Jesus, the Wisdom of God

Icon of Christ the Wisdom of God

“If we proceed further into the Sacred Scriptures – not in the historical order that the books have been arranged, but in a more spiritual manner – we shall discover the name of Wisdom, which is mystically ascribed to Christ. And thus Solomon cries to the Father: Give me the Wisdom that sits by Your throne (Wis 9.4). And who sits next to God, at the right hand of the Father (cf. Heb 1.3; 10.12; 12.2), exalted above all created things, if not the Lord Jesus Christ? For He is indeed the Power and the Wisdom of God (1 Cor 1.24). Elsewhere Solomon says: I determined to take Wisdom to live with me, knowing that She would be a counselor for me (Wis 8.9).

Wisdom, then, is clearly a Person, and not simply an attribute. It is the Son of God, who is also God’s Word; His Wise Word, as the Fathers say. From ancient times, Solomon points beyond time, and reveals the Person of the Son, Who sits by the throne of the Father, a situation which expresses their inseparable relationship, since there can be no Father without a Son, and no Son without a Father. Each one, at all times, points to the other. In this way we have a common, mutual revelation, which is, in essence, a self-revelation.”  (Archimandrite Aimillianos, The Way of the Spirit, pp. 271-272).

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Moses, Seeing God and the Transfiguration

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“In Exodus 33 we find the paradox of intimacy and distance, knowledge and ignorance, presence and transcendence. Moses in the Tent of Meeting seeks guidance from the Lord for his work as leader of the people of Israel; he is told, ‘My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest’ (v. 14); but Moses wants more, and asks to see the glory of God. To this request comes the reply, ‘You cannot see my face; for man cannot see me and live’ (v. 20). As this incident unfolds we see a distinction between what Moses does see and what he is unable to see: ‘And the Lord said, “Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand upon the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.’” (vv. 21-23). The mystery remains, and Moses is not able to see God face to face. But the Israelites are aware of the effect of Moses’ time in the presence of God, for the face of Moses shines ‘because he had been talking with God’, shines with a brightness so great that his face had to be veiled (Exodus 34:29-35). Here we have an early example in the Scriptures of the human face transfigured because of close contact with God; it is an experience that is repeated in the lives of many saints. Much of what we see in the life of Moses we see also in the lives of other Old testament prophets, such as Elijah (1 Kings 19) and Isaiah (Isaiah 6), so it is not surprising that these Old Testament episodes become ‘types’ which help to interpret later events, and which find greater significance in the light of the subsequent developments.

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St. Gregory of Nyssa used the life Moses as a starting point and framework for his exposition of Christian ascetical theology, and from Gregory derives a while tradition of apophatic theology which uses the imagery of darkness to articulate the Christian experience of living with the mystery of God’s presence. The theophanies involving Moses and Elijah are included in the Scripture readings at Vespers for the Feast of Transfiguration .”   (John Baggley, Festival Icons for the Christian Year, p. 60-61).

Being in God’s Image

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”  (Genesis 1:27)

Our ability to reason, to use logic, wisdom and knowledge, is seen in the Church Fathers as one way that humans are in God’s image and likeness.

“This reason, in which perhaps most Fathers found the divine image, made human beings “partakers of his [i.e. God’s] own Word, possessing, so to speak, a kind of reflection of his Word,” as Athanasius says. And, because for the Fathers reason was a participation in the Word, it carried with it, unlike reason as understood by us today, a supernatural connotation: to use one’s reason was to act in a graced way and to be open to the realm of the supernatural.”   (Boniface Ramsey, Beginning to Read the Fathers, pp. 71-72)

A Greatly Troubled Heart

And the LORD was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. (Genesis 6:6)

The Scriptures and Orthodox theology are clear that God is not just a super human being – God is not merely an omnipotent and omniscient human writ large.  God is totally other, and whatever words we might apply to us humans – being, nature, person, existing – cannot then rightfully be applied to God.  Or, conversely, if we use words like being, existence, nature for God, then we can’t also use them for humans or any part of creation.  God is clearly a transcendent being, not limited by space and time, but rather we all exist within God (Acts 17:28).

