Friday, April 15, 2016

What does it mean to be human? An Orthodox answer.

A brief talk presented by Fr. Zechariah at a forum entitled "Human Origins: What does it mean to be Human?" Each speaker (there were five from various backgrounds) was limited to twelve minutes. The forum was offered in conjunction with a traveling Smithsonian exhibit of the same name. 

My goal is to present, in brief, a very basic outline of the Eastern Orthodox Christian understanding of the purpose and origin of Humanity. For the most part, I will not be comparing and contrasting various theories, philosophies, ideologies, and such. I also am not presenting a scientific discourse, as it is defined and specifically classified by the modern world. Thus I will not be touching upon data, research, contrasting interpretations and disputes of various scientific theories. Such information is easily obtained elsewhere. Again my intent is to present, very basically, the Orthodox Christian understanding of human origins. Although, if we apply the word “science” in its more ancient and comprehensive context, that is the pursuit of ultimate knowledge, understanding, and principle, then my small address certainly falls within the bounds of science.

In Orthodoxy beginning is intimately tied to Telos: ultimate meaning and end goal. Christianity, throughout all time and all places, has proclaimed and confessed that all of creation has its origin from God. The sacred writings of the Faith, which may be familiar to some, open with these words, In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth (Gen. 1:1). In the ancient Christian creed of Nicea, which is confessed at every Orthodox Divine Liturgy, the creation of all things by God is professed as indispensable to Christian faith, “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible; and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God … through Whom all things were made … and in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life.” Christianity confesses that God made all things, ex nihlo, from none being; He did not manipulate and form some pre-existent matter, such as in demiurge stories. His very word called the material realm into existence. He alone is the source of all things, while remaining in His essence other than, and independent of, the created order. He is everywhere present, sustains and gives life to all things, fills all things, yet is distinct in nature and essence; He is Life Himself and depends on no other thing or entity; He is self-existing Being, while all of creation depends on Him for existence. Creation is a free act of God, in which there is no necessity. This free act of Divine fiat is the sole foundation of created life; God is intimately and personally involved in the original making and continued existence of all creation.

It is also vital to note briefly that Orthodox Christianity confesses divine revelation, that is we take our knowledge of beginning not simply and exclusively from the mutability of the “natural order” but most of all from the immutable manifestation of God Himself to His creation - He revealed to us how He created all things. In His nature God is eternal, unknowable, and incommunicable, but He has deigned to reveal and communicate Himself by His Divine grace or energy. Wholly unknowable in His essence, God fully reveals Himself in His grace; this in no way divides His nature. Revelation is the transcendent knowledge that brings cohesiveness to varied and limited earthly knowledge. Clearly God could have use a multitude of means to create, but He chose, according to His wisdom, a particular manner, and then made that manner known in basic. I will also briefly note that we see no conflict between true observational science and revelation. 

 Let's turn to the specific topic of this forum: Humanity, mankind. As with all things, Orthodoxy knows humanity to be the particular work of God. Indeed, mankind is seen as the unique craftsmanship of God, male and female He made them. God created mankind instantly, a compound being of body and soul, psychosomatic. This is the totality of human composition. Orthodoxy confesses that there was never a time when humanity was without a soul. Body and soul were created simultaneously by God, not one before and the other afterward. From the very beginning, God endowed His creature Mankind with the capacity to commune with Him, this is reflected in the Genesis account when it says, God “breathed into his face the breath of life; and man became a living soul” (Gen. 2:7). Through our bodily aspect, taken and compounded from earthly elements, we share communion with all material creation, thus, for instance, the genetic similarity as noted in the exhibit is not at all surprising; and through the breath of God, that is the indwelling of the Spirit, mankind was gifted the capacity to commune and become a partaker in the Divine. Mankind was given a spiritual faculty, which originally was the higher governing faculty. Thus Humanity is created ultimately to be a bearer of Divine grace. Grace is not causality, but eternal property of Divine Being. In Humanity both the earthly and the heavenly come together in harmony, in one creature. A verse from a service of the Orthodox Church proclaims, “Adam, though formed of dust, shared in the higher breath of life” (Festal Menaion, Nativity canon, p. 271).

Mankind was originally created in childlike perfection and holiness. Adam and Eve were called to ascend in Divine perfection and to grow in their pristine fellowship with God. As our Tradition reveals God made intrinsic to humanity His Image and Likeness, as it says, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to our likeness” (Gen. 1:26). This does not refer to our physical form, but rather indicates the natural potential in humanity to bear God, and even more so to be fashioned in a divine manner, not according to our own powers but in synergy with God Himself. Image is the spiritual potential imprinted upon every person of humanity; likeness is the conscious actualization of grace through the virtues energizing within the one who freely chooses to communion with God.

This state of Grace Orthodoxy confesses to be the natural state of mankind. As one Orthodox theologian writes, “We know nothing of 'pure nature' to which grace is added as a supernatural gift … there is no natural or normal state since grace is implied in the act of creation itself … created beings have the faculty of being assimilated to God because such is the very object of their creation” (Lossky, Mystical Theology, pp. 101, 102). Further a revered saint, Abba Dorotheus, elaborates, “In the beginning God created man, He placed him in paradise and adorned him with every virtue, giving him the commandment not to taste of the tree … And thus he remained there in the enjoyment of Paradise: in prayer, in vision, in glory and honor, having sound senses and being in the same natural condition in which he was created. For God created man according to His own image, that is, immortal, master of himself, and adorned with every virtue” (cf. Rose: Genesis, Creation, and Early Man, p. 473). Indeed, God proclaims all of His handiwork to be “very good.” God interwove goodness into the very fabric of His creation; for God Himself is the ultimate Good. God Himself infused creation with goodness and life.

