Jesus Opens Heaven to Us

The way by which the man Jesus ascended – from earth to heaven, from humanity to Divinity – is opened up to everyone after his resurrection. Deification is perceived dynamically, as an ascent of the human being, together with the whole created world, to divine glory, holiness and light.

(Hilarion Alfeyev, The Spiritual World of St. Isaac the Syrian, p. 57)

Christ Jesus – The Epitome of Human Beauty

“In continuity with the Old Testament passage in which “the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land I will show you’” (Gen 12:1), Jesus encourages His disciples to seek detachment. Following Him implies a reversal of our values. It means going in a direction other than the way of the world, which advocates the acquisition of every kind of possession: money, power, possessions and property, with every sort of passion they entail: ambition, greed, envy and hard-heartedness. In a world where wealth is idolized, Jesus warns against laying up treasures for oneself (Mt 6:19). Instead, He preaches dispossession, abnegation and sharing: “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Lk 6:20). It is well worth reading the passage of the temptation in the desert (Mt. 4:1-11), in which the Prince of this world appeals to a possessive instinct which Jesus strongly condemns. If we realize that every form of greed stems fundamentally from a mental condition, it becomes easier to understand the efforts of the great ascetics, which consist in focusing their minds on their repentant hearts.

In the same way that our disorders, loss of inner harmony and personal disintegration can lead to similar conditions in the world around us, those who are truly “in Christ” can shape and nourish science, culture and humanity as a whole.

The audience for whom the following words of Dostoevsky‘s were intended seems to be growing day by day:

You who deny God and Christ have not even considered that without Christ, everything in the world would be impure and corrupt. You judge Christ and you dismiss God; but what sort of example do you yourselves offer? You are petty, debauched, greedy and arrogant! By eliminating Christ, you remove from humanity the epitome of beauty and goodness, you make Him inaccessible. For Christ came precisely for this reason: that humanity might know and recognize that a true human spirit can appear in this heavenly condition, in the flesh and not merely in a dream or in theory – that it is indeed both natural and possible.

Christ’s disciples proclaimed His radiant flesh to be divine. Through the cruelest of tortures they confessed the blessing of bearing this flesh within themselves, of imitating His perfection, and of believing in Christ in the flesh (Carnets des Demons, Belov An VI, 281, 155).”

(Michael Quenot, The Resurrection and the Icon, pp. 229-230)

Although some Christians deny that humans descended from the apes, Christianity’s real message is that humanity’s true origins and fulfillment come in the God-man Jesus Christ.  The Fathers didn’t deny that humans live an animal life – one according to biology, the flesh – rather they admitted and lamented it.

“Therefore, if we want to know why we, since we were created for honor and placed in Paradise, became finally ‘compared to the beasts that possess no understanding and were made like to them’ (Ps 99:12, 20), having fallen from the pristine glory, know that we, by transgression, became slaves of carnal passions.”  (4th Century monk Pseudo-Macarius, THE FIFTY SPIRITUAL HOMILIES AND THE GREAT LETTER, p 160)

However, we were created in God’s image and we find our destiny in Christ, in the Kingdom of Heaven.  Each human is created capable of bearing the radiant beauty of the divine.  We don’t deny our animal nature, our claim is that God grants us the potential to rise above a merely animal nature, to share the divine life.  As Jesus Himself said of humanity:  “Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, you are gods’?”   (John 10:34)  The true human condition – the one for which we humans were created by God to have – is to share in the heavenly glory.   Whatever our relationship to other animals, to an animal ancestry, God created us with the ability to rise above all animal limitations and to realize our full potential which is in God.  We are not predestined by our biology, rather we are destined by God to attain our full potential which is to rise above any genetic or biological predetermination.  God Himself became incarnate, took on our animal nature, and united flesh and blood to the divine.

By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God…    (1 John 4:2)

Christ: God’s Image, Human Likeness

Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:4-11)

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The Scriptures reveal to us that Jesus Christ is both God’s image/ God’s icon and is in our likeness.  We in turn are made in the image of the incarnate Christ.

