Pentecost: The Fullness of the Feast of Feasts

34358291504_beaf717427_nIn the Creed which we recite at every Liturgy, we confess our belief that Jesus Christ became incarnate… for us [humans] and for our salvation.”  The Creed professes a belief that all that Christ did was for the salvation of all humans, not just for Christians or for the Orthodox.  We repeat this same line on feast days in the Orthodox Church  when at the final dismissal the priest blesses the congregation saying, “may He who for us (humans) and our salvation, Christ our true God…”   Orthodoxy is very clear that Christ Jesus did everything for the life of the world, for the salvation of all humans – for all who are created in God’s image and likeness, whether everyone believes that  or not.

This sense that everything is moving us toward this salvation is also clear in the Church’s celebration of PaschaAscensionPentecost.  All three events are for our salvation and necessary for our salvation.  In the resurrection, Christ unites even the dead to God, filling all things with Himself, even the place of the dead.  Christ raises the dead with Himself, and then ascends bodily into heaven, bringing our created nature into the Kingdom, into God’s presence.  Then Christ sends the Holy Spirit upon all flesh at Pentecost, restoring the Holy Spirit to humanity.  We are thus not saved just by the death of Christ on the cross, but by the continuous work of Christ who lifts us from Hades to Heaven.  Both the incarnate Word and the Holy Spirit restore humanity’s union with divinity.   We sing about all of this throughout the Pascha-Pentecost cycle of services.  On the Monday of the Holy Spirit, one hymn proclaims:

COME, O FAITHFUL, LET US CELEBRATE THE FEAST OF THE FIFTIETH DAY,
THE DAY WHICH CONCLUDES THE FEAST OF FEASTS;
THE DAY ON WHICH THE PRE-ORDAINED PROMISE IS FULFILLED!
THE DAY WHEN THE COMFORTER DESCENDS UPON THE EARTH IN TONGUES OF FIRE;
THE DAY OF THE DISCIPLES’ ENLIGHTENMENT!
THEY ARE REVEALED AS INITIATES OF HEAVENLY MYSTERIES,
FOR TRULY THE LIGHT OF THE COMFORTER HAS ILLUMINED THE WORLD!

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Salvation, the restoration of human communion with God, fully occurs in all of the events of Pascha-Ascension-Pentecost and as we participate in these events through life in the Church, especially through baptism and the Eucharist.  In Christ, we are saved from sin and death and by the Holy Spirit we are enlivened and enlightened.  We are thus saved – restored to being fully human – by both the work of the Son/Word of God and the Holy Spirit.

With Pentecost we see a full restoration of what was lost by our sins.  In Genesis 6:3, the grieving Creator says of us humans, the focal point of His creation:

“My spirit shall not abide in man for ever, for he is flesh, but his days shall be a hundred and twenty years.”

God withdrew the Divine and Holy Spirit from us, and with this separation from God’s Spirit, death became part of our condition on earth.

With the coming of Christ, this ‘curse’ is lifted from us as John the Baptist bears witness:

The next day John the Baptist saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, for he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but for this I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John bore witness, “I saw the Spirit descend as a dove from heaven, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him; but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.”  (John 1:29-35)

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In the incarnate Word of God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit also remains on a human, which was the sign for John the Baptist that Jesus is the Savior of the world.  At Pentecost, that Spirit which came to dwell in Jesus and remain on Him, comes to dwell on all humanity.  The curse from Genesis 6:3 is lifted, and humanity is restored to full communion with God.  The salvation of us humans is brought to completion in this complete cycle of incarnation, resurrection and the giving of the Holy Spirit to humanity.

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The Ascension of Humanity to Divinity

The Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ completes  cycle of salvation in which God became  human in the incarnation of the Word (John 1: ) and then the incarnate Word ascended bodily into heaven.  Thus all that divided humanity from divinity came to an end (see my post The Ascension: No Barrier to Heaven Ever Again).  God who always wished to dwell with and in us humans, whom God created in His own image and likeness, dwells with us in the incarnation and brings us to dwell with God in the ascension.  Salvation is thus by definition the elimination of all barriers to God’s unity with us and the establishment of this eternal communion between humanity and divinity. This definition of salvation was expressed in various ways from the earliest days of Christianity.  Norman Russell in his book, FELLOW WORKERS WITH GOD: ORTHODOX THINKING ON THEOSIS (pp 38-39) offers a collection of quotes from early church fathers which repeat this truth.

The Son of God ‘became what we are in order to make us what he is himself’ (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 5, pref.).

‘The Word of God became man so that you too may learn from a man how it is even possible for a man to become a god’ (Clement of Alexandria, Exhortation to the Greeks 1.8.4).

‘He became human that we might become divine’ (Athanasius, On the Incarnation 54).

‘He gave us divinity, we gave him humanity’ (Ephrem, Hymns on Faith 5.7).

‘Let us become as Christ is, since Christ became as we are; let us become gods for his sake, since he became man for our sake’ (Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 1.5)

The Word became incarnate ‘so that by becoming as we are, he might make us as he is’ (Gregory of Nyssa, Refutations 11).

‘The Son of God became the Son of Man that he might make the sons of men sons of God’ (Augustine, Mainz sermons 13.1).

‘He became like us, a human being, that we might become like him, I mean gods and sons.  On the one hand he accepts what belongs to us, taking it to himself as his own, and on the other he gives us in exchange what belongs to him’ (Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on John 12:1)

‘God and man are paradigms of one another, that as much as God is humanized to man through love for mankind, so much has man been able to deify himself to God through love’ (Maximus the Confessor, Amgibua, 10).

