All Humans Belong to God

For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and bestows his riches upon all who call upon him.  (Romans 10:12)

“We, however, can also understand in another way what he [St Paul] says, ‘But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to him’ (Romans 8:9).  For this really seems to be pronounced bluntly, to say that one who is not of character and stature such as to deserve to have the Spirit of Christ would immediately be repudiated as belonging to Christ,  even though in the Psalms it says, ‘All the wild animals of the forests are mine, the beasts on the mountains and oxen‘ (Psalm 50:10). And if the wild animals and beasts are his, how is it that human beings are not his?”  (Origen, COMMENTARY ON THE EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS Books 6-10, p 54)

Origen who was the great biblical exegete of the 3rd Century, uses scripture to interpret scripture.  So even though there are passages in the bible which make strong claims, Origen, reminds people that those passages have to be interpreted in the light of other claims of scripture.  One doesn’t get to pick and choose which verses to follow – one has to take all scripture into consideration to avoid coming to errant conclusions.  Some passages will seem to specifically support ideas we like, but that doesn’t give us permission to ignore the passages that don’t fit so easily with our interpretation or favorite verse.

Do you want to know that he [Christ, the Word of God] is present everywhere and is in the midst even of those who do not know him and do not confess him?  Listen to the very things John the Baptist testifies about him: ‘In your midst stands one whom you do not know, who comes after me‘ (John 1:26).  Therefore, he is in the midst even of those who do not know him, but he is potentially in their midst and not in actuality.  For they are capable of receiving him, but do not yet receive him.” (Origen, COMMENTARY ON THE EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS Books 6-10, p 139)

 

Encountering Christ: Incarnation and Inscripturation

Robert J. Daly  (in the book edited by Hans Urs von Balthasar, Spirit and Fire) explains the theology of the 3rd Century’s great scripture scholar, Origen, regarding the Word or Logos of God:

“When God reveals himself in history, the eternal Logos takes on the form of earthly, temporal existence. Daly’s summary of the various ‘incarnations’ of the Logos is worth quoting in full:

‘When Origen speaks of the biblical WORD, the WORD incarnate in the scriptures, at least four interconnected levels of meaning are in play. First, this WORD is the pre-existent, eternal, divine Logos, the Logos proclaimed in the prologue of John’s gospel and expounded in extraordinary detail and depth in Origen’s commentary on this prologue.

Second, this same divine Logos is the one who took flesh of the Virgin Mary, lived and worked among us, suffered, died, rose again and ascended to the Father, where he continues to intercede for us and to work until all things have become subjected to the Father who is all in all. Third, this same eternal WORD who took flesh of Mary has also become incarnate in the words of scripture. Fourth, this same divine WORD, born of Mary and also incarnate in the scriptures, also dwells and is at work within us, espoused to our souls, calling us to make progress toward perfection, and to work with him in ascending to and subjecting all things to the Father.’

Daly explains that there are four levels of meaning in connection with the word ‘Logos.’”  (Hans Boersma, Scripture as Real Presence: Sacramental Exegesis in the Early Church, Kindle Loc 3230-3243)

Ashish Naidu draws attention to this analogy between incarnation and inscripturation in Chrysostom’s thought:

‘As in the incarnation of the Word, so in the Bible the glory of God is veiled in the flesh of the text—human language and thought. It is by the careful reading and study of the Scriptures that one encounters its true Subject: Jesus Christ. The historical incarnation therefore is viewed as a paradigm for the nature of the Scriptures: God’s message is inextricably fused in the human message of the text.  God accommodates himself to the reader in the interpretive encounter, thus providing a divine pedagogy for the reader’s edification and spiritual life.’”   (Hans Boersma, Scripture as Real Presence: Sacramental Exegesis in the Early Church, Kindle Loc 2060-2066)

 

Scripture Means More Than Words and History

So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh; and the rib which the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.  (Genesis 2:21-25)

The Genesis 2 account of how God created the first human woman from the first human has been used variously to support among other things,  ideas of gender,  heterosexual marriage and natural law notions of the proper relationship between males and females.  In the New Testament though we find a very different interpretation and use of the text by St Paul.  Paul sees the Genesis text as referring to the great mystery of the relationship between Christ and the Church.  St Paul like many of the early Christian biblical interpreters saw in the Old Testament not history or literal legal prescriptions, but that the texts pointed beyond those things to Christ.  Jesus Himself said that Moses (who in ancient thinking was the author of the Torah or Pentateuch) wrote about Him, Jesus (John 5:46; see also Luke 24:27, 44-45).  So, St Paul says of Genesis 2:24 –

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. Even so husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church; however, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.  (Ephesians 5:25-33)

St Paul does get from the Genesis 2 text that husbands should love their wives and wives should respect their husbands.  He doesn’t deny that message, but he believes the text is far more interested in the great mystery of Christ and the Church.  That’s how he interprets Genesis 2:21-25.  And even though St Paul reads the text to refer to Christ, he allows the text to also have a lesser important meaning (He uses this lesser meaning in his argument in 1 Corinthians 11:7-12).  So if today we focus on Genesis 2 as mostly meaning natural law or heterosexual marriage, we are focusing only on what St Paul says is the lesser meaning of the text and we are missing its most important meaning – a reference to Christ.

St Methodius writing in the late 3rd Century or early 4th Century (d. 311AD) is very struck by St Paul’s use of the Genesis text.

