The Theotokos Weaves our Salvation

In a famous fifth-century homily delivered at Constantinople (the centre of fine weaving in the eastern Roman world) St. Proclos called her [the Theotokos]

The awe-inspiring loom of the Incarnation on which the weaver, the Holy Spirit, ineffably wove the garment of the hypostatic union. The overshadowing power from on high was the interconnective thread of the weave; the ancient fleece of Adam was the wool; the undefiled flesh from the virgin was the threaded woof; and the shuttle – no less than the immeasurable gracefulness of her who bore him. Over all stood the Logos, that consummate artist.”

(John Anthony McGuckin, The Orthodox Church: An Introduction to its History Doctrine and Spiritual Culture, p. 222)

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)

40631794650_9254c9c375
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.

38094879646_baa61b0090

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.

8186710744_7d5d753938

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.

37560090535_478dfb7311

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)

38787100471_6a895838ca

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.

16047333523_db06398dbf

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.

8186040883_56389b5f80

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

Contemplating the Cross

The LORD reigns; he is robed in majesty;
the LORD is robed; he has put on strength as his belt.
Yes, the world is established; it shall never be moved.
Your throne is established from of old;
you are from everlasting.

(Psalms 93:1-2)

Bless the LORD, O my soul!
O LORD my God, you are very great!
You are clothed with splendor and majesty,
covering yourself with light as with a garment,
stretching out the heavens like a tent.

(Psalms 104:1-2)

St Isaac of Nineveh writes:

For the Cross is Christ’s garment just as the humanity of Christ is the garment of the divinity. Thus (the Cross today) serves as a type, awaiting the time when the true prototype will be revealed: then those things will not be required (any longer). For the Divinity dwells inseparably in the Humanity, without any end, and forever; in other words, boundlessly. For this reason we look on the Cross as the place belonging to the Shekhina of the Most High, the Lord’s sanctuary, the ocean of the symbols (or, mysteries) of God’s economy.

  . . . Whenever we gaze on the Cross in a composed way, with our emotions steadied, the recollection of our Lord’s entire economy gathers together and he stands before our interior eyes.

(Isaac of Nineveh, The Second Part, p. 60)

From, Through and to God

O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?”

For from him

and through him

and to him

are all things.

To him be glory for ever.

Amen.

(Romans 11:33-36)

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)

Did Moses Foresee the Theotokos?

It seems to me that, already, the great Moses knew about this mystery by means of the light in which God appeared to him, when he saw the bush burning without being consumed (cf Ex 3:1ff). For Moses said: “I wish to go up closer and observe this great vision.” I believe that the term “go up closer” does not indicated motion in space but a drawing near in time. What was prefigured at that time in the flame of the bush was openly manifested in the mystery of the Virgin, once an intermediate space of time had passed.

As on the mountain the bush burned but was not consumed, so the Virgin gave birth to the light and was not corrupted. Nor should you consider the comparison to the bush to be embarrassing, for it prefigures the God-bearing body of the Virgin.

(St Gregory of Nyssa, in Luigi Gambero’s Mary and the Fathers of the Church, p. 155)

Most amazing in the quote is that St. Gregory is way “ahead of his time” in thinking that Moses is able to foresee the incarnation in the Virgin because of a miraculous condensing of time which enabled him to experience a prefiguring in the burning bush of what was to happen in the womb of the Virgin.  It is not that Moses got closer physically to the burning bush, but somehow he crossed through time to get a glimpse at what God was planning.  This relativity of time that St. Gregory describes predates Einstein by 1500 years.

The Feast of the Dormition (2018)

the Virgin’s pivotal role as the second Eve in the healing transformation of human nature damaged by the sins of the first Eve was already recognized by such Church fathers as St. Irenaeus as early as the second century. This recognition combined with the sifting of a very long oral tradition resulted by the late sixth to early seventh centuries in the establishment and celebration of the solemn Feast of her Dormition throughout the Christian Roman empire. With the addition of this feast to the Church calendar, later Church fathers began to offer rhetorical homage to Mary as the Theotokos in the form of sermons in honor of the Feast of her Dormition. Her death, after all, represented the completion of her mission as the second Eve. By grace, she experienced a reciprocal transformation, the deification of her humanity (and by extension, all human nature) as she offered her humanity to the divine presence within her womb.

In effect, her life and death represent the fullest flowering of the hope of all Christians: union with God in theosis. In contrast to the good thief, the second Eve, in the entirety of her life and death, is the confirmation of the very real possibility of an ever-expanding relationship between creature and Creator that transcends any conceivable earthly human hope, which can begin in this life well before the eleventh hour.

