Faith and Reason, Theology and Philosophy – what do we know and how?

Faith and ReasonFor Aquinas, philosophy considers the nature of things as they are in themselves, whereas theology considers things as they are in relation to God.

The distinction, first, involves the point of view. From the point of view of theology, there are things that can be known by reason alone, and some of those things have been revealed by God, but they might not have been. These are things revealable.

They are encompassed by theology when they are investigated and understood in their relation to God as their source and their end. In addition, theology also involves those things that can be known only by revelation. For example, that God is a Trinity. These are the revelatum.

In this way, all things can be considered within the scope of theology because they are treated sub ratione Dei, under the logic of God, within the context of God being their source and end, and of the ordering of all things within a hierarchical structure of all reality towards God. For Aquinas, theology is a science of revelation, acquired from the Word of God. This is his idea of sacra doctrina  – the sacred doctrine of God and of the beatorum.

From the point of view of philosophy, things that can be known apart from revelation can be extracted from their theological context and be viewed as they are in themselves, judged from the point of view of natural reason. In this way, not only the physical sciences, but also metaphysical knowledge, can be investigated in its own right, as well as be inserted in a theological structure without losing its strictly philosophical nature.

There is a science of reason that can be integrated with the science of revelation without compromising the structure of either (although, when integrated, the science of reason is subordinated to and ordered according to the science of revelation). Philosophy investigates creatures as they are in themselves, and theology investigates all things as they are in relation to God.

In this way, there are things that are accessible to human understanding and reason; for example, mathematics, physical sciences, metaphysical inquiry in which the existence of a simple Being whose essence is identical with its existence is the Prime Mover of all creation, etc.

These things are in principle knowable by human reason unaided by revelation, even though some of them have been revealed. They are the revealable, the revelabilia.

This human learning, then can be incorporated into theology. Some of these things have been given through revelation: for example, a metaphysician can, by reason alone, demonstrate the existence of God. But since not all men are metaphysicians – they do not have the training, the aptitude, the time, etc. – God has revealed that in order that all men might be saved.

There are also things that can be known only by revelation. This is the realm of the revelatum. Examples are the Trinity, the Incarnation, sin, etc. They are not accessible to human reason save by revelation; this is not to say they conflict with human reason, quite the contrary. But it is to say that human reason alone can neither attain, deduce, or prove those things.

AquinasTheology therefore depends solely on what is revealed by sacred scripture, and order all things – even things that are known by human reason alone, some of which have been revealed and some of which have not – sub ratione Dei.

Theology contains both what has been revealed by God and our rational understanding of that revelation. Theology receives what has been revealed and then spreads itself to consider all things under that point of view, ordered from God and to God. The things necessary for salvation are the articles of faith, which God has revealed.

Other things, which can be incorporated into theology, are not necessary for salvation, but they make the understanding of things necessary for salvation more explicit.

For Aquinas, then, sacred science can consider all things – all branches of philosophy –  from one point of view, insofar as they are revealable, and ordered according to God as their source and end. Faith and reason can be viewed as two intersecting circles, because there are things that are included in both at the same time (things knowable by reason alone which have also been revealed). The circles also have their content which do not intersect – e.g., the Trinity belongs to the realm of theology and faith and it is not attainable or proven by reason (these are things necessary for salvation), and there are also things known by reason alone that God has not revealed, even if he could have.

Reason and faith therefore are neither put in opposition, or in isolation, or in identity.Each has its proper realm according to the point of view of how they are considered.

Theology, however, is the higher science because it can encompass everything philosophy can discover, but it also includes things revealed that philosophy cannot discover. Also, when theology consider all revealable things sub ratione Dei, it does so in a way that is in accordance with human reason, because human reason, while limited and unable to attain to the revelatum, is never in conflict with it. Even when faith and reason cover the same territory, they each retain their own characteristics.

For human reason, sensible objects are always the point of departure of all of our knowledge, even as they have retained vestiges of the divine nature as their cause. Reason thus can have a preliminary role of pointing us to investigate the Ultimate Cause. It can also have a didactic purpose of explaining what has been revealed: either in the different ways of apologetics (confuting Christian or pagan error, etc.) as well as developing Christian theology in a coherent and encompassing way, approximating the knowledge of all things to the knowledge God has of himself and the knowledge that the blessed in heaven have.

Reason is used by theology to clarify the truths of faith. But the truths of faith that depend of revelation – the revelatum – cannot be attainable by reason alone or proven by reason alone. The attempt to do so is to confirm the unbeliever in his unbelief.

In this way, Aquinas is neither a rationalist nor a fideist.

He is not a rationalist because he makes very clear that things that are necessary for salvation can only be known through revelation and received by faith. He is not a fideist because he both preserves the legitimate realm of philosophy in which things can be considered as they are in themselves, as well as incorporates it into the realm of theology in which all things are considered from the point of view of revelation, while being understood in accordance with human reason.

Aquinas protects theology from rationalism and creation from contemptio mundi. In this way, grace does not destroy nature but perfects it.


St Symeon the New Theologian sees God

st-symeon-the-new-theologianOften when one thinks of the essence/energies distinction in God, one thinks primarily of St Gregory Palamas, since the issue rose to the level of controversy during his days. However, the distinction, and the vision of the uncreated light, have been discussed and addressed by many Fathers since at least the 4th century.

In this venerable line of tradition, we find very moving passages in the writings of St Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022). We commemorate his Feast day this Sunday, Oct. 12. Here’s an excerpt of his writings On the Mystical Life, where he gives a very vivid account of encountering God.

