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.

Sunday of Orthodoxy: The Doctrinal Significance of Icons

The first Sunday in Great Lent also commemorates the acceptance by the Church of icons as theologically essential for proclaiming the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ.  There was a very long dispute about the use of icons that lasted more than a century, but eventually the Church declared icons were Orthodox and should be in churches and venerated by the faithful.

Metropolitan Kallistos Ware writes:

“The doctrinal significance of icons. Here we come to the real heart of the Iconoclast  [those who rejected the use of icons] dispute. Granted that icons are not idols; granted that they are useful for instruction; but are they not only permissible but necessary? Is it essential to have icons? The Iconodules [those who accepted icons as Orthodox] held that it is, because icons safeguard a full and proper doctrine of the Incarnation. Iconoclasts and Iconodules agreed that God cannot be represented in His eternal nature: ‘no one has seen God at any time’ (John i, 18). But, the Iconodules continued, the Incarnation has made a representational religious art possible: God can be depicted because He became human and took flesh. Material images, argued John of Damascus, can be made of Him who took a material body:

Of old God the incorporeal and uncircumscribed was not depicted at all. But now that God has appeared in the flesh and lived among humans, I make an image of the God who can be seen. I do not worship matter but I worship the Creator of matter, who for my sake became material and deigned to dwell in matter, who for my sake effected my salvation. I will not cease from worshiping the matter through which my salvation has been effected.

The Iconoclasts, by repudiating all representations of God, failed to take full account of the Incarnation. They fell, as so many puritans have done, into a kind of dualism. Regarding matter as a defilement, they wanted a religion freed from all contact with what is material; for they thought that what is spiritual must be non-material. But this is to betray the Incarnation, by allowing no place to Christ’s humanity to His body; it is to forget that our body as well as our soul must be saved and transfigured. The Iconoclast controversy is thus closely linked to the disputes about Christ’s person. It was not merely a controversy about religious art, but about the Incarnation, about human salvation, about the salvation of the entire material cosmos.”  (The Orthodox Church, pp. 31-32)  

Salvation Enables us to Participate in Divinity

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“Salvation itself is not the end or telos of human existence; it is merely the ‘negative’ aspect that achieves liberation from the consequences of sin and death. The true meaning of God’s work in Christ can only be seen in the ongoing process that leads from initial salvation, through sanctification, and on to a ‘deification by grace’ of the human person. Divine participation in human existence opens the way for human participation in the life of God.

[As St. Athanasius wrote it: “God became man in order that man might become God.”  The incarnation makes deification possible.  Christmas, the feast of the incarnation, is not the goal of God for the world, but rather finds its fulfillment in our participation in the divine life.]

If the telos or ultimate end of our existence were less than a total sharing in triune life – if we were called, for example, to mere ‘fellowship’ with God through justification, or even to eternal enjoyment of the ‘beatific vision’ – then it would have been theoretically possible for God to work out our salvation without resorting to a true incarnation which required that the eternal divine Logos accept death in his assumed humanity. Full ontological participation of God in human life is necessary if human persons are to know the same quality and degree of participation in divine life.” (John Breck, The Sacred Gift of Life, p 38)

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How long, O LORD? Will You forget me forever?

O LORD, do not rebuke me in Your anger,
Nor chasten me in Your hot displeasure.
Have mercy on me, O LORD, for I am weak;
O LORD, heal me, for my bones are troubled.
My soul also is greatly troubled;
But You, O LORD—how long?
Return, O LORD, deliver me!
Oh, save me for Your mercies’ sake!
For in death there is no remembrance of You;
In the grave who will give You thanks?
I am weary with my groaning;
All night I make my bed swim;
I drench my couch with my tears.

(Psalm 6:1-6, Of David, A Prayer of Faith in Time of Distress)

King David, was loved by God, and yet in the Psalms he composed, he offers woeful lamentations about the suffering he experienced in his lifetime.  His Psalms certainly speak to those of us who have suffered, as well as expressing the sorrows of our hearts.  Distress, pain, sorrow, and suffering can all seem to go on forever with no end in sight.  We do wonder with David, how long will God let the suffering go on?

We can also have the same experience of endless suffering just by listening to the news.  And depression itself can come upon us like a darkness which will not go away.

What brought this all to mind was the words of St. Paul:

“It is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Corinthians 4:6)

As I mentioned in the previous blog, Light Shines in Darkness, I realized what hope we have in the God who shines out of darkness.  God is there present in the darkness.  God doesn’t have to shine light into the darkness, for in the darkness we will find God, even if hidden, and we realize we don’t have to get out of the darkness to find our Lord.  He is there where we are.  The darkness is not darkness to God (Psalm 139:12)

I also realized that while suffering and worry seem to go on forever, there is another scale of time within which I can understand my own existence or even the times we are in.  It is the time of the The Cosmic Calendar.  The Cosmic Calendar tries to give us a graphic view of time from the beginning of the universe (the Big Bang, 13.8 billion years ago) as science calculates it, to the present day.  It takes this long history of the universe and puts it all into a 1 year calendar.  Assuming the Big Band occurred at 1 second after midnight on January 1, and then showing when other things appeared in the universe, based on scientific calculations and assumptions.  Here is just a very brief glimpse at when some things appeared in our world:

