The Greatest Sin

Now the betrayer [Judas] had given them a sign, saying, “The one I shall kiss is the man; seize him and lead him away under guard.” And when he came, he went up to Jesus at once, and said, “Master!” And he kissed him. And they laid hands on him and seized him.   (Mark 14:44)

 

“The greatest sin is, as Christ himself stressed, not the violation of a rule but the action against love or without love.”  (Michael Plekon, LIVING ICONS, p 90)

“Of Thy Mystical Supper, O Son of God, accept me today as a communicant; for I will not speak of Thy Mystery to Thine enemies, neither like Judas will I give Thee a kiss; but like the thief will I confess Thee: Remember me, O Lord in Thy Kingdom.”  (Prayer before Communion)

Ancestors, Ancestral Sin and Christ

The Sunday before the Nativity in Orthodoxy celebrates all of the righteous men and women of the Old Testament who prepared the way for Christ.  They are commemorated in the Gospel lesson of the genealogy of Christ.  The genealogy tells us how we got to the point of Christ’s birth, but the genealogy also reminds us about why we have come to Christ’s birth.  For even before Abraham was, humanity had taken a stance on its relationship to God our Creator.  It is humanity’s broken relationship with God which Christ came to heal and repair.  The ancestors of Christ point to Christ (thus leading us back to God), but also are the link to the ancestral sin which separated humanity from God.  St. Irenaeus of Lyons writes:

The case of Adam, however, had no analogy with this, but was altogether different. For, having been beguiled by another under the pretext of immortality, he is immediately seized with terror, and hides himself; not as if he were able to escape from God; but, in a state of confusion at having transgressed His command, he feels unworthy to appear before and to hold converse with God. Now, “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;” the sense of sin leads to repentance, and God bestows His compassion upon those who are penitent. For [Adam] showed his repentance by his conduct, through means of the girdle [which he used], covering himself with fig-leaves, while there were many other leaves, which would have irritated his body in a less degree.

He, however, adopted a dress conformable to his disobedience, being awed by the fear of God; and resisting the erring, the lustful propensity of his flesh (since he had lost his natural disposition and child-like mind, and had come to the knowledge of evil things), he girded a bridle of continence upon himself and his wife, fearing God, and waiting for His coming, and indicating, as it were, some such thing [as follows]: Inasmuch as, he says, I have by disobedience lost that robe of sanctity which I had from the Spirit, I do now also acknowledge that I am deserving of a covering of this nature, which affords no gratification, but which gnaws have retained this clothing for ever, thus humbling himself, if God, who is merciful, had not clothed them with tunics of skins instead of fig-leaves.   (Against Heresies and Fragments, Kindle Loc. Loc. 5005-15)

Adam covered himself with fig leaves because he felt ashamed in his nakedness before his Creator.  Irenaeus interprets Adam’s behavior as penitence for his sin – Adam doesn’t want God to have to look upon what Adam has done.  Adam knows he has lost the ‘garment of sanctity’ with which God had clothed him.  But at Christmas we celebrate God putting on our flesh, accepting the nakedness of Adam as He is born a baby in Bethlehem.  Not ashamed of his body, Christ knows His body means death but He unites Himself to our flesh to give us eternal life.  The ‘garment of salvation’ which Christ put on Himself is our flesh.  God became human, put on flesh, so that we humans could once again share in God’s life.  In putting on the flesh, Christ robes Himself in majesty, restoring all things to their proper place in God’s creation.

Here indeed we groan, and long to put on our heavenly dwelling, so that by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we sigh with anxiety; not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.  (2 Corinthians 5:2-5)

The Salvation of the Body

This glory of the body, however, does not belong only to the End but is foreshadowed at various moments throughout salvation history. Before the fall the bodies of Adam and Eve shone with light in Paradise , and they were “covered with God’s glory in place of clothing” (Homilies 12:8).

