In Christ and Christ in Us

Commenting on the words of St Paul the Apostle, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him”   (1 Corinthians 2:9), St Symeon the New Theologian writes:

Image 1These… eternal good things… which God has prepared for those who love Him, are not protected by heights, nor enclosed in some secret place… They are right in front of you, before your very eyes… [they] are the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ which we see every day, and eat, and drink…” (ON THE MYSTICAL LIFE,  Vol 3, p 112)

What God has prepared for those who love Him, He does not hide but rather freely gives to His servants in a form that we can receive.  Not only does God not hide what He has prepared, but He enters into our lives, into our selves, into our bodies, into our hearts so that we can experience it and be both enlivened and enlightened by it!

The Eucharist is the presence of that same body born of Mary and now, through the Resurrection, entirely ‘spiritualized,’ i.e., moved and quickened by the Holy Spirit.  The New Testament accounts of Christ’s Resurrection tell, after all, of a change, not of a simple resuscitation (1 Cor 15:42-54, John 20:11-19, Luke 24:13-31).”  (Alexander Golitizin, ON THE MYSTICAL LIFE,  Vol 3, p 115)

Christ enters into us to reveal Himself to us.  It is a revelation which St Symeon says Christ made to him when He said these words to the saint:

“I am the kingdom of God that is hidden in your midst… though by nature I cannot be contained, yet even here below I am contained in you by grace; though I am invisible I become visible… I am the leaven the soul receives… [I am] He who takes the place of the visible Paradise and becomes a spiritual paradise for My servants… I am the sun Who rises in them every hour as in the morning and am seen by the intellect, just as I in times past manifested Myself in the prophets…” (ON THE MYSTICAL LIFE,  Vol 3, pp 110-111)

The same Son of God who revealed Himself to the prophets, now reveals Himself to us in the Eucharist as well as in the Eucharistic assembly, namely the Body of Christ.

The Fearful Judgment of Christ

When You, O God, shall come to earth with glory, all things shall tremble and the river of fire shall flow before Your judgment seat; the books shall be opened and the hidden things disclosed! Then deliver me from the unquenchable fire, and make me worthy to stand at Your right hand, righteous Judge!  (Hymn for the Sunday of the Last Judgment)

There are different images of the Day of Judgment presented in the Scriptures. Some are quite unique and strikingly different than often portrayed in art and hymnology.  The Gospel reading for the Sunday of the Last Judgment (Meatfare Sunday) – Matthew 25:31-46 – is a good example of a very different image of the Last Judgment.  This Gospel lesson occurs within a series of parables that Jesus tells.  In this case, the Lord Jesus presents a judgment not based on sins which violate God’s commandments, but rather based on whether people showed mercy to those in need.  We see in the Church, that diverse Scriptural images of the Last Judgment were readily combined together to form a picture of the Judgment Day.  So the hymn above speaks about the river of fire, though that is not mentioned in the Gospel lesson for the day.  The hymn for the day is based more on Revelation 20:11-15 than on Matthew 25.

Besides the various images of the Judgment Day we find in Scriptures, the church fathers provide a variety of interpretations of the Matthew 25 text of the Judgment.  St Simeon the New Theologian offered perhaps the most unusual interpretations of the text (see my blog series St Simeon the New Theologian on Matthew 25:31-46).  He was concerned that monastics might feel judged and excluded from Christ’s blessings for focusing their lives on repentance rather than on acts of mercy – so he radically reinterprets the parable to be about repentance not acts of mercy.  He has it that Christ is hungering for our repentance but we don’t repent and that Christ lies abandoned in the home of our hearts where we refuse to visit Him.

