Georges Florovsky on the Death and Resurrection of Christ: our Nature and our Will.

Death is the “last enemy” (1 Cor 15:26), a catastrophe for man. In what way, then, can it be considered good?

The mystery of the Christian faith is life through death. In the Incarnation, the Christ assumes human nature and human life, and by his death assumes human death and heals it. By the voluntary act of his will, he bears the sin of the world, taking it up, and by his death he fulfills the purpose of the Incarnation.

The Cross is the symbol of Love Divine, the abolition of sin altogether, the deliverance from sin and death. The death of our Lord was the victory over death and mortality. In our death, human nature becomes unstable in the separation of body and its vital power, the soul; it is only saved from this corruption by the power of the indwelling Word. Our deep tragedy, our catastrophe, is turned into an eucatastrophe (I am using here a C. S. Lewis term, not Florovsky), a means of healing, that we may be refashioned again through resurrection, sound, free from passions, pure and without and admixture of evil – a healing of soul and body.

In this way, death is not an evil, but a benefit, a healing process, a medicine, a fiery tempering, as the resurrection of Christ accomplishes our resurrection, to be fulfilled in the general quickening when the last enemy shall be abolished, death. It will be a restoration of the union of man with God. Death is vanquished not by the Incarnation, but by the voluntary death of the Incarnate Life. He passed through death and quickened death itself, abolished its power; the grave now becomes a life-giving source of our resurrection, a bed of hope for believers.

Redemption is not just the forgiveness of sins, it is not just man’s reconciliation with God. Redemption is the abolition of sin altogether, the deliverance from sin and death. And the ultimate victory is wrought, not by sufferings or endurance, but by death and resurrection. We enter here into the ontological depth of human existence.

The death of Our Lord was the victory over death and mortality, not just the remission of sins, nor merely a justification of man, nor again a satisfaction of an abstract justice.”


If Christ’s death on the Cross saves us, then how do we understand the role of human will in our salvation?

The Resurrection is accomplished by Christ in order to redeem and resurrect human nature, not only His but of all human beings. In His death and resurrection our nature is healed, but we must make a distinction between the healing of the nature and the healing of the will.

Nature is healed with a certain compulsion because of the objective and final act of Christ in his omnipotent and invincible grace; but the will of mankind can only by healed in its free conversion, by a free and spontaneous response of love and adoration. The will of man can only be healed in freedom, in obedience of love, in self-consecration and self-dedication.

The Kingdom of Heaven and union with Christ are given to those who desire, who love and long for them. The Resurrection is common to all, but blessedness will be given only to some, who are in the path of renunciation, of mortification, of self-sacrifice and self-oblation: one has to die in order to live in Christ, personally and freely associating himself with Him. In faith and love, one takes up his cross and follows him in love.

This is the ontological law of spiritual existence; repentance is required, and only to the faithful believer the general resurrection is the resurrection unto life. To others, it will be a resurrection to judgment, a tragedy of human freedom, because by the obstinate will hardened against God, the fire of God’s love will become a burning fire of judgment.

All beings will be restored to the integrity of their nature, but the apprehension of the Good will belong to those whose will is determined towards God. The work of Christ raises our nature, but the work of the Spirit does not produce an undesired resolve, but transforms a chosen purpose, through synergy an cooperation, into theosis. This is also supported by the baptismal grace, transforming the will (which is the seat of sin), which is also strengthened by the medicine of immortality of the Body and Blood of Christ.

– Georges Florovsky, Redemption

Melito of Sardis (d. 180AD) – the Passover and Christ in the Old Testament

Melito was the Bishop of Sardis near Smyrna in Asia Minor, a very early expositor and herald of Christianity (he died c. 180AD).

Melito of Sardis, d. 180AD

In his Paschal homily, an exposition of the Paschal event in connection to Christ, he prefigues much of later Biblical theology which has been established in the Church for two millenia. With a high Christology, he based his exegesis on a framework of type/antitype, shadow/substance, promise/fulfillment, images/realities.

In the original account of Exodus, the paschal Lamb is sacrificed and its blood is poured on the doorposts of the covenant people who are to be delivered from the Angel who brings death to the unbelieving and unrepentant Egyptians, represented and embodied in their king, Pharaoh, himself a type of the god of this world.

In this way, the model given in Exodus present in type all that is later accomplished in substance in Christ. The images prefigure the reality of the death, passion, and resurrection of the Son of God, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, for the redemption of His people delivering them from ultimate death.

In this way the principles of the Gospel are proclaimed beforehand, as a sketch, in the Law; and the Gospel is the Law’s explanation and fullness. In the Law, particularly in the account of Exodus, there is the sheep, the blood of the sheep, the lamb, the Jerusalem below and the narrow inheritance of the Promised Land, later known as Palestine. These prefigure the Lamb of God, the Great and Good Shepherd, the true Israel, and the One who bestows on His people not a plot of land, but the renewed cosmos.
Christ is God and human being. He is everything.

