humanity created after the image fo God in the beginning was nothing less than the totality of all human beings throughout time united in a single body divinized, joined to Christ and thoroughly plunged into the life of God

My own partial transcription from portions of this excellent conversation between David Bentley and Tony Golsby-Smith about Gregory of Nyssa:

4:59

[Gregory of Nyssa] is arguably the first metaphysician who in any significant way explored the metaphysics of divine infinity. …Infinity was ascribed to God …very rarely in Platonic tradition. The invite was not taken to be a positive attribute for many schools of thought until fairly late in the development of Hellenistic philosophy. He had is own anthropology. He had is own approach to an understanding of the nature of the human being, the nature of creatures as thoroughly dynamic expressions of being in relation to a God who is infinite. I don’t think that anyone before Gregory was as successful as he at arguing that the very things that for a more standard metaphysics would be seen as separating humanity from the divine—that is the mutably, the changeableness of human nature—Gregory was able to treat as the very terms of union with God. That is he had a very specific theology of the way in which human beings are related to God in union with God that was his rather creative use of a verse from Paul [Ph. 3:13] of eternal dynamic ascent into the divine. That our union with God, our eternal union with God, would be one also of eternal novelty, of epectasis [ἐπεκτεινόμενος], of being stretched out into an ever greater embrace that, by virtue of the divine infinity, is inexhaustible and by virtue of the inexhaustibly changing nature of the creature is nonetheless something in which we can participate. …All of this, in its own way, is quite original.

19:45

All sorts of things are called gods. Saints are called gods. John of Damascus and the other church fathers often speak of saints as gods because they don’t mean God in the sense of God most high. They just mean a divinized creature.

23:35

What does it mean to say [with the Nicene Creed established by Gregory and his fellow Cappadocians] that in Christ God has entered into immediate communion with humanity? What is humanity? How is it that God, by becoming one man, in another sense is present in all of humanity, pervades the entirety of human experience that is available to all of the spirit? This leads to Gregory of Nyssa coming up with all sorts of fascinating claims about what it is to be human, what it is to be truly human, how God created humanity form the vantage of eternity as apposed to the process of creation in time and how these two relate. Here he far surpassed his brother [Basil] and Gregory of Nazianzus in the range of speculative genius and also theological profundity. The picture of the human that emerges from it is one of a sort of radical coinherence, radical community, such that the human essence itself is one that is community before it is individuated in persons.

27:04

What he does with the Life of Moses is he turns this into a mystical treatise about he ascent of the soul into God’s infinity. And the other is his great commentary on the Song of Songs which …has all these odd premonitory hints of a kind of almost romantic vision of the soul as this infinite insatiable energy that is plunged by its error for the divine, striving—not tragically striving—but nonetheless moved by this insatiable hunger for the beauty of God into ever-deeper communion.

33:17

[Gregory of Nyssa] recognizes the animality, the physicality, the degree to which, especially for fallen humanity, [it is given] in preparation for the fall. He talks about preparing certain organs (among them, organs of procreation) to be appropriate to the life that we live in this mortal flesh now. …At the same time, he realizes that even in this condition—he’s always …recogniz[ing] this divine light, this divine music even in the human[‘s] most indigent and coarsely physical form.

35:37

In a sense, [Gregory of Nyssa] starts [the creation story] at the end. The creation of humanity starts—he does this wonderful thing where he takes the two different creation accounts, Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, and makes them, so to speak, two different creative horizons within God’s working—he beings with the human being as already glorified, already united to Christ, already in its totality, all human being together rejoicing in and divinized by the presence of God. From there—that’s the primordial creative act of God, the eternal already accomplished end—from there then unfolds, even from the conditions of sin, how does God create us in time—this being not just the end of the story, but its foundation, its beginning. Rather than starting from this sort of tragedy of a promising creature created in a limited landscape of possibilities, who makes a mess of things, condemns himself and his descendants, …that’s actually an interval in the story that is surpassed before the story even gets underway.

You are confronted first and foremost with this dizzying claim that humanity created after the image fo God in the beginning was nothing less than the totality of all human beings throughout time united in a single body divinized, joined to Christ and thoroughly plunged into the life of God. That’s where the story begins.

39:51

I’m a great champion of the romantic movement—especially the English romantic—the great rebellion against the mechanization, and I have no problem with a full robust, red blooded, seemingly panentheistic [vision]. I think that this is another reason to read Gregory On the Making of Humanity and Basil in the Hexameron. …Now, there is a certain degree of the Platonic melancholy there, a certain distrust of matter. You just can’t get away from that in the fourth century, especially in a fallen world. …But they are not talking about a world in which dead matter is the fictile clay by which God creates a working order of mechanisms related to him only in terms of his power. It really is for [them] a vision of created as pervaded by the Spirit of God. It really is the πνεῦμα, the breath of God really does permeate, fill and enliven all things. Life is literally at once the eternal spirit of God but actually the breath of God in all things. It is perfectly healthy to see the romantic rebellion [as being] against the mechanized picture—either the dualistic or the materialist version—this picture of creation as nothing but a collection of organic machines and matter as something inherently dead which is brought to life simply as a mater of functional arrangement but that in itself [is dead]. For Gregory, everything is just the mirror of the divine nature. …In both Basil and Gregory, they both deny that there is even, in any meaningful, sense a material substrate. Their understanding of matter—I don’t know if you’d say that it’s Berkeleian, that’s a bit of an anachronism—but their understanding of matter or the material creation is that it exists as a coalescence of radiant forms [Greek phrase given here, 41:53], of pure spiritual forms. They don’t believe that there is any sort of inanimate, non-divine, non-illuminated, purely passive level of material existence. And this is something that [Gregory] shared with Basil.

42:15

The portion in this conversation above about the two nested horizons of God’s creative work provides some helpful language regarding the nature of the cosmos that we inhabit now (see three previous posts here, here and here for just a few other examples of material in my blog related to this). Gregory considers there to be a foundational work of creation outside of time (both the beginning and the end of this current world) in which there is a “humanity created after the image fo God in the beginning [that] was nothing less than the totality of all human beings throughout time united in a single body divinized, joined to Christ and thoroughly plunged into the life of God.” This fullness of humanity is Adam made in the perfect image of God’s eternal son. This undifferentiated humanity falls at the moment of its creation (as Maximus the confessor puts it in three places) and Jesus Christ is therefore the “Lamb slain from the foundations of the cosmos” (Revelation 13:8) and the second Adam to whom all of humanity must remain united in order for the image of God to be preserved. Within fallen time, this image of God is now being differentiated as a kind of secondary work of creation—God’s joining with us in sin and death to nonetheless participate fully with even the life of fallen creation and to accomplish the end of God’s primary creative work. Later in the conversation, David summarizes Gregory as saying that, from our current perspective, creation has not yet taken place. From God’s eternal perspective, it can be clearly inferred as well, it has already taken place.

This entire interview is well worth listening to, and I hope the entire thing is transcribed. Two more are planned focussing on other writings of Gregory. This first interview touches on many other topics such as: Who were all of the Cappadocian saints and what is the nature of the Christian orthodoxy that they were critical in helping to establish? Why did Gregory advocate for the release of all slaves when no other Christian thinker (or likely any human thinker ever) had done so before in this way? Was Gregory a widower and what did Gregory say about marriage and monastic life? How does Gregory compare to Coleridge?

