Can You Face Him?

Icon of Christ the Bridegroom – M. Kapeluck


#18 of a Series on Psalm 50

Turn away your face from my sins; blot out all my iniquities.”

“Face it.”  

It’s an expression that we say to people when we want them to confront something they don’t want to look at.  It means confronting oneself with the truth about something that is (seemingly at least) bad, and we are reluctant to look at.  As human beings (unlike horses or prey animals[i]) our eyes are on the front of our face so to really focus on something we must look directly at it.  Hence the facial orientation is important and shows up in all kinds of ways, culturally, in literature and communications.  Your face is the key to your heart – and metaphorically, it’s the key to God’s heart as well.

Of late, I’ve done a little reading on autism[ii] – a developmental disease that usually presents itself early in life. The symptoms of the disease are psychological, neurological, physiological and social, including behaviors we would often call disruptive (like outbursts of emotion), social detachment and self-fixation. Researchers are finding that it is much more common than originally thought – and observable in some ways even in otherwise seemingly well-adjusted and even highly successful adults. The wide variety of behaviors and expressions of it have led to what is called the autism ‘spectrum’ which implies that wide variation in breadth and depth of symptoms.  Autistic people sometimes have unusual abilities in some areas, and skills and knowledge rightly applied can bring forth remarkable capabilities.

I mention autism because one common diagnostic characteristic of autistic people is that they are extremely uncomfortable looking someone in the eyes, face to face.  This is part of the social distancing which is seemingly innate in their being, even from an early age. It can either come from, or foster further, an inner sense of inadequacy and self-weakness, which the ego directs into avoidance behaviors.  Confrontation of that behavior may lead to an explosive outburst in self-defense. 

Over the years, when I’ve found myself in a ‘bad’ place spiritually[iii], my own behaviors will mimic this in some ways. The eyes avoid contact with others.  I am unable to face someone – directly and personally and literally cannot look them in the eyes in peace – especially those to whom I am directly accountable.  It actually becomes noticeable within and other people pick up on the behavior as a mirror of the inner state.  With repentance (especially Confession) one can be set back aright and ‘look forward’ again, not just down.  Sometimes people confuse humility with being unable to look someone in the eye.  It’s probably a sign of the opposite – an inner weakness perhaps due to the wounding of sin.

Now there is another way to meet someone face-to-face.  That is in confrontation – where the ego is exerting itself in a dominance battle with another person.  This is described almost universally in societies when we use the phrase, saying someone “blinked first.” In a stare down, whoever looks away first capitulates and crumbles before the other who then exerts dominance in other social ways.  

The Glorious Face of God

In this verse, David implores God to turn away His face from his sin.  David is essentially asking God to do what he has done, because the sin is so hideous to David that David must turn his face away from it.  Looking at the sin burns David’s heart, and it would seem that God must see David only as sin.  To David, he has ‘become sin’.  By God’s turning his face away from his sin, David has the possibility of separation from this fire consuming his identity – He can exist beyond and outside of his sin.  God can then look at him, and not see the sin anymore – if God turns His face from David’s sin.

Maybe?

The Face of God

The Face of God is oft-expressed in the Bible, as God’s manifestation[iv] of His personal being to human beings.  Because God in His essence is unknowable to us, His gaze is like a consuming fire.  In the Book of Exodus (Ex. 33:18-34:9) Moses longed to see God.  God instructs Moses that he cannot, but was only given the blessing to look at God’s ‘back-side’ as He passed by in the vision on Mt. Sinai.

“I will cause all My goodness to pass before you,” the LORD replied, “and I will proclaim My name—the LORD—in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” But He added, “You cannot see My face, for no one can see Me and live.” The LORD continued, “There is a place near Me where you are to stand upon a rock, and when My glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft of the rock and cover you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will take My hand away, and you will see My back; but My face must not be seen.”

Moses, like every human, could not bear to see the face of God and live.

It might be helpful to see how the Transfiguration of Christ[v] begins to shift some of this teaching and understanding in the New Testament.  The same Moses (now deceased) appears in the vision with Christ and Elijah.  St. Matthew describes this saying,

And His face shown like the sun”

Now as we know, the sun is too bright to look at – and if somehow we do for very long we go blind.  These words describe the glory on the face of Jesus, as described in St. Peter’s epistle, as a personal testimony. (2Pt.1:16ff)[vi]  The glory of the moment was too great for the disciples to cast their gaze upon the glorious Christ, but they had to hide their faces.  In a powerful (but perhaps overlooked?) verse from St. Luke at the end of the scene:

Jesus came and touched them, and said, ‘Arise, and be not afraid.And when they had lifted up their eyes, they saw no man, save Jesus only.

So, the passage really is about seeing the face of Jesus – first in his glory (His original form radiating His divinity) and secondly, in His human form, where He is recognizable as a man (only).  Looking at the face of Jesus allows them to identify Him, and allow his gaze to identify themselves as He sees them.

Behold, the Lamb of God Who Takes away the Sins of the World

In the Crucifixion narrative that follows shortly, the quote from Isaiah 52, which is read at Great Friday Vespers:

Just as there were many who were appalled at him — his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being and his form marred beyond human likeness.”

It can be said that one reason the Orthodox Church so values its iconography is that it gives the Christian an opportunity to view, mystically by grace, the face of Jesus.[vii]  Of course we know that the pigments and paints are not the face of Jesus but just as a photographic print or even digital pixels can form an image of the face of someone that can speak to us inwardly and powerfully, and inspire, or even convict us of our sin. When we pray before the icon of Christ, we are approaching Jesus – God Incarnate, face to face.

Looking at Sin?

As I mentioned above, its so difficult, even impossible, to look at sin. The horrific visions of human suffering wrought by sin in every age and so many cultures cause revulsion.  Seeing this (and sensing through our senses) causes us unbearable sickness.  I can’t imagine what anyone who experienced first hand the atrocities of the Holodomor, Auschwitz, the front lines of war or even the 911 bombings can bear it. Or watching the death of one’s child through violence.  Those who have born this must look upon this ‘sin’ daily – as the images are brought back to them in vivid suffering especially through experiences like PTSD.  They know the power of Evil. 

Behold Your Son

These words speak of the horror of the experience of Mary, the Theotokos, looking upon Her crucified Son.  In what ways does this not also reveal perhaps how God the Father ‘beholds’ His Son?  Crucified by sin, Crucified in love.   God would look upon His Son.   This may shed a ray of light on one of the most mysterious passages of scripture, and also misinterpreted, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us…” (2Cor.5:21)  [viii]

Because the Son, as the Lamb of God, had taken upon Himself the sins of the World, so those who beheld the Lamb of God, would have to look at the sin.  Confront its horror and injustice.  God would not turn His face from His Crucified Son, and hence would not and could not turn His face from the sins He bore.  And He would not turn His face from us.  In doing so, He would be unlike us – who cast our eyes away from our sins because we cannot bear it. 

In the Crucifixion, lies the only path to forgiveness and resolution of the sin of David, my sin, and the sins of the world. It is only when God looks upon us, even in our sins, and heeds to the words of the Son, “Father forgive them!”  that the power of sin over the soul of man is broken.  But the price requires a total payment in love – The Death of the Son.  God deemed the restoration of the heart of man as worthy of the ransom price paid.

It is perhaps, if any of this is true, possible to glimpse how the one who is on the path of salvation, Mary, is invited to do the same as the Father – to Behold the Son! (Jn. 19:26)  In all of the unspeakable grief and sorrow wrought by sin. How was it possible to not turn her gaze away.  But Jesus gives these words as a command – Look!  Don’t turn away.  You have within your heart the love sufficient to bear this with all its horror and sorrow. And through the humanity of her who did this, emerges a path to truly ‘behold’ Christ for all who would follow.  It is for this reason that the Vigil of Pascha/Easter in the Orthodox liturgy is grounded in the profound lamentation of Mary, and all who are beginning to open their hearts to the possibility of bearing the grief and love at this depth in their hearts.  And to see sin for what it really is and has done to humanity.

They Shall Look Upon Him Whom They Have Pierced

St. John’s gospel effectively concludes the Crucifixion narrative with this quotation, cited from the prophecy of Zechariah 12.  Following the piercing of Christ, and the image of the blood and water of the death of Christ (symbolic of the new life in Baptism and the Eucharist), St. John offers these words as another invitation to ‘Behold’ and to ‘Look upon Christ’ who was so pierced.[ix]   The followers of Jesus must look upon Him – and stop casting away their gaze, or amusing themselves with other things, or distractions – but shall take up the burden of the spiritual struggle with sin.

The Christian life means to look upon the face of Christ, as the first step in learning to look upon ourselves and see ourselves as we truly are, and even perceive what sin has done to us.  The light shining from the face, and from the tomb of Christ is the only way that we can possibly really look at our sins.  It’s because God has not turned away from us, even in our sins, that we can begin to see things as they truly are in a spiritual way. 

Closing Thought – Setting His Face to Jerusalem

In St. Luke’s narrative, adjoining the Transfiguration narrative, we hear these words, “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.”  (Lk.9:51)  In this passage we see the mission and ministry of Jesus destined to fulfillment in glory (taken up in His Ascension), setting his face upon us in a new and total and loving way of self-sacrificing embrace of us all, and bearing the cross and pain of our sinfulness as the only way to be completely joined to us. 

He set His face not just upon Jerusalem, but upon you and me, and would not cast his gaze away until He could no longer – when He would say, ‘It is finished.’  And his eyes would close.  Ω

______________________


[i] The sight capabilities and their link to their behaviors as prey animals is a fascinating study of equines.

[ii] A growing body of research is coming available on this syndrome and the CDC can serve as a good starting point.  What has been called ‘Asperger’s’ disease is similar but presents slightly different criteria for diagnosis.

[iii] What I describe here personally has no reflection on the spiritual state of people with autism or anyone else.

[iv] I hasten to note here that we are in the realm of profound, mystical and theological teachings that I offer in only the most inadequate, incomplete and cursory way. The patristic teachings on the biblical passages on the human and mystical encounter with God is the place to explore this, as discerned through Holy Tradition of the Orthodox Church and deemed worthy. Two references that come to mind are St. Gregory of Nyssa’s, The Life of Moses and St. Simeon the New Theologian’s, On the Mystical Life

[v] The Exodus passage above is read at Vespers for the Feast of the Transfiguration, and the presence of Moses with Christ (and Elijah) implies a change in the way that God relates in His awesome glory to humankind.

[vi] Many of today’s biblical scholars tell us that 2Peter was not authored by the Apostle.  Yet I find this passage so compelling as a testimony – he wanted his listeners to hear his story and discern its meaning from him.  Authorship has different aspects to it.

[vii] The Icon of Christ Not Made with Human Hands (Gr. Acheiropoieta) is one of the most ancient, according to Tradition given by Christ Himself to the pious Prince of Edessa, Abgar, which brought healing to him.  The tradition of ‘Veronica’s Veil’ bears this same type of image in Roman Catholic piety.

