Wiggle Room: Wisdom and the Two Ways

“Thus says the LORD: Behold, I set before you the way of life and the way of death.”  (Jeremiah 21:8)

“Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”  (Matthew 7:13-14)

The notion that there are two ways through the world – the way of life and the way of death – permeates the Scriptures.  They are sometimes dramatically pitted one against the other, and we humans must choose which we will follow.

“O full of all deceit and all fraud, you son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, will you not cease perverting the straight ways of the Lord?”   (Acts 13:10)

And yet the same Tradition which is the Two Ways also is the Wisdom Tradition.  Wisdom is not law, but rather is the Spirit guiding us in how, when and where, with whom and to what degree we can keep the law.

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: …  a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing…”  (Ecclesiastes 3:1-5)

The Tradition which says there are only two ways also provides that we have to know what to do when we are in a grey area, when things are not and aren’t supposed to be black and white.  Between black and white there exist gradiation and degrees, some better than others in terms of doing God’s will.  All or nothing thinking has its limits and sometimes causes problems and even evil.  It can lead people to abandon a good way because of a mistake or sin which causes them to think all is lost.  Something is better than nothing is also wisdom.  I may not be able to be perfect but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try to do as much good as I can.   There always is repentance and a spirit of humility which confesses persistent spiritual failure.  We fall, and we get up.

We see this Wisdom often in the ascetic literature of the Church.

“Be as eager as you can to love everyone, but if you cannot do this yet, at least do not hate anyone.”    (St. Maximus the Confessor, A Patristic Treasury: Early Church Wisdom for Today, Kindle Loc. 6835-36)

“If you are able to bear the whole yoke of the Lord, you will be perfect. But if you are not able, then do what you can.”  (Didache, A Patristic Treasury: Early Church Wisdom for Today, Kindle Loc. 645-46)

Christ the Stranger

Archimandrite Aimilianos of Simonopetra reflects on Christ as the stranger, a theme we encounter in the Gospel lesson of the Samaritan Woman (John 4:5-42).

“Christ was a stranger on the earth, because even though the world was made through Him, the world knew Him not. Indeed he was a stranger even among His own brethren, for He came to his own home; and his own people received him not Jn. 1.11-12). But, as St. Makarios suggests, it is not simply in this sense that Christ agreed to become a stranger, but in the deeper sense that Christ has rejected all rights.

In one glance, the eyes of Christ can encompass the universe. In a single gesture, He can embrace and contain all things, both in heaven and on earth: His heavenly Father, the Holy Spirit, the angels the stars the planets, everything in an instant. But He did not account equality with God a thing to be grasped at, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a slave, a stranger (Phil. 2.7). It’s as if he said: ‘I refuse every place of rest other than your soul, so that you will know that I, Christ, empty Myself in order to be filled by you. Though you be a worm and not a man (Ps. 21.6), I will honor you in this way, so that you can become My bride, My bridal chamber, My completion, My perfection. And though you are but a wretched earth-worm, I will make you the most beautiful thing there is: I will make you God. And because I am God, I lack nothing: I am in need of nothing. Whatever I have done, whatever I have become, has all been on account of you. My self-abasement, My exile, My hunger, My thirst, my loneliness, are things that I have voluntarily chosen and which can only be satisfied by you; for you are My food, and My clothing, shelter and place of rest.’

This is how far God has abased Himself! In order to fill us with His plentitude, He has voluntarily emptied Himself. This is what He means when He says: I was a stranger, and I was hungry and thirsty, and so on, namely: that He has rejected everything in order to embrace everything. He abandoned the bosom of the Father (cf. Jn 1.18) to make His home in our hearts. Though He was rich, for your sake He became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich (2 Cor 8.9).

‘Let us therefore,”’St. Makarios concludes, ‘welcome Him into our hearts’ –and here he reverses what he has just said– ‘for he is our food and drink and eternal life.’” (The Way of the Spirit, pp. 246-247).

Christ who hungers and thirsts in His life on earth, hungers and thirsts for our salvation by becoming the food and drink of eternal life.

