NOW is the Time for Salvation, Not in the Hereafter

Apostles (Byzantine ca 1000AD)

We then, as workers together with Him also plead with you not to receive the grace of God in vain. For He says: “In an acceptable time I have heard You, and in the day of salvation I have helped You.” Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation. We give no offense in anything, that our ministry may not be blamed. But in all things we commend ourselves as ministers of God: in much patience, in tribulations, in needs, in distresses, in stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in sleeplessness, in fastings; by purity, by knowledge, by longsuffering, by kindness, by the Holy Spirit, by sincere love, by the word of truth, by the power of God, by the armor of righteousness on the right hand and on the left, by honor and dishonor, by evil report and good report; as deceivers, and yet true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold we live; as chastened, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things.   (2 Corinthians 6:1-10)

St. Gregory Palamas exhorts us:

“Where did true death – the death that produces and induces in soul and body both temporal and eternal death – have its origin? Was it not in the realm of life? Thus was man, alas, at once banished from God’s paradise, for he had imbued his life with death and made it unfit for paradise. Consequently true life – the life that confers immortality and true life on both soul and body – will have its origin here, in this place of death. If you do not strive here to gain this life in your soul, do not deceive yourself with vain hopes about receiving it hereafter, or about God then being compassionate towards you. For then is the time of requital and retribution, not of sympathy and compassion: the time for the revealing of God’s wrath and anger and just judgement, for the manifestation of the mighty and sublime power that brings chastisement upon unbelievers. Woe to him who falls into the hands of the living God (cf. Heb. 10:31)! Woe to him who hereafter experiences the Lord’s wrath, who has not acquired in this life the fear of God and so come to know the might of His anger, who has not through his actions gained a foretaste of God’s compassion!

For the time to do all this is the present life. That is the reason why God has accorded us this present life, giving us a place for repentance. Were this not the case a person who sinned would at once be deprived of this life. For otherwise of what use would it be to him?”  (“To the Most Reverend Nun Xenia”, The Philokalia, pp.298-299)

 

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The Exaltation of the Cross (2017)

The [Feast of the] Universal Exaltation of the Precious and Life-giving Cross … (September 14).   The association of the words ‘feast’ and ‘Cross’ is a paradox: the Cross, to the Jews a stumbling block, to the Greeks a folly, yet ‘to those who are called, the power and the wisdom of God’ (1 Cor 1:23-24).  We commemorate the Passion and the Crucifixion not as ugly episodes inspired by a sordid politicking, but as the voluntary sacrifice of the Son of God who became man to save us.  therefore the liturgy of the Cross is not a lamentation over a dead hero, the wailing of devotees working themselves up to a paroxysm of frenzy, but the memorial of an event of cosmic significance, reaching beyond the limits of history.

The Cross stands while the world rolls . . . proclaims the motto of the Carthusian hermits.  We see in the cross a reason for hope, and the Resurrection makes this hope to become the unshakable assurance of our Christian faith.”  (Georges Barrois, SCRIPTURE READINGS IN ORTHODOX WORSHIP, p 142)

Our Salvation Depends on The Theotokos

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

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

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

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

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

The Salvation of the World

“we are members one of another” (Ephesians 4:25)

“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. For the body does not consist of one member but of many.” (1 Corinthians 12:12-14)

St. Paul uses several different images of the Church – the Body of Christ.  In them it is always clear that to be a Christian is to be integrated into something greater than oneself – a body, a temple.  We cannot be a Christian without being part of this greater whole, which is the Church.  As the early Christians noted, “one Christian is no Christian.”

When we think of Christianity purely in individualistic terms, we lose sight of what it is to be a Christian.  We end up with a wrong idea about what salvation is.  Many “Christians” today think salvation is to “die and go to heaven.”  Yet numerous New Testament scholars point out that idea is not really found in the Gospel proclamation.  Salvation is about liberation from death and is about the redemption of the world.  Just as the New Testament envisions Christianity always being a Body of members, so too it understands salvation to be for the entire world, not just for a few individuals.  The incarnation of the Son of God brings salvation to the world and to humanity for it heals human nature.

Orthodox Theologian Christos Yannaras notes the negative effects of an individualistic understanding of Christianity:

“In our days, a mistaken religious upbringing has led many people to consider the Church as a means or instrument to ensure individual salvation for each of us – and when they talk of ‘salvation’ they mean an unlimited kind of survival after death in some ‘other’ world.  But in reality the Church entrusts to everyone the enormous honor to be responsible for the salvation of the whole world, of this world whose flesh is our flesh and whose life is our life.  And salvation for the Church is the liberation of life from corruption and death, the transformation of survival into existential fullness, the sharing of the created in the mode of life of the uncreated.”  (ELEMENTS OF FAITH, p 48)

The salvation of the world includes individuals, but is always about the entire creation – it is about uniting together that which sin divided, separated, alienated.