Yet, while everything else seems rightly spoken, one thing, my friend, distresses and troubles me, considering that that wise and most spiritual man–I mean Paul–would not vainly refer to Christ and the Church the union of the first man and woman, if the Scripture meant nothing higher than what is conveyed by the mere words and the history; for if we are to take the Scripture as a bare representation wholly referring to the union of man and woman, for what reason should the apostle, calling these things to remembrance, and guiding us, as I opine, into the way of the Spirit, allegorize the history of Adam and Eve as having a reference to Christ and the Church?

Basically, what St Methodius realizes is that if the meaning of the Genesis 2 text is mostly about the marriage of a man and a woman, St Paul wouldn’t need to allegorize it.  St Paul highlights the great mystery in the text because that is what the divine purpose of the text is.  St Paul isn’t adding something that is not there, but rather is pointing out what we might miss in the text if we are too focused on reading the text literally.  St Paul wants us to understand the significance of Genesis 2 for Christians – the text isn’t mostly about human marriage and reproduction, rather it is about the Messiah and the Church.  Methodius continues:

For the passage in Genesis reads thus: “And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of man. Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.”  But the apostle considering this passage, by no means, as I said, intends to take it according to its mere natural sense, as referring to the union of man and woman, as you do; for you, explaining the passage in too natural a sense, laid down that the Spirit is speaking only of conception and births; that the bone taken from the bones was made another man, and that living creatures coming together swell like trees at the time of conception.

Christ the bridegroom

St Methodius is actually confronting and contradicting someone who reads the text literally telling them they are missing the point – the meaning and intention – of Genesis, of Moses, of the Old Testament by reading the text literally.  Methodius does not think the Scriptures are intended just to give us a sex education class or a class on child birth as he sees that as beneath the dignity of Holy Writ.  We don’t need Scripture to tell us about things we can learn from nature.  Scripture is a revelation from God about God – that is what we need to open our eyes to see.   The Bible is not a physiology text for it is a spiritual and sacred writing trying to lift our minds and hearts beyond the physical to the divine.  He would want to know why we want to read the text according to the flesh when God has enabled us to understand it according to the spirit.   Methodius presses his point by reading what St Paul says:

But he, more spiritually referring the passage to Christ, thus teaches: “He that loveth his wife loveth himself. For no man ever yet hated his own flesh, but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the Church: for we are members of His body, of His flesh, and of His bones. For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh. This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the Church.”  (The Banquet of the Ten Virgins, Kindle Location 575-590)

None of this means that biology or the physical body is of no spiritual importance.  God created us with bodies, with sexual organs and identities, capable of biological reproduction.  We have to learn how to connect our physical bodies with the spiritual in the same way we have to learn how to connect the literal text with its spiritual meaning.  The Bible doesn’t always do this – but God has created us with the capacity to discern the spiritual message of the written word, to harvest the spiritual fruits of Scripture, to retrieve the treasures of the Bible, to fathom the depths of the Word of God.

Unfortunately, sometimes we abandon the road to the heavens to satisfy our fleshly interests.  We move in the opposite direction from St Paul in reading the texts of the Old Testament.  And the end result is that we find ourselves entangled in earthly things or with a worldly point of view.

The Sabbath Rest


Now Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And there was a woman who had had a spirit of infirmity for eighteen years; she was bent over and could not fully straighten herself. And when Jesus saw her, he called her and said to her, “Woman, you are freed from your infirmity.” And he laid his hands upon her, and immediately she was made straight, and she praised God. But the ruler of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had healed on the sabbath, said to the people, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be healed, and not on the sabbath day.” Then the Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his ass from the manger, and lead it away to water it? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the sabbath day?” As he said this, all his adversaries were put to shame; and all the people rejoiced at all the glorious things that were done by him.  (Luke 13:10-17)

New Testament scholar N. T. Wright comments on how ‘the Law’ could be misunderstood or misapplied in life.  Torah was not meant to oppose ritualistic law to virtues – compassion, mercy, love.  One however could find oneself in the troubling position of having to choose to help someone (show mercy) on the Sabbath but the very thing you need to do would violate the Law of Sabbath rest, and would be so interpreted by some Jewish leaders.  Mercy should win out in such cases.  This is what Jesus taught – there is no conflict with the Sabbath rest if someone needs your mercy.  Mercy is not opposed to rest for it gives rest to the one in need.  Wright comments:

Within this, a major theme emerges in which the sabbath principle and command find a new focus, though with echoes of the Deuteronomy principle (sabbath as liberation for the slaves). The sabbath becomes the sign of God’s justice and care for the poor, and even for slaves and animals. Thus, in Exodus 23:11, the sabbath is the chance for the poor to rest; this includes slaves and animals too. This principle blossoms, importantly, into a theme which looks quite different to begin with but actually belongs very closely with the sabbath: the Jubilee.   (Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today, Kindle Loc 2108-12)

The Sabbath was given as a day of rest for all including slaves and animals from their labors, troubles, burdens.  This is the principle to which Jesus appeals in the synagogue:  You are supposed to give rest to slaves and animals on the Sabbath, does not this apply to relieving any human in need as well?   In Luke 13:10-17, Jesus is being very specific about one person: does not this woman, a faithful Israelite, deserve rest from her burden on the Sabbath as well?  If my action of mercy gives her rest from her burden on the Sabbath, is not my action righteous?