Salvation: For the Love of God

The true focus of every Christian is not their salvation, but God.  We are supposed to love God first of all, and then, secondly to love neighbor.  An obsession with one’s salvation is far more an act of self-love rather than true love.

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For true love, the love which God exhibits towards us, and which Christ commands us to do, is focused not on the self but on the other – God first, and then neighbor.   Fr. Thomas Hopko writes:

“What should we be interested in? God. Beautiful, marvelous, magnificent, splendid, glorious God Almighty. And His only begotten Son Jesus Christ, born of a virgin on earth; and the all-holy, life-creating Spirit who proceeds from God, dwells in the Son, and is breathed upon us. In God is life, reality, truth, peace, and joy. We need to be interested in the God who saves us, not in salvation as such. We need to be interested in loving God. Life is about God. The Bible is about God. Church is about God. Sacraments are about God.”  (The Names of Jesus: Discovering the Person of Christ through Scripture, Kindle Location 230-233)

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Revealing Water

The Sunday Gospel lessons in the weeks following Pascha seem to have baptismal themes to them, which is probably why they are found in the lectionary at this point in the year.  Pascha was a traditional time to baptize catechumens, and in the weeks after their baptisms, the newly initiated Christians were given lessons in understanding the Mystery of dying and living with Christ.  So yesterday’s Gospel (John 5:1-15) reading of the Paralytic being healed at the pool of Bethesda fits well into Gospel lessons used to teach about baptism.  This Gospel lesson however might be contrasting the waters of Bethesda with the waters of Baptism.  It is Christ who makes the difference.  The waters of Bethesda may have been able to hear one fortunate person every so often, but the waters of baptism are able to heal every sinner and restore their full humanity.

In the baptismal liturgy, we pray over the water, and find what it is that the waters which Christ offer us (such that we will never thirst) are:

“But show this water, O Master of all, to be

the water of redemption,

the water of sanctification,

the purification of flesh and spirit,

the loosing of bonds,

the remission of sins,

the illumination of the soul,

the washing of regeneration,

the renewal of the Spirit,

the gift of adoption to sonship,

the garment of incorruption,

the fountain of life.

While some people think baptism is for washing away the guilt of original sin, the prayer over the water tells us the cosmic significance of baptism.  It is not just about an individual, nor is it just about the remission of sins.  Baptism is about redemption, sanctification, purification, illumination, regeneration, transformation,  revelation,  and renewal as well as being made an heir of God’s promises and kingdom.  Baptism is the beginning of the new life in Christ – we start to live at baptism.

For You have said, O Lord: “Wash and be clean; put away evil things from your souls.”  You have bestowed upon us from on high a new birth through water and the Spirit. Therefore, O Lord, manifest Yourself in this water, and grant that

he (she) who is baptized therein may be transformed;

 that he (she) may put away from himself (herself) the old man, which is corrupt through the lusts of the flesh,

and that he (she) may, in like manner, be a partaker of Your Resurrection; and having preserved the gift of Your Holy Spirit, and increased the measure of grace committed to him (her),

he (she) may receive the prize of his (her) high calling, and be numbered with the firstborn whose names are written in heaven, in You, our God and Lord, Jesus Christ.

In the prayers of baptism, we ask God to manifest Himself in the waters of baptism – the baptized have the God who is love reveal Himself to them.  We experience our life as a birth from God!  We are born again in baptism, born of God to become God’s children.  We experience Christ’s resurrection and receive the Holy Spirit in baptism. We experience the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity.

Our task in life is to live this baptism – we go out into the world to live our life and to preserve our baptismal garments.  And, as the prayers say we are to increase the grace given to us.  We are not to hide and protect the received grace from contact with the world, but rather are to increase that grace by our life in the world.  We use the gift of the Holy Spirit and the grace of baptism or we lose it.  We use it in our daily life to increase it.  This is the Christian life of loving God and neighbor.

