Following Christ from the Desert to the Crucifixion

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From the beginning of Great Lent this year I have been framing the Great Lenten experience as a journey.  I mentioned Israel’s departure from Egypt into the desert as a model for our own journey into Great Lent.  And today the Gospel reading reminds us that the journey of Great Lent takes us to other destinations even to Jerusalem, not the heavenly one, but the city in which Christ will be crucified.    As Mark 10:32-33 reports:

Now they were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was going before them; and they were amazed. And as they followed they were afraid. 

We might imagine many reasons why the disciples were both amazed and afraid as they follow Jesus, the text only tells of their spiritual and emotional state without giving us an explanation as to why.  They are clearly walking behind Jesus, who is leading them to Jerusalem where he tells them He is going to be killed.  But we don’t know if they follow reluctantly or are trying to slow their journey down.  We know there will be a surprising welcome for Jesus in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, and no doubt that gave the Disciples a moment to hope that maybe things would not be as a bad as they feared.

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In one of the hymns we sing from Monday of Holy Week, we are given an interpretation of this Gospel lesson in which we ourselves participate in the events.

AS THE LORD WAS GOING TO HIS VOLUNTARY PASSION, HE SAID TO THE APOSTLES ON THE WAY, BEHOLD, WE GO UP TO JERUSALEM, AND THE SON OF MAN SHALL BE DELIVERED UP, AS IT IS WRITTEN OF HIM.  COME, THEREFORE, LET US ALSO GO WITH HIM, PURIFIED IN MIND.  LET US BE CRUCIFIED WITH HIM AND DIE THROUGH HIM TO THE PLEASURES OF THIS LIFE.  THEN WE SHALL LIVE WITH HIM AND HEAR HIM SAY: I GO NO MORE TO THE EARTHLY JERUSALEM TO SUFFER, BUT TO MY FATHER AND YOUR FATHER, TO MY GOD AND YOUR GOD.  I SHALL RAISE YOU UP TO THE JERUSALEM ON HIGH IN THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN. 

Like the Twelve Disciples, we too might both be amazed and afraid when we consider that we are going to Jerusalem not to watch Christ die for us but rather so that we might die with Christ.  We are going there in the words of St Paul to have the world be crucified to us and ourselves to the world  (Galatians 6:14).  Crucifixion even if it is intended to mean spiritually crucified, still means death,  which should give us pause and cause us to cringe at the thought that to follow Christ means we must choose to die with Him.

We Christians do not come to Holy Week to be spectators watching a passion play unfold like a nicely done drama, we are here to die with Christ.   The annoying inconveniences of the Great Fast were reminding us that death involves the body and the soul.

St. Paul says in Romans 5:6-8 –

While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Why, one will hardly die for a righteous man—though perhaps for a good man one will dare even to die. But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.

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Indeed He died for us, the sinners, but not so that we could enjoy a passion play each year, but so that we too would die to sin, die to the world, die to ourselves, so that we might live with Him.

Our Lenten sojourn takes us like the Israelites out of the great Egyptian empire into the desert to encounter our God free of the distractions and temptations of civilization.   In the desert we are able to free our minds of all the cultural and nationalistic ideas about God  – the One who has unlimited power sending forth His invincible armies, or the One who destroys His enemies in the eternal fires of hell, or the One and pours out unending abundance upon His people.  In the desert where there are no comforts of civilization to prop up these ideas of God, we are freed of our false images of God so we can encounter the God of love who humbly dies on the cross for sinners.  Not only is He nailed to the cross and executed like a common criminal, He invites us to share in His death!  We are to die to the world in order to live with Christ.

The Lenten sojourn, however, doesn’t keep us in the desert but rather the desert is the way to Jerusalem, where Christ is crucified.  We don’t like this idea of a crucified, suffering Lord any better than the Twelve did.  We like them don’t want to go to that Jeruusalem in which God is crucified.  We want the triumphant Jerusalem where God reigns in power from on high, not nailed to a cross.  We prefer not to think about it.  We prefer victory, triumph, blessings and glory, but the Way who is Christ is through the Cross.  Through the Cross joy  comes into all the world.

