If Jesus … then the Theotokos

“If Jesus is truly the eternal Son of God, the God-man who became flesh is the womb of Mary;

if in and through her person He, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, actually assumed our human nature, to transfigure that nature and restore it to its original intended purity and holiness;

if His saving, redeeming work was made possible by Mary’s fiat, her willing acceptance of virginal birth-giving through the power of the Holy Spirit

– if all of this is true, then we can do nothing other than acknowledge her role in God’s economy of salvation, and celebrate that role, with joy and conviction, in the services of the Church.

If Jesus is truly who we believe and confess Him to be, then we can do nothing other, and nothing less, than exalt His humble mother as truly Theotokos: a human person like ourselves, but whose womb ‘became more spacious than the heavens’ by bearing the incarnate Son of God. And if, from her Nativity through her Dormition and beyond, she is truly who we believe and confess her to be – the Mother of God – then we can do nothing other, and nothing less, than to ask her to intercede ceaselessly for us, for the sake of our salvation. The most ancient icon we possess is a fresco of Mary found in the catacombs of Rome. There she offers herself as she does in the familiar image of the Deisis: standing upright, her hands lifted in supplication, making intercession on behalf of us all. She is the Ornate, the very incarnation of ceaseless prayer.” (John Breck, Longing for God, p 129)


The Fire Which is the Holy Spirit

The Holy Spirit is Light and Life,

a living Fountain of spiritual gifts,

the Spirit of wisdom and understanding,

all-knowing, upright and good–

He leads us and washes away our sins.

He is God, and He makes us gods;

He is Fire proceeding from Fire,

speaking and acting and distributing gifts.

Through Him all the Prophets, Martyrs and Apostles of God are crowned.

Strange account, strange and wonderful sight:

fire is divided for distributing gifts.

(Pentecost Hymn)

The Trisagion: Bringing Order to Chaos

“According to The Shepherd of Hermas, a very early Christian text, ‘the name of God sustains the world,’ keeps it in equilibrium. The name of God creates the cosmos out of chaos. This is why the Church sings the Trisagion or Thrice-Holy prayer at the moment of catastrophes:

‘Holy God,

Holy Mighty,

Holy Immortal,

have mercy on us.’

The invocation of the Trinity calms, it brings order into chaos. This is the same reason for singing the Trisagion in the burial service, when the body is interred. Such a prayer expresses faith in the resurrection, the re-establishment of what is normal, ontological healing.”

(In the World, Of the Church: A Paul Evdokimov Reader, p 13)


Transformed by the Liturgy

“We must always remember that the Liturgy is an infinite creation. Every Liturgy is unique and is performed by Christ Himself. It is an act of revelation surpassing description, embracing the whole creation: heaven and earth, Angels and men, the living and the departed. Christ offered Himself once for all in the eternal power of the Holy Spirit and His Holy Sacrifice remains unto eternity to sanctify all who partake of it, for it is sealed in His divine blood which He shed for the life of the world. The Divine Liturgy is an eternal expression of Christ’s ‘greater love’. It is a workshop of love, a heart of love, man’s union and communion with the Savior and the other members of the Body. Man thus becomes an active member of the communion of Divine love, hearing the word of God, invoking His holy Name and partaking of the Body and Blood of the Lord.” (Archimandrite Zacharias, Remember Thy First Love, pp 213-214)


Pentecost (2015)

The Gospel Lesson for the feast of Pentecost is John 7:37-52;8:12.  The first part of that lesson has Jesus talking about the Holy Spirit.

On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and proclaimed, “If any one thirst, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as the scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.'” Now this he said about the Spirit, which those who believed in him were to receive; for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.

St Basil the Great (d. 379AD) comments:

“Who could be the river of God except the Holy Spirit, who comes into those worthy because of the faith of the believers in Christ?