 “Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest; that your ox and your ass may have rest, and the son of your bondmaid, and the alien, may be refreshed.”  (Exodus 23:12)

Healing on the Sabbath thus fulfills the law not violate it according to Jesus.  Note in Luke 13:10-17 the way the ruler of the synagogue words his criticism – he aims it at the woman (“come on those days and be healed) not at Jesus the Healer.  He blames her for violating the Sabbath not Jesus.  He criticizes the one who now has rest, not the one who has given her rest.  Maybe he felt he could not criticize someone who had just performed a healing miracle in the synagogue.  Or maybe it was just a misogynistic comment and had nothing to do with miracles at all.  In any case, Jesus not only heals the woman but defends her as a daughter of Abraham.  She is not just some foolish or troublesome woman, she is part of the chosen ones of God!  The people in the synagogue should be honoring her, not criticizing her.  Jesus will not accept a “good ol’ boy” comment from the synagogue ruler.  He rebukes the patriarchal paternalism of religious leadership.

Furthermore, we can see in Mark 1:23, a demon possessed man is in the synagogue – for all we criticize the Pharisees, we can see that they had sinners in their assemblies.  Even the demon possessed came into the synagogues where Jesus is.  We should think about that in terms of our Sunday Liturgies.  Do we exclude sinners from coming to Christ for healing?  Which assembly is Christ most likely to attend – the one with demoniacs, sinners and the sick, or the one which excludes such people from their assembly?

St. Mark the Ascetic offers an interpretation of the Sabbath commandment which moves away from a literal understanding of it.  For St Mark the six days of work simply means to do works of kindness, charity and mercy – that is the normal labor of Christians in our daily lives.  A Sabbath rest from such work comes when you follow the command of Christ to give all your possessions away to follow Christ.  Only then are you no longer obligated to do works of charity since you now own nothing and have nothing to give away.

The Law figuratively commands men to work for six days and on the seventh to rest (cf. Exod. 20:9-10). The term ‘work’ when applied to the soul signifies acts of kindness and generosity by means of our possessions – that is, through material things. But the soul’s rest and repose is to sell everything and ‘give to the poor’ (Matt. 19:21), as Christ Himself said; so through its lack of possessions it will rest from its work and devote itself to spiritual hope. Such is the rest into which Paul also exhorts us to enter, saying: ‘Let us strive therefore to enter into that rest‘ (Heb. 4:11).   (The Philokalia, Kindle Loc. 3886-94)

Apparently for St Mark it is those of us who aren’t in monasteries who are obliged to fulfill the Gospel commandments to love, give in charity, show mercy, kindness, compassion and care for the poor and needy.  Those who enter the monastic life can rest from those labors as they have given everything away – they can then devote themselves to prayer and fasting.  Those of us committed to the married life and to our families have the additional obligation, responsibility and work of caring for the poor and needy.  It is through acts of charity, almsgiving, mercy, kindness and  generosity that we follow Christ and live as the holy ones of God.

As St. John Cassian notes:

And fasting, as beneficial and necessary as it may be, is nonetheless a gift that is voluntarily offered, whereas the requirements of the commandment demand that the work of love be carried out. And so I welcome Christ in you and must refresh him.” (The Institutes, pp 132-133)

For St. John Cassian fasting is a voluntary labor, but hospitality is commanded by Christ in the Gospels.  Not everyone can fast but everyone can be merciful.  St Gregory the Great says:

My friends, love hospitality, love the works of mercy. Paul said: Let the love of the brotherhood remain, and do not forget hospitality; it was by this that some have been made acceptable, having entertained angels hospitably; and Peter told us to be hospitable to one another, without complaints; and Truth himself said: I needed hospitality, and you welcomed me. And yet often we feel no inclination to offer the gift of hospitality. But consider, my friends, how great this virtue of hospitality is! Receive Christ at your tables, so that he will receive you at the eternal banquet. Offer hospitality now to Christ the stranger, so that at the judgement you will not be a stranger but he will accept you into his kingdom as one he knows.” (Be Friends of God, pp 62-64)

Repentance: Telling God What to Do

42177591130_2aaca87ebdThis is the second post in his blog series exploring Psalm 51.  The first post is Repentance: Being Washed By God.

In Orthodoxy when we think about repentance, probably the Psalm that comes most to mind is Psalm 51, which is prayed in many of our services, especially those with a penitential theme.  When we think about repentance, we think about the things that are required of us – to change, metanoia, compunction, conscience, morality, tears, confessing sins, judging one’s self, contrition, self-reproach, remorse, self-denial, bearing the fruit of repentance, returning to the father, begging mercy, self-blame, self-examination, humbling one’s self, promising never to repeat the sin.

Yet when we read Psalm 51, we see repentance in a different way, for this Psalm, like many Orthodox prayers, is not about us, but about God.   Most of Psalm 51 tells God what to do rather than focusing on what I am now going to do to show that I have truly repented.   We are indeed telling God what to do – and specifically what we need God to do for us.  Theophan Whitfield says in the Jewish Masoretic Text of Psalm 51, “it is possible to find further evidence that the psalmist is not simply pleading for mercy, he is actually arguing for mercy.”    (“Hearing Psalm 51: Masoretic Hebrew vs. LXX Greek”, FESTSCHRIFT IN HONOR OF PROFESSOR PAUL NADIM TARAZI, p 43)

As the prayer “Lord, have mercy” is a command to God, not woefully and helplessly begging a reprieve from an abusive tyrant, but rather telling God what to do for us, so too Psalm 51 is our giving direction to God as to the things we need from God.  As other Orthodox writers have noted, we spend a lot of time in our prayers and liturgical services telling God to be God:  Be Yourself, God!   You are love, You are merciful, You are forgiving, You are kind, You are tenderhearted, You are compassionate.  So be Yourself and do divine love, mercy, kindness, forgiveness, and compassion for us.  In Psalm 51 we acknowledge we need God to be God and we are telling God to be God because we are suffering in this world -the world of the Fall in which we are alienated from God often by circumstances not of our making and/or under God’s judgment for things we actually did and/or because we have forgotten God or disobeyed God whether knowingly or because of ignorance.

