A Christian Understanding of Death

Only through and in the human person will the whole world come into a relationship with God.

The fall of humanity alienated the whole creation from God. It destroyed the cosmic harmony. Through the Fall, humanity became subject to the course of nature. This ought not to have happened. In the life of animals death is an expression of the power of procreation rather than of frailty. Through the fall of humanity, death also receives in nature an evil and tragic meaning. To the animal’s death means only the end of individual existence. Among humans death strikes at the personality; and personality is something more than mere individuality. The body is dissolved and subject to death because of sin. But the whole human person dies. The human person is composed of body and soul; therefore, the separation of body and soul means that the human person ceases to exist as a human person. The image of God fades. Death reveals that the human person, this creature made by God, is not only a body…The fear of death is only averted through the hope of resurrection and eternal life.

Death does not only mean that sin is revealed; it is also an anticipation of resurrection. God does not only punish fallen human nature by death, but also purifies and heals it.

The death on the Cross was not efficacious because it was the death of an innocent man, but because it was the death of the incarnated Lord. It was not a human being who died on the cross but God. But God died in His own humanity. He was Himself the resurrection and the life.  (Georges Florovsky, On the Tree of the Cross, pp. 145-146, 148-149)

Fasting Before Christmas

“’When a man begins to fast, he straightaway yearns in his mind to enter into converse with God.’  (St. Isaac the Syrian, Homilies 37, in Ascetical Homilies, p 171)

‘Fasting was the commandment that was given to our nature in the beginning to protect it with respect to the tasting of food, and in this point the progenitor of our substance fell. There, however, where the first defeat was suffered, the ascetic strugglers make their beginning in the fear of God as they start to keep his laws. And the Savior also, when he manifested himself to the world in the Jordan, began at this point. For after his baptism the Spirit led him into the wilderness and he fasted for forty days and forty nights. Likewise all who set to follow in his footsteps make the beginning of their struggle upon this foundation. For this is a weapon forged by God, and who shall escape blame if he neglects it? And if the Lawgiver himself fasts, who among those who keep the law has no need of fasting?’ (St. Isaac the Syrian, Homilies 37, in Ascetical Homilies, p 172)

Christ tempted by Satan after fasting 40 days in the wilderness
Christ tempted by Satan after fasting 40 days in the wilderness

‘What weapon is more powerful and gives more boldness to the heart in the time of battle against the spirits of wickedness, than hunger endured for Christ’s sake?…He who has armed himself with the weapon of fasting is afire with zeal at all time.’ (St. Isaach the Syrian, Homilies 37, in Ascetical Homilies, p 172)”

(Matthew the Poor, Orthodox Prayer Life, p 231)

 

God Became Human So that Creation Would Serve Humanity

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.   (Romans 8:19-23)

The Nativity of Christ, sometimes in popular thinking gets reduced to warm fuzzies about a manger and a baby.  However, the context of that story is the creation of the cosmos, and the Fall of Adam and Eve – their committing the ancestral sin.  Creation was meant to serve humanity, and humans were meant to have a leadership role in creation – to be the mediator between God the Creator and the created order.  All of creation, including the angels, were meant to find their proper relationship to God through humanity.

But, when humans sinned against God and rejected their God-given role, all of creation fell into an unnatural relationship with humanity and with God (see Romans 8 above).  The restoration of the cosmos, the transfiguration and redemption of all Creation, this is the context and content of the Christmas story.

“ ‘When all of the created world which God had brought out of non-being into existence saw Adam leave Paradise, it no longer wished to be subject to the transgressor. The sun did not want to shine by day, nor the moon by night, nor the stars to be seen by him. The springs of water did not want to well up for him, nor the rivers to flow. The very air itself thought about contracting and not providing for the rebel. The wild beasts and all the animals of the earth saw him stripped of his former glory and, despising him, immediately turned savage against him. The sky was moving as if to fall justly on him, and the very earth would not endure bearing him upon its back.’

