Arianism: from Arius to Today

The earliest conciliar debate on Christology stemmed from the teachings of the Alexandrian priest Arius. In defending the exalted nature of the divinity of God, he taught that it was impossible for the Man Christ Jesus to be truly the uncreated God. While Christ’s essence could be said to be quite similar in essence (homoiousios) to that of the invisible God, Arius would not agree that Christ as Son of God and God the Father had the same essence (homoousios). Like subsequent controversies, it can be argued that Arius was coming at Christology from a good motivation of defending the holiness of God, but he had neglected to appreciate the Incarnation as the mystery that it is. Others might defend the divinity of Christ to the exclusion of fully embracing His humanity, but ultimately the challenge of Arianism was to believe that one born of a Virgin could not also be the eternal God. He failed to see that the immortal God could become Man and die as a mortal man. By examining the debate over Arianism and seeing its ripples down to the present day, we will see the importance of the Incarnation not merely for theological accuracy and rigor, but in order to appreciate our salvation which is achieved through theosis.

O’Collins’ Christology lays out the topic of Arianism with a Scriptural and historical perspective that puts the debates about Christ into context. He notes that Athanasius, in writing against the Arians, provides a snapshot of the key texts in the Bible which were used to question whether the Son of God was truly God, as Orthodox teachers such as Athanasius held. O’Collins then goes on to discuss some of the pivotal references to Scripture that the Orthodox used to counter the passages found in Contra Arianos, both in Athanasius’ day and later as new Christological controversies emerged. First, let us consider the key passages used to support Arius and his followers’ claims. From the Old Testament, we have Christ foreshadowed as the Wisdom of God who says of Himself in Proverbs 8:22, ‘the Lord created/begot/possessed me at the beginning of his work’. The Hebrew is clearly somewhat ambiguous (hence the multiple English words placed as potential ways to translate ‘begot’) but if Christ is truly the Wisdom of Proverbs, and if begetting includes an act of creation, Christ would be created.

Further, the New Testament references appealed to by the Arians seemed to place Christ in the light of being created. Acts 2:36 states God “has made Jesus…both Lord and Christ”, implying that Jesus became something that He was not, when He was made Lord and Christ by God’s act. Hebrews 1:4 points out that Christ has “become so much better than the Angels”, again hearkening to words of change and growth. Colossians 1:15 echoes the idea of Christ as created by calling Him the “firstborn over all creation”. The word firstborn was used to advocate that His existence as begotten made Him not eternal, but created. The Church would ultimately convene at Nicea in 325 and at the council profess that Christ is “begotten, not made, one in essence [homoousios] with the Father”. But we have also seen that the Scriptures cited above might seem to cast doubt on this. How did the Orthodox teachers combat those Scriptures? O’Collins argues that it is largely through the full context of Scriptures not quoted by Arians.

One chief aspect of the Scriptures that points to Christ as uncreated deals with the clause in the Symbol of Faith that comes just after the famous homoousios profession, in that we state it is Christ “through whom all things were made”. The Creed codifies this from a dogmatic perspective, but the Scriptures are the foundation of the Creed and they testify to this creative aspect of Christ in passages such as 1 Corinthians 8:6 which says that all things exist through Christ, and it is through Him that we live. Of His humility which would be pointed out by Arians in passages such as John 14:28 which says that ‘The Father is greater than I’, the Orthodox teachers would point out that this was speaking of His human nature. To support their position, they would refer to Philippians 2:9-11, which says that He humbled Himself despite not considering it robbery to be equal with God. His subordination was willing, because he took the form of a bondservant. And even more importantly, Athanasius and his followers would ask the Arians to explain how it is that Christ was made equal to God multiple times in Scripture, particularly with the Gospel of John when Christ says things such as ‘I and the Father are one’ in John 10:30.

Taken together, the Orthodox position against the Arian view would see the Father and the Son as ultimately one, but that in becoming Man Christ humbled Himself in an act of self-emptying, which is the word kenosis in Greek. The Arians were stressing the passages of Scripture that spoke of kenosis in becoming Man and suffering, to the exclusion of the passages which upheld His unchanging divinity. Athanasius and his successors in the Orthodox faith embraced all of the Scriptures in professing Christ to be truly God and Man. Synthesizing these references and arguments together, we can return to the Symbol of Faith and see how eloquent it is when it speaks of Christ in His being as “One Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God the only-begotten, born of the Father before all ages. Light from light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, one in essence with the Father; through whom all things were made”.
Once the Creed was completed at the First Ecumenical Council of Constantinople in 381, this did not eliminate controversies over whether Christ is truly God (not to mention all of the other controversies). Arians persisted in parts of the world as a formal sect out of communion with the Orthodox Catholic Church, but of course we can turn from history to consider Arianism as it exists in the world today. First, we can consider those sects not linked through succession from Arians, but they would agree with the tenet that Christ was created and is not God, being one of the Holy Trinity, glorified with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Key examples of this include Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Scientists, Islam, and more. It is true that particularly with the groups above which call themselves Christians, there will be much of the same Scriptural argumentation about Christ subordinating Himself to the Father, and the like. To counter them we can follow the lead of Fathers such as Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria. But are there other ways in which Arianism still exists outside the bounds of formal doctrinal disagreements? Is there such a thing as ‘functional Arianism’? I would argue that this is indeed the case.

One example of Arianism comes to us from semantic sloppiness. For example, many times I have heard Christians who may say that they believe in the Trinity but then say that the Father is God, the Son is the Son of God, and the Spirit is something or some One completely unknown to them. Calling the Father God is not the problem, it is when the divinity of Christ and the Holy Spirit is somewhat secondary to the divinity of the Father. How can this be dealt with? Byzantine spirituality is one key way to unsettle any notion of unintentional Arianism. Our prayers so often say things such as “May Christ, Our true God…”, or “O, Christ God, bless the food”. I even once had Roman Catholics try to ‘correct’ a blog post because I wrote “Christ God” in the context of a sentence. The principle of lex orandi, lex credendi (the law of praying is the law of believing) shines out in the light of the way that we continually emphasize Christ as God in Byzantine prayers.

