Christmas Blessings Received

Come, then, let us observe the Feast.  Come, and we shall commemorate the solemn festival.  It is a strange manner of celebrating a festival, but truly wondrous is the whole chronicle of the Nativity.

For this day –

The ancient slavery is ended,

The devil confounded,

The demons take to flight,

The power of death is broken,

Paradise is unlocked,

The curse is taken away,

Sin is removed from us,

Error driven out,

Truth has been brought back,

The speech of kindliness diffused, and spreads on every side,

A heavenly way of life has been implanted on the earth,

Angels communicate with men without fear,

And men now hold speech with angels.

Why is this?  Because God is now on earth, and man in heaven; on every side all things commingle.  He has come on earth, while being whole in heaven; and while complete in heaven, He is without diminution on earth.  Though He was God, He became human; not denying Himself to be God.  Though being the impassable Word, He became flesh; that He might dwell amongst us, He became Flesh.”   (St. John Chrysostom, THE SUNDAY SERMONS OF THE GREAT FATHERS Vol 1, p 115)

The birth of Christ inaugurates the salvation of the world.  Writing in the 4th Century, St. John Chrysostom enumerates the many blessings we have received by the Nativity in the flesh of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ.  Heaven and earth are united together, divinity and humanity are reunited, Creator and creation have their communion restored.  St Tikhon of Zadonsk writing in the 18th Century further reflecting on what the incarnate God means for has has the Lord Jesus asking us a series of questions about our spiritual search and sojourn:

“Do you seek wisdom?  I am God’s Wisdom.

Do you seek friendship?  Who is a greater or more loving friend than I, who laid down my life for you?

Are you looking for help? Who can offer greater help than I?

Do you need a physician?  Who can cure, other than I, the source of healing?

Are you looking for joy? Who will make you happy if not I?

Looking for peace?  I am the peace of the soul.

Looking for life?  I am the Resurrection and the Life.

Looking for light?  I am the Light of the world.

Looking for truth?  I am the Truth.

Are you searching for the true way?  I am the Way.

Why don’t you want to come to me?  You dare not approach? Who is more approachable than I?

You are afraid to ask?  Whom have I ever refused who has asked in faith?

Your sins prevent you? I died for sinners.

You are distressed by the great number of your sins?  My mercy is greater than all of them.”

The Problem of Profanity

And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is an unrighteous world among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the cycle of nature, and set on fire by hell. 

For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by humankind, but no human being can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brethren, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening fresh water and brackish? Can a fig tree, my brethren, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.  (James 3:5-12)

In just about every generation, writers comment on how bad things have become – as if there were a previous age in which things were better.  That probably is a human thing, as far back as Seth who really could think things were better in his parent’s day, but even in Paradise there was a serpent and sin.  St. Tikhon of Zadonsk, who died in 1783AD,  laments the disrespectful language he was hearing in Holy Russia which he claimed had become commonplace.  He would not believe how tame the profanity he laments sounds today and in fact for many would not even count as profanity.  His words remind us we should be mindful of what we say.

Profanity has become commonplace – a thing that is extremely unbefitting Christians – as to say “By God!,” “God be upon it!,” “As God is my witness!,” “God look after it!,” “For Christ’s sake!,” and many others. And these are said by some people quite often, even in every utterance. Such profanity is nothing but a satanic plot devised to dishonor the name of God and for the destruction of man. You should guard yourself from swearing in these and other ways.

When there should be need for you to affirm the truth, let Christ’s words be for you, Yea, yea; nay, nay; for whatsoever is more than these cometh from the evil one (Mt. 5:37). (Journey to Heaven, p. 15)

For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good man out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil man out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”  (Matthew 12:34-37)

Enveloped in God’s Love

“Everywhere and in every endeavor remember the Lord your God and His holy love for us. Everything that you may see in heaven and on earth and in your house awakens you to the remembrance of the Lord your God and His holy love. We are enveloped in God’s love.

Every creature of God bears witness to His love for us. When you see God’s creation and make use of it, say to yourself thus: This is the work of the hands of the Lord my God, and it was created for my sake. These luminaries of the heavens, the sun, the moon, and the stars, are the creations of the Lord my God, and they illumine all the world and me.

This earth on which I live, which bears fruit for me and my cattle, and all that may be upon it, is the creation of the Lord my God. This water which waters me and my cattle is a blessing of my Lord. This cattle which serves me is the creation of my Lord and was given by Him to serve me.