He who believes in me,’ as the Scriptures says, “From within him there shall flow rivers.” ’ And again, ‘If anyone drinks of the water which I give, it will become in him a fountain of water, springing up unto life everlasting.’ This river, accordingly, makes all the city of God at once joyful, that is to say surely, the Church of those who hold to a heavenly manner of life. Or, every creature endowed with intelligence, from celestial powers even to human souls, must be understood as the city made joyful by the inflowing of the Holy Spirit.” (The Fathers of the Church: Exegetic Homilies, p 302)

The Holy Trinity: Being in Love

When we love, the world appears as it truly is. Being-in-love-in relationship sustains it. According to the opening words of the book of Genesis, ‘In the beginning’ God said ‘Let us make humankind in our image, in our likeness.’ This is an odd expression given the revelation that ‘The Lord Your God is One Lord…..’ Later, after the birth, life, death and resurrected appearances of Jesus in the flesh to his disciples and others, the image of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit comes more clearly into view, whose circular dance of eternal self-offering love is both communal and uniquely personal – one essence shared among three persons. God is three and God is one. How is this experienced?” (Stephen Muse, Being Bread, p 81)

How can we experience the Three and One  of God?    Our way of thinking which relies heavily on visual imagery has a difficult time of putting together the ideas of God’s oneness with God being Trinity.  Jeremy Begbie, a musician and Duke University theology professor writes a book, RESOUNDING TRUTH: CHRISTIAN WISDOM IN THE WORLD OF MUSIC, in which he purposes we conceive of God musically rather than visually.   He says we can understand threeness and oneness being together when we play a chord.  We play three notes which together make a chord.  Each note in itself may be beautiful and each note played on a piano fills the room.  Together they form a chord in which three notes harmoniously work together and form something none of them singularly can be.  It is another way to try to conceive of the Triune God.   See also my blog, “Seeing” with Our Ears is Believing.

Between the Holy Trinity and Hell

“Although the doctrine of the Holy Trinity may seem rather abstract, it has some very practical implications for how we view reality and live our lives. First of all, the doctrine of the Trinity means that nothing that exists, whether on earth or in heaven, can be conceived of as an individual, in and of itself. God Himself is not absolute individuality, but perfect love and communion. Where there is self-contained individuality, there can be no love, for love means the total gift of oneself to another. True being is love, and where there is no love, there is only the absurdity of death and non-being. That is why Lossky said, ‘between the Trinity and hell there lies no other choice.’ Those who, in their spiritual blindness, deny the doctrine of the Trinity, deny love itself, and thus deny the truth of their own being created in the image of this God of Triune Love. Second, the doctrine of the Trinity means that the principle and source of all that exists is not a mathematical equation, but a person. When we pray, we do not seek a state of disinterested non-being, but the personal God, Who has revealed Himself to mankind. Our salvation consists not in learning about God, but in entering into a personal communion of love with Him: And this is life eternal, that they might know You the only true God, and Jesus Christ, Whom You have sent (John 17:3).” (Clark Carlton, The Faith: Understanding Orthodox Christianity, p 57)

Humans as Relational and Communal Beings (II)

This is the 23rd blog in this series which began with the blog Being and Becoming Human. The previous blog is Humans as Relational and Communal Beings (I).  In this blog we continue to examine the theological comments of various authors looking at the human as a being always in relationship with others.   God is love, and humans in the image of God are to love others.  The opposite of this love is self-love.  Love is always oriented toward another whereas self-love is focused on one’s self.  We are fully human when we love others.   In this sense, to be Christian is to be truly human.  Biblical Scholar James Dunn, commenting on the epistles of St. Paul, emphasizes:

“… Paul’s anthropology is not a form of individualism; persons are social beings, defined as persons by their relations.  In Pauline perspective, human beings are as they are by virtue of their relationship to God and his world.  His gospel is of God in Christ reconciling the world to himself.  His doctrine of salvation is of man and woman being restored to the image of God in the body of Christ.”  (THE THEOLOGY OF PAUL THE APOSTLE,  p 53)

Fr. John Garvey continues along the same path:

“The self becomes what it truly is only in relationship; this teaching is at the heart of Orthodox Trinitarian theology.”  (ORTHODOXY FOR THE NON-ORTHODOX, p 77)

Fr. John Breck expands on the same thinking:

“Contemporary Orthodox theologians describe personhood as ‘Being in communion.’  . . . We are persons, truly personal beings, insofar as we reflect the personal qualities of Father, Son, and Spirit that unite them in an eternal communion of being and action.  These include first of all the quality of agape, or disinterested, self-sacrificing love.  Therefore, personhood—what makes us ‘beings in communion’ rather than mere individuals—is a quality bestowed on us by God.  God, and not social convention or our genetic legacy, determines our personhood. . . . The very fact that God bestows on us the quality of ‘person’ means that our lives are endowed with transcendent meaning and a destiny that lies beyond the limits of earthly existence.  The end and fulfillment of human life—life’s basic purpose—is to grow from earthly life, through physical death, into eternal life in the kingdom of God.  It is to pass beyond the limits of biological existence and to participate in the eternal life of the Holy Trinity.”    (STAGES ON LIFE’S WAY, p 25)

Metropolitan Kallistos Ware sums up this theology of humankind this way:

“My human being is also a relational being,

And without the concept of communion it is not possible to speak of humanness.

My personhood is fulfilled in relationship and in community.

I am truly personal, truly human, only so far as I show love to others

And live out my life in terms of ‘I-and-Thou’.

My salvation, then, as a human person in God’s image, can be attained

Only in union with other persons,

Only through mutuality and interpersonal encounter.

Precisely because God is Trinity,

My salvation is inextricably bound up with the salvation of my neighbor.”   (HOW ARE WE SAVED?, p 70)

Salvation is thus not something that happens to a person alone, but always in relationship not only to all others who are being saved, but in relationship to all humanity and all creation.  We are not being saved from other humans but our salvation means the restoration of creation to its God-given natural state.  Christ’s commandment to us is that we love one another and that we love as He loves us.  The implication of humans living in love is taught by Christ.

“… as is shown by the judgment scene in the twenty-fifth chapter of St. Matthew.  For them, the earth and all its riches belong only to God, while human beings receive no more than the benefit of their use, provided that they accept a fair distribution of resources so as to banish hunger and misery.”  (Olivier Clement, THE ROOTS OF CHRISTIAN MYSTICISM, p 294)

All of the created order belongs to God, and is given to us by God in love so that we be wise stewards of what is given to us and use all that is given to us for the good of others.   This is the nature of Christian love.  Unfortunately as New Testament scholar Joel Green points out in the modern world…

“… personal identity has come to be shaped by such assumptions … as these: human dignity lies in self-sufficiency and self-determination; identity is grasped in self-referential terms:  I am who I am; persons have an inner self, which is the authentic self; and basic to authentic personhood are self-autonomy and self-legislation.  To name the Bible as Christian Scripture is already to undercut this portrait, for this requires us both to recognize an authority outside of ourselves  …”    (SEIZED BY TRUTH, p 95)

We have allowed individualism to become alienation, separation and even opposition to all other humans.  Christ came to heal and unite all humanity in God, not to divide us into billions of unrelated individuals.    Green’s argument above is that to recognize some authority in the universe other than one’s self is to challenge the modern worldview that each person is not only the center of the universe but actually determines the universe in some way since the self is the greatest power in the universe.

“In our fallen condition, we are ‘bound to the self’: selfishness is not a choice, but an inescapable state.  But when this revolution I am seeking to describe takes hold, then we realize that we and other people are all one human race: all ‘the Body of Christ’, in Christian language, or in existential language, all in the same boat together.  Or as Shamanism puts this fundamental truth of the human heart, we all ‘share a common fate.’  What befalls you also befalls me, and vice versa.  There can be no winners and losers, no saved and damned; all arrive, or none do.  ‘I’ cannot survive, and prosper, if ‘you’ perish.  John Donne said of this, ‘Do not ask for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.’”  (Stephen Muse, RAISING LAZARUS, p 181-182)

Christianity upholds the inestimable value of each human person, but also recognizes that none of us are the creators of the world, but are rather born into the world of the Creator.  We all share the same world plus a common human history and a common human nature.   Christ unites all humanity to Himself and teaches us to love one another, including even those we consider enemies.  Love calls us to value the other, whoever they may be.

