Excerpts from the Letters of Cyril to Nestorius, and the 12 Anathemas.

cyrilApproved by the Council of Ephesus, AD 431.

“To the most religious and beloved of God, fellow minister Nestorius, Cyril sends greeting in the Lord . . .

The holy and great Synod therefore says, that the only begotten Son, born according to nature of God the Father, very God of very God, Light of Light, by whom the Father made all things, came down, and was incarnate, and was made man, suffered, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven. These words and these decrees we ought to follow, considering what is meant by the Word of God being incarnate and made man.

For we do not say that the nature of the Word was changed and became flesh, or that it was converted into a whole man consisting of soul and body; but rather that the Word having personally united to himself flesh animated by a rational soul, did in an ineffable and inconceivable manner become man, and was called the Son of Man, not merely as willing or being pleased to be so called, neither on account of taking to himself a person, but because the two natures being brought together in a true union, there is of both one Christ and one Son; for the difference of the natures is not taken away by the union, but rather the divinity and the humanity make perfect for us the one Lord Jesus Christ by their ineffable and inexpressible union.

So then he who had an existence before all ages and was born of the Father, is said to have been born according to the flesh of a woman, not as though his divine nature received its beginning of existence in the holy Virgin, for it needed not any second generation after that of the Father (for it would be absurd and foolish to say that he who existed before all ages, coeternal with the Father, needed any second beginning of existence), but since, for us and for our salvation, he personally united to himself an human body, and came forth of a woman, he is in this way said to be born after the flesh; for he was not first born a common man of the holy Virgin, and then the Word came down and entered into him, but the union being made in the womb itself, he is said to endure a birth after the flesh, ascribing to himself the birth of his own flesh. . . .

We, therefore, confess one Christ and Lord, not as worshipping a man with the Word (lest this expression “with the Word” should suggest to the mind the idea of division), but worshipping him as one and the same, forasmuch as the body of the Word, with which he sits with the Father, is not separated from the Word himself, not as if two sons were sitting with him, but one by the union with the flesh. If, however, we reject the personal union as impossible or unbecoming, we fall into the error of speaking of two sons, for it will be necessary to distinguish, and to say, that he who was properly man was honored with the appellation of Son, and that he who is properly the Word of God, has by nature both the name and the reality of Sonship.

We must not, therefore, divide the one Lord Jesus Christ into two Sons. Neither will it at all avail to a sound faith to hold, as some do, an union of persons; for the Scripture has not said that the Word united to himself the person of man, but that he was made flesh. This expression, however, “the Word was made flesh,” can mean nothing else but that he partook of flesh and blood like to us; he made our body his own, and came forth man from a woman, not casting off his existence as God, or his generation of God the Father, but even in taking to himself flesh remaining what he was. This the declaration of the correct faith proclaims everywhere.

This was the sentiment of the holy Fathers; therefore they ventured to call the holy Virgin, the Mother of God, not as if the nature of the Word or his divinity had its beginning from the holy Virgin, but because of her was born that holy body with a rational soul, to which the Word being personally united is said to be born according to the flesh.

These things, therefore, I now write unto you for the love of Christ, beseeching you as a brother, and testifying to you before Christ and the elect angels, that you would both think and teach these things with us, that the peace of the Churches may be preserved and the bond of concord and love continue unbroken amongst the Priests of God. . . .

Confessing the Word to be made one with the flesh according to substance, we adore one Son and Lord Jesus Christ: we do not divide the God from the man, nor separate him into parts, as though the two natures were mutually united in him only through a sharing of dignity and authority (for that is a novelty and nothing else), neither do we give separately to the Word of God the name Christ and the same name separately to a different one born of a woman; but we know only one Christ, the Word from God the Father with his own Flesh. For as man he was anointed with us, although it is he himself who gives the Spirit to those who are worthy and not in measure, according to the saying of the blessed Evangelist John.

But we do not say that the Word of God dwelt in him as in a common man born of the holy Virgin, lest Christ be thought of as a God-bearing man; for although the Word tabernacled among us, it is also said that in Christ “dwelt all the fulness of the Godhead bodily”; but we understand that be became flesh, not just as he is said to dwell in the saints, but we define that that tabernacling in him was according to equality  But being made one kata fusin, and not converted into flesh, he made his indwelling in such a way, as we may say that the soul of man does in his own body. . . .

And since the holy Virgin brought forth corporally God made one with flesh according to nature, for this reason we also call her Mother of God, not as if the nature of the Word had the beginning of its existence from the flesh. . . .

The 12 Anathemas, Proposed by Cyril and accepted by the Council of Ephesus:


  1. If anyone does not confess that Emmanuel is God in truth, and therefore that the holy virgin is the mother of God (for she bore in a fleshly way the Word of God become flesh), let him be anathema.
  2. If anyone does not confess that the Word from God the Father has been united by hypostasis with the flesh and is one Christ with his own flesh, and is therefore God and man together, let him be anathema.
  3. If anyone divides in the one Christ the hypostases after the union, joining them only by a conjunction of dignity or authority or power, and not rather by a coming together in a union by nature, let him be anathema.
  4. If anyone distributes between the two persons or hypostases the expressions used either in the gospels or in the apostolic writings, whether they are used by the holy writers of Christ or by him about himself, and ascribes some to him as to a man, thought of separately from the Word from God, and others, as befitting God, to him as to the Word from God the Father, let him be anathema.
  5. If anyone dares to say that Christ was a God-bearing man and not rather God in truth, being by nature one Son, even as “the Word became flesh”, and is made partaker of blood and flesh precisely like us, let him be anathema.
  6. If anyone says that the Word from God the Father was the God or master of Christ, and does not rather confess the same both God and man, the Word having become flesh, according to the scriptures, let him be anathema.
  7. If anyone says that as man Jesus was activated by the Word of God and was clothed with the glory of the Only-begotten, as a being separate from him, let him be anathema.
  8. If anyone dares to say that the man who was assumed ought to be worshipped and glorified together with the divine Word and be called God along with him, while being separate from him, (for the addition of “with” must always compel us to think in this way), and will not rather worship Emmanuel with one veneration and send up to him one doxology, even as “the Word became flesh”, let him be anathema.
  9. If anyone says that the one Lord Jesus Christ was glorified by the Spirit, as making use of an alien power that worked through him and as having received from him the power to master unclean spirits and to work divine wonders among people, and does not rather say that it was his own proper Spirit through whom he worked the divine wonders, let him be anathema.
  10. The divine scripture says Christ became “the high priest and apostle of our confession”; he offered himself to God the Father in an odour of sweetness for our sake. If anyone, therefore, says that it was not the very Word from God who became our high priest and apostle, when he became flesh and a man like us, but as it were another who was separate from him, in particular a man from a woman, or if anyone says that he offered the sacrifice also for himself and not rather for us alone (for he who knew no sin needed no offering), let him be anathema.
  11. If anyone does not confess that the flesh of the Lord is life-giving and belongs to the Word from God the Father, but maintains that it belongs to another besides him, united with him in dignity or as enjoying a mere divine indwelling, and is not rather life-giving, as we said, since it became the flesh belonging to the Word who has power to bring all things to life, let him be anathema.
  12. If anyone does not confess that the Word of God suffered in the flesh and was crucified in the flesh and tasted death in the flesh and became the first born of the dead, although as God he is life and life-giving, let him be anathema.



Christmas: Redemption of the Physical Universe

nativity-icon1 “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David.”

These were the prophetic words of Zechariah the priest, when his tongue was loosed to praise the Word of God who had become incarnate.

The Word of God who created the world had now entered the world in the womb of a virgin, as the Second Adam became incarnate in the womb of a virgin Second Eve.

Mary, the lowly maidservant from Galilee had conceived in her womb, and she become the Mother of God as the Holy Spirit overshadowed her, filled her, hovered over her in the new creation for the redemption of man and the renewal of all things.

The Theotokos was full of grace, the Lord was with her; blessed is she among all women, because blessed is the fruit of her womb, Jesus. The Fall of men was being reversed, and that lowly maidservant magnified the Lord and her spirit rejoiced in God her Savior. Now it is time for the Son of God to be born, as the light was to shine ever brighter in the darkness of fallen mankind.

