Some Thoughts on Jeremiah

icon-jeremiahThe Book of Jeremiah was written in the sixth century BC, and the author was the Prophet Jeremiah himself. Jeremiah lived from approximately 640 BC to 570 BC in the Southern Kingdom of Judah, and was a contemporary of Ezekiel, who lived in Jerusalem at the time. The Midrashim states that he is a descendant of Rahab. His mission was to the people of the Southern Kingdom, and it spanned through five Kings of Judah: Josiah, Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, Jehhoiachin, and Zedekiah. Jeremiah began his writings shortly after the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BC.

Jeremiah’s main message was to declare to the people of Judah that the destruction of Jerusalem was due to their negligence with regard to the Law. Judah had slipped into idolatry, and as a result, was under God’s judgment. The Temple was considered the locus of God’s presence among the people, and being the center of the life of Jerusalem, the tendency in the Kingdom was to find an unhealthy sense of security in the Temple’s presence. The mindset of many in Jerusalem was that they were invincible. In many ways, the Temple had become a “talisman” that people believed to be a protection for the city, and obedience the Law had become secondary and optional.

By forsaking the Law and looking solely to the Temple for security, Jerusalem had been unfaithful to God in committing idolatry. Jeremiah 7:3-4 says, “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: ‘Amend your ways and your doings, and I will cause you to dwell in this place. Do not trust in these lying words, saying, ‘The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord are these.’” The people of Jerusalem had also succumbed to the influence of their pagan neighbors and had begun to worship false gods. In Jeremiah 7:9, God indicts Israel for their harlotry: “Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, burn incense to Baal, and walk after other gods whom you do not know, and then come and stand before Me in this house which is called by My name, and say, ‘We are delivered to do all these abominations’?”

The tendency towards the worship of idols and false Gods was something Israel had struggled with since its earliest times. When Moses came down off of Mount Sinai, holding the stone tablets in his hands, the Children of Israel had made a golden calf to worship. They slipped into idol worship despite God’s hand having guided them out of Egypt. In seventh and sixth century BC Jerusalem, the condition was very similar. They had the Temple in their presence and had been protected by God for hundreds of years, yet they still had the tendency to forget God and His commandments.

In Jeremiah 3:1, God compares Judah to an unfaithful wife. However, He also issues a call that is prominent throughout Jeremiah: a call to return. “They say, ‘If a man divorces his wife, and she goes from him and becomes another man’s, may he return to her again?’ Would not that land be greatly polluted? But you have played the harlot with many lovers; Yet return to Me,’ says the Lord.” God says something very similar in Jeremiah 4:1: “’If you will return, O Israel,’ says the Lord, ‘Return to Me; and if you will put away your abominations out of My sight, then you shall not be moved.’”

God’s call for Judah to return demonstrates His willingness to forgive and receive. Unlike the man who is unwilling to forgive his wife who has been unfaithful, God is perfectly willing to forgive Judah, as long as they repent. He does not want to punish or destroy Jerusalem. Instead, He desires them to return and enter into a real and abiding relationship with Him. Christ shows this desire for Jerusalem in Matthew 23:37 in the New Testament. He says, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!”

Christ follows this statement with something that is further reminiscent of Jeremiah’s prophecies. In verse 38, He says, “See! Your house is left to you desolate; for I say to you, you shall see Me no more till you say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’” This is virtually identical to what Jeremiah told Judah. Jeremiah told Jerusalem that they needed to repent and return to the Lord in obedience, and if they refused, the Temple would be destroyed and Jerusalem would be taken captive. First century Jerusalem was in a very similar situation. The people were living in a horribly sinful state. Many had forgotten God’s Law. Others had taken it and twisted it into an unbearable yoke that choked the hearts of men, leaving them unable to truly come to God in love. Some trusted that the Temple made their city invincible. Christ came to them and delivered a message about the coming destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. In Mark 23, He says, “Do you see these great buildings [the Temple]? Not one stone shall be left upon another that shall not be thrown down.”

The similarities between Jeremiah and Christ are unmistakable and make it quite clear that Jeremiah typologically points forward to what was to come in Christ. In Jeremiah 1:5, God states that He knew Jeremiah and called him before he was born. “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; Before you were born I sanctified you; I ordained you a prophet to the nations.” In the LXX, Psalm 109:3 has the Father speaking typologically of Christ in a very similar fashion. It says, “I have begotten You from the womb before the morning star.” Hebrews 5:5 quotes Psalm 2:7 speaking about Christ: “You are my Son, today I have begotten you.”

Jeremiah prefigures Christ in His role as the suffering servant. Christ was rejected by His people because of His message. John 1:11 says, “He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him.” Christ Himself said, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head” [Luke 9:58]. Christ told the Apostles of the world’s hatred for Him, and warned them that they too would be hated. Jeremiah was hated by his people as well. His life was threatened, and He was warned by the Lord. Jeremiah 11:21 says, “Therefore thus says the Lord concerning the men of Anathoth who seek your life, saying, ‘Do not prophesy in the name of the Lord, lest you die by our hand’— therefore thus says the Lord of hosts: ‘Behold, I will punish them . . . “.

Jeremiah prophesied the coming destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. Jeremiah 25:8-9 says, “Therefore thus says the Lord of hosts: ‘Because you have not heard My words, behold, I will send and take all the families of the north,’ says the Lord, ‘and Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon, My servant, and will bring them against this land, against its inhabitants, and against these nations all around, and will utterly destroy them, and make them an astonishment, a hissing, and perpetual desolations.’” Christ also prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. In Matthew 24:15-18, Christ says, “’Therefore when you see the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place’ (whoever reads, let him understand), ‘then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let him who is on the housetop not go down to take anything out of his house. And let him who is in the field not go back to get his clothes.’”

