Archive for ‘truth & prophets’

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

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

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.

November 29, 2016

I certainly can’t conceive … any grosser abuse of language than to call a discussion a meditation

Delightful collection of “less commonly used quotes” from the letters of C.S. Lewis:

  • Many men of our time have lost not only the supernatural light but also the natural light which pagans possess.
  • I certainly can’t conceive any less suitable preparation for Holy Communion than a discussion or any grosser abuse of language than to call a discussion a meditation.
  • I really believe I would have come to Christianity much less reluctantly if it had not involved the Church.
  • There is much to be puzzled about. There is nothing to be worried about.
  • It has been my experience that the rich of any country are usually the least attractive specimens of that nation.
September 27, 2016

let it all turn into talk

The hills on our side of the river were green, and on the other side they were blue. They got bluer farther away.

Uncle Burley said hills always looked blue when you were far away from them. That was a pretty color for hills; the little houses and barns and fields looked so neat and quiet tucked against them. It made you want to be close to them. But he said that when you got close they were like the hills you’d left, and when you looked back your own hills were blue and you wanted to go back again. He said he reckoned a man could wear himself out going back and forth.
[And a quote from later in the book:]

…Boy, we’ve let it all turn into talk.

From Nathan Coulter by Wendell Berry.

July 16, 2016

the full participation of the living with the dead

How the First Christians Changed Dying by William E. Kangas:

The fathers of the church did not view theology as being dangerous if it denied God’s wrath, but rather if it denied God’s suffering.

…As many Christians were killed for their faith, the book of Revelation opens up heaven and shows the reader that death is not an end. At the center of the worship of heaven is a Lamb who was slain. The martyrs are there with Christ, as are the apostles. The format seems to follow some of the early conventions of worship at the time. In many ways the book of Revelation teaches the early Christians that their worship together is a way to participate with all those who have gone before in feasting with the crucified Lord that reigns in heaven.

…Although we cannot know for certain how the author of Revelation viewed their work in relation to the liturgy, it seems clear that there is a reflection of many liturgical themes throughout the book. The author clearly believed there was a connection between how the Christians in his community worshipped and how the dead in Christ worshiped. Christian worship, in a very real sense, was seen as a foretaste of death. Because of Jesus, death was no longer something bitter, but it had become something sweet. The sacrament was a window into eternal life and offered a picture of death to the living.

…For those born in the first century CE the understanding of death was significantly different from how many in the west today experience it. If one was a Roman or a Greek, the traditional religion would have taught them that the dead were inaccessible. The souls of those who had passed away would have been drawn into hades, where no one could enter.

…No matter who one was or where they were born one thing would be certain: the dead and dying were dangerous. Death could have meant many things for a person in the first-century. One might have believed in a bodily resurrection; one might have believed in a spiritual existence; one might not have believed there was existence after death at all. No matter what one believed, no person would have been comfortable with the dead. This is one of the reasons Jesus was so revolutionary.

…The church began to treat the dead as if they were welcome in their lives, rather than curses to be avoided. As Christianity became the dominant form of faith in the Roman world the practice of burial shifted. People began to be buried within the city walls. When the dead cease to be a threat, a burden to, and an adversary to people, there is no longer a need to keep them far away. When the dead become a help, the treatment of their remains reflects this shift. Corpses moved from a place of exclusion at the outskirts of society to a place where they were embraced at the center of the community’s life. Since the body is seen as something that will be raised, it becomes something that is treasured and treated as holy.

…Sometimes scholars are shocked to see how flagrantly Christians violated the social norms of their day relating to death. They wonder why Christians began to embrace the dead, bringing them into social spaces and bringing the remains into their worship together. They would gather the bodies of those who had died (and even the scraps of their clothing) and hold them close to them, treating them as “gold and precious stones.” They would even make a point to travel to the remains of the dead on pilgrimage. From a sociological perspective, this kind of behavior seems baffling, but if one tries to imagine what the message of Jesus would have been like to people in the first centuries of the church it is easier to understand why the world began to change.

The full participation of the living with the dead was seen as an integral part of the gospel since all were made one in Jesus. To be able to come with joy to the dead was revolutionary.

…In a world where the corpse can no longer contaminate, the dead are no longer to be feared. This is an emerging epoch and a new reality. Although it is still sad to be parted from loved ones, the sadness of the grave does not deprive a mourner of their friend or relative completely.

…At first this idea seemed to resonate among the disenfranchised in the Roman world. Those who had been controlled through the fear of death by those in power found this new reality to have an unheard of potential to bring freedom. Death was not an end but a beginning. Execution was not a shame any longer but it could be a glory, if a person gave their life as a result of imitating Christ. There was a power in poverty that could break the authority of the rulers.

…The freedom of the Christian from death was infectious. When people heard the news it was difficult to believe, but as time went on the lives of Christians showed a real conviction that God had indeed achieved victory over death. Christians were living differently, and their lives became testimonies that they did not fear death any longer.

