Divine Impassibility

It is fascinating how the ever-changing needs of the times often call us to tread again the same ground once covered by the Fathers. In their day the need was to show how the Scriptural account of God’s self-revelation was consistent with a more Hellenistic and philosophical view of the impassable divine nature.

Such a project was required in their day if they were to commend the Hebrew Scriptures which the Church received as divinely-inspired to the wider pagan audience which viewed the divine nature as eternal, impassable, transcendent, and unchanging.

The problem, of course, is that this philosophical view of divinity didn’t seem to line up with what people read about the Hebrew God in the Hebrew Scriptures.

People believed—correctly—that the divine nature was unchanging and unchangeable, that it was eternal and untroubled. Or, in the words of St. John of Damascus, that “He is invariable and unchangeable, and it would not be right to speak of contingency in connection with Him. [The divine nature is] uncreated, without beginning, immortal, infinite, eternal, immaterial, good, creative, just, enlightening, immutable, passionless, immeasurable, unlimited, undefined, unseen, unthinkable, wanting in nothing” (Exact Exposition, book 1, chapters 13, 14).

St. John Cassian said the same thing at an earlier time: The idea that God has physical limbs “cannot be understood literally of Him who is declared by the authority of Holy Scripture to be invisible, ineffable, incomprehensible, inestimable, simple, and uncompounded, so neither can the passion of anger and wrath be attributed to that unchangeable nature without fearful blasphemy” (Institutes, book 8, chapter 4.)

What both John of Damascus and John Cassian meant was not that the Scriptures were unreliable, but that they needed interpretation. For if one read the Hebrew Scriptures with a simple heart and insufficient subtlety, one might come away with an erroneous view of the Hebrew God.

One might imagine that Yahweh had a short fuse, that He sometimes lost His temper and needed calming down, that He did not know everything in advance, and sometimes needed to find things out by investigation and then might need to change His mind.

They might imagine that mere human beings could ruffle the divine feathers and get Yahweh worked up, and that He was subject to passions and emotions such as jealousy, uncontrolled rage, as well as bouts of happiness, and that His emotions could see-saw between extremes of happiness and sadness.

Even simpler readers might conclude that Yahweh had arms, fingers, eyes, ears, and a mouth because the Scriptures spoke of these things.

And some people even justified their own human rage by referring to the divine wrath mentioned in the Bible: “We have heard some people trying to excuse this most pernicious disease of the soul [i.e. anger] in such a way as to endeavour to extenuate it by a rather shocking way of interpreting Scripture: as they say that it is not injurious if we are angry with our brethren who do wrong, since they say God Himself is said to rage and to be angry” (Institutes, book 8, chapter 2).

These overly-simple interpretations of Scripture flew in the face of what an intelligent pagan audience believed about the divine nature, and led a number of them to dismiss the Scriptures and the Church which received them as infantile and unworthy of true philosophy.

Of course, they said, the divine nature cannot be subject to such human passions. In fact, the Church had been saying the same thing about the pagan gods for some time, pouring scorn on the pagan myths and stories of Jupiter becoming angry and lustful.

But if it was true, as the Church always taught, that divine nature was essentially impassable and beyond the reach of change and passion, how could the Church’s Hebrew Scriptures have any credibility when they seemed to present a very changeable and passionate God? That was the problem that the Fathers had to grapple with as they presented the Christian Faith to a pagan world.

The Fathers’ solution is well known: they affirmed the philosophical view of God and interpreted the Scriptural account of God’s limbs (such as His mouth, eyes, and hands) metaphorically, as well as the Scriptural narratives about God’s wrath and seeming changeability.

St. John Cassian again: “By God’s mouth we should understand that His utterances are meant…by His eyes we can understand the boundless character of His sight with which He sees and looks through all things. By the expression ‘hands’ we understand His providence and work”.

But the Scriptural references to His divine wrath, though they should not be understood as declaring that God is subject to the passion of anger or that our sins cause Him to throw a fit, are not to be explained away.

Thus Cassian: “When we read of the anger or fury of the Lord, we should take it not according to an unworthy meaning of human passion, but in a sense worthy of God, who is free from all passion, so that by this we should understand that He is the judge and avenger of all the unjust things which are done in this world, and by reason of these terms and their meaning we should dread Him as the terrible rewarder of our deeds, and fear to do anything against His will.”

It is clear therefore that God still has wrath against sin, in that He will judge and avenge human wrong. Because of this divine vengeance we should “dread Him and fear to do anything against His will”.

The Fathers do not declare that God has no wrath, but only that His anger is just and not the result of fits of passion or pique. God’s anger is not like human anger, and is consistent with the divine impassibility. God is always good, and His beneficence never changes.

Whether or not we experience His kindness or His severity (see Romans 11:22) depends not upon His shifting moods, for He is not subject to shifting moods. Rather it depends entirely upon us and how we live.

St. Irenaeus said as much even earlier still: “As many as according to their own choice depart from good, He inflicts that separation from Himself which they have chosen of their own accord. But separation from God is death and separation from light is darkness and separation from God consists in the loss of all the benefits He has in store…It is in this matter just as occurs in the case of a flood of light: those who have blinded themselves are forever deprived of the enjoyment of light. It is not that the light has inflicted upon them the penalty of blindness, but it is that the blindness itself has brought calamity upon them.” (Against Heresies, book 5, chapter 27).

God’s unchanging nature remains light; those who experience calamity and the divine wrath do so because of their own actions, not because God is no longer light or willing to enlighten.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose: in the Fathers’ day, many took offense at the Scriptural teaching about the wrath of God, saying that this was incompatible with the divine nature, the objection taking its force from the philosophical conviction that divine nature cannot be subject to emotions of any kind (including presumably nice emotions, such as happiness).

Today also many take offense at the Scriptural teaching about the wrath of God, saying that this is incompatible with the divine nature, the objection taking its force from our modern conviction that a loving God could not also have wrath.

We have seen that the Fathers’ teaching overthrows both objections. The Fathers agree that God’s nature is good and unchanging and unaffected by our sins. They also assert that the Scriptural teaching about God’s wrath is true, and that God will one day act as “the judge and avenger of all the unjust things which are done in the world”.

The modern attempt to deny this latter truth by appeal to God’s good and unchanging nature cannot be sustained, and those who attempt to use the truth of divine impassibility to deny the truth of divine wrath are in error.

I suggest that those making this attempt are not motivated by the venerable philosophical appreciation for the doctrine of divine impassibility so much as by a very modern squeamishness about the doctrine of divine wrath.

The Fathers affirmed both divine wrath and divine impassibility, and we must tread in the way that they walked, following along the path they blazed for us.