Christ and Jeremiah cared greatly for Jerusalem, and they both wept over its coming destruction. Luke 19:41-42 says, “Now as He [Christ] drew near, He saw the city [Jerusalem] and wept over it, saying, ‘If you had known, even you, especially in this your day, the things that make for your peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.’” In Jeremiah 9:1, Jeremiah says, “Oh, that my head were waters, and my eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people!” Jeremiah was greatly pained over the message he had to deliver to Judah. He loved them and did not want to see them destroyed. His living among them made it even more difficult, for his message was to his neighbors, friends, and loved ones.

Despite the pain that Jeremiah’s mission brought him, he always remained faithful to God in delivering the message. He was obedient and took to heart that God had called him “before he was born”. God had chosen him, and the message he delivered was not “his message”, but was instead, God’s message. Jeremiah was merely the mouthpiece. Jeremiah makes this clear throughout the book with his continual use of the phrase “the word of the Lord”. Jeremiah refers to the message which he is bringing as “the word of the Lord,” not the word of Jeremiah. Jeremiah receives the word of the Lord, and he relays this word to its intended recipients.

God’s call for Judah to “repent and return” is followed by promise that points forward to Christ.: the promise of a New Covenant. Jeremiah 31:31-33 says, “’Behold, the days are coming,’ says the Lord, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah— not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them,’ says the Lord. ‘But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days,’ says the Lord: ‘I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.’” This promise of a New Covenant applies not only to Judah, but also to Israel, and in consequence of God’s declaration throughout the Book of Jeremiah of His universality, it applies to all nations. God is not only the God of Israel and Judah. He is the God of all nations, and He demonstrates His universality in His commissioning and use of other nations in His judgment of Judah, e.g., Jeremiah 27:6-7, and His declaration that His judgment applies to all nations, e.g., Jeremiah 25:13-38. It is in this universality that we hope. We trust that God is the God of all and that He shows mercy to all who come to Him in repentance and humility, seeking a relationship with Him through the merits of His Son, our Lord, God, and Savior, Jesus Christ.

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Some Thoughts on Jonah

JonahThe Book of Jonah was written in eighth century BC.  Orthodox Holy Tradition holds the author to be the Prophet Jonah himself.  Jonah lived during King Jeroboam II’s reign over the Northern Kingdom, and is referenced in 2 Kings 14:25.  It says that Jeroboam “restored the territory of Israel from the entrance of Hamath to the Sea of the Arabah, according to the word of the Lord God of Israel, which He had spoken through His servant Jonah the son of Amittai, the prophet who was from Gath Hepher.”

Jonah’s mission in the Book of Jonah is rather unusual when compared to that of other Old Testament Prophets.  Generally speaking, the Old Testament Prophets were commanded to preach to their own people, the Jews.  However, in the Book of Jonah, God commands Jonah to preach repentance to the city of Ninevah, which was the capitol of Assyria.  The Assyrians were the “arch-enemies” of the Israelites.  Throughout the Books of Kings we read of numerous Assyrian attacks against Israel.  They invaded their territories, persecuted them, and ultimately, captured the entire city of Samaria in 2 Kings 17.

It is quite easy to look back at Jonah with critical eyes, asking “Why did he refuse to obey the Lord?”  However, when we consider who the Assyrians were and what they had been doing to Israel for hundreds of years, we can gain sympathy for Jonah.  His mission was not easy and required him to let go of some understandable animosity and fear.  His mission to the Assyrians would be much like an American today being commanded to travel to Afghanistan to preach repentance to the Taliban.  Not only would it be terrifying, it would also be rather hard to handle emotionally.

God’s commandment for Jonah to preach to the Ninevites demonstrates that God’s love and call to repentance and salvation extends to all people.  God does not offer repentance to a select few.  God loves all and desires “all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth” [1 Timothy 2:4].  Ninevah was a city filled with non-Jews.  They were not under the Israelite covenant, yet God did not desire to destroy them.  Instead, He loved them, and, unlike us humans, He was able to see their heart and desired them to receive the opportunity to repent.

At first, Jonah had no desire to participate in God’s offer of repentance to Ninevah.  He gave into his hatred and animosity and tried to flee from God, seeking shelter on a ship.  Jonah failed to realize that there is nowhere one can go to hide from God.  Quoting the Lord, Jeremiah 23:24 says, “Can anyone hide himself in secret places, so I shall not see him . . . Do I not fill heaven and earth?”  We, like Jonah, need to keep in remembrance that there is nowhere we can go to hide from God.  He knows our hearts, and He sees all our actions.  While this should give us a healthy fear of God, causing us to watch our actions, it should also bring incredible comfort, for God is always with us, even in the stormy seas of our lives.  “He will never leave us or forsake us” [Deuteronomy 31:6].

God knew Jonah was in the ship, and He sent a storm that began to tear it apart.  The ship’s passengers became fearful and sought Jonah out, asking him to “call on [his] God” for their salvation [Jonah 1:6].  Jonah knew that the storm was the result of his disobedience, and he told them to cast him into the sea so the storm would cease.  He was thrown into the stormy waves of the sea and fully expected death.  However, God did not leave him there.  Instead, He sent a giant fish to swallow Jonah.  Jonah ran from God, it weakened him, and led him into the depth of the stormy sea, the abyss of death, where he was unable to help himself.  Had God not rescued him, death was the natural end result.  In many ways, this symbolizes our own fate when we turn from God.  In our frail human reasoning, we often think that we know best, and instead of following God’s direction for our lives, we run.  When we do, we too are weakened, and we end up in the stormy sea of our own sin, where we are unable to help ourselves.  If we are left there, it will eventually lead to spiritual death.  However, just as God rescued Jonah from the sea, so too will He rescue us, if we are willing.