God as Architect/Builder/Geometer/Craftsman, frontispiece of Bible Moralisee (c. 1220-1230, illumination on parchment).

a theophany that is an infinitely diversified, infinitely playful manifestation of the bliss and wisdom of the Triune God

This lucid introduction to panentheism by David Armstrong is shared here with his permission. (He originally posted it to his social media page on June 7, 2021. David is a graduate of Missouri State University’s Religious Studies program.)

There are only so many ways to phrase the God-World relationship. If God is something in the World, like one object among others, then he is no more than a god; classical monotheism tends to believe in gods that exist within the World created by God, but distinguishes the two by an infinite differentiation. Roughly speaking, this is the view of the so-called “theistic personalists,” for whom God’s finitude and mutability is a biblical non-negotiable, but this does not provide a long term philosophical foundation for talk about God. The immediate move is to radically differentiate God and the World: God is not the World, and the World is not God, and never the twain shall meet or be confused, for God is infinite and uncreated and the world finite and created. But there’s an internal contradiction in this view: on this reading of things, God’s infinity is immediately contradicted by his exclusion from the World, which now conditions him as an Aliud, an Other that stands alongside God. This is more or less the view of the Old and Middle Academies: Plato’s God is a Demiurge working with Eternal Forms and preexistent, Eternal Matter that exist alongside of him, with which he is always in a kind of competitive dominance. But this does not succeed in establishing God as the infinite, primary reality: such a God could never have true ultimacy as a fact of his existence, for he would always coexist alongside a second principle of origination.

So we are left with two options. The first is to simply collapse God and the World together: God is the World, in its quantitative infinity, is controvertible with the numerically infinite catalogue of finite beings that constitute the World system and order. The second is to qualify this picture by saying that God is more than the World, but God is also Not Other (Non Aliud) than the World: the world exists from God, in God, through God, and for God, as a qualitatively finite, created manifestation of God, an intentional overflow of God’s own being into the infinitely myriad possibilities of essence and existence that creatures display. The first is sometimes called “pantheism”–literally, τὸ πᾶν or “the All” is God (ὁ Θεός)–while the latter is sometimes called “panentheism”–“the All” is “in” (ἐν) God, and therefore, God is in the All. Conceptually, these positions are really not very far from one another: to say, as Jesus Ben Sirach does in Ben Sirach 43:27, that God “is the All” (τὸ πᾶν γὰρ ἐστιν αὐτός), is not to reduce God to any one finite creature in the order of the World, still less is it to reduce God to the catalogue of creatures in the World, but rather it is to say that God himself is the unifying Being by which the variety of spiritual and material creatures in the universe can be construed as belonging to a common order, a cosmos, and therefore be an “All” to begin with. And so most intellectually curated forms of pantheism end up being panentheism, while panentheism, taken to its logical conclusion, requires some rather pantheist ideas about the value of the spatiotemporal and material universe as the arena of divine manifestation, about the meaning of the actual existence of creatures and the stillness in which they reside.

Both pantheism and panentheism, then, are really just forms of what Mary-Jane Rubenstein calls “Pantheology”–that is, an attempt to provide an account of how God is the All and the All is God. And in its most sophisticated and authoritative formulations, classical monotheism is always a Pantheology: whether the Vedantic system of the Principal Upanisads, the Stoicized Middle Platonism of Philo of Alexandria or Plutarch of Chaeronea, the Neoplatonism of Plotinus, Porphyry, Proclus, and Iamblichus, the cosmology of Origen of Alexandria, the Cappadocian Fathers Sts. Gregory Nazianzen, Basil the Great, and Gregory Nyssen, the mystical theology of Ps.-St. Dionysius the Areopagite, the clarity of the theoria of St. Maximos the Confessor, the summative patristic philosophy of John Scotus Eriugena or St. John of Damaskos, the gradually developing worldview of Jewish mysticism and kabbalah, the Sufi metaphysics of someone like Ibn Arabi or Avicenna, the God-World relationship is typically phrased as a kind of Pantheology. For Jews, Christians, and Muslims, this Pantheology does not permit, as it does in Vedic and Greco-Roman pagan systems, the worship of cosmic or hypercosmic gods and their idols, though for Christians at least, it does provide the philosophical basis for seeing the unity of God and the World in the hypostasis of the Son, the Logos of God who is the infinite logoi of the World, enfleshed, crucified, and raised as Jesus Christ to secure the World’s true creation and deification. But even while the Abrahamic or Adonaistic monotheisms are differentiated from these other monotheisms on the grounds of cult, their metaphysics no less justifies the basic insight of Hellenic philosophy as it was summarized in late antique Neoplatonism: the World is full of God, and therefore it is also full of gods, or at least possible gods.

The God-World relationship presupposed by the Nicene Symbol, then, is one in which creatio ex nihilo–creation “from nothing”–is really creatio ex Deo: creation “from God.” That is to say, the fundamental philosophical shift in Christian discourse toward the idea that God created the universe “from nothing” is a rejection precisely of the notion that there is any secondary principle of origination exterior to God from which God constructed the World: there is non aliud, “No Other” than God from which the World could have arisen, and therefore by which it can be sustained or toward which it can move as though to final consummation. The World’s creation “from God” also, by the logic of the apophatic metaphysics of the divine nature which obtain in this system, does not mean that God creates the World through some kind of depreciation, depletion, or exhaustion of his own resources, but rather as the superabundant effulgence of his divine being and nature, which are always perfectly complete in himself in the Trinitarian perichoresis. That is to say, God creates as nothing other than celebration of his own infinite self-realization, that the fully realized life of God in the Trinitarian processions and love may also come to be realized in the economic acts of creation, incarnation, and deification, so that created “others”–or perhaps, the Logos in creaturely form–may participate by grace in that which God is by nature. At its most basic substrate of metaphysical truth, the universe is rooted in the Trinitarian life: first, the Father’s contemplative vision of all the logoi which he beholds in the Son as Logos, and his loving will in breathing forth the Spirit upon the Son that all these logoi should come to be vivified; second, the Son’s kenotic consent to the Father’s will, divesting himself of the divine glory which he shares with the Father that he might exist as the logoi and that they might come to be in the void of his self-abasement; and third, the Spirit’s delight to exalt the Logos in the vivification of the logoi, in, through, and with which the Son now presents himself to the Father in worshipful love and the Father, in his adoration of the Son, receives in gladness.

There are a few corollaries to this vision of things. First, God is the innermost being, awareness, and infinite potential of every creature: if the universe is created from nothing other than God, and in the Christian vision, specifically the Trinitarian life of divine knowledge and love shared between Father, Son, and Spirit, then at the heart of every created being, from stars and planets to humans and animals to plants and dirt, is God–the Father as the arche of that thing’s existence, the Son as the interior logic of its being, and the Spirit as that vivifying presence activating and expanding its being so as to participate ever more deeply in the life of God. We live in the midst of a theophany, not merely of God in the abstract, but of God the Father in the Trinitarian processions of Son and Spirit. Second, because the Logos is God, and is therefore qualitatively infinite, the logoi which subsist in him are quantitatively infinite; and so in the eternal instant that God pours forth the Spirit upon the Logos, vivifying the logoi resident within him, it must be that an infinite number of such logoi are so actualized. This is the surest Christian philosophical argument for what Rubenstein, again, calls the “ultimate Multiverse,” that is, the actualization of an infinite number of universes or Worlds. Insofar as this constitutes a single system, we may continue to think of such quantitatively infinite creations as a single World; but insofar as there may be spatial, temporal, material, or otherwise dimensional divisions between these realms that are not passed or at least not easily navigated by finite beings, without divine or preternatural assistance, we may continue to think of them also in their multiplicity, what Rubenstein calls their “plurisingularity.” We live in a theophany, but in a theophany that is an infinitely diversified, infinitely playful manifestation of the bliss and wisdom of the Triune God.

