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)

Advertisements

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 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.

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.

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).

Theosis? What are you, Mormon?

St Paul and the other apostles used many images and analogies when speaking of our redemption, and one concept that became central to the Fathers since New Testament times was that of deification.

Christ has shared in our poverty so that we may share in the richness of his divinity: for our sakes He became poor, so that through His poverty we might become rich (2 Cor. 8:9); Christ prayed that we might share in the perichoresis of the Trinity, “that they may be one, just as We are one – I in them, and You in Me, that they may be perfectly one” (John 17:22-23); we have been made “partakers of his divine nature (2 Peter 1:4).

If humans are to share in God’s glory, they are to become by grace what God is by nature, i.e., we are to be deified. As St Athanasius put it,

The Word was made man in order that we might be made divine [also translated, that we might become god]. He displayed himself through a body, that we might receive knowledge of the invisible Father. He endured insult at the hands of men, that we might inherit immortality. [1]

This is only possible because we are mystically and ontologically united to Christ through faith, in the Holy Spirit; therefore, our redemption and deification is only possible if Christ is fully God and fully human, and if the Holy Spirit himself is also fully God. In fact, this became central in the Father’s arguments for the deity of Christ and of the Holy Spirit in the fourth century.[2] No one less than God can save humanity, and so Christ must be fully God; but only if He is truly human, as we are, can we humans participate in what He has done for us.

Scripture states that human beings have been created in the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1:26). Most of the Greek Fathers made a distinction between those two terms, arguing that the image of God refers to our intellectual capacities and our freedom of will, while the likeness of God refers to our conformity to God according to virtue. Our image has not been lost in the Fall for we retain our reason and human free will; but what Adam failed to do, and that which we must attain through the grace of God enabling our efforts – the synergia of God and man – is likeness to God. To become like God is to acquire divine likeness, to be assimilated to God through virtue, and therefore, to be deified, to become a second god, a god by grace.[3]

Adam and Eve were created in the image and likeness of God, but they still had to mature and progress to a greater likeness. Thus, human beings before the Fall were perfect not so much in an actual but in a potential sense, for, having the image, they were called to acquire the likeness by their own efforts, assisted by the grace of God (cooperation, synergia). As St Irenaeus put it,[4] Adam was in a state of innocence and simplicity, in need of growth unto perfection.[5]

Sin, Grace, Free Will

After the Fall the likeness is not something with which we are endowed from our first moment of existence; it is a goal for which we must aim, something we can only acquire by degrees. However sinful we may be, we never lose the image, but the likeness depends upon our moral choices, upon our virtue, our cooperation with the grace of God – and conversely, this likeness is destroyed by sin.

The Orthodox Church rejects any account of grace that might seem to infringe upon human freedom; therefore, we, as “fellow workers with God” (1 Cor. 3:9) must make our contribution to this common work – although always recognizing that what God does is of immeasurably greater importance than what we do. There are two unequal but necessary forces that cooperate: divine grace and human will.

The paradigm and supreme example of this is seen in the Theotokos, who said “may it be done according to thy will.” We cannot merit salvation, but we must work it out in fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12-13), for faith without works is dead (Jas. 2:17). Sin has restricted the scope of our free will but has not destroyed it.

Acquire the Holy Spirit!

St Seraphim of Sarov taught that “the true aim of the Christian life is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit.” Vladimir Lossky argues that this “sums up the whole spiritual tradition of the Orthodox Church.”[6] The acquisition of the Holy Spirit is nothing other than deification. The final goal at which every Christian must aim is to become god, to attain theosis; for Orthodoxy, our salvation and redemption mean our deification.

Just as the Persons of the Trinity inhere in one another in the divine perichoresis, we also are called to dwell in the Trinitarian God, to share in the life of the Trinity, and to dwell in one another in an unceasing movement of love. This idea of personal and organic union between God and humans – God dwelling in us and we in Him – is often highlighted in the gospel of St John[7] and the epistles of St. Paul;[8] again, St Peter speaks of our sharing in the divine nature.

His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. (2 Peter 1:3-4)

A Fourth Member of the Trinity? Essence and Energies.