Here St Symeon describes his experience in the context of relating it to his monastic elder. It is almost as though what was prefigured in faint shadows in the life of the Prophet Samuel (1 Sam. 3:1-10) comes to fulfillment in a face to face, as it were, vision of God. And that does not leave him unchanged.

This, invariably, is just what occurs concerning the invisible God. Whenever someone sees Him revealed, he sees light. While on the one hand he is amazed at what he has seen, on the other he does not know immediately who it is who has appeared, yet he dares not ask Him. And how could he? He is unable even to lift up his eyes and look on that grandeur. With fear and trembling he looks instead, as it were, at his own feet, knowing fully only that it is Someone Who has appeared before his face.

And if there happens to be some other man who has told him beforehand about such things, as having known God from before, he goes to this man [St Symeon’s elder] and says: “I have seen.” And the other says: “What did you see, child?” “Light, O my father, so sweet, sweet! So much so, father, that my reason has not the strength to tell you.”

And, while he is saying this, his heart leaps and pounds, and catches on fire with longing for what he has seen. Then, with many warm tears, he begins to say again: “That light, father, appeared to me. The walls of my cell immediately vanished and the world disappeared, fleeing I think from before His face, and I remained alone in the presence alone of the light. And I do not know, father, if this my body was there, too. I do not know if I was outside of it. For a while I did not know that I carry and am clothed with a body. And such great joy was in me and is with me now, great love and longing both, that I was moved to streams of tears like rivers, just like now as you see.”

The other then answers and says: “It is He, child.” And, at this word, he sees Him again and, little by little, comes to be completely purified and, purified, grows bold and asks that One Himself, and says: “My God, is it You?”

And He answers and says: “Yes, I am He, God, Who for your sake became man; and behold, I have made you, as you see, and shall make you, god.”

– St Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022), On the Mystical Life (Vol. 2), pp. 53-54

Is the Theotokos “more honorable than the cherubim, more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim”?

A friend, exploring the Faith, particularly in relation to the Theotokos, presented some concerns about her role and work as viewed, expressed, and experienced by the Church. Here is a summary of his concerns:

  1. There is one Mary in Scripture who was a humble woman that was chosen by God to bear Jesus and she accepted God’s will to be the mother of His Son. Then I see a second Mary in the modern church, and there are Bible verses that I see as contradictory to the statement that Mary is more glorious than the Seraphim and more honorable than the Cherubim (e.g. Ps. 8). Humans are “lower than the angels.”
  1. Prophets and Church councils say things, and those are valid if they can agree with the data of Scripture.
  1. There are also practical questions like, how can Mary (or the Saints) hear two people during Paraklesis that are simultaneously praying to her if the two persons are on two opposite sides of the Earth? How can they hear millions of people all over the world at once? God is omniscient and omnipresent, but are Mary and the Saints also omniscient and omnipresent? Maybe there is a way they can hear, but I am not aware of that “valid data”.

Here’s some preliminary responses:

JoyofAllWhoSorrowFirst, I think some good reading in Church history would be helpful. So I will give you a list at the end towards that purpose. The reason is that, in this particular topic, you say that there is a disconnect between the Theotokos in Scripture (and presumably the first few centuries) and the Theotokos of the “modern” church. Nothing can be further from the truth.

The earliest Church Fathers – beginning most clearly with Irenaeus – had a very rich theology of Mary as the Second Eve.

In redemption, the Father sends the second Adam in the power of the Holy Spirit to bring about union again. The divine Logos comes and takes residence in a womb that becomes “more spacious than the heavens.” The Father sends the Son in the Holy Spirit, who sanctifies the new Temple and the new Ark of the covenant in the Theotokos. The Ark now contains the true Manna – the very Flesh and Blood of God, the Bread from Heaven – the true eternal Word, and the true Aaron’s staff that budded.

As the first Eve had received the words of death from the angel of death, turning from the Spirit in disobedience, so now the second Eve receives the words of life from the angel of life (Gabriel) and becomes the dwelling place of the very Word of God, as she submits herself in love and wonder by her fiat to the Holy Spirit who comes upon her.

The tree of the knowledge of good and evil, in the center of the garden (paradiso) became the tree of death, its fruit the fruit of disobedience, disunion and death; and in redemption, the cross, the tree of death in the garden of death (Golgotha) becomes the tree of life, as death is trampled upon and destroyed, because the Fruit of the tree is the Son who offers himself to the Father and to creatures. Paradise is regained.

The Resurrection consummates the deification, the Ascension consummates the objective union in heaven, and at the same time starts the impartation of this work, in the Holy Spirit, at Pentecost.

Eve was the mother of all living who became the mother of all who are dead while living. The Second Eve, who bore the Second Adam (1 Cor 15:45, Rom. 5:14) becomes the mother of all truly living because she is the mother of the Living One, the One Who Is.

As the platyteras of Orthodox temples depict, usually behind the altar, Christ is born in the center of the Theotokos, the God Bearer – which then becomes true for all who are united to him in faith; Christ is “formed in us” objectively through baptism, subjectively through faith, and this is rooted in his objective birth in creation and restoration of union effected in the Holy Spirit. We become God bearers in the Holy Spirit, icons being restored to the image of the Son.