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria.  And all went to be registered, each to his own town.  And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David,  to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.

As it is characteristic of Luke’s writing, he grounds his narrative in history. This is very important not only for the objective placement of the events he is describing, but also as a reminder that Christianity is not merely an ideology. God has entered time and space, and he has redeemed humanity by changing history. God has not become a Man eternally or timelessly, but he became incarnate in the womb of a Virgin in a particular day of a particular week of a particular month and year. Mary was about to give birth in the year that there was a decree that went out from Caesar Augustus, when Quirinius was governor of Syria, that all the world should be registered.

Scholars debate precisely when this happened, but evidence points that it was between 6 and 4 BC. Luke tells us that the decree was that “all the world” should be registered, and this immediately sets up the universal significance of Christ’s birth, because Luke is comparing and contrasting the decree of the ruler of the world, the Roman emperor, with the decree of God. Augustus’ decree was to affect the whole world (which is Biblical language referring to their world), but God’s decree was to affect the whole humanity and indeed the whole cosmos. The emperor wants to number the people so he can tax them, but God embodies humanity to give himself to it, as gathers his people to himself.

In order to be registered, Joseph takes his family with him to the designated city. He is taking with him a young teenager to whom he is betrothed, and yet carrying a Child who is not his son. The Gospel of Matthew tells us that Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, had resolved to divorce her quietly, but an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” And so Joseph, described as a righteous man, also receives the Word of God by faith and takes Mary to himself trusting in God’s promises – and in this way he was also embracing Mary’s joy as well as the pain that was to come.

Joseph and Mary had to register in the city according to their clan, which was the tribe of Judah, the house of the king David. The legitimate heir to David’s throne was about to be born, and his parents, descendents of David, go to Bethlehem, the city where king David had been born and anointed king 1000 years earlier This is also a fulfillment of the prophecy of Micah, given 700 years before Christ:

But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days. (Micah 5:2)

Luke continues,

And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth.  And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

The Mother of God gives birth to God the Son – and this takes place not in the most glorious royal palace there could be, as it would be fitting, but in the place where the animals were (tradition says it was a cave), because there was no place for them in the guest house in Bethlehem. There was no place in this world for the very creator of the world, for, as John tells us, “He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.”

Now God the Son has been born, and the baby is wrapped in cloths and laid on a manger. The creator and sustainer of the world comes to redeem the world, but he comes not in his unveiled glory, but as a frail baby who needs to be cared for, fed, nourished, protected, and loved. God becomes a Man and so he does not merely relate to humanity externally, as one whom we only encounter only the outside and as one deals with us merely through judicial decrees. No, he also takes humanity upon himself completely, for, as the Fathers remind us, that which he has not taken upon himself, he cannot redeem. The Logos fully assumes a human nature, excepting sin (since sin is not natural or inherent in human nature); as he becomes truly human, he is able then to redeem us entirely.

As the baby is born, he is wrapped in cloths and laid on a manger. Later in Luke’s gospel, he will use the same words to describe a different event: he was also wrapped in cloths and laid in a tomb. It is not by accident that ancient representations of the birth of Jesus depict the baby Jesus being laid on a manger wrapped in linen cloths in the style used for burial – for God was born as a man so that he would die as a man and be resurrected as a man for our redemption. Even from his birth, his path was towards the cross and the grave, so he would destroy death there.

Ironically, the baby is laid on a manger. He is not laid on a royal, golden crib, as it would be fitting for the King of Kings, but on a feeding trough used to feed animals. The one who created all things was indeed to become the slain lamb of God who would give himself for the spiritual food of his people. The bread of heaven has come to feed us, and thus from his birth he is put on a feeding trough. The one who is wrapped in his birth and in his death is also put on the place of feeding because he had also come to be the food of sinners.

The Glory of God

And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.  And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”

As the Son of God is born, the glory of the Lord is shining brighter than ever. It is not shining in the great city of Jerusalem,  on in the great temple there; but in the countryside, because he came not only to save the Jews but the whole world. The glory of the Lord shone with the multitude of his heavenly hosts not before the religious leaders of Israel but before the shepherds, who were considered to be one of the lowest classes in Israel. The angel of God comes to call shepherds to worship the one to become the ultimate Shepherd of our souls.

The glory of the Lord is shining to point to that very glory which is now concealed in a weak and defenseless baby lying in a feeding trough in a cave. The shepherds are told, “unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” He is the Savior of mankind, and thus his name is Jesus: Joshua, YHWH saves. He is Christ, because he is the anointed one to be prophet, priest and king for our redemption. And he is Lord, because that defenseless and needy little baby was YHWH himself.

And thus a multitude of the heavenly host praises God saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” The birth that has just taken place might seem insignificant – in a cave, in a small village, of poor parents, laying on a manger, animals laying around – but that birth is the pivotal point in history, affecting heaven and earth, affecting past, present, and future, affecting God who becomes man and man who is redeemed to be united to God.

The shepherds were keeping guard of their flock by night, and it is in the night that Jesus is born and that the glory of the Lord shines. It is in the darkness of sinful humanity that God sends his own Son to be the light of the world. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God  . . .  In him was life, and the life was the light of men. And so he says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” “I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness.”

Consecration to God

And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb. And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”) and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.”

Following the Law, Jesus was circumcised on the eight day, and following the Jewish custom (as with John the Baptist), he was officially given the name Jesus on that day. Also according to the Law, a woman who had given birth had to undergo ritual purification for forty days, and then make an offering for her purification. Mary then went to the temple in Jerusalem to make the offering, and the firstborn would also be presented before the Lord according to the Law, as we are told in Exodus 12: “Consecrate to me all the firstborn. Whatever is the first to open the womb among the people of Israel, both of man and of beast, is mine.”

The firstborn was to be consecrated and redeemed because God had spared the Israelite firstborn children at the Passover in Egypt, when the angel passed over the Hebrew children because of the blood of the Lamb on the doorpost. Also, God considered all the firstborn to be devoted to him for priesthood, and the non-Levite families were allowed to redeem the firstborn by an offering. Now the ultimate High Priest is consecrated to God.

His Poverty, Our Riches

According to the Law, if the parents cannot afford a lamb, then they could take two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering. This makes clear that Joseph and Mary were poor, because they could not afford the lamb for the offering. The Son of God was born not in a palace amongst the riches that are befitting him, but in a cave, laid on a manger, born of poor parents that could not afford a lamb, because Jesus came to redeem humanity in all its frailty, including poverty.

Ironically, when Mary was presenting the two turtledoves and the two pigeons, she was also presenting the Lamb of God for the offering that would take away the sins of the world. Mary and Joseph could not afford a lamb, but as with Abraham, the Lord was providing himself a Lamb for the sacrifice.

God humbled himself for the redemption of his people, and he comes into the world as a baby born of poor parents. Contrary to those who would think that poverty is necessarily a sign of sin or of God’s displeasure, God made himself poor in every way so that we might become rich with redemption, spiritual healing, and eternal life.

The Church does function as a vehicle of God’s blessings to alleviate the physical and material needs of God’s people – and we ought to do that always and to the best of our ability, for a faith that sees a brother and a sister in need and neglects their plight is an empty and false faith.

And yet, it is precisely by taking poverty upon himself that Jesus tells us that poverty is not God’s curse. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” “Sell your possessions,” He says, “and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Poverty and riches are different states of life within God’s providence, but true riches are those given us by God through faith, which are riches and treasures in heaven.

Mary and Joseph were poor and yet they were actually very rich, for they held the very Son of God in their arms, the one who had come to save with his glory concealed in weakness and poverty. The Son of God was rich as he owned the whole universe, and yet he was born in a poor family. We also may be very poor, but whether poor or rich in the world’s standards, we have infinite riches in the grace of God which pardons, heals, transforms, resurrects, and glorifies.

Nunc Dimittis

Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him.

And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said, “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.”

And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him. And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”

Again we have another man introduced in the narrative who is described as righteous and devout. Elizabeth and Zechariah were described and blameless in the commandments of the Lord, Mary was full of grace, Joseph was a righteous man, and now Simeon is a righteous and devout man who through faith was waiting for the fulfillment of God’s promises. The narrative of the birth of the Son of God involves God working in and through the lives of people who, while not sinless, were devout and holy people who devoted their lives to pleasing God and walking in his commandments.

