The Universality of Death vs. the Inevitability of Sin

Every year at the beginning of Great Lent, the Orthodox Church remembers the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise.  This ancestral sin affected the course of the human race.

Adam and Eve, whether or not historical figures, symbolize all of humanity in its relationship to God.  Their story is our story, and each of our lives is their story.  Sin has become part of human life, and sin has corrupted human nature such that even an act of repentance cannot heal the wound to humanity.  None of this implies that humans have lost free will or responsibility for their own sins.  We are not destined to sin, for sin comes from each human will, not from human nature.  Human nature has only been corrupted by the consequences of sin – mortality has become part of our existence.  So we can note how did the early Church Fathers understand the role of sin in our lives?  Church historian  Jaroslav Pelikan writes:

“Despite all the strong language about sin, however, the fundamental problem of man was not sin, but his corruptibility.  The reason the incarnation was necessary was that man had not merely done wrong–for this, repentance would have sufficed– but had fallen into a corruption, a transiency that threatened him with annihilation.  As the agent of creation who had called man out of nothing, the Logos was also the one to rescue him from annihilation.  This the Logos did by taking flesh.

For this theology, it was the universality of death, not the inevitability of sin, that was fundamental.  The statement of Romans 5:14 that ‘death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam,’ was taken  to prove that there were many who had been ‘pure of every sin,’ such as Jeremiah and John the Baptist.  It was death and corruption that stood in the way of man’s participation in the divine nature, and these had to be overcome in the incarnation of the Logos.”

That various people in the Old and New Testaments are considered righteous gets forgotten in the tsunami which Augustine’s idea of original sin came to represent especially in Western Christianity.  So the texts of St. Paul in Romans 3:10, 23 seem to erase the claims of the rest of Scripture: “...as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one…” and “… since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…”   But human sinning did not mean that God no longer saw goodness in His creatures.  For even David is considered a man after God’s heart (1 Samuel 13:14).  Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Elijah, Daniel, Job, Zachariah, Elizabeth, John the Baptist, the Virgin Mary and Simeon the Elder just to name a few are righteous people in the Scriptures.  Instead of taking St. Paul’s words as the lens through which one must see all of humanity, we need to view St. Paul’s claims about all being sinners within the context of the entire Scriptures in which some people are identified as being righteous.  St. Paul himself acknowledges this in Romans 11:2-5 where he says:  “God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. Do you not know what the scripture says of Elijah, how he pleads with God against Israel? ‘Lord, they have killed thy prophets, they have demolished thy altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life.’ But what is God’s reply to him? ‘I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.’ So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace.” 

In 2 Chronicles 33 of the Septuagint, Manasseh prays:   “Surely, Lord, God of the heavenly Powers, You have not appointed repentance for the righteous, for Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, who did not sin against You; but You have appointed repentance for me a sinner.”

Since there are righteous people specifically named in the Scriptures, and some who may even be considered sinless, sinning is not the problem.  It is the fact that human nature has fallen under corruption, separated from God, we have become mortal beings.  It is from this that Christ comes to save us.  Focusing narrowly on “orginal sin” gives us an incomplete idea as to the salvation brought about by Jesus Christ.  Pelikan continues:

“… it is clear some fragments that have survived of a treatise AGAINST THE DEFENDERS OF ORIGINAL SIN by Theodore Mopsuestia that he ‘reiterates in effect that it is only nature which can be inherited, not sin, which is the disobedience of the free and unconstrained will.’ Despite their fundamental differences, the theory of the hypostatic union and the theory of the indwelling of the Logos both concentrated on death rather than on sin.”

(THE EMERGENCE OF THE CATHOLIC TRADITION (100-600), pp 285-286)

Pelikan’s last point is that in the Christian East, the two main competing schools of thought in interpreting the Scriptures, the Alexandrians and the Antiochians, though their teachings conflicted were still in agreement that death and not sin was the human problem.  And though the Church East and West agreed on the theology of the hypostatic union against the indwelling of the Logos, all those disputants (Orthodox and heretic, Chalcedonian and Non-Chalcedonian) still thought the greater human problems was death rather than sin.  The Eastern tradition as a whole, and much of the West in accepting the decision of the 4th Ecumenical Council all embrace this same idea which in some ways is a rejection of the implications of “original sin” that Christ came mostly to pay the price for sin rather than to destroy death.