But God’s love for man intervenes in this truly cosmic catastrophe: ‘He restrains everything by His own power and compassion and goodness, suspends the assault of all creation and straight away subjects all of it once again to fallen man. He wills that creation serve man for whom it was made, and like him become corruptible, so that when again man becomes spiritual, incorruptible and immortal, then creation, too, will be freed from its slavery….and, together with man, be made new, and become incorruptible and wholly spiritual’ (cf. Rom. 8:20-1). God’s compassionate intervention limited the consequences of man’s rebellion. Man and the cosmos then had to wait for the blessed coming of the Lord. As long as God’s peace was absent, the world ceased to be a cosmos, an adornment of God: ‘When it ceased to be at peace, it also ceased to be a cosmos.’

But with the coming of Christ, divine peace returned to the world and the world became once again God’s adornment. The created world too is invited to the festival of the new creation: ‘Let creation be glad, let nature dance….Dance, you mountains, for Christ is born!’ IN Christ Jesus, the cosmos and man coexist in peace.” (Hieromonk Gregorios, The Divine Liturgy, pp 126-127)

 

Sin and Being Human

“Before the fall, man found nourishment in God who is life, and recognized Him to be the foundation of the life that filled his entire being. By freely choosing to eat of the forbidden fruit, in an act of self-sufficiency that revealed his preference for human nature over the gift of divine kinship, man removed himself from the source of life. He passed from a spiritual to a biological existence, from union with God to a life of independence, contrary to nature. By choosing to eat the perishable fruit, man is cast into a cycle of change and corruption, into a time marked henceforth by death. Once he is subject to death, he struggles to preserve life, trying to escape death.

The fall did not simply lead man into a biological form of life. It encompassed the whole of his psychosomatic being which, once turned from its intended state, submitted itself to instincts that led to the realm of the passions. Carnal pleasure for the body is equivalent to avarice for the spirit, all of which leads a person to be disconnected and lacking in harmony; it shatters his original unity. […]  

The more man is removed from his ultimate aim which is God, the more he is lured by creatures and creation, the greater the tragedy of his uprootedness, his alienation, and his suffering, caused by the disintegration of his being and by ultimate meaninglessness. Relative to man’s tragic state of separation from God, biological death, which is in itself already unacceptable, is of little consequence.

Man was not created for death and finality, but for immortality and eternity. To consider death strictly as a biological reality renders one insensitive to Christ’s death and Resurrection. Communion in His Resurrection, to be sure, does not spare us from biological death. Nonetheless, it bestows incorruption upon our soul, which is the vital principle that leads us from darkness into light.” (Michael Quenot, The Resurrection and the Icon, p 208)

 

Take From Me the Spirit of Idle Talk

Throughout the Great Lenten season, we Orthodox pray that God will take from us the spirit of idle talk.  We also pray that God will set a guard before our mouths.  We are asking God to help us control our talking for we know through our words we often wound others, cause grief rather than bring peace to others, entice others to join in evil thoughts, gossip about others to their detriment.  We need Gods help to control out tongues so that our words can build up others and heal others and encourage others and support others.  St. John Chrysostom tells us that God has put within each of us the ability to reason and we are to use that reason to control our mouths and our talking.

Aware of this the inspired author also said, Set a guard on my mouth, Lord, and a door for encircling my lips. Now, what other guard is there than reason looming ominously, holding in its hands the fire destined to incinerate those idly using the mouth? Place this doorkeeper and guard that threatens your conscious, and it will never open this door at the wrong time, but only at the right time and for profit and goods beyond counting. Hence someone said, ‘Always remember your last end, and you will never sin:’ do you see how this person installed the faculty of reason? I presented it as even more ominous, however, speaking of it as having hands. If this happens, nothing evil will be generated in the mind. Along with this bring to the fore as well the one who says, ‘On the day of judgment you will give an account for every idle word.’

Consider that death also came on the scene: if the woman had not said it to the serpent what she said, if she had not heeded his words, she would have sustained no harm, she would not have given anything to her husband, he would not have eaten. I say this, blaming not tongue and mouth – perish the thought – but untimely use of them, which happens because of negligence in reasoning.”

(St. John Chrysostom, Commentary on the Psalms, pp 285-286)

The Fall: Inhuman and Dehumanized, The Loss of Humanity

This is the 10th blog in this series which began with the blog Being and Becoming Human. The previous blog is Being Human Before the Fall (III).

