Knowing God

As we honor the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council, we have to consider how they struggled so much with finding a vocabulary to express the revelation of God.  They were trying to put into human words the divine: God’s self-revelation.  This issue of finding a vocabulary to adequately express what God reveals exists in the Scriptures as well.  Scholar Terence E. Fetheim notes:

Thus, for example, one needs to ask what speaking of God’s eyes and ears (2 Kings 19:16) adds to the understanding of the relationship of God to the world that living, seeing, and hearing do not. Such language makes the idea that God receives the world into himself vivid and concrete. God’s experience of the world is not superficial; God takes it in, in as real a way as people do who use their eyes and ears. At the same time, in ways that people do not, God takes it all in (Jer. 32:19), and not with fleshly eyes (Job 10:4).

Nevertheless, while examining each metaphor in its specificity is important, the general conclusions drawn continue to be significant. In addition to revealing God as living and personal, they testify to the intimate relationship between God and the world. ( The Suffering of God, p. 9)

The vocabulary we use in speaking about God is born from our experience of of God.  God’s revelation is received by us, we encounter this revelation who is Christ and we are changed by it.  The revelation is not ideas about God nor words about God, but rather the experience of God the Word.

The Christian doctrine of Trinity, in Gregory’s estimate, is therefore not an exercise in speculative metaphysical language, but an exposition of how the Church has experienced God within salvation history and, as such, how it prays. (John A. McGuckin, Seeing the Glory, p. 188)

 

 

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To Know God is More Than Just to Think About God

He presented Himself to them living (Acts 1:3).

With these words, Luke is telling us that the fullness of time has come (Gal 4.4), that God’s promises have been fulfilled. Christ had to suffer, rise from the dead, ascend into the heavens, and resume His place at the right hand of the Father, in order to ensure the promise of their salvation; so that their deepest desires would not remain unfulfilled.

Thus Christ presented himself living in order to show his disciples that, if there was any point to their existence, it was precisely the vision of God: in seeing the living Christ. True communication with God is not simply thinking about God; neither is it a loving disposition toward Him. Instead, it is perfect knowledge of Him, a ‘grasping’ of God in the sense of taking possession of Him, making Him your own, having an experience of God as living. And that God is living means that I stand in relation to him as to life itself, a relationship in which the two of us – two lives, two activities, two persons – live and move together, in a process of mutual giving and receiving.

By saying that He presented Himself living, Luke is telling us that the aim of life is the vision of God: to see and enjoy the living God. Thus if I am unable to see God, or lay hold of Him, or win Him over; if I am unable to love God truly, with a love that is a true dynamic embrace, then God for me is not a living God: He is a dead God. And Luke’s words are consequently a testimony to the resurrection. In Christ, God became man, suffered, was buried, and rose from the grave – without ever ceasing to be the Son and Word of God – so that man might share in His divinity and thereby partake fully of true life.”

(Archimandrite Aimillianos, The Way of the Spirit, p. 167-168)

 

Salvation as Deification Is to Know God

And this is eternal life, that they know You the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.  (John 17:3)

Catholic scholar Louis Bouyer  commenting on the writings of St. Irenaeus of Lyons  notes that the spirituality of the early church was one of participating in God.  To know God is to experience God and be united to the divine.

“We should note, in the above text from the Demonstratio, the use of the expression ‘to see the Logos of God’. For St. Irenaeus not only made his own the special expressions of Johannine mysticism, but assimilated them in a very personal way, as this other beautiful text indicates:

‘In His wonderful greatness and glory, “no man can see God and live”, for the Father is incomprehensible; but in His love and His humanity, and because He can do all things, He has granted even this to those who love Him: to see God, as the prophets foretold it. For “what is impossible to men is possible to God”. Of himself, indeed, man cannot see God. But He, when He wills it, is seen by men, by those He wills, when He wills it and how He wills it. For God has power to do anything: seen in a prophetic way through the Spirit, He is seen through the Son, adoptively, and He will be seen paternally in the kingdom of heaven–the Spirit preparing man for the Son of God, the Son leading him to the Father, and the Father giving him incorruptibility for eternal life, which comes to each one from the fact that he sees God.’

