Sons of the Living God

“What is Christianity? Likeness to God as is possible for human nature. If you are shown to be a Christian, hasten to become like God, put on Christ.” ~ St. Basil, (On the Origin of Humanity 1, Ch. 18)

What do Christians mean when they talk about humans being made in the ‘Image of God’? Like everything in Christianity, the doctrine of the Imago Dei has been discussed and interpreted many times over, but at its core, it’s a powerfully simple idea: human beings have the unique privilege of being able to reflect God’s own beauty and power.

Source: Eric McGregor

“There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.” ~ CS Lewis (Source: Eric McGregor)

On the face of it, this idea is pretty out of step with reality. The dreary herd of commuters with whom we trek to work every morning certainly don’t seem like a pantheon of brilliant gods and goddesses; they’re an unwieldy and rather annoying bunch, who cough too loud and would sooner let you be beaten to death than acknowledge your existence. And then there are those of us who seem not only un-godlike, but positively demonic: serial murderers, rapists, war criminals. When faced with the horror of an Auschwitz or a Hiroshima, it’s hard not to conclude that if we bear the image of any god, that god must be a foul and violent monster.

But no Christian believes that human violence and brutality is the fruit of beings who bear the perfect image of God. The whole Christian worldview, especially for the early Church, revolved around the idea that humanity had damaged the Image of God and so turned themselves from radiant beauties into bestial monsters. In St. Athanasius’ view, it was precisely when we lost the Image of God through an act of cosmic rebellion that evil entered the world: “Adulteries and thefts were everywhere, murder and rapine filled the earth, law was disregarded in corruption and injustice …” (De Inc. 1.4) In the wake of this spiritual catastrophe, the world is now full of creatures more dangerous than either gods or beasts: fallen gods; gods gone mad.

And that’s why, as St. Basil says above, the whole purpose of Christianity is to make men again like God. We plunged ourselves and our world into chaos by being unlike God; only being like Him can heal us. This transformation is something all humans must go through. Even the best of us do things every day which feed into the hideous cycle of injustice and suffering that afflicts the world; there’s a part of all of us that wants to keep every good thing to ourselves and enforce the tyranny of our will over others. The whole life of the Church, from its sacraments to its prayers, is aimed at slaying these destructive, ungodly impulses, and so restoring the Image of God to our inward persons.

For St. Athanasius, humanity was like a damaged portrait which needed to be repainted:

“You know what happens when a portrait that has been painted on a panel becomes obliterated through external stains. The artist does not throw away the panel, but the subject of the portrait has to come and sit for it again, and then the likeness is re-drawn on the same material. Even so was it with the All-holy Son of God. He, the Image of the Father, came and dwelt in our midst, in order that He might renew mankind made after Himself …” (De Inc. 3.14)

This is the whole of Christianity. By putting on Christ, eating His Flesh and drinking His Blood and so truly becoming a part of His Body, we become again what we are always meant to be: spotless mirrors of divine radiance. Continue reading

Healing a Hungry World – Fasting

From the outside, fasting can seem like a pretty boring thing. People change their diet all the time; it rarely makes headlines. It’s an action that carries no more significance in itself than using a new brand of toothpaste, or changing phone carriers. Fasting, as a purely dietary practice, is quite possibly one of the most boring activities in the world.

The horrifying reality of hunger: a Somali boy being treated for malnourishment (source)

The horrifying reality of hunger: a Somali boy being treated for malnourishment (source)

But to conclude from this that fasting is boring, is rather like concluding that every movie with blazing guns and fast cars must be good. Even Sunday School children know that the Christian practice of fasting has never been a mere change of diet; the act of giving up certain kinds of food – namely the bloody kind, prepared in abattoirs and slaughterhouses – is symbolic of a much more mystical endeavour. What I want to argue here is that fasting, far from being a mere selfish and ritualistic supersition, is actually a mystical way of healing the world. St. Basil, in his fantastic Homily on Fasting, explains that in an important sense, the world is fallen precisely because we failed to fast:

“[Fasting] is as old as humanity itself; it was prescribed in Paradise. It was the first commandment that Adam received: “Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil ye shall not eat.” Through the words “ye shall not eat” the law of fasting and abstinence is laid down. If Eve had fasted from the tree, we would not now be in need of this fast.Continue reading

Love and the Meaning of Life

“I just want my life to matter, I want my life to mean something!”

