Archive for ‘favorite passages’

March 20, 2017

destroying sin through the instrumentality of death

There is a whole lot in my paltry readings of Maximus the Confessor that I don’t understand. However, I continue, and Maximus rewards patience time and again.

Here’s a recent example. Maximus says that Jesus came to give human death a new purpose. He made death into a weapon that we can use against our own sin. This confused me a lot at first, so let me set up the theological background a little more.

Death is simply a natural result of sin. We sometimes read Genesis as if God proclaimed that death would be the punishment for sin. In fact, God was not “assigning a consequence” but simply pointing out a reality about life. Death is fair (or just) because it is a natural extension of sin. This is because sin is turning away from God who is the loving source of life.

Moreover, death became tied up with human nature because our first sin caught us all in bonds of pain and pleasure. Our first sin left us serving a vicious tyranny of the urgent, always fleeing a pain or pursuing a pleasure that seemed more near-at-hand than God’s presence. It became natural for humans to pursue anything but God, and mortality became a human characteristic. It is terrible to think of death as natural to those made in God’s image, but we all learn to see each other in this world as destined for death instead of God. Socrates takes it as an axiom that “man is mortal.”

Maximus also points out that death and suffering are merciful because they keep us from going too far off course while we wander between increasingly extreme fears of pain or desires for pleasure. Although death is merciful in a way, God did not impose death on us as either a kindness or a punishment (most fundamentally). Death is simply reality apart from life with God. As love and the source of life, God hates death.

Moving a step further, human death attacks the core of God’s purpose in creation. Humans were made uniquely to ensure that all creatures would enjoy and display God’s love. By sinning (turning from God to pursue another source of goodness), the image bearers of God tangled up their own natures with death itself, entrapped there by pain and pleasure. Instead of promoting and protecting life in all creation, God’s image became connected to death by our sin. God’s image brought death to the world.

To set up a little background, I’ve wandered from Maximus’ main point (and wandered into a few points of my own, no doubt). Maximus is focused on explaining exactly how salvation is accomplished by Jesus Christ within this situation. Because God’s image became connected to death by our sin and brought death to all creation, Maximus shows how Christ becomes a human and used human death as an ingenious weapon against sin. Maximus says that Jesus Christ “turned death from a weapon to destroy human nature into a weapon to destroy sin.” This attack on our sin gives us a new weapon and opens a way for the curse on all of creation to be undone. Christ surprised the devil and death itself by giving this new purpose to human death. By becoming human and repurposing death, God restored to humans a way to serve again as the image of God.

Maximus explains at length how this was possible. Christ fully took on our own human desires for pleasure and our fears of pain, all the realities of our sins, while remaining free from committing any sins of his own. Therefore, death was not a natural or just consequence for Christ. The normal purposes of death did not apply to Christ, and he was able to give death a surprising new purpose. I won’t go into further details, but this surprise move required all that Jesus Christ was (as fully God and fully human).

This noble use of death to restore life with God is full of profound encouragements and implications regarding how to suffer and to carry our own cross with Jesus Christ each day in this life, even into our own eventual deaths. Amazingly, Maximus claims that “the baptized acquires the use of death to condemn sin.” Christ has now given death to each of us to use as a weapon against our own sin. Christ changed the function of death for all of those who unite themselves to Christ. In Christ, humans can learn to accept everyday experiences of suffering and death in ways that free us from our sin. Maximus is giving a theological basis for the Christian practices of asceticism and mortification (which are very easily abused and misunderstood).

Pointing continually to the work of Christ, Maximus points us to the only perfect example of how to use death as a weapon against sin. However, Maximus the Confessor, as a follower of Christ, is himself a profound example. All those tortured for Jesus Christ were called “Confessors.” In Maximus’ case, he insisted on confessing the truth even when they promised to cut out his tongue and remove his right hand for preaching or writing one more word about who Jesus was. That didn’t stop him.

Here are some passages from Maximus himself (from Ad Thalassium 61 “On the Legacy of Adam’s Transgression”):

For if the deviance of free choice [by Adam] introduced passibility, corruptibility, and mortality in Adam’s nature, it only followed that in Christ, the immutability of free choice, realized through his resurrection, introduced natural impassibility, incorruptibility, and immortality.

…He exhibited the equity of his justice in the magnitude of his condescension, when he willingly (κατὰ θέλησιν) submitted to the condemnation imposed on our passibility (τὸ παθητόν) and turned that very passibility into an instrument for eradicating sin and the death which is its consequence—or in other words, for eradicating pleasure and the pain which is its consequence. For it was in human passibility that the power of sin and death (the tyranny of sin connected with pleasure and the oppression associated with pain) all began. Indeed, the rule of pleasure and pain over our nature clearly originated in the liability to passions. Wanting to escape the oppressive experience of pain we sought refuge in pleasure, attempting to console our nature when it was hard-pressed with pain’s torment. Striving to blunt pain’s spasms with pleasure, we merely sanctioned against ourselves a greater debt (cf Col 2:14) of pain, powerless to disconnect pleasure from pain and its toils. But the Lord exerted manifest strength of transcendent power by inaugurating for human nature a birth unchanged by the contrary realities (of pleasure and pain) which he himself experienced. For having given our human nature impassibility through his Passion, remission through his toils, and eternal life through his death, he restored that nature again, renewing the habitudes of human nature by his own deprivations in the flesh and granting to human nature through his own incarnation the supernatural grace of deification.

