Salvation


Every year at this time (when we start using the Liturgy of Saint Basil during Great Lent), I am reminded that the Anaphora of Saint Basil is one of the best statement of the Christian faith that I can think of. I saved this as a draft post two years ago and never got to posting it. But I was reminded of it again this morning and thought it worth posting, for I can think of few better expressions of what we believe.

Truly You are holy and most holy, and there are no bounds to the majesty of Your holiness. You are holy in all Your works, for with righteousness and true judgment You have ordered all things for us. For having made man by taking dust from the earth, and having honored him with Your own image, O God, You placed him in a garden of delight, promising him eternal life and the enjoyment of everlasting blessings in the observance of Your commandments. But when he disobeyed You, the true God who had created him, and was led astray by the deception of the serpent becoming subject to death through his own transgressions, You, O God, in Your righteous judgment, expelled him from paradise into this world, returning him to the earth from which he was taken, yet providing for him the salvation of regeneration in Your Christ. For You did not forever reject Your creature whom You made, O Good One, nor did You forget the work of Your hands, but because of Your tender compassion, You visited him in various ways: You sent forth prophets; You performed mighty works by Your saints who in every generation have pleased You. You spoke to us by the mouth of Your servants the prophets, announcing to us the salvation which was to come; You gave us the law to help us; You appointed angels as guardians. And when the fullness of time had come, You spoke to us through Your Son Himself, through whom You created the ages. He, being the splendor of Your glory and the image of Your being, upholding all things by the word of His power, thought it not robbery to be equal with You, God and Father. But, being God before all ages, He appeared on earth and lived with humankind. Becoming incarnate from a holy Virgin, He emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, conforming to the body of our lowliness, that He might change us in the likeness of the image of His glory. For, since through man sin came into the world and through sin death, it pleased Your only begotten Son, who is in Your bosom, God and Father, born of a woman, the holy Theotokos and ever virgin Mary; born under the law, to condemn sin in His flesh, so that those who died in Adam may be brought to life in Him, Your Christ. He lived in this world, and gave us precepts of salvation. Releasing us from the delusions of idolatry, He guided us to the sure knowledge of You, the true God and Father. He acquired us for Himself, as His chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation. Having cleansed us by water and sanctified us with the Holy Spirit, He gave Himself as ransom to death in which we were held captive, sold under sin. Descending into Hades through the cross, that He might fill all things with Himself, He loosed the bonds of death. He rose on the third day, having opened a path for all flesh to the resurrection from the dead, since it was not possible that the Author of life would be dominated by corruption. So He became the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep, the first born of the dead, that He might be Himself the first in all things. Ascending into heaven, He sat at the right hand of Your majesty on high and He will come to render to each according to His works.

Source.

I recently read Father Alexander Schmemann’s little book, The Virgin Mary, in the Celebration of Faith series. I’m not going to discuss the whole book, which is a combination of helpful reflections on the feasts of the Mother of God and various papers that he had presented on “Mariology,” usually in an ecumenical context. But what struck me, and got me thinking, was his discussion on the virgin birth near the beginning of the book.

Father Schmemann notes that, while miracles are an indisputable part of the New Testament witness and of the faith of the Church, we would nevertheless do well to ask about their meaning. Jesus Christ did not “use” miracles in order to prove anything, much less to force our belief, for that would be to override our human freedom.

Indeed, if anything in Christ’s unique image is predominant, then it is His extreme humility and not at all any desire to “prove” His Divinity by using miracles. The Apostle Paul writes some extraordinary words about this humility of Christ: “He was in the form of God … but emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant… He humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross…” (Phil 2:6-8). He never used His miraculous birth as “proof” and never once in the Gospels even mentions it Himself. And when He was hanging on the Cross, abandoned by everyone and in terrible agony, His accusers mocked Him precisely by requesting a miracle: “…come down now from the cross that we may see and believe” (Mk 15:32). But He did not come down and they did not believe. Others, however, believed because of the fact that He did not come down from the cross, for they could sense the full divinity, the boundless height of that humility, of that total forgiveness radiating from the Cross: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34). (17)

Instead of trying to “prove” anything, the miracles presented in the gospels are motivated by Christ’s compassion and rooted in His love, for “He cannot endure the suffering of a human being hopelessly imprisoned by evil.” (18)

However, this does not appear to explain the miracle of Christ’s birth and the need for the virgin birth. Father Schmemann argues that this unique miracle that is also rooted in God’s love that, out of love for us, “took upon Himself our humanity in order to save it.” (19)