Everyone thinks something like this at some point in their lives. It’s an incredibly human concern that goes far deeper than politics, culture or even religion. Everyone, in their moments of deepest clarity, feels a powerful desire for meaning and significance. But these aren’t the clearest of terms; what does it mean for my life to have meaning? What does it mean for my life to be significant, for my existence to matter?

'To say to another, with all our heart, “I love you”, is to say, “You will never die.”' ~ Met. Kallistos Ware

‘To say to another, with all our heart, “I love you”, is to say, “You will never die.”’ ~ Met. Kallistos Ware

What exactly would make the claim, “My life has meaning” true? To answer that question, it’s helpful to look at the kinds of things we say about ‘meaning’. Before you continue reading, you might want to consider your own answers. Close your eyes and ask yourself, ‘How do I know my life has meaning?’ or ‘How do I know that it matters that I exist?’ Remember the answers if possible; maybe even write them down.

Now compare your answer to this fairly typical statement from a post called “I Want to Matter“, by another, apparently Christian, blogger:

“I desperately want my life to matter.  I want to live my life in such a way that it makes a difference. I want my life to impact the lives of the people around me in a positive way.”  (emphasis added)

Did your answers involve words like difference and impact as well? This certainly doesn’t seem to be a uniquely Christian way of speaking about ‘meaning’. For example, the following is from a very honest and insightful post on the Suicide Project, a site where people post up their ‘suicide stories':

“I have no idea what to do with myself because nothing really matters.  I kind of think that I need to do something earth-shattering, log an amazing accomplishment that will be revolutionize the world and lead to never-ending adulation from others, because then I’d have some feeling of accomplishment and meaning.  But I know that no matter what I do – win a gold medal in the Olympics, get elected President, invent a revolutionary technology and become a billionaire, whatever – none of it will matter to me because nothing is good enough to create any meaning for me.” (emph. mostly added)

Again, it’s assumed that the ‘meaning’ of one’s life is the difference one makes to the world. A life which produces some revolutionary accomplishment is a meaningful life, because it has left the world different than it was before. Perhaps that’s why we often say things like, “I want it to have mattered that I existed. I want the world to be a different place because I was here.” People who feel that their life is making no difference are typically those who suffer from low self-esteem. Suicide can tragically seem like a logical step because the person (falsely) believes that their life is having no effect on the world around them, and so they won’t be missed (‘Would anyone even notice if I was gone?’). Continue reading

Do we really believe in Evil?

“We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I’d say that’s how I feel at Yale. How I feel right now. Here. With all of you. In love, impressed, humbled, scared. And we don’t have to lose that.”

That’s from a touching piece of prose called ‘The Opposite of Loneliness’, written by Yale college student Marina Keegan shortly before her tragic death in a car accident. You can (and should!) read the whole thing here.

“It’s not quite love and it’s not quite community; it’s just this feeling that there are people, an abundance of people, who are in this together. Who are on your team. When the check is paid and you stay at the table. When it’s four a.m. and no one goes to bed. That night with the guitar. That night we can’t remember. That time we did, we went, we saw, we laughed, we felt.”

There’s a very simple beauty to Keegan’s reflection, the sort which only ever seems to accompany honest writing. There’s no pretension or showiness to her prose; she is simply relating her heartfelt admiration for the sense of community that universities and colleges foster. That’s a concept which Orthodox Christians in particular, find very familiar.