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If we want to follow Christ, we have to listen to what the Lord Jesus actually taught, and then we will know our life will not be one of being served and pampered or of having all our needs met or of having all our prayers instantly answered, but rather our life in Christ will be one of constantly looking in love to serve others, which means we each have to practice self-denial and put others ahead of our self.  Lent tries to free our minds from the images we receive from the culture about God and to encounter the God who is revealed dying on the cross.   For example, America does give us an image of God and it usually is an image of prosperity and power as in “God bless America”, but the Gospel calls us to see the God revealed in the Scriptures.  The God who humbles Himself and dies on the cross for all sinners.

We should be able to discern that the images of God which are shaped by the culture are often distorted and serve the purpose of the culture.

Thomas Merton once commented about the monastic movement of the 4th Century which started as a reaction not against pagan culture but against imperial, prosperous Christianity.  The men and women who fled the conveniences and comforts of the Roman Empire also moved into the desert, in imitation of Israel of old, in order to find God who was not subverted by the state nor subservient to the state.

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“Society … was regarded by them as a shipwreck from which each single individual man had to swim for his life.   . . . These were men who believed that to let oneself drift along, passively accepting the tenets and values of what they knew as society, was purely and simply a disaster. The fact that the Emperor was now Christian and that the ‘world’ was coming to know the Cross as a sign of temporal power only strengthened them in their resolve.    . . .   The simple men who lived their lives out to a good old age among the rocks and sands only did so because they had come into the desert to be themselves, their ordinary selves, and to forget a world that divided them from themselves. There can be no other valid reason for seeking solitude or for leaving the world. And thus to leave, the world, is in fact, to help save it in saving oneself. This is the final point, and it is an important one. The Coptic hermits who left the world as though escaping from a wreck, did not merely intend to save themselves. They knew that they were helpless to do any good for others as long as they floundered about in the wreckage. But once they got a foothold on solid ground, things were different. Then they had not only the power but even the obligation to pull the whole world to safety after them. . . . We cannot do exactly what they did. But we must be as thorough and as ruthless in our determination to break all spiritual chains, and cast off the domination of alien compulsions, to find our true selves, to discover and develop our inalienable spiritual liberty and use it to build, on earth, the Kingdom of God.”   (Thomas Merton)

The call to leave Egypt, civilization, the greatest nation on earth, and go into the desert (Great Lent) reveals to us the nature of civilization itself.  Culture wants to shape us into its own ideal about what it is to be human or Christian, and into people who are willing to serve the needs of the culture, and to enslave themselves to it.  Nations want us to accept their nationalistic ideas of God, so that God too serves the goals of the nation.  This is why the desert fathers thought the society was a shipwreck and the only way to find their true self, the self which God intended each of us to be, was to separate themselves from all of the benefits, temptations and allurements of society.  It is only when we get a new perspective and aren’t totally immersed in or dependent on our culture that we come to understand the Gospel of Christ, not the Gospel mediated by the culture.  Republicans and Democrats both think they know best what the Gospel really means.  We as Christians need to hear Christ, not what others say about Him.   An example of this is to think about Christ’s words to “love your enemies” (Luke 6:27, 35).  Christ’s words are simple and straightforward, but our culture will do its best to explain away the most straightforward meaning so that the words are practical, doable, sensible and reasonable and made to justify and serve the values of the culture.  But the cultural understanding and explanation is not necessarily the one offered by Christ in the Gospel.

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Some years ago, I read the book A STRANGER TO MYSELF: THE INHUMANITY OF WAR, in which a young German man describes how he was shaped from what he was, a youthful German citizen into a cog of the Nazi war machine. He was brutalized in order that he would be brutal – dehumanized so that he would be inhuman for the benefit of the Third Reich.   He indeed became a stranger to himself, and not only to himself but lost all feeling for the people around him whom he no longer saw as humans.  He was willing to serve the war machine no matter what it did to himself or to others.    He did what he needed to do to survive in that state.  He became the person the state needed him to be for the state to attain its goals.   He tried to save himself by adapting to what the state demanded of him, but in this process he lost his soul and lost any shred of humanity.  His story is exactly what the monks feared was happening to themselves even as the Roman empire became Christian – the Empire told them it was OK to be Christian, but only to be Christian to the extent and in the way that the Empire approved in order that they be the kind of citizens that benefited the Empire.

