Pentecost: The Fullness of the Feast of Feasts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Motherhood of Every Believer

Fr Alexander Schmemann held to particular ideas about the differing natures and roles of women and men.  His ideas about what it is to be male and female were certainly based in the world in which he grew up (and this socialization created his “man box” some would say).  Indeed, some today have questioned his assumptions (see for example Vol 16 of The Wheel) and have offered some justifiable criticism of his assumptions about what it means to be male or female.  In quoting him here, I’m not defending his assumptions about the nature and role of women.  I do think it is possible, to bracket those criticisms, accepting them as valid, and to read Schmemann for the point he was making even if his assumptions and perspective no longer satisfy the ideals of the 21st Century.  In the quote below, I think his point is that all humans to be fully human must be capable of being receptive to God’s action, so all humans need what he considered to be a feminine quality.   Whereas he attributes this receptivity to being a feminine characteristic, nevertheless his point is still that all of us, females and males, need this characteristic in order to respond to God’s salvation – in order to be fully human.  In effect, we all need to learn “motherhood” in order to be fully human and Christian.  And so naturally he sees the Virgin Mary as being a model for all Christians as the perfect human, not just a perfect woman.  In his thinking she shows us what this perfect motherhood is – being receptive and obedient to the Word of God.

Fr Alexander wrote:

True obedience is thus true love for God, the true response of Creation to its Creator. Humanity is fully humanity when it is this response to God, when it becomes the movement of total self-giving and obedience to Him.

But in the “natural” world the bearer of this obedient love, of this love as response, is the woman. The man proposes, the woman accepts. This acceptance is not passivity, blind submission, because it is love, and love is always active. It gives life to the proposal of man, fulfills it as life, yet it becomes fully love and fully life only when it is fully acceptance and response. This is why the whole creation, the whole Church—and not only women—find the expression of their response and obedience to God in Mary the Woman, and rejoice in her. She stands for all of us, because only when we accept, respond in love and obedience—only when we accept the essential womanhood of creation—do we become ourselves true men and women; only then can we indeed transcend our limitations as “males” and “females.”

For man can be truly man—that is, the king of creation, the priest and minister of God’s creativity and initiative—only when he does not posit himself as the “owner” of creation and submits himself—in obedience and love—to its nature as the bride of God, in response and acceptance. And woman ceases to be just a “female” when, totally and unconditionally accepting the life of the Other as her own life, giving herself totally to the Other, she becomes the very expression, the very fruit, the very joy, the very beauty, the very gift of our response to God, the one whom, in the words of the Song, the king will bring into his chambers, saying: “Thou art all fair, my love, there is no spot in thee” (Ct. 4:7). (Fr. Alexander Schmemann from For the Life of the World, found in Building an Orthodox Marriage, p. 25)

If we can lay aside our concerns about whether Fr Alexander’s prejudices about the nature of male and female are correct, it is possible to hear his message about what it takes for each of us to be fully human.  All of us need to be receptive to God’s Word and salvation.  He is calling us to rise above the limitations which he himself understood to be true about the nature of males and females.  Only when we receive God into our lives can we also incarnate Christ by becoming members of the Body of Christ.  Then we bring forth the spiritual fruit like Mary the Theotokos did.

Whether or not Fr Alexander’s ideals of what it is to be male and female are current or correct, he still makes a point about what it takes to be human.  Mary is the model human in her obedience to God and accepting God’s Word.  She receives the Word into herself and incarnates that Word.  Her life becomes the model for every human who wants to love God.  When we each follow Mary’s lead, we transcend the limits of male and female and become the humans God intends us to be.  The feminine and motherhood are thus categories which transcend gender and belong to our shared humanity.

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)

there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.   (Galatians 3:28)

Spiritual Training: Overcome Evil

God cares for man’s freedom as the most precious principle that he possesses, and so in humility draws the soul to His love. But on the path to this love man comes up against the violator, the devil. The Lord allows that it should be so. God trains man’s soul, not by removing evil from his path by giving him the strength necessary to overcome all evil.

(St. Silouan the Athonite, p. 220)

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)

What is Sin?

The essence of sin consists not in the infringement of ethical standards but in a falling away from the eternal Divine life for which man was created and to which, by his very nature, he is called.

