Psalm 50 and Stewardship?

        

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#20 of a Series on Psalm 50

I’m taking a brief pause from the verse-by-verse walk through Psalm 50 to address a question that came to my mind, namely,

What has penance got to do with Christian stewardship?”

 I figured it to be an appropriate question here because, after all, I do title this blog Stewardship Now, with the subtitle, Orthodox Christian Reflections on Life and Stewardship.  Embedded within the titling is the sense I have of the importance of a lived Christianity now, and in daily life. Stewardship is central to that way of living.  But what does stewarship have to do with the theme of Psalm 50 – repentance?

First, a word about how I view stewardship for those who may not have read elsewhere.  Taking the imagery from the creation narrative where God establishes man and woman in the Garden of Eden as its caretaker, symbolic of the ‘dominion’ given to him over all the earth and the creatures of it (Gen. 1, 2).

But when I explore the biblical roots of this idea, I run into the problem of the nuances of language.  Many translations of Gen. 1:26: Let Us make man in our image … Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of heaven,…”(Orthodox Study Bible)  use terms like ‘dominion’ or ‘rule.’ ‘‘Dominion’ in the English language implies a total power or authority as it is linguistically derived from ‘Dominus’ in Latin, meaning ‘God’.  But Man is not God so he does not have godly dominion! Rather he is to serve in the image of God as His worldly and royal representative.  It’s precisely in this point of departure – understanding empowerment by God of a type of authority and responsibility that we lay a groundwork for a right understanding of stewardship – or not.  When man becomes ‘dominus’, creation will be used for sinful purposes.  This is at the heart of the story of the Fall in the Garden in the Garden of Eden, and the relationship of God-man-creation is ruined.  Who will be Dominus?

So what is sin then, if not a failure of stewardship? In the simple imagery of fall of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2, the sin is an abuse of a gift (the fruit in the Garden) taken (stolen) because it was not entrusted to man by God, rather explicitly forbidden to him by God, unlike all of the other fruits.  God’s directive is either obeyed – leading to faithful stewardship, or not. Furthermore, the eating of the fruit internalized the sinful act establishing the corruption literally within Adam and Eve. It is no accident, that Christ, in restoring humankind to purity and holiness, would do it by giving us something to eat – the Eucharist.[ii]

Forgiveness is necessary because the Original Sin was a failure in this fundamental human stewardship vocation.  If we see that our life consists fully and only of what God has entrusted to us, then all of our sins will somehow relate to how we fail to carry out the divine mandate to live in a way that is pleasing to God, in every dimension of life. 

How Have I Failed You? Let me Count the Ways

Here are a few simple of examples drawn out from this premise:

1. Pride and Vainglory – Pride is a failure to submit to God’s dominion over us, everyone else, and the world He created, preferring personal dominion over our ourselves and all things. This is a failure of the most basic gift entrusted to us – the gift of a right relationship with God Himself.  Related to this is the sin of vainglory, which is the drive of the ego to exultation of one’s self above others – putting us above them in our own minds reflecting self-aggrandizement inwardly and also in external actions.  In essence, I am better than you… rather than, I am here to serve you.

2. Theft – Is simply taking that which has not been entrusted to us, but instead often intended for others.  It can take every imaginable form – not only of simple things like a piece of candy in the store or embezzlement at work to the theft of less tangible things like intellectual property, to societally authorized theft, such as corporate or governmental exploitation of the poor.

3. Lust – AdulteryFornication:  These sins of sexual desire are a failure of the will to accept the boundaries established by the Lord in human relationships where a woman is entrusted to a man (and vice versa) in the sexual expression of marriage.  The penitential prayer of David is required because of his fall into this sin.  In the case of fornication, it also means the defilement of the body of another person who is engaged in this activity contrary to God’s will. These sexual sins called porneia in the New Testament, also take countless forms in things like pornography, homosexuality, incest and any other actions that promote lustful thoughts and feelings.  These are all failures of stewardship of our bodies, which have been blessed by God in their sexual nature and expression, intended for holiness and love.

4. Lying –  The Truth is a great gift of God. It is the essence of His Nature which Jesus affirmed when He said, “I am the Truth.”  (Jn.14:6)  Therefore, lying is the opposite – the failure to affirm, steward and transmit the Truth, most often for a certain fallen/egotistical intention.  I lie to get something I want.  Lying destroys another great Gift of God – which is Trust.  When the atmosphere of relationships is tainted with lies, there can be no trust.  This is perhaps the greatest evil of our age.