Jonah lived three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish.  His time in the fish is a typological foreshadowing of what was to come with Christ.  In Matthew 12:40, Christ says, “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”  Christ went into Hades, which is symbolized in the story of Jonah as the belly of the fish, and in three days, He destroyed death.  Jonah spent three days and nights in the belly of the fish crying out to God and worshipping Him.  In Jonah 2:2, he says, “Out of the belly of Sheol I cried, And You heard my voice.”   Jonah cried to the Lord as if he was in Sheol/Hades, the place of death where Christ was to descend some 800 years later.

God heard Jonah’s cry, and after three days and nights, He delivered him from the fish.  At that point, Jonah complied with the Lord’s request.  He traveled to Ninevah, a three days journey, and began to preach to the city. He told them, “Yet forty [LXX says three] days, and Ninevah shall be overthrown” [Jonah 3:4].  To Jonah’s surprise, the people of Ninevah, those who had wickedly murdered Israelites, listened and repented.  They “believed God, proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest to the least of them” [Jonah 3:5].  The Ninevites took the message seriously and acted upon it.  They took action to see “if God [would] relent, and turn away from His fierce anger, so that [they] would not perish” [Jonah 3:9].  As a result of their repentance, God relented and decided not to punish Ninevah.

God’s deliverance of Jonah from the belly of the fish and Jonah’s subsequent mission to the people of Ninevah typologically point forward to Christ’s resurrection from the dead and destruction of death. In this sense, Jonah prefigures Christ.  We see this connection clearly made in the Liturgical Tradition of the Church.  In Ode six of the Canon for the Holy Saturday Matins Service, we sing, “Jonah was caught but not held fast in the belly of the whale.  He was a sign of Thee who hast suffered and accepted burial.  Coming forth from the beast as from a bridal chamber, he called out to the guard: ‘By observing vanities and lies you have forsaken your own mercy.’”  Jonah’s deliverance enabled him to preach and bring salvation to Ninevah, and Christ’s resurrection destroyed death for all of humanity and brought the possibility of salvation to us all.

God’s relenting of his judgment and His forgiving of the people of Ninevah also tell us something about His patience with and forgiveness of us.  He was prepared to punish the people of Ninevah for their sins.  However, He gave them a chance.  He sent Jonah to witness to them, and when they listened and turned towards God, He forgave them.  God deals with us in much the same way.  He hates our sin, and if we continue in it, the day of our punishment will come.  However, if we listen to His call and turn to Him in honest repentance, He readily forgives us, heals us, and receives us.

Jonah was not happy about God’s decision to forgive Ninevah.  Jonah 4:1 says, “But it [God’s relenting and forgiving] displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he became angry.”  Jonah was so upset by God’s decision, one that he knew God would probably make, that he desired God to take his life.  God took this opportunity to teach Jonah, as well as those of us who read the Scriptures, a lesson.  He lovingly asked Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry?”  He then caused a plant to grow over the shelter where Jonah was staying, to provide shade from the hot sun.  God then caused a worm to come and damage the plant, so that it withered and died.   God caused the wind to blow and the sun to beat hard upon Jonah, so that Jonah mourned the loss of the beautiful plant which had provided shade and, again, wished to die.   God then asked Jonah, “You have had pity on the plant for which you have not labored, nor made it grow, which came up in a night and perished in a night. And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot discern between their right hand and their left—and much livestock?” [Jonah 4:10-11].  Jonah was chastised for his misplaced values.  He took pity on a mere plant, but held fast to hatred and hard heartedness towards his brothers and sisters.

Jonah’s actions and God’s chastisement of him should give us pause.  How often are our values misplaced?  Do we cut our fellow brothers and sisters to the quick behind their back, yet mourn over losing material items?  Are we concerned more with temporal matters and less with the eternal condition of our fellow man?    These are questions we should ask ourselves, and when we find ourselves wanting in any area, we should repent, take it to confession, and seek to change it.

The Book of Jonah is a wonderful story that is rich with lessons for us today.  In it, we learn about God’s love for humanity and of His desire for all to receive the opportunity to repent, even those we may consider wicked.  We also learn of His willingness to forgive and show mercy to those who come to Him in repentance.  Jonah also shows us something about the tendencies of mankind.  We, as a race of people, are quick to develop hard heartedness towards our brothers and are extremely slow to let go of it.  Forgiveness is something that God expects us to give freely, and we need to be in constant examination of ourselves to make sure that our hearts are free of hatred and animosity.

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Repentance

orthodox-prostrationIn Matthew 3:2, we read John the Baptist, the Forerunner of Christ, calling all to “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!”  From a Christian perspective, this call to repentance is considered the only proper action and attitude for one to have before the coming Kingdom.  The term typically translated as Repentance in the New Testament is the Greek word metanoia, which literally means “a change of mind” [Strongs, G3341].  Our call from God then, as humans, is to change our minds and turn towards God.  However, in Biblical terms, changing our minds is much more encompassing than simply having intellectual assent or a mental act of agreement.  Instead, it signifies a change in our entire being, a change that encompasses the whole human person.  In the Ancient Hebrew and Early Christian minds, one could not separate the activity of one’s life from one’s belief, for belief and perhaps even more importantly faith, were not just intellectual in character.  Faith and belief were substantive in nature and embodied one’s way of life.  Just as Judaism to the Ancient Hebrew was not simply mental belief, but was instead a way of life, faith, to the early Christian, was not simply mental agreement, but was, instead, an element that pervaded one’s entire life.  We see this most clearly in the way the Apostle Paul describes faith in Hebrews 11:1.  He tells us that “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”  Faith had a nature that made it the very evidence of what one could not see.  One could mentally believe in something, and faith, the inward and outward change encompassing one’s entire life, would provide the evidence for the reality of what one believed in.

