Judging Ourselves, Not Others

To justify ourselves by condemning others is our permanent tendency, in private as in public life. True nobility is to take responsibility oneself. True humility and true love, in the spiritual order, consist in knowing ourselves to be guilty ‘in everything and for everyone.’

Abba John said, ‘We have rejected the light burden of condemning ourselves, and we have chosen to carry the heavy one of justifying ourselves and condemning others.John Colobos, Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 21.

How can we judge another person without imprisoning that person in his past acts? Without shackling him to one moment of his development.  A change of heart is always possible.”   (Oliver Clement, The Roots of Christian Mysticism, p. 282)

God Conceived of Mary Before the World was Made

It is obvious that the Feast of the Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple is a very theological feast in Orthodoxy.  Few historians would give it any factual credibility and recently even some Orthodox scholars acknowledge its importance is far more theological than historical.  It is a theological meditation on the incarnation of God, and all of the events which led to the incarnation.  Many Orthodox writers and saints through the centuries have treated it as a historical event, but that isn’t what makes the Feast significant.

So consider somethings we can glean from this Feast as well as from other Feasts of the Theotokos and the Lord:

Long before Mary was conceived on earth, God had conceived of her – for God’s plan for all humanity involved the incarnation,  which means it required a woman to be mother to the God who entered into the world.  God conceived of a Mary,  chose motherhood and willed her existence before the world was made.  Before God created anything, God knew the need for a mother, Mary, to fulfill His plan for humanity.  From all eternity God knew what was needed for our salvation.  The incarnation is not an after thought, a reaction to sin, but rather the plan hidden from all eternity revealed in Jesus Christ(Ephesians 3:9-13, Colossians 1:25-27).  If there was to be an incarnation in which God became fully human, there had to be a mother in which the incarnation would occur.

God knew His plan of salvation, knew He needed a mother to make the incarnation possible, and God planned this salvation before Mary was ever born.

Mary, for her part, carried the Word of God in herself long before she conceived God in her womb.  She heard God’s Word growing up in a pious Jewish family, and so was prepared to recognize God’s voice and to obey God’s Word.

Mary longed for God’s Word with all her heart, which is why she found favor in the eyes of God and why she was chosen to be the mother of God’s son.  God saw His plan for the salvation of humanity realized in a woman who was capable of being the Mother of God.  Mary is, after all, the one conceived of by God to bring His plan of salvation to fruition.  She is the one God needed to carry God’s Word on earth.  She is the temple God wished for Himself to dwell on earth from the beginning.

As it turns out, the temple in Jerusalem was a mere foreshadowing of Mary who became the temple of God on earth, the one in whom heaven was united with earth to become the dwelling place of God.  The feast of the Entry is thus much more a celebration of what happened theologically, than what happened historically.  The temple was real and historical, and Mary is real and historical.  Their relationship is a theological truth to which the Feast draws our attention.

And for those who believe in  God and God’s plan for our salvation – we are God’s people, God’s vineyard.  God plants His vineyard, cultivates and nurtures it, so that it would bear fruit for Him.  God chose His people and for centuries prepared them to be the location for His dwelling on earth.  Mary is the choice fruit of God’s vineyard.  She is the best product of God’s people, for in her God’s plan is fulfilled, and brought to fruition.  God comes to dwell in His people, and begins that in the Virgin’s womb.  The Feast of the Entry is simply making for us the connection between God, the temple and our salvation.

We fulfill our task by completing the words of our Lord Jesus:

Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you will, and it shall be done for you.   (John 15:4-7)

We should ask ourselves, on his Feast Day, what am I going to do today that is distinctively Christian?  What am I going to do today that non-believers aren’t going to do or can’t do or won’t do?

As Christians we need to think in those terms.

Like the Virgin Mary, we too have a distinct vocation in the world.  We are God’s chosen people.  It is up to us to hear God’s Word and incarnate that Word in our hearts and minds, in our lives, in our homes and families and in our parish community, so that the rest of the world has a chance to hear God’s Word and see God’s light.

We are the living temple of God and when we live our faith, others in the world are given opportunity to find God as well.