Christ the Ancient of Days

In the same spirit of Johannine mysticism, Irenaeus has us go on from the vision of God to the divine life that is communicated:

‘Just as those who see the light are in the light and share in its splendour, so those who see God are in God, participating in His splendour. But the splendour gives them life: thus they participate in life, those who see God. And it is because of this that He who is incomprehensible and intangible and invisible gives Himself to be seen, to be understood, to be grasped, so as to give life to those who grasp and see Him by faith. For, just as His greatness is unfathomable, so His goodness is ineffable, the goodness by which, being seen, He gives life to those who see Him. Since to live without life is impossible, the possibility (huparxis) of life comes from participation in God, and participation in God is to know Him and to enjoy His goodness. Thus men see God in such a way that they live, made immortal by the sight and truly attaining God.'”

The Spirituality of the New Testament and the Fathers, pp. 229-230)

Christmas is Trinitarian

Of course, the Son of God did not consign Himself to a material body or mingle human deeds with divine ones on a whim. He did this, together with the miracles that He performed in the body, in order to obey the will of God. But the fact that He could organize and work divine purposes through a human body in a pure and marvelous manner shows that he created Himself as a man with a material body, and thus created all matter with the capacity for being filled and used to manifest His divine Person.

And He raised men through grace to become sons of His heavenly Father through the fact that He Himself was the only begotten Son of the heavenly Father. If there were no Triune God–a God who was the Father, Son and Holy Spirit–He could not have done this. The raising of man from the prison of his nature is possible thanks to the fact that God exists in Trinity. (Dumitru Staniloae, The Holy Trinity, pp. 112-113)

 

Mary: A Spiritual Heaven

Theologically, Christmas is a Feast of the Incarnation of God, something which is easily lost in all the cookies, parties, gifts, decorations, piles of wrapping paper which have come to dominate the celebration of the Nativity of Christ.  For those Christian who take time to find that place of holy silence (“Silent Night, Holy Night!”) there is still the ability to be awed and overjoyed by the mystery of God entering into the human condition.

Toward the beginning of the Nativity Fast, we Orthodox celebrate another theological Feast: the Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple on November 21.  It is another day for us to contemplate the mystery of God incarnate by focusing on the human side of the equation: God became human so that the human can become God.  The incarnation as God chose to do it, required a human mother from whom God received His human nature.  God does not miraculously manufacture a completely novel, virginal and sinless human nature for Himself in the incarnation – to protect Himself from being tainted by sin and the fallen world.   No doubt God could have done that.  Instead, God enters into the human condition as all humans do – through conception in a mother’s womb, growing through gestation and then being born into the world.  He receives human nature from his mother including  genes and flesh – all that makes us human.   Christ has a fully human nature including a body made up of cells and organs which formed in the womb.  Jesus, who is fully God, becomes fully human.  As St. John says it: “the Word became flesh...”

God dwells in the Virgin‘s womb, and this mystery is the inspiration for many feasts, poems, icons and hymns in the Orthodox Church.  God who dwells in heaven also dwells in the Virgin’s womb.  Her womb becomes heaven, for heaven is the place where God dwells.

One of the hymns from the Entry of the Theotokos states it even more intriguingly:

Heaven and earth rejoice, beholding the spiritual heaven, the only Virgin without blemish…

If heaven is the place where God naturally dwells, the Virgin becomes “the spiritual heaven.”  She is not the “natural” heaven which is distinguished from the rest of creation in Genesis.   God makes use of a human to create a spiritual reality.  In fact it is not possible without her.   A human, a human body, becomes a “spiritual” heaven.  This is a most wonderful turning of a phrase.  And it reflects that reality of the incarnation and of theosis:  God becomes human so that the human can become God.  We might think “heaven” is a spiritual place, but God creates an additional spiritual heaven in order to dwell on earth with us humans.

In another hymn from the Entry of the Theotokos, Anna (Mary’s mother) tells Mary:

Go into the place which none may enter: Learn its mysteries and prepare yourself to become the pleasing and beautiful dwelling-place of Jesus

Again, the wonderful turn of a phrase – Mary is told to go into the place where none can enter – the Holy of Holies of the Jerusalem Temple.  But there is a mystery here, for if none can enter, then Mary can’t enter and if Mary can enter than it isn’t the place that none can enter. Lines are being crossed and blurred – which is exactly what happens in the incarnation of God the Word.