This concrete and all-encompassing understanding of faith and belief carries over into the Orthodox Christian understanding of Repentance.  While Repentance or metanoia is a “change of mind”, it is not just a one-time mental activity, something one does just in a sinner’s prayer at the beginning of the Christian walk.  On the contrary, Repentance, to the Orthodox Christian is also a way of life.  It fills almost every aspect of the fully lived Orthodox life to the point where it would not be incorrect to say that it is its hallmark.  In his book The Mystery of Faith, Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev describes Repentance as “a dynamic process, a movement towards God” that involves the “transfiguration” of the entire human person [Alfeyev, Page 144].  The fact that the process is dynamic rather than static demonstrates how it is something lived throughout one’s life and is not confined to a single “moment in time”.  In addition, the fact that it involves the entire human person and not simply the mind demonstrates its all-encompassing nature.

Unlike Roman Catholics, Orthodox do not limit the number of the Church’s Sacraments to seven.  Technically speaking, we see the entire Christian life, physical as well as spiritual, as sacramental in nature.  However, for purposes of discussion we can speak of seven special Holy Mysteries of the Church:  Baptism, Chrismation, the Eucharist, Repentance, Holy Orders, Marriage, and the Anointing of the Sick [The Orthodox Church, Ware, Page 275].  The Sacrament of Repentance is also known as Confession or Penitence and is sometimes referred to as the “Second Baptism”, because during it a person can receive forgiveness for sins they have committed since their Baptism [Ware, Page 275].

During the Sacrament of Repentance, the penitent comes before Christ, with a Priest or Father Confessor acting as witness, and confesses their sins.  They are then given absolution from God through the Priest, and in many cases the Priest may provide spiritual advice.  In Orthodoxy, sin is not understood simply in a legal manner, but is also seen as a sickness, a plaque on the human person that serves to separate them from God.  In the Holy Mystery of Confession we are provided one of the cures for this condition.  Our sin is brought before God and God provides healing for the soul, reconciling us to Him and to the Church, which is literally seen as the continuation of the Incarnation of Christ on earth.  In some cases the Priest may also impose a form of Penance.  However, if this is the case, the Penance is always imposed in the context of healing, not punishment.  Punishment for sin does not fit within the Orthodox paradigm of sin as a sickness.  Just as a Doctor would not punish a person for having cancer, but would, instead, provide some form of medicine or treatment to heal, a Priest when witnessing a confession would never punish someone for their sin, but would, instead, provide medicine to assist in the healing of the soul.

In the early Church the Sacrament of Repentance was performed not just in the presence of the Priest.  The penitent would come before the body of the Church congregation and would confess their sins to all [Ware, Page 288].  After the confession, the Priest would then take the individual aside and grant absolution and impose any Penance deemed necessary.  Today, this public act of Repentance is not deemed practical.  Instead, the Priest acts as the locus of the Church body, standing as the representative for the Church witnessing the Confession to Christ.  Many of those in Protestant traditions are scandalized by the idea of confession with or to anyone other than God Himself.  The attitude seems to be that private Confession to God is sufficient and no human need be involved.  However, biblically speaking, public confession or confession in the presence of a Priest is quite the norm.  In James 5:16, Scripture tells us to “Confess your trespasses [sins]to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed.”  This idea of confession, in the presence of the Church for the purpose of healing, is precisely the Orthodox paradigm.  Sin is always against God.  However, since the Church is the Body of Christ, the continuation of the Incarnation of Christ on earth, sin is also against the Church and Community [Ware, Page 288].  When we sin, we destroy our unity with God and our unity as His Body.  As a result, confession in the presence of a Priest, who is acting as the locus of the Church, is quite logical.  Scripture affirms the role of the Church in granting absolution and healing for sins.  In Matthew 18:18, Christ tells the Apostles, “Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”  The Priest, as the locus of the Church, embodies this authority.

Although the Sacrament of Repentance is done in a specific manner at a specific time and place within the Life of the Church, the spirit and life of Repentance pervades almost all aspects of our life in the Church.  Repentance is lived out within the Life of the Church, and living it out directly affects our salvation or union with God.  Repentance is literally healing from sin and, as a result, is directly related to our Theosis.  Participating by Grace in the Life of the Holy Trinity via God’s Holy Energies requires healing from sin.  It necessitates dying to self, letting go of our attachment to worldly things and opening ourselves to the Life of God here upon earth.  Because of this we see Repentance embodied within many of the Liturgical acts and services of the Church.

One example of the spirit of Repentance within the Liturgical Life is the Third Antiphon of the Divine Liturgy.  Historically, during it the Church sings the Beatitudes from Christ’s Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapter 5.  The very first of these states, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  Being poor in spirit is directly related to Repentance.  It involves seeing ourselves as we truly are, recognizing our sinful ways, and relying upon God for forgiveness and healing.  Those who do this are told they will receive the Kingdom.  It is no accident that we sing this early in the Liturgy.  The Liturgy is literally the mystical journey out of this world to the throne of God whereby we partake of Christ in the Holy Eucharist.  Being poor in spirit, i.e., seeing ourselves as we truly are and having a repentant heart, is a requisite condition when approaching God’s throne.

