Living Icons: St. Ignatius the God-Bearer

The practice of venerating saints makes many modern Christians uncomfortable. “Why can’t we just focus on Christ?” is the typical objection, “Aren’t you making idols out of ordinary people?” And icons depicting the Saints towering over a landscape with a glowing halo only make these concerns seem more poignant. But what this objection misses is that for traditional Christians, the veneration of Saints is a simple consequence of the Incarnation. We believe that God became man so that men might become like God, and the Saints are proof that this has actually happened. They show through their lives that the Incarnation was not mere sophistry or legend, but an actual, concrete union between God and man, which made ordinary men and women glow with the light and love of Divinity. The light streaming out of their haloes in the Icons is none other than the light which streamed forth from Christ’s body at the Transfiguration. Christ wasn’t asserting a contradiction when He said both, “I am the light of the world” and “You are the light of the world.”

St. Ignatius the God-bearer

This notion goes right back to the dawn of Christianity, and we see it reflected perfectly in the life and writings of St. Ignatius of Antioch, whose martyrdom was commemorated in the Coptic Church last Sunday. Ignatius’ story takes place at the very dawn of Christian history, in living memory of the Apostles; he is said to have been a disciple of John the Beloved himself. Despite this incredibly early date, Ignatius’ writings powerfully express the belief that lies at the heart of traditional Christian sainthood: that because of the Incarnation, mortal men bear God’s love and power. You see, St. Ignatius is also called “The God-bearer” (θεοφόρος, theophoros), a word taken from his own writings. He used it to describe all Christians:

“Ye, therefore, as well as all your fellow-travellers, are God-bearers, temple-bearers, Christ-bearers, bearers of holiness, adorned in all respects with the commandments of Jesus Christ …” (Ignatius to the Ephesians, Ch. 9)

Because of the Incarnation, where God dwelt in human flesh, humans can be God-bearers: living, fleshly analogues of the ancient Jewish Temple, of which God said “this is the place of My throne and the place of the soles of My feet …” (Ez. 43:7) And thus, there’s no tension between the veneration of Saints and the worship of Christ; the Saints are “God’s field” and “God’s building” (1 Cor 3:9); He built them like He built the Temple, and adorned them with His own beauty, that the world might admire God through them. Continue reading

Advertisements

‘Wondrous Humility’ or ‘Does God have narcissistic personality disorder?’

As Christmas is celebrated this year, thousands of Christians over the world will be offering praise to Christ. But the act of ‘praise’ or ‘worship’, so central to all religions, is something which can make modern, Western minds extremely uncomfortable. There are probably several reasons for this, but one of the central ones is that we feel that any god who demands praise must be a narcissistic tool. In 2009, Catherine Deveny wrote this (pretty entertaining) piece of New Atheist rhetoric where she suggested that the God of ‘monotheistic religion’ suffers from an acute case of narcissistic personality disorder: “a condition in which people have an inflated sense of self-importance and an extreme preoccupation with themselves (source).” Deveny argues that God’s behaviour is typical of an NPD sufferer (NPD for short):

“[NPDs] expect the best but give very little. They cannot love and have no empathy. But they are emotionally needy and crave attention so hone their skills to attract love, admiration and attention to fill a hole inside them that will never be filled. NPDs don’t feel they exist without an adoring fan club …”

An NPD’s chief fault is that he has a pathological need for praise, because it temporarily numbs a (false and rather tragic) sense of inferiority. So they amass wealth and resources (e.g. political or military power, wealth, fame) and then share out benefits in small amounts to anyone willing to exchange them for some praise or adoration. The practice is distasteful because it’s all entirely self-serving on both sides; the NPD cares nothing for the people around them in themselves because he only wants their adoration. And his followers provide him with praise, not because he deserves it, but because they want what he can give them. Both sides are ultimately in it for themselves and neither of them are being honest about their motivations.

"You descended from Your Heavenly Glory to our humility and consented to be born in a manger ..." (Prayer before Communion)

“You descended from Your Heavenly Glory to our humility and consented to be born in a manger …” (Prayer before Communion)

So is this rather sad situation analogous to Christians and their worship of God? Regardless of what some individual Christians think in their private prayer lives, Christianity’s early history reveals a very explicit rejection of the idea that God needs our praise, or that we could receive benefits from Him in return for the praise we offer Him. Why? Because both those ideas were central beliefs of paganism. Pagans, unlike Christians, believed the gods had no innate care for the human race; they were certainly not gods of ‘love’ in the Christian sense of giving without expecting to receive in return. Historian Everett Ferguson says, “There was a common idea in the ancient world that the deities needed the food and drink sacrificed to them. This was especially so in Rome. Sacrifice was thought of as increasing their supply of numen, which would be used up in helping people.” In other words, the pagan gods would (and could) only give you something if you gave them something in return. Pagan prayers were very explicitly aimed at ‘sealing the deal’; a pagan called Valerius Maximus (1st century CE) described the basic principle behind pagan prayers as follows:  “By ancient practice, attention is paid to the divine: through prayer when anything requires entrusting to the gods; through a vow when a favour is requested; through a ceremony of thanksgiving when a vow is to be paid …”  All pagan prayer is offered with reference to some favour the god has performed. 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