These were the people who, because of their devotion, were filled with the Holy Spirit, and who had eyes to see and ears to hear that which God was bringing about. They are examples to us in that God’s grace given us requires our cooperation, our synergy with him – which in turn brings about our deification.

They are models for us, who also are called (as Paul says) not to grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption, but to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; being diligent (as Peter says) to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace.

Simeon, the righteous and devout man, was thus the friend of God, and God had revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. The same Holy Spirit who will lead John the Baptist – and eventually even Christ – to the desert, here leads Simeon to the temple, where God had promised to manifest his glory.

Simeon the righteous man is looking with faith for the fulfillment of God’s promises to redeem his people, and this is his whole purpose in life. Simeon is also a type of the Old Covenant, which, for those who had faith, was the revelation of God’s holiness and the vehicle of his promises and his grace until that time when the Savior would come. Now he has come, and the Old Covenant is ready to pass away, having fulfilled its purpose to lead the righteous to the grace and coming of Christ.

And so Simeon prays, in what is called the Nunc Dimittis, and says, Lord, dismiss your servant in peace, for my eyes have seen your salvation! I have waited all my life for your promise, and by your grace you gave me such a privilege as to hold the very Creator and Redeemer of the universe in my arms.

And behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed – and Mary, a sword will pierce through your own soul also, for in a very real sense his suffering will be your suffering, and his cross will be your cross.

The narrative concludes in the verses following with the description of Anna, a prophetess, a devout widow advanced in age who did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. And coming up at that very hour, we are told, she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.

Prophet, Priest and King – Immanuel, God with Us

The beginning of the Gospel of Luke presents us with the Advent of Christ, given us through the historical narrative interwoven in the lives of holy people who pleased God and were looking for his promises. Elizabeth and Zechariah were of the priestly house who were chosen to be the parents of forerunner of the Lord; Mary and Joseph were of the royal house of David chosen to be the parents of the Son of God (Mary receiving the greatest blessing and honor of all as the Theotokos, the Blessed Mother of God); Simeon and Anna were the devout servants of the Lord who prophesied in his temple and saw the fulfillment of this promises.

In this way, these people were all fulfilling the offices of prophets, priests, and kings around the conception and birth of the ultimate Prophet, Priest and King who had finally come to redeem his people from sin and death.

“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel,” said Isaiah the prophet, and as that prophecy was partially fulfilled in his immediate context 700 years before Christ, now the ultimate fulfillment has come through a literal Virgin Birth, and a baby who was literally Immanuel, God with us.

Christmas: Redemption of the Physical Universe

Christmas is a great time to join with family, to give and receive presents and gifts, and everything that goes with that. But most importantly it is a time to remember that commercialism and family functions are not the essence of Advent season. This is the time to consider the great event of God becoming man for our salvation. It is a time to remember that God has taken upon himself our own humanity with all its frailties and limitations to go to the grave with it, and then break the bars of death with it.

Humanity has been redeemed in Christ, death has been conquered, there is a fully human man sitting at the right hand of the Father, a man now glorified and united to God in his humanity, so that he might take us there with him.

He has sanctified birth, and he has sanctified death. He has sanctified riches and poverty, time and space, history and people. The incarnation reminds us that Christianity is not merely a set of timeless ideas, although it includes that. Christianity is not Gnosticism, and so it is not merely a vehicle of salvation through ideas, or through knowledge, or through the right propositional statements and confessions, although it includes those.

Christianity is a faith of flesh and blood that redeems not only the soul and the heart, but also the whole body, the man, the woman, one’s whole life, and the whole cosmos.

The Christian faith is the revelation of God who not only is truth, but also embodies truth, who enters history, enters time and space, enters humanity, is born, lives, eats, cries, dies, is risen from the dead. God knows humanity from inside because he has become man.

God redeems the soul and the body, thoughts and feelings, physical and spiritual ailments and needs. Jesus Christ is the God-man. He sanctifies physical things as holy, because everything he created is good and is worthy to be redeemed. He sanctifies water, bread, and wine as means of grace.

He sanctifies fallible human beings as his Church, the vehicle of His grace to the world. He sanctifies joy and pain, marriage, motherhood and fatherhood, youth and old age, richness and poverty, heath and sickness, the blessing of life and the pain of death.

St. Athanasius, one of the greatest of the church fathers, has written much on implications and the blessings the incarnation has for us. Here’s some of what he has said in his book On the Incarnation:

The incorporeal and incorruptible and immaterial Word of God entered our world. In one sense, indeed, He was not far from it before, for no part of creation had ever been without Him Who, while ever abiding in union with the Father, yet fills all things that are.

But now He entered the world in a new way, stooping to our level in His love and Self-revealing to us . . . pitying our race, moved with compassion for our limitation, unable to endure that death should have the mastery  . . .  He took to Himself a body, a human body even as our own. . . . through this union of the immortal Son of God with our human nature, [all] men were clothed with incorruption in the promise of the resurrection . . .For the human race would have perished utterly had not the Lord and Savior of all, the Son of God, come among us to put an end to death. . . .

He, indeed, assumed humanity that we might become God. He manifested Himself by means of a body in order that we might perceive the Mind of the unseen Father. He endured shame from men that we might inherit immortality. . . . such and so many are the Savior’s achievements that follow from His Incarnation, that to try to number them is like gazing at the open sea and trying to count the waves.

Christ is born for the redemption of humanity. He was born for our salvation, he has died for our salvation, and he has risen again for our salvation.

Let us, like John the Baptist, be impelled by the Spirit into the wilderness of this world to be Christ’s witnesses there; like Simeon, impelled by the Spirit to his temple, the Church, so that there we may see his glory. Like Mary, let us submit to God, saying, let it be done according to thy will; and as the Spirit abides in the Church, let Christ be continually be formed in us, born in us, as we bring him forth as the life of the world.

Let us come to the Altar, the Manger, to partake of the very flesh and blood of the lamb of God laid for us. Let us partake of his life, for in him light has shone in our darkness.

For unto us is born a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.

St John Chrysostom on The Birth of the Church on the Cross

crucifixion-iconThe gospel records that when Christ was dead, but still hung on the cross, a soldier came and pierced his side with a lance and immediately there poured out water and blood. Now the water was a symbol of baptism and the blood, of the holy Eucharist.

The soldier pierced the Lord’s side, he breached the wall of the sacred temple, and I have found the treasure and made it my own. So also with the lamb: the Jews sacrificed the victim and I have been saved by it.

“There flowed from his side water and blood”. Beloved, do not pass over this mystery without thought; it has yet another hidden meaning, which I will explain to you.

I said that water and blood symbolized baptism and the holy Eucharist. From these two sacraments the Church is born: from baptism, “the cleansing water that gives rebirth and renewal through the Holy Spirit”, and from the holy Eucharist.

Since the symbols of baptism and the Eucharist flowed from his side, it was from his side that Christ fashioned the Church, as he had fashioned Eve from the side of Adam. Moses gives a hint of this when he tells the story of the first man and makes him exclaim: “Bone from my bones and flesh from my flesh!”

As God then took a rib from Adam’s side to fashion a woman, so Christ has given us blood and water from his side to fashion the Church. God took the rib when Adam was in a deep sleep, and in the same way Christ gave us the blood and the water after his own death.

Do you understand, then, how Christ has united his bride to himself and what food he gives us all to eat? By one and the same food we are both brought into being and nourished.

As a woman nourishes her child with her own blood and milk, so does Christ unceasingly nourish with his own blood those to whom he himself has given life.

– St. John Chrysostom (Cat. 3, 13-19; SC 50, 174-177)

Why Theology?


Christian theology does not exist for the sake of the theologian. Theology is for the sake of the Church; it is for the sake of the challenges of the community. If it is not received by the Christian community, it has failed, for it has to echo the responses of that community. Christian theology has to be historical, and cannot be separated from contemporary issues. Christianity is an incarnational religion, which lives also within time and circumstances.