…Therefore death, in its dynasty, dominates all of human nature because of the transgression. …But the Lord, …naturally willed to die…. Clearly he suffered, and converted the use (χρῆσις) of death so that in him it would be a condemnation not of our nature but manifestly only of sin itself.

The baptized acquires the use of death to condemn sin. …Such will ensue if indeed the saints, for the sake of truth and righteousness, have virtuously finished the course of this life with its many sufferings, liberating their nature within themselves from death as a condemnation of sin and, like Christ, the captain of our salvation (Heb 2:10), turned death from a weapon to destroy human nature into a weapon to destroy sin.

From the translator’s notes:

Maximus repeats here his slightly earlier affirmation that Christ “converted the use of death” (τὴν τοῦ θανάτου χρῆσιν ἀντέστρεψιν) so as to condemn sin and not human nature itself. We already see in Ad Thal. 42 (translated above) Maximus’s larger perspective on Christ’s assumption of human passibility in its fullness, becoming the “sin” which is a consequence of the fall (but not the “sin” committed in moral acts) and so for our sakes taking on the mortality which is its condemnation. Recalling here the christianized Stoic idiom of “good use” of the human passions (cf Ad Thal. 1), Maximus describes Christ “using” death, the ultimate “passion” and the end of human passibility, as a redemptive instrument. Elsewhere, Maximus speaks of Christ’s blameless use of the fear of death (Disputation with Pyrrhus, PG 91:297B), for Christ alone turns it into a “voluntary” fear that encourages the Christian faithful in their own confrontation with death (Opusc. 7, PG 91:80D; cf Comm. on the Lord’s Prayer, CCSG 23:34, 135–35, 142).

…Maximus is insistent that the Christian appropriates Christ’s own good “use” of the ultimate passion of death (see note 9 above) by his or her own discipline of mortification. One should not overlook his important distinction between destroying death and destroying sin through the instrumentality of death.

March 7, 2017

souls often harden during the course of life

From Eugene Vodolazkin’s Laurus:

Leave her here, wept Arseny’s soul, she and I have become entwined. Get used to separation, said Death, it is painful, even if it is only temporary. Will we recoginze each other in eternity? asked Arseny’s soul. That depends in large part on you, said Death, Souls often harden during the course of life, and then they barely recognize anyone after death. If your love, O Arseny, is not false and does not fade with the passage of time, one might ask, why would you not recognize each other there, where there be not illness, not sorrow, not groaning, but where there shall be everlasting life? Death patted Ustina’s soul on the cheek. Ustina’s soul was small, almost childlike. Her response to the affectionate gesture was more likely fear than gratitutde. This is how children respond to those who take them from their kin for an indefinite period: life (death) for them will, perhaps, not be bad, but it will be completely different from what they are used to, lacking the former stucture familiar events, and turns of speech. As they leave, they keep looking back and seeing their frightened reflections in the teary eyes of their kin.

December 29, 2016

I can offer no suggestion except that Santa Claus gave it to me in a fit of peculiarly fantastic goodwill

Excerpted from a 1903 article by G.K. Chesterton in Black and White called “My Experiences with Santa Claus” (reprinted in the London Tablet in 1974):

What has happened to me has been the very reverse of what appears to be the experience of most of my friends. Instead of dwindling to a point, Santa Claus has grown larger and larger in my life until he fills almost the whole of it. It happened in this way.

As a child I was faced with a phenomenon requiring explanation. I hung up at the end of my bed an empty stocking, which in the morning became a full stocking. I had done nothing to produce the things that filled it. I had not worked for them, or made them or helped to make them. I had not even been good—far from it.

And the explanation was that a certain being whom people called Santa Claus was benevolently disposed toward me…What we believed was that a certain benevolent agency did give us those toys for nothing. And, as I say, I believe it still. I have merely extended the idea.

Then I only wondered who put the toys in the stocking; now I wonder who put the stocking by the bed, and the bed in the room, and the room in the house, and the house on the planet, and the great planet in the void.

Once I only thanked Santa Claus for a few dolls and crackers. Now, I thank him for stars and street faces, and wine and the great sea. Once I thought it delightful and astonishing to find a present so big that it only went halfway into the stocking. Now I am delighted and astonished every morning to find a present so big that it takes two stockings to hold it, and then leaves a great deal outside; it is the large and preposterous present of myself, as to the origin of which I can offer no suggestion except that Santa Claus gave it to me in a fit of peculiarly fantastic goodwill.

