OUR CROSS AND THE CROSS OF CHRIST
Homily for the Sunday of the Veneration of the Cross
Throughout the Sundays of the Great Lent and its preparatory period, the Church teaches us the different aspects of Orthodoxy which we must incorporate into our lives, in order for the Triumph of Orthodoxy to take place not only in a historical sense, but also in the life of each one of us personally.
Thus, for example, the Church teaches us humility (Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee), repentance (Sunday of the Prodigal Son), the fear of God (Sunday of the Last Judgment), inner prayer, which is the highest form of communion with God (the 2nd Sunday of Lent).
The 3rd Sunday of the Great Lent is dedicated to yet another very important aspect of Orthodoxy in our lives – the bearing of one’s cross. And, as the supreme example of the bearing of one’s cross, – the Cross of our Saviour lies before us that entire week.
Why is it so important and so necessary for every Orthodox Christian to carry in his life a cross – that is, the totality of sorrows and suffering which Divine Providence sends to each one of us? The answer is quite simple: because without a personal cross there is no personal salvation, just as without the Lord’s Cross, without His crucifixion and suffering, there would be no salvation for mankind. By carrying His Cross, our Lord Jesus Christ opened the gates of paradise to us, while each one of us must carry his or her cross in order to enter these gates.
After our forebears Adam and Eve fell into sin and were expelled from paradise, the earth became a vale of tears and suffering. Thus, living on earth in exile, we must well remember that there is no happiness on earth, and that all the futile attempts by philosophers, thinkers, sociologists, and other human minds to find happiness on earth have been simply the pursuit of a mirage. Happiness can be found only in the Heavenly Kingdom, where there is eternal rapture.
On earth we see only glimmers of happiness, which show us what we have lost and what we must seek. For example, we find happiness in charity, when the divine trait of mercy fills our soul with joy. We find happiness in friendship, when the divine trait of love joins our soul with the souls of others. We find happiness in marriage, when our church union follows the example of the union of Christ and His Church. Finally, we find happiness in communion with God through prayer, church services, and the sacraments.
But all these feelings of happiness and joy are only shadows of true happiness in heaven. Eons ago this true happiness was given to Adam and Eve directly, but they lost it, and now we, their descendants, must earn this happiness by bearing our personal cross.
However, we must remember that it is not enough just to carry our cross, that is, endure the sorrows and suffering that are sent to us. Saint Ignaty Bryanchaninov tells us that simply bearing a cross does not yet make it a means of salvation for us. Our personal cross helps us attain salvation only when we turn our cross into the cross of Christ. And how do we do that? The answer is again simple: we must bear our cross in the same manner in which Christ bore His.
Let us consider the distinguishing characteristics of the Cross of Christ, and let us try to incorporate them into our own life, into our own cross. First of all, there is complete obedience to the will of God. Our Lord Jesus Christ, being God, could have saved us in any other way, but the will of God chose that which was the most horrifying in human sin, the most tormentful and cruel, in order to expiate sin completely, and the Son of God showed absolute obedience to His Father, again in order to fully expiate the disobedience of our forefathers and their violation of God’s will. Thus we, too, must obediently accept all the sorrows which God sends us, and must firmly believe that it is these very sorrows, and none other, that will lead us into the Heavenly Realm.
Secondly, the Lord Jesus Christ exhibited absolute patience. He suffered terribly and at great length, yet He expressly drank to the last bitter drop the full cup of torment, and endured it patiently and meekly. So should we bear our sorrows patiently and meekly, in the belief that the Lord will never give us more than we can bear. And if we thus endure, we will even witness a miracle within ourselves: just as the Lord invisibly gave strength to the martyrs, who could never have been able to endure on their own the great torments to which they were subjected, so will the Lord, seeing our effort, give strength to us and will even lighten our cross considerably, in accordance with His own words: for My yoke is easy and My burden is light.
And thirdly, the Lord bore His cross with joy: joy at seeing the ancient enemy – Satan – being vanquished; joy at seeing mankind liberated from captivity; joy at seeing man – the crown of God’s creation – once again entering the place of bliss that had been prepared for him. Let us, too, each one of us, carry his cross with joy: joy, because in this cross is revealed God’s love for us; joy, because this cross affiliates us to God; joy, because this cross opens for us the way into paradise.
We venerate Thy Cross, O Master, and we glorify Thy Resurrection!
ANNUNCIATION OF THE HOLY VIRGIN
The time came for the appearance of Christ the Saviour in the world. There were no more princes of Judah left, and the throne of David was occupied by Herod, an Idumean. The decades foretold by Daniel, which indicated the exact time when Christ was to be born, had come to pass. The promise of a Saviour was safeguarded not only among the chosen people, but the pagans also eagerly awaited the arrival of a great messenger from heaven. This was like the early dawn, when the sun had not yet risen, but its glimmering was already dispersing the darkness.
The glorious event of the Annunciation, as described by the holy Evangelist Luke, mentions only its high points. It is very unlikely that the holy Archangel Gabriel appeared and said only the few words reported to us by St. Luke. The Evangelist mentions the most important points, as the entire Gospel generally speaks only of the most important things, because it is said there that if one were to write down all that the Lord Jesus Christ said and did, the whole world could not contain such a vast number of books.