…The Christians did not only flaunt death at the hands of the Empire, they also showed no regard for it in their service to the dying. Christians were known for their compassion for the sick; when the plague would come into a city, they cared for the afflicted. While everyone else fled the city in fear, the followers of Jesus would stay behind with the suffering. …People were amazed at the compassion of these early Christians and saw evidence in their seeming supernatural resistance to disease of God at work in their lives.

…By the middle of the third century the church had become centers of care throughout the empire for all people in need. In Rome alone the church was supporting fifteen hundred people in need. They took in the widows, the homeless, and the sick. They cared for the destitute and the shipwrecked. These early Christians would seek out those in the most need and hold them as their dearest treasures. These Christians saw Christ in those who were broken and sought to bring the new economy of Christ to them through their own love and care.

…Christians saw Jesus as a man who walked through death and brought forth life. …As the first Christians looked to Jesus, they began to see their life together as part of a new reality, one that restored what they believed had been lost long ago. …Irenaeus of Lyons taught that the new paradise on earth was the church. He stated that the church was planted by God to restore again what was lost before.

…Death was no longer a force of chaos, and the dead were no longer gone. …The dead were tangible members of a tangible world that was being transformed…. History had a place in this new reality, and the dead were seen as just as much a part of the world as the living.

June 22, 2016

conformity to the likeness of the irrational

Q. Are the passions evil in themselves or do they become so when used in an evil way? I am speaking of pleasure, grief, desire, fear, and the rest.

R. These passions, and the rest as well, were not originally created together with human nature, for if they had been they would contribute to the definition of human nature. But following what the eminent Gregory of Nyssa taught, I say that, on account of humanity’s fall from perfection, the passions were introduced and attached themselves to the more irrational part of human nature. Then, immediately after humanity had sinned, the divine and blessed image was displaced by the clear and obvious likeness to unreasoning animals. The passions, moreover, become good in those who are spiritually earnest once they have wisely separated them from corporeal objects and used them to gain possession of heavenly things. For instance, they can turn desire (ἐπιθυμία) into the appetitive movement of the mind’s longing for divine things, or pleasure (ἡδονή) into the unadulterated joy of the mind when enticed toward divine gifts, or fear (φόβος) into cautious concern for imminent punishment for sins committed, or grief (λύπη) into corrective repentance of a present evil.

From Maximus the Confessor in Ad Thalassium (On the Utility of the Passions1, ccsg 7: 47–49).

When we wish to give a collective name to the passions, we call them world. And when we wish to designate them specifically according to their names, we call them passions. The passions are portions of the course of the world’s onward flow; and where the passions cease, there the world’s onward flow stands still.

From The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian (Homily Two, trans. by the Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Boston, 1984, p. 14).

If neither the Deity is passible nor our nature free from passion, what other account remains whereby we may say that the word of God speaks truly, which says that man was made in the image of God? [XVI.4]

It is not allowable to ascribe the first beginnings of our constitutional liability to passion to that human nature which was fashioned in the Divine likeness; but as brute life first entered into the world, and man, for the reason already mentioned, took something of their nature (I mean the mode of generation), he accordingly took at the same time a share of the other attributes contemplated in that nature. [XVIII.1]

Thus our love of pleasure took its beginning from our being made like to the irrational creation, and was increased by the transgressions of men, becoming the parent of so many varieties of sins arising from pleasure as we cannot find among the irrational animals. Thus the rising of anger in us is indeed akin to the impulse of the brutes; but it grows by the alliance of thought: for thence come malignity, envy, deceit, conspiracy, hypocrisy; all these are the result of the evil husbandry of the mind; for if the passion were divested of the aid it receives from thought, the anger that is left behind is short-lived and not sustained, like a bubble, perishing straightway as soon as it comes into being. Thus the greediness of swine introduces covetousness, and the high spirit of the horse becomes the origin of pride; and all the particular forms that proceed from the want of reason in brute nature become vice by the evil use of the mind. [XVIII.4]

So, likewise, on the contrary, if reason instead assumes sway over such emotions, each of them is transmuted to a form of virtue; for anger produces courage, terror caution, fear obedience, hatred aversion from vice, the power of love the desire for what is truly beautiful; high spirit in our character raises our thought above the passions, and keeps it from bondage to what is base; yea, the great Apostle, even, praises such a form of mental elevation when he bids us constantly to think those things that are above (Colossians 3:2); and so we find that every such motion, when elevated by loftiness of mind, is conformed to the beauty of the Divine image. [XVIII.4]
The misery that encompasses us often causes the Divine gift to be forgotten, and spreads the passions of the flesh, like some ugly mask, over the beauty of the image. [XVIII.6]

Passion in the human soul is a conformity to the likeness of the irrational. [XXVIII.4]

From On the Making of Man by Gregory of Nyssa.

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