Four Hundred Texts on Love 2

Posted: April 8th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

2.  Dispassion engenders love, hope in God engenders dispassion, and patience and forbearance engender hope in God; these in turn are the product of complete self-control, which itself springs from fear of God. Fear of God is the result of faith in God.

This text by St. Maximos revolves another idea we are prone to misunderstand. When we think of someone who is dispassionate, we tend to think of someone who is emotionless — either because they suppress or repress their emotions or because they have none. We most often associate dispassion, then, with the absence of emotion.

But that’s not what it generally means in ancient Christian writings. Since it is used pretty frequently, it’s an important concept to understand. The best explanation I’ve encountered is this one. Dispassion describes a state where, when you experience an emotion, you do not act on that emotion without a conscious act of volition or will. In other words, it describes a state where, rather than being ruled by our passions as we so often are, we rule them instead.

Dispassion does not mean that we do not experience emotion. It does not mean that we do express emotion. It does not mean that we do not act from that emotion. But it does mean that we do not think or act in response to that emotion without a conscious and deliberate choice.

Few of us ever attain this sort of dispassion even fleetingly. But I think it has to describe how Jesus lived his whole life. How else could he have kept his human will faithfully aligned with God’s if his every response was not under his conscious, volitional control? After all, he experienced the full range of human emotion and he often did so under more intense conditions than many of us will ever know. Yet even in the middle of his torture and execution, as he was reviled by all around him, he did not revile them in turn. Clearly, Jesus was a man who never “lost control” of himself.

I think we often interpret Jesus as though his thoughts and actions springing from his emotional responses mirrored our own. For instance, we often describe his actions overturning tables and driving out moneychangers from the temple as though Jesus became enraged and responded from that anger. But that’s not how it is described in the Gospels. Rather, it is portrayed as a prophetic act. Prophets didn’t just speak. They often acted in outrageous ways. And it was a Messianic act of cleansing and “rebuilding” the temple. And the leaders and the people understood it in that way. Efforts to eliminate him intensified.

No, Jesus didn’t fly off the handle and lose control in the temple. He acted faithfully in perfect accordance with God’s will. Was he also angry? Perhaps. It would have been a normal emotional response in those circumstances. But it was not anger that was driving him, whether he experienced it or not.

Off the top of my head, I can only think of one place where our Scriptures explicitly tell us Jesus was angry, and that was standing in front of Lazarus’ tomb. In Jesus we see the sorrow and anger of God at the death of the eikon. We know that Jesus experienced all that we experience, so we know that he felt all our normal range of emotions. But we are infrequently informed in our Scriptures about Jesus’ internal emotional state or experience at any particular moment. And while I see no harm in our attempts to see things from his perspective, we need to always keep in mind that even in his extremity his emotions never ruled him.

I also find the order of St. Maximos’ last thought interesting. Fear of God flows from faith in God and not the other way around. It strikes me that a lot of people today tend to get that one backwards.


Behold the Man!

Posted: April 2nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on Behold the Man!

I was looking through some things I had written in the past and ran across the following reflection on Pilate. It was written to be performed during a Good Friday service. One of the many layered themes in John’s gospel is a recapitulation of the creation narrative leading up to the new eighth day. On the sixth day in the Genesis 1 narrative, God created mankind. On the sixth “day” in John, we find Pilate declaring, “Behold the Man!”, as Jesus recapitulates our story and becomes the true Eucharistic man, the faithful man — all the way to the Cross.

Formed and shaped as I was growing up, I’ve also always been struck by Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” Of course, for Pilate, truth lay in the strength of the Roman sword. Power was the only “truth” that really mattered. Still, our modern world is now at least as pluralistic as ancient Rome. (And it’s no less besotted with its power.) And within that pluralism, “truth” is … difficult to discern. Truth according to whom? Very likely, that’s probably one of the reasons I tend to use words like “reality” instead. And here again, John’s gospel was helpful. Jesus, after all, says that he is truth. If you follow him, obey his commands, and grow to know him better, then you will know Truth. And when you do that, truth will not bind you or destroy you, as it will in so many other contexts. No, when you perceive reality through the lens that Christ offers, when you follow him and obey his commands, then and only then will the Truth set you free.