All icons are forms of  the theological artistry of Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy is one of the few forms of Christianity in which beauty is central to its theology and which has a unique art form, the icon, which is purely theological. The icon is said to be theology in lines and color. Truth and beauty are the same reality.

In Genesis 1:27 we hear, “God created a human in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” The Bible has God being the first iconographer, for the word we read in English as “image” in Greek is icon.   In a sense all icons are icons of God – and yet, they are icons of humans. They reveal the image of God in each holy person portrayed in the icon.  For God came in the flesh (John 1:14) to reveal what we humans are to be, and to reveal that from all eternity God’s plan was to become human. The true human is in the image of God. As we read in John 10:34 – “Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, you are gods’?

And since we each have the image of God embedded in ourselves from the moment we are conceived, we too are able to share in the divine life. We do not have to begin our search for Christ or God out there somewhere, for the Kingdom of God is within each of us. We can find that icon which God put in our hearts. God’s own image is imprinted on each human. God is not just a God distant from us but is present in us. No amount of sin could take that away. No matter how sinful you are and no matter how distant you might feel God is, God is never further away than a prayer.

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If we want to know something about this God who created us, all we have to do is look at the people around us, for each is created in the image of God. We learn about God and about ourselves through truly seeing others, not with our eyes, but truly from and through our own heart. This is why love for one another is so central to the teaching of Christ. It is the only way to see others in God’s image. It’s the only way to see the world as full human beings.

If we want to know what God had in mind as the perfect human being, we look not to the creation of Adam, but rather to the incarnate Christ. For Adam is created in the image of the incarnate Christ. It is not until Christ comes that we see upon whom Adam was modeled and only with Christ and in Christ do we see fully what it is to be human. We don’t go back in time to try to discover what Adam was at the beginning of creation, rather we look to who Christ is, even now in the Kingdom of Heaven.

In Orthodoxy, we think of Adam and Eve not created as the perfect human beings, but rather as a potential human beings. Eve and Adam were given opportunity to mature into perfect humans, but they like all of us chose to follow their own path rather than God’s. But we all have before us the potential to become the human beings God intended for us to be. That is the nature of the spiritual life, of taking up the cross and denying yourself to follow Christ. For Christ to become fully human, he had to empty himself. If we want to follow Christ and become fully human we too have to learn how to empty the self, to deny the self, so that we can be united to Christ.

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Orthodoxy does not have Eve and Adam falling from the heights of perfection into some abysmal depraved state. You won’t find Orthodox Church fathers and mothers talking about original sin, a phrase that dominates in Western Christianity but was unknown in the Christian East.

A key phrase in the writings of St. Paul is

Therefore as sin came into the world through one human and death through sin, and so death spread to all humans because all humans sinned— (Romans 5:12)

It is not sin that spread to all humanity. We are not controlled by the power of original sin. It is mortality that has spread to all people, mortality is the true enemy of humanity. Death is what Christ came to destroy through his own life and resurrection. For us Orthodox, salvation is made known not on the cross but in the resurrection of Christ.

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Adam and Eve were given free will and could choose their way to godly perfection, or not. But they, like each of us continued to be in the image of God. We never lose that perfect image of God in ourselves no matter how much we fail as humans or sin against God.

Eve and Adam were created to be who and what Christ is. If we want to know what a human being who is perfect would look like and do, we have to seek out Christ. For as St. Paul says

Christ is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible… all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the first-born from the dead, … For in him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (Colossians 1:15-20)

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As Christians we are to share in that ministry of reconciliation which Christ began – uniting all things in heaven and on earth in Himself. What Christ is, we are to become. Again St. Paul writes

And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:18)

In Christ, God became human that we humans might become like god, to become godly, to share in the divine life. This is always what God intends for us His human creatures.

In 1 Corinthians 15:47-49, St. Paul promises us:

The first human was from the earth, a human of dust; the second human is from heaven. As was the human of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the human of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the human of dust, we shall also bear the image of the human of heaven.

We are created to share Christ’s glory, which is to share the glory of the Lord.