Thus, the current less than ideal state of our race and world is because we have lost our natural state of being, choosing to attempt existence without Life Himself, that is God. This state Orthodoxy calls death. Death is not limited to the ceasing of bodily function. Bodily death directly conveys the seriousness of our plight outside of our natural created state. Death ultimately is an attempt to exist without Life, without the telos established by God in the beginning, which is participation in God by grace. Death together with its energizing factor evil, are parasitical; they are spiritual maladies and pollutants which are the result of refusing the Good. Death, evil, sin, can only attempt to deform and disfigure the good that God has established. What we observe and call the natural world around us, inclusive of our human race, is, as Orthodox Christianity teaches, in a state of unnatural corruption due to a phenomenon referred to as the fall, the name given to the active choosing of death over life by mankind in the beginning and even to this day. Through conscious and willful choice, mankind desired to exist without God, seeking to be its own independent god and master. Our Creator allowed this by His permissive will, for He had given mankind the gift of self-mastery, that is freedom of will, even to choose other than the good and life. The wrong use of the gift of freedom we call sin. But choices have consequences, and the consequence of choosing death and sin is the corrupted order we see around us. Human nature itself was altered, corrupted, and it lost God's grace; the unnatural force of death was unleashed upon mankind and the world. It is this corrupted transient order that the self-described natural modern sciences observe, and to which they are subjected.

After the fall humanity was degraded to exist almost solely according to its earthly composition. The original virtues and energies of our God-given nature were twisted and misdirected almost exclusively to temporal passing pleasures. This misdirection has fragmented the original wholeness of our being. Mankind's spiritual perception became deeply damaged and infirm, because of this life was reduced to sensual existence, that is existence based primarily upon the physical senses. The image and likeness of God became corrupted and distorted. But we may observe the resonance and residual echoing of our incorrupt state in the primal mind of our race, in the indisputable tendency of humanity to long, throughout our history, for other than merely a materialistic sensual existence.

Orthodoxy teaches: it is this current corrupt state that is unnatural and abnormal to humanity's God-given created nature. Thus according to Christianity, Christ Jesus has come to restore to mankind its natural and rightful state, delivering from sin, death, and corruption, and even beyond. By taking upon Himself our nature, which had fallen and become decrepit, broken and scattered, He healed it in His Divine Person, thereby reuniting humanity with Divinity. Thus we confess Christ to be perfect Man and perfect God. In Him, we behold the perfect meaning of what it means to be human. Indeed, ancient Christian teachers frequently speak of salvation in terms of healing and therapy; the work of Christ Jesus is called the renewal of mankind. In the Christmas service, Orthodox Christians sing, “You have come, O Resurrection of the nations, to bring back the nature of mankind from its wanderings” (Festal Menaion, Nativity canon, p. 281). It should also be noted that Orthodox Christianity confesses that Christ came to save the whole of His creation, of which the center is the restoration of His creature Mankind. The nexus of all things, the source, mode of being, and end point of humanity according to Orthodox Christian revelation is God, the Divine Triple Lighted Sun of Righteousness. 

Thank you for your time and attentiveness. God bless you.


Friday, April 1, 2016

Church is a Visible Heaven, Paradise, the House of God, by St. Sergius (Srebrianski)

New Hiero-Confessor Sergius
When you come to church for prayer or to serve or to read or sing, always remember that the church is a visible heaven, paradise, the house of God. As it says in the sacred book: 'Standing in the temple of Thy glory, we seem to stand in heaven' (end of lenten Matins). You came as a guest to your Father's house; therefore be attentive to everything that is going on there. The holy Master of the house receives you, talks to you, teaches you, comforts and delights you, satiates you with the immortal Supper – His Body and Blood. How can there be any carelessness, inattention, or laughter here? Looking at the officiating priest, in no way consider his private life; rather regard him as God's messenger, to whom God has entrusted the arrangements of the heavenly banquet – the Divine services. For this purpose he wears priestly garments, which guard him from human glances – even his own – that view him as being no different from anyone else. Instead, he appears to us beautiful, glistening like an angel of the Lord. His mouth, uttering the words of the Gospel and the prayers, is the mouth of God. His blessing is Christ's blessing acting through the grace and Mystery of the priesthood. Do not judge the priest for his personal life, but pray for his salvation. It is difficult for a priest, extremely difficult, and fraught with danger. The Last Judgment is more dreadful for him than for others. You must understand that a priest is entrusted to serve on earth in a manner not entrusted even to the angels. If you, with the priest's blessing, are deemed worthy to serve in church, to read or to sing, count this as a great honor and happiness. You will become like an angel of the Lord announcing to the people God's will. In chanting, you are united with the seraphim. You perform a great deed of love for your neighbor when, through reverent standing in church, through beautiful reading and chanting, you warm the soul of the people and bring them to God. Remember: the church and true, beautiful services serve as the primary and greatest sermons about Christ and eternal salvation. Perform these holy labors with fear, reverence and joy.”  

Excerpted from "Grand Duchess Elizabeth", by Lubov Millar, pp. 369-370