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)

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

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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)

 

 

To Know God is More Than Just to Think About God

He presented Himself to them living (Acts 1:3).

With these words, Luke is telling us that the fullness of time has come (Gal 4.4), that God’s promises have been fulfilled. Christ had to suffer, rise from the dead, ascend into the heavens, and resume His place at the right hand of the Father, in order to ensure the promise of their salvation; so that their deepest desires would not remain unfulfilled.

Thus Christ presented himself living in order to show his disciples that, if there was any point to their existence, it was precisely the vision of God: in seeing the living Christ. True communication with God is not simply thinking about God; neither is it a loving disposition toward Him. Instead, it is perfect knowledge of Him, a ‘grasping’ of God in the sense of taking possession of Him, making Him your own, having an experience of God as living. And that God is living means that I stand in relation to him as to life itself, a relationship in which the two of us – two lives, two activities, two persons – live and move together, in a process of mutual giving and receiving.

By saying that He presented Himself living, Luke is telling us that the aim of life is the vision of God: to see and enjoy the living God. Thus if I am unable to see God, or lay hold of Him, or win Him over; if I am unable to love God truly, with a love that is a true dynamic embrace, then God for me is not a living God: He is a dead God. And Luke’s words are consequently a testimony to the resurrection. In Christ, God became man, suffered, was buried, and rose from the grave – without ever ceasing to be the Son and Word of God – so that man might share in His divinity and thereby partake fully of true life.”

(Archimandrite Aimillianos, The Way of the Spirit, p. 167-168)

 

On the Birth of the Christ

“What shall I say to you; what shall I tell you? I behold a Mother who has brought forth; I see a Child come to this light by birth. The manner of His conception I cannot comprehend. Nature here rested, while the Will of God labored. O ineffable grace! The Only Begotten, Who is before all ages, Who cannot be touched or be perceived, Who is simple, without body, has now put on my body, that is visible and liable to corruption. For what reason? That coming amongst us he may teach us, and teaching, lead us by the hand to the things that men cannot see. For since men believe that the eyes are more trustworthy than the ears, they doubt of that which they do not see, and so He has deigned to show Himself in bodily presence, that He may remove all doubt.

And he was born from a Virgin, who knew not His purpose neither had she labored with Him to bring it to pass, nor contributed to that which He had done, but was the simple instrument of His hidden Power. That alone she knew which she had learned by her question to Gabriel: how shall this be done, because I know not a man? Then said he; do you wish to hear his words? The Holy Spirit shall come upon thee, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee.

And in what manner was the almighty with her, Who in a little while came forth from her? He was as the craftsman, who coming on some suitable material, fashions to himself a beautiful vessel; so Christ, finding the holy body and soul of the Virgin, builds for Himself a living temple, and as He had willed, formed there a man from the Virgin; and, putting Him on, this day came forth; unashamed of the loveliness of our nature. For it was to Him no lowering to put on what he Himself had made. Let that handiwork be forever glorified, which became the cloak of its own Creator. For as in the first creation of flesh, man could not be made before the clay had come into His hand, so neither could this corruptible body be glorified, until it had first become the garment of its Maker.

What shall I say! And how shall I describe this Birth to you? For this wonder fills me with astonishment. The Ancient of days has become an infant. He Who sits upon the sublime and heavenly Throne, now lies in a manger. And He Who cannot be touched, Who is simple, without complexity, and incorporeal, now lies subject to the hands of men. He Who has broken the bonds of sinners, is now bound by an infant’s bands. But He has decreed that ignominy shall become honor, infamy be clothed with glory, and total humiliation the measure of His Goodness.

For this He assumed my body, that I may become capable of His Word; taking my flesh, He gives me His spirit; and so He bestowing and I receiving, He prepares for me the treasure of Life. He takes my flesh, to sanctify me; He gives me His Spirit that He may save me.”

(St. John Chrysostom, “Nativity Homily,” The Sunday Sermons of the Great Fathers, pp. 112-113)

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).

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.