Perhaps even more challenging to us is a form of Arianism that comes to us from the heart. We may sing the Symbol of Faith with gusto but there are many times that we look at the world and despair, as though nothing can be done to change the way things are. If we saw the world with eyes of faith, that would not be the case. But if we see Christ as only a man as functional Arians do, there is a sense in which we have lost the meaning of who God is. If God is not both divine and human in my own life, what hope for change is there? Again, to see Christ as God with our hearts, we need the prayer of the heart. The Jesus Prayer is one central aspect to finding our way and not losing hope. By continually invoking Him as Lord and Son of God, Jesus Christ will have mercy on us and on the whole world. This element of ‘Arianism’ is subtle and while not a formal heresy, may be the most important aspect of understanding who Christ is. We may profess what is true with our lips but if our hearts are not in harmony with our words, the beauty of Truth will not fully permeate our being. By meditating on the Arian controversy, we see the magnificence of God and His love for us as he became Man. By praying as Orthodox Christians, that glory of divinity can enter our lives. Glory to Jesus Christ!

Work Cited
O’Collins SJ, Gerald. Christology: A Biblical, Historical and Systematic Study of Jesus. Oxford University Press, 2009 pp 165-168.

St. Acacius and Love

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On July 7th, one Saint commemorated in the Byzantine Christian Calendar is St. Acacius, who is mentioned in the Ladder of Divine Ascent.

The OCA website has a short but beautiful summary of his life, here is the link:

http://oca.org/saints/lives/2016/07/07/101951-venerable-acacius-of-sinai-who-is-mentioned-in-the-ladder

 

In our world there is a focus on offending others, which can be beneficial from one perspective. We do not want to hurt our neighbors, after all! But I would ask-do we hurt ourselves when we continuously find reasons for offense? Have we missed forgiveness in this sensitivity to offense? Does it make us unable to love when we are wounded? If so, we may have missed an even deeper opportunity to love than in the world where no one offends another (assuming such world would even be possible).

With St. Acacius, we may have an example to consider. We may find his life shocking. He was mistreated by his spiritual father to the point of death without complaining. He was  miraculously raised from the dead to continue to show respect to the same monk who mistreated him, saying that he could not be silent if he was called upon. And so his dead body spoke to continue a life of love, despite no love shown to him.

This led to a beautiful remorse and repentance by his spiritual father, and his life of love brought a reconciliation to all of the hurts that Acacius endured.

The persistent love and obedience in the face of such offense is scandalous. We could consider him quite masochistic for enduring this. But I think that scandal is the exact place where we see his love, which was not contingent on his surroundings. As the love of God is present even as we turn away from Him, St. Acacius continued to love regardless of how he was treated.

May we seek to revel in this love! May God grant it to us when minuscule trials come our way. So often we speak out and react to the smallest things, and yet St. Acacius’ obedient silence in life and his obedient words in death can still our worries and heal not only our own wounds, but the wounds of those who have hurt us. That may be the deepest therapeutic, far above any feelings of justice that come from retribution.

 

I pray that deep love of St. Acacius fill our hearts to love no matter what we face. It is, I would argue, the surest way to be kept safe from the spirit of retaliation and frustration that seems ubiquitous in our world today.

 

Glory to Jesus Christ!

 

 

St. Porphyrios and the Nightingale-II

Glory to Jesus Christ!

(Or, if you’re on the older calendar)

Christ is Risen!

It has been 3 months since I posted on here. Some of that can be attributed to busyness but as I look back on the postings on here, the most recent one speaks volumes to me and I had promised to let it simmer.

St. Porphyrios and his meditation on the nightingale spoke to me very deeply.

I think of our world and our words, and we can say so many things to create clouds and fogs which can hide our true hearts from ourselves, our neighbor, and Our Lord. Thinking of the simple prayer of song that emanates from a tiny bird, I hold in contrast my own life and I see so much waste. So many jokes thrown out to not look vulnerable. So much posturing to demonstrate my knowledge when I am actually feeling doubt. So much pride cast under the guise of seeking sympathy. So much strength (conversely) shown when I am wanting to admit weakness. And as those shares/words/comments/posts/likes/emojis are racked up, my real sense of life in this world is obscured. I forget who it was who opened up to me, and I forget the people to whom I am honest.

 

And in this sense of futility, I return to the nightingale. His song in solitude seems futile but it is anything but futile. Even if no human hears him, he knows his song and it is his true voice. This is my goal in my walk in this life. There have been so many words that are said for so many untrue reasons. It makes it so clear that if I would but focus on my own song that has come from my Creator, that even if I were to have no one hear me I would be so much more fulfilled than a world of provocations.

 

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a Sinner.

St. Porphyrios, a Nightingale, and Me

My heart has been very moved by a passage from Wounded by Love, the Life and Wisdom of Saint Porphyrios. It speaks to so much of my own life and the world around me that for this post I would like to invite you in to hear his wonderful story of one lone nightingale. Please let it sink deep into your heart, I know that I am trying to do the same. Holy Father Porphyrios, pray to God for us!

One morning I was walking alone in the virgin forest. Everything, freshened by the morning dew, was shining in the sunlight. I found myself in a gorge. I walked through it and sat on a rock. Cold water was running peacefully beside me and I was saying the prayer. Complete peace. Nothing could be heard. After a while the silence was broken by a sweet, intoxicating voice singing and praising the Creator. I looked. I couldn’t discern anything. Eventually, on a branch opposite me I saw a tiny bird. It was a nightingale. I listened as the nightingale trilled unstintingly, its throat puffed out to bursting in sustained song. The microscopic little bird was stretching back its wings in order to find power to emit those sweetest of tones, and puffing out its throat to produce that exquisite voice. If only I had a cup of water to give it to drink and quench its thirst!

