Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 33

Posted: April 19th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 33

72.  God created both the invisible and the visible worlds, and so He obviously also made both the soul and the body. If the visible world is so beautiful, what must the invisible world be like? And if the invisible world is superior to the visible world, how much superior to both is God their Creator? If, then, the Creator of everything that is beautiful is superior to all His creation, on what grounds does the intellect abandon what is superior to all and engross itself in what is worst of all – I mean the passions of the flesh? Clearly this happens because the intellect has lived with these passions and grown accustomed to them since birth, whereas it has not yet had perfect experience of Him who is superior to all and beyond all things. Thus, if we gradually wean the intellect away from this relationship by long practice of controlling our indulgence in pleasure and by persistent meditation on divine realities, the intellect will gradually devote itself more and more to these realities, will recognize its own dignity, and finally transfer all its desire to the divine.

Asceticism, a word derived from one which originally described the physical training of an athlete, used to be part of the universal life of all Christians. We recognized, as St. Maximos outlines above, that we must train our nous and break the grip of the passions which enthrall us. Somehow that awareness and practice has been all but lost in modern Christianity. Is it any wonder, then, that we’re spiritually flabby?


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 21

Posted: March 8th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 21

50.  Through genuine love for God we can drive out the passions. Love for God is this: to choose Him rather than the world, and the soul rather than the flesh, by despising the things of this world and by devoting ourselves constantly to Him through self-control, love, prayer, psalmody and so on.

Love heals and true love for the God who is love can heal any passion which holds us in bondage. Do I devote myself constantly to God? Hardly. I tend to be lousy at the practice of loving others (which is inseparable from loving God). I don’t feel any closer to unceasing prayer or “prayer of the heart” and struggle even to maintain my small prayer rule. I’m not even sure how I would recognize progress. Nevertheless, I keep choosing God each day. Love draws me like a moth to flame. Love may be a consuming fire, but it’s also irresistible.


Mary 15 – Annunciation of the Theotokos

Posted: February 6th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Mary | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

 

Annunciation of the Theotokos

 

This feast, celebrated on December 8, is called the Feast of the Immaculate Conception within the Roman Catholic Church. The feast in both traditions celebrates the conception of Mary. However, it’s not one of the twelve Great Feast in Orthodoxy, but it is a Holy Day of Obligation in the Catholic Church, which places a greater emphasis on the feast.

The Catholic feast name actually marks a point in dogma (at least since 1854) on which the Catholic church differs pretty significantly from the Orthodox. Here is the Catholic definition of the dogma from Ineffabilus Deus issued by Pope Pious IX.

We declare, pronounce and define that the doctrine which holds that the Blessed Virgin Mary, at the first instant of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace of the Omnipotent God, in virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of mankind, was preserved immaculate from all stain of original sin, has been revealed by God, and therefore should firmly and constantly be believed by all the faithful.

The Orthodox have no issue with the idea that the Theotokos lived a blameless life and that she lived a life filled with the Holy Spirit. The problem, however, lies in their difference with Catholicism over the definition and meaning of the ancestral sin. Notably, they do not believe that the ancestral sin is passed along genetically as a burden of guilt as the doctrine of original sin requires. As such, in the Orthodox perspective all infants are born blameless and untainted by any guilt. However, we are all born mortal, subject to death and all the evil and brokenness in the world.

Once you understand that view, it’s easy to see that it is necessary that Mary and later Jesus be born fully as one of us.  As an often-quoted saying about the Incarnation of our Lord states, “That which is not assumed is not healed.” Jesus inherited the fullness of our nature from his mother. He became sarx or flesh. It’s not the general term for body, which was soma.  From what I understand, it could be translated meat. He became mortal and subject to everything we suffer. Because he was also God before the Ages, the Incarnate Word, he was able to remain faithful where we fail and thus heal humanity and grant us the possibility of union with God.

I’m not Orthodox, but it’s my understanding that the Orthodox perceive the dogma of the Immaculate Conception as something Catholics have added to the faith and, as such, it’s a problem for them. Despite the doctrinal difference, the feast of the Annunciation of the Theotokos is still an important Orthodox feast even though it’s not one of the Great Feasts.