And yet . . . Scriptures also contain images of God which are quite anthropomorphic – in which God is quite humanized.  Or, at least our experience of God and our description of the encounter with God is put purely in human terms.  For the transcendent God is also immanent and in God’s closeness to us we experience God in ways we understand – as Father and mother, as love and lover.   We come to realize that when God says that we humans are made in God’s image and likeness, we are closer to God than we imagine, and God is much closer to us than dogmatic theology can ever reveal.

The LORD is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit. (Psalm 34:18)

Praise the LORD! For it is good to sing praises to our God; for he is gracious . . .   He heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds. He determines the number of the stars, he gives to all of them their names.  (Psalm 147:1-4)

The same God who creates the heavens and the earth, the stars and the entire universe, is also near the brokenhearted.  And, there may be good reason for God’s being near the brokenhearted, as we see in the opening Scripture verse of this blog: for God experienced grief from, through and in the humans God had created.

Some probably are not much impressed with a God whose reaction to human sin and violence is inner grief and brokenheartedness.   “Why doesn’t God just fix what’s wrong with humans and creation!?!”

The God who not only loves creation but Who is love, suffers because of and with and in creation.  The transcendent God who lives in all eternity who is incomprehensible, ineffable and indescribable, still reveals Himself in terms that we can relate to and experience.   This is all part of the great mystery of God.  God doesn’t have blood vessels or a stomach or a throat or a blood-pumping heart, and yet God’s reaction to fallen creation is described in visceral terms.   God knows our pain and still loves us.  God is willing to suffer pain because of us and with us and for us.  Jesus, the incarnate God, experiences this pain and brokenheartedness.

And they went to a place which was called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here, while I pray.” And he took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be greatly distressed and troubled. And he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch.” And going a little farther, he fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. And he said, “Abba, Father, all things are possible to thee; remove this cup from me; yet not what I will, but what thou wilt.” And he came and found them sleeping, and he said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not watch one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Mark 14:32-38)

Jesus wished that the hour of His death might be avoided and was troubled to the heart of His being.  Yet in love, He knew He would endure such heartbreak to deliver humanity from slavery to sin and death.  He took upon Himself the sin of the world, and suffered.  Yet, He said to His disciples:

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.  (John 14:27)

Even though Christ experienced pain in His own heart, brokenheartedness, grief and distress, He tells us not to let our hearts be troubled.   We are to trust in Him . . . which we find on a daily level to be very difficult to do because we do not see how that trust will alleviate the pain and suffering and problems we must endure.  Christ did not tell us that our lives would be trouble free.  Rather, He promised us tribulation – that tribulation which grieved God at the beginning of creation and which distressed Christ in the garden of Gethsemane.

I have said this to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world. (John 16:33)

When we grieve and are brokenhearted because of the world, God is near to us.  And God’s promise is that the pain and sorrow of this world are not the last word, for God promises us Good News.

And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. (Isaiah 35:10)

“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.”  (Revelations 21:3-4)

The 1st Ecumenical Council and Deuteronomy 6

This past Sunday, the 7th after Pascha, we commemorated the Holy Fathers of the 1st Ecumenical Council as is the practice in Orthodoxy these days.  We might ask ourselves what exactly can we take from that Council that we need to teach today?  While to some the issues of the Council might seem like purely academic debates about abstract theology, the debate of that Council touches the very heart of what and who we understand God to be.  The Council is about God, and it is about the confessional and dogmatic theology of biblical Judaism.  The Council focused on Deuteronomy 6  and how we Christians interpret the central tenet of our Old Testament Scriptures.   Here is an excerpt from that passage that gives us the central point (emphases in the text is mine):

Now this is the commandment—the statutes and the ordinances—that the LORD your God charged me to teach you to observe  .  . .  so that you and your children and your children’s children may fear the LORD your God all the days of your life, and keep all his decrees and his commandments that I am commanding you, so that your days may be long. . . .

Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.  . . . and when you have eaten your fill, take care that you do not forget the LORD, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. The LORD your God you shall fear; him you shall serve, and by his name alone you shall swear. Do not follow other gods, any of the gods of the peoples who are all around you . . . When your children ask you in time to come, “What is the meaning of the decrees and the statutes and the ordinances that the LORD our God has commanded you?” then you shall say to your children, “We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt, but the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. The LORD displayed before our eyes great and awesome signs and wonders against Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his household. He brought us out from there in order to bring us in, to give us the land that he promised on oath to our ancestors. Then the LORD commanded us to observe all these statutes, to fear the LORD our God, for our lasting good, so as to keep us alive, as is now the case. If we diligently observe this entire commandment before the LORD our God, as he has commanded us, we will be in the right.”

Deuteronomy 6 which contains the Shema of Israel, the central tenet of Judaism which our Lord Jesus Christ Himself taught.

And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” And the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that he is one, and there is no other but he; and to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And after that no one dared to ask him any question.  (Mark 12:28-34)

The truth of theology, the truth of the ecumenical councils and the truth of the bible are the same truth.  Deuteronomy 6 gives the basic theology tenet of Judaism and Christianity in the form of the greatest commandment.  We are to preach and teach to our flocks the decisions of the 1st Ecumenical Council precisely because they are our understanding of Deuteronomy 6, of the Shema of Israel, of God Himself.  And as is clear in Deuteronomy 6, it is the duty of God’s people to teach this true theology to our children and grandchildren.  Not only does Deuteronomy 6 teach theology, it commands religious education!  We are to influence, to shape and to form the theological experience and understanding of our membership and our families and children.  Ecumenical Councils were debating theology, but not just for academics, but for every man, woman and child of the Church.  We are to teach and preach in evangelism, in apologetics and in education – portraying God as God chose to reveal Himself, and in defending the very way and words we use to explain God.

The Eucharist: Historical and Divine

“The eucharistic body is that of the historical Jesus as well as that of the risen Christ. It is the body of the child in the crib, the body that endured the suffering on the cross – for bread is ‘broken’, the blood ‘poured out’ – the body that is risen and glorified. The term ‘body’ covers the whole human nature. For God’s human nature since the resurrection and the ascension encompasses the world and secretly transfigures it. However, Jesus’s historical body, while allowing itself in the foolishness of love to be contained in a point of space and a brief moment of time, in reality already contained space and time in itself. For it was not the body of a fallen individual, crushing human nature in order to take possession of it. It was the body of a divine Person assuming that nature, with the whole universe, in order to offer them up. Incarnate, the Logos remained the subject of the logoi, the spiritual essences, of all created beings.

At the same time God-made-man had to accept into himself all our finiteness, our whole condition of separation and death, in order to fill it with his light.

It is this deified humanity, this deified creation, this transfigured bread and wine, this body bathed in glory yet bearing for ever the wounds of the Passion, that the Eucharist communicates to us.” (Olivier Clement, The Roots of Christian Mysticism: Texts from the Patristic Era with Commentary, pp. 108-109)

Caring for the Poor: Lending to God

If, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. Then as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous. Law came in, to increase the trespass; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.  (Romans 5:17-21)

Adam, Eve and Jesus
Adam, Eve and Jesus

In Western Christianity there has been endless debate about justification, especially between Reformers and the Roman Catholics but also between various Protestant denominations.  Righteousness and justice are grouped as synonymous terms, often interpreted in a juridical way.  But righteousness can also mean holiness more than legal justice, which seems to me how it is interpreted more in the Orthodox tradition.  Righteousness can also be equated with salvation.  When the first generation of Lutheran Reformers approached Orthodox Patriarch Jeremias to discuss theology, they changed the language in their documents to read “salvation by faith” rather than “justification by faith.”  They were savvy enough to realize this would sound more theological correct to the Orthodox.

Apparently at one time in Judaism, righteousness/ justice was also  used to mean almsgiving/ charity.  Certainly if one reads the New Testament substituting almsgiving for righteousness  we get a totally different view of God and salvation [Try it in the quote above from Romans 5:17-21)].  Biblical scholar Nathan Eubank writes:

“The Ancient rabbis used to tell the story of King Munbaz of Adiabene, a first-century C.E. convert to Judaism, who emptied his storehouses to feed the hungry during a time of famine.  The king’s brothers were outraged and demanded that the king explain why he would throw away the family’s great wealth.  In response, the king argued that by feeding the hungry he had acquired a greater, longer-lasting fortune.  He cited Psalm 89:15 to prove his point: ‘Justice (tsedeq) and judgment are the foundation of  your throne.’  The rabbis commonly understood ‘righteousness’ when it appears in the Hebrew bible to mean ‘almsgiving.’ Read in this light, the psalm seemed to promise that possessions given to the poor would earn treasure in heaven, under the very throne of God.