A more “traditional” interpretation can be found in the writings of St. John Chrysostom, who takes the failures of us beyond simply failing to minister to the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters by saying we even add to the suffering of the poor by chasing them away rather than helping them [Indeed, society is pretty successful in making sure that the poor remain invisible and that they are kept far away from ‘decent folk’.  I remember one couple who went on vacation to a 3rd world tropical island and was very offended that the beach hotels did not have the ‘decency’ to tear down the slum dwellings which were visible from the hotel.  Poverty ruined their vacation!]   Chrysostom does not soften the judgment for those who fail to minister to the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters – he envisions violent, physical torture which he is willing to detail even if Matthew 25 doesn’t:

If those who did not give nourishment to Christ when he was hungry are condemned with the devil to the fire that never dies, what about those who have reduced to famine choirs of monks and virgins, and have reduced to nakedness those who were clothed? And those who have not only not welcomed strangers but have chased them away; and those who have not only not cared for the sick but have afflicted them yet more; and those who have not only not visited the captives but have cast into prison those who had been free of chains? Imagine what torments they will suffer! Then, you will see them grilled, burning, enchained, weeping, their teeth gnashing, henceforth wailing futilely, and repenting uselessly and without recompense, just as that rich man. These same people will see you in the blessed state, crowned, chanting with the angels, reigning together with Christ; and they will cry out much, and wail, and repent of the inconsiderate words they said against you, addressing to you their supplications, and invoking your mercy and philanthropy. But all of this will be of no avail to them. ( Letters to Saint Olympia, p. 77)

For Chrysostom not only are the sinners going to experience eternal physical torments, but they will also be able to see the blessed ones rejoicing in the Kingdom and so will be fully cognizant of what they are missing – a double torture.  Additionally, they will realize how wrong they were and repent and experience grief for their sins but it will be of no benefit to them but will only add to their suffering.

All of the torments are easily avoided simply by showing mercy to those in need, for as Christ taught, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy” (Matthew 5:7).

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)

Receive the Body of Christ

“When Christ comes into us, he does not sanctify our soul alone but our whole being. For by Holy Communion, ‘Body [is mingled] with body, Blood with blood…What great mysteries are these! What a miracle, that the mind of Christ should become one with our mind, that His will should be amalgamated with our will, His Body with our body, His Blood with our blood! What is our mind like when the divine mind prevails over it; what is our will like when the divine will predominates; and what becomes of the dust [our body] once the fire [of the Godhead] overcomes it!’ (St. Nicholas Cabasilas).    The distribution of the pure Mysteries ‘makes those who partake worthily to be similar – by grace and by participation – to Him who is the causal Good’ (St Maximus the Confessor).

. . .  St. Symeon the New Theologian extols the Lord after Holy Communion:

‘What is this measureless compassion of Yours, O Savior?

How have You accounted me worthy to become one of Your members

– I who am impure, a prodigal, a harlot?

How have You dressed me in a garment most bright,

glistering with the radiance of immortality

and making all my members into light?

For your Body, pure and divine,

is wholly radiant, wholly intermixed

and commingled ineffably with the fire of Your Divinity…

I have been united, I know, also with Your Divinity

and have become Your most pure Body,

a member shining forth, a member truly holy,

a member glittering from afar, and radiant, and shining.'”

(Hireomonk Gregorious, The Divine Liturgy, p. 297-298)

The Sweetness of the Sun and the Eucharist

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“The soul climbs up unceasingly.  And the further up it goes, the higher it longs to go.  The ascent kindles its desire, and the food of the Divine Eucharist increases its hunger for mystical contemplation.  St Symeon the New Theologian, who looked upon the beauty of the uncreated light and was nourished on the food of incorruption, uses a unique image:

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‘I do not know which give me greater delight, the sight and enjoyment of the purity of the rays of the Sun, or the drinking and the taste of the wine in my mouth.

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I want to say the latter [the taste of the wine], and yet the former [the rays of the sun] attracts me and seems sweeter.  And when I turn to them, then I enjoy still more the sweetness of the taste of the wine.  So the sight [of the rays] does not lead to satiety, nor can I have enough of drinking [that wine].