“Faced with the suffering of the other, the first basic point is recalling that the human being is, by nature,  by virtue of vocation, a ‘being of communion,’ a sharing being and –when faced with what the world has become and what the human being has undergone—a being of compassion.   Etymologically, compatir (to commiserate) means ‘to suffer with,’ that is, to share the suffering of the other, to take it upon oneself.

The second basic point is realizing that sin, fear, and all their consequences—hatred, violence, egoism, egocentrism, and all their visible or subtle forms—make us strangers three times: to others, to ourselves, and to God.  We cannot open ourselves to God without opening ourselves to those nearby.  We cannot let the suffering and the needs of others enter into us without  seeking strength and love in God Himself.”   (Boris BobrinskoyTHE COMPASSION OF THE FATHER, p 86)

Bobrinskoy’s point echoes what St. John wrote in his Epistle:

If any one says, “I love God,”

and hates his brother, he is a liar;

for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen,

cannot love God whom he has not seen.

(1 John 4:20).

Next:  Humans as Relational and Communal Beings (III)

God and Humanity (II)

‘The human being is an animal who has received the vocation to become God.’ (Words of Basil of Caesarea, quoted by Gregory Nazianzus…) (Olivier Clement, THE ROOTS OF CHRISTIAN MYSTICISM, p 76)

This is the 3rd blog in this series which began with the blog Being and Becoming Human. The previous blog is God and Humanity (I).

Humans are the glory of God.  God delighted in creating a being in His own image with whom He could share His life and love.   Humanity was invited by God to share in the power of creative love in relating to the rest of the created universe.  Not only did God create a world in which His glory could abide, but God also brought into being a creature – the human – in whom His glory could dwell.   But God’s indwelling in the human was not even the whole story, for the Persons of the Holy Trinity created the human to be in union with Them.  Not only would God indwell in His human creation, more amazing and mysterious is that God created something with whom God could share the divine life in a living union.  God does not even withhold the divine life from us.   Humanity was created capable of union with divinity, with the potential to participate in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4).  That is how glorious humans were in the plan of God for creation.   It was God’s intention all along to have humans living in the unity of the Trinity.    God never intended to withhold from us the divine life but wanted us to become everything that God is.  We were given that potential to perfect our humanity to become God by God’s own invitation and love.

“The human vocation is to fulfil one’s humanity by becoming God through grace, that is to say by living to the full.  It is to make of human nature a glorious temple. . . .  ‘Every spiritual being is, by nature, a temple of God, created to receive into itself the glory of God.’ (Origen…)”  (Olivier Clement, THE ROOTS OF CHRISTIAN MYSTICISM, p 76)

Humanity was created with each person capable of bearing the divine life and sharing in the divine life.  Each human is capable of being a temple of God, but even more than a temple for God planned that humans would share in the divine glory – not to a remain a temple somehow separate from God, but rather to be united with God and to share the full glory of God.   More powerfully stated: each human is made capable of “becoming God through grace.”   God wanted to completely share His divine life with us.

“We human persons, created in the ‘image and likeness’ (Gen 1:27) of this same Trinitarian God, are called to grow in authentic relationship with God, with our own selves, with other person, and with the creation.  With this bold affirmation, we recognize that we are not meant to be autonomous and self-centered individuals.  To live in this manner is, ultimately, contrary to our basic human nature that is rooted in the reality of the Triune God.  We are meant to be persons in relationship. . . . This means that genuine human life must be lived in relationships that are loving, nurturing and healing.”  (Kyriaki FitzGerald, PERSONS IN COMMUNION, p 4)

God as Trinity always is a relational being: Three divine persons united in love for one another who share the one nature.   God created us in His image in order for  us likewise to participate in this divine life and to become by grace what God is by nature.   As Andrew Louth so wonderfully writes about the Trinitarian God:     “in the Trinity we see that neither one nor three are ultimate: at the very heart of reality, or the source of reality, there is both one and three, together.”  (Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology, Kindle Loc. 1775)   It is this very Trinitarian divine life that God shares with us humans and makes possible for us to experience.