However, the tradition of the Holy Church, together with the writings of the Holy Fathers, have provided us with some additional details of this great event.
In the Holy Land, in the city of Nazareth, there is a certain well to which the Holy Virgin used to go when She was still a young maiden, to draw water as was customary in those times. It is here, at this well, that She once heard a voice saying: “Thou shalt give birth to My Son.” She alone heard this voice. Who said those words? Obviously they were spoken by the One Whose Son was to be born from Her, i.e. by God the Father Himself. And although the words were for Her alone, whenever creation hears the voice of its Creator and Master, it trembles. And thus Her virginal and pure soul began to tremble. In trembling and fear She returned home, and in order to somehow calm Her soul She engaged in Her favorite pastime – the reading of the Holy Scriptures. However, when She opened the book and began to read, She came upon the passage in Prophet Isaiah which speaks of the Saviour being born of a Virgin. But so profound was Her divine and fragrant modesty, that despite the words She had heard at the well She never thought of applying this prophecy to Herself, but after having read of the Saviour’s birth from a Virgin She thought very simply: “How happy I would be to be even the lowest servant of this Most-blessed Virgin!” And at this point the Archangel Gabriel appeared before Her, and She heard his words: “Hail, Thou that art highly favored, the Lord is with Thee: blessed art Thou among women!” We know from Her life that the appearance of an angel was nothing new for Her. Angels had appeared to Her many times before while She was living at the temple, but the words which She heard this time disconcerted Her. She started pondering what such a greeting could mean. And She heard the Archangel continue speaking to Her: “Fear not, Mary, for Thou hast found favor with God. Thou shalt bring forth a Son, and shalt call His name Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest, and of His kingdom there shall be no end.”
The church service for this feast has retained the touching tradition that the Archangel’s words were more detailed, and that seeing Her agitation the holy Archangel Gabriel said to the Virgin: “Why dost Thou fear me, Why dost Thou tremble before me, O Mistress, before Whom I myself tremble… I myself stand before Thee in pious awe!”
The Most-holy Virgin believed the Archangel’s words and therefore did not demand any signs from him, as had the high priest Zacharias when he was told of the forthcoming birth of his son (St. John the Baptist). But Her invariable love of chastity encouraged Her to ask the Archangel: “How shall this be, seeing that I know not a man?”
In order to understand this question correctly, one must know that Mary had previously given the promise to remain virginal all Her life, for if She were not bound by such a promise, and was engaged to a man, what reason would She have to question the possibility of bearing a son? But when the Archangel said to Her: “The Holy Spirit shall come upon Thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow Thee,” She understood that this would be a supernatural birth, and quieting down, She said those wondrous words which St. Philaret of Moscow called “glad tidings from earth to heaven”!
The feast of the Annunciation combines two concepts which are incompatible in earthly terms: glad tidings from heaven to earth and reciprocal glad tidings from earth to heaven through the Holy Virgin’s humility. She replied: “Behold the handmaiden of the Lord; be it unto Me according to thy word,” i.e. I am the Lord’s handmaiden, and a handmaiden does not question the Master’s actions, but only submits to His will and follows it.
Humility, total obedience, and complete loyalty to God’s will – such was required in order to achieve total salvation of fallen mankind.
Let this be a lesson to all of us for all time: the humility of the Most-holy Virgin, which at first impeded Her acceptance of the tidings that She would become the Mother of God, and Her obedience to God, which led Her to aver that She was the Lord’s handmaiden and would accept all that would happen to Her in accordance with the tidings of the heavenly messenger. Amen.
Our Lord Jesus Christ often went to Jerusalem, but never did He enter it with such glory as after the resurrection of Lazarus, which is commemorated prior to His passion. Until this time He specifically shunned all honors and firmly forbad His disciples to spread the word among the people that He was the long-awaited Christ the Messiah, king of Israel; now, however, He lovingly accepts royal honors from the people and triumphantly enters into Jerusalem.
Why did He not shun the honors this time, but for greater ceremony allowed Himself to be mounted upon an ass? According to the holy Church Fathers, it is because the time had come to reveal openly and publicly that He was the genuine promised Messiah, so that when the Jews rejected Him, they would not be able to justify themselves on the grounds that He had not revealed Himself to them as Christ, son of David.
Why did He mount an ass which had not yet been ridden by anyone, i.e. was untamed? This is because in the East the ass was a symbol of peace, and kings rode on them in times of peace. And the fact that it was untamed signified that Christ will rule not only over the Old Testament people, but also over people not yet enlightened by belief in the One True God.
Thus, with His triumphant entry into the holy city of Jerusalem, the Lord Jesus Christ terminated His public service to the chosen people and intimated His rule over all people. The preaching of the humble Christ ended, and the reign of Christ the King began.
At vespers for Lazarus Saturday we heard a touching canticle: “Having accomplished the 40 days beneficial to our soul, let us ask to witness also the holy week of Thy Passion, O Lover of mankind…,” i.e. the Great Lent, which symbolized Christ’s teaching of salvation through repentance, is now over, and His preaching of the Heavenly Kingdom, whose loss we commemorated on Cheesefare Sunday, – likewise. During the Great Lent we repented, we ascended a spiritual ladder, seeing before us examples of great sinners (St. Mary of Egypt) and great saints (St. John of the Ladder, St. Gregory Palamas). And now we have finished the labor of the holy 40 days and are faced with the path of “the holy week of Thy Passion.”