One thing I’ve noticed about many Protestants is that they almost seem to view Mary as little more than a “vessel” for the Incarnation. It’s as though they believe Mary simply served a biological function and any other vessel would have sufficed. In other words, if Mary hadn’t worked out, God would have just picked another vessel to bear the Word. (In reality, I believe that was actually a part of one of the ancient heresies that’s found new life today.) There’s no indication anywhere that’s true. Mary’s ‘yes‘ to God heals Eve’s ‘no.’ Nowhere is there any hint that God had a Plan B. Moreover, Mary did not merely give birth to Jesus. She raised him. She taught him. She loved him as his mother and shaped his human formation. That’s simply amazing if you allow yourself to think about it. We see in Jesus’ first recorded proclamation in the synagogue echoes of the Magnificat.

No, if Jesus is important to us, then Mary has to be. I don’t see any alternative.

 


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 4

Posted: January 5th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 4

9. ‘No man has ever hated his own flesh’, says the Apostle (Eph. 5:29), but he disciplines it and makes it his servant (cf. 1 Cor. 9:27), allowing it nothing but food and clothing (cf. 1 Tim. 6:8), and then only what is necessary for life. In this way a man loves his flesh dispassionately and nourishes it and cares for it as a servant of divine things, supplying it only with what meets its basic needs.

If self-love as described the day before yesterday is a passion that opens the door for all passions, then this describes a dispassionate love for ourselves. Of course, I don’t live that way and I’m not sure I know many people who do. If there’s a spectrum, then I’m pretty sure I fall closer to the self-love St. Maximos described in the prior texts rather than the dispassionate love he describes above.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 25

Posted: March 22nd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 25

57. With regard to Christ, we do not speak of a distinction of persons, because the Trinity remained a Trinity after the incarnation of the Logos. A fourth person was not added to the Holy Trinity as a result of the incarnation. We speak of a distinction of natures to avoid asserting that the flesh is coessential in its nature with the Logos.

This text and the next several following become very technical and precise and the effort to translate them into English while preserving their meaning leaves them a little stilted. But I want to include them because they are some of the clearest statements not only on the Trinity, but on the way the Incarnation fits into our understanding. If you have studied the history of the Church, you will hear echoes of lessons learned from past heresies in these texts by St. Maximos.

Christ is not two persons. He was one person, the Son, before the Incarnation and he remains one person. The Trinity is still a Trinity. However, as embodied human beings, we are not of the same essence or nature as God. So the flesh Christ assumed was our nature and that nature retains its distinct human essence. It is not overwhelmed by the divine essence nor does it mingle with it. Monophysitism had held that Christ had one nature. While it was expressed in different ways, the primary expression was that the divine nature had absorbed the human nature, so that only the divine nature remained. This concept is hard to grasp and it’s made harder because we don’t really have the words in English that precisely correlate with the Greek words actually used. Nestorius, in an earlier heresy, had emphasized the disunion between the human and the divine nature to the extent that he described two persons, a human Jesus and a divine Christ.

The actual Christian understanding of Christ has always been found between those two poles and in these texts we see that understanding articulated.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 19

Posted: February 22nd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 19

50.  If we who have been given the honor of becoming the house of God (cf. Heb. 3:6) by grace through the Spirit must patiently endure suffering for the sake of righteousness (cf. Heb. 10:36) in order to condemn sin, and must readily submit like criminals to insolent death even though we are good, ‘what will be the fate of those who refuse to obey the Gospel of God?’ (1 Pet. 4:17). That is to say, what will be the fate or sentence of those who not only have diligently kept that pleasure-provoked, nature-dominating Adamic form of generation alive and active in their soul and body, will and nature, right up to the end; but who also accept neither God the Father, who summons them through His incarnate Son, nor the Son and Mediator Himself, the ambassador of the Father (cf. 1 Tim. 2:5)? To reconcile us with the Father, at His Father’s wish the Son deliberately gave Himself to death on our behalf so that, just as He consented to be dishonored for our sake by assuming our passions, to an equal degree He might glorify us with the beauty of His own divinity.

This text asks a question that strikes me as particularly appropriate in light of the video on Salvation I posted this past Sunday. This text sets the stage rather than provide an answer, but it asks the right question. It strikes me that question is often wrongly posed as something more like: What do I have to do to get God to accept me? It sets God in opposition to us when that has never been true. We have set ourselves against God, but on his part God has never been against us. Instead he has pursued us unfailingly — assuming our passions in the flesh and ultimately descending with us all the way into death.

