OCCASIONAL HOMILY 1
This then is the message which we have heard of Him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all.
If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth:
But if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanseth us from all sin.
If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.
If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us. 1John 1
True repentance demands that a man turn away from sins and from the vanity of this world and turn toward God with all his heart, that he be changed within, and that he become different from what he was before, and so work out his salvation with fear and trembling (cf. Phil. 2:12), and so endeavour to do nothing else but only to please God and so be saved. For if you wish to be in true repentance and so be saved, change yourself and be renewed, and become different from what you were before, and take care for nothing else but only to please God and be saved, and so shall you be a new creature in Christ. For every Christian that wishes to be a true Christian, and not false, ought to be a new or renewed man or a new creature. Do not, then, indulge your flesh, and do not do everything it may desire. It must be crucified “with its affections and lusts” (Gal. 5:24) when you wish to be a Christian, that is, Christ’s. Much effort and labour is needed, for a man to be changed and to be the good tree that brings forth good fruit. Strive, then, for nothing else but to change, renew, and correct yourself. And pray for this, and sigh often and with all zeal to Christ the Lord, that He Himself might renew you and make you good, for without Him our renewal and correction cannot take place. And when you are renewed inwardly and good, then your outward life and works shall also be good. Saint Tikhon of Zadonsk,
Repentance is the renewal of baptism. Repentance is a contract with God for a second life. A penitent is a buyer of humility. Repentance is constant distrust of bodily comfort. Repentance is self-condemning reflection, and carefree self-care. Repentance is the daughter of hope and the renunciation of despair. A penitent is an undisgraced convict. Repentance is reconciliation with the Lord by the practice of good deeds contrary to the sins. Repentance is purification of conscience. Repentance is the voluntary endurance of all afflictions. A penitent is the inflicter of his own punishments. Repentance is a mighty persecution of the stomach, and a striking of the soul into vigorous awareness. Saint John Climacus
Have mercy upon me, O God, according to Thy lovingkindness: According unto the multitude of Thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity: And cleanse me from my sin.
For I acknowledge my transgressions: And my sin is ever before me.
Against Thee only have I sinned, and done this evil in Thy sight: That Thou mightest be justified when Thou speakest, and be clear when Thou judgest.
Behold, I was shapen in iniquity: And in sin did my mother conceive me.
Behold, Thou desirest truth in the inward parts: And in the hidden part Thou shalt make me to know wisdom.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Make me to hear joy and gladness: That the bones which Thou hast broken may rejoice.
Hide Thy face from my sins: And blot out all mine iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God: And renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from Thy presence: And take not Thy Holy Spirit from me.
Restore unto me the joy of Thy salvation: And uphold me with Thy free spirit.
Then will I teach transgressors Thy ways: And sinners shall be converted unto Thee. Psalm 51 1-13
OCCASIONAL HOMILY 2
There is no romance in a new monastery whatever one hears. There is hard work, deprivation and the secret comfort of closeness to God on occasion. Anyone who has ever lived either the eremitic life or the cloistered life knows full well, that no matter the beautiful or remote location, the monastic life is no easier or more romantic than the life of a Christian who chooses to marry and raise a family. Different paths – to the same end – theosis.
The eremitic life is difficult in that the hermit is responsible for everything – all obediences are his. Only when he has mastered the art of continuous prayer is he able to fulfil the requirement of praying properly.
The coenobitic monastery is valuable to the Church not because it runs retreats, provides picnic facilities, produces cheap candles or incense or becomes a mission in its area (although this latter is of great value). It is valuable to the Church because of prayer. Because it sets aside so much time to bring before God the things of the Church and the world. Its not that God doesn’t know what’s going on – but rather that there is a portion of the population which is trying to distance itself from the surrounding atheistic corruption and evil. The monk talks to God daily about this situation. This in turn brings the monk into ever closer alignment with God’s will.
The Church ever had some form of monasticism – even before the desert Fathers went out, there were individuals and small groups who tried to lead a prayer-centred life in the cities, e.g., communities of virgins and widows in Rome.
In the west – in Great Britain – the Church came with Saint Aristibule in AD 37 and proceeded to convert the Druids. The Druids held a theology remarkably prescient of Christianity. They were not a “church” but rather collegiate groups across the country and these colleges were readily converted and many began to lead the monastic life.
The Church needs those who quietly pray and who are able to spend time praying on behalf of the Church. The Church through its monasteries spread around the world thus prays continuously, is continuously conversing with God – and this alone is the point – as Christ’s body here in earth, the Church MUST be in this continuous mystical conversation with God. This is the Church’s real connection. The wider people of God come together in the Liturgy once a week as is due and proper, but in the meanwhile the conversation must continue unabated.
OCCASIONAL HOMILY 3
Whereas the earliest Christians could to some extent rely on the spreading numbers of people who had direct family lore from members who had actually seen/met Christ/the Apostles, we can not.
The trick for Christianity now is for those of us who seriously experience God to pass on the experience through family friends so that a new generation of Believers can arise who know of actual experience of God rather than dry book stuff.
But this is in fact exceedingly serious stuff. There are in fact exceedingly few Christians who actually experience God. Mostly they cannot understand how this is done and simply rely on reading the Bible and that’s all they’ve got – which just isn’t enough when you’re trying to raise a new generation. Let us look then at some wisdom from the Fathers in these following thoughts:
Only a man who is rich in God and can be free from attachment to possessions and to money, which have enslaved humanity. Only a man who is rooted in God can unfailingly preserve peace and magnanimity when confronted with manifest evil.
Only a man who has become like God can demonstrate such love to others, such that he can sincerely place their interests above his own. This cannot happen if his faith had been confined to rituals, collections of rules, and pretty words about God, without real experience of life in Christ.
He must have experience of living communion with God. The soul that loves God has its rest in God and in God alone. In all the paths that men walk in in the world, they do not attain peace until they draw nigh to hope in God.
Truth is not a thought, not a word, not a relationship between things, not a law. Truth is a Person. It is a Being which exceeds all beings and gives life to all. If you seek truth with love and for the sake of love, she will reveal the light of His face to you inasmuch as you are able to bear it without being burned.
God loves us more than a father, mother, friend, or any else could love, and even more than we are able to love ourselves.
To truly experience God, you must always have the fear of God in your heart, and remember that God is always with you, everywhere, whether you are walking or sitting.
Having God, fear nothing, but cast all of your care upon Him, and He will take care of you. Believe undoubtingly, and God will help you according to His mercy.
You must love every man with your whole soul, but put your hope in the one God, and serve Him alone. For as long as He is protecting us and our friends (the angels) are helping us, our enemies (the demons) cannot inflict evil upon us. But when He forsakes us, and also our friends turn away from us, then our enemies receive power over us.
If a man has no worries about himself at all for the sake of love toward God and the working of good deeds, knowing that God is taking care of him, this is a true and wise hope. But if a man takes care of his own business and turns to God in prayer only when misfortunes come upon him which are beyond his power, and then he begins to hope in God, such a hope is vain and false. A true hope seeks only the Kingdom of God… the heart can have no peace until it obtains such a hope. This hope pacifies the heart and produces joy within it.
Think on these few thoughts – for in them is much of the secret of experiencing God and until you do that, you are of no use to God or man. You must become close to God in order to experience Him, and to understand what is necessary.
The Cloud of Unknowing author writes of four degrees of Christian life: Ordinary, Special, Singular and Perfect. Three of these may be begun and ended in this life, the fourth may be begun in this life but is ended in eternity. Writing at a time when the Church east and West were still talking about repairing the Great Schism, the Cloud is a worthy work to read.
THE FIRST SUNDAY IN ADVENT
Once again, at the outset of the Christian year, on this first Sunday of Advent, we contemplate the everpresent King, the Saviour Who came and Who will come again to this earth. Luke 4:16-22 is an admirable early Advent text which reads: “And He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up: And, as His custom was, He went into the synagogue on the sabbath day, and stood up for to read. And there was delivered unto Him the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. And when He had opened the book, He found the place where it was written, The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, To preach the acceptable year of the Lord. And he closed the book, and he gave it again to the minister, and sat down. And the eyes of all them that were in the synagogue were fastened on him. And He began to say unto them, This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears”.
The Law which governed Israel as a theocracy from the time of Moses until the time of Christ foreshadowed Christ. The Jubilee Year, (the acceptable year of the Lord) brought freedom from financial debts. Christ is our freedom from our debts to God: The offences which we have committed throughout our lives. Here we see Christ’s fulfillment of all of the Old Testament’s Law. “Advent” means “coming.” Christ comes to man in Bethlehem, in His Word and He will come again on Judgment Day. We in Advent look forward to that Second Coming and we prepare ourselves as we await Him. Not only does Christ fulfill all of the Old Testament Law, but He fulfills all the Messianic Promises in the Old Testament. In the above text He fulfills Isaiah 61:1-3. In Acts 10:43 Peter said: “To Him all the prophets witness that, through His Name, whoever believes in Him will receive the remission of sins.” Jesus said (John 5:39): “Search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me.” In Luke 24:27 we are told: “And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, He (Christ) expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself.” Verse 18 of our text plainly mentions all three persons of the Trinity just as do John 14:16 and 15:26. Today is the first day of the new church year.
Our meeting with Christ – one way or another – is imminent. More imminent than most of us are willing to admit. Now is the time for each of us to prepare, to examine ourselves in the light of a really imminent confrontation with God.
We ask that we, ourselves, our souls and bodies may be a reasonable, holy and lively sacrifice to God. Reasonable, Holy and Lively: Acceptable to God, holy as He requires of us and spiritually alive. We must be in good standing with God in order to receive the Holy Mystery, and we must be in good standing when we come before Him, as we most surely will.
It is no use putting off the day of examination. Better that we reckon with ourselves now, and correct our many shortcomings, than that we put it off and have to explain those uncorrected shortcomings to God Himself.
We utilise the Advent season of contemplation of the Second Coming of Christ to examine and prepare ourselves. To that end we fast – as this is a season of fasting. This is a sober season because thinking about our many shortcomings is a very sobering thing to do.
