I had published my last piece, “The New Normal” with the thought of leaving the topic, but the more I think about it, this is actually where I should take off on the whole question of Orthodoxy and justification. The reason for this can be seen in that one very sharp but wonderful point in Bishop Thomas’s assertion that those who think they have no time to be active in church, but active in their gardens or at jai alai should just die: this breaths what the Gospel is to the Orthodox. To best illustrate this, let us take it up with an eighth-century monk become missionary become bishop; a man born Winfrith, but who eventually assumed the name of Boniface, and is known as the apostle to the Germans. St. Boniface’s life is recorded for us be another monk name Wilibald. There are a couple notable miracles associated with St. Boniface, but I wish to treat only one in particular, his felling of the oak of Jupiter. Of course this was a pagan grove of trees, with the oak in question probably being the largest and most revered of them. When Boniface took an axe to it, at the first stroke the tree split into four parts as a wind from heaven came and toppled it. Thereupon Boniface did what any monk would have done: he used the wood and turned the tree into a church.
So, how do these three seeming dissonant and disparate items – – Orthodox views on justification, dropping dead as the opposite of the new normal, and the felling of a pagan sacred tree – – weave themselves together? To see we should look first at a passage from St. Athanastius’ On the Incarnation of the Word, I.4.
God had made man thus (that is, as an embodied spirit), and had willed that he should remain in incorruption. But men, having turned from the contemplation of God to evil of their own devising, had come inevitably under the law of death. Instead of remaining in the state in which God had created them, they were in process of becoming corrupted entirely, and death had them completely under its dominion. For the transgression of the commandment was making them turn back again [to non-existence] according to their nature; and as they had at the beginning come into being out of non-existence, so were they now on the way to returning, through corruption, to non-existence again.
Notice that the divide here for we mortals is not one between nature and grace, nor merely the created and the uncreated, but the created, the uncreated and non-existence. As created we came from nothing, even though there was a heavenly and divine pattern according to which we were made, the Image of God, God the Father’s Word, the Son, who is the express image of the invisible Father. Since we were taken from nothing we only find who we really are by contemplating the divine original or the principle of our existence, namely Christ. Through theoria, contemplation, we first had existence, but this was never enough. But when we turned from this we turned to corruption, and with corruption tended back to non-existence, and so we made our plight only worse. Thus, says St. Athanasius, Him by Whom we were created must also be our Redeemer, the one who saves our life from destruction and oblivion. For as He is the original after Whom we were made, He alone can restore us. And with this restoration, Christ sets the world back on the path to the Kingdom of God, back on the road to contemplation, and ultimately, deification.
For the Orthodox, however, first must comes purification and askesis, coupled with theoria (contemplation) leading to theosis. Theosis is the life of the world to come, the Life in Christ, which St. Nicholas Cabasilas wrote, is consummated in heaven, but begun now. Thus the Life in Christ is the Life of the Spirit, and Life in the Body of Christ. This is why parish life is the new normal, and the life at football or soccer games on a Sunday instead of at Divine Liturgy are themselves reversions to the state of non-existence, for they pull us away from the eschatological presence of Christ within His Church.
And how do we come to the Church? By felling oaks. For what must be absolutely clear, is that oaks (and ash and beech and elm) all exist for the purpose of making churches, gold exists for the purpose of being sacred vessels and adorning God’s tabernacles, and stones are for the erecting of altars. The world finds its purpose fulfilled in the Kingdom of God, that is, in the life of the world to come. When St. Boniface felled the oak of Jupiter what he was doing was not merely destroying a pagan shrine, but was instead converting it to its proper use: a temple for the King of kings.
We must be willing to fell the shrines in our lives that keep us from the contemplation of God. This felling of oaks on the personal level is askesis, asceticism, purification, and the counting of those things we once thought of as gain to be now but rubbish, that which is to be thrown to the dogs. As the ancient Hebrews brought their gold and finery to Moses to erect the tabernacle, so we must bring the gold of ourselves to adorn God’s temple, and thus we should not be opposed to the wearing of our finest on the Lord’s Day when we appear before God. If we are unwilling to take the axe to our shrines and having felled them turn them into temples of God, then we might as well die, we might as well admit that we would rather exchange that which is of ephemeral, or at best of passing and vanishing value, for that which is of utmost importance, and is indeed priceless, namely the health and restoration of our soul. The pagans St. Boniface confronted were following vanities, what St. Paul called “nothing” (“we know that an idol is nothing”), and he was further out to show them the proper use of the wood that had been abusing. So, St. Boniface redeemed the tree, and converted it into its proper function.
We as the children of Adam and Eve are turned from our true selves to vanities, and need to be converted, turned, purified, and see (theoria) properly that we might once again be put to our true purpose, which is union with God. St. Maximus said that truly we shall become God to the extent that God became man. Why and how? We were not created for this world, but for something greater than what Adam was: to be personally united to God and the divine Life the way that God the Son was united to our human life. By this union, through the hypostasis of the Son, divinity is mediated to humanity and humanity to divinity. It is not grace mediated to us, not righteousness, not justice nor goodness nor any other quality. For if this were so we have erected yet another mediator between us and God: merit, or goodness, or faith, or anything else you wish to name. And we shall take this up again at the beginning of next week. A blessed Sunday to all.