Cosmic Communion (Part III)
The Role of Creation in our Journey with Christ: Part III
There is a running joke that Orthodox Christians do everything in threes, so this will be my last article under this title. In the past two articles I have been discussing the unique Christian approach to God’s earthly creation as a sacramental reality: that it can be and is in fact designed to be how we encounter intimate communion with God the Creator especially as we approach holy things and holy places with the appropriate mind and heart. It is necessary however to give attention to the reality of creation’s fallenness. This means experiencing God sacramentally through holy things and places does not entail God creating parts of creation to be special means of communion and other parts to be base and irrelevant. The physical realm does not consist of merely earthly “profane” places and heavenly “holy places.” It consists rather of the sacred and the “de-secrated.” Originally, all of creation was made sacred, as Paradise, communion with God – but the Christian understanding has always been that Sin, and its Master, Death, has taken this sacred temple captive. Christ’s mission, and the continuous mission of His Church, is to reclaim – to “redeem” or “ransom” – the sacred world from the Enemy’s grasp, and allow it to undergo restoration. Looking back at early writings and Church Fathers, we find that the original ancient and pre-Western-schism paradigm the Church utilized in depicting the Christian gospel was actually not penal substitution, satisfaction theory, or any of those abstract, scholastic, systematic doctrines. It was the story of Christus Victor (IC XC NIKA as engraved everywhere in early Christian communities, where the name brand “Nike” is derived). The world and its people is the damsel in distress, taken captive by Satan, Sin, and Death, down to a perpetual de-glorification, dehumanization, dementia, and unraveling of its designed purpose and existence to the point of seeming no hope and separation from her Lover. In comes Christ, the Hero Warrior of the story, breaking into the strongholds of Hades and death and sin in order to destroy it altogether and rescue His true love. It was not understood to be God the Father that the world is saved from – from His demands, justice, or wrathful gaze – but from the bondage of the Enemy, the one holding the world ransom; it is literally the Exodus story of Moses, Pharaoh, and the Israelites (interesting that The Ten Commandments is played on network television every Easter in the West).
In grasping the significance of this as it relates to the physical world and nature it is important to understand the spiritual meaning behind Christ’s baptism in the Jordan by John the Baptist. In Jewish purification regulations every physical thing in creation fell into one of three categories: the unclean, the kosher, and the holy. If something kosher came into contact with the unclean it would be defiled and in need of purification; however, if something came into contact with the holy, it became sanctified by that which was holy (thus the primary purpose behind ingesting sacrifices after they have been offered as a holy sacrifice to God in order to receive purification).1 As baptism is connected with the idea of the forgiveness and cleansing of sin, it seems a puzzlement as to why Christ, being without sin, needed to be baptized; and John the Baptist expresses his bewilderment at the event as well. Clement of Alexandria came to the conclusion that Christ entered the Jordan not to receive sanctification, but instead to Himself sanctify the waters.2 Scientifically we now know that every body of water is ultimately connected to every other water source in the world, such that all of the water we currently have on earth is the same water that has always been here in a constant recycling process. By entering the Jordan, Christ in turn came into contact with the water of the entire world, the wellspring of life to all creation. In the ancient icon of Christ’s baptism the Holy Spirit is depicted descending in the form of a dove from heaven with a beam of light trailing behind Him, and interestingly this exact same dove image is displayed in the icon of Noah’s Ark resting upon Mt. Ararat; this is an example of the Church telling us that there is a direct connection between these two stories. In the Apostle Peter’s second epistle he discusses the concept of Noah’s Ark being a type or foreshadowing of baptism, because it was actually not the waters that Noah’s family was saved from; rather the waters were the instrument of their salvation from evil.3 The corruption that had filled the world with wickedness had to be undone with a great cleansing, leaving the earth in a new, transfigured state. This metamorphic deliverance – not a disposal – of creation and its inhabitants from the corruption of sin and death is what Christ, through His Church, is making a reality even as we await His return. This is why Scripture, although using the term “world” to refer to carnal and sinful culture, also speaks of the world as being the recipient of God’s salvation because it was created to be “very good” in the beginning. Christ spoke of the living bread that came down from heaven being His own flesh, which He would give for the life of the world (John 6:51).
Here we have come to the appropriate place for study of the specific sacraments of the Church, for their purpose proceeds from this reality of reclaiming and taking back from the Enemy the created order that has fallen – that is groaning as in the pains of childbirth – sanctifying and transfiguring it to become “normal” once again.