I couldn’t help but think a rather unkind thought as I read Keegan’s reflection though. When it formed in my head, it went something like this: “People who like to ascribe all events to the ‘irresistible will of God’ should think long and hard about tragedies like this.” The thought is unkind because many people (including myself) draw profound comfort from the sense that everything is ultimately in God’s hands. I don’t think that sense is necessarily misguided – there’s no denying that God’s plans for eternity, truth and love will ultimately be realised. He’s certainly ‘omnipotent’ in that sense; He cannot, ultimately, be defeated.

But surely, surely, Keegan’s tragic death, when she had just demonstrated such disarming and stunningly beautiful humanity, has to show that there is something profoundly wrong with this world. Marina Keegan was ripped suddenly and violently out of a world which she loved deeply, leaving her friends and family heartbroken. And of course, she is just one of billions of human beings who suffered similarly sudden and violent ends throughout history. The only honest response to that fact is to ask, “Why do things like this happen?”

I feel rather strongly that the answer cannot be, it simply cannot be, ‘because God wills it.’ That is not the God of Christ or the God of Scripture. If there is a sense in which God ‘wanted’ Keegan to die at this time and this place, then there has to be a deeper, truer sense in which He never wanted her to die. D.B. Hart puts this well:

Ours is, after all, a religion of salvation; our faith is in a God who has come to rescue His creation from the absurdity of sin and the emptiness of death, and so we are permitted to hate these things with a perfect hatred. [...] And while we know that the victory over evil and death has been won, we know also that it is a victory yet to come, and that creation therefore, as Paul says, groans in expectation of the glory that will one day be revealed. Until then, the world remains a place of struggle between light and darkness, truth and falsehood, life and death; and, in such a world, our portion is charity.

For me at least, that is one of the supreme truths revealed by Christ. The Gospel of John is particularly illuminating on this subject; in it, Christ says that ruler of the world ‘has nothing in Him’ (John 14:30), and that He has come to cast him out (John 12:31). The ruler of this world, according to Christ, is not God. He/she/it is a force entirely alien to God – John’s first epistle makes this even more explicit: “We know that we are of God, but the whole world is under the sway of the wicked one.” (1 John 5:19).

Continue reading

The Bread of Heaven

It’s easy for those of us who partake of the Eucharist weekly to forget the stunning, world-inverting power of the Christian liturgy. This post, probably the first in a series, is a collection of texts from the early Church which give a sense of the wonder and awe with which the early Christians approached the Liturgy, most of which are prefaced with a quick introduction to explain their relevance. Naturally, they are only scratching the surface of early Christian writing on the Eucharist, and given that most early Christians could not read, these words scratched out on papyri can hardly be expected to express the fullness of what the liturgy meant to Churches of the ancient world.

“You have mixed for us a cup from a true vine: Your divine and unblemished side, from which after You had given up the spirit, let flow unto us blood and water for the purification of the whole world.” ~ A Fraction Prayer

The Book of Revelation, John of Patmos, c. 90AD

Few people appreciate the heavily Eucharistic imagery of the Book of Revelation. Mike Aquilina, a Catholic scholar says in his fantastic book, ‘The Mass of the Early Christians’, “John’s description of heaven’s court mirrored the arrangement of the bishop and his priests around the Church’s altar in the early liturgy. John’s hymns and chants reappear in many ancient liturgies.”

This passage, for example, very likely mirrors the arrangement of the early church around the bishop who was officiating the Eucharist:

“Immediately I was in the Spirit; and behold, a throne set in heaven, and One sat on the throne. And He who sat there was like a jasper and a sardius stone in appearance; and there was a rainbow around the throne, in appearance like an emerald. Around the throne were twenty-four thrones, and on the thrones I saw twenty-four elders sitting, clothed in white robes; they had crowns of gold on their head. And from the throne proceeded lightnings, thunderings, and voices.” (Rev 4:2-5)

In this next passage, all the hosts of heaven gather to worship the slain Lamb, a term we still use repeatedly in the Liturgy to refer to the Eucharistic Christ, who is offering Himself up for us …