Great Lent challenges us to think like the desert fathers thought as they contemplated the empire they lived in.  They had to ask themselves if they could in fact be Christian if they limited themselves to what the “Christian” Empire defined and approved?   They asked themselves whether being a Christian simply meant serving the Roman Empire, or did they have allegiance only to the Kingdom not of this world? They were in the world but not of it (John 17:11-16).   They questioned whether accepting the protection and Lordship of Caesar meant that they no longer lived under the sole protection and Lordship of God.   They had to find a way to remember the self-sacrificing love of Christ rather than see love as self-serving or a way to benefit the empire’s insatiable needs.

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These are the same questions we need to ask ourselves. We still live in the same world that the apostles and desert fathers lived in.   Many like to think about America as being a Christian nation, but does that serve the Kingdom of Heaven or does it mostly serve the goals of America?   Some might say but it’s not an either or, why can’t it be both?

And then we hear the Gospel:  “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”  (Matthew 6:24)

It is because of the Gospel that the Roman Government persecuted the Christians, the Muslims persecuted the Christians, and the communists persecuted the Christians.    All of these governments heard the Gospel as a challenge to their authority and power.  And the Christians did not work to overthrow those governments, rather they chose to live as lights to the Kingdom of God in the midst of the world.  No wonder the disciples were afraid as they followed Christ into Jerusalem.  They accepted Jesus as Lord, but were walking into a City in which Caesar and Herod both laid claim to that title, and the religious authorities were beholden to Rome and Herod for maintaining their own positions.

It is not only the state that wants us to temper the Gospel to meet the goals of the state.  Our own self-interest can demand that we make the Gospel subservient to our own personal interests.

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John and James ask of Jesus:  Teacher, we want You to do for us whatever we ask.”   Isn’t that so like us and how we pray and approach God?  God give me what I want, what I demand, what I lust for, what I think I’m entitled to.  Be my servant God, do my bidding and do it now.  We make ourselves our own Lord and Master and demand that God serve us.

We convince ourselves that discipleship, faithfulness to Christ, certainly will be rewarded in this world not just in the world to come.  Christ reminds us of the cross, that He came to serve, not be served, and we are supposed to imitate Him.

And when we realize that Jesus tells us that to follow Him means to love one another, to deny the self, to die for Christ, then we might decide like Peter that we want to follow Christ but only at a safe distance: Then they seized Jesus and led him away, bringing him into the high priest’s house. Peter followed at a distance …  (Luke 22:54)

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Or we might decide that we really want to live for Christ, with Christ and in Christ.  And that will help put all other values and blessings in perspective, and we will live by and for the eternal Kingdom of God.

Spiritual Training: Overcome Evil

God cares for man’s freedom as the most precious principle that he possesses, and so in humility draws the soul to His love. But on the path to this love man comes up against the violator, the devil. The Lord allows that it should be so. God trains man’s soul, not by removing evil from his path by giving him the strength necessary to overcome all evil.

(St. Silouan the Athonite, p. 220)

To Know God, Be Self-Aware

“Authentic asceticism used practices that deepened self-awareness. The desert ascetic understood that growth in self-awareness was a necessary and valued component of the spiritual journey. Self-awareness was pursued through ascetical practices in order to become more deeply united with God and closer to heaven.

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As the ammas [the desert mothers] taught, inner hesitancy and resistance to meet God in honesty, silence, and solitude are related to our resistance to come to know ourselves in our frailties. An honest encounter with God challenges our capacity for intimacy. We may come to discover that we fear our passion for God. We may want to run from our sense of emptiness. Self-awareness calls us to face our hurt and anger. Above all else, self-awareness reveals our idols – those self-serving, false images of God that deny who God actually is.

…Apatheia is purity of heart. The ammas teach us to intentionally let go of all that keeps us from the single-minded pursuit of God: feelings and thoughts that bind us, cravings and additions that diminish our sense of worth, and attachments to self-imposed perfectionism.”

(Laura Swan, The Forgotten Desert Mothers, p. 24 & 26)

The Cross as the Power of the Church

In the Orthodox Church, one way we show honor to our Lord Jesus Christ, is through veneration of His Cross.  On September 14, we keep the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross, displaying a decorated cross for all to see and venerate.  We humble ourselves before the Lord by bowing before His cross.  For the Cross is a sign of God’s own presence in our midst and grace toward the world.