Salvation: Restoring the Divine Image

While Christianity focuses on Christ, it doesn’t begin with Jesus.  Christ comes to heal humanity, but the illness which He heals began thousands of years earlier with the entrance of sin and death into human existence.  St. Gregory of Nyssa offers an understanding of what was the ill that Jesus Christ came to cure.  First Gregory notes that sin is not a thing that is permanent or can even exist without a host.  Sin is dependent for its existence on human free will.  If humans made no choices, sin could not exist.  Humans were created with the possibility of sinless existence, but we have made choices that led us away from God – separation from God is death.

Is it possible that there was a physical death that could exist that didn’t involve separation from God?  Is it possible that living things could age and even die but remain united to God?  Is this what God intended from the beginning?  Certainly in Christ we have that reality achieved – even death doesn’t separate us from God.  Jesus the man is never separated from divinity even in His death and descent into Hades, the place of the dead.  In Christ, we all remain united to Him even through our own deaths and after our burials.  In Christ, death no longer separates us from God!  Whether this was something totally new, or a restoration of what existed at the beginning of creation, doesn’t matter for it is the new reality – creation renewed in Christ.

St. Gregory begins describing the first human, the first Adam, who had all of the potential for good, and yet chose to separate himself from all that is good.

So too the first man who arose from the earth–he, indeed, who begot all the evil that is in man–and it in his power to choose all the good and beautiful things of nature that lay around him. And yet he deliberately instituted by himself things that were against nature; in rejecting virtue by his own free choice he fashioned the temptation to evil. For sin does not exist in nature apart from free will; it is not a substance in its own right. All of God’s creatures are good, and nothing He has made may be despised: He made all things very good (Gen. 1:31). But in the way I have described, the whole procession of sin entered into man’s life for his undoing, and from a tiny source poured out upon mankind an infinite sea of evil. The soul’s divine beauty, that had been an imitation of its archetype, was, like a blade, darkened with the rust of sin; it no longer kept beauty of the image it once possessed by nature, and was transformed into the ugliness of evil.

St. Gregory describes a common idea in Orthodox patristic writers: there is an inner goodness in every human being – the image of God is imprinted on each of us and is never lost.  Sin cannot take the image of God away from us.  Rather that image becomes covered with the rust and dirt of sin.  The most precious diamond in the world if caked with layers of  dried and hardened clay will look like any rock.  Yet, beneath those layers of hardened mud lies encased that most valuable diamond.

Thus man, who was so great and precious, as the Scriptures call him, fell from the value he had by nature. It is like people who slip and fall in the mud and get their faces so smeared that even their relatives cannot recognize them. So man fell into the mud of sin, and lost his likeness to the eternal Godhead. And in its stead he has, by his sin, clothed himself in an image that is of clay and mortal; and this is the image we earnestly counsel him to remove and wash away in the purifying waters of the Christian life. Once this earthly covering is removed, the soul’s beauty will once again shine forth.

In sticking with the imagery of a diamond encased in hardened clay, St. Gregory sees each human person.  No longer do we see the glorious image of God in each other.  Baptism begins to wash away these layers of filth, the accretion of a life time of sin.  Baptism washes our eyes so we can see the reality of God’s hand in creation and the image of God in others.  Baptism helps wash away our own layers of sin so that others can see the image of God in us.

By our human efforts we can merely clear away the accumulated filth of sin and thus allow the hidden beauty of the soul to shine forth.

This lesson is taught, I think, in the Gospel, where our Lord speaks to those who have ears for the mysteries that Wisdom teaches us: The kingdom of God is within you (Luke 17:21). I think that the text here points out that the gift of God is not separated from our nature nor is it far from those who choose to look for it. It dwells within everyone of us, ignored and forgotten, choked with the cares and pleasures of life (Luke 8:14), but is rediscovered when we turn our minds to it.