“So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.” (Ephesians 219-22)

Justification by Faith

“‘Justification’ (and related words like ‘righteousness,’ all of which come from the same Greek root) has often been understood as a legal (judicial, forensic) concept. It is associated with the image of God as a judge rendering a ‘not guilty’ verdict to the guilty. However, although there is certainly a judicial dimension to justification…, it is now generally understood as a much more relational and especially covenental concept than previously recognized (cf. Rom. 5:1-11, where it is paired with ‘reconciliation’). To be justified is to be restored to right covenantal relations now, with certain hope of acquittal on the future day of judgement (Rom. 5:9-10; Gal. 5:5).

‘Faith’ is likewise a covenantal term that implies not merely intellectual assent, but faithfulness–a total commitment of the self from the heart that is more akin to loyalty, obedience, and devotion (as in ‘love of God’) than to ‘belief’ or even ‘trust’ (though each of these must still be understood to be part of faith). A growing number of scholars–approaching a consensus–believe Galatians 2:15-21, like Romans 3:21-26 and Philippians 3:2-11, speaks not only of our faith but of Christ’s faith, understood in this covenantal way as his faithfulness. Space does not permit an argument for this interpretation, but it is recognized in the NRSV margin and will be adopted as the basis for the commentary below. Specifically, it affects two verses…. The NRSV marginal translation (our interpretation) means that Paul understands Christ’s death as his faithfulness to God in giving himself on the cross “for me” (us–Paul speaks representatively), and that it, rather than our performance of the works of the Law, is the basis of our right relationship with God.” (Michael J. Gorman, Apostle of the Crucified Lord, p. 201).

Salvation and Slavery

St. Nicholas Cabasilas  writing in the 14th Century turns to the imagery of slavery to explain what it is to become a Christian.   Building upon the images and metaphors of St. Paul’s epistles, St. Nicholas explains both how becoming a Christian is like becoming a slave, and simultaneously how this activity is totally different than the idea of slave and master which was known in the world.

“The blessed Paul makes all things clear in a brief saying, ‘you are not your own, you were bought with a price’ ( 1 Cor 6:19-20).  He who has been purchased does not regard himself but Him who has purchased him, and lives according to His will.

A slave is purchased by a master to accomplish the master’s will.  The slave’s purpose for existence is to serve the will, and even the whims of the master.  Slaves are property, chattel, not human beings.

In the case of men, the slave is bound to the wish of the his master, but only in body; in his mind and reason he is free and can use them as he pleases.   But in the case of him whom Christ has bought it is impossible for him to be  his own.  Since no man has ever bought a complete man, and there is no price for which it is possible to purchase a human soul, so no one has ever set a man free or enslaved him save with respect to his body.

St. Nicholas says slavery is about enslaving the body, for no one can enslave the soul – the person’s inner self and thoughts.  The slave may not be free to express those inner thoughts, but the master can never completely control them.  Christ pays a price for others that includes their souls.   Those for whom Christ pays the price are owned body and soul by Christ, for Christ is not interested only in getting bodily work from someone. Christ in love wishes to share His wealth, His life with those He buys.  And the price Christ pays is not a finite sum of money, but rather He pays with His own blood, He spends His entire being in order to take possession of those who would be His slaves.

The Savior, however, has bought the whole of man.  While men merely spend money to buy a slave, He spent Himself.  For our freedom He surrendered body and soul by causing the one to die and by depriving the other of its own body.

Not only does Christ the Master, pay in His own blood, He dies to give freedom to His slaves – freedom from sin and death.  Christ liberates those held captive by Satan and Death.  He does this by His own sacrificial death.  He gives His entire being to purchase His slaves in order to set them free!

His body suffered pains by being wounded; His soul was troubled, and that not merely when the body was slain, but even before it was wounded, as He said, ‘My soul is very sorrowful, even to death’ (Mt 28:38).  . . .  Because of the fact that it was our will which He was seeking, He did not violence to it nor took it captive, but He bought it.

Christ does not forcibly impose His slavery on us.  He pays the full price for our redemption, in order to allow us the freedom to accept or reject the salvation He offers.   He dies to liberate us from death, but makes it an offering, that we are free to accept or reject.  We have to use our wills to chose to embrace what Christ offers for us and to us.

 . . . He who spent money for a slave did not spend it with the aim of conferring benefits on him who he has bought, but rather that he himself might derive benefit by exploiting his labors.  The slave is, as it were, being spent for the profit of those who have acquired him and through whom he suffers misery, and gathers pleasures for them while he himself is subject to constant sorrows.

Slavery in the world is not done for the benefit of the slaves, but purely for the benefit of the masters.  The slave himself or herself is then spent, exhausted for the good of the master.  The slave benefits nothing and is tasked with always benefiting the master who owns him or her.  Not so with the Lord Jesus Christ.