CreationAdamEveAs we have seen the Church Fathers saw in Genesis 1-2 that the Holy Trinity had created a highly exalted being when bringing humans into existence.  Humans shared in the divine life, were creatures belonging both to heaven and earth, to the visible and invisible worlds, to the spiritual and physical realities.  Humans breathed the Holy Spirit and were created in God’s image and likeness.  God intended to dwell in and with the humans He created, and to unite them to divinity, deifying a creature.  In humanity God intended to take that which is by nature “not-God” and to make it God.  In Christ, this is realized as God becomes human so that humans can become God.  But we humans did not hold on to the highly exalted position for which God created us.  For we sinned, failing to attain our potential and in grasping to become God by rebelling against God’s lordship, the humans not only did not attain divinity but lost even their humanity and their human role in creation.

“… but your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear.”  (Isaiah 59:2)

Humans created with the potential of living the divine life became instead mortal beings.   God had favored us making us His glory, and yet we chose to fall away from Him.

Adam Eve Temptation“To say God is light and that man is made in the image of God means that, from the time of conception, every human being possesses a divine potential, one ready to be developed and to grow until he reaches the full stature of a ‘child of God’ (Jn 1:12).  . . . The fall of man consisted in seeking after his own image rather than that of God.  This narcissistic and egocentric tendency is what turns man into a ‘diabolical’ being, meaning separated from others and no longer a person in communion, modeled after the Holy Trinity.  Conversely, a ‘stavrophoric’ person (‘who bears the cross’) becomes ‘pneumatophoric’ (bearer of the Holy Spirit).”  (Michael Quenot, THE RESURRECTION AND THE ICON,  p 220)

As the Psalmist laments:

LORD, what is man, that You take knowledge of him?

Or the son of man, that You are mindful of him?

Man is like a breath;

His days are like a passing shadow.

(Psalm 144:3-4)

God showers His glory, love and grace upon humanity, but we humans despised God’s goodness and decided to pursue our own ends.  We separated ourselves from God, and separation from God is by definition death, a loss of permanency.

“Where there is no God there is no humanity either.  The loss of the image of God entails the disappearance of man’s image, it dehumanizes the world, and multiplies the ‘possessed.’  The absence of God is replaced by the burdensome presence of obsession with oneself, self-worship. . . . In the bold words of St. Gregory of Nyssa, the one whoever is not moved by the Holy Spirit is not a human being.”    (Paul Evdokimov,  AGES OF THE SPIRITUAL LIFE, p 91)

We lost our humanity, becoming less than human, inhuman and often inhumane.  So we encounter this description of the full effect of the Fall in St. Paul:

“… Paul’s underlying theology of what human beings are in the divine intention and purpose; the tragedy of Adam is not just that he introduced sin and hence death in the world, but that humans were made to be the creator’s wise agents over creation, and if they worship and serve the creature rather than the creator this purpose goes unfulfilled.”  (NT Wright,  THE RESURRECTION OF THE SON OF GOD, p 249)

And yet, the Church Fathers didn’t believe that all was lost.  God continued to love even His fallen creatures – the rebels who rejected Him.  The mystery of His love (for God is love!) was revealed in the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ.  God’s mercy is always trying to save, to redeem, renew and restore humanity.

handDirt“In the thinking of the church fathers, the reality of sin does not eradicate the image that lies hidden beneath the filth that obscures it.  Hence when speaking about sin, the preferred metaphors that had to do with defacing or damaging or tarnishing the image: scraping off what was impressed on a coin, disfiguring the beauty of the image, making it ineffective, becoming diseased.  After the fall certain aspects of the image remained, for example, reason and freedom, though reason was darkened by sin and human freedom was captive to the passions.  The image is ‘always there,’ says Augustine, ‘even if it is worn away almost to nothing.’”  (Robert Wilken, THE SPIRIT OF EARLY CHRISTIAN THOUGHT, p 157)

We read the Genesis account of the Fall (Genesis 3) not to learn about ancient peoples and historical events, but rather to learn about ourselves.  We see ourselves in the narrative of Adam and Eve.  We are not just learning about them, we are more importantly learning about us, ourselves, our potential and our failures.