Fasting isn’t some formalised thing that the Church expects of us, it is a real, a serious thing that we do for our own good. We don’t do it because the Church instructs us to do it, we do it because we desperately need to do it. If we haven’t realised that, then we have probably missed most of the point of Christianity. This life isn’t the whole thing – it is merely the short introduction to Life. We are still at school, we are still preparing.
None of us is wise, nor are we experienced in terms of the Life that we must lead beyond this introduction. Understanding the importance of what we do now is vital to us. It behoves us therefore to think a great deal about where we are going and just how prepared we are for the real task ahead of us. Today we should wish people a joyous and happy New Year in Jesus Christ.
The Descent Of Christ Into Hades In Eastern And Western Theological
A lecture delivered by Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev)
at St Mary’s Cathedral, Minneapolis, on 5 November 2002
The Byzantine and old Russian icons of the Resurrection of Christ never depict the resurrection itself, i.e., Christ coming out of the grave. They rather depict ‘the descent of Christ into Hades’, or to be more precise, the rising of Christ out of hell. Christ, sometimes with a cross in his hand, is represented as raising Adam, Eve and other personages of the biblical history from hell. Under the Saviour’s feet is the black abyss of the nether world; against its background are castles, locks and debris of the gates which once barred the way of the dead to resurrection. Though other motifs have also been used in creating the image of the Resurrection of Christ in the last several centuries, the above-described iconographic type is considered to be canonical, as it reflects the traditional teaching on the descent of Christ to hell, His victory over death, His raising of the dead and delivering them from hell where they were imprisoned before His Resurrection. It is to this teaching as an integral part of the dogmatic and liturgical tradition of the Christian Church that this paper is devoted.
The descent of Christ into Hades is one of the most mysterious, enigmatic and inexplicable events in New Testament history. In today’s Christian world, this event is understood differently. Liberal Western theology rejects altogether any possibility for speaking of the descent of Christ into Hades literally, arguing that the scriptural texts on this theme should be understood metaphorically. The traditional Catholic doctrine insists that after His death on the cross Christ descended to hell only to deliver the Old Testament righteous from it. A similar understanding is quite widespread among Orthodox Christians.
On the other hand, the New Testament speaks of the preaching of Christ in hell as addressed to the unrepentant sinners: ‘For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; in which he went and preached to the spirit in prison, who formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited’. However, many Church Fathers and liturgical texts of the Orthodox Church repeatedly underline that having descended to hell, Christ opened the way to salvation for all people, not only the Old Testament righteous. The descent of Christ into Hades is perceived as an event of cosmic significance involving all people without exception. They also speak about the victory of Christ over death, the full devastation of hell and that after the descent of Christ into Hades there was nobody left there except for the devil and demons.
How can these two points of view be reconciled? What was the original faith of the Church? What do early Christian sources tell us about the descent into Hades? And what is the soteriological significance of the descent of Christ into Hades?
1. Eastern theological tradition
We come across references to the descent of Christ into Hades and His raising the dead in the works of Eastern Christian authors of the 2nd and 3rd centuries, such as Polycarp of Smyrna, Ignatius of Antioch, Hermas, Justin, Melito of Sardes, Hyppolitus of Rome, Irenaeus of Lyons, Clement of Alexandria and Origen. In the 4th century, the descent to hell was discussed by Athanasius, Basil the Great, Gregory Nazianzen, John Chrysostom, as well as such Syrian authors as Jacob Aphrahat and Ephrem the Syrian. Noteworthy among later authors who wrote on this theme are Cyril of Alexandria, Maximus the Confessor and John Damascene.
Let us look at the most vivid interpretations given to our theme in Eastern Christian theology.
The teaching on the descent of Christ into Hades was expounded quite fully by Clement of Alexandria in his ‘Stromateis’. He argued that Christ preached in hell not only to the Old Testament righteous, but also to the Gentiles who lived outside the true faith. Commenting on 1 Pet. 3:18?21, Clement expresses the conviction that the preaching of Christ was addressed to all those in hell who were able to believe in Christ:
Do not [the Scriptures] show that the Lord preached the Gospel to those that perished in the flood, or rather had been chained, and to those kept ‘in ward and guard’?… And, as I think, the Saviour also exerts His might because it is His work to save; which accordingly He also did by drawing to salvation those who became willing, by the preaching [of the Gospel], to believe on Him, wherever they were. If, then, the Lord descended to Hades for no other end but to preach the Gospel, as He did descend, it was either to preach the Gospel to all or to the Hebrews only. If, accordingly, to all, then all who believe shall be saved, although they may be of the Gentiles, on making their profession there…
Clement emphasises that there are righteous people among both those who have the true faith and the Gentiles and that it is possible to turn to God for those who did not believe in Him while living. It is their virtuous life that made them capable of accepting the preaching of Christ and the apostles in hell:
…A righteous man, then, differs not, as righteous, from another righteous man, whether he be of the Law [Jew] or a Greek. For God is not only Lord of the Jews, but of all men… So I think it is demonstrated that God, being good, and the Lord powerful, save with a righteousness and equality which extend to all that turn to Him, whether here or elsewhere.
According to Clement, righteousness is of value not only for those who live in true faith, but also for those who are outside faith. It is evident from his words that Christ preached in hell to all, but saved only those who came to believe in Him. Anyway, Clement assumes that this preaching proved salutory not for all to whom Christ preached in hell: ‘Did not the same dispensation obtain in Hades, so that even there, all the souls, on hearing the proclamation, might either exhibit repentance, or confess that their punishment was just, because they believed not?’ According to Clement, there were those in hell who heard the preaching of Christ but did not believe in Him and did not follow Him.
In Clement’s works we find the notion that punishments sent from God to sinners are aimed at their reformation, not at retribution, and that the souls released from their corporal shells are better able to understand the meaning of punishment. In these words lies the nucleus of the teaching on the purifying and saving nature of the torment of hell developed by some later authors . We will come back to the question of whether the pains of hell can be salutory when considering the teaching of Maximus the Confessor on the descent of Christ into Hades. An exhaustive discussion on this question, though, is beyond the scope of this paper.
Gregory of Nyssa entwines the theme of the descent in hell with the theory of ‘divine deception’. On the latter he builds his teaching on the Redemption. According to this theory, Christ, being God incarnate, deliberately concealed His divine nature from the devil so that he, mistaking Him for an ordinary man, would not be terrified at the sight of an overwhelming power approaching him. When Christ descended in hell, the devil supposed Him to be a human being, but this was a divine ‘hook’ disguised under a human ‘bait’ that the devil swallowed . By admitting God incarnate into his domain, the devil himself signed his own death warrant: incapable of enduring the divine presence, he was overcome and defeated, and hell was destroyed.
This is precisely the idea that Gregory of Nyssa developed in one of his Easter sermons on ‘The Three-Day Period of the Resurrection of Christ’. Judging by its contents, this homily was intended for Holy Saturday, and in it Gregory poses the question of why Christ spent three days ‘in the heart of the earth’. This period was necessary and sufficient, he argues, for Christ to ‘expose the foolishness’ (moranai) of the devil, i.e, to outwit, ridicule and deceive him. How did Christ manage to ‘outwit’ the devil? Gregory gives the following reply to this question:
As the ruler of darkness could not approach the presence of the Light unimpeded, had he not seen in Him something of flesh, then, as soon as he saw the God-bearing flesh and saw the miracle performed through it by the Deity, he hoped that if he came to take hold of the flesh through death, then he would take hold of all the power contained in it. Therefore, having swallowed the bait of the flesh, he was pierced by the hook of the Deity and thus the dragon was transfixed by the hook.
A very original approach to the theme of the descent to Hades is found in a book entitled ‘Spiritual Homilies’ which has survived under the name of Macarius of Egypt. There, the liberation of Adam by Christ, Who descended into Hades, is seen as the prototype of the mystical resurrection which the soul experiences in its encounter with the Lord:
When you hear that the Lord in the old days delivered souls from hell and prison and that He descended into hell and performed a glorious deed, do not think that all these events are far from your soul… So the Lord comes into the souls that seek Him, into the depth of the heart’s hell, and there commands death, saying: ‘Release the imprisoned souls which have sought Me and which you hold by force’. And He shatters the heavy stones weighing on the soul, opens graves, raises the true dead from death, brings the imprisoned soul from the dark prison… Is it difficult for God to enter death and, even more, into the depth of the heart and to call out dead Adam from there?… If the sun, being created, passes everywhere through windows and doors, even to the caves of lions and the holes of creeping creatures, and comes out without any harm, the more so does God and the Lord of everything enter caves and abodes in which death has settled, and also souls, and, having released Adam from there, [remains] unfettered by death. Similarly, rain coming down from the sky reaches the nethermost parts of the earth, moistens and renews the roots there and gives birth to new shoots.
This text is significant first of all in that the author regards the descent of Christ into Hades as a commonly accepted and undisputed dogma, which he uses as a solid foundation on which to build his mystical and typological construction. The use of the images of the sun rising over both the evil and the good, and rain sent upon both the righteous and the unrighteous, indicates that the author of the ‘Homilies’ perceives the descent into Hades as a reality affecting not only the Old Testament righteous, but also entire humanity. Moreover, it affects every person and inner processes which take place in the human soul. For the author of the ‘Homilies’, the doctrine of the descent into Hades is not an abstract truth, nor is it an event which occurred in the days of old and which affected only those who lived at that time, but it is an event which has not lost its relevance. It is not just one of the fundamental Christian doctrines, not just a subject of faith and confession, but a mystery associated with the mystical life of the Christian, a mystery which one should experience in the depth of one’s heart.
The doctrine of the descent of Christ into Hades occupies an essential place in the works of Cyril of Alexandria. In his ‘Paschal Homilies’, he repeatedly mentions that as a consequence of the descent of Christ into Hades, the devil was left all alone, while hell was devastated: ‘For having destroyed hell and opened the impassable gates for the departed spirits, He left the devil there abandoned and lonely’.