Platytera at St Paul's Greek Orthodox Church in Irvine

Platytera at St Paul’s Greek Orthodox Church in Irvine, CA

The Theotokos is not the main subject of the Gospels. The Incarnation, life, work, death, burial and resurrection of the Son of God is. Therefore, it is expected that one would read of the “maidservant of the Lord” and not about the one who is more glorious than the highest order of angels. Just like it is expected that we don’t read fundamental Christian belief in theologically developed forms (such as the Trinity properly defined, or the hypostatic union) in the Gospels or the epistles.

We begin to learn about definitions of fundamental Christian belief and theology when the Church (1) had the ability to discuss such things, after the cessation of persecution in the 4th century (no earlier) and (2) was challenged to do so because of significant heretical movements.

Not surprisingly, we learn about those things which such movements questioned, but not so much about other fundamental beliefs which were not challenged. For example, which council defined infant baptism? Prayer to the saints? Justification by grace through a living faith which includes the working of love? The Eucharist as the literal Body and Blood of Christ? Etc.

None, of course. Because all those things have always been proclaimed (in the Liturgy, the prayers, the common life of the Church) and practiced, taken from granted from apostolic times; and it crossed the mind of no one to challenge those things until 1,500 years later and only in the West. Similarly, we learn of the controversy related to the “Theotokos” only because the Patriarch of Constantinople (Nestorius) was striking at the heart of Christology, and thus of salvation. Not because honoring her was a new thing.

The problem with applying the model you describe, where the statements of a “prophet” or a “council” are then compared to the “data” (of Scripture) in order to be validated, is that first, of course, there are no singular or independent “prophets” in the Church defining dogma. Second, and most importantly, you seem to be confusing the hierarchy of revelation here. Remember that:

  1. When you use “Scripture” as something against which to compare anything, you are already assuming the ultimate authority of the Church. Simply because there is no “Scripture” apart from what the Church has said is Scripture. In other words, the fact that writings (technically, anonymous) about the life of Jesus were attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and canonized as the Gospels of Scripture, makes evident that this was done by the authority of the Church in whom indwells the Holy Spirit. The same goes to the fact that the epistle of James, or the Apocalypse, etc. are “Scripture;” and say, the Didache or Clement’s letters, or the Shepherd of Hermas (or other early writings) are not. Councils defined the Bible, not the other way around.
  2. This same authority that writes and canonizes Scripture is the authority that interprets it. Given my years of work in biblical and systematic theology, as well as being proficient in Greek and Hebrew, I can personally attest to the fact that Scripture, in its totality and in each of its parts, can be interpreted in many different (and even contradictory) ways in a plausible, scholarly fashion. For every given passage, 4 scholars can give you 5 plausible interpretations, following the strictest rules of hermeneutics and exegesis. At the end of the day, however, it is the Church (whom Jesus instituted and builds, she who never falls because the gates of hell will never prevail against her) the one who determines what the Scriptures mean, in conjunction with the fuller orbit of the life of the Church – which precede Scripture (the prayers, the liturgies, etc.) and of which Scripture is a part.

Arius, Nestorius, and many others, who knew Scripture by heart, were rebuked and condemned by the Church when they came up with their own interpretations – they could and did use many “verses” to support them, and yet they were in conflict with the whole mind of the Church.

The Councils’ definitions of the Trinity, of the hypostatic union, etc., are not found in verses of Scripture. There is nothing said in Scripture about three co-equal and eternal Persons sharing one Essence. Nothing there about one divine Person uniting two natures “unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, and inseparably.”

To keep to those two examples, Arius and Nestorius came up with all kinds of verses and passages that plausibly supported the ideas of a lesser god or two separate natures. Their interpretations did not conflict necessarily with the “data,” (as you say).

There are many other examples. It might seem trivial to us that statements like “the Father is greater than I” or the fact that there were things Jesus did not know, only the Father, etc., do not affect in the least Christian definitions of the Trinity or the hypostatic union. But that’s just because we have 1,500 years of explicit conciliar Church doctrine behind us.

And yet the Church, out of all the “data,” affirmed her doctrine based on a scriptural hermeneutic that incorporated the unbroken life and practice of the Church. The Church neither builds her doctrine and proclamation on Scripture alone (but rather, as I said, in the liturgies, prayers and Tradition of which Scripture is a part), nor does she use isolated passages exegeted in purely grammatico-historical methods when she uses Scripture. All comes together in an organic whole.

So, thankfully, it is not up to individual Christians to judge the Church’s doctrines against a Scripture that is already given by the Church; it is not up to individual Christians to judge using an independent, sovereign hermeneutic that puts oneself as the final authority on what the Bible means (and thereby what God says). I have written a short blurb on that a while ago on my blog:

Once again, to address your example (that angels are higher than human beings), it is precisely the point of Hebrews 2, citing Ps. 8, that Jesus Christ became incarnate and a “little lower than the angels” (in a limited sense) so that he could, through his death, burial and resurrection, bring humanity to the very presence of God, deified, with all enemies under His feet, and thereby under the Church’s feet.

It is a human nature united to a divine Person which is enthroned at the right hand of the Father, not a seraph. It is a human being who is chosen to bear God in herself, not a cherub.

It was to no angel (as again, the author of Hebrews states) that God has ever said “you are my Son, today I have begotten you.” And yet this God deified human nature. In the same way, to no angel, cherub or seraph, has God ever said, my Spirit will come upon you because you are the Chosen One to bear the infinite God in your womb and become God’s Mother.

To no other creature God has given the full measure of the Holy Spirit so that her own soul, flesh and blood are united forever with the eternal, incomprehensible, infinite God. No seraph ever burned brighter than the true Burning Bush that contains the living God and is never consumed. Not all the angels of creation, together, could become more spacious than the heavens to contain God himself as she did.