In the case of the slaves of Christ the opposite is true, for everything has been accomplished for their benefit.  He paid the ransom, not in order to enjoy  anything from those who have been ransomed, but in order that what is His might belong to them, and that the Master and His labors might profit the slaves, and that he who has been purchased might himself wholly possess Him who has purchased him.

Slavery to Christ means possessing Christ!  Christ pays the price of our redemption with His own blood in order that we might possess Him!   After paying for us with His own blood, He then gives us His Kingdom.  He holds nothing back from us but gives us everything, even eternal possession of His Kingdom.

 . . . Among men the law makes the masters lords over their slaves and possessions unless they renounce their domination or release them from servitude.  In this case, however, the slaves possess their own Master and inherit that which is His when they love His yoke and regard themselves as bound by His act of purchase.  This is why Paul commanded, ‘Rejoice in the Lord’ (Phil 4:4), meaning by ‘the Lord’ Him who has purchased them.”  (THE LIFE IN CHRIST, pp 220-222)

The Ascension (2017)

“After His resurrection from the dead Jesus appeared to men for a period of forty days after which He “was taken up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God” (Mk 16.19; see also Lk 24.50 and Acts 1.9–11).

The ascension of Jesus Christ is the final act of His earthly mission of salvation. The Son of God comes “down from heaven” to do the work which the Father gives Him to do; and having accomplished all things, He returns to the Father bearing for all eternity the wounded and glorified humanity which He has assumed (see e.g. Jn 17).

The doctrinal meaning of the ascension is the glorification of human nature, the reunion of man with God. It is indeed, the very penetration of man into the inexhaustible depths of divinity.

We have seen already that “the heavens” is the symbolical expression in the Bible for the uncreated, immaterial, divine “realm of God” as one saint of the Church has called it. To say that Jesus is “exalted at the right hand of God” as Saint Peter preached in the first Christian sermon (Acts 2.33) means exactly this: that man has been restored to communion with God, to a union which is, according to Orthodox doctrine, far greater and more perfect than that given to man in his original creation (see Eph 1–2).

Man was created with the potential to be a “partaker of the divine nature,” to refer to the Apostle Peter once more (2 Pet 1.4). It is this participation in divinity, called theosis (which literally means deification or divinization) in Orthodox theology, that the ascension of Christ has fulfilled for humanity. The symbolical expression of the “sitting at the right hand” of God means nothing other than this. It does not mean that somewhere in the created universe the physical Jesus is sitting in a material throne.”  (Fr. Thomas Hopko, Doctrine and Scripture, Vol. 1, pp. 106-107)

Lifting Adam From Earth to Paradise

In one of the hymns from the Feast of the Ascension we catch sight of the theological importance of this Feast of the Lord in God’s plan for the salvation of humanity.  Christ the incarnate God refashions human nature, lifting humanity up from the depths of sin, bringing human nature to the throne of God.

After the humans sinned, they were driven from Paradise and returned to the earth from which they had been fashioned.  Christ becomes incarnate on earth to restore humanity to God.

The hymn  in part reads:

O GOD, YOU HAVE REFASHIONED THE NATURE OF ADAM WHICH HAD FALLEN INTO THE DEPTHS OF THE EARTH.  YOU HAVE LED IT UP TODAY ABOVE EVERY PRINCIPALITY AND POWER, FOR IN YOUR LOVE FOR IT, YOU HAVE SEATED IT TOGETHER WITH YOURSELF!  SINCE YOU HAVE TAKEN COMPASSION ON IT YOU UNITED IT TO YOURSELF AND HAVING BEEN UNITED WITH IT, YOU SUFFERED WITH IT. AND A PASSIONLESS ONE, YOU SUFFERED PASSION TO GLORIFY IT WITH YOURSELF!

Salvation is the restoration of humanity in our relationship with God.  We experience a reunion with our Creator.  In the Ascension, however this event is to be understood historically and factually, God fully accepted human nature and reunited us humans to Himself in Christ. God suffers in the flesh to redeem human nature and to bring us back, body and spirit into God’s presence.  God redeems human nature to save each of us – body and soul.

Salvation: Restoring the Divine Image

While Christianity focuses on Christ, it doesn’t begin with Jesus.  Christ comes to heal humanity, but the illness which He heals began thousands of years earlier with the entrance of sin and death into human existence.  St. Gregory of Nyssa offers an understanding of what was the ill that Jesus Christ came to cure.  First Gregory notes that sin is not a thing that is permanent or can even exist without a host.  Sin is dependent for its existence on human free will.  If humans made no choices, sin could not exist.  Humans were created with the possibility of sinless existence, but we have made choices that led us away from God – separation from God is death.