The entire life of an Orthodox Christian believer, at the center of which stands the Church, is full of symbols and images. The ecclesiastical year begins with the creation of the world and ends with the image of the Heavenly Kingdom, i.e. the Eternal Pascha. The daily services, ending with the Divine Liturgy, symbolize in miniature the same as the entire ecclesiastical year. Each separate service contains elements of the Old and the New Testaments. For example: the proskomedia represents the Nativity of Christ; the midnight service represents Christ’s coming at midnight, i.e. the Last Judgment; the Great Entrance at the Liturgy represents Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, etc. Thus both the Great Lent and the Lord’s entry, which we now commemorate, follow a strict chronological sequence.
And what lesson does this teach us?
Just as the majority of the chosen people, by refusing to accept Christ as the Messiah, became God’s adversaries, so we, too, can find ourselves in the same category, if our spiritual life at the end of the Great Lent remains the same as it was before. And, as though demonstrating the consequence of opposing God, we move into Passion Week, which commemorates how Christ was killed by the God-opposing people, who thus became not only God-opposing, but God-murdering.
As though averting us of this danger, on Palm Sunday the Church gives us palms, or in our tradition – pussy willows. Our festive palms serve as an expression of our faith in Christ. However, we should remember that the palms which we now take into our hands will soon dry up. We should bear in mind the source of their freshness: each branch lives on the nourishment it receives from the root, and if it is torn away from the root – it withers. This well-known circumstance in the world of nature is an image of our soul and its life. The root of our spiritual life is our faith in Christ, the Son of God. This faith should be alive and active, and not like the one possessed by the formerly chosen and later God-murdering people of Israel. Even they had some kind of faith when they shouted: “Hosanna to the son of David!”; however, only four days later they cried: “Crucify Him, crucify Him!” Even the devil has faith, but no deeds to go along with it!
Thus, if faith has motivated us to hold these palms in our hands, then let us also show the fruits of spirituality in our lives. Seeking and receiving the absolution of sins in the sacrament of confession, let us not hold anger against those who offend us, but let us endure it all. Let us ponder all that took place in the garden of Gethsemane, in Jerusalem, on Golgotha. Let us keep the branches of our spiritual life flowering and fruitful.
“Value virtue and do not be concerned with happiness, – says St. Isidore of Pella, a Church Father. – Happiness quickly vanishes, while virtue is an immortal treasure.”
May the Lord help us all spend Passion Week without squandering the spiritual treasures that we have amassed during the 40 days of Lent, and may we reach with great spiritual joy the great feast of Christ’s Resurrection. Amen.
HOMILY GIVEN BEFORE THE HOLY SHROUD
ON THE HOLY AND GREAT SATURDAY
“Remember me, O Lord, when Thou comest into Thy kingdom!” (Luke 23:42)
Just when everyone renounced the humiliated and crucified Christ, the wise thief turned to Him with this penitent appeal. Just when the sentence of death put an end to the last hope in Him as Saviour on the part of Christ’s closest disciples, he, the wise thief, confessed Him as the Messiah. Just when Christ’s adherents abandoned their last dream of a messianic kingdom, the wise thief asked Christ to remember him in this Kingdom… “Today thou shalt be with Me in paradise,” replied the Divine Sufferer…
Who is this wondrous thief, who preceded everyone and was the first to enter the Kingdom of Christ? Who inspired him with such a living faith in the Crucified Christ? Where did he, a denizen of slums and thieves’ dens, hear words of salvation concerning the grace-filled Kingdom of Christ? What force made him an unparalleled follower of Christ, made him the wise thief? Verily the wise thief’s virtues were great, but great things are never achieved through insignificant means: both his virtues and his paradisiacal reward were acquired at a great cost.
Like Christ, the wise thief hung on a cross, suffering deathly torment, and in this terrible state he forgets himself and expresses the greatest reverence towards Christ. This patient endurance of suffering revealed in full force the godlike nature of the wise thief’s soul and immediately redeemed all the sins of his iniquitous life. This truly Christ-like endurance was his first great virtue…
“And we are condemned justly, for we have received the due reward of our deeds, but He hath done nothing amiss” (Luke 23:41). The wise thief does not ask for deliverance or miraculous help, as had demanded the iniquitous thief: “If Thou be Christ, save Thyself and us.” In his prayer of repentance he dares to ask for only one favor, only a single grain of mercy. “Remember”… only remember in Thy Kingdom that I, who have been justly condemned to eternal damnation, have also hung on this Golgotha; for me this will be great mercy and comfort. What depth of feeling and tenderness in this prayer of repentance! How brief and simple is this prayer! “Remember me, O Lord”… Only “remember”… How many millions of human hearts have been moved by this prayer for nearly twenty centuries; the prayer issued from such depths of humility and suffering that every Christian cannot but respond to it, cannot refrain from crossing himself, sighing softly and repenting inwardly. Humble obedience to Divine Truth – such was the second great virtue of the wise thief.