This house in which I live is God’s blessing and was given me by Him for my repose. This food which I taste is God’s gift to me for the strengthening and consolation of my weak flesh. This garment with which I am clothed the Lord my God gave me for the sake of covering my naked body.” (St.Tikhon of Zadonsk, Journey to Heaven, p 9)

The Christian in the World

“True Christians live in this world as travelers, pilgrims, and sojourners, and they look ever toward their heavenly homeland with faith and with the eyes of the soul, and they strive to reach it. You should also be a pilgrim and sojourner in this world and constantly look toward that homeland and strive to obtain it, and so the world with its enticements and lusts will become abhorrent to you. Whoever seeks eternal blessedness and desires it and strives to reach it will despise everything temporal, lest while seeking the temporal he be deprived of the eternal.”   (St. Tikhon of Zadonsk, Journey to Heaven, p 163)

 

In the Image of God

This is the 13th  blog in this series which began with the blog Being and Becoming Human. The previous blog is Image and Likeness of God in the Writings of St. Gregory of Nyssa.

In this blog, we continue to look at the issue of what does it mean that humans are created in the image and likeness of God?  What precisely in humans is in the image of God?   The answers to these two questions are rich and varied in the Orthodox tradition.  What we learn from this is that the image of God in us is best understood as a mystery which goes beyond any one dogmatic or definitive answer.

“What then is it to be in the image of God? Often enough, we find the Fathers giving an answer in terms of human qualities, and these turn out to be qualities of the soul. ‘The “according to the image”’, says John Damascene, ‘is manifest in intelligence [noeron] and free will [autexousion]’.  Being in the image means being a rational, or intelligent, being with free will. Sometimes the answer is more complex. Athanasios, for instance, talks about God’s creating us and our being ‘given something more’: creating human beings not simply like all the irrational animals upon the earth, but making them according to his own image, and giving them a share of the power of his own Word, so that having as it were shadows of the Word and being made rational, they might be able to abide in blessedness, living the true life, which is really that of the holy ones in paradise.  Being in the image, however, is not, for Athanasios, simply a matter of being rational, for otherwise the angels would be in the image, too, something that he denies: being in the image is a gift to humanity, body and soul, which grants rationality to the human, but must mean more than this. The more is, I think, for Athanasios, tied up with the fact that the image of God is Christ, the Word of God, whom we cannot understand apart from the Incarnation. It is in some way according to the image of God, understood as the Word of God Incarnate, that human kind was fashioned. This more complex notion unfolds in two ways.  (Andrew Louth , Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology, Kindle Loc. 1656-69)

Humans being created in the image of God is directly connected to the Word of God being incarnate in Jesus Christ.  What God did in the beginning –  creating humans  in His image (icon) – was to form humans in the image of the Word of God.  It turns out that at the incarnation – in Christ – we finally see the One in whose image we are created.  This is how we understand the words of Jesus in John 14:9 –  “He who has seen me has seen the Father”.    This is also the basis for iconography, for the God who has no form, whom we cannot see (John 5:37) has revealed His image (icon) in Christ.

“What I am arguing is that limiting being in the image of God to being rational and possessing free will falls short in two respects of what the Greek Fathers generally mean by being according to God’s image. First, being logikos means more than simply being rational; it means participating in the Logos, the Word, of God, including rationality, certainly, but also a capacity for recognizing and conveying meaning, for communicating, with one another and with God, and ultimately an affinity with God, that enables us to know him. Second, possessing to kat’ eikona means having a relationship to God through his image, that is, the Word; it is not just a property or a quality, but a capacity for a relationship, a relationship that is fulfilled in attainment of to kath’omoiosin, being according to the likeness, assimilation with God.”    (Andrew Louth , Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology,  Kindle Loc. 1683-89)

God created humans as being capable of bearing His image, and this becomes fulfilled in the incarnation of the Word, where finally we see God’s image.  This is the manner in which we are capable of partaking of the divine nature.

Sin has formed layers of filth and dirt over us, covering the image of God in each of us.  The Christian life, obeying the commandments of Christ, is lived in order to reveal that image in each of us.

Desert ascetics understood that the journey to a deep and mature relationship with God was made within oneself.  The arduous work of stripping away illusions and all that keeps us from knowing God gifted the ascetic with a deep sense of understanding her own true humanity.  This understanding of their true humanity, created fully in the image and likeness of God and yet still on the journey toward full maturity, made desert ascetics deeply humble people.”   (Laura Swan, THE FORGOTTEN DESERT MOTHERS, p 26)

Humans are created to reveal God’s image to one another as well as to all of creation.  Humans are created by God to have an intermediary role in creation – uniting the Divine Creator with all the created universe.  It is Jesus Christ, the God-man, who fully reveals this role for humanity for He unites earth to heaven.