Further, from the totality of Scripture (see, e.g., Rev. 12) and Tradition, no creature has ever been blessed and honored as the Theotokos. She is not called blessed by all generations merely in the sense of one more blessed person out of myriads. She is the blessed one because she is the chosen one. And she chooses back. She submits and reverses the curse, unties the knot.

She is described as the “woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.” She is indeed Mother and Bride, because she is the Mother of God and the embodiment of the Church.

You objected that to be Mother and Bride at the same time would be a weird confusion of categories; but in fact, this is basic Christian theology. Jesus Christ is our Brother and our Bridegroom. We are his brothers and his Bride. She is his Mother and our Mother – “behold your Mother!”

She is the Mother of the King, and thereby the Queen, the lowly maidservant elevated to the highest heavens, just like lowly fallen human nature has been deified. She is the one lower than the angels who is turned into the very dwelling place of the Most High. She was there at Pentecost, but she did not even have to be.

You also state that, in practice, worship and veneration often become the same thing. I think that is a very bad misunderstanding, if it ever happens; one that has been clearly and exhaustively addressed many centuries ago in the Church. This strikes at the heart of Christian life and worship. If one either mixes the two, or thinks the veneration of the Saints is idolatry, one is not really Orthodox, because then one would reject the life of the Church in the communion of Saints.

PentecostChrist has destroyed death, and those who have died in Him are alive. As universally attested by all Christians since the first century, beginning with the martyrs, those who are recognized by the Church as being Saints with a capital “S” are those who have united themselves to the Trinity in the fullest way in this life (a life of holiness and self-giving love).

They now live to intercede and assist the rest of the Body just as they did in their earthly lives (except that now they are glorified and have no hindrances, fully transfigured and linked to the rest of the Church in the Holy Spirit). We venerate them as holy, as models, as inspiration, as helpers, as intercessors, as loved ones.

They are our Fathers and Mothers. They are not our buddies and fellow beggars. They are not beset by sin anymore, and they are no longer limited by human frailty. They don’t eat, don’t sleep, don’t forget.

We don’t just “like” them and hang out with them. We venerate them. We bow before them, much like the Old Testament people (and modern people in many parts of the world) bow before their fathers, their prophets, their kings. Except that the Saints are much more than those people. We bow and venerate them. That is by no means polytheistic worship. It is Christian love and unity in the Holy Spirit.

And only one of them is the one who has given soul, flesh and blood to God as his Mother – the one before whom the demons tremble and flee.

You said Mary did her work already. Nothing is further from the truth. First, she is not simply “Mary” – she is the Theotokos. The Mother of God. That’s how Christians address her. She is not merely one more of us, for all the reasons I stated above (and these are not merely my own personal views, but an attempt at a summary of what the Church affirms).

Her work is not done, in the same way that the work of the Saints is not done. We join them and they join us on “Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.”

The work of the Church is never done – even in the eschaton it won’t ever be done. The work of help and intercession continues now uninterruptedly, along with the unceasing worship and the continuing process of deification and conformity of finite creatures to the infinite energies of God, which will never end.

And yes, they can hear a virtually infinite number of people at any time, anywhere. Why? Because they do not hear with the physical ear, nor do they process physical sounds in the brain. They are connected to us in the Holy Spirit.

Saints on this earth already can know and hear others who are physically separated from them; they can see their souls, know their hearts. Why? For the same reason. They know in the Holy Spirit in whom they live because of their close communion with Him. There is no temporal or physical barrier.

This is the universal experience of the life of the Church on earth from the the beginning to this day; one needs only to read the life of saints past or present, even living ones. Better yet, have the privilege to meet one of them.

So much more, beyond compare, are the Saints in heaven. They know us and hear us in the Holy Spirit. They live entirely in the Holy Spirit now, to begin with. They intercede for us, speak to us, and help us.

My own patron saint has appeared to more than one person that I personally know. And he is alive and continues to work on my behalf and on behalf of those who ask for his help. This is the universal doctrine and practice of the Church, East and West, since the first century.

In this way, the supplicatory prayer of the Small Compline says,

“O undefiled, untainted, uncorrupted, most pure, chaste Virgin, Thou Bride of God and Sovereign Lady, who didst unite the Word of God to mankind through thy most glorious birth giving, and hast linked the apostate nature of our race with the heavenly; who art the only hope of the hopeless, and the helper of the struggling, the ever-ready protection of them that hasten unto thee, and the refuge of all Christians . . . as the Mother of God Who loveth mankind, show thy love for mankind and mercifully have compassion upon me a sinner and prodigal, and accept my supplication . . . at the time of my departure taking care of my miserable soul, and driving far away from it the dark countenances of the evil demons . . .

O my Sovereign Lady, most holy Theotokos, in virtue of thine intercession and protection, through the grace and love to mankind of thine only begotten Son, our Lord and God and Savior, Jesus Christ, to Whom is due all glory, honor and worship, together with His unoriginate Father, and His Most Holy and good and life creating Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.”

This is why we affirm, in every single Divine Liturgy (of St John Chrysostom) celebrated since at least the fourth century (hardly a modern concept!):

It is truly meet to bless you, Theotokos, ever blessed and most pure, the Mother of our God. More honorable than the Cherubim, more glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim, without corruption you gave birth to God the Word. True Theotokos, we magnify you!