In his ‘Festive Letters’, Cyril of Alexandria elaborates on the theme of the preaching of Christ in Hades, popular in the Alexandrian tradition since Clement. He views the preaching of Christ in hell as the accomplishment of the ‘history of salvation’, which began with the Incarnation:
…He showed the way to salvation not only to us, but also to the spirits in hell; having descended, He preached to those once disobedient, as Peter says. For it did not befit for love of man to be partial, but the manifestation of [this] gift should have been extended to all nature… Having preached to the spirits in hell and having said ‘go forth’ to the prisoners, and ‘show yourselves’ to those in prison on the third day, He resurrected His temple and again opens up to our nature the ascent to heaven, bringing Himself to the Father as the beginning of humanity, pledging to those on earth the grace of communion of the Spirit.
As we can see, Cyril emphasises the universality of the salvation given by Christ to humanity, perceiving the descent of Christ into Hades as salvific for the entire human race. He is not inclined to limit salvation to a particular part of humanity, such as the Old Testament righteous. Salvation is likened to rain sent by God on both the just and the unjust. Putting emphasis on the universality of the saving feat of Christ, Cyril follows in the steps of other Alexandrian theologians, beginning with Clement, Origen, and Athanasius the Great. The descent of Christ into Hades, according to Cyril’s teaching, signified victory over that which previously appeared unconquerable and ensured the salvation of all humanity:
Death unwilling to be defeated is defeated; corruption is transformed; unconquerable passion is destroyed. While hell, diseased with excessive insatiability and never satisfied with the dead, is taught, even if against its will, that which it could not learn previously. For it not only ceases to claim those who are still to fall [in the future], but also lets free those already captured, being subjected to splendid devastation by the power of our Saviour… Having preached to the spirits in hell, once disobedient, He came out as conqueror by resurrecting His temple like a beginning of our hope and by showing to [our] nature the manner of the raising from the dead, and giving us along with it other blessings as well.
Clearly, Cyril perceived the victory of Christ over hell and death as complete and definitive. According to Cyril, hell loses authority both over those who were in its power and those who are to become its prey in the future. Thus, the descent into Hades, a single and unique action, is perceived as a timeless event. The raised body of Christ becomes the guarantee of universal salvation, the beginning of way leading human nature to ultimate deification.
An elaborate teaching of the descent of Christ into Hades is found in Maximus the Confessor. In his analysis, Maximus takes as a starting point the words of St. Peter: ‘For this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit’. In Maximus’s view, St. Peter does not speak about the Old Testament righteous, but about those sinners who, back in their lifetime, were punished for their evil deeds:
Some say that Scriptures call ‘dead’ those who died before the coming of Christ, for instance, those who were at the time of the flood, at Babel, in Sodom, in Egypt, as well as others who in various times and in various ways received various punishments and the terrible misfortune of divine damnation. These people were punished not so much for their ignorance of God as for the offences they imposed on one another. It was to them, according to [St Peter] that the great message of salvation was preached when they were already damned as men in the flesh, that is, when they received, through life in the flesh, punishment for crimes against one another, so that they could live according to God by the spirit, that is, being in hell, they accepted the preaching of the knowledge of God, believing in the Saviour who descended into hell to save the dead. So, in order to understand [this] passage in [Holy Scriptures] let us take it in this way: the dead, damned in the human flesh, were preached to precisely for the purpose that they may live according to God by the spirit.
Thus, according to Maximus’s teaching, punishments suffered by sinners ‘in the human flesh’ were necessary so that they may live ‘according to God by the spirit’. Therefore, these punishments, whether troubles and misfortunes in their lifetime or pains in hell, had pedagogical and reforming significance. Moreover, Maximus stresses that in damning them, God used not so much a religious as a moral criterion, for people were punished ‘not so much for their ignorance of God as for the offences they imposed on one another’. In other words, the religious or ideological convictions of a particular person were not decisive, but his actions with regard to his neighbours.
In John Damascene we find lines which sum up the development of the theme of the descent of Christ into Hades in Eastern patristic writings of the 2nd?8th centuries:
The soul [of Christ] when it is deified descended into Hades, in order that, just as the Sun of Righteousness rose for those upon the earth, so likewise He might bring light to those who sit under the earth in darkness and the shadow of death: in order that just as he brought the message of peace to those upon the earth, and of release to the prisoners, and of sight to the blind, and became to those who believed the Author of everlasting salvation and to those who did not believe, a denunciation of their unbelief, so He might become the same to those in Hades: That every knee should bow to Him, of things in heaven, and things in earth and things under the earth. And thus after He had freed those who has been bound for ages, straightway He rose again from the dead, showing us the way of resurrection.
According to John Damascene, Christ preached to all those who were in hell, but His preaching did not prove salutary for all, as not all were capable of responding to it. For some it could become only ‘a denunciation of their disbelief’, not the cause of salvation. In this judgement, Damascene actually repeats the teaching on salvation articulated not long before him by Maximus the Confessor. According to Maximus, human history will be accomplished when all without exception will unite with God and God will become ‘all in all’. For some, however, this unity will mean eternal bliss, while for others it will become the source of suffering and torment, as each will be united with God ‘according to the quality of his disposition’ towards God. In other words, all will be united with God, but each will have his own, subjective, feeling of this unity, according to the measure of the closeness to God he has achieved. Along a similar line, John Damascene understands also the teaching on the descent to Hades: Christ opens the way to paradise to all and calls all to salvation, but the response to Christ’s call may lie in either consent to follow Him or voluntary rejection of salvation. Ultimately it depends on a person, on his free choice. God does not save anybody by force, but calls everybody to salvation: ‘Behold, I stand at the door, and knock; if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him’. God knocks at the door of the human heart rather than breaks into it.
In the history of Christianity an idea has repeatedly arisen that God predestines some people for salvation and others to perdition. This idea, based as it is on the literary understanding of the words of St. Paul about predestination, calling and justification, became the corner-stone of the theological system of the Reformation, preached with particular consistency by John Calvin. Eleven centuries before Calvin, the Eastern Christian tradition in the person of John Chrysostom expressed its view of predestination and calling. ‘Why are not all saved?’ Chrysostom asks. ‘Because… not only the call [of God] but also the will of those called is the cause of their salvation. This call is not coercive or forcible. Every one was called, but not all followed the call’. Later Fathers, including Maximus and John Damascene, spoke in the same spirit. According to their teaching, it is not God who saves some while ruining others, but some people follow the call of God to salvation while others do not. It is not God who leads some from hell while leaving others behind, but some people wish while others do not wish to believe in Him.
The teaching of the Eastern Church Fathers on the descent of Christ into Hades can be summed up in the following points:
1) the doctrine of the descent of Christ into Hades was commonly accepted and indisputable;
2) the descent into Hades was perceived as an event of universal significance, though some authors limited the range of those saved by Christ to a particular category of the dead;
3) the descent of Christ into Hades and His resurrection were viewed as the accomplishment of the ‘economy’ of Christ the Saviour, as the crown and outcome of the feat He performed for the salvation of people;
4) the teaching on the victory of Christ over the devil, hell and death was finally articulated and asserted;
5) the theme of the descent into Hades began to be viewed in its mystical dimension, as the prototype of the resurrection of the human soul.
2. Western theological tradition
To what degree did the approach to this theme of the Fathers and Doctors of the Western Church differ from that of the Eastern Fathers? In order to answer this question, let us look at the works of the two most significant theologians of the Christian West, Augustine and Thomas Aquinas.
The Augustinian teaching on the descent of Christ into Hades is expounded in the fullest way in one of his letters addressed to Evodius. This letter contains a comprehensive interpretation of 1 Pet. 3:18?21. It follows from Evodius’ questions that the teaching on the evacuation of all in hell and the complete devastation of hell by the risen Christ was widespread in his time. Augustine begins with the question of whether Christ preached only to those who perished in the days of Noah or to all the imprisoned. In answering it, Augustine begins by refuting the opinion that Christ descended to Hades in the flesh and argues that this teaching contradicts scriptural testimony.
Augustine continues by setting forth the view that Christ led from hell all those who were there, as, indeed, among them were ‘some who are intimately known to us by their literary labours, whose eloquence and talent we admire, ? not only the poets and orators who in many parts of their writings have held up to contempt and ridicule these same false gods of the nations, and have even occasionally confessed the one true God…, but also those who have uttered the same, not in poetry or rhetoric, but as philosophers’. The notion of the salvation of heathen poets, orators and philosophers was quite popular. In Eastern patristic tradition it was most vividly expressed by Clement of Alexandria. According to Augustine, however, any of the positive qualities of the ancient poets, orators and philosophers originated not from ‘sober and authentic devotion, but pride, vanity and [the desire] of people’s praise’. Therefore they ‘did not bring any fruit’. Thus, the idea that pagan poets, orators and philosophers could be saved, though not refuted by Augustine, still is not fully approved, since ‘human judgement’ differs from ‘the justice of the Creator’.
Augustine neither rejects nor accepts unconditionally the opinion concerning the salvation of all those in hell. Though very careful in his judgement, it is clear that the possibility of salvation for all in hell is blocked in his perception by his own teaching on predestination, as well as by his understanding of divine mercy and justice:
For the words of Scripture, that ‘the pains of hell were loosed’ by the death of Christ, do not establish this, seeing that this statement may be understood as referring to Himself, and meaning that he so far loosed (that is, made ineffectual) the pains of hell that He Himself was not held by them, especially since it is added that it was ‘impossible for Him to be holden of them’. Or if any one [objecting to this interpretation] asks why He chose to descend into hell, where those pains were which could not possibly hold Him… the words that ‘the pains were loosed’ may be understood as referring not to the case of all, but only some whom He judged worthy of that deliverance; so that neither He supposed to have descended thither in vain, without the purpose of bringing benefit to any of those who were there held in prison, nor is it a necessary inference that divine mercy and justice granted to some must be supposed to have been granted to all.
While Augustine also considers the traditional teaching that Christ delivered from hell the forefather Adam, as well as Abel, Seth, Noah and his family, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob ‘and the other patriarchs and prophets’, he does not agree to it entirely, since he does not believe ‘Abraham’s bosom’ to be a part of hell. Those who were in the bosom of Abraham were not deprived of the gracious presence of the divinity of Christ, and therefore Christ, on the very day of His death immediately before descending to hell, promises to the wise thief that he will be in paradise with him. ‘Most certainly, therefore, He was, before that time, both in paradise and the bosom of Abraham in His beatific wisdom (beatificante sapientia), and in hell in His condemning power (judicante potentia)’, concludes Augustine.