Ezekiel 33:11

Say to them, As I live, says the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel? (Ezekiel 33:11; see also Ezekiel 18:31-32)

St. Romanos the Melodist offers us Christian insight into Ezekiel‘s prophetic words:

“Now I shall make all known to you and I shall prophesy to you, All-Holy, unblemished.

For fall and resurrection,

your Son is set, the life and the redemption and the resurrection of all.

The Lord has not appeared so that some may fall while others rise,

for the All-Compassionate does not rejoice at the fall of mortals.

Nor has he now come to make those who stand fall,

but rather he is here hastening to raise those who have fallen,

ransoming from death what he himself fashioned,

the only lover of mankind.

(On the Life of Christ: Kontakia, p. 31)

And from the desert fathers we find a very motherly and earthy understanding of the Ezekiel prophecy:

A brother asked Abba Macarius, “My father, I have fallen into a transgression.” Abba Macarius said to him, “It is written, my son, ‘I do not desire the death of a sinner as much as his repentance and his life’ [see 1 Tim 2:4 and 2 Pet 3:9].

Repent, therefore, my son; you will see him who is gentle, our Lord Jesus Christ, his face full of joy towards you, like a nursing mother whose face is full of joy for her child when he raises his hands and his face up to her. Even if he is full of all kinds of uncleanness, she does not turn away from that bad smell and excrement but takes pity on him and lifts him up and presses him to her breast, her face full of joy, and everything about him is sweet to her. If, then, this created person has pity for her child, how much greater is the love of the creator, our Lord Jesus Christ, for us!   (St. Macarius The Spirit Bearer: Coptic Texts Relating To Saint Macarius, Kindle Location 269-279)

The unconditional love of a mother for her child is a most exquisite image of God’s love for us.  God is not repulsed by the filth of our sins but desires to embrace us with God’s eternal love if only we will allow ourselves to be so embraced.

Salvation: Being Made Whole and Human

Then it happened, as He was coming near Jericho, that a certain blind man sat by the road begging. And hearing a multitude passing by, he asked what it meant. So they told him that Jesus of Nazareth was passing by. And he cried out, saying, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

Then those who went before warned him that he should be quiet; but he cried out all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” So Jesus stood still and commanded him to be brought to Him. And when he had come near, He asked him, saying, “What do you want Me to do for you?” He said, “Lord, that I may receive my sight.” Then Jesus said to him, “Receive your sight; your faith has made you well.” And immediately he received his sight, and followed Him, glorifying God. And all the people, when they saw it, gave praise to God.   (Luke 18:35-43)

Orthodox theologian Vigen Guroian comments:

Soteria is the Greek New Testament word often translated as “save.” It is a derivative of the verb sozo, which means “to heal:” The Latin equivalents are salvare (to heal) and salvus (made whole or restored to integrity). Thus, the words for salvation in New Testament Greek and in Latin denote therapy and healing. The Gospel writers take advantage of this denotative meaning when they record Jesus’ healing miracles.   An example is St. Mark’s story of Bartimaeus the blind beggar (Mark 10:46-52), who enthusiastically chases after Jesus on the road from Jericho, boldly addresses Jesus by the Messianic title “Son of David” and earnestly beseeches Jesus to restore his sight.

The New Jerusalem Bible renders Jesus’ answer to Bartimaeus as “Go; your faith has saved you:” The Revised English Bible translates this as “Go; your faith has healed you:‘ while the Revised Standard Version reads, “Go your way; your faith has made you well.”    All three of these modern translations are “accurate:”  But not one alone captures the complete meaning of the passage. The healing miracles certainly concern physical cure; but they are not limited to physical cure. All four of the Gospels emphasize that Jesus’ acts of physical healing are charged with spiritual and eschatological significance as well.

(The Melody of Faith: Theology in an Orthodox Key, Kindle Loc. 544-51)

The Incarnation: Recreating Humans

Christ is born!

Glorify Him!

“The story of Job serves to renew hope within us. Even though God’s image in man has been spoiled by the sin of Adam and Eve, by the sin of Cain, and by the sins of each one of us, Job allows us to hope for the coming of One—just and suffering, patient and triumphant—who will resist with courage and perseverance the assaults of the Evil One and will triumph over him, thereby restoring in mankind the divine presence which had been lost through sin and reestablishing in us the divine image in the fullness of its beauty. To do this, God sends among us the very Model according to which He had originally created us.

Just as a faded print can be restored by reapplying the original stamp so the Son of God, who reflects the glory of God the Father (Heb. 1:3), can enter human nature by clothing Himself with it as with a garment, and thereby can create a new Adam, a perfect Man, a radiant Image of God. This occurs by what theologians call the Incarnation. This decisive event took place on the day of the Annunciation, when Gabriel, the messenger of God, visited a young virgin of Nazareth in Galilee called Mary.”

(The Living God: Vol. 1, p. 19)

When we read the Scriptures with the Church we realize how much of the Old Testament speaks of Christ.  Job prefigures Christ – as Job remains faithful to God despite his suffering Job defeats Satan.  Job shows what a true human is like.  When Christ comes to earth we realize how the story of Job helps us recognize God’s faithful and suffering servant.  The Book of Job thus prepares us for the Nativity story of Christ, in which we see evil acting against the Christ, but Christ remains faithful to God even to the point of death on the cross.  Christmas is not mostly a sentimental tale, but rather in all its details reveals to us God’s battle with the forces of evil and the price God is willing to pay for the salvation of the world.

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)