The Cross is a sign to us just like in the Old Testament when God gave the rainbow as a sign of God’s peace with humanity, that God will never again destroy the earth, but instead makes covenant with us.  The Cross is a similar sign to us of God’s peace and protection.

The Old Testament has many other signs  – the Ark of the covenant, the Temple in Jerusalem, the Torah, Aaron staff, the tablets of stone with the 10 commandments – which remind everyone of God’s presence, promise, activity,  and covenant.  These signs were all treated with reverence by God’s people.   King David danced before the ark when it was brought back into Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6:14) because it was a sign of God’s presence and favor.   In Revelation 11:19, we get an idea of the significance of the Ark as a sign:

Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple; and there were flashes of lightning, voices, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail.

For Christians, the Cross is the sign of God’s Power :

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.   (1 Corinthians 1:18)

The Cross is the sign of God’s love:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.   (John 3:16-17)

The Cross is the sign of God’s plan for the salvation of the human race, the restoration of our relationship with God.  The Cross is the sign of God’s grace and presence.

In the Church we sing the words of the Psalm:

“Extol the Lord our God and worship at his footstool for it is holy.”  (Psalm 99:5)

We recognize that where Jesus’ feet were nailed on the Cross, this becomes Christ’s footstool, the place where his feet rested, and thus the cross is holy.   On the Cross God’s love for His world reigns and thus the Cross is God’s throne.   In the book of Revelation (5:6-14) we encounter these words describing the worship of God at His Throne:

And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders, I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain … he went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne. And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and with golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints; and they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy art you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain and by your blood you ransomed men for God from every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and hast made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on earth.”

Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all therein, saying, “To him who sits upon the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might for ever and ever!” And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” and the elders fell down and worshiped.

We recognize that God set up His Throne on earth, on the Cross, and so we give honor to it for it brings us close to God.  We sing at the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross:

Rejoice, O life-bearing Cross!

The invincible weapon of godliness;

The gate of paradise, the protection of the faithful!

The Cross is the might of the church.

Through it corruption is abolished.

Through it the power of death is crushed

And we are raised from earth to heaven!

The invincible weapon of peace!

The Cross is the enemy of demons,

The glory of the martyrs,

The haven of salvation

Which grants the world great mercy!

But we do not just honor the Cross of our salvation, for the Cross is also a way of life for us Christians.  Jesus asks,

For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?     (Mark 8:36)

We spend a great deal of time, energy and money pursuing our dreams.  For example, college education is expensive, yet we are willing to pay the high price for ourselves or our adult children.  We are willing to sacrifice many things to get that education in the hope that it will benefit ourselves or our children in the long run.  We pursue careers and cars and the home of our dreams, investing all we have to achieve these goals.  But, Christ asks us, even if you gain the whole world, and in so doing lose your soul, what good are these things you have gained?  For they all belong to the fleeting world, which is passing away.  Jesus also taught:

 “Where your treasure is there your heart will be also” (Matt 6:21).  

Treasures are those things  – including convictions and values – which are so dear to us that we are willing to forfeit everything to get them.   Do we value the Kingdom of Heaven so much that we are willing to forfeit everything on earth to attain it?

For some, the things they hold so dear that are willing to forsake and forfeit everything else are fleeting pleasures, not treasures.   They pursue with all their heart, mind and strength things of this world, which are so temporary.  We see it all the time in the scandal mongering news – politicians, sports champions and entertainers who shamefully throw away family and friends to pursue sex, drugs and other pleasures.   They end up destroying that which is human in themselves and others.

For what is truly & uniquely human is the ability to commune with God, the ability to see God, to experience, to possess and share God’s almighty love and being.

We who hope in heaven should not exchange our home and life there for the pleasures of this world which can never satisfy, and so quickly disappear.  We ought not give up our life in God for a moment’s pleasure, for those moments pass away, and we are left with nothing.  Only our life in God is forever.