Artist’s impression of the galaxy COSMOS-AzTEC-1 (located 12.4 billion light-years away and forming stars 1000 times more rapidly than our Milky Way Galaxy). Credit: National Astronomical Observatory of Japan.

the world and ourselves, as we find them, are less than fully existent because we do not perfectly love God

In Theophany by Eric Perl, when covering Dionysius on the nature and causes of evil, Perl ends with a wonderful explanation of the fact that any apparently successful theodicy is itself evil. Here is the full passage:

For Dionysius, evil is privation and lack and weakness and asymmetry and failure [usually translated as “sin” but literally having the negative meaning “missing” or “failing”] and aimless and beautyless and lifeless and mindless and irrational and purposeless and unstable and causeless and indeterminate and unproductive and inactive and ineffective and unordered and unlike and limitless and dark and insubstantial and itself no being whatever in any way whatsoever.

Dionysius’ inability, or rather refusal, to assign a cause to evil, then, marks not the failure but the success of his treatment of the problem. To explain evil, to attribute a cause to it, would necessarily be to explain it away, to deny that evil is genuinely evil at all. For to explain something is to show how it is in some way good. “Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner.” Only by not explaining evil, by insisting rather on its radical causelessness, its unintelligibility, can we take evil seriously as evil. This is why most “theodicies” fail precisely insofar as they succeed. To the extent that they satisfactorily account for or make sense of evil, they tacitly or expressly deny that it is evil and show that it is in fact good. Dionysius’ treatment of evil, on the other hand, succeeds by failing, recognizing that the sheer negativity that is evil must be uncaused and hence inexplicable, for otherwise it would not be negativity and would not be evil.

It has been wisely remarked that any satisfactory account of evil must enable us to retain our outrage at it. Most theodicies fail this test, for in supposedly allowing us to understand evil they justify it and thus take away our outrage. For Dionysius, however, evil remains outrageous precisely because it is irrational, because there is no reason, no justification for it. The privation theory of evil, expressed in a radical form by Dionysius, is not a shallow disregard or denial of the evident evils in the world. It means rather that, confronted with the evils in the world, we can only say that for no reason, and therefore outrageously, the world as we find it does not perfectly love God, the Good, the sole end of all love. And since the Good is the principle of intelligibility and hence of being, to the extent that anything fails to partake of that principle it is deficient in being. The recognition of evils in the world and in ourselves is the recognition that the world and ourselves, as we find them, are less than fully existent because we do not perfectly love God, the Good.

For a little more context, just before this passage in Theophany by Eric Perl, there is a fascinating summary of Plotinus defending an incoherent idea that matter is evil. Proclus rejected this as did Dionysius, both claiming that matter must be good. Here are the details regarding Proclus and Dionysius on this point:

Proclus differs from Plotinus by expressly rejecting the doctrine that evil is matter and that, as matter, it is necessary. He argues, more consistently than Plotinus, that “if matter is evil, one of two things is necessary: either to make the Good the cause of evil, or [to make] two principles of beings.” Either alternative is unacceptable. “Since matter is from the Principle, even this has its entrance into being from the Good. …Nor is evil from the Good.” To say, as Plotinus does, both that matter is evil and that it proceeds from the Good leads to absurdity: “Thus the Good will be evil, as the cause of evil, but evil will be good, as produced from the Good.” Proclus further argues that matter, precisely in that it is a necessary aspect of the sensible cosmos, cannot be evil: “But if matter is necessary for the All, and the cosmos would not be ‘this all-great and blessed god’ if matter were absent, how can the nature of evil still be referred to this? For evil is one thing, and the necessary another, and the latter is such that [the universe] could not be without it, but the former is privation of being.” By denying Plotinus’ identification of evil with matter, Proclus thus avoids the difficulty of claiming that evil is a necessary condition for the good cosmos.

…[Dionysius] expressly follows Proclus in denying Plotinus’ “notorious” position that “evil is in matter, as they say, in that it is matter.” Dionysius argues, first, that “if [matter] is in no way whatsoever, it is neither good nor evil. But if it is somehow a being, and all beings are from the Good, this too would be from the Good.” He goes on to take up Proclus’ cogent argument that if matter is necessary, it cannot be evil: “If they say that matter is necessary for the completion of all the cosmos, how is matter evil? For evil is one thing, and the necessary another.” Whatever is necessary for the perfection of the whole is not evil but good. If, as Plotinus argues, matter is necessary, then it cannot be evil. This argument is effective not only against Plotinus’ doctrine that matter is both evil and a necessary consequence of the Good, without which the (good) cosmos could not be produced, but also against all attempts, such as have been made from antiquity to the present, to explain the evils that occur in the world as necessary contributions to the perfection of the whole. Any such theory, as Dionysius here points out, does not explain evil but rather explains it away by claiming, in effect, that it is not really evil at all.

the Big Bang should be interpreted not as the first creative act of God but as the first cognizable manifestation of the human Fall

Excerpts from an article “Fitting Evolution into Christian Belief: An Eastern Orthodox Approach” by Alexander V. Khramov (International Journal of Orthodox Theology. 8:1. 2017. Pages 75-105.):

St. Maximus is definitive in stressing “the difference between the temperament of the human body in our forefather Adam before the fall, and that which is now observed within us and predominates, because then the temperament of man’s body was obviously not torn apart by mutually opposed and corrupting qualities, but was in a state of equilibrium devoid of flux and reflux.” Of course, this is not to be understood as stating that before the Fall humans existed as souls separated from the bodies. St. Maximus lets to know clearly that he follows the refutation of this Evagrian doctrine by the Second Council of Constantinople in 553. What he wants to say is that the bodily nature of humans has changed dramatically after we went astray from God.

These teachings cannot be dismissed as extreme and untypical cases of spiritualism. For example, St. John of Damascus, sometimes called “the Thomas Aquinas of the Greeks”, who synthesized the doctrines of the Eastern Fathers and tried to find a balance between extremes, was of the same opinion.

…Remarkably, the early Augustine also held [these] views which were in contradiction to his later position. In his “Two Books on Genesis against the Manichees” (388-389), Augustine underscored that great changes had occurred in the ontology of humans because of their sin. Before the Fall, the lot of human beings was to bear “the spiritual offspring of intelligible and immortal joys”, but this propensity “changed into carnal fecundity after sin”. Augustine in this treatise understood the life in the Paradise in highly spiritualistic terms – according to him, the man plunged into this world of flesh and blood, being “drawn down by the weight of his own sins to a place that suits him.”