8. Relationship Failures with Others – Every relationship is entrusted to us by God in some fashion.  The most powerful and lasting are those closest to us – our spouses and families.  Simply put, if the marriage relationship is not cared for, it will result in anger, violence and disruption followed by dissolution and divorce. Close relationships like parent-child relationships, are to be stewarded with great care and, failing that, children wind up abused and neglected.  But the Lord has a commandment for children going the other way – ‘Honor your Father and your Mother’  (Ex. 20:12) means that the relationship is two ways in its ability to bring the very experience of love to another.  Love is to be the heart of every relationship as found in the great commandments to love God, and love your neighbor as yourself. (Mk. 12:31)   We gift of relationship is everywhere!  It’s part of the essence of Christian-church life (fellowship). Our extended families, employment, public service, social circles, neighborhoods, schools, etc. all become the realm of relationship – and hold the temptations that lead to relationship failures. Our new technology allows us to see the possibility of ‘neighbors’ around the globe, with whom we can enter into some form of relationship, characterized by love, or something else.[iii]

5. Murder – Violence:  Is a breakdown of the stewardship of the precious gift of life.  Perhaps there is never a more clear example of this than abortion which is infanticide– when the precious life of another is willfully and selfishly taken. Violence becomes the ‘air’ which is breathed when an appreciation of the gift of life is lost.  We see that, increasingly, as murder is legally permitted in the streets of America, the atmosphere of violence becomes more toxic to all who inhabit it. This is because so many people in recent generations have been sent to war, ostensibly for ‘good’ reasons, but themselves are wounded by the violence.

There are countless other examples – here are but a few more:

6. Waste – A steward who is aware is diligent seeking to care for all entrusted to her or him. Hence whenever we waste something, it is a failure of stewardship.  Over the years, especially as I get older (!), I become aware that Time is one of the greatest gifts of God to us that we are most likely to waste. When we squander it, some day we come to regret it and we run out of it.  This happens to almost all as they get older, when they look back and see how they wasted their time, which means that they wasted their lives.  Another thing that we can easily squander is our health.  God’s gift of health (even if imperfect) is easily wasted when we trash our bodies with what we eat or drink, when laziness keeps us from exercise, or through a lifestyle that deprives our bodies of what we really need, even sleep. Our materialistic lifestyles has led to great waste and a disruption of the physical world and we trash our life-sustaining ecosystems in materialistic pursuit.  The beautiful life-sustaining earth becomes a toxic trash heap.

7.  Sins of the Mind – Our inner rational thought capabilities are among the greatest gifts to us in our human condition. The Apostle Paul exhorts,


Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.” (Phil. 4:8 NIV) 

In the entertainment and Internet age, it is easy to focus our minds on things with no lasting importance, all the while ignoring things like growing in our understanding of Scripture and the spiritual life.  Evil thoughts can take many, many forms – but in the end our thoughts couple with some other inner desire within, and we end up using our minds for evil and not for good. That coupling of our minds with desire is called covetousness – where we then focus our life energies and resources on acquiring things only of limited, short-term earthly value or pleasure. The mind’s great power can be corrupted in other ways if there is no inner, moral formation.  The one who is capable of great scientific discovery is also capable of failing to direct it in such a way that the very discovery brings great harm to others, instead of help.

9. The Care of our Soul – In a sense, all of the above come under the broad umbrella of our fundamental relationship with God which can be either focused and nourished, or abused and ignored.  God’s gift of Himself in Christ is the most precious gift – our Faith in Christ and the life in the Spirit.  As stewards of the spiritual life our souls will be nourished by prayer, reading of God’s Word, participation in Church life, exercise of spiritual gifts unto eternal life and salvation, or ignored or discarded unto our damnation.

