God: The Cause of Our Wonder

You make darkness, and it is night…   (Psalm 104:20)

…even the darkness is not dark to you;

the night is as bright as the day,

for darkness is as light to you.  (Psalm 139:12)

He bowed the heavens, and came down;

thick darkness was under his feet.

He rode on a cherub, and flew;

he came swiftly upon the wings of the wind.

He made darkness his covering around him,

his canopy thick clouds dark with water.  (Psalm 18:9-11)

 

And so it proves to be for each one who follows the spiritual Way. We go out from the known to the unknown, we advance from light into darkness. We do not simply proceed from the darkness of igno­rance into the light of knowledge, but we go forward from the light of partial knowledge into a greater knowledge which is so much more profound that it can only be described as the “dark­ness of unknowing.”

Like Socrates we begin to realize how little we understand. We see that it is not the task of Christianity to provide easy answers to every question, but to make us progres­sively aware of a mystery.

God is not so much the object of our knowledge as the cause of our wonder. Quoting Psalm 8:1, “O Lord, our Lord, how wonderful is thy name in all the earth”, St Gregory of Nyssa states: “God’s name is not known; it is won­dered at.”

(Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way, p. 16)

Fathers of the 1st Ecumenical Council: Defending Jesus

“It was with a spirit of reverential fear that the Fathers were then compelled to defend the divinity of the Son at the council of Nicea in AD 325. They sought to remind Christians that Christ’s coming into the world was a true manifestation of the eternal God and that his Incarnation opened the way to the fullness of salvation and of deification: ‘[God] was made man,’ said St. Athanasius, following St. Irenaeus, ‘that we might be made God.’ But such insistence on the eternal unity of the Father and the Son risked compromising or minimising the uniqueness, or irreducible specificity, of each of the divine persons. The Cappadocian Fathers worked in the course of the fourth century to formulate a theological language and to establish the meaning of precise terms that would permit Christians on one hand to distinguish the unity of the Three in essence, or shared substance, and, on the other, to express the mystery of each of the three persons by using the philosophical term ‘hypostasis.’ This term settled the trinitarian debate more conclusively than did the term ‘person,’ which had been introduced by Tertullian in the early third century, by emphasizing the unfathomable depth of personal being of each member of the Trinity.”   (Boris Bobrinskoy, “God in Trinity,” The Cambridge Companion to Orthodox Christian Theology, p. 50)

God Makes the World Make Itself

“When we contemplate the physical creation, we see an unimaginable complex, organized on many planes one above another; atomic, molecular, cellular; vegetable, animal, social. And the marvel of it is that at every level the constituent elements run themselves, and, by their mutual interaction, run the world. God not only makes the world, he makes it make itself; or rather, he causes its innumerable constituents to make it. And this in spite of the fact that the constituents are not for the most part intelligent. They cannot enter into the creative purposes they serve. They cannot see beyond the tip of their noses; they have, indeed, no noses not to see beyond, nor any eyes with which to fail in the attempt.

All they can do is blind away at being themselves, and fulfil the repetitive pattern of their existence. When you contemplate this amazing structure, do you wonder that it should be full of flaws, breaks, accidents, collisions, and disasters? Will you not be more inclined to wonder why chaos does not triumph; how higher forms of organization should ever arise, or, having arisen, maintain and perpetuate themselves?

Though a thousand species have perished with the mammoth and the dodo, and though all species, perhaps, must perish at the last, it is a sort of miracle that the species there are should have established themselves. And how have they established themselves? Science studies the pattern, but theology assigns the cause: that imperceptible persuasion exercised by creative Will on the chaos of natural forces, setting a bias on the positive and achieving creatures.”

(Austin Farrer, from The Time of the Spirit, p. 6)

The Purpose of Theology: To Become Wise

There is in Orthodox Tradition a sense that correct belief leads to a correct way of life or that correct thinking leads to correct living.  Conversely, a wrong way of living – sinning – can often be traced to a wrong set of beliefs.  Confession and repentance in this thinking are efforts to get to the root cause of one’s sinful behavior and to aim to correct the thinking or beliefs that have allowed one to choose wrong behavior.  Correct theology then is not just a set of intellectual premises which we affirm through rational logic, but rather is the healing antidote to what ails humanity and leads us astray from God.  Correct theology is both the light that shows us the right path and the proper path itself.   As Jesus Himself said:

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.”   (John 14:6)

“I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”   (John 8:12)

Protestant Theologian Jeremy S. Begbie writes:

By “the gospel” I mean the announcement that in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the Triune Creator, the God of Israel, has acted decisively to reconcile the world to himself. Here is theology’s raison d’etre and its lodestar – theology is not free-floating speculation, but it is disciplined by this gospel and seeks to interpret the whole of reality from this center. Just because it is so motivated, the theologian is ultimately responsible to a living God: the God of the gospel is not an inert presence but personally active, continuously at work to transform his creatures and his creation. Hence learning about God is undertaken in the context of learning from God, as God relates to us and we to God. This means, in turn, that theology is inseparable (though distinct) from prayer and worship – thinking appropriately about God means regularly engaging with God. . . .  Precisely because it relates to the whole of us and concerns the energetic, life-transforming God of the gospel, theology has a practical orientation.

One of the best ways to express this is to speak of theology fostering wisdom. In the so-called Wisdom literature of the Bible (for example, the book of Proverbs), gaining wisdom concerns much more than amassing data for the mind’s scrutiny. It is practically geared. To be wise means being able to discern what is going on in specific, down-to-earth situations and to judge what it is right to say and do in those situations in a way that is faithful and true to God. We become wise in order to live well. As “lived knowledge,” wisdom is directed toward a lifestyle thoroughly “in tune” with God – godly living – that resonates aptly with the Creator’s intentions for us and his world.

(Resounding Truth, p. 20)

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teach and admonish one another in all wisdom, and sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.   (Colossians 3:16-17)

The Holy Trinity – The God Who Saves

Theophany is a feast celebrating God revealing Himself to us.  The revelation though is a surprising mystery – for God is not a Him but a Trinity of Divine Persons – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  At Theophany we hear the voice of the Father, are aware of the Holy Spirit present in the form of a dove, and see the Son who is Jesus the incarnate God baptized in the River Jordan.  The Trinity is manifested at the Baptism of Christ.

St Nicholas Cabasilas writes:

“Even though it is by one single act of loving-kindness that the Trinity has saved our race, yet each of the blessed Persons in said to have contributed something of His own. It is the Father who is reconciled, the Son who reconciles, while the Holy Spirit is bestowed as a gift on those who have become friends. The Father has set us free, the Son was the ransom by which we are freed, but the Spirit is freedom, for Paul says, “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor. 3:17). The Father has re-shaped us, by means of the Son we were re-shaped, but “it is the Spirit who gives life” (Jn. 6:63). The Trinity was foreshadowed even at the first creation. Then the Father created, and the Son was the hand for Him who created, but the Paraclete was the breath for Him who inbreathed the life.”

(The Life in Christ, p. 74)

The Infant Christ

Christ is born!  Glorify Him!

The sign by which the shepherds will recognize the Saviour is that they will find “the infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger.” No sign of power accompanies the birth of Jesus Christ. On the contrary, God become man will make Himself known first of all by His poverty, His humility, His weakness. As a small child wrapped in swaddling clothes, He is at the mercy of those who press around Him. He depends on them. He cannot resist anyone. He is unable to exercise His will, nor can He defend Himself. As He appears in His birth, so will He appear in His passion, and that is how He wants me to be.

(A Monk of the Eastern Church, Jesus: A Dialogue with the Savior, p. 93-94)

This year a verse from the Christmas narrative has stood out in my heart and mind. The angel tells Joseph not to be afraid but to know about his wife Mary that

she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21)

I don’t know what Joseph made of that statement, for I wonder how many of us think deliverance from sin is the most important thing that God or the Messiah can do for us. Joseph had a lot to worry about – a pregnant wife, the Roman government, poverty, survival, homelessness, being an immigrant, fleeing persecution, paying taxes and escaping death. He was responsible for a young wife and a newborn baby whom God claimed as His own yet had entrusted to Joseph’s care. And Joseph had no army to protect him, no money, no place to lay his head. So, I’m not sure that the forgiveness of sins was the most impressing issue on his mind.

The angel doesn’t promise that God will save Joseph or God’s people from terror or tyrants, from the power of one’s enemies, or from pain, disaster or death. And while the angels in heaven were singing God’s praise at the birth of Jesus, on earth, forces were plotting to kill him. While our Christmas spirit tends to sentimentalize the story, the narrative of the Nativity involves evil plots and life-threatening risks.