January 1 – 13.8 Billion years ago The Big Bang

 

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Not until
December 25  –  is the Age of the Dinosaurs
December 31, 23:59:49 –  Invention of the Wheel
December 31, 23:59:55  –  Jesus Christ walks on earth
December 31, 23:59:59  –  The past 500 years

When viewed in this perspective of the universe, we realize that relatively speaking nothing we humans have experienced has lasted all that long.  In fact all of human history and experience lasts less than a minute on the Cosmic Calendar.  Even if one doesn’t believe in the Big Bang, or thinks the universe is younger than these scientific claims, still we come to realize how whatever we experience in the world is still a very small part of the whole, no matter how much of our thinking and lives it occupies.   When we think things last “forever”,  or when we worry about why God lets some event happen, we can see things from the perspective of the Cosmic Calendar and realize on the grand scale of things, our troubles are a minuscule part of time.

In the perspective of eternity or of the eternal God, we begin to understand the wisdom of Scripture:

“But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.
The Lord is not slow about his promise as some count slowness, but is forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.”   (2 Peter 3:8-9)

Helix Nebula
Helix Nebula

In the absolute immensity of space and boundlessness of time , God shines forth out of the darkness.  God is there.  The darkness may obscure God to us.  The vastness of space and the of enormity of time, may hide God from our eyes, causing us to see only darkness.  Sometimes events occur which make us feel the darkness will last forever.  But out of this darkness God will shine, illuminating all of time with eternal light and divine love.

Seeing the Lord

“We are now able to discern the great difference between seeing the Lord and having the Lord appear to us. Seeing the Lord indicates what man may discover of divine attributes in proportion to his abilities and saintliness. In this sense, man can never attain a perfect vision of God. As for the Lord appearing to us, in this he unveils his own self to us according to the abundance of his love, mercy and goodwill. In his appearance, God reveals himself in all his depth to man. He takes upon himself the task of sanctifying man and offering him all the power by which he may discover God’s glory: ‘For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God’ (1 Cor. 2:10). With this distinction between vision that results from endeavor and saintliness and vision that results from the gratuitous appearance of the Lord, we may understand the difference between the verses occurring in the Old and New Testaments that confirm at one time the impossibility of seeing God and at another time the possibility of seeing him.

On the impossibility of seeing God, we find God saying to Moses, ‘Man may not see me and live’ (Ex. 33:20). We find the Spirit saying, ‘No one has ever seen God’ (Jn 1:18). St. Paul, moreover, says, ‘I charge you to keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ; and this will be made manifest at the proper time by the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen’ (1 Tim. 6:14-16).

At the same time, we find verses that prove that God actually revealed himself to Moses, Isaiah, Job, and others in the Old Testament. As for the New Testament, ‘all flesh have seen him’ (cf. Is. 40:5; Lk. 3:6) in accordance with prophecy. According to St. John ‘the life was made manifest’ (1 Jn. 1:2). Christ says, ‘He who has seen me has seen the Father’ (Jn. 14:9), also promising that ‘he who loves me….I will love him and manifest myself to him’ (Jn. 14:21). Again St. Paul also preaches, ‘For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God’ (1 Cor. 2:10). From all this, it becomes clear that what had been impossible for man to reach by effort of worthiness, that is, to see the Lord, has become possible with the appearance of the Lord. The appearance of the Lord is an act of love and a gratuitous work of grace, for the attempt to see the Lord is impossible for man to realize except for a small part. This part is proportionate to man’s chastity, love, and obedience to God’s commandments. As for the appearance of the Lord, it is granted to man unconditionally and without any effort or worthiness on his part. For God grants ability and saintliness to man by which he may see God as he is, that is, as God may wish to reveal himself at will.” (Matthew the Poor, Orthodox Prayer Life, pp 86-87)

God as Lord of our Lives

We do speak, metaphorically, about feeling or being closer to God or further away from God.  The imagery does describe an awareness we may have at times, but cannot really describe our relationship to God since God is not limited to any one place in the entirety of existence, for God is everywhere present and fills all things.

The Creator always relates to all creation.

It is also true that we live and move and have our being in God.  As the Fathers often note there is no front and back to God, no closer or further away.  Such ways of referring to our relationship with God are purely human attempts to describe what we experience, but do not in any way describe our relationship to God who exists beyond space and time.  Language is the way we communicate our ideas and feelings, but language is sometimes inadequate to the text of describing reality, especially when it comes to portraying our relationship to God.   Fr. Meletios Webber notes:

“One of the paradoxes of human existence is that there is nowhere where God is not. Even though we naturally assume that He is more concerned with certain parts of our lives than with others, God is not nearly as restrictive as we are.” ( Steps of Transformation, p 147)

Where can I go from Your Spirit?
Or where can I flee from Your presence?
If I ascend into heaven, You are there;
If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there.
If I take the wings of the morning,
And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
Even there Your hand shall lead me,
And Your right hand shall hold me.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall fall* on me,”
Even the night shall be light about me;
Indeed, the darkness shall not hide from You,
But the night shines as the day;
The darkness and the light are both alike to You.