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2017 Nativity of Christ (PDF)

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I have gathered all of the 2017 posts from my Blog related to the Nativity Fast and the Feast of the Nativity of Christ into one PDF, which is now available at 2017 Nativity Posts (PDF).

Each year I gather related posts into a PDF  for the Nativity, Great Lent, Holy Week and Pascha and other themes.   You can find a list of all the PDFs I’ve created since 2008 related to scripture, feasts or other Orthodox topics at  Fr. Ted’s PDFs.

The Incarnation of God is Our Salvation

“It is important to note that, in accordance with Irenaeus’s general understanding of the human person, the focus of Christ’s work is located in the flesh: it is in the flesh that Christ suffered, and through it that he reconciled the flesh which was in bondage, bringing it into union with God. Nevertheless, the work of redemption is solely the work of God, the incarnate Son, throughout:

‘The Lord has redeemed us through his own blood, giving his soul for our soul, his flesh for our flesh, and has poured out the Spirit of the Father for the union and communion of God and men, bringing God down to men through the Spirit, and lifting man up to God through his incarnation, and by his granting to us incorruptibility, firmly and truly, through communion with him.’  (AH 5.1.1)

Again, it is God, who in man, by himself becoming man, accomplishes the economy.

‘…That the manner of Christ’s incarnation preserved the manner of Adam’s formation is due both to the fact that Adam was a type of Christ and to the need for Christ’s flesh to be that of Adam, if he is to recapitulate all in himself, so becoming the head of all those whose ‘head’ had been Adam.'”

(John Behr, Asceticism and Anthropology in Irenaeus and Clement, p. 62 & 63)

Nothing is as Sacred as a Human Being

“There is nothing as sacred as a human being, whose nature God Himself has shared.”  (St. Nicholas Cabasilas)

“The glory of God is a living human being.” (St. Irenaeus of Lyons)

Christmas focuses on the incarnation of our God.  And the incarnation is the most amazing act of God – for God sees in humanity something so sacred that God desires to be united to humanity.  The Holy God wishes to share in human nature because God sees in humanity something lovely and holy and blessed.  God chooses to share in human nature.  This is the mystery of the God of love which results in the incarnation – results in the Nativity of Christ.

St. John Chrysostom describes it this way in a homily:

And in what manner was the almighty with her, Who in a little while came forth from her? He was as the craftsman, who coming on some suitable material, fashions to himself a beautiful vessel; so Christ, finding the holy body and soul of the Virgin, builds for Himself a living temple, and as He had willed, formed there a man from the Virgin; and, putting Him on, this day came forth; unashamed of the loveliness of our nature. For it was to Him no lowering to put on what he Himself had made. Let that handiwork be forever glorified, which became the cloak of its own Creator. For as in the first creation of flesh, man could not be made before the clay had come into His hand, so neither could this corruptible body be glorified, until it had first become the garment of its Maker.

As Chrysostom envisions Christmas, Christ Himself as Creator fashions the body in the Virgin’s womb that He Himself will take for Himself.  God is able to see in humanity something so holy that God wishes to be united to the holiness of humanity.  God chooses to share His natural holiness with the humans created in God’s image and likeness.

Chrysostom goes on:

What shall I say! And how shall I describe this Birth to you? For this wonder fills me with astonishment. The Ancient of days has become an infant. He Who sits upon the sublime and heavenly Throne, now lies in a manger. And He Who cannot be touched, Who is simple, without complexity, and incorporeal, now lies subject to the hands of men. He Who has broken the bonds of sinners, is now bound by an infant’s bands. But He has decreed that ignominy shall become honor, infamy be clothed with glory, and total humiliation the measure of His Goodness.

For this He assumed my body, that I may become capable of His Word; taking my flesh, He gives me His spirit; and so He bestowing and I receiving, He prepares for me the treasure of Life. He takes my flesh, to sanctify me; He gives me His Spirit that He may save me.”   (St. John Chrysostom)

The mystery and the amazement continues.  For God chooses to unite Himself to humanity while human nature is still subject to the power of sin and death.  God doesn’t choose perfect and sinless human nature before the Fall, but accepts human nature as it is in the world.  God enters into the human condition and does not create a special humanity and a special world free of sin, temptation, violence, evil, suffering, sorrow or death.  God enters into the world that we experience with all of its suffering and sorrow and accepts our human nature.  God enters into our lives and embraces the same life that we all share.  God is not distant and transcendent, but near you where you are .

Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.  (Hebrews 2:14-18)

There is nothing as sacred as a human being.  Even an imperfect human, a sinner, a flawed person, one beset with temptation.  For God every human being is sacred – no matter who I am, no matter what I think about myself, or what others think about me.  In God’s eyes, I am still sacred, holy.  I am to be what God is.  “Be holy for I am holy, ” says the Lord (1 Peter 1:16).  This is why God became incarnate.  God became human because God sees humans as having a holiness to which God wishes to unit Himself.  God did not avoid the fallen, sinful world, but entered into and shared our life in this world.

The Eucharist and Christmas

“In his worldly obedience he emptied himself, and his emptying is the only example for our path.  God who became a child, God who fled into Egypt to escape Herod,

God who sought friends and disciples in this world, God who wept from the depths of his spirit over Lazarus, who denounced the pharisees, who spoke of the fate of Jerusalem, who drove out demons, healed the sick, raised the dead, who finally, and most importantly gave his flesh and blood as food for the world, lifted up his body on the cross between the two thieves – when and at what moment did his example teach us about inner walls that separate us from the world?  He was in the world with all his Godmanhood, not with some secondary properties.  He did not keep himself, he gave himself without stint.  ‘This is my body, which is broken for you‘ – shed to the end.  

In the sacrament of the eucharist, Christ gave himself, his God-man’s body, to the world, or rather, he united the world with himself in the communion with his God-man’s body.  He made it into Godmanhood.”  (St. Maria of Parish, Mother Maria Skobtsova: Essential Writings, p. 78)

 

Old Testament Images of Christ’s Birth

PREPARE, O BETHLEHEM, FOR EDEN HAS BEEN OPENED TO ALL!   ADORN YOURSELF, O EPHRATHA, FOR THE TREE OF LIFE BLOSSOMS FORTH FROM THE VIRGIN IN THE CAVE!  HER WOMB IS A SPIRITUAL PARADISE PLANTED WITH THE DIVINE FRUIT: IF WE EAT OF IT, WE SHALL LIVE FOREVER AND NOT DIE LIKE ADAM.  CHRIST COMES TO RESTORE THE IMAGE WHICH HE MADE IN THE BEGINNING!

In the five days before Christmas, one finds in Orthodox hymns for the pre-Feast of the Nativity of Christ.  These pre-Festal hymns shed light on the Feast and our understanding of who Jesus is and how He is our salvation.   There were three hymns that caught my attention with beautiful imagery.   Above, the hymn parallels the creation of the first Adam in Paradise with the birth of New Adam, Jesus,  from the Virgin Mary.  The Paradise which God planted for Adam is superseded by the Theotokos who is a spiritual Paradise.  If Paradise is some heavenly place, Mary becomes a spiritual heaven – the place where God abides on earth.   The Tree of Life which was in the middle of the original Paradise now is able to blossom forth from the Virgin.  Christ is the Divine Fruit planted in her womb, and Christ is the Tree of Life.  We can eat of this Tree of Life in Holy Communion.  The Tree of Life is no longer closed to us but is now able to give us eternal life.  Adam and Eve had lost access to the Tree of Life by their rebellious sin.  Christ again offers to us the fruit of the Tree of Life – namely Himself.  No longer will we be denied access to immortality – we are restored to the fullness of humanity that God intended for us from the beginning.

IN YOUR WOMB, ALL-BLAMELESS THEOTOKOS,
WE BEHOLD THE RICH THRESHING-FLOOR OF WHICH SOLOMON SANG.  YOU BEAR THE EAR OF GRAIN THAT GREW WITHOUT BEING SOWN;  YOUR CHILD IS THE ETERNAL WORD:
IN A WONDERFUL MANNER YOU WILL GIVE BIRTH TO HIM IN THE CAVE OF BETHLEHEM, HE WILL LOVINGLY FEED EVERY CREATURE WITH THE KNOWLEDGE OF GOD, FREEING THE HUMAN RACE FROM DEADLY HUNGER.

The above hymn keeps to a theme of food – from harvesting the grain to being fed.  First there is mention of the threshing-floor.  Threshing is the process of taking a plant and separating the edible grain from the inedible straw and husk.  The threshing floor is the place where this separating process takes place.  More interestingly, the threshing floor became a rich symbol of a place where God meets His people.  Our encounter with God turns out to be a threshing process – perhaps God’s own separating the wheat from the chaff, but also the required effort on our part to take God’s revelation to us and to discover what we need to get from it for our own nutrition.  The scriptures for example always require interpretation – this is a threshing process because God’s full message is sometimes hidden in the text.  We have to separate the edible grain (what we can understand and digest) from the inedible husk (the written word which contains the grain).  It is the grain which gives us life.