Mary is told to go into the place where God dwells in order to prepare herself for God dwelling in her. (see also The Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple  2017)    The mutual indwelling of Mary (and thus humanity) in God and God in Mary (and thus in humanity) is realized in the Feast of Christmas.  This is the very concept of salvation in Orthodoxy.

Being in God’s Image

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”  (Genesis 1:27)

Our ability to reason, to use logic, wisdom and knowledge, is seen in the Church Fathers as one way that humans are in God’s image and likeness.

“This reason, in which perhaps most Fathers found the divine image, made human beings “partakers of his [i.e. God’s] own Word, possessing, so to speak, a kind of reflection of his Word,” as Athanasius says. And, because for the Fathers reason was a participation in the Word, it carried with it, unlike reason as understood by us today, a supernatural connotation: to use one’s reason was to act in a graced way and to be open to the realm of the supernatural.”   (Boniface Ramsey, Beginning to Read the Fathers, pp. 71-72)

The 1st Ecumenical Council and Deuteronomy 6

This past Sunday, the 7th after Pascha, we commemorated the Holy Fathers of the 1st Ecumenical Council as is the practice in Orthodoxy these days.  We might ask ourselves what exactly can we take from that Council that we need to teach today?  While to some the issues of the Council might seem like purely academic debates about abstract theology, the debate of that Council touches the very heart of what and who we understand God to be.  The Council is about God, and it is about the confessional and dogmatic theology of biblical Judaism.  The Council focused on Deuteronomy 6  and how we Christians interpret the central tenet of our Old Testament Scriptures.   Here is an excerpt from that passage that gives us the central point (emphases in the text is mine):

Now this is the commandment—the statutes and the ordinances—that the LORD your God charged me to teach you to observe  .  . .  so that you and your children and your children’s children may fear the LORD your God all the days of your life, and keep all his decrees and his commandments that I am commanding you, so that your days may be long. . . .

Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.  . . . and when you have eaten your fill, take care that you do not forget the LORD, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. The LORD your God you shall fear; him you shall serve, and by his name alone you shall swear. Do not follow other gods, any of the gods of the peoples who are all around you . . . When your children ask you in time to come, “What is the meaning of the decrees and the statutes and the ordinances that the LORD our God has commanded you?” then you shall say to your children, “We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt, but the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. The LORD displayed before our eyes great and awesome signs and wonders against Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his household. He brought us out from there in order to bring us in, to give us the land that he promised on oath to our ancestors. Then the LORD commanded us to observe all these statutes, to fear the LORD our God, for our lasting good, so as to keep us alive, as is now the case. If we diligently observe this entire commandment before the LORD our God, as he has commanded us, we will be in the right.”

Deuteronomy 6 which contains the Shema of Israel, the central tenet of Judaism which our Lord Jesus Christ Himself taught.

And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” And the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that he is one, and there is no other but he; and to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And after that no one dared to ask him any question.  (Mark 12:28-34)

The truth of theology, the truth of the ecumenical councils and the truth of the bible are the same truth.  Deuteronomy 6 gives the basic theology tenet of Judaism and Christianity in the form of the greatest commandment.  We are to preach and teach to our flocks the decisions of the 1st Ecumenical Council precisely because they are our understanding of Deuteronomy 6, of the Shema of Israel, of God Himself.  And as is clear in Deuteronomy 6, it is the duty of God’s people to teach this true theology to our children and grandchildren.  Not only does Deuteronomy 6 teach theology, it commands religious education!  We are to influence, to shape and to form the theological experience and understanding of our membership and our families and children.  Ecumenical Councils were debating theology, but not just for academics, but for every man, woman and child of the Church.  We are to teach and preach in evangelism, in apologetics and in education – portraying God as God chose to reveal Himself, and in defending the very way and words we use to explain God.

The Eucharist: Historical and Divine

“The eucharistic body is that of the historical Jesus as well as that of the risen Christ. It is the body of the child in the crib, the body that endured the suffering on the cross – for bread is ‘broken’, the blood ‘poured out’ – the body that is risen and glorified. The term ‘body’ covers the whole human nature. For God’s human nature since the resurrection and the ascension encompasses the world and secretly transfigures it. However, Jesus’s historical body, while allowing itself in the foolishness of love to be contained in a point of space and a brief moment of time, in reality already contained space and time in itself. For it was not the body of a fallen individual, crushing human nature in order to take possession of it. It was the body of a divine Person assuming that nature, with the whole universe, in order to offer them up. Incarnate, the Logos remained the subject of the logoi, the spiritual essences, of all created beings.