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It is true that we share in Adam’s nature, we are made from the dust of the earth, which in turn is made from the dust of the stars. We share in Adam’s nature, but so too Christ has come to show us that our true nature is not in the dust but in the heavens and in the heavens of the heavens. In Christ we are united to divinity, we share in the life of the Holy Trinity. We experience that life on earth and are lifted from earth to heaven.

Put off your old nature which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.    (Ephesians 4:22-24)

We are in Orthodoxy endeavoring to be more human, not less. We are not trying to escape the earth or our bodies, for God came to earth to become incarnate as a human being. Spirituality and salvation both consist in deification, theosis, which means becoming more human, becoming like Christ, the God-man, in whose image we each are made. We each are to become, as St. Peter says (2 Peter 1:4), “partakers of the divine nature.

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( A message delivered on 20 September 2018 at Ohio Northern University)

All That Is Within Me, Bless His Name

For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.
(Psalms 139:13-16)

Fetus at 6 months

On the contrary, the parts of the body which seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those parts of the body which we think less honorable we invest with the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior part…   (1 Corinthians 12:22-24)

Bless the LORD, O my soul; and all that is within me, bless his holy name!  (Psalms 103:1)

St Cyril of Jerusalem writes:

Look within yourself. From your own nature you can learn something of your Maker.

There is nothing to be ashamed of in your body. If you are in control of its members, they are not in the slightest evil. Adam and Eve in paradise were naked at first and their bodies did not appear shameful or disgusting. Our limbs do not cause sin, but the wrong use of them does. The Creator of our bodies knew what he was doing.

Who makes the secret parts of the mother’s womb able to bear children? Who gives life to the lifeless fruit of conception? Who shapes the sinews and bones, who covers all with flesh and skin? When the baby comes to the light, who gives the milk that it can suck? How does the newborn infant grow to become a child, then an adolescent, then an adult, and then in the end an old person?

Who imposes on the heart the regularity of its beat? Who protects so skilfully our eyes with their eyelashes? Who makes our whole bodies able to be kept alive by our breathing?

Look at your Maker. Admire your wise Creator. The greatness and the beauty of his creatures will help you to contemplate him.

(Drinking from the Hidden Fountain, p. 60)

If You Want to Be Perfect

In the Gospel lesson of Matthew 19:16-26, a man comes to Jesus and asks Him:

 “Good Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?”

Jesus replies by telling the man to keep the commandments, but then adds this:

“If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.”

Not only does this man walk away from Christ, but even His disciples are astounded and ask:

 “Who then can be saved?”

St. Basil the Great comments:

“‘Become perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” [Mt 5.48]. Do you see how the Lord restores to us that which is according to the likeness? If you become a hater of evil, free of rancor, not remembering yesterday’s enmity; if you become brother-loving and compassionate, you are like God. If you forgive your enemy from your heart, you are like God. If as God is toward you, the sinner, you become the same toward the brother who has wronged you, by your good will from your heart toward your neighbor, you are like God.’

Note:  In Basil’s theology the ascetical practice of both outwardly displaying virtue and inwardly cultivating a disposition of a godly attitude, from which right action springs, reforms the likeness. Modeling ourselves after the gratuitous precepts of Christ reorders and rejoins the likeness to the image. Thus, he exhorts the reader “to put on Christ,” because “drawing near to him is drawing near to God. Thus the creation story is an education in human life. “Let us make the human being in our image.” Let him have by his creation that which is according to the image, let him also come to be according to the likeness. For this God gave the power.”    (On the Human Condition, p. 44)

According to Genesis 1:26,  “God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness . . .’”  Because the Church Fathers thought every word of Scripture was significant, they believed that the image and likeness were two different things.  Each human is made in the image of God – each of us in a mysterious way is an icon of God.   But, we were not made as perfect beings – we co-create ourselves with God – we have to choose to be in God’s likeness, and we have to work on that.  That is the point of asceticism and self denial, that we make ourselves conform to the likeness of God – to become more Christlike.  We become more perfectly human when we deny our self, our passions, and become more like Christ – loving, merciful, forgiving.