The world tells us to focus on our self and our self-interest.   Christianity says our self-interest is found in:

Self-respect

Self-denial

Self-control

Self-restraint

Self-discipline

Jesus said: If any want to be my followers, deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me. (Mark 8:34)

The Sign of the Cross of Our Lord

“. . . as a crown, so let us bear about the cross of Christ. Yea, for by it all things are wrought, that are wrought among us. Whether one is to be new-born, the cross is there; or to be nourished with that mystical food, or to be ordained, or to do anything else, everywhere our symbol of victory is present. Therefore both on house, and walls, and windows, and upon our forehead, and upon our mind, we inscribe it with much care.

For of the salvation wrought for us, and of our common freedom, and of the goodness of our Lord, this is the sign. For as a sheep was He led to the slaughter (Isaiah 53:7). When therefore you sign yourself, think of the purpose of the cross, and quench anger, and all the other passions. When you sign yourself, fill your forehead with all courage, make your soul free.

…This therefore do thou engrave upon your mind, and embrace the salvation of our souls. For this cross saved and converted the world, drove away error, brought back truth, made earth Heaven, fashioned men into angels. Because of this, the devils are no longer terrible, but contemptible; neither is death, death, but a sleep; because of this, all that wars against us is cast to the ground, and trodden under foot.

(St. John Chrysostom, Let Us Attend, p. 54 & 55)

St. Paul’s Understanding of Faith

“I want to suggest that for Paul there is one soteriological model: justification is by crucifixion, specifically co-crucifixion, understood as participation in Christ’s act of covenant fulfillment….

A close reading of Galatians 2:15-21 and Romans 6:1-7:6, is connection with other passages in Paul (especially Rom 5:1-11; 2 Cor 5:14-21; and, once again, Phil 2:6-11), reveals that the apostle understands faith as co-crucifixion with the Messiah Jesus, or “justification by co-crucifixion,” and therefore as inherently participatory.” (Michael J. Gorman, Inhabiting the Cruciform God, p. 43-44).

Clinging to the World or to the Wood?

Our Lord Jesus Christ chose His disciples not from the wise, not from the noble, not from the rich or the famous, but from among fishermen and tentmakers and poor and illiterate men. This was to make clear to all that neither poverty, nor lack of learning, nor lowly origins, nor anything else of that sort is an impediment to acquiring virtue and understanding the divine sayings and mysteries of the Spirit. But even the poorest and lowliest and least educated person, if he gives proof of eagerness and an appropriate inclination towards what is good, can not only come to know the divine teaching but also become a teacher himself through God’s grace.

And the things that hinder us from understanding and grasping the meaning of spiritual teachings are our own indifference and the fact that we cling with all our might to the fleeting concerns of this life. As a result, we do not allow space or time for listening and studying and recalling to mind what we have heard, nor do we care about the things which are to come and things eternal.

(St. Gregory Palamas, The Homilies, “Homily 47,” p. 366)

Suffering as Cross Bearing

On the 3rd Sunday of Great Lent we read the Gospel lesson of Mark 8:34-9:1, which includes these words:

When He had called the people to Himself, with His disciples also, He said to them, “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?

What does it mean to take up one’s cross to follow Christ?

“.. [St.] Paul sees faith as a sharing in the death of Jesus that is so real, so vivid, that it can be described as being crucified with Christ, or co-crucified (Rom. 6:6; Gal. 2:19). This was the reality that grasped Bonhoeffer, too: ‘When Christ bids a man, he bids him come and die.’” (Michael J. Gorman, Reading Paul, p 124)

St. Basil the Great writes:

“The whole life of the just man is filled with affliction. … ‘Many are the afflictions of the just.’ For this reason the Apostle said: ‘In all things we suffer tribulations’; and ‘That through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.’ But, God delivers His saints from their afflictions. Though He does not leave them without trial, yet He bestows on them patient endurance. For, if ‘tribulation works out endurance, and endurance tried virtue’, he who excludes tribulation from  himself deprives himself of his tried virtue. As no one is crowned without and adversary, so also he cannot be declared tried except through tribulations. Therefore, ‘he delivered me from all my troubles,’ not permitting me to be afflicted, but with the temptation giving me a way out that I might be able to bear it.” (St. Basil, Exegetic Homilies, p 254)

Bearing One’s Cross to Follow Christ

“The third Sunday of Great Lent is dedicated to the veneration of the life-giving Cross […] According to the ancient tradition of Constantinople, this was the Sunday at which catechumens preparing to be baptized on that Easter would be enrolled, accompanied by their sponsors. The Byzantine tradition has to this day preserved the practice of praying for ‘those preparing for illumination’ at a special litany added to the Presanctified Liturgy, following the litany for the catechumens, beginning in the week following the Sunday of the Cross.”    (Archimandrite Job Getcha, The Typikon Decoded, p 191)

On the 3rd Sunday 0f Great Lent we read as our Gospel lesson Mark 8:34-9:1.