Father Lawrence Farley serves as pastor of St. Herman’s Orthodox Church in Langley, British Columbia, Canada. He is also author of the Orthodox Bible Companion Series along with a number of other publications.

The photo shows, “Moses on Mount Sinai,” by Jean-Léon Gérôme, painted ca. 1895-1900.

The Ontology Of Salvation

I cannot begin to count the number of times I wished there were a simple, felicitous word for “ontological.” I dislike writing theology with words that have to be explained – that is, words whose meanings are not immediately obvious. But, alas, I have found no substitute and will, therefore, beg my reader’s indulgence for dragging such a word into our conversations.

From the earliest times in the Church, but especially beginning with St. Athanasius in the 4th century as the great Ecumenical Councils took shape, the doctrines of the Church have been expressed and debated within the terms related to being itself.

For example, St. Athanasius says that in creating us, God gave us “being” (existence), with a view that we should move towards “well-being,” and with the end of “eternal being” (salvation). That three-fold scheme is a very common theme in patristic thought, championed and used again in the work of St. Maximus the Confessor with great precision, as he matured the thought of the Church as affirmed in the 5th Council.

At the same time, this language of being was used to speak about the nature and character of salvation, the same terms and imagery were being used to speak about the Trinity and the two natures of Christ. That language continues up through the Seventh Council and is the language used to define the doctrine of the veneration of the Holy Icons.

Conciliar thought, carried on within the terms of being (being, non-being, nature, person, existence, hypostatic representation, essence, energies, etc.) can be described as speaking in the language of “ontology.” Ontology is the technical name for things having to do with being (“onto” as a prefix in Greek means “being”).

There is a “seamless garment” of theological exposition that can be discerned across the range of the Councils. It is ontological in character.

Tremendous work and discussion on the part of the fathers resulted in a common language for speaking about all of these questions. Thus, the term “person” (an aspect of “being”) is used both for speaking about the Trinity as well as speaking about human persons and the one person of Christ in two natures.

It is the primary “grammar” of Orthodox conciliar thought. No other imagery or language receives the kind of imprimatur as the terms raised up into the formal declarations of the Church’s teaching. To a degree, everything else is commentary.

Many other images have been used alongside the ontological work of the Councils. The Church teaches and a good teacher draws on anything at hand to enlighten its students. Nevertheless, the dogmatic language of the Church has been that of “being.”

So what constitutes an “ontological” approach to salvation?

Here is an example. “Morality” is a word and concept that applies to behavior and an adherence to rules and laws. “Immorality” is the breaking of those laws. You can write about sin (and thus salvation) in the language of morality and never make reference to the language of being.

But what is created becomes a sort of separate thing from the conciliar language of the Church. Over the centuries, this has often happened in theology, particularly Western theology (Protestant and Catholic). The result is various “departments” of thought, without a common connection. It can lead to confusion and contradiction.

There is within Orthodoxy, an argument that says we are on the strongest ground when we speak in the language of the Councils. The language of “being” comes closer to accurately expressing what is actually taking place. Though all language has a “metaphoric” character, the language of being is, I think, the least metaphorical. It is about “what is.”

Back to the imagery of morality. If you speak of right and wrong in terms of being, it is generally expressed as either moving towards the path of well-being-eternal-being, or moving away from it, that is, taking a path towards non-being. What does the path of non-being look like? It looks like disintegration, a progressive “falling apart” of existence.

The New Testament uses the term phthora (“corruption”) to describe this. Phthora is what happens to a body when it dies. Death, in the New Testament, is often linked to sin (“sin and death”). It is the result of moving away from God, destroying our communion with Him.

For most modern people, death is seen as simply a fact of life, a morally neutral thing. It can’t be a moral question, we think, because you can’t help dying. But, in the New Testament and the Scriptures, death is quite synonymous with sin.

When Adam and Eve sin, they are told that it will result in death (a very ontological problem). A moral approach to that fact tends to see “sin” as the defining term and death as merely the punishment. The ontological approach sees death itself as the issue and the term that defines the meaning of sin. Sin is death. Death is sin.

And so, the language of the Church emphasizes that Christ “trampled down death by death.” In the language of ontology, that simple statement says everything. “He trampled down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowed life.” This includes the destruction of sin, freedom from the devil, forgiveness of sins, etc. But all of those things are included in the words of “death” and “life.”

An advantage in speaking in this manner can again be seen in comparing it to a simple moral approach. Morality is about actions, obedience, and disobedience. It says nothing about the person actually doing those things (or it can certainly avoid that topic).

It can mislead people into thinking that being and existence are neutral sorts of things and that what matters is how we behave. This can be coupled with the modern heresy of secularism in which it is asserted that things have an existence apart from God, that the universe is just a “neutral no-man’s land.”

The ontological approach denies this and affirms that God upholds everything in existence, moment by moment. It affirms that existence itself is a good thing and an expression of God’s goodness. It says as well that it is the purpose of all things that exist to be in communion with God and move towards eternal being. It is the fullness of salvation expressed in Romans 8:21-22.

Moral imagery also tends to see the world as disconnected. We are simply a collection of independent moral agents, being judged on our behavior. What I do is what I do, and what you do is what you do, and there is nothing particularly connected about any of it.

The language of being is quite different. Everything in creation that exists shares in the commonality of created being. What happens to any one thing effects everything else. There is true communion at the very root of existence.

And it is this communion of being that the fathers use when they speak of Christ’s Incarnation and our salvation. When the Creed says, “Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became man,” it is speaking about salvation. It does not say, “Who, in order to pay the penalty that was due…”

Such language can be used and has been used, but it is not at the heart of the Conciliar words of the Church. It is not recited every Sunday.

So how does Christ save us in terms of being? In essence (no pun intended), He became what we were in order to make us what He is. He became man, entering and restoring the full communion which we had broken.

The Lord and Giver of Life, the Author of our Being entered into dying humanity. He took our dying humanity on Himself and entered into the very depths of that death (“suffered death and was buried”). He then raised that same dying humanity into His own eternal life. This is our forgiveness of sins.

If sin is death, then resurrection is forgiveness. Thus we sing at Pascha: “Let us call brothers even those that hate us and forgive all by the resurrection.” That sentence only makes sense in terms of the ontological language in which it is written.

We do bad things (immoral things) because we have broken communion with God. “Sins” are the symptoms and signs of death, decay, corruption, and disintegration at work in the soul. If left unattended, it will drag us into the very depths of near non-being in what can properly be described as hell. This is reflected in the Psalm verse, “The dead do not praise the LORD, Nor any who go down into silence.” (Psa 115:17)

In Holy Baptism, we are asked, “Do you unite yourself to Christ?” This is the language of being and communion. St. Paul tells us that in Baptism we are united to Christ in His death and raised in the likeness of His resurrection. He then adds that we should “walk in newness of life.” That union with Christ and infusion of His Life creates a moral change that can be described in the language of being.