The wise thief presented to the entire world the amazing proof of how a man can fall into the depths of sin and iniquity and still retain the spark of a godlike nature; he showed that it was worth dying for such humanity, and that the distance between the abyss of human depravity and the height of divine grace is not too great or impassable: one decisive moment, one sigh of repentance, and salvation occurred, the wise thief became the first inheritor of the Kingdom of God. Thus the third virtue of the wise thief – a humble entreaty to be remembered – leads him into the Kingdom of God.
Wondrous is the conversion of the wife thief, but even more wondrous is divine forgiveness – Christ’s reply to the wise thief: “Today thou shalt be with Me in paradise.” The doors into the new and most holy Kingdom of God are opening, and the justly-condemned thief is being led into this Kingdom; to him Christ grants His last favor on earth and the first reward in heaven.
Let us, too, take these three decisive steps towards salvation: patient endurance of suffering, the realization of our guilt, and a humble prayer for mercy and forgiveness. Let us turn our eyes and hearts to Him, the Great Giver of absolution, and as we venerate the image of Christ our Saviour lying in the tomb, let us humbly purify our conscience, saying this prayer of repentance: “Remember me, O Lord, when Thou comest into Thy Kingdom.”
THE RESURRECTION OF CHRIST
“Christ is risen from the dead, trampling death with death”
The onerous times of the triumph of evil and darkness have ended, and the Sun of Resurrection has shone forth. And Christ’s disciples, frightened, having fled on the terrible day of the Crucifixion, are now hearing with embarrassment and awe the first tidings of what had seemed impossible – that the Lord has arisen from the sepulcher.
The torture, the persecution, the martyric death – all were still to come for the apostles. But never again would they experience the despair and the terror that had taken possession of their souls in the night of Christ’s Crucifixion. For all despair, all torment, even death itself are illuminated and vanquished by the light of Christ’s Resurrection.
And in our times, which are perhaps the most agonizing of all times, amid our own sorrow and suffering the light of Christ shines just as brightly. The light of paschal joy. And every Christian can light up his soul with this joy in the holy night of Pascha, in order to have it illuminate his entire life.
“Christ reigns forever!” – cried out the Christian martyrs as they went off to their martyrdom, to their death. And amid the evil, amid the darkness, amid the agonies of the modern world, on the eve of Pascha the holy Church triumphantly proclaims: “Arise, O God, for Thou reignest forever!” And we all repeat these words together with the whole Church.
For our victory has vanquished the world, for Christ our God has arisen as a Conqueror!
Hieromonk Methody, “Before the eyes of God’s truth”)
(Reprinted from “Orthodox Russia, No. 2, 2008)
On fasting and abstinence
Christian teaching was always devoid of reverie. This is where it differs from diverse Utopian theories, in that it clearly differentiates between the ideal and reality and, while indicating to human aspirations that their finite objective is the ideal, at the same time it never loses sight of reality. Until the present life is replaced by a new eternal life, until a new heaven and a new earth, in which lives truth (2 Peter 3:13), are revealed to mankind, until that time there will always be indigence, poverty, sorrow, and illness. And since the root of all these disasters lies much deeper than thought by vegetarians and other similar dreamers, the means which they indicate cannot heal evil by itself: it is too poor, superficial, and insignificant. It is true that abstinence in general, and from the eating of meat products in particular, restrains our passions and carnal desires, endows our spirit with greater lightness, and helps it become liberated from dominance by the flesh and to subject the flesh to the spirit's domination and control. However, it would be erroneous to regard this abstinence of the flesh as the foundation of morality, to construe all the high moral qualities from it, and to think together with the vegetarians that “a vegetable diet creates many virtues of its own accord.” The bodily fast serves only as a means and an aid for acquiring the virtues of purity and chastity, and must necessarily be joined with a spiritual fast – with abstinence from passions and vices, with withdrawal from bad thoughts and evil actions. For without this the bodily fast by itself is insufficient for salvation. It is not a virtue in itself, nor a necessity in itself. It is kept beneficially for the purpose of acquiring purity of heart and body, so that, having blunted the sting of the flesh, a person can acquire pacification of the spirit. But sometimes the fast can even turn into damnation for the soul, if it is observed in an untimely manner or improperly.
BASIC PRECEPTS OF THE ORTHODOX FAITH
(see beginning here)
V. The Purpose, Original State, and Fall of Man
If the entire sequence of the non-organic and organic world was created in a single moment, so-to-speak, by the Creator’s omnipotent words – let it be! – then the creation of man was distinguished from the creation of all other creatures. Speaking in our limited human language, prior to the creation of man a Council took place within the Holy Trinity: “Let Us make man in Our image, after Our likeness” (Gen. 1:26). The very process of the creation of man took place as follows: (1) out of the dust of the earth God created the body of man; (2) into the body of the first-created man God breathed the breath of life; (3) having indicated man’s supreme purpose – to be the king of nature, i.e. possess the earth and be master over all creatures, God created a helper similar to the first man – a wife.
