Sunday, March 29, 2009

St. John Climacus

+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen.

On this Fourth Sunday of Great Lent, the Orthodox Church commemorates St. John Climacus, the author of “The Ladder of Divine Ascent” which is a book featuring a series of short sermons on achieving perfection in the Christian life.

St. John was born in Sinai in the 6th century and was tonsured as a monk somewhere between the ages of 16 to 20. At the age of 35 he left the cenobitic or communal form of monasticism to become a hermit for 40 years. It was during this time that he received the grace of continual prayer and the gift of tears. Fellow monks began to seek him out in great numbers for guidance in the spiritual life until he became so popular that he was accused of making a mockery of the eremitic lifestyle. He responded to this in humility by renewing his silence and refusing to see any visitors. After about a year of this, those who had harshly accused him repented and pleaded with him to resume his work of guiding others.

Soon after this, he was appointed the Abbot of the monastery at Mt. Sinai, built on the very spot were Moses encountered God in the Burning Bush. It is said that on the day that St. John was installed as the new Abbot, Moses himself appeared, giving commands to those who served at the holy altar!

The Ladder of Divine Ascent was written primarily for those involved in monastic endeavors, but over the years it was found to be a book useful to all serious Christians who sought to subdue the sinful passions and purify their love for Christ. Each of its 30 chapters encourage the reader to put away the love of earthly things and continue an upward climb, step by step in the acquisition of virtue, progressing toward a state of spiritual perfection in Christ.

Sadly, the things we are speaking of here represent what we must almost describe as the Christianity of a distant, bygone era. Today’s Christians are not generally concerned with the subjugation of their sinful passions or the pursuit of virtue in Christ. Part of this may be due to the fact that many Christians think that their salvation is already a done deal and thus they see no need to overcome sin and gain virtue. But even most Orthodox Christians today seem to struggle with the idea of actually gaining victory over their passions and growing in virtue, as if such things were impossible for us.

We live in an age of great spiritual darkness and faintheartedness that often makes even the smallest spiritual effort seem incredibly difficult to us. Things as simple as keeping our little rule of prayer can often overwhelm us and seem infinitely beyond our meager abilities. We don’t know a great deal about being strict with ourselves or of forcing ourselves to do the things that are hard. We fear spiritual struggle and much too quickly accept the notion that a kind of spiritual mediocrity is the best we can ever hope for in our lives.

But St. John Climacus understood that man was created for much higher and greater things. We are created to work together with God, in synergy, uniting our will and action to His grace and divine energies to accomplish what we by ourselves alone could never do. There are many places in Scripture where we are specifically told to cooperate with God in this way and to labor diligently and daily to eliminate sin from our lives and progress toward Christian perfection.

One such place can be found in II Peter, chapter one, in a passage that sounds remarkably like a ladder of divine ascent itself. Having just reminded his readers of our high calling in Christ and the things given to us by His divine power, the apostle continues: “Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust. And beside this, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge; and to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience; and to patience godliness; and to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness charity. For if these things be in you, and abound, they make you that ye shall neither be barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But he that lacketh these things is blind, and cannot see afar off, and hath forgotten that he was purged from his old sins. Wherefore the rather, brethren, give diligence to make your calling and election sure: for if ye do these things, ye shall never fall: for so an entrance shall be ministered unto you abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.” [2 Peter 1:4-11]

Notice how St. Peter makes it plain that those who remain barren and unfruitful, though they were purged from their previous sins, are not guaranteed salvation as if by “faith alone”. Cooperation with God in the cultivation of the Christian virtues is necessary to make our calling and election sure and for entrance into the kingdom to be granted unto us.

The subduing of our many earthly passions and the uniting of them into one focused passion for God, together with growth in virtue, is the biblical and Orthodox characterization of the true Christian life. As Orthodox Christians, we must seek to embrace what the Scriptures teach and our Holy Tradition echoes concerning the Christian life as one of divine ascent from the state we exist in now to the one God desires for us. In commemorating St. John Climacus and remembering his Ladder of Divine Ascent on this day, the Church is not suggesting that we are all called to live as monks. But it is reminding us that we are all called to live as Christians, and therefore to set our affection on things above, not on the things of this world.

In our heart of hearts we know whether we are learning to love the things of God or whether we are still slavishly attached to the things of this world. We know whether we are cooperating with the saving grace of God in our lives and are working together with Him, or else are resisting. While progress is often difficult to measure, we at least still know whether we are consistently making a sincere effort in good faith, or are giving in to sloth and are making excuses for a careless attitude toward our holy upward calling in Christ Jesus.

Beloved, we are designed to ascend to the heights of heaven and to share in the holiness of Christ in glory. This is what this Sunday of St. John Climacus reminds us of, here in the midst of our Lenten pursuits. I’ll close with the Troparion written to his memory: “Thou hast set up a holy ladder by thy words and hast shone forth as a teacher of monks; thou dost lead us, O John, from the purification that comes from discipline to the light of the Divine Vision. O righteous father, pray to Christ our God to grant us His great mercy.”

+To the glory of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

The Sunday of Orthodoxy

+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen.

Today is the Sunday of Orthodoxy, a day on which we commemorate the triumph of the Christian faith over the iconoclasts of the eighth century.

In those days there arose a serious and vicious attack against the doctrine of the incarnation of Christ, which took the devious “back door” approach of an assault upon the holy icons of the Church. Claiming that the icons were equal to idols condemned by the Second Commandment of God in Exodus 20, the iconoclasts (literally, “icon-smashers”) destroyed vast numbers of ancient and holy icons in the churches and persecuted or martyred many thousands of Orthodox defenders of icons. The Seventh Ecumenical Council was convened in 787AD to put forth the traditional Orthodox belief which upheld the proper veneration of icons and anathematized those who vilely accused the holy images of being idols.