Once they had fallen into sin, this robe of glory was taken away from them and they were left naked (cf. Genesis 3:7). Then at Moses’ descent from Mount Sinai, after the giving of the Law, the final restoration of our bodily glory was briefly anticipated when his face shone so brightly that he had to cover it with a veil (cf. Exodus 34:29–35): “He went up as a mere man; he descended, carrying God with him….The Word of God was his food and he had a glory shining on his countenance” (H. 12:14). A far more significant foretaste of the eschatological glory came at Christ’s own transfiguration: “As the body of the Lord was glorified when he climbed the mount and was transfigured into the divine glory and into infinite light, so also the bodies of the saints are glorified and shine like lightning” (H. 15:38). What happened then to the Savior will happen to all true Christians in the age to come.

In so far as anyone, through faith and zeal, has been deemed worthy to receive the Holy Spirit, to that degree his body also will be glorified in that day. What the soul now stores up within shall then be revealed as a treasure and displayed externally in the body…. The glory of the Holy Spirit rises up from within, covering and warming the bodies of the saints. This is the glory they interiorly had before, hidden in their souls. For what they now have, that same then pours out externally into the body (H. 5:8–9).

(Kallistos Ware, from Pseudo-Macarius: The Fifty Spiritual Homilies and the Great Letter, p. XVI-XV)

The Universality of Death vs. the Inevitability of Sin

Every year at the beginning of Great Lent, the Orthodox Church remembers the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise.  This ancestral sin affected the course of the human race.

Adam and Eve, whether or not historical figures, symbolize all of humanity in its relationship to God.  Their story is our story, and each of our lives is their story.  Sin has become part of human life, and sin has corrupted human nature such that even an act of repentance cannot heal the wound to humanity.  None of this implies that humans have lost free will or responsibility for their own sins.  We are not destined to sin, for sin comes from each human will, not from human nature.  Human nature has only been corrupted by the consequences of sin – mortality has become part of our existence.  So we can note how did the early Church Fathers understand the role of sin in our lives?  Church historian  Jaroslav Pelikan writes:

“Despite all the strong language about sin, however, the fundamental problem of man was not sin, but his corruptibility.  The reason the incarnation was necessary was that man had not merely done wrong–for this, repentance would have sufficed– but had fallen into a corruption, a transiency that threatened him with annihilation.  As the agent of creation who had called man out of nothing, the Logos was also the one to rescue him from annihilation.  This the Logos did by taking flesh.

For this theology, it was the universality of death, not the inevitability of sin, that was fundamental.  The statement of Romans 5:14 that ‘death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam,’ was taken  to prove that there were many who had been ‘pure of every sin,’ such as Jeremiah and John the Baptist.  It was death and corruption that stood in the way of man’s participation in the divine nature, and these had to be overcome in the incarnation of the Logos.”

That various people in the Old and New Testaments are considered righteous gets forgotten in the tsunami which Augustine’s idea of original sin came to represent especially in Western Christianity.  So the texts of St. Paul in Romans 3:10, 23 seem to erase the claims of the rest of Scripture: “...as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one…” and “… since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…”   But human sinning did not mean that God no longer saw goodness in His creatures.  For even David is considered a man after God’s heart (1 Samuel 13:14).  Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Elijah, Daniel, Job, Zachariah, Elizabeth, John the Baptist, the Virgin Mary and Simeon the Elder just to name a few are righteous people in the Scriptures.  Instead of taking St. Paul’s words as the lens through which one must see all of humanity, we need to view St. Paul’s claims about all being sinners within the context of the entire Scriptures in which some people are identified as being righteous.  St. Paul himself acknowledges this in Romans 11:2-5 where he says:  “God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. Do you not know what the scripture says of Elijah, how he pleads with God against Israel? ‘Lord, they have killed thy prophets, they have demolished thy altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life.’ But what is God’s reply to him? ‘I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.’ So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace.” 

In 2 Chronicles 33 of the Septuagint, Manasseh prays:   “Surely, Lord, God of the heavenly Powers, You have not appointed repentance for the righteous, for Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, who did not sin against You; but You have appointed repentance for me a sinner.”