At the same time God-made-man had to accept into himself all our finiteness, our whole condition of separation and death, in order to fill it with his light.

It is this deified humanity, this deified creation, this transfigured bread and wine, this body bathed in glory yet bearing for ever the wounds of the Passion, that the Eucharist communicates to us.” (Olivier Clement, The Roots of Christian Mysticism: Texts from the Patristic Era with Commentary, pp. 108-109)

Awareness of God’s Presence

The sense of the presence of God.  Something I pray everyone I know may have.  I wish everyone in the world could have it.

In Paradise, Adam and Eve lived in the presence of God, they would consciously have to ignore God, intentionally block God from their hearts/minds, not to be aware of God. Literally, they  lived in His presence, in the Paradise in which God was the gardener.  They were protected by God and so nothing could hurt them.  And yet Eve, and Adam chose to banish God from their thinking.  They expelled God from their lives in order to experience the world without God’s presence.  They felt they could think more clearly if not living in that bright cloud in which God speaks (see Psalm 99:7; Matthew 17:5). [Note – in Paradise, Satan knew he could not harm God’s creatures; they were protected by the Almighty Creator.    Humans could be harmed only if they did it to themselves by choosing to wean themselves away from God.  Satan does not make Eve or Adam do anything.  In Genesis 3, Satan only hints and suggests, he never even tells Eve or Adam what to do.  They make those choices of their own free will and to their own demise.  Satan has no power over Adam and Eve, and if we Orthodox would follow our own prayers at the baptismal exorcism, we would realize that like Adam and Eve in Paradise, Satan has no power over any sealed, enlisted warrior for Christ.]

How was it possible to exile God their Creator from the world which God had made?  And yet the first humans did just that – they created some kind of limit to God, blocking God from their own sensory experience, so they could chose for themselves apart from God.   Amazing!  Yet, we all – every human being – have that same power: each of us can put God out of mind, can function as if God does not exist, can forget God completely in our daily lives.

God for God’s part has chosen to limit His own omnipotence.  When God created human beings with free will, the Almighty chose to limit divine power.   God allowed creatures to think apart from divinity and to make choices against God’s own will.   Clearly in Scriptures, God limited His own powers – in the burning bush for example.   God reveals that being all powerful means even being able to limit that power.   The burning bush was simply a foreshadowing of the real intention of God’s limits –  the incarnation in the womb of Mary in which the uncontainable God limits His presence and powers. One of the powers of the almighty God is to limit His own omnipotence!  Mary as Theotokos is both the mystery of God limiting His own omnipotence as well as the miracle of a human being able to contain divinity.

If we want to live in a world in which God’s power is limited – which we chose when we chose like Eve and Adam to follow our own will rather than God’s – God is willing to be at work in that world as well since it is still part of God’s own creation.  The Old Testament in which God appears in shadows and is veiled in mystery is the history of God limiting His almighty self in order to deal with us on our terms.  In giving us free will, God decided to deal with us on our terms for He certainly did not predestine our choices.  Just look at Genesis 2:19 –  “So out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.”  God even waits to see what Adam will call each species of animal.  God doesn’t predetermine even such a simple thing as the names of the animals He creates.  Humans have a creative role to play and they do choose and determine many things for themselves and for all creation.  [At least in Genesis of the Jews and Christians.  In the Quran, conversely, God determines everything, even the names of the animals.  Adam’s task is simply to memorize what God has predetermined the names of the animals to be.  Adam is not a creative being, but merely an obedient one in Islam’s creation story.  God tests Adam to see if he has in fact memorized what God has done.  Unlike in Islam, in Judaism and Christianity, humans have clear free will from the beginning and God observes what the humans choose – God’s love means the almighty God exercises restraint over God’s own omnipotence.]

Adam naming the animals in Paradise

The world of the Fall is a world in which God has limited His omnipotence, in which we do not always or automatically sense God’s presence.  We are not guaranteed His protection either, for example,  God does not protect us from the consequences of our own behavior.

And yet, God continues to love us and care for us and to work out His plan for our salvation.  Law, prophets, promises, saints, miracles – all were given to us to help us be aware of God’s presence.  The Old Testament is the witness to God’s continual and uninterrupted love for us humans.