“The total human person is created to progress in union with God-Trinity by living fully.  We are not persons who have a body or who possess a soul or have a spirit.  Rather we are person who are ‘embodied beings’ and ‘ensouled beings’ and ‘enspirited’ being in vital interpersonal relationship on the various integrated levels of human existence with the indwelling Trinity.  The early Fathers conceived ‘nature’ as the total being, created as body and soul with the potential to respond through the Holy Spirit to become a spirited being in living consciously in the likeness of Christ.  All this is embraced by the one general word physis (nature).  Physis is a broader term than our term ‘nature.’ It embraces not only the nature of a human person as he or she comes from the hand of God, but it also looks toward its completion and is defined according to its fulfillment rather than the beginning stage.

Thus physis is everything that God puts into a human being, whether it is the beginning stage or the final one, and it also includes that which comes to a person after he or she is baptized and begins to lead a virtuous life.”  (George Maloney, GOLD, FRANKINCNESE AND MYRRH, p 40)

All of this language is heavily theological, but it reflects the depth and riches of what God wanted us humans to be.   Unfortunately, sometimes we practice a complete reductionism in our understanding of and vision of what it is to be human.  We so want to uphold the value of each person as an individual that we sacrifice the relational nature of humanity.  Individualism becomes alienation and autonomy, an isolation from all other human beings as well as from the rest of creation and from the Creator.   We lose sight of how important the love shared by the Three Persons of the Trinity is for our own ability to be fully human.  Individualism pushed to an extreme denies the value and power of love for others – the very way in which each human shares in the divine life.

“To speak of the sanctity or sacredness of human life is also to speak of ‘personhood.’  One is truly a person only insofar as one reflects the ‘being-in-communion’ of the three Persons of the Holy Trinity.  This is a much misunderstood concept in present-day America, where the ‘person’ has been confused with the ‘individual.’  Individual characteristics distinguish us from one another, whereas authentic personhood unites us in a bond of communion with each other and with God.  We can truly claim to be persons only insofar as we embody and communicate to others the beauty, truth and love that unite the three Persons—Father, Son and Spirit—in an eternal tri-unity.  The Trinitarian God is thus the model, as well as the source and ultimate end, of all that is authentically personal in human experience.”  (John Breck, THE SACRED GIFT OF LIFE, p 8)

God created us to be united to divinity, to share the divine life with the Persons of the Trinity, to in fact become God.  But when we make individualism the greatest good at the expense of denying our relational character, we lose our humanity.   We can never become God if we do not know how to be human as God created us to be.   As. St. Irenaeus of Lyons (d.  202AD) writes:

“’How could you be God when you have not yet become human?”   (THE ROOTS OF CHRISTIAN MYSTICISM, p 87)

Becoming human is a spiritual pursuit.  It is recognizing the divine image in our selves and in our neighbors and then striving to realize the likeness of God through actively loving God and neighbor in our daily lives.  The image of God in us is not limited to our individual selves but is also found in our collective, relational human nature which all humanity shares.

Next:  God and Humanity (III)

God and Humanity (I)

“For the glory of God is a living man; and the life of man consists in beholding God.”   (St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies and Fragments, Kindle Loc. 6111)

“Rather than seeing human life as governed by an injunction to glorify God, for Irenaeus it is God who seeks to glorify man, bringing him to share ever more fully in his own glory.  It is this desire of God that prompted his initial creation of man…”    (John Behr, ASCETICISM AND ANTHROPOLOGY IN IRENAEUS AND CLEMENT, p 56-57)

This is the 2nd blog in this series which began with the 1st blog Being and Becoming Human.

Perhaps the greatest of enduring mysteries is that God glorifies human beings and rejoices in humanity glorified.   God’s desire to share His glory with a being of His own creation is prompted by the very nature of God:  the Triune God is love (1 John 4:8, 16).  Love by nature is creative thus life-giving, and so the Father, Son and Holy Spirit pour forth their glory into a being whom they create in their image, to share their life and nature (2 Peter 1:4).