The question is not about God. God has done all this is necessary and possible to rescue us and continues through the Spirit to do everything possible to rescue us. But he will not force us to be something we do not will to be. God is the lover of mankind, not its rapist. God cannot act counter to his nature and will not violate the fundamental element of freedom with which he has imbued his creation. That would make both creation and God less than they are.

No, the question now lies on us. In a sense, it always has. Where will we turn our will? What sort of being do we seek to be? Will we seek communion with God or will we continue seek a non-existence we cannot achieve? Will we act to become truly human? Or will we seek instead to become something like an ex-human being?

If you don’t ask the right question, you’re less likely to stumble across the right answer — or recognize it if you do. I think this may be part of the problem with so many strands of modern Christianity. They find many different answers to the wrong questions.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 16

Posted: February 10th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 16

43.  The Lord gave clear evidence of His supreme power in what He endured from hostile forces when He endowed human nature with an incorruptible form of generation. For through His passion He conferred dispassion, through suffering repose, and through death eternal life. By His privations in the flesh He re-established and renewed the human state, and by His own incarnation He bestowed on human nature the supranatural grace of deification.

It is no longer the nature of man to die.

I think we sometimes lose sight of that truth as Christians today. We are no longer slaves to death. Moreover, we can now become like God. We can become one with God. Before the Incarnation, that was forever beyond our reach. God was wholly other from us. While we could not know or commune with God, the Word could and did become one of us. That’s why the best short description of salvation is union with Christ. As we are one with Christ, so we become one with God and with each other.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 15

Posted: February 8th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 15

42.  The Lord revealed His wisdom by the way in which He healed man, becoming man without the slightest change or mutation. He demonstrated the equity of justice when in His self-abasement He submitted deliberately to the sentence to which what is passible in human nature is subject, and made that sentence a weapon for the destruction of sin and of the death which comes through sin – that is, for the destruction of pleasure and of the pain which pleasure engenders. It was in this pleasure-pain syndrome that the dominion of sin and death lay: the tyranny of sin committed in pursuit of pleasure, and the lordship of the painful death consequent upon sin. For the dominion of pleasure and pain clearly applies to what is passible in human nature. And we seek how to alleviate through pleasure the penalty of pain, thus in the nature of things increasing the penalty. For in our desire to escape pain we seek refuge in pleasure, and so try to bring relief to our nature, hard pressed as it is by the torment of pain. But through trying in this way to blunt pain with pleasure, we but increase our sum of debts, for we cannot enjoy pleasure that does not lead to pain and suffering.

This text restates the wonder and importance in Jesus becoming fully human in every way, “without the slightest change or mutation.” He didn’t take on the mere appearance of humanity. He wasn’t mostly human. He became sarx or flesh wholly and fully while also, in a great mystery, also containing the fullness of the godhead. Nothing less could have healed us. And then we see St. Maximos once again describe the way Jesus turned death into a weapon destroying death. The fullness of the glory of God was displayed to all creation, made manifest to all mankind, on the Cross.


Ancient Texts 5 – Interpretation

Posted: January 3rd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ancient Texts 5 – Interpretation

At this point in the series, I want to apply the things already discussed to some aspects of modern biblical interpretation. I have at times encountered people and studies that delved deeply into the etymology, tense, or alternate usages of a specific individual word or phrase found in the text. In and of itself, there’s nothing particularly wrong with doing that. I have a love of language and its nuances myself. It’s not the sort of thing that many people necessarily find enjoyable, but I do and I understand others who do.

Nevertheless, it’s important to realize that when you break the text down to a specific word, there are potential problems. First, we don’t actually know for certain if the word we believe was used was precisely the one actually used. It could be a simple scribal error or it could be that as punctuation developed, a later scribe made a more subtle interpretive error like picking the wrong gender for a word. However, the original text itself was likely developed in synergy between an apostle who was not a native Greek speaker and a scribe who was more proficient at Greek. It’s the text as a whole that is most important, not the individual words chosen. Finally, we are all far removed from that culture. Language is always a dynamic interaction with the culture in which it was embedded. Words and phrases are not always used to mean what they would normally mean in another context.

None of that should detract from the joy some find in studying words and language, but it should raise a cautionary flag. When such study simply illuminates or expands the historic teaching and interpretation of the Church, it’s beneficial. It’s like St. John Chrysostom drawing a spiritual point from two variant renderings of a text. There isn’t really even a problem with such study providing a novel interpretation as long as that novel interpretation remains consistent with the historic framework of Christian faith and practice.