And we realize one of the most profound mysteries of the birth of Jesus – God enters the world as a child and puts Himself at the mercy of the world. God entrusts himself to the care of a young girl and an old carpenter, penniless and powerless. God trusts them. God comes into the world with no power, money or influence as a defenseless child and allows the world to show God the mercy we always are asking from God for ourselves. That certainly is the mystery and meaning of the Christmas story. We are given opportunity to do unto God as we would have God do for us.

But, you might protest, yes, “they” rejected Christ and threatened him and wanted to kill him, but when did we have opportunity to show how we would treat Christ?

And the King will answer, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’ (Matthew 25:40)

Christ comes to us every year at Christmas in the guise of brother or sister, friend or foe, neighbor or stranger. We are given opportunity to see in each person in our household, or neighborhood, or family, or in the parish the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters and to how our love for them. When you do, Christ will be born again in you, and you will become like God.

I wish you all of the joys of the Christmas season. Thank you for all your prayers and for the work you do to make St. Paul’s the parish community to which God calls us.

 “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?    (Matthew 2:2)

Jesus: The Word of God

“The all-too-frequent pitfalls of speculating on the nature of God helped make the option of saying nothing a desirable one. Within the heart of the Godhead itself some early Christian writers had discovered a profound silence, that of the Father, from out of which the Word, the second person of the Trinity, was spoken. Ignatius of Antioch was a pioneer in this respect. Writing at the very beginning of the second century, he says, ‘There is one God, who manifested himself through Jesus Christ, his Son, who is his Word, coming forth from silence, who in all things was pleasing to the one who sent him.

Two and a half centuries later the idea was still alive in the poetry of Ephrem the Syrian:

‘Glory to the One who came to us by his First-Born.

Glory to that Silent One who spoke by means of his Voice.'”

(Boniface Ramsey, Beginning to Read the Fathers, p. 44-45)

Truth Relies on Us All

The Lord Jesus said: “‘He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me; and he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.’

Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, ‘Lord, how is it that you will manifest yourself to us, and not to the world?'”  (John 14:21-22)

St Gregory of Nyssa (d. ca 384AD) offers an answer to the Apostle Judas‘ question as to how it is that God’s manifestation may be seen only by some when “objectively” the event should be visible to everyone.

“…True doctrine conforms to the dispositions of those receiving the word, for although the word presents to all equally what is good and bad, the one who is favorably disposed to what is presented has his understanding enlightened, but the darkness of ignorance remains with the one who is obstinately disposed and does not permit his soul to behold the ray of truth….

In keeping with this insight of mine, consider the air which is darkened to the Egyptians’ eyes by the rod [Exodus 10:21-29], while to the Hebrews’ it is illuminated by the sun. By this incident the meaning which we have given is confirmed. It was not some constraining power from above that caused the one to be found in darkness and the other in light, but we men have in ourselves, in our own nature and by our own choice, the causes of light or of darkness, since we place ourselves in whichever sphere we wish to be.

Jesus & Moses at the Transfiguration

According to the history, the eyes of the Egyptians were not in darkness because some wall or mountain darkened their view and shadowed the rays, but the sun cast its rays upon all equally. Whereas the Hebrews delighted in its light, the Egyptians were insensitive to its gift. In a similar manner the enlightened life is proposed to all equally according to their ability. Some continue on in darkness, driven by their evil pursuits to the darkness of wickedness. while others are made radiant by the light of virtue.”  (The Life of Moses, p. 69, 72-73)

St Gregory’s answer is based in a clear idea of synergy – God’s revelation, God’s manifestation requires also observers who prepared/open to receive what God reveals.  This idea is reflected in quantum physics where the observer affects the outcome of what is being observed.  God does not even impose His revelation on humanity.  Our inner disposition toward God will determine what we experience of God in our life.  Almost 200 years before Gregory of Nyssa’s writing, St Irenaeus of Lyons (d. 202AD) offered a very similar idea:

“In respect to His greatness, and His wonderful glory, no man shall see God and live (Exodus 33:20), for the Father is incomprehensible; but in regard to His love, and kindness, and as to His infinite power, even this He grants to those who love Him, that is, to see God, which thing the prophets did also predict.  For those things that are impossible with men, are possible with God (Luke 18:27).  For man does not see God by his own powers; but when He pleases He is seen by men, by whom He wills, and when He wills, and as He wills.  For God is powerful in all things, having been seen at that time indeed, prophetically through the Spirit, and seen, too, adoptively through the Son; and He shall also be seen paternally in the kingdom of heaven, the Spirit truly preparing man in the Son of God, and the Son leading him to the Father, while the Father, too, confers [upon him] incorruption for eternal life, which comes to everyone from the fact of his seeing God.