“Man is created to God’s image and likeness.  All created things bear testimony to God’s power, wisdom, and kindness; but man bears in addition God’s image within himself.  In truth, this is the greatest goodness, the most admirable beauty, the highest honor!  Man is inferior to God, but he is above all other created things: man has been honored by God’s image: beautiful are the skies, the sun, the moon and the stars, and all things made by God; but man is the most beautiful of  all; for he bears within himself a beauty created to the image of God.  Think and reflect on the beauty of God, Who is the Uncreated and Eternal Beauty!  If god has so greatly honored man, who, then, can rise against him?  The whole world, all hell and all the devils, can do nothing to man.  God is within him and is his protector.”    (St. Tikhon of Zadonsk, A TREASURY OF RUSSIAN SPIRITUALITY, p 234)

Next:   In the Image of God (II)

Christian Love: the Cure for What ails Society

make_love_not_warIn the 1960’s in the U.S. some imagined a world of free love, over turning stuffy old conventions, and undermining the sexual mores of past generations.

Freeing oneself from the constrictions of the past has probably been a goal of the Enlightenment since it blossomed as a philosophical movement in the 18th Century.  It was the ultimate path to creating “the individual” as versus seeing each human as a social being, part of a social construct.

But “love” is not the invention of the philosophical movement of Western Europe.  Love was advocated by Jesus Christ 2000 years ago, though what he emphasized in love was not self-centered and selfish, but rather was self-denying and focused on the good of the other.  In Christ’s vision of love, one is not freed from others, but rather love is always oriented toward others.  The 60’s really advocated self-love rather than the love which Christ offered the world.     St. Tikhon of Zadonsk (d. 1783) described what he imagined to be a world based in Christ-like love:

“Oh, how wonderful everything would be if everyone would love one another! Then there would be no theft, no robbery, no deceit, no murder, no deception…the courts would not be overwhelmed with complaints, these avaricious people would not be roaming through the streets and town squares…the jails would not be overflowing with prisoners, locked up because of crimes, moneylending, failures to pay debts; there would finally be no poor and needy any longer, but all would be equal.” (Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky: The Mantle of the Prophet, pg. 455)

In St. Tikhon’s vision of what a Christian country would be like, there would be no banks and no prisons, no crime and no poverty.   St. Tikhon imagined certain social ills would be eliminated if everyone followed the teachings of Jesus Christ to love God and neighbor.   The practice of love was the way to virtue for all.    And it is obvious that his vision of what would emerge in a completely Christian nation is unlike anything that exists in the world today.   It is his vision of a Christian paradise: love – the self-sacrificial and co-suffering love which Christ incarnated in His own life – would reign in each person’s heart.  When that happened, rich and poor would care for one another and that would eliminate the need for banks and prisons.  Christian love, not the free love of the 1960s, was in St. Tikhon’s mind the cure for what ails society.

Becoming and Being a Christian

St. Symeon the New Theologian (d. 1022AD), as with other Patristic writers, understood that the Word of God not only became incarnate in Jesus Christ, but also in some fashion that same Word of God comes to abide in each Christian.  The Christian is the one who is united to God the Word.  The process of being united to Christ and the end result of this spiritual sojourn is referred to as theosis or deification.

In the Baptism service of the Orthodox Church the candidate for baptism is asked both of these question:

“Are you united to Christ?”

“Have you united yourself to Christ?”

Union with Christ is essential to being a Christian from the very start of one’s Christian life.  St. Symeon writes:

“So, brothers, let each of you has bent his mind to the force of these sayings see himself.

If one has received the Word Who has come,

if he has become a child of God,

if he has been born not of flesh and blood alone, but also from God,

if he has known the incarnate Word tabernacling in himself and

if he has seen His glory, glory as of the Only-Begotten of the Father,

then behold! he has become a Christian and has seen himself born again, and has known the Father Who has begotten him, not in word alone but by the work of grace and truth.”

(On the Mystical Life: The Ethical Discourses, pg. 157)

And as the Word dwells in one’s heart, one becomes united to God the Word, being transformed into a disciples of the Son of God.  Saint Tikhon of Voronezh (d. 1783AD) pleads with God to help this personal transfiguration take place:

“Give me ears to hear You,

eyes to see You,

taste to partake of You,

sense of smell to inhale You.

Give me feet to walk unto You;

lips to speak of You,

heart to fear and love You.

Teach me Your ways, O Lord, and I shall walk in Your truth. For You are the way, the truth, and the life.”