…God did not create humans in their present bodily condition; rather prelapsarian human beings had spiritual bodies and lived a kind of angelic life. Humans turned to the organismic life only after the Fall.

…We come to the conclusion that evolution with all suffering intrinsic is not the means by which God created the world, but a consequence of the Fall, which happened before the beginning of the empirically known universe. Indeed, since angel-like humans changed into the biological organisms because ofthe Fall, and, as science tells us, such biological organisms have been produced by evolution, it is entirely reasonable to suppose that evolution itself started in the fallen world after the first sin had been committed. So we can speak of humans in a twofold sense. Humans as a part of the empirical realm are the result of evolution, but, as those who belong to the primeval and now unattainable order of things, they are its cause.

…Following this logic, the Big Bang should be interpreted not as the first creative act of God, but as the first cognizable manifestation of the human Fall; it ruined primordial creation in a catastrophic manner. On such a view, the basic properties of matter that made evolution possible are in fact no other than corruption brought by sin to the “very good” world which preceded our observable Universe.

The Eastern theology traditionally viewed the human act of disobedience in paradise not as an isolated event, but as a trigger for the global transformation of the whole creation: “cursed is the ground because of you” Gen. 3:17). For example, Origen taught that the change of humans from the angel-like state to the animal one were accompanied by the recasting of the entire natural order because the world designed for spiritual beings is different from the world necessary to sustain biological life. So “descent from higher to lower conditions” has been experienced not only by fallen souls but by the whole of nature as well.

…[This] understanding of evolution by no means assumes in a gnostic style that the animals, human bodies, and the whole material realm have not been created by God. What it claims is that all these things were created in a different state from one in which they are now. The beauty of the present world is just a pale imitation of the primordial creation originally made to be “very good”. Since the cognitive faculties offallen humans have been impaired, we are shielded from any certain knowledge about the prelapsarian world by a kind of “veil of ignorance” [let me borrow this term from john Rawls]. The Big Bang is the first event on our side of the veil, but we cannot know anything about what was behind the veil, except what is revealed in the Scripture. After all, how can a brain shaped by cruel natural selection learn about life in paradise? We do not know how we ourselves, stars, rivers, plants and other realities of our world looked like before the Fall. Certainly, at that time, the laws of nature worked in different ways from the ways in which they do now since such things as maintaining body power without food were possible. There was no entropy and struggle for existence.

…According to John Polkinghorne, “if the world to come is to be free from death and suffering, its ‘matter-energy’ will have to be given a different character. There will have to discontinuous change of physical law”. Christopher Southgate supposes that resurrected animals will live in the special “pelican heaven”, “without competition or frustration on the part of predator or prey.”

If the world after the resurrection of the dead is going to be so dissimilar to what we see, why cannot we assume the same for prelapsarian creation, keeping in mind Origen’s principle “the end is like the beginning”?

…More successful and more philosophically sophisticated attempt in this direction was made by Russian thinker Nikolai Berdyaev (1874-1948). He was well aware of Eastern theology, often citing St. Gregory of Nyssa and especially St. Symeon the New Theologian. Berdyaev combined insights from them with a Kantian philosophy to interpret the Fall as objectification (or self- estrangement) of the human spirit, as a result of which primary reality has been fallen apart into subject and object, mutually impenetrable realms of phenomena and noumena (things-in-themselves).

“Man is the supreme center of the cosmic life, it fell through him, and through him it must rise,” Berdyaev writes. God did not create the current world order with universal laws of nature. What he did create is concrete beings or “existential centers” which on account of the sin have been turned into phenomena in space and time, subjected to a rigid principle of causation. “The world is the servitude, the enchainment of existences, not only of men but of animals of plants, even of minerals and stars…. The enslavement, the enslaving state of the world, the determinism of nature are the outcome of objectification. Everything is turned into object. …Evolution belongs to the system of objectification,” it is related only to humans in the phenomenal sense, that is, to humans as fallen beings, and cannot be regarded as an expression of God’s creativity.

In the eschatological consummation, God will reverse objectification to return all created things to themselves. “The end of the world will be an end of that world of objects.” Like Moltmann and his followers, Berdyaev links the resurrection of the dead with the global transformation of the whole natural order: “my salvation is bound up with that not only of other men but also of animals, plants, minerals, of every blade of grass—all must be transfigured and brought into the Kingdom of God.” By this the core structure of reality, now distorted by the Fall, will be restored. But until it happens, we have to remain objects among objects: “man as a noumenon is at the beginning, and as a noumenon, he is at the end, but he lives out his destiny in the phenomenal world.”

…Olivier Clément, strongly influenced by Berdyaev, also took theology of St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Maximus the Confessor as his starting point. “Holy fathers, delving into the biblical texts, showed that the Fall represented a cosmic catastrophe, an eclipse of the paradisiacal mode of being and emergence of a new mode of existence in the whole universe.” If science cannot find any trace of paradise in our past, it does not follow that paradise has never existed at all, but rather that it is not within the sphere of competence of scientific inquiry. “Geology and paleontology, with all their achievements, stop at the gate of paradise, for it is a different state of existence. Science cannot reach beyond the Fall, because it itself is a part of the fallen state of the world, being inseparable from spatial, temporal and material conditions that arose from the destruction of paradisiacal state.” Since events described in Gen. 1-3 pertain to the realm of unknown, evolution studied by science is not a synonym of six days of creation. “What science calls ‘evolution’ from the spiritual point of view is a process of objectification of primeval Adam or universal Man, which involves all humanity and all the world.”

Iconographer Christina DeMichele. Commissioned for St. Andrew Orthodox Church, Riverside, CA.

sacramental ontology

Too many Christians are living like atheists, operating as if God doesn’t exist. We don’t expect to bump into God around the watercooler or doing the dishes. We might believe in God, but we don’t expect to encounter God.

…Christians live like atheists, according to the Orthodox priest and author Stephen Freeman, because we think we’re living in a two-story universe. In this two-story universe, the cosmos is a house with two floors. As Freeman describes it, “We live here on earth, the first floor, where things are simply things and everything operates according to normal, natural laws, while God lives in heaven, upstairs, and is largely removed from the story in which we live. To effect anything here, God must interrupt the laws of nature and perform a miracle.” For us to see or hear from God, God has to come downstairs to visit us. But most of the time, it’s just us alone on the first floor. God is absent, upstairs and minding his own business.

When we live our lives in the two-story world, we practice what Freeman calls “Christian atheism.” Since God is “up- stairs,” God is “not here.” God isn’t close; God is elsewhere, far away and distant. And not just physically distant, mentally distant as well. God is at the back our minds, an afterthought, if we think of God at all.

What we need to recover, according to Freeman, is a one-story vision of the universe. We need to see that God is, in the words of Freeman, “everywhere present and filling all things.” In a one-story View of the universe, God and humanity are all living on the same floor. We’re roommates with God and expect to see each other all the time. Like Jacob declared, we’re living in the house of God.

…Theologians have a fancy name for this one-story view of the world. They call it a “sacramental ontology.” Ontology is concerned with “existence,” our thoughts and ideas about “reality.” A good definition of sacrament is “a visible sign of an invisible reality.” Putting the two together, “sacramental ontology” is about how everything around us, everything that exists, points us toward God. All the world is a sign.