It is important to note that the idea of deification must always be understood in the light of the distinction between God’s essence and His energies, as St Gregory of Palamas stated, viz., union with God means union with the divine energies, not the divine essence. The latter remains transcendent, inaccessible to creation ontologically, as well as intellectually – thus the need of apophatic theology.

Union with God’s essence would constitute pantheism (or panentheism) which the Orthodox Church rejects. In the mystical union of God and man through deification, the Creator and the creature are not fused into a single being, but remain distinct. Human beings fully retain their personhood even after attaining deification, and their union with God is the analog of the Trinity, where there is unity in diversity. Of course, the distinction being that in the Trinity the Persons share the same numerical nature, whereas human persons only share their specific nature with other humans, and remain human even while participating in the divine nature.

We remain creatures while becoming god by grace, as Christ remained God when becoming man by the Incarnation. We do not become God by nature, but created gods, gods by grace or by status. Nonetheless, deified saints, according to St Maximus, are those who are worthy of God and have one and the same energy with him. Saints do not lose their free will, but when deified they voluntarily conform their will to the will of God in love.

Body and Soul, Heaven and Earth

Deification involves not only the inward person but also the body, for human beings are hylomorphic beings, unities of body and soul, and Christ took upon himself full humanity in order to redeem the whole person. Therefore, according to St Maximus, “our body is deified at the same time as our soul.” Our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit, and we are to offer them as living sacrifices to God (1 Cor. 6:19, Rom. 12:1).

The full deification of the body must wait until the Last Day, when our redemption will be fully consummated and the righteous will rise from the dead and be clothed with a spiritual, incorruptible body. In that Day, the glory of the Holy Spirit which now shines hidden in the inward man will transfigure our bodies, coming out from within and shining visibly with the light of Mount Tabor. In the meantime, we receive the firstfruits of our redemption, and as such some saints have experienced tokens of the visible, bodily glorification.

St John Maximovitch

Reports of saints shining visibly in times of prayer include that of St Seraphim of Sarov, Arsenius the Great, Abba Pambo and others.[9] Here in San Francisco, the incorrupt relics of my patron saint, St. John Maximovitch, lie displayed for all to see and venerate at the Holy Virgin Cathedral.

Because the Orthodox are convinced that the body is sanctified and transfigured together with the soul, reverence for the relics of the saints is a natural outcome. The grace of God that is present in the saints’ bodies during their lives remains active when they die, and God uses such bodies as channels of divine power and as instruments of healing. In some cases, the bodies of the saints have been miraculously preserved from corruption; but the reverence and veneration of the relics of the saints is present even when this has not occurred.

Indeed, the doctrine of theosis, which informs a worldview of God suffusing human beings with his grace, in his energies, is also the framework for the understanding that God redeems not only human beings, but all of physical creation as well. Not only our human body but the whole of the material world will be eventually transfigured, for Christ came to make all things new, and God’s redemptive plan culminates in the establishment not only of a new heaven, but also a new earth. Creation is to be saved and glorified along with humans, and icons are the firstfruits of this redemption of matter.

The Incarnation, of course, is both the basis and means through which God redeems all of creation, including matter. Christ took flesh and thus the material order in him was united to God. From his Incarnation springs God’s cosmic redemption, and the Orthodox doctrine of the deification of the body, its iconology, and indeed its view of the holiness and even sacramentality of the created order are firmly grounded on it.[10]

In the Orthodox tradition there is therefore a profound sense of the intrinsic sacredness of the earth, a serious affirmation of the goodness of life and an increasing concern for man’s responsibility as the steward of the planet. According to Ecumenical Patriarch Dimitrios’ 1988 Christmas message, the world “should become a Eucharistic offering to the Creator, a life giving bread, partaken in justice and love with others.”