Another example of living our Repentance within the Liturgical Life is the Lenten Season.  The entire focus of Lent is one of recognizing our need for God and our need to Repent and seek forgiveness and healing.  Three Sundays that immediately precede the Lenten Cycle prepare us for our journey towards Pascha with a deep focus on Repentance.  The first Sunday centers on Christ’s parable of the Publican and the Pharisee.  We are taught in this parable about our need for humbleness and the necessity for focusing on our own unrighteousness before God.  Pride, self-righteousness, and condemnation of others before God are strongly condemned.  The second Sunday focuses on the Prodigal Son, which is a story of repentance and forgiveness.  In this parable we see God’s attitude towards any and all who approach Him in a spirit of humble repentance.  The third Sunday is known as the Sunday of the Last Judgment.  It focuses on Christ’s parable of the Sheep and the Goats and serves as a stark reminder to us of the reality of hell, a reality prepared for those who refuse to repent and turns towards God.

There are numerous other examples of the spirit of Repentance within the Life of the Church, for Repentance is at the core of the Orthodox Christian Life.  Repentance is our healing, our changing, and our turning towards God.  When we repent, we open ourselves up more to God, allow Him to enter further into our being and change us.  The Holy Mystery of Repentance, whereby we confess our sins to Christ, receive guidance from our Priest or Father Confessor, and receive healing from our sins, is one of the steps on our path to Theosis.  Through it, and the other Holy Mysteries of the Church, we can grow in union with God and enter more fully in participation in the Life of the Holy Trinity.

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What is Theosis?

250px-StJohnClimacusIn Genesis 1:26, we read the Holy Trinity, talking among themselves in the midst of the creation, saying “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness. . . .”   From an Orthodox perspective, this declaration by God, i.e., that man was originally created in the Image of God and according to His Likeness, is of supreme importance.  It is intimately tied to our understanding of who man is and what he can become.  In John 10:34, Jesus affirms the high creation and calling of man when, in response to the Pharisees, He quotes Psalm 82 saying “Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, “You are gods”’?”  While Jesus may have been sharing this quote in an effort to shock the Pharisees, its point cannot be minimized.  He refers to members of the human race, those participating by Grace in the Life of God, as gods.  This sets man apart from the rest of creation, placing a crown upon him, giving him a special place of honor.

Colossians 1:15 provides some clarity as to exactly what is meant by our being created in God’s Image.  Speaking of Jesus Christ, it says “He is the image of the invisible God.” This tells us that the very Image in which man is created is Jesus Christ Himself.  Man is created in the Image of God, but Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, is the Image of God.  Jesus Christ, as the Only-Begotten Son of the Father perfectly bears His Image, and humans are created in that Image.

When Adam and Eve fell, the Image of God within man became tarnished and distorted.  Unlike many within the Western Christian world, Orthodox do not affirm that this fall led to mankind’s Total Depravity.  We do not believe that the Image of God was completely destroyed in the fall.  Instead, we believe that every single human being still retains within Himself the Image of God.  However, as a result of the fall, that Image has been mangled.  One can liken it to a mirror that is covered with soot and ash, distorting the reflection.  The mirror is still there and the reflection, although dim, can still be seen.  In the same sense, although it may be dim, we still bear and reflect God’s Image, and in the process of our salvation, that Image can be cleaned and fully restored.  The same can be said for our creation according to God’s Likeness.  While our creation in the Image of God is an ontological reality that we still retain, our creation according to God’s Likeness is a potential reality that still exists.  As a result of the atonement mankind has the potential, through our synergistic efforts with God, to grow fully into the Likeness of God.

From an Orthodox perspective, both of these realities, the repairing and healing of the Image of God within us and our potential growth into the Likeness of God, are the very reality of our salvation which is known as Theosis or Deification.   Biblically speaking, Theosis is most clearly spelled out for us in 2 Peter 1:4, which says that we may “be partakers of the divine nature”.  The full restoration of God’s Image within us and our growth into His Likeness is accomplished through our partaking of the divine nature, whereby we become gods by Grace.  We become by Grace what God is by nature.  This Deification is accomplished through participation in the Life of God in and through the Person of Jesus Christ.  In the Incarnation, He became man while remaining God and thereby united the human nature with the Divine Nature, enabling man to be united to God.  The significance of this cannot be overemphasized.  It is truly a miracle, for the Uncreated and Uncontainable Nature of God was united with the created nature of man in a Person, and the path of healing that this has provided for us is utterly wondrous.  Saint Athanasius the Great, in his great work titled On the Incarnation, summed it up very well when he said that Jesus Christ “assumed humanity that we might become god.”

This is one of the paramount reasons for the Church’s concern with articulating the nature of Jesus Christ as accurately as possible.  The nature of Christ was the overarching subject of each of the Seven Ecumenical Councils.  They dealt, in some form or fashion, with Christology, because who Christ is and how we understand Him affects the nature of our salvation, for our unification with God is accomplished in the Person of Jesus Christ.  His Dual Nature, what is typically referred to in the West as the Hypostatic Union, neither comingles nor separates the two natures.  Instead, they are perfectly united in His Person, and this union provides the bridge whereby we can participate in the Life of the Holy Trinity.

In His great High Priestly prayer in John 17, Christ speaks directly to the union that His incarnation, death, and resurrection have provided.  In verse 22, He says that “the glory which [the Father] gave” Him, He gave to us.  This glory is our salvation, our Theosis, and our union with the Holy Trinity.  In verse 23, Christ speaks directly to how this is accomplished.  He says the unification is through His being in us and His being in the Father and provides that we “may be made perfect in one.”  Christ being in us and in the Father is precisely what was accomplished in the Incarnation.  He remained God (in the Father), yet became human (in us).  In the process, He provided a bridge to unite us to the Holy Trinity by making us partakers of the Divine Nature, which makes us perfectly one with the Holy Trinity and, as a result, each other.