But if we must confirm this doctrine in other ways, the same lesson is, I think, taught by our Lord in the search for the lost drachma (Luke 15:8-9)…and surely the hidden meaning of the coin is the image of our King, which has not yet been completely lost, but is simply hidden under dirt. By the dirt I think we must understand the uncleanness of the flesh; for, when we cleanse and sweep this away by a fervent life, what we are looking for will be made manifest. And then the soul that finds the coin rightly rejoices and calls in her neighbors to share in her joy. The soul’s associates are, of course, the various faculties of the soul, which the text here calls neighbors. For when the great image of the King is discovered and shines forth again, just as it was stamped on our drachma in the beginning by the Creator, stamped on the hearts of everyone, then do all our faculties unite in that divine joy and gladness as they gaze upon the ineffable beauty of what they have found. For she says: Rejoice with me because I have found the groat which I had lost (Luke 15:9). (From Glory to Glory, pp.13-15)

In all such imagery and thinking, we find that sin is not limited to law breaking which God must punish.  Sin is experienced by us as being covered by layers of filth – of our being buried beneath layers of sin so that we can no longer see clearly, and reality itself (the image of God in each of us is so covered as to be totally obscured from sight). Salvation is not merely a release from legal retribution, but is a restoration and recreation and regeneration of the human being.   Overcoming sin is thus not just a matter of suffering an appropriate punishment, but requires a washing, a cleansing which restores the human to his or her glorious nature.  It is a healing of soul and body which we need, which is given to us by Christ, the true physician of our lives.

When Death Wept

At some point in early Christian history, Christian theologians began imaging Christ’s descent into Hades, the place of the dead.  Unlike concerns of later Christians, they didn’t have Christ describe what Hades is like or what it’s like to be dead or how to make the proper sojourn through the place of the dead as was the theme of pagan religion.  They took a completely different point of view: they imagined how Death reacted to facing Christ in Hades.  Death realizes that he is suddenly confronted by God, face to face in a place which Death thought he was all powerful and far removed from the reach of God.  These early Christian theologians personified or anthropomorphized Death, and then rejoiced in Death’s shriveling and cowering before real power – the eternal God.  Death felt all powerful – able to claim every human person God created and to enslave them in Hades.  In the face of the crucified Christ, Death realizes he has no real power even over the dead.

In the midst of Death’s own kingdom, Death realized he still had a Lord, and that he himself really wasn’t a lord at all, but was powerless in the face of God.  Christ came to destroy death not to describe what the place of the dead is like.  He didn’t come to tell us how to navigate our way through Hades or Toll Houses either.    Christ destroyed death and then by His resurrection showed us the path to the Kingdom of God.  Christ smashed the gates of Hades and opened the gate of Paradise to His human creatures.  By entering Hades, Christ transformed even Hades into Heaven!  So the Syriac-Persian Christian Aphrahat (d. 345AD) writes:

“When Jesus, the slayer of Death, came and put on a body (Ibesh pagra) from the seed of Adam, and was crucified in the body and tasted death; and as soon as Death perceived that he descended to him, he quivered in his place and became agitated at the sight of Jesus. He shut up the doors and did not want to receive him. However, he shattered the doors and entered to him [Death] and began to rob him of his possessions. As the dead saw light shining in darkness, they raised up their heads from the bondage of death and looked forth and saw the brightness of Christ, the King.

Then the powers of darkness sat lamenting, for Death was destroyed and stripped of his authority. And Death has tasted deadly poison (sam mauta) and his hands slackened and he realized that the dead will revive and escape his tyranny. As he [Christ] conquered Death by spoiling him of his possessions, Death cried out and wept bitterly and said: “Go out of my place and do not come back. Who is that who dared to enter my home alive?” And then Death cried out as he saw darkness starting to disperse and some among the righteous ones who were lying down there, rose up to ascend with him [Christ]. And he said [to Death] that he will return at the end of time, and will release all captives from his authority, and will draw them to himself, so that they could see light. Thus, as Christ had completed his ministry (teshmeshta) among the dead, Death let him escape out of his region, for he could not endure his presence there. For it was not sweet for him to swallow Christ up as [it was with] the rest of the dead. And Death did not prevail over the Holy One and he was not subjected to corruption.” (quoted by Hilarion Alfeyev, Christ the Conqueror of Hell, pp. 69-70)

The Holy Eucharist: In Remembrance of Christ

The Holy Eucharist is given by the Lord “in remembrance of me(1 Cor. 11:25). First of all, in sensu realissimo, the Eucharist is the power of the Incarnation, the realized and abiding Divine-humanity, including all the faithful: “we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread” (10:17). The Divine Eucharist is the abiding of Christ in the world, His connection with the world, despite the ascension: “I am with you always, even unto the end of the world” (Matt. 28:20) by the Holy Spirit, sent by Him into the world from the Father: “and I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you forever…I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you” (John 14:16, 18).  