But to save it from what? From its total and inescapable slavery precisely to nature and those merciless laws which reduce us to just another human species, just matter, just “flesh and blood.” Man, however, is not merely of nature. Above all, he is of God, of God’s freely given love, of the Spirit. And therefore what our faith affirms is this: Christ is from God and of God, that His Father is God Himself. In Christ, in His birth, in His coming into the world a new humanity is born that comes not from the flesh nor from our self-imposed slavery to passions, but from God. God Himself is betrothed to humanity in the person of the most sublime fruit of His Creation: the all-pure Virgin Mary. The New Adam enters the world to be united with us and to lift up the first Adam who was created not “by nature” but by God. (19)

Leaving aside a terminological quibble about the word “nature,” which I think Father Schmemann is using to mean “fallen nature,” his words reminded me of Metropolitan John (Zizioiulas) of Pergamon’s discussion on the biological and ecclesial hypostasis in Being and Communion. For Metropolitan John, it is precisely the necessity of the biological that is overcome in the person of Christ, who thereby also opens up the way for us to become truly free persons. In such a perspective, it is necessity that keeps us enslaved and a radical freedom that is the mark of human persons who reflect God’s Image. In this context, the virginity of the Mother of God, in overcoming biological necessity, becomes the herald of a new way of being, a truly ecclesial hypostasis.

Of course, this may all be totally obvious – and from an Orthodox perspective it should be obvious – and I may just be slow in coming to grasp it. But I also think that it touches on themes that are not easily understood in our contemporary western context. I sometimes have the impression that some of those who defend the virgin birth do so more out of commitment to God being able to work whatever miracles He likes than any particular meaning that it conveys. And then it becomes no big deal for more liberal Christians to sit rather lightly to the dogma, especially given the way it is often presented as tied up with negative views about sexuality – and the layers of misconception in those assumptions still need to be seriously unmasked. But the reality is that the virginity of the Mother of God is a fundamentally eschatological reality, for in her we recognise the “Bright Dawn of the Mystical Day.”

This six-part series of blog posts is based on a talk I gave earlier in the year to a group of Christians who wanted to know more about Orthodox spirituality. It is quite basic and possibly in need of further reworking, but I post it here in the hope that it may be of help to some.

The title of this series is an allusion to two statements of Saint Seraphim of Sarov: “Acquire the Holy Spirit and a thousand around you will be saved.” And “the true aim of our Christian life consists of the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God.” Saint Seraphim, an early nineteenth century Russian hermit has come to be seen as a true spirit-bearer whose life and teaching are reminiscent of the early desert Fathers and sum up much of the Orthodox understanding of Christian life. (This teaching can be found in his On Acquisition of the Holy Spirit).

To begin, it may help to clarify two things about what I mean by an Orthodox understanding of the Christian life.

Firstly, the Orthodox Church, for those who are unfamiliar with her, understands herself as being the one Church of Christ which has continued the faith of the Apostles and of the early Fathers. Battered somewhat by the vicissitudes of history, she has sought to preserve the truth of the faith and has resisted attempts to change this. In one sense, for us, to speak of Orthodox Christianity is simply to speak of Christianity, and hopefully other Christians will recognize something of our common origins in what I present.

Secondly, I am deliberately using the words “Christian life” in an attempt to avoid speaking about “spirituality” or the “spiritual life” – something that I’m not always successful at doing. This is partly because I have a life rather than a spiritual life, and it is the whole of that life that needs to be transformed by the Gospel. And it is partly because the vocabulary of spirituality is part of a later western development – a consequence of the divorce between theology and spirituality in the later Middle Ages – that is foreign to the ethos of the Orthodox Church. We cannot separate life from dogma, or prayer from theology. In the oft-quoted words of Evagrius of Pontus: “The one who prays is a theologian and the theologian is the one who prays.”

Prayer is fundamental to this life. Vasilii Rozanov writes: “There is no life without prayer. Without prayer there is only madness and horror. The soul of Orthodoxy consists in the gift of prayer.” Prayer is not an add-on extra, but is rather a gift that we are called to integrate with all of life’s struggles. Yet there are many misconceptions about prayer in our world and while we may agree that it is important, we have often been wounded by modernity’s emphasis on the cerebral, which makes it difficult for us to really appreciate the importance of prayer.

Moreover, for Orthodox Christians, prayer is part of an all-embracing vision of reality. Taking bits and pieces from different religious traditions that appeal to us has become common in our society, but it is also dangerous and can distort them, as well as leading to more dislocation and uprootedness. This is something that Orthodox Christians are often confronted with today. People often want to use things from our tradition – icons, the Jesus prayer, bits of the Liturgy and music – in a way that distorts them, emptying them of their integrity and making them into something that they are not.

Therefore, in introducing an Orthodox understanding of Christian life, I begin with the “big picture” or the backdrop against which all of our practices occur and in which they are integrated. This is the big picture of Christian revelation, of our understanding of salvation which is coming to share in the Divine Life. (2 Pet 1:4) It is ultimately the Mystery of the relationship between God and human beings.

