Priest as Mediator between God and Man (conclusion)
Although I feel as though I may have said enough, and anything I add would be a counter climax, yet I will still continue and refer to St. Sophrony of Essex in England.
A short time before he reposed he expressed the following:
“The content of the Person of Christ is the self-emptying love unto the end, by which He accomplished the salvation of the world.
“Man likewise proves himself a person when he acquires love for God to the point of self-hatred, pure prayer which accompanies this, and prayer for the world similar to Christ’s prayer in Gethsemane.” (Man the Target of God, Archimandrite Zacharias, p. 147)
Fr. Zachariah comments on these words as follows:
“In this state of prayer for the world, the mind of Christ is transmitted to man and his heart is enlarged to embrace heaven and earth and to bring before God every creature. The true calling of man is become a true hypostasis, a true person in the image of Christ’s Person, a new Adam bearing in himself the whole of humanity and presenting it before God in intercession for salvation.” (ibid.)
What is it to “become a true person in the image of Christ’s Person? It is to acquire “self-emptying love unto the end” since this is “the content of the Person of Christ.” And what is “love for God to the point of self-hatred”? It is to no longer desire salvation but to “wish (or pray) that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brethren” (Rom. 9:3). Fr. Zachariah continues:
“Christ came to the earth with one desire in His heart; He prayed in Gethsemane, ascended onto the Cross and went down into the tomb so that the world should be saved. Of course, when He rose again, He rose again with the same content in His heart.” (ibid.)
As the Apostle Paul writes that God, “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (ITim. 2:4). And so, he who acquires the grace of the Holy Spirit cannot be otherwise. Let us continue with some words from the experience of St. Sophrony.
“When abundant grace touches the heart of the Christian, animated by the love of Christ acting in him,… following after Christ, becomes like Him.”
“In proportion to his strength man takes upon himself the burden of his brothers. The intensity of the pain endured in this life fills his heart with deep compassion for all who suffer. The love that feels for others is ready for sacrifice–total sacrifice–for the good of others, while at the same time sweeping the whole man up to God, mind, heart and body itself. The entire being is drawn to God in ardent prayer, weeping for people, sometimes for a particular individual, known or unknown, sometimes for all humanity since the beginning of time….
“‘To pray for the world is to shed blood.’”
“And we have seen and witnessed that Blessed Staretz Silouan, in praying for people, for the world, for all mankind, all Adam, did in this prayer lay down his life.
“Prayer like this is repentance for men’s sins, and as repentance for the whole world it means to a certain extent bearing the burdens of the world. But to have the audacity for such prayer one must first attain to a certain degree of personal repentance, since to continue to dwell in sin and passion, then instead of bearing the burdens of one’s fellow men, one lays a burden on them. To know the ‘fellowship of Christ’s sufferings’, to be a partaker with Him, we must ‘cease from sin’.” (Phil 3.10 Pet. 4.13, 4.1) St. Silouan the Athonite pp. 239-40
St. Sophrony and Fr. Zachariah are referring again and again to the same theme: Personal repentance leads to the acquisition of grace, the acquisition of grace leads to love and love leads to intercession and this intercession is universal repentance.
In a chapter in his book, His Life is Mine, titled The Prayer of Gethsemane, St. Sophrony interprets the aforementioned prayer. As he begins this chapter he writes:
“Christ’s prayer in the garden of Gethsemane is the noblest of all prayers by its virtue and its power to atone for the sins of the world. Offered to the eternal God the Father in a spirit of divine love, it continues to shine, a light that cannot be extinguished, forever drawing to itself souls that have preserved their likeness to God. Christ included the whole human race in this prayer, from the first Adam to the last man born of woman. We lack existential knowledge of such love and so its permanent significance is hidden from us. Victorious in eternity, Christ’s love in the earthly plane spells extreme suffering. No one has ever known such suffering as Christ endured. He descended into hell, into the most painful hell of all, the hell of love. This is sphere of existence, which can only be apprehended through spiritual love—how far we can penetrate the mystery depends on the measure of love that it has been granted us to know from on high. It is vital to have experienced, if only once, the heavenly fire which Christ brought with Him; to know with our entire being, what it is to be even a little like Christ.” (His Life is Mine, Archimandrite Sophrony, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press 1977, p. 91)
In ending this chapter he concludes:
“When, as I have said, a shadow of a likeness to Gethsemane prayer is granted to him, man transcends the boundaries of his own individuality and enter a new form of being—personal being in the likeness of Christ. By participating in the sufferings of His divine love we too, in spirit, can experience a little of His death and the power of His Resurrection. ‘For if we have been planted together in the likeness of His death’ (in deep prayer for the world and consuming desire for the salvation of all) ‘we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection (Rom. 6.5) When it is given to us from on high to enter this new sphere of Being, we arrive at ‘the ends of the world’ (I Cor. 10.11) and pass into the light of Divine eternity.
“And every man on whom God has bestowed the rare and dread privilege of knowing to a minute degree the agony of Christ’s prayer in the garden of Gethsemane1 will stumble on, slowly and painfully, to a cogent awareness of the resurrection of his own soul and a perception of Christ’s undeniable, ineluctable (irresistible or inescapable) victory. He will know ‘that Christ being risen from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over Him’ (Rom. 6.9) And his spirit within him will whisper: My Lord and my God… now, O Christ, by the gift of Thy love which surpasses understanding I, too, have crossed from death to life…” (ibid. p. 95)
This brings to mind the words of St. John the Theologian, “We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren.” (IJohn 3:14) Then St. Sophrony ends with a rather bold, or we could say hyperbolic statement:
“Now—I am.” (Ibid. p. 95)
1. In his Homily 146 on the Gospel of St. Luke, St Cyril of Jerusalem similarly says that the great grief of our Lord in Gethsemane was “for Israel the firstborn, that henceforth He is not even among the servants”. (Commentary on the Gospel of Saint Luke, Studion Publishers, Inc., 1983, p.582) Likewise Gerondissa (Eldress) Makrina Vassopoulou believes that Christ suffered great pain knowing that through His Crucifixion all of mankind would not be redeemed because all would not accept him. (Words of the Heart, translation St. John the Forerunner Greek Orthodox Monastery 2018, cf. p. 323)