The Passover is old and new; it is old in the Law, a figure in time; it is new in the Word, eternal in grace. The sheep are corruptible, mortal; the Lord is incorruptible, immortal in his Resurrection. The Law is old, the Word is new. Christ, as human being, contains all crated things. As God, he creates all things. The shadowy account of Exodus gives the commandment and prefigures the grace to come; the figure eventually gives place to the reality. The Law judges, the Logos brings grace; Christ begets and is begotten, he is God and man, the sheep and the Lamb and Shepherd.

In the Passover, the lamb was slaughtered and eaten; the firstborn of those who were not consecrated was taken by the Angel of death. The sheep were sacrificed for Israel’s salvation, the death of the lambs brought life to the people. This was a prefiguration of the Lord, who died and was raised for the redemption of his people. Melito takes an etymological liberty with the word Pascha (originally a Hebrew term, Pesach, meaning passing over, skipping) correlating it with παθειν, to suffer.

As Abel suffered and was murdered, so was Christ; Isaac was bound to be offered as a sacrifice, Jacob was exiled, Joseph was sold in slavery, Moses was exposed, David and the prophets (Jeremiah, Isaiah) were persecuted and dishonored, the sheep were sacrificed. These all prefigured Christ, the One who was murdered, bound, sacrificed, exiled, betrayed, persecuted, dishonored, and raised for our sakes; the One who was killed and yet who smote Egypt.

Has made flesh in a Virgin, He was hanged on wood, entombed in the earth, raised from the dead, lifted up to heaven; He was the speechless Lamb, the One who suffered unjustly, God’s Firstborn who created all things. He was the Old Testament’s pillar of fire, the cloud, the manna that rained on God’s people as heavenly food, the Rock who gushed out drink to quench the ultimate thirst, the One who gave the Law, the One who gave Israel the prefigured inheritance, the One who sent the prophets, the one who raised the kings, and the One who came as the Prophet, Priest and King, to save and refashion all humanity.  

In summary, Melito sees Christ as

(1) Typologically prefigured in the events and persons of the OT,

(2) The fulfillment of prophecy, and

(3) Personally present in the Theophanies, and even as Creator

St. John Damascene (676-749AD) on the Communion of the Body and Blood of Christ:

If then the Word of God is quick and energizing and the Lord did all that He willed; if He said, Let there be light and there was light, let there be a firmament and there was a firmament; if the heavens were established by the Word of the Lord and all the host of them by the breath of His mouth; if the heaven and the earth, water and fire and air and the whole glory of these, and, in sooth, this most noble creature, man, were perfected by the Word of the Lord; if God the Word of His own will became man and the pure and undefiled blood of the holy and ever-virginal One made His flesh without the aid of seed, can He not then make the bread His body and the wine and water His blood? . . .

St John of Damascus

God said, This is My body, and This is My blood, and this do ye in remembrance of Me. And so it is at His omnipotent command until He come: for it was in this sense that He said until He come: and the overshadowing power of the Holy Spirit becomes through the invocation the rain to this new tillage. For just as God made all that He made by the energy of the Holy Spirit, so also now the energy of the Spirit performs those things that are supernatural and which it is not possible to comprehend unless by faith alone.

How shall this be, said the holy Virgin, seeing I know not a man? And the archangel Gabriel answered her: The Holy Spirit shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee. And now you ask, how the bread became Christ’s body and the wine and water Christ’s blood. And I say unto thee, “The Holy Spirit is present and does those things which surpass reason and thought.”

Further, bread and wine are employed: for God knoweth man’s infirmity . . . and just as, in the case of baptism, since it is man’s custom to wash himself with water and anoint himself with oil, He connected the grace of the Spirit with the oil and the water and made it the water of regeneration, in like manner since it is man’s custom to eat and to drink water and wine, He connected His divinity with these and made them His body and blood in order that we may rise to what is supernatural through what is familiar and natural.

The body which is born of the holy Virgin is in truth body united with divinity, not that the body which was received up into the heavens descends, but that the bread itself and the wine are changed into God’s body and blood.

But if you enquire how this happens, it is enough for you to learn that it was through the Holy Spirit, just as the Lord took on Himself flesh that subsisted in Him and was born of the holy Mother of God through the Spirit.

And we know nothing further save that the Word of God is true and energizes and is omnipotent, but the manner of this cannot be searched out . . . the bread of the table and the wine and water are supernaturally changed by the invocation and presence of the Holy Spirit into the body and blood of Christ, and are not two but one and the same.

The bread and the wine are not merely figures of the body and blood of Christ (God forbid!) but0 for the Lord has said, “This is My body,” not, this is a figure of My body: and “My blood,” not, a figure of My blood.

And on a previous occasion He had said to the Jews, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, ye have no life in you. For My flesh is meat indeed and My blood is drink indeed. And again, He that eateth Me, shall live . . . through it we have communion with Christ and share in His flesh and His divinity

An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, 4.13

St Gregory the Theologian and the Call to the Priesthood

St Gregory the Theologian – Second Oration (In Defense of His Flight to Pontus)

St Gregory of Nazianzus, known by the Orthodox Church as St. Gregory the Theologian (329 – 390 AD), was the son of the Bishop of Nazianzus (Cappadocia).