“(Chapter 5 verse 6) And I looked, and behold, in the midst of the throne and of the four living creatures, and in the midst of the elders, stood a Lamb as though it had been slain … (v. 11) Then I looked around, and I heard the voice of many angels around the throne, the living creatures and the elders; and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice: ‘Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom and srrengtg and honour and glory and blessing!’ And every creature which is in heaven and on earth and under the earth and such as are in the sea and all that are in them, I heard saying: ‘Blessing and honour and glory and power be to Him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb, forever and ever!’ Then the four living creatures said, ‘Amen!’ And the twenty-four elders fell down and worshipped Him who lives forever and ever.” (Rev 5:6 & 11-14) Continue reading

Three Days in the Tomb

There’s an ancient scriptural tradition (in both Judaism and Christianity) that a three day period of darkness and suffering must be endured before salvation can come. The most obvious example is of course, Christ’s three day internment in the tomb, but there are many Old Testament examples as well: Jonah’s three days in the fish’s belly, Joshua’s spies who hid for three days while the enemy searched for them (Joshua 2).

There are some schools of Christian thought which argue that Christ’s death means that we need do absolutely nothing but accept Him in order to partake of His life. To most Orthodox-Catholics (and many Protestants also), such an idea seems radically unscriptural. Christ was very clear that He could bestow life only on those who ‘took up their Cross’ (Mt 16:25-25). To say so does not contradict the ‘grace’ of Christ’s gift – eternal life is given freely to all those who are willing to receive it. And receiving it, Christ makes very clear, is going to hurt.

Regardless of their theological positions, all true Christians know that following Christ means the death of something within them. Their pride, anger, selfish ambition and lust all have to be slain. And that process hurts. It’s easy to forget that this is what being a Christian means – Christ doesn’t beat around the bush. If we hang around Him, perhaps content to simply say a few meagre prayers every night and show up to Church on Sundays, He will quickly make us aware that He has far bigger plans for us. Plans to turn us into radiant, glorious, immortal angels of light (Wis. of Sol 3:7, Matt 13:43, Dan 12:3). But he can only give us life if we agree to die for Him. Not all of us have the strength to be physically tortured and killed for Christ, but all of us will certainly physically die, and Christian living requires us to become living sacrifices (Rom 12:1) to God.

But here is the stunning thing. The amazing, paradoxical, wondrous, world-shattering fact of it all: there is something glorious hidden in our sacrificial death. Christians who fall to the ground, broken and bleeding at the hands of kings and emperors, or those who pour out every inch of their being in service of Christ, have a stunningly consistent habit of not staying dead. They certainly appear weak, when they lie on the ground, utterly spent. But something unbelievable lies shrouded in their weakness … something deeper, older and truer than whatever dark power tears them down; something invincible.

Continue reading

“Your Throne O God” – The Theology of ‘Pek-Ethronos’

“Your Throne O God, is forever and ever. A scepter of righteousness is the scepter of Your kingdom.” (Psalm 45:6)

‘First Things’, of which I am a big fan, has kindly agreed to publish an article I submitted about the spirituality of Coptic chant, with a particular focus on the Good Friday hymn ‘Pek-Ethronos’. The article can be read here.

This post is essentially a companion to that article where I can do some things which can’t be done on the ‘First Things’ website, like provide an actual recording of the hymn. I’ve also included some points that had to be cut from the original article due to First Things’ length requirements.

In summary, the argument was that the main theme in ‘Pek-ethronos’  is that of paradox. The hymn communicates that theme chiefly (but not entirely) through its weaving together of two separate musical themes – a dark one, which dominates towards the hymn’s beginning, and a lighter one which grows gradually stronger, coming to dominate the hymn’s latter half. That slow build-up of joy overcoming sadness is what, for me, makes up the bulk of the hymn’s theological depth; it reflects any and all of the innumerable ways in which the Cross is a paradox. The Cross begins as defeat but ends in triumph, begins with cruelty but ends in love, begins in tragedy but ends with joy; there are thousands more beautiful, paradoxical truths about how the Cross transforms the world.