Systematic theology is a connection of the whole of Christian theology. Trinitarian theology is central and foundational to Christian theology, which has to do with the logos of theos. In the history of the development of Christian dogma, which has been played out in concrete circumstances, affecting concrete lives and palpable consequences, has been a struggle for the Christian understanding of who God is and how he related to Creation, particularly to the ones created in his image and likeness – and the foundational result has been the conception of the Trinity (which includes the attending Christology). Christians worship God, but God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Ontologically, Trinitarian theology is at the foundation of all things, for God is the creator, sustainer and redeemer of all reality. All our social, human, and historical problems are rooted in Trinitarian theology. This is why the Fathers spent so much energy grounding everything they did and taught in the outworking of the reflection of the Trinitarian life in time and space, in the Church.

This is why the medieval theologians also did so; the Summa Theologiae begins with the doctrine of one God and the Trinity. This is why Barth deals with Trinitarian methodology in his first volume.

Epistemologically, on the other hand – given our fallen state which has affected our intellect, our nous, our heart – we do not know God first and foremost. Our order of knowing does not include the Trinity at the very beginning; the Fathers’ formulations were the result of a long process of reflection and development. It is the Church’s role to bring us to the road back to God, which is the road of repentance, of restoration of His image, of remembering God, and remembering us in the context of God. Exitus, reditus.

One thing that is common from the earliest fathers (Justin, Irenaeus, Origin) is the very important distinction between God in his own essence and God in relation to the created world, as known through creation and special revelation. We do not know God in his essence, but only as he has revealed himself to us, in his energies and through his effects.

Christianity affirms both the essential incomprehensibility of God and God’s condescension to reveal himself to us. We do not have an insight into the Trinitarian God apart from what he tells us. Epistemologically, the place of Trinitarian theology in systematic theology is always a controversial topic, even if Trinitarian theology always has to be the ultimate horizon of Christian theology.

Contemporary Issues

As a reaction against essentialism, and under the impact of postmodern critiques, many modern theologians have been moving more to a pluralistic tradition, beginning with Father, Son and Holy Spirit (rather than the idea of the simple divine essence). There is a discernible tendency towards social trinitarianism. Essentialism – the emphasis on the unity of the divine essence as a starting point, among other things, is seen as totalitarian.

Trinitarian theology arose because of Christology, since, without the question of the divinity of Christ, simple Jewish monotheism would have remained. If, however, Christ is divine, are there two gods, is he a lesser god, or are there other options? Many today are looking for alternatives to the traditional conceptualities.

Also, it is perceived by many contemporary theologians that there is sexism in the traditional Trinitarian theology. Some, as a reaction, do away with Trinitarian theology and invocation. Others redefine it.

Importance of the History of Trinitarian Theology

Scripture does not explicitly spell the doctrine of the Trinity as such. Trinitarian and Christological doctrines are the result of historical development, even while have roots in Scripture. The failure to understand this basic concept has, in the context of fundamentalism, crippled some conservative theologians who in turn do not engage many of the ongoing challenges presented to them in modernity.

History means contamination – by blood, power struggles, etc. This is part of any history of human ideas; the more important they are, the more blood is likely to be spilled. This has been true of revolutions such as the American, French, Russian, etc. Some enlightenment rationalists put blame in religion without realizing that ideologies of freedom (as with many other ideologies, including, for example Marxism), have always been abused by the State. State persecutions have killed millions of people.

Historically, Nicean orthodoxy has prevailed – as believed and affirmed by the Church, under divine providence and inspiration guiding infallible councils – but it was not a foregone conclusion, and at many times it seemed as though it had failed. An important question, then, is to consider whether orthodoxy can be measured by the status quo; the place of God’s providence also has to be assessed. Outside of dogmatic formulations of Ecumenical Councils, what criteria can we build Trinitarian theologies today, and how are they binding?

Essential Questions

We cannot avoid using human models, since, again, we do not have an insight into the essence of God. How do we avoid the problems inherent in any human models – anthropomorphism and its attending ideologies? It seems as though contemporary theologians are often unaware or unconcerned with these two essential problems.

Human beings historically have used ideas to oppress other people, which is the development of ideologies. Are we projecting our own ideologies in our conception of the Trinity? Are we projecting our ideologies when we want to determine who God is, and thus how our imitation of him should be? When we want to determine what is or is not important or central in Christian theology? When  we want to determine how God should me made relevant, or how we should worship him? (or her?)

Moltmann, for example, begins with a contemporary critique of oppression, and argues that monotheistic conceptions of God need to be discarded because of their inherent oppressive character. For him, it needs to be replaced with social trinitarianism, which is the only way to preserve equality. Thus, he projects his own ideas into the reconstruction of Trinitarian theology, where equality and plurality come first. Then, he derives from that theology a reconstruction of social relations and structures. This amounts to Feuerbach’s idea of theology as anthropology.

Today, under the influence of Derrida, Heidegger, and others, there are some important metaphysical categories of being, relation, etc.

  1. How do explain the unity and plurality of God using such categories?
  2. How do speak of one God as three irreducible distinct realities?
  3. How do we speak about their relations?
  4. What are the pitfalls to avoid (modalism, subordinationism, etc.)?
  5. How do we speak of the relation of the Triune God in relation to the world?

These are all important issues that still call for theology to be done today.

One More Friend to Enter the Church

Becoming Orthodox

(By Jeremy Carey)

After over two years of thought, prayer, and struggle, I am officially becoming a part of the Orthodox Church. God willing, I will be baptized during Holy Week and have my first communion on Pascha, that is, Easter, 2013. Most of you know about my long interest in Orthodoxy, but I haven’t spoken of it in much detail. For my own sake, to try to collect thoughts that have been long in forming (though I know many must escape words), and for the sake of any who care about me and might be interested, I thought I would try to put down in writing the main considerations that have led me to what for many seems a strange and exotic form of Christianity.

Orthodoxy is richly traditional, and, like all real traditions, has to be experienced over a period of time to have any real grasp of its meaning. Therefore, I can’t pretend to do any justice to what really eventually draws one into Orthodoxy. Still, at the surface level, at the level of what can be communicated fairly clearly, it seems to me that the things which attracted me most can be clustered into two main issues: the nature of the Church, and the nature of salvation. I’ll say a little bit about each of these.

Before I do so, it’s worth pointing out something that can be easily misunderstood. Though it’s fairly easy to focus on the differences between Orthodoxy and other forms of Christianity (for my purposes, primarily Protestant Evangelicalism), they do share much important in common. Though I will have some things to say about what I find problematic about contemporary Protestantism, I don’t see my transition to Orthodoxy as a rejection of my previous experience so much as a fulfillment (and, naturally, at times a corrective) of all that was good in that experience.

Those who know me well know that I grew up in a church whose theology was and is, by the standards of historical Christianity, problematic (to say the least). It wasn’t until my second year in college that I found I could accept the doctrine of the Trinity.

This background and the changes that my thought and practice had to go through naturally had an effect on my mindset and the way I approached Christianity. I had grown up thinking that Christianity took a turn for the worst very soon after the death of Christ, and that most Christians for most of history were mistaken in fundamental beliefs. The denomination I grew up in taught that not only was the doctrine of the Trinity, which was so central in the intellectual and spiritual development of the Church, wrong, but it was harmful.

Though I think it has since weakened its stance, I was also taught that salvation depended on a certain way of being baptized and the attaining of certain spiritual experiences, requirements most self-identified Christians throughout the centuries did not meet. As I began to reject these problematic claims, my understanding of the history of Christianity would also have to change, but I never settled how or even gave the matter much explicit thought. Though I was intensely interested in Christian theology, this meant that, like most Protestant Christians, I studied contemporary theologians or, at the limits, those going back to the years after the reformation.

All of this changed for me when my cousin, with whom I’m extremely close, began also to question the same problematic claims of our shared childhood denomination which I had recently rejected. Initially, he seemed at a loss for what to do next, flirting with various non-Christian philosophies and religions. I did my best to steer him towards the reasonable Reformed Christianity of which I was then a part.

To my dismay, it soon became clear that the only options he was taking seriously were Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy. As we debated for the next year or so, I was forced for the first time to confront my understanding of Christian history and the nature of the Church, and to think seriously about the knee-jerk objections I had been raised with against distinctive practices of the historical churches like prayer to saints and the veneration of the Mother of God (I will not be discussing these here – if you have questions or worries about them, I’d be happy to discuss them further). In the end, he became Orthodox.