Introduction

St Gregory the Theologian (St Gregory Nazianzus) 329-390AD

               In this short article I will address the arguments and content of his St Gregory the Theologian’s Second Theological Oration, also known as his treatise on the priesthood. I will start, first, with the context of his life leading to his ordination as a priest; second, with the content of his writing concerning priesthood; third, with a summary of his main arguments related to the daunting tasks associated with the priesthood – namely, his two main arguments concerning the need virtue and knowledge; finally, I will assess the resolution of his arguments concerning the fear failure and the fear of disobedience, and the tensions inherent in his argument, both in light of his own context, as well as how it might be applied to those considering the call to priesthood in our own modern context.

Gregory was born at about 330 in south-western Cappadocia, in the neighborhood of Nazianzus, where his father Gregory was a bishop. Through the influence and example of his wife Nonna, Bishop Gregory converted to Christianity in 325, and his son Gregory was consecrated by his mother even before birth. He was sent to school of rhetoric at an early age in Caesarea and later studied in Palestine, Alexandria, and eventually Athens, after which he received baptism in Cappadocia at about 358. At that time he lived for a period in monastic retirement with St Basil in Pontus. St Gregory followed a classical course of studies and has been called “a humanist among the theologians of the fourth century, insofar as he preferred quiet contemplation and the union of ascetic piety and literary culture to the splendor of an active life and ecclesiastical position.” [1]

Gregory would have chosen this life of contemplation had not his father decided to consecrate him to the priesthood in 362, against Gregory’s will. Displeased and fearful with his sudden ordination, Gregory fled to Pontus for several months before eventually returning to his diocese in Nazianzus, when he wrote the oration known as the Second Oration, or the Apologeticus de Fuga. He was aware that “his behavior was tantamount to a canonical rejection of ordination within the very week of receiving it.” In this way, “He had not only weakened his claim to the office but had caused animosity . . . his sudden flight would have offended [his supporters] as much as his father, for he had clearly preferred the community of Basil to that of his . . . brethren at home.”[2]  Gregory eventually succeeded his father as the Bishop of Nazianzus in 374, but a year later he withdrew to Seleucia to lead a life of retirement and contemplation. This did not last long, as five years later the small Nicene minority in Constantinople called for his aid against the Arians after the death of Emperor Valens.[3]

It was in Constantinople that he preached his Five Orations on the Divinity of the Logos, when Theodosius became emperor, called for the Second Ecumenical Council in 381, and appointed Gregory as the Bishop of the capital.  When the Macedonians and Alexandrians opposed his nomination, in frustration, Gregory delivered a farewell sermon and retired back to Nazianzus; after a successor was appointed to that see, he retired to his estate in Arianzum to pursue the life of solitude and contemplation he always desired, until his death in 389 or 390.[4] He left an immensely influential literary body, yet one composed not of dogmatic treatises, but solely of orations, poetry, and letters.

Gregory’s Second Oration is an apology for his flight from ordination and for his eventual acceptance of it; ultimately, it is also an articulation of the ideal of the priesthood. The text we possess might not have been written for delivery, or, at least, it is almost certainly a later revision of his speech.[5] He starts his defense by arguing that his flight was neither from inexperience or ignorance, nor from contempt for divine laws and ordinances; it was as a result, as he saw it, of his inadequacy for the pastoral ministry, which requires that the pastor surpasses the majority of the people in virtue and nearness to God (paragraph §3).[6]

Virtue and Knowledge

St. Gregory arguments focus on two main aspects: the need for virtue and discernment, and the need for knowledge of Scripture as the medicine to heal sous. First, he argues that priests should be, at minimum, those who surpass others in virtue, and  says that he is ashamed of those who “intrude” into the sacred offices without being “better than ordinary people; ” those who, “before becoming worthy to approach the temples, lay claim to the sanctuary,” i.e., whose practice in virtue and knowledge is average at best, so that they barely can be considered worthy to enter the Church, let alone minister in the sanctuary where are the Gifts and the priests (§8). St. Gregory did not consider himself qualified to rule a flock and to have authority over men, especially since, for priests, this entails a proportionate measure of dignity and risk – and failure can be disastrous because it would involve damage to the souls of many.

He argues that one cannot undertake the task to heal others while one is still not healed; one ought to be eminent in good.  “He should know no limits in goodness of spiritual progress” and ought not think “it a great gain to excel ordinary people” (§14). A priest must excel others in virtue especially because his rule is by influence of persuasion, so as to draw people at least to ordinary virtue by one’s evident extraordinary virtue (not by mere command). For St. Gregory, “the scope of our art is to provide the soul with wings, to rescue it from the world and give it to God, . . . in short, to deify, and bestow heavenly bliss upon one who belongs to the heavenly host” (§22).

A physician of souls, like a Shepherd, must walk in the “King’s Highway” in perfect balance, incurring a great risk as one who is changed with the “illumination of others” – “and who is sufficient for these things?” (cf. 2 Cor. 2). Leading the flock in virtue might be the most difficult work of all, since it requires that the leader and teacher has submitted himself to God in love and obedience, so that he will be able to lead others to the same conformity. In one of his most memorable quotes, he says,

A man must himself be cleansed, before cleansing others: himself become wise, that he may make others wise; become light, and then give light: draw near to God, and so bring others near; be hallowed, then hallow them; be possessed of hands to lead others by the hand, of wisdom to give advice.” (§71).