This is a good recording of ‘Pek-Ethronos’ from a Church somewhere in either Canada or North America, judging from the priest’s accent:

“Pek-ethronos ef-Nouti sha eneh ente pi-eneh, Alleluia.”

“Your Throne O God, (is) forever and ever, Alleluia.”

The tune begins in absolute darkness – the tune in this part is very similar to the long ‘Diptych’ of St. Basil’s Liturgy, and the mournful beginning of ‘Sothis Amen’ before the Absolution in the Liturgy of the Word. The musical mood is entirely and explicitly funerary, which seems rather incompatible with the hymn’s words.

The lighter tone first breaks in very briefly at 3.55, but is gone by 4.12. At 5.40 however, it breaks in again, this time much more noticeably. It wavers in and out of focus for about 90 seconds, after which the tune fades back into darkness at 7.45. All of this takes place on the word ‘eneh’.

At 8.53 the lighter tone breaks in again. At around the 10 minute mark, it climbs to the point just before it should climax twice, but recedes just before it reaches it. After entering the second syllable of ‘Alleluia’, the cantors climb the ladder to the climax once more, and this time, they break through; at 10.57 they enter a joyous cascade of notes that sound, for the first time, to be completely unfree of pain or expectancy – this is the powerful, unchallenged joy which the hymn’s earlier portions had promised would come.

As the cantors work their way through the final ‘Alleluia’, the darker tone seems to return only for as long as the lighter one had remained at the hymn’s beginning. The lighter tone now dominates, and climaxes once more before the hymn ends. The tune of joy, which we glimpsed initially only in brief, fleeting flashes, has proven so powerful, so uncontainable and so eternally true that the darkness simply cannot subdue it any longer.

And there’s a very powerful sense in which this reflects Christ’s own journey into death. It’s no coincidence, I suspect, that the lighter tune breaks through for the first time during the phrase ‘sha eneh‘, which means ‘forever’. Christ’s infinite and necessary existence has often been thought of as the property which allowed Him to defeat death from within. Death tries to consume Him on the Cross, and even appears to succeed for a moment; but Christ’s divinity, His eternality, His ‘uncontainability’soon breaks through, so that three days later, He bursts His tomb open from the inside. That is the story which ‘Pek-ethronos’ tells as its melancholy tune slowly comes to match its triumphant words: the seemingly unconquerable empire of death is slowly but surely cracked open from within, as Christ’s uncontainable innocence, joy and love inexorably expand to fill the world with light. This is the story of Christ’s passion, but it is also the story of Creation’s liberation from death and tragedy, through Christ’s healing suffering. It is, in the end, the only story worth telling.

A blessed Good Friday to Christians of the West, and peace and safety to all Christians of the East in the lead-up to Holy Week!

Educator of the Generations

"Hushed is a tongue whose words flooded our ears like a mighty stream: a depth of heart, never fathomed before, has fled, humanly speaking, like an unsubstantial dream. Whose glance so keen as his to look into the future?"
~ St. Basil of Caesarea, (comforting a local church on the loss of their bishop)

Pope Shenouda III, the 117th Pope of the Coptic Church passed away this morning. He was a man of vision, compassion and gentleness – and none of those traits ever faded in him, even when his Church was rocked by violence and tragedy. He achieved an awful lot for one man over his 40 year reign. One of his greatest legacies was his dedication to making the Church a place for the youth. A phrase of his that went ‘viral’ among Copts long before there was an internet was, “A Church without youth is a Church without a future.” He realised the importance of educating and engaging young people, and it may well be that the current, vibrant Coptic youth culture owes His Holiness immeasurably for its vitality, and perhaps even its existence. Some Copts have even begun to use the appellation, ‘Educator of the Generations’, when the Pope’s name is mentioned in the liturgy – a trend which I hope will continue.