Sin is committed first of all in the secret depths of the human spirit but its consequences involve the individual as a whole. A sin will reflect on a man’s psychological and physical condition, on his outward appearance, on his personal destiny. Sin will, inevitably, pass beyond the boundaries of the sinner’s individual life, to burden all humanity and thus affect the fate of the whole world. The sin of our forefather Adam was not the only sin of cosmic significance. Every sin, manifest or secret, committed by each one of us affects the rest of the universe.”

(St. Silouan the Athonite, p. 31)

Sin as Mud Washed Away

“God has imprinted the image of the good things of His own nature on creation. But sin, in spreading out over the divine likeness, has caused this good to disappear, covering it with shameful garments. But if, by a life rightly led, you wash away the mud that has been put on your heart, then godlike (theoeides) beauty will again shine out in you. And so it is that he who is pure of heart merits to be called blessed, since in looking at his own beauty, he sees in it its model.

Just as he who looks at the sun in a mirror, even if he does not fix his eyes on the sky itself, nevertheless sees the sun in the mirror’s brightness, so you also even if you eyes could not bear the light, possess within yourselves what you desire, if you return to the grace of the image that was placed in you from the beginning. (Gregory of Nyssa, from Louis Bouyer’s The Spirit of the New Testament and the Fathers, pp. 365-366)

Numerous Fathers accept the image of sin as being a mud which has sullied us but has not become part of who we are.  Sin can be washed away by tears of repentance, by baptism, by living a godly life, by allowing the Light of God to enter into one’s life.  Sin at worst is a parasite living on us, but we never lose our connection to God, the image of God imprinted on our hearts.    These Fathers reject any idea of the total depravity of humanity or that humans are nothing but sin deserving God’s eternal damnation.   Humans are loved by God and Christ comes to us as a healer, to take away our sins, to restore us to full health, to make us human again.  The Hope diamond caked with layers of dried mud would look like a dirty rock.  Yet, beneath the layers of mud the diamond is as valuable as ever.  This is the situation of humans in the world and why God loves us and works so hard to save us.  God sees through the mud and knows the worth of every human person.

Racism, Prejudice and the Good Samaritan

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“Orthodoxy condemns in an irrevocable manner the inhuman system of racial discrimination and the sacrilegious affirmation whereby such systems claim to be an in agreement with Christian ideals. When asked “who is my neighbor?”, Christ answered with the parable of the Good Samaritan. Thus, He taught us to demolish all barriers of enmity and prejudice. Orthodoxy confesses that each human being – independently of color, religion, race, nationality or language – is a bearer of the image of God, is our brother or sister, an equal member of the human family.”  (from The 1986 Chambesy statement, found in For the Peace from Above, p. 82)  

See also my post Feeling the Sting of the Good Samaritan Parable

To Be Human Is To Be Like God

We can begin to expand on this by looking at what it means to say humanity is created in the “image of God” (Gen. 1:26-27; 9:6), a metaphor that is scarce in Scripture but that has come to play a huge part in Christian discussions of the uniqueness of human beings. “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image’” (Gen. 1:26). Today there is fairly widespread agreement that, as used in Genesis at least, image does not refer to a possession or endowment (like mind, reason, free will) but is a relational term. That is, it makes no sense without considering our relation to God – as God’s unique “counterpart” or covenant partner (we can know and love God in return) – and because of that, to other creatures, human and nonhuman, animate and inanimate.

Crucial also is the notion of representation: as God’s counterparts, human beings are God’s earthly representatives, his vice-regents, in the way that an ancient monarch was seen to represent a god or a physical image to represent a king. Bound up with this is the idea of resemblance or similarity: as God’s partners, humans are in some sense like God (hence the pairing of image with likeness). In short, to say that we are created in God’s image is to say that we are created as God’s unique counterparts and hence God’s representatives on earth, embodying, as creatures and alongside other creatures, the action and presence of God in and to the word.”

(Jeremy S. Begbie, Resounding Truth, p. 202)

Tomorrow You May Die is Never True

There was a certain rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and fared sumptuously every day. But there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, full of sores, who was laid at his gate, desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom.

The rich man also died and was buried. And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. Then he cried and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented. And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us.’ Then he said, ‘I beg you therefore, father, that you would send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, lest they also come to this place of torment.’ Abraham said to him, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ But he said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.’”  (Luke 16:19-31)

See also my blog Poor Lazarus and the Rich Man.

Twenty-five years ago there was an article in NEWSWEEK magazine entitled, “Our Fear of Dying”, 4 October 1993.  The author, Daniel Callahan made several comments that still seem true today:

“As a health obsessed society, we do not know what to do with death, other than to try to control it.”

