A forethought for the Nativity

A forethought for the Nativity

As we are now only a few days away from the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ in the flesh, I would like to share some thoughts for us to consider. I believe the whole meaning and purpose of the Incarnation of our Lord can be expressed in a brief phrase written by St. John of Damascus: “Christ has enriched our human nature with His divinity.” We see intimations of this in the Holy Scriptures. In his second epistle, the Apostle Peter writes, “we have become partakers of the divine nature.” (IIPet. 1:4) Elsewhere, St. John the Theologian tells us, “As many as received Him—to them that believe on His Name—to them He gave authority to become the children of God, Who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of a man, but of God.” (John 1:12-13) And the Apostle Paul having brought this to perfection cried out: “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.” (Gal. 2:20)

To illustrate what God has done for us we can think of a dried out sponge. If you put it in water, it becomes permeated with that water – its form changes, its color is brightened, and it appears to come to life. This is similar to what Christ has done to our human nature – He has enriched it with His divinity. This is the gift that God has given to us through the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is deposited within us, but its development requires ascetic effort. Returning to the quote from St. Paul in Galatians, “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.” (Gal. 2:20) To be crucified with Christ indicates ascetic effort.

This shows us one of the biggest differences between the Christianty in the East and the West. One Catholic author, Richard Payne, studied the Eastern Fathers and wrote a book called, The Holy Fire. It is a compilation of some of the lives of Holy Fathers in the East who elucidated Christian theological teachings in their writings. In this book he acknowledges that: “From the Greek Fathers we derive almost all the great doctrines of the Church, and we are their children whether we like it or not.” (p. 294) In the last of these biographies, which is on St. Gregory Palamas, he points out: “The Western Church fixed its eyes on the Atonement, the Greek Church saw its highest desire in the Incarnation and the Transfiguration. In the West men wanted to be saved; in the more contemplative East, it was a small thing to be saved if one could meet God face to face.”(p.294)

Over time, varying concepts and understanding of what ‘salvation’ meant developed in the East and West. This is why the argument of how one is saved never arose in the East. As Payne pointed out, “The Western Church fixed its eyes on the Atonement.” When you stop at the Cross and the forgiveness of sins, then salvation simply takes on the notion of an escape from hell and the wrath of God. But when one’s mind is focused on the Nativity and the Transfiguration, then the greater meaning of salvation is revealed. This truth is expressed best in the words of St. Athanasius the Great: “God became so that man could became like God.” As St. Gregroy Palamas indicated, we are able to experience the life of God within our being, through His uncreated divine energy. We are able to contain within us the uncontainable God.

This is precisely what the Apostle Peter meant when he wrote that “we have become partakers of the divine nature.” This is what St. John the Theologian tells us: “As many as received Him—to them that believe on His Name—to them He gave authority to become the children of God, Who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of a man, but of God.” And in closing this is what St. John of Damascus meant when he wrote,”Christ has enriched our humanity with His divinity.”

May we all bring this gift to perfection and so cry out with the Apostle Paul: “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.” Amen!

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Hope (continuation)

Hope (continued)