The unity of language, I believe, is very helpful and salutary. It is easy for modern believers, nurtured in the language of morality, to hear teachings about the Trinity and the two natures of Christ, etc., and think, “What has any of that got to do with my life?” That is a natural conclusion when salvation is expressed in a language that is separated from the language of the doctrinal foundations of the Church.

There are some who have pushed the moral language into the language of the Trinity, such that what is important is the Son’s propitiation of the Father’s wrath. Such terms find no place within the Conciliar thought of the Church and can (and have) created problems.

It is not that such terms have no use nor that they have never been used by any of the Fathers at any time. But they have a long history of being misused and distorting and obscuring the foundational doctrines of the Church.

In my own life, I personally found the language of being, when applied to my salvation, to explain the meaning of Scripture more thoroughly and connect my daily life and actions to the most fundamental doctrines of the Church.

It allowed me to read St. Athanasius, St. Basil, St. Gregory, St. Maximus and a host of others without feeling that I had come to something foreign. It more than adequately addresses moral questions, whereas moral language cannot address anything else and creates problems and heresies when it is imported into the language of the Trinity.

I should add that I have worked within this for nearly 30 years and have found nothing within Scripture than cannot be understood within the ontological understanding and that doing so frequently takes you deeper into understanding what is actually going on. It also forces you to ask the questions of “how does this relate to everything else?”

I hope this little introductory train of thought is helpful for those who are thinking about these things. It should explain why I see this as important and something that goes to the very heart of the Orthodox faith.

Father Stephen Freeman is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, serving as Rector of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.

The photo shows, “The Assumption of the Virgin” nu Francesco Botticini, painted ca. 1475-1476.

Why God Hides

God hides. God makes Himself known. God hides.

This pattern runs throughout the Scriptures. A holy hide-and-seek, the pattern is not accidental nor unintentional. It is rooted in the very nature of things in the Christian life. Christianity whose God is not hidden is not Christianity at all. But why is this so?

In a previous article, I wrote: “Our faith is about learning to live in the revealing of things that were hidden. True Christianity should never be obvious. It is, indeed, the struggle to live out what is not obvious. The Christian life is rightly meant to be an apocalypse.”

God is not obvious. That which is obvious is an object. Objects are inert, static and passive. The tree in my front yard is objectively there (or so it seems). When I get up in the morning and take the dog outside, I expect the tree to be there. If it is autumn, I might study its leaves for their wonderful color change (it’s a Gingko). But generally, I can ignore the tree – or not. That’s what objects are good for. They ask nothing of us. The freedom belongs entirely to us, not to them.

This is the function of an idol – to make a god into an object. He/she/it must be there. The idol captures the divine, objectifies it and renders it inert and passive.

The God of the Christians smashes idols. He will not stay put or become a passive participant in our narcissism. He is not the God-whom-I-want.

Christ tells us, “Ask, and you will receive. Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened.” The very center of the life promised us in Christ requires asking, seeking and knocking. The reason is straightforward: asking, seeking and knocking are a mode of existence. But our usual mode of existence is to live an obvious life (a life among objects).

Have you ever noticed that it’s easier to buy an icon and add it to your icon corner than it is to actually spend time and pray in your corner? There is a kind of “Orthodox acquisitiveness” that substitutes such actions for asking, seeking and knocking. Acquisition is part of our obvious form of existence. We have been trained in our culture to consume. We acquire objects. On the whole, we don’t even have to seek the objects we acquire, other than to engage in a little googling. We no longer forage or hunt. We shop.

But we were created to ask, seek and knock. That mode of existence puts us in the place where we become truly human. The Fathers wrote about this under the heading of eros, desire. Our culture has changed the meaning of eros into erotic, in which we learn to consume through our passions. This is a distortion of true eros.

Christ uses the imagery of seeking or true desire (eros) in a number of His parables: The Merchant in Search of Fine Pearls; The Woman with the Lost Coin; The Good Shepherd and the Lost Sheep; The Father in the Prodigal Son; The Treasure Buried in a Field…

But how does seeking (eros) differ from what I want? Are these parables not images of consuming? Learning the difference is part of the point in God’s holy hide-and-seek. The mode of existence to which He calls us must be learned, and it must be learned through practice.

Objects are manageable. They do not overwhelm or ask too much of us. Consumption is an activity in which we ourselves always have the upper hand. St. James offers this thought: “You desire and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war. Yet you do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures” (James 4:2-3).

What we seek (eros) in a godly manner, is something that cannot be managed or objectified. It is always larger and greater than we are. As such, it even presents a little danger. It may require that we be vulnerable and take risks. We are afraid that we might not find it while also being afraid that we will.

The parables are not about a merchant with a string of pearls, or a woman with a coin collection. The merchant risks everything he owns just for the chance of buying this one pearl. The woman seeks this coin as though there were no other money in the world.

When I was nearing the point of my conversion to Orthodoxy, a primary barrier was finding secular employment. It’s hard for someone whose resume only says, “priest,” to get a job or even an interview for a job. That search had gone on, quietly, for nearly two years. It was not an obsession – rather, more like a hobby. But one day, a job found me.

The details are not important here. But the reality is. The simple fact that a job was likely to happen, that I only had to say, “Yes,” was both exciting and frightening in the extreme. If I said yes, then everything I had said I wanted would start to come true (maybe).

And everything I knew as comfortable and secure would disappear (with four children to feed). And if everything I said I wanted began to come true, then the frightening possibility that I might not actually want it would also be revealed! I could multiply all of these possibilities many times over and not even begin to relate everything that was in my heart.

But the point that had found me was the beginning of the true search. The risk, the reward, the threat, the danger, the joy and the sorrow, all of them loomed over me, frequently driving me to prayer. I made the leap and began a tumultuous period in my life. But my life, like most, eventually settled down and slowly became obvious.

St. Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, one of the great monastic heroes of the Celtic lands, had a way of dealing with the obvious. He would walk into the North Sea from the island where he lived, and stand in the waves up to his neck. It was a dangerous sea, not like an American beach.

He stood there at the point of danger – and prayed. St. Brendan crossed the Atlantic with his monastic companions in a boat made of animal hides. Countless thousands of monastics wandered into deserts, forests, holes in the ground, islands, all in order to place themselves at that point where God may be found. Seeking God is not done in the place of safety, though it is the safest place in all the world.

Eros does not shop. True desire, that which is actually endemic to our nature, is not satisfied with the pleasures sought by the passions. It will go to extreme measures, even deep into pain, in order to be found by what it seeks.