It is important to note that our union with God does not result in a fusion of being with the Holy Trinity.  Just as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are separate Persons, so after our deification, we will remain separate persons, retaining all the essential components of personhood.  However, as separate persons, we will come into perfect union with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, participating in their Life and Immortality.  We will be immortal, glorified persons with perfect resurrected bodies.  It is also important to note that unlike some heretical, quasi Christian sects, Orthodox Christianity does not hold our deification to be a participation in God’s Essence.  God’s Essence is transcendent and unattainable.  As a result, we are incapable, as created human beings, of participating in His essence.  In His essence, God is Uncreated, Eternal, and Divine.  In our essence, we are created and human.  Our deification is accomplished by participation through Grace in God’s Holy Energies.  While God’s Essence is unapproachable, His Energies permeate all creation and are how He acts and comes down to us in the created realm [The Orthodox Church, Ware, Page 69].  God’s Energies are not a piece or part of Him, but are God Himself.  As a result, when we participate in the Life of God via His Energies, we are participating in God, through God [Ibid., Page 69].

Our Deification, the full restoration of God’s Image within us and our growth in the Likeness of God, necessitates our willing participation with God.  God has offered His loving hand to us, and desires each of us to take hold of His hand and walk with Him.  As Scripture tells us in 1 Timothy 2:4, He “desires all men to be saved.”  However, He will not force our participation.  God loves us and desires us to love Him, and forced love is a contradiction.  It cannot exist.  The Second Person of the Holy Trinity willingly became one of us, uniting the Divine Nature to the human nature in His Person.  He has provided the bridge.  However, it is up to each of us to take up our cross and walk with Him across the bridge.  As Saint Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 3:9, “we are God’s fellow workers. . . .”  Our being fellow workers with God means that we have our part to accomplish.  Nevertheless, we cannot accomplish it on our own.  No matter how much man does, he cannot reach God on his own.  Theosis requires God’s reaching down to us, and the Grace of God does much more than any human can ever do.  Nevertheless, we have to accept the invitation and enter into a synergistic relationship of action with the Grace of God and cooperate with Him.   The highest example we have of human synergy with God outside of Jesus Christ, is the Theotokos [Ibid., Page 221].  As a result, she is the shining exemplar for the Church.

In his book The Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware makes six points that he believes are crucial to understanding the Doctrine of Theosis correctly.  First, he says that Deification is intended for all.  It is not something intended for an elite few.  Instead, it is something that God desires for all.  As we mentioned earlier, God “desires all men to be saved” [1 Timothy 2:4].  Second, Ware says that the process of being deified does not, for the Saint, mean ceasing to be conscious of sin.  The truth is, in reality, quite the opposite.  The Saint is always conscious and aware of the tendency within himself to sin.  As a result, he lives a life in constant repentance, asking for God’s mercy.  Third, Ware tells us that there is nothing esoteric about the methods we use in the process of our Deification.  Theosis involves living a Life in Christ, which means, in reality, living the Life of the Church.  We go to Church, pray, participate in ascetic struggle, and partake of the Sacraments of the Church, just to name a few.  The Life of Theosis is quite concrete.

Fourth, Ware says that our Deification is a social process.  It is not something that is individualistic or solitary.  The two greatest commandments are to love God and love our neighbor.  These are tied to one another.  It is impossible to truly love God if we hate our neighbor and is impossible to truly love our neighbor if we hate God, who is Love Itself.  Theosis is accomplished in conjunction with those around us.  Loving them, living a life of communion, which is the Life of the Holy Trinity, enables us to enter into the lives of others, dying to ourselves in the process.  Fifth, Ware says that Deification involves a life of action.  It is not an entirely intellectual or emotional process.  Love of God and love of neighbor presuppose a life of action, for in reality, love is action.  As Saint James tells us, it is impossible to say we love someone if, when they ask for food because they are starving, we tell them to go away filled without feeding them.  Sixth, Ware tells us that Theosis presupposes a life lived in the Church.  The Church is the continuation of the incarnation of Christ on the earth.  Living a life in the Church means participation in the Sacraments, which in turn bring us into greater communion with God and each other.  Through communion with one another and with the Holy Trinity in the sacraments, we grow into greater Likeness of God.

For the Orthodox, Theosis is salvation.  It is a life lived seeking greater communion with God, overcoming our human weakness, restoring the fully clear Image of God within us, and growing into the Likeness of God.  It is a process lived out through one’s life and it will not be fully accomplished until the great and last day, when we each hope and pray to hear the words, “Well done thou good and faithful servant. . . .” [Matthew 25:21].

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Is Mary the Mother of God?

TheotokosA few months ago, I had a conversation with a Christian on Facebook regarding passages in the Bible that refer to Mary.  During this conversation, I referred to Mary as The Mother of God (Theotokos).  This brought a rather stern reaction from him.  He stated, “Mary isn’t the Mother of God.  God is not born or created.  That’s heresy. Mary is the mother of Jesus’ flesh of his human body, not of His Divinity, which already existed before Mary was born.”  While I can understand his concerns, I wonder if this gentleman realizes that his position was thoroughly discussed, analyzed, and subsequently rejected by the Church roughly 1600 years ago.

During the first 500 years of Christianity, the Church dealt with the rise of several Christological heresies that necessitated the formulation of a clear theological expression of Christ’s Person and Nature.  In the early fifth century, one of these heresies questioned how Christ’s two natures, that of God and Man, related to one another. Following the teachings of Theodore of Mopsuestia, Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople, taught that Christ’s nature as God was utterly separate from His nature as man.  In this understanding, Christ’s early life was that of a human being in contact with God.  God foresaw that Christ would lead a virtuous life and chose Him to be a vessel of divinity.  At Christ’s birth, his contact with divinity was incomplete, becoming so later in His life.  Nestorius preferred the term Christotokos (Mother of Christ) to that already accepted as part of Holy Tradition, Theotokos (Mother of God), for He believed that Mary’s baby was not fully divine.