But that’s not quite right. Sacraments are more than signs. …If sacraments are merely signs, we’re back to living in the two-story universe, with the downstairs “sign” pointing toward an upstairs “reality.” But as Flannery O’Connor teaches us, sacraments participate in and embody the spiritual reality they symbolize. Sacraments bring the miracle close. As Catholics say about the Eucharist, God is “really present” in the sacrament, in the same room with us, and not just observ- ing us from the upstairs. A sacramental ontology expands this vision, coming to see God as “really present” in all things and everywhere in the world. Again, as Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” God’s vitality and life crackle through nature. …The sunlight, the wind, and the rain are not just signs pointing us toward the Creator. God is “really present” in nature. God is embracing us in the sunlight on our face, the raindrops on our skin, and the breeze in our hair. God comes to us in people as well. As Hopkins wrote in a different poem, “Christ plays in ten thousand places, lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his.” God is really present in the faces and hands of other human beings as we love each other.

…This sacramental ontology shows up all over the Bible. My favorite example comes from Acts 14, the first sermon in the his- tory of the world preached to a wholly pagan audience. …Unable to appeal to Abraham or Moses, Paul turns the attention of his audience to the natural world. God is “every-where present” in this one-story world. Just like a roommate, God has always been speaking to us. As Paul says, “He has not left himself without witness.” God’s voice is heard in the rain and in the harvest. God is close where there is good food and the laugher of friends. God has been with you this entire time, declares Paul, “filling your hearts with joy.” Start with joy if you’re looking for enchantment. Let gladness be your guide to the gateway of heaven.

Recovering this sacramental ontology is the next big step toward enchanting our faith in this skeptical age. This is a one-story universe. So let’s stop going through the day living as if God doesn’t exist. God is everywhere present. God isn’t that mysterious neighbor living in the apartment above you. God is closer than you can imagine. The signs and sacraments are all around you. …You are living in the House of God.

Hunting Magic Eels: Recovering an Enchanted Faith in a Skeptical Age by Richard Beck

Life Among the Stars

“The Starlight Night” by Gerard Manley Hopkins sustains me like Frodo’s phial from Galadriel (which contains a little light from the Start of Eärendil—a light created by the Silmaril that the mariner carried into the sky aboard his ship). I memorized and recited “The Starlight Night” once a few years back, and I should probably make it into a monthly recitation for the rest of my life. You will find ten years worth of readings about stars in relation to both angels and humans in all of the pages tagged for “stars” across this blog. However, no passage or sage that I have found approaches Hopkins in his totality of vision.

He opens with a triple appeal to look up at the stars, at the skies and finally at “all the fire-folk sitting in the air!” “Look” occurs four times in two lines. This ecstatic intensity does not slow down as seven images pour over us within the next five lines:

  1. “Fire-folk” gives way first to “bright boroughs” or “circle-citadels” as we think of great cities and commonwealths teaming with majestic activity.
  2. In “dim woods” we might see “diamond delves,” and that is to say deep mines flashing with gem-light.
  3. We might also see “elves’-eyes” as creatures from another realm gaze back across our shared world.
  4. On “grey lawns cold,” we see “gold” and “quickgold,” calling to mind the patches of sky with fewer stars, alluding back to the mines filled with gems, and playing with ‘quicksilver’ (another name for the liquid element mercury) so that we might envision pools filled with yellow light amid the expanses of cold grey sky.
  5. “Wind-beat whitebeam” refers to the popular name of a flowering tree with leaves that flash white on their undersides, especially as stirred by the breeze. The poet George Meredith mentions these leaves showing bursts of white in the wind with the line “flashing as in gusts the sudden-lighted whitebeam” from his poem “Love in the valley” (line 207). These trees with leaves that turn magically white in the wind also flower with bright white blossoms.
  6. With another wonderful tree, “airy abeles set on a flare” are white poplars which have leaves like a palm with fingers extended and covered on the underside with dense silvery-white hairs. These sentinels stand signaling, waving silvery hands that we might take notice and take heed.
  7. Finally, “flake-doves sent floating forth at a farmyard scare” ends this first stanza by foreshadowing the barnyard imagery that will end the poem. We might think of doves that scatter into the air when startled in a farmyard or of snow-flakes or flower petals stirred up by the feet of frightened farm animals. Whatever the case, this imagery brings the stars down to earth just before the poet appeals to the beholder that they participate in or at least aspire toward the life of the stars.

Finally, the poet slows down to catch their breath and to reflect with us, “Ah well! it is all a purchase, all is a prize.” There is a hint of melancholy at the unattainableness of all this mysterious life and beauty that is so lavishly on display before us. At the same time, there is an admonition to recognize the value in this vision and to invest our lives in the attainment of such priceless treasure.

With the second stanza, this admonition become immediately and insistently explicit. Now, the listener—who has been asked to behold so many things—responds with some consternation at the intensity of these demands or perhaps hopelessness at such unattainable glory. “What?” Can I purchase the stars and make all of this mine? What could I offer that could possibly attain all of this? It is like Abraham: while unsure that he can have a son who will father kings, he is told that his children will not only be kings but will live forever in celestial light like the stars of heaven. (See “‘So Shall Your Seed Be’: Paul’s Use of Genesis 15:5 in Romans 4:18 in Light of Early Jewish Deification Traditions” by David Burnettin in The Journal for the Study of Paul and His Letters, vol. 5 no. 2. 2015.) These stars might be my inheritance? How?

Within the first line of the second stanza (which contains an entire conversation), we get the reply: “Prayer, patience, alms, vows.” What can you do to purchase the life of the stars? You can be present, quiet, generous and faithful—following the core commitments of Christian ascetic life.

With the second round of admonitions to “Look!” (this time, with three repetitions in two lines), we find that a harvest has begun. No longer are we simply asked to behold, but we are asked to receive. We prepare to partake as all the language turns to fruitfulness: “a May-mess, like on orchard boughs!” The white flowers of these fruit trees promise food. “March-bloom, like on mealed-with-yellow sallows” refers to the heavy clusters of yellow, pollen-laden flowers that cover willows in the Spring. The use of meal again suggests a bountiful harvest—pointing backward to the colors of gold as well as forward to the next two images of “barn” and “shocks.”

We arrive home as we read: “These are indeed the barn; withindoors house / The shocks.” Our feet firmly upon the ground, our eyes no longer look up upon distant, glorious cities, deep mines or enchanted woods. We are looking instead at a plain wooden storehouse filled to bursting with golden grain. “This piece-bright paling” describes a fence or wall of rough-sawn wooden planks with many chinks and knotholes allowing the warm yellow light to pour out into the surrounding night. Within this enclosure and shedding warm light like great sheaves of wheat is “the spouse.” This phrase is filled out for us in the last line, and it suggests a wedding feast. “Spouse” calls upon all the rich language of Christ and his apostles about Jesus as our bridegroom and about God’s people as his bride. Here, of course, we should also see the bridegroom of Psalm 19:

The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork.
Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge.
There is no speech nor language, where their voice is not heard.
Their line is gone out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. In them hath he set a tabernacle for the sun,
Which is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, and rejoiceth as a strong man to run a race.