Communion with the body and blood is therefore not yet all that the Eucharist signifies as the divine “It is finished” (John 19:30), as the sacrificial and abiding Incarnation. It is the sacrament of sacraments, the foundation of all the sacraments, and its accomplishing power is the Pentecost, the coming into the world of the Holy Spirit, who “shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you“ (14:26). “In remembrance of me [anamnesin]” and “to bring…to your remembrance [hypomnesei]” are closely connected, which is expressed in the fact that the “breaking of the bread” appears in the life of the Church only after the Pentecost, as the accomplishment of Divine humanity.

Thus, originally, in the apostolic age, the Divine Eucharist as the basis of all the sacraments was exclusively that which it is as the realization of the body of the Church as the body of Christ. Its essential character was not hierarchical but koinonic. That is, its character was one of sobornost, but this character was replaced as early as the second century by hierarchism, which, of course, did not completely eliminate it, but was capable of obscuring it. How this happened has to be explained by church history.” (Sergius Bulgakov, The Bride of the Lamb, pp. 286-287).

Revealing Not Repealing Death

“The death of the Savior revealed that death held no power over him. The Lord was mortal in respect of His complete human nature; for even in the original nature there was a potentia mortis (capacity of death). The Lord died, but death could not keep Him. He was the eternal life, and through His death He destroyed death. His descent into hell, the kingdom of death, is the powerful revelation of life. By descending into hell, He gives life to death itself. And by the resurrection, the powerlessness of death is revealed. The reality of death is not repealed, but its powerlessness is revealed.” (Georges Florovsky, On the Tree of the Cross, p. 150)

Faith: Information or Relation?

St. Thomas was told by his fellow Apostles that they had seen Jesus alive after His crucifixion.  They shared with him that information: “We have seen the Lord!” (John 20:25).  Having that information did nothing for Thomas as he declared he would never believe until he saw the risen Christ himself.  Perhaps he was miffed that Christ would appear to the rest and not to him.  He didn’t fully trust his fellow disciples or the Lord.  Perhaps just hearing that news was not enough to convince him of anything.  It takes more than information – even well attested information (!) – to believe.  Christian faith is a relationship with the risen Christ.  Theologian Christos Yannaras writes:

“The transmission of this knowledge to succeeding generations also presupposes an experience of relation–the Church’s gospel does not function as the communication of information…It is a relation of trust (faith) in those who once were eyewitnesses to his presence, in the persons who from generation to generation, in an unbroken chain of the same experiential participation, transmit the testimony of their encounter with the gospel’s signs.

Faith/trust is a constant struggle to maintain a relation, and the knowledge that faith conveys is the coherent articulation of that struggle. The struggle signifies an attempt to attain something without the certainty that one has attained it–however long the struggle lasts, nothing is sure or safe, nothing may be taken as given. The relation of life is gained or lost from moment to moment…

The only “objective” information compatible with the ecclesial event is the invitation “Come and see” (John 1:46), that is, a call for human beings to participate in specific relations, relations of communion with life, in a common struggle for each person’s individual self-transcendence and self-offering. And the goal is the knowledge that comes about when a person loves…

In a religion “faith” may mean the blind acceptance of principles, doctrines, axiomatic statements, the castration of thought and judgement. But in the Church faith (pistis) recovers its original meaning; it is the attainment of trust (in Greek, literally, “enfaithment,” epistosyne), the freedom of self-transcendance–a dynamic realization of relation, with knowledge as its experiential product.”  (Against Religion: The Alienation of the Ecclesial Event, pp. 35-37)