To be continued…

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Today the barren gates are opened and the virgin Door of God comes forth. Today grace begins to bear its first fruits, making manifest to the world the Mother of God, through whom things on earth are joined with heaven, for the salvation of our souls.

from Vespers of the Nativity of the Mother of God

In recent months I have sometimes thought of writing on the differences between a Roman Catholic approach to the Mother of God and an Orthodox one. This is not that post, which may or may not get written, and I am a little hesitant about writing it, both because it is not a clear cut topic and would need to be written with a fair bit of nuance, and because I am unsure to what extent I am simply reflecting my own experience, and my own earlier blindness. While that certainly does play a role, I’m pretty sure that there is more to it than that, but that is another topic for another day.

But what I have been struck by in recent years – and certainly becoming Orthodox has played a large role in this – is how deeply biblical our understanding of the Mother of God is. I remember years ago having discussions with Protestants on the supposed paucity of biblical references to Mary, and the discussion then focused on the historical references in the Gospels and (fleetingly) in the Apostle Paul. But what I have realised more recently is that Scripture, rightly understood, is full of references to her, precisely because it is – again, rightly understood – entirely focused on the bringing forth of Christ to the world so that He may conquer death by death.

And today’s feast is a striking example of this. From one perspective, we do not have scriptural evidence for it – i.e. the biblical writers do not speak directly about the birth of the Virgin Mary. But from the perspective of the believing Christian, all of Scripture, or at least all of the Old Testament, speaks of it. For what is the birth of the Mother of God about if not the culmination of God’s long work of preparation in the history of Israel? In the words of Vladimir Lossky:

Like the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, the birth of the Mother of God, promised by an angel after the parents had long been sterile, finds Old Testament antecedents which are habitually considered as prefigurations of the Resurrection. But the Nativity of the Mother of God is more than a figure; for in the person of St. Anna – a woman freed from her sterility to bring into the world a Virgin who would give birth to God incarnate – it is our nature which ceases to be sterile in order to start bearing the fruits of grace. The miraculous birth of the Holy Virgin is not due to an arbitrary action of God, entering in to break historical continuity: it is a stage of the Providence which watches over the safety of the world, arduously preparing the Incarnation of the Word, a stage which precedes the last decisive act – the Annunciation, when the chosen Virgin will assent to be “the King’s Palace, in which is accomplished the perfect mystery of the two natures reunited in Christ” [Vespers hymnography].

Vladimir Lossky, “The Birth of the Holy Virgin” in Leonid Ouspensky and Vladimir Lossky, The Meaning of Icons(Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1983) 146.

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We do not know if every one followed Christ when He rose from hell. Nor do we know if every one will follow Him to the eschatological Heavenly Kingdom when He will become ‘all in all’. But we do know that since the descent of Christ into Hades the way to resurrection has been opened for ‘all flesh’, salvation has been granted to every human being, and the gates of paradise have been opened for all those who wish to enter through them. This is the faith of the Early Church inherited from the first generation of Christians and cherished by Orthodox Tradition. This is the never-extinguished hope of all those who believe in Christ Who once and for all conquered death, destroyed hell and granted resurrection to the entire human race.

Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev), “Christ the Conqueror of Hell – The Descent of Christ into Hades in Eastern and Western Theological Traditions”

I know that I quoted this once before, but it seems particularly apt at this time!

When Cyril [of Alexandria] writes in his commentary on the Gospel of John, he sees another dimension to the Resurrection. The Resurrection was evidence that Christ was a unique kind of man. Christ, he writes, “presented himself to God the Father as the first fruits of humanity…. He opened up for us the way that the human race had not known before.” Before Christ came into the world “human nature was incapable of destroying death,” but Christ was superior to the tribulations of the world and “more powerful” than death. Hence he became the first man who was able to conquer death and corruption. By showing himself stronger than death, Christ extends to us the power of his Resurrection “because the one that overcame death was one of us.” Then Cyril adds the sentence, “If he conquered as God, to us it is nothing; but if he conquered as man we conquered in Him. For he is to us the second Adam come from heaven according to the Scriptures.” This is an extraordinary statement and to my knowledge unprecedented. Cyril asserts that Christ triumphed over death because of the kind of human being he was. His human nature makes Christ unique.

Robert Louis Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought. Seeking the Face of God, 120-21.

I’ve just watched this and found it strangely moving. Somehow I expected it to be funny because, well, it’s Steve Robinson. But of course salvation is serious business. I’m posting this here, because I suspect that there are others who may appreciate it. And also, I suppose, because it reminds me of how growing up I found the penal substitutionary atonement theory really revolting but didn’t know what the alternative was… and if anyone else is in that situation I’d like them to watch this.

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