“Who am I?  What does it mean that I am human?  Everybody asks these searching questions, but what is the Orthodox Church’s answer?  Orthodox reflection on what it is to be human begins with Genesis 1:26, ‘Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after out likeness.”’  . . . People today wonder what the historical value of these stories is given that science tells us another narrative about human origins.  Yet when Orthodox theologians have read Genesis 1-3 they have looked for answers to questions about humanity here and now, not about our ancient ancestors.  These biblical stories tell us who we are in relationship to God and the natural world around us.  By depicting Paradise they tell us what our life is supposed to have been like and what we can hope to become; by depicting the Fall they tell us where we went wrong and what our life has in fact become.  Adam represents every human person.”  (M. Cunningham and E. Theokritoff, CAMBRIDGE CAMPANION TO ORTHODOX CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY, p 78)

We read Genesis 3 to learn about who we are today.  Genesis 3 is our story and tells us about who we are.  Genesis answer the questions about who we are today, about what it means today to be human, and about how we can become more fully human.  Genesis 3 when so read answers the question, “Why didn’t God make a better more perfect world – one without suffering, sickness and death?”    Genesis tells us God did make a better world, a Paradise of Delight, but it is human behavior which got us to where we are.   We are not the natural creatures God first made – and the issue runs deeper than merely our behavior and thinking.  The Fall of humanity has affected human nature and who we are.  The solution – the salvation of the human race – involves healing and perfecting humanity itself.

“Jesus seems to agree with both because the pedagogical task is more basic than what one thinks or does but has to do with who one is.  Who am I becoming?  Whose subject am I?  Who am I becoming like?”  (Charles Melchert, WISE TEACHING, p 234)

What are we?  And what potential do we have to realize God’s image and likeness?  In coming to understand what we lost in the Fall, we come to understand who we are. And we come to understand who Jesus Christ is and how we are saved by His very being.

Next:   In the Image and Likeness of God

Being Human Before the Fall

This is the 7th blog in this series which began with the blog Being and Becoming Human. The previous blog is God and Humanity (IV).

In the next several blogs we will look at comments from various writers about what the human was intended to be in God’s plan.  What did it mean to be human in the world before the Fall – the prelapsarian world of the Paradise which God the Gardener prepared for Adam and Eve and in which God placed them.  They lived in this world for only a short time before rebelling against God and being expelled from the Garden of Delight.  So, before the Fall, what was it to be human?  St. Gregory Nazianzus  (d. 391AD) says:

“Wishing to form a single creature from the two levels of creation – from both invisible and visible nature – the Creator Logos fashioned man.  Taking a body from the matter which he had previously created, and placing in it the breath of life that comes from himself, which scripture terms the intelligent soul and the image of God (cf.  Gen 1:27; 2:7), he formed man as a second universe, great in this littleness.  He set him on earth as a new kind of angel, adoring God with both aspects of his twofold being, overseer of the material creation and initiate into the spiritual creation; king of all upon earth, but subject to the King above; earthly yet heavenly; temporal yet immortal; visible yet spiritual; midway between majesty and lowliness; a single person, yet both spirit and flesh – spirit by grace, flesh because of his pride; spirit, that he may continue in existence and glorify his benefactor; flesh, that he may suffer, and through suffering may be reminded and chastened when he grows conceited because of his greatness; a living creature guided in this world by God’s providence, and then translated to another realm; and, as the culmination of the mystery, deified through his obedience to God.  So God in his splendor has bound together soul and body; and though he separates them at death, he will hereafter bind them together again in a yet more exalted way.”  (THE TIME OF THE SPIRIT,  p26)

The human is that being created by God to bring together the visible and invisible, the spiritual and the physical, the soul and the body, the divine and the created. The human  is thus the meeting point of all of all of these seemingly opposite aspects of existence – the very part of creation in whom God intended existence to meet and unite and to live in unity together. As we know and shall see, in the human,  God will also bring together the opposites of being mortal with immortality.    And while it has proven easy for us to be less than human, to dehumanize and become inhuman, God intended us to be fully human which is nothing less than being divinized, attaining theosis.

“’If humanity is called to life in order to share in the divine nature, it must have been suitably constituted for the purpose . . . It was essential that a certain kinship with the divine should have been mixed in human nature, so that this affinity should predispose it to seek what is related to it . . . That is why humanity was given life, intelligence, wisdom, and all the qualities worthy of the godhead, so that each one of them should cause it to desire what is akin to it.  And since eternity is inherent in the godhead, it was absolutely imperative that our nature should not lack it but should have in itself the principle of immortality.  By virtue of this inborn faculty it could always be drawn towards what is superior to it and retain the desire for eternity.