The opinion that through the death of Christ on the cross the righteous receive that promised incorruption which people are to achieve after the end of time is also refuted by Augustine. If it were so, then St. Peter would not have said about David that ‘his sepulchre is with us to this day’ unless David was still undisturbed in the sepulchre.
As for the teaching on Christ’s preaching in hell contained in 1 Pet. 3:18?21, Augustine rejects its traditional and commonly accepted understanding. First, he is not certain that it implies those who really departed his life, but rather those that are spiritually dead and did not believe in Christ. Secondly, he offers the quite novel idea that after Christ ascended from hell His recollection did not survive there. Therefore, the descent in Hades was a ‘one-time’ event relevant only to those who were in hell at that time. Thirdly and finally, Augustine rejects altogether any possibility for those who did not believe in Christ while on earth to come to believe in him while in hell, calling this idea ‘absurd’.
Augustine is not inclined to see in 1 Pet. 3:18?21 an indication of the descent into Hades. He believes that this text should be understood allegorically, i. e., ‘the spirits’ mentioned by Peter are essentially those who are clothed in body and imprisoned in ignorance. Christ did not come down to earth in the flesh in the days of Noah, but often came down to people in the spirit either to rebuke those who did not believe or to justify those who did. What happened in the days of Noah is a type of what happens today, and the flood was the precursor of baptism. Those who believe in our days are like whose who believed in the days of Noah: they are saved through baptism, just as Noah was saved through water. Those who do not believe are like those who did not believe in the days of Noah: the flood is the prototype of their destruciton.
Augustine is the first Latin author who gave so much close attention to the theme of the descent of Christ into Hades. However, he did not clarify the question of who was the object of Christ’s preaching in hell and whom Christ delivered from it. Augustine expressed many doubts about particular interpretations of 1 Pet. 3:18?21, but did not offer any convincing interpretation of his own. Nevertheless, the ideas expressed by him were developed by Western Church authors of the later period. Thomas Aquinas, in particular, makes continuous references to Augustine in his chapter devoted to the descent of Christ into Hades. During the Reformation, many Augustinian ideas were criticised by theologians of the Protestant tradition. The teaching that the recollection of Christ did not survive in hell after His ascent was rejected by Lutheran theologians who insisted on the reverse.
Thomas Aquinas was the 13th-century theologian who brought to completion the Latin teaching on the descent of Christ into Hades. In his ‘Summa Theologiae’, he divides hell into four parts: 1) purgatory (purgatorium), where sinners experience penal suffering; 2) the hell of the patriarchs (infernum patrum), the abode of the Old Testament righteous before the coming of Christ; 3) the hell of unbaptized children (infernum puerorum); and 4) the hell of the damned (infernum damnatorum). In response to the question, exactly which was the hell that Christ descended to, Thomas Aquinas admits two possibilities: Christ descended either into all parts of hell or only to that in which the righteous were imprisoned, whom He was to deliver. In the first case, ‘for going down into the hell of the lost He wrought this effect, that by descending thither He put them to shame for their unbelief and wickedness: but to them who were detained in Purgatory He gave hope of attaining to glory: while upon the holy Fathers detained in hell solely on account of original sin (pro solo peccato originali detinebantur in inferno), He shed the light of glory everlasting’. In the second case, the soul of Christ ‘descended only to the place where the righteous were detained’ (descendit solum ad locum inferni in quo justi detinebantur), but the action of His presence there was felt in some way in the other parts of hell as well.
According to Thomistic teaching, Christ delivered from hell not only the Old Testament righteous who were imprisoned in hell because of original sin. As far as sinners are concerned, those who were detained in ‘the hell of the lost’, since they either had no faith or had faith but no conformity with the virtue of the suffering Christ, could not be cleansed from their sins, and Christ’s descent brought them no deliverance from the pains of hell. Nor were children who had died in the state of original sin delivered from hell, since only ‘by baptism children are delivered from original sin and from hell, but not by Christ’s descent into hell’, since baptism can be received only in earthly life, not after death. Finally, Christ did not deliver those who were in purgatory, for their suffering was caused by personal defects (defectus personali), whereas ‘exclusion from glory’ was a common defect (defectus generalis) of all human nature after the fall. The descent of Christ into Hades recovered the glory of God to those who were excluded from it by virtue of the common defect of nature, but did not deliver anybody from the pains of purgatory caused by people’s personal defects.
This scholastic understanding of the descent of Christ into Hades, formulated by Thomas Aquinas, was the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church for many centuries. During the Reformation, this understanding was severely criticised by Protestant theologians. Many of today’s Catholic theologians are also very sceptical about this teaching. There is no need to discuss how far the teaching of Thomas Aquinas on the descent of Christ into Hades is from that of Eastern Christianity. No Father of the Eastern Church ever permitted himself to clarify who was left in hell after Christ descent; no Eastern Father ever spoke of unbaptized infants left in hell. The division of hell into four parts and the teaching on purgatory are alien to Eastern patristics. Finally, this very scholastic approach whereby the most mysterious events of history are subjected to detailed analysis and rational interpretation is unacceptable for Eastern Christian theology. For the theologians, poets and mystics of the Eastern Church, the descent of Christ into Hades remained first of all a mystery which could be praised in hymns, and about which various assumptions could be made, but of which nothing definite and final could be said.
The general conclusion can now be drawn from a comparative analysis of Eastern and Western understandings of the descent into Hades. In the first three centuries of the Christian Church, there was considerable similarity between the interpretation of this doctrine by theologians in East and West. However, already by the 4th—5th centuries, substantial differences can be identified. In the West, a juridical understanding of the doctrine prevailed. It gave increasingly more weight to notions of predestination (Christ delivered from hell those who were predestined for salvation from the beginning) and original sin (salvation given by Christ was deliverance from the general original sin, not from the ‘personal’ sins of individuals). The range of those to whom the saving action of the descent into hell is extended becomes ever more narrow. First, it excludes sinners doomed to eternal torment, then those in purgatory and finally unbaptized infants. This kind of legalism was alien to the Orthodox East, where the descent into Hades continued to be perceived in the spirit in which it is expressed in the liturgical texts of Great Friday and Easter, i.e. as an event significant not only for all people, but also for the entire cosmos, for all created life.
At the same time, both Eastern and Western traditions suggest that Christ delivered from hell the Old Testament righteous led by Adam. Yet if in the West this is perceived restrictively (Christ delivered only the Old Testament righteous, while leaving all the rest in hell to eternal torment), in the East, Adam is viewed as a symbol of the entire human race leading humanity redeemed by Christ (those who followed Christ were first the Old Testament righteous led by Adam and then the rest who responded to the preaching of Christ in hell).
3. The doctrine of the descent into Hades and theodicy
Let us move now to the theological significance of the doctrine of the descent of Christ into Hades. This doctrine, in our view, has great significance for theodicy, the justification of God in the face of the accusing human mind. Why does God permit suffering and evil? Why does He condemn people to the pains of hell? To what extent is God responsible for what happens on earth? Why in the Bible does God appear as a cruel and unmerciful Judge ‘repenting’ of His actions and punishing people for mistakes which He knew beforehand and which He could have prevented? These and other similar questions have been posed throughout history.
First of all, we should say that the doctrine of the descent of Christ into Hades raises the veil over the mystery that envelops the relationship between God and the devil. The history of this relationship goes back to the time of the creation. According to common church teaching, the devil was created as a good and perfect creature, but he fell away from God because of his pride. The drama of the personal relationship between God and the devil did not end here. Since his falling away, the devil began to oppose divine goodness and love by every means and to do all he can to prevent the salvation of people. The devil is not all-powerful, however; his powers are restricted by God and he can operate only within the limits permitted by God. This last affirmation is confirmed by the opening lines of the Book of Job where the devil appears as a creature having, first, personal relations with God and, secondly, being fully subjected to God.
By creating human beings and putting them in a situation where they choose between good and evil, God assumed the responsibility for their further destiny. God did not leave man face to face with the devil, but Himself entered into the struggle for humanity’s spiritual survival. To this end, He sent prophets and teachers and then He Himself became man, suffered on the cross and died, descended into Hades and was raised from the dead in order to share human fate. By descending into Hades, Christ did not destroy the devil as a personal, living creature, but ‘abolished the power of the devil’, that is, deprived the devil of authority and power stolen by him from God. When he rebelled against God, the devil set himself the task to create his own autonomous kingdom where he would be master and where he would win back from God a space where God’s presence could be in no way felt. In Old Testament understanding, this place was sheol. After Christ, sheol became a place of divine presence.
This presence is felt by all those in paradise as a source of joy and bliss, but for those in hell it is a source of suffering. Hell, after Christ, is no longer the place where the devil reigns and people suffer, but first and foremost it is the prison for the devil himself as well as for those who voluntarily decided to stay with him and share his fate. The sting of death was abolished by Christ and the walls of hell were destroyed. But ‘death even without its sting is still powerful for us… Hell with its walls destroyed and its gates abolished is still filled with those who, having left the narrow royal path of the cross leading to paradise, follow the broad way all their lives’ .
Christ descended into hell not as another victim of the devil, but as Conqueror. He descended in order to ‘bind up the powerful’ and to ‘plunder his vessels’. According to patristic teaching, the devil did not recognize in Christ the incarnate God. He took Him for an ordinary man and, rising to the ‘bait’ of the flesh, swallowed the ‘hook’ of the Deity (the image used by Gregory of Nyssa). However, the presence of Christ in hell constituted the poison which began gradually to ruin hell from within (this image was used by the 4th-century Syrian author Jacob Aphrahat). The final destruction of hell and the ultimate victory over the devil will happen during the Second Coming of Christ when ‘the last enemy to be destroyed is death’, when everything will be subjected to Christ and God will become ‘all in all’ .