Is it possible that there was a physical death that could exist that didn’t involve separation from God?  Is it possible that living things could age and even die but remain united to God?  Is this what God intended from the beginning?  Certainly in Christ we have that reality achieved – even death doesn’t separate us from God.  Jesus the man is never separated from divinity even in His death and descent into Hades, the place of the dead.  In Christ, we all remain united to Him even through our own deaths and after our burials.  In Christ, death no longer separates us from God!  Whether this was something totally new, or a restoration of what existed at the beginning of creation, doesn’t matter for it is the new reality – creation renewed in Christ.

St. Gregory begins describing the first human, the first Adam, who had all of the potential for good, and yet chose to separate himself from all that is good.

So too the first man who arose from the earth–he, indeed, who begot all the evil that is in man–and it in his power to choose all the good and beautiful things of nature that lay around him. And yet he deliberately instituted by himself things that were against nature; in rejecting virtue by his own free choice he fashioned the temptation to evil. For sin does not exist in nature apart from free will; it is not a substance in its own right. All of God’s creatures are good, and nothing He has made may be despised: He made all things very good (Gen. 1:31). But in the way I have described, the whole procession of sin entered into man’s life for his undoing, and from a tiny source poured out upon mankind an infinite sea of evil. The soul’s divine beauty, that had been an imitation of its archetype, was, like a blade, darkened with the rust of sin; it no longer kept beauty of the image it once possessed by nature, and was transformed into the ugliness of evil.

St. Gregory describes a common idea in Orthodox patristic writers: there is an inner goodness in every human being – the image of God is imprinted on each of us and is never lost.  Sin cannot take the image of God away from us.  Rather that image becomes covered with the rust and dirt of sin.  The most precious diamond in the world if caked with layers of  dried and hardened clay will look like any rock.  Yet, beneath those layers of hardened mud lies encased that most valuable diamond.

Thus man, who was so great and precious, as the Scriptures call him, fell from the value he had by nature. It is like people who slip and fall in the mud and get their faces so smeared that even their relatives cannot recognize them. So man fell into the mud of sin, and lost his likeness to the eternal Godhead. And in its stead he has, by his sin, clothed himself in an image that is of clay and mortal; and this is the image we earnestly counsel him to remove and wash away in the purifying waters of the Christian life. Once this earthly covering is removed, the soul’s beauty will once again shine forth.

In sticking with the imagery of a diamond encased in hardened clay, St. Gregory sees each human person.  No longer do we see the glorious image of God in each other.  Baptism begins to wash away these layers of filth, the accretion of a life time of sin.  Baptism washes our eyes so we can see the reality of God’s hand in creation and the image of God in others.  Baptism helps wash away our own layers of sin so that others can see the image of God in us.

By our human efforts we can merely clear away the accumulated filth of sin and thus allow the hidden beauty of the soul to shine forth.

This lesson is taught, I think, in the Gospel, where our Lord speaks to those who have ears for the mysteries that Wisdom teaches us: The kingdom of God is within you (Luke 17:21). I think that the text here points out that the gift of God is not separated from our nature nor is it far from those who choose to look for it. It dwells within everyone of us, ignored and forgotten, choked with the cares and pleasures of life (Luke 8:14), but is rediscovered when we turn our minds to it.

But if we must confirm this doctrine in other ways, the same lesson is, I think, taught by our Lord in the search for the lost drachma (Luke 15:8-9)…and surely the hidden meaning of the coin is the image of our King, which has not yet been completely lost, but is simply hidden under dirt. By the dirt I think we must understand the uncleanness of the flesh; for, when we cleanse and sweep this away by a fervent life, what we are looking for will be made manifest. And then the soul that finds the coin rightly rejoices and calls in her neighbors to share in her joy. The soul’s associates are, of course, the various faculties of the soul, which the text here calls neighbors. For when the great image of the King is discovered and shines forth again, just as it was stamped on our drachma in the beginning by the Creator, stamped on the hearts of everyone, then do all our faculties unite in that divine joy and gladness as they gaze upon the ineffable beauty of what they have found. For she says: Rejoice with me because I have found the groat which I had lost (Luke 15:9). (From Glory to Glory, pp.13-15)

In all such imagery and thinking, we find that sin is not limited to law breaking which God must punish.  Sin is experienced by us as being covered by layers of filth – of our being buried beneath layers of sin so that we can no longer see clearly, and reality itself (the image of God in each of us is so covered as to be totally obscured from sight). Salvation is not merely a release from legal retribution, but is a restoration and recreation and regeneration of the human being.   Overcoming sin is thus not just a matter of suffering an appropriate punishment, but requires a washing, a cleansing which restores the human to his or her glorious nature.  It is a healing of soul and body which we need, which is given to us by Christ, the true physician of our lives.

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)