Strengthening Christ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theosis: Being a God to the Unfortunate

Many Orthodox note that the goal of the Christian life is theosis or deification – the goal is not to get to some distant”heaven”.  Rather the goal is to transform and transfigure our own life and our own being, now on earth.   As in heaven, so on earth is what we pray in the Lord’s prayer.  The goal of the Christian life is not merely to get to some eschatological and transcendent location, but to become and be the temple of God – the very place where God dwells on earth!  And attaining theosis in this life means to be like God – to be a God to the unfortunate, offering love and mercy to those in need.  Fr. John D. Jones  writes:

As Orthodox Christians, we recognize the ultimate goal of the Christian life is theosis or divinization—becoming like God as much as is possible for human beings. Yet this process of theosis is not a matter of a discarnate spirituality that retreats from human need and suffering. The journey towards theosis is rather expressed through concrete acts of love and mercy in imitation of God, who is love. As St. Gregory the Theologian writes, ‘Prove yourself a god to the unfortunate by imitating the mercy of God. There is nothing so godly in human beings as to do good works.’…[doing so] constitutes a sacred obligation for us to minister in Christ’s name to our neighbor; that is, to every person in need whom we encounter (cf. Luke 10:25–37).  —Metropolitan Anthony (Gergiannakis)

Prove yourself a god to the unfortunate by imitating the mercy of God. There is nothing so godly in human beings as to do good works.” So wrote St. Greogry the Theologian near the end of his Oration XIV, On the Love of the Poor. This theme is basic to the oration from the start:

Beautiful is contemplation (theoria=the knowledge and vision) of God, as likewise beautiful is action (praxis). The one is beautiful because it conducts our mind upward to what is akin to it. The other is beautiful because it welcomes Christ, serves him, and confirms the power of love through good works (sec. 4)…. Of all things, nothing so serves God as mercy because nothing else is more proper to God (sec. 5)…. We must, then, open our hearts to all the poor [and] those in distress from whatever cause (sec. 6).

“Opening the Doors of Compassion: Cultivating a Merciful Heart”, In Communion, Spring 2012, p. 4)

 

The Faithfulness of Christ

For no human being will be justified in his sight by works of the law, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. 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  the faith of 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 3:20-26)

Biblical scholar Michael J. Gorman, writing about St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, notes that in biblical scholarship today there is now a strong tendency to translate and interpret St Paul to speak more about “the faith of Christ” than our “faith in Christ.”   St Paul speaks about the faith of Abraham, and so it seems correct to read him as also speaking about the faith of Christ, rather than what Protestantism wants St Paul to say – our faith in Christ.  Gorman writes:

“The bold proclamation of God’s faithfulness (“righteousness”) in these verses stands over against the dismal portrayal of humanity’s faithlessness in [Romans] 1:18-3:20. Although it appears that Paul is drawing on fragments of early Christian liturgical material (some of which are very difficult to translate), he makes them decisively his own, revealing a distinctively Pauline gospel that is, as 1:17 announced, ‘out of faith into faith.’ If we follow the majority of the most recent interpretations of Paul, which understand God’s righteousness as God’s saving covenant faithfulness, and which render phrases normally translated “faith in Christ” as ‘the faith/faithfulness of Christ’ (3:22, 25), then the faith/faithfulness of God, Christ, and those who respond are all named in this text. This appears most succinctly in 3:22:

  1.  What is manifested: God’s righteousness (=saving covenant faithfulness).
  2. Where or how it is manifested: all who respond in faith.
  3. For whom it is manifested: all who respond in faith.

. . .  Christ’s death, then, says Paul, is God’s faithful and merciful gift (Rom. 3:24, 25) as well as Christ’s faithful act. This death accomplishes two things: forgiveness for sins and redemption from sin. God “put forward” Christ as “a sacrifice of atonement,” referring to the Jewish system of sacrifices for sins (3:25). But this was also an act of “redemption” (3:24) or liberation – the language of deliverance from bondage to Egypt or any other slave master. In other words, Christ’s death deals both with sins (the deeds) and with sin (the power) – just as Paul’s analysis of the human predicament in 1:18-3:20 requires.” (Apostle of the Crucified Lord, p. 358-360)

The Cross as the Garment of Salvation

One of the many images we find in the Scriptures are those of garments and their relationship to God and God’s salvation.

In the hymns of the Church and in the writings of many Patristic writers we note that Eve and Adam are stripped naked by their own sinfulness.  A nakedness which God in His love and mercy chooses to cover as God covers both our sin and shame:

In Paradise of old, the wood stripped me bare, for by giving its fruit to eat, the enemy brought in death.  But now the wood of the cross that clothes mankind with the garment of life has been set up in the midst of the earth, which is filled with boundless joy.  As we behold it exalted, people, in faith, let us cry out to God with one accord: Your house is full of glory!    (Matins hymn, Feast of the Elevation)

In Genesis 3:21, after Eve and Adam had sinned, it is God Himself who is said to cover their nakedness:

And the LORD God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins, and clothed them.