A priest must also excel in knowledge, since the guiding of man, which relates to the soul and its eternal destiny, is the “science of sciences.” St. Gregory shifts the emphasis to “the first of our duties,” the knowledge and the instruction of the Word (§35); and yet, “we are at once wise teachers, of high estimation in Divine things, the first of scribes and lawyers; we ordain ourselves men of heaven and seek to be called Rabbi by men” (§49).

After mentioning the representatives of the Law and the Prophets (Moses, Aaron, Elijah, Samuel, David, the other prophets, etc.) as well as the apostles and their successors, St Gregory focuses on St Paul as a paradigm: “I set forth Paul as the witness to my assertions . . .  his labors, his watchings, his sufferings in hunger and thirst, . . .  With these thoughts I am occupied night and day: they waste my marrow, and feed upon my flesh, and will not allow me to be confident or to look up. (§52-71).

Reasons for the Flight

St. Gregory brings these considerations on virtue and knowledge, on ascetic practice and contemplation, and the seemingly insurmountable requirements, challenges, tasks, expectations, and dangers related to the priesthood, as a justification for his unwillingness to immediately accept his charge and for his flight. And yet at this point he cites his personal history – having been reared as a Christian, the son of godly parents, baptized, consecrated to God, highly educated, and trained in philosophical (theological) ascetical practice and contemplation:

I had been invited from my youth, if I may speak of what most men know not, and had been cast upon Him from the womb, and presented by the promise of my mother, afterwards confirmed in the hour of danger: . . . I gave as an offering my all to Him Who had won me and saved me, my property, my fame, my health, my very words . . . and the words of God were made sweet as honeycombs to me, and I cried after knowledge and lifted up my voice for wisdom. There was moreover the moderation of anger, the curbing of the tongue, the restraint of the eyes, the discipline of the belly, and the trampling under foot of the glory which clings to the earth. I speak foolishly, but it shall be said, in these pursuits I was perhaps not inferior to many. (§77)

These statements might raise the question of whether St Gregory was, in reality, trained in virtue and knowledge precisely in the way needful for the task of the priesthood, as he saw it. As he argued, one is required (a) not only to be cleansed of sin, but greatly surpass the average person in virtue; (b) to have the wisdom and discernment and to apply these in the diagnosis and healing of individuals and groups; (c) to surpass greatly others in the spiritual knowledge and application of Scripture; and (d) to have the wisdom and discernment in the instruction of others.

               It is arguable that St Gregory fulfills all these requirements. He was “invited from [his] youth . . . cast upon Him from the womb;” he was raised in the Faith, baptized after an oath of consecration after danger in the sea, as he traveled to study in Athens and cried out God when he thought the ship would sink.[7]  He was highly trained in virtue and knowledge, both in secular training (including the best available training in in the world at the time) and in the Church; he left all for a life of contemplation with St Basil. He was trained in the Scriptures in a way that greatly surpassed the average Christian; he practiced virtue in monastic ascetic practices, and he says, in a way reminiscent of St Paul (cf. Gal. 1:14), that he surpassed most men both in virtue and knowledge, – “I was perhaps not inferior to many.”

               By laying out, clearly and extensively, the seemingly impossible requirements for the office of the priesthood, and then, in a small paragraph, indicating that he might have actually fulfilled those requirements, St Gregory is not being self-contradictory. He is both stressing the great holiness of the office as well as modeling humility as a form of behavior. St Gregory lays out with wisdom, precision, and rhetorical beauty, all that one who would embody Christ as the Shepherd should be to his flock, especially considering the abuses and lowered standards he had observed. Becoming a priest is not for the average person, i.e., one who is average in virtue, knowledge, wisdom, discernment, ascetic practice, and ability to discern the complexities of governing and healing others. These are qualities and abilities which can be acquired through effort, contemplation, study, and time; but they need to be embodied to the greatest possible degree, according to one’s ability, in a priest. They are things that, in one’s personal level, should “waste my marrow, and feed upon my flesh, and will not allow me to be confident or to look up.”

               St Gregory upholds both the impossible task and the possibility of the accomplishing task through God – while emphasizing that such work of grace can only be possible to those who understand that they are called to climb a mountain into the very cloud of the presence of God. He laments that “there is not any distinction between the state of the people and that of the priesthood: but it seems to me to be a simple fulfilment of the ancient curse, ‘As with the people so with the priest’” (§80-82). In this way, the oration is already a sobering call, a medicine to those who are sick and need healing from vice and blindness – and that includes readers of all times and ages. As he says, “before a man has, as far as possible, gained this superiority, and sufficiently purified his mind, and far surpassed his fellows in nearness to God, I do not think it safe for him to be entrusted with the rule over souls (§91-95).