Hope this helps. Here’s a short list of books on Church history, and a few others with overviews on the Church’s history and theology, from which you can read the relevant sections:


Notes on Thomistic Concepts on the Structure of Reality

St. Thomas Aquinas from  by Carlo CrivelliThis is a summary of some key concepts for the understanding of the Thomistic theological constructs for the structure of reality and being.


In Aristotle, there are two senses of substance: the “first substance” is a whole, concrete entity – this horse, this man. The second sense, or “second substance” refers to quiddity – horse, man.

First substance refers to a being or an entity subsisting or existing in itself, not in another being like an accident. This is a metaphysical category; e.g., God, angels, human beings.—not physical, chemical substance. It is the basic ontological unit, a complete, individual whole, a determinate, particular subject of existing and acting, e.g., this tree, this human being, Tom, Mary, etc. It is the proper subject of existence, “that which exists [quod est],” not “that by which something exists [quo est]”

This is the first “category” of Aristotle’s ten categories or predicaments, the principal and primary sense of being. (See the list below)

Aquinas defines “person” as “individual substance of rational nature,” (cf. Boethius) and divine persons as “subsisting relations.”

Second substance refers to the essence/quiddity/nature (including both substantial form and prime matter) that defines the kind of being something is, “that by which” a thing remains the kind of being it is; it is universal, not particular like first substances, and is realized only in first substances. Iit is an internal principle of being (not a being), “that by which”; e.g., humanity, dogness, treeness, not a human being, a dog, a tree—entities are not all externally determined but have certain natures intrinsic to themselves that make them what they are and make them act as what they are; intrinsic or internal principle of being and acting.

Therefore it refers to a set of the defining potentialities proper to a specific kind of being to be actualized by accidents; it provides identity, continuity, and stability in the midst of “accidental changes,” coming to an end when “substantial change” occurs and the entity ceases to be what it is – for example when a body ceases to be human by dying and being decomposed in to chemical substances.


They refer to realities that cannot exist in themselves, like first substances, but only in something else that does exist in itself – like color, weight, action, passion, etc. Iit is that by which a being can change while remaining the specifically and individually same entity and provides the elements of change and difference; it is the principle of diversity within the unity of the first substance. Some accidents are called “proper” accidents because they are proper to the species as a whole (e.g., ability to speak, laugh)

There are, according to Aristotle and Aquinas, nine categories of accidents, or modes of being in which a first substance can exist

  1. Quality: good, bad, wise, white
  2. Quantity: two feet long
  3. Action: run, walk, etc.
  4. Passion: being burned, being cut
  5. Relation: double, half, greater than
  6. Place: in the classroom, in Claremont, etc.
  7. Time: yesterday, last year, etc.
  8. Posture: reclining at table, sitting down, etc.
  9. State: having shoes on, being in armor


Structure or Essence of Material Substances:

The essence of material substances is composed of substantial form and prime matter. Substantial form is the source of the specific identity or identity as a species, as a human being, as a dog, etc. Prime matter is pure potentiality to be specified, determined, activated by the form. It is the principle of individuation: it multiplies the form and accounts for diversity within the unity of the form or species by receiving and restricting the form to “this” material subject–the possibilities of the species are not exhausted by an individual. For example, “humanity”is  multiplied into “many human individuals” by matter.

Consequently, in human beings there is a composite of form and matter: hylomorphism. There is a unity and distinction of soul and body –  soul as form of the body (matter); the soul is the efficient, transcendent cause of the body through intellect and will


Ultimate Principles of Being: Essence and Existence

For any being, or substance there are two fundamental questions: what something is and whether it exists—essence and existence

As such, there is a distinction between ens (a being), esse (to be, act of being, act of existing, activity of existing, existence, as verbal noun), and essence– the act of existing diversified by a diversity of essences. For example, one can ask whether a unicorn actually exists.

There is real distinction between essence and act of existing in all finite beings – they may or may not exist – but only a rational distinction in God, since God’s essence does not possess existence, but rather, is identical with his existence.


Ontological primacy of esse, existence:

Thomism is a metaphysics of existence, not metaphysics of first substance–esse is not to be reduced to substance. It is an existentialist, not essentialist ontology. The general rule is that the actual determines the potential (e.g., accidents determine substance; form determines matter (specifying and actualizing).

The act of being cannot be determined by anything outside itself, i.e., by something not existing. It can only be determined internally from within – the finite act of being is not absolute, pure, unique esse but only an act of being of a certain limited kind.

This limitation can only come from essence, which as potency, potentiality of certain kind of being, receives, determines, specifies, and limits the act of being. Thus, the act of existing both actualizes the essence as something other than itself and is limited by essence.

This is different – even opposite than previous ideas found in Alfarabi, Avicenna, Algazali, which, in making a distinction between essence and existence, considered existence as added to essence, i.e., existence as accident, which is then an essentialist philosophy (not existentialist).

In contrast, for Aquinas, existence is not on same level as essence. Existence is not another accident, but the most intimate and most profound element in all things. Existence as accident cannot explain  the necessary existence or simplicity of existence in God. Esse and essence belong to two different orders altogether: esse transcends the whole plane of essence.

Essence is distinct from existence and essence does not contain existence but is also thoroughly actuated by existence. Existence is internal to essence in the sense that essence is truly essence only when actualized by existence, but essence is external to existence in the sense that existence is not inherent in essence; that is to say, a thing can be or not, exist or not; to be a particular kind of being is not necessarily to exist as that kind of being—existence is most internal to me yet external to my essence as this individual of a particular kind.