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For when it seems that I have drunk my fill, then the beauty of the rays sent forth makes me thirst greatly, and again I find myself hungry and thirsty.'”  (Hiermonk Gregorios, THE DIVINE LITURGY, pp 221-222)

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Obey Christ by Forgiving Others

Many Orthodox saints are known for their rigorist asceticism.  We also see them taking a maximalist point of view when it comes to fulfilling Christ’s Gospel commandments.  They did not shy away from taking Christ’s teachings quite literally.  For example, the 11th Century saint, Symeon the New Theologian says:

“If someone, whether justly or unjustly, should insult you, or revile you, or slander you, and you do not bear the slight meekly, or, grieved and wounded at heart, you fail to endure it and rein in the movements of your soul, but instead insult in turn the one who insulted you, or revile him, or do something else against him, or, again do none of these things to him, but instead go away carrying a grudge against him in your heart and do not forgive him with all your soul and pray for him with all your heart, behold! you have at once taken up arms against Christ by doing what is opposed to His ordinances and have become His enemy. You have as well destroyed your own soul by falling in with and putting the seal on your former sins and making them ineradicable.” (St. Symeon the New Theologian, On the Mystical Life: The Ethical Discourses Vol. 2, p 149)

Enlightened by the Holy Spirit

12th Century Pentecost Icon

“The man who is enlightened by the Holy Spirit, the Revealer of all things, acquires new eyes and new ears, and sees no more as a natural man, namely by his natural sight with natural sensation, but standing as it were beyond himself contemplates spiritually visible things and bodies as the symbols of the things invisible.” (St. Simeon the New Theologian in The Universe as Symbols & Signs by Nikolai Velimirrovich, p 10)

 

St. Seraphim of Sarov

Pentecost (2016)

St. Symeon the New Theologian (d. 1021AD) reflects on the importance of Pentecost for each Christian.

“As our body, whether ill or not, is unable to move or even live at all without a soul, so our soul, too, whether it sins or not, is dead without the Holy Spirit and can in no way live everlastingly. If sin is death’s sting, clearly he who has sinned has been stung and is dead; and, if no one is without sin – for everyone, Paul says, has sinned and been deprived of God’s glory [Rom. 3:23] – then, obviously, all we who have sinned have died are dead. So imagine yourself together with me as spiritually dead. Then tell me how you may truly live without having been united with the true life, that is, the Holy Spirit, through Whom every believer is regenerated and made alive again in Christ?

‘I am the truth’, He says, ‘and the resurrection, and the life’ [Jn 14:16 and 11:25]. The servants and disciples of Christ are light and truth and life. ‘He who receives you’, He says, ‘receives Me, and he Who receives Me receives Him Who sent Me’ [Mt 10:40]. If we are dead and He alone is life everlasting, let us not say that we serve Him before we have been united with Him and live. How can the dead ever serve anyone? Unless we put Him on consciously, like a cloak, let us not think that we have been freed at all from our infirmities and the passions which trouble us.”  (On the Mystical Life: The Ethical Discourses, pp 92-93)

“For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”  (Galatians 3:27)

 

Seeing Christ: The Transfiguration of the Eye

“The following passages taken from the writings of Symeon the New Theologian  … illustrate the insufficient nature of the natural eye. The texts … offer an extremely rare example of Symeon discussing an actual use of an icon in his spiritual life. The topic of the Discourse is thanksgiving for the gift of illumination. In the tenth section Symeon prepares his listeners for the encounter with an icon by first offering thanks to God for a vision of him:

‘When a blind man gradually recovers his sight and notices the features of a man and bit by bit ascertains what he is, it is not the features that are transformed or altered into the visible. Rather, as the vision of that man’s eyes becomes clearer, it sees the features as they are. It is as though they wholly imprint themselves on his vision and penetrate through it, impressing and engraving themselves, as on a tablet, on the mind and the memory of the soul. You Yourself became visible in the same manner when You had completely cleaned my mind by the clear light of the Holy Ghost. Thence seeing more clearly and distinctly, You seemed to come forth and shine more brightly, and allowed me to see the features of Your shapeless shape.’