Conclusion – Fear of Inadequacy vs. Fear of God

St Gregory introduces two reasons for his reconsideration and return: the fear of disobeying his parents and the fear of disobeying God. He reaffirms that “that we are far too low to perform the priest’s office before God,” yet, “someone else may perhaps refuse to acquit us on the charge of disobedience” (§111). There are then two fears that appear in his Oration: first, the fear of failure because of his unworthiness; this was the fear that held him back. Then the fear of disobedience (to his parents, and to God). This was the fear that brought him back. This becomes an instruction for the readers who would aspire to the work of ordained ministry, desire which is a good thing (εἴ τις ἐπισκοπῆς ὀρέγεται καλοῦ ἔργου ἐπιθυμεῖ, 1 Tim. 3). The realization of such a daunting task should not be a source of despair, but of awe and commitment in the face of the immensity of the challenge and task.

Given the content of this oration, it would be important to emphasize that the internal, subjective calling of God in one’s life for the priesthood is only confirmed by the external call – in the case of St Gregory, the call to ordination by his father – and that is what caused Gregory to ultimately consider. To disobey the objective, tangible, historical, practical calling of his bishop was to disobey God. In other words, subjective states of desiring the priesthood are necessary but not sufficient (or, in the case of St Gregory, were not even present), but the external call of God through the bishop caused him to consider his duty and the attending responsibilities in virtue, wisdom, and discernment. As he puts it in closing, “I fell down and humbled myself under the mighty hand of God, and asked pardon for my former idleness and disobedience . . . now I am commissioned to exalt Him in the congregation of the people, and praise Him in the seat of the elders. (§111)

Select Bibliography

Constas, Maximos. Roads to Damascus – Crisis, Conversion, and Community in the Lives of the Three Hierarchs (unpublished paper)

Greer, Rowan. Reflections on Priestly Authority. St. Luke’s Journal of Theology. March 1991, Volume XXXIV, Number 2.

McGunkin, John. St Gregory of Nazianzus – An Intellectual Biography.

Nazianzen, St Gregory, Select Orations, trans. Charles Gordon Brown and James Edward Swallow.

Quasten, Johannes, Patrology. Volume: II The Ante-Nicene Literature after Irenaeus, (Vol. 39, No. 4), p. 236

.


[1] Johannes Quasten, Patrology. Volume: II The Ante-Nicene Literature after Irenaeus, (Vol. 39, No. 4), p. 236

[2] John McGunkin, St Gregory of Nazianzus – An Intellectual Biography, p. 110.

[3] Quasten., 237.

[4] Ibid., 238.

[5] Rowan Greer, “Reflections on Priestly Authority.” St. Luke’s Journal of Theology (March 1991, Volume XXXIV, Number 2), p. 103.

[6] St Gregory Nazianzen, “Select Orations” trans. Charles Gordon Brown and James Edward Swallow.

[7] Maximos Constas, Roads to Damascus – Crisis, Conversion, and Community in the Lives of the Three Hierarchs, p. 5-6.

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)

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.”

The Divine Liturgy – The Same Today as Described by St Cyril of Jerusalem 1,700 Years Ago.

liturgyBy the loving-kindness of God ye have heard sufficiently at our former meetings concerning Baptism, and Chrism, and partaking of the Body and Blood of Christ; and now it is necessary to pass on to what is next in order, meaning to-day to set the crown on the spiritual building of your edification. . . .

After this the Priest cries aloud, “Lift up your hearts.”  For truly ought we in that most awe-inspiring hour to have our heart on high with God, and not below, thinking of earth and earthly things. In effect therefore the Priest bids all in that hour to dismiss all cares of this life, or household anxieties, and to have their heart in heaven with the merciful God. Then ye answer, “We lift them up unto the Lord:” assenting to it, by your avowal. . . .

Then the Priest says, “Let us give thanks unto the Lord.”  . . . Then ye say, “It is meet and right”  . . . After this, we make mention of heaven, and earth, and sea; of sun and moon; of stars and all the creation, rational and irrational, visible and invisible; of Angels, Archangels, Virtues, Dominions, Principalities, Powers, Thrones; of the Cherubim with many faces . . .

We make mention also of the Seraphim, whom Esaias in the Holy Spirit saw standing around the throne of God, and with two of their wings veiling their face, and with twain their feet, while with twain they did fly, crying Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of Sabaoth. . . .

Then having sanctified ourselves by these spiritual Hymns, we beseech the merciful God to send forth His Holy Spirit upon the gifts lying before Him; that He may make the Bread the Body of Christ, and the Wine the Blood of Christ; for whatsoever the Holy Ghost has touched, is surely sanctified and changed.

Then, after the spiritual sacrifice, the bloodless service, is completed, over that sacrifice of propitiation we entreat God for the common peace of the Churches, for the welfare of the world; for kings; for soldiers and allies; for the sick; for the afflicted; and, in a word, for all who stand in need of succour we all pray and offer this sacrifice.

Then we commemorate also those who have fallen asleep before us, first Patriarchs, Prophets, Apostles, Martyrs, that at their prayers and intercessions God would receive our petition.