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When we understand this nature of Psalm 51, we come to understand how it reflects the prayers of the Liturgy and how the Liturgy really is praying this Psalm.  The Liturgy is our experience of the Kingdom of God – on earth as it is in heaven.  It is our experience of being the lost sheep hearing the voice of the Good Shepherd and following Him.  As such, it is the Good Shepherd who does the things necessary to restore us to God’s flock – He is the one who seeks us, forgives us, heals us, cleanses us, teaches us, wipes away our tears, and brings us to our heavenly Father interceding for us that we might be forever in God’s presence.

In Psalm 51, “I” tell God to:

Have mercy on me
blot out my transgressions.  Wash me 
cleanse me from my sin!
teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop
wash me thoroughly from my iniquity
Fill me with joy and gladness;
let the bones which you have broken rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins
blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart
put a new and right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from your presence
take not your holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
uphold me with a willing spirit.
Deliver me from blood-guiltiness,
open my lips
Do good to Zion in your good pleasure;
rebuild the walls of Jerusalem

39062344981_6d64786e1bThe way the Psalm is written I don’t ask God to do these things for me, I tell God to do these things for me.

What is listed above is all the things we tell God to do in this one Psalm which is supposedly about repentance.  It is not God who is repenting, but it is God who does all the work of the Good Shepherd to bring the lost sheep safely home, to heal the wounds, and to wipe away our sins.  We are commanding God to do all the things necessary for our salvation.  The same imperative attitude is found in the Divine Liturgy where in our prayers we repeatedly tell God what to do for us.  Just pay attention at any divine liturgy, especially to the priestly prayers and see how many things we tell God to do for us.

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Conversely, just think about “me” in this Psalm –  Have mercy on me, wash me, cleanse me, teach me, purge me, fill me, create in me, put a new and right spirit within me, cast me not, take not your holy Spirit from me, restore to me, uphold me, deliver me.  Quite the laundry list we give to God!  And “me” turns out to be the subject upon which God acts.   In this Psalm, repentance means submitting oneself to God’s saving actions.  Repentance is not so much something I do, but more is my commanding God what to and, therefore,  accepting what God does both to and  for me to restore me, make me whole and safely bring me back to the flock.  In the words of St John the Forerunner, “He must increase, I must decrease” (John 3:30).  That is the real nature of repentance – not everything I must do, but realizing how much I need from God to correct me.  Psalm 51 is my agreeing to submit myself to everything God does by God’s own nature.  God has a lot of work to do to make us into the human beings He wants us to be.

Repentance as is turns out is not so much what I do for myself, but my inviting God into my life, allowing God to be Lord in my life.  What does God want to do with me?  Remove all obstacles to salvation, restore me to the right relationship with God, and to unite Himself to me, to fulfill what God intends for humanity in the incarnation:  God becomes human so that we humans might become god.  It is only in this exchange that we become fully human.  Psalm 51 really is the pot telling the Potter, “You created us humans in your image and likeness, but I have distorted and misshapen that image, so now resume your artistry and craft me into the beautiful and good creation which you intended every human being to be.”

Next: Psalm 51: What Do “I” Do?

Repentance: Being Washed by God

Have mercy on me, O God,

according to your steadfast love;

according to your abundant mercy

blot out my transgressions.

(Psalm 51:1)

4587289405_a856b3139d_nThe 51st Psalm is used frequently in Orthodox prayers and services as the Psalm of repentance.  King David, the Psalmist and author of Psalm 51, is portrayed at times in Orthodox prayers as the model of a person who repents of their sin.  David is a prophet and saint in the church, but he certainly was not sinless and pure.   He does through his own life choices come to know why he needs God’s mercy and cleansing.  He asks God in his penitential Psalm twice to “blot out” first his transgressions and then his iniquities.  Why “blot out?   What does this imply?  It is an unusual phrase whose meaning is very revealing.  In this blog series, I intend to pursue uncovering some of the depth of Psalm 51. In this first post I will rely mostly on the work of Theophan Whitfield in his insightful article, “Hearing Psalm 51: Masoretic Hebrew vs. LXX Greek“, (in FESTSCHRIFT IN HONOR OF PROFESSOR PAUL NADIM TARAZI),  who mentions two themes we can see in the psalm – the theme of cleansing but also a legal theme.  Whitfield ties the themes together and helps make the Psalm more understandable.

First Whitfield explains the importance of the imagery of “blotting out” which the Psalmist applies to his iniquities.

“… mahah, which is translated most frequently in the RSV as the verb ‘to blot out.’  In antiquity, especially where writing was done on leather scrolls, erasures required ink to be washed and wiped away.  Consequently, mahah has strong associations with accounting, with maintaining and adjusting records.  There are several references in Torah to the act of blotting out names and deeds as just punishment for evil deeds.  Most vivid in this respect is the prayer of Moses that God will forgive the Israelites for their idolatrous worship of the golden calf:

‘But now, if thou wilt forgive their sin-and if not, blot me (mahani), I pray thee, out of they book which thou hast written.  But the LORD said to Moses, ‘Whoever has sinned against me, him will I blot out (’emhennu) of my book’ (Exod 33:32-33).

