Giving Birth to God.

Often one may see pairs of Orthodox icons as in the photo above. If you are not Orthodox and know little of Orthodoxy, what do you see here? If you are flowing within certain large streams of Protestantism, which may have some bias against images and the veneration of the Lord’s mother due to that whole awkward situation with the Roman Church, what do you think of this common pairing of icons? I think some may see such pairings of icons of the same size and possibly get the uncomfortable feeling that Mary is being given approximately equal honor with the Lord Himself. If such a thought occurred at all, please look closer. The same person is featured most prominently in both. If you see the image on the right primarily as an image of Mary, you should now ask yourself why you did so. Christ is in both icons. In the icon on the right, the Lord’s mother is directing your attention to Him with her right hand. Christ in the form of a small child is God in the flesh, ruling the universe and holding it all together while His mother supports Him in her arms. It is wrong to think of Him as somehow not fully Christ the King, not fully the eternal God when He is a child.

As hard as it is to imagine how one person can be both fully human and fully God, I’m afraid we tend to find it easier to imagine this when we see him as a grown man than when we see Him as a toddler or infant. What arrogant fools we are! Do we think that we are substantially nearer to the wisdom and stature of God than an infant is to us? In fact, it is almost always the case that the little child is, in the ways that matter most, closer to God than the adult.

We love our children and don’t want them growing up so fast. Why is this? We want them to grow; part of the beauty of childhood which we enjoy so much is the steps they take in their development. I think part of the universal fascination we adults have with children comes from the fact that they are, in the most fundamental ways, better than we are. Their presence is healthy for us because of this. They have preserved something which we have lost, though perhaps it is only covered over with the gunk we’ve collected on top of it. This beauty, purity, and more that we can’t define in children is something which Christ did not lose or cover over. What is wonderful about little children was completely preserved in Him. He grew to be an adult while maintaining the beauty of childhood. He is still the child we see on the right as well as the adult we see on the left. To better understand Christ taking on the sickness of our human condition and saving us from our sin and death, I think the icon of Him as a little child is necessary. Imagine a little child, perhaps your own, discerning in his innocence and purity that you have messed yourself up and are too weak and immature to save yourself. Then, with the simple and pure love of a child’s heart, he enters into great suffering and faces death in order to help you. It’s a heartbreaking image, but it happened. That pure little innocent child was still there in full potency when Christ entered suffering and death for us.

The Lord’s mother is called “Theotokos” meaning “birth-giver to God.” In a broader sense, humanity gave birth to God so that He is “the Son of Man” as well as, in being the “new Adam,” the father of redeemed humanity. The Theotokos was told, when her Son was very young, “a sword shall pierce your own soul also.” Christians of every stripe are familiar with that prophecy and mostly think “Yes, her natural, personal attachment to Him made his suffering and death hard for her as it is hard for any mother to outlive her child.” I think it goes deeper than we may think at first glace.

At times when I have my really big worries about the future, I hope that hard times (perhaps complete collapse of civilization) will come later when my little sons are men, because I couldn’t bear to see them suffer through it as children. Children can surprise us with their strength through suffering, so why is it we can’t bear the thought of their suffering when very young? Deep down, I think it has something to do with the inherent beauty and innocence of little children. The Theotokos came to know a child in whom that quality of childhood was all the more powerful and in whom, as He grew, was never lost. When she witnessed His suffering and death, she saw that full purity and innocence despised, attacked, and tormented to the death. Still, I think there is more to the “sword” which pierced her soul.

The innocence and purity of my children often brings to mind my lack of what they have and how lamentable it is that their father is not a better man. I enjoy their presence and am nourished by it, but their purity can also be a fire that burns. Well, you can see where I’m going with this. When the great and holy prophets had clear encounters with God or the angels, they clearly found it painful. Daniel fell and became like a dead man. Peter said “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man.” Nearness to holiness and the divine presence is painful for the sinner, though it may be welcomed. What was it like to contain in the womb the uncreated fire of God and to be there, intimately involved, as God himself was revealed in every stage of human development? When an Orthodox Christian hears the term “the burning bush” we think of her. She burned with the Eternal Fire and was not consumed. She endured a closeness of the presence of God far greater than Isaiah had in his vision making him cry out “woe is me!” but still was sufficiently comfortable to continually perform all the functions and tasks of childbearing and motherhood. She did not fall down as if dead when encountering the archangel and never told her little boy “depart from me,” though she knew Him far better than Peter did when he spoke those words.