For as those who see the light are within the light, and partake of its brilliancy; even so, those who see God are in God, and receive of His splendor.  But [His] splendor vivifies them; those, therefore, who see God, do receive life.  And for this reason, He, [although] beyond comprehension, and boundless and invisible, rendered Himself visible, and comprehensible, and within the capacity of those who believe, that He might vivify those who receive and behold Him through faith.  For as His greatness is past finding out, so also His goodness is beyond expression; by which having been seen, He bestows life upon those who see Him.  It is not possible to live apart from life, and the means of life is found in fellowship with God; but fellowship with God is to know God, and to enjoy His goodness.”  (ADV. HAERESES 4.20.5)

NASA Photo

And this is eternal life, that they know You the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.  (John 17:3)

Humans: Created to Unite Everything in the Universe

Within reality there are five divisions. The first is between uncreated nature and the created nature that acquires existence through coming into being. Second, the created nature that receives its existence from God is divided into the intelligible and the sensible. Third, within sensible or visible nature there is a division between heaven and earth. Fourth, earth is divided into paradise and the world. Fifth, man is divided into male and female.

Now man is, as it were, a workshop that contains everything in an all-inclusive way; and by virtue of his nature he acts as mediator, endowed with full power to link and unify the extreme points at the five different levels of division, because in the various aspects of his nature he is himself related to all these extremes. It is thus his vocation to make manifest in his person the great mystery of the divine intention–to show how the divided extremes in created things may be reconciled in harmony, the near with the far, the lower with the higher, so that through gradual ascent all are eventually brought into union with God.

That is why man was introduced last of all into the creation, as a natural bond of unity, mediating between all divided things because related to all through the different aspects of his own self, drawing them all to unity within himself, and so uniting them all to God their cause, in whom there is no division.

Through dispassion he transcends the division between male and female. Through the holiness of his life he unites heaven and earth, integrating the visible creation. Then, through his equality with the angels in spiritual knowledge, he unifies the intelligible and the sensible, making all created things into one single creation. Finally, in addition to all this, through love he unites created nature with the uncreated, rendering them one through the state of grace that he has attained. With the fullness of his being he coinheres fully in the fullness of God, becoming everything that God himself is, save for identity of essence.

(St. Maximus the Confessor, from The Time of the Spirit, p. 27)

Knowing God

As we honor the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council, we have to consider how they struggled so much with finding a vocabulary to express the revelation of God.  They were trying to put into human words the divine: God’s self-revelation.  This issue of finding a vocabulary to adequately express what God reveals exists in the Scriptures as well.  Scholar Terence E. Fetheim notes:

Thus, for example, one needs to ask what speaking of God’s eyes and ears (2 Kings 19:16) adds to the understanding of the relationship of God to the world that living, seeing, and hearing do not. Such language makes the idea that God receives the world into himself vivid and concrete. God’s experience of the world is not superficial; God takes it in, in as real a way as people do who use their eyes and ears. At the same time, in ways that people do not, God takes it all in (Jer. 32:19), and not with fleshly eyes (Job 10:4).

Nevertheless, while examining each metaphor in its specificity is important, the general conclusions drawn continue to be significant. In addition to revealing God as living and personal, they testify to the intimate relationship between God and the world. ( The Suffering of God, p. 9)

The vocabulary we use in speaking about God is born from our experience of of God.  God’s revelation is received by us, we encounter this revelation who is Christ and we are changed by it.  The revelation is not ideas about God nor words about God, but rather the experience of God the Word.

The Christian doctrine of Trinity, in Gregory’s estimate, is therefore not an exercise in speculative metaphysical language, but an exposition of how the Church has experienced God within salvation history and, as such, how it prays. (John A. McGuckin, Seeing the Glory, p. 188)