All of this is the apocalyptic life of true faith. The question for us is how to live there, or even just go there for once in our lives. I “studied” Orthodoxy for 20 years. All of my friends knew (and often joked) about my interest. Many said they were not surprised when I converted.

I was. I was surprised because I know my own cowardice and fear of shame. If you liked Ferraris, your friends wouldn’t be surprised if you had photos and models, films and t-shirts. But if you sold your house and used the money to make a down payment on one, you’d be thought a fool, possibly insane. Seeking God is like that.

There are quiet ways that do not appear so radical. The right confession before a priest can be such a moment. Prayer before the icons in the corner of a room can become such a moment, though it takes lots of practice and much attention. They cannot be objects and the prayer cannot be obvious.

All of this is of God, may He be thanked. We do not have to invent this for ourselves. It is not “technique.” The God who wants us to seek is also kind enough to hide. Finding out where He is hiding is the first step. Finding out where you are hiding is the next. But the greatest and most wonderful step is turning the corner, buying the field, selling everything that you have, picking up the coin, making that phone call, saying “yes” and “yes” and “yes.”

Father Stephen Freeman is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, serving as Rector of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.

The photo shows, “The Supper at Emmaus” by Caravaggio, painted in 1606.

The Hope That Is In Us

“Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe.” These words of Christ, spoken to Thomas and recorded in John 20:29, have often been misunderstood. Some suggest that Christ was offering a blessing to those who believe in Him without any evidence at all, who accept Him on blind faith. This is not what Christ meant, for Thomas never accepted Christ on blind faith in the absence of any evidence.

Indeed, Thomas had plenty of evidence and reason to accept Jesus as the Christ, including the many miracles he saw Him perform. By these words Christ was not affirming the necessity of blind faith, but offering a blessing to those who believed in Him even though they never experienced a resurrection appearance as Thomas did.

For there are all sorts of reasons for believing in Christ and all kinds of evidence for the truth of Christianity, even apart from experiencing a Resurrection appearance as did the apostles. St. Peter told his new converts to always be ready to make a defense to anyone who called them to give a reason for the hope that was in them (1 Peter 3:15), and so Christians must have reasons for their hope in Christ. I would like to mention three of them, three pieces of evidence for the truth of Christ’s Resurrection.

These pieces of evidence all presuppose the essential reliability of the Gospel accounts. That in itself is not unreasonable, for the Gospels can all lay claim to relate first-hand eye-witness testimony: Matthew was one of the Twelve, as was John, who repeatedly stressed the first-hand nature of his testimony (e.g. John 19:35, 21:24). Luke wrote his account after consulting with many first-hand witnesses (Luke 1:1-4), and Mark wrote his account after listening to Peter’s reminiscences in Rome.

And the first three Gospels were written within about thirty years of the events they recount—i.e. they were practically contemporaneous with those events. Moreover, the Gospel writers wrote and circulated their writings while surrounded by a hostile group of people (the unbelieving Jews) who would have contested and contradicted their reporting if it veered from the known facts, and this hostility acted as a kind of control to keep the writers’ accounts accurate. So we may have confidence in the essential accuracy of the Gospel accounts.

The first piece of evidence is the emptiness of Jesus’ tomb. The apostles were publically proclaiming in the very heart of the Temple the Resurrection of Christ (and the consequent guilt of the Sanhedrin for the crime of having the Messiah crucified), and all the enraged Sanhedrin could do in response was to arrest Peter and John and to threaten them, telling them to cease and desist (Acts 3-4).

They could have shut down the whole apostolic enterprise and crush out the nascent Christian movement then and there—all they needed to do was to produce the corpse of Jesus, who had been buried a scant distance away from the Temple. But this they did not do. Why not? Obviously because the corpse of Jesus was no longer in the tomb and available to them.

So where was it? Why was it not in the tomb? The apostles’ explanation was that the tomb was now empty because God had raised Jesus from the dead, and that Jesus had emerged from the tomb, meeting with His disciples during the following forty days before being taken to heaven.

The Jewish explanation for the emptiness of the tomb was that the disciples came by night while the Roman soldiers guarding the tomb were asleep and these disciples stole the corpse (Matthew 28:12-15). Let us examine this explanation at greater length, for it contains a few problems.

The first problem with the explanation is the presupposition that a Roman soldier on guard duty would fall asleep—something which would bring swift and violent response from his commanding officer if he were caught.

Yet this story asks us to believe that all the soldiers on guard duty fell asleep, and all at the same time, and that they fell so soundly asleep that the disciples sneaking up, unsealing the tomb, moving the huge stone, and making off with the corpse didn’t wake them.

Even harder to believe is that the disciples stopped in the midst of this dangerous theft and took time to strip the corpse of its grave-clothes before carrying it away (compare John 20:6-7).

The Jewish explanation produces more questions than answers. Even if the apostles could somehow have sneaked up unseen on the Roman guards, and waited until all the guards fell so soundly asleep at the same time that they did not stir when the stone was noisily moved and the corpse stripped and stolen, why would they do this? What did they have to gain from it?

All they had to gain from their leadership of the Christian movement is what they in fact did gain from it—namely, suffering, poverty, hardship, and eventual martyrdom (see 1 Corinthians 4:9-13). And where did they then bury the corpse? And how could such a burial escape detection in a city swarming with their enemies to such an extent that they had to lock the doors when they met together? (see John 20:19).

And why would they persist in such a lie? It is incredible to imagine that such a colossal conspiracy would not somehow have leaked out, especially as persecution arose. Moreover, the Jewish explanation is not even self-consistent: if the guards were all asleep, how could they know that it was the disciples who stole the corpse? The whole thing is harder to believe than the Resurrection.

The second problem with denying the historicity of the Resurrection of Christ lies in the change in the apostles. From the time of Jesus’ arrest, during His trial and crucifixion, and immediately after His death, they all displayed tremendous cowardice—or (to put it more charitably) a tremendous concern for their self-preservation.

During His arrest, they all forsook Him and fled (Mark 14:50), and Peter, when challenged a number of times as to whether he was part of His movement, repeatedly denied even knowing Him (Mark 14:66f). None but John were present at His cross, and after His death, when they met together, they made sure that the outer door was locked, for fear of being arrested by the Jews—all in all, not a great display of courage and boldness.

Yet fifty days later they were so bold that they publically preached to anyone who would listen that Jesus was the Messiah, risen from the dead, and openly accused the Sanhedrin of disowning the Messiah and having Him killed (Acts 5:28). Arrest, flogging, and threats of further punishment could not deter the apostles.

The question is: what produced this change of heart and inspired this new boldness? The apostles explained it by saying they had seen the risen Lord. If they did not in fact see the risen Lord, what other explanation could there be for such a swift, radical, and unanimous change of heart among all of them?