Since there are righteous people specifically named in the Scriptures, and some who may even be considered sinless, sinning is not the problem.  It is the fact that human nature has fallen under corruption, separated from God, we have become mortal beings.  It is from this that Christ comes to save us.  Focusing narrowly on “orginal sin” gives us an incomplete idea as to the salvation brought about by Jesus Christ.  Pelikan continues:

“… it is clear some fragments that have survived of a treatise AGAINST THE DEFENDERS OF ORIGINAL SIN by Theodore Mopsuestia that he ‘reiterates in effect that it is only nature which can be inherited, not sin, which is the disobedience of the free and unconstrained will.’ Despite their fundamental differences, the theory of the hypostatic union and the theory of the indwelling of the Logos both concentrated on death rather than on sin.”

(THE EMERGENCE OF THE CATHOLIC TRADITION (100-600), pp 285-286)

Pelikan’s last point is that in the Christian East, the two main competing schools of thought in interpreting the Scriptures, the Alexandrians and the Antiochians, though their teachings conflicted were still in agreement that death and not sin was the human problem.  And though the Church East and West agreed on the theology of the hypostatic union against the indwelling of the Logos, all those disputants (Orthodox and heretic, Chalcedonian and Non-Chalcedonian) still thought the greater human problems was death rather than sin.  The Eastern tradition as a whole, and much of the West in accepting the decision of the 4th Ecumenical Council all embrace this same idea which in some ways is a rejection of the implications of “original sin” that Christ came mostly to pay the price for sin rather than to destroy death.

Knowledge and Keeping God’s Commandments

In the Gospel lesson of Matthew 19:16-26, a man asks Jesus, Good Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?”  Jesus tells him, “… if you want to enter into life, keep the commandments.

Of course there are 613 commandments in the Torah, so the man seeks further clarification, so he asks Jesus:

“Which ones?”

Jesus said, “’You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not bear false witness,’ ’Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’“

Jesus names five of the Ten Commandments and then adds another commandment from the Torah that he must love his neighbor as if the neighbor is his own self (Leviticus 19:18).  Jesus neither limits God’s commandments to the Ten, nor does he treat this other commandment as any different or less than the Ten.

St. John of Kronstadt comments on keeping the Commandments:

“One definite commandment was given to Adam and Eve, in order that by fulfilling this one commandment – which was, moreover, a very easy one – men might acquire the habit of fulfilling the will of God, the fulfillment of which constitutes the whole well-being of creatures, and might be strengthened in the love of God.

If we turn our attention to the contrary – to the non-fulfillment of the will of the Creator and the fulfillment of our own will, in opposition to the Creator’s – we observe that little by little a man changes for the worse and perverts his own right nature, created after the image and likeness of God, and becomes God’s enemy. So important is the fulfillment of God’s commandments, and so destructive is their non-fulfillment! By giving to the first men His definite commandment not to eat the fruits of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the Lord God revealed Himself as the Guide of the newly-created reasonable creatures, of His children by adoption. Whose fault was it that this guidance was rejected, and that man preferred to be governed by his own will? Even until now, notwithstanding all the progress in sciences and arts, notwithstanding all the treasures of human wisdom, neither the man of ancient nor of modern times can educate himself, because he rejected even from the beginning the guidance of God; for, say, who but God should be our guide? And both at present and in the past only those men successfully completed their mental and moral education who trusted in God and lived in accordance with His commandments, or who now live in accordance with the Gospel and the teaching of the Church, submitting themselves to her guidance. This is useful for all modern teachers to remember.

“Science” – Library of Congress

We have many sciences, but the result obtained is small; our youths have much in their heads, whilst in their hearts they have little – very little and often, alas! Even nothing. Life, then does not correspond with education and science. But ‘though I understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.‘ (1 Corinthians XII. 2, 3.).”   (My Life in Christ, pp. 150-151)

God Became Human So that Creation Would Serve Humanity

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.   (Romans 8:19-23)

The Nativity of Christ, sometimes in popular thinking gets reduced to warm fuzzies about a manger and a baby.  However, the context of that story is the creation of the cosmos, and the Fall of Adam and Eve – their committing the ancestral sin.  Creation was meant to serve humanity, and humans were meant to have a leadership role in creation – to be the mediator between God the Creator and the created order.  All of creation, including the angels, were meant to find their proper relationship to God through humanity.

