Master,

You come to be baptized in the streams of the Jordan.

The second hymn uses metaphorical imagery to further contemplate the full meaning of the Baptism of Christ.  Christ is immersed in the waters of the Jordan, but now the streams of water are no longer merely part of material creation.  They now are metaphorically transformed into “the enemy’s malice” as well as “the sea of passions.”  God became human in Christ in order to overcome the evil of Satan as well as human sin and passion.  The hymn reminds us that a literal reading of the text limits the meaning of the events and the power of God.  Whenever God interacts with creation, an entire new meaning and depth is added to the material world.  In Christ and in His every deed, heaven and earth are united together.  God and humanity have their proper relationship restored in Christ.

Creator of the hours and years,

in Your loving-kindness, You have come under time!

You shone forth timelessly from the unoriginate Father

and have come to wash away in the streams of the Jordan

the transgressions committed throughout all ages!

It is not only the material that is renewed in Christ – time also is transformed.  The space-time continuum mean energy and mass, space and time all belong to the same one reality – the created cosmos.  Christ heals and restores everything in the created order including time.  So the hymn marvels that the One who created time enters into time.  The Timeless One  enters into the present moment giving it eternal meaning.  Thus in the worship of the Orthodox Church we enter into the “eternal now” at every Feast and during every Liturgy.  

The Incarnation of the Word of God

You will say in that day: “I will give thanks to you, O LORD, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, and you did comfort me. Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid; for the LORD GOD is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation. With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.”  (Isaiah 12:1-3)

Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored, and you shall be clean.”  (2 Kings 5:10)

In the beginning, God the Father created the world through the Word of God.  In Christ, the Word of God became part of creation.  In Christ’s baptism the Word of God renews creation.  Water is purified by Christ, and in turn becomes capable of washing away sin.  Thus Christ, God incarnate, renews humanity from within by becoming flesh and uniting divinity to humanity, and from without by making water and creation capable of being the means for our salvation.  The body, renewed from within by God, is washed with the waters of salvation.  The inner renewal, and the external washing are both essential in salvation.

St. Irenaeus of Lyons  (d. 202AD) writes:

“Man was created by God so that he might have life. If now, having lost life, wounded by the serpent, he could not return to life, but was to be fully abandoned to death, then God would be conquered and the malice of the serpent would have overcome His will. but since God is at once invisible and magnanimous, He has shown His magnanimity in correcting man and putting all men to the test, as we have said. Yet, by the second Adam, He has bound the strong man and destroyed his arms, and He has done away with death, bringing life to man who had been subject to death. For Adam had become the possession of the devil and the devil held him in his power, having perversely deceived him in subjecting him to death when he had offered him immortality. Indeed, in promising them that they would be like gods, which was not in his power, he brought about death in them. This is why he who made man captive was himself made captive by God, and man whom he had captured found himself freed from the slavery of condemnation.

The Logos of God was made flesh….to destroy death and to give life to man, for we were in the chains of sin and destined to be born through the state of sin and to fall under (the empire of) death.” (The Spirituality of the New Testament and Fathers by Louis Bouyer, pp 232-233)

The Holy Innocents

Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, was in a furious rage, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they were no more.”  (Matthew 2:16-18)

As we continue the days of Christmas and our celebration of the Nativity of Christ in the Orthodox Church, we encounter the horrible story of King Herod slaying the innocent children because he feared among them might be a king who would take his throne from him.

We remember this in the Church because the Church remains realistic – the world is what it is.  The world is not paradise or heaven, yet God endeavors to break into the world as it is, to reunite us to Him, to reunite all of creation with our Creator.  In the Orthodox Church we encounter these hymns about the slaughter of the Innocent Children.

Today the evil king searches for the hidden treasure;

He kills the blameless innocents.

Rachel weeps for the beloved of her breast

And will not be comforted

Seeing their bitter slaughter and untimely death.

May she behold them playing in the bosom of Abraham,

And be consoled in her lamentations.

The ultimate wish of the hymn is that Rachel will see all of these innocent Jewish children in Abraham’s bosom, numbered among the righteous of God.  The expression of this hymn, which reflects Orthodox theology and dogma, is important.  These children were all Jewish, unbaptized, never having believed in Christ, never having heard the Gospel, never having kept Torah or Orthodox Tradition.  Yet all are saved and given life in heaven.  God’s mercy and salvation extends to the innocent whomever they may be.

