Our Salvation Depends on The Theotokos

September 8 for Orthodox is the Feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos – the birthday of the mother of Jesus.

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“Rational man suffered even more, awaiting his liberation. For this reason, mankind offers the highest gift to Christ Who becomes man: His Virgin Mother.

In fact, we men had nothing more honorable to offer God. The Panaghia(‘Pan Aghia’: ‘All Holy Mother of God’) had already offered herself entirely to God, and as a most pure vessel was ready to receive in her womb her Son and her God and so, at her Annunciation, when Archangel Gabriel told her that she would become the Mother of Christ, she could answer with confidence in God: ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord. Be it unto me according to thy word’ [Luke 1:38].

Moreover, we could not have offered the Virgin Mary to God if she had not offered herself to God. This free offering of the Virgin made the incarnation of God possible, for God would not violate our freedom by becoming incarnate without our own consent. The Virgin was able to stand before God as our representative, and to say ‘Yes’ to God. Her deed is a deed of unique responsibility, of love, and of freedom. She gave God what He Himself did not have – human nature – in order that God might give man what he did not have – deification (theosis). Thus the Incarnation of Christ is not only God’s free act of offering to man, it is also a free offering from man to God through the Virgin.

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This mutual freedom is the prerequisite for love. God offers freely without any necessity, and the Virgin accepts the gift freely without compulsion. The Virgin could not co-operate with God if she had established her own egoistic satisfaction at the content of her freedom – rather than her offering to God and man. Moreover, the Virgin is always rightly blessed by all generations of Christians, and especially during these holy days, as the: ‘cause of the deification of all.’ At the same time, she points out the way of true freedom.” (George Capsanis, The Eros of Repentance, pp. 68-70)

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The Key to Evangelism: Repentance

“Today we call this cooperation with God in our lives in order to transform them synergia. The same teachings, practices, and sacraments that made new people out of pagan in the second century exist in the Church today, and they can accomplish the same thing. But for us to call others to this way, we have to be living transformed lives ourselves, or today’s pagans will not give us the time of day. As the author of the Second Epistle to Clement wrote: ‘For when the heathen hear from our mouth the oracles of God they wonder at their beauty and greatness; then discovering that our deeds are not worthy of the words we utter, they turn from their wonder to blasphemy, saying that it is all a myth and delusion.’ If we are going to evangelize successfully, we must stop making excuses for our own sins.” (Micheal Keiser, Spread the Word, p 680

 

The Church and The Will of God

 

Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. So we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.   Working together with him, then, we entreat you not to accept the grace of God in vain.  (2 Corinthians 5:17-6:1)

We are to work together with God for our salvation.  In the days of Noah, God told Noah to build an ark for the salvation of the world.  God didn’t build it for Noah.   Noah had to co-operate with God and do his own share of the work.  This  is an image of life in the Church.  God commands us to go into all the world, but God doesn’t do that work for us.  We have to do what God commanded us to do.  But we also must always realize our place in the plan of salvation – we are essential to the plan and the plan is for us, yet we have to discern the plan and carry it out.  We are not God.  We are to work with God – synergy.  Our plans as church are not merely human, for God shows us the way and then lets us choose to follow Him. Salvation is not merely humans making the best human choices possible, for it always involves the full being of God.

“The Church is and must remain ‘of God’ and not ‘of man.’ That is, humans were not placed in stewardship of the Church in order to invoke their will for where they see the Church going but rather to guide the Church into the will of God.[…] The conception of the Church as an institution represents the hijacking of the Church by humans for their own end. Bishop Meletios notes, ‘The beginning and end of every act of God is the salvation of the world. We must place the weight of our attention on this, not in the work of institutions.’ The hope of humanity cannot be placed in the Church but only in God. If the Church is only an institution that acts like any other institution and can be evaluated like any other institutions, then it will fail.” (Stephen R. Lloyd-Moffett, Beauty for Ashes, pp 147, 149)

Called by God to Choose to Obey

“We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.”  (Romans 8:28)

St. John Chrysostom presents an interesting picture of the relationship between God’s will and our free will.

“God does not compel, but allows people to be masters of their own choices even after the call.” (Margaret M. Mitchell, The Heavenly Trumpet, p 213)

God calls us to follow Him and to obey Him, but even when the omnipotent God calls us, God allows us to choose how to respond.  There is a true synergy between God and any human – we have to cooperate with God for our salvation.