“We are to think of the Church as many embraced by oneness, and oneness expressed in the many: both poles – the one and the many – are important, irreducible. It is in this sense, I think, that the doctrine of the Trinity is relevant to our understanding of Christian community, or communion. Not that the Trinity is some kind of model that we should try to emulate – that would be to think in too anthropomorphic terms, though such an idea has been very popular in the last few decades, not least among Orthodox – but rather that in the Trinity we see that neither one nor three are ultimate: at the very heart of reality, or the source of reality, there is both one and three, together. So in human community, as it is meant to be, neither the one nor the many is ultimate; the many does not yield before the one, as if what mattered was the one community and the many has to be compressed into it (by some unitary authority, say), nor is the one simply to be thought of as some kind of harmony among the many, as if it were the individuals who were important and their harmony secondary. Another way of putting this is to say that we find our own identity as persons in the togetherness we share with others, and that unity is an expression of something that we genuinely hold in common.”  (Andrew Louth, Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology, Kindle Loc. 1770-79)

We humans are beings created in God’s image (= icon) and likeness (an idea we will explore more in future blogs in this series) and thus always have a natural connection to our Creator.  We are most human when we see the image of God in one another and when we look to that image to find the prototype of that image.  We are most human when we seek out God who is love and join in sharing the life and unity of the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity.  We thus find our true humanity in God but also in Christian community. In community we experience the fullness of humanity as being relational to other humans and to creation itself. Pursuing a spiritual life means to become more fully human: to live out our lives in love with others.

“Whatever knowledge we may gain about ourselves through the scientific examination of the untold wonders of our minds and bodies and of the unfathomable depths of our psyche, it will not explain sufficiently or exhaust fully the mystery of who we are as nature and as person because we are more than the sum of our knowledge.  We have been made for something greater than the precarious existence of this world; for something more than conventional morality; and for something beyond the dread finality of death.   We long deeply for an encounter with the holy, for an experience of the eternal, for personal union with our Creator.  The grandeur of the human being lies not in one’s magnificent physical and intellectual powers but in the conscious longing for and pursuit of an intimate personal relationship with the living God.  Our hearts, as St. Augustine observed, remain restless until they rest in the presence of God.  . . .  The grandeur of man, therefore, lies in his God-given desire to exceed, to transcend the limitations of his creatureliness, and to acquire absolute freedom – not simply for himself but for the benefit of all creation – in his communion with the eternal God who made him in his image and likeness.”    (Alkiviadis Calivas, ASPECTS OF ORTHODOX WORSHIP, pp 23-24, 25)

God imprints on each person the divine image which makes it possible for us through creatures to aspire to something beyond creation, to divinity.   We approach our Creator with awe for God has made His invisible, incomprehensible, indescribable and ineffable eternal nature accessible to us creatures who exist in space and time and who rely upon our sight, hearing, touch and smell to know all that exists.  Worship becomes that forum in which the physical world AND our physical senses are transformed; the physical world being the way in which we can know God and communicate with Him and our senses become capable of leading us to an experience of the divine.

“For this is the glory of man, to continue and remain permanently in God’s service.” (St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies and Fragments, Kindle Loc. 5722-23)

God has made it possible for us to know and love Him through the service of the Liturgy.

“Communion with God and neighbor begins with our willingness to see and accept the truth that an authentic human being is above all a worshipping being who feels the irresistible urge to converse with the Author of life, who has love him first.”  (Alkiviadis Calivas, ASPECTS OF ORTHODOX WORSHIP, p 4)

Liturgical worship – worshipping in community – is the way in which we can be fully human and live that life of glory which God has bestowed upon us.

“… our first duty as human beings is to honor and venerate the one true God, and that without the worship of God, society disintegrates into an amoral aggregate of competing, self-centered interests destructive of the commonweal.”   (Robert Wilken,  REMEMBERING THE CHRISTIAN PAST,  p 51)

Liturgy is where we begin to experience the divine life as love in relationship with God, with neighbor, with the entirety of creation.  And what we begin to experience in liturgy is to become the very way we live in the world and approach the rest of the created order and our fellow human beings.

“A person’s glory is orthodox faith, zeal as God wishes, love, gentleness, simplicity, devotion in prayer, generosity in almsgiving, chastity, modesty and all the other aspects of virtue.”    (St. John Chrysostom, OLD TESTAMENT HOMILIES  Vol 3, pp 107)

Next:  God and Humanity (II)