Then on behalf also of the Holy Fathers and Bishops who have fallen asleep before us, and in a word of all who in past years have fallen asleep among us, believing that it will be a very great benefit to the souls, for whom the supplication is put up, while that holy and most awe-inspiring  sacrifice is set forth. . . .

Then, after these things, we say that Prayer which the Saviour delivered to His own disciples, with a pure conscience entitling God our Father, and saying, Our Father, which art in heaven . . .

After this the Priest says, “Holy things to holy people.”  Holy are the gifts presented, having received the visitation of the Holy Ghost; holy are ye also, having been deemed worthy of the Holy Ghost; the holy things therefore correspond to the holy persons. Then ye say, “One is Holy, One is the Lord, Jesus Christ.”  For One is truly holy, by nature holy; we too are holy, but not by nature, only by participation, and discipline, and prayer. . . .

After this ye hear the chanter inviting you with a sacred melody to the communion of the Holy Mysteries, and saying, O taste and see that the Lord is good. Trust not the judgment to thy bodily palate no, but to faith unfaltering; for they who taste are bidden to taste, not bread and wine, but the anti-typical Body and Blood of Christ . . .

Then after thou hast partaken of the Body of Christ, draw near also to the Cup of His Blood; not stretching forth thine hands, but bending, and saying with an air of worship and reverence, Amen, hallow thyself by partaking also of the Blood of Christ.

Hold fast these traditions undefiled and, keep yourselves free from offence. Sever not yourselves from the Communion; deprive not yourselves, through the pollution of sins, of these Holy and Spiritual Mysteries. And the God of peace sanctify you wholly; and may your spirit, and soul, and body be preserved entire without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ:—To whom be glory and honour and might, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and world without end. Amen.

– Excerpts from St Cyril of Jerusalem, Lecture XXIII (On the  Sacred Liturgy).

The Bread of Life is on the Feeding Trough

mangerThe 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.”

Ironically, the baby wrapped in cloths 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. As we eat his Body and drink his Blood, we have life. 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 repentant sinners.

Christmas (all 12 days!!) 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 Nativity season. For some, it is easier to remember this, since they have neither family nor the means to engage in commercialism. They have nothing. They are alone in this world. But Emmanuel is with them, with us.

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 (except sin) 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. The Son of God has united humanity to himself, clothed in flesh for our redemption, sitting at the right hand of the Father, 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 that.

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 the inside, especially because he has assumed humanity in order to heal it.

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, motherhood and fatherhood, youth and old age, richness and poverty, health and sickness, the blessing of life and the pain of death.

St. Athanasius says 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, lived on this earth for our salvation, and he has died for our salvation. He has risen again for our salvation. Our salvation is nothing less than our union with him that brings us to his eternal purpose for us: that we might become gods. That we should shine forever as the stars of heaven with him.

Like St John the Baptist, let us be impelled by the Spirit into the wilderness of this world to be Christ’s witnesses there.

Like St Simeon and St Anna, let us be impelled by the Spirit to his temple, the Church, so that there we may see his glory.

Like the Mother of God, our Most Holy Theotokos, let us submit to God, saying, let it be done according to thy will; and as the Spirit abides in the Church, let Christ 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 of the Lord to partake of the Body and Blood of the lamb of God, laid for us here in our manger, the feeding trough of the Bread of Life without whom we have no life.

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.

Hans Urs von Balthasar and Hope (Part 1 of 3)

In his book Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved”? Balthasar stresses that hope in the goodness and mercy of God is the foundation of the Christian life. In responding to critics who argue that Balthasar’s theology leads to the certainty of an empty hell and universal salvation, which from their perspective is contrary both to Scripture and to Tradition, Balthasar argues that he “never spoke of uncertainty but rather of hope.”[i]

He quotes his critics to point out that they are the ones who have certainty, viz., that some will not be saved – and that this certainty conflicts with the biblical picture of the mercy of God as well as with the hope set out for Christians concerning God’s will to save all men.

The connection between hope and God’s will to save all men is central for Balthasar, and therefore he returns to this concept throughout his arguments. In 1 Tim. 2:3-4 Paul refers to “God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth,” and, as Balthasar makes clear by using this in the title of his book, his question is, how can we fail to hope that God will do exactly what he wills to do, viz., to save all men?

Theodrama

There are at least two issues to be addressed in relation to this passage.[ii] First, there is the question of the will of God. Balthasar’s theology is shaped by the concept of drama, which highlights the encompassing, infinite freedom of God without denying the freedom of man. Therefore, he would not argue that God’s will simply achieves what it determines without reference to the finite will of man that also shapes the drama in some meaningful way.

Aidan Nichols is correct when he argues that Balthasar is “indebted at once to Irenaeus and to Hegel” when he presents the Mediator as the one who will “recapitulate in himself the conflict between God’s ‘everything’ and man’s ‘something’ and, but so doing, sublimate and abolish it.”[iii]

However, Balthasar wants to distance himself from Hegelian categories that would render the contingencies of drama ineffective: “Lest the object of our beholding [through the eyes of faith] should turn into an ‘absolute knowledge’, however, it was necessary to distinguish our endeavor from that of Hegel in particular.”[iv] Balthasar has to maintain a distance from all that could constitute certainty of knowledge, because that would be like reading the script in advance (if there is indeed one) and failing to participate in the drama properly.

