What is Sin?

The essence of sin consists not in the infringement of ethical standards but in a falling away from the eternal Divine life for which man was created and to which, by his very nature, he is called.

Sin is committed first of all in the secret depths of the human spirit but its consequences involve the individual as a whole. A sin will reflect on a man’s psychological and physical condition, on his outward appearance, on his personal destiny. Sin will, inevitably, pass beyond the boundaries of the sinner’s individual life, to burden all humanity and thus affect the fate of the whole world. The sin of our forefather Adam was not the only sin of cosmic significance. Every sin, manifest or secret, committed by each one of us affects the rest of the universe.”

(St. Silouan the Athonite, p. 31)

St Romanos: Prayer for the Meeting of the Lord

St. Romanos the Melodist (6th Century) wrote countless hymns, poems and prayers, some of which are still in use in the liturgical services and feasts of the Orthodox Church to this day.  Here is a prayer he composed as part of a longer hymn for the feast of the Meeting of the Lord in the Temple:

We implore you, O All-Holy, Long-Suffering, Life and Restoration, Source of goodness,

look down from heaven and visit all those who ever trust in you;

rescue our life, Lord, from all constraint and affliction,

and, in the faith of truth, guide us all,

at the prayers of the immaculate Mother or God and Virgin,

Save your world, and those in the world, and spare us all,

you who, for us, became man without change,

only Lover of mankind.

(On the Life of Christ, p. 34)

Jesus is the Light of the World

Lord, now let your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation which you prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.”  (St. Simeon, Luke 2:29-32)

“In the Old Testament, Moses entered into that light, that luminous cloud on the mountaintop. In Exodus, when Moses is coming down from the mountain, his face is shining with the light, and they have to put a veil over his face because people could not look at him (see Ex. 34:29–35). In the synoptic Gospels, at the Transfiguration, Jesus goes up on Mt. Tabor with Peter, James, and John and is transfigured, shining with the uncreated light. The disciples see Him, but they have to hide their faces (see Matt. 17:1–9; Mark 9:2–10; Luke 9:28–36).

These passages show the real, divine light that is in the world, a light that human beings can actually experience. We can know it and see it, and as creatures we can participate in it. The mystical saints, when speaking of this light, name it Jesus. If there are holy and righteous people anywhere who have pure hearts and seek the true God, God in His mercy may reveal to them His divine light.

We, as Christians, would say it is Jesus Christ they see. The others may not know it is Jesus, but we do. This glory St. John speaks about—“we have beheld his glory” (John 1:14)—is the uncreated splendor of God that Moses, Elijah, and Isaiah in the temple saw in the Old Testament.

It is the light St. Paul saw when he was struck down on the road to Damascus. This light of God, we Christians confess, is hypostatically, personally, Jesus Christ. Not only does this light shine from Jesus’ face in the Transfiguration, but in St. John’s Gospel Jesus says, ‘I am this Light.‘ Jesus Christ is the Light and the source of light.”

(Thomas Hopko, The Names of Jesus: Discovering the Person of Christ through Scripture, Kindle Location 2855-2866)

Strangers to Sin

“But if sin and death entered into this world and inhabit this world, it is certain that those who are dead to this world through Christ, or rather with Christ, are strangers to death and sin. Having been raised with him, they have even merited to sit with him in the heavenly places. Their citizenship is no longer in this world but in heaven…” 

 (Origen, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, p. 312)

The Purpose of Theology: To Become Wise

There is in Orthodox Tradition a sense that correct belief leads to a correct way of life or that correct thinking leads to correct living.  Conversely, a wrong way of living – sinning – can often be traced to a wrong set of beliefs.  Confession and repentance in this thinking are efforts to get to the root cause of one’s sinful behavior and to aim to correct the thinking or beliefs that have allowed one to choose wrong behavior.  Correct theology then is not just a set of intellectual premises which we affirm through rational logic, but rather is the healing antidote to what ails humanity and leads us astray from God.  Correct theology is both the light that shows us the right path and the proper path itself.   As Jesus Himself said:

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.”   (John 14:6)

“I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”   (John 8:12)

Protestant Theologian Jeremy S. Begbie writes:

By “the gospel” I mean the announcement that in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the Triune Creator, the God of Israel, has acted decisively to reconcile the world to himself. Here is theology’s raison d’etre and its lodestar – theology is not free-floating speculation, but it is disciplined by this gospel and seeks to interpret the whole of reality from this center. Just because it is so motivated, the theologian is ultimately responsible to a living God: the God of the gospel is not an inert presence but personally active, continuously at work to transform his creatures and his creation. Hence learning about God is undertaken in the context of learning from God, as God relates to us and we to God. This means, in turn, that theology is inseparable (though distinct) from prayer and worship – thinking appropriately about God means regularly engaging with God. . . .  Precisely because it relates to the whole of us and concerns the energetic, life-transforming God of the gospel, theology has a practical orientation.

One of the best ways to express this is to speak of theology fostering wisdom. In the so-called Wisdom literature of the Bible (for example, the book of Proverbs), gaining wisdom concerns much more than amassing data for the mind’s scrutiny. It is practically geared. To be wise means being able to discern what is going on in specific, down-to-earth situations and to judge what it is right to say and do in those situations in a way that is faithful and true to God. We become wise in order to live well. As “lived knowledge,” wisdom is directed toward a lifestyle thoroughly “in tune” with God – godly living – that resonates aptly with the Creator’s intentions for us and his world.

(Resounding Truth, p. 20)

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teach and admonish one another in all wisdom, and sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.   (Colossians 3:16-17)

Choosing the Good Portion

Now a certain ruler asked Him, saying, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” So Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not bear false witness,’ ‘Honor your father and your mother.’”

And he said, “All these things I have kept from my youth.” So when Jesus heard these things, He said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” But when he heard this, he became very sorrowful, for he was very rich. And when Jesus saw that he became very sorrowful, He said, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” And those who heard it said, “Who then can be saved?” But He said, “The things which are impossible with men are possible with God.”  (Luke 18:18-27)

To succeed in the world, we need many “good” things.  Good grades, good job, good income, good work habits, good credit scores, good schools, good neighborhoods, good opportunities, good family, and maybe some good luck too.

But for all those goods, our Lord Jesus might say, “why do you ask me about what is good?”

For Christ speaks to us about and calls us to a goodness which belongs to God alone.  It is not that those goods don’t matter as they do affect our lives.  And God knows we need such good things (Matthew 6:32).   But they all matter on a relative scale, for Christ tells us there is something greater to strive for, something which benefits us not only for the short time we live on earth, but which is eternally permanent.  We don’t have to have all those worldly goods to be good.   And even without all those worldly goods, we humans are still offered an even greater good, namely eternal life – a good portion which cannot be taken away from us.   As the Lord told Martha in Luke 10:41-42 :

“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.”

We don’t come to Christ in order to have our beliefs reaffirmed or are thoughts validated or to learn what we can learn anywhere else in the world.  We come to Christ to discover what we don’t know – about life and eternal life.  We come to Him to seek what is missing from our lives, what we hope for but don’t have [“For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” (Romans 8:24)] The person in today’s Gospel knew the Law and how to keep the Law and how to accumulate wealth.  But he didn’t know the way to eternal life.  This is why he came to Jesus in the first place.  It is why we come to Christ, and come to the Liturgy, not just to be told what we already believe and know, but to learn what is missing from our lives.  How do we find our way to eternal life?   What do I lack?  What do I need?  What do I have to change to find eternal life?

Jesus says we are to follow Him.  Not to just do the things that everyone in the world does, but to learn what is missing in our life.   How do I get Christ to come and live in me?  How do I become like God in what I do?   In the Liturgy, we come to behold Christ so that we can see what we need to change in our thinking, in our habits, in our attitudes, in our behavior, in our faith, in what we do daily so that we can find what this person in the Gospel was seeking.

Are we ready for that next level?   We might honestly say to Christ, I do keep the Ten Commandments – I haven’t murdered anyone, nor stolen anything, nor committed adultery or told any lies.  What else do I need to do?