We believe that the Theotokos must have been, by the grace of God, entirely pure when she gave birth to God. She is seen as the last in a line of Old Testament saints  which increased in holiness as good parents raised even better children until one came who could bear the continual presence of the uncreated Fire within her. Jesus Christ restored the whole of human nature, male and female, old and young, in Himself. It was fitting that the image of restored humanity, male and female, should be seen at once through the God-child with His mother.

“Thou who didst carry in thy womb the Fountain of immortality, enliven me who am slain by sin.

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“And the Logos became flesh and dwelled among us.”

In our icon corner, I took on a little project (almost complete) of including icons depicting the seven miracles of the book of John. They can all be seen here, though one is still only a paper print. Tradition calls John “the theologian,” a term only applied to two other Church Fathers.  John pointed out that there were many more things which Jesus did, but he chose to write what he did for a reason. The other gospels are called “synoptic;” they read more like historical books. The Gospel according to John was special.

He sets a clear tone “in the beginning”–the phrase with which he starts his work. His theme is “the Logos”–the creator and sustainer of the created order. In the other gospel accounts, one can notice how frequently Christ physically touches or is touched in order to heal. In John’s account, He mostly speaks a word or, perhaps, doesn’t even speak a word commanding the miracle itself, but says “fill the water pots with water…take some to the head waiter” or “go your way; your son lives.” As Creator and Logos, He is in the water and alters it at will; He is far away with the nobleman’s son as well as speaking with the nobleman. He is present everywhere. He does not go into the tomb and take Lazarus by the hand, He commands Him to come out and it is done. He tells the paralytic to “rise and walk.” The emphasis on speech alone associated with the miracles hearkens back to the creation account in which He spoke all things into existence–”all things were made by Him and apart from Him nothing was made that was made”–as John points out in his introduction. Even creation of matter is dramatically seen when He blesses a meal for one and distributes a meal for thousands. He inhabits the laws of physics and casually walks on water as He chooses. Clearly, John has in mind the creating Logos in Whom all things hold together.

What about the blind man? It stands out here among the other healing miracles in which there was no touch and only speech signified the event. Indeed, it stands out among the healings we see in the other gospel accounts in which He touched or was touched. Here He did something we see nowhere else. He used His saliva and the dust of the ground to fashion clay before putting it on the mans “eyes.” Why would He involve clay in this particular miracle when a word was enough to raise the dead and He was recorded using no more than touch in the other gospels when healing? It is a bit mysterious.

There is another mysterious thing: it seems no one, other than the man’s parents, could recognize the man with any certainty. From the beginning of the story, one gets the impression that, he, like many of the blind and lame, was in the habit of sitting by the street to receive alms. Why did he look so very different to the many who had seen him daily?

It all makes sense if you read the scriptures within the context of the larger Church Tradition. It also helps if you get some biblical commentary from some folks who were still speaking Koine Greek. The tradition from very ancient times, preserved in the Orthodox Church, is that this man was born without eyes. Christ made eyes for Him using the same material He used when making a body for Adam–clay. On that day, the man was visited by his Creator and the Creator completed His creation. Well, I’m speaking loosely here because He is still working on all of us who were born with a complete set of parts. However, there is more to us than a collection of basic parts. We are still in great need of renovation and we must be still and trust Him while He puts the finishing touches on us.

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Lazarus Saturday and Holy Saturday

“I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live. And whoever lives and believes in Me will never die.”–John 11

“As the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.”–Hebrews 2:14-15

Today is Holy Saturday in which we commemorate the time Christ spent in the grave. He was not idle during this time. As a human, He entered the realm of the dead which was an inescapable prison. As God, He filled this dark place with light and life, destroying death from within.