The theo-drama cannot be dialectical, but dialogical: “In the Christian drama God does not speak in monologues . . .  it is not a ‘teaching’ that has fallen from heaven but an interaction, a kind of negotiation between two parties.”[v] So he says that “absolute knowledge is the death of all theo-drama, but God’s ‘love which surpasses all gnosis’ is the death of ‘absolute knowledge’.”[vi]

The answer to the question of how such a dialogue is possible “if God is the Absolute and the ‘All’ is found in the fact that “God has given this play of freedoms a central meaning called Jesus Christ – the climax of the history of the world’s salvation, converging on him and radiating from him.”[vii] His desire is to maintain the tension between the two freedoms using Christ as the center, as well as the tension between the lack of certain knowledge of either redemption or damnation and human responsibility.

Kenosis

It is my estimation that this tension is problematic in Balthasar, since God’s will can only be infinite and truly encompass man’s will if it achieves its own ends, while at the same time allowing for man’s finite freedom to be exercised meaningfully and yet in complete accord with God’s decrees. But Balthasar wants to maintain the tension more unresolved, in order to heighten the dramatic element, and in doing so he makes statements that may appear contradictory. For example, when treating God’s self-limitations in relation to creation in terms of kenosis, he says,

The first “self-limitation” of the triune God arises through endowing his creature with freedom. The second, deeper, “limitation” of the same triune God occurs as a result of the covenant, which on God’s side, is indissoluble . . . The third kenosis . . . arises through the incarnation of the Son alone . . .  Man’s freedom is left intact, even when perverted into sin . . .  God does not overwhelm man; he leads him to his goals . . .  This indicates no inability on God’s part; it is not that the is uncertain whether he can convince rebellions man . . . human freedom and its perversion are always exercised within the Son’s eucharistia . . . [viii]

What is this exercise of faith within the Son’s eucharisitia? He says,

We must remember that the creature’s No, its wanting to be autonomous without acknowledging its origin, must be located within the Son’s all embracing Yes to the Father, in the Spirit; it is the refusal to participate in the autonomy with which the Son is endowed. [ix]

This structure is deliberately meant to uphold a the relationship between the infinite freedom of God and the finite freedom of man, which, on the one hand, is always in tension, and, on the other hand, is resolved in the God-man and his Yes to the Father. However, it is never quite clear whether Christ’s Yes to the Father automatically applies on behalf of all men (as some of Balthasar’s passages seem to indicate) or whether man’s freedom will be upheld if he decides to ultimately remain in an autonomous No to God. In the latter case, God’s will that all men will be saved becomes more of a statement about the goodness of God than a solid basis for hope of universal salvation.

On the one hand, Balthasar speaks of an “encompassing Providence” that restrains and gives limits to finite freedom, “so that all men’s error takes place within the realm of divine love.” At the same time, he approvingly quotes Clement of Alexandria who says that” “God does not compel us” but rather “wishes us to be saved on the basis of our own decision” because the soul “moves by its own power.”[x] If man’s finite will has to be taken seriously into the equation, it might in some way frustrate God’s will in this matter.

New Testament

The greater difficulty in relation to 1 Tim. 2:3-4, however, is the nature of “all men.” Balthasar assumes that the passage refers to all men without distinction. However, there are very good reasons to believe that, in the context of the passage, Paul is not referring to all individual persons indiscriminately.

Paul starts chapter 2 by urging Timothy “that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” It is clear that Paul is asking Timothy to pray not for all individuals of the world, but to the different groups of people in their society who are all involved in the life and destiny of the Church.

In fact, Paul uses the same words in verse 1 (πάντων ἀνθρώπων, in the genitive case) to refer to all different segments of society as he does in verse 4 (πάντας ἀνθρώπους, in the accusative). Add to this the fact that Paul follows these verses by making the point that there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus – i.e., Timothy should pray for all kinds of people, including kings and all those who are in high positions, because despite whom they might worship, there is only one God, and they also will have access to him through only one mediator.

Therefore, it is more likely that what Paul is saying, at least in this passage, is not that God wills every single member of the human race to be saved, but that he wills all different kinds of people, from every segment of society, as well as from every tribe, tongue, and nation, to be saved.

This, of course, does not rule out the idea that God might indeed will that every single person that has ever lived will be saved. Indeed Christian doctrine teaches the goodness and mercy of God, and the intrinsic goodness of all created things insofar as they exist and are created by God. However, these considerations have to be compared to an extensive corpus of revelation concerning the justice of God and the judgment of the wicked.

Balthasar does not ignore those, but it seems as though lays undue weight on 1 Tim. 2:3-4 as a controlling thought for the understanding of the other passages. It is not fair to say, however, that this passage is the only one in which he relies for his thesis that God wishes to save all individuals and therefore we should hope so. There are a few other key Scriptural passages to which he refers, and these should be briefly addressed here.