Redeeming the World Through Sacrament
Before Christianity was legalized under Constantine (when a great number of people began to enter the Church), baptisms took place on holy Saturday, the eve before Pascha (Easter) morning, the day that Christ lay in the tomb. The person was even immersed three times, illustrating that what was taking place was a real participation in the death and resurrection of Christ, who lay three days in the grave. Christ truly rose from the dead in the same, but transfigured body that He previously had, and thus the blessed hope of all Christians is not to escape the physical body fit only for cremation upon death, but to set themselves apart from corruption, to become a true temple of the Holy Spirit, to make Christ’s resurrected life their own through union with the Life, the Living Water Himself (for there is no life without water). Thus Saint Peter writes that baptism is not an optional public announcement after one is “saved,” but that baptism in fact saves, through the resurrection of Christ (1 Pet. 3:21). The ancient baptismal ceremony was incredibly similar to the ancient Christian wedding ceremony, again a case of the Church pointing out a strong connection. To assert that one is fully united with Christ upon their mental assent to a piece of information or a “sinners’ prayer” and any sacramental addition is completely unnecessary would be the equivalent of asserting that one became “one flesh” with their spouse and had a marital status change the very moment they realized that they loved them. A wedding ceremony after that point was completely unnecessary and really did not mystically change the couple’s status in any way. Baptism is one’s wedding to Christ: a full union to His Life, sufferings, death, and resurrection to eternal life. It is an unfathomable gift from God not to merely earn merit in His sight but to impart Divine grace to the one baptized, to be “born again . . . of water and the Spirit,” (John 3:3,5).
The greatest manifestation of God’s sanctifying work among the creation is the sacrament of the Eucharist. The greatest of all mysteries, this sacrament has been marred and misunderstood by the natural human tendency to scientifically dissect and analyze the Eucharist by itself, resulting in a plethora of modern beliefs and approaches to it. The Eucharist must be kept in its proper context of the ancient worship of the Church; the journey of those worshipping into the heavenly realm to encounter God in His throne room. Nothing magical happens to common bread and wine upon the enunciation of special prayers and rites; something happens to the people gathered for worship. A pilgrimage is made through the Liturgy climaxing in a translation unto the very banquet table prepared for God’s people, an experience not of the future but of the “eternal present” of the Kingdom – of “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world,” (Rev. 13:8). After such a transformation of God’s people has taken place in worship, it is only fitting that the meal upon that altar partake of that journey, becoming the meal spread on that heavenly table, the Bread of Life, the Manna of Heaven, the life-giving flesh of the Lamb (cf. John 6). Through this iconic, incarnational participation in the spiritual reality of the heavenly realm now by means of the created realm, God grants His people real participation in His own Self-expression in what He has made through the faculties with which He designed us.
Going even further than inanimate material, a rediscovery of communion with God within His creation is given through the Church through the sacrament of one’s own personal relationships. Interestingly, and perhaps shockingly, it was not until recent times that a couple exchanged vows with one another during the Christian wedding ceremony. This is because a covenant is not merely being made with another person, and it is not a duet that is taking place; it is a resolve to encounter and submit to Christ in the person of one’s spouse, to iconically and sacramentally learn and know what the true self-sacrificing Christian journey must be by experiencing it in the context of an intimate human relationship. Thus the original Christian wedding had no wedding party – only the “Trinity” of the husband, wife, and priest, the icon of Him who truly unites the two who are looking to encounter Him in one another. The couple would both wear crowns upon their heads during the ceremony as a symbol of the crown of martyrdom, for each person truly dies to themselves in order to love and serve Christ in one another. Thus Saint Paul so confusingly discusses husbands and wives and Christ and the Church as one and the same mystery (Eph.5:30-32).
The ordination of the clergy is another instance of sacramental experience of Christ through relationship with a spiritual parental figure, and the spiritual father of a local community was always understood to be an iconic figure imparting a realization of the immanent presence of Christ among the parishioners. Saint Ignatius was ordained as bishop of Antioch in the first century and was a disciple of the Apostle John, and he writes on this subject:
“And do ye reverence them as Christ Jesus, of whose place they are the keepers, even as the bishop is the representative of the Father of all things, and the presbyters are the sanhedrim of God, and assembly of the apostles of Christ. Apart from these there is no elect Church, no congregation of holy ones, no assembly of saints.”4
The sacrament of confession is another highly misunderstood practice that has led to its non-existence in many contemporary Christian groups, for why on earth would one confess their sins before a priest as mediator when they have been given bold access before the throne of grace in Christ? Getting exonerated from legal guilt is not the emphasis here, as if the priest were a lawyer pleading our case before God’s throne. But Christ directly deposited to His disciples and they to their successors the trust of binding and loosing sins (Matt. 16:19; 18:18). The Church as Christ’s body is responsible for keeping its members morally and doctrinally accountable, but also for providing aids necessary to help its members recover from their disease of sin and corruption. James gives the command to confess our sins one to another so that we may be healed (Jam. 5:16). The purpose is not juridical, it is a metaphysical transformation, a very real spiritual dimension and help in this physical practice of confession before another person as a representative of the Church, and of Christ Himself. In the Orthodox Church the confession is made facing the icon of Christ with the priest standing next to the parishioner, acting as a sacramental mouthpiece for the true One receiving the confession.