[viii] Space does not allow a treatment of this verse which was interpreted in certain Protestant traditions in such a literal fashion as to imply that somehow in the essence of Jesus’s being (which in Orthodoxy means his divine and human natures) that He transformed into the nature of sin itself. Such an understanding does is not compatible with the Church’s understanding.  Because the mystery of the working of the divine and human natures in Christ is an utter mystery, this must be passed by for now.

[ix] In light of this, Rev. 1:7 speaks powerfully of how the entire world will come to do the same thing  –
Behold, He is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see Him–even those who pierced Him. And all the tribes of the earth will mourn because of Him. So shall it be! Amen” The implications of this are profound.

Afflicted Bones

#17 of a Series on Psalm 50

“You shalt cause me to hear gladness and joy: the afflicted bones shall rejoice.”

In our last episode, we explored only the first part of this verse, the rejoicing over the sound of music.  This time, we’ll take a little bit broader look at the verse and how the two phrases link to each other.

You Did It

As I’ve attested all along here and by now some have quickly discerned, I’m no biblical scholar (but sometimes play one on church media). But I do find it interesting to compare Bible translations and wordings to try to ascertain meanings, including the interlinear translations of the ancient texts in their original languages.  In the case of Psalm 50, in Orthodoxy, we’ll usually default to the Septuagint Greek translation. One of the things that stands out in the translation above from the Septuagint version is the expression of the personality of God in action, “You cause me to hear gladness and joy…”.  In another translation I learned decades ago by heart, the second part read, “The bones You have crushed may thrill.” Even the New International Version uses this terminology, “Let the bones You have crushed rejoice.”

Now what strikes me about this is that many translations use the passive voice, but this is very different.  David’s state (mentally and bodily) are a result of God’s direct personal intervention.  In the first case, after his repentance, God is the one who causes David to be able to hear the sounds of music and rejoicing.  God, in effect, ‘restores his hearing’ as though he were deaf.  These translations show the personal, interactive, relational way that Hebrew and later, Christian thought saw God not as a passive onlooker as the penitent person ‘figured out’ his need for repentance, but rather was very active in the midst of it, imperceptibly perhaps. 

In the second phrase, this is even more striking.  David’s bones are crushed by God.  He is describing a state of deep pain and utter weakness.  Picture a distraught skeleton of a man, with no strength in his bones, frail and weak bodily as manifesting his weakness within of will and temperament. The verse is clear that his sin is the cause of this state of being.  But the ‘active’ translation says something else, God caused him to experience this crippling weakness (due to his sin). 

The bones You have crushed…

God has crushed him, and there is no mistaking it. The God whom David had known so well as strengthening him, giving him courage against his foes (like Goliath) in battle, could also crush him. Being crushed by God is life-changing or else life-ending.  This is a wonderful (right term) expression of the mysterious nature of God’s punishment as an exercise of His divine love.  There are a number of other passages in the Old Testament that echo these words, for example:

                Like a lion He breaks all my bones; from day until night You make an end of me   Is.38:13

                But You have crushed us in the lair of jackals; You have covered us with deepest darkness.  Ps. 44:19

                When it comes to being crushed in soul and body, I’m thinking that St. Paul could identify with these words.

The passage also echoes the famous passage in Ezekiel 37, another passage read in the Easter vigil services, portraying the restoration of the dead bones of fallen Israelites to life through the breath/Spirit of God – a prophetic anticipation of the resurrection of the righteous, and indeed all flesh, from the dead through the Resurrection of Christ.

Crushing Suffering and Sin

We know that how a God of love permits suffering is a mystery, and we also know that as we approach the suffering of others, as in the case of the friends of Job, we must absolutely withhold judgment in saying that God’s wrath has fallen upon a person because of their sin.  But I believe it’s clear that in David’s prayer to hear the song of rejoicing, he realizes that it is the self-same Lord who crushed him, who could, and even would, restore this song within him.  It was not just ‘in the air’ to be heard, but a sound from God communicating His divine love and favor once again.

This is a very, very difficult line to walk – discerning when certain events of life are a direct intervention of God as a means of punishment of people for their sins.  Usually we think of such punishment, as well, ‘punitive’ – where God is exercising His divine righteousness and crushing the unrighteous.  Sometimes we stand on the sidelines and applaud – like St. Paul, as he applauded the righteous stoning of the apostate from Judaism named Stephen who was proclaiming Jesus of Nazareth as some sort of new god. 

I think the difference here is that the realization is that of David himself within was the source of his words.  He knew that:

  • He had sinned.
  • God crushed him in punishment
  • God still loved him.
  • So much so that ‘joy and feasting’ would be sent by the same God in restoration.

Only the repentant can possibly understand how God works within one’s life in this way.  Conversely, this is why ‘the world’ as a whole never understands God’s punishment because it is intended by Him to lead those whom He loves to repentance.  We can learn how this sort of thing might be possible if we read the Book of Jonah.  While much of the focus for us is always the first part, I find it interesting that the Church reads this book pretty much in its entirety at the Orthodox Easter Vigil.  In doing so it’s possible to see the typology of Resurrection of Christ (from the depths) on the third day as Jonah emerged from the whale.[i]  So far so good.  But at the Vigil, we read the entirety of the book taking us from the seashore to Nineveh.  This recalls the whole reason for Jonah’s journey to be undertaken at the command of God – to warn the Ninevites[ii] to repent of their sins.  In hearing Jonah’s words, the people repented and the King declared an edict calling for a total fast in the city and repentance in sackcloth. 

Because of these actions – the prophecy of Jonah, the hearing and response of the people and the king leading to repentance – the city was spared.[iii]  This external action became a sign of the inner state of the people or at least their spiritual trajectory for a time.  Jonah was slow to understand God’s working, even as his prophet, and the book of Jonah explains how God taught him Jonah the true nature of God’s righteousness and punishment which in every case, even for those not part of the Covenant, was intended to be a blessing leading to repentance, not mere vindictive punishment, as Jonah envisioned it.

And Today?

Much of what has been written in this series has been intended to be very personally oriented.  Repentance happens in the human heart.  Yet the prophecy of Jonah, and others, points to how entire peoples can, with the power of the Word of God proclaimed righteously in a holy, prophetic way, be led to repentance being spared from being ‘crushed’.  Not only are individuals ‘crushed’ but also families, communities and even nations.  As I mention above, ‘Only the repentant can possibly understand how God works within life in this way.’  Since the beginning of wisdom is the ‘Fear of the Lord’ (Prov. 9:10) it follows that this repentance is other than a restoration of a person, or a nation, to spiritual Ground Zero – the fear of the Lord. 

Uncertain Times

We live in an age of great uncertainty, and many global events that are creating strife to countless millions of people.  Just in the past week or so, there have been great earthquakes in Mexico (Mt. 24:7).  There are ongoing terrorist attacks and rumors of war, including the overthrow of governments in places like Guinea in Africa. Increasing tensions in the Middle East and complete societal change overnight in Afghanistan. Our own nation has suffered a barrage of stifling heat and raging fires in the West and drought that has drained the great reservoirs of like Lake Mead serving all of the water needs of Las Vegas, not to mention the swath of destruction caused by Hurricane Ida from Louisiana to New England followed by Hurricane Nicholas in the same region.  The global Covid pandemic shows no sign of letting up – infecting hundreds of thousands and killing thousands globally, every day. The Bible speaks consistently, particularly through the Gospel of Matthew and the Book of Revelation on how God’s punishment works, giving the people who so suffer the opportunity to repent before the End comes – which is the Second Coming of Christ.  While some look for ‘another’ prophet, as Jesus warned, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets. Heed them.’  (Lk. 16:19) 

The call is clear – it is always a call to repentance.  Repentance, even broadly across families, communities and even nations, is possible.  Prophetic spiritual leadership is necessary – by people who have walked, on their knees, the path of repentance that restores the song of joy, to one’s heart, to one’s family and to one’s nation.  Ω


[i] The Jonah narrative is recalled daily in Ode 6 of the liturgical hymn called the Canon of the day, and there’s always a reference to Jonah in that liturgical poem as a framework for understanding some dimension of the Church’s teaching relevant to the day. 

[ii] Nineveh was a very large, ancient city, appearing early on in Gen. 10. The land (Assyria) and its inhabitants appear in a number of biblical books and several of the prophets, including Nahum, prophesied against Nineveh and its wickedness. Yet, the Ninevites had no real connection to the Hebrew Covenant, but they are invited to repent and be saved through the words of the Prophet.  One group hears Jonah and the city is spared.  Yet the words of Nahum, perhaps at a different time, to different leaders, would not be heeded and Assyria would be made desolate. The Jonah prophecy is an anticipation of the evangelization of the whole world by the Word of God through the Apostles, another favorite dimension of the Paschal celebration at Easter.

[iii] Some Syriac and Oriental Orthodox traditions, have a wonderful practice called the ‘Nineveh Fast’ which is held for three days several weeks prior to the beginning of Lent, to recall the image of Christ in the tomb as prophesied by Jonah’s time in the whale. Nineveh was on the East bank of the Tigris river – what is now Mosul, Iraq.

The Sound of Music

#16 of a Series on Psalm 50

Let me hear the sound of joy and feasting

The Sound of Music – 20th Century Fox

This verse, on its own, might sound a little strange.  Given our technology today, we can hear the sounds of joy and feasting anytime we want!  We expect this – and if we can’t hear the sound for some reason – the computer or device or streaming Wifi fails, we get angry and frustrated, instantly! Sadly, this typifies how we are unattuned to the ways of the biblical culture and times, or the even commonality of our human condition before our information age.

The ‘hearing of joy and feasting’ is something very common to our human condition. Every culture – from primitive societies to the high societies of the Victorian age, as well as our own, has its own expressive music. To hear joy and feasting is to have our spirits lifted up – to celebrate and exult! Many of us Baby Boomers in America grew up with the movie version of the musical, The Sound of Music, which expressed the simplicity of life and joy through song, magnificently portrayed and sung by Julie Andrews. And the theme of the movie (based on a true story) was the tension when the music could no longer be heard the same way, when the Nazis rolled into Austria.  The simplicity of life and joy through music would be squelched – a sign of the arrival of dark, sorrowful times. I find it tragic, that as this was written and the Islamic jihadist Taliban rolled back into Kabul this week, that one of the first things they did was torture and kill a man widely recognized in Afghanistan as a gifted folk musician whose work expressed the beauty of Afghan culture.

There will be no tolerance of joy and singing.

The true spirit of Christian living typifies this musical, lyrical way of living – a life expressive of  worship (doxa) and praise, singing and celebration. In Orthodoxy, there is a liturgical movement that leads us to this state of singing and celebration through the daily office, primarily Vespers and Matins[i].  While each service has its moments and movements, the entire worship follows the psalter during the festal vigil leads us from Psalm 1 at Vespers to a climactic chanting of the last 3 celebratory psalms – 148, 149 and 150 at Matins.  Psalm 150 gives us something to hear and listen to:

Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty heavens.
Praise him for his acts of power; praise him for his surpassing greatness.
Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet, praise him with the harp and lyre,
Praise him with timbrel and dancing, praise him with the strings and pipe,
Praise him with the clash of cymbals, praise him with resounding cymbals.
Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.
    (NIV)

This is what we’re supposed to be doing in life – our very purpose for existence, to join in all creation giving praise to God.[ii]   The Matins Service follows Psalm 150  with the ancient hymn called the Great Doxology, which brings the psalmody to fulfillment by expressing the New Testament faith – the revelation of the Holy Trinity, and the Incarnation, and the Paschal Mystery.  This leads the Christian Church to the joyful and climactic fulfillment of divine worship, the celebration of the Eucharistic Liturgy.