Tears came to my eyes – the same tears of grace that flowed so effortlessly and that I had acquired from Old Dimas. It was the second time I had experienced them.

I cannot convey to you the things I felt, the things I experienced. I have, however, revealed to you the mystery. And I thought, ‘Why does this tiny nightingale produce these songs? Why does it trill like that? Why is it singing that exquisite thought? Why, why, why…why is it bursting its throat? Why, why, for what reason? Is it waiting for someone to praise it? Certainly not. No one there will do that.’ So I philosophized to myself. This sensitivity I acquired after the experience with Old Dimas. Previously I didn’t have it. What did that nightingale not tell me! And how much did I say to it in silence: ‘Little nightingale, who told you that I would pass by here? No one comes here. It’s such an out-of-the-way place. How marvelously you unceasingly carry on your duty, your prayer to God! How much you tell me, and how much you teach me, little nightingale! My God, how I am moved. With your warbling, dear nightingale, you show me how to hymn God, you teach me a thousand things beyond number…’

My poor health does not allow me to narrate all this to you as I feel it. A whole book could be written about it. I loved that nightingale very much. I loved it and it inspired me. I thought, ‘Why it and not me? Why does it hide from the world and not me?’ And the thought entered into my mind that I must leave, I must lose myself, I must cease to exist. I said to myself, ‘Why? Did it have an audience? Did it know I was there and could hear it? Who heard it as it was bursting its throat in song? Why did it go to such a hidden location? But what about of all these little nightingales in the middle of the thick forest, in the ravines, night and day, at sunset and sunrise? Who heard their throat-bursting song? Why did they go to such secret places? Why did they puff out their throats to bursting?’ The purpose was worship, to sing to their Creator, to worship God. That’s how I explained it.

I regarded all of them as angels of God, little birds that glorified God the Creator of all and no one heard them. Yes, believe me, they hid themselves so that no one would hear them. They weren’t interested in being heard; but there in solitude, in peace, in the wilderness, in silence, they longed to be heard, but by whom? None other than by the Maker of everything, the Creator of all, by Him who gave them life and breath and voice. You will ask, ‘Did they have consciousness? What am I to say?’ I don’t know if they did it consciously or not. I don’t know. These, after all, are birds. It may be, as Holy Scripture says, that today they live and tomorrow exist no more. We mustn’t think differently from what Holy Scripture says. God may present to us that all these were angels of God. We don’t know about these things. At all events they hid themselves that no one would hear their doxology.

So it is also for the monks there on the Holy Mountain; their life is unknown. You live with your elder and you love him. Prostrations and ascetic struggles are all part of daily life, but you don’t remember them, nor does anyone ask about you, ‘Who is he?’ You live in Christ; you belong to Christ. You live with everything and you live God, in whom all things live and move – in whom and through whom…you enter into the uncreated Church and live there unknown. And although you devote yourself in prayer to your fellow men, you remain unknown to all men, and perhaps they will never know you.

From Offering to the Great Entrance and Back Again

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Fr. Ephrem Lash gave a riveting lecture on the Divine Liturgy entitled “Translating The Liturgy: Was there a Great Entrance at the Last Supper?” (1) In it, he points out vividly that aspects of our liturgical life of offering bread and wine to become the Body and Blood of Christ grew organically from a background that began with the Last Supper, and he shows that this does not mean that each component of the Divine Liturgy today was present even in an embryonic sense at the Last Supper. If we consider the Byzantine liturgy, the Great Entrance is a momentous occasion, so much so that Patriarch Eutychius called for the Cherubic hymn to be sung to counterbalance any notion that the bread and wine carried in the procession were already consecrated before the Anaphora (2). And despite the fact that the Last Supper brought the Eucharist to the world for the first time, it would be anachronistic to believe that there was a Great Entrance at the Last Supper, as the rhetorical question in the lecture title drives home so poignantly. Despite not being as ancient as the Eucharist itself, we will consider the development of the Great Entrance to understand the benefits and potential pitfalls of this practice.

As the liturgy developed in the first centuries of the Church, we read that “[t]he people, both in East and west, brought the bread and wine for the Eucharist.” (3) In the East “they handed in their offerings on the way to the Church, either at a table near the door, or in a small room specially provided near the entrance.” (4) Our understanding of the Eucharist as an offering from our own lives to bring the life of Christ to the Church and the world was clearly connected to this action of the faithful providing the bread and the wine, and to a partial extent this continues to this day with the faithful who prepare Prosphora in Byzantine parishes. As practical considerations brought more specialization to the Church, the place where the bread and wine were kept for the Anaphora changed. First, there was a transition from a table or small room to the Skeuphylakion, a separate building that stored the gifts of bread and wine which would be selected by deacons for the liturgy. Despite having its own building, the liturgy in Constantinople during the time of St. John Chrysostom did not have a Great Entrance as we know it. Wybrew states that “it is reasonably clear that in Chrysostom’s time the gifts were brought in by the deacons from wherever they had been left by the people and that this transfer was effected in a simple manner…accompanied by neither chant nor ceremonial.” (5) Thus, the transfer of the gifts from the Skeuphylakion to the altar began without ceremony, despite the current hymns and rubrics for the Great Entrance.

