Luminous Darkness? Dazzling Darkness!

St.-Gregory-PalamasSt Gregory Palamas, in attempting to explain the vision of the divine light, the divine energies, makes several points worthy of note:

First, it is not a mere negation, a mere expression of the apophatic way. Rather, it goes beyond negation; when one sees the divine light, one sees something, one does not see the void.

However, secondly, one does not see by mere positive apprehension of discursive or intellectual knowledge either. It is something that is apprehended directly, and beyond both the knowing of reason and the unknowing. It is beyond words, and yet analogous words are used to describe it. But only direct experience can give knowledge of it, as St Paul saw the divine light and was changed.

Third, it is a divinizing union of the pure heart with the very being of God, in his energies. And this is through grace, not intellectual effort.

Fourth, and therefore, it is something that is not seen either with the senses – it is not seen with the eye – or with the discursive intellect. (Thus, it is not a symbolic theophany given to the senses, as. e.g., Augustine had argued in De Trinitate).

Fifth, it is a participation in God, a mystical union, a deification, the call and destiny of Christians.

It is a Luminous Darkness, as St Gregory of Nyssa had put it (see the about section of the blog), or, as St Gregory Palamas (citing the Areopagite) puts it here, a Dazzling Darkness.

So, when the saints contemplate this divine light within themselves, seeing it by the divinising communion of the Spirit, through the mysterious visitation of perfecting illuminations—then they behold the garment of their deification, their mind being glorified and filled by the grace of the Word, beautiful beyond measure in His splendour; just as the divinity of the Word on the mountain glorified with divine light the body conjoined to it.

For “the glory which the Father gave Him”, He Himself has given to those obedient to Him, as the Gospel says, and “He willed that they should be with Him and contemplate His glory” . . .

No one has ever seen the fullness of this divine Beauty, and this is why, according to Gregory of Nyssa, no eye has seen it, even if it gaze forever: in fact, it does not see the totality such as it is, but only in the measure in which it is rendered receptive to the power of the Holy Spirit.

But in addition to this incomprehensibility, what is most divine and extraordinary is that the very comprehension a man may have, he possesses incomprehensibly. Those who see, in fact, do not know the one who enables them to see, hear and be initiated into knowledge of the future, or experience of eternal things, for the Spirit by whom they see is incomprehensible.

As the great Denys says, “Such a union of those divinised with the light that comes from on high takes place by virtue of a cessation of all intellectual activity.” It is not the product of a cause or a relationship, for these are dependent upon the activity of the intellect, but it comes to be by abstraction, without itself being that abstraction.

If it were simply abstraction, it would depend on us, and this is the Messalian doctrine, “to mount as far as one wills into the ineffable mysteries of God”, as St. Isaac says of these heretics.

Contemplation, then, is not simply abstraction and negation; it is a union and a divinisation which occurs mystically and ineffably by the grace of God, after the stripping away of everything from here below which imprints itself on the mind, or rather after the cessation of all intellectual activity; it is something which goes beyond abstraction (which is only the outward mark of the cessation).

This is why every believer has to separate off God from all His creatures, for the cessation of all intellectual activity and the resulting union with the light from on high is an experience and a divinising end, granted solely to those who have purified their hearts and received grace.

And what am I to say of this union, when the brief vision itself is manifested only to chosen disciples, disengaged by ecstasy from all perception of the senses or intellect, admitted to the true vision because they have ceased to see, and endowed with supernatural senses by their submission to unknowing? But we intend to show later on, by God’s aid, that though they have indeed seen, yet their organ of vision was, properly speaking, neither the senses nor the intellect.

Do you now understand that in place of the intellect, the eyes and ears, they acquire the incomprehensible Spirit and by Him hear, see and comprehend? For if all their intellectual activity has stopped, how could the angels and angelic men see God except by the power of the Spirit?

This is why their vision is not a sensation, since they do not receive it through the senses; nor is it intellection, since they do not find it through thought or the knowledge that comes thereby, but after the cessation of all mental activity.

It is not, therefore, the product of either imagination or reason; it is neither an opinion nor a conclusion reached by syllogistic argument. On the other hand, the mind does not acquire it simply by elevating itself through negation. . . .

