Lifting Adam From Earth to Paradise

In one of the hymns from the Feast of the Ascension we catch sight of the theological importance of this Feast of the Lord in God’s plan for the salvation of humanity.  Christ the incarnate God refashions human nature, lifting humanity up from the depths of sin, bringing human nature to the throne of God.

After the humans sinned, they were driven from Paradise and returned to the earth from which they had been fashioned.  Christ becomes incarnate on earth to restore humanity to God.

The hymn  in part reads:

O GOD, YOU HAVE REFASHIONED THE NATURE OF ADAM WHICH HAD FALLEN INTO THE DEPTHS OF THE EARTH.  YOU HAVE LED IT UP TODAY ABOVE EVERY PRINCIPALITY AND POWER, FOR IN YOUR LOVE FOR IT, YOU HAVE SEATED IT TOGETHER WITH YOURSELF!  SINCE YOU HAVE TAKEN COMPASSION ON IT YOU UNITED IT TO YOURSELF AND HAVING BEEN UNITED WITH IT, YOU SUFFERED WITH IT. AND A PASSIONLESS ONE, YOU SUFFERED PASSION TO GLORIFY IT WITH YOURSELF!

Salvation is the restoration of humanity in our relationship with God.  We experience a reunion with our Creator.  In the Ascension, however this event is to be understood historically and factually, God fully accepted human nature and reunited us humans to Himself in Christ. God suffers in the flesh to redeem human nature and to bring us back, body and spirit into God’s presence.  God redeems human nature to save each of us – body and soul.

Wiggle Room: Wisdom and the Two Ways

“Thus says the LORD: Behold, I set before you the way of life and the way of death.”  (Jeremiah 21:8)

“Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”  (Matthew 7:13-14)

The notion that there are two ways through the world – the way of life and the way of death – permeates the Scriptures.  They are sometimes dramatically pitted one against the other, and we humans must choose which we will follow.

“O full of all deceit and all fraud, you son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, will you not cease perverting the straight ways of the Lord?”   (Acts 13:10)

And yet the same Tradition which is the Two Ways also is the Wisdom Tradition.  Wisdom is not law, but rather is the Spirit guiding us in how, when and where, with whom and to what degree we can keep the law.

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: …  a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing…”  (Ecclesiastes 3:1-5)

The Tradition which says there are only two ways also provides that we have to know what to do when we are in a grey area, when things are not and aren’t supposed to be black and white.  Between black and white there exist gradiation and degrees, some better than others in terms of doing God’s will.  All or nothing thinking has its limits and sometimes causes problems and even evil.  It can lead people to abandon a good way because of a mistake or sin which causes them to think all is lost.  Something is better than nothing is also wisdom.  I may not be able to be perfect but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try to do as much good as I can.   There always is repentance and a spirit of humility which confesses persistent spiritual failure.  We fall, and we get up.

We see this Wisdom often in the ascetic literature of the Church.

“Be as eager as you can to love everyone, but if you cannot do this yet, at least do not hate anyone.”    (St. Maximus the Confessor, A Patristic Treasury: Early Church Wisdom for Today, Kindle Loc. 6835-36)

“If you are able to bear the whole yoke of the Lord, you will be perfect. But if you are not able, then do what you can.”  (Didache, A Patristic Treasury: Early Church Wisdom for Today, Kindle Loc. 645-46)

Salvation: For the Love of God

The true focus of every Christian is not their salvation, but God.  We are supposed to love God first of all, and then, secondly to love neighbor.  An obsession with one’s salvation is far more an act of self-love rather than true love.