For the Life of the World
At the same time however the clergy are not a segregated elite class of Christians. On an intimate level they bring attention to the reality that the entire Church is a royal priesthood, mediators and intercessors of the physical and spiritual dimensions of God’s creation, for humans are themselves microcosms, the apex of the two. Christ was the first true Person to accomplish this purpose for which man was designed, and in Him humanity is returning to that purpose. This involves first of all a reconciliation with God and neighbor, but we are also undergoing a reconciliation with the entire created realm. Interestingly when Christ triumphantly entered the Holy Land as its King, He rode an unbroken donkey that nonetheless was docile to Him, for God in Christ is reconciling the whole world to Himself (2 Cor. 5:19). Saint Isaac the Syrian once said:
“What is a charitable heart? It is a heart that is burning with charity for the whole of creation, for men, for the birds, for the beasts, for the demons – for all creatures. He who has such a heart cannot see or call to mind a creature without his eyes becoming filled with tears by reason of the immense compassion that seizes his heart . . . This is why such a man never ceases to pray also for the animals, for the enemies of Truth, and for those who do him evil, that they may be preserved and purified. He will pray even for the reptiles, moved by the infinite pity that reigns in the hearts of those who are becoming united to God.”5
Perhaps the greatest boundary for contemporary Christians to viewing the world as sacrament is due to the strong impact of the extreme dispensational views of figures like C. I. Schofield or John Nelson Darby from the nineteenth century. This introduced a mindset strongly emphasizing Christ returning to take me away to somewhere in the clouds, rather than Christ coming back here to set up His eternal Kingdom. I have been struck recently by how often the Old Testament wisdom literature speaks of those, along with “the meek” of the Beatitudes, who “will inherit the earth.” The traditional thinking of my background was that “this world is not my home, I’m just passing through!” So why then do the Scriptures speak of the world “burning up” and a “new earth” (2 Pet. 3:10; Rev. 21:1)? Both John the Baptist and Saint Paul contend that all of humanity must endure a refinement and purification by fire in order to be transfigured and delivered from corruption, so why would the rest of creation be any different?6 It is to our utmost shame that Christians have been labeled “so heavenly minded they are no earthly good,” for if one is no earthly good than they are certainly not heavenly minded. As Father Alexander Schmemann wrote:
“The Church is the sacrament of the Kingdom – not because she possesses divinely instituted acts called ‘sacraments,’ but because first of all she is the possibility given to man to see in and through this world the ‘world to come,’ to see and to ‘live’ it in Christ. It is only when in the darkness of this world we discern that Christ has already ‘filled all things with Himself’ that these things, whatever they may be, are revealed and given to us full of meaning and beauty. A Christian is the one who, wherever he looks, finds Christ and rejoices in Him. And this joy transforms all his human plans and programs, decisions and actions, making all his mission the sacrament of the world’s return to Him who is the life of the world.”7
Christ repeatedly illustrated in His parables that one day the Master is going to return home and His servants had better be found preparing for it and not loafing. The universal statement of faith for all Christians is quite clear: “I look to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come,” (Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed), not “the immorality of the soul and disincarnate life in the spirit world.” For at the conclusion of the book of Revelation we do not see everyone taken away and the cosmos obliterated – we see “New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God . . . the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them . . . and the kings of the earth bring their glory and honor into it. Its gates shall not be shut at all by day (there shall be no night there),” (Rev. 21:2-3, 24-25). Let us prepare ourselves and our world for that glorious revelation of the return of Paradise, of Eden, the deliverance of all from the bondage of sin and death to reveal those beckoning gates; let us prepare the world for the Master and prepare ourselves for Him by meeting Him in the world – for behold, He is coming.
1 See Dr. Margaret Barker, “Our Great High Priest: The Church Is the New Temple.” Voices from St. Vladimir’s Seminary. Ancient Faith Radio. Podcast. January 31, 2012. http://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/svsvoices/our_great_high_priest_the_church_is_the_new_temple
2 Clement of Alexandria, Some Account of the writings and opinions of Clement of Alexandria. John Kaye. London: J. G. & F. Rivington. 1835. p. 443.
3 1 Peter 3:18-22
4 Ignatius to the Trallians, 3 (Christian Classics Ethereal Library, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.v.iv.iii.html).
5 Quote no. 3367 : Saint Isaac the Syrian , 365-460, Syriaque jacobite, Christianity, Orthodoxy. Source : The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church by Vladimir Lossky (Crestwood, NY: St. V1adimir’s Seminary Press, 1991).
6 See Matt. 3:10-12; 1 Cor. 3:9-14
7 Fr. Alexander Schmemann. For the Life of the World. New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press. 1963. p. 113
Photo courtesy of Christian.