Behold the Man!

“Qui est veritas?” That was my response to this man’s impertinent claim. ‘Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to him?’ Utter nonsense! “What is truth?”, I asked. And to that question he had no reply. In fact, he has had little to say at all.

The Jewish leaders claim this man calls himself a king. It’s the only charge they bring against him, aside from some meaningless prattle about blasphemy against their god. I asked him if it was true, did he really believe he was some sort of king? His answer? Nothing but a bare acknowledgment that I had spoken. So arrogant! These Jews all display
such arrogance. If we’re going to discuss ‘truth’, then in truth I would gladly crucify them all. That would end their incessant rebellion. But no, I am expected to maintain the Pax Romana or pay the price of failure. And peace has been in short supply of late.

Truth … who cares about truth anyway? Position. Influence. Money. Power. Those matter. But truth? It means nothing. Often less than nothing.

My wife fears this man is a god or has been sent by the gods. Dreams can certainly be portents at time, but just look at him. Beaten, bloody, and helpless. Surely a god could save himself.

Still, I did see and hear his many followers loudly praising him a few days ago. If I crucify him, they may riot. Yet if I release him, this mob surely will. The flogging failed to quell their blood lust as I hoped it might.

How then shall I resolve the issue? I’ve already tried to release him. The mob demanded the murderer instead. And I’ve declared his innocence more than once. As far as I can tell, it’s even true that he’s innocent, yet more evidence of the uselessness of truth.

Hmmmm. If I present the mob their beaten ‘king’, I’m certain they’ll yet again demand his execution. Their priests and leaders have made certain of that. I could then wash my hands of the matter, crucify this fool, and place the blame on them. If his followers then rise up, it will be against the Jewish leaders. The Jews can fight amongst themselves and leave Rome out of it. Yes … that may even satisfy my wife’s concerns. Perfect.

Just look at this Jesus. Such a fool, angering the wrong people at the wrong time. Pitiful. Behold the ‘King of the Jews.’

Behold the Man!


On the Incarnation of the Word 24 – Jesus Did Not Control or Devise the Manner of His Death

Posted: September 16th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Incarnation of the Word | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on On the Incarnation of the Word 24 – Jesus Did Not Control or Devise the Manner of His Death

I have a sense that many evangelicals today might have a hard time wrapping their head around or accepting this section of Athanasius’ treatise. I could be wrong, of course, but it seems to me sometimes that many perceive Jesus as orchestrating, devising, choosing, and managing the Cross as his means of death. He accepted it, of course, when he had the power to refuse it. But that’s not quite the same thing.

Part of Athanasius’ objection is that if Jesus had died a public, glorious death, people would not have believed that he was powerful against every type of death, but only a noble death. By dying in the most shameful and ignoble form of execution devised, he demonstrated that he had power over all death. But he then extends that point.

And just as a noble wrestler, great in skill and courage, does not pick out his antagonists for himself, lest he should raise a suspicion of his being afraid of some of them, but puts it in the choice of the onlookers, and especially so if they happen to be his enemies, so that against whomsoever they match him, him he may throw, and be believed superior to them all; so also the Life of all, our Lord and Saviour, even Christ, did not devise a death for His own body, so as not to appear to be fearing some other death; but He accepted on the Cross, and endured, a death inflicted by others, and above all by His enemies, which they thought dreadful and ignominious and not to be faced; so that this also being destroyed, both He Himself might be believed to be the Life, and the power of death be brought utterly to nought. So something surprising and startling has happened; for the death, which they thought to inflict as a disgrace, was actually a monument of victory against death itself. Whence neither did He suffer the death of John, his head being severed, nor, as Esaias, was He sawn in sunder; in order that even in death He might still keep His body undivided and in perfect soundness, and no pretext be afforded to those that would divide the Church.

The Cross was devised and inflicted on Jesus by his enemies. He accepted it, but he did not orchestrate it. And the death intended to disgrace him became a symbol of victory instead.

And don’t miss the last point. Jesus did keep his body undivided in his death so that no pretext could be afforded to those who would divide the Church. Athanasius connects the Church directly to Christ’s physical body. When we strive to divide the church, as is extremely common today, what exactly are doing? It’s something to think about.