 ______________________ 

This is a very short list of some of the gifts entrusted to us all, in different and even distinctive ways to each of us.  Often, we are unaware of them or worse, see these somehow as entitlements.[iv]  The sins for which we must repent in the Spirit of Psalm 50, are any and all of the above – they are all failures to steward the blessings of God. The coming to an awareness of God, as the source of “every good and perfect gift that comes from above” (Jas 1:17) leads us to an awareness of how we have not lived in a way worthy of our calling to steward these gifts.  In some cases, that failure leads to the gift being taken from us (like the death of the ill-conceived child of David and Bathsheba – see 2Sam. 12:15ff) and a descent into the heart in sorrow can lead to a resurrection of the spirit of surrender to God of all things in life and the change of heart described as repentance in the scriptures.

Conclusion – The Answer

So, to answer the question, ‘What does penance have to do with stewardship?’ we can say everything! We can see that penance is our only way to be restored when we have failed (sinned) in any and all of these areas of stewardship which is the heart of Christian living. Because each of us is entrusted with different gifts and uses them (or misuses them) distinctly, our penance must be personal and reflective of our personal life, our own failures.  No one else can confess my sins but me.[v]  David’s sin led to the disruption and destruction of his soul.  His repentance was the restoration of his soul, his mind and his will to once again carry out God’s gift of his relationship with Him, and the rest of his life.

Penance means turning back to this fundamental orientation from creation – where God is the Lord and has dominion over us once again. Christian stewardship is the recognition of this, returning to God and offering penance is the first step of making sacred the offering of our life to Him again, purified through repentance. Ω

Note: For those who may wish to explore this topic further, I have developed a Stewardship Examination of Conscience, that explores many facets of living as invitations by God to be faithful stewards of His gifts – and listing them, we can quickly see how, where and sometimes why we fall short and sin.    To acquire a copy at not expense, simple contact me here: https://www.orthodoxsteward.com/contact/  .


 

[ii] Much of this follows the thought of the late, Fr. Alexander Schmemann.  His chapter on the Eucharist in For the Life of the World and The Eucharist, provide rich reflection on this basic act of eating. (Both published by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press)

[iii] I’ve found that in my Facebook account, there are a large number of African folks who just want to be ‘friends’ so I say OK! But then I find that they have hopes, dreams, sorrows and souls.  How does one steward that from a distance?

[iv] With the rise of an ‘entitlement mentality’ in America today, it is very easy to confuse what we think belongs to us by right, and what is actually a gift of God.  At the moment of death we learn that everything has been a gift and that we have either accepted and used it wisely, or abused it in one way or another.

[v] Sometimes we face a big challenge teaching children how to confess their sins.  We use formulaic expressions and general categories of things they might do wrong. But what is needed for children and adults to really grow through true penance is when they are touched with how they have personally and distinctly failed before the face of God.  This opens the door to the experience of a very personal experience of the mercy of God in His forgiveness of the very sins confessed and His distinctively personal love not only for ‘all of us’, but for me.  This is when the opening lines of the Psalm ring true, “Have mercy on me.”


 [FRH1]

All Things are New!

#19 of a Series on Psalm 50

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”

Christian theologians over the centuries have discussed, or maybe just as often argued, about the nature of salvation and trying to describe in a comprehensible way this most profound human experience which bears eternal consequences. What you end up with is a stream of internally coherent thoughts and ideas, which become theological ‘positions’, which try to explain the unexplainable.  As an occasional fan of theology, these days I’m wondering if the best we can do is revert back to metaphor and shroud it in mystery.  That appeals to my tendency to be lazy in thought – contrasted to that part of the nature of our human condition driven to probe and understand, conceptualizing things and processes, whether they be in the natural world through science, or the metaphysical and spiritual worlds through nebulous theologies.  

It’s with that sense that I try to skim through this verse, touching on it like the hummingbirds flitting from flower to flower as they prepare for their great sojourn south very soon.  The word ‘create’, from the Orthodox Study Bible’s translation above has a profound implication. 

A New Heart?

Everybody has a heart and when that heart is diseased, our only hope is to make it somehow ‘better’ and able to function at least moderately to ‘get by’.  That changed when the miracle of heart transplantation appeared with Dr. Christiaan Barnard’s work in the 1967. Before that, we always were just stuck with the heart we were given at birth. But when you’re so sick that your heart no longer works, you die.  Now there’s an alternative – get a heart transplant =  a new heart.  

Sin is a spiritual ‘heart attack’ which seriously compromises our heart’s function.  Now here I mean the heart as the center of our being, our soul mysteriously linked to our rational and emotional functions, and the seat of the greatest dimensions of our human condition – love, hope and faith, cognition and rationality, artistic aspiration, etc. – essentially bearingour personality and life itself.  When this heart has been wounded, our capabilities to live in goodness (righteousness) and in love and care of others collapses, and death is near.