Beyond that, he had an incredible personality – scenes like this bespeak not only an incredible humility, but an amazing, Christ-like love which made him able to treat children who barely knew who he was with the same amount of attention, honour and respect as the hundreds of important adults constantly clamouring around him, hanging on his every word. My mother recalls for instance, that when she and a friend were staying in his monastery, the Pope stumbled upon them during a late night stroll (they had drawn him by making too much noise). He took them both by the hand, giving them a guided tour of the grounds, and led them finally to the balcony of his cell where he personally made them milk tea (after which he asked them kindly to return to their rooms and stop making so much noise). There were no crowds present for whom he could have been showing off, no cameras or reporters. He simply saw two women who really should have been asleep, and wanted to make them feel welcome.  There was no-one not worth his time, no-one whom he was too important to bother with – not even children. That sort of love, I am convinced, comes straight from the living Christ (Mark 10:14, Matt 19:14) – it’s the sort of love which makes a person so immune to self-absorption that no-one around them could possibly feel insignificant. He saw every single human being glowing with the glory of God’s image – and it showed in everything he did.

Continue reading

Trinity and True Love – An Orthodox Valentine’s Day

“So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” (Gen 1:27)

Unfortunately, it’s become increasingly common to think of the ‘image of God’ in man as referring nothing more than immaterial properties like consciousness, free will and rationality. An unfortunate side effect of this emphasis on the immaterial aspects of the image of God in man has been that other, more physical and tangible aspects of what it means to be human have been dismissed as meaningless, ‘fallen’ properties of sinful humanity. Tragically, gender and sexuality are sometimes dismissed as just that: fallen, sinful aspects of a broken world, that will disappear the moment we are freed from our fleshy prisons and released into an entirely ‘spiritual’ heaven. Well, it shouldn’t be so. And since today is Valentine’s day, I thought it would be as good a time as any to share some thoughts on why I (and many others) think our being male and female, and even our sexuality itself, are beautiful, powerful expressions of the very divine image.

One aspect of the image of God that people rarely connect with being human is God’s nature as a Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. When thinking of the Trinity, we should avoid simplistic images of three men sitting in some heavenly throne room together – the three divine Persons are far more than mere co-existent rulers. The Son is begotten of the Father, and the Spirit proceeds eternally from the Father – they do not simply ‘co-exist’. In fact, God’s being a Trinity reveals the deepest truth of reality, the very fabric of all existence, is love. Why? C.S. Lewis puts it rather well:

“In Christianity, God is not a static thing – not even a person – but a dynamic, pulsating activity, a life, almost a kind of drama. Almost, if you will not think me irreverent, a kind of dance.(Mere Christianity, pg. 148, my emphasis)

There’s a very concrete sense in which, when we say ‘God is love’, we really mean it. God doesn’t just practice love, or communicate it or appreciate it; He IS love. At the core of His being, He is a beautiful, eternal, timeless ‘dance’ of mutual, three-way giving. All three live in eternal, loving communion. And from that communion, all existence comes.

So what does this mean for human beings made in God’s image? Well, Met. Kallistos Ware says in ‘The Orthodox Way’:

“Since the image of God is a Trinitarian image, it follows that man, like God, realises his true nature through mutual life. The image signifies his relationship not only with God, but with other men. Just as the three divine persons live in and for each other, so man – being made in the Trinitarian image – becomes a real person by seeing the world through others’ eyes, by making others’ joys and sorrows his own.” (pg. 53, my emphasis)

A human who lives entirely for himself is not entirely human. If we are to become real persons, glowing with the glory and love of God Himself, we must learn that real power, real authority and real divinity lie not in manipulation and domineering, but in co-operation and the outpouring of the self. Just as the three Persons of the Trinity pour themselves out in love, synergy and giving, we must do amongst one another. Now, it must be admitted that this business of submitting, co-operating and self-giving which Christians claim will turn us into radiant, God-like beings, appears decidedly weak. In general, people who submit and sacrifice  their own interests tend to be beaten and bullied by the strong and self-willed. They rarely attain any of the sort of success that people in this world usually admire. But that is only because this world is fallen. Submission and self-sacrifice are in fact among the most powerful acts it is possible for us to perform.

A useful illustration might be Christ’s own self-outpouring on the Cross. Continue reading