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For true love, the love which God exhibits towards us, and which Christ commands us to do, is focused not on the self but on the other – God first, and then neighbor.   Fr. Thomas Hopko writes:

“What should we be interested in? God. Beautiful, marvelous, magnificent, splendid, glorious God Almighty. And His only begotten Son Jesus Christ, born of a virgin on earth; and the all-holy, life-creating Spirit who proceeds from God, dwells in the Son, and is breathed upon us. In God is life, reality, truth, peace, and joy. We need to be interested in the God who saves us, not in salvation as such. We need to be interested in loving God. Life is about God. The Bible is about God. Church is about God. Sacraments are about God.”  (The Names of Jesus: Discovering the Person of Christ through Scripture, Kindle Location 230-233)

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We Are Responsible for Our Neighbor’s Salvation

“Knowing as we do that we are responsible both for the salvation of our neighbors and their loss, let us so regulate our life as not only to be sufficient for ourselves but also to prove an occasion of instruction to others, so that we may draw down on us here and now the favor from God, and may in the future enjoy God’s loving kindness in generous measure, thanks to the grace and mercy of his only-begotten Son, to whom with the Father and the Holy Spirit be glory, power and honor, now and forever, for ages of ages. Amen.”

(St. John Chrysostom, The Fathers of the Church: St. John Chrysostom Homilies on Genesis, Homily 7, p. 104)

We are responsible for our own salvation and should live the life that corresponds to what we believe.  We are also responsible for our neighbor’s salvation which means we must live a life that witnesses to Christ in such a way that the neighbor will want to embrace what we have found in Christ.

When Death Wept

At some point in early Christian history, Christian theologians began imaging Christ’s descent into Hades, the place of the dead.  Unlike concerns of later Christians, they didn’t have Christ describe what Hades is like or what it’s like to be dead or how to make the proper sojourn through the place of the dead as was the theme of pagan religion.  They took a completely different point of view: they imagined how Death reacted to facing Christ in Hades.  Death realizes that he is suddenly confronted by God, face to face in a place which Death thought he was all powerful and far removed from the reach of God.  These early Christian theologians personified or anthropomorphized Death, and then rejoiced in Death’s shriveling and cowering before real power – the eternal God.  Death felt all powerful – able to claim every human person God created and to enslave them in Hades.  In the face of the crucified Christ, Death realizes he has no real power even over the dead.

In the midst of Death’s own kingdom, Death realized he still had a Lord, and that he himself really wasn’t a lord at all, but was powerless in the face of God.  Christ came to destroy death not to describe what the place of the dead is like.  He didn’t come to tell us how to navigate our way through Hades or Toll Houses either.    Christ destroyed death and then by His resurrection showed us the path to the Kingdom of God.  Christ smashed the gates of Hades and opened the gate of Paradise to His human creatures.  By entering Hades, Christ transformed even Hades into Heaven!  So the Syriac-Persian Christian Aphrahat (d. 345AD) writes:

“When Jesus, the slayer of Death, came and put on a body (Ibesh pagra) from the seed of Adam, and was crucified in the body and tasted death; and as soon as Death perceived that he descended to him, he quivered in his place and became agitated at the sight of Jesus. He shut up the doors and did not want to receive him. However, he shattered the doors and entered to him [Death] and began to rob him of his possessions. As the dead saw light shining in darkness, they raised up their heads from the bondage of death and looked forth and saw the brightness of Christ, the King.

Then the powers of darkness sat lamenting, for Death was destroyed and stripped of his authority. And Death has tasted deadly poison (sam mauta) and his hands slackened and he realized that the dead will revive and escape his tyranny. As he [Christ] conquered Death by spoiling him of his possessions, Death cried out and wept bitterly and said: “Go out of my place and do not come back. Who is that who dared to enter my home alive?” And then Death cried out as he saw darkness starting to disperse and some among the righteous ones who were lying down there, rose up to ascend with him [Christ]. And he said [to Death] that he will return at the end of time, and will release all captives from his authority, and will draw them to himself, so that they could see light. Thus, as Christ had completed his ministry (teshmeshta) among the dead, Death let him escape out of his region, for he could not endure his presence there. For it was not sweet for him to swallow Christ up as [it was with] the rest of the dead. And Death did not prevail over the Holy One and he was not subjected to corruption.” (quoted by Hilarion Alfeyev, Christ the Conqueror of Hell, pp. 69-70)