Are we There Yet?

This all sounds good. But are we really there?  Do we readily, at all times, ‘hear the sound of joy and feasting’ in our hearts and open our lips in praise and thanksgiving to Him?  What are we actually listening to anyway?  Is our song taking us there or taking us somewhere else,[iii]  a place of despondency and loneliness – leading to an inner deafness when one can’t hear the song of spiritual joy anymore. 

David wasn’t there. Yet.  His heart could not worship God because of his sins.  The din and clamor of his sins created too much noise within. Those sins held him in sadness and depression.  His heart sagged.  Deep in his sorrow, he longed to be able to hear the sound of joy and feasting – the celebration of the Hebrew worship that he knew so well because the very psalter flowed from his heart.  Yet, now, in his sin he could not hear, and could not sing.  But he longed to. 

Hang it Up

We hear this very expression of sorrow and silence in reading these verses from Psalm 136 (7)

By the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars we hung our harps,
For there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
They said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How can we sing the songs of the Lord, while in a foreign land?
If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you,
If I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy.

How poignantly this portrays the captivity of the Jewish people.[iv]  It was a spiritual captivity, not just a physical one. They ‘hung up their harps’.  In our jargon today, to ‘hang it up’ is to quit in despondency. There was no place for joy and singing in their misery.  And it was a time of sorrow[v] for the Hebrew people, that, despite the ceaseless warnings of the prophets that remained unheeded, they were overwhelmed by their enemies and exiled to Babylon.

But the song of the Lord was not lost – it remained within, but in a sense, inaccessible.  This is perhaps one of the greatest losses which proceed from sin – whether for the Jew before Christ, or the Christian who has sinned, or backslid into the realm of darkness. We know what our life was like, and how our hearts resonated with the rhythm of divine joy.  But no more – and if we are prompted to do so (even by the captors) we cannot.  And no, you can’t fake it. So also with David, he so longed to hear this sound of joy again in his heart and proclaim it with his mouth.  His repentance would heal him, and put the song back in his heart, and open his mouth once again.

Approach

We’re given another powerful image of this in the Gospels.  When Jesus tells the story of the Prodigal Son, he describes how the Prodigal Son turns back to His Father, and his Father’s house. And with this return and restoration there is cause for great celebration.   It is described this way,

Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing.  And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.”    (Lk 16: 25f)

So, the elder son heard the ‘sound of music’.  But he couldn’t really hear it, or accept it.  His heart wasn’t there.  Instead, it sent his head spinning into anger, expressed through his words of hatred and unforgiveness for his brother.

Restored in Our Hearing

David is different though, because he is repentant. This makes that song accessible to him again, as it is given to him again by the Lord, as it was for the Prodigal Son. We should also note, from both the Prodigal Son parable and the David’s prayer, that this song is not merely personal but also communal.  The Coming of Christ in the flesh was proclaimed by the worship of the Angels in Bethlehem, that humankind could join in the heavenly celebration and worship in a new way (See Lk 2). When we hear of the worship of God in its fullness, we find it in the Book of Revelation, where all of the angels and saints and all creation joins in the full celebration and worship of God in holiness and all purified humility.  In scripture prayer may be private, but worship is communal. At our Divine Liturgy, we get a foretaste of this celebration of heaven – and we prepare for it with our prayers of repentance and confession, ‘that we may sing the thrice Holy Hymn to the life-creating Trinity.’[vi]

Lawrence Welk, the band leader, used to always end his show with these words, ‘Keep a song in your heart!”  Perhaps our priests should share this exhortation with the flock as they come forward after the Liturgy to kiss the cross and receive the blessed bread, and say ‘Keep a song in your heart!’   Perhaps not just the songs of a fallen world, but the song of praise that echoed in the heart of David and thunders in the Church.  Ω


[i] This is one of the reasons that I wanted to celebrate Vespers and Matins at least on Sundays in the parishes I served. This crescendo of worship gets us to the place spiritually, in the temple, of being ‘ready’ to worship the Lord in spirit and truth.

[ii] The entirety of the Psalter carries this as its theme.  There are countless verses which expand upon it.

[iii] There is probably no better expression of what a group of people is really all about than how it is expressed in its music.

[iv] The Orthodox Church affords this psalm a very special place in the Matins services on the Sundays preceding Lent. When we are in sin, and prior to our penitential exercise, the song of salvation has grown inaudible.

[v] I find it ironic that there is rarely a place for a ‘sad song’ in popular music today, even in churches.  It seems that everyone just thinks everything is supposed to be upbeat and happy, happy.  But the sad song, like Psalm 137, was inspired by truth because it was brutally honest about where the people were. It was necessary to acknowledge that, and why they were there, before a ‘new song’ could be heard.

[vi] From the Cherubic Hymn of the Divine Liturgy.

Brilliant!

Psalm 50:           

#15 of a Series on Psalm 50 “Wash Me, And I shall be whiter than snow…”

This image is provided for the sake of those sweltering in the summer heat…


Often, we hear our friends, particularly those from Great Britain use the term ‘brilliant’ colloquially as an explanation of just about anything that impresses – especially an event or a thought. That word carries our theme of the day – the brilliance conveyed in holy repentance that is a result of the spiritual washing from sin, experienced by the Prophet David and those like him who truly repent of their sins of thought and deed. In the ninth reflection we have already discussed the importance of the some of the many dimensions of washing as it is perfectly realized in the sacred washing of Holy Baptism and made mention of the baptismal garment and we’ll revisit that theme today.  This verse also introduces another visual image[i] for us, revealing the spiritual effects of the baptismal washing.  Not only does a person become clean, but much more. David describes the effects of God’s washing of the penitent,’ whiter than snow!’ 

Perhaps you’ve experienced the amazing beauty of a deep, fresh snowfall on a winter day. There is something transcendent in it – a freshness and beauty where the created world has been blanketed in white light.  It conveys something of a new birth and renewal of creation – if but for a time before the forces of nature change the landscape again.  But for that initial period, everything is filled with a kind of perfection and light.

David describes it as even whiter than snow.  Here he sees how the grace of the God’s mercy and forgiveness is so transformative, changing him – his very outlook. His sin in its ugliness has been washed with the purity of God’s mercy and lovingkindness. 

Snowy Brilliance

How wonderful it is to be able to see ourselves in this way – when forgiven our sins!  His ‘I’ – his Self psychologically has been restored.  Perhaps this is one of the greatest hidden graces of sacramental forgiveness that remains unknown to those who have never experienced it – in sacramental Baptism or in the Second Baptism of Repentance[ii] through Confession. So many people today invoke the ‘self-positive’ thinking of our age, but this restoration of Self[iii] from repentance is different.  As the Apostle Paul says, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new”  (2Cor.5:17)   This newness of life is not just a hiding of sin which continues to have its power over the soul, through the accusation of the Devil – ever reminding us of our past sins, failings, corruption and darkness. 

Bridal Beauty

St. Paul finds an excellent opportunity to offer strong pastoral counsel to husbands in the Epistle to the Ephesians, describing the Church as the Bride of Christ.  “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her to sanctify her, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to Himself as a glorious church, without stain or wrinkle or any such blemish, but holy and blameless.”  Here St. Paul brings the imagery of the beauty of a bride – glorious and spotless – which is an image of the Church, the Bride of Christ.  Key to this beauty is that the Church, and her believers, must be ‘without stain or wrinkle or any such blemish, but holy and blameless.” So here is David’s imagery of light and purity revisited through St. Paul’s imagery.

The Scriptures have several other helpful passage describing this ‘white light’ imagery.  For example, at the Transfiguration, St. Mark describe the brilliance of the uncreated Light of Jesus in these words, “His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them.”  In the very person of Jesus, this light emanates – not a reflected light, but a light which is beyond description, dazzling the apostles Peter, James and John, who cannot even look at it, but are ‘starstruck’.  The holy Eastern ascetic fathers frequently spoke of this, particularly in the hesychastic tradition, where the Christian walking in Christ is a ‘partaker of the divine nature’ and hence reflecting the divine grace of God as a type of light.  A simple reminder to us over the centuries has been the halo that is portrayed in iconography surrounding the saints, as well as the overall transfiguring light portrayed in icons  in the mystical gold background of many icons.

A similar light appears at the Tomb of Christ – as the Brilliant Angel appears to the Myrrhbearers to announce the Resurrection of Christ.

And behold, there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow    Mt. 28:2

The Church picked upon this biblical theme of the white garment as a sign of the  brightness of God’s grace through forgiveness in the life of the Christian received in Holy Baptism, and displayed in the bright white Baptismal garment, which clothes the newly baptized person after he or she emerges from the baptismal font.  The Fathers of the Church spoke of this frequently to the newly baptized, who would wear their baptismal garments for eight days.  They were exhorted to keep their garments clean and their hearts pure.

The white garment imagery is revealed in wonderful ways in the Book of Revelation.  In the Marriage portrayal, representing the wedding feast of the Church and the Lamb, we see something similar to that of St. Paul in Ephesians,

For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready.  Fine linen, bright and clean,
    was given her to wear.”
Rev. 3:4

In several other places, those who are tempted, but remain pure and unsullied by sin are seen to be ‘preserving their garment: “ Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy.”  Rev. 3:4

Concluding Thoughts

The journey of repentance is difficult.  But it leads from darkness to light, from depression to confidence, from sadness to joy.  The washing of Baptism, the clothing with the grace of the Holy Spirit enable the Christian, through repentance, to live a new life in spiritual brilliance.  Even if sin soils our life and conscience, we have the path or repentance to lead us to purity again – and again, and again and again if need be – but only in this life.  Hence, now is the hour of repentance and salvation.  (2Cor.6:2)   Ω 


[i] Word images create in the mind’s ‘eye’ a picture that brings understanding and meaning.  It’s tragic that visual images (iconography) have been resisted in certain corners of  Christendom since the iconoclastic heresy. However, properly executed, a holy image forms a mental image as well – in a sense reinforcing the word images of scripture.  We are an image-laden society, and the need for holy images to inform our consciousness of the teachings of the Church are greater now than ever.

[ii] The Mystery of Holy Penance, also called the Sacrament of Confession, while present as a type in practice from the earliest days of Christianity, had an complex track of development to our practices today. The newly baptized was to remain without sin, for their entire life.  Human nature in its fallen state resulted in many failures and the ‘second baptism’ of Penance was prescribed, since there is and was only one true Baptism.  Eventually, with the development of the monastic practice of regular confession of thoughts to the spiritual father, a confessional practice became much more widespread and was, through the Church canons, linked  to the reception of the  sacrament of the Eucharist – and became restrictive and limiting.  Much more can, and needs to be explored on this topic to bring forth the strengths and weaknesses of both the ancient as well as  contemporary practices in the Orthodox Church on the practice of Confession.