Similarly, beyond the stripping away of beings, or rather after the cessation [of our perceiving or thinking of them] accomplished not only in words, but in reality, there remains an unknowing which is beyond knowledge; though indeed a darkness, it is yet beyond radiance, and, as the great Denys says, it is in this dazzling darkness that the divine things are given to the saints.

Thus the perfect contemplation of God and divine things is not simply an abstraction; but beyond this abstraction, there is a participation in divine things, a gift and a possession rather than just a process of negation.

But these possessions and gifts are ineffable: If one speaks of them, one must have recourse to images and analogies—not because that is the way in which these things are seen, but because one cannot adumbrate what one has seen in any other way.

Those, therefore, who do not listen in a reverent spirit to what is said about these ineffable things, which are necessarily expressed through images, regard the knowledge that is beyond wisdom as foolishness. . . .

– St. Gregory Palamas, Triads, pp. 33-36 . (emphases mine)

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)

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 not 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 them 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)

Icons

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.”

St Paul and the Monastic Vow

But refuse to enroll younger widows, for when their passions draw them away from Christ, they desire to marry and so incur condemnation for having abandoned their former faith. . . . So I would have younger widows marry, bear children, manage their households, and give the adversary no occasion for slander. For some have already strayed after Satan. (1 Tim 5:11-15)

marriageIt is very interesting to notice that what later developed into full monasticism was already present at the time of the New Testament, as it was being written in the first century.

Even the apostles considered vows of a monastic kind to be extremely serious. There were many widows who were fully supported by the Church, and they typically made vows to serve the Church by serving the poor and dedicating their lives to prayer and good works. Dorcas (Acts 9) was one example. Hence the necessity to regulate who qualified for such work.

In the passage cited above we can see St. Paul, who considered marriage as the creation of God, giving instructions to Timothy and directing that he wants young widows to marry; and at the same time stating that widows who had made monastic vows of celibacy and devoting their lives to prayer (and thus being fully supported by the Church), and who later break that vow in order to marry, are actually following Satan. These are very strong words.

So for St Paul, to abandon the vow of celibacy and prayer, in order to get married, is in a sense, a self-condemnation, a sentence of death. Conversely, not to make the vow of celibacy and prayer, in order to marry and raise a family, is to attain life in the sacred calling of marriage.

(Of course, St Paul had much more to say about marriage elsewhere, but what is interesting in this passage is what he notes about the vows of celibacy made by the widows.)

This also reminded me of the story about the elder in Mount Athos giving advice to a catechumen who was just about to be baptized. Upon hearing about his upcoming baptism, the elder was elated, and when the young man asked him for advice, the geronta answered, “you must either marry or become a monk.” As the catechumen seemed a little puzzled, the elder repeated it again for emphasis:   “you must either marry or become a monk.” Those are the only two callings in the Christian life.[1]

The explanation was that “we Christians are not meant to live alone. We are called to be part of a family. We thus have a choice: either make a new family or join an existing one.”

Both involve a vow that cannot be broken.


[1] Graham Speake, Mount Athos – Renewal in Paradise, p. 260.

Born Again, Born from Above

tth__ikonen_baptism_of_christ_12330697895799The Gospel of John presents a series of signs and discourses to show that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that we may have life in his name by believing in him. The first of these signs is the miracle of the water turned into wine in the wedding at Cana. Jesus was beginning his public ministry, and he was manifesting his glory by the signs he was performing.

John the Baptist had announced his coming, preaching a baptism of repentance; now the promised Messiah, the Lamb of God, had come to baptize in fire and in the Holy Spirit – bringing judgment as well as salvation to the world.

The first discourse of this Gospel will address one of the central questions of the book: how can a person be saved?

Double Entendre

It is very important for us to keep in mind that apostle John has a particular literary style and particular interests, which are evident in the topics he chooses as well as how he expresses the truths he conveys. One of the features of his style is the occasional use of double entendre. John often states things that have double meanings – sometimes for irony to make a point, and sometimes because both meanings are true, and therefore should be taken together. In this passage, this literary device is used a few times, as we will see.