Here Symeon proposes that human eyes require divine intervention in order to see more fully. It is they, rather than the object of their vision, that require alteration. Having set up this transformational model, Symeon then introduces an encounter with an icon of the Theotokos:

‘Having said these things You became silent and little by little, 0 sweet and good Lord, You were hidden from my eyes; whether I became distant from You or You departed from me, I know not. I returned once more wholly into myself and entered into my former dwelling, whence I had thought to have left. When I recalled the beauty of Your glory and of Your words, as I walked about, sat down, ate, drank, and prayed, I wept and lived in an indescribable joy, having known You, the Maker of all things. How could I have failed to rejoice?

But I again fell into sorrow and so desiring to see You again, I went off to embrace the spotless icon of the one who bore You and having bowed down before it, You became visible to me within my wretched heart before I could stand up, as if You had transformed it into light, and then I knew that I knowingly have You within me. Therefore from then onwards I loved You, not by recollection of You and that which surrounds You, nor for the memory of such things, but I in very truth believed that I had You, Substantial Love, within me. For You, 0 God, are love indeed.’ (Catecheses, 350-52; Discourses, 375-76)

It is striking that Symeon plays with a very visual sense of the absence or presence of the divine. In seeking to recover the presence of the divine, he addresses worship to an icon, but, notably, it is not the subject of the icon, the Theotokos, who becomes present to him. Rather, it is Christ who appears in his heart. This presents us with a distinction between sight, vision, and object and a seeming disregard for the icon itself. It is an account that underlines that Symeon was seeking to surpass the human in order to receive a vision that was impressed within his body rather than that passed through his eyes.”   (Derek Krueger, Byzantine Christianity: People’s History of Christianity, Kindle Location 1890-1910)

The Importance of Studying Scriptures

Reading, studying and meditating on the Scriptures are all a normal part of the life of any Christian.   The Scriptures do not merely teach us about God, but bring us into a relationship with the Holy Trinity.  More than inform us, they form our hearts, souls and minds so that we can love God and fulfill His commandments.

“For many Christians the commandments found in the Bible are nothing more than a list of do’s and don’ts. At their best, they tell us the minimal expectations God has for his creation. But in Jewish tradition the commandment embodied much more than this. It was a gift of God given to his people so that they could openly display their love and devotion to him. Fulfilling a commandment is like offering flowers to a new-found love; though the lover is following a social convention the deed springs from a far deeper font.” (Gary A. Anderson, The Genesis of Perfection, p 150)

We are seeking a relationship with the God who has revealed Himself through Jesus Christ our Lord.  The Scriptures bear witness to Christ.

“Because the scriptures clearly reveal the will of God and provide unfailing guidance toward salvation, according to St. Symeon, they are to be studied with utmost diligence and to be obeyed with absolute care not only by scholars, but by all Christians: We need great soberness, great zeal, much searching of the divine Scriptures. The Savior has (said), ‘Search the Scriptures’ (Jn. 5:39). Search them and hold fast to what they say with great exactitude and faith, in order that you may know God’s will clearly from the divine Scriptures and be able infallibly to distinguish good from evil (Heb. 5:14)….Nothing is so conducive for saving us as the following of the divine precepts of the Savior.[…]

His reliance on and use of scripture to critique the prevailing view and practice of the ongoing religious tradition as viewed and lived by clerics, monks, theologians, state officials, and lay people alike. To put it in another way, St. Symeon’s bold and prophetic call for radical renewal within the Church, a highly controversial position that in part led to his condemnation and lengthy exile by ecclesiastical authorities, had to do with nothing less than his view that the truth of the apostolic gospel had been swallowed up in an ocean of religious formalism unable to bear the words of a prophetic and evangelical voice.” (Theodore G. Stylianopoulos, Encouraged by the Scriptures: Essays on Scripture, Interpretation and Life, pp 38-39)