(Daniel B. Hinshaw, Touch and the Healing of the World, p. 126)

Christ: The Light Before the Sun

The Feast of  the Transfiguration of our Lord gives us a clear understanding of who Jesus is – one Person of the Holy Trinity and the incarnate God.  Consider the words of one of the festal hymns:

Christ, the Light that shone  before the sun, was on earth in the flesh.  In a manner fitting His divine majesty, He fulfilled His fearful dispensation before His crucifixion!  Today upon Mount Tabor He has mystically made known the image of the Trinity.  For taking apart the expressly chosen disciples, Peter, James and John, He led them up into the mountain alone.  Briefly, He concealed the flesh He had assumed, and was transfigured before them, manifesting the original beauty, though short of full perfection.  For He spared them as He assured them, lest seeing, they die.  Yest they saw as far as they could bear it.  He likewise called before Him the chief prophets Moses and Elijah, who testified to His divinity:  That He is indeed the true brightness of the essence of the Father, the Ruler of the living and the dead. (Vespers Hymn)

Christ is the Light of the world (John 8:12, 9:5) and He shone before there ever was a sun.  When we read in Genesis that God says in the beginning, “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3), and we also read that the sun did not yet exist, we are to understand this light in Genesis is not sunlight, but represents something – or rather, Someone – else.  The Word of God is the Light of the world.  Christ is the Light that existed and who brought all things into being.  He is also the One who is the image (icon) of the Father, and in whose image we each are made.  He, the Light of the world, became flesh, and yet in the Transfiguration, He concealed that flesh to show the disciples His glory and the original glory of humanity.  The three disciples were able to see what was within their own power to see of divinity.  They were able to see, however imperfectly what humans were created to be and able to experience the unity of God and humanity.

He who once spoke through symbols to Moses on Mount Sinai saying: “I am He Who is!”, was transfigured today upon Mount Tabor before the disciples.  In His own person He showed them the nature of mankind arrayed in the original beauty of the image.  Calling Moses and Elijah to be witnesses of this surpassing grace, He made them sharers in His joy, foretelling His death on the cross and His saving resurrection.   (Vespers Hymn)

It is the Word of God, Jesus Christ, who spoke to Moses but was still concealed from Moses, who is revealed at the Transfiguration.  Christ makes it possible for us to see God and to understand what our roll is in the world.  We come to realize God really does love the people of the world and created us to share in the divine life.

Between the Presence of Christ

1]  Often times Christians speak about our life on earth as being a time between the first and second comings of Christ.  He came first into the world as a baby, lived a human life, and was executed as a criminal, only to rise from the dead.  He ascended to heaven and promised to return to earth at the time of the judgement day.  Our life on earth is thus always between the first and second comings of Christ, we live in His presence and between His presence.

2]  The Evangelist Matthew in his Gospel also presents us a view of the Messiah in which at the beginning of the Gospel we are told Jesus is God  with us (Matthew 1:23) and at the end of Gospel (Matthew 28:20) we are told He is with us always to the close of the age.  The entire Gospel is written as if between the presence of God in the incarnation of Christ and His ascension into heaven and promise that He is with us always.

In Matthew 1:1-16 we read the Genealogy of Jesus Christ.  We realize all these generations, no matter how great these people are in Israel’s history, have passed away.  None of them represents the abiding presence of God in the world.  In contrast to the generations is Emmanuel, God with us.  God’s presence with us  continues forever in Christ, and is not completely dependent on any one generation.  Each generation passes away but the Word of God lives forever.

“Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel” (which means, God with us).  (Matthew 1:23)

Matthew’s Gospel moves quickly from Christ’s birth to His temptation as an adult by Satan.  Satan tempts Christ with the claim that Satan himself has the power to give Christ all the kingdoms of the world and their glory.  Jesus rejects the offer and the claim.  Christ in fact will wrest any such power from Satan through His own death on the cross and through His resurrection from the dead.

Again, the devil took Jesus to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”   (Matthew 4:8 -9)

We see in Matthew’s Gospel it is Christ’s willingness to reject Satan’s offer and to reject the satanic ideas of power and glory which will lead to Christ’s receiving the glory of God.    Christ’s life  witnesses to the power and glory of God which is so different than worldly ideas of power.  So on Palm Sunday , Christ our king, rides humbly on a donkey into Jerusalem.  A few days later, Christ dies on the Cross as the King of Glory.

Then we come to the concluding words of Matthew’s Gospel:

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.”   (Matthew 28:16 -20)

St. Matthew begins his Gospel narrative telling us that Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us.  He ends his Gospel by having Jesus proclaim that He (Jesus) is with us always even to the end of the age.   We live in this presence of Christ even though we live between Christ’s two comings to earth.

3]   Liturgically we show our life between the incarnation and the second coming in the church by the way the icons are arranged and by our receiving the Body and Blood of Christ in this time between the two comings –   between the Icon of the Theotokos and the Icon of Christ which show us His incarnation and first coming, and His coming again in His Kingdom.