That is summed up in a sing phrase in the account of the creation of the world: ‘God created man in his own image’ (Genesis 1:27).”    (Olivier Clement, THE ROOTS OF CHRISTIAN MYSTICISM, p 80)

The Fathers often understood the human to be in some way a second cosmos created by God, but somehow a small cosmos with each human being a microcosm of the entirety of the universe.  Each human microcosm somehow contains all that one could find in the entire universe.  The human unites all of these aspects of the cosmos, but even more important can transcend them all in a way not possible for any other creature. This is also how it is possible for the very being and life of the God-man Jesus Christ to be able unite all humanity and all creation in Himself and thus bring about the salvation of the entire world.

“In our personal freedom we transcend the universe, not in order to abandon it but to contain it, to utter its meaning, to mediate grace to it. . . .  It is in this sense that the Fathers understand the second account of the creation (Genesis 2:4-25) which sees in Man the basic principle of the created world.  Only Man is quickened by the very breath of God, and without him the ‘plants’ could not grow, as if they were rooted in him.  And it is he who ‘names’ the animals, discerning their spiritual essences.  Only Man – who is priest as well as king – can bring out the secret sacramentality of the universe.  Adam was put in the world to ‘cultivate’ it, to perfect its beauty.  It was Vladimir Soloviev’s profound observation that the vocation of the human race is to become a collective cosmic Messiah and ‘subdue the earth’, that is to say transfigure it.  For the universe therefore, humanity is its hope of obtaining grace and being united to God.  Man is also its risk of failure and degeneration, because, if he turns away from God, he will see only the outward appearance of things and impose a false ‘name’ on them. . . . Humanity’s fate determines the fate of the cosmos.  The biblical revelation, understood symbolically, confronts us with an uncompromising anthropocentrism, which is not physical but spiritual.  Because Man is at once ‘microcosm and microtheos’, both a summing up of the universe and the image of God; and because God, in order to unite himself to the world, finally became a human being; humanity is the spiritual axis of all creation at every level, in every sphere.  . . . the heart of the saints is the ‘place of God’ and therefore the center of the world; better than that, the heart contains the world and so situates it in love.”   (Olivier Clement, ON HUMAN BEING, p 110-111)

Next:  Being Human Before the Fall (II)

The Relationship of God to Life and Death

And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”  (Genesis 2:16)

To properly understand Genesis 2-3, we have to keep the narrative of the Fall of Adam and Eve and the impact of the ancestral sin in the context of the entire Scriptures.  We read the narrative  through the lens of what Scriptures abundantly testifies to us about God: that God is love and He acts towards His human creatures through His merciful loving kindness which endures forever.

As Orthodox biblical scholar and priest Paul Tarazi argues, the story of the Fall of Eve and Adam itself occurs in the first part of Genesis which is not so much the story of humanity, but the story of the heavens and the earth – the story in which God is the main actor and the humans are part of what God is doing.  So to understand the first five chapters of Genesis one must realize this part of the bible is not anthropocentric but theocentric and so must be interpreted with a focus on God.  According to Tarazi, Adam’s story (Hebrew: toledot) really begins in Genesis 5:1-2.

“Genesis 1-4 is not the story of Adam (and Eve)… it is rather the toledot of the heavens and the earth, Adam being merely the product, the fruit, of the latter: ‘then the Lord God formed the man (human being) of dust from the ground (‘adamah), and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.’ (Gen 2:7)

Genesis 1-4 is not about the human being whose story (toledot) is the subject matter of Genesis 5:1-6:8).  The first four chapters are rather the story (toledot) of ‘the heavens and the earth,’ that is, God’s entire creation.  Unless this is kept in mind, then one is bound to mishandle the text.”   (Paul Tarazi, THE CHRYSOSTOM BIBLE: GENESIS, pp 28,35)

In fact every story found in the scriptures is to be read through the lens of what we know to be true about God.  Each chapter and story of the Bible belong in a context and are understood in that context.   To remove them from their context – from the revealed theology found in the Scriptures – and to treat them as if each story can stand alone and be interpreted without a context is to distort the meaning of each passage.  All books within the Bible have different authors and editors, and yet all of them were inspired to write a narration which is governed by and united by God.