That the soul is absolutely distinct from the body, already noted by the writer of Genesis, Moses, is also confirmed by numerous testimonies in the Old and New Testament. According to the teaching of the wise Ecclesiastes (12:7): “Then shall the dust return to earth as it was, and the spirit shall return unto God Who gave it.” In a burst of poetic religious ecstasy the psalm-writer David expresses his hope that the Lord will not leave his soul in hell, neither will He suffer His holy one to see corruption (Psalm 16:10). The holy Evangelist Matthew warns us that above all we should fear those who can destroy both our soul and our body in hell (10:28).
Together with clear testimony of the soul’s being entirely distinct from the body, the Holy Writ also describes all the characteristics of the human soul. The soul is not only simple and incorporeal, it is also free. Since man has been given commandments, this means that obedience is required. This means that there may also be disobedience. Moreover, a reward is promised for the fulfillment of commandments. “If thou wishest to enter eternal life, thou must keep the commandments,” – thus replied the Lord to the question posed by the wealthy young man: “What good must I do in order to attain eternal life?” Only in being free may we please God, for God, as an All-holy and All-perfect Being, does not constrain man’s free will. According to the teaching of the Church fathers, without freedom there can be neither religion, nor moral law, nor merit before God.
Man’s soul is immortal. After its separation from the body, the soul returns to God Who had given it to man. “For we know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens,” – says Apostle Paul (2 Cor. 5:1). According to the same Apostle, here on earth we have no continuing city, but we seek one to come (Heb. 13:14).
An Orthodox person must also know what the difference is between the image and the likeness of God in man’s soul.
The Church fathers thus describe the difference: God’s image is given in the very nature of our soul, in its mind, which continuously aspires to the truth, in the freedom of its will, in its immortality and striving towards good, while God’s likeness is in the proper development and improvement of these qualities and powers of man’s soul, in good deeds and holiness. We receive the image of God together with our soul’s being, while the likeness to God we must attain ourselves, having received from God all endowments and full possibility for this. This distinction between the image and the likeness of God is also indicated in the Holy Scripture. Moses says in the Book of Genesis (1:26): “And God said: let Us make man in Our image, after Our likeness,” while in verse 27 of the same chapter he says: “So God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him, male and female created He them.” –“Why is it not said in the second case – and He created them in His image and likeness?” – asks St. Gregory of Nyssa. Did the Father become weak? It is sacrilegious to think so. Did He change the intent of the Council of the Holy Trinity? It is sacrilegious to think so. Nothing is said about the likeness in the second case only because this likeness to God we must attain within us on our own. We have only been given the possibility of being like unto God, but God does not apply force to make people like unto Him, for this goes against the grain of His Divine Holiness and Perfection.
Having elevated man above all earthly creatures, having endowed him with intelligence and freedom, and having adorned him with His image and all the qualities for freely being like unto Him, the Creator assigned man an especially lofty purpose in the universe, to wit:
1. In regard to God, man must maintain fidelity to the covenant or union between God and man, must continuously strive towards his Prototype, and must glorify God in the body and in the spirit, which are God’s (1 Cor. 6:20). Addressing man as a vessel well-endowed for glorifying his Creator, St. Basil the Great says that man has specifically been created to be a worthy instrument of God’s glory. For man the whole world is like a living book, which preaches the glory of God and proclaims to the one who possesses intelligence of the mysterious majesty of the Creator. “It was necessary, – says St. Gregory the Theologian, – that the veneration of God not be limited to only the supreme and heavenly angelic host, but that there should also be some venerators down below, in order that all be filled with the glory of God, because everything is God’s, and it is for this reason that man was created and endowed with God’s image and personal creation.”
2. In regard to himself, man must develop and exercise his moral powers and become more and more like unto his Prototype, as said in the Holy Scriptures: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father Which is in heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:48), glorifying God with his good deeds.
3. In regard to his surrounding environment, man’s assignment is defined by the fact that God created him last, as the king of nature. “In view of his being the king of nature, – says St. Gregory the Theologian, – it was necessary to first create a place of habitation for him, and only then to bring the king into it in the presence of all the creatures.” For such a royal purpose man was created with all requisite qualities. Out of the hands of the Creator he came out good, free, and innocent. The first people, remarks the writer of Genesis, Moses, were both naked and not embarrassed. St. John Damascene explains this height of dispassionateness by the complete balance between the spiritual and the bodily self in the blissful state of the first people.
But no matter how perfect the natural powers of man, he, being a limited creature, did not have life within himself; he required constant fortification from God, and God manifested His special assistance in helping man attain his lofty purpose. The garden planted in Eden (which means delight), fragrant with eternally-blooming flowers, surpassed all idea of supreme beauty. It was truly a Divine country. “Paradise, – says St. John Damascene, – is imagined physically by some and spiritually by others, but I believe that for man, who was a spiritually-physical being, paradise was a holy temple for both his spiritual and physical existence. With his body man inhabited a Divinely-beautiful country, while with his soul the first man resided in an infinitely higher place, where his abode and his bright robe of delight were the rapturous contemplation of God. God Himself conversed with him.” In order for man to exercise his will for good, God gave him His grace, which, according to the Church fathers, served him as a heavenly garment, and by means of it Adam was in contact with God. For continuous sustenance and sanctification of the first-created man’s bodily strength God planted the tree of life. In order to exercise and develop man’s physical powers, God commanded Adam to tend the Garden of Eden, and Himself brought all the animals over to Adam. In order to strengthen man in goodness and obedience, the Lord God commanded man, saying: “Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it; for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” (Gen. 2:16-17).