Six Points to Remember

Metropolitan Kallistos lists six points that must be made in order to avoid misunderstandings concerning the doctrine of theosis:

  1. First, it must be clear that theosis is for every Christian without exception. The process of divinization begins in this life for all Christians, and not for a select few. However weak our attempts may be to follow Christ and keep his commandments, of using our will in making choices that conform to the grace of God, we are already in some degree deified.
  1. Secondly, the process of deification does not mean that one becomes perfect or sinless in this life, or that one ceases to be conscious of sin. It was St Paul who called himself the “chief of sinners,” for it is characteristic of great saints to have an acute awareness of their own limitations. Deification always presupposes a continual act of repentance, and it is not for nothing that the Jesus Prayer begs, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” The doctrine of theosis is not mutually exclusive with a doctrine of ongoing penitence, but rather presupposes it.
  1. Thirdly, theosis does not come about through some esoteric or magical technique. Rather, the process of deification, in which we cooperate with the grace of God, takes place in one’s life through the means God has appointed  to bring that about.
    • Metropolitan Kallistos lists six such means:
      1. Church (i.e., participating in the liturgy and in the life of the community),
      2. The regular reception of the sacraments
      3. Perseverance in prayer
      4. The reading of the Gospels
      5. The keeping of God’s commandments
      6. Christian service.
  1. Therefore, fourthly, deification is not a solitary but a “social” process. The commandments are summed up in the love of God and the love of neighbor. These two are inseparable, for one cannot fulfill one without fulfilling the other. Only if one loves God – and therefore only if one loves his neighbor – can one be deified. As the Persons of the Trinity dwell in one another, so we must also dwell in our neighbors.
  1. Fifthly, and consequently, theosis is practical because love of God and of our neighbors must be practical, i.e., expressed in action. Obviously the process of theosis does not exclude mystical experience, but it certainly includes the service of love. In our efforts, our synergia, we cooperate with the grace of God by conforming not only our minds and hearts to him, but also in imitating his love through actions.
  1. Lastly, deification presupposes life in the Church, life in the sacraments, for they are the means appointed by God for us to acquire the Holy Spirit and be transformed in the divine likeness.

[1] On the Incarnation, 54 –  Αυτός γαρ ενηνθρώπησεν, ίνα ημείς θεοποιηθώμεν·

[2] Cf. e.g., St Gregory of Nazianzus’ orations on the Son and on the Holy Spirit against Arianism. Also, as theosis requires not only the full divinity of Christ, but also his full humanity (since he does not redeem what he does not assume), it became important for the Christological discussions concerning the human nature of Christ as well, over against Docetism, Monophysitism, Monothelitism, etc.

[3] “I said, “You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you” (Ps. 82:6). “Jesus answered them, Is it not written in your Law, ‘I said, you are gods’?’” (John 10:34).

[4] Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, 12.

[5] Metropolitan Kallistos points out that this is a different approach than that of Augustine, who viewed humans in Paradise in a state of realized perfection. It is interesting to note that the “magisterial” Reformers (Calvin, Turretin, et. al.) in Protestantism viewed Adam and Eve as being not in a perfect state, but in a state of probation, after the successful completion of which they were to attain glorification through obedience to the “covenant of works.” In that view, Christ came to fulfill that covenant of works as the second Adam, and thereby to impute his perfect obedience and righteousness to those united to him through faith. The idea of imputation (in the forensic, Reformed sense) was foreign to the Fathers (and arguably to the New Testament), but it is interesting to note some similar views the Reformers had with the Greek Fathers concerning Adam’s need to attain likeness to God, in contradistinction to Augustine and later Latin theologians.

[6] The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, p. 196.

[7] E.g., John 15:1-5 reads, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser . . . Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”

[8] E.g., we are members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones (Eph. 5:30), we are members of Christ (1 Cor. 6:15); Christ lives in us (Gal. 2:20) and dwells in our hearts by faith (Eph. 3:17); He is in us (Rom. 8:10), and is to be formed in us (Gal. 4:19); etc.

[9] There are similar reports of such events in the Western tradition, the example of Anselm of Canterbury perhaps being the most famous.

[10] As C. S. Lewis has famously stated in Mere Christianity, “God likes matter, He invented it.” Indeed, he also has redeemed it.

