Word Magazine December 1978 Page 5-8/28



By George Benjamin Gapen

Life exists by right only within that Perfect Society of perfect and mutual love which is the Holy Consubstantial Trinity. Through His Will and act, all that is, became. Man is the culmination of material creation being endowed not only with existence, but with reason and a soul. In a limited but real way he is the mirror of the divine. His free will is a reflection of God’s sovereignty, his ability to reject God making his love and obedience dear to God and the means of a unique spiritual maturation of which God is the Author. But man, despite his faculties and opportunity, rebelled against God. Sin and death were the bastard issue of potential, and Adam and Eve became the first iconoclasts. Man sealed his attempt to turn freedom into independence through the sacramental act of eating of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. His eyes were opened — opened to the fact that he had exchanged the unexchangeably precious.

Rebellion against the Source of Life meant that man’s existence no longer reflected the Life of God. It became chimerical and ends in death. Desecrated in essence, it was debased in character. He who had been made a king had to compete for survival among the very animals which had been brought before him to be named. Having repudiated the opportunity to offer his obedience, he was divested of the priesthood implied in that self-oblation. No longer an expression of God’s Will, he lost the intrinsic capacity to conceive and communicate it — and so was no longer God’s natural prophet (“forthteller”). Man in Paradise had been like a kite sailing on high who, in his pride, resented tugging against the string held by the hand of God. So he broke “free” — only to pirouette into the mud below. Man, made to know the exhilaration of flight, became prisoner to the gravity of sin! Such is our chosen poverty, such is our wretched state, such is the pervasion of our perversion — such is the “man” to whom Christ comes!

A DREAD MYSTERY: Confrontation by Christ

How unadulterated must have been the joy of those souls to whom Christ descended at His death — how ebullient must have been the welcome they accorded Him! While His Sacred Body lay within a narrow tomb His Soul tears the very gates of hell from their heavy hinges! He tramples upon death by death. Chains fall from wrists and ankles as locks snap open, and those who had been captives since man wed himself to death are gloriously and ecstatically free!

How drastically different is the greeting we “the living” accord Him! Natural man, in his unnatural condition, does not recognize Christ as the Liberator, the Lover of men, because we spend our lives denying the reality of our chains and our fear. God in the flesh shows us what we cannot bear to see — ourselves in our sin. He haunts our steps, and His humility and blameless life rebuke us. He destroys the cherished illusion of our dignity and self-sufficiency. In His radiant Humanity is manifest what we were created to be but never are — and have no hope of becoming. He evokes a nostalgia for a long lost innocence and we are reminded that we are prodigals. He causes us to crave a likeness which we can neither achieve nor disown. His light makes it impossible for us to ever again accept a darkness we cannot escape. Till He confronts us we do not have to admit, especially to ourselves, how serious our condition really is. Till we see Him it is enough to make excuses for ourselves and blame others — for morality, or at least social acceptability — is a popular god among those who do not wish to admit their need of a Saviour. It hurts to realize that we aren’t superior to those whom we condemn to bolster our self-esteem. Indignant that He claims to bring and to be the Truth we ask: “Who does He think He is — God?”

“And who do ye say that I, the Son of Man, am?” is, indeed, the question. “The Christ, the Son of the Everliving God”, is the answer, the rock, upon which the Church is built. It requires courage to make this admission for it means that to come face to face with Jesus Christ is to come face to face with One who walked in the Garden in the cool of the day — and to know that we are guilty, and naked, and defenseless. If He as the meek and lowly Man of Sorrows brings us grief and despair, how can we endure Him as the eternal “I AM?” Knowledge of God’s glory revealed in the Face of the Incarnate Logos sends us reeling like the Holy Apostles shown sprawled at the foot of an Icon of the Transfiguration. We crave a crevice like that provided Moses on Mt. Sinai and fall prostrate as did Abraham. Man, who stoned the Prophets, must choose one of two options. He can choose to think of himself, see only flame, and yell: “Crucify!” — or he can realize that even as God confronts man, He preserves and protects his mortal, sinful life. Those who choose the latter option count themselves blessed to see as God sees and pray, “O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me a sinner.” If hell is God’s reluctant concession to those who insist on having what they want (and would save their own lives), Heaven is His gift to those who are willing to accept what they need (and are willing to lose their lives for Christ’s sake and for the Gospel). The latter, the blessed who are willing to hope, to trust and to try, cry with Dimitri in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov:

Though I be following the devil, I am Thy son, 0 Lord.