The iconoclasts were heavily influenced by a number of factors external to Christianity including among them Gnosticism, which was a very early heresy that denied the incarnation of Christ. The Gnostics held to a pagan belief known as “dualism” which asserts that the material world is evil and beyond redemption, and the only way for man to be saved is to “free himself” from his material shell and become purely spirit. This of course stands in total opposition to the Christian revelation, which proclaims that the material world is not evil, only fallen, and that mankind and all of creation is raised up and restored by being joined to God through the incarnation of Christ.

The apostles fought Gnosticism fiercely. St. John wrote against the Gnostic denial by saying, “By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God. And this is the spirit of the Antichrist…” (1 John 4:2-3) Lest anyone fail to understand the reality of the incarnation, St. Paul wrote clearly, “In Him [Jesus Christ] dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily” (Colossians 2:9)

The apostles were unabashedly incarnational in their faith and understood that God had joined Himself to man in order that man might be filled with God, ever progressing toward “God-likeness”, being “partakers of the divine nature” as St. Peter wrote. And it is this very thing that the holy icons of the Church portray so well. They show Jesus Christ as having come in the flesh, not merely “appearing” as a man, but literally becoming a man, by adding a true and complete human nature to Himself. They depict His holy ones, the saints, as being human beings filled with God and transformed from their fallen state to a new and higher state through their union with the divine in Christ. What the apostles knew, and the holy icons portray perfectly, is that the joining of humanity to deity in the person of the Son of God, fills man with the energies of His divine nature, restoring the image of God in us, healing the sickness of sin, and leading us to glorification.

This profound understanding of the incarnation with all its salvific ramifications has been greatly watered-down in contemporary Christian theology. Many of today’s Christians have little concept of the incarnation other than the notion that Jesus took flesh in order to die for us upon the cross. The fuller meaning of His incarnation, including the essential Christian concept of theosis so boldly described by St. Athanasius with the words, “God became man so that man might become God,” seems strange and even unchristian to many believers today. They see salvation not so much as the restoration and glorification of humanity in Christ, but mostly as God forgiving our sins in order to save us from His own wrath. They depict grace as an “attitude” of God toward man, rather than as the transformational power given to man through Christ. They see Christian transformation itself as largely a mental process focused on gaining bible knowledge and “right thinking” which allegedly leads to a knowledge of God. This is not unlike what the Gnostics themselves believed, for they also focused on knowledge as the only true path to God.

To put it bluntly, the traditional, Orthodox Christian understanding of the incarnation of Christ is a little too “carnal” for the theological tastes of many modern believers, unknowingly influenced by Gnosticism. In their minds it makes God a little too “intimate” with humanity. It also by extension makes the highly incarnational sacraments of the Eucharist and Christian baptism a bit too “real”. Many Christians prefer to spiritualize these things and reduce them to being symbolic only, lacking any material content. My friends, this is Gnosticism, alive and well, and finding a welcome home in much of contemporary Christian theology.

It’s not surprising therefore that we Orthodox Christians often take a little heat from some of our brethren outside of Eastern Orthodoxy for our use of icons. We are falsely accused of “worshipping” icons and often hear the same tired arguments that the original iconoclasts used, namely that any use of icons is a violation of God’s commandments. Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it, as the saying goes.

Orthodox Christians do not “worship” icons, nor the saints that they depict. We venerate or give honor to the saints by kissing their images as one might affectionately kiss the treasured photograph of any loved one. Icons therefore not only portray profound divine truths concerning our salvation, but they are also tremendously important to us on the human level, connecting us with Christ and His saints in ways that words and concepts alone cannot accomplish with such satisfaction. Have you noticed that when people are forced to abandon their homes in times of sudden disaster, the two things they most desire to take with them are their financial records and their family photo albums? All those images are so important to the process of connecting us to our family and of reminding us who we are. Icons fulfill a similar human need. Beyond teaching us vital Christian theology, they connect us in real ways to our heavenly family, while definitely reminding us of who we are and of our holy calling in Christ.

This is the fundamental failure of Gnosticism. At its heart it is a denial of that which is human. It focuses on the renewal of the intellect as the only “savable” part of man, and abandons the rest of our humanity as useless. Any contemporary Christian teaching which also focuses exclusively on the “spiritual” aspects of man, while marginalizing or despising the material aspects of our humanity or our salvation, has also failed to embrace true Christianity.

This is why the Seventh Ecumenical council of the Orthodox Church chose to include in its synodikon or “statement of faith” regarding the holy icons a series of anathemas concerning all those who reject the proper Christian use of icons. Most parishes today do not include the anathemas in the synodikon for fear of offending non-Orthodox visitors. But properly understood, these anathemas are not intended as abusive judgments of other believers, but as sincere warnings to them. They state that those who reject the Christian use of icons, or who equate icons with idols, or icon-veneration with idol-worship, stand accursed. When we see that the rejection of icons is rooted in Gnostic thought and leads to the watering-down of Christian theology, these warnings ring true and can be seen as expressions of concern for others, much like a highway sign reading, “Bridge out ahead! Turn back immediately!” The Church is not in the business of putting curses on people, but of saving them. And this is the true purpose of the anathemas; to warn, to direct toward repentance, to save from error.

There is much error pervading Christendom today. When so many of our friends argue against the holy icons, unaware that by so doing they are attacking historic Christianity and aligning themselves with eighth-century heretics, things have definitely gone bad. This is yet another reason why we must keep the traditional use of icons alive in our generation, and fill our churches, our homes, and our lives with these blessed images, properly understood and properly and faithfully used.

+To the glory of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.