“… work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:12-13)

Striving for the Kingdom

“At the same time, Paul is aware that he is not yet perfect, that he must continue to hasten toward the prize of the upward call of God (Philippians 3:14). Paul does not say that his growth in perfection requires his suffering. He says rather that his growth in perfection requires his striving. And he says that as one who strives he is one who has the righteousness of God and shares Christ’s sufferings. It is as a person ‘in’ Christ, righteous with God’s righteousness, suffering with Christ’s suffering, that he strives. This whole human package – the righteous sufferer – is who strives for the upward call of God.  Paul says that his perfection will be achieved by this striving of one who has been seized by Christ (3:12). Subsequent to this seizure, suffering is part of his makeup. Suffering is not an instrument of sanctification, except insofar as it is part of the condition of the whole ‘in’ Christ person. Paul directs his converts to strive in a similar way: ‘work out your own salvation with fear and quivering; for God is the one who energizes you both to will and to work for God’s good purpose.’ (2:12-13)” (L.Ann Jervis, At the Heart of the Gospel, p 52)

Confession: Christ in Us

Thoughts on the Sacrament of Confession

Bishop Kallistos (Ware) writes:

Prodigal Son

“Once we regard Confession as fundamentally Christ’s action rather than our own, then we shall begin to understand the sacrament of repentance in a far more positive way.  It is an experience of God’s healing love and pardon, not merely of our own disintegration and weakness.  We are to see, not just the prodigal son, plodding slowly and painfully upon the long road home, but also the father, catching sight of him when he is still a long way off and running out to meet him (Luke 15:20).  As Tito Colliander puts is, “If we take one step toward the Lord, He takes ten toward us.”  That is precisely what we experience in Confession.  In common with all sacraments, Confession involves, a joint divine-human action, in which there is found convergence and “cooperation” (synergia) between God’s grace and our free will.  Both are necessary; but what God does is incomparably more important.

 Repentance and confession, then, are not just something that we do by ourselves or with the help of the priest, but above all something that God is doing with and in both of us.  In the words of St John Chrysostom, “Let us apply to ourselves the saving remedy (pharmakon) of repentance; let us accept from God the repentance that heals us.  For it is not we who offer it to Him, but He who bestows it upon us.”  It should be remembered that in Greek the same word exomologesis means both confession of sins and thanksgiving for gifts received.”    (The Inner Kingdom: Volume 1 of the Collected Works, pg 51)

Archimandrite Hierotheos Vlachos writes:

St. Andrew of Crete

“If we learn to open ourselves to God, we avoid many problems which are the result of inner desolation. Confession—being a part of repentance—is abolishing the monologue with ourselves and opening up a dialogue with the living God.”  ( The Illness and Cure of the Soul in the Orthodox Tradition, pg 142)

Orthodoxy in the World: Teachings (D)

This is the 12th blog in this introductory series to the Orthodox Faith.  The First blog is Orthodoxy in the World & Light to the World.   This blog continues the section on basic teachings of Orthodoxy, the previous blog is Orthodoxy in the World:  Teachings (C).

Christ Enthroned

In Orthodoxy, Jesus Christ is not merely a model of or teacher of morality.  If the Torah had been enough to heal the separation of God and humanity which is so evident throughout the Old Testament, then there would have been no need of an incarnate messiah.   If repentance was all that was needed to reunite humans to God, then prophets and angels could have called humanity to that.   But Orthodoxy believes that what was ailing humanity – separation from God resulting from death – needed to be healed.   And it is in the God incarnate, in Jesus Christ, that divinity is reunited to humanity and is not separated from humankind even in death.    Because of Christ’s incarnation, death and resurrection, no aspect of being human is now separated from God.     The Orthodox believe that only if and because Jesus is fully God incarnate and also fully human is there an end to the fracturing of the world caused by sin.  Only in Christ is the human will once again in union with God’s will, only in Christ is the soul and body permanently united despite death, only in Christ are humans reconciled to God, only in Christ are males and females reunited, only in Christ does humanity regain its proper role as microcosm and mediator, only in Christ is all of creation restored to God.  For all of these reasons we can understand why in the earlier centuries of the Christian movement they felt it so essential to have a correct understanding of who Jesus is.   All Christian understanding of the scriptures, of God, of humanity, of creation is founded in the question, “Who is Jesus Christ?”, at least according to Orthodoxy.