Benedict XVI on Baptism

Luke, who throughout his Gospel is keenly attentive to Jesus’ prayer and portrays him again and again at prayer—in conversation with the Father—tells us that Jesus was praying while he received Baptism (cf. Lk 3:21). Looking at the events in light of the Cross and Resurrection, the Christian people realized what had happened: Jesus loaded the burden of all mankind’s guilt upon his shoulders; he bore it down into the depths of the Jordan. He inaugurated his public activity by stepping into the place of sinners. His inaugural gesture is an anticipation of the Cross. He is, as it were, the true Jonah who said to the crew of the ship, “Take me and throw me into the sea” (Jon 1:12).

The whole significance of Jesus’ Baptism, the fact that he bears “all righteousness,” first comes to light on the Cross: The Baptism is an acceptance of death for the sins of humanity, and the voice that calls out “This is my beloved Son” over the baptismal waters is an anticipatory reference to the Resurrection. This also explains why, in his own discourses, Jesus uses the word baptism to refer to his death (cf. Mk 10:38; Lk 12:50).

Only from this starting point can we understand Christian Baptism. Jesus’ Baptism anticipated his death on the Cross, and the heavenly voice proclaimed an anticipation of the Resurrection. These anticipations have now become reality.

John’s Baptism with water has received its full meaning through the Baptism of Jesus’ own life and death. To accept the invitation to be baptized now means to go to the place of Jesus’ Baptism. It is to go where he identifies himself with us and to receive there our identification with him. The point where he anticipates death has now become the point where we anticipate rising again with him. Paul develops this inner connection in his theology of Baptism (cf Rom 6), though without explicitly mentioning Jesus’ Baptism in the Jordan.

The Eastern Church has further developed and deepened this understanding of Jesus’ Baptism in her liturgy and her theology of icons. She sees a deep connection between the content of the feast of Epiphany (the heavenly voice proclaiming Jesus to be the Son of God: for the East the Epiphany is the day of the Baptism) and Easter. She sees Jesus’ remark to John that ” it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Mt 3:15) as the anticipation of his prayer to the Father in Gethsemane: ” My Father… not as I will, but as thou wilt”(Mt 26:39). The liturgical hymns for January 3 correspond to those for Wednesday in Holy Week; the hymns for January 4 to those for Holy Thursday; the hymns for January 5 to those for Good Friday and Holy Saturday.

These correspondences are picked up by the iconographic tradition. The icon of Jesus’ Baptism depicts the water as a liquid tomb having the form of a dark cavern, which is in turn the iconographic sign of Hades, the underworld, or hell. Jesus’ descent into this watery tomb, into this inferno that envelops him from every side, is thus an anticipation of his act of descending into the underworld: ” When he went down into the waters, he bound the strong man” (cf Lk 11:22), says Cyril of Jerusalem. John Chrysostom writes: “Going down into the water and emerging again are the image of the descent into hell and the Resurrection.” The troparia of the Byzantine Liturgy add yet another symbolic connection: “The Jordan was turned back by Elisha’s coat, and the waters were divided leaving a dry path. This is a true image of Baptism by which we pass through life” (Evdokimov, The Art of the Icon, p. 296)

Jesus’ Baptism, then, is understood as a repetition of the whole of history, which both recapitulates the past and anticipates the future. His entering into the sin of others is a descent into the “inferno.” But he does not descend merely in the role of a spectator, as in Dante’s Inferno. Rather, he goes down in the role of one whose suffering-with-others is a transforming suffering that turns the underworld around, knocking down and flinging open the gates of the abyss. His Baptism is a descent into the house of the evil one, combat with the “strong man” (cf. Lk 11:22) who holds men captive (and the truth is that we are all very much captive to powers that anonymously manipulate us!).

Throughout all its history, the world is powerless to defeat the “strong man”; he is overcome and bound by one yet stronger, who, because of his equality with God, can take upon himself all the sin of the world and then suffers it through to the end–omitting nothing on the downward path into identity with the fallen.

This struggle is the “conversion” of being that brings it into a new condition, that prepares a new heaven and new earth. Looked at from this angle, the sacrament of Baptism appears as the gift of participation in Jesus’ world-transforming struggle in the conversion of life that took place in his descent and ascent.

Joseph Ratzinger (a.k.a. Pope Benedict XVI), Jesus of Nazareth (Doubleday, 2007), 18-20.