In the fourth century, Gregory of Nyssa was asked a difficult question about children who die young. The ascetic who asked this question was wondering what could really be achieved by his spiritual labors, when he knew for sure that he was going to commit sins that would hinder his entrance into the kingdom. So it seems like the child who died young was better off. Gregory’s answer reveals the basic orientation of Eastern Theology. He said, the human condition in the next life is not primarily a matter of justice, reward and punishment. God’s aim is rather to fulfill the purpose for which he created human beings, namely to participate in God’s life. The earthly life is for development and growth for this eternal communion. From this perspective it becomes truly understandable that according to Irenaeus, God originally intended that humans would enter into Theosis through a natural process of growth. This process would have involved an education in love, a free collaboration with God. As we have seen, a synchronicity between man’s free will and God’s loving opportunities and help. Unfortunately, sin – that is man’s self-centeredness – deflected humanity from this path and disrupted God’s purposes. Does this mean that God made a mistake in the initial design of humankind? No!
What then is the effect of the Fall in eastern theology? Rather than thinking in terms of Augustine’s transmittal of corrupted nature from generation, Eastern thought focuses on two interrelated effects of the Fall: physical death and the obscuring or distortion of the image of God. Adam’s sin was a personal choice and act, not a collective sin nor a “sin of nature”. Hence, inherited guilt is impossible. The consensus of the Greek Fathers, especially of our Fathers John Chrysostom, Cyril of Alexandria, Athanasius the Great, Gregory of Nyssa and Maximos Confessor, emphasize this critical point quite often.
We must remember that we humans see all things in time. The Jewish nation, in the formulation of Genesis, tried to come to some understanding why life on earth is as it is. Moses, inspired by God, suggests that all of our difficulties began when the first couple to become like God, the Creator. Thy ate of the tree of truth and knowledge. They are cast out of the Garden because of this. This is a story that tried to help people understand why life is the way that it is, including the great mystery of death.
As stated in this article last week, humans were never created perfect. There could be no growth or free will if they were. We are involved in an eternal process of birth-growth-death-birth!
The heresy of Docetism led early Christian writers to reaffirm the reality of Christ’s existence on earth. Docetism promoted the idea that Jesus only appeared to be human but really wasn’t. His human form was an illusion. It was rejected, together with the thoughts of Arius, as heretical by Nicaea in 325. It was more theological reflection which led the Fathers to pay more attention to the nature of man which the Word did not scorn. We cannot say that the Fathers’ preoccupation with this was ‘devotion’ to Christ’s human nature or that they took a predominantly dogmatic view of it. The cult of the humanity of Christ is foreign to the Eastern tradition. In act I believe that this is when all of the prayers in the Eastern Church end with a doxology to the Trinity.
It is undeniably difficult to speak of an explicit devotion to the humanity of Christ during the early centuries. One thing astonished the pagans greatly: that such religious homage was being addressed to a crucified man.
It is also true that the function of the liturgy was to stress the divinity of Christ. At the same time, various feasts gave Christian poets an opportunity to compose hymns in honor of the God-Man. Pilgrims had the opportunity of visiting the localities of Christ’s life and venerating in particular the instrument of salvation, the cross, and later the “holy face” (the napkin or towel on which tradition tells us Christ left His image on the way to Calvary).
Slowly, Christian piety agreed to view Christ in his humiliations as a human being. John of Damascus justified this adoration: Christ, therefore, is one, perfect God and perfect man. Along with the Father and the Spirit, we worship him in one adoration together with his body, for to us his body is not unworthy of adoration. In fact, it is adored in the one Person of the Word. We do not do homage to what is created. We worship him not as mere flesh, but as flesh united with the godhead
I would ask you to join with me in asking Almighty God to grant eternal repose to our sister:
who died during this past week. I, unfortunately, got the call on the day of my
recent surgery was not able to celebrate her funeral.
In the Eastern Church, spirituality is lived dogma. That is why even in the midst of discussions that divide opponents we experience a spontaneous transition to personal attitudes closer to what we may call a devotion common to all Christians. Strictly speaking one should not pray to Christ but through Christ, as Origen warned us.
It comes as no surprise that Christians love Christ. But how? Ancient liturgies praised him, thanked him, worshipped and implored him. Tenderness and intimacy began to be emphasized only with some reservations in the early days: by the martyrs, by pilgrims to Jerusalem, in Syriac religious poetry. Yet even the Byzantines have An Office of the Most Sweet Jesus which antedates the Jubilus attributed to St. Bernard.