Here, the image involves erasure of names out of the divine Book of Life itself, names of those whom God will remember no more.”  (p 40-41)

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We see the purpose of the metaphor of blotting out when we understand how it was used in the ancient world.  The only way to erase a mistake in a document written on an animal skin was to wash the document or blot out the mistake and then write it again.  Since accounting and inventory requires frequent changes in the records, blotting out is certainly associated with giving account, or judgment.  Thus the metaphor of blotting out works well with the concept of sin.

In the Exodus text referred to by Whitfield, we see the accounting concept being used by Moses but now for a divine accounting with the book of life where God records the names of those God wishes to remember –or not!  The same concept appears in Revelation 3:5 where Christ says:

He who conquers shall be clad thus in white garments, and I will not blot his name out of the book of life; I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels.  

In this we also come to see a baptismal reference – our sins are washed away or blotted out, not just from us but maybe even more importantly from the book that will be opened at the great judgment.

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And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, by what they had done. (Revelation 20:12)

We want our sins, not our names, blotted out of God’s books.  In the end the written texts, the scriptures which are truly important are the ones God has written about us, not what is recorded in the Bible.  Thus the importance of  baptism in which our sins are washed away from ourselves as well as blotted out from God’s book which God will read on the great day of judgment.  The Word became flesh (John 1:14), but we are to become God’s word in the kingdom!  In this case it is truly God who writes us into His book, who makes us His Word.  Whitfield writes:

“In v. 11, the psalmist begs God to turn away-not from him, but from his sins.  He asks God to ‘blot out’ his iniquities as a substitute for blotting out the psalmist himself.”  (p 48)

God became human so that we might become god.  In the end we want to be noted by God – by being written in God’s book.  We must not simply read or even memorize scripture, we must become the word of God in God’s judgment.  Scripture truly is not a book that a publisher prints but really is that record God keeps of us.

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Getting back to Whitfield, he continues unwrapping the concept of “blotting out”:

“…in the flood narrative in particular. [Gen 6-9]

So the LORD said, ‘I will blot out (’emheh) man whom I have created from the face of the ground, man and east and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them’ (Gen 6:7).

The use is not merely metaphorical.  Here, God is ‘sorry’ that he made man and beast.  He made a mistake, and in the context of bookkeeping (and the context of Scripture!) the appropriate response to a mistake is to wipe away what one has done.

In Psalm 51, however, mahah is used in connection with God’s mercy, not with divine punishment.  The psalmist pleads for mercy through the wiping away of his sins.” (p 41)

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Here we see the full extent of “blotting out” for now we realize that the erasure of our names means we will disappear from the face of the earth. God is sorry in Genesis 6 that He created humans, but for God all the sins of humanity which cause Him grief can be blotted out.  The waters of the flood are going to cleanse them away, just like baptism cleanses our sins today.  The great difference is baptism does not drown us, just our sins.  In Genesis 6-9, God is requiring an accounting and realizes that the humans God created were a mistake and being impermanent beings it is possible to blot them out!  The imagery is powerful, God’s heart is broken by His human creation (Genesis 6:6).  It is this broken heartedness which God can recognize in us as true repentance.  The value of the story of the flood is not in its literalness but in what it reveals about God, us, sin and repentance.  Repentance is God blotting out our sins to cleanse us and make us a new creation.

The blotting out of sin is used to bring to our minds how mistakes or wrongs are corrected in accounting.  It is difficult, but possible, to wash away what is wrong in the written ledgers.  Wrongs can be washed away with some effort and corrected.  It is an image that God calls to mind at the time of the great flood as well as at the great judgment day.   In both cases, we humans end up standing before God to await the sentence being pronounced – what is written in the book of life: our names or our sins?

Whitfield says this standing before the judge is referred to in the Psalm in another way when the Psalmist says his sin is ever before him:

“The description of sin sitting ‘in front of me’ and ‘in front of you’ indicates that the psalmist is face to face with God, which is the traditional image of standing under judgment in a court of law.”  (p 45)

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The imagery of Psalm 51 calls to mind judgment but also the possibility of mercy.  God can wash away our sin while leaving our names in the book of life.  We are to become scripture, God’s written word, if we are to live with God forever.  Scripture thus is not a book exterior to us in which we learn about God, but rather is what we are to become to be with God in the Kingdom.  Christ is the Logos of God and we are the logoi of God written in God’s book of life.

Next:  Repentance: Telling God What to Do

A Life-giving Myth (II)

This is the 2nd post in this series based on the short story, “A Life-giving Myth, ” by Fr John Breck from his book, THE LONG JOURNEY HOME.  The first post is A Life-giving Myth (I).  The story is basically a lecture given by a college professor which offers some profound insights into the nature of Christian thinking and theology.  Breck argues in the story that there is a good and proper understanding of “myth” which is helpful for the Christian to know when reading Scripture.  Myth doesn’t mean fantasy or fiction, but is rather offering theology in narrative to help reveal the mystery of God.  “Myth” opens our heart and mind and the Scriptures to the truth which is being revealed to us in a language which helps get us beyond human limitations – which is made possible through art (icons), poetry (hymns), symbol and ritual.  So in the story, the professor lectures:

“People usually read the Bible as though it were a history book or a scientific account that details how God created the world (‘in six days,’ as bad exegesis would have it); how he chose and delivered the Hebrew people from an implacably hostile world; sent his Son from heaven to dwell as a man among men; tolerated his Son’s crucifixion as a vicarious death that frees us from the consequences of our personal sin, and by his ‘descent into hell’ destroyed the power of death; then raised his Son from the tomb and exalted him into heaven, a location conceived as somewhere ‘up there’ or ‘out there.’  These are the basic elements of God’s saving work, presented in Scripture and interpreted in various ways of preachers and teachers in our churches and seminaries.  The faith of most of us is shaped by these traditional elements, whether or not we accept them as ‘fact.'”  (pp 219-220)

The story’s professor says if we want to understand Scripture we have to be prepared to understand myth – how the narrative takes us to a deeper level and meaning.  For example, Old Testament narratives reveal Christ to us.  If we read the Old Testament only as history, we miss its point.  The texts are pointing beyond their literal meaning to the Kingdom of God, to Christ, to the Holy Trinity and to the eschaton in which Christ is revealed to all.  A purely literal reading of the text will cause us to miss the depths of what God is revealing about history and about creation and about what it means to be human.  Genesis is not trying to offer a scientific explanation of creation since in the modern understanding of “science” since science really only considers materialism whereas Genesis is offering a spiritual understanding of the empirical universe.

The story’s lecturer continues:

“This kind of perspective has also influenced – and deformed – our understanding of miracles.  Rather than receive them as ‘signs’ of the presence of the Kingdom of God within the world, we see them as exceptional occurrences that suspend or otherwise defy natural law.  In working miracles, we think, God breaks the rules to perform some extraordinary exploit that we request or that  he sees as necessary for the spiritual progress and enlightenment of his people.” (p 220)

Scriptural miracles are showing us that our world has an interface with the transcendent, with the divine, with all that is holy and glorious, with all that God is revealing to us.  If we only seek out the “magic” of the miraculous (defying nature), we fail to see the miracles are revealing God to us.  We end up caring more about the gift than the Giver of every good and perfect gift.  Miracles are a potential window into heaven, into paradise, where we can see God.  For Breck’s professor, what we need is to have revived in our hearts and minds a godly sense of myth, to help us see beyond the literal.  The empirical world can be studied by science because of its predictability and the laws of nature which govern the physical world.  The miraculous is not mostly a breaking of the laws of science as it is the breaking into the empirical world by transcendence.  We come to realize something more than the material world actually exists.  That’s what miracles do, but sadly and too often we try to change them into magic, a way in which we believe we can control these mysterious powers.  Just as quantum mechanics has revealed the empirical world is not fully grasped by Newtonian physics, so too Christianity points out there is mystery fully present in the empirical world.  And for many scientifically trained people the very problem with miracles is it leads people to want to practice magic to control things, and for them that reduces miracles to mere superstition as they don’t believe nature can be controlled by magic.

“A good example of mythological imagery is provided by the Exodus tradition.  This foundational experience in Israel’s history is recounted in different versions by the author of the book of Exodus and by the psalmist.  In both, cases, the Exodus from Egypt can be fully understood only as a typological myth, a pre-figuration of the deliverance of God’s people from captivity and death to freedom and eternal life.  As a literary trope it unites the two Testaments – Old and New, First and Second – so thoroughly that the Church Fathers could only conceive of the Bible as a diptych: two complementary panels that are self-referential and completely interdependent.  The major bond between the two Testaments is precisely ‘myth’: the unifying story of Israel’s call and saving vocation, fulfilled in the incarnation and saving mission of the Son of God.”  (p 222)

The Old Testament reveals the New, and the New  Testament is foreshadowed in the Old.  The narrative of the Old Testament prepares us from the events of the New, and the New Testament reveals the meaning of the Old.  “Myth” here is not fiction, but the narrative which ties together not only the two Covenants, Old and New, but also heaven and earth, the spiritual and physical, the living and the dead, Creator and creation, humanity and the world, sentience and inanimate, consciousness and existence.

“This explains the reason why the first chapter of Genesis must be read symbolically.  Its purpose is not to reveal historical fact.  It is to affirm that the one true God is Creator and Lord of all things in heaven and on earth, things he has delivered into the hands of those created in his own ‘image’ and ‘likeness.’  It’s pointless, therefore, to look for scientific confirmation of the creation events as Genesis describes them.  If for example, the account declares that the sun and the moon were created after the earth and its vegetation, it is primarily to counter worship of the sun by Israel’s pagan neighbors.  The author of the account never intended for it to be read as a scientific recital of actual events in their historical sequence.  The first eleven chapters of Genesis and much else in the Hebrew Scriptures can only be properly read and understood as ‘myth’ in the sense that I have defined it.  It is an example of ‘sacred history’ whose purpose is to draw mind and heart to recognition of the God of Israel as the one and only Lord of the universe, and to worship him accordingly.  Biblical myth thus unites history and eternity, and its ultimate purpose is to lead us beyond the limits of space and time, to open our eyes and hearts to transcendent reality and ultimate Truth.”  (p 223)

The purpose of the Old Testament is not mostly to give us history or science, rather its very purpose is to help us see God and to recognize God’s own activity in this world.  To look to the Bible for science and history is to lose sight that it is revealing God to us, it is using history to reveal transcendence to us, to open our eyes to the Kingdom of God, not to teach us material science.  This is how understanding myth and poetry can uplift us to see the transcendent God in the words of Scripture.