In 2 Samuel 24, King David purchases the threshing-floor as the very location to build the temple.  It is on this exact place – the threshing floor – where Solomon actually built it according to 2 Chronicles 3:1.   The Theotokos is compared in the hymn to this threshing-floor, or in her womb divinity is enclosed in humanity, but also that incarnation is revealed to the world.  Christ becomes the food of the world who gives eternal life to all who eat His flesh and drink His blood.  Christ is the spiritual food which if we eat we will not hunger again.  Christmas is the Feast in which God feeds His people with the manna of heaven.

CHRIST, WHO IS THE INFINITE WISDOM OF GOD,
HAS WONDROUSLY BUILT A HOUSE FOR HIMSELF FROM THE VIRGIN; SHE COMES INTO THE CAVE AND MANGER OF DUMB BEASTS: THERE SHE WILL GIVE BIRTH IN THE FLESH TO HIM
IN A MANNER BEYOND ALL UNDERSTANDING.

Proverbs 9:1 states that Wisdom built a house to abide in (Proverbs 9:1).  Christ is God’s Wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:24).  According to the Prophet Baruch (3:37), a prophecy we read at Christmas, Wisdom walks on earth.   The “house” which Christ/ Holy Wisdom built is Mary, the Virgin Mother.  God becomes incarnate in her, and takes up his abode on earth.  He dwells in her bringing about the salvation of the world.

The Old Testament is full of images about the incarnation – prophecies of many different kinds, some predicting the coming of God in the flesh, and some foreshadowing the events.

Christmas 2017

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth among people of good will.” (Luke 2:13-14)

The angelic proclamation on the day of Christ’s birth stirs in our hearts hope for the world: peace on earth!   It is something we Orthodox pray for at each Divine Liturgy, Vespers or Matins.   We constantly petition God to fulfill the hope which the angels heralded as possible with the nativity of the Messiah.

Despite our God-given hope and despite our prayers, we witnessed a great deal of violence in 2017 in the world.  Church communities were not spared from this scourge of terrorism during the year.  This reminds us to pay attention to the entire story of Christ’s birth – part of the Gospel Christmas story is Herod murdering the innocent children!  We like to ignore that part of the nativity narrative as it doesn’t fit our image of a sentimental season: a merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.  The birth of Jesus caused Rachel to weep inconsolably over the loss of her children (Matthew 2:17-18)!   Rather than choosing to ignore part of the Gospel, we can appreciate the truthfulness of the narrative because we live in that same world where we know such grief.

We need only look at the Church calendar in the days after the Nativity to be reminded of Christian suffering:

December 27  St. Stephen the First Christian martyr

December 28 – The Massacre of the Christians celebrating Christmas at Nicomedia  in 302AD

December 29- The Massacre of the Holy Innocent Children by King Herod

Jesus Himself was quite realistic about this when He taught:

“I have said this to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”  (John 16:33)

Hope springs eternal.  Christ Jesus is our peace (Ephesians 2:14).  God came into the world because God loves us.   God too has suffered the violence of the very world He created for us; the world which God so loves.  He has not abandoned us to the violence of the world, but is here with us even in our darkest moments.   God wishes for us abundant life in this world, but many in the world still reject God.  Christmas makes sense not because the world is a utopian paradise, but exactly because there are serious and violent problems in this fallen world.  The sentimental American Christmas preference only makes sense if we ignore the world as it really is.  Orthodoxy takes history seriously and thus values the entire Gospel of the Nativity.  We need God’s love and we need hope to bring light to the darkness.  We need Christ to be with us through all the trials and tribulations the world throws at us.

And every year we are summoned to that humble birth – in a manger, in a cave, where we still can find God’s peace.  God’s peace is not like the world’s peace, and is not dependent on it.  As our Lord said:   Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid (John 14:27).  The world is much the same as it was 2000 years ago when Mary gave birth to God’s Son.  The Gospel lesson of Christmas is proclaimed every year to renew in us faith, hope and love so that we are not overcome by the world’s sorrows, but rather we overcome the world through Jesus Christ our Lord.  From that cave, light dawned to the world.  We live in the light of Christmas.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it (John 1:5).