In our theologies, and even in this psalm, we see references to the cleansing of a heart or, in some translations, a purification.  There is, however, in Christianity a very different theological ‘add-on’ to this idea.  The heart of the penitent is not merely purified, but instead the penitent is given the unthinkable – a new heart, spiritually.  To create is to take something that does not exist, and make it exist.  This idea is, I believe, conveyed in this verse – what the penitent person receives is a new heart.

But, as my metaphor above limps as they all do, this new heart is not merely like the transplanted heart from an unfortunate accident repurposed in someone else’s chest – as marvelous as that is (!) – but a new heart, in every way.

Judaism and Christianity

I believe that this concept has been a struggle since the earliest days of the Church. 

What is the nature of Christianity?

Is Christian teaching a ‘purified’ or a recycled Judaism taking its teachings to a new place ethically and with a new spiritual focus, centered in the teachings of Jesus?  The Council of Jerusalem[i], which wrestled with this fundamental issue, recognized two important things.  The Council realized that Christianity is the fulfillment of Judaism in the Risen Lord, yet had to remain in continuity with it, echoed in the Law and the Prophets and expressing this in distinctive worship (liturgy) of Jesus as Lord, a tightly bound community life and structure, and strong moral teaching based on the teachings of Christ – living a life pleasing to God.  But there was always a ‘Judaizing’ tendency in the Early Church, to be confronted by the Jew above other Jews – St. Paul himself, who was the voice of the Christian teaching regarding the evangelization of the Gentiles.  It became clear. Did someone need to become a Jew first, before becoming Christians?[ii]  Led by the Spirit, the Apostles through the Council was a profound, ‘No.’

The Death and Resurrection of Christ forever changed Judaism – in some ways bringing it to an end so that the fulfillment of Judaism in Christianity would emerge just as a death is necessary for a Resurrection to take place.[iii]  Hence, the old Judaic practices of the Law would give way to a completely new re-founding of the Revelation of God in the Crucified and Risen Lord, Jesus Christ identified as The Word of God Himself. It is this newness that St. Paul, emphasizes. Consider these two passages from Galatians:

I have been crucified with Christ, it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. The life I liv in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up fo me.” Gal. 2:20 

Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation.” Gal. 6:15

Speaking forcefully to those who wanted to impose Judaism[iv] on those who had received Christ and come into the Church, St. Paul makes this powerful distinction – because becoming a Christian means a death of the old self (and its religious views and limitations) to allow the new creation to emerge.  Penance is that necessary death to the old self and our prior actions so that the new life can emerge. As Paul argues in much of the Epistle to the Romans, the old religion of Judaism is meaningless in regard to making one’s soul righteous – for that can only happen in Christ – by being ‘crucified with Christ’ unto death and receiving the new life, in the new heart of spiritual man born of water and the Spirit.

Baptized into His Death

This death, and the emergence of new life happens in sacramental Baptism. It is sacramental precisely because it ‘makes sacred’ the one who was previously dead (the essence of uncleanness in Judaic terms) in sin, and brought to new life and recreated – given a new heart.

As we can see, this newness is, in a sense, not new.  David had prophetically (under the inspiration of the Spirit through his penance) alluded to it in Psalm 50, with his language of creating a pure heart – as a re-creation – in the passage above. The Holy Prophet Ezekiel spoke of this as well:

“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will remove your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”  Ez. 36:26

This is why the imagery of death to self is so essential especially, as manifest in the renunciation of the Devil in the Baptismal practice (and ritual) and a confession of sins prior to Baptism.[v] This confession paved the way for receiving the new life, and the new heart, through Baptism.

In this regard, we can also consider the nature of Baptism itself.  Some teach that it is a type of symbol or ritual, like the Old Testament ritual washings, which has no real spiritual efficacy except that Jesus said to do it (Mt. 28).  The Ancient Church, as expressed in Orthodox and Roman Catholic teaching rejected such a simplistic understanding because the Scriptures had so much more to say about what Baptism accomplishes – the eternal incorporation into the Body of Christ, the Mystical participation of a person in the very life of the Risen Lord, the nature of the Church itself, etc.