From the entire tradition, it is good that we quote at least one anonymous writer included in the Philokalia, who greatly praised the excellence of the famous Jesus Prayer.
This is the doctrine that has been handed down to us by our inspired Fathers. The whole effort of their lives was to fill themselves with the sweetness of Jesus. Their whole hunger was for Jesus. This is what filled them with indescribable spiritual joy. By calling on the sweet name of Jesus they received special charisms and were elevated above the cares of the flesh and of the world.
There are two paths which can lead to a tender love for the Savior: the sweetness of God because he is God; and his human amiability, because no man has ever spoken as did he. These two paths ultimately merge, for Christ is a single divine-human person.
It is our love of Jesus that allows us to join ourselves to Him in worshipping the Father in the Spirit. In worshipping the Father we, of course worship Christ and the Spirit. The complexity of the Trinity can be daunting. You will note that every prayer in our services ends with a doxology to Father, Son and Spirit. The Son taught us how to pray, saying, Our Father Who art in heaven
While we are well-enough informed about the liturgical life of the early Church and the Fathers, we are not very informed about their private prayer. The reason for this is the fact that they advised everyone not to talk about it. This was their secret hidden work. The secret inner work was a constant inner conversation with God. God was in the inner temple of the soul and man was in constant communion with Him. This inner communion was not easy. A struggle, a spiritual combat was needed with the hostile powers that sought to divert their attention from God. We all have, I am sure, experienced this constant struggle. The world and all of its things (especially now with the advent of technology — who can live without their cell phone today) can distract us from the primary task of life: a deeper union with God. Part of this hidden work was repeating over and over again to oneself either quietly or more loudly certain prayers or Scripture verses or entire Psalms. This allow them to engage their memory about life’s primary task. In the process, the thoughts sank not only into the memory but into the depths of their souls and minds.
St. John Climacus refers to this secret occupation when he writes: Not even in the dinning room did they stop mental activity but according to a certain custom, these blessed men reminded one another of interior prayer by secret signs and gestures.
In this manner the soul is converted into a temple of God, a monastery, where prayer is continually offered to God. For, let us remember, there is not one liturgy but three liturgies:
1) the liturgy of corporate prayer celebrated in Church;
2) the liturgy of private prayer offered constantly in the chapel of the heart; and
3) the “liturgy after the liturgy;” the liturgy that begins when we leave church and continues all week long: the liturgy of love and service to the world performed in the name of Christ.
The practice of the presence of God is not beyond your ability. The main thing is to attempt to make it real in your life. Try it, you’ll like it!
In 858, fifteen years after the triumph of icons under Theodora, Photius became the Patriarch of Constantinople. He has been termed the most distinguished thinker, the most outstanding politician, and the most skillful diplomat ever to hold the office of Patriarch. Soon after his accession he became involved in a dispute with Pope Nicolas I (858-67). The previous Patriarch, Ignatius, had been exiled by the Emperor and while in exile had resigned under pressure. The supporters of Ignatius, declining to regard this resignation as valid, considered Photius a usurper. When Photius sent a letter to the Pope announcing his accession (the long-held custom was that churches would inform others when new patriarchs were chosen – they never asked permission). Nicolas decided that before recognizing Photius he would look further Into the quarrel between the new Patriarch and the Ignatian party. Accordingly in 86i he sent legates to Constantinople.
Photius had no desire to start a dispute with the Papacy. He treated the legates with great deference, inviting them to preside at a council in Constantinople, which was to settle the issue between Ignatius and himself. The legates agreed, and together with the rest of the council they decided that Photius was the legitimate Patriarch. But when his legates returned to Rome, Nicolas declared that they had exceeded their powers, and he disowned their decision. He then proceeded to retry the case himself at Rome: a council held under his
presidency in 863 recognized Ignatius as Patriarch and proclaimed Photius to be deposed from all priestly dignity. The Byzantines took no notice of this condemnation and sent no answer to the Pope’s letters. Thus an open breach existed between the Churches of Rome and Constantinople.