[iii] By ‘Self’ here I mean not just one’s ego, but the entirety of one’s person – mind (nous), spirit, will and body.

Sprinkle Me

         

#14 of a Series on Psalm 50

“Sprinkle me with hyssop and I shall be clean…”

As we work our way through the Psalm, there has been a decided shift in tone – from the darkness of sorrow in sin to a new brightness of hope and anticipation.  These are the fruits of repentance beginning to ripen – bearing fruit as a new repentant mindset that is joyful, anticipatory and trusting.  This is the essence of true repentance (Gr. metanoia) – the change of the entirety of our orientation in life and thinking.  As I write this, we recently celebrated the Feast of the Transfiguration of our Lord in the presence of his disciples Peter, James and John, called “Metamorphosis” in Greek.  I think our understanding of metamorphosis, as manifest, for example, in the complete change of the caterpillar into a butterfly – the same creature was both – perhaps best illustrates just how radical this life shift is.

For most contemporary readers, the phrase “sprinkle me with hyssop.” is probably obscure.  But it is a profound statement rooted in the Hebraic Covenant and middle-Eastern culture.

What is Hyssop?

Hyssop, called ‘za-aatar’ in Hebrew, is a low shrub found in the Middle East which has upright branches and blue flowers, closely related to oregano.  It is used as a flavoring throughout the Middle East and is valued for having healing properties.

Our use of hyssop comes from the Lord’s directive to the Israelites at a crucial moment on the eve of their Exodus from Egypt.

Then Moses called all the elders of Israel and said to them, “Go and select lambs for yourselves according to your clans, and kill the Passover lamb. Take a bunch of hyssop and dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and touch the lintel and the two doorposts with the blood that is in the basin. None of you shall go out of the door of his house until the morning.   (fromExodus 12)

In order to leave Egypt in righteousness, the Israelites must be identified, and purified.  The Passover supper and its rituals, including the anointing of the wood of the doorposts and lintel (uprights and cross-piece) accomplishes this and their obedience to this spiritual ritual was essential to their deliverance from their bondage. This religious, liturgical ritual had a real, dynamic effect in their lives.

The Lord would send the Angel of Death to pass through the entirety of Egypt to kill the first-born of man and animal, but pass-over those homes which adhered to the Lord’s commandments to observe this first Passover, with the eating of the Passover meal and the anointing of the doorposts. This anointing of the wooden doorposts with the ‘blood of the Lamb” would be the means of their salvation from Death.  The Passover ritual[i], using the hyssop to sprinkle the Blood, would identify those aligned with God’s will and saving plan in their lives, as juxtaposed to those who had not accepted God’s will and direction, imitating Pharoah’s relentless opposition to God. The Judgment of God would not be released upon them, because they had faithfully adhered to their Hebrew identity as God’s chosen people through obedience.  Failing that – the judgment of Death would come and destroy them as well. 

Sprinkling with hyssop purifies.  This is where the uncleanness is washed and the people are restored in God’s sight.  Living in Egypt had been a polluting experience for the Hebrew people. They had left their land and become slaves, not only a physical sense but also a spiritual one.  Egypt had become a symbol of subservience not to the Lord, but to worldliness and its power (Pharaoh).  This theme is echoed in the New Testament and the need to flee the pagan world and its lusts.

The Passover out of Egypt and their Exodus through the desert would be a process of restoration to their God-given identity, illumination through the Law, and purification through struggle (asceticism).  The Passover ritual first carried out in obedience, and renewed annually, led to a spiritual purification and rededication of the people, including future generations.  The sacrifice of the Lamb, would be the source of the Blood that would purify the people of the stains of Egyptian life and Egyptian way of life.  An innocent lamb’s life blood would be sprinkled upon the doorposts with hyssop.  The hyssop would convey the saving blood to the place where it would be used for the deliverance of the people. 

Now it’s interesting that David asks for the sprinkling, not upon the doorposts, but upon himself.  He longs for this ‘sprinkling’ with hyssop upon himself.  He realizes the power of God’s deliverance from sin through this sprinkling imagery, and he longs for it with the deepest desire in his heart.  For David, the ritual is inwardly efficacious.  He literally ‘can’t wait’ for Passover, he needs the sprinkling now.  For him, his new awareness through penance has created a spiritual urgency that can only be realized in God’s mercy actualized in his heart making him clean.

This leads us to other mentions of hyssop in several other Old Testament passages. In Leviticus 14 we hear of command of the Lord for the ritual sprinkling of a leper (by the priest) for cleansing of his impurity. Even though the healing already took place, the restoration to the full participation in the Hebrew community life  was incomplete – the uncleanness had to be removed, through the ritual.  This was not a sprinkling for healing per se, for the priest is instructed to go ‘outside the camp’ to visit the leper to determine if he is healed or not[ii].   The apostolic Church realized the biblical fulfillment of this passage in the sacrifice of the High Priest, the Lord Jesus outside the walls of Jerusalem, as ‘outside the camp’, hence among the forgotten and those sick with the leprosy of sin. The ritual is very detailed, but involves a sprinkling of the leper with hyssop and the priest’s offerings on his behalf for spiritual cleansing and thanksgiving.  David’s prayer hearkens this use of hyssop for the cleansing for his own spiritual impurity.  His words of repentance and actions of sorrow would still need a ritual of cleansing by the Lord, through the use of hyssop.

The Book of Numbers (Chapter 19) describes another ritual which uses hyssop – the cleansing of a home where a person had died.  In Hebraic thought, death brought ritual impurity for those in its presence and touching the dead person.  The sprinkling with hyssop by the priest of the tent[iii] and people with water brought cleansing from death.  Again, we can see a connection to the hyssop’s use with restoring purity – in the case of David the impurity of the death caused by sin.

The Hyssop of the New Covenant

The Passover ritual is at the heart of the Christian experience as well, but transformed or perhaps better, Transfigured, by the saving work of Jesus Christ.  The sacrificial Lamb is “the Lamb of God, the Son of God, Who takes away the sins of the world. (Jn.1;29)[iv]  The wooden upright and the lintel crosspiece is a prefigurement of its fulfillment in the wood of the Cross upon which the Blood of Jesus, the Lamb, was shed.  The hyssop would be present at the Crucifixion as well, as St. John also describes,

“A jar full of sour wine stood there, so they put a sponge full of the sour wine on a hyssop branch and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, ‘It is finished,’ and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit

Here the action of the Lord’s reception of the sour wine on the sponge symbolizes the sourness and bitterness of the His sacrificial suffering.  This he accepted willfully – and He gave up His spirit.  Note that when offered the ‘gall’ (see Matthew’s account) He refused – gall being the analgesic that might have alleviated His suffering.  St. Cyril of Jerusalem offers to the catechumens preparing to be baptized these words,

“Rejoice, ye heavens, and let the earth be glad, for those who are to be sprinkled with hyssop, and cleansed with the spiritual hyssop, the power of Him to whom at His Passion drink was offered on hyssop and a reed.”                                                                                   (St. Cyril of Jerusalem – Catechetical Lecture 3)

The Christian receives the drink of Christ, the blood of His Death, that cleanses of sin throughout one’s person.  For while the ritual uses of hyssop mentioned in the Old Testament above brought deliverance from a ritual impurity, God had much more to offer humankind in the sacrifice of Christ, a Death and a New Life in Baptism into the Death of the Blood of the Lamb that brings a complete deliverance, not just from ritual impurity, but from the sin itself.

 In the Orthodox Church we have implements which represent the hyssop of the Old Testament, notably, the spoon with which we commune Christians with the Blood of Christ.  Fulfilling  this typology we also use a sponge, not on the spoon, but used in conjunction with the preparation of the Gifts of Holy Communion by the priest. We also use a sprinkler for holy water, in many forms – sometimes a horsehair brush, a metal sprinkler, or perhaps closest to the biblical model, a bound assemblage of plant stems (even hyssop).  In each of these, the blessing of God comes to us for salvation and spiritual cleansing. For us, our deliverance from our bondage to sin requires the adherence to that spiritual means afforded to us in the Gospel and the Way presented to us in apostolic Church.  There is no other Way.

Closing Thoughts

The effect of repentance is to become clean.  This becomes awareness that our sin = putrid filth, which is internal, as discussed above.  It is a miracle that our inner uncleanness can be made clean! This is God’s great mercy at work, always within but manifest exteriorly in righteousness and love.

It’s worthwhile noting that this verse reveals the inner deep desire of David the penitent that he might  ‘have it all.’   It is written in the imperative but in humble hope and trust that God truly does forgive.  He says effectively, “If you sprinkle me so, I shall be clean.”  He who committed the most horrible of murder-adultery still believed in the possibility of his total forgiveness and restoration by God. 

This is an important point for every one of us who has ever been tempted to believe that our sin was so heinous that God would not forgive it.  In fact, the Unforgiveable Sin, is the sin against the Holy Spirit, essentially believing the lie that God does not so love me that He would (or could) forgive me.  In effect, this lie of the Devil says, ‘I am unsavable’ – beyond the reach of His mercy and salvation.  It speaks to the need for that self-understanding that emerges only from repentance, for in that restoration of humility we can again see God as the merciful and forgiving Lord who is the Lover of Mankind.  This Unforgivable Sin is nothing less than extreme pride – placing ourself outside of God’s world of grace and mercy and isolating ourselves utterly in our own misery.

Finally, if nothing else, humankind is deeply indebted to David who so completely reveals to us what it means to be human in this way not only through repentance, but through his profoundly deep trust and awareness of God’s mercy and forgiveness, for which he is the Lord’s evangelist without compare.  Ω


[i] Sadly, the forces that work to delegitimize ritual (and in the Church, liturgy) have done a great disservice in Protestantism and contemporary Catholicism, and to a lesser degree, Orthodoxy.  Like the ritual of Passover itself, commanded by the Lord to be celebrated annually by the Hebrews, the meaning of His work is remembered, but more, in a sense, re-lived through the liturgical movements that root people and their experience in the revelation of God’s truth and mercy as revealed in His Covenants, Old and New.

[ii] This is an interesting aspect of the healing of the ten lepers by Jesus, in Luke 17:12ff and consistent with the Lord’s fulfillment of the Old Testament through His divine personhood and ministry. That is transformed when the one leper, realizes his participation in the mystery of healing by Jesus, and returns to give thanks to Him.

[iii] This also hearkens to the Orthodox practice of blessing homes at special times and moments of life, (such as a death or the shedding of blood) but also annually during the Theophany.

[iv] I find it fascinating that this verse begins immediately after St. John’s introductory Prologue – identifying Jesus clearly as the fulfillment of the Old Covenant through the central ritual of the Hebraic faith.  While St. Mark makes every effort to hide the identity of the Messiah, St. John is utterly revelatory in these words spoken by St. John the Baptist, “Behold the Lamb of God…”

You Have Loved Truth

#13 of a Series on Psalm 50

“ For behold, You have loved truth, and your uncertain and hidden things you have made manifest to me.