This pile of images—with stars, storehouses of wheat, a wedding party and God’s household—requires some slowing down. We return to old stories with Jacob who dreamed of his entire family as both stars and sheaves of grain. Christ speaks of fields ready for the harvest. All of this is, most fully, eucharistic. It is an image of Christ’s life offered to us in the very food that sustains us. It is a harvest in which the saints and martyrs join with Christ as those who bring light and life to this dark world through their prayer, patience, alms and vows. It is a home where the royal household of God with Christ, his mother and all his hallows, welcomes all those who are poor in spirit, all those who behold the face of God.

With this analysis, I have not noted the most beautiful aspects of these lines which is their poetry: the rhythms, the full, playful, and layer harmonies in sound, the newly-combined words and the heavy hyphenation. These elements can only be felt and heard as the poem is alive when you learn speak it.

higher than the water flood

As Danny watched, the light reddened and warmed in the sky. The last of the stars disappeared. Above him, on both sides of the hollow, the wet leaves of the treetops began to shine among the fading strands and shelves of mist. Eastward, the mist took a stain of pink from the rising sun and glowed. And Danny felt a happiness that he knew was not his at all, that did not exist because he felt it but because it was here and he had returned to it.

“Fidelity” by Wendell Berry

We followed the state road along the ridges toward Port William and then at the edge of town turned down the Sand Ripple Road. We went down the hill through the woods, and as we came near the floor of the valley, Elton went more carefully and we began to watch. We crossed a little board culvert that rattled under the wheels, eased around a bend, and there was the backwater, the headlights glancing off it into the treetops, the road disappearing into it.

Elton stopped the truck. He turned off his headlights and the engine, and the quietness of the moonlight and the woods came down around us. I could hear the peepers again. It was wonderful what the road going under the water did to that place. It was not only that we could not go where we were used to going; it was as if a thought that we were used to thinking could not be thought. “Listen!” Elton said. He had heard a barred owl off in the woods. He quietly rolled the window down.

…Once we had climbed the bank and stepped over the fence and were walking among the big trees, we seemed already miles from the truck. The water gleamed over the bottomlands below us on our right; you could not see that there had ever been a road in that place. I followed Elton along the slope through the trees. Neither of us thought to use a flashlight, though we each had one, nor did we talk. The moon gave plenty of light. We could see everything—underfoot the blooms of twin-leaf, bloodroot, rue anemone, the little stars of spring beauties, and overhead the littlest branches, even the blooms on the sugar maples. The ground was soft from the rain, and we hardly made a sound. The flowers around us seemed to float in the shadows so that we walked like waders among stars, uncertain how far down to put our feet. And over the broad shine of the backwater, the calling of the peepers rose like another flood, higher than the water flood, and thrilled and trembled in the air.

…It was a long walk because we had to go around the inlets of the backwater that lay in every swag and hollow. Way off, now and again, we could hear the owls. Once we startled a deer and stood still whfle it plunged away into the shadows. And always we were walking among flowers. I wanted to keep thinking that they were like stars, but after a while I could not think so. They were not like stars. They did not have that hard, distant glitter. And yet in their pale, peaceful way, they shone. They collected their little share of light and gave it back. Now and then, when we came to an especially thick patch of them, Elton would point. Or he would raise his hand and we would stop a minute and listen to the owls.

“Are You Alright?” by Wendell Berry

On My Loss of Ann

Arguably, our mothers connect us to each other, to this life and to this world more profoundly than any other thing or person. At any rate, the sense of being uprooted in the wind or unmoored and adrift at sea has been one strong element of my own experience with the loss of my mother two years ago and now also with the loss of my second mother, Ann, who came to me as a mother through my wife, Elizabeth. This world’s bleakness and harsh realities can take on a vivid and all pervasive presence in the void left behind by the absence of a mother.

I’m torn between describing something of the experience of loss and describing Ann. Now that both my wife and I are motherless in this life, I’m freshly convinced that our lostness is the most obvious of two realities that can only be seen with quiet attention. Most of the time, during most of our lives, we do not know that we are lost. When mothers are present for their children, mothers are one of the greatest shields that exist against this sense of being lost. However, a truly wise and good mother will not shield her child entirely or forever. It is critical that we learn how vulnerable, helpless and lost we are in this life. I’ve struggled with many profound weaknesses and failures in my own life, but one of them is not (I’m grateful) depression. I’m sure that much of what I think about the value of recognizing how lost I am is particular to me, will be unhelpful to others and is highly problematic even for myself. However, what I sense is that all of my fellow humans, all of our fellow living creatures and this entire cosmos that sustains us all is profoundly lost. We are lost people within a lost universe, and all of our best stories tell us this loudly and clearly. My recent loss of my two mothers has clarified this for me, driven it home.

I said in the last paragraph that our lostness is the most obvious of two realities that can only be seen with quiet attention. The second of these two realities—the less obvious one—is that we have a home before and beyond this world. This entire lost world came from somewhere that it belonged to and will only be healed when it is once again united with this other place. I don’t have images or words to describe what I mean by this home or even what I mean by being lost and separated from this home, but I can say that being entirely motherless now in this latter part of my life has left me more fully aware of these two realities, more fully than I was before. This is, I suspect, a bitter gift. It is also a gift that I owe—to a large extent—to both of my departed mothers. They both knew these twin realities.

But these large realities are beyond my powers to describe. Happily, if I turn to Ann herself, her own life will point toward these realities more clearly than any further words of mine. There is no better way to see the whole universe and its Creator than to look closely at what we have surrounding us each day. Emily “Ann” Stocker (née Gilman), left a treasure trove of such examples behind her for those of us still making our ways through this life. Ann, although constantly in motion and full of exuberance, was a woman who paid the closest attention to all that surrounded her. Her burial service in an old cemetery on the mountainous border between Maine and New Hampshire brought together a crowd of people. They came from many hours in several directions and over miles of rural roads to stand on a hillside together beside her grave.

Ann came from several older Chatham and Stow families on the side of her mother Ruth. On the side of her father Gordon, Ann came from less settled folk. Gordon’s mother was French Canadian, and he had been raised by several deeply devout Catholic women after he lost his mother early in life. Gordon’s father called many places home but had settled long enough in Stow, Maine at one point to set up his young adult son with a small farmstead. They got started with hens and honey bees before Gordon was left alone with his plot of land and livestock. This was more than enough for Gordon, however. He married Ruth, the daughter of a local dairy farmer, and they raised a family there with plenty to provide for them between their long hen houses as well as their bees, sheep and expansive gardens.

Of Gordon’s decision to make this life with Ruth, she herself gives this account in a few verses written before their marriage (signing it “by Ruth Sarah”):

Do you remember last Saturday night
After the bees and chicks were put to bed
And we had so very hurriedly put out the light
And the smell of spring; had entered our head.

When we travelled to Fryeburg to the movies
With Hilda and Fred by our sides
And were thinking all evening like all lovers
That we must let our consciences be our guides.

However, you cuddled and squeezed my hand,
And kept my mind in a whirl
‘Till I thought you the nicest man in the land
And I a fortunate girl.

At last the movies were over
And away we started for home
Thinking that we would never
Another Saturday night roam.

We’d sit at home in the parlor
Without any Hilda or Fred
And patiently wait for the hour
When all would be going to bed.

