Entries with tag resurrection .

Why Orthodox Christians Should Do Their Genealogy

Growing up, I barely knew my extended family. My immediate family was pretty small: just my parents, my sister and me. It wasn’t until after my parents divorced and remarried that my understanding of family dramatically shifted and expanded. As my family grew with these new marriages, so did my desire to know more about where I came from, to know whose sacrifices made me possible and whose features I saw in the mirror.

 

What began as a small hobby has become a huge part of my life today. My family tree – filled with extended cousins and distant ancestors – now has over 4,000 individuals. And as I’ve worked on six other family trees for friends, I have the same excitement each time I learn more about a new member of a family. What was their story? What happened to them?

 

For me, it seems natural that Orthodox Christians would want to learn more about their families. After all, historically Orthodox cultures tend to put a beautiful emphasis on family and extended family relationships.

 

What’s more, Orthodox teaching itself also suggests that it would be wise to study our personal genealogy.

 

1. The God of our fathers

 

In the Great Doxology, we sing “Blessed are You, O Lord, the God of our fathers, and praised and glorified is Your name forever, amen!” Each time I sing this prayer (from the Prayer of Azariah in the Book of Daniel) I’m reminded that our worship as Orthodox Christians is connected to something larger than me. Our God is the God of our fathers, not only of our ancestors but of the Church Fathers and Mothers, those whose sacrifices were the witness to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

 

Our identity as Orthodox Christians rests in our being a part of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. We are rooted in the work and teachings of the Apostles (Apostolic) and when we are gathered in the local church we are united to the whole Body of Christ (Catholic). We surround ourselves by icons of the saints, reminding ourselves that those who came before us are intimately connected to us today through our union with Christ. And before writing or preaching to our world of today, we study the lives and writings of the saints to see what the Fathers had to say on the topic.

 

As Orthodox Christians, we move forward confidently only by knowing that we are firmly rooted on the tried and true foundation of our past. We know where we are going only because we know where we’ve been.

 

And since the Orthodox Church teaches the dignity of both soul and body, the story of who we are includes both our Orthodox story and our biological family’s story. If it is a natural aspect of our spiritual lives as Orthodox Christians to learn about our spiritual family, we ought to also learn about our biological family.

 

2. Attitude of gratitude

 

Father Alexander Schmemann taught that man was intended to be not just Homo sapiens, but ultimately Homo adorans: to offer worship and give praise to God. If individually we offer praise to God, then collectively we give that praise as the Church most clearly in the Liturgy – at the Eucharist. The most Orthodox thing we do is to give thanks (eucharistia) every Sunday. But how does this thanksgiving carry out into all aspects of our lives?

 

We thank God in the Liturgy for all that He has given us. We give thanks during Thanksgiving, and after Christmas, we make sure to thank those who have given us gifts. But have we forgotten our ancestors whose sacrifices and survival made our lives possible? Their gift to us was their survival, their gift to us is that they paved the way for the lives we live today. As the author of The Art of Manliness writes, gratitude has no expiration date. Just learning who these people were, discovering something about them, is our way of saying “thank you” for their gifts to us even if we never noticed them before.

 

Discovering our genealogy helps us to grateful for all of our gifts, for who we are today is because of the prayers, sacrifices, and talents of those who have come before us.

 

3. Relationships matter

 

As people, we all crave relationships. God is love, and created us in His image. In part, this means that we are created to offer love and to live in relationship with others. In the Church, we are given a community, a place where we can grow closer to God together. Even in a secular context, those who study addiction are finding that “the opposite of addiction is not sobriety. It is human connection.” So there’s something powerful about the relationships we choose to have in our lives.

 

In the Orthodox Church, we have a lot of relationships that connect individuals and families in a web of connection. In the Orthodox wedding service, we pray, "Remember also, Lord our God, the parents who have brought them up, for the prayers of parents make firm the foundations of households." So even in what we tend to think of as a service about two people, we are reminded that a wedding is also about two families coming together.

 

The Church gives us Godparents, and connects us as koumbaroi to those who aren’t biologically related to us. Many in the Church actually see koumbaroi to be like biological family since there is a tradition that their children shouldn’t marry each other. In the past, the Church also offered the service of “brother-making” where a priest formally blessed the bond between two friends.

 

So if the Church sees relationships as being powerful, restorative aspects of our lives, what might we benefit by learning about the relationships that came before us? In learning about our ancestors, we will also learn about the relationships they held most dear. Just as we give importance to the web of relationships we have today, so did our ancestors.

 

We honor our relationship to our ancestors by learning about the relationships that they had, too.