The question becomes more acute as persecution of the Church intensifies: even when martyrdom threatened, the apostles continued to preach that they had indeed seen the risen Christ. Who would die for what they knew was a pointless lie? The apostolic boldness is only explicable if they were telling the truth about the Resurrection.

The third problem with denying the Resurrection of Christ is the conversion of Saul of Tarsus. He was adamantly opposed to the Christian movement, and took drastic and effective steps to try to crush it out. He was present for the martyrdom of Stephen, and ravaged the Church in Jerusalem, entering house after house and dragging off to prison the disciples of Jesus, both women as well as men (Acts 8:3).

Not content with this, he requested and received authorization from the high priest to journey to far away Damascus and arrest any disciples of Jesus he found in the synagogues there.

Accordingly, he journeyed to Damascus, but upon arriving there, when he entered the synagogue, instead of denouncing Jesus as a false-Messiah and arresting His disciples, He proclaimed that Jesus was indeed the Messiah. What produced such a sudden and stunning volte-face?

Saul (also known as Paul) explained it by relating that as he approached Damascus he received a visitation from the risen Jesus, an encounter which converted and temporarily blinded him.

Then one of Jesus’ disciples, Ananias by name, found Saul in the city, explained that Jesus had appeared to him in a vision, and sent him to heal Saul of his blindness, which he did. If one rejects Saul’s explanation of what caused his volte-face, what other explanation could there be? And once again, we may ask, why would Saul lie? What would he have to gain by it?

There are other reasons for accepting the truth of the Christian Faith as well—reasons having to do with subjective experience of the presence of Christ, and of contemporary miracles and answers to prayer.

But these three historical reasons, I submit, are sufficient—or at least they were sufficient for me. If Christ did rise from the dead, then the emptiness of His tomb, the change in the apostles, and the conversion of Saul of Tarsus are all adequately and fully explained. If His Resurrection did not in fact occur, these three things remain inexplicable.

At the very least the burden of proof shifts to those who would deny the Resurrection. Such historical evidence constitutes a reason for the hope that is in us—and challenge to those who would deny the Resurrection and choose to live without such hope.

Father Lawrence serves as pastor of St. Herman’s Orthodox Church in Langley, BC. He is also author of the Orthodox Bible Companion Series along with a number of other publications.

The photo shows, “The Doubting Thomas” by Leendert van der Cooghen, painted in 1654.

The Sadducees: What Do We Know?

In the famous account of the meeting of Christ with the Sadducees (Luke 20: 27–40), the question is brought up of the resurrection of bodies (in other words, their “recovery” after death). More importantly, the representatives of the “party” that was once the majority in the Sanhedrin, the Sadducees, seek to ask the “Master,” the “Rabbi,” the “Doctor” this fundamental question to which they think they have the correct answer. They hope to bewilder the man they are addressing, and care little for the title they use for him. But their hopes are dashed by the answer they receive: after the Resurrection, men will be like angels.

Our God is the God of the living; there is thus a life after life. But the conception of the afterlife among Jews, as embodied by the Pharisees and mocked by the Sadducees, is indeed so simplistic that it can only lend itself to derision.

On the whole, this controversy illustrates the refusal of history by the Sadducees, who themselves are an enigma. They were members of the priestly class, who were in conflict with the Pharisees, and who refused the very idea of ​​resurrection. That’s about all we know about them – aside from the reference that their name makes to Zadok, high priest under David. They were also supporters of the Romans, during the time of Christ, who lost control of the Sanhedrin to their opponents, the Pharisees.

In comparison to the Pharisees, the Sadducees held a very “modern” and simple doctrine – after death, there is nothing. The soul disappears, there is no other world, there is no destiny. Man has the free choice between good and evil in this life. After death, it is all over. Their doctrine denied all “post mortem” reality. In this they opposed the Pharisees who believed in the immortality of the soul and the resurrection of the “good” – the “bad,” on the other hand, fell prey to eternal punishment.

The “theology” of the Sadducees was the work of a group of priests, who founded the sect, and who were vocal on the theological as well as the political level. They recognized value only in the Torah, thus dooming the rest of the Bible to nothingness. And, although a minority, their “lobby,” during the time of Christ, dominated the priestly caste. Thus, for them, history did not exist, Providence did not exist, only the chaos of human choices reigned. Man had before him neither a future, nor hope of resurrection. It can be said, without caricature, that the Sadducee is the prototype of today’s “average atheist,” – and he was a priest! For him, the Messiah was the hero of a myth.

Let us return to the controversy with Christ on the subject of the resurrection of the body, taking into account that for the Sadducees the world as it is, is nonsense. And, indeed, their position is quite singular, since all the peoples of the earth, of all times, believed, until the eighteenth century in Europe, at least, in a transcendence, including at least one god, or a pantheon, and an afterlife. The memory of a primitive religion is common to all of humanity. But the Sadducees, for their part, had managed to eliminate the history of Israel – and they were practically in power! Nevertheless, the Hebrews believed in the resurrection, since Moses at least (just like the Egyptians, by the way). Did not God promise to restore the world?

And the answer Jesus gave took them for a loop – first, that the dead are indeed resurrection, and two, that the resurrected will be like angels. His opponents, who knew the concept of “angel” but did not believe it, could not imagine such a metamorphosis. And the answer also highlights the idle nature of their question.

We should note that the angel-analogy relates only to the condition of men and women resurrected, who then will have no carnal relationship because they will not feel the need. And the Talmud does tell us that in the Otherworld, you do not drink, you do not eat, all are equal and in harmony. The body of the resurrected undergoes a metamorphosis.

But why should angels not have carnal relations? Simply because they are not susceptible to death and thus do not survive by procreation. (We might suppose that angels also multiple, but that is a different discussion).

Here it seems that Christ establishes a causal relationship between carnal reproduction and the necessity of death. In Heaven, one does not die, one does not die any further. The carnal relation is really a continuation of the original decay. Adam and Eve, after the fall, lost their garment of Light, and, being naked, they were then covered with skins of animals and subject to death. But in the hereafter, people, as began with their first parents, find a body of Light. They participate in the mystery of the resurrection. And the Resurrection of Christ is the principle of all resurrection: by resurrecting, he resurrects in the entirety of his being, body and soul.

Thus, the pool of the Sadducees is paved over! Risen humanity will participate in the rightful filial dignity of the risen Christ, in which filiation and rebirth from the dead together proclaim Him Son of God.

We also notice the Sadducees’ petty notion of sexuality, expressed in a manner that regulates the lot of widows. For the Sadducees, marriage is nothing but a carnal union, we may say a bestial one, since it denies all transcendence accessible to mankind. Marriage, in this case, only a system of filiation; and it is a fact, recognized and regulated by the Law, that the only husband of the woman is the first deceased brother. And yet, clinging to the Law, it seems that the Sadducees have not understood, in their pettiness and narrow mindedness, the full significance of marriage, nor have they grasped the grandeur of human destiny.