This teaching, which came to be known as Nestorianism, led to the calling of the Third Ecumenical Council in 431 AD.  In this Council, the Fathers of the Church upheld the teaching that in Christ the dual natures of divinity and humanity do not merely come in contact with one another, but that they are, rather, in union.  At the Incarnation, the Second Person of the Trinity, Christ, took on human nature, adding it to His Person, while at the same time retaining the fullness of His Divinity.  At the birth of Christ, Mary gave birth to a baby who was both God and human, each in the fullest sense of the word.  As a result, to deny that Mary was the Mother of God is to deny the full reality of the Incarnation and its resulting efficacy in our salvation.

In a letter to John of Antioch in 433 AD, Saint Cyril summed up this aspect of Christology very well.

Thus we confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, is perfect God and perfect man, consisting of a rational soul and body, that he was begotten from the Father before all ages according to the Divinity, and that in these latter times was begotten for us and for our salvation from the Virgin Mary; that he is consubstantial with the Father in his Divinity and consubstantial with us in his humanity, for in him there was accomplished the unity of two natures.  Therefore we acknowledge one Christ, one Son, one Lord.  On the basis of this union without confusion, we confess the Most Holy Virgin to be the Mother of God because God the Word was incarnate and became man and in the conception itself united with himself the temple received from her. . . God the Word came down from heaven and, taking the form of a servant, emptied himself, and was called the Son of man, remaining that which he is – God.

The title Mother of God is a confession about Christ.  As I have heard said in the past, it says more about Him than it does about Mary.

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Were the Doctrines of the Trinity and the Dual Nature of Christ Invented in the 4th and 5th Centuries?

One of the charges I often hear leveled against Christianity today is that both the Doctrines of the Trinity and the Dual Nature of Christ were “invented” by the Church in the fourth and fifth centuries, during the Ecumenical Councils.  Proponents of these charges claim that the Church prior to the Ecumenical Councils believed neither in the Trinity, nor in the Dual Nature of Christ.  I freely admit that the language by which the Church codified these doctrines was fortified in the Ecumenical Councils.  However, I believe those who charge that the Church invented the doctrines themselves in the Councils and that the Church prior to the Councils did not hold to them are gravely mistaken.

One of the earliest Church Fathers to articulate a basic understanding of the Trinity and the Dual Nature of Christ is Saint Ignatius.  Saint Ignatius was the third Bishop of Antioch, serving from 70 AD to 107 AD.  He was a disciple of the Apostle John, and Church Tradition teaches that he was the child Christ held in His arms when He said, in Matthew 18:3, “. . . unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”  Shortly after the turn of the second century, Saint Ignatius wrote several Epistles while in captivity on the road traveling to his martyrdom.  Seven of these epistles have survived to our day.  In the seventh chapter of his Epistle to the Ephesians, he says:

But our Physician is the only true God, the Father and Begetter of the only-begotten Son.  We have also as a Physician the Lord our God, Jesus the Christ, the only-begotten Son and Word, before time began, but who afterwards became also man, of Mary the virgin. For “the Word was made flesh.”  Being incorporeal, He was in a body; being impassible, He was in a passible body; being immortal, He was in a mortal body; being life, He became subject to corruption, that He might free our souls from death and corruption, and heal them, and might restore them to health, when they were diseased with ungodliness and wicked lusts.

There are several aspects of this passage which demonstrate that Saint Ignatius held beliefs consistent with the Doctrines of the Trinity and the Dual Nature of Christ.  First, he refers to two separate Persons, God the Father and Jesus Christ, yet he calls both of them God.  This is completely consistent with Nicene Theology, which teaches that both the Father and the Son are God by nature/essence.  The Nicene Creed calls Christ “true God of true God”, saying He is “of one essence with the Father” as God.  Had Ignatius been an Arian or had he held to a non-Trinitarian Doctrine that teaches Christ to be something less than or other than God, He would not have referred to Him as God.

Second, Ignatius refers to Jesus Christ as begotten “before time began”.  This is almost word for word identical to the Nicene Creed, which says, “I believe in. . . one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten, begotten of the Father before all ages. . .”  Some today claim that the Early Church believed Christ’s being “begotten” of the Father was in relation to His birth from Mary (specifically, this is an LDS claim).  However, Ignatius’ comment here demonstrates that the Early Church’s understanding of Christ’s nature as “only-begotten” was a relationship with the Father that was “before time began” and has nothing to do with His earthly incarnation.  It is interesting to note that the Greek word translated as “only-begotten” both here and in the New Testament is “monogenes”.  Monogenes literally means “one of a kind,” and to the Church Fathers it connoted Christ being of the same nature as the Father. . . something that was entirely unique to Him.

In addition to calling Christ God and claiming Him to be the “only-begotten” of the Father “before time began”, Ignatius tells us that “afterwards” Christ “became man”.  Ignatius then goes on to point out some aspects that Christ’s becoming man added to His nature.  He says that although Christ was incorporeal, He was in a body; although He was impassible, He was in a passible body; although He was immortal, He was in a mortal body;  although He was life, He became subject to corruption.  These differing aspects of Christ’s nature, aspects that are polar opposites to one another, speak to Christ having two natures, one as God and one as man, and demonstrate that Saint Ignatius understood Christ in this manner.  As God, Christ was incorporeal, impassible, immortal, and life itself.   However, as man He was corporeal, passible, mortal, and subject to corruption.