The doctrine of the descent of Christ into Hades is important for an understanding of God’s action in human history, as reflected in the Old Testament. The biblical account of the flood, which destroyed all humanity, is a stumbling block for many who wish to believe in a merciful God but cannot reconcile themselves with a God who ‘repents’ of his own deed. The teaching on the descent into hell, as set forth in 1 Pet. 3:18—21, however, brings an entirely new perspective into our understanding of the mystery of salvation. It turns out that the death sentence passed by God to interrupt human life does not mean that human beings are deprived of hope for salvation, because, failing to turn to God during their lifetime, people could turn to Him in the afterlife having heard Christ’s preaching in the prison of hell. While committing those He created to death, God did not destroy them, but merely transferred them to a different state in which they could hear the preaching of Christ, to believe and to follow Him.
4. The soteriological implications of the doctrine of the descent into Hades
The doctrine on the descent of Christ into Hades is an integral part of Orthodox soteriology. Its soteriological implications, however, depend in many ways on the way in which we understanding the preaching of Christ in hell and its salutory impact on people. If the preaching was addressed only to the Old Testament righteous, then the soteriological implications of the doctrine is minimal, but if it was addressed to all those in hell, its significance is considerably increased. It seems that we have enough grounds to argue, following the Greek Orthodox theologian, I. Karmiris, that ‘according to the teaching of almost all the Eastern Fathers, the preaching of the Saviour was extended to all without exception and salvation was offered to all the souls who passed away from the beginning of time, whether Jews or Greek, righteous or unrighteous’. At the same time, the preaching of Christ in hell was good and joyful news of deliverance and salvation, not only for the righteous but also the unrighteous. It was not the preaching ‘to condemn for unbelief and wickedness’, as it seemed to Thomas Aquinas. The entire text of the First Letter of St. Peter relating to the preaching of Christ in hell speaks against its understanding in terms of accusation and damnation’.
Whether all or only some responded to the call of Christ and were delivered from hell remains an open question. If we accept the point of view of those Western church writers who maintain that Christ delivered from hell only the Old Testament righteous, then Christ’s salutory action is reduced merely to the restoration of justice. The Old Testament righteous suffered in hell undeservedly, not for their personal sins but because of the general sinfulness of human nature and because their deliverance from hell was a ‘duty’ which God was obliged to undertake with respect to them. But such an act could scarcely constitute a miracle that made the angels tremble or one to be praised in church hymns.
Unlike the West, Christian consciousness in the East admits the opportunity to be saved not only for those who believe during their lifetime, but also those who were not given to believe yet pleased God with their good works. The idea that salvation was not only for those who in life confessed the right faith, not only for the Old Testament righteous, but also those heathens who distinguished themselves by a lofty morality, is developed in one of the hymns of John Damascene:
Some say that [Christ delivered from hell] only those who believed,
such as fathers and prophets,
judges and together with them kings, local rulers
and some others from the Hebrew people,
not numerous and known to all.
But we shall reply to those who think so
that there is nothing undeserved,
nothing miraculous and nothing strange
in that Christ should save those who believed,
for He remains only the fair Judge,
and every one who believes in Him will not perish.
So they all ought to have been saved
and delivered from the bonds of hell
by the descent of God and Master —
that same happened by His Disposition.
Whereas those who were saved only through [God’s] love of men
were, as I think, all those
who had the purest life
and did all kinds of good works,
living in modesty, temperance and virtue,
but the pure and divine faith
they did not conceive because they were not instructed in it
and remained altogether unlearnt.
They were those whom the Steward and Master of all
drew, captured in the divine nets
and persuaded to believe in Him,
illuminating them with the divine rays
and showing them the true light .
This approach renders the descent into Hades exceptional in its soteriological implications. According to Damascene, those who were not taught the true faith during their lifetime can come to believe when in hell. By their good works, abstention and chastity they prepared themselves for the encounter with Christ. These are that same people about whom St. Paul says that having no law they ‘do by nature things contained in the law’, for ‘the work of the law is written in their hearts’. Those who live by the law of natural morality but do not share the true faith can hope by virtue of their righteousness that in a face-to-face encounter with God they will recognize in Him the One they ‘ignorantly worshipped’ .
Has this anything to do with those who died outside Christian faith after the descent of Christ into Hades? No, if we accept the Western teaching that the descent into Hades was a ‘one-time’ event and that the recollection of Christ did not survive in hell. Yes, if we proceed from the assumption that after Christ hell was no longer like the Old Testament sheol, but it became a place of the divine presence. In addition, as Archpriest Serge Bulgakov writes, ‘all events in the life of Christ, which happen in time, have timeless, abiding significance. Therefore,
the so-called ‘preaching in hell’, which is the faith of the Church, is a revelation of Christ to those who in their earthly life could not see or know Christ. There are no grounds for limiting this event… to the Old Testament saints alone, as Catholic theology does. Rather, the power of this preaching should be extended to all time for those who during their life on earth did not and could not know Christ but meet Him in the afterlife.
According to the teaching of the Orthodox Church, all the dead, whether believers or non-believers, appear before God. Therefore, even for those who did not believe during their lifetime, there is hope that they will recognize God as their Saviour and Redeemer if their previous life on earth led them to this recognition.
The above hymn of John Damascene clearly states that the virtuous heathens were not ‘taught’ the true faith. This is a clear allusion to the words of Christ: ‘Go ye, therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost’; and ‘He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but that believeth not shall be damned’. The damnation is extended only to those who were taught Christian faith but did not believe. But if a person was not taught, if he in his real life did not encounter the preaching of the gospel and did not have an opportunity to respond to it, can he be damned for it? We come back to the question that had disturbed such ancient authors as Clement of Alexandria.
Is it possible at all that the fate of a person can be changed after his death? Is death that border beyond which some unchangeable static existence comes? Does the development of the human person not stop after death?
On the one hand, it is impossible for one to actively repent in hell; it is impossible to rectify the evil deeds one committed by appropriate good works. However, it may be possible for one to repent through a ‘change of heart’, a review of one’s values. One of the testimonies to this is the rich man of the Gospel we have already mentioned. He realized the gravity of his situation as soon as found himself in hell. Indeed, if in his lifetime he was focused on earthly pursuits and forgot God, once in hell he realized that his only hope for salvation was God . Besides, according to the teaching of the Orthodox Church, the fate of a person after death can be changed through the prayer of the Church. Thus, existence after death has its own dynamics. On the basis of what has been said above, we may say that after death the development of the human person does not cease, for existence after death is not a transfer from a dynamic into a static being, but rather continuation on a new level of that road which a person followed in his lifetime.
As the last stage in the divine descent (katabasis) and self-emptying (kenosis), the descent of Christ into Hades became at the same time the starting point of the ascent of humanity towards deification (theosis). Since this descent the path to paradise is opened for both the living and the dead, which was followed by those whom Christ delivered from hell. The destination point for all humanity and every individual is the fullness of deification in which God becomes ‘all in all’ . It is for this deification that God first created man and then, when ‘the time had fully come’ (Gal. 4:4), Himself became man, suffered, died, descended to Hades and was raised from the dead.
We do not know if every one followed Christ when He rose from hell. Nor do we know if every one will follow Him to the eschatological Heavenly Kingdom when He will become ‘all in all’. But we do know that since the descent of Christ into Hades the way to resurrection has been opened for ‘all flesh’, salvation has been granted to every human being, and the gates of paradise have been opened for all those who wish to enter through them. This is the faith of the Early Church inherited from the first generation of Christians and cherished by Orthodox Tradition. This is the never-extinguished hope of all those who believe in Christ Who once and for all conquered death, destroyed hell and granted resurrection to the entire human race.
Translated from the Russian
 In particular, the image of the risen Christ coming out of the grave and holding a victory banner, borrowed from the Western tradition.
 1 Pet. 3:18—21.
 The critical edition of ‘Stromateis’: Clemens Alexandrinus. Band II: Stromateis I-VI. Hrsg. von O. Stählin, L. Früchtel, U. Treu. Berlin-Leipzig 1960; Band III: Stromateis VII-VIII. Hrsg. von O. Stählin. GCS 17. Berlin-Leipzig, 1970. S. 3-102.
 That is those who came to believe while in hell.
 Stromateis 6, 6.
 Rom. 3:29; 10:12.
 Stromateis 6, 6.
 Stromateis 6, 6.
 Stromateis 6, 6.
 In the East it was developed by Gregory of Nyssa and Isaac the Syrian. In the West it gradually led to the formation of the doctrine on purgatory.
 The Great Catechetical Oration 23?24.
 The Homily on the Three-Day Period (pp. 444?446). The text of the sermon in: Gregoriou Nyssis hapanta ta erga. T. 10. Hellenes pateres tes ekklesias 103. Thessalonike, 1990. Sel. 444—487. Since in this edition the text is not divided into chapters, we indicate page numbers.
 Cf. Mt. 12:40.
 Lit. ‘to make a fool of somebody’ (from moros—fool)
 The Homily on the Three-Day Period (pp. 452?454).
 The Homily on the Three-Day Period (pp. 452?454). Cf. 1 Cor. 15:26.
 Spiritual Homilies 11, 11?13.
 Cf. Mt. 5:45.
 7th Paschal Homily 2 (PG 77, 552 A).
 Cf. 1 Pet. 3:19?20.
 Is. 49:9.
 2nd Festive Letter 8, 52?89 (SC 372, 228?232)
 Cf. Mt. 5:45. See the same comparison in ‘Spiritual Homilies’ by Macarius of Egypt.
 See above quotations from these authors
 5th Festive Letter 1, 29?40 (SC 732, 284).
 1 Pet. 4:6.
 Questions-answers to Thalassius 7.
 Is. 9:2.
 Lk. 4:18?19; Cf. Is. 61:1?2.
 Phil. 2:10.
 The Exact Exposition of Orthodox Faith 3, 29.
 1 Cor. 15:28.
 Maximus the Confessor, Questions-answers to Thalassius 59. More on this teaching see in J. C. Larchet, La divinisation de l’homme selon Maxime le Confesseur (Paris, 1996), pp. 647?652.
 Rev. 3:20.