To create is precisely to produce the esse of things – it is to make things exist. The creator is most intimately present to things because he is present to their act of existing—more deeply than to their materiality or even their spirituality. God is more intimately present to me than I am to myself – as Augustine said, intimius intimo meo.

Existence is graced, intrinsic to me as most intimate to me yet not constitutive of me because I am not my own existence—my existence is always borrowed, gifted, given. Existence is not part of my essence. This distinction precludes pantheism, and yet it does involve a certain panentheism: all things are in God, in the sustaining power of God’s creative causality.

All things have meaning only in relation to existence; what is most perfect is the act of existing, related to all things as to their first act. Existence is the actuality of all things, including essence, form, matter, etc. It precedes all other perfections: the good, the beautiful, one, etc.; these latter are meaningful only insofar as they are or exist and therefore only as particular modes of being or existing. There is a primacy of existence in Aquinas vs. the primacy of the Good in Plato.


Cognitive primacy of existence:

Esse, existence, is the horizon of all cognition: all things are understood as existing or at least as capable of existing (the first principle) and we perceive all things under the horizon of being (sub ratione entis). The natural tendency of reason is to essentialize existence, turn it into a mode or kind of essence, especially material essence—to reify esse into a frozen essence, to reduce existence to an abstract concept.

We must distinguish between simple apprehension of essence or quiddity (first operation of the intellect, i.e., what is this? It is a horse, or a unicorn.) and the act of judgment which composes or combines or separates essence and existence (second operation of the intellect which regards the esse of things – the unicorn does not exist, the horse exists). Thus, there is a judgment of existence: “Socrates is”– a composition of substance Socrates and its existence in the unqualified or absolute sense.

It depends also on what the meaning of “is” is!

Judgment of existence in the qualified sense would be: “Socrates is a human being” – the role of the copula: essence of Socrates is to be a man, or white–existential value is not direct in the copula, but still there–actuality of the act of existing is the principal signification of “is,” but secondarily all actuality whatsoever including the actuality of a certain form (man, white).

The copula still designates composition of form and existence; the actuality of the form is consignified —“Socrates exists with such and such determinations” still specifies his particular mode of existing. The unity of subject and predicate is affirmed as existing in reality, outside the mind, irreducible to our own affirming subjectivity. Thus the modern turn to the subject has its limitations.

Every time we make such judgments – Socrates is … – we are already affirming existence, and act of existing as grasped in the act of judging contains a permanent reference to an infinitely rich reality of the pure act of existing–pursuing it all the way to the supreme existent, God. As concept, being is most universal and most abstract—richest in extension but poorest in comprehension. Reason dislikes the undefinable, which being is in its inexhaustible reality.


Real distinction between essence and existence in finite beings

Essence can be understood without knowledge of its existence. There is a radical contingency of all beings (they may or not come into existence, and they may nor not cease to exist) and there is the impossibility of there being more than one being in which essence and existence are identical (God).

Existence and essence are related as act and potency. There is no potency in God, who is pure actuality because his essence is identical with his existence.

God is not a genus, a quiddity. Finite existence is existence by participation; God exists by essence – ipsum esse subsistens, the very act of existing that subsists, the subsisting act of existing

Kant says that existence is a logical, not a real predicate, but this is not true; existence is neither merely logical nor merely one among other predicates, but the predicate that confers reality on all other predicates because existence makes all predicates real. The reality of predicates depends on existence.

Thus, Thomist theology is a theology of being (sapiential, contemplative), as opposed to contemporary theologies of life, existence, praxis, liberation, hope, etc. (prophetic, practical).

Kierkegaard speaks of forgetfulness of existence in the subjective sense, Heidegger of forgetfulness of being—Aquinas speaks of the forgetfulness of existence in the metaphysical sense—the sense of the suppression of contingency of existence, death, old age—our tendency to reduce reality to the sensible in their particularity—and ignore the act of existing as the most profound and intimate act of a being as a being (shich requires contemplative detachment from the lures and illusions of sensible things)

Because of the composition of act and potency, where every act is the actualization of an existing potentiality, the world is not a mere succession of purely contingent appearances or acts but an orderly succession of intelligible, stable events—there is no act which is just act without actualizing a potentiality, while potentiality, if it is real, is an already actualized potentiality.



From God to You – A Children’s Book

From_God_to_You.coverWEB__87954.1404854285.1280.1280My very dear friend John Skinas has just released his book “From God to You – The Icon’s Journey to Your Heart.”

This is the follow up to his first volume Pictures of God. It is a children’s book, beautifully done, with 12 sections of 12 icons.

They are placed after the introduction which contains a picture of the extraordinarily beautiful iconostasis of the Holy Virgin Cathedral in San Francisco, where St. John Maximovitch’s incorrupt relics lay.



photo (17)

For each icon, John includes two sections – one, a description of the substance and significance of what is depicted on the icon; next to it, a “Notice This” explanation of the particular features of the icon shown.


The 12 icons are: photo (20)

  • The “Icon Not Made By Hands”
  • The “Virgin of the Sign”
  • “Saint Luke Painting the First Icon”
  • “Flight into Egypt”
  • Royal Gates in the Form of Peacocks” (a description of the gorgeous Gates at the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in San Francisco)
  • The “Christ Pantokrator” of Sinai
  • The “Angel with the Golden Hair”
  • The “Original Iveron Icon of the Theotokos”
  • “Saint Theodora”
  • The Transfiguration”
  • “The Resurrection”
  • “The Good Shepherd”

The book closes with a brief description of 3 “Defenders of Icons” – St. Kassiani, St. Stephen the New and St John of Damascus – and of the five major colors used in the icons with their respective symbolic meanings.


photo-(21)This is all done in a delightful arrangement that is both theologically sound and yet very intelligible to children. It is a wonderful tool to help them begin to discover and understand the beauty of God through the iconic windows of heaven.