            For Eastern Orthodox Christians the Good News of the Gospel is that God so loves the world that He chooses to become flesh in the person of Jesus Christ.  God unites himself to all that is human, undergoing even death itself, in order to reunite all of humanity with divinity.     Despite the willful rebellion of humans who wanted to overthrow the lordship of God, God enters into the human condition and suffers death in order to save humanity from the consequences of their own sin.   Just as God saved the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, so now God has saved all of humanity from slavery to sin and death.  God has brought us not just from Egypt to the Promised Land, but from death to life and from earth to heaven.   Christ in Orthodoxy is the victor, not the victim.  Christ is the liberator who saves us from death, giving us eternal life through uniting us to divinity.   He has offered this salvation to every human who has or will exist.

            And Orthodoxy fully recognizes human free will and the necessity for humans to cooperate with God for their own salvation.   Humans must want this union with God.   Mary, the mother of Jesus is called the Theotokos, the one who bears God in her womb.   She is the ultimate sign of human cooperation with the will of God – a supreme act of love which results in human and divine union.

Next:  Orthodoxy in the World:  Key Practices (A)

Scriptures and Tradition

This blog continues the series dealing with the Bible and scriptural issues.  It began with the 1st blog:  Reading the Bible Means Opening a Treasury.  The immediately preceding blog is Further Reflections on Reading Scripture.
The Holy Land 1000 BC

God’s revelation to humankind may be recorded in the Bible but it played out in history.  The Bible is a written record of that revelation as God’s self-revelation occurred over the centuries of human existence.  The Bible itself has a history since it belongs not to just to the created order, but  also is a product of human work – men and women inspired by God wrote the text, edited it and preserved it through time.  The Bible did not fall from heaven in its current state, but was written and developed and adopted over many centuries.   The Holy Scriptures thus have a human history which can itself be studied.  The text of the Scriptures have a context in which they appeared, were preserved and interpreted.  The were written by a particular group of people chosen by God for the task, and these inspired authors were part of a chosen people who were inspired to read, interpret and live by the teachings contained in and derived from the Bible.  Thus the Bible is part of a particular Tradition, and belongs to that Tradition and to the people whom God chose to live that Tradition – to be shaped by it and to shape it.

“Scripture cannot, in fact, stand alone as a source of authority, for it is always the Scripture of a particular community and always needs interpretation—the inspiration of Scripture cannot be separated from the inspired use of Scripture within the Church.”  (John Behr in ABBA: THE TRADITION OF ORTHODOXY IN THE WEST, p 163)

 “Scripture exists within Tradition, and by the same token Tradition is nothing else than the way in which Scripture has been understood and lived by the Church in every generation.”  (Bishop Kallistos Ware, THE INNER KINGDOM, p 10)

 “The Scriptures are not more profound, nor more important than Holy Tradition but… they are one of its forms—the most precious form, both because they are preserved and convenient to make use of.  But removed from the stream of Sacred Tradition, the Scriptures cannot be rightly understood through any scientific research. …  Men are wrong when they set aside Sacred Tradition and go, as they think, to its source – to the Holy Scriptures.  The Church has her origins, not in the Scriptures but in Sacred Tradition.  The Church did not possess the New Testament during the first decades of her history.  She lived them by Tradition only—the Tradition St. Paul calls upon the faithful to hold.   It is a well-known fact that all heresiarchs have always based themselves on the Holy Scriptures, only their interpretation differing.”  (ST. SILOUAN THE ATHONITE, p 88)

The Scriptures separated from their particular Tradition – the text removed from its context – will inevitably create a new tradition.  This new tradition, separated from its historical context will be limited by the historical conditions and logic of the people who created the new tradition.  It will in fact be more human than divine in its inspiration.

Ss Peter & Paul, Leaders of the Apostles

So Tradition is the context in which the text of the Scriptures occurred and received their meaning.  Tradition and the Scriptures were simultaneously created by a living and organic interaction between the chosen people of God with God’s historical self-revelation as it was unfolding,  and then further interaction occurs as it is recorded as the authors and editors of the scripture make sense of what was experienced (things they may not have personally witnessed or experienced but have only heard about). And then again the people of God interact with those written Scriptures as they meditate on them, interpret them, and become shaped by them – this is the unfolding of God’s Revelation and of Tradition.   Tradition is thus living, an open rather than closed canon.  It is God’s people inspired by the Holy Spirit’s interaction with God’s unfolding revelation, and includes the interpretation and meaning which are derived from this revelation and interaction with it.  God’s people inspired by God and co-working with God become co-creators with God of Tradition.   Tradition is thus not only about the past, about rules carved in stone, or about how ancient peoples experienced God and the written Scriptures which they had to guide them.  Tradition is ongoing and is also our being inspired by the Holy Spirit to understand the past and the Scriptures which carried that received tradition into the present.  We in turn are both shaped by and shape that Tradition as we hand it on to the next generation of believers.   I have used this metaphor in previous blogs:  on the ship of salvation (= the Church), Tradition is not the anchor which holds us to the past, it is the sail which catches the refreshing movement of the Holy Spirit and propels us to the eschaton.