I love Thee, and I feel the joy without which the world cannot stand.

A DEIFYING MYSTERY: Investiture in Christ

Christ’s descent to the dark occident of our mortal nature is no less a condescension of love, no less a necessary intervention, than His descent to the dead — for so we are! The light He brings to us is no less foreign to this fallen world than it is to hell! The chains that fall from our lives are no less real than those which bound the spirits of the dead! The freedom He gives us is no less a liberation than that which He brought to them! A keen awareness of our abject dependence upon God, and a sure confidence in His mercy: awe and love conjoined — these are basic to true Orthodox spirituality. How could it be otherwise? Through our Holy Mother the Church He who is the window becomes our door. The very name “Orthodox” means the offering of ortho-doxia (“right glory”) and is a synonym for the correct confession of revealed truth: She offers us the antithesis of the blasphemy and the lie which occasioned the fall. But as wonderful and necessary as these blessings are, they are the manifestations of something even more sublime: an antecedent mystical, sacramental and organic union with Christ through His mystical body. The Baptistry becomes the tomb of the seeming life we had known — and the sepulchre from which our life is resurrected as His. Through the worthy reception of the Precious Gifts of Christ’s True Body and Blood we become that which we eat. The difference between the state of man prior to the fall and that re­created image and state offered in Christ is most apparent in the Saints. The All Holy Theotokos, though part of a race made “a little lower than the angels” has become “more honorable than the Cherubim and beyond compare more glorious than the Seraphim.” We seek refuge beneath the veil of Her Protection as beneath an epitrachelion, and Her glorification is our consolation. Yet at every Divine Liturgy we pray for Her, for Her vocation is to grow into the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ — and so is ours! It shall never be attained because God is infinite — we are destined to grow forever — reaching, stretching, opening in and to Him who is the Author and Finisher of our Holy Faith. We “arrive” by continually becoming.

Was Adam to be a King? The “heavenly King” has decreed that we shall reign forever with Him, judging both men and angels (cf.: Rev. 22.5, 2 Tim. 2.12, I Cor. 6.2-3). Was Adam to be a priest offering obedience in love? We offer “the Lamb once slain” in anticipation of whose death the bones of numberless Paschal lambs remained unbroken. Was Adam to be the natural speaker of God’s truth? We have been sealed with the Gift of the Holy Spirit and:

We have seen the true Light, we have received the Heavenly Spirit, We have found the true Faith by worshipping the undivided Trinity: for this has saved us.

If sectarians may be distinguished by what they believe, we are unique in what we receive. This is not to suggest that our beliefs are less than precious! It is to remind us that simple, obedient shepherds found their Lord and God before wisemen paid Him homage. It is to suggest that Orthodox dogma is produced as an antibody in the Mystical Body of Christ as a reaction to the toxin of heresy. It is to affirm that at Pentecost we were given — not tenets or text — but the opportunity to share a Life, and sharing it come to love Him whose life it is, and in loving Him come to know truths about Him who is Truth.

A JOYFUL MYSTERY: Christ and Podvig

If we could truly appreciate the helplessness in which Christ finds us, the re-creation He offers, and the dignity of our high calling in Him; our lives would be transformed by joy and adorned with every good work. In reality there are times when all of us permit friends, family and schedules to preoccupy and define us. Christ said: “Whoever loveth father or mother or son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me,” He commanded each of us to take up His cross daily and follow Him, warning that if the world despised Him we would fare no better. So long as we do not carry the desert of the Fathers within our minds and hearts, so long as we are now “alone” in the midst of daily circumstance, it is difficult to remember that we are dying for the Food of Life, the Manna that comes down from Heaven.