But, when humans sinned against God and rejected their God-given role, all of creation fell into an unnatural relationship with humanity and with God (see Romans 8 above).  The restoration of the cosmos, the transfiguration and redemption of all Creation, this is the context and content of the Christmas story.

“ ‘When all of the created world which God had brought out of non-being into existence saw Adam leave Paradise, it no longer wished to be subject to the transgressor. The sun did not want to shine by day, nor the moon by night, nor the stars to be seen by him. The springs of water did not want to well up for him, nor the rivers to flow. The very air itself thought about contracting and not providing for the rebel. The wild beasts and all the animals of the earth saw him stripped of his former glory and, despising him, immediately turned savage against him. The sky was moving as if to fall justly on him, and the very earth would not endure bearing him upon its back.’

But God’s love for man intervenes in this truly cosmic catastrophe: ‘He restrains everything by His own power and compassion and goodness, suspends the assault of all creation and straight away subjects all of it once again to fallen man. He wills that creation serve man for whom it was made, and like him become corruptible, so that when again man becomes spiritual, incorruptible and immortal, then creation, too, will be freed from its slavery….and, together with man, be made new, and become incorruptible and wholly spiritual’ (cf. Rom. 8:20-1). God’s compassionate intervention limited the consequences of man’s rebellion. Man and the cosmos then had to wait for the blessed coming of the Lord. As long as God’s peace was absent, the world ceased to be a cosmos, an adornment of God: ‘When it ceased to be at peace, it also ceased to be a cosmos.’

But with the coming of Christ, divine peace returned to the world and the world became once again God’s adornment. The created world too is invited to the festival of the new creation: ‘Let creation be glad, let nature dance….Dance, you mountains, for Christ is born!’ IN Christ Jesus, the cosmos and man coexist in peace.” (Hieromonk Gregorios, The Divine Liturgy, pp 126-127)

 

Sin and Being Human

“Before the fall, man found nourishment in God who is life, and recognized Him to be the foundation of the life that filled his entire being. By freely choosing to eat of the forbidden fruit, in an act of self-sufficiency that revealed his preference for human nature over the gift of divine kinship, man removed himself from the source of life. He passed from a spiritual to a biological existence, from union with God to a life of independence, contrary to nature. By choosing to eat the perishable fruit, man is cast into a cycle of change and corruption, into a time marked henceforth by death. Once he is subject to death, he struggles to preserve life, trying to escape death.

The fall did not simply lead man into a biological form of life. It encompassed the whole of his psychosomatic being which, once turned from its intended state, submitted itself to instincts that led to the realm of the passions. Carnal pleasure for the body is equivalent to avarice for the spirit, all of which leads a person to be disconnected and lacking in harmony; it shatters his original unity. […]  

The more man is removed from his ultimate aim which is God, the more he is lured by creatures and creation, the greater the tragedy of his uprootedness, his alienation, and his suffering, caused by the disintegration of his being and by ultimate meaninglessness. Relative to man’s tragic state of separation from God, biological death, which is in itself already unacceptable, is of little consequence.

Man was not created for death and finality, but for immortality and eternity. To consider death strictly as a biological reality renders one insensitive to Christ’s death and Resurrection. Communion in His Resurrection, to be sure, does not spare us from biological death. Nonetheless, it bestows incorruption upon our soul, which is the vital principle that leads us from darkness into light.” (Michael Quenot, The Resurrection and the Icon, p 208)

 

The Sting of Death

“According to Fr. Sophrony, physical death and, especially, the accompanying fear of physical death corrupts human agency and fuels our willful tendency for selfishness, individualism, and sin. In a telling passage he writes, ‘Until man attains his resurrection in Christ everything in him is disfigured by fear of death and consequently by servitude to sin, also’. Fr. Sophrony here suggests that the tragedy of physical death fuels the further tragedy of sinful action; the condition of mortality lies at the core of humanity’s ethical predicament because fear of physical death is a basis for enslavement to sin. Fr. Sophrony cites a passage from the Letter to Hebrews (2:14-15) to support his view of the fall, which comports with several other voices within the Orthodox tradition. For example John Romanides states: 

The power of [physical] death in the universe has brought with it the will for self-preservation, fear and anxiety, which in turn are the root causes of self-assertion, egoism, hatred, envy and the life… Man does not die because he is guilty for the sin of Adam. He becomes a sinner because he is yoked to the power of the devil through death and its consequences.