(in The Pearl of Great Price, pg. 56)

It becomes even possible for us to see in others this transformation of a person into a Christian, to see God united to that person whose life has been transfigured by their union with Christ our God.  Saint Pachomius the Great (d. 346AD) says:

“If you see a man pure and humble, that is a great vision. For what is greater than such a vision , to see the invisible God in a visible man.”       (in The Pearl of Great Price, pg. 156)

Prophet Moses

When the invisible God becomes united to a Christian, that union becomes visible in the life of the Christian.  We indeed become God-bearers, and others who see this in us become themselves transformed by the experience.  The early Church Fathers expressed this process even more forcefully in the phrase made famous by St. Athanasius the Great (d. ca 337AD), “God became man so that man might become god.”

 

Images of Salvation (XI)

All of God’s actions “are directed towards the single eternal good, whether each receives judgment or something of glory from Him—not by way of retribution, far from it!—but with a view to the advantage that is going to come from all these things.”    (St. Isaac the Syrian, THE SPIRITUAL WORLD OF ISAAC THE SYRIAN, p 284)

Moses

This is the eleventh blog in this series exploring ideas about and images of salvation.  The first blog is Images of Salvation and the previous blog is Images of Salvation (X).

A very strong current in Patristic thinking is that God, who is Love, constantly works for the salvation of His fallen human creatures.  God continually works for the good of humanity despite human sin and rebellion against Him.  And even when God Himself was angry with His own people, the saints of God have interceded with Him begging Him to remember to be merciful.  We certainly see that in the life of Moses (for example see Exodus 32:7-14).

St. Symeon the New Theologian (d. 1022AD) writes:

“… He Himself, Who is able to do all things and is beneficent, undertook to accomplish this work through Himself.  For the man whom He had made by His own invisible hands according to His image and likeness He willed to raise up again, not be means of another but by Himself, so that indeed he might the more greatly honor and glorify our race by His being likened to us in every respect and become our equal by taking on our human condition.  O what unspeakable love for mankind!  The goodness of it!  That not only did He not punish us transgressors and sinners, but that He Himself accepted becoming such as we had become by reason of the Fall: corruptible man born of corruptible man, mortal born of a mortal, sin of him who had sinned, He Who is incorruptible and immortal and sinless.  He appeared in the world only in His deified flesh, and not in His naked divinity.  Why?  Because He did not, as He says Himself in His Gospels, wish to judge the world but to save it.”   ( ON THE MYSTICAL LIFE  Vol 1,  pp 144-145)

Unfortunately, Christians have not always been as compassionate as our Father in heaven who does not desire the death of the sinner but rather ever works for the sinner to repent (Ezekiel 33:11).  Archimandrite Sophrony (d. 1993) in his book on St. Silouan (d. 1938AD) notes that St. Silouan advocated for this Orthodox tradition of mercy – being like God who is love:

“The history of the Orthodox Church, past and present, right up to our own day reveals frequent instances of a leaning towards the idea of physical combat against evil, though fortunately confined to individual prelates or ecclesiastical groups.  The Orthodox Church herself has not only declined to bless or to impose these measures but has always followed in the steps of the crucified Christ, Who took upon Himself the burden of the sins of the world.

The Staretz was profoundly and very precisely aware that only good can defeat evil – that using force simply means substituting one sort of violence for another.  We discussed this many a time.  He would remark, ‘The Gospel makes it plain that when the Samaritans did not wish to receive Christ, the disciples James and John wanted to bring down fire from heaven, to consume them, but the Lord rebuked them and said, “Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of . . . I am come not to destroy men’s lives, but to save them”.’  And we, too, must have this one thought – that all should be saved.”     (ST. SILOUAN THE ATHONITE, p 226)

Christ rebuked His disciples when they lost sight of the mercy of God – that God in His love works for the salvation of the world, not its destruction.

Saint Tikhon of Zadonsk (d. 1783AD) wrote very personally about God’s love and about Christ’s dying on the cross.  Salvation is not merely a historical event of 2000 years ago, for God acted in love for each of us today.  St. Tikhon was humbled by the love God had shown toward him personally in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  St. Tikhon says that it is Jesus Christ

 ”Who is omnipresent and fills all space. And thus for thirty-three years and more He lived and labored upon earth for my sake – I who am His servant. O Son of God Who ceased not to dwell in His Father’s bosom! What did You behold in me of merit? Why did You come to seek me in this vale of tears? Shepherds search for their lost sheep, but for their own profit. Men seek their lost property, but out of self-interest. Travelers visit foreign countries, but for their own benefit. Kings offer the ransoms of prisoners, but they pay it in gold and silver through their ambassadors, and largely for their own gain. But You, what was it that You found in me, my Lord? What use, what interest, what good did You behold in me that You came to seek me? And it was the King of Heaven and Earth Himself who came, not His ambassadors. God himself came to find and to ransom His servant, not with gold and silver but with His precious blood. Nothing indeed did you find but corruption, weakness, misery, disobedience and enmity towards Yourself.”        (“Confession and Thanksgiving to Christ, Son of God, the Savior of the World,” A Treasury of Russian Spirituality, pg 217)