 Rom. 8:29?30.
 See John Calvin, Instruction in Christian Faith, V. II, Book III (‘Concerning the pre-eternal election whereby God predestined some for salvation while others for condemnation’).
 16th Discourse on the Epistle to the Romans.
 Concerning the teaching on the descent of Christ into Hades in the flesh, see: I. N. Karmires, ‘He Christologike heterodidaskalia tou 16 aionos kai eis hadou kathodos tou Christou’, Nea Sion 30 (1935). Sel. 11—26, 65—81, 154—165. See also: S. Der Nersessian. ‘An Armenian Version of the Homilies on the Harrowing of Hell’, Dumbarton Oaks Papers 8 (1954), pp. 201?224.
 Letter 164, II, 3 (PL 33, 709).
 Letter 164, II, 3 (PL 33, 710).
 Letter 164, II, 3 (PL 33, 710).
 Cf. J. A. MacCulloch, The Harrowing of Hell (Edinburgh, 1930), p. 123.
 Cf. Acts 2:24.
 That is, the pains of hell.
 Letter 164, II, 5 (PL 33, 710?711).
 Lk. 23:43.
 Letter 164, III, 7?8 (PL 33, 710?711).
 Acts 2:29.
 Letter 164, III, 7?8 (PL 33, 711).
 Letter 164, III, 10?13 (PL 33, 713?714). Elsewhere Augustine describes as heresy the teaching that non-believers could come to believe in hell and that Christ led everybody out of hell: See, On Heresies 79 (PL 42, 4).
 Letter 164, IV, 15?16 (PL 33, 715).
 See below.
 See details in: F. Loofs. ‘Descent to Hades’, Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics (New York, 1912), vol. IV, p. 658.
 Summa theologiae IIIa, 52, 2 (St Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae. Latin text with English translation. London —New York , 1965. Vol. 54. P. 158).
 Summa theologiae IIIa, 52, 5 (Summa theologiae. Vol. 54, pp. 166?170).
 Summa theologiae IIIa, 52, 6 (Summa theologiae. Vol. 54, pp. 170?1720).
 Summa theologiae IIIa, 52, 7 (Summa theologiae. Vol. 54, pp. 174?176).
 Summa theologiae IIIa, 52, 8 (Summa theologiae. Vol. 54, pp. 176?178).
 See for instance: H. U. von Balthasar et A. Grillmeier, Le mystère pascal (Paris , 1972), p. 170 (where the Thomistic understanding of the descent to Hades is described as ‘bad theology’).
 The teaching on the fate of unbaptized infants, contained in the work ‘Concerning Infants Who Have Died Prematurely’ by Gregory Palamas, is opposite to the teaching of Thomas Aquinas.
 The term ‘theodocy’ (literally ‘the justification of God’) was invented by Leibnitz in the early 18th century.
 Innocent, Archbishop of Cherson and Tauria, Works, vol. V (St-Petersburg—Moscow, 1870), p. 289 (Homily at Holy Saturday).
 Demonstration 22, 4—5 in The Homilies of Aphraates, the Persian Sage, ed. by W. Wright (London—Edinburgh, 1869), pp. 420—421.
 1 Cor. 15:26—28.
 Cf. I. N. Karmires, He eis hadou kathodos Iesou Christou (Athenai, 1939), sel. 107.
 Ibid., p. 119.
 Bishop Gregory (Yaroshevsky), An Interpretation of the Most Difficult Passages in the First Letter of St Peter (Simferopol , 1902), p. 10.
 That is those who believed in their lifetime.
 That is those who believed during their life on earth.
Concerning Those Who Died in Faith (PG 95, 257 AC).
 Rom. 2:14?15.
 Acts 17:23.
 Serge Bulgakov, Agnets Bozhiy [The Lamb of God] (Moscow , 2000), p. 394.
 Mt. 28:19.
 Mk. 16:16.
 Lk. 16:20—31.
 Cf. J. Daniélou, The Theology of Jewish Christianity (London , s.a.), p. 233—234.
 1 Cor. 15:28
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An Early Christian Agape meal.
Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40)
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love (agape) your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love (agape) your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father which is in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you?
Tertullian, in his 2nd century defence of Christians, remarks how Christian love attracted pagan notice: “What marks us in the eyes of our enemies is our loving kindness. ‘Only look,’ they say, ‘look how they love one another’ ” (Apology 39)
Christian love – the highest level of love known to humanity – a selfless love, a love that was passionately committed to the well-being of the other – the love that consumes, the highest and purest form of love, one that surpasses all other types of affection.
So what is this pure selfless “love”? How can we arrive at it. Difficult for those of us engaged in the tumult of family, work, the world in general. Difficult surrounded by the unloveliness of the world of mankind. Difficult, but not impossible.
Imagine an attitude towards other people – all other people – of wanting their good and only their good. Of wanting the very best for each and every individual, regardless of what kind of person they are. Regardless of how evil they present themselves as being. Wanting only ultimate goodness for everyone.
But not merely “wanting” – but actually going out as best one can to help them achieve that good, of putting oneself out without regard for self, to help others attain to that ultimate good – the good that means eternal life in the presence of God.
God can indeed know what really is the good that we need, whereas we humans cannot know what good our neighbour needs – other than the obvious physical needs. So to a certain extent the result of our “love’ is looking after the material needs of others – as indeed Christ exhorted us to do. This however needs to be the nearest expression that we can get to of a far greater love and it is the acquisition of this greater love that marks the real Christian. No one else may know that the Christian has achieved this, but it will reveal itself to God.
The first step is a selflessness, where one begins to worry about the wellbeing of our neighbours in preference to ourself.
A milestone along the way is the measure of our prayer for others. We all pray at least some Offices during our waking hours – don’t we? And at the end of these formal prayers we have broken up among them, lists of everyone living and dead that we have ever known, and we mention them in prayer at the end of the Office – that is a step along the road. And of course, we have volunteered for some work that helps the less fortunate – or if we are truly busy supporting our family, we have found a little to donate. That is a step. Beyond that it is up to you to respond to the people that God places before you needing some sort of help or consolation or listening or counselling. But first we must cultivate the intelligent attitude of loving each and every one of our neighbours. True, we may avoid close contact with some and we may approach others with sensible caution, but we love them, that is the start.
THE LITURGY OF THE 25TH OF DECEMBER – SAINT FINNAN
The anticipation of the Birth of our Lord and Saviour is already upon us. The Mystery of His birth into this world of mankind is one of the two most stupendous revelations contained in the Holy Scripture. Yet how can we come to the Mystery of His Birth unprepared? It is an event of great celebration to be sure, but it is an event of great solemnity as we look toward it. Christ came, Christ was Crucified, Christ rose from the dead, Christ will come again. We are reminded at this season of that last statement. Yes, He came, and we will celebrate that, more importantly though, He will come again – and will we celebrate then? Or will we want to hide? Knowing what we know now about ourselves and about the revelation contained in the New Testament of our Lord, could we have stood before the infant Christ at His Birth?
This season is solemn, it is a season of anticipation, an anticipation of an event yet to come, to be celebrated in the name of an event that is history.
Many Christians have spent their entire lives anticipating the Second Coming of Christ. They have noted the profound effect of His presence in the flesh among men, and they have been dismayed when they then compared themselves with the standard which the incarnate Christ held up for us to follow. Some such Christians sought to radically re-order their lives in order to amend them as best they could. They noted the absorption of the Church into the secular state and they fled from what they perceived as the resultant compromise. They were the original Desert Fathers – the monks who lived in the north African desert in the third century. Fairly quickly the standard of holiness of life that they raised up, spread and rapidly came to the British Isles, possibly joining with an already existing eremitic tradition, so that by the fifth century it reached as far as the Atlantic islands off the west coast of Ireland and Scotland – as far west as it could then go. It was then that St. Finnian the Leper and some monks founded the fantastic monastery of Skellig Michael on the Island of that name. The monastery is still there today as witness of their courage and faith. Their faith in a Lord Incarnate, Crucified, Risen and to come again. We look forward to the celebration of the Birth into this world of our Lord, the Master of Creation. We anticipate His return to us. Let us ensure as best we can, that the return is sweet to us as the anticipation, as the celebration of the historical Incarnation. He came that we might be Redeemed. We therefore anticipate the celebration of His coming, as we honour the faith of those went before us in the faith.
THE FOURTH SUNDAY AFTER EASTER
The Collect for today prays that the minds of the faithful should be of one will. The Gospel speaks of the coming of the Holy Spirit, from Whom such unity of will comes. This is an appropriate thought for us as given that Orthodoxy is characterised by a unity of faith and doctrine which is not imposed by a distant bureaucratic hierarchy or the momentary whim of academic theologians but which is held in common by the body of the Church unchanged and unchanging through the past two millennia.
The Church therefore, ought to pray constantly that she be preserved in this vital unity of faith, especially in these times when there are so many temptations to compromise that faith, to accommodate the world and to equate true Orthodoxy with other versions of Christianity. While it is apparent that we must welcome into Orthodoxy all those who come and knock on our doors, we must exercise due care and discernment as to how we handle those who come. We must be sure that they come for reasons of faith, that they are willing to learn and to become genuinely Orthodox and not merely seek a new variety of church. We need to discern a disposition towards unity of faith in those who come to us. We must pray that those who are already Orthodox are able to maintain a unity of faith and the ability to discern between what is of the Tradition of the Church and that which is mere national or cultural custom. We live in a society which, while it may be far from our desired condition, is nevertheless powerfully attractive to people. Unless we provide, with the grace of the Holy Spirit, a Church atmosphere of true faith and holiness, in a setting to which they are able to relate, we will have nothing to offer them and we won’t attract those in the surrounding community to Christ. .
This does not mean any compromise of the Orthodox faith which is neither English nor French nor Greek nor Russian nor Serbian nor the property of any other cultural group. Orthodoxy is ultimately the only truly Catholic faith ,and as such has no option but to be the universal inheritance of mankind. It is the ancient faith of our people, as is attested by history. We rightly pray today for unity of will. We are called to be the light of Christ for the world. We are called to show forth Christ to all men, heterodox and pagan alike. We must have a unity of will if we are to discharge that duty. We must therefore pray the Collect for today and heed the words of Christ when He said that He would pray the Father and He would send the Holy Spirit to guide His Church into all truth. He has done that. The Church has acquired the truth and has taught that truth although not all who would call themselves Christian (Orthodox or otherwise) have accepted that fulness of the truth which the Church teaches.