Christ makes Filiation holy by his Divinity, by opening us to the omnipotence of God, and thus reminding us of the promise of history, which includes our very own resurrection.

Father Frédéric Guigain was born in Paris, and obtained a DEA in philosophy at the Sorbonne (Paris IV). He was ordained a priest in the Maronite diocese of Jbeil-Byblos (Lebanon) in 2001, and assumed various tasks of pastoral care in Nigeria (Port-Harcourt), Italy (Rome-Albano) and Lebanon (Diocese of Jbeil). He was a parish priest in Amsheet, in charge of the chancery of the bishopric, and chaplain of the diocesan committee for youth ministry. He is currently vicar of the parish of Saint-Cloud in the diocese of Nanterre.

The original version of this article is in French. This English translation is by N. Dass.

The photo shows Christ teaching, from a French breviary, dated to ca. 1511.

Bad Theology And Atheism

I have been slowly reading my way through John Gray’s book, Seven Types of Atheism. It is not an argument with Atheism so much as a study of its underpinnings, strengths and weaknesses (Gray himself is an atheist). Apparently, what someone does not believe in is just as important as what someone does believe in. Not all atheisms are equal.

I was particularly struck by this note regarding the non-belief of John Stuart Mill: “Mill never claimed to have formulated a unified view of the human world. Even so, he founded an orthodoxy – the belief in improvement that is the unthinking faith of people who think they have no religion.”

It will sound quite odd to many readers, but good Christian theology has much in common with good atheist thought. Indeed, some feeble attempts at atheism are often the first genuine efforts of theological discipline taken up by many people.

An inadequate God inherited either from poor teaching or mere cultural assimilation is fertile ground for unbelief. The nakedness of such a thing (“it’s just me and the universe”) can also provide a fertile ground for serious thought.

The general dividing line within atheism seems to be between versions that represent little more than godless examples of bad Judaeo-Christian thought and versions that take seriously the absence of meaning implied by the rejection of a God-story.

These latter accounts seem to fall out with either a semi-oriental mysticism in which the universe itself plays the role of God (think Carl Sagan in his last years) or true nihilists whose world is perhaps the least comprehensible of all (and the rarest).

Human beings seem to be created with a longing for meaning. We not only experience the world, but want to make sense of it as well. That sense-making is a thread of continuity that joins every religious tradition in history.

The scope of the story may vary from place to place, but the existence of “story” is ubiquitous. Meaninglessness is not a condition that is easily embraced – indeed, it could be viewed as a form of mental suicide, with or without the dying.

Stanley Hauerwas famously defines modernity in terms of story: “The modern project is the attempt to produce a people who believe that they should have no story except the story that they choose when they had no story.”

This is another way of describing the “unthinking faith of people who think they have no religion.”

The 19th century was marked by a number of key figures whom the philosopher Paul Riceour dubbed the “Masters of Suspicion.” He specifically named Freud, Marx and Nietzsche. I would add a number of other 19th century names as well.

Their critique (suspicion) was turned towards various aspects of life that were often taken for granted. Freud “unmasked” the commonly accepted figure of God (at least as found among 19th-century Austrian Jews) and saw it as nothing more than a projection of the “super-ego.” Marx unmasked the dark drive of history as a story of exploitation. Nietszche reduced the world to the story of the raw will to power.

These “giants” have had many followers, both intentional and unintentional. What they created can best be seen in their “suspicion.” Is what we perceive in fact the case, or do we live in a world of self-deception? When we suspect the actual process of thought and understanding itself, every answer has a way of being unsatisfying.

The latest iteration of modern suspicion has been directed towards traditional perceptions or understandings of gender/sex (I’m never sure which is the right word anymore). A traditional “binary” approach is now deconstructed as a false world-view, imposed from above. In truth, the “technique” of questioning and replacement has been going on for nearly two centuries now, and shows no sign of abating.

The Masters of Suspicion were not entirely wrong. Much of what passed for Christian belief deserved questioning. An inadequate account of God should be as problematic for Christians as it was for Freud.

The glib certitude of the wealthy deserved to be unmasked. A proper Christian understanding of justice had been set aside and left the world “upside-down.” Marx forced a conversation. Nietzsche is another matter, one that I am not well able to articulate. For me, he seems to unmask the naked forces of dominance that claim to be otherwise.

There is, however, a conundrum within these suspicions. When everything is suspect, even the suspicion is suspect. We can be left with a paralyzing agnosticism, that doubts even its own agnosticism.

Nevertheless, many Christians themselves continue with an “inadequate” God. Gray points out that the notion of improvement, held by “unthinking people with no religion,” is a belief learned from Christians who had begun to secularize their faith. Improvement (“better world,” “progress”) is bad Christian theology that serves little purpose other than to underwrite the modern nation-state and consumer capitalism. It is certainly not the story of Jesus Christ.

A very deep strain of Orthodox theology is described as “apophaticism,” or the “via negativa.” It describes a knowing by “not knowing.” It is, if you will, a denial of everything God is not, in order to know who God is. As such, it is constantly deconstructing the many efforts of humanity that seek to create false gods.

Conversations that seek to unravel the circular reasoning of suspicion often end in frustration. Everything can be questioned, including the questioning. However, the Christian faith rises and falls with the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Everything flows from that moment. All Christian thought is, properly, a commentary on Pascha. It is not, at its heart, an argument from reason. Reason and its various theories, whether of meaning, or human nature, or social existence, science, etc., did not create the resurrection of Christ. It comes like an event that inserts itself into the futility of our existence.

I take comfort in the thought that the Scriptures bear witness to the lack of understanding that greeted Christ’s resurrection. The disciples did not get it. His resurrection is not an answer to a question they were asking. It seems, at first, to have confounded them.

Nevertheless, He rose from the dead. The life of repentance is a constant embracing of Christ’s Pascha. It is a giving of ourselves to what has been given to us. It is the rejection of every pretense that would erect life on some other basis (as though there were another basis).

That single event of Pascha is the beginning of Christian thought. The best of Christian thought (in my estimation) continues to allow the resurrection of Christ to unmask its every attempt to build a world (or a faith) on any other basis.

The resurrection of Christ is the judgment of this world. Its judgment is truly kind. It is truth demolishing the falsehoods that imprison us, freeing us even from ourselves.

Christ is the Master of Truth, the Master of Life and Death, the Master of Love and Forgiveness. He even forgives our suspicions.

Father Stephen Freeman is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, serving as Rector of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.

The photo shows, “Christ’s Entry Into Brussels in 1889,” painted in 1889.