However, I have seen such word study used — both historically and in the present — to promote an interpretation that contradicts the historic framework of Christian belief and interpretation. At that point, you have to make a choice. Will I believe this new thing I have discovered — either directly or through a teacher? There is and has always been an attraction toward special knowledge for most human beings. You can trace the thread of that temptation through many Christian heresies and schisms over the centuries. We like the feeling that we have special knowledge or insight that others lack. I tend to be suspicious any time I can track a specific belief or practice to an individual or group who broke from the larger Christian strand over that belief or practice with their own unique interpretation supporting it.

Christianity cannot be constructed (or reconstructed) from the Holy Scriptures alone. I’m not sure any faiths can simply be constructed from scratch using nothing but their sacred texts, but I’ve never delved deeply into some of the other religions like Islam, so I’ll reserve judgment. But Christianity cannot be so constructed. Christianity flows from an oral culture and is centered around the experience and proclamation of the singular event of the Incarnation, Cross, Resurrection, and Ascension of Jesus of Nazareth and the coming of the Holy Spirit. (Some Fathers describe the Word and the Spirit as the two hands of God.)

Some of that oral tradition is captured in the texts of of the New Testament, but much of it is not. Moreover, what Christians call the Old Testament is almost useless apart from that tradition. In the teachings of Jesus, the first sermon of Peter, and continuing all the way through to the second century Demonstration of the Apostolic Teaching by St. Irenaeus of Lyons we see the Old Testament radically reinterpreted in the light of the fullness of the revelation of Christ. St. Justin wrote to the Rabbi Trypho that the Jews read the Scriptures without understanding because they do not acknowledge Christ. The tradition of that reinterpretation must be transmitted because it cannot be reconstructed from the text alone.

Either the Apostolic tradition of interpretation has been continuously maintained or it is lost and the Church failed. St. Irenaeus of Lyons, writing against the gnostic heretics, made the following point about their use of the Scriptures, which is worth always keeping in mind.

Their manner of acting is just as if one, when a beautiful image of a king has been constructed by some skillful artist out of precious jewels, should then take this likeness of the man all to pieces, should rearrange the gems, and so fit them together as to make them into the form of a dog or of a fox, and even that but poorly executed; and should then maintain and declare that this was the beautiful image of the king which the skillful artist constructed, pointing to the jewels which had been admirably fitted together by the first artist to form the image of the king, but have been with bad effect transferred by the latter one to the shape of a dog, and by thus exhibiting the jewels, should deceive the ignorant who had no conception what a king’s form was like, and persuade them that that miserable likeness of the fox was, in fact, the beautiful image of the king.

How, then did the Church maintain the proper and beautiful image of the king? He wrote about that as well.

The Church, though dispersed through our the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: [She believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and His [future] manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father “to gather all things in one,” and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Saviour, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father, “every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess” to Him, and that He should execute just judgment towards all; that He may send “spiritual wickednesses,” and the angels who transgressed and became apostates, together with the ungodly, and unrighteous, and wicked, and profane among men, into everlasting fire; but may, in the exercise of His grace, confer immortality on the righteous, and holy, and those who have kept His commandments, and have persevered in His love, some from the beginning [of their Christian course], and others from [the date of] their repentance, and may surround them with everlasting glory.

As I have already observed, the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. She also believes these points [of doctrine] just as if she had but one soul, and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them, and teaches them, and hands them down, with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth. For, although the languages of the world are dissimilar, yet the import of the tradition is one and the same. For the Churches which have been planted in Germany do not believe or hand down anything different, nor do those in Spain, nor those in Gaul, nor those in the East, nor those in Egypt, nor those in Libya, nor those which have been established in the central regions of the world. But as the sun, that creature of God, is one and the same throughout the whole world, so also the preaching of the truth shineth everywhere, and enlightens all men that are willing to come to a knowledge of the truth. Nor will any one of the rulers in the Churches, however highly gifted he may be in point of eloquence, teach doctrines different from these (for no one is greater than the Master); nor, on the other hand, will he who is deficient in power of expression inflict injury on the tradition. For the faith being ever one and the same, neither does one who is able at great length to discourse regarding it, make any addition to it, nor does one, who can say but little diminish it.