Today, we also have Holy Communion for those united to Christ in baptism and chrismation.  The Eucharist is God’s gift to us to enable to further experience God’s own presence in our world, in our lives, as God works out His plan for the salvation of the world.

In the midst of a broken, fallen world, we experience grace in Holy Communion.  For in the Eucharist God is present in creation in a way which wasn’t even true in the Paradise of Adam and Eve.  We can become aware again of God’s abiding presence in His creation.  We can experience God directly and fully.  We are not alone in the world, we are not without divine help and protection.   Throughout Lent with our increased opportunities for receiving the Eucharist, we have ever more reason to be thankful and joyful and hopeful. We are not completely cut off from God, we are not orphans without a heavenly Father.  Every time we come to church, we are placing ourselves in the presence of God.  We can experience God in creation as well, but in Church we have the special gifts from God of the Body and Blood of Christ.  Christ in our midst and Christ in us.  As we pray at the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts [emphasis is mine and not in the text] :

Look upon us, Your unworthy servants who stand at this holy altar as the Cherubic throne, upon which rests Your only-begotten Son and our God, in the dread Mysteries that are set forth. Having freed us all and all Your faithful people from uncleanness, sanctify all our souls and bodies with the sanctification which cannot be taken away, that partaking with a clean conscience, with faces unashamed, with hearts illumined, of these divine, sanctified Things, and by them being given life, we may be united to Your Christ Himself, our true God, Who has said, “Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him,” that by Your Word, O Lord, dwelling within us and sojourning among us, we may become a temple of Your all-holy and adorable Spirit, redeemed from every diabolical wile, wrought either by deed or word or thought, and may obtain the good things promised to us with all Your saints who have been well-pleasing to You.

We Are Made in God’s Image

“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”   (Genesis 1:27)

St. Gregory of Nyssa reminds us that as wonderful and spectacular as things of nature are, including stellar events in the universe, it is only humans who are created in God’s image.   And besides, as he puts it as immense as the entire universe is, however infinite space may be, it still metaphorically fits in the hand of God.  Yet, each human mysteriously and miraculously contains God within themselves for God’s image is imprinted on each of us.  Heaven and earth are temporary and will pass away (Matthew 24:35) but, according to Scripture, humans are created for eternal life.

For this is the safest way to protect the good things you enjoy: by realizing how much your Creator has honored you above all other creatures. He did not make the heavens in His image, nor the moon, the sun, the beauty of the stars, nor anything else which you can see in the created universe.

You alone are made in the likeness of that nature which surpasses all understanding; you alone are a similitude of eternal beauty, a receptacle of happiness, an image of the true Light, and if you look up to Him, you will become what He is, imitating Him Who shines within you, Whose glory is reflected in your purity. Nothing in all creation can equal your grandeur. All the heavens can fit into the palm of God’s hand; the earth and the sea are measured in the hollow of his hand (Is. 40.12).

And though He is so great that He can grasp all creation in His palm, you can wholly embrace Him; He dwells within you, nor is he cramped as He pervades your entire being, saying: I will dwell in them, and walk among them (2 Cor. 6.16).

If you realize this you will not allow your eye to rest on anything of this world. Indeed, you will no longer marvel even at the heavens. For how can you admire the heavens, my son, when you see that you are more permanent than they? For the heavens pass away, but you will abide for all eternity with Him Who is forever. Do not admire, then, the vastness of the earth or the ocean that stretches out to infinity, for like a chariot and horses they have been given in your charge. You have these elements in your power to be obedient to your will. For the earth ministers the necessities of life, and the sea offers its back like a tame steed to its rider.”  (From Glory to Glory, pp. 162-163)

St. Gregory has a highly exalted view of humans.  In the modern world, we have attained heights over nature which 4th Century Gregory could never have imagined.   He certainly implies that the heavens are nothing to be marveled at – they can be conquered by humans!  All the vastness of the earth, the oceans and the heavens are merely elements for our use in his vision of the created universe.  They are given to humans for us to harness and use their power.  That view of creation is very modern and scientific, yet his point is that even with all vastness and power which the earth, oceans and universe represent, the tiny and seemingly insignificant humans are far greater than the endless expanse of the universe.  For humans alone are created in God’s image and have the potential for eternity within them.