As David Horrell mentions, to interpret the Scriptures is to use them to think with.   This is the living interplay and interaction which makes God as self-revealed, Tradition, God’s people and the Scriptures all have an organic unity with one another.  They are an inseparable organic and historic unity.   “… only a community already formed by the story of the Kingdom of God can begin to read scripture rightly.”  (quoted in SOLIDARITY AND DIFFERENCE: A CONTEMPORARY READING OF PAUL’S ETHICS by David Horrell, pp 4, 75)

Next:  The Canon of Scriptures

The Feast of the Annunciation (2010)

 

The Annunciation

To My Fellow Christians,

A blessed Feast Day!

Take time to rejoice in the salvation which God has brought about for the life of the world.

“It is often said that the divine plan of salvation depended on Mary’s free assent to the word of the angel.  The work of salvation is a work of God, but it could not be carried out without the cooperation of human beings.  After Mary heard the word of the angels she said, ‘Let it be to me according to your word.’  This fiat, this ‘let it be done,’ made possible the Incarnation of the eternal Son in the womb of the Virgin.  (St.) Maximus proposes that there is another fiat in the gospels, another ‘let it be done,’ the agony of the man Christ, in which Christ, by accepting his suffering and death, wills the salvation of mankind.  Just as the plan of salvation required Mary’s ‘yes,’ so it also needed Christ’s ‘yes,’ for it was only through Christ’s passion and death that the world’s salvation could be accomplished.” (Robert Louis Wilken, THE SPIRIT OF EARLY CHRISTIAN THOUGHT: SEEKING THE FACE OF GOD, p 131)

Isaiah’s Parable

The Lenten reading for the 2nd Monday of Great Lent from the Prophecy of Isaiah 5:1-7:

 Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.   He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.  And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it?  When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?  

I find Isaiah’s parable of the vineyard to be for me, deep in my heart, a most troubling and unnerving story.

 For God is asking us to answer the very question so many of us ask Him, WHY?  

Why does Israel yield wild grapes instead of good ones? 

Why are there such problems in the Church?

Why does evil so often seem to prevail?

Why, asks God, after all that I did, did you fail to bear fruit?

Doesn’t HE know?  Does He really think we should know?

Why doesn’t God do something about what’s wrong with the church – with hypocritical Christians and failed leaders and those who are aggressively ambitious and those who are in the church but are just plain evil?

And God is troubled about the same things we are and He asks us to explain why, to give account for ourselves and our church.

He is not at all pleased and demands an accounting of us.  We are equally displeased and wonder why doesn’t He correct the problems and deal with the malefactors?

Synergy versus stalemate.  God is not going to do for us what we need to do for ourselves.  As the Lord tells Moses when Moses believing he is following God’s will leads the people out of Egypt into the entrapment between Pharoah’s army and the Sea of Reeds:  “Why do you cry out to me? YOU tell the Israelites to go forward”  (Exodus 14:15).   God has high expectations for His people. 

Isaiah continues:

And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down.  I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it. For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!

Oh Lord, remember how to be merciful to us, as you headed the plea of the murderer Cain  who complained his punishment was too harsh and you put your mark on him to protect him.  Lord, save us from your wrath and from ourselves.  God asks us why we, the vine which He planted and so meticulously cultivated, have failed Him?   It is Lent, this has to break our hearts.  We cannot answer, but we can weep for the state of affairs we are in.

“O Lord GOD, forgive, I beg you! How can Jacob stand? He is so small!”

The LORD relented concerning this; “It shall not be,” said the LORD.

This is what the Lord GOD showed me: the Lord GOD was calling for a shower of fire, and it devoured the great deep and was eating up the land.  Then I said,

“O Lord GOD, cease, I beg you! How can Jacob stand? He is so small!”

 The LORD relented concerning this; “This also shall not be,” said the Lord GOD.

 (Amos 7:2-6)