Science has tried to carve out its role as studying the empirical universe and thus limiting its study to materialism.  The fight between science and religion is between those who won’t accept the limits science imposes on itself and those who want to impose on science a narrative that is beyond what science is claiming for itself.  Some want the Bible to be “science” but it can never be that by the very definition that modern science imposes on itself.   The very nature of the Bible – a revelation from, about and of the transcendent – is outside anything science can deal with.  It is a narrative that guides believers in their understanding of the empirical universe (that which is the limit of scientific study).  Science is trying to reveal all the mysteries which are found in the empirical universe.  If science embraces an overarching narrative, it is a narrative that is limited to the empirical order which science studies.  Its conclusions can’t be beyond what the physical world can reveal.   Science cannot offer that narrative which guides believers in understanding the created order, though scientific discovery can cause believers to have to re-imagine their narrative because of the marvels it discovers.

“This was the approach adopted by the early Church Fathers, and it needs to be our approach today as well.  It means also that the Christian narrative, from the call of Israel to the incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension of the Son of God, needs to be conceived as myth in the true sense: a narrative that opens eyes of faith to the presence of eternity within our time and space, and to the working out within that framework of our salvation.” (p 233)

The Bible does not limit itself to speaking about space and time, but rather its context is God and how space and time occur within the God in whom we live and move and have our being.  Creation speak about the Creator.  Science can and does teach us about creation, but it cannot speak to that truth of the transcendent reality to which creation is a witness.  The Bible speaks to us about the transcendent God who is ever attempting to reveal Himself in ways we can comprehend – which means in and through the created order.  We can marvel when science reveals some hidden truth which helps us know the Creator, but we can also marvel when science simple reveals something about material creation, when science unlocks some mystery about the empirical universe.  Believers may be able to use scientific insight to better understand God’s revelation, but science will never be able to do that.

Next: The Transcendent Myth

 

A Life-giving Myth (I)

“A Life-giving Myth” is the title of a short story in John Breck’s THE LONG JOURNEY HOME.  It is the last and longest story in the collection.  The stories are OK, but in some of them the “story” is superfluous as  is the case “The Life-giving Myth” where a professor is giving a lecture and the content of the story is the lecture.  It easily could have been presented as an essay.  It was my only favorite in the collection of stories.    In this series of  three posts I want to highlight the things from the “story” which seemed so profound to me.

“… those who have drifted away from the faith under secularizing pressures, or because we in the Church have done a poor job of opening their eyes to transcendent reality, and to the presence in creation and in their lives of an infinitely powerful and all-loving God.” (p 218)

The Church leadership and members should remind themselves constantly that our real goal is to open the eyes of everyone to that transcendent reality who is love and who cares about all of creation, namely our God.  The Church too often reduces itself to defending Tradition, maintaining customs, opposing countless sins and human failures.  The Church sometimes sees the job of leadership as to be police rather than pastors (shepherds)- enforcing rules, disciplining the unruly, imprisoning in hell non-conformists.   The Church gets reduced to law enforcement as well as being involved in judgement and even punishment of sinners, rather than in their salvation.  Another unfortunate development is when the Church is willing  to be the hiding place for anyone who is afraid of the 20th Century (even though we are already in the 21st!).   Clergy can act as if their only real concern is that someone unworthy might try to touch God and the clergy come to think that their main purpose is to make sure that doesn’t happen.  Clergy, canons, iconostases, asceticsm can be used as little more than the tools to keep the unworthy away from God, so that the laity remain forever exiled from God because of their sinfulness.  AND, at times clergy act as if their main message is to make sure the laity are aware that they (the laity) are deservedly exiled from God . In this thinking, Heaven is the goal but it will always be far beyond the people’s reach because they are unworthy.

Breck instead envisions a transcendent God who in Christ is imminent and accessible to humans:

“Eternity in fact is ever-present.  it is not only beyond time and space, beyond the physical universe.  It embraces and penetrates, so to speak, everything that exists, including ourselves.”  (p 232)

The claim of the Gospel is that God is always drawing us to Himself to embrace us, love us, share His divine life with us.  The whole of Orthodoxy is based in one idea that God is the Lord and has revealed Himself to us.  God wants us (especially sinners!) to come to Him.  God came to earth to gather us together, not to cause us to flee from His presence.  The purpose of Liturgy and ritual and Scripture is to make God accessible to us – to make the transcendent break into our lives.

And for this reason Breck tries to rescue the idea of “myth” as a way of seeing how God is making Himself known to us and accessible to us.  Scripture is theology under the guise of narrative as the Fathers said.  Myth in this thinking does not mean “fiction” but provides us a way of gaining insight into reality.  God uses “story” or narrative to convey divine and eternal truths to us even in our sinfulness and despite it.

“Such myths use symbolic metaphorical language to express relationship between heaven and earth, between God and human kind, that ordinary language is incapable of revealing and expressing.”  (220-221)

How often the Patristic writers warned us that our language is inadequate for understanding God, and that if we think too literally, we not only do not understand God but rather turn God into an idol of our our making, in our own image, to suit our own purposes.   Poetry and myth, the languages of Scripture try to lead us beyond the limitations of our own experience and to take us to the unknown, to God as God is and chooses to reveal Himself to us.  Poetry and myth both remind us that God cannot be apprehended by human concepts and language.