We’ve taken  a pause from this writing after the conclusion of the 2021 Lenten season and during the celebratory season of Holy Pascha, and an abbreviated Apostles’ Fast.  As we now approach the Dormition Fast in the Orthodox Church we, as a Church turn once again to a more penitent posture, in preparation for and anticipation of the joyful celebration of the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos.[i]  So it’s timely again to pick up this verse-by-verse reflection on the Psalm 50 (51), the great penitential psalm of David.  We don’t stop praying Psalm 50 during those celebratory seasons like Pascha, but the penitential spirit as exemplified by the psalm is less of a focus.  As the Lord told his disciples, they are not to fast[ii] while the Bridegroom is present, but when He is gone, they will fast (Mk. 2:19).  In fact, the fasting seasons in the Orthodox Church are special times of penance and Psalm 50 can be a strong witness of that spirit to us.

If the previous verse was mysterious, today’s is strangely celebratory.  In this part of the Psalm there is an amazing shift really – of focus and tone.  The penitent David turns his attention away from Himself, his failings, his weakness, and the origins of his sin.  Here we see the fruit of faith flowering, blooming and producing fruit.  Here we see grace at work in the depths of the soul.

Behold!

Sometimes when I read the Christmas narratives of the Nativity of Christ in the gospels, I’m struck by the language of the text and its use of the word, ‘Behold’ (in Greek ἴδε).  This is one of those great high-sounding ‘biblical’ words that, is spoken not by men, but by angels.  It is a strong imperative – to ‘wake up and see’.  Akin is the idea of ‘stop what you’re doing and look at this!’  That which is to be beheld is too awesome to miss!  Something is breaking through in time and space in a way that is outside of the realm of this world. 

The entirety of the revelation of the New Testament is a Behold moment in human history.  The Gospel is compelling (imperative) because the followers of Jesus have experienced something that simply cannot be passed by or ignored.  From the first ‘Behold moments’ in the Nativity narratives to the shepherds and Magi – ‘Behold, I bring you tidings of great joy…’ – to the presentation of the scourged Christ by Pilate ‘ Behold the man’, to the climactic proclamation  ‘He is not here, He is risen’… Behold He goes forth to meet you in Galilee’ and Matthew’s soaring words on the apostles’ encounter with the Lord, ‘Behold, Jesus met them, saying, All hail!and they worshipped Him.’ Mt, 28:6)  In the same spirit, St. John wrangles our attention when he reports the Lord’s words in Revelation 3:20, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.”  In fact the entirety of Revelation is about ‘Beholding’ the cosmic divine encounter of Christ and our world. 

So, I would posit that what follows from here on in the psalm is nothing less than revelatory, and invisible to the human ‘eye’ of the heart, unless and until illumined by grace. When we are mired in sin we see nothing of God’s goodness and will vehemently judge the entirety of our life, everyone else’s life, and the whole world as utterly depraved.  But when David says, ‘Behold I was conceived in iniquity’  AND ‘Behold, You have loved Truth and your uncertain and hidden things you have made manifest to me’  we see God lifting David out of his blindness by imparting spiritual insight to his heart, which began when he saw and acknowledged himself as darkened by his sins.   

Before we move on, I want to simply report what everybody knows here – that you cannot convince anyone of their sins as such.  You can present evidence but our human self-protection (denial) mechanisms can be impregnable.  This is why horrific world atrocities (like the Holocaust or the Holodomor or Khmer Rouge famines) can unfold in a desensitized global consciousness even in the presence of undisputable facts.[iii]  But it’s much closer to home when we’ve never allowed the sting of sin to penetrate the soul in such a way that it cracks and the light of a ‘Behold’ moment of grace touches it.  Until then the deceptions rule, marriages crumble, people hate and waste away in the impregnable hell of denial.

But with repentance comes  the second ‘Beholding’– the grounding of life in Truth.

The Good News

God is the God of Truth and truths.  Jesus said, ‘I am the Truth’ (Jn. 14:6) – meaning this is His identity in His divine nature. In God’s truth there is no mistaking, misinterpreting, fudging, covering over, diluting, or misdirecting.  When God speaks we must behold – sit up, listen, obey.  This Truth, as explained by David however, is interactive.  For God’s love for Truth (His Son) by revelation becomes a sharing of the truth with His created world and His most blessed creatures, humankind.  This leads to a manifestation of the Truth to the world – “For God so loved the world, that He sent His only-begotten Son (Truth) “  that we hear in John 3:16, “that for all who believe in Him should not perish, but have eternal life…” This is why Part B of salvation history in Christ is the sending of the Holy Spirit, the formation of the Church and the apostolic mission in the world to bring forth the Truth.  All who repent will eventually long for the salvation of the world in their souls.  The prayer of the Church (us) is for the ‘peace from above and the salvation of souls’ as our savior desires that, “All be saved and come to the knowledge of Truth.” (1Tim. 2)

David was first and foremost a believer.  He placed His trust in the Living God, revealed to Him through the Old Covenant which he received as his spiritual inheritance, taught by his family and lived in the Hebraic community. David received that faith interiorly as well, and engaged in a way of prayerful interaction with God.  In this way, his life was grounded in Truth.  Until he sinned.

When It’s All a Lie

In every case, sin is the result of a lie which has been heard, interiorized and acted upon. From Genesis 3 onward, the pattern is so well known and repeatable – a temptation of the Devil, based on a lie, triggers within the soul a desire for something intemperate and outside of God’s good, life-giving will for us. When we act upon that (like David acting upon his lustful urge) we can’t bear the truth of our fallenness, so more lies are engendered.  Life becomes a Lie.  Lies are tolerated because they reinforce a narrative we want to hear.  Sorry, but “I’m OK, You’re Ok” is a lie.

Behold, You have Loved Truth

But David has had a Behold Moment, and it is undeniable.  It’s a bridge of Truth that leads to God.  It is narrow but walkable and David sees God’s love for Truth and that love comes to dwell in his heart.  He can’t stand to have anything else.  Love of Truth truly is ‘bullet-proof’.  This is what empowered the Christian martyrs of every age to endure all manner of suffering. Suffering and death to self are the gateway to Truth about God, and the Truth Who is God.  When people acquire this Truth it is the ‘Pearl of Great Price’ and nothing will keep them from it.  No longer are the lies of the Evil One to be tolerated but they must be purged from the heart through the tears of penance.  This then shows us why St. Mark’s Gospel, announcing the Christian way, begins with the word Repent.  That can be lived, only when the God of Truth is directing one’s life. Otherwise even our ‘penance’ is self-willed and self-directed and goes only as far as our Self.

The Gospel as a Mystery Revealed

We can see here not only what David saw, but what was previewed prophetically to him, in the fulfillment of the manifestation of the Truth in the Messiah, Jesus Christ.  In the Christian Church, the path of ‘Beholding’ is called illumination, and in the ancient Church, the process of initiation into the life of Christ through Baptism was called the Mystery of Illumination.  Preceded by a process of deep, personal penance (like David), the immersion of the person into the waters of Baptism was their ‘Behold’ moment of salvation and the beginning movement from darkness to light.  Born again in the baptismal waters of grace, this was the Mystery, hidden before the ages, revealed now on earth in the Person of Jesus, the Way, the Truth and the Life.

Note that the Orthodox Church prefers the term ‘Mystery’ regarding what are called in the West, ‘sacraments.’ There is always preserved the notion that the fundamental essence of the Mystery cannot be humanly understood. However, through Christian maturity (in the East, called theosis[iv]), that which is seen in some way is understood in the heart and reflected in the whole of human life.  It is revealed as love, because God is love. David’s path is one of the discovery of divine love as a Mystery, overcoming sin within his heart, by aiding him through repentance. Behold,  even the uncertain and hidden things beyond human knowledge are made manifest to those who have been illumined through the Mystery of God’s grace wrought through repentance.

David’s tears[v] have been a type of Baptism, which has led to his awareness of God and Truth. His life is now able to bear fruit once again as He has not only been washed of his sin, but illumined by the Truth of the Lord.  David says that God has loved Truth – but that also means that God has loved us, because His Truth abides in us.[vi]  While God’s love for us does not end when we sin, we face His judgment because the Truth cannot be found in our midst. (Is. 59:15) Ω


[i] Mary is called ‘Theotokos’ or God-bearer in the Christian East.  Her Dormition was her falling asleep in this life (death) which was a miraculous event reported in Church tradition and celebrated on August 15/28 (Gregorian calendar/Julian calendar)

[ii] The Orthodox Church follows the seasons marked by Pascha and Pentecost, with two short fasting periods – the first running from the Sunday of All Saints (First Sunday After Pentecost) until the Feast of Ss Peter and Paul (Gregorian caledar – June 29).  The Dormition Fast anticipates the Feast of the Dormition running from August 1-14th.The whole relationship of fasting to penance is important, but adjunct to the discussion here.

[iii] The Devil, as the Father of Lies, always obscures facts – either by hiding them, revealing only half of the truth, excusing them, etc.  This happens in both the individual and societal conscience.

[iv] Meaning becoming ‘God-like’.  This is the fulfillment of our creation in the likeness of God wrought by our participation with His grace – divine energies.

[v] Hopefully, there will be an opportunity to address at some  point the ‘Gift of Tears’, which is a grace afforded to those who repent deeply, as this is described in the Church’s spiritual tradition, particularly in the writings of the monastic fathers and mothers.

[vi] The interplay of truth, love, grace, sin and judgment is profoundly explored in St. John’s Gospel, epistles and Revelation.

Behold, I was Conceived in Iniquity

     

#12 of a Series on Psalm 50

“Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me..”  Psalm 50:5  NIV

For behold, I was conceived in transgressions and in sins my mother bore me.”  Psalm 50:5 OSB

Today’s verse[i] is puzzling, or perhaps much better, mysterious.  What is the prophet saying here?  Is he commenting about the state of souls universally in some theological – anthropological exercise?  Or is what he saying more intimate, more personal?

Sin and Missing the Mark

The interpretation of this verse[ii] has wreaked havoc over Christendom for well over a millennium and a half.  Certainly, in the West, it was one of verses that cemented the doctrine of Original Sin as understood by Augustine, and served as something of a template for western Christian thought through the Reformation until today. From this doctrine we have the Roman Catholic teaching of a ‘guilt from moment of conception’ due to Original Sin, as a spiritual heritage passed through the conception process (sex) and having a spiritual end – guilt and finally death.  This thinking required a special grace of the Immaculate Conception which freed Mary from Original Sin, so that she could bear Jesus (no male human involved) in a sin-free state. While the Reformers struggled to deal with this idea of the passing on of guilt from Augustine [iii] (the go-to Father of the Church in the West), there was no real rejection of a universal guilt per se, but some saw the universality of the fallenness of the human state in juridical form in the notion of ‘total depravity of man’, which is the utter lack of goodness of any sort in man’s human character or behavior – leaving mankind as horribly evil.