By 392, however, Theodore of Mopsuestia recounts at length about the awe and wonder of the same basic practice of bringing the gifts to the altar (6). Meditating upon the reality of the offering of Christ, the symbolism of His suffering, death, anointing and burial became integrally part of the Great Entrance. The ceremonialism that was not present in the early 300s emerges later in the century, and became so profound that Patriarchs chided those who held that the bread and wine were already consecrated, the Cherubic hymn was instituted, and the rite of Prothesis at the side altar came to replace the Skeuphylakion (7), which would have its own solemnity and symbolism to provide a context that would make sense of how we treat the gifts as special even prior to their consecration. Taken together, the progression away from simple actions in the earliest centuries of Church History reached a pinnacle of contrast where a rite before the procession was instituted providing symbolism pointing to Christ’s birth, the rite of procession at the Great Entrance was established to consider the suffering, death and Burial of Christ as well as the angelic powers worshipping the life-creating Trinity, ultimately leading to His Resurrection from the dead at the Anaphora and vivifying His people through reception of His Body and Blood at the Holy Eucharist.

On the one hand, we can be grateful to God for this development over the centuries. Hearing the prayers of the Prothesis (if they are audible and intelligible) can provide an excellent context of what is to be celebrated before the liturgy commences. By considering the prayers from this rite that hearken to the birth of Christ, and by seeing the great company of angels and saints surrounding Christ, we are drawn into the mystical realities of heaven, where the praise of God never ceases. In adding particles to the diskos for the faithful departed, our hearts swell with hope and prayers for those we have lost. Tying this together with the same gifts that are then solemnly carried through the nave of the Church and through the Royal doors at the Great Entrance, we are swept into the drama of the Passion, and the words of the Anaphora remind us that after death there is life. And as that life comes to the faithful who partake of it (or are blessed with the words, “Save Your People, O God, and bless Your inheritance”), the reality of Resurrection and life that is beyond the grave is embossed on our souls. In many ways, this experience emphasizes the reality of the life of Christ in the drama of salvation in a way that a liturgy which is not formalized can never do.
On the other hand, the formalization that comes to us through liturgical developments suffers the possibility of missing out on the personal connection to the offering that was seen more clearly in the early practice of the Church. As mentioned above, some parishioners may serve their congregations through preparing prosphora. Nevertheless, the majority of the people do not participate in this reality, and if that is the case there are many faithful who may not connect themselves to that which is offered in the Eucharist. The modern Byzantine rite may point us to Christ, but how do the faithful connect with this reality by seeing themselves in the liturgy?

I would argue that a balanced approach of understanding what Christ did for us and understanding what we do to unite ourselves to Christ and His Church in the liturgy is the key to the most ideal perspective. We must be able to see that we are part of the offering to God, and at the same time we must grasp how Christ offers Himself through our offerings to God. In so doing, we plumb the depths of the mystery of our salvation more clearly than an either/or perspective. Instead, we will see Christ’s priestly ministry and outstretched arms that seek to save us, and at the same time we will appreciate that our own efforts are part of the synergistic movement towards life everlasting. In so doing, we grasp the fullness of salvation and see the drama of its unfolding in our day to day lives. Glory to Jesus Christ!

Works Cited
1. Lash, Fr. Ephrem https://vimeo.com/32297264
2. Wybrew, Hugh. The Orthodox Liturgy, SVS Press 1990, page 82
3. Wybrew, page 20
4. Wybrew, page 20
5. Wybrew, page 52
6. Wybrew, page 53
7. Wybrew pp. 54, 55, 84, 109, 110, 154, 155-7

The Mystical View of the Scriptures in the Akathist to the Theotokos

The richness of the Byzantine liturgical life of prayer has overwhelmed many, particularly those of us who are tasked with leading singing the multitude of services and musical tones that undergird it. The principle of lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi dictates that the prayer life of the Byzantine faithful will also influence perspective and faith in the Scriptures. From a Biblical perspective, there is a deeper foundation beyond the musical complexity of the Byzantine rite that can be a blessing to anyone with ears to hear and eyes to see. This Biblical foundation is so central and yet so often overlooked that at many times one may spend a great deal of time ignorant of its depths and splendor. By reflecting upon some of the Biblical references in the Akathist hymn, I argue that the Bible is deeply foundational to the mystical perspective which pervades Byzantine spirituality.

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The Akathist hymn to the Theotokos is attributed to St. Romanos the Melodist, who is said to have composed it in the 6th century. This hymn leads those who pray it through the life of the Mother of God and the prophetic foreshadowing of her life from the Annunciation to the Birth of Christ. Why does this matter in terms of Scriptural interpretation? As we shall see, the mystical viewpoint of the Byzantine Christian Tradition comes to life in this hymn. Parallels between the Old and New Testaments are made in ways that seem shocking to the perspective that literal Biblical fulfillment is the height of good exegesis. Instead, the perspective of Old Testament fulfillment and interpretation is centered upon mystical foreshadowing that is larger than the strict message of a given text. For the purpose of this essay, we will reflect on the sixth Kontakion and Ikos, which are below (online source: http://www.orthodoxa.org/GB/orthodoxy/spirituality/AkathistMotherGodGB.htm) .

Kontakion 6 Having become God-bearing heralds, the Magi returned to Babylon. Fulfilling Your prophecy, and having preached You as the Christ to all, they left Herod as a trifler, who knew not how to chant: Alleluia.
Ikos 6 Having shed the light of truth in Egypt, You expelled the darkness of falsehood; and unable to bear Your strength, O Saviour, her idols fell; and they that were set free from them cried to the Theotokos: Rejoice, Uplifting of men. Rejoice, Downfall of demons. Rejoice, you who trampled upon the delusion of error. Rejoice, you who censured the deceit of the idols. Rejoice, Sea which drowned the symbolic Pharaoh. Rejoice, Rock which refreshed those thirsting for life. Rejoice, Pillar of fire, guiding those in darkness. Rejoice, Protection of the world, more spacious than a cloud. Rejoice, Nourishment, successor to manna. Rejoice, Minister of holy joy. Rejoice, Land of promise. Rejoice, you from whom flows milk and honey. Rejoice, O Unwedded Bride.

