Our second session asked ‘Who is God?’ and our third asked ‘Who am I?’ Metropolitan Kallistos says the answer to both questions is to be found in Jesus Christ, perfect God, perfect man. But why did Jesus have to come to us?
Metropolitan Kallistos suggests three reasons for this. First, Jesus is ‘conceived of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary’ because, though He is man He is not only man: He is within history but also beyond history. Second, His birth is due to a divine initiative: it is the direct work of God. Third, the person of Christ is not a new person, as we are when born in the normal human way: He is no other than the Second Person of the Trinity.
The plainest and simplest answer to the question ‘Why did Jesus come to us?’ is found in one word – ‘Love’. It is expressed in one of the most famous sentences in the whole of the world’s literature: ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life’ (John 3:16). In the Orthodox Divine Liturgy, when we remember the loving sacrifice of Jesus Christ, God is described as ‘the lover of mankind’.
After two thousand years, one still struggles to find adequate words to express the depths and heights of that love. Saul of Tarsus, who led the persecution of the early Christians, encountered that love on his journey to Damascus, and it transformed his life. Later he urged others to discover this love, praying in the words of one of his letters, ‘that you ... may have power to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge’ (Ephesians 3:18-19).
Some of the early Church teachers, such as St Isaac the Syrian and St Maximus the Confessor, taught that His love for us was so great that He would have wanted to share our humanity even if we had never sinned. St Isaac referred to the coming of Christ as ‘the most blessed and joyful thing that could possibly have happened to the human race’.
To answer the question ‘Why?’ may be comparatively simple, but the ‘How?’ is more complex. The answer to this question takes us to the heart of the Christian message. Since man could not come to God, God came to man. Jesus Christ healed and restored our disgraced humanity, by taking the whole of it upon Himself.
When some of these basic truths were being challenged in the Church, the newly converted Roman Emperor Constantine called a Council of bishops at Nicaea, a city in what is now Turkey. From that gathering emerged what became known as the Nicene Creed. It is still today the clearest and most authoritative statement of these central truths that define true Christianity:
So we see that Christ is declared to be one of the Trinity, yet at the same time one of us – He is God, yet also our brother.
This truth is beautifully expressed in an Orthodox hymn for Christmas Eve:
St Basil once described Christ’s birth as ‘the birthday of the whole human race’.
After the Council of Nicaea, there followed six others, and they have come to be known as ‘the Seven Ecumenical (meaning universal) Councils’. The first two centred more on the doctrine of the Trinity. The second, held in Constantinople, completed the work on the Nicene Creed. But the last five centred on what we call ‘the Incarnation’, God coming down from heaven and taking human flesh.
We can now begin to see more clearly why all this was central to the faith of the Church:
How did Jesus come to be fully human and fully God? To answer that question we must ask another question:
In the New Testament Mary was unambiguously stated to be a virgin when Jesus Christ was conceived in her womb. We see this in Matthew’s Gospel. ‘Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit’ (1:18). When Joseph decided to separate from her quietly, an angel appeared and spoke to him – telling him not to do this ‘for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit’ (Matthew 1:20).
It is put beautifully in the service which commemorates this historic moment:
As the Son of God – Christ had no mother
As the Son of Man – He had no father
But His birth was a real human birth.
Mary is the Mother of God. St Cyril of Alexandria said of those who would not give her this title that they ‘are denying Christ is really God and Son’. Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox do not believe in the immaculate conception of Mary. This is the view that from the first moment of her conception, Mary was kept free from all stain of original sin. We believe, on the other hand, that she shared in the imperfect condition of being human, but actually never sinned. She is, according to our Church teaching, ‘spotless’, ‘all holy’ and ‘altogether without sin’. In the Eucharist of St Basil, she is declared to be ‘the joy of all creation’. The Russian theologian Alexander Schmemann said of her: ‘She is the affirmation of the ultimate destiny of all creation: that God may finally be all in all, may fill all things with Himself ’.
Again, it is put beautifully in a Christmas hymn:
Christ was a real person, who came at a real point in time – but so special that our calendar has been divided into the period before his birth (called BC), and the period after He had been born AD – (anno domini) -- which in English means ‘the year of the Lord’). He came as the Messiah, and fulfilled over three hundred prophecies of the Old Testament.
‘And they went into Capernaum; and immediately on the Sabbath he entered into the synagogue and taught. And they were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes. And immediately there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit; and he cried out “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. And they were all amazed, so that they questioned among themselves, saying “What is this? A new teaching! With authority he commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey Him.” And at once his fame spread everywhere throughout all the surrounding region of Galilee.’ (Mark 1: 21-28)
We have seen how God is described in the Orthodox Liturgy as the ‘lover of mankind’. During the three years of his public ministry Jesus Christ demonstrated this over and over again. First by the people He chose to help – prostitutes, tax collectors, lepers, Gentiles, Samaritans, and widows such as the widow of Nain, whose only son He raised from the dead. The text (Luke 7:11-15) declares that Jesus had compassion on her. And He felt so deeply about the death of his close friend Lazarus that we are told ‘Jesus wept’ (John 11:35).