By that time, though I had not yet set foot in an Orthodox Church, I was intellectually convinced that Orthodoxy contained a beauty and a fullness that I desired and seemed to me so lacking from my previous understanding of the Church and Christian life. Here I hope to give some hint of this fullness and beauty.

Soon after I came to accept the doctrine of the Trinity, it began to seem incredible to me that most Christians for most of history were so misguided on so many issues that I now had the right answers to. These were men who were closer to the time of the apostles, who shared more of their culture, and who were willing to die for what they saw as the understanding of Christianity needed to ensure the salvation of mankind and the world. Surely these characteristics made them more likely to understand the truth than me, living in comfort and sitting in my ivory tower.

I also began to notice the strangeness of our current ecclesial situation, with thousands of denominations believing so many different things, and many more started every year. Surely this was not Christ’s plan or that of the Apostles in the early days of the Church. This strange situation, which is so easy for us to take for granted, is in fact historically new. There was a time when the Church was (for the most part) unified, and when unity was seen as a necessity.

But what was the basis of this unity? This is an important question in our own day, when Christians are more and more feeling the effects of their separation and longing for a reestablishment of unity. But this unity cannot be cheap. Christians disagree about so much – baptism, the nature of the Eucharist, the church calendar, veneration of the saints, the Sacraments, church hierarchy. How are we to know what is fundamental and who is to judge? Back in my more, let’s say, optimistically ecumenical days, I would have probably proposed something like the acceptance of the Apostle’s Creed at face value as the measure for essential Christian unity.

As long as one can say the creed and mean it, that’s all that matters. Of course, it’s not clear what “face value” means here, and Catholics and Orthodox will mean something very different from Protestants when they talk about the Virgin Mary and the communion of saints and the catholicity of the Church. And what about baptism, which plays no role in this creed? And what about the Eucharist itself?

Though I think it’s correct that there is something like what C.S. Lewis called “mere Christianity”, and that the things which bind us are far more important than the things that separate us, it’s also easy to overestimate the similarities. The fact is that Protestants, by definition (though some groups more than others), consciously reject a huge portion of what most Christians believed and how they acted for the majority of the Church’s existence.

At the least, between, say, 300 and 1000 AD, Christian practice and understanding was fairly uniform and would involve things like a hierarchy of deacons, priests, bishops, and patriarchs; a veneration of relics and holy places; an understanding of the centrality of the Eucharist and Christ’s real presence therein; a special respect for Mary as the Mother of God; following a calendar which includes regular and occasionally intense fasting; ritualized and highly symbolic liturgy (to name just a few – the rejection of these last two seems especially strange to me given how obviously important they were to Judaism and the enormous likelihood that they would be taken up by the earliest Christians, who were primarily Jewish).

Most of these things play no role in the faith of many Protestants and are viewed by them as, at the very least, unnecessary. And I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that, for example, your average Christian from 1000 years ago would feel pretty comfortable in an Orthodox liturgy or traditional Catholic mass of today, but would be at a complete loss in a typical Protestant service (though this depends significantly on what type of Protestant we’re talking about).

But the key question in all this is not really about how similar or different various Christian groups are, but what Christian unity consists in. And it seems to me that the answer that developed within the lifetime of those who knew the apostles stressed two things: (1) apostolic succession through the office of bishops, and (2) accordance with apostolic tradition (what Irenaeus calls the “rule of faith”, and which was never seen as a competitor with Scripture, but as the proper interpretation and use of Scripture). Here are representative quotes from two important sources:

(1) St. Ignatius of Antioch (c. 35-108 AD):

“To the end that you may obey the bishop and presbytery without distraction of mind; breaking one bread, which is the medicine of immortality and the antidote that we should not die but live for ever in Jesus Christ.” Epistle to the Ephesians, 20:2

“Let no one do anything that has to do with the church without the bishop. Only that Eucharist which is under the authority of the bishop (or whomever he himself designates) is to be considered valid. Wherever the bishop appears, there let the congregation be; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.” Epistle to the Smyrnaeans 8:1-2

(2) St. Irenaeus:

“For [the Church] is the entrance to life; all others are thieves and robbers. On this account are we bound to avoid them, but to make choice of the thing pertaining to the Church with the utmost diligence, and to lay hold of the tradition of the truth. For how stands the case? Suppose there arise a dispute relative to some important question among us, should we not have recourse to the most ancient Churches with which the apostles held constant intercourse, and learn from them what is certain and clear in regard to the present question? For how should it be if the apostles themselves had not left us writings? Would it not be necessary, [in that case,] to follow the course of the tradition which they handed down to those to whom they did commit the Churches? … Now all these [heretics] are of much later date than the bishops to whom the apostles committed the Churches… since they are blind to the truth, and deviate from the [right] way, they will walk in various roads; and therefore the footsteps of their doctrine are scattered here and there without agreement or connection. But the path of those belonging to the Church circumscribes the whole world, as possessing the sure tradition from the apostles, and gives unto us to see that the faith of all is one and the same….” Against Heresies, Book 3, Chapter 4; Book 5, Chapter 20

[Discussing the authority of the writings of St. Clement of Rome]:

“To this Clement there succeeded Evaristus. Alexander followed Evaristus; then, sixth from the apostles, Sixtus was appointed; after him, Telephorus, who was gloriously martyred; then Hyginus; after him, Pius; then after him, Anicetus. Soter having succeeded Anicetus, Eleutherius does now, in the twelfth place from the apostles, hold the inheritance of the episcopate. In this order, and by this succession, the ecclesiastical tradition from the apostles, and the preaching of the truth, have come down to us. And this is most abundant proof that there is one and the same vivifying faith, which has been preserved in the Church from the apostles until now, and handed down in truth.” Book 3, Chapter 3.

These are just a few statements but I think they illustrate the approach to the unity of the Church I mentioned, and they both happen to be very early – when these men became Christian, it was under the influence of people who knew the apostles themselves. And what is striking to me is the fact that the marks of unity defended here – faithfulness to apostolic tradition, secured by apostolic succession – are precisely those which Catholics and the Orthodox still claim to have and which the reformers gave up on.

(Again, to be fair, different Protestants will feel differently about this – many will claim to be faithful to a true apostolic tradition which in others has been corrupted by various pagan influences. I suppose I just don’t find these arguments convincing; at any rate, their idea of apostolic tradition is simply whatever can be gleaned by the best reading of the apostolic writings rather than what was the passed down (“traditioned”) understanding of those writings and the way they are best put into practice.)

This living tradition of the Church, the body of Christ active in the world through the Holy Spirit, also helps to solve the problem of authority that had come to bother me so much in my attempt to study the Bible. Though I came to believe that the Trinity is a biblical doctrine which is normative for all Christians, my own long experience in the oneness tradition showed that this could not be proved beyond a reasonable doubt from the texts themselves.

This is a problem if Scripture is the only source of authority for Christian doctrine. The doctrine of Sola Scriptura seems to require the corollary doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture – that the meaning of Scripture must be clear to anyone who approaches it with an open mind and a good will. But this doctrine seems clearly a failure in practice – for members of all of the thousands of Protestant denominations claim to find different things in the clear meanings of Scripture. It is perhaps too easy to simply deny that those we disagree with really have an open mind or a good will, but such a tactic is problematic. My own struggles to find even as central a doctrine as the Trinity taught clearly in the text of the Bible showed me that common sense and an open mind are not enough.

Worse, Sola Scriptura is self-defeating. For it is a matter of doctrine what the Bible is, something that there was debate about in the early centuries, and this is not something that can be found out from Scripture itself. Are the so-called apocryphal books parts of the Bible? What about the book of James or Revelation? What about the Shepherd of Hermas? What doctrines one finds in the Scriptures depends on what one believes the Scriptures to be.

Furthermore, such a doctrine requires that in the earliest days of the Church, there were no fundamental doctrines, nothing that had to be accepted in order to be a Christian. This is because for the first several decades the Church existed without any of the New Testament writings, and it was much longer after that before the books circulated as a single entity called ‘the New Testament’. So how did they know what to believe, about Christ? How did they organize their worship services and conceive of the Christian life? The answer is: based on the teachings of the apostles, and those appointed by the apostles. Why think that things changed dramatically with the formation of the canon as we now know it?