I cannot go into depth to speak to these things which have been argued about over the centuries, except to say that the Eastern Orthodox Churches do not deny that sin and death are at work in every human being – for this is what the Psalm and other scriptures say explicitly or implicitly. Many/most Eastern Fathers however express this more in terms of the state of the spiritual affliction of sin carried on in human nature not as a personal guilt for evil offenses from conception (if somehow possible) or even from Adam’s offense, but more as a inherent weakness or predisposition to fall into sin or to be deceived by the Devil and choose wrongly in life, as Adam did, even from our earliest days as the human will is emerging in maturity.  The newborn child is incapable of personal sin and Jesus even mentioned that in children there is an innocence which reflects the Kingdom of God. (Mt. 18:3)   Part of the discussion about sin must address the idea of what sin is – in Orthodoxy as in the bible[iv] it is to ‘miss the mark’ akin to the image of the archer who misses his target if his arrow goes awry. It is a description of a failure, not so much an internal state human state.  However, when we miss the mark with regularity (sin) our entire being becomes incapable of (ever?) hitting the bullseye. (God’s will)

Flesh and Impurities

I find that the patristic notion of the flesh and skins and coverings, mentioned previously, might be helpful here.[v]  Even from conception, we are clothed in the flesh from our mother’s wombs by God (Ps.139:13), which is not evil, rather in some way makes us human and hence, good. The flesh that Christ took on, becoming human, cannot be evil! Nevertheless, the flesh as we bear it, in our spiritual sickness, has this tendency and weakness to be led into sin (through desire – passion) and hence this weakness of the flesh is what we are ‘conceived in’, not guilt.

This weakness is not to be underestimated – because it is impossible to be strong in life action if weakness interiorly exists. Hence at some point, we all fail and fall short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23)  – the glory held in his Image in which we were created and which our likeness is to radiate.  Sin collapses us and darkens the image, but does not destroy it.[vi] 

To find a metaphor for this, I’ll  go back to my metallurgical training.  When you have a metal and you stress it enough, the forces of physics being such, it breaks. But if there are certain kinds of impurities in the metal, even in its very structure, it will fracture when subjected to far less stress. Refining of the metal removes the impurities and restores it to the original strength.  This analogy works somewhat similarly in that the working of the frailties of the  flesh within our humanity – with inherent weaknesses spiritually which lead to the entrapment of the will.  If the Original sin of Adam was universal, it is in the passing on of this inherent tendency, or weakness to fail.  Born to fail, bound to fail.

A New Birth is Necessary – Nothing Less

The Gospel of Christ is about nothing less than a rebirth and a re-fashioning of the human person.  Upstream of the oft-quoted passage about the new life in Christ cited in John 3:16, we read about Nicodemus, who reacts to the words of Christ that he must be ‘born again’ from above, who asks, “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”  The New Birth is one of the Spirit, which comes not from the spirit of man, or from the waters of the mother’s womb, sacred as that place is because it is the place where God fashions human beings.  Rather the formation of the New Man in the waters of Baptism, in the New Mother, the Church who is born of the Spirit of God.  This new ‘body’ of the newly-reborn, newly-baptized person is ‘without wrinkle or spot’. (Eph. 5:27)  The re-creation removes the inherent weakness from sin – and places us in a new place of grace as a new creation.  Now here note that if we yet sin again after baptism[vii], when we do we are falling back into the ways of the Old Man, mired in sin, effectively shedding the ‘garment of light’ received at baptism, for the rags of sin (the carnal flesh.) The question is whether a person will exercise the will to put aside (again) the passions/desires of the flesh and instead walk in the light of the will of God, and the love of God in the soul above all things. In this view – the ‘conception in sin’ is a universal state of the fallenness of our nature and weakness of will, but not personal guilt.  

Conception and Sin – A Mystery

I’ve come to believe that the Christian understanding of things spiritual requires Baptism – and the alignment of one’s mind and heart with the teaching of the Church through the scriptures.  Just as Nikodemus could not understand the teaching of Jesus about being born again, so also we cannot ‘figure out’ the meaning of things like ‘conceived in sin’ until the light of the Truth through the message of Christ illumines its meaning.  This is why a simply rationalist approach to the scripture is not only meaningless, but dangerous and leads to errors and heresies. The truth of the Faith and God’s revelation is a ‘mystery hidden from all eternity’ and hence impossible to fully probe through rational thought and ‘data’. (Col. 1:26)  But (only) with the revelation of Christ and the fulfillment of the divine plan of salvation does the mystery begin to unfold.  This understanding is what the Church passes on to us in every generation as the Body of Christ. This is why the viewpoint of the ancient Church is so important in every age.

David’s statement is one of those ultimate ‘dead ends’ in human life. The words of the lamentation song[viii], popularized by Peggy Lee and Bette Midler,  “If that’s all there is my friend, then let’s keep dancing, and bring out the booze’ more or less captures this sense of how sin from the beginning of human life seems to be so overwhelming, blotting out the possibility of real life and love and leaving in its wake only sadness, darkness, depression and anger.  It is the dead-end place that sin always takes us – including our own generation – emphasis on dead.

However David goes straight up against this reality – not in despair, but in prayer.  He struggles with what it means to be human – as his own sinfulness and  mortality and the effects of sin have made oh so painfully evident – by pondering these things in the presence of the Lord in prayer.  He searches for his real humanity in the light of God, and the truth, including his personal truth, willing to settle for nothing less. 

And we do not find David blaming anyone else, including Adam, for his sinful state. +


[i] I have included the translations of the verse from the New International Version and the Orthodox Study Bible – noting that the former says “Surely I was sinful at birth…” where most translations historically used the word ‘conceived’.  This raises a whole different exegetical question which can not be addressed here.

[ii] My apologies for what is a far less then thorough, and hence satisfactory treatment of these very involved issues. My focus is more a simple understand of how folks-in-the-pews can view these issues.

[iii] For his approach to the Psalm see: https://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf108.ii.LI.html   Augustine notes that the sin does not refer to some sinfulness in the act of the conception of David by his righteous father, Jesse, in the womb of his mother  as if it was somehow due to a singular personal sinful sexual act. For a short description of the differences of approach between Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant thought see, https://stjohndc.org/en/orthodoxy-foundation/original-sin 

[iv] Gr: ‘hamartia’, ἁμαρτία – to ‘miss the mark’

[v] The passages found in the New Testament using the terms bod/flesh – Greek: sarx and Latin: carne – present these ideas in many places in the writings of St. Paul and others, but an exegesis of all these texts is beyond this reflection.

[vi] There are arguments that say that yes, we bear the image of God in our humanity, but that we essentially lose our humanity when we sin becoming as the scriptures say, like animals.  But as a human cannot not be a human genetically, so the also spiritually. Even with the greatest of sins, repentance and restoration in the Lord is possible.  But sometimes we really do look like and behave like, animals.

[viii]Is That All there Is?”  by Dan Daniels

Against You alone Have I Sinned

#11 of a Series on Psalm 50

“Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight; so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge.  Psalm 50:4 – NIV

Today’s insight from the Prophet regarding his sin strips away the finals shreds of David’s self-protection. Jos  focus shifts from himself, and his sin, to Who God is.  And in David’s conscience, God presents Himself as David’s Judge. David is able to see that his sin goes way beyond him, to the realms of the very heavens.  The sins of people are brought before the eternal Judge of the heavens.

God as Heavenly Judge

Any meditation on this is frightening.

We can go through Christian history and find  famous preachers decrying the sins of men and women – such as the famous sermon by 18th century preacher Jonathan Edwards – Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.[i]  But he is but one in a long tradition, including the Fathers of the Church, who make clear that God judges sin and sinners – just as Jesus taught and the Church has repeated from the earliest preaching of the Church by the apostles:

For He has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man He has appointed [Jesus]. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead”  Acts 17:41

Among the countless examples from the Orthodox tradition, here is a simple liturgical example – a prayer cited at the 13th Kathisma of the Psalms:

When I remember the day and hour of Thy terrible, threatening, and incorruptible judgment, O Christ, I tremble for I do wrong, my deeds are shameful and evil, for which I alone am to blame.

There’s a trend in pseudo-Christianity today that seems to ignore sin, or say that since Christians are ‘covered under the Blood of Jesus’ or some such thing they will not face judgment.  This is simply wrong.  We will all face judgment – for our personal offenses against God and need to give an account, just as the parable of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25 describes.[ii]  This will be for sins committed – as well as  those things which we neglected to do.  Much of the Protestant tradition drifted away from this awareness and the motivating fear that accompanies it (including Edwards et.al.)  – utilizing a construct of ‘once saved always saved’ which means that once we are saved from our sins by Christ (and acknowledge it) then it doesn’t matter what we do after that.[iii]  Officially Protestant denominations may not hold to this, but the widespread, common belief about it influences all – Protestant, Catholic and even Orthodox. 

Orthodoxy takes us, constantly, back to David’s insight – “Against you alone have I sinned.”   And as a corollary – “there’s nothing I can do about it”.  This is important – because while David’s sin affected himself (per the last article), not to mention Bathsheba, and the real victim, Bathsheba’s husband Uriah who lost his wife and then his life, there is much more.  David comes squarely up against two realities – first that he knows the true God in his heart, and secondly, that he has deeply offended Him.

Offending God

All sin offends God and it is the offense against God that is the real issue here.  So often today we view life only through the ‘horizontal’ plane of relationships.  An offense is committed against someone else and so this is the sum of the ‘sin’.  So we have a great focus on miniscule ways which offenses are brought about – like so-called ‘micro-aggressions’ which can get you in big trouble socially, or for seemingly having offensive ideas about life for people with whom we are in disagreement  But, often real offenses are overlooked or excuses are made and justice is seemingly rarely served.  But all this misses the REAL point that all sin is sin against God – and God’s judgment will require a remedy for this sin.[iv]  Sin is worthy of punishment and in acknowledging God being offended David is saying that because his sin is against God, that’s the most important thing.  If he can be made right with God, through mercy, somehow the other things can be resolved.

David stands (or lies prostrate more likely) naked before God in his sin.  He has no excuse and no defense.  In the manner of Confession long-taught in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, we begin our confession with these words, “I, a sinner, confess to Almighty God…”  I am a sinner before God – David’s words become my words. How wonderful it is when we can make the scriptures’ words of praise and joy our words.  But can we say to God, in all honesty and humility words such as these, “I, a sinner” or more strikingly, “I am a worm.[v]

Many people have been taught not to think this way. 

It’s deemed ‘destructive’ and fosters a ‘negative self-image’.  Maybe it does – but here’s the thing, the only thing that matters is, ‘Is it true?’  The answer is yes. But this is not the only truth – for the conscience does not lie.  The truth isn’t what depresses us, it’s our sins themselves  that contort our self-image, that beautiful and pure image of God Himself within us!  But the distortion caused by sin makes this beauty invisible, especially to ourselves.  We feel and look dirty inside.  Denying the sin only reinforces this blindness -causing the veil of self-delusion to become an iron curtain.  The truth is that I have sinned against the Almighty Lord, and rejected Him and His loving way for me.  But the truth is also in David’s heart, and ours if we but look for it, that this same God is the One who is merciful and sent His Son to save us from all of the damage that our sins have done.  It’s ironic that Christians who are so seemingly focused on personal sin are among the few who ever get to this point of addressing personal sin at this deepest level – as an offense against God[vi]  But this is only because, with a hint of the knowledge of the forgiveness afforded us in Christ Jesus, that we can have the courage to actually look at our sins.