Appropriately, I have just finished a book, reading a little at a time over some months, titled “Christ the Conqueror of Hell” by Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev. From the epilogue:

“When he rebelled against God, the devil set himself the task of creating his own autonomous kingdom where he would be the master, winning back from God a space where God’s presence could not, in any way, be felt. In Old Testament understanding, this place was Sheol. After Christ’s descent, Sheol became a place of divine presence…..Christ descended into hell not as the devil’s victim but as Conqueror. He descended in order to “bind up the powerful” and to “plunder his vessels.””

This book went into great detail studying early sources to learn how a few vague passages in scripture concerning Christ’s descent into Hades were understood by the early church. The study followed into the next several centuries to discern what the accepted teaching of the Church was upon this matter. My Protestant friends, you should not let this reliance on fathers of the first millennium scare you. Those same fathers established the accepted canon of the New Testament on which you rely. You greatly trust their judgment whether you realize it or not. But I digress.

It is hard to know quite what to say about this. If you want to hear more details on this topic, I recommend the book. You don’t have to be Orthodox to learn from the Orthodox Tradition. Let’s just look up at the icons and I’ll tell you what is going on there.

A week before the “Harrowing of Hell” (second icon), Christ fired a good warning shot at Hades when He called out Lazarus with a word. This was a special event because he had been dead 4 days. It was thought that people might linger a little while near their bodies and might be returned to life during that period, but after 3 days, they were sure to be locked securely in Hades. Also, notice the man near the tomb is holding part of his garment over his nose. As Martha pointed out, in 4 days decay was sure to set in and he would stink. To raise the dead at that time was considered impossible to all but the Creator Himself. Christ simply commanded him to come forth and he did.  You see Lazarus standing but still bound at the door of the tomb. Christ tells people to “unbind him and let him go.” How did he walk to the entrance if he was bound and needed help to “go?” Ancient tradition says that he did not walk to the door, but was seen by those near floating to the entrance.

The devil, of whom the epistle to the Hebrews says, “had the power of death” was concerned, but his great pride did not allow him to see his true danger. The early fathers believed that the devil didn’t quite understand who Jesus really was. He knew he had something to do with the Son of God who was everywhere present, but, like so many humans, could not see past the veil of His humanity to His deity. This is probably why Satan began working at that point to bind this Jesus in Hades. He managed to kill Christ within the week, but things didn’t work out the way he planned. The fathers speak of a “divine deception” in which Satan took the “bait” of Christ’s humanity only to be pierced by the hook of his divinity. Some have criticized the morality of this image, but it is proper to think that Satan was deceived, not that God deceived him. A prideful heart keeps us from seeing many obvious things, so this is nothing unusual. In any event, the devil bit off more than he could chew, the “strongman was bound” and his “possessions” taken away.

As for the scriptural quotation beneath the icon, I think people fail to take it (as well as some other things in the Gospel according to John) as literally as they should. Specifically, many read it as if He said “I have the power of resurrection and the power to give life.” No, He is the resurrection and the life. His very being as a person raises the dead. In Him, God is seen in perfect union with His creation. The injection of divinity into the human race brings us to life. Salvation is union with Him. An obvious way to become more in union with another person is to trust that person completely. This is why you see this gospel explaining here and elsewhere that salvation comes by “believing in Him.” But people want to take it non literally and to explain what this means we should “believe about Him.” As George MacDonald said, “the smallest belief in Him is far better than the greatest belief about Him.”

Now, let’s look at the second icon. This is called the “harrowing of hell.” Beneath the feet of Christ are the broken doors of Hades. Around and below them, you see broken locks and chains. The man bound at the bottom is Death or Satan–some icons will show two bound figures. Christ is pulling up Adam and Eve and, through them, the whole human race. There are other inhabitants of Hades there including some righteous kings on the left. All are freed and death is “abolished,” as Paul said to Timothy.

“Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!”–The Paschal Troparion

“The angel cried to the Lady Full of Grace: Rejoice, O Pure Virgin! Again I say: Rejoice! Your Son is risen from His three days in the tomb! With Himself He has raised all the dead! Rejoice, all you people! “–Paschal Hymn to the Theotokos

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The Place of the Skull

“When they came to the place called The Skull, there they crucified Him and the criminals, one on the right and the other on the left.”–Luke 23:33

This is a photo of an icon on the wall of my house. Christ is seen at the moment of His death on the cross. His mother is foremost on your left; foremost on your right, you see John, the only one of the 12 who had the courage to be there with the women. Behind him is the centurion who saw Christ die and understood who He is. But what is going on at the bottom? Some Orthodox crosses will actually include a skull and crossbones at the bottom. I have known of some who, in ignorance, have taken this as a sign of something sinister in the Orthodox Church, but this has to do with “the place of the skull.”

In my last post, I talked about atonement and contrasted the ways in which Eastern and Western Christians view it. The Eastern Orthodox Church very much sees the incarnation as the central thing–the human and divine quite literally became “at one” in the person of Christ. Union with Christ heals us. In the West, so far as atonement goes, there is a much more concentrated focus on the crucifixion because atonement is viewed in juridical terms. In Orthodoxy, the cross is not less important; it is the climax of His union with our fallen nature in which He fully enters death and destroys it from within. What happens in the above icon and in the days following is the ultimate victory in which we see Christ, the conqueror, healing human nature and reversing the fall of man.

In the scripture quoted above, we are told the place where He was crucified was called “the skull.” Many people are only aware of the modern, rather obvious theories about why the people of that time referred to it in that way. Specifically, some have noticed some indentations in the rock on one side which could remind one of a human skull, if one looks at it the right way in the right place.

Well, if you are looking for a reason and know of no other, that is a reasonable speculation.

Another natural guess is simply that the Romans were executing people there and, perhaps, there were some skulls lying about. There may be reasons to doubt that but, again, without other ideas, it is reasonable.

However, there was a widespread belief among the earliest Christians corresponding to a Jewish legend predating the time of Christ which was neither of these theories. The legend is that Adam’s skull was buried on that hill in Jerusalem. “The place of the skull” was the place of Adam’s skull. To me, this theory seems the most reasonable; if we want to know what they meant at the time by calling it “The Skull,” let’s find out if people who lived around that time said anything about it. Well, this is what they said about it.

By way of discussing the atonement in my last post, Christ was referred to as “the second Adam,” which is a designation coming from the New Testament writings (see 1 Cor. 15). Paul says, “as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive.” The sad irony is that so many of us Christians seem to understand the first part of that more than the second part. We are abundantly aware of the powerful effect which Adam had upon all of us. He sinned, became mortal, and our connection with him made all of us mortals, prone to sin. So the connection of humanity with Adam is seen and palpably felt, while a similar connection with Christ, which brings human nature upward rather than downward, is so easily forgotten, especially when atonement is viewed juridically. However, it is clear from the scripture that the human connection with Christ is quite the same kind of thing as the human connection with Adam and also that while Adam caused human nature to fall into death, Christ causes human nature to live with the very life of God, having the very life of God in Himself.

Now, let’s look again at the icon. Why is that skull beneath the cross and why is the blood of Christ flowing down upon it? Whose skull is it? I’m sure you can guess the answer to that question. The Jewish legend, predating Christ, was simply that the skull of Adam was located in this hill. The early Christian legend added a bit more to the story. As Christ bled on the Cross, His blood flowed down through some cracks in the ground and reached Adam’s skull, reversing the fall at it’s source.

The Exapostilarion of Pascha:

“In the flesh, you fell asleep as a mortal man, O King and Lord. You arose on the third day, raising Adam from corruption, and destroying death: O Pascha of incorruption, the Salvation of the world!”

Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.

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The Incarnation

“Only-begotten Son and immortal Word of God,
Who for our salvation willed to be incarnate of the holy Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary,
Who without change became man and was crucified,
Who is one of the Holy Trinity, glorified with the Father and the Holy Spirit,
O Christ our God, trampling down death by death,
Save us!!”