Do not speak to me of those who have committed small sins, but consider the case of one who is filled to the full of all wickedness, and let him practice everything which excludes him from the kingdom. And let us suppose that this man is not one of those who were unbelievers from the beginning, but formerly belonged to the believers, and such as were well pleasing to God, but afterwards has become a fornicator, adulterer, effeminate, a thief, a drunkard, a sodomite, a reviler, and everything else of this kind. I do not approve even of this man despairing of himself, although he may have gone on to extreme old age in the practice of these great and unspeakable evils. For if the wrath of God were a passion, one might well despair as being unable to quench the flame which he had kindled by so many evil doings. But since the Divine nature is passionless, even if He punishes, even if He takes vengeance, He does not do this with wrath, but with tender care, and much loving-kindness. Therefore it befits us to be courageous, and to trust in the power of repentance. For even those who have sinned against Him He is not accustomed to visit with punishment for His own sake; for no harm can occur to the divine nature. On the contrary He acts with a view to our advantage, and to prevent our perverseness from becoming worse by making a habit of despising and disregarding Him. For just as one who places himself outside the light inflicts no loss on the light, but the greatest upon himself being shut up in darkness; even so he who has become accustomed to despise that almighty power, does no injury to the power, but inflicts the greatest possible injury upon himself. It is for this reason God threatens us with punishments, and often inflicts them, not as avenging Himself, but by way of attracting us to Himself. For a physician also is not distressed or vexed at the insults of those who are out of their minds, but does and contrives everything for the purpose of stopping those who do such unseemly acts, not looking to his own interests but to their profit. And if they manifest some small degree of self-control and sobriety he rejoices and is glad, and applies his remedies much more earnestly, not as revenging himself upon them for their former conduct, but as wishing to increase their advantage, and to bring them back to a purely sound state of health. Even so, when we fall into the very extremity of madness, everything that God brings to pass is not by way of avenging Himself because of our former deeds; but because He wishes to release us from our disorder.

Now if anyone should dispute with us concerning these things we will confirm them from the divine Scriptures. For who became more depraved than the king of the Babylonians, who after having received such great experience of God’s power as to make obeisance to His prophet, and command offerings and incense to be sacrificed to Him was again carried away to his former pride, and cast bound into the furnace those who did not honor himself rather than God. Nevertheless this man who was so cruel and impious, and rather a beast than a human being, God called to repentance, and granted him several opportunities of conversion. First of all the miracle which took place in the furnace, and after that his vision which Daniel interpreted, a vision which was sufficient to bend even a heart of stone. In addition to these things after the exhortation derived from these events the prophet also himself advised him, saying “Therefore, O king, let my counsel please thee, and redeem thy sins by alms, and thy iniquities by showing mercy to the poor; it may be that long suffering will be shown to thy offense.” (Daniel 4:27) What does this wise and blessed man say? After so great a fall is there again a way of return? After so great a disease is health possible? And after such great madness is there again a hope of soundness of mind? The king had deprived himself beforehand of all hope, first of all by having ignored Him who created him; and brought him to this honor of kingship. Although he had so many proofs of His power and had received distinct tokens of God’s wisdom and foreknowledge, and had seen magic, and astronomy and the whole of the deceptive satanic system overthrown, he went on to exhibit deeds worse than the former. For things which the wise magi, could not explain, but confessed that they were beyond human nature, these very things, a captive youth solved for him. He was so moved by this miracle that he not only himself believed, but also proclaimed to the whole world the power of the God of Israel. (Daniel 4:1-3) So then, if even before having received such a token it was unpardonable in him to ignore God, much more so was it after that miracle, and his confession, and the teaching which was extended to others. For if he had not honestly believed that He was the only true God he would not have shown such honor to His servant, or have laid down such laws for others. But after making this kind of confession, he again lapsed into idolatry, and he who once fell on his face and made obeisance to the servant of God, broke out into such a pitch of madness, as to cast into the furnace the servants of God who did not make obeisance to himself. What then followed? Did God visit the apostate, as he deserved to be visited? No! He granted him greater tokens of His own power, drawing him back again after so great a display of arrogance. What is yet more wonderful, that owing to the abundance of the miracles he might not again disbelieve what was done, God wrought a great sign through the furnace which the king himself kindled. For even to extinguish the flame would have been a wonderful and strange thing; but in order to inspire him with greater fear, and undo all his hardness of heart, God did what was greater and stranger than this. For, permitting the furnace to be kindled to as high a pitch as the king desired, He preserved the youths while allowing those who cast them in to be burned. Nevertheless after such great miracles had taken place, and all who were present and beheld were amazed, and those who were absent had been informed of the fact by means of letters. The king who instructed others remained himself without amendment, and went back again to his former wickedness. And even then God did not punish him, but was still long-suffering, counseling him both by means of visions and by His prophet. But when he was not made anywise better by any of these things, then at last God inflicted punishment upon him. This was not to avenge Himself on account of his former deeds, but in order to cut off the occasion of future evils. Yet even this God did not inflict permanently, but after having chastised him for a few years, He restored him again to his former honor. So King Nebuchadnezzar suffered no loss from his punishment, but on the contrary, gained the greatest possible good: a firm hold upon faith in God, and repentance on account of his former misdeeds.