The Epistle and Gospel today point in the same direction as those of last Sunday: To the good and perfect gift that was bestowed on the Church after, and because of, the bodily departure of Christ into Heaven. It seemed strange and hard for the Disciples to hear Him say that it was expedient for them that He, their beloved Teacher should be lost and returned to them, and then go again. He said this so that they would be comforted with the foreshadowing of the glory and blessing of the New Dispensation to be perfected in His Resurrection and Ascension – in order that they should be prepared to recognise the fruit of the Resurrection and Ascension when it arrived; that His departure at the Ascension was greater gain through His continuing mystical presence than His remaining on earth could have been. The good and perfect gift which the Spirit of truth bestows on and through the Church, is therefore set before us as we draw towards Ascension Day, as the true reason why all sorrow for her Lord’s departure was banished from the Church. The Comforter came and as ever, His promise is kept.
HOMILY ON HEBREWS 10:19-39 The Matins Lesson for Lent III
The passage here is a plea by the Apostle for people not to turn back – not to apostasise.
Once having been privileged to enter into the One Holy Orthodox Church, to go back to the former state, be it unbelief or heretical membership is apostasy. It is a turning back against the Lord and against His sdacrifice of Himself for us.
The state of grace of the individual is living in perfect accordance with the will of God. And doing that within the Body of Christ – which is the Church of Christ on this earth and there is only one such Body. It is not divided. True, men within that Church may disobey and quarrel amongst themselves. National (local) Churches may disagree with one another, individual bishops may disagree amongst themselves, they may sin by arousing their people in such disagreements, they may individually live sinfully or even whilst remaining in the Church, heretically for a time (as did some of the saints) yet there is still only one Holy Orthodox Church – the Body of Christ here in earth.
To leave that Body of Christ deliberately is extremely dangerous for the individual. He casts himself loose from the protection of the Sacraments of the Church. Such certain protection is available nowhere else on this earth. He endangers those close to him and he places his soul in danger of the judgement.
Loosed from the protection of the Church and her Sacraments, the former Believer is adrift. He may think that he has found a more agreeable group of people, or Pastor or bishop. In fact he has forsaken the Church’s shepherd in favour of the wolf. More seriously he may lead others into the same danger. Would a friend or parent knowingly do that? No, but the risk is in ignorance, in accepting the ecumenism which is rife in the pseudo-Christian world – the premise that all who call themselves Christian somehow constitute “the church”.
Saint Paul says “He that despised Moses’ law died without mercy under two or three witnesses: Of how much greater punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden underfoot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified, an unholy thing, and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace?” His warning should be taken seriously, for the Orthodox Church is not just another Christian group – it is the Church of the Living God -not to be entered lightly, and not to be disregarded lightly.
However, as the Apostle also says: “But we are not of them who draw back unto perdition; but of them that believe to the saving of the soul.” We are Orthodox Believers – true members of the Body of Christ. It behoves us to make the greatest effort to live out our loyalty to Christ, to follow His teachings and to hold ourselves in the closest possible union with Him all the days of our lives.
HOMILY FOR THE FIFTH SUNDAY IN LENT
In the First Lesson of Mattins set for this morning, is the story of Moses conversing with God, manifested in the burning bush. Having gained Moses’ undivided attention, God proceeds to tell him what it is that He wants Moses to do. It is no small task and Moses, accepting the task, immediately asks God how he shall overcome the scepticism of the Children of Israel when he turns up purporting to represent God. Who is God? What is He called? God says His Name is I AM. To us this is a very curious name and one that we simply do not understand. When we are given the Hebrew version: “Yaweh” (an arbitrary but nearly correct spelling) we are none the wiser. To the Hebrew speaker, however, it was immediately revealing. The Name that God gave them for Himself is a major revelation about God, by God. Yaweh is said to be an imperfect tense of the Hebrew verb ‘to be’. It is translated in Exodus 3:14 the first time as “I AM THAT I AM”, this being the nearest short approximation that the English translators could arrive. The implications of this imperfect or indefinite verb are ‘WAS-AM-WILL BE’. God is clearly saying to the Hebrew speakers that He is eternal timeless, that He has no beginning and no end. This is indeed a God to be reckoned with.
The Gospel for today contains two words which are crucial both to the particular passage between Jesus and His Jewish hearers (who were apparently Pharisees) some of whom were inclined believe Him, and also to our whole understanding of Him. The words come towards the end of the set passage and they are the same words which occur in the First Lesson of today’s Mattins. Jesus’ rejoinder at the end in the Gospel in response to the incredulous question of the Jews: “Thou art not yet fifty years old, and hast Thou seen Abraham?” is: “Most assuredly I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.” The Jews knew well the text, they recognised instantly the words from Exodus 3:14: “Thou shalt say unto the Children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you”. Here Jesus uses exactly the same Name for Himself, and the immediate conduct of the Jews hearing Him shows they recognised our Lord’s words as an assumption of the incommunicable Name: Yaweh: I AM. Jesus is claiming nothing less than He is God. He is saying that He is God. He is saying that He has the exact same nature as God the Father and the Holy Spirit, therefore He , They, are the One God. He clearly states on this and other occasions that He is God, nothing less than God, the selfsame God of Abraham, Isaac and Moses, that One God that was, is and is to come, for that is the meaning of the indefinite “Yaweh”, the Name that He used for Himself.
There are those today in some churches, who say that in effect Jesus was little, if any better than an historical philosopher who gave us a philosophy and behaviour code to live by. They say that as a philosopher, His teachings can be adapted freely to the conditions that society makes for itself as time progresses. They consequently ignore those parts of the Gospel that do not suit today’s society and they dismiss as the fallible teachings of an ancient philosopher, those sayings of Jesus that do not fit their present political outlook. Jesus is, by them, therefore made to be a liar and should (by logic) therefore be completely disregarded. This is the logical conclusion to which much of the world has come. It is not possible to dilute the teachings of the Church of God and remain somehow a Christian.
Against their pseudo-Christian new-teaching comes this open and unlimited proclamation of His Divine Nature, in the Gospel (as do several manifestations of the glory of Christ during Advent and Christmas). Through the humiliation of the Cross, just as through the humiliation of the manger, we may behold The Eternal, the Son of God: And see the rays of Divinity shed forth from His crucified Body.
The Second Lesson at Mattins this morning recounts one of the events following the Ressurection of our Lord. A number of people were listening to the Apostles, when Peter began to speak to them. After he had spoken they said to him What shall we do? Then Peter said to them, Repent, and be baptised so that you will be forgiven your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. For the promise of the coming of the Holy Spirit is yours, and to your children, and to all that are far off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call. And Peter went on speaking, saying, Save yourselves from this evil generation. Then they that gladly received his word were Baptised: And the same day there were converted about three thousand souls. And they continued steadfastly in the Apostles’ teachings and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers. And fear came upon every soul.
These Apostles were the foundation of The Church. This was right at the beginning of The Church – and here we see the process which has not changed from that day to this. These people realised that they must join the real Church, the Church that Jesus Himself had created. And just as we know today that there is only one Church that was genuinely founded by Jesus Christ: The worldwide Orthodox Church, so these people knew right back then at the beginning, that they must be in the company of the Apostles.
The Bible text says: And they continued steadfastly in the Apostles’ teachings and fellowship. This means that they kept to precisely the teaching of the Apostles – nothing more and nothing less and were in The Church. Now we in our time know that there are many groups who call themselves Christian, yet who have added things to the teaching of the Apostles – and there are some smaller groups who have deleted things from the Apostles teachings. Yet, we also know that The Church – the Orthodox Church -has always remained true to the teachings of Christ and His Apostles. We know that it alone can point to its unbroken connection right back to Christ Himself. We know that He did not appoint one man to rule the world on His behalf. He said that the worldly rulers appointed such powereful men, but that He did not. We also know that there are very troublesome people who do not follow the teachings of Christ in their own lives, but who interfere when we try to follow His teachings and when we decide to be a part of the genuine Christian Church. We need to be wise when such people – who may be people that we like, friends, people at work – try to interfere in what we have decided to do. We should not listen to them. Our decision is made between us and God. Being in The Church means being saved. The Bible uses terms like “those who would (wanted) to be saved” “those who should be saved” It was those people who joined The Church. Others stayed outside The Church – in other groups which believed different things. That has been the way ever since. There are people – large groups of them, who call themselves Christian, but who refuse to teach the same things that Christ’s Church teaches. They contradict The Church, and yet still they call themselves Christians. We should beware of such people and not let them divert us from the path of The Church.
THE SIXTH SUNDAY AFTER TRINITY
The Gospel for today (Matt. 5:20-) is one of those that requires our fairly careful attention, for it includes a number of matters which are frequent cause for questions. Accordingly I would like to proceed through it seriatim. Beginning with verse 20, we come to the word “righteousness” in the context of contrast with the righteousness of a particular group of the society in which Jesus’ Disciples lived. The Pharisees advocated a behaviour which they termed righteousness and which consisted of “proper” behaviour – proper within the letter of the Law. There was in fact little or no room for love or compassion within their concept of righteousness. Certainly they worked very hard to maintain the letter of the Law – to a degree which we would find incredible.
The righteousness that Jesus is talking about, on His own authority (“But I say unto you…”) begins with the relationship of the individual with God. It is a “right relationship” with God, one that must begin with Him. Through the Incarnation of the Son, God has made possible our reception of God’s own righteousness directly from Christ. His righteousness – which is the righteousness that we must acquire, is summed up by Him in His great summary of the Law: “Hear O Israel, the Lord thy God is One Lord; and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, namely this: Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” What He means is of course, that if one follows this rule, then as a matter of course, and with care, one fulfils the whole purpose of the myriad of legalisms that were incorporated into the Mosaic Law. It is the righteousness of the rule of love that Christ teaches, not the righteousness of cold legal conformity.