Saint Mary Magdalene

There is, alas, an immense amount of nonsense written about St. Mary Magdalene, some of it of quite venerable vintage. For example, one strand of western Christian tradition identifies her with the sinful woman whose story is told in Luke 7:36-50 and therefore asserts that in her pre-conversion days Mary Magdalene was a prostitute or (in the quaint vocabulary of our immediate ancestors) “a fallen woman”.

Thus “Magdalene asylums” or “Magdalene laundries” were (as the oracular Wikipedia tells us) “institutions from the 18th to the late 20th centuries ostensibly to house ‘fallen women’, a term used to imply female sexual promiscuity or work in prostitution”.

This interpretation is exegetically impossible, since the Lukan text upon which it is based goes on to describe Mary Magdalene in the next breath in 8:1-3 in terms which clearly introduce a new figure. This proves that Luke did not have Mary in mind when speaking about the sinful woman in the preceding story.

Contemporary interpretations of Mary Magdalene are even more bizarre, including the one which makes her Christ’s wife. One suggestion along this line asserts that the wedding in Cana at which Christ was present was His own wedding to Mary Magdalene.

The stupidity of this view is revealed in the very text in which the wedding is described: “On the third day there was a marriage at Cana in Galilee and the mother of Jesus was there; Jesus also was invited to marriage, with His disciples” (John 2:1-2).

If Jesus was in fact the groom it was odd that John would say, “Jesus also was invited”. In that case He would not be “invited” since He was the one giving the wedding and issuing the invitations. The suggestion would be comic if it were not blasphemous. Given the amount of verbiage pouring from the pens of those who oppose Christianity, I suppose Mary Magdalene should take such things as a back-handed compliment.

What can we know about the historical Mary Magdalene? I suggest at least three things.

First of all, she was one out of whom Christ had cast seven demons (Luke 8:2). Demon possession in those days manifested itself in obvious and violent ways (compare Mark 8:14f). If alcoholism makes one’s life unmanageable (in the words of AA’s Twelve Steps) then one can imagine that having seven demons would make one’s life quite unmanageable, and this alone would account for the absence of a “Mr. Magdalene” or a husband for Mary of Magdala. Who would want to be married to a lunatic?

Yet when she came to Christ He cast out all seven of her demons and restored her to sanity and to peace. It was in gratitude for this that she did not return to her life or resume her search for husband, family, and respectability, but followed Him around the countryside, supporting Him as best she could out of her own resources, which seem to have abundant.

In this Mary Magdalene reveals the primacy of hope. One must never despair and lose hope, however far one has fallen into sin and insanity. The Enemy is always at hand to whisper into our ears that all is lost, that our sins, addictions, past history, and brokenness all mean that we are beyond fixing and utterly without hope.

It is a lie, and Mary Magdalene’s life proves it. If Christ could heal and restore Mary Magdalene with her seven demons, He can heal and restore anyone. Mary Magdalene might well be considered the patron saint of the hopeless.

Perhaps she has something to say to prostitutes after all, as well as to the drug and alcohol addicted, the porn addicted, and any who feel despair dogging their every step. Her story tells us not to despair! No matter how broken one’s life is, Christ can put you back together again, provided you give Him all the pieces.

Secondly, Mary Magdalene was a myrrh-bearer. That is, she was one of the women who looked on from afar and watched as their beloved Lord died in pain (Mark 15:40-41) and made plans to anoint His corpse after it had been laid in the tomb.

It was, frankly, a mad plan. She and some friends bought or brought the spices with the intention of anointing Him, hastening to the tomb before dawn on the assumption that a few Jewish women could persuade hardened Roman soldiers to open a tomb which had been closed and sealed by Imperial authority and roll the sizable stone away from its mouth so that they could perform their women’s work of anointing a body which had already been properly buried (John 19:39-40).

What were the odds of success? They would be lucky if they escaped with a mere cuff on the cheek from the surly and cynical soldiers. Yet they refused to be deterred. They said to each other as they hastened through the breaking dawn, “Who will roll the stone for us from the door of the tomb? (Mark 16:3), showing that they were hardly able to face the unreasonableness of their plan. But such was their love for Jesus that they refused to acknowledge the unlikelihood of success, but pressed on through the morning light.

In this Mary Magdalene reveals the true foundation of Christian life. Our life in Christ is not based upon the cerebral acknowledgement of propositions and doctrines. We do not simply give intellectual assent to a Creed.

Before all that we love a Person, and love Him more than life itself. Many things are built upon this foundation (including assent to a Creed), but the foundation itself is one of love. St. Peter—dear impulsive Peter—got this: “Without having seen Him, you love Him” (1 Peter 1:8). There are many good things and necessary tasks in the Christian life, but none are more important than personal love and devotion to Jesus. Social justice (whatever that means) is very fine.

The poor we always have with us, and whenever we will, we can do them good (Mark 14:7). But more important is our love for Jesus—a love which transcends reasonableness, and which defies anything which stands in the way between us and our Lord.

Finally, Mary Magdalene was isapostolos, “equal to the apostles”. A few people were honoured with this title in the Church’s history, people responsible for the conversions of nations and multitudes. Nina of Georgia was so honoured, as was Constantine the Great, to whom the Church showed its gratitude with a generous bestowal of liturgical honour.

But Mary Magdalene? Which nations or multitudes did she ever convert? (Stories of her speaking with the Emperor with an egg in her hand and of travelling into France are more devotional adornment than reliable history.) In fact she was honoured with this title because she obeyed when Christ sent her to the apostles, the “sent ones” (apostolos means “sent”).

And note: the apostles did not believe her (Mark 16:11). Did she therefore fail in her mission? No: for she was not commanded to persuade them, but simply to tell them, and in that she obeyed and succeeded. She was given this one simple task, and this she carried out in perfect faithfulness. She went as one sent to the sent ones, and was isapostolos, the first one sent out with the Good News of the Resurrection.

In this she encourages us also in our little lives and small obediences. We may never achieve great status in the Church as did the apostles, or do great exploits which assure us of a place in history books or on icon-screens. Christ may not command us to convert nations, or walk in the ecclesiastical lime-light.

The tasks He gives us are comparatively tiny and seemingly insignificant. We may only be commanded to go bring a word to others who then go on to achieve great things and win high status. But if we humbly obey and carry out His will, this will assure our reward as well. Christ does not measure as the world measures.

Success and fame are not the issue or the prize—obedience to Christ is. Mary Magdalene was isapostolos because she fulfilled the little task Christ gave her, and we will win our rewards for similar obedience.

In this day of confusion over gender roles, Mary Magdalene may well point the way home, revealing what true strength looks like, acting as a counter-weight to the image of the angry, strident feminist often appearing in the news. St. Mary is thus the true feminist, the authentic woman of strength.