God Gets It Right – Unfortunately

David ratifies that his stance as a sinner before God is correct, continuing, “so you are right in your verdict  and justified when you judge.”  He acknowledges that His God is the One Who has all power to judge him, and when He does so He is exercising His righteous judgment.  He deserves – hell.  Here, all excuses, pretenses and hopes that circumstantial evidence will get him off the hook when the trial comes have been dashed.  He cannot blame the Judge because He knows the Judge is righteous.  He even knows that it is not the desire of the Judge to judge Him harshly but justice must be served.[vii]  God is simply ‘right’ about our sins.

Now what are we supposed to do – we have no defense?[viii] Being defenseless is the posture of the Publican in the parable of Jesus. (Lk. 18:9-14)  It is the starting point of forgiveness.  As long as we have a defense we don’t need grace or mercy of God’s help.  We have something to fight off God’s righteousness and judgment. 

Pretty silly huh? +


[i] While many in the West preach ‘hell’s fire and brimstone’, Edwards sermon was perhaps a milestone in this thought.  The Orthodox approach, following Psalm 50, is different as this article from Holy Cross Monastery in 2012 notes. (https://www.holycross.org/blogs/sermons-homilies/113633862-he-does-not-desire-the-death-of-a-sinner)

[ii] It’s important to realize the metaphorical nature of Christ’s teaching on the Last Judgment.  A number of the Fathers point out that the Judgment will happen instantly, in the human heart and mind, when all truth about one’s life will be realized.

[iii] At the moment, I can’t go into all of the arguments regarding the origins of sin, Augustine’s theology in the West about ‘original sin’ and the reactions to it but these are very important, and confusing issues in need of clarification from a sound biblical and theology based in the Church’s Holy Tradition.

[iv] In a 1980 article, Alexander Kalomiros ( https://orthochristian.com/101726.html,) posits that in this time, I have the suspicion that men today believe in God more than at any other time in human history...” Rather it was as if everyone knew God, but “hates Him.” And hence just ignored Him.  I would suspect that we ignore Him much more in our age than four decades ago. But sin drives us to ignore Him, and ignore the Judgment which we must face.

[v] These special words from Psalm 22, mirroring  words of Job (25:6) are the words of the One despised and rejected by men because He was deemed, ‘evil’.  Yet these are the words of Christ who took human sins upon Himself, and the lowest state of life – the worm crawling on the ground, as the proper place for the sinner, though He was without sin.

[vi] Many religions recognize sins in various forms, but usually the response is external – making some sort of sacrifice to appease th judgment of God.  For the Christian, the Judgment is internal – so also is the salvation, once received.

[vii] Exodus 18:32

[viii] As one of the penitential prayers recited frequently by Orthodox Christians begins with ‘Have mercy on us O God, have mercy on us, for we have no defense…’

I Know My Sins and My Sins Know Me

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#10 of a Series on Psalm 50

“For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me”  Psalm 50:3

Today’s theme builds upon the previous ones, where we are seeking forgiveness of sins from within the depths of our soul, but seemingly can never escape them.  This causes a kind of desperation that can lead us to many different thoughts and behaviors.  Perhaps the most common is to flee!  David acknowledges his sin not just once, but again and again.  In this psalm, which has been effectively a source of public use in worship for going on three millennia – the whole world knows David’s sin – there’s no escaping it![i]

Flee the Fire!

The energy inside created by guilt makes us want to flee from it.  But it’s inside us; we can’t crawl out of our own skin. ‘Skin’ here is an interesting term, as the Fathers of the church frequently used it as akin to the biblical use of  ‘the flesh’.  We feel like we are literally clothed in our sinfulness as well as having a sinful heart.  Hence the purification of baptism not only brings forgiveness interiorly, but makes us part of the Body of Christ, in His flesh which renews us.[ii] 

Fleeing from sin, before we commit it, is a good thing!  There are a dozen or so exhortations in the New Testament to that effect.  In the Old Testament, we have the wonderful story of Joseph, fleeing the ensnarement of lustful temptation by Potiphar’s wife (Gen. 39).  So fleeing works, until one lingers long enough and the trap snaps shut and the laggard is trapped in sin. And as above, this is not just an external entrapment – although many sins like theft, have legal consequences. But the entrapment is really one of the soul, which is then unable to flee.  We can hear David echo this sentiment in Psalm 55:6 6I said, “Oh, that I had the wings of a dove! I would fly away and be at rest!

We have many images of what this entrapment looks like – in phrases like the ‘clutches of the Devil’.  Again elsewhere in the Psalms, David says, ‘The chains of death encompass me.’  Psalm 116:3.   In these word pictures we begin to see how, when sin is inside of us its presence is felt immediately, powerfully, and continually.  When a person is very ill and dying, she is often brought to the place where the only thing on her mind is her illness – it is all consuming.  The sickness of the body invades the mind and the heart.  The sickness of sin works in a similar way and because all sin leads to death.  The Apostle James puts it this way,


Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished,
 it brings forth death
.” Jas 1:15

So that inescapable sense of inner sin creates a desperate craving for a release from the grip of its effect which results in death.  Nobody really wants to die.

Always Before Me

Hence the sin is “always before me.”.  Now again as always, ironically (!) this can, by grace, be seemingly a good thing.  The person that feels this has the possibility of taking action to escape this inner suffering due to sin. This is what the ‘prick’ of the conscience does – it makes us uncomfortable – leading to the possibility of repentance and resolution.  Like a thorn in the flesh that is ignored goes deeper and becomes more difficult to extricate, while being even more painful and even causing infection, so the sensitivity of our conscience to even seemingly slight sins keeps them before us so we do something to deal with them, not ignore them or self-medicate the pain away. 

Our sins take many forms hence the inner symptoms and how we experience them also can be distinctive, although self-loathing and depression are common to many. [iii]  One of the most grievous sins of our age – committing or facilitating abortion[iv] – has not only great moral consequences, but also psychological ones. Many who now provide help and counsel to women who have had abortions, report that these women’s experiences of their abortion heavy on their hearts, sometimes for decades. Their sin was ‘ever before them’ and could not be shaken from their minds, their feelings and even their bodies. The beginning of their healing came for many only when the Christian message of salvation was brought to their hearts – the forgiveness of Jesus from the Cross, ‘Father, forgive them.’ (Lk. 23:34) 

When the scriptures say that Christ, ‘became sin’ (2Cor.5:21) I think he’s hinting at this idea.[v]  Christ so identifies with us in love, through his Incarnate flesh.  When you draw close to a large pile of ice or snow you feel it’s cold, and when it is touched you shiver.  If you throw yourself into it, stripped of all protection and warmth and lay there, the cold totally envelopes you and penetrates the experience of the moment. The first inclination is of course to flee. But Christ did not abandon us. He stayed that He could draw ever-closer to us and experience the violence to his body and soul  that sin brought about.  While Christ was without sin, there is all certainty that his flesh fully experienced beyond our imagination sin’s wickedness, its depth, its fury, in his human flesh.  The crucifixion was not an illusion.  Yet for the One who loves so deeply, He continues to draw closer and closer to us, despite our sins, effectively taking them on himself because that’s what love does – it bears all things.[vi]  As life ebbs in the presence of love into human death, new life born of the Spirit can flow back into the beloved soul of the one whom He loves and embraces.

So perhaps even the forgiven penitent, who now experiences the warmth of saving love in the midst of his or her sin, can draw near to God and ‘know’ what the effect of sin is in ways before unknown, because they have experienced this love which draws near and forgives, not just by some pronouncement, but by shared love. And with that love comes a kind of understanding and wisdom, to be lived and shared.

Restoration and Renewal

While the nature of sin is always evil, the Cross shows us that God can bring good from every circumstance – even those wrought with sin.  Although David’s illicit relationship with Bathsheba would result in a tragic loss of the child begotten of him, later she would bear his son who would be the ‘Son of David’, Solomon, who was extraordinarily blessed by God and continued the Messianic ancestry line all the way to Jesus. (See Mt. 1)   As Joseph reminds his brothers at the end of the book of Genesis, twice actually,

“You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”  Gen. 50:20

Perhaps you have seen as I have, situations which were hopelessly ‘evil’, but that God brought forth from those situations something beautiful, marvelous or salvific.  So, the addict who was hopeless near death, now on the road to recovery and mercy, becomes the one who is the sponsor and helper to many others seeking to get on that road.  The Pregnancy Centers often present us with the examples of a woman who aborted her child now has become the strong, caring voice of wisdom for young women frightened with an unwanted and unplanned pregnancy and a powerful voice for the Right to Life movement.  Drawing from the reservoir of God’s mercy through their personal experience, they are able, like Nathan, to speak the truth to others in a vivid, honest and humble way that elicits hope through trusting God in His forgiveness and mercy. + 


[i] I’ll make a note here about the notion of public confession which is worth exploring perhaps in more detail at a later time.  Public confession/acknowledgement of sin was common in the early Church and our whole canonical discipline of penitentiary remedies was based on this public acknowledgement of one’s sins, which cannot be hidden. For example, the prescription for a person who committed murder was 10 years of excommunication from the Church.

[ii] Hence the Flesh of Christ in the Eucharist is so important to our restoration.

[iii] It’s my opinion that with so many ‘therapeutic’ treatments to dull psychological pain these days, the first reaction to psychic discomfort in life today is medication, leading to abuse of it, addiction and much more pain.

[iv] Not only is abortion profoundly evil in itself, but it is accompanied by legion others – always deception, and what now is an industry of death.

[v] The Crucifixion is a great mystery beyond us.  While I’m reluctant to ever delve into the ‘psychology’ of Jesus, it would seem the following does represent the intersection of divine love and sin in the human experience.

[vi] See 1Cor.13

Washed in God’s Forgiveness

What Does Paul Mean by 'Baptism for the Dead'?
Ancient Baptismal font – Tunisia
thegospelcoalition.org

     

#9 of a Series on Psalm 50

“Wash me from my iniquities and cleanse me of my sin”  Psalm 50:2

                “Out, Out Damn Spot!”  Lady MacBeth

This line from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, captures the driving madness of guilt in the soul – in this case that of Lady Macbeth, who is driven by the guilt of the death of the King of Scotland, which she perpetrated.  In a mental fog she sees blood on her hands and can’t clean them and is driven to madness because of what she’s done. The blood of the dead is part of her, never to be removed.

Eradication of the Blood Evidence?

The popular TV show, The Black List, has portrayed from time to time, people called ‘cleaners’ who go in and clean up the mess at a murder scene (for a price of course). These people are supposedly very good at what they do.  Yet while  the TV shows seem to show that the blood of the murdered can be quickly and effectively cleaned, it seems that in real life residues of violence remain, materially – but also spiritually and psychologically. Try as they may, there is lingering DNA or other evidence that just doesn’t come out for the cleaners of this world.  And while one can create justifications for doing so, such as for soldiers who are ‘doing their job’ for ostensibly good reasons like defending the innocent, the stain and strain on the soul is very deep and very lasting.  Violence does that to the soul – which is why there are more victims to crimes than just those on the bullet end of the gun.