And then we have to be prepared to hear Christ’s answer and to live it.  We have to be far more ready to deal with the shock wave which is the Gospel commandments than this person who came to talk to Christ in the Gospel lesson.   The way to the kingdom is not in the things we love so much and value so much and strive to get so much.  We have to seek first the kingdom of God, and that is as big a challenge to us as it was to this rich person who came to talk to Christ.  The little things we are asked to do as Orthodox Christians – to fast, deny the self, to practice self control, to resist our temptations – are the baby steps we take to move beyond this world into that eternal life.

This person in today’s Gospel, was very obedient to God’s commandments, yet still lacked something.  The man had a heart condition but not one that could be corrected by diet or exercise.  This person saw religious perfection only in terms of rigorously following the commandments of God.  Jesus tried to get this person to see that religion is more a matter of the heart.  It is not pure obedience that God willed for His creatures.  God wants us to be like God.  To care about something beyond our self and beyond our immediate gratification.  This person in the Gospel was quite willing to obey God as long as he was richly rewarded for doing so.   But to give up his riches, this was beyond what he was prepared to do because it was only to get more riches that he obeyed God at all.  He had turned God into his servant.

The Prophet Habakkuk said:

Though the fig tree do not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will joy in the God of my salvation.   (Habakkuk 3:17-18)

Unlike the rich person in today’s Gospel, Habakkuk says even if he is not wealthy, even if he is in miserable poverty and hungry, yet he will rejoice in the Lord.  It is a stark contrast to the rich man who was only willing to rejoice in his wealth and prosperity.

Do we each have such faith that no matter how good or bad things are going, we still rejoice in the Lord?  Do we have such love for God that even when things are going badly, we still rejoice in the Lord?

What Jesus asks is “what do you really treasure in your heart?”  We have to think whether we want God to be our servant giving us all we want, or whether we want to be His servant, no matter what condition we find ourselves in.  How can we seek God rather than just seek the things God might give us?

The Door Through Which Christ Passed

Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.   (Revelation 3:20)

“The door through which Christ passed in order to come into the world was his love for man.  It is this divine love that St Symeon the New Theologian addresses, asking that it may be for us too a door bringing Christ close to us:

‘O divine love, where are you holding Christ?  Where are you hiding Him? …  Open even to us, unworthy though we are, a little door, that we may see Christ who suffered for us…  Open to us, since you have become the Door to His manifestation in the flesh; you have constrained the abundant and unforced compassion of our Master to bear the sins of us all…  Make your home in us, that for you the Master may come and visit us in our lowliness, as you go before us to meet Him.’

The door of love through which Christ passed in order to come into the world was opened by the Mother of God.  Her holiness attracted divine mercy to the human race.  Through her ministry in the mystery of the divine economy, the Mother of God became the ‘Gate that faces east’ (cf Ezek 46:1, 12); the ‘Gate that looks towards the east’  from which life dawned for men and scattered the darkness of death.”

(Hieromonk Gregorios, THE DIVINE LITURGY , p 36)

A Face Like Everyone’s Face

Mary Magdalene turned round and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”  (John 20:14-15)

“In his prose poem Kristos (1878), Turgenev dreams that he is in a village church together with the peasant congregation. A man comes to stand beside him: ‘I did not turn towards him, but immediately I felt that this man was Christ.’ However, when eventually he turns towards him and he perceives ‘a face like everyone’s face. A face like all men’s faces…And the clothes on him like everyone else’s.’ Turgenev is astonished: ‘What sort of a Christ is this then?…Such an ordinary, ordinary man.; But he concludes: ‘Suddenly I was afraid  and came to my senses. Only then did I realize that it is just such a face – a face like all men’s faces – that is the face of Christ.’”   (Father Sergei Hackel, from The Time of the Spirit, p. 77)

That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognizing him. . . .  And their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished out of their sight.  (Luke 24:13-16, 31)

Strengthening Christ

Then he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.”  Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength. In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.  (Luke 22:41-44)

The particular scene described by St. Luke in the Garden of Gethsemane presents all kinds of challenges for Trinitarian believers who see Christ as the incarnate God.  Not the least of which is that an angel strengthens Christ!  Of course all kinds of explanations are offered always trying to balance the two natures in Christ – sometimes His divine nature is being portrayed and sometimes His human nature.  I  cannot resolve all those issues, and want only to mention one thought that this event brings to my mind.