First, let us note that the kontakion provides the context of the rejoicing in the subsequent Ikos. In the midst of the narrative of the Annunciation and Nativity, we reflect in the 6th section upon the Magi departing from Bethlehem in a new direction. Instead of going back towards Herod, they perceive his unbelief and journey to Egypt. The Ikos too then focuses on Egypt and speaks to the Mother of God in the light of her being the Mother, as well as in relation to the people of the Old Testament. While it is true that she sojourned there with the young infant Jesus and His foster father Joseph, the words relating her to Egypt and salvation in general shed light on the Byzantine view of Scripture.

After describing the Theotokos in general terms indicating that she brings light and salvation ultimately through her Son, the Ikos places her into the contexts of the Exodus of Moses and His people from Egypt. This key section of the Ikos proclaims that Mary is a great variety of salvific events and supernatural things from the Exodus account. In sum, she is called the sea that drowned the symbolic Pharaoh (Exodus 14:28), the Rock which brought forth water (Exodus 17:6), the pillar of fire which guides those in darkness (Exodus 13:21), the protection of the world that is symbolized by the cloud (Exodus 13:21), the successor to manna (Exodus 16:4), the minister who brought joy (here the connection is somewhat unclear to Exodus, likely Moses and/or Aaron), and lastly the Promised Land that flowed with milk and honey (Exodus 3:17).

There is so much that can be said about this mystical perspective on the book of Exodus given to us in the Akathist. We are given explicit terms such as “symbolic Pharaoh” and “successor to manna” which look beyond the times of Moses and his people to consider how the Old Testament is fulfilled through Christ and His Mother. At the same time we hear about terms such as the rock and the pillar in unqualified terms as though Christ and His Mother were present in Egypt during the times of Moses; this is less difficult to consider with Christ as the Eternal God, as compared to His Mother. What is this hymn teaching us through its own “lex orandi”? From these titles given to the Mother of God, we see that the nature of Old Testament fulfillment in the New Testament is not linear. We do not look at the Exodus event and attempt to find multiple means of protection and salvation in the Akathist’s rejoicing. In other words, John the Baptist is not the Sea, Mary is not the rock, Joseph is not the pillar, Jesus is not the manna, and heaven is not the Promised Land, in this narrative at least. Instead, we are praying to and focused on one person in all of the imagery, and the Theotokos is seen as the entire bridge from Egypt to the Promised Land for the people of God led by Moses, with all of the distinct aspects of each title that she receives in her Motherhood of Christ and His Body, the Church.

In terms of the first title, she is the one who defends and even destroys the Pharaoh who attacks us. As a rock flowing with water, successor to manna, land flowing with milk and honey, she is the one who nourishes us. As a pillar of fire by night and cloud by day, she is our guide and shelter who takes us through our wanderings and journeys towards the Promised Land. As a minister, she leads and instructs us, as did Moses and Aaron (and their successors). And as Promised Land itself, she is our home.

This vision painted by just one of the Ikoi in the Akathist gives us a sense that as we read the Scriptures, we encounter salvation in a multifaceted sense. We do not look for one to one correspondence between Old and New Testaments, nor do we necessarily need to consider all things typology. Instead, we can be wise and see parallels between Old and New Testaments as we pray. And when we read the stories from the Old Testament which may seem difficult to compare to our life in Christ, we can pause and be silent if we have not been given eyes to see by the liturgical tradition which nourishes us, or through prayer and beseeching the Holy Spirit.
In conclusion, the greatness of the Byzantine Tradition is that its complexity offers the one who prays with it a wealth of inspiration. Taking the Akathist as one example, we can approach the Bible with a mystical eye that sees hidden treasures that are brought forth as we think about how the Old and New Testaments compare to one another. We can see Christ and His Mother in so many aspects of the salvation of Israel, and thus in our own salvation. Space cannot allow us to also consider other aspects where these comparisons are made in the rest of the Akathist hymn, or the ways that the lectionary’s readings for Vespers paints a similar picture between the Old and New Testaments, or the way in which Psalms are chosen for Feasts, Vespers, Matins, the Hours, and the like. In each of these, the point is reinforced: the Bible is applicable to all of our life, and we only need to enter into this wealth of beauty with eyes of faith to grasp it.

The State of Grace and Involuntary Sin: A Personal Reflection

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Many commentators have contrasted Western and Eastern Christianity with a simple dichotomy, where there is said to be a legal or juridical emphasis in the West and a therapeutic or medicinal focus in the East. An excellent treatment on this is the recent work of Dr. Jean-Claude Larchet, whose three-volume ‘Therapy of Spiritual Illnesses’ draws from many patristic sources to unfold the way that Eastern Christians consider morality, repentance, and asceticism (1). How we understand morality and describe our holiness and our sins can lead to a dilemma, and this recently came to me when I learned that involuntary sin is a foreign term for Western Christians, whereas the state of grace is not often heard in the spiritual language used by Eastern Christians. For this reflection, I want to delve into how we understand holiness and morality from a typical Roman Catholic definition of what it means to be in a state of grace versus a state of mortal sin, and then compare it to the Eastern Christian notion of involuntary sin and the journey of Theosis. From there we will come to a crisis of apparent contradiction, and hopefully come to a resolution. Specifically, I will reflect upon how it is precisely through a more therapeutic view of sin and salvation that a sort of all-encompassing view of sin and holiness emerges in the Eastern Christian understanding, while maintaining that apophatic characteristic of mystery and openness to God’s mercy. In embracing both aspects of the Biblical narrative of our moral growth and healing through Christ, I believe that we will see the balance that is needed for a healthy moral outlook.