Balthasar cites Jesus’ saying that “when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32). However, this passage cannot be taken in isolation from what this same gospel had taught a few chapters before. In John 6:44, we read that “no one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.” This means that all who are drawn will indeed come to Christ and be raised up on the last day.

This implies either that there will be universal salvation, or that only some will be drawn and come to Christ and therefore be raised up (i.e., the statement “all people” should then be taken in a way similar to 1 Tim. 2:3-4). It is the last option that seems to follow from Jesus’ further interaction with those who did not believe him: “there are some of you who do not believe . . . And he said, ‘This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.’”

That is to say, they did not believe because it was not granted them by the Father to believe; therefore, the Father did not draw them, otherwise they would believe and be raised on the last day. John’s gospel (as with the rest of the New Testament) often makes this contrast between those who believe and are adopted as children of God, and those who do not believe and therefore stand under judgment: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him” (John 3:36).

Therefore, it is unlikely that the saying “when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” gives a solid basis for the idea that Christ indeed draws all individual persons to himself in a salvific sense. There are also other passages that Balthasar cites that contain the idea of God’s desire and Christ’s work that brings mercy and salvation to all men, but the ones addressed above are representative of the problem.

Click here for Part 2.


[i] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved?” (Ignatius Press, 1989), 18.

[ii] Of course, the issues of faith, salvation, restoration, judgment, mercy, heaven and hell go well beyond whatever this passage can determine; but since 1 Tim. 2:3-4 provides such a central concept for Balthasar’s understanding of these issues, not only in this particular book but in all of his theology, it is important to address the passage in more detail.

[iii] Nichols, 65 (citing Theo-Drama II, p. 195).

[iv] Theo-Drama II, 89.

[v] Ibid., 71.

[vi] Ibid., 89.

[vii] Ibid., 63; emphasis in the original.

[viii] Theo-Drama IV, 331-332.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Theo-Drama II, 217.

Acts 2:42 as the Blueprint of Apostolic Worship

And they were devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

First, they were devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching. They were continually devoting themselves, i.e., it was the ongoing life of the Church, the new community of faith, the New Israel, to be continually devoting themselves to the oral proclamation of the Gospel. There was no New Testament. The teaching was the apostolic teaching, i.e., it was the foundation of the Tradition given through the ones Christ had appointed to be his representatives to build up and govern the Church.

The apostolic teaching was lifting the veil of the Old Testament, which was the only Bible the Church had at this point. It was lifting the veil because the apostles were doing what Christ has done in Luke 24, viz., beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, they were teaching in all the Scriptures the things concerning Jesus Christ. This was done through the apostolic authority, given them by Christ to be his witnesses.

The Church, which had just been constituted through a radical intervention by God in the Holy Spirit, was not devoting itself to seek new subjective experiences of the Spirit – trying to see the fire, the wind, and to speak in foreign languages. No, the people were devoting themselves to the teaching. There is no life in the Church without the continuous devotion to the public proclamation and instruction of the Word of God, as well as private study and growth in the same Word that is the pure milk that nourishes us unto salvation.

Second, they were devoting themselves to fellowship, i.e., koinonia. The Church was not an individualistic church, for there is no salvation without the common life of the body of Christ. There is no such thing as lone range Christianity. Under the authority of the shepherds whom Christ had appointed over his Church, they were continually devoting themselves to one another in fellowship.

Their fellowship was not merely a social event, although it involved that. It was more than just a club, it was actually a fellowship in which people concretely cared for one another, loved one another, and provided for the needs of one another. There is no Christianity without concrete expressions of love for one another in the body of Christ.

Third, they were continually devoting themselves to the breaking of the bread. In the New Testament, this is very specific language to refer to the Eucharist. Remember, Luke himself had already told us, in the first volume of his work (i.e, the Gospel of Luke) that in Emmaus, Christ revealed himself, opened the eyes of his disciples, and gave himself to them in the breaking of the bread.

From the very foundation of the Church on, the center of Christian worship has always been the Lord’s Supper, the mystical communion of the body and the blood of Christ, in which we are united to him and to one another in one body. As St Ignatius of Antioch (a disciple of the apostle John) said at the end of the first century to the Philadelphians, “Take care, then, to use one Eucharist, so that whatever you do, you do according to God: for there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup in the union of his blood; one altar, as there is one bishop with the presbytery.” There is no Christian life without the sharing of the Body and Blood of Christ, the medicine of immortality that nourishes us unto eternal life and unites us to him and to one another in one body.

Fourth, they were devoting themselves to the prayers. It is important to notice that Luke deliberately uses the article here, the prayers. This means that they were devoting themselves to the liturgical, communal prayers, as they had always done in their synagogues and in the temple. They were probably using the liturgical prayers from the Jewish prayer books, which included primarily the Psalms and prayers based on the Psalms and the rest of Scripture – now redefined and fulfilled by Christ himself, the One whom the Church now called upon as the Lord, the God of Israel.

The Church was a praying Church. They prayed individually and extemporaneously, but they also gathered together as the fellowship of the body of Christ to worship liturgically in the preaching of the the apostolic Tradition, the fellowship, the partaking of the Eucharist, and the communal, liturgical prayers.