It is an act of mercy on God’s part for His human creatures who have through sin rebelled against Him.  But we are pitiable creatures in God’s eyes, and God provides for us so that we can survive in the world of the Fall.  The hymns of the Cross suggest it is through the Cross that we are clothed again with a garment of life.

In Exodus 19, the people of Israel are all told to wash their garments in preparation for the theophany that Moses was to experience on the mountain.  The people themselves are forbidden from even approaching the mountain, and yet they are commanded to wash their clothes in preparation for what Moses would receive from God on their behalf.  The washing of their clothes was a sacramental act as part of their cleansing themselves to meet the Holy God.  In Christianity, we take that all a step further in baptism when we wash not our clothes but ourselves in order to put on Christ.  We strip off our old garments belonging to the fallen world, and put on Christ as a garment as a sign of the new life we have embraced in Christ.

Garments play a significant part the sacramental life of Christians – through baptism we are given a special spiritual garment which we ask God in the petitions to help us “keep the garment undefiled”)  and for which we will have to give an account on Judgement Day (“and preserve the baptismal garment undefiled unto the day of Christ our God”).  This is symbolized in the white garment the newly baptized put on when they come up from the watery grave and rise to the new life.  As it says in Revelation 16:15 –  “Blessed is the one who keeps watch and preserves his garments in order not to walk naked and be shamefully exposed.

So we pray at the baptismal service:

Preserve pure and unpolluted the garment of incorruption with which You have clothed him (her), by Your grace, the seal of the Spirit, and showing mercy to him (her) and to us, through the multitude of Your mercies.

The priest declares immediately after baptizing the person that:

The servant of God, ______, is clothed in the robe of righteousness, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

And then everyone at the baptism sings:

Grant to me the robe of light, O Most Merciful Christ our God, Who clothe Yourself with light as with a garment.

And

As many as have been baptized into Christ, have put on Christ. (Galatians 3:27)

The newly baptized is said to clothe himself/ herself in  Christ our God.  Which also resonates with the the Transfiguration account in which the very clothes of Christ are said to show forth a brilliant whiteness (Mark 9:3; Matthew 17:2; Luke 9:22).

Not only is each newly baptized Christian spiritually clothed with the garment of salvation at baptism, but also, the priests who serve God since the time of Aaron in the Book of Exodus, have been commanded by God to wear special garments.  When Aaron is chosen with his sons to serve as priests, one of the first things God commands is:  “And you shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother, for glory and for beauty”  (Exodus 28:2).

In Isaiah 61:10, we read these words which the priest prays as he vests himself with the priestly garments before the Liturgy:

I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my soul shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.

The garments as a sign of salvation are not just for this world but belong to the eternal life in God.   In 2 Esdras 2:39, we encounter this prophecy of what we will receive in the glorious age to come:

Those who have departed from the shadow of this age have received glorious garments from the Lord.

St Isaac of Nineveh writes:

For the Cross is Christ’s garment just as the humanity of Christ is the garment of the divinity.   (Contemplating the Cross)

We put on Christ, Christ puts on our humanity.  We are clothed in each other.  The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil stripped us bare when we ate of its fruit.  Now the cross clothes Christ who is stripped naked and nailed to it.  The images of clothing and salvation are common throughout the scriptures.

Here indeed we groan, and long to put on our heavenly dwelling, so that by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we sigh with anxiety; not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.  (2 Corinthians 5:2-4)

Refusing God’s Invitation to His Wedding Banquet

And Jesus answered and spoke to them again by parables and said: “The kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who arranged a marriage for his son, and sent out his servants to call those who were invited to the wedding; and they were not willing to come. Again, he sent out other servants, saying, ‘Tell those who are invited, “See, I have prepared my dinner; my oxen and fatted cattle are killed, and all things are ready. Come to the wedding.”’ But they made light of it and went their ways, one to his own farm, another to his business. And the rest seized his servants, treated them spitefully, and killed them. But when the king heard about it, he was furious. And he sent out his armies, destroyed those murderers, and burned up their city.

Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding is ready, but those who were invited were not worthy. Therefore go into the highways, and as many as you find, invite to the wedding.’ So those servants went out into the highways and gathered together all whom they found, both bad and good. And the wedding hall was filled with guests. But when the king came in to see the guests, he saw a man there who did not have on a wedding garment. So he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you come in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the servants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, take him away, and cast him into outer darkness; there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”  (Matthew 22:1-14)

John A. McGukin comments:

The God of Jesus Christ, on the contrary, was a God very near, not far away; a God who needed no persuading at all to have mercy but who poured out his mercy with an almost reckless prodigality. This forgiveness of sins, freely given, freely received, in the wedding feast of God’s return to his people, was the heart of Jesus’ evangelion or “Good News.” It consequently must have struck him as perverse that many of his follows rejected this theology, and thus opposed his personal insight into religion and his claims to prophetic authority in preaching it.

These he characterized as the ones who refused to join in the celebration, those who would not come to the feast: “Tell the guests the banquet is all prepared: my oxen and fattened cattle have all be slaughtered. All is ready. Come to the wedding. But they were not interested.” The reaction of the elder son in the parable of the Prodigal Father who was too incensed at the “easiness” of forgiveness granted to his dissolute brother to be able to come to the celebration is a typical illustration of the case in point. (Witnessing the Kingdom, pp. 21-22)

God’s Love Means Our Salvation

“If a genuine righteousness were required of human beings, then only one in ten thousand would be able to enter the kingdom of heaven, continues Isaac. This is why God gave people repentance as a remedy, for it can heal a person from sin in a short time. Not wishing human beings to perish, God forgives everyone who repents with his whole heart. God is good by nature, and he ‘wishes to save everyone by all sorts of means’.

Isaac resented the widespread opinion that the majority of human beings will be punished in hell, while only a small group of the chosen will delight in paradise. He was convinced that, quite the contrary, the majority of people will find themselves in the kingdom of heaven, and only a few sinners will go to Gehenna, and even they only for the period of time necessary for their repentance and remission of sins:

By the device of grace the majority of humankind will enter the kingdom of heaven without the experience of Gehenna. But this is apart from those who, because of their hardness of heart and utter abandonment to wickedness and the lusts, fail to show remorse in suffering for their faults and their sins, and because these people have not been disciplined at all. For God’s holy nature is so good and so compassionate that it is always seeking to find some small means of putting us in the right: how he can forgive human beings their sins—like the case of the tax collector who was put in the right by the intensity of his prayer or like the case of a woman with two small coins or the man who received forgiveness on the cross. For God wishes our salvation, and not reasons to torment us.

Earthly life is given to everyone as a time of repentance. It is enough for a person to turn to God to ask forgiveness for his sins immediately to be forgiven. The token of this forgiveness is the Incarnation of the Word of God, who, when all creation had abandoned and forgotten God, came down to earth in order to redeem humankind and the whole universe by his death on the cross.”

(Hilarion Alfeyev, The Spiritual World of St. Isaac the Syrian, pp. 294-295)

Did Moses Foresee the Theotokos?

It seems to me that, already, the great Moses knew about this mystery by means of the light in which God appeared to him, when he saw the bush burning without being consumed (cf Ex 3:1ff). For Moses said: “I wish to go up closer and observe this great vision.” I believe that the term “go up closer” does not indicated motion in space but a drawing near in time. What was prefigured at that time in the flame of the bush was openly manifested in the mystery of the Virgin, once an intermediate space of time had passed.

As on the mountain the bush burned but was not consumed, so the Virgin gave birth to the light and was not corrupted. Nor should you consider the comparison to the bush to be embarrassing, for it prefigures the God-bearing body of the Virgin.

(St Gregory of Nyssa, in Luigi Gambero’s Mary and the Fathers of the Church, p. 155)

Most amazing in the quote is that St. Gregory is way “ahead of his time” in thinking that Moses is able to foresee the incarnation in the Virgin because of a miraculous condensing of time which enabled him to experience a prefiguring in the burning bush of what was to happen in the womb of the Virgin.  It is not that Moses got closer physically to the burning bush, but somehow he crossed through time to get a glimpse at what God was planning.  This relativity of time that St. Gregory describes predates Einstein by 1500 years.

Praying for Everyone

My little children, I am writing this to you so that you may not sin; but if any one does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the expiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.   (1 John 2:1-2)

“I beg and beseech You, Lord, grant to all who have gone astray a true knowledge of You, so that each and everyone may come to know Your glory.

In the case of all who have passed from this world lacking a virtuous life and having had no faith, be an advocate for them, Lord, for the sake of the body which You took from them, so that from the single united body of the world we may offer up praise to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the kingdom of heaven, an unending source of eternal delight.”

(St Isaac the Syrian, Scriptores Syri, T. 225, p. 18)