When He had called the people to Himself, with His disciples also, He said to them, “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him the Son of Man also will be ashamed when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels. And He said to them, “Assuredly, I say to you that there are some standing here who will not taste death till they see the kingdom of God present with power.”

Clement of Alexandria (d. ca 215AD) tells us to be a Christian is not only to take up the cross but also:

“For to truly follow the Savior is this: To aim at sinlessness and His perfection, to adorn and compose the soul before the mirror of Christ’s perfection, and to arrange everything in our lives to reflect that image.”      (Clement of Alexandria, The One Who Knows God, p 30)

Humans as Relational and Communal Beings (III)

This is the 24th blog in this series which began with the blog Being and Becoming Human. The previous blog is Humans as Relational and Communal Beings (II).  As previously mentioned these quotes were not gathered as research to answer one question or to take one point of view.  These quotes are brought together because when I read them over the past couple decades they informed my understanding of what it is to be human.  The meaning of being human is a complex and many layered topic, rich in depth because it extends from the dirt of the earth into the eternal life of the Holy Trinity.

“I am a man – and the grace, the truth and the righteousness of God are continually working within me.  . . .  But the earth is full of men like me. Therefore, in them also God manifest His mercy, truth and righteousness, as in myself.”  (St. John of Kronstadt, MY LIFE IN CHRIST Part 1, p 35)

Orthodoxy continues to affirm that all humans share a common nature, a common history and even a common end when all will find themselves in the presence of our  Creator.  This truth is supposed to help us love one another, to feel empathy and compassion for our fellow human beings.  It is supposed to help us understand all our fellow humans on the planet are loved by God and are offered eternal life by our Savior – even those who openly deny God or refuse His love.

“’Person’ implies divine-human communion and human brotherhood in the Spirit.  Man is to be defined also by his relationship with his neighbor.  The fall, sin, atomizes, separates, splits, divides: the redemption and the act of the Spirit personify, unify and only thus regenerate.  … Man is what he is when he shares in the ecclesial communion, because there he becomes more than the sinful man he was before.   Therefore one should never forget his life as a member of the Church, as a charismatic being in the Spirit.”  (A.J. Philippou, THE ORTHODOX ETHOS, pp 57-58)

God’s love for all is not diminished by the fact that some reject God’s love and continue to pursue a life even in opposition to God’s love.  In the Church, we experience God’s regenerative love and our opportunity to become fully human through love, forgiveness and repentance.  Even we who are members of the Body of Christ wrestle with how to live as witnessed to God’s love, specifically because we continue to reside in the world of the Fall.

“God did not create man for hatred and self-love, and the consciousness of the sharp separateness from each other, which exists in each of us, is an abnormal consciousness, born of sin.  People free themselves from it according to the measure that they free themselves from self-love, and then the self-loving, self-assertive ‘I’ pales in their consciousness, and is replaced by another, being filled with love and compassion – the consciousness of ‘we’.  . . .  Nevertheless, for all our human separateness, we cannot but notice in ourselves the manifestations of the collective common human will; a will which is not of me, but in me, which I renounce only partially, and even then only with difficulty and struggle.  This will is given to me from without and yet, at the same time, it is mine.  This is, above all, what the common human nature is.  In this we must place, first of all, our conscience, which was given to us, and which almost no one can resist completely; then, our direct involvement and compassion with our neighbors, our parental and filial affections, and much else.  Among these attributes are also found evil ones, desires seemingly imposed upon us from without:  self-love, vindictiveness, lusts, and so on.  This is a manifestation of our fallen nature, against which it is possible and necessary to struggle.  And so the nature of all people is one: it is an impersonal but powerful will which every human person is compelled to take it into account, no matter in what direction the personal free will is turned; toward good or toward evil.”  (Antony KhrapovitskyTHE MORAL IDEA OF THE MAIN DOGMAS OF THE FAITH, pp 169-170)

Our struggle is a spiritual struggle which is waged in our hearts and souls and minds.  Thus our technological advances cannot resolve all of the issues and problems confronting humanity.  We need to engage in the spiritual life.