Why was such a commandment necessary, ask the holy fathers, and in response to this question they offer the following thoughts: man’s freedom becomes strengthened exclusively through acting in compliance with a single concrete rule. Although man’s conscience comprises the entire moral code of law, its fulfillment is possible only when a particular situation presents itself. This engenders the need for positive commandments. Moreover, by freely fulfilling the commandments, man to some degree earned his state of bliss. Obedience to the will of God guarded him from the danger of thinking too highly of himself and falling into the great sin of pride. Of course this commandment seems too trivial. Nevertheless, it expresses the entire moral law of our relation to God and our fellow man. “With this commandment, – says St. John Chrysostome, – God wished to show man His dominion over him. (In regard to nature man is king, but in regard to God he in only an intelligent overseer on earth.) If Adam and Eve had loved the Lord, they would not have transgressed His commandment. If they had loved their fellow man, i.e. each other, they would not have believed in the serpent’s persuasion; they would not have committed suicide by losing their immortality; they would not have committed theft by surreptitiously tasting the forbidden fruit; they would not have become accessories to the devil’s false witness.”
Although the serpent, in whom resided the devil, was the original cause of the forefathers’ sin, the main cause in the fullest sense of the word, however, were the forefathers themselves. Already from the deceitful approach of the serpent, who was controlled by the father of deceit – the devil, – asking Eve: “Is it true that God told you not to eat of any tree in paradise?” – Eve should have realized that some kind of malice was hidden in this and should have turned away from the serpent; but Eve even related God’s commandment to the serpent. And at this point the tempter began lying with even greater arrogance and asserting everything absolutely contrary to what the Lord had said.
Thus Eve fell not out of necessity, but entirely freely, believing the serpent, and after her Adam, abusing his free will, also sinned. Having created man free, the Lord gave him the lightest commandment for exercising himself in goodness and obedience, a commandment expressed with great clarity and protected by a terrible threat in the event of transgression, and also gave him all the means for fulfilling this commandment. This means that the entire fault for the Fall lies with the forefathers themselves.
The importance of the forefathers’ sin lay not in the externals, but in violating the spiritual essence and meaning of the commandment itself, in violating unconditional obedience to God by disobedience. “Obedience, – says Blessed Augustine, – is the mother and guardian of all virtue. With their disobedience the forefathers transgressed the entire moral law.” – “What could be easier than this commandment, given for exercising man’s free will? – asks John Chrysostome. – What disregard the forefather manifested towards this commandment! In place of infinite and continuous gratitude and humility before the Creator, man responded with terrible pride and the greatest ingratitude.” – “Not only is there pride here, – says Blessed Augustine, – because man wished to be in his own power and not God’s, but here was also committed manslaughter, because man freely gave himself over to spiritual and physical death; here there was also adultery of the spirit, for the purity and chastity of the human soul were violated by the serpent’s persuasions; here was also committed the theft of the forbidden fruit; here was also greed, for they desired greater things, being caught on the hook of the devil’s prideful lure – ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.” According to the teaching of the Church father Tertullian, the entire Decalogue was transgressed here – all of God’s ten commandments.
The great sin was accompanied by the great destructive consequences of the Fall. The initial union of God with man was abrogated, the grace of communion with God was lost, and spiritual death occurred. So great was the obfuscation of the mind that the first people even thought to hide from the Omnipresent One. With their loss of innocence and with their newly-revealed tendency towards evil, the first people felt themselves more animal than spiritual beings and wished to hide from themselves as from beasts, in view of the violation of the harmony between their spiritual and physical selves, which they had not noticed previously. By luring the soul into terrible desires, – says Basil the Great, – sin distorted the entire beauty of God’s image in man. Just as a coin, whose stamped image of the king is spoiled, loses also the value of the gold from which it is made, so with the distortion of God’s image within himself man also lost in God’s eyes his former innocence and his special destiny of eternal bliss, immortality, and infinite participation in the Divine glory of the Creator. Having desired to become God, man lost even his quality of being the image of God, says St. Macarius the Great.
The consequences of the Fall were also reflected in the body: illnesses, sorrows, exhaustion, death; and together with expulsion from paradise also came a diminution or loss of power over the animals, who were formerly Adam’s servants and now “the beasts no longer knew him and came to hate him as a stranger” (John Chrysostome). Created for man’s delight and now condemned for man’s sin, the earth also began to act adversely in regard to man’s well-being and tranquility.
Whence did evil appear on earth, when, according to the writer of Genesis, Moses, “God saw everything that He had made and, behold, it was very good” (Gen. 1:31)? Whence came the devil who destroyed the blissful and innocently-happy life of our forefathers?
The sinful fall of our forefathers, replies the holy Orthodox Church, was preceded by a sinful fall in the angelic world. And had there been no fall there, perhaps the sorrowful act of our forefathers’ Fall would never have occurred either.