As John says, “Burned, smashed, and buried, icons have endured a great deal as they’ve made their way from God to you. They’ve reached you because He wants them in your church, in your home, and in your hands. But most of all, God wants you to keep His image in your heart, where, if you listen closely, you can hear his message with every beat…”

John and his wife Suzanne are the parents of 5 children, and I am privileged to witness firsthand how their Orthodox faith permeates their entire family.

The book is printed by Ancient Faith Publishing and you can find it here:


Hegel’s Realization of the Spirit in History

Friedrich-Hegel-2Hegel is the first thinker to treat history as a matter of philosophical and theological study. He made a distinction between individual existence and social existence, so that history refers primarily to our social life, not individual, private lives. The spirit moves the individual, but history is primarily society in its temporal process – and Hegel’s basic social unity is the nation/state.

The spirit works through history in bringing together freedom and necessity, subjectivity and objectivity. There is a rational pattern that can be discerned in history, as the spirit continues to move forward toward freedom. The progression is necessary, because development is necessary in all levels. In nature, organic matter develops, as a seed becomes a tree; in human beings, children develop, and by necessity a three year old child cannot think and behave like a thirty year old adult.

In the same manner, the spirit develops through the thoughts and actions of nations and civilizations. The spirit actualizes itself in the self-consciousness of human beings and in their progressive consciousness of freedom. For Hegel, it is a discernible pattern of history that the more ancient civilizations had a more limited concept of freedom, whereas democracy only appears in modern times. He argues that in ancient Oriental civilizations, the general pattern was that only the ruler was free, whereas in the later Greek civilization there was an oligarchy of the few who were free – and finally modern nations have the awareness that all should be free. There were exceptions to the rule, and breaks in the general chronology, but the exceptions only prove the rule.

History is not a mere succession of sheer contingencies – not just one random thing after another. For Hegel, if one looks at the world rationally, the world will look rationally back. There is a development of reason in the pattern, since for Hegel reason is substance and infinite power, the infinite material of all natural and spiritual life and the infinite form which activates this material content.[i]

General Design

The sole aim of the philosophical enquiry then is to eliminate the contingent, and so in history we must look for a general design. World history is governed by an ultimate design; it is a rational process of the divine and absolute reason, the manifestation of the one original reason, and a reflection of the archetype in a particular element in the life of the nations. Reason is self-sufficient and contains its end within itself, bringing itself into existence and carrying itself into effect.

The history of the world is thus a rational process, the rational and necessary evolution of the world spirit. A divine will rules supreme and is strong enough to determine the overall content, as events are moved by the moving of the spirit within them, the “true Mercury, the leader of the nations.”[ii]

Modes of Historical Thinking and Writing

As Hegel observes and explains the patterns of the development of world history, he makes distinctions concerning what kind of historical writing is appropriate for his project. He discerns three modes of historical writing: original history, reflexive history and philosophical history.

The first mode, historical writing, is one in which the author is immersed in the spirit of the events he describes, and does not rise above it to reflect upon it. The writer is an eyewitness of the events, and although perspective is time fresh it is also limited by a lack of wider perspective.

The second mode, reflexive history, depicts not only what was present and alive in this or that age, but that which is present in spirit, and so it looks at the past as a whole. This includes surveys of history (compilations), pragmatic history (focus on significance and moral instructions[iii]), critical history (history of history, higher criticism[iv]) and specialized history (which is fragmentary, particular, and abstract: e.g. the history of art).

The third mode of philosophical history (the one Hegel proposes to adopt) focuses on the concrete and “absolutely present,” the “spirit which is eternally present to itself and for which there is no past.” It is the Idea, the leader of nations and of the world, the spirit with its “rational and necessary will” which directs the events of world history.[v] This mode brings a synthesis of reason, spirit, providence, subjectivity, objectivity, movement, and teleology.

The Realization of the Spirit in History

Philosophical history then discerns the patterns of the spirit, which combines reason and will. This is expressed not only in individuals, but also in higher levels of human existence.

There are for Hegel three basic levels of the activity of the spirit:

1. First, the spirit becomes conscious and seeks freedom in the individual spirit.

2. It also moves individuals together as it sublates contradictions and seeks freedom in the level of the nation – the nation spirit.

3. Thirdly, the spirit will also move not only through individuals and nations, but also in guiding the totality of world history – the world spirit.

From a different perspective, these three levels can also be understood in a descending scale: The absolute spirit is incarnated, embodied in the world spirit; the world spirit is incarnated, embodied and particularized in the nation spirit, and the nation spirit is incarnated and embodied in the individual spirit.

The absolute spirit is the ultimate agent and ultimate goal. It is absolute in that it is not determined – but it seeks determination in its embodiment in the world, so that it can eventually sublate contradictions towards ultimate freedom.