In his agony in Gethsemane, we see that Christ knows what it is to be human and knows what it is to have His heart crushed by the weight of life in this world.  He realized in this moment, in his humanity, why humans fail, why they fall in temptation and despair, why life seems more than many of us can bear.  Even His divinity could not spare Him from feeling all that we humans feel.  Perhaps even the angels could see and empathetically feel the crushing effect of the weight of the world on their Lord.  It is too much for them to bear.  But if He as Lord could not bear this weight, what could they do to help Him?  One thinks about Uzzah reaching out to steady the ark when the oxen stumbled (2 Samuel 6:6)!

The image of Christ bearing our sins and realizing the limits of human nature is moving indeed.  “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases” (Isaiah 53:4; Matthew 8:17) and “he  himself bore our sins in his body on the tree” (Isaiah 53:12; 1 Peter 2:24).  His agony is despite being God, He is experiencing our world, our life, our lives.

I recently finished the book RED RISING, which I thoroughly enjoyed.  I didn’t read it for any theological reason, but purely because one of my sons gifted it to me.  I read it for fun.  But there was one scene in the book which I thought theologically profound.  [SPOILER ALERT:  I am going to talk about something in the book which if you plan to read the book you may not want to know.  I will be a bit vague about this, and some of what I write here is what I read into the scene and how I reacted to it rather than just what the author said.]

The novel is placed in our dystopian solar system in which humans have managed to inhabit most of the planets.  But there is one class of people which rules the solar system with an iron fist.  It is a vile and violent rule and solar system where might = right, and the end justifies the means.  As one character is trying to earn his right to be in the ruling class, he realizes he has to do something spectacular to get the people to follow him instead of the other strong  and potential rulers.  He chooses a method which I was totally not expecting in the book.  He is faced with having to discipline one of his soldiers for raping another soldier.  The whole system is built on power and abuse.   All those with him are watching to see what he will do and he realizes no matter what he does, some may leave him and some may decide to betray him.   He orders the man to be beaten with 20 strokes, but then comes the amazing part – which I was not expecting at all.  He then says that they must also beat him with 20 lashes because as the leader, the failure of his followers are his failures as leader.  No one will be punished without him receiving an equal punishment.  And in the book he suffers from the punishment he receives, there is no symbolic beating.  They inflict serious pain on him.   His method so astounds everyone that they come to realize he really is special as a leader.

Needless to say, one sees Christ in this.  By His suffering, Christ says all the punishment that should be meted out to every sinner is to be meted out on Him.  Of course, Christ goes even further then the novel’s character as He takes on the punishment instead of us being punished, not in addition to it.  Additionally, this character in the story can be heroic but he also can be arrogant and foolish and wrong.  Nevertheless, in the story, the moment when he orders them to mete out his own punishment is profound.  It really allowed me to understand from a new perspective what it is that Christ has done for us.

And in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the Cross, Jesus bears the full weight of all this punishment for the sin of the world.  “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).

Clothe Yourself With Christ

“‘As ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise. For if ye love them which love you, what thank have ye? For sinners also love those that love them…But love ye your enemies and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again and your reward shall be great and ye shall be the children of the Highest: for he is kind unto the unthankful and to the evil. Be ye therefore merciful as your Father is also merciful.’ (Luke 6:30-36)

These words of Christ describe two ways. On the one hand, the ‘natural’ way is to do good to them that do good to us, to love them that love us. The other way, the way of the Gospel, takes us far beyond the natural way. Christ leads us to a deeper, supernatural way of life, a reflection of the perfect life of God: ‘Love ye your enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again. Be ye therefore merciful as your Father also is merciful.’ This commandment raises the human soul to great heights, for by it we are made children of the Heavenly Father and become like unto God.

The Lord’s commandment does not have a negative character. He does not say, ‘Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you’ but ‘Do unto others that which is precious to you, which so fills your soul that you would wish to receive it from them.’ Christian asceticism is ultimately meaningless unless it has a positive character. It is not simply a matter of ‘don’t do this or that’ but rather ‘do this, and be perfect’. We struggle not merely – to divest ourselves of the passions of the old man, but to clothe ourselves with the new man, the New Adam, that is, with Christ Himself.”

(Archimandrite Zacharaias, Remember Thy First Love, p. 316-317)