For more than two years, I have happily belonged to the Orthodox Church, commonly known as the Eastern Orthodox Church or the Greek Orthodox Church. I can recall a time 3 years before that when I pondered the incarnation of the Logos, who is God, the Son and was struck with a very Orthodox sense of the significance of the event. I would not become aware for some time that the theology beginning to grow in me that day was Orthodox. Somehow, I had seen something which the ancients understood, something which defined the great concerns of the united Church of the first millennium. This is an understanding which has been largely lost in Western Christianity, replaced with a legal, juridical model of atonement.

In the West, atonement and salvation came to be viewed primarily as a juridical transaction. Catholics may view their own works as entering into their salvation transaction, while Evangelical Protestants describe something which seems to be the signing of a contract in their hearts so that God, who had been bound by law to torment them forever, now is bound to give them perpetual bliss. That is the transaction through which individual salvation is thought to be appropriated. The crucifixion is seen as the great transaction in which an innocent one paid in the coin of suffering and death for the debts incurred, in a juridical sense, by sinners.

Having come from an Evangelical Protestant background, I don’t know Catholicism so well. Thus, what I say here will reflect specifically upon a Protestant way of viewing things rather than a Catholic way, though they are, in certain fundamental ways, similar.

Evangelical Protestants seem to struggle with finding any real necessity in the incarnation of Christ or in His resurrection, for that matter. To their credit, they are still very fond of both events, but neither seems to be entirely necessary in their atonement theory. Essentially, they will say that He was incarnated so that He would have a way of suffering and dying on the cross. Then why not make an adult body, give a few speeches along with the endorsement of divine miracles, and go to the cross? The resurrection seems like it ought to happen so that the good guy doesn’t seem to lose, but was it necessary? Did it do anything for us? Surely the Son of God was not incomplete before; why not just shed His humanity and be as He was before the incarnation? How could the “good guy lose” if He lost nothing He had from eternity? In recently reading the online “Statement of Faith” for a couple of mainstream evangelical churches, I saw that Christ “arose from the dead after three days to demonstrate His power over sin and death.” Was this no more than a demonstration, in order to make a point?

Such confusion did not exist until the second millennium of Christianity and has never existed in the Eastern Church. In the East, atonement is not viewed as a juridical transaction; it is viewed as healing. Like any good person, God forgives what is past. The problem is making the offense truly a thing of the past, not an ongoing thing. Even the word “offense” may be misleading here, for we cannot harm God. He is offended when we harm ourselves; He cannot be with us in such harmful action because He loves us. The etymology of the word “atonement” is not hard to detect. It indicates the reconciliation of two parties, making them “at one.” There could have been no more powerful way of making humanity at one with God than for God to enter into our race and become human. The exploitation of some strange legal loophole does not save us—He, Himself, in His own person saves us. He is our salvation. Saving faith is literally in Him, not in theories about Him or about what He did. Likewise, He, not any written guarantee, is our assurance of salvation. When you trust a person, you don’t need written guarantees. We can leave our salvation to Him and just try to cooperate with what He is doing by doing as He tells us. He will always do what is best for us.

Humanity is, invisibly, one being. You and I are like branches on the same tree—distinct, yet in union. Christ, entering in, injected all of us with the divine. He is the new Adam—the trunk of the tree. Our union with Him saves us and we all partake of this union and, to this extent, all are saved. However, that union can be lesser or greater as we “abide in the vine.” If lesser, we dry and wither; we become greater partakers of death and are sub-human. If greater, we have life and health flowing in us and become greater “partakers of the divine nature” as the apostle Peter put it. Partaking of divinity, we truly become children of God. The new birth powerfully opens this connection with the Vine, which was largely blocked by dead tissue.

So, the incarnation is central in atonement—in our salvation. When He took on fallen human nature, it was absolutely bound to be raised up. Suffering and death are part of our fallen human experience (they actually define ‘fallen’), so He entered into that. His resurrection saved us as He entered into death and destroyed it by filling it with life. His resurrection necessitates our own. As we are all connected as one humanity, humanity is also connected with all of creation. Thus our resurrection, in turn, necessitates the raising of fallen creation. As Paul said to the Romans (8:21), “creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.”

Have a very merry Christmas.

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