Christ is born!  Glorify Him!

On the Birth of the Christ

“What shall I say to you; what shall I tell you? I behold a Mother who has brought forth; I see a Child come to this light by birth. The manner of His conception I cannot comprehend. Nature here rested, while the Will of God labored. O ineffable grace! The Only Begotten, Who is before all ages, Who cannot be touched or be perceived, Who is simple, without body, has now put on my body, that is visible and liable to corruption. For what reason? That coming amongst us he may teach us, and teaching, lead us by the hand to the things that men cannot see. For since men believe that the eyes are more trustworthy than the ears, they doubt of that which they do not see, and so He has deigned to show Himself in bodily presence, that He may remove all doubt.

And he was born from a Virgin, who knew not His purpose neither had she labored with Him to bring it to pass, nor contributed to that which He had done, but was the simple instrument of His hidden Power. That alone she knew which she had learned by her question to Gabriel: how shall this be done, because I know not a man? Then said he; do you wish to hear his words? The Holy Spirit shall come upon thee, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee.

And in what manner was the almighty with her, Who in a little while came forth from her? He was as the craftsman, who coming on some suitable material, fashions to himself a beautiful vessel; so Christ, finding the holy body and soul of the Virgin, builds for Himself a living temple, and as He had willed, formed there a man from the Virgin; and, putting Him on, this day came forth; unashamed of the loveliness of our nature. For it was to Him no lowering to put on what he Himself had made. Let that handiwork be forever glorified, which became the cloak of its own Creator. For as in the first creation of flesh, man could not be made before the clay had come into His hand, so neither could this corruptible body be glorified, until it had first become the garment of its Maker.

What shall I say! And how shall I describe this Birth to you? For this wonder fills me with astonishment. The Ancient of days has become an infant. He Who sits upon the sublime and heavenly Throne, now lies in a manger. And He Who cannot be touched, Who is simple, without complexity, and incorporeal, now lies subject to the hands of men. He Who has broken the bonds of sinners, is now bound by an infant’s bands. But He has decreed that ignominy shall become honor, infamy be clothed with glory, and total humiliation the measure of His Goodness.

For this He assumed my body, that I may become capable of His Word; taking my flesh, He gives me His spirit; and so He bestowing and I receiving, He prepares for me the treasure of Life. He takes my flesh, to sanctify me; He gives me His Spirit that He may save me.”

(St. John Chrysostom, “Nativity Homily,” The Sunday Sermons of the Great Fathers, pp. 112-113)

The Incarnation: A Second Communion

Creation of Adam

St. John of Damascus writes:

“Formerly, in a unified show of his own graciousness, God established humanity: he breathed the breath of life into the one newly formed of the earth, gave him a share in a better existence, honored him with his own image and likeness, and make him a citizen of Eden, a tablemate of angels. But since we darkened and destroyed the likeness of the divine image by the filth of passions, he who is compassionate has shared with us a second communion, more secure and still more wonderful than the first.

For he remains in the exalted height of his own divinity, but takes on a share of what is less, divinely forming humanity in himself; he mingles the archetype with its image, and reveals in it today his own proper beauty. (“Oration on the Transfiguration,” Light on the Mountain, p. 210)

The Incarnation: For the Healing of Our Souls and Bodies

When the Lord, on account of the inexpressible ocean of His mercy, appeared on earth as a man to heal the diseases of our soul and take away the sin of the world, He also healed those diseases which the law specified as unclean. So if anyone considers such illnesses to be really impurity and sin, let him confess the one who delivers men from them as God. If, however, he rightly takes such afflictions as symbols of actual uncleanness and transgression, let him understand from the things Christ accomplished in respect of these symbols, that He is truly the one who has power to forgive and cleanse the sin of the world. It would, in my opinion, also be correct and truthful to say something else. The Lord exhorts us to seek after spiritual things – “Seek ye first the kingdom of God”, he says, “and his righteousness” – and when we look for what is beneficial for our souls and brings salvation, he also promises to supply our bodies’ needs, saying, “And all these things shall be added to you” (Matt. 6:33).

In the same way, when He graciously willed to bow the heavens and come down from on high to our lowest state, in order to cleanse us from our sins, He granted in addition that the lame should be put back on their feet, the blind see and the lepers be cleansed, and simply healed all our bodily sicknesses and diseases, as He is rich in mercy. (St. Gregory Palamas, The Homilies, pp. 503-504)