And certainly, the Prophet David felt this so deeply himself, for the blood of Uriah was on his hands and he couldn’t get rid of it – trying his best with excuses, collusive coercion to hide the deed, and self-deception.  But finally, when confronted with the truth by the prophet Nathan, he accepts what he has done, but this does not relieve his anguish.

So there is something of importance here about guilt. When all of our efforts to dull guilt’s powerful force of truth in our souls[i] by denial, or chemical ‘medication’ are no longer effective, we are stuck only with blood of another on our hands – which cannot seemingly be eradicated.[ii]  This ‘bloodstain’ is proverbial in many cultures, in fact the whole notion of ‘life-blood’ across the human experience makes things of the deepest human importance represented by blood.

Step 1 – Confession of Sin

So we see here the emergence of truth over falsehood through spiritual courage in the words of Nathan internalized by David.  He now realizes that his hands are bloodstained, but his words are not to the ‘Damn Spot’, but to the Lord.  His way out is not dealing with the problem, which cannot be resolved by himself, but by turning to God.  And while he cannot wash the blood from his hands, He cries out to God to do this for him: “Wash me from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.

This takes deep humility, courage and faith to pray in such a way.  It takes humility just to acknowledge this to Almighty God, Whom he has so offended.  It takes courage to stand up and acknowledge this because he will have to face the consequences. (Recall how Adam hid from God after his sin – Gen 2)  But, it also takes faith, to somehow believe in a God who would not obliterate him from the face of the earth because of this grievous sin – but that He somehow longed for David’s betterment, effectively a loving God.

Confession of sins – including sacramental Confession requires at least these three things – humility, courage and faith – confronting our sins and their work within us.  Failing humility, we will be like Pharisees, never seeing our sin, or justifying ourselves. and, a deeper anger often results, with ever-increasing self-protection through self-justification.   Lacking courage we will stew in our self-awareness of sin, but be unable to acknowledge it to another, we never get to the ‘washing’.  Depression, despondency and even despair follows – leading to the fate of Judas Iscariot. Lacking faith, we may not ever complete the ‘return’ and come to know the One who came into the world to forgive sins.  This is the essence of faith in Jesus, as the Savior Who came for this expressed purpose – to forgive us our sins.  It takes a personal faith to get to this point, not in ourselves, but in the person of Jesus Christ. In Christ, the mercy and forgiveness of God, the Father is manifest as divine love, completing the circle of our return to restoration.

I would note that I find that those who do come to Sacramental Confession with regularity and purpose, are truly helped by this grace.  I think it may be for several reasons – first that they must simply say what they did wrong aloud.  It’s not enough to ‘say it to God’ in many cases, that it never gets past the five walls of our heads. So it just rattles around in there – to use a popular term – it’s a spiritual echo chamber.  The mouth becomes the point of exit of the sin – and when heard by another (i.e. priest) it is a freeing experience to know that someone says, ‘I hear you.’ Without judgment.  The priest serves as the ‘ears’ of God in physical form, to help us ‘get it out’ and begin the healing process.[iii]

Step 2: Washing of the Sin

Now to get to the point of deliverance from the sin, there must be a process of cleansing.  The Church has proclaimed this cleansing process in many different manifestations.[iv] 

The Cleansing of Baptism

If we follow the Church’s practice of  receiving people into Christianity and the Church, called the catechumenate, we can see how this preparation for Baptism worked for the healing of the soul through forgiveness.  A person outside the Church is one who is in sin – for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. (Rom. 3:23) Perhaps a person’s sins do not seem as dastardly as David’s, but again using St. Paul’s words, the wages of all sin is death (Rom. 6:23). The reception of people into the catechumenate brought them awareness of how sin works in their lives, the mission of Christ for our forgiveness through the Paschal Mystery[v], and the necessary work of repentance and reforming one’s life morally, to overcome sin. Prior to Baptism, a full life confession was made (and still is) so that this would open the soul through the washing of the blessed waters of Holy Baptism.  The words of the baptismal liturgy repeat those of scripture, of how forgiveness of sins and washing of the soul is accomplished through Baptism – echoed by the apostles from the earliest proclamations of the Church. (Acts 2:38)

Shedding the Clothes of Work in the World

We know that if we’ve been working in the dirt outside doing our spring planting, that the clothes themselves get  dirty and need washed, perhaps vigorously.  If you take a shower and put on the same clothes you get dirty again! For the early Church, the ‘dirty work’ was not digging in the soil, but living in the world of sin and its pollution through our actions in participating in them. Going back to the old ways of working in the world would stain the soul. When a person came to be cleansed in the waters of Baptism, she or he was literally stripped naked of their clothes before going into the baptismal pool.  This was a way of ‘shedding’ the filth of the world and its evils – and rejecting the Devil and all his works, he who is the Prince of this World. When the newly baptized person emerged from the baptismal pool they were clothed in a new, bright white garment which served as a sign to them of the inner reality of their cleansing, and new life in Christ.  It also served as an external witness, as they wore the baptismal garments in the world for a first week after their baptism. Wearing a white garment walking the streets during a time of persecution could result in quick martyrdom!

The Washing by Blood. 

The Church deals with Lady Macbeth’s problem in a powerful way.  The blood is cleansed by Blood – the Blood of Jesus.  To understand Baptism being more than a simple religious ritual, it’s necessary to understand how the Blood of Christ, “shed for you and for many”[vi], is for the remission of sins.  At the time of Jesus, the baptism of repentance proclaimed and carried out by St. John the Baptist, and was a simple washing of water. But Christian baptism is much, much more. As the apostles tell us:

Are you not aware that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? We were therefore buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may walk in newness of life.   (Romans 6)

But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.   (1Jn.1:7)

So, for Christians, the forgiveness of sins goes far beyond the profound work of Nathan for David, but is accomplished through Baptism in the shedding of His Blood – the Death of Jesus.  Through Baptism, a sinful person dies to sin, but is born again in Christ. The Baptism in the Death of the Christ means being joined to His sacrifice of the Cross – a true Sacrifice with the shedding of Blood of the innocent One, which washes away all sin. She can then be joined with the very person of Jesus Christ, unto life eternally.   This new life brings with it a whole new way of living, enlivened in the Holy Spirit, who continues to purify us and help us in the life of perfection intended for us.

So we are washed in the Waters of Holy Baptism but this is a Symbol (in the ancient sense), of our Baptism in the Death of Christ and his Blood, bringing with it the deliverance from sin and Death through His Resurrection as St. Paul assures.

The Washing of Christ Heals

Understanding the effects of Baptism, is to enter a true Mystery not only in a theological sense, but a personal one as well.  I cannot easily understand how my forgiveness happens through the Blood of Christ[vii] – but rather that it does, accepting it by my faith.  This becomes the start of a new life for the Christian, wherein he is now warriors against sin at work in himself and when called by the Lord, in the world. This is defined as a struggle – first begun in the catechumenate, which the Christian undergoes, in ‘taking up the Cross’ of that struggle inwardly and through personal behavior.

So what Happens to the Spot?

The spot of sin is completely washed and like the world of sin after the Flood at the time of Noah, it is cleansed and begins anew. The old is gone.  Although we are ‘born again’ into Christ through Baptism, we are not like newborns in certain respects.   The secondary effects of our prior sins may, in some cases, remain.  The wounds caused by our sinful decisions may remain in our lives and the lives of others.  The alcoholic who has abused liquor for decades will may still have a sick liver. The healing of psychological trauma of sin also takes time – not unlike the healing of PTSD in the mind of a soldier at war.[viii]  The external effects of sin, say addiction, must still be dealt with – i.e., if one’s sin led to anger, which led to a breakdown of marriage and family or divorce, that’s got to be dealt with.  But the New Way of Christ has guideposts for walking the rest of life by grace, invoking this grace for continued healing in body and soul flowing from the spring of one’s heart renewed in through the sacraments of the Church.

I believe that the painful memories of past sins, though washed, can be helpful to us.  They are a reminder – ‘Don’t go there again!’  You know from experience where it leads, just as the Prodigal Son learned how he wound up in the pig pen.  The forgiven sinner can and must say, ‘No’.  Ironically, after Baptism and forgiveness they can be powerful witness to others who need someone to help them in their struggle – as AA and other 12 Step Programs show.  The prayers of Confession remind us of the need for a ‘Firm resolve’ – deciding in our minds and hearts not to offend God, or others again.

Also, the remembrance of the pain of the past can call us to compassion for others.  So, when we remember our sin, we remember that we weren’t alone in it – but that others were brutalized by our actions.  This can lead us to a spirit of compassion born of remorse because of what we’ve done, reconciliation and healing of those relationships. Being forgiven means that we come to these relationships from a different place – with a sense of hope and trust in God as a way to amending our life.  So often the crippling effect of sin keeps us from ever being able to look into the face of others whom we have offended.  Forgiveness allows us, even compels us, to look up and look around.

Wash and Rinse – a New Start

So, In this blessed washing, the spots of damnation are cleansed completely. We are changed – not only forgiven, but given a new future and perspective to live a life in this world and in the world to come, in keeping with the truth of Him Who shed His Blood for us to accomplish this washing. A very high price indeed.


[i] I note here what I would call true guilt’ born in the conscience  – based on the truth of what we have done and why.  This is very different from a kind of false guilt which is a psychological illness where people blame themselves of all sorts of things inappropriately.  Ironically the ‘blaming’ of other things can be a delusion to deflect where the real internal troubling of one soul is originating.

[ii] In perhaps one of the most ironic verses in Scripture, the Jewish leaders cry out to Pontius Pilate at the Judgment of Jesus to be Crucified, “His blood be upon us, and upon our children.” (Mt. 27:35)  This verse is worthy of much meditation.

[iii] There is much more to the role of the priest in the confessional context of course – to be explored later.

[iv] One which cannot be covered here is the cleansing through tears, the weeping for one’s sins, of which the spiritual fathers speak so frequently.

[v] ‘Paschal Mystery’ is an ancient term which includes the events of the Cross, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus into which the Christian enters through the Mysteries, or sacraments.  The ancient homilies of the Fathers of the Church to the catechumens as well as those to the newly baptized are extremely important and enlightening as they explain the Christian’s participation in the life of God through the Paschal Mystery.

[vi] These words of the Lord in the institution of the Holy Eucharist show us the immediate link of the Mystery of forgiveness through Baptism and repeated through the reception of the Blood of Christ in the Eucharist.  Baptism is not repeated – we are not re-baptized, but forgiveness in an ongoing way and entry into divine life is sustained by the Person of Jesus in the Holy Eucharist.

[vii] Notwithstanding the passages in Romans and elsewhere which speak of a metaphorical  juridical process of forgiveness through justification by faith, as with most metaphors these become insufficient to explain with sufficient clarity the mechanics of this sort of thing – hence I am reluctant to go into the ‘appeasement of God’s wrath’ and other constructs which may start in the scriptures but go beyond that truthful base into other places including outright falsehood. We do well do stay within the boundaries of the patristic understanding of all this.

[viii] Over the years I’ve been amazed at how some who have struggled with addictions, once they make their life change, actually experience physical as well as emotional and spiritual healing. As much as anything, they are in a better place to take care of themselves being no longer prisoner of addictive, destructive thinking.