In this way, world history belongs to the realm of the spirit. Physical nature does plays a part, but the spirit and the course of its development (actualized in human beings, and, more importantly, in nations) are the true substance of history. After the creation of nature, man appears as the antithesis of nature since the kingdom of God is the spiritual kingdom which is realized in man and which man is expected to translate into actuality – man is active withinthe spirit, and the spirit is active within man. Human nature is a combination of spirit and nature, and essence of the spirit is self-consciousness. [vi]

Deutschland über alles!

hegelHegel, however, is primarily concerned with the spirit of the nation, which for him is the basic unit of world history, not the individual person. Thus he takes a thoroughly socio-historical approach to his philosophy of history, opposing atomistic individualism. Hegel recognizes that it is from the state that and individual derives the substance of his life.

This approach is markedly different from the modern philosophical approaches which, since Descartes, generally concentrate on the individual and his relation to the external reality. Hegel’s philosophy does not allow for any identity outside of relationships embodied in concrete reality, and therefore it is natural that, while recognizing that the movement of the spirit is indeed realized in the individual, there is no meaningful individual who does not derive his existence and meaning from historical relations.

There is no independent individual, for (as we will see later) each element of finite reality is thoroughly dependent upon its finite counterparts, just as finite reality is thoroughly dependent on the infinite and vice-versa.

As an individual, I derive my food, my protection, my value system, and so on, from the social relationships in which I live, move, and have my being. Therefore the spirit of the nation is the womb in which individuals live, and is the basic vehicle of the spirit in its progression toward self-knowledge and freedom.

Hegel’s conception of the state is therefore spiritual, not materialistic, and the “spirit of the nation” is constituted by the ideals that bind people together. All spheres of our lives – politics, technology, religion, art, philosophy, etc. – are expressions of the spirit of the nation.

This is an organic conception of society, in which there is what Hegel calls a principle of coherence between laws, politics, religion, culture, and so on, because the spirit of the nation in its own locus of development toward freedom will affect all these areas in a reasonably uniform way. For example, a nation that has an authoritarian religion will find it hard to have a democratic constitution.

Just as an individual life has to cohere in its different aspects, embracing its negations and sublating them, so also with the state. Internal conflicts bring revolutions and the dialectical approach demands reconciliation of the many realms of life present in the state, since the spirit of the nation articulates itself in this diversity of spheres. They have to cohere, and they generally do – again, the state cannot impose a constitution on a people, since it has to come from the spirit of the people. There must be as much unification of differences in society as possible (and this does not mean sheer uniformity), and some kind of totality is essential even for the sake of difference.

Hegel took the German nation and society to be the pinnacle of the development of the spirit. However, to apply his insights to our current history, it could be said that this becomes especially relevant in our present context, since globalization clearly requires a harmonizing element between the different cultures, religions, ideologies, societies, economic systems, and so on, which have been brought face to face more than ever in the history of mankind.

Civilizations are becoming more and more amalgamated, as now the “wholly other” is my next door neighbor; the challenges of reconciliation and the questions concerning the possibility of unity that maintains diversity brings Hegel’s idea of negation-transcendence-preservation to great relevance today.

Freedom: the part Marx tweaked.

The nation spirit, then, continues to move into greater awareness of freedom. The ultimate phase of national consciousness is the recognition that man is free. This consciousness encompasses and guides all the aims and interests of the nation, and it is on this consciousness that the nation’s rights, customs, and religion depend.

This progression is achieved through a dialectical movement where contradictions are constantly being encountered and sublated; as we have seen, the world is a struggle of classes, religions, ideas, systems, cultures, etc., and thus,

The ultimate aim of the spirit is to know itself, and to comprehend itself no merely intuitively, but also in terms of thought. It must and will succeed in its task; but this very success is also its downfall, and this in turn heralds the emergence of a new phase and a new spirit.[vii]

There is progression, growth and succession, and the task of philosophical world history is to discover the continuity within this movement. It is important to emphasize that the movement of the spirit (particularly the nation spirit throughout history) is not a cycle, but a progression. Every instance in which ideas and practices within a particular society have come into tension and conflict, and then have been resolved and sublated in any way, there is fulfillment.

hegelmugBut as Hegel points out, when the ideals, aspirations, and goals of a nation have received some relief though some resolution of conflict, the tendency (as with individual human beings) is that stagnation and “boredom” occurs. Once (literal or metaphorical) battles have been fought, human beings and nations tend to become complacent, and often lose their sense of greater purpose. For Hegel, this eventually issues in a kind of “death” of the nation, and what is needed is a sort of resurgence from the ashes.

The universal spirit does not die; it dies only in its capacity as national spirit. But the universal spirit will continue to move, and even this death will not be final.

As a phoenix, the spirit rises out of the death of change and comes again to life. The spirit rises again not just as a mere repetition of what it was before, but rather now enhanced and transfigured in a new stage of development.

The Spirit Carries On.

[i] Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of World History, 27-28

[ii] Ibid., 29

[iii] Hegel argues that history teaches that we have never learned anything from history, because each age and each nation finds itself in peculiar circumstances and situations.

[iv] For Hegel, higher criticism “has been the pretext for introducing all the un-historical monstrosities a vain imagination could suggest … a method of bringing a [present into the past, namely by substituting subjective fancies which are considered the more excellent the bolder they are … (22-23)

[v] Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of World History, 24

[vi] Ibid., 44

[vii] Ibid., 56

Christmas: Redemption of the Physical Universe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Luke continues,

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

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

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

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

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

The Glory of God

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

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

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

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

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

Consecration to God

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

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

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

His Poverty, Our Riches

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nunc Dimittis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prophet, Priest and King – Immanuel, God with Us

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

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

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

Christmas: Redemption of the Physical Universe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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