The loving-kindness of God is such that He never turns His face away from a sincere repentance. If anyone has pushed on to the very extremity of evil, and chooses to return towards the path of virtue, God accepts and welcomes, and does everything so as to restore him to his former position. And He does what is yet more merciful; for even if one does not manifest complete repentance, He does not pass by one which is small and insignificant, but He even assigns it a great reward. This is evident from what Isaiah the prophet says concerning the people of the Jews, speaking in this manner: “On account of his sin I put him to pain for a little while, and smote him, and turned my face away from him, and he was pained, and walked sorrowfully, and then I healed him, and comforted him” (Isa. 57:17-18). And we might cite as another confirmation that most ungodly king, who was given over to sin by the influence of his wife: yet when he only sorrowed, and put on sackcloth, and condemned his offenses, he so won for himself the mercy of God, as to be released from all the evils which were impending over him. For God said to Elijah “Seest thou how Ahab is pricked in the heart before my face? I will not bring the evil upon him in his own days, because he hath wept before Me.” (IKings 21:29). And after this again, Manasseh, having exceeded all in fury and tyranny, and having subverted the legal form of worship, and shut up the temple, and caused the deceit of idolatry to flourish, and having become more ungodly than all who were before him, when he afterwards repented, was ranked amongst the friends of God. (see IIKings 21; IIChron. 33) Now if, looking to the magnitude of his own iniquities, he had despaired of restoration and repentance, he would have missed all which he afterwards obtained. But as it was, he looked to the boundlessness of God’s tender mercy instead of the enormity of his transgressions, and having broken in sunder the bonds of the devil, he rose up and contended with him, and finished the good course.

Having then such great examples, let us not continue in evil, nor despair of reconciliation, but let us say also ourselves “I will go to my Father,” (Luke 15:8) and let us draw nigh to God. For He Himself never turns away from us, but it is we who put ourselves far off: for “I am a God” we read “at hand and not a God afar off.” (Jer. 23:23) And again, when He was rebuking them by the mouth of this prophet He said “Do not your sins make a separation between you and me?” (Isa. 59:2) Inasmuch then as this is the cause which puts us far from God, let us remove this obnoxious barrier, which prevents us from approaching Him. Let us then turn to Him, my beloved friend, and execute the will of God. For He created us and brought us into being, that He might make us partakers of eternal blessings, that He might offer us the kingdom of Heaven.

Through the prayers of our Holy Father John Chrysostoom may our Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on us!

Hope

Hope

I once asked a bishop what can I, in the capacity of a spiritual father, offer others. He replied with one word, “Hope.” Over the years and especially more recently I have indeed encountered many who are in need of hope. So I have decided to take some excerpts from the letters of St. John Chrysostom to his friend who left the monastic life. These letters are preserved under the heading: “An Exhortation to Theodore After His Fall.” After uttering a mournful lamentation over the fact that his friend left the monastic life Chrysostom continues as follows:

Now perhaps, I shall seem to say something incredible to those who witness your desolation and overthrow, that is, the reestablishment of your former luster. It is for this cause I wail and mourn, and shall not cease doing so. Although this seems to be impossible to men, yet to God all things are possible. For God is He “who raiseth the poor from the earth, and lifteth up the beggar from the dunghill, to set him with the princes, even with the princes of his people.” It is He “who makes the barren woman to dwell at home, a mother rejoicing over her children” (Psa. 112:7-9). So do not despair of the most perfect change. For if the devil had such great power as to cast you down from your previous pinnacle and height of virtue into the extremity of evil doing, much more will God be able to draw you up again to your former confidence; and not only to make you what you were before, but even much happier. Only be not downcast, nor fling away good hopes, nor fall into the condition of the ungodly. For it is not the multitude of sins which is accustomed to plunge men into despair, but impiety of soul. Therefore Solomon did not make the unqualified statement “every one who has entered into the den of the wicked, despiseth;” but only “he who is ungodly” (Prov. 18:3). For it is only such persons who are affected with despair when they have entered the den of the wicked. And it is this which does not allow them to look up, and ascend once again to the position from which they fell. For this accursed thought pressing down like some yoke upon the neck of the soul, and so forcing it to stoop, hinders it from looking up to the Master. Now it is the part of a brave and excellent man to break this yoke in pieces, to shake off the tormentor fastened upon him; and to utter the words of the prophet, “As the eyes of a maiden look unto the hands of her mistress, even so our eyes look unto the Lord our God until He have mercy upon us. Have pity upon us, O Lord, have pity upon us, for we have been utterly filled with contempt” (Psa. 122:2-3). Truly divine are these precepts, and decrees of the highest form of spiritual wisdom. We have been filled, it is said, with contempt, and have undergone countless distresses; nevertheless we shall not desist from looking up to God, neither shall we cease praying to him until He has received our petition. For this is the mark of a noble soul, not to be cast down, nor be dismayed at the multitude of the calamities which oppress it, nor to withdraw, after praying many times without success, but to persevere, until He have mercy upon us, even as the blessed David said.

The reason why the devil plunges us into thoughts of despair is that he may cut off the hope which is towards God, the safe anchor, the foundation of our life, the guide of the way which leads to heaven, the salvation of perishing souls. “For by hope” it is said, “we are saved” (Rom. 8:24). For it certainly is this which, like some strong cord suspended from the heavens, supports our souls, gradually drawing towards that world on high those who cling firmly to it, and lifting them above the tempest of the evils of this life. If anyone then becomes enervated, and lets go this sacred anchor, immediately he falls down, and is suffocated, having entered into the abyss of wickedness. And the Evil One knowing this, when he perceives that we are oppressed by the consciousness of evil deeds, steps in and lays upon us an additional burden, heavier than lead. This is the anxiety arising from despair, and if we accept it, it follows of necessity that we are at once dragged down by this weight, and having been parted from that cord of hope, descend into the depth of misery. It is here, where you are now, having forsaken the commandments of the meek and lowly Master and executing all the injunctions of the cruel tyrant, and implacable enemy of our salvation. You have broken in pieces the easy yoke, and cast away the light burden, and having put on the iron collar instead of these things, have hung a ponderous millstone upon your neck.

Yet many both now and in the days of our forefathers, having been perverted from the right position, and fallen headlong out of the straight path, have been so completely restored as to eclipse their former deeds by the latter. They have received the prize of our high calling (Phil. 3:14), and been wreathed with a garland of victory, and proclaimed among the conquerors, and numbered in the company of the saints. For as long as any one stands in the furnace of pleasures, even if he has countless examples of this kind before him, the thing seems to him to be impossible. But once he gets a short start of departing from there, by continually advancing he leaves the fiercer part of the fire behind him. He will see the parts which are before his footsteps in front of him, as being full of dew and much refreshment. So let us not despair or grow weary of the return, for he who is so affected, even if he has acquired boundless power and zeal, has acquired it to no purpose. For when he has once shut the door of repentance against himself, and has blocked the entrance into the race-course, how will he be able while he abides outside to accomplish any good thing, either small or great? On this account the Evil One uses all kinds of devices in order to plant in us this thought of despair; for if he succeeds he will no longer have to sweat and toil in contending with us. What need is there for him to do so, if we are prostrate and fallen, and unwilling to resist him? For he who has been able to slip out of this chain, will recover his own strength and will not cease struggling against the devil to his last gasp, and even if he had countless other falls, he will get up again, and will smite his enemy. However, he who is in bondage to the thoughts of despair, and has divested his own strength, how will he be able to prevail, and to resist, having on the contrary taken to flight? (to be continued…)