And Jesus exercised enormous power both in his speaking and in his miracles. He raised three people from the dead, including Lazarus who had been a long time in the tomb. He healed lepers, paraplegics, the blind, the deaf and the dumb. Power was never allowed to exercise its well known corrupting influence. He often asked those who benefited to tell no one about what He had done. In the end his loving ministry to people in need cost Him his life. His enemies could not accept the enormous influence He had. Christ is truly our example. He has shown us how to live as humans.
The Orthodox Church does not separate, as some do, the life of Christ from his death and resurrection. She joins them together and sees a glorious harmony in that unity. We may ask the question: ‘Was Christ’s life enough to save mankind?’ In a perfect world the answer would be ‘Yes’. But in our imperfect world a sacrificial act was necessary. Christ died for the world’s sins, yours and mine. The life of Christ being fully human was to end in death. A violent, self-centred and unjust world chose to end that life through the cruelty of crucifixion. It was St Gregory of Nazianzus who once wrote, ‘The unassumed is the unhealed’. And Christ assumed not only human life, but human death, thus conquering death and restoring to man eternal life.
It is easy to grasp the physical sufferings of Christ, as, for example, emphasized by the film The Passion of Christ, but we must also remember his spiritual sufferings, part of his total humanity, such as those He suffered in Gethsemane. ‘“My Father, if it is possible”’, He prayed, ‘“let this cup pass from me”’ (Matthew 26: 39). Metropolitan Anthony of Kiev insisted that the central message of the death of Christ is found in Gethsemane as well as Calvary. Christ suffered spiritual as well as physical death. He felt abandoned by men and by God. He endured a sense of failure, of utter loneliness and isolation. On the Cross, Christ cried those mysterious and deeply moving words: ‘“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”’ (Matthew 27: 46). So Christ is our companion through every aspect of death, even in those moments when we feel that God has forsaken us.
According to the Apostle’s Creed, Christ also ‘descended into hell’, not only to preach to the departed, but to share yet again in our humanity. As Metropolitan Kallistos says, ‘In the place where God is not ... He descended into the depth of the absence of God’. All this is beautifully summed up in the prayer said at the placing of the gifts at the altar during the Divine Liturgy, in the Slavonic and some other usages: ‘In the grave bodily, in hell in the spirit, as God in paradise with the thief, yet on the throne of heaven with the Father and the Holy Spirit were You, O Christ, the unbounded, filling all things.’
It is important for us to see Christ’s death on the Cross as a great victory, which we can celebrate to the full. We began this talk with the theme of the love of God – so we can see the Cross as the victory of the love of God over the bitter fruits of human sin and failure. St John tells us that Christ loved his disciples ‘to the end’ (John 13:1). The cry of Christ on the Cross ‘It is finished’ was not a cry of despair, as it can so easily be with us, but a cry of victory. The whole destiny of the human race was irrevocably changed. In the words which Dostoevsky put into the mouth of the Staretz Zosima, ‘Loving humility is a terrible force; it is the strongest of all things, and there is nothing else like it’. The St Basil Liturgy refers to it as ‘Christ’s life-creating death’.
Christ’s death – totally human as his birth was – could never have been the end, for Christ is also fully divine. The Church will forever cry until Christ returns in his glory, ‘Christ is Risen!’ At the midnight Paschal (Easter) service it is the tradition to read the sermon of St John Chrysostom which includes the words of comfort: ‘Let no one fear death, for the Saviour’s death has set us free’, and the joyful acclamation: ‘Christ is risen and the demons have fallen! Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice!’
We need to declare clearly and boldly that Christ’s resurrection was bodily, not just the spiritual experience of the disciples, as some liberal Protestants now teach. The tomb of Christ was empty, and the women who came to embalm his body were unable to do so, because the body was no longer there, for Christ had risen from the dead. Instead the women were filled with awe and unspeakable joy.
The Romanian theologian Father Dumitru Staniloae describes Pascha as ‘the centre of Orthodox worship, an explosion of cosmic joy at the triumph of life ... all things are now filled with the certainty of life’.
A Soviet religious prisoner in a Russian Gulag described Pascha as a time when the prison guards deliberately made life much more difficult for them. But, he wrote, ‘Pascha was there; great, holy, spiritual, unforgettable. It was blessed by the presence of our risen God among us. How our hearts beat joyfully in communion with the great Resurrection. Death is conquered, fear no more, an eternal Pascha is given to us ... Christ is risen!’