Callahan mentioned the American medical enterprise invests heavily in trying to overcome diseases that lead to death – a veritable war on death.  He noted that in the medical enterprise in America there is

“… the potent assumption that death is essentially an accident, correctable with enough money, will and scientific ingenuity…”

If America put enough of its wealth and entrepreneurial spirit into it, medical science would make death itself a thing of the past.   Callahan wrote that other modern cultures around the world were much more at peace with human mortality.  America perhaps was in a great deal of denial about what it is to be human.  About the time that he wrote that article, I was a speaker at a continuing education event for doctors at a local university, speaking about end of life issues.  I remember clearly how the surgeons in the group were almost never ready to admit that there was an end to treatment for patients and almost all felt there was always one more thing that could be tried.  The family practice doctors on the other hand seemed to have a clearer sense that there was a point where you have to admit there is nothing more you can do medically for a patient.  Callahan argues that we

“… should seek to educate physicians to see death not as an accident that medicine has failed to eliminate, but as a permanent part of the human condition that requires medicine’s good care, a fitting and inevitable final goal of the entire enterprise.”

Our fear of death drove us to denial about its reality, leading to our throwing money into an effort to defeat death, and yet Americans like all humans continue to die daily.  We may increase life expectancy, but we  should expect death as well.  We dream that medical science can eventually conquer all the causes of death, that there really is absolutely nothing to limit our human ingenuity and drive.

Perhaps we should read again the Genesis account of the tower of Babel.  Those folks too believed nothing could limit them.  But that Is another story.

The Bible reminds us that death has a spiritual cause.  We cannot eliminate death by using only medical means.  Death is related to sin, and has something to do with our own spiritual lives and our relationship to God.  Or, more accurately our loss of a relationship to God.

Everything in this world comes to an end, everything has a  limit – a great basketball game, a wonderful symphony, the beauty of autumn, an exquisite gourmet meal, a spirited dance, a football winning streak.

Death can only be cheated through our own repentance, our establishing a right relationship with God.  Godliness sees us through the experience of death into the realm of eternal life.

Some years ago I saw a poem written during the Byzantine Empire.  It said:

Eat, Drink, be merry for tomorrow

You may die.

But you never do.

You never die tomorrow, for the day of your death is always this day you are in, and there is no tomorrow for the one who has died today.  The poem points out to us a fallacy in our thinking which makes us believe we will live forever since tomorrow never comes.  Today, however, is the day.

Some ask the question, why do we die at all?  Why is there death.  We Christians might respond by saying that is the wrong question.  The real question is  “why is their life?”  Why does anything exist at all?

It all exists because of God and God’s love.  Death brings this life to an end, but death cannot change the purpose of life, which is to love God and be in communion with God.  Death cannot separate us from the love of God.

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? . . .  No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.   (Romans 8:35-39)

Many people wonder what happens to us when we die and it is a common question asked in churches.  All kinds of speculations exist and descriptions of life after death, even in Orthodoxy, toll house theories and the like.  Read the Gospel lesson above (Luke 16:19-31), it too gives a description of life after death, albeit in a parable, so it is not trying to give an accurate portrayal of life beyond the grave.  But in the parable ultimately the rich man now in his life-after-death situation wants to try to reach back to the people he left behind in the world.  There is this irony –  We in the world are all wondering about life after death, and he in the afterlife is worried about those living in the world!  And basically the parable is not teaching us about what happens to us after death, but a warning to us to pay attention to how we live while on earth.  The afterlife cannot help us live properly on earth and living correctly on earth is far more important to our Lord Jesus than the life after death. He who proclaimed His kingdom is not of this world spends very little time talking about life after death.

We might remember that according to the Book of Genesis, Adam and Eve in the garden of Paradise, after they sin, they try to hide from God.

Notice how different our Lord Jesus is in the garden of Gethsemane, in His deepest prayer He desires to be with God and not be left alone.

Both were facing death, but for Adam and Eve death meant separation from God and they chose death and that separation from God.  For Christ, death could not separate Him from His father.  Death is no friend for Jesus.  Christ sees beyond death to eternal life and an unending loving relationship with God our Father.  Christ chooses eternal life.

Humans were created for immortality, death is a disintegration of the human.  But our battle with death is a spiritual battle which cannot be fought by medicine alone.  The medical enterprise will not bring an end to death.

Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life.  He who believes in Me, though he may die, shall live.” (John 11:25)