Revealing Not Repealing Death

“The death of the Savior revealed that death held no power over him. The Lord was mortal in respect of His complete human nature; for even in the original nature there was a potentia mortis (capacity of death). The Lord died, but death could not keep Him. He was the eternal life, and through His death He destroyed death. His descent into hell, the kingdom of death, is the powerful revelation of life. By descending into hell, He gives life to death itself. And by the resurrection, the powerlessness of death is revealed. The reality of death is not repealed, but its powerlessness is revealed.” (Georges Florovsky, On the Tree of the Cross, p. 150)

Bright Saturday (2017)

“Before the dawn Mary and the women came and found the stone rolled away from the tomb.  They heard the angelic voice: ‘Why do you seek among the dead as a man the one who is everlasting light?  Behold the clothes in the grave!  Go and proclaim to the world: The Lord is risen!  He has slain death, as He is the Son of God, saving the race of men.”  (Hours of Pascha)

The myrrhbearing women do not find Christ or Christ’s body in the tomb – the tomb is empty.  By itself it proves nothing – the women assume grave robbers have stolen the corpse of Jesus.

The women are not told to return to the tomb and make it a shrine – there are no relics there.  They are to tell the disciples to find Jesus, but not at the tomb, but rather in Gallilee.  The Apostles are told to go into all the world with the message of the resurrection – they aren’t told that meditating at the tomb of Jesus will make them holy.  They weren’t to turn the resurrection into religion, rather they were to show the world how they were transformed by the news of Christ’s resurrection.  Christ is eternal light not a resuscitated corpse that we can parade about in religious ceremony.  Our goal as Christians is not to make a pilgrimage to the holy sepulcher – we are given no such commandment.  Nor is the goal set annually to Pascha night.  Our goal is to live the resurrection so that everyone will come to embrace Christ our Savior. The myrrhbearing women may have had to go to the tomb to learn of the resurrection, but they are told they’ve come to the wrong place if they are looking for Christ.  He is not at the holy sepulcher, He is Lord of the Sabbath and of the universe.  He is known in the proclamation of the Scriptures and in the eating of the Eucharist.  He is Lord of the Sabbath and the universe.

God’s Love and Loving God

“This has taught me never to condemn anyone: as the prayer says: ‘There is no man who lives and does not sin.’

Remember, all our faith is based on our love of God and of the Mother of God and on our veneration of the saints. We can express all this by loving all people and by never refusing them help. I always tell everybody the words of the Gospel, ‘Love your God with all your heart and all your mind and love your neighbor as yourself.’

Do you find yourself lonely? You have icons in your apartment–icons of Jesus Christ, of His Holy Mother, of our Saint Anastasia, of the Guardian Angel, of Archangel Michael, and probably you have others as well. If you feel seized by feelings of despondency, walk over to an icon and pray, and the dark forces will step away.

Read a chapter of the Gospel every day. In the Four Gospels there are eighty-nine chapters, so in the course of a year you will be able to read the whole Gospel four times. I started reading a chapter of the Gospel every day from an early age. I have been a heiromonk for fifty years and I celebrate the liturgy almost every day, but every time I read a chapter I find something new in it, something good and inspiring.

Be with people and help them, whoever they are. They can be your colleagues, your friends, or your relatives. Help everyone and those who around you will understand what a Christian is and will come to the Church, to God. ”

 (Father Arseny, A Cloud of Witnesses, pp. 109-110)

Fasting: Refraining from Sin

Fasting in the body, O brethren, let us also fast from sin.” This is the Church’s song in the lenten season of fasting. It is also the teaching of the saints

…in fasting one must not only obey the rule against gluttony in regard to food, but refrain from every sin so that, while fasting, the tongue may also fast, refraining from slander, lies evil talking, degrading one’s brother, anger and every sin committed by the tongue. One should also fast with the eyes, that is, not look at vain things…not look shamefully or fearlessly at anyone. The hands and feet should also be kept from every evil action.

When one fasts through vanity or thinking that he is achieving something especially virtuous, he fasts foolishly and soon begins to criticize others and to consider himself something great.

 

A man who fasts wisely … wins purity and comes to humility and proves himself a skillful builder’ (St. Abba Dorotheus, 7th c., Directions on Spiritual teaching).”

(Fr. Thomas Hopko, Spirituality: Vol. 4, p. 135)