“…every aspect of our life, every atom of our physical being, every movement of our heart is directed by him (God) teleologically toward a single goal:  the goal of life beyond the physical existence, with a full participation in his own divine life.  Thus we can affirm that he not only knows ‘about’ our needs, our suffering and our destiny; he shares actively and decisively in them.  He ‘knows’ them in the biblical sense of participation.  There is no human suffering, for example, that he does not share to the very depths.  As Isaiah declares of the Lord’s Servant, ‘he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.‘  This is as true a characteristic of God as his creative energy that ceaselessly brings things from non-existence into being.”  (pp 230-231)

God does not leave us to history, God enters into history and shares our history including the pain and sorrow of it.  God accepts our destiny, becoming one with us, part of the created order and what is happening and is going to happen to humanity, the world and the cosmos.  Nothing that happens or that He allows to happen has no impact or effect on God – in fact all of it impacts God and God in the incarnation makes sure of that!   History and our experience of it become imbued with divinity, and thus become something more than mere materialistic events, they become the stories of God, they are turned into God’s Word.  The Word becomes flesh, but in that process human life becomes the Word as recorded in the Scriptures.  Myth in this sense is not fiction but human life revealing divinity and divinity working in and through humans and human history.  We can never fully understand how the transcendent God can not only touch creation but becomes part of it.  That is the real sense of Christian myth – our world touched by the transcendent because God is revealing Himself to us and in His Light we see light.

Christianity is not meant to be a self-help program to allow us to succeed or be satisfied with material creation.  Christianity is not trying just to help us get to heaven.  Rather Christianity is God’s own presence in this world, enabling us all to become united with God, here and now – to experience heaven on earth even in the midst of sin and suffering and death because Christ has overcome this world.  Christianity is revealing this world as our way to union with God.

We really don’t need the Church to tell us how far we have become separated from God, alienated from the divine, exiled from Heaven.  We can experience that perfectly in our daily lives.  What we need is for someone to show us the way to reunion with God, to show us what communion with God looks like, and enables us to become deified.  That is the purpose of the Liturgy, of icons, of ritual, symbol, or poetic hymns.  It lifts us up to heaven and makes heaven present on earth.

Next: A Life-giving Myth (II)

 

What is a Biblical Prophet?

And the woman said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the LORD in your mouth is truth.”   (1 Kings 17:24)

On July 20 we Orthodox commemorate the Holy Prophet Elijah (Elias).

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“…the word prophet (a compound from the Greek word for “speaker”) does not mean in the first instance someone who predicts the future, but one who speaks out on behalf of God – not one who foretells, therefore, but one who tells-forth (which often also includes, of course, foretelling the future). The primary and defining characteristic of the biblical prophet, then, is to be sought in the divine vocation and mission of telling and speaking in the name and by the designated authority of Another.”  (Jaroslave Pelikan, Whose Bible Is It? p. 11)

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The Samaritan Woman: Coming to Faith and Ending Religion

So he came to a city of Samaria, called Sychar, near the field that Jacob gave to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and so Jesus, wearied as he was with his journey, sat down beside the well. It was about the sixth hour. There came a woman of Samaria to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” For his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food. The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans. Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have nothing to draw with, and the well is deep; where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well, and drank from it himself, and his sons, and his cattle?” Jesus said to her, “Every one who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst, nor come here to draw.” Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come here.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and he whom you now have is not your husband; this you said truly.” The woman said to him, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain; and you say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ); when he comes, he will show us all things.” Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he.”  Just then his disciples came. They marveled that he was talking with a woman, but none said, “What do you wish?” or, “Why are you talking with her?” So the woman left her water jar, and went away into the city, and said to the people, “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” They went out of the city and were coming to him. Meanwhile the disciples besought him, saying, “Rabbi, eat.” But he said to them, “I have food to eat of which you do not know.” So the disciples said to one another, “Has any one brought him food?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me, and to accomplish his work. Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months, then comes the harvest’? I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see how the fields are already white for harvest. He who reaps receives wages, and gathers fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor; others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.” Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me all that I ever did.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of your words that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.”  (John 4:5-42)

Fr. Alexander Men referring to the end of the Gospel lesson when the Samaritans come out to see Jesus writes that today we are all like these Samaritans in how we come to faith in Christ:

Samaritans surrounded the Jewish traveller, not caring that He was from a hostile nation, and led Him to their village; we do not know what happened then, but the most important thing in this story is the result. After listening to Him, they said to the woman: “Now we see the truth; no longer because of what you said, but because we have seen for ourselves.

So now all of us are in the same position: at first we believe in the words written in the Scriptures and in other books, then we believe in what other people tell us. But the happiest moment in our spiritual lives is when we come to know the mystery of God, the mystery of the Lord Jesus, as revealed in our hearts, no longer through the words of others but through our own instincts and our own profound experience. We, like the Samaritans, guess at what is true and ponder on it. But He is near us, He reveals His word to us. Only we must also be ready to hear Him – like that simple woman of Samaria, like everyone who has ears to hear and hears. Amen. (Awake to Life!, p. 78)

Fr Alexander Schmemann comments on the Gospel lesson and how it shows that Christ was declaring an end to religion not creating a new one for Christ is calling us to life itself:

Christianity, however, is in a profound sense the end of all religion. In the Gospel story of the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus made this clear. “‘Sir,’ the woman said to him, ‘I perceive that thou art a prophet. Our fathers worshiped in this mountain; and ye say, that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.’ Jesus saith unto her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour cometh, when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father…but the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshipers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him’” (Jn. 4:19-21, 23). She asked him a question about cult, and in reply Jesus changed the whole perspective of the matter. Nowhere in the New Testament, in fact, is Christianity present as a cult or as a religion. Religion is needed where there is a wall of separation between God and man. But Christ who is both God and man has broken down the wall between man and God. He has inaugurated a new life, not a new religion. (For the Life of the World, pp. 19-20)