(To be continued)
LIVES OF THE SAINTS
On April 5th March 23rd by the old calendar) the Church commemorates the holy martyr Lydia.
Saint Lydia, together with her husband, Philetas the Senator, and her two sons, Macedon and Theoprepius, were Christians from the city of Rome and lived during the reign of Emperor Hadrian (A.D. 117-138), a cruel persecutor of Christians. During one such persecution, Saint Lydia and her family members were seized and taken for interrogation by Hadrian. Unable to contradict the holy martyrs’ wise answers to his interrogation, Hadrian sent them to Illyria, to be tried by Amphilochius the Captain. The latter immediately ordered them to be hanged on a tree and their bodies scraped with knives, and afterwards to be thrown into prison. During the night, when the holy martyrs prayed and sang sacred hymns, an angel appeared before them and fortified them for their forthcoming martyrdom.
The next morning the saints were again brought before their persecutor, who threatened them with many tortures. Then he ordered his servants to boil oil and sulphur in a huge copper pot, and to throw the holy martyrs into it. But when they were thrown in, right away the pot cooled off. Astonished at such a miracle, Amphilochius himself believed in Christ, and deciding to enter the pot, cried out: “O Lord, Jesus Christ, help me!” Straightaway a voice was heard, saying to him: “Thy prayer has been heard, enter fearlessly.”
After learning of all this, the Emperor Hadrian, breathing wrath and fury, came from Rome to Illyria and ordered a pot filled with oil to be boiled for seven days and then the holy martyrs to be thrown into it. However, when the saints were thrown in, they remained whole and unharmed. After that the disgraced emperor returned to Rome, while the holy martyrs began to pray and thank God, and amid their prayers they gave up their souls to the Lord.
THE ORTHODOX VIEW OF EVOLUTION
(see beginning here)
“Orthodox evolutionism” and the patristic teaching
In what I have written about Adam and Eve, you will note that I quoted holy Fathers who interpret the text of Genesis in a way that might be called rather “literal.” Am I correct in supposing that you would like to interpret the text more “allegorically” when you say that to believe in the immediate creation of Adam by God is “a very narrow conception of the Sacred Scriptures”? This is an extremely important point, and I am truly astonished to find that “Orthodox evolutionists” do not at all know how the holy Fathers interpret the book of Genesis. I am sure that you will agree with me that we are not free to interpret the Holy Scriptures as we please, but we must interpret them as the holy Fathers teach us. I am afraid that not all who speak about Genesis and evolution pay attention to this principle. I firmly believe that the whole world outlook and philosophy of life for an Orthodox Christian may be found in the holy Fathers; if we will listen to their teaching, we will not go astray.
And now I ask you to examine with me the very important and fundamental question: how do the holy Fathers teach us to interpret the book of Genesis? We cannot do better than to begin with St. Basil the Great, who has written so inspiringly of the Six Days of Creation. In the Hexaemeron he writes:
“Those who do not admit the common meaning of the Scriptures say that water is not water, but some other nature, and they explain a plant and a fish according to their opinion. They describe also the production of reptiles and wild animals, changing it according to their own notion. When I hear ‘grass,’ I think of grass, and in the same manner I understand everything as it is said, be it a plant, a fish, a wild animal, or an ox. And since those who wrote about the nature of the earth each contradicted the other, I shall not agree to accept our view of the creation of the earth as being due any less respect only because the servant of God Moses did not speak of shapes, did not say that the circumference of the earth is approximately 180,000, did not measure the distance of the earth’s shadow and how this shadow, falling upon the moon, produces eclipses. Since Moses left unsaid, as useless for us, things in no way pertaining to us, shall we for this reason believe that the words of the Spirit are of less value than the foolish wisdom of those who have written about the world? Or shall I rather give glory to Him Who has not kept our mind occupied with vanities, but has ordained that all things be written for the edification and guidance of our souls? This is a thing of which they seem to me to have been unaware, who have attempted by false arguments and allegorical interpretations to bestow on the Scripture a dignity of their own imagining. But theirs is the attitude of one who considers himself wiser than the revelations of the Spirit and introduces his own ideas in pretense of an explanation. Therefore, let it be understood as it has been written” (Hexaemeron, IX, 1).
Clearly, St. Basil is warning us to beware of explaining away things in Genesis which are difficult for our common sense to understand; it is very easy for the “enlightened” modern man to do this, even if he is an Orthodox Christian. Let us therefore try all the harder to understand the sacred Scriptures as the Fathers understood them, and not according to our modern “wisdom.” And let us not be satisfied with the views of one holy Father; let us examine the views of other holy Fathers as well.
One of the standard patristic commentaries on the book of Genesis is that of St. Ephraim the Syrian. His views are all the more important for us in that he was an “Easterner” and knew the Hebrew language well. Modern scholars tell us that “Easterners” are given to allegorical interpretations, and that the book of Genesis likewise must be understood in this way. But let us see what St. Ephraim says in his commentary on the Genesis:
“No one should think that the Six Days’ Creation is an allegory; it is likewise impermissible to say that what seems, according to the account, to have been created in the course of six days, was created in a single instant, and likewise that certain names presented in this account either signify nothing, or signify something else. On the contrary, one must know that just as the heaven and the earth which were created in the beginning are actually the heaven and the earth, and not something else understood under the names of heaven and earth, so also everything else that is spoken of as being created and brought into order after the creation of heaven and earth is not empty names, but the very essence of the created natures corresponds to the force of these names” (Commentary on Genesis, chapter 1).