If we live just according to what we often think of as our human nature, we live just according to the nature we inherited from Adam.  But this is not perfect human nature.  We have to strive to be perfect as God is perfect.  That is why Jesus concluded today’s Gospel lesson with the words:

“With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

St. Paul teaches us this same lesson with his words:

Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual which is first but the physical, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven. I tell you this, brethren: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.   (1 Corinthians 15:45-50)

“Blessed is the Man…” AND Also the Woman

Jesus answered, “Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female . . . ?”   (Matthew 19:4)

There is neither … male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  (Galatians 3:28)

St. Basil the Great writing in the 4th Century addresses an issue that is still relevant today – are women somehow excluded from the life of holiness because they are not males?  Obviously,women in his day felt excluded from the life in the Church, as many do today.  While his answer will not satisfy some today, he does argue that there is no difference between holiness in men and women, and that God equally honors both male and female.

.‘Blessed is the man who hath not walked in the counsel of the ungodly’ [Psalm 1:1].  What is truly good, therefore, is principally and primarily the most blessed. And that is God.

..But before I explain what it is ‘not to walk in the counsel of the ungodly,’ I wish to settle the question asked at this point. Why, you say, does the prophet single out only man and proclaim him happy? Does he not exclude women from happiness? By no means. For, the virtue of man and women is the same, since creation is equally honored in both; therefore, there is the same reward for both. Listen to Genesis. ‘God created man,’ it says, ‘in the image of God he created him. Male and female he created them.’ They whose nature is alike have the same reward. Why, then, when Scripture had made mention of man, did it leave woman unnoticed? Because it believed that it was sufficient, since their nature is alike, to indicated the whole through the more authoritative part.

‘Blessed, therefore, is the man who hath not walked in the counsel of the ungodly.’

(The Fathers of the Church: St. Basil Exegetic Homilies, pp. 155-156)

Jesus looked up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again.”  (John 8:10-11)

True Vision

Think nothing and do nothing without a purpose directed to God. For to journey without direction is wasted effort.  (St. Mark the Ascetic, The Philokalia, p. 114)

St. Mark’s aphorism has been repeated in many different ways through human history.

If you don’t know your destination, any road will get you there.

A bullet fired from a gun will strike whatever is in its path, whether that is the intended target or not.

St. Mark’s point is that in the Christian life, really for all humans, there is a purpose for our existence, a goal we are trying to attain.  We are aiming to attain union with our God who created us.  And God, because God is love, lovingly aims to guide us to that goal, a shared life in the Holy Trinity.  If we want this to be a conscious effort, it requires us to have a relationship with God

Who is the man that fears the LORD? Him will he instruct in the way that he should choose.   (Psalms 25:12)

If we have right relationship with God as Lord, God will guide us to Himself.   But that way is not always obvious even to those who have a relationship to God.

Jesus said, “And you know the way where I am going.”

Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?”

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also; henceforth you know him and have seen him.”

Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we shall be satisfied.”

Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and yet you do not know me, Philip? He who has seen me has seen the Father; how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?    (John 14:4-9)

Apparently it is even possible to walk with Christ and not understand the way or the destination!  We have to see our relationship to Christ as the Way to union with God.  When we see our life as directed to God, then we will understand the walk with Christ.  We will know both the Way and the destination.

 

Male & Female He Created Them

The primordial story of man and woman hints that, despite all the dangers that accompany the humanization of sexuality, it is complementarity — the heterosexual difference — and not just doubleness that may point the way to human flourishing altogether. Conscious love of the complementary other draws the soul outward and upward; in procreation, love, mindful of mortality, overflows generously into creativity, the child unifying the parents as sex or romance alone never can, and the desire to give not only life but a good way of life to their children opens both man and woman towards a concern for the true, the good, and the holy. Parental love of children may be the beginning of sanctification of life. Perhaps that is what God was thinking when He said that it is not good for the human being — neither for man or woman — to be alone. Perhaps this is why “male and female created He them”.