Podvig, as here used, is simply ascetic discipline undertaken to purge the leaven of sin so that the Holy Spirit may more freely affect our theosis. It is a positive activity, not a negative withdrawal (the word “ascetic” derives from the Greek word for athletic training). The positive character of podvig remains, even in those rigorous forms of discipline usually associated with the word. Of course, no one should take upon himself these more “extreme” forms except in obedience to divine revelation or the advice of one’s staretz (confessor). There are no black belts in podvig, and by definition it can never be considered an end in itself! Constancy in one’s podvig is more significant than its severity. Every member of the Church is committed to the practice of podvig by the discipline of the Church and Her liturgical cycle. Christ Himself defined its goal saying: “Ye, therefore, must be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt. 5.48). The foe is formidable: “cosmic powers . . . authorities and potentates of this dark world . . . superhuman forces of evil in the heavens” (Eph. 6.12): but God-provided armour permits us to “quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one.” The most obvious (though among the least seen) form which this armour takes is the angelic habit of the great schema monastic, but it is equally real wherever an Orthodox Christian lives his profession of faith. Christ advises: “. . . be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (Jn. l6.33b). Satan has already been dealt the mortal blow, and writhes in final agony. Nothing that has been, nothing that is, nothing that shall be can separate us from Christ who makes us “more than conquerors” (cf. Romans 8.35 & ff).

Some may find such a spiritual odyssey at odds with the Beatitudes, the injunction to: “Love one another,” and the words of Christ from the throne of judgment: “As ye have done it unto the least of these, my brethren, ye have done it unto Me.” The Divine Liturgy might be cited as relevant to such scruples, i.e.: “Let us love one another that with one mind we may confess: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Trinity One in essence and undivided.” May it be that our love is Christian insofar as it leads to something infinitely greater than itself., that is, to the Source of Life and Love? God seeks and loves every soul as much as He does our own. If we have found so much in Him who has found us, how can our love be Christian and not lead others to Him who is their God no less than our own? How can one claim to be a Christian (let alone live and love as one) if he does not love God enough to seek his own union with Him above all else? Surely our will is most appropriately directed toward that goal alone — love for all then follows naturally because it is natural to God whose Life is ours. We are commanded to love others as God loves us in Christ. Who is capable of such a thing apart from God? And how does God in Christ love us? By meeting us where we are in order to take us to where we should be — how can we take others where we will not go? Does the blind lead the blind? Holy Seraphim of Sarov spent 20 years in total seclusion before he threw open his doors to receive others in the spirit of Christ. And they came, in steadily growing numbers, until he ministered to multitudes. And what if the door had not opened? Would Holy Seraphim’s life have been of no use to any but himself? NOT AT ALL! We are members one of another, and the spiritual growth (or decline) of one affects all. As members of one Body, the Holy Church of Christ, the richness of countless martyrs, worthy ascetics, fools for Christ’s sake, and theologians flows in our spiritual veins. No, the growth of one soul toward its God causes angels to rejoice and benefits the entire cosmos. Dedication to one’s enlightened “self” interest is in itself an expression of love for God and all men. Only as each of us fulfills his vocational humanity does the vocation of humanity advance. To grow in Christ is to die to self so that like Holy Paul the Apostle one is able to say: “I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me . . .“ And on what Authority do we learn: “Greater love than this hath no man, that he lay down his life for another”?

God grant that we be repeatedly confronted by Christ, continually re-invested with His Life, and ever be worthy embodiments of His Priesthood, His Truth, and His Rule. God grant that we may cultivate the soil of our souls, as sons of God’s right hand, that we may be the people’s victory.

Mr. Gapen, a recent convert to Holy Orthodoxy, wrote this meditation especially for The Word. He authored “The Image of the Church,” in the March, 1978 issue. Readers are invited to comment.