The dispute clearly involved the Papal claims. Nicolas was a great reforming Pope, with an exalted idea of the prerogatives of his see, and he had already done much to establish an absolute power over all bishops in the west. But he believed this absolute power to extend to the east also: as he put it in a letter of 865, the Pope is endowed with authority over all the earth, that is, over every Church. This was precisely what the Byzantines were not prepared to grant. Confronted with the dispute between Photius and Ignatius, Nicolas thought that he saw a golden opportunity to enforce his claim to universal jurisdiction: he would make both parties submit to his arbitration.
Origen’s teaching about the Christian mystery and the Liturgy is the soil from which grew one strand in the Byzantine tradition of liturgical interpretation. Developed by Dionysius the Areopagite in the fifth century and Maximus the Confessor in the seventh, it was taken up and given its finial form in the fifteenth century by Symeon of Thessalonike.
In order to fully understand the resultant interpretation of the Liturgy, however, we must backtrack to the fourth century and consider the beginning connection between doctrine and worship.
In 313 Constantine issued the edit of tolerance which transformed the situation of Christians in the Roman Empire. Up until that time, Christians were persecuted because of their refusal to worship idols and serve in the army. After the edit, the Church was under imperial patronage, and in the East Constantine, though not baptized until the end of his life, came to be venerated as equal to the apostles.
It must be remembered that much like Volodymyr in Rus (Ukraine), Constantine was brought to the faith by
his mother, Helena. Representations of the Emperor, and of his mother Helena, together with the cross she
found in Jerusalem, are often found in the decorative scheme of later Byzantine churches. Favored by
Constantine at the beginning of the century, Christianity became the official religion of the Empire
towards its end, under Theodosius I.
Imperial patronage had immediate and profound consequences for the Church, not least in its worship. The Emperor’s influence soon made itself felt, even in the domain of doctrine. The fourth century was one of fierce doctrinal conflicts within the Church. Early in the century the Alexandrian priest Arius raised a storm that was to rage for half a century and disturb Christendom for far longer by teaching that the Son was not God as the Father was God, but was a creature, albeit the first and highest of all created beings. A good deal of early Christian writing did imply the subordination of the Son to the Father. But once the explicit affirmation of his inferiority had been made, it was seen to strike at the heart of Christian faith in salvation through Christ. If it was not God who was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, then we are not saved.
We must always remember that there was no separation between Church and State. The emperor was the Head of the Church and the State (Two-headed Eagle)
The readings appointed today for our worship are rich in spiritual content. The Gospel, which is Luke’s account of Jesus’ encounter with the Rich Young Man, addresses a question which should be on our lips: What must I do to share in everlasting life. The Epistle, on the other hand, which is taken from Paul’s letter to the Colossians, exhorts us to Let the word of Christ, rich as it is, dwell in us. The practice of virtue, which was at the very core of all of the Lord’s teachings, is the key for us sharing in everlasting life.
The question is, What keeps most of us from the practice of virtue? In a few simple words, our possessions and their connectedness to the uncertainties of life. Perhaps the greatest challenge that we humans face during this earthly existence is the challenge of not having any real control over life. Our possessions give us a sense of having control, even though it is deceptive since there are many things (e.g. tornado, fire, theif) that immediately take our things away from us. We collect things to ward off the fears that are truly connected with the vicissitudes of life.
In his comment on this Gospel story, St. Clement of Alexandria provides us with some insight into its meaning. Clement asks: What made the young man depart from the Master, from the entreaty, the hope, the life, previously pursued with ardor? It was the Master’s exhortation to Sell your possessions. Christ does not bid the young man to throw away the substance he possessed and abandon his property. Rather, according to Clement, Christ bids him to banish from his soul his notions about wealth, his excitement and morbid feeling about it, the anxieties, which are the thorns of existence, which choke the seed of life. Clement further points out that many have disposed of their wealth to no benefit, if their underlying passions remain – their simple longing for the feeling of security that they believe their possessions and wealth provide.
St. John Chrysostom noted that even the poor are lost if they have within themselves the same overwhelming attraction to possessions and wealth. The things of this world cannot really give us security against the feelings connected to the uncertainties of life.
The only true solution to facing the uncertainties of life is: belief in the love of God our Father. Belief in the love of our Heavenly Father provides us with the security that is needed. Think about how secure we feel when we feel loved.
I suspect, however, that one of the things that keeps us from feeling that we are loved by God is our fear that He will punish us for being weak and human! It is our belief that He became man and, therefore, understands us and does not punish us for being human.