The resurrection of Christ was the turning-point of human history. It was to be followed forty days later by the ascension of the glorified body of Christ into heaven. The Church awaits now the triumphant return of Christ, what is sometimes called his ‘second coming’. The Church has always been hesitant to specify God’s timetable; for Christ himself said, ‘It is not for you to know the times or the seasons’(Acts 1:7), while at the same time strongly affirming that He will come again. This time the whole world will witness it, and will appear before the judgement seat of Christ. The lawyer Lord Hailsham, once said: ‘In that day I will plead guilty, and cast myself on the mercy of the court’.
Many believe in the false notion called the ‘idea of progress’ – that the world, albeit with a few setbacks, is getting better all the time – and that without the help of God. Christ and his Apostles are more realistic. They speak of natural disasters – is global warming one of these? – of wars and rumours of wars, and of apostasy on a frightening scale, as well as the spectre of the Antichrist. Then, Christ said, the end will come.
Some find the whole idea of God difficult and confusing. In an interview in the Times the well-known atheist Jonathan Miller, whom some regard as the fifth brainiest person in Britain, declared: ‘I haven’t the faintest idea how our minds are created by our brains, but I don’t think there is anything at work here except our brains’. Later he was to concede ‘But I might not know everything’. A recent book speaks of a ‘missing God, who is not missed’. But as one of the Church Fathers reminds us, just because we close our eyes, it doesn’t mean there is no light.
And what about the devious and destructive ways of people – their acts of violence, perversity and cruelty? What about the death-camps and massacres, the Belsens and Beslans of this world? Hugo Gryn was a Jewish rabbi who as a young boy survived Auschwitz. He was once asked ‘Where was God in Auschwitz?’ He replied, ‘I believe God was there Himself, violated and blasphemed. The real question is “Where was man in Auschwitz?”’
The plain truth of the matter is that we all need to be saved. Paul puts it simply: ‘All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ (Romans 3:23). Christ said that his purpose in coming was ‘to seek and to save the lost’ (Luke 19:10). We all can remember examples, even in the last few days, when we have got lost. We have taken a wrong turning, or got on the wrong train, or got off at the wrong station. Some people seem to know instinctively when they are lost, and look immediately for someone to help them. There are others (and we can all think of them) who have an infuriating way of refusing to admit they are ever lost. Everyone on this earth is on the human pathway; but some know they are lost. Hopefully, they will find Christ who is ‘the Way’ as well as the Truth and the Life. He is not only with us on the Way, guiding and encouraging us: He is the Way.
When a study was carried out in Islington in 1988, the question was asked, ‘Do you believe in God?’ ‘Yes’ was the reply. The next question was: ‘Do you believe in a God who can change the course of events on earth?’. ‘No’, came the answer, ‘– Just the ordinary kind’. J. B. Phillips, an Anglican priest, once wrote a book with the title Your God is Too Small. What we in fact see is God, who in Christ changed forever the whole course of history, and so through time has changed and powerfully motivated billions of people of all races and cultures, who have become his followers.
Jesus came to heal and restore all creation. He did not come to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved (cf. John 3:17). According to Metropolitan Kallistos, salvation can best be summed up as sharing, as God’s solidarity and identification with man: ‘Sharing is the key alike to the doctrine of God in Trinity and to the doctrine of God made man.’ Salvation means healing. As we share in Christ’s life we are healed. In the Liturgy the priest prays that our participation in the mysteries may be to the healing of the soul and body.
We see this clearly when we look at the icon of Christ’s Resurrection, when we see Adam and Eve being raised by Christ.
We see first that the focus is on the glory, light and power of the risen Christ, who stands on the gates of hell which have been broken down by Him. These gates had held as prisoners Adam and Eve, the father and mother of the human race. They now look away from selfish concern with themselves towards the glory of Christ their Saviour.
The icon also shows that the initiative comes from the Son of God – He moves towards them, rather than they towards Him. Christ reaches out his hands to pull us from death, from our weaknesses and our blindness to our human limitations – into his light, life and love. As St Paul put it ‘If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come’ (2 Corinthians 5:17).
Christ said ‘Apart from me you can do nothing’ (John 15:5). But without our human cooperation God will do nothing. God has given us freewill, and never forces his way into our lives. St Gregory of Nazianzus wrote, ‘There is need both of that which lies in our own power and of the salvation granted by God’. But what God does is incomparably greater than what we do. This is what it means to be made in the image of God. God is free, and so are we, free. To enter into the salvation God offers requires our faith and commitment. And faith is not only believing about Jesus – it means believing in Jesus. We need to relate directly with Him.