The first discourse takes place at night, when Nicodemus, one of the religious leaders of Israel, comes to meet Jesus. He is described by St John as being a ”ruler of the Jews” (ἄρχων τῶν Ἰουδαίων) which is a reference to the Sanhedrin, the council composed of the chief priests, the elders of the people and scribes. The Sanhedrin was a governing body that tried various cases and disputes, oversaw Jewish religious life, and was presided by the High Priest of Israel. Members of the Sanhedrin were the most influential people of the Jewish society, and were strict adherents of the Law of Moses.

Nicodemus was not only a member of the Sanhedrin, but he also belonged to the sect the Pharisees, the strictest group in relation to keeping external regulations of the Law.

This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.”

The fact that Nicodemus came to Jesus at night is the first of the several elements of this passage that suggest a double meaning. Nicodemus came at night, when it was dark, because he hoped to get an interview with Jesus when the crowds were not around to disturb, or, most likely, because he did not want to commit himself publicly to Jesus just yet. He had heard of his miracles, and was intrigued by what they could mean, and what sort of authority Jesus had; but he did not yet know enough about Jesus, and perhaps he sensed that his miracles could be a threat to the Jewish establishment of which he was a part.

Yet, there is another, more subtle sense intended by John. The Gospel of John is full of references to the contrast between light and darkness. John shows us Jesus as the light of the world.

“In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

Not Able Unless

Nicodemus addresses Jesus in a polite way, calling him Rabbi and recognizing that the miracles of Jesus were an indication that God was authorizing his ministry. Then he brings out two concepts which become the two most important ideas of this entire passage: the question of ability and the question of exception. Here, Nicodemus says that no one is able to perform such miracles except God is with them. Jesus’ response will use the same concepts, but in a way that shifts the conversation to directly address the heart of the matter.

Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

Jesus saw beyond Nicodemus’ words of respectful greeting to the very state of his soul. It is true that no one is able to do the miracles Jesus was doing, except by the power of God – but, most importantly, no one is able to enter the kingdom of God except he is born of God. The language Jesus uses here is very emphatic in the original – there is only one way in which one can see the kingdom of God – by being born again. There is no other way.

Nicodemus: οὐδεὶς γὰρ δύναται ταῦτα τὰ σημεῖα ποιεῖν ἃ σὺ ποιεῖς, ἐὰν μὴ ᾖ ὁ θεὸς μετ᾽ αὐτοῦ.

Jesus: Ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω σοι, ἐὰν μή τις γεννηθῇ ἄνωθεν, οὐ δύναται ἰδεῖν τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ.

This statement was a powerful confrontation. Nicodemus was, after all, one of the rulers and teachers of Israel, a member of the Sanhedrin and of the strict sect of the Pharisees, who prided themselves in keeping the Law of Moses. Jesus cuts to the chase, as if he was saying: “Nicodemus, your power, your social status – and what’s more, your idea of the observance of the Jewish Law – are absolutely inadequate to qualify you for the kingdom of God.”

Again/From Above

Here we see another element in the narrative to which John deliberately gives a double meaning. The word translated as “again” in “born again” can also mean “above.” The expression “born again” could also be translated “born from above.” In fact, John uses this same word (ἄνωθεν) in other passages always with the meaning of “above” (3:31, 19:11, 19:23).

Here, he apparently intends a double meaning, because both meanings are true, and because Nicodemus understood it as meaning “again.” One needs to be born again in order to be able to enter the kingdom of heaven, and that birth is a birth from above; it is a birth effected by God.

Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.

Jesus now connects being born from above with being born of the water and of the Spirit. But just what does he mean by “born of water”? Once again, John is presenting the narrative with elements that are deliberately meant to convey more than one meaning.