The basic problem here seems to me a separation and distinction between God’s written Word, and his living Word, that is, the Church, which is the body of Christ. The Scriptures and the Church cannot be thought of as separate sources of God’s work. The Scripture comes from the Church and is God’s Word in a unique sense because it is the Word of his Body. But the Church’s life, insofar as it is the life of Christ, is also a source of revelation.

There’s much more to be said about the Church, but I want also to say something briefly about the Orthodox conception of salvation, which has changed the way I think of Christianity. Before I even thought seriously about Orthodoxy, I had come to question the standard Protestant presentation of what exactly the basic story of the gospel is. On that story, the basic problem which Christianity solves is God’s wrath against sin and, therefore, since we are sinners,

God’s wrath against us. This problem is solved by Christ’s atoning death, which is thought of as a sort of penal substitution – Christ experiences God’s wrath instead of us. Because of this atonement, we are ‘declared’ righteous with Christ’s righteousness, and therefore set free from the consequences of our sinfulness. Though I don’t deny that this story captures something of the truth, it seems to me to have two central problems:

First, its conception of forgiveness seems troubling. Why does God’s wrath have to be ‘discharged’? Why can’t he just forgive us if he loves us, without someone needing to be punished? Can it really be the case that justice and mercy conflict with each other in this way? There are various ways of answering these questions, none of which end up seeming to me fully satisfactory. But the second and bigger problem is just that this story seems relevant to such a small part of our everyday lives – it seems less than the Good News that we need.

As George MacDonald put it, Jesus was so named because he would save us from our sins, not just from the consequences of our sins. Our problem is not just that we have sinned, thus incurring God’s wrath, but that we are sinners, and, because of that, we continue to hurt each other, to isolate ourselves, to destroy our planet, and to be subject to physical and spiritual death.

In other words, our main problem is existential and relational, and not the sort of thing that can be solved completely merely by another’s death and a declaration of righteousness.

(Another important point, which I’ll discuss a bit below – this standard gospel story doesn’t tell us anything about why the Resurrection was important and necessary, though it was the lynchpin of the apostolic preaching. If all that was needed was Christ’s atoning death, why did he need to be resurrected physically? What does the resurrection do for us?)

Contrast this with the Orthodox conception of salvation. To get the full story we have to go back to our creation in the image of God, meant for fellowship with God. Our identity, our essence, is tied up with three related things: our relationship with God, our relationship with others, and our vocation in this world. Man was created to know God. Though created in the divine image, the divine likeness was something to be attained. Just as God is a community of loving Persons, we were to find our true identity only by a loving communion with others.

And as a microcosm of the universe, being both spirit and matter, man was to serve as the bridge between these elements. As one theologian puts it, the entire world was a gift of God’s love, destined for deification. According to another, “[man was] created just for this purpose: to actualize the created potential of his being to achieve a fully realized community between all creatures and their Creator.” Our problem is the loss of these, one after the other; i.e., the loss of our humanity, and the way that affects the whole universe. And Christianity is only good news if it constitutes the solution.

In Orthodoxy, salvation is often primarily thought of as theosis, that is, deification, or, as St Peter puts it, partaking of the divine nature (2 Pt 1:4). This is the restoration of what was lost and given up in the fall, only made possible through the incarnation of the divine Word: Because man failed at his task, a new Man was needed. And salvation, for us, and for the world, is nothing less than incorporation into this new man (that is, Christ). Thus, the incarnation and resurrection are central – in the incarnation, God shows his love for us by bridging the gap between us, forming a union between divinity and humanity.This union reaches its fullest expression of love when the impassible Son of God takes on our sin and experiences, though blameless, the loneliness and death that are the consequences of our own sins.

Finally, the union is established forever through the resurrection. We make this union our own in the Church and through our own struggles to unite ourselves to Christ, and our task is to bring the rest of the world into this union as well (“creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God” Rom. 8:19). In this way, no aspect of our lives or our place in this cosmos is unaffected by Christianity, and salvation is not a matter primarily of individual forgiveness, but of union with God, which cannot be separated from our relationships with one another and the material world around us.

To be clear: I am not saying that the (standard) Protestant story about salvation is wrong or merely that I don’t like it (though I do have misgivings about its emphasis on penal and juridical categories), but that it is only a fragment of the story – it doesn’t fully answer the problem that religion is meant to solve.

It is true that this is partly just a matter of emphasis (Classical Protestants still think ‘sanctification’ is important, even if they (wrongly, in my view) separate it from salvation, and those in the Wesleyan/Holiness tradition have a view of salvation closer to that of the Orthodox in many ways, but at the expense of an increased individualism and distance from tradition), and that the Protestant can appropriate whichever aspects of the Orthodox conception he or she chooses. But then what?

The Christian life cannot be lived on one’s own, and sanctification doesn’t just happen by a change in one’s beliefs, but by a change in one’s desires and practical orientation to the world (ironically, perhaps, the book that has most impacted my views about this and the importance of liturgy is Desiring the Kingdom, by Calvinist philosopher Jamie Smith).

So this leads us, I think, back to the Church and its tradition. The Church is a treasure house of the wisdom of the saints, and a communal striving toward holiness. We are not meant to be left to our own devices, and there is no need to be.

The Church keeps us well-rounded with its liturgical calendar, delights our senses with its beautiful worship, connects us directly to God in the sacraments, corrects our desires with its set times of fasting and ascetical expectations, connects us with each other as we strive together, and in so many ways brings us into communion with saints of the past. As I mentioned above, to remain Protestant is to reject a very large part of this wisdom and tradition.

The Protestant world, especially in its evangelical form, is too fragmented, too modern, too celebrity-oriented, too centered on relevance, too individualist. While I would never say that holiness is impossible in this world (I know it is not because I have been blessed to know so many holy people), I have come to the realization that I need something more, roots that are deeper and wider.

I need a full-blooded and satisfying Christianity that fulfills me intellectually and also gives me real tried-and-true resources for becoming more what I ought to be.

And I believe I have found that in Orthodoxy.

The Road to Emmaus – Their Eyes were Opened in the Breaking of the Bread

eucharistIn the time between the joy of Easter and the anticipation of Pentecost, it is good for us to reflect on the life that has been given us by the resurrection of Christ. Christ is risen from the dead, having conquered death, sin, and suffering, but instead of immediately returning to the glory of the Father, he comes to heal and strengthen his disciples, for he has not abandoned them.

On the contrary, it is as the risen Lord that he will disclose himself to them more fully, radically change their lives as never before, and eventually empower them to turn the world upside down by the message of the gospel.

In Luke 24 we look at the first disclosure of our Lord to his disciples, which took place on the road to Emmaus, a city just a few miles from Jerusalem. Only one of the disciples is named here, by the name of Cleopas. Church tradition has it that he was one of the 70 disciples, and that he was the brother of Joseph, the husband of Mary; and that the other disciple was his own son Simeon, who became the second bishop of Jerusalem after AD 70.

We can’t know for sure who these disciples were, and at any rate Luke is not terribly concerned with that. What is important is that Jesus, on the very day of his resurrection, comes to meet his disciples who had left Jerusalem out of despair, and he comes to heal and restore them by bringing them to life in communion with the risen Lord.

 That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and they were talking with each other about all these things that had happened.

The disciples were leaving Jerusalem, as one leaves the place of his or her pain and disappointment. Later on, the disciples were to leave Jerusalem to proclaim life, to tell the world of the Lord who had died and rose again for the salvation of mankind.

Now, however, the disciples were walking sorrow and despair, because in their hearts they think they have nothing to proclaim but death and failure.

They walk together and talk, maybe trying to make sense of their desperation. Even in their pain they are in communion, seeking mutual comfort and help; but the one who could ultimate heal their hearts was the one they had not encountered yet.

Their 7 mile walk was a walk in the desert of Adam, in the darkness of death, in a land where hope had been abandoned. That is the condition of humankind unable to find hope when they have not encountered the risen Christ. But the risen Christ loves them, and he is coming to them to bring them to himself.

While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognizing him.