The first thing we knew it was morning
And father called down from above
Why waste all this time on courting
There is no such thing as love

So you jumped into your Plymouth
And started home to your chicks
And made up your mind forever
You would keep yourself in the sticks.

Although never moving back to her childhood home as an adult, Ann told vivid stories throughout her life of the country surrounding Stow and Chatham. Ann remained close to extended family in the area and took her children and grandchildren back to visit the beautiful rivers, mountains and homesteads of her childhood. These places certainly lived in her heart.

She took us up Baldface and to Emerald Pool. When she showed us where her mother was buried, she pointed out Eastman Mountain and the name Eastman on many of the headstones. Ann’s maternal great-grandmother was Sarah (Eastman) McKeen, the mother of Glenora McKeen Hanscom. Eastman Mountain is named after the family of an early settler to the region—Asa Eastman or his father Jonathan. Asa was born in Concord in 1770 of Jonathan and Mary, married in Concord to Polly Kimball in 1795. Asa and Polly were the parents of at least 4 sons and 3 daughters, and Asa was buried in Chatham in 1818. Although the Eastman family of Sarah (Eastman) McKeen is distantly related to that of Asa Eastman (with Asa and Sarah being fourth cousins, twice removed), Sarah’s family came to Chatham much later. Sarah was the daughter of Lorenzo Eastman, born 1808 in Bartlett, New Hampshire. Lorenzo’s son Loren Eastman settled on Butter Hill Road in Chatham in the 1870s, and Lorenzo came and lived with Loren in his old age. Sarah would likely have come to the Chatham area around the same time as her brother Loren.

Ann clearly felt this sense of generational rootedness in the place where she grew up walking down the road from her father’s farm to attend a one-room schoolhouse. Sale of eggs were a staple source of income for the family, and Ann remembered fondly the sound of sanding eggs to clean them as well as the cooing of hundreds of hens at once while they settled down for the night in their large and well-kept hen houses. Among his many labors, Gordon had to regularly defend his honey bees from bears. Ann remembered her father rushing out the door once without any gun and charging straight at a bear that he sent fleeing into the woods. There were endless stories about Gordon in action. Like his daughter after him, Gordon was always in motion and responded to any need around him with an immediacy that often left others struggling to catch up. Gordon was also a singer, and Ann remembers his voice carrying clearly through the thick walls of farm buildings and across their wide pastures as he worked. Ann also had a beautiful singing voice. As a graduate of Fryeburg Academy, she loved the opportunity to sing with their choir, mentioning in particular what a joy it was to participate in Handel’s Messiah. All of those in the church where she served and worshipped for the last several decades of her life spoke of the blessing of singing with her.

As a teenager, Ann loved to catch a ride with friends to climb Baldface and to jump into Emerald Pool on the way back down. She remained a hiker and walker long past the point when physical disability would have stopped most people. As a young girl, she recalled packing lunches to wander alone—following the tops of old stone walls through the forest as far as she could without touching the ground and stopping only to enjoy her solitary picnic.

Attending the University of Maine Orono, Ann studied English and made lifelong friends. She also became an outspoken follower of Jesus Christ in college, having grown up with the quiet Catholicism of her father and the old New England pragmatism of her mother. There is even a story that she witnessed to her fellow English student Stephen King. Ann met and married Richard “Rick” Stocker in a Bible study that Rick was attending while living in the Twitchell Hill commune of Montville, Maine. Joining the Bible study group, Rick and Ann ended up teaching in a school together that was attached to the community. They wanted to get married and needed the blessing of their community. A prophet sought a vision and confirmed their plans to marry with a vision of two pigs eating from the same trough. Bear meat was served at their wedding. Early in their marriage, Rick came to love the verse in Proverbs saying that “whoso finds a wife finds a good thing.” Rick called Ann his Good Thing, and Ann playfully called him Whoso in return.

Ann lost her mother Ruth to cancer shortly after her marriage to Rick. Ultimately, this community took them far from family to Pink Mountain, British Columbia where Rick built the log cabin in which their second child (my dear wife) was born. They eventually joined a few other families who recognized the community as a cult and undertook the difficult journey of leaving and returning home. Ann and Rick worked hard to reestablish lives in Maine, where they had a third child, joined the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, and raised their family. Rick eventually earned a living as a Maine state investigator and Ann as a supervisor and director within the regional HeadStart program.

When I first met Ann, I couldn’t believe what I had found. I was wearing a jaunty tweed cap that I’d picked up at a Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Canada, and I was very much smitten with her daughter Elizabeth. Ann complimented me on my cap as I recall, and only a few minutes was all it took to see that this was a delightful and formidable lady. When my brother and I made a visit to the Stocker home in Monmouth, Maine a few years later, I was left with a vivid impression of life and goodness amid their sprawling vegetable gardens and the laughter around their breakfast table. Laughter was a staple in this home where I was eventually blessed to call Ann Mom. She loved to laugh at herself for years over her realization part way into one of my first meals in her home that she was serving me a fish for dinner that shared my name—Hake.

Mom enriched and sustained my own love of life in every time that I got to spend with her. Since her loss, I’ve stopped my car a few times to listen to the spring peepers whose evening song she loved so much and which she always noticed again on the first evening of its return each spring. Over the years, mom and I would spar over the names of trees and flowers up and down the east coast from the Carolinas to Maine. She was always alert, observing and sharing.

Her wealth of stories and life experiences came from her generosity and joy. In virtually each of the many historic places and museums that I fondly remember visiting with her—from the Biltmore Estate and Colonial Williamsburg to the Norlands Living History Center and Popham Colony—I can remember Mom exclaiming over one after another of the household devices from colonial and earlier American homes as items that she remembered using during her own years growing up in Stow, Maine or living under the Northern Lights in British Columbia.

Mom could also describe people with such love and delight in their every character trait and feature. With all of her colorful and lively love of life and outspoken energy, in the end, however, what I will carry most closely was Ann’s tireless service to others and her delight in the small details of daily life. At her graveside service, many people testified to her extraordinary love for children and her ability to meet them and enjoy them each for who they were. Later in life, Ann’s father remarried, and Ann spent months traveling to Arizona where she loved her new branch of extended family and where she loved to help with the care for her new mother even after her father’s death. Ann cared for all people with a kind of fierceness and cheerful delight, and she tended tirelessly to their every need. This can only have flowed from a selfless love.

Her love for people ran deep, and I’m sure she would have wanted it noted that her love for others was the grace of God at work in her. In this topsy-turvy world, it was always God to whom she clung with a fierce hope and an infectious gratitude. She knew we were all lost but she also knew that everything can point us back toward home.

Photos below are of the poem by Ann’s mother before her marriage and some of the rock walls around the farm where Ann grew up (the ones that she walked as a girl).

Note: These passages from two short stories that I read out of a book on mom’s bedside table reminded me of many things that she loved.

Lazarus Saturday: Christ’s Defiance of Death and Offer of Life

Jesus Christ identifies himself as “the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). It’s a confident and bold claim, but it is one that Jesus has worked toward carefully with many bold decisions and words leading up to it. Among the most astounding of these is Christ’s decision to wait for his beloved friend Lazarus to die before responding to the pleas of Mary and Martha that Jesus come to save their brother from death. We face a dramatic series of twists and turns leading up to the moment when Jesus calls Lazarus forth from the tomb despite the worrying of some witness of that Lazarus would stink. We learn, memorably, that Jesus wept (John 11:35) in response to the weeping of Mary and those with her as she confronted Christ and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (32).