Next:  Images of Salvation (XII)

Images of Salvation (VIII)

“… there is no sin so great that it can conquer the munificence of the Master.” (St. John Chrysostom, BAPTISMAL INSTRUCTIONS, p 32)

This is the eighth blog in this series exploring ideas about and images of salvation.  The first blog is Images of Salvation and the previous blog is Images of Salvation (VII).

God is love (1 John 4:8, 16).  This truth about God is incontrovertible doctrine in the Orthodox tradition.  God is love and God loves the world.  The Fathers read the scriptures through the lens of this indisputable dogma, sometimes wrestling with the Scriptures because the text might be read to deny the love of God for His creation and human creatures.  But the dogma was not to be twisted in any way and so the text had to be wrestled with in order to understand how it revealed God’s love.

God’s love is omnipotent, as St. John Chrysostom implies in the quote above.  No sin is so evil as to be able to conquer the Creator’s generous grace.  God is love – this is His nature, the way the Holy Trinity acts towards creation and all creatures.

“… be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.  For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?”   (Matthew 5:45-46)

Love is not a reaction to what God sees.  God is love and acts according to His nature no matter how we behave.  God does not wait until we are good, holy or perfect before bringing about His salvation.  While we were yet sinners Christ died for us (Romans 5:8; 1 Timothy 1:15) – this is the sign of God’s love.

St. Tikhon of Zadonsk (d. 1783AD) offers a beautiful prayer which portrays for us an image of our Savior.  He makes personal the scriptures, speaking in the first person:

“Thus I stand before You, I for whose sake You came to earth.  Beholding in me nothing but my need of salvation, You have come to seek me.  For You so looked upon me that my misfortune and my perdition became Your loss, my salvation Your gain.  That I should be saved and should attain eternal happiness, this You considered to be Your gain.  For Your generosity could not bear to see me in perdition; it impelled You, Invisible One, to descend and to seek me.  Not a mediator, not an angel, but you Yourself, my Lord, came to me.  You came to me, for I could not come to You.  The Shepherd had to come and to labor in order to find the sheep lost in the hills.  You showered upon me Your loving-kindness, my Lord.   You sought me disinterestedly, my Shepherd.  You loved me without profit, O my God! 

This indeed is true love: to love without profit, to do good without hope of recompense. Thus did You love me, my Lover: You came disinterested for my salvation.  Oh, what kindness and love, Son of God, Son of the Ever-Virgin!  Oh, how great is our joy, poor and wretched men for whose sake our Lord and King came to live among us.  God likened Himself to men and came to us for our sake.  Blessed is the womb that bore You, and the breasts which gave You suck!  Son of God!  Blessed are the swaddling clothes in which You were wrapped!  Blessed, the crib in which You were laid!  Blessed are the arms which sheltered the Infant Who was our God before all time!  Blessed are the robes which clothed God Incarnate, Who was arrayed in garments of light!  Blessed are the eyes that beheld You and the ears that heard You and the hands that touched You, Living Word and Giver of life!   Blessed is the time in which You, O Heavenly King, came down to earth!  Yet, by far more blessed are those who see You, not walking on earth, but sitting at the right hand of the Father—Jesus, in Whom now, not seeing but believing, Your faithful on earth rejoice with an ineffable and glorious joy!  Grant that I may see You now with the eyes of faith and honor You through love; that I may look upon You then face to face!”    ( “Confession and Thanksgiving to Christ, Son of God, the Savior of the World,” A Treasury of Russian Spirituality, pg 218)

Next: Images of Salvation IX

The Church and the Poor

“Many people erect high ‘temples’ and decorate them. They build tall belfries and cast great bells, they sew rich vestments for the churches and frame the sacred books, the icons and the Cross with gold and jewels. With these material gifts they wish to please the immaterial God; but they despise and neglect the poor…and leave them to their fate; and thus they do what God has not ordained and do not do what He has ordained! I do not condemn this building of churches. I only condemn the neglect of the Word of God. Churches are necessary, but not the magnificence of churches. Public worship can be held in any temple, provided it is clean. But people – the ‘living temples’ of God cannot exist without food, shelter, clothing …”

(St. Tikhon of Zadonsk in What the Church Fathers Say About…Volume 2, pp 107-108)