The Spirit and the Water

And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. (Genesis 1:2)

As a teacher of Israel, Nicodemus understood that the Scriptures had often connected the work of the Spirit with the cleansing of water. Now, Jesus brings the fulfillment of God’s promises by being the One who dispenses his Spirit to his people as he unites them to himself through repentance and baptism. The New Testament brings the Old Testament connection between water and spiritual cleansing to its fulfillment. This is, for example, exactly what the apostle Peter does in the first sermon preached in the book of Acts, in connection with the work of the Spirit in Pentecost:

This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing. . . Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (Acts 2:32-38)

During Pentecost, the devout people who were coming to Jerusalem for the feast also needed to be born from above through repentance and baptism; here, in the Gospel of John, Jesus was confronting one of the leading men of Israel and showing him that his respectability was not enough; Nicodemus needed to be cleansed and be born from above, from the Spirit of God. As Jesus himself came from heaven, those who enter his kingdom must receive life from God who is in heaven.

That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.

At this point, Jesus makes evident that his statement is a universal truth, because when he restates here that “You must be born again,” he uses the plural. It is not only Nicodemus, but we must be born again in order to see the kingdom of God. We must be born from above as we trust Jesus. There was no other way for one of the most pious Jews of his time, and there certainly is no other way for us.

Natural man is born of the flesh even while being God’s creation. The first Adam was created by God out of the dust of the ground before God breathed the Spirit of life in his nostrils. As descendants of the first Adam, we are born of Adam and Eve, but as those who are recreated in the image of the heavenly man, we become descendants of the second Adam, Jesus Christ.

In this way, we are also born not just of Adam and Eve, but we are born again, born of God and his Church. We are born not only of the earthly man from the dust, but also of the heavenly man, who gives us the same Spirit who hovered over the waters in Genesis.

The Spirit who brought life to creation as he hovered over the waters is also the Spirit that Christ sends to his Church, the Spirit who uses the waters of baptism as the means through which he promises and gives the washing of regeneration. As the apostle Paul tells Titus,

But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:4-7)

Born of the Spirit

We are born again and we are born from above as God gives us the Spirit through the new birth in the waters of regeneration and resurrection:

We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. 5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. (Romans 6:4-5).

As baptism unites us to Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection, as Paul teaches us, so we are raised to a new life in the Spirit through the means of grace. Baptism is a promise and a means; it is the entrance into the kingdom and the engrafting into the body of Christ by our mystical union with him.

theophanyThe first Adam was created to till and cultivate the garden of God, until the time when, after obediently carrying out God’s purposes, he would have been glorified forever; he failed, and we inherit the consequences of that failure. But in Christ, the second Adam, the Man from above who is already glorified and who dispenses to us the Spirit without measure, we are re-created in his image so we can live in the new garden, the New Heavens and the New Earth, where the living waters are freely given.

We are born again and from above so that we become like newborn babes, for, as Christ tells us, “Unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” As newborn babes, we are children who need to be nourished by their mother. When we are born of the flesh, we are nourished in the bosom of our mothers, and when we are born of the Spirit we are nourished by our heavenly Mother, the Church, through the washing of the Word and the grace of the Sacraments.

The same Spirit who blew life into the earthly man Adam, and who brought to life a valley of dead bones in Ezekiel, also gives us life as He unites us to Christ through baptism and begins to deify us. This is nothing less that a re-creation, a refashioning, transfiguration and restoration of human beings into the image of the true man Jesus Christ. We are born again unto newness of life, a newness that begins even here in this life. St. Athanasius, in his book On the Incarnation, puts it this way:

You know what happens when a portrait that has been painted on a panel becomes obliterated through external stains. The artist does not throw away the panel but the subject of the portrait has to come and sit for it again, and then the likeness is re-drawn on the same material. Even so it was with the All-holy Son of God. He, the Image of the Father, came and dwelt in our midst, in order that He might renew mankind make after Himself, and seek out His lost sheep, even as he says in the Gospel: “I came to seek and to save that which was lost.” This also explains His saying to the Jews, “Except a man be born again [he cannot see the kingdom of God].” He was not referring to man’s natural birth from his mother, as thought, but to the re-birth and re-creation of the soul in the image of God.

Through repentance, faith, and baptism we have received the washing of regeneration and we have been born of the water and of the Spirit. We have been born again and born from above. The flesh is subject to death, but the Spirit is incorruptible, so that the new life we have received through God’s promises and work in the Spirit is a life that is everlasting, incorruptible, sustained by the last Adam who has defeated sin, death, and the devil.