Jesus draws near to them as they were in the darkness of despair. He draws near and he walks with them. He keeps them from recognizing him, but he walks with them. They couldn’t recognize him because they still struggled with the confusion and unbelief that could only be dispelled by the resurrection.

Throughout the gospels, the disciples are often unable to understand Jesus’ words concerning his coming death and resurrection. They were compared to the blind man that was healed, but at first could see only men as trees.

Their vision was being restored unto seeing the glory of God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit – but that had to be a gradual process that would only be achieved in the resurrection. So here, too, the disciples were unable to recognize the resurrection and the life.

But they were unable to recognize him, most importantly, because Jesus keeps them from recognizing him. He does so because he wants to teach them, as they would realize later, that his presence is always with them, and yet it is fully disclosed only in the Eucharist.

Earthly Hopes

“Friends, why are you so sad?” Open your hearts, for the healer of your souls is close to you even whey you can’t recognize him through the mist of your tears. “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things happened!”

Life is full of contradictions, perplexities, pain, and lack of answers. Evil often seems to be gratuitous. Suffering comes to the just and the unjust. There is unimaginable darkness in this world, and we often have to be face to face with despair, disappointment, and anger.

The death of Jesus on the cross was the epitome of all the contradictions and evil upon humankind, for if there would be any way out of the despair of the human condition, it would be that God would intervene in the world through his anointed to liberate his people.

But as far as the disciples are concerned, he is dead. If that Jesus of Nazareth is dead, then there is no hope. There is no meaning. There is no truth, no beauty, and no goodness. All is pointless.

We had hoped. Job had said, “where now is my hope? Who will see my hope? Will it go down to the bars of Sheol? Shall we descend together into the dust?” The disciples had hoped, and if hope in Jesus of Nazareth failed, no other hope could ever survive. They had hoped that we would redeem Israel.

But their idea of redemption was still clouded by their earthly vision. Christ was triumphing over sin, death, and the devil on the cross, but all they could see was just the opposite. It’s hard to blame them; Jesus didn’t look very victorious on the cross. But the cross was the victory of Christ, and he was about to open the eyes of his people to see eternity beyond their immediate earthly cares.

The Way Up is Down

And he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.

Jesus rebukes them, but only because he has compassion on them. He had compassion to meet them in their doubt and despair, and to walk the dark road with them. And he had compassion to begin turning them around from their blindness and unbelief by redirecting them to his promises. He was compassionate to rebuke them for their earthly hopes, when a much greater and higher hope had been already accomplished.

It was necessary that Christ should suffer these things and then enter into his glory. The eternal Son of God, the eternal Logos who was in the beginning, the one who was with God and who was God, always had all the glory there is to have.

And yet, he took upon himself full humanity to redeem humanity and bring humanity to God. It was as a man that he had to achieve glory, but in his compassion for fallen humankind, he could only achieve glory as a man after facing the cross.

The bright Sunday morning could only come after the darkness of Friday and Saturday.

That is our road too. We can only inherit the kingdom of God if we pick up our crosses daily and follow him. In Jesus’ words, “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

In baptism we are buried with Christ, and that baptism has to be actualized every day. The devil incites man to achieve glory, and by doing so brings them to ruin and destruction.

Christ invites us to join him on the cross, to wear his crown of thorns, to suffer, to be despised by men, to die and be buried; and through that he brings us to his eternal glory. In God’s economy, the way up is down.

All of the Old Testament is All About Christ

And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets (the only Scriptures they had), he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. Jesus gives us here the hermeneutical rule to understand the Old Testament: it’s all about Christ.

If one would interpret the Old Testament as accurately as a scholarly Rabbi, that one would not have understood it at all. Unfortunately this is a mistake many modern day evangelicals make. It’s a complete confusion of categories.

The only Christian interpretation – and thus the only legitimate interpretation, since Christ is risen – is one that finds Christ in every page of the Old Testament. It is there that all the promises of God are given and prefigured, whether explicitly or implicitly, for their fulfillment in Christ.

For example, in their immediate contexts, passages like Isaiah 53 refer explicitly and exclusively to the ancient nation of Israel (certainly not the modern secular state of Israel). This is what Isaiah meant. Jewish rabbis correctly point that out.

And yet, God in his providence was supervising the writings that would ultimately be fulfilled explicitly and exclusively in Christ. Non-Christian Jewish rabbis cannot receive this because they reject Christ, and thus they miss the meaning of Scripture as God fashioned and fulfills it.

One example of apostolic interpretation of Scripture comes from St Paul. In reading the Exodus, he sees Baptism and the Lord’s supper: “For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness. Now these things took place as examples for us.”

The entire fabric of the Scriptures, including the Old Testament, is Christological and Christocentric – every thread and every theme leads to, and centers on the crucified and risen Christ. Looking at the Scriptures without seeing Christ is like looking at a man from Nazareth named Jesus without seeing the Son of God.

Jesus walks with them, and their hearts are burning because the one who is the Incarnate Word is disclosing himself to them. He is catechizing them, so that they are being prepared to find him fully. They have now become like the burning bush, which burns with the uncreated fire of God’s presence and is not consumed, but is vivified and sanctified by the One who is, and the One who speaks.

Their Eyes Were Opened by the Eucharist

So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He acted as if he were going farther, but they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them.

emmausThis language should be very familiar to us. At the table, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. Luke had just used it a couple of chapters ago. There, we read,

And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, “Take this, and divide it among yourselves. For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood. (Luke 22:17-20)

Now, the kingdom of God has come. Now, heaven comes to earth, because the broken Lord is the risen Lord, and the risen Lord is broken in the bread and wine for us. Jesus takes the bread, blesses it, gives it to them,

And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight.

The one who came and walked with them, the one who talked with them and disclosed himself to them – preparing them to encounter him as their Risen Lord – is the one who now opens their eyes to see him in the breaking of the bread.

It is in the communion of the Body and Blood of Christ that he gives himself fully to them. It is in the communion of this broken Body, which is now risen and given for their eternal life, that they can truly meet Christ.

The opening of the Scriptures was necessary, but it was not sufficient.

Christ redeems the mind and the heart, but he does not meet us just in the mind and the heart. The mind and the heart have to be renewed by the spoken Word so that we can then encounter the Incarnate Word, the one who redeems soul and body, the whole person, the whole creation.

We find him fully in the full communion with him in the meal of the kingdom, the source of our life, the bread of life, the manna from heaven, the wine of the blood of forgiveness, the meal of the nourishment unto new and eternal life.

It is not a mere cannibalistic eating of the flesh and blood of a dead corpse, the flesh and blood of mortal, fallen creatures. It is the Body and Blood of the risen Christ – the deified Body and Blood which can vanish before your eyes, and even go through locked doors, and yet it can be touched. It is the risen, deified Body and Blood which enters Heaven itself, the place no mortal flesh and blood can inherit (1 Cor. 15:50).

As the Church Fathers have said, the Lord’s Supper is the “medicine of immortality.” By faith we eat and drink Christ so that eternal life is given to us, flows through us, and our eyes are opened because we join Christ in the table of the kingdom. We eat him, and we eat with him, and we are gathered to him and to one another, so that we might be one.

This communion will be finally fulfilled in the last day, when all things are consummated, when all sin and death will have vanished; and yet this encounter, this seeing, this communion, this healing, already happens here and now, when we meet with Christ at the table, when the kingdom comes from heaven to us and we are taken up to it.

It is here that we find comfort and renewal from the despair of death, darkness, apparent failure, and hopelessness – because in the Divine Liturgy we are taken to heaven and heaven is brought to us. Heaven and earth meet together in the very Body and Blood of the Incarnate and Risen God-Man. We find light, life, victory in the brokenness, and the sure hope of our resurrection, because we commune and partake of the Risen Christ.

In the Eucharist, Christ is with us in the fullest way in this life. Is there that we meet God and thus our eyes are opened. It is there that we recognize him.

Of course he is always with us. He was with the disciples before he walked with them in that road, for Christ is everywhere. He drew closer, however, when he walked with them, talked with them, drew them to himself, and disclosed the Word to them.

But he was fully present with them in the breaking of the bread. And this is true for us. Christ has ascended to heaven, but in the breaking of the bread he is present with us in a unique way that transcends his omnipresence.