She shows that true strength comes from repenting before Christ, from loving Him with one’s whole heart and soul, and from obeying whatever tasks He sets us. Mary Magdalene is pre-eminently a saint for our times, and we have never needed such a feminist more than we do today.

Fr. Lawrence Farley serves as pastor of St. Herman’s Orthodox Church in Langley, British Columbia, Canada. He is also author of the Orthodox Bible Companion Series along with a number of other publications.

The photo shows, “Mary Magdalene Reading,” by Cosimo de Piero, painted ca. 1500-1510.

What Is The Church?

Every Sunday the Creed is said in Church in which Christians say the words, “I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church”. It many ways it is an odd thing to say. In the Creed we confess things that are matters of faith, things contestable, maybe even controversial.

Thus we confess that God the Father almighty made the heaven and the earth, including all things visible (such as animals and men) and invisible (such as angels). This is not beyond dispute and many people manage to dispute it, believing either that the universe always existed or that it began without any help from God.

It is similar with our confession of Jesus Christ as light from light, true God from true God, conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary, and raised from the dead three days after He died. This is a matter of faith, and so it finds its way into the Creed. But the Church? Surely the existence of the Church is hardly a matter of faith. We do not need faith to believe in the church—we can see churches all around us. Why is the Church in the Creed?

In fact, we often do not know the meaning of the words we are saying when we confess that we believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. Sometimes we mean by these words something not much more than “we believe in the existence of an institution which is very good and worthy of respect”. This is not quite what the Creed is getting at.

Let us look first at the term “church”—in Greek ekklesia. The word “church” is used in lots of ways. Most often the term refers to the building in which the Christians meet for worship.

If I say, “I’ll meet you at the church at noon” I am obviously referring to the building used for Sunday services. Sometimes, in an earlier day, the term meant simply “the clergy”, so that if a young answered the question about what career he had chosen by saying, “I am going into the church”, he meant he was seeking ordination as a priest. More often by “the church” people mean “the Christians”, wherever they might meet for services.

Often too by the term “the church” people mean an institution, as the Smithsonian is an institution or as the British Crown is an institution. I suspect that most people when they say the Creed mean something rather like this. When they confess belief in the Church, they mean to express loyalty to a venerable institution.

The institution came into existence in the time of Jesus, and now has branches or spiritual franchises in many places, including the little congregation down the street.

In fact the church is not an institution, however many outward similarities to an institution it may possess. The term ekklesia (the Greek version of the Hebrew qahal) meant a gathering, an assembly. People assembled or gathered—that is, they left their homes to congregate in a particular place for a particular reason, and the result of all that individual assembling was an assembly.

After they had gathered, they constituted a gathering. The assembly could be called for a number of purposes, either secular or religious. One could assemble to select a king, as Israel assembled to select King Saul (1 Samuel 10). One could assemble to prepare for war, as Israel did to wage war on the tribe of Benjamin (Judges 20). One could assemble for a religious convocation as Israel did when they repented before God at Mizpah (I Samuel 7).

One could assemble to debate a civic problem, as the silver-smiths of Ephesus did when they met to protest against the work of St. Paul (Acts 19). This last example is particularly instructive: those who assembled were pagans, and men motivated mostly by financial concern, despite their loudly-professed civic devotion to Artemis of the Ephesians.

Their assembly almost turned into a riot until the town clerk quieted the crowd and told them to go home. Then, as Luke reports, “When he said this, he dismissed the ekklesia”—i.e. the crowd which had gathered together. These men, pagans motivated by secular concerns at a town hall meeting, were an ekklesia—an assembly.

That is the word used in the New Testament to describe Christian liturgical experience. Individual Christians left their respective homes on Sunday to assemble and gather in a particular pre-arranged place. Having assembled, they were an assembly. Having gathered, they were a gathering.

But not just any assembly or gathering—they were an assembly to which Christ pledged His presence. Whenever they assembled together to remember Him at the Eucharist, He promised that He would be in their midst, even if the assembly were so small that only two or three were there (Matthew 18:20).

(The Greek of this last is interesting: Christ promises to be among them even if only two or three assemble—in Greek sunago/ συναγω–the same word used in the word “synagogue”, which was the word James used to describe the Christian assembly in James 2:2).

Christian assembly/ ekklesia is what happens after the Christians assemble. It is not so much an institution as an event. For at that assembly Christ manifests His presence as He promised He would. One can therefore refer to the ekklesia or church in the plural because Christians assembled in many assemblies throughout the world.

One can also refer to the ekklesia or church in the singular, because wherever one went throughout the world one found the same Christ in every single assembly. The assembly in Thessalonica was the same as the assembly in Corinth because Christ was equally present in both. Christ’s presence made the different assemblies into one Assembly—one Church.

From this, three things follow.

First, one cannot consider oneself a part of the assembly unless one actually assembles, because that is what the word “assembly” means. Membership in the Ekklesia of God is not like membership in the Public Library. I am a member of the library in that I still have my library card, and it does not expire. I may not have set foot in the library for years, but the card still works. It is otherwise with the Church.

If you didn’t assemble on Sunday, we were not a part of the assembly, and if you haven’t attended the Eucharist for years, you are no longer a part of the Church. It is easily remedied—to be a part of the assembly, just go next Sunday and assemble. (If it really has been years since you partook of the Eucharist, going to confession is also recommended.) The name “Christian” is the term for one who assembles regularly, and one forfeits the right to use the name if you never assemble.

Secondly, one should assemble on Sunday with the expectation of meeting Christ there. That is the whole reason for assembling. Valuable as sermons are, and uplifting as the choir sounds, one mostly assembles to meet the Lord and to be fed with His Body and Blood.

We go in our brokenness to be healed, and in our filthiness to be washed clean. We assemble because the only one who can heal and cleanse is there and He has promised to do both for us if we come in penitence and faith.

Finally, if we plan on assembling on Sunday we must live in anticipation of this event on the six days previous.

The priest will call us to the Chalice by saying the words, “The holy things for the holy!”—or, in another possible translation, “The sanctified things for the saints!” The usual New Testament term for a believer is the word “saint” [Greek agios], which is what we are. A saint is not a sinless person, but a person who belongs to God and who is striving to please Him, whatever his or her rate of success.

It is as saints that we assemble, which is why the priest uses that term. As members of the Ekklesia and the Household of God we must strive to become what we are.

Fr. Lawrence Farley serves as pastor of St. Herman’s Orthodox Church in Langley, British Columbia, Canada. He is also author of the Orthodox Bible Companion Series along with a number of other publications.

The photo shows, “Domine, quo vadis?” by Annibale Carracci, painted in 1602.