December 29, 2016

they were not going to waste anything they possessed between them

From “Watership Down” (chapter 18) in Watership Down: A Novel by Richard Adams:

Since leaving the warren of the snares they had become warier, shrewder, a tenacious band who understood each other and worked together. There was no more quarreling. The truth about the warren had been a grim shock. They had come closer together, relying on and valuing each other’s capacities. They knew now that it was on these and on nothing else that theirs lives depended, and they were not going to waste anything they possessed between them.

December 29, 2016

as though they felt the propriety of paying respect to the adversary who has put up so good a fight

From “The Raid” (chapter 25) in Watership Down: A Novel by Richard Adams:

When several creatures—men or animals—have worked together to overcome something offering resistance and have at last succeeded, there follows often a pause—as though they felt the propriety of paying respect to the adversary who has put up so good a fight. The great tree falls, splitting, cracking, rushing down in leaves to the final, shuddering blow along the ground. Then the foresters are silent, and do not at once sit down. After hours, the deep snowdrift has been cleared and the lorry is ready to take the men home out of the cold. But they stand a while, leaning on their spades and only nodding unsmilingly as the car-drivers go through, waving their thanks.

December 29, 2016

wisdom is found on the desolate hillside

From “The Story of El-ahrairah and the Black Rabbit of Inlé” (chapter 31) in Watership Down: A Novel by Richard Adams:

El-ahrairah went along the hedgerow to the wood and sat alone under a nut bush, looking out across the fields. As the light began to fail, he suddenly realized that Lord Frith was close beside him, among the leaves.

“Are you angry, El-ahrairah?” asked Lord Frith.

“No, my lord,” replied El-ahrairah, “I am not angry. But I have learned that with creatures one loves, suffering is not the only thing for which one may pity them. A rabbit who does not know where a gift has made him safe is poorer than a slug, even though he may think otherwise himself.”

“Wisdom is found on the desolate hillside, El-ahrairah, where none comes to feed, and the stony bank where the rabbit scratches a hole in vain.”

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December 17, 2016

eight days before the Kalends of January

Hippolytus of Rome (202 AD):

The first coming of our Lord, that in the flesh, in which he was born at Bethlehem, took place eight days before the Kalends of January, a Wednesday, in the forty-second year of the reign of Augustus.

December 17, 2016

they must answer in a manner more gentle and more proper to discussion

To quote Plato’s Socrates (Meno, 75d):

If my questioner was one of those clever and disputatious debaters, I would say to him: “I have given my answer: if it is wrong, it is your job to refute it.” But if they are friends as you and I are, and want to discuss with each other, they must answer in a manner more gentle and more proper to discussion.

December 17, 2016

you would have done no better than the people of Bethlehem

There are many of you in this congregation who think to yourselves, “If only I had been there…how happy I would have been to go with the shepherds to see the Lord lying in the manger!” Sure you would! You say that because you know how great Christ is, but if you had been there at that time you would have done no better than the people of Bethlehem. Childish and silly thoughts are these! Why don’t you do it now? You have Christ in your neighbor. You ought to serve him, for what you do to your neighbor in need you do to the Lord Christ himself.

From Martin Luther.

December 11, 2016

we are meeting Christ in Bethlehem today

From Words for Our Time: The Spiritual Words of Matthew the Poor (The Nativity of Our Lord, 1974):

God proclaimed something on Christmas Day which neither narrative nor history itself can fully contain. …We can say that Christ’s birth is above time; and so we cannot deal with it as just a record with historical details to be analyzed. No, our intention this evening is to make a living entrance into the story of Christ’s birth.

Again, no matter how long or wide history becomes, it will never be able to encompass the story of the Nativity. The Nativity is eternal life itself that shown forth from Bethlehem and remains shining until the end of the ages. …As we sit here together, I would like us to imagine that our gathering is in Bethlehem. And our imagination is not fantasy, but very truth. Our question now is, what is our position or place in Bethlehem? …Judge for yourselves and understand our place in the Bethlehem stable from this: We are bone of his bones, and flesh of his flesh [Eph. 5:30]. Joseph, as I said, is the guardian of the Virgin Birth, and Mary, the pure saint, is Mother; but you and I are His own flesh and bones! We comprise His entire body. Therefore, I say, we are meeting Christ in Bethlehem today, but it is an incredible and marvelous rendezvous; and it requires us to constantly and repeatedly review ourselves as well as the Nativity story. …I am not merely the beneficiary of Christmas—rather, I am flesh of his flesh and bone of His bones. You and I take up a central place in Bethlehem. This One who is born, the wonderful Child, this magnificent gift from heaven, contains me as a vital part.

…For the sake of the One born in Bethlehem, come with me to meet Christ, who awaits you with open arms. Christ was not born to make a short visit on earth and then leave. He was not a passing visitor. He was the Son of God who took flesh, and will never cast it off. He took us, beloved. He took humanity unto Himself and formed a union with it, complete and perfect. All things that belonged to the divinity and humanity respectively are now united. What a wonderful doctrine! …Beloved, in the Spirit we assemble today in Bethlehem, in Adam’s Paradise, the doors of which are opened for us never to close again.

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