They said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?” And they rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem.

Jesus himself had told them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy . . .  So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.”

The disciples run back to Jerusalem to help the downcast. The joy of encountering the Risen Christ can only be translated into love, compassion, and zeal to heal others, and to proclaim from the rooftops, he is risen he is risen indeed.

They retrace their steps on the road that had been of a road of darkness and despair, but now their feet are the beautiful feet of one who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns” (Isa. 52:7; Rom. 10:15).

St Augustine in one of his sermons had this to say about this passage:

Ah yes, brothers and sisters, but where did the Lord wish to be recognized? In the breaking of bread. We’re all right, nothing to worry about – we break bread, and we recognize the Lord. It was for our sake that he didn’t want to be recognized anywhere but there, because we weren’t going to see him in the flesh, and yet we were going to eat his flesh. So if you’re a believer, any of you, if you’re not called a Christian for nothing, if you don’t come to Church pointlessly, if you listen to the Word of God in fear and hope, you may take comfort in the breaking of bread. The Lord’s absence is not an absence. Have faith, and the one you cannot see is with you. (Sermon 235. 2-3)

The risen Lord is with us always, and he brings us to himself especially in the eating of his Body and his Blood. As he said,

 “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. (John 6:53-56)

There, the gives himself to us fully, and takes us fully to himself, body and soul. There, our sins are forgiven, our wounds are healed, our eyes are opened, our souls are strengthened, and the promise is renewed.

There, death and life come together, because the broken Body is the risen Body which gives us life. At the table of the Lord the kingdom comes to us and we are taken up to it, until that day, when we will see him in all of his glory.

Preliminary Thoughts on the Eucharist, on Sola Scriptura and on Icons (Un-Protestantism 101)

The Eucharist

The center of the Faith, as we know from Scripture and from 1,500 years of Church history (i.e., until things changed during the Reformation for some Western Christians), is the Eucharist. All Christians gather together around the Body and Blood of Christ. The Liturgy revolves around it.

The liturgyEucharist is where our “eyes are opened” in the “breaking of the bread,” (Luke 24) for “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink” (John 6).

That is why all the fathers of the Church, the very disciples of the apostles, emphasized it as such. For example, St. Ignatius of Antioch (AD 50 – AD 117), a disciple of the apostles Peter and Paul, wrote to the church in Smyrna:

Consider those who are of a different opinion from us, as to what concerns the grace of Jesus Christ which is come unto us, how contrary they are to the design of God. They have no regard to charity, no care of the widow, the fatherless, and the oppressed; of the bond or free, of the hungry or thirsty.

They abstain from the Eucharist, and from the public offices; because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ which suffered for our sins, and which the Father of his goodness raised again from the dead. And for this cause contradicting the gift of God, they die in their disputes; but much better would it be for them to receive it, that the might one day rise through it. (To the Smyrnaeans, 2:14-17)

St Justin Martyr, writing in 150AD with the first description of what was going on in the Christian Liturgy, wrote:

And this food is called among us the Eucharist, of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined.

For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Savior, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh. (First Apology, chapter 66)

There are many other passages of many fathers speaking similarly. Also, the Eucharist is not only the very Flesh and Blood of Christ, but it also depends on apostolic succession. The early Church emphasized that because of the sects (gnostic, arian, apollinarian, eutychian, etc.) one could not take upon himself to celebrate the Eucharist without the authority of a bishop who had been in the ordination line of the apostles (and thus holding the apostolic doctrine and faith).

So again, St Ignatius wrote,

Make certain, therefore, that you all observe one common Eucharist; for there is but one body of our Lord Jesus Christ, and but one cup of union with his blood, and one single altar of sacrifice–even as there is also but one bishop, with his clergy and my own fellow servitors, the deacons. This will ensure that all your doings are in full accord with the will of God.” (Letter o the Philadelphians, chapter 4)

“Wherever the bishop appears, there let the people be; as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful to baptize or give communion without the consent of the bishop. On the other hand, whatever has his approval is pleasing to God. Thus, whatever is done will be safe and valid. (Letter to the Smyrnaeans, chapter 8)

Notice that these are from the earliest Christian writings available to us. These were second generation disciples of the apostles. There are many other passages like this as well in the Fathers.

So now we have 2 things that are necessary for the fullness of the Christian life, and certainly for the apostolic liturgy and worship: the Eucharist, and apostolic succession which makes it real and safeguards the organic unity of the Church. Those two things alone exclude Protestantism.

Sola Scriptura

How about about sola scriptura? As I have said elsewhere, sola scriptura does not mean that one goes only to the Bible for doctrine (the magisterial Reformers – Luther and Calvin – understood that; this misunderstanding is not what they meant by the term, since they themselves tried to support their claims from historical interpretations of the Church, even though they were not able to do that very well in my opinion).

Properly understood, sola scriptura means that the ultimate authority on the matters of doctrine and piety are the Scriptures. Which does not mean at all that the Scriptures contain all truths, much less that truth is restricted to Scripture.

Of course, even a proper understanding of sola scriptura  has its own problems. As Luther and Calvin understood, the ultimate authority on the matters of doctrine and piety are the Scriptures properly interpreted – whether the final authority of interpretation will be the Roman Catholic Magisterium, Luther, Calvin, the Westminster Confession and Catechisms, the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism, Pastor Bob, Me Myself and I,  Benny Hinn, Tim LaHaye, Oprah, and so on. There are thousands of Protestant denominations which agree on a number of issues, and yet disagree on others which they consider important enough to have left and begun a new church.

Or, the final authority of interpretation will be the ongoing living tradition of the Church (including the Fathers, the Ecumenical Councils and present day canonical bishops).

In other words, sola scriptura does not work because if one says the Bible is the final authority, such authority can only be applied by interpreting the Bible, and so the real final authority will be the one who determines what the Bible means. And, of course, claiming the Spirit as the one who does that for each believer does not work; for every 3 “Spirit filled” believers, one finds at least 5 contradictory Christian doctrines from interpreting the Bible differently.

That is not even to mention that Protestants who adhere to sola scriptura cannot use the concept of “Bible” legitimately, because the New Testament, which most Christians did not have for centuries, was defined and canonized by the Church, not by the Bible. The Church said that the Didache was not the New Testament, and the letter to the Ephesians was, and so on. The final authority for one to even consider a writing to be the “Bible” comes from the Church, not from the Bible. It was the Church who wrote the Bible, and then said that the Bible is the Bible. After all, as St Paul told his pupil Timothy,

I write so that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself in the house of God, which is the Church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth. (1Tim. 3:15)


What about icons? Yes, through them we do talk to those whom they represent, and ask for their prayers. It was the pagans of old that denied that there is eternal, everlasting life with God after death. But Christianity affirmed that Christ was “risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and bestowing life upon those in the tombs.” He is “ not God of the dead, but of the living” (Luke 20).

Those who live their lives following him serve him by loving and serving others. Whey they “repose” (as we call it), they become even more alive to God, without the encumbrances of sin, weaknesses, body limitations of tiredness, hunger, need of sleep, etc. They behold the face of God in Christ, and, filled with his Spirit, transfigured by grace and deified in the presence of the living God, they continue to worship and serve him more than ever – which means they continue to love and pray for those who seek their assistance. They are able to do that because they are united to Christ by the Spirit, not dependent on spatio-temporal considerations of time, place, ability to know by the physical senses, etc.

Just like we instinctively ask for the prayers of those whom we know to be devout people here on earth – people that we trust, that we know that they know God, and that God hears their prayers because they walk with him (of which the Scriptures are full of examples, the prophets being the most common) – so we also ask for the prayers of those who are alive in Christ. We often use the word “pray” to them, because the English word means to ask for something, not to worship.

So icons are windows of heaven. Against the gnostics (forms of which Protestantism is full, unfortunately), the Church has always affirmed that God created and redeemed both spiritual things and material things. He sanctifies matter for his own use. Icons become blessed elements through which we address God, his Mother, and his saints, much like we look at a picture of a loved one and kiss it, or have a thought about them, or say a prayer for them.

For more on icons, see my post “Worshipping Images? Iconoclasm and the 7th Ecumenical Council.”