Jesus speaking with the rabbis
Jesus speaking with the rabbis

 King Munbaz explained: ‘My ancestors stored up treasures below, but I have stored up treasurers above . . . in a place where the hand cannot reach’ (Tosefta Peah 4.18).  According to the rabbis who recorded the tale, this Gentile king learned that the best way to prepare for the future is to give to the needy and be rewarded by God, if not in this life then certainly in the life to come.  The belief that God faithfully repays good deeds has deep roots in the biblical tradition, going back well before the birth of Christianity.  As Proverbs 19:17 puts it, ‘Whoever cares for the poor lends to the Lord, who will pay back the sum in full.‘”  (“The Repayment of Good Deeds in Matthew’s Sermon”, THE BIBLE TODAY, January/February 2017)

The notion that God receives every gift of alms we give to the poor and stores it up for us in heaven was widely believed and taught in the early church and is common sermon fare among the Cappodician fathers.   Whether or not they were familiar with this Jewish tradition, I don’t know, but obviously they came to the same interpretive conclusions about what the Scriptures taught about the importance of charity.

Sometimes philosophers work so hard to get a word to mean  only one thing, so that they can use that word in one and only one way.  Sometimes, to understand the Word of God, we have to move in a different direction, realizing the depth and layers of meaning found in a word or phrase.  Read again St. Paul in the text below putting in almsgiving/ charity where the text says righteous/righteousness.  We begin to hear another message about God which is consistent with the theology that God is love.

Jesus and Moses
Jesus and Moses

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from law, although the law and the prophets bear witness to it, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction; since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies him who has faith in Jesus.  (Romans 3:21-26)

Christmas: Becoming Truly Human

When we did the Vespers of Christmas on Friday evening (December 23), the very first hymn from the “Lord I call upon You…” verses really caught my ear as it seemed to capture so many of the theological lessons of the Feast of the Nativity.

Come, let us greatly rejoice in the Lord,
as we sing of this present mystery:
the wall that divided God from man has been destroyed;

[In Ephesians 2:13-16, St. Paul refers to the “dividing wall”: “Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called the uncircumcision by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.   But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ.  For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end.” (Emphasis is mine and not in the text)  

2nd Temple

 For St. Paul, we Gentiles especially were separated from God – we did not have the Law and we fell under the power the demons whom we spiritually served.  But Jesus Christ ended that separation and we in Christ have been made part of God’s people.  Certainly if one studies the layout of Herod’s Jerusalem temple, we get the visible, physical sense that there was a wall (several!) separating the Gentiles from God.  St. Paul says, and the hymn certainly picks up this theme, that any “wall” which had separated us from God is abolished.  Whatever wall had been built to divide Gentiles from Jews or humanity from God is destroyed by Jesus Christ.  In its place, we have been built into a living temple.   So new construction took place – the dividing wall was demolished and now we are built as the walls of the temple – nothing separates us from God for God abides in us His temple.  In St. Paul’s day, he would have known of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem.  Christ Himself replaces that demolished temple.  Christmas celebrates the removal of all walls and divisions between God and humanity!   We have access to God, to God’s Kingdom, to heaven where God abides. (Sadly, at times in Orthodox thinking the “dividing wall” gets rebuilt and seems to be preferred – iconostases and doors and curtains are built some say to make us feel our exile from God.  Laity are separated from clergy by such walls.  We recreate walls separating Orthodox from Jews and non-Orthodox Christians.  Men and women are separated, as are monks from the rest of the laity.  We would do well to consider what our Nativity hymns tell us about the complete elimination of such walls.)   Almost all of our Feasts of Christ and the Theotokos have in one form or another a theme of the dividing wall being torn down  – heaven is opened to us, the Holy of Holies is opened to us, Paradise is opened to us.  God is united to humanity, heaven and earth are joined together.  If theosis is true, there are no walls separating us from God, nor would any baptized Christian be separated from any other.]