These are still, of course, general principles; let us look now at several specific applications by St. Ephraim of these principles.
“Although both the light and the clouds were created in the twinkling of an eye, still both the day and the night of the first day continued for 12 hours each” (Ibid).
Again: “When in the twinkling of an eye (Adam’s) rib was taken out and likewise in an instant the flesh took its place, and the bare rib took on the complete form and all the beauty of a woman, then God led her and presented her to Adam” (Ibid).
It is quite clear that St. Ephraim reads the book of Genesis “as it is written”; when he hears “the rib of Adam” he understands “the rib of Adam,” and does not understand this as an allegorical way of saying something else altogether. Likewise he quite explicitly understands the Six Days of Creation to be just six days, each with 24 hours, which he divides into an “evening” and a “morning” of 12 hours each.
I have deliberately taken St. Ephraim’s simple commentary on the book of Genesis before citing other, more “mystical” commentaries, because such a simple understanding of the book of Genesis above all offends the modern “enlightened” mind. I suspect that most Orthodox people, not too well-versed in the holy Fathers, will immediately say: “This is too simple! We know much better now. Give us holy Fathers that are more profound.” Alas, there are no Fathers “more profound” for our modern wisdom, because even the most mystical Fathers understand the text of the book of Genesis just as simply as St. Ephraim the Syrian! Those who wish to find greater complexity in the writings of the holy Fathers are influenced by modern Western ideas, which are totally alien to the holy Fathers of the Orthodox Church.
Now let us look concretely at the question of the “duration” of the Six Days of Creation. I believe that this question is secondary to those that are raised by the theory of evolution, but it would be well for us to learn what the holy Fathers think of it, particularly since here we begin to realize what a great difference exists between the patristic and the modern Western theory of creation. Irrespective of how we regard them, these “Days” are entirely beyond our comprehension, since we only know the mortal “days” of our fallen world; how can we even imagine those “Days” in which the creative power of God acted so mightily! Saint Augustine says it very well: “It is very difficult, even impossible for us to imagine what those days were like.”
The holy Fathers themselves did not say too much concerning this matter, because, undoubtedly, it was not a problem for them. It is basically a problem for modern man, who attempts to understand God’s creation by means of the laws of nature of our fallen world. The holy Fathers apparently accepted the fact that the duration of those Days did not differ from our own familiar days, while some of them even indicate that their duration was 24 hours, as mentioned by St. Ephraim the Syrian. But there is something in those Days which is extremely important for us to understand, and which relates to what you have written concerning the “instantaneousness” of God’s creation.
You write: “Since God created time, to create something ‘instantly’ would be an act contrary to His own decision and will… When we speak about the creation of stars, plants, animals, and man, we do not speak about miracles – we do not speak about the extraordinary interventions of God in creation, but about the ‘natural’ course of creation.” I wonder if you are not substituting here some “modern wisdom” for the teaching of the holy Fathers? What is the beginning of all things but a miracle? I have already showed you that St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Cyril of Jerusalem, St. Gregory the Theologian, and St. John Damascene (and indeed all the Fathers) teach that the first man Adam appeared in a way different from the natural generation of all other men; likewise the first creatures, according to the sacred text of Genesis, appeared in a way different from all their descendants: they appeared not by natural generation, but by the word of God. The modern theory of evolution denies this, because the theory of evolution was invented by unbelievers who wished to deny God’s action in creation and explain the creation by “natural” means alone. Do you not see what philosophy is behind the theory of evolution?
(To be continued)
THE MYRRHBEARERS AT THE TOMB
Zion sleeps and malice dozes,
The King of kings sleeps in His tomb,
The rock is sealed at the tomb's entrance,
And guards are standing at the door.
The silent night enfolds the garden,
The fearsome guards are not asleep:
Their keen hearing does not slumber,
The distance they alertly watch.
The night is past. To Messiah's tomb,
And bearing aromatic myrrhs,
The saddened Marys now do come –
Anxiety is in their faces,
A great concern does trouble them:
Who with a mighty hand now
Will heave away the heavy stone
From the cave's entrance and the tomb?
And as they both gaze in amazement,
They see the stone has been removed,
And at the entrance to the tomb
The fearsome guards lie as though dead.
While in the tomb, now full of light,
There's someone wondrous and unearthly,
Attired in vestments of pure white,
And sitting quietly on the stone.
The glow of the celestial visage
Is brighter than the shine of lightning!
The myrrhbearing women stand afeared,
Their hearts atremble with great awe!
“Why are ye, timid ones, distressed?”
The holy messenger inquired,
“Return to your respective homes
With news of peace and of salvation.
I have been sent down by the Heavens
To bring glad tidings now to you:
There are no Living with the dead here,
The tomb is empty, Christ is risen!”
The myrrhbearing women hasten away,
And with great rapture and delight
Their lips will preach to astounded Zion
The wondrous Resurrection of Christ.
Translated by Natalia Sheniloff