Jacob & Rachel

(Leon R. Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom, pp. 121-122)

Demonic Influence vs. Free Will

“…angelic and demonic thoughts as gifts or temptations from the outside involve some degree of free choice. While it is not in a person’s power to decide whether a demonic or angelic thought will pass through one’s mind, people can choose to act on it or to ignore it. Upon determining the origin of a given thought, a person is quite free to reject the thought or admit it by lingering on it. No matter how enticing a demonic thought maybe, it can only urge not coerce. This can be seen both in the account of the fall and of Christ’s temptation in the wilderness.

Being made in the image of God, each human being receives as a royal birthright the sovereign power of the intelligence and the free will. In fact, Saint Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain, well-aware of the radiant examples of the martyrs and great ascetics, writes,

‘God bestowed on our will so much freedom and power, that even if every kind of sensual provocation, ever kind of demon, and the entire world united to take arms against our will and vehemently to make war against it, despite all that, our will remains entirely free to despise that attack and will what it chooses to will or not will what it does not choose to will.’”

(Fr. Alexis Trader, Ancient Christian Wisdom and Aaron Beck’s Cognitive Therapy, p. 60)

The Way of Love is the Way of Co-suffering

Nicholas Kotar in his book, The Song of the Sirin (Raven Son Book 1), has one of his characters ask a thought provoking question – a thought experiment about human creativity.  We are capable of creativity and of making things beautiful, but we come into a world not of our making, and so we interact with that world.  Humans have a synergy with creation and with God.

“Tell me, Voran. What is the most beautiful thing a man can mold and form, though it is not of his own creation?”

Voran had already contemplated this question for a long time, and thoughtfully gives a reply which immediately suggests to  him a follow up question.

How many times had he pondered the same question while sitting half-frozen on the banks of their river of a morning?

“His own life,” he said.

The most beautiful thing that we can form which we did not create is our self!  This is why Christianity is not mostly about learning information, but it is about formation.  We are each in the process of forming our soul, our self.  We cooperate with God in creating our self – true synergy.

“His own life,” he said. “To make his own life beautiful, what must he do?”

It came to him like floodwaters, overwhelming.

The answer to this question is one which Orthodox Christianity has embraced, contemplated and attempted to live in its spirituality.  God has imbued us with the gifts necessary for and capable of making things beautiful.  It is truly a good that we can add to creation.

To love as God loves is to love to the point that one suffers with the other, for the other and even because of the other.

“A human being can only become truly human if he lives for others.  That way, the way of love, is by necessity the way of pain. Shared pain. Co-suffering.”  (page 82).

The way for us to become truly human – to make ourselves good and beautiful is the way of love, the self emptying love which God revealed in the incarnation.  For God to become human, God emptied himself.  For us to become fully human is to become as God is, which means we too must empty ourselves.

“The kind of co-suffering we are talking about is …  precisely in the ability to understand man, fathom the good qualities he possesses, and to appreciate him, freeing him from the admixture of falsehood.  What is required for this– in addition to humble love– are a power and broadness of mind.  Thus, co-suffering is the ability to come to an inner self-identification with a person, a joyous blending with all that is good in him, and sorrow about all that is negative.  This is precisely where a ‘fisher of men’ is revealed.  Such people somehow manage to penetrate a person completely, to appropriate all his thoughts, to become linked to his very heart and soul, to raise his whole being to truth and love.  All this requires spiritual knowledge, sincere love and the ability to know the innermost thoughts of a person without reacting in a negative manner.

Hieromartyr Gorazd of Prague

The prerequisite of this influence of one will upon another may be stated thus: By humbling oneself, loving and learning about people, a human being ascends or returns to a primordial mysterious union with everyone and, in pouring the holy content (acquired through communion with God) of his soul into the soul of his neighbor, he transfigures the inner nature of the latter in such a way that merely by the consent of his will, the difficult path of his rebirth is almost accomplished.”  (Anthony KhrapovitskyDOSTOYEVESKY’S CONCEPT OF REBIRTH, pp 37-38)