Last, Ignatius explains that Christ took on our nature in order to free our souls from death and corruption, heal us, and restore us to health.  This speaks to the true reason for the Doctrines of the Trinity and Dual Nature of Christ.  Rather than being doctrines for doctrine’s sake, created as purely intellectual pieces of information to be discussed by dry theologians over coffee and tea, they are doctrines directly tied to our understanding of how Christ redeemed us.  He was the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, true God of true God.  Yet He chose to take upon Himself our nature, becoming man for our sakes, so that He could unite our nature to the Divine Nature in His Person, giving us a rebirth in Him.  Had He not been God and had He not taken on our nature, He would have been unable to redeem us.  The Church understood this from the earliest times, and as the writings of Saint Ignatius show us, it is not an understanding created in the fourth and fifth centuries.  It is Apostolic Doctrine that has been handed down to us and is a product of the Holy Spirit guiding the Church.

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. . . Of One Essence With the Father?

I was a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints – aka The Mormon Church – for several years prior to converting to Christianity and becoming Orthodox.  One of the significant gulfs between Mormon and Christian theology involves the Doctrine of the Trinity as codified at Nicea in 325 AD.  Traditional Christians affirm the Doctrine of the Trinity, believing it to be the correct understanding of the Godhead, while Mormons repudiate it.  The Church to which I belong – The Eastern Orthodox Church – holds the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed to be The Symbol of our Faith.  It is the standard confession of every Orthodox Christian, being recited at ones baptism and reaffirmed every week before Holy Communion in the Divine Liturgy.

One of the major sticking points of the Trinitarian confession for the Mormon Church is the declaration that the three Persons of the Holy Trinity – the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – are one in Essence or Nature.  The Nicene Creed says, in part:

“We believe . . . in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten, begotten of the Father before all ages. Light of Light; true God of true God; begotten, not made; of one essence with the Father. . . “

Considering this aspect of the Doctrine of the Trinity, in the October 2007 General Conference, LDS Apostle Jeffrey R. Holland said:

“Our first and foremost article of faith in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is ‘We believe in God, the Eternal Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost.’ . . I think it is accurate to say we believe They are one in every significant and eternal aspect imaginable except believing Them to be three persons combined in one substance. . .”

In the April 1995 General Conference, LDS Apostle Dallin H. Oaks spoke even more directly when he declared that the rejection of the understanding of God contained in the historic Christian Creeds is “one of the distinguishing features of the doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. . .”

Over the last few years, I have spoken to several Mormons regarding their Church’s rejection of this aspect of Trinitarian Theology.  One of the things I have discovered is that very few of them seem to understand what we mean when we declare the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to be one in essence.  Some believe it means that the three are one person with three separate personalities, others believe it means that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are separate expressions of God, and still others say rather directly that they have no idea what it means, they just believe it to be false.

In my opinion, one of the best ways to understand what the Nicene Creed means by “one in essence” is to look to the writings of those in the early Church.  The Third Ecumenical Council of the Church met at Ephesus in 431 AD to address the Nestorian Heresy.  After the Council’s completion John of Antioch wrote a letter to Saint Cyril of Alexandria, seeking to restore greater communion within the Church.  In this letter, he gives great insight into the Church’s understanding of what is means to declare Christ to be of one essence, or consubstantial, with the Father.  It says, in part:

“We confess, therefore, our Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, perfect God, and perfect man of a reasonable soul and flesh consisting; begotten before the ages of the Father according to His divinity, and in the last days, for us and for our salvation, [was born] of the Virgin Mary according to His humanity; that He is consubstantial with the Father according to divinity and consubstantial with us according to humanity, for in Him there is a perfect unity of two natures. [emphasis mine]”

The Early Church Fathers believed that Christ was consubstantial, or one in essence, with us as well as the Father.  In fact, this understanding was central to the Church’s soteriology, the belief being that it was through becoming consubstantial with humanity in the incarnation that Christ redeemed the human nature, uniting it to God through His Person.

So this leads to the question, if Christ is one in essence with humanity as man in the same way that He is one in essence with the Father and the Holy Spirit as God, how are we to understand this oneness in essence?  How is Christ “one with humanity” in essence?  We can say for sure that He is not one with us by being an “expression” of humanity or by being a “personality” of humanity.  Our human experience shows us otherwise.  The simple answer is that He is one with us because He shares our human nature.  You, me, Christ, and all the rest of us are human.  We each share in the oneness of human nature or essence, but we still remain separate persons within the human species.

This is how we are to understand the Oneness of the Holy Trinity.  Each of the Persons of the Trinity are separate individuals.  There exists a Father, and a Son, and a Holy Spirit.  However, each of the members of the Holy Trinity are God, and they are united in essence by each of them being fully God.  Christ is unique among the members of the Holy Trinity in that He became one with humanity in the incarnation – becoming one in essence with us.  However, He did not lose any of His God Nature in this process.  He still remains fully God.

One thing to bear in mind is that the fall caused an unnatural division in the human nature.  As a result, our oneness in essence is broken.  Part of Christ’s mission to save humanity was to heal this brokenness by recapitulating our nature, bringing it back into Communion with God.  However, the Oneness of the Holy Trinity is perfect.  It has never suffered a fall and, as a result, the unity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit transcends our understanding in a rather profound and significant manner.

Surprisingly, when I have shared this understanding with Mormons, I have often found them to have no issues with it.  When they are able to see that holding the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to be one in essence does not do away with them being separate Persons, their points of disagreement seem to fade into the background.  Don’t get me wrong, there are still several points of disagreement between Mormon and Orthodox Theology, and those points are quite significant and profound.  However, this particular point may be one that is more a product of misunderstanding than true substance (no pun intended 🙂  ).

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