Why does Jesus Christ use his beloved friends, Lazarus, Mary and Martha to demonstrate his power over death? It is difficult to reach any other conclusion from the story than that this was a deliberate decision on the part of Jesus Christ “for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (4). Ultimately, this question goes back to the question of why God creates the world. Scripture teaches that we are still children who await, and who also have collectively resisted, our full formation (as well as the final formation of our entire cosmos). Our experience of death is a merciful and also terrible result of this resistance by us to our own creation. God enters the story of struggle that we have initiated by our rebellion as the human Jesus Christ. By entering the story of death fully, Jesus reveals death’s own impermanence and final defeat entirely from within our current and incomplete story of death. We encounter life itself in Jesus Christ. These topics, however, take us too far from the story of Lazarus.

Lest we be tempted to think this a crass, calculated and unfeeling act on Christ’s part, we are told repeatedly that these three were loved by Jesus. The two sisters first send word to Christ that “he whom you love is ill” (3). Then John writes, “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus” (5). Finally, when Jesus “was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled” (33) and then wept himself, the crowd of witnesses cries out, “See how he loved him!” (36). Despite all of these reassurances, we may still be tempted to wonder at Christ’s calculated waiting at the start of the narrative.

What is at work, however, is not a lack of feeling but a demonstration of perspective and power. Jesus Christ is not impressed or moved by death, but Christ’s awesome power does not at all prevent him from being deeply moved by love and by compassion for the suffering of others. This lordly disregard for death itself does not prevent Jesus from suffering with his friends or with each of us. We tend to associate a calculated display of power with a cold indifference because we have hearts that are not capable of combining lordly power and deep compassion. Jesus Christ, however, was fully in possession of both. He is—as the hymns of this seasons remind us over and over—”the only lover of humankind” but also the the Lord who intentionally despoils death itself in the most flagrant way in preparation for his own upcoming death and resurrection. Another hymn from this evening taunts death directly as we sing, “Through Lazarus, O death, Christ has already despoiled you.”

Nothing gets easier after the powerful command from Jesus Christ to a long-dead corpse: “Lazarus, come out!” We have one last intimate glimpse into this scene as the dead man obeys and stands helplessly bound up and blinded before the crowd. Lazarus is able to walk out of his grave but unable to remove the cloth that covers his own face. Christ tells them to set Lazarus free, but the story does not pause for any rest or celebration. It moves immediately into meeting of the Sanhedrin who decide that this teacher has gone too far and must die. Lazarus is dramatically rescued from death itself, but Jesus has sealed his own fate at the hands of the worldly powers surrounding him. From this point on in the story, every movement that Jesus makes is watched, and there are only a few days left before the final countermove comes with the help of one in Christ’s own inner circle.

This dramatic tension extended to the friends and followers of Jesus Christ as well. Tradition tells us that the Sanhedrin not only decided that Christ must die but that Lazarus must be killed as well. According to widespread accounts from the earliest days of the church, Lazarus had to flee from his home to save his own life, and Lazarus spent the rest of his life in exile on the island of Cyprus.

We might say that all this power and triumph by Jesus does no earthly good in this case. However, the victory is so complete precisely because it comes from within. We ourselves know sin and death from the inside, but Christ joins us there and still reveals to us that only life has any true power. In his book, The Doors of the Sea, David Bentley Hart makes the case that the followers of Jesus Christ should learn to have a similar enmity for death and evil:

We are to be guided by the full character of what is revealed of God in Christ. For after all, if it is from Christ that we to learn how God relates himself to sin, suffering, evil and death, it would seem that he provides us little evidence of anything other than a regal, relentless and miraculous enmity. Sin he forgives, suffering he heals, evil he casts out, and death he conquers. And absolutely nowhere does Christ act as if any of these things are a part of the eternal work or purposes of God, which it is well to remember.

This is why so many of the hymns for Lazarus Saturday and then for Pascha (Easter) itself all mock death and reiterate its utter powerlessness and failure in the face of Jesus Christ. As followers of Jesus, we are called to defeat sin and death in the power of Christ and to give them no foothold in our own lives. This does not mean that we do not suffer. Clearly, we are called to suffer with Christ (even “filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” as Paul writes in Colossians 1:24). In suffering with Christ, we will find that this suffering softens our hearts so that we learn to be present with others in their suffering. We will learn to “mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15) for blessed are “the poor in spirit” and “those who mourn” (Matthew 5:3–12). Learning this kind of compassion, however, gives no ground to sin and death. We are not stoically resigned to suffering but grateful for the life with Christ that we can enjoy even in the midst of death and in the midst of our fellowship with others in their sufferings.

As Jesus said to Martha: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26) Without fleeing from suffering and death, we can participate in Christ’s “relentless and miraculous enmity” toward sin, suffering, evil and death as we live day to day in communion with Jesus Christ.

the entire hierarchy of reality, from the highest seraph to the least speck of dust, is the immediate presence and manifestation of God

There is no contradiction between the hierarchical structure of reality and the immediate constitutive presence of God to all things.

…Thus all things, at every level, participate directly in God in the manner appropriate to them. Therefore the hierarchical structure of reality, far from separating the lower orders of being from God, is itself the very ground of his immediate presence in all things. Every being participates directly in God precisely in and by occupying its proper place within the cosmic hierarchy: stones by merely existing; plants by living; animals by sensing, humans by being rational, angels by being intellectual. It is not hierarchical order, but rather an egalitarian leveling, that would violate the immediate participation of all things in God by blurring the differences and ranks of beings which constitute that very participation.

…The view that hierarchical order separates the lower ranks of creatures from God depends on the mistaken conception of God as the “first and highest being,” standing above the angels at the peak of the hierarchy of beings. If that were the case, then indeed only the highest beings would be in immediate communion with God. But since God is not any being but “all things in all things and nothing in any,” he does not stand at the top of the universal hierarchy but transcends and permeates the whole. “The goodness of the Godhead which is beyond all things extends from the highest and most venerable substances to the last, and is still above all, the higher not outstripping its excellence nor the lower going beyond its containment.” The entire hierarchy of reality, therefore, from the highest seraph to the least speck of dust, is the immediate presence and manifestation of God, of unity and goodness, according to the different modes and degrees that constitute the different levels of being.

…Dionysius’ doctrine of analogous participation in God is thus closely parallel to Plotinus’ teaching that the nature of all things is their share in contemplation or intellectual activity (which itself is the manifestation of the One), so that the life of plants is a “growth-thought” and that of animals a “sense-thought.” The same principle can be found in Proclus, in the form of his well-known affirmation, “All things are in all things, but properly in each.” He goes on to explain: “In Being there is life and intellect; in Life, being and intellect; in Intellect, being and life; but each of these exists upon one level intellectually, upon another vitally, and on the third existentially.” For him, too, the less universal perfections are specifications of the more universal ones, so that, for example, living things have intellect “vitally,” i.e. in the mode of life, and intellectual things have life “intellectually,” i.e. in the mode of intellect.

From Theophany: The Neoplatonic Philosophy of Dionysius the Areopagite by Eric D. Perl.
Great Chain of Being
Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493