(Psalm 139:7-12)

Theology is Based in History

Christian theology is based in history, not in abstract theorizing about God.  When we  honor our Church Fathers, we honor them for their work in interpreting God revealing Himself in history, in actual events. We read the Scriptures to enter into the revelation of God, not to make the book sacred, but because they reveal history to us.

“For whereas the Aristotelian notion suggests that knowledge of God is attained as we withdraw from temporal reality and ascend higher and higher in the scale of being, the Judaeo-Christian tradition directs us to what has happened, to temporal reality, and indeed to a particular sequence of events within temporal reality – the history of Israel culminating in the history of God Incarnate – as the locus for our knowledge of God.[…]  Theology in fact – whatever the theory – concerned itself with texts and their meaning, that is, with what men had said and thought. It gave to history a dignity that perhaps it otherwise would not have had: the raw material of theology was not simply abstract thought, or even myths, but things that have happened. Much theology indeed, perhaps even the most important part of it so far as influence and an impact went, concerned itself with what had happened and was happening: with God’s dealing with Israel, and with the New Israel – as a whole, in Church history, and with particular individuals, in the lives of the saints.” (Andrew Louth, Discerning the Mystery, pp 46-47)

 

The Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ (2016)

We read about the events of the Ascension of Jesus Christ into heaven in Acts 1:1-12.  In this text the Evangelist Luke, the author of the book of Acts, writes:

The former account I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began both to do and teach, until the day in which He was taken up, after He through the Holy Spirit had given commandments to the apostles whom He had chosen, to whom He also presented Himself alive after His suffering by many infallible proofs, being seen by them during forty days and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God. And being assembled together with them, He commanded them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the Promise of the Father, “which,” He said, “you have heard from Me; for John truly baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now. Therefore, when they had come together, they asked Him, saying, “Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” And He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority. But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth. Now when He had spoken these things, while they watched, He was taken up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. And while they looked steadfastly toward heaven as He went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel, who also said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven.” Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey.

Fr. Lev Gillet comments on the Ascension:

“Jesus does not return to his Father in isolation. It was the incorporeal Logos that descended among men. But today it is the Word made flesh, at the same time true God and true  man, that enters the Kingdom of heaven. Jesus takes there with him the human nature in which he is clothed. He opens the gates of the Kingdom to humanity. We take possession, in some way by anticipation of the blessings which are offered to us and possible for us. Places are reserved for us in the Kingdom provided we continue faithful. Our presence is desired and awaited there. So the ascension renders the thought of heaven more present and more alive for us. Do we think enough of our permanent dwelling-place? For most Christians heaven is envisaged as a kind of postscript, an appendix to a book of which life on earth constitutes the actual text. But the contrary is true. Our earthly life is merely the preface to the book. Life in heaven will be the text – a text without end.” (A Monk of the Eastern Church in The Time of the Spirit: Readings Through the Christian Year, p 162)

Knowing Christ in the Breaking of the Bread

“…Most important for our reflection on the nature of theological discourse is to understand how the disciples came to know that Jesus is the Lord, the Son of God. Thereby, we can contemplate the coming Lord in that same way, and so remain within the apostolic tradition. As we have observed, they did not come to this knowledge through hearing reports about his birth, nor by accompanying him for a period of time.

This simply underscores the fact that the usual methods of human knowledge – scientific analysis, historical inquiry, or philosophical reflection – are inadequate when the desired object of knowledge is God. For God is not subject to human, physical, or mental perception, but shows himself as and when he will, just as the risen Christ comes and goes at his own pleasure. And, as we have seen, he disappears from sight once he is recognized, so that he does not remain as an external object for our scrutiny – even though we are to become his body, his tangible and perceptible presence in this world.

So, neither seeing Christ on the cross, nor the report about the empty tomb, nor the even the encounter with the risen Christ prompted the disciples, finally, to know the Lord: the tomb is empty, but this in itself is ambiguous, and when he appears he is not immediately recognized.

Rather, the disciples come to recognize the Lord as the one whose passion is spoken of by the Scriptures (meaning the ‘Old Testament’), and who is encountered in the breaking of the bread. Consuming Christ’s offering, they become his body. These two complementary ways – the engagement with Scriptures (understanding how Christ ‘died according to the Scriptures and was raised according to the Scriptures’[1 Cor 15:3-5]), and the participation in the Lord’s meal (‘proclaiming his death until he comes’ [1 Cor 11:26]) – specify what St Paul claims he had received then handed down, or ‘traditioned’ to later generations (cf. 1 Cor 11:23, 15:3).” (John Behr in Thinking Through Faith, pp 73-74)