If we ignore any part of the theology of the Bible, we decontextualize the words which God put into a context and so fail to read it as Word of God.  For example Scripture is clear that creation was brought into existence by the Word of God:

“By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth” (Psalm 33:6).

The God who is love creates the world by His Word sharing His love with His creation.  Thus even creation itself, the cosmos, and the history of the universe are part of the context in which the narrations of Scripture are unfolding.   So, all of the Scriptures, history and the cosmos are the context for understanding any verse, pericope or book of the Bible. They are all inseparable and therefore also the context in which we have to read the Genesis 2-3 story of the fall of Adam and Eve and the entrance of death into God’s creation.

Indeed, we note that some Patristic writers understand that death in Genesis 3 of the humans for disobedience is not punishment but a firm limit imposed by God on evil.  It is God’s will that evil shall not abide forever but is contained by God.

“Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire…”  (Revelation 20:14)

Just as God walls in the chaos in Genesis 1 as He reveals creation, so too death is used to limit the effects of disobedience, evil and chaos

“Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them;  he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.”  And he who sat upon the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.”  (Revelation 21:3-5)

And death itself belongs to the temporal world – it is not eternal but is a temporary condition which too will pass away according to God’s Word and will.

 St Irenaeus (d. 202AD) writing at the end of the 2nd Century says:

“Wherefore also he [God] drove him [Adam] out of Paradise, and removed him far from the tree of life … having mercy on him, that he should not continue a transgressor for ever, nor that the sin which surrounded him should be immortal, and evil interminable and irremediable.  But he set a bound to his transgression, by interposing death and causing sin to cease, putting an end to it by the dissolution of the flesh into the earth, so that man, ceasing at length to live to sin, and dying to it, might begin to live to God…” (Against Heresies, 3.23.6).

As. St. Irenaeus interprets Genesis 3, death mercifully puts a boundary around the transgression/disobedience and limits its power and effect.  Death is not punishing the humans but curtailing sin!  St. Gregory of Nyssa (d. 384AD) will go so far as to say that the death of Adam and Eve made the resurrection of Christ possible!  God intended all along to defeat death by death. (Gregory of Nyssa’s idea is based squarely on St. Paul’s own teaching: “For God has consigned all men to disobedience, that he may have mercy upon all” (Romans 11: 32).

If God is love and acts in love toward us humans, His telling Adam that to wrongfully eat the forbidden will result in death is a warning to Adam.  In the next blog we will consider the question:  what was the serpent doing in telling Eve that to eat this fruit will make her god-like?

Next:  The Relationship of God to Life and Death (II)

What is Prayer? (V)

This is the 9th blog in a series exploring various aspects of “prayer.”  The first blog is “Why Pray?” and the previous blog is  What is Prayer? (IV).

One aspect of prayer that does come up frequently in the Orthodox spiritual literature is the effects of sin and the Fall on us all.

“According to the Fathers, the fall impaired the capacity of creatures to see the divine light, but did not destroy it.  The universal aspiration towards God has, it is true, become a ‘groaning’, a ‘sigh of creation’, but it is still prayer, which is the essential activity of all created things.  ‘Everything that exists prays to thee’.”  (Olivier Clement, THE ROOTS OF CHRISTIAN MYSTICISM, p 27)

All of creation was designed to give praise to God the Creator, and humans were to be the ones to serve as the conductors of this chorus of praise.  But through our sin, we lost our role as the conductors guiding creation in praise of the Creator.  Instead of songs of praise, there are now only groans of pain from creation because of us.  We’ve already encountered this idea:

“I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.  For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.”  (Romans 8:18-24)

Truly we were created each to be priests of God celebrating a daily liturgy and offering praise in the created world which was intended to be God’s real temple (Many ancient writers and modern scholars believe Genesis 1 is really about God creating His temple in which we were to worship Him).

Prophet Moses

But our sins have led God in His Holiness to distance Himself from the temple He created.  Yet He has not abandoned us but has continued to speak to us through the prophets, the scriptures and through His Son, the incarnate Word.  And He has continued to listen to our groans, lamentations and prayers.

So prayer, instead of being our natural and normal way of being, becomes something we must consciously choose to do.  We have to will to pray.  We have to choose to conform our will to God’s.