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 live a new life.  (Rom 1:6)

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new. (2Cor 5:7)

It is this two phases of baptism into Christ’s Death – through a penitential confession of sins and sacramental Baptism, that the new Creation in Christ emerges. 

New Creation

This newly created heart exists in the man and woman who are the new creation in the Risen Lord.  In a rather involved, but fascinating account of the creation of man and woman (Adam and Even), St. Simeon the New Theologian[vi] makes a remarkable observation about the creation of Eve from the side of Adam. The act of creating Eve from Adam, before the Fall, is paralleled to the Lord’s taking a ‘portion’ of humankind for, and dare I say, unto Himself.  In His divine foreknowledge He knew that the old Man – Adam and those of his flesh – would die.  But the new portion set aside would be ‘reserved’ for the ‘new Adam – Jesus Christ’ and it would be en-fleshed in the Virgin Mary who would give flesh to the Son of God, the New Adam, to institute the beginning of the New Creation through the Incarnation and all that Christ would accomplish as the God-man.

This idea of a new creation is specially revealed in the beginning and end of the Bible, the first and last chapters– Genesis and Revelation.  Genesis 1 begins with the starting point of Creation of the cosmos and the human role of stewardship of the Creation being made in God’s image and likeness but bearing bodily form, unlike the angels.  Revelation describes the fulfillment of the cataclysmic end of the fallen world as it is recreated in a new way, in Christ, in the Church as the Bride of Christ.

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea no longer existed.  I also saw the Holy City, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared like a bride adorned for her husband.”  Rev. 21:1

In some ways, this new creation idea is not new!  The prophet Isaiah spoke these words centuries before the coming of Christ,

For behold, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind.”  Is. 65:17

It is in this light that perhaps we can see the First Miracle of Jesus in Cana as pointing to what He was really to do in His ministry. His changing of the water into wine constituted a new creation of the water from something with a simple liquid, into something with a similar but fundamentally new and distinctive nature – wine.

Renewal of the Mind

While the final re-creation of the cosmos in Christ will encompass all beings and all things, the re-creation process has already begun in the central core of creation, the human heart – as David discovered and exclaimed through his repentance, “Create a pure heart in me O God!”  This echoes the prophetic cry of the early Church, prompting the faithful to cry out, “Maranatha, come Lord Jesus.” (1Cor 16:2) – anticipating the second Coming of Christ.

When we think of the New Creation, we may anticipate and long for the cataclysmic recreation of the world described in Book of Revelation. But the new creation really begins in a different way, not with trumpets and earthquakes, but with what St. Paul describes as the “renewing of the mind.”  (Rom.12:2)  This is prompted by tears flowing in repentance for offenses against God, and opens the doors of grace, and Christ Himself, to enter and refashion the human person in His likeness. Ω


[i] The Council of Jerusalem is described in Acts 15:1ff.

[ii] I cannot imagine how incredibly difficult this would be for someone to accept who was so steeped in Judaism as St. Paul. It would have seemed like an abandonment of the Hebraic Faith – except that full understanding of Christianity would point to him the narrow path of understanding how Christianity was truly fully Jewish in its Godly spirit, while certain external aspects would be superseded by incorporation in to Christ (and the Church).

[iii] Many of the Fathers of the Church see the tearing of the curtain of the Temple at the moment of Christ’s death as a sign of this radical end to the Judaism as it was known.

[iv] For a long time I’ve found it utterly strange that some Protestant congregations would have a type of Jewish Seder meal on the evening before Good Friday.  Despite the profound meaning of the Seder and its implications for understanding the Christian Passover (Pascha), to celebrate this instead of the Eucharist shows just how far the breakdown of theology has gone.  The Eucharist forever supplanted the Seder which had only served as a metaphorical forerunner of the Sacred Meal of the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.  It shows the importance of Liturgy as a spiritual stream of theological revelation.

[v] This raises the oft-debated question of the baptism of infants, which leads to the very important theological discussion of the nature of sin (and the Original Sin) which cannot be explored here.

[vi] See St. Simeon the New Theologian, On the Mystical Life, Vol. 1, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press. In this effort to summarize a complete thought of St. Simeon I way well misconstrue or misrepresent certain aspects of it – hence my recommendation to go to the source.

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…’