In the Western “lung” of the Church, sins can be broadly divided into venial sins and mortal sins. Borrowing from 1 John 5:16-17, this understanding that there are sins which lead to death has made self-examination as to whether one is prepared for communion based on whether one has an unconfessed mortal sin, or not. When one has no unconfessed mortal sin, communion can be received, and one is said to be in a state of grace. A layer of complexity which must be added to the question of whether an immoral action is a mortal sin is laid out clearly in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. As we read in section 1857, “For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: ‘Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent.'” We have already stated that some sins are more serious than others in terms of the matter or content of the sin, but the other two conditions mentioned in the catechism speak of morality in terms of our subjective experience. That is, if we have no knowledge of the seriousness of the sin, and if we do not deliberately consent to committing that sin, our moral standing before God is not worthy of the term mortal sin. In this way of thinking, an act that constitutes a mortal sin would not make one excluded from communion if the person did not sin of their own will or of their own knowledge, and the holy mystery of confession would likewise not be necessary to be in a state of grace. It is precisely in this emphasis on the will where moral understanding arguably differs most between Western and Eastern Christians.

In many ways, the Western perspective on morality and the will hearkens back to a view that comes to us through St. Augustine’s writings. In debating Fortunatus, he wrote regarding the will as follows: “Which free will if God had not given, there could be no just penal judgment, nor merit of righteous conduct, nor divine instruction to repent of sins, nor the forgiveness of sins itself which God has bestowed upon us through our Lord Jesus Christ. Because he who sins not voluntarily, sins not at all. This I suppose to be open and perspicuous to all.” (2) (emphasis added) This line of thinking supports the Catechism’s qualification that unintended grave matters are not mortal sins, and implies that they are not sinful deeds at all. The state of grace is not lost when something grave is unintentionally committed. While this mindset brings an understanding of the importance of the will and is arguably a remedy to overly scrupulous conscience examination among other things, is it possible that other aspects of our human experience are missed in this clear cut distinction between acts which are willed and those which occur through our human frailty or weakness?

We must look more closely at the Catechism of the Catholic Church as it describes sin and morality. For example, venial sins are not simply dismissed as irrelevant. There are the consequences to venial sins which must not be ignored when we consider the teachings on sin. In this life, we are warned in section 1863 of the Catechism that “[v]enial sin weakens charity; it manifests a disordered affection for created goods; it impedes the soul’s progress in the exercise of the virtues and the practice of the moral good; it merits temporal punishment. Deliberate and unrepented venial sin disposes us little by little to commit mortal sin.” Weakening our love for God and impeding our ability to love the good is no light consequence but nevertheless, the Catechism continues with a sterner warning about vices. In the summary of the chapter on sin, section 1876 states, “The repetition of sins – even venial ones – engenders vices, among which are the capital sins.” Taken together, our moral standing can be compromised by venial sins, particularly when committed habitually, such that there is a weakening of our love for the good and a proclivity to slide downwards towards a love of vices. Therefore, while there are clear cut distinctions between mortal and venial sins in the Western Christian view, there are qualifications that mitigate the severity of a sin and there are consequences for even the smallest sin. The guiding principle in one’s examination of conscience would be to repent of all sin, and to seek confession particularly when one is concerned about any potential mortal sin committed willfully and knowingly. But if we return to St. Augustine’s writings, is it fair to even call an unintended mortal sin a venial sin? The Catechism’s answer in section 1862 is that “[o]ne commits venial sin…when he disobeys the moral law in a grave matter, but without full knowledge or without complete consent.” The nuances make it clear that the will must be involved in a grave sin, and without that complete consent the matter becomes venial sin. Perhaps Augustine was speaking above of the will in this fullness of deliberate or complete consent when he uses the word involuntarily? It is not entirely clear. Regardless, in this system of moral theology, there is an internal logic which is consistent and brings us to focus upon our moral standing by asking whether one is in the state of grace. The key dividing line that we concern ourselves with ultimately is whether there is unconfessed mortal sin, which is the line leading one to condemnation. This focus on being in the state of grace led some moral theologians to develop manuals for penance to ensure that the state of grace was returned to the penitents, but if our journey with Christ to moral perfection includes healing the damage in our life that may come about from things not willed in any sense, we may feel some incompleteness using this system.

As a Byzantine Eastern Christian, my evaluation of this system of thought begins with an important qualification. As is true of any system of thought, there may be some inevitable incompleteness that comes from a situation being either not fully qualified or covered within that particular system’s framework. Biblical studies and the ancient maxim lex orandi, lex credendi (the law of praying is the law of believing) is instructive on how I came to a crisis in considering this system where the will is a sine qua non in moral reflections.

From a Biblical perspective there are important qualifications placed upon sin and wounding that come to us from the Mosaic law. As is true of the modern legal distinctions between manslaughter and murder, the will is a key component in determining the severity of a sin. For instance, we read in Deuteronomy 19:1-5 “When the LORD, your God, cuts down the nations whose land the LORD, your God, is giving you, and you have dispossessed them and settled in their cities and houses,you shall set apart three cities in the land the LORD, your God, is giving you to possess. You shall measure the distances and divide into three regions the land of which the LORD, your God, is giving you possession, so that every homicide will be able to find a refuge. This is the case of a homicide who may take refuge there and live: when someone strikes down a neighbor unintentionally and not out of previous hatred. For example, if someone goes with a neighbor to a forest to cut wood, wielding an ax to cut down a tree, and its head flies off the handle and hits the neighbor a mortal blow, such a person may take refuge in one of these cities and live.” What is striking about this notion of cities of refuge is that one guilty of unintentional homicide is not punished as a criminal in the sense of receiving the death penalty, and yet the one who flees to the city is set apart from society at large by being forced to live in this city of refuge. It points to the fact that certain actions may be entirely unintentional and yet have devastating consequences. But are those acts of manslaughter considered simply traumatic, or are they also considered sinful? In the cultic life of the people of Israel, this idea of an unintentional sin is clearly shown to have a place in the Old Testament. Some acts would not appear to be volitional, despite the theology of St. Augustine. In Leviticus 4:1-2 we read, “The LORD commanded Moses to tell the people of Israel that anyone who sinned and broke any of the Lord’s commands without intending to, would have to observe the following rules.” The chapter continues with the specific offerings needed whether an unintentional sin be committed by a community or on the level of specific people. What emerges from these Biblical passages is the idea that we can not only cause damage unintentionally, but we can very much sin unintentionally with some serious consequences.
Again, the Catechism of the Catholic Church expresses nuance to distinguish between “complete consent” and something that is done willfully, but in the passages above, the sin is considered unintentional. That may be the net outcome of how we look at some sins committed accidentally or unintentionally, in that they are mostly but not completely unintentional. But let us press the matter even further and ask what we think about tragedies in our life that are completely accidental and completely done without our will? What about completely unwilled for tragedies such as miscarriage and stillbirth? This is precisely where the Byzantine expression of prayer comes into focus.