In other words, the Church in its unity of faith has received the apostolic preaching and carefully preserves it. All the churches in every country and in every language do not believe or hand down anything different. Whatever else we might say about it, one thing is clear to me. Protestantism has failed to do that. Completely, utterly, and it seems to me beyond all argument or dispute. And much of that disintegration has hinged on interpretation. People have taken a tile or a group of tiles from the mosaic and they have arranged them in a different way. The more charismatic or otherwise convincing ones have been able to get others to accept their new arrangement of the tiles as the true mosaic.

Trace the threads of the interpretations you believe whether you received them from others or have found them for yourself. If you cannot trace those interpretations and the beliefs and practices they support back to an apostolic origin, I would suggest you consider why you believe that particular interpretation. It doesn’t matter how well you can logically support your interpretation. The texts of the Holy Scriptures are a mosaic and can be fit together to teach a great many things quite reasonably. (If that weren’t true, we wouldn’t have had so many heretical and schismatic groups from the early first century on nor would Protestantism have splintered into more than thirty thousand separate denominations and non-denominations.) Can the thread of that interpretation be supported historically or not? If not, you have a mosaic, but not necessarily the true mosaic of Christ.


Thirsting for God 3 – Who is God?

Posted: December 3rd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith, Thirsting for God | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Thirsting for God 3 – Who is God?

This series is reflecting on Matthew Gallatin’s book, Thirsting for God in a Land of Shallow Wells.

How can people who are so clearly divided in their beliefs possibly claim to be “one”?

Matthew was standing between friends who he knew had completely contradictory beliefs as they sang “In our hearts, we’re undivided,” when the above question dawned on him. It’s the introduction to the next section of the book. The following explores the nature of belief and trust.

After all, it is absolutely impossible for a person to place real trust in a doctrine that he believes to be false, or even just possibly true. When it comes to matters of my Christian faith, saying “I believe this” is clearly the same thing as saying, “This is the truth.”

Think about that for a minute. Isn’t that true? Or can you think of a time when it’s not? And that leads to a very important question.

The fact that people jointly claim “Jesus is the Son of God come in the flesh” is not the true test of unity. To be one in their confession, they must mean the same thing by their words. … What specific part of this statement generates the variations in meaning? The most important word of all — God.

What sort of God do people envision when they use that word? And, assuming there is some actual reality behind whatever they envision, how closely does the God they imagine conform to the reality of God? This is not an idle question and is the underlying source for the ever-splintering nature of Protestantism. They do not imagine the same God.

For instance, when I say, “Jesus is Lord,” do I mean the Lord who reveres human free will, or the Lord who has no room for free will in His Kingdom? After all, they can’t both be the same God. When I say, “I’m saved by grace,” am I talking about a salvation and a grace that extends to every human creature? Or am I referring to a salvation and a grace that God will grant only to some restricted, foreordained group?

These are not idle questions if there is, in fact, a real God. And that led him to the following realization. It was somewhat earth-shattering for Matthew, but have always been an obvious conclusion to me. After all, Christianity claims that the fullness of the Godhead is revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. That means that the extent to which we know Jesus as he truly is and not as we imagine him to be is the extent to which we know God. Christianity is not like Hinduism, within which there are many paths and not even a single view of the goal. (I hesitate to use the word “salvation” as Hinduism doesn’t really follow that perspective.) No, Christianity is much more like the conclusion to which Matthew came.

If God is not who I believe Him to be, then I have no God. … At last, I understood that the monumental question I needed to answer was not, “Am I right about my doctrine?” It was, rather, “Am I really a Christian?” … If the God I love and worship is not real, I am no different from the fervent, kind-hearted heathen or the pious, morally upright pagan.

Those questions matter. It’s not that God cares so much what I believe about him or that his love is conditioned by what I do or don’t believe. God loves us all and is not willing that any should perish. But love does not coerce. Fervently relating to my own mental image of God rather than the actual person of Jesus is as effective as a relating to an imaginary friend. Of course, it is possible to believe the wrong things about God and still know God. You can find those in every Christian denomination who clearly know and love God even though they have contradictory images of him. But I would tend to say those people have found God in spite of the divergence, not because of it. I don’t underestimate God’s ability to break through. But the splintering of truth makes that ever harder. We see that manifesting in a lot of different ways today.