Faith is not easy and God does not condemn us when doubt comes to us as a temptation. We need to resist such a temptation. In the Gospels, Thomas stayed with the other disciples even though he could not believe their accounts of Jesus’ Resurrection (John 20: 24-29). Jesus appeared to those same disciples and strengthened Thomas’ faith. The father of the boy who had demons prayed, ‘I believe, help my unbelief ’ (Mark 9:24), and he was heard by Jesus. If we have questions, we cannot do better than to look at the example of the Mother of God.
In the Gospels we read that when the angel gave her the message, she asked ‘How can these things be?’ She had questions, but she also had faith, and acted on it.
And faith needs to be accompanied by a change in direction. The Greek word for ‘repentance’ is metanoia. It means a complete about-turn, so we point in a new direction. Although we are all created in the image of God, that image needs to be restored. The process begins at our baptism when we are buried with Christ in the water, and raised to new life and given the Holy Spirit to change us into the likeness of Christ. But we need personally to respond to this.
One of the clearest examples of this is the story of the two thieves who were crucified with Christ. One thief cursed Christ, but the other repented and asked for mercy. The socalled Karella is a cross which is often to be seen in Russian Orthodox Churches and worn by the Russian Orthodox priests and people.
According to Russian Orthodox, one bar at the bottom of the cross slopes upwards, and signifies the thief who believed; the other slopes downwards, and signifies the thief who rejected Christ. One question that is sometimes asked, is whether all will eventually be saved. In the Paschal Liturgy we sing ‘All is filled with light; heaven, the earth, hell’. We cannot, however, say all will be saved, as with freewill it is possible to continue to reject God’s grace. The fire of God’s love that brings light and joy to those who accept it brings pain to those who reject it. Bishop Kallistos comments: ‘God’s ultimate plans for his creation remain a mystery ... but at heart we know two things. First, God has given us freewill. And secondly, divine love is inexhaustible. Beyond this we cannot go. But, obedient to the words of St Silouan the Athonite (1866-1938), “we must pray for all”.’
Some Christians speak of people being ‘saved’ or ‘born again’, as if it happens in the twinkling of an eye – at a moment in time, and it then remains permanently. There may be a crisis which brings someone to faith, as was the case with Paul on the Damascus Road. In our times, Metropolitan Anthony tells a similar story about his past. He was convinced that there was no God. To settle the matter once and for all he began to read St Mark’s Gospel. Then something happened. ‘While I was reading ... I suddenly became aware that on the other side of my desk there was a presence. And the certainty was so strong that it was Christ standing there that it has never left me.’ However, salvation is always a process – past, present and future. In one sense we have been saved by Christ, in another we are being saved, and in another we shall be saved. In other words our salvation which begins with our baptism, and can be enhanced by a special experience, is not one single event in our past but a process continuing until death.
Not only is salvation a process, but we take the journey together – with our brothers and sisters in Christ. We are all travelling together. Bishop Kallistos observes that ‘The appointed means to salvation is always in and through the community of the Church’. The Russian philosopher Alexis Khomiakov (1804-60) reminds us: ‘No one is saved alone. He is saved in the Church, as a member of her and in unity with all the other members’.
This is most profoundly expressed in the Divine Liturgy, which St Ignatius of Antioch called ‘the medicine of immortality’. The partaking of the Divine Body in the Liturgy makes us ‘partakers of the divine nature’, as we read in 2 Peter 1:4. This wonderful, though sometimes painful, process is called ‘Theosis’ or ‘Deification’. It is summarized in the words of St John: ‘Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is’(1 John 3:2). Or as St Athanasius famously said in his book On the Incarnation, God became human so that we may become God, a view that is echoed in the Canon for the Mattins of the Holy Thursday: ‘In thy Kingdom, thou hast said, O Christ ... “I shall be with you as God among gods”’.
Jesus came to bring the whole creation back to the perfection of the original creation. In Genesis 1:31 we read that ‘God saw everything that He had made, and behold, it was very good’. In the Vigil service of the Nativity we sing ‘Heaven and Earth are united today, for Christ is born. Today has God come upon earth and man gone up to heaven’. This dramatic change-over is called ‘salvation’, and it is lived out a day at a time. So let us gladly echo the words of St Paul, ‘I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me’(Galatians 2:20).
We all have periods of discouragement when we feel we are far from the call in Galatians 2:20. However, because Jesus has come to us, and as Paul assures the Philippians (Philippians 3:12), Jesus Christ has made us His own; therefore we can get up again and echo Paul’s resolve: ‘Forgetting what lies behind, I press on toward the upward call of God in Christ Jesus’ (Philippians 3:13-14).
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