It is clear that in the Byzantine perspective as in the Roman Catholic perspective, not all sins are relegated to the same level of severity. For example, in the customary beginning prayers, we sing, “Most Holy Trinity have mercy on us, Lord cleanse us of our sins, Master forgive our transgressions, Holy One come to us and heal our infirmities for Your Name’s sake.” Some Byzantine writers would consider sins to be willed offenses, transgressions to be unintended in nature, and infirmities to be more general issues of temperament, demeanor, and other background weaknesses that a person is dealing with (3). In dividing up our morality into different categories, there is a similar space for nuance as mentioned above with the Roman Catholic view of sin outlined above. However, the Byzantine way of praying goes beyond to kinds of sin in terms of degree or manifestation. Transgressions are akin to unintentional sins in the Old Testament or in the Catechism passages on venial sin where grave matter is committed without complete assent or complete knowledge. The clearest divergence between East and West comes to light when we focus on other prayers in the Byzantine Tradition. As one example, a petition that the deacon or priest prays for the forgiveness of sins of a departed soul in the service known as the Panachida is as follows: “Again we pray for the repose of the soul[s] of the departed servant[s] of God, (Name/s), and that (his-her-their) every transgression, voluntary and involuntary, be forgiven.” We pray for Christ to forgive those sins that are called involuntary, which is more than referring to them as committed in ignorance or unintentionally, because the will is expressly denied to be involved in the process of something called a sin. If we are strict Augustinians, how can that make sense? This covered well in a Master’s thesis by Hieromonk Maximos of Holy Resurrection Monastery who compares St. Augustine to Saint Maximos the Confessor and St. John of Damascus (4), but what I want to dwell upon in this reflection is the moral difficulty that comes to mind when we adopt a legal perspective and focus on the state of grace, as well as the difficulty that comes to mind when we operate from a perspective of some sins being voluntary and others as involuntary.

Before we reflect upon the moral difficulties of these two systems, let us further ask what constitutes an involuntary sin in the Byzantine viewpoint. Indeed, there are the unintended events such as transgressions and manslaughter which are mentioned above, and that would be part of involuntary sins. Further, our dispositions and temperaments that are weak may fit into the opening prayers and be referred to as infirmities, which again underscores the medical focus in the East. But a deeper look into the canons and prayers of the Byzantine Tradition takes us to a place where we may not feel fully at peace, at least not at first.

From studying the Byzantine perspective on involuntary sin, it is clear that a miscarriage or a stillbirth is considered to fit into this category. To demonstrate this, let us read the Prayer for a Mother who has Miscarried or Aborted from the Byzantine Euchologion, which is cited in reference (4). “O Master, Lord our God…do thou thyself according to thy great mercy, have mercy on this thy handmaid who today is in sins, having fallen into the killing of a person, whether voluntary or involuntary, and has cast out that conceived in her. And forgive her iniquities, whether voluntary or involuntary, and preserve her from every diabolical snare, and cleanse her defilement, heal her suffering, and grant unto her health and strength of soul and body, O Lover of Mankind; and guard her with a shining Angel from every assault of invisible demons; yea, O Lord, from diverse inward travail befalling her; and by thy abundant mercy, rouse her humbled body, and raise her up from the bed on which she lies. For we have been given birth in sins and transgressions, and all are unclean before thee, O Lord…” There is a range of debate about the appropriateness of the language (5) used in this prayer, but let us note that it specifically refers to asking for forgiveness of voluntary or involuntary iniquities that are tied to the miscarriage or still birth. In addition to this prayer, the Byzantine Canons mention miscarriage. In the compendium known as ‘The Rudder’, an abortion carries a 5 year excommunication, and unintended loss of children in the womb carries a 1 year excommunication (4). This would mean that a woman who suffered greatly and experienced 5 miscarriages would experience the same canonical penalty as someone who wanted their new life in the womb to die. Admittedly, these canons are not regularly followed by Eastern Catholics or Orthodox Christians (nor am I arguing that they should be), but the mentality underlying it is that there is such a tragedy that a refraining from communion is a result of this involuntary sin. The lack of communion in this specific involuntary sin is reminiscent of what we had said about the Roman Catholic view of mortal sin, in that mortal sin bars one from receiving communion. And yet, we must admit that a miscarriage is not willed by the mother who loses her child. How does this comport with morality as a journey to holiness where we view ourselves as children of God who are only guilty of mortal sin when it is grave matter, done with full knowledge and full volition?