“Without inner spiritual prayer there is no prayer at all, for this alone is real prayer, pleasing to God.  It is the soul within the words of prayer that matters, whether the prayer is at home or in church, and if inner prayer is absent, then the words have only the appearance and not the reality of prayer.

Prophet & Psalmist David

What then is prayer?  Prayer is the raising of the mind and heart to God in praise and thanksgiving to Him and in supplication for the good things that we need, both spiritual and physical.   The essence of prayer is therefore the spiritual lifting of the heart towards God.  The mind in the heart stands consciously before the face of God, filled with due reverence, and begins to pour itself out before Him.  This is spiritual prayer, and all prayer should be of this nature.  External prayer, whether at home or in church, is only prayer’s verbal expression and shape; the essence or the soul of prayer is within a man’s mind and heart.”   (St. Theophan – d. 1894AD – in THE ART OF PRAYER, p 53)

Prayer is a conscious activity of fallen humans, but it is not merely a technique.

“The mystery of prayer is not consummated at a certain specific time or place.  For if you restrict prayer to particular times or places, you will waste the rest of the time in vain pursuits.  Prayer may be defined as the intellect’s unceasing intercourse with God.  Its task is to engage the soul totally in things divine, its fulfillment – to adapt the words of St. Paul (cf 1 Cor 6:17) – lies in so wedding the mind to God that it becomes one spirit with Him.”     (Nikitas Stithatos – d. 1090AD, THE PHILOKALIA  Vol 4, pp 128-129)

We can note in the quotes above, some difference in understanding of what prayer is.  But whether a church father or mother places more or less emphasis on technique, they do agree that ultimately prayer has everything to do with being in God’s presence.

Next:  What is Prayer?  (VI)

Eat and Live For Ever

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,

that whoever believes in him

should not perish but have eternal life.  

(John 3:16)

At the heart of the Christian Gospel is God’s plan for the salvation of the world which culminates in the destruction of death and the granting of eternal life to all who seek His love.

We are reminded through the season of Great Lent about why we humans don’t live in a Paradise in which immortality is normative.  We reread each Lent the Book of Genesis in which we discover there is a relationship between our eating habits and the loss of immortality.  Eve and Adam disobey the fast God imposed upon them in the Garden of Eden (the Paradise of Delight), and eat of the only fruit  God commanded them to abstain: that of the Tree of the  Knowledge of Good and Evil.  The rest is history, so to speak.

Then the LORD God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, lest he put forth his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever” —  therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken.  He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life.  (Genesis 3:22-24)

There was a tree in the Garden of Delight of which if we ate we would live forever. There also was a fast from one food given to our original ancestors which if followed would also have led to eternal life.    In Orthodox hymnology and poetry and theology the mystical Tree remains central to God’s plan of salvation.  Ultimately, that Tree from which if you eat you live forever is identified with the tree of the cross of Christ up0n which Christ was hung, and Christ Himself is the fruit which does give us eternal life.  God does not deny us eternal life forever!  There is forgiveness with Him, and He offers us again what was available to us in Paradise:  that we might eat and live forever.

This all forms the sacramental theology which Fr. Alexander Schmemann describes so vividly in GREAT LENT  and in FOR THE LIFE OF THE WORLD.

As we contemplate the Genesis story of Eve and Adam’s sin against God, we read what the Patristic writer’s called “theology in the form of narrative.”   And this brings us to an understanding of the Gospel narrative as well.   Jesus Christ teaches:

I am the bread of life.  Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died.  This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die.  I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.”  The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”  So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.  For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.  He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.  As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me.  This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live for ever.”  (John 6:48-58)

The Jews on their desert sojourn were sustained by the miraculous manna, the bread of angels.  Yet this bread did not give them eternal life.  They ate of it, it sustained them, but they died, falling short not only of eternal life but of the promised land as well.  In Christ, we proclaim that we are given that food of which if we eat we will live forever.

Great Lent is a season for us to learn to hunger for this food which if eaten grants eternal life.

“Ho, every one who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.  Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Hearken diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in fatness.  Incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live; and I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David. (Isaiah 55:1-3)

Great Lent is our time to learn the eternal significance of food and of eating and of fasting from things which are spiritually detrimental to our journey to the Kingdom.