For Romanides, Fr Sophrony, and other recent Orthodox thinkers, the two primary consequences of the fall are death and the fear of death; the disaster of sin in the world stems from the principal catastrophe of mortality. …  Death is the enemy because it violates the human identity as a creature made in God’s image, made for eternal existence. In addition, Fr. Sophrony affirms the biblical promise that the resurrected life will be an embodied life, although he refrains from making specific claims about the nature of resurrected bodies, other than those present in the New Testament record. Thus, the resurrected life satisfies the fundamental human yearning: it removes death’s finality, adding a new chapter after the tragic denouement of physical death and entailing the salvation of the entire human being – both the physical and the non-physical dimensions.” (Perry T. Hamalis in Thinking Through Faith: New Perspectives from Orthodox Christian Scholars, pp 208-209 & 210-211)

The Wages of Sin

            

For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. What fruit did you have then in the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. But now having been set free from sin, and having become slaves of God, you have your fruit to holiness, and the end, everlasting life.

For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.     (Romans 6:21-23)

St. Gregory Palamas comments:

“In the beginning, as you all know, the serpent which originated evil stung man through sin, made him mortal, threw him out of paradise and brought him into this fleeting, painful world. Now, unless we hasten though repentance to heal the wounds he has inflicted, he will dispatch us to everlasting punishment and hell-fire.” (St. Gregory Palamas: The Homilies, pp 259-260)

The end result of the sin of Adam and Eve was mortality, death.  St. Gregory certainly sees hell not as the result of sin, not even what awaits the sinner.  Rather, hell is something that awaits the unrepentant sinner.  It is something we can avoid through repentance.  Sin is not framed by St. Gregory as the breaking of some law which requires retributive justice to punish us.  Rather sin is a wound inflicted on us which needs to be healed.  The healing balm available to us comes through baptism and chrismation, given to us when we first begin our spiritual life.  Repentance and the spiritual life for Christians mean removing all the obstacles to our healing, and then Christ heals us and receives us into the eternal rest of His heavenly Kingdom.   In Orthodoxy, even holy unction, the sacrament of healing, is about the forgiveness of sins.

He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.  (1 Peter 2:24)

Adam Laments His Exile

Adam

In the previous blog, The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise, we read the words of Archimandrite Aimilianos reflecting on what Adam might have thought and said to God when God questioned him as to why he was trying to hide from His Creator.   In the meditation below, St Silouan puts in Adam’s mouth words lamenting what he lost in being exiled from Paradise.  Though the earth has beautiful landscapes, he cannot find joy in them knowing what exists in Paradise, yet which is no longer attainable for him.

“Adam wept:

‘The desert cannot pleasure me;

nor the high mountains,

nor meadow nor forest,

nor the singing of birds.

I have no pleasure in any thing.

My soul sorrows with a great sorrow: I have grieved God. And were the Lord to set me down in paradise again, there, too, would I sorrow and weep – ‘O, why did I grieve my beloved God?’”

(St Silouan in Remember Thy First Love by Archimandrite Zacharias, p 200)

Adam & Eve worship at the heavenly altar

Adam sees the magnificent beauty in God’s created world, and yet he agonizes over what he lost in being exiled from Paradise.  The pleasures of this world are nothing compared to Paradise Adam tells us.  The entire world was his – a vacation paradise.   Yet, he finds nothing on earth comparable to the Paradise lost.

Great Lent is trying to help us believe Adam’s lament – what we humans have lost is far greater than anything we might experience on earth.   We may be quite attached to this world, yet Great Lent calls  us to yearn for something greater, something we’ve never known.   Can we feel Adam’s exile and believe there is something even more glorious awaiting us, if only we will let go of the things we value so highly on earth?