The remainder of the chapter – up to verse 48 is actually a series of practical situational illustrations of what this love-righteousness means. Sinful, unrighteous anger is equated with murder – a fact which should sober us considerably. This is one of those sayings which we tend to think of as just sayings – yet this one is awfully important. Literally it means that every single one of us is just as guilty in God’s eyes as those who are in prison for murder. It means that we have no business considering ourselves as “ordinary, decent people” for we are not that at all.
We tend nowadays to deprecate any tendency to wallow in guilt for our sins and it is something which a “healthy Christianity” deprecates – but not to the exclusion of a genuine recognition of the totality of what we have done wrong – our responsibility, individually and corporately and the absolute necessity of our seeking formal forgiveness.
The very next admonition shows that up: The fact that we ought not come to receive Communion at the Liturgy if we know someone to have something against us. Incidentally, it was for this reason that the ancient Liturgies and our own Sarum and English Liturgies have a Kiss of Peace at the beginning – as a reminder that we ought to be reconciled in advance of approaching the Altar.
Verse 25 (which is put in Saint Luke’s Gospel in the context of the end of this age) tells us that it is urgent for us to clear up all our disagreements and quarrels, for whether it be the Second Coming, our individual repose, or the reception of Holy Communion, we cannot allow matters to drag on in dispute and anger. All of this is Christ’s own illustration of the requirement that we adopt a righteousness that is not based on the letter of the Law, but upon the whole spirit of the Law. The terms Law and Righteousness always being synonymous with the relationship between us and God. Our relationship with God must be one of humility, obedience and a love received, reciprocated and disbursed by us.
Today’s Gospel is the familiar story of the miraculous feeding of the people who were surrounding Jesus during His teaching. We have all heard the miraculous multiplication of the original food expounded time and again by preachers and writers.
There is, however another aspect and it comes in the very opening words of this recounting. In those days the multitude being very great, and having nothing to eat, Jesus called His disciples unto Him, and saith unto them, I have compassion on the multitude, because they have now been with Me three days, and have nothing to eat.
Here we have a picture of these people who have apparently been so strongly attracted by Jesus, by the things that He was teaching them, that they stayed away from home, without food or change of clothing or even, it would seem, shelter for three days.
We are accustomed to hearing the Gospel read each Sunday, and the operative word is accustomed. We hardly pay attention. Those of us who read the Scripture every day are hardly more attentive. To speak truthfully, the wonder of what we are reading is frequently lost on us. It may not be too strong to say that perhaps familiarity is breeding if not contempt, then a certain insulation.
Let us look at this again. Here is this teacher teaching those people who want to listen. Now teachers, itinerant and otherwise, Rabbis and other earned men were not that uncommon in ancient Israel. We know that there were others of all sorts immediately before Jesus and immediately after Him. Saint John the Baptist got fairly good crowds coming right out on foot from the city away from their homes into the desert to hear him. However, at least as far as the written record is concerned, this story is quite startling: A crowd of four thousand people stay away from home, without food for three days to hear a country teacher.
If we look at that in the context of our own lives today, can we imagine going off for three days to hear a preacher? Let alone staying day and night in a crowd, sleeping on the ground, with nothing to eat the whole time. It really is rather inconceivable isn’t it? What does it tell us, this extraordinary behaviour?
Perhaps it tells us that Jesus was a great orator? But that won’t do, for we have records of some of the great orators of his day and, well, frankly, He wasn’t in their class. But then He wasn’t trying to be, was He? He wasn’t interested in overawing his hearers with His great intellect or wit or logic or science. He was interested in changing their lives, their hearts from the inside out.
Perhaps it tells us that Jesus was an extremely compelling teacher. That what He said and how He said it compelled people, even against some of their most basic needs, to stay and listen, in the face of discomfort and hunger, they had to stay and hear the rest.
One often tries to imagine what it would have been like to have been in the company of Jesus. Would one have been among those who found it all too much? Could one have stood up to His searching of one’s soul? The fear that He would reject us as not good enough. But of course He never did that did He? People rejected themselves, they rejected Him, but He didn’t reject them – not even Judas Iscariot.
The presence of Jesus must have been remarkable for those who had eyes to see. The teaching of Jesus must have been totally compelling, for those who had ears to hear. And here, we have a recounting of four thousand people who had just such eyes and ears, for they stayed for three days and nights, without food, sleeping in the open, just to see and hear Jesus’ teaching.
THE EIGHTH SUNDAY AFTER TRINITY
The Epistle for today can also be called a passage of unity. Answering the problems of factionalism caused at least in part by the Gnostics at Corinth, St. Paul sets out to show them in this Epistle that the Church is One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic. The part of the Epistle read today is that part which begins to deal with the Church being “One”. When reading Scripture while it is helpful to know the immediate matter being addressed, but it is vital to know the application that it has for us. So we may safely for the moment put aside the problems at Corinth in the years AD 53-55 and move to the meaning for us today.
Those who call themselves Christian around the world in our time are, as we know, scandalously divided. The scandal lies perhaps not so much in the fact of the divisions as in the cause of the divisions. The Church was created by Christ as one, but it is populated on earth by fallen men and fallen men are exceedingly easily distracted. We find it almost impossible to concentrate on the task of worship and love even for the space of the Liturgy – our minds wander, we are distracted by the adversary who is constantly seeking to divert us from the main purpose of our existence. So it is really hardly surprising perhaps, that the Church often contains within itself groups of differing opinion – self-opinions usually. What is scandalous is the fact that these divisions widened to the point of schism. It is equally not very surprising that we find that once a schism of major proportions has occurred, others follow in what is historically speaking, fairly short order and they continue amongst them today. Men find it progressively easier to divide from their fellows after they have thrown off the unity of the genuine Church. Within the present day Church, what then, is the message that we read in the Epistle for today? The first thing that Saint Paul pleads for is that we “Have a uniform testimony” (speak the same thing). This means in effect that the Church testifies to Christ, interprets His Gospel in the same way everywhere. This is not (as some seem to like it) a rigid man-made uniformity imposed by some central earthly power, but rather, a uniform adherence to the revealed truth as it has been preached and taught down the succeeding centuries with one consent by the Fathers and the Church continuously. This is a Holy Spirit-regulated uniformity of doctrine that needs no central human power – although it does require that the Church be organised and have God-fearing Bishops to mind the doctrinal and spiritual business of the Church.
In verse 13, St. Paul asks the question “Is Christ divided?” Indeed is the Church divided? The answer which is inherent in 3:18-23 and throughout the New Testament is an emphatic ‘no’. The worldly wisdom referred to throughout this unity passage is the holding of private opinion in doctrine, and the interpretation of Scripture apart from the Church’s revelation from Christ Himself. This is separation from the Church, as there can can be no such thing as a real division of the Church. There can be autonomous parts of the same Church but division means division from, not division within.
The scandal for today is that there is not unity within the ranks of all those who call themselves Christian and that among such people many are spectacularly and attractively creating truly non-Christian religions which pretend to be Christian. What we have to guard against is the attraction of some of these ideas for those within the Church. We must testify to the eternal Son of God, Who was born of a pure Virgin, was crucified for us, died, descended into hell, rose from the dead, ascended into Heaven and will come again. We must steadfastly give testimony to God the Holy Trinity, a God Who has an ongoing interest, involvement in. love for, and part in the workings of this present world and for each and every one of us. A God Who very well revealed Himself to genuinely holy men down the centuries (whose testimony we have), Who is totally consistent and Who cannot be ‘reinterpreted’ by un-holy worldly-conscious academic speculators. We must witness from the historic, continuous, unified, Apostolic Church that doesn’t need new twists to make its message interesting to this or that group within a novelty-addicted society.
THE END OF TRINITY SEASON
1 Maccabees 2:1-28. Here we have the account of Mattathias ben Johanan HaCohen, the country priest of Modiin, and his revolt against the abandonment of the Jewish religion at the behest of the Seleucid Greek emperor Antiochus IV.
Mattathias is the father of Judas Maccabees who would become famous as the leader of the Maccabees. However Mattathias, in BC 167 could stand the situation no longer.
When he saw the blasphemies that were committed in Judah and Jerusalem, he said: Woe is me! wherefore was I born to see this misery of my people, and the holy city, and to dwell there, when it was delivered into the hand of the enemy, and the sanctuary into the hand of strangers?
Living as we do in this post-Christian era, we often feel the same way that Mattathias did. We see the Christian heritage of our countries delivered into the hands of “strangers” – people who, while born into our heritage, have abandoned it and estranged themselves from the Christianity that formed our forebears for two thousand years. We see the ornaments of our Christian culture taken away by these “strangers” and replaced with alien concepts.
More to the point, we see those who are supposedly the Christian leaders in our society, openly making way for the anti-Christian forces to enter in and take possession. The voice of the remaining Christian leaders seems muted and weak, aimed at the remaining Believers, and rarely outwards towards the anti-Christians.
Mattathias comes from a time when history was rapidly leading towards the coming of God to incarnation into this world to enable the salvation of mankind. History was speeding up towards the greatest point in all time: The Incarnation, the coming of the Messiah: God incarnate.
We are heading towards the last days of Trinity season, speeding towards Advent and the celebration of the Holy Nativity of our Lord into this world, and so it is appropriate to read of Mattathias and the events before Christ’s Nativity.
Given the parallels of our time: The general abandonment of Christianity, the inability or unwillingness of our Christian leaders to make themselves heard, the willingness of so many to sacrifice at the behest of the new secularism and the obvious speeding of events around the world, one might be forgiven for imagining that the Second Coming of Christ cannot be far away. We do not, however, know that. All we know is that many times He enjoined us to act at all times as if His coming was imminent. That is the Christian Believer’s standing order: To act at all times as if Christ Himself is at the point of returning. We must be found by Him to be attending faithfully to our appointed tasks as best we can.
Given the almost universal secularism of our society, the question for each of us at this time must be: Are we in fact doing all that we ought to be doing to call our society back to the Christian Way? And if not, why not.