the flaming sword withdraws from Eden’s gate;
the Cherubim withdraw from the Tree of Life;

[In Genesis 3:24, as a result of the sinful disobedience of Adam and Eve, God expels them from Paradise and creates the dividing which prevents our immediate return to Paradise.  “God 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.”   According to our theology, in Christ the gate to Eden is opened to us again – the Cherubim no longer prevent us from accessing the Tree of Life.  Christ’s cross is the Tree of Life and all baptized believers have complete access to Paradise and eternal life.  No walls of any kind separate us from God, the Holy of Holies , Paradise or Heaven.  Neither should we rebuild what God destroyed!]

and I, who had been cast out through my disobedience,
now feast on the delights of Paradise:
for today the Father’s perfect Image,
marked with the stamp of His eternity,
has taken the form of a servant.

[Christmas is the “today” on which “I” and every “Adam” and every Christian experiences the Paradise which had been denied us because of sin.  The Law just ended up building a bigger wall between humanity and God, since humans proved incapable of keeping the Law.  It is the Word of God becoming incarnate, taking on human flesh, in Jesus Christ which unites us to Heaven.  It is not our doing – we can’t attain Heaven by perfectly keeping Torah or Tradition.  It is not a matter of our trying harder – pray more, fast stricter, repent more deeply, attend more and longer services.  It is Christ in His person who heals and saves us.  We are gifted with salvation – we put on Christ in baptism and thus receive union with God.  We continue to experience that salvation in and through the sacramental and liturgical life which inspires us to the moral life.  Nothing separates us from God, there is no more exile.]

Without undergoing change He is born from an unwedded mother;
He was true God, and He remains the same,
but through His love for mankind,
He has become what He never was: true man.
Come, O faithful, let us cry to Him:
“O God, born of the Virgin, have mercy on us!”

[As the early Christians said it, “God became human so that humans might become God.”  The first part of this is the Nativity of Christ!  The incarnation makes theosis possible.  The Theotokos is the true sign of this salvation.  God became that which is “not God” – God became human to lift humanity up to union with divinity.  This is what God has wished and worked for throughout history since the time of the sin of Eve and Adam.]

A Brief History of the Feast of the Nativity

“The Feast of Christmas on 25th December developed in the West at the beginning of the fourth century. The Christian celebration of the birth of the Sun of Righteousness (cf. Malachi 4:2) soon spread from Rome and was well established in the Eastern empire by the late fourth century, although it was not until the sixth century that the Feast was fully accepted in Palestine. This celebration of the Nativity of the Lord owes much to the fact that major theological questions about the divinity of Christ had been resolved at the Council of Nicea in 325, and the liturgical texts strongly emphasize Christ’s divinity.

In the historical event of Christ’s birthday, the Lord’s humanity is quite obvious, but the Feast is not only about a human birth; it is about the human birth of the second Person of the Holy Trinity and the implications of the Incarnation for the salvation of the world. There is constant interplay in the texts between the visible details of the event and the invisible reality of what is taking place as God the Son, the eternal Word, takes flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary and is born at Bethlehem.” (John Baggley, Festal Icons of the Christian Year, p 31)

Thinking About What Is True

St. Paul can write to the Philippians,

‘Whatever is true,

whatever is honorable,

whatever is just,

whatever is pure,

whatever is lovely,

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whatever is gracious,

if there is any excellence,

if there is anything worthy of praise,

think about these things’

(Phil. 4:8).

Because in thinking about these things, Paul says, our minds are on Jesus Christ. In the next chapter of the same letter he says, ‘Once you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord; walk as children of light, for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true’ (Eph. 5:8-9, emphasis added).

Conversely,

anywhere there is deceit or distortion of truth;

where there is a degree of denial on however a deep a level;

game-of-thrones

where we are dishonest- out of convenience or out of the need for power or gratification or out of misinformation or ignorance – or if we are ‘living a lie’;

there is a distance from Christ himself.”

(Peter Bouteneff, Sweeter Than Honey, p 33)