To answer this question, we must return to the introduction of this reflection. In the Christian East, sin and salvation are viewed through a lens of focus around a medicinal or therapeutic perspective. Christ is our great healer, and our wounded state is our focus in so much of our prayers. Thus, if we are to imagine the contrary world where the Church did not discuss miscarriage and stillbirth as part of the overall tragedy of sin, that silence would be even more deafening than feelings of guilt. Additionally, there is a very human element to this prayer asking for forgiveness. So much around the medical circumstances which lead to miscarriage or stillbirth is surrounded by ignorance and darkness. Having experienced this pain first hand, I must take the reader to the moment where we knew that our son who had lived for over seven months in the womb had lost his heartbeat. We were there in the hospital room, an IV had been placed to induce a labor which I would later discover to be just as painful as any of the other five children that my wife had borne, and yet we knew that the outcome of that pain on the sixth occasion would not have the joy of those tears and cries that new life brings. The doctor let us know that in our situation, it was possible that we could discover that the umbilical cord had wrapped itself around our son’s neck. Or they could uncover that blood clots had constricted the flow of blood from within the same umbilical cord. Trauma might be evident, or perhaps signs of genetic ailments. Lastly, and most silencing to all thought, we were told that the majority of times there would be no answer to why we were where we were that evening. There would be in essence no answer to why this had happen. And I will never forget how that would be in some ways the worst possibility of all. It was so difficult because of the deep feeling of both powerlessness and the inevitable feeling of guilt. It was truly an involuntary sin.

We may read the Holy Scriptures and hear from our Lord that those who perished from the falling of the tower of Siloam were not greater culprits than those who were spared (Luke 13:4), and that may be a word of consolation. But the preceding and subsequent verses both attest to the fact that unless we repent, we will all perish (Luke 13:3, 5). As such, it can be said that no one is fully righteous. When we encounter death through tragedies such as miscarriage and stillbirth, we can be overwhelmed with questions about why we as parents lost our children. A mother or father may be consoled by the idea that there was nothing that could have been done to prevent this loss, but is that always accurate? The more we learn about potential dangers in life, we can in hindsight recognize that lifestyle choices (for example) may have contributed to the loss of a holy innocent in the womb. If only we knew! Even if we did not know, our loss is just as tangible. By being open to the notion of involuntary sins in this exact context of loss, Byzantine Christians are not heaping up guilt. Instead, they are opening their eyes and their hearts to see this precisely as an area where healing is needed. There are no answers, but we know that we do not understand the situation, which hearkens to the Byzantine emphasis on knowledge of God as apophatic, where we understand Him based on who He is not. So too in our moral journey, we understand that the ideal is not to be found in the absence of health or life. It is instead to be found in union with God through Theosis. And yet we also understand that that absence, when it is experienced through sin is something that calls us to love and repentance, when understood in the light of Christ which shines on the world’s darkness and our own darkness.

Returning to the Western view where the will is a prerequisite for calling something a sin, is it fair to say that this approach neglects involuntary sin? From a strict sense where there is no sin without the will, the answer is yes. The full answer depends on the approach one has towards involuntary sins. If healing is withheld because we wrongly think that morality only considers moral crises that are willed, perhaps that is true. But if consolation and love is offered to assure those who suffer events such as miscarriage and stillbirth, that is not the case in an ultimate sense. Again, with a legal focus the Western perspective emphasizes what is needed to be in a state of grace, so the context may be about comfort that is healing. But since forgiveness is precisely healing and not a legal standing in the Byzantine view, the comfort that we seek always comes to us through forgiveness and love that is offered through prayers seeking forgiveness for one who suffers through involuntary sins. It will also be considered to be needed in every facet of our moral progression that moves towards union with the God who is completely perfect . Our eyes turn towards each aspect of our personality, each intended or unintended tragedy, and we cry out “Lord have mercy!” at every thought that comes to mind. Because of this, we do not fall into scrupulosity or doubt when we live out the Byzantine perspective. Instead, we open our eyes to see our salvation in every aspect of our existence.

In closing, our journey of life is one where we seek peace and repentance. Our repentance can be focused on the minimum state that is needed to not be a place of judgment or condemnation, and that is all well and good to the degree that we do not become complacent. The state of grace provides us an examination of conscience that assures us that we can receive communion. In the Byzantine perspective, there tends to be more of an all-encompassing acknowledgment that holiness can continue to grow. Perfection is described as “endless growth in the good” by St. Gregory of Nyssa, an Eastern Christian Father who grasps this reality so clearly and succinctly. That constant movement or growth has analogies in a viewpoint that is more about a state of grace or of the beatific vision. Like all truth, an emphasis or model is never able to fully grasp all of reality. As physical light is both particle and wave, our spiritual journey into the light of holiness is a matter of where we are, and at the same time it is about where we are going. By thinking about sin as something that is a matter of presence or absence, we see the position in which we stand. By seeing sin extending deeper than our will, we see our destination to which we are going. We hope for the day when we will be as Christ is, and we thank Him for His mercy to love us even today when we see the many ways in which we fall short. As Catholics, we do not have to be blinded to the Tradition as expressed in the West or in the East. Because of this beautiful relationship between the Churches, our moral journey can be informed by both perspectives, even if our home base or emphasis may be on one Tradition. That may be the surest way to keep our balance in our understanding of morality, and indeed for all of truth.

Works Cited
1. Therapy of Spiritual Illnesses, Jean-Claude Larchet. Alexander Press, 2012
2. Debate between Augustine and Fortunatus http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1404.htm
3. Shown to be Holy: An Introduction to Eastern Christian Moral Thought. God with Us Publications, 1990.
4. SINS VOLUNTARY AND INVOLUNTARY: JOHN OF DAMASCUS, NATURAL INTEGRITY AND THE MORAL VISION OF EASTERN ORTHODOXY Hieromonk Maximos (Michael Davies) The Faculty of the Graduate Theological Union in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts Berkeley, California July, 2007.
5. As one example, note that the Orthodox Church in America has very recently published a prayer service that is expressly intended for those who have experienced a miscarriage or still birth (link: https://oca.org/liturgics/music-downloads/service-after-miscarriage ). While not denying the reality of involuntary sin, there is a pastoral approach that has a different emphasis from the Euchologion prayer.