“Everyone now realizes that human beings need not only bread but friendship and beauty, not only abundance but restraint, not only the power of machines but a renewed respect for God’s creation, not only education of the mind but a greater capacity for celebration.   The rampant technological revolution will be mastered only if we can incorporate in it the non-technical values and dimensions of humanity.  . . .  So Christian witness today must be directed towards the divine-humanism that urban society needs.  A religion that set God against humanity and failed to recognize that ‘royal’ character of creativity (since it comes from the Holy Spirit) fell victim to the purifying zeal of the great reductionists and the huge advances in our understanding of human nature.”   (Olivier Clement, ON HUMAN BEING,  p 106)

However, the challenges facing Christians is not just to learn how to navigate in a technological world which relies on human ingenuity to “save” humankind.  We are confronted by philosophies opposed to Christianity.   The Gospel is discredited by some human philosophies which not only deny that humans have a spiritual component, but actively oppose spirituality of any kind claiming that nothing exists beyond the material universe.

“Curiously, Richard Dawkins strongly emphasizes that the practice of bringing up children to have religious beliefs is iniquitous and best labeled ‘indoctrination.’ Characteristic is this lament: ‘I think we should all wince when we hear a small child being labeled as belonging to some particular religion or another. Small children are too young to decide their views on the origins of the cosmos, of life and of morals. The very sound of the phrase “Christian child” or “Muslim child” should grate like fingernails on a blackboard.’  Dawkins appears to combine an excessively intellectualized conception of religious faith with a distinctly underdeveloped sense of the social nature of religious knowledge, identity, and practice. In any case, it is hardly unreasonable for adults to seek to form children in patterns of thinking and living that they believe to be good—as Dawkins himself has no doubt done.”    (R. W. L. Moberly , Old Testament Theology: Reading the Hebrew Bible as Christian Scripture , Kindle Loc. 845-53)

Humans are social creatures, designed to live in relationship with one another and with God.  When we declare that humanity is the highest power in the universe, we also justify our choices, whatever they may be, including our modern tendency for extreme individualism, alienation and separation.  If there is no God, everything becomes permissible.    Each human sees his/her self as the power he/she must worship and serve.  This egotistical thinking leads to human sin because one concludes one has no obligation to care about any others.   Contrary to this thinking, Christianity teaches love for one another, the ability to seek out something more and greater than the self, and to create a social network on earth based not on narcissism and self-love, but based in God, who is love, who teaches us to love others.  We deny our self-centeredness; we deny sin in order to become fully human loving our fellow human beings and loving our Creator as well.   The Lord Jesus taught: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34).

“Put simply, the day we die to sin is the day we rejoin the human race.  Then, I no longer care if I die for the people; on the contrary, I am vowed to their fate, and so their life and death is my life and death.  It might be added that this is the meaning of becoming an adult: thus it is also pointing to the child who must die if that adult is ever to live.  The preoccupation with our childhood difficulties causes us to think adult life should be the fixing of these, to permit our individual flowering.  This causes us to forget our vow to the people.  An adult, especially spiritually, is someone upon whom others can rely.”  (Stephen Muse, RAISING LAZARUS, p 183)

Ultimately this perfect love we exhibit toward one another does not result in the disappearance of our self.  Denying self-love and embracing love for others makes us more fully human, a value that last in God in eternity.

“But what is it to be human?  What is the business of life?  Our primary business in life is not business, or construction work, or sales, or teaching, or even motherhood, but becoming a complete human being. . . . individuals are infinitely more important than civilizations because they are immortal.  When all civilizations are dead, when even the stars blink our billions of years from now, every one of us will still exist, in eternal joy or eternal misery.  And that is the only issue that matters infinitely: Quo vadis?”  (Peter Kreeft, BACK TO VIRTUE, pp 15-16)

Next: The Human: A Being with Conscience