Baptism is not only the cleansing washing of regeneration according to the promises of God, but also a public statement that we have been transferred from this world to the womb of the Church, to the kingdom of God. Even Nicodemus, the respected Pharisee and teacher of Israel, would have to publicly undergo baptism and live in newness of life even if that meant shame and scorn from those who would refuse to unite themselves to Jesus, his cross, and his resurrection.

Nicodemus came at night and he was not sure how to think of Jesus. Only through the new life given by the Spirit could he pass from death to life, from darkness to light, and from seeing things from a fleshly perspective – Jesus as an interesting miracle worker and rabbi – to seeing things in the heavenly perspective, i.e., Jesus Christ, God incarnate, the Man from heaven who unites us to himself through the Spirit and gives us eternal life.

St John Chrysostom on Marriage

WeddingThis, then, is what it means to marry in Christ: spiritual marriage is like spiritual birth, which is not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh. Consider the birth of Isaac; Scripture says, “It had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women.” Her marriage was not one of fleshly passion, but wholly spiritual, just as the soul is joined to God in an ineffable union which He alone knows: “He who is united to the Lord becomes one spirit with Him.”

See how he does not despise physical unity, however, but uses spiritual unity to illustrate it! How foolish are those who belittle marriage! If marriage were something to be condemned, Paul would never call Christ a bridegroom and the Church a bride, and then say this is an illustration of a man leaving his father and his mother, and again refer to Christ and the Church.

The Psalmist prophesies of the Church when he says, “Hear, O daughter, consider, and incline your ear; forget your people and your father’s house, and the king will desire your beauty,” and the Gospel says concerning Christ: “I came from the Father and have come into the world.” . . .

Tell [your wife] that you love her more than your own life, because this present life is nothing, and that your only hope is that the two of you pass through this life in such a way that in the world to come you will be united in perfect love.

Say to her, “Our time here is brief and fleeting, but if we are pleasing to God, we can exchange this life for the Kingdom to come. Then we will be perfectly one both with Christ and each other, and our pleasure will know no bounds. I value your love above all things, and nothing would be so bitter or painful to me as our being at odds with each other. Even if I lose everything, any affliction is tolerable if you will be true to me.”

Show her that you value her company, and prefer being at home to being out. Esteem her in the presence of your friends and children. Praise and show admiration for her good acts; and if she ever does anything foolish, advise her patiently.

Pray together at home and go to Church; when you come back home, let each ask the other the meaning of the readings and the prayers.

If you are overtaken by poverty, remember Peter and Paul, who were more honored than kings or rich men, though they spent their lives in hunger and thirst. Remind one another that nothing in life is to be feared, except offending God.

If your marriage is like this, your perfection will rival the holiest of monks. . . .

Finally, never call her by her name alone, but with terms of endearment, honor, and love. If you honor her, she won’t need honor from others; she won’t desire praise from others if she enjoys the praise that comes from you.

Prefer her before all others, both for her beauty and her discernment, and praise her. She will in this way be persuaded to listen to none that are outside, but to disregard all the world except for you.

Teach her to fear God, and all other good things will flow from this one lesson as from a fountain and your house will be filled with ten thousand blessings. If we seek the things that are perfect, the secondary things will follow. The Lord says, “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.”

What sort of person do you think the children of such parents will be? What kind of person are all the others who associate with them? Will they not eventually be the recipients of countless blessings as well? For generally the children acquire the character of their parents, are formed in the mold of their parents’ temperament, love the same things their parents love, talk in the same fashion, and work for the same ends.chrysostom_archbishopofconstantinople

If we order our lives in this way and diligently study the Scriptures, we will find lessons to guide us in everything we need! In this way we will be able to please God, and to pass through the course of this life in virtue and to gain those blessings which He has promised to those who love Him, of which, God willing, may we be counted worthy through the grace and love for mankind of our Lord Jesus Christ, with whom, together with the Holy Spirit, be glory, honor, and power to the Father, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

 

St John Chrysostom, Homily on Ephesians 5:22-33 (“On Marriage and Family Life,” pp. 54-64)