The mothers of the Holy Innocents weep.
The mothers of the Holy Innocents weep.

The lawless king searches for the King of the Ages

Who has entered time.

He is not able to discover or destroy Him,

And so harvests a multitude of blameless infants.

Innocents are made martyrs,

Citizens of the King on High,

Whose dominion shall be forever,

And the raging madness of Herod shall be destroyed.

God is merciful even when humans are not.  God accepts the lives of innocents who die, and blesses them, granting them eternal life in heaven.  It is why we Orthodox invoke the memory of the Holy Innocents when we proclaim our pro-life position.  We believe all the victims of abortion are holy innocents, martyrs whom the Lord embraces even if the world did not.

 

He Who Holds Creation in His Hand

Looking at one of the liturgical hymns from the Feast of the Nativity of Christ, we see themes that are obvious throughout the Christmas cycle of services.  The hymns from the Orthodox services for the Nativity are heavily theological focusing on the lessons the Ecumenical Councils derived from the Scriptures and God’s revelation in Jesus Christ.

The hymns teach a Trinitarian God, one person of the Trinity – God the Word – became incarnate as Jesus on earth,  this incarnation restores the proper relationship between God and humanity, between heaven and earth, between material creation and the spiritual life, in fact it restores all proper relationships in God’s creation with the Creator and between humanity and the rest of creation.

Today, He who holds the whole creation in His hand is born of a Virgin.

[In most of the Orthodox Feasts of Christ we encounter hymns that keep the events of Christ’s life in the present: “TODAY, the Eternal One, the Creator does …..”  Liturgically, we enter into the event being celebrated, today, and that event is made present in our lives, today.  When the Eternal One enters time, time is transfigured and no longer truly has a past and a future.  It is the eternal now, always accessible to believers.  Jesus is the 2nd Person of the Holy Trinity who became incarnate in time in our world.   This is the central mystery of faith: God brings creation (that which is “not God” into  existence and then God enters into and becomes “not God” simultaneously lifting creation (that which is “not God”) into union with God or making us God.  “God became human so that humans might become God,” as St. Irenaeus said.  The incarnation of God means the theosis of humans.  It is God who blurs the lines between divinity and humanity, yet the Three Persons of the Trinity are not changed by this, nor is anything added to the Trinity.  Each of us retains our human personhood, and we do not disappear into divinity.  Rather, divine love transforms our relationship with our Creator, making all things new.]

He whose essence none can touch is bound in swaddling-clothes as a mortal man.

God, who in the beginning fashioned the heavens, lies in a manger.

[The hymn repeats the central truth and mystery in several ways.  God has become incarnate as a little child – this is the mystery and revelation of Christmas.]

He who rained manna on His people in the wilderness is fed on milk from his mother’s breast.

[Orthodoxy believes the many manifestations of God in the Old Testament were actually encounters with the pre-Incarnate Christ.  It is the pre-Incarnate Christ who appeared anthropomorphically to the Israelites.  Christ who performed the miracles of the Old Covenant history now enters into history as a babe born of the Virgin.]

The Bridegroom of the Church summons the wise men;

The Son of the virgin accepts their gifts.

[Christ as God not only interacted with the Israelites in their history, as co-Creator of the universe, Christ has been interacting with all people on earth.  God’s Word has been known in one form or another by all people.  This knowledge of God’s Word was often in shadows or known only darkly, but that knowledge even is made clear for those who find Christ.  The hymn acknowledges that it is Christ Himself, One of the Holy Trinity, who summoned the Magi to seek Him and worship Him.  As God, Christ summons the Magi.  As the incarnate God, still a baby, He accepts the gifts offered in homage to Him.]

We worship Your birth, O Christ.

Show us also Your Holy Theophany.

[In the Church, as important as the Nativity of Christ is for the salvation of the world, it is also part of the great mystery of God revealed in and through Jesus Christ.  The Trinitarian nature of God becomes manifest at Christ’s baptism.  The Theophany is the full revelation of Christmas.]