 

4. Memory Eternal

 

In the Orthodox Church, we pray that the memories of our departed loved ones will be eternal. Having faith in the resurrection and hoping that God will keep our loved ones forever in His Kingdom, we pray for the dead knowing that they are alive in Christ.

 

Our prayer for those who have passed on is one way that we can work through our sadness and grief. Another way that we can work through this grief is to learn more about those who came before us. If we pray for our grandparents, do we pray for their grandparents too? As our tradition as Orthodox is to pray for persons by name, it would help to know our ancestors names to best pray for them. Genealogy helps us not only to discover their names, but to even learn what struggles they might have encountered in their lives.

 

Just as learning the lives of the saints helps us to identify with their lives, so too can learning the lives of our ancestors help us to better empathize with their struggles and to lift them up in prayer.

 

*****

 

The Orthodox Church teaches us to live lives of gratitude, firmly rooted in the faith of our fathers so that we can offer the world an authentic faith today. In the Church, we discover the importance of relationships and see that our relationships in this life cannot be destroyed by death. And just as we pray for our loved ones, genealogy offers Orthodox Christians the opportunity to encounter those who have departed from this life.

 

Do you know the names of your great-grandparents? How might learning the stories of your ancestors help you to better live in gratitude today?

 

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Sam is the Pastoral Assistant at Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Virginia Beach, Virginia. He grew up in Powhatan, Virginia and studied International Affairs and Spanish at James Madison University. Sam received his MDiv from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in 2013. He loves food, languages and good coffee.

Photo Credit: depositphotos

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Understanding Life After Death

Two weeks ago, we looked at the issue of sadness and grief and how Christians are called to mourn with hope.

So where does this hope in the face of death come from? It comes from knowing that Christ has already destroyed its power. We have hope because we know that death in this life is not the end of our story.

Before we go on, it’s important to note that when the Church talks about death, we’re dealing with what we call speculative theology. This means that we are speculating about the future based on what we do know about God. For this reason, there is some diversity in the teachings of the Church Fathers on what happens after death. This diversity is okay and understandable, and is the reason why this blog post represents only one such understanding of life after death.

With that said, there are certain things we do know which can give us comfort and clarity as we continue the process of grieving a loved one. So let’s look at three things the Orthodox Church teaches that can help us understand life after death.

 

1. The soul isn’t more important than the body, and it isn’t eternal by its nature

Discussions about life after death tend to expose a lot of misunderstandings about what the Orthodox Church teaches about the soul. We hear a lot of things about the soul, especially when we are mourning someone who has passed on. For instance, we might hear that the person has gone “back to God,” that the soul is eternal, or that the person’s soul has been freed from their body. These are only partial truths, so I’d like to discuss each of these in a bit more detail.

First, the statement that we are returning to God imagines that our souls existed before our bodies did. Instead, the Church teaches that our soul and body are both created together at conception. We did not exist before that. So at the death of the body, our soul is not returning to heaven, it is meeting God for the first time in the fullest sense. In the early centuries of the Christian Church, there were some who taught the pre-existence of the soul, but the Church refuted this as heresy (non-Christian teaching). This is an important point because it expresses a fundamental truth about who we are: a human person is both body and soul together.

Second, sometimes we hear that the soul is eternal but the body is not. Along with this comes the idea that the soul is freed from the body at death. This over-emphasis on the soul makes the body seem an afterthought at best, and evil at worst. So what does the Church teach? The soul is not eternal by nature (only God is eternal by nature) but the soul can be eternal by God’s grace. God sustains each of us, and He sustains the soul after the death of the body. But to say that the soul is freed from the body assumes that the body is less important than the soul, or that it is the body which causes us to sin. Jesus Christ taught and witnessed to the resurrection of the body. Since we were created – body and soul – at conception, we are only fully ourselves with our body and soul together. This is why death is so tragic and why we confess our hope and belief in the resurrection of the dead during each Divine Liturgy.

If the body is just shed at death and doesn’t matter, then there’s no reason to treat the body with respect. But the body does matter. This is why we do not cremate our loved ones in the Orthodox Church. This is why we venerate the relics of Christians from the past. Just as our soul is sanctified through a relationship with Jesus, so is our body.  

So if the body is just as important as the soul, and we believe in the resurrection of the body, what happens to the soul after death?

 

2. Heaven is just an appetizer

The Christian life is one of gaining clearer and clearer vision of God. As we grow in a relationship with Christ and with the other members of His Body (the Church), we learn to see God in this life (which is essentially what it means to “be the bee”). We begin to experience a foretaste of the Kingdom of God.

Here’s a metaphor I’ve found helpful. When we’re born in this broken world, it’s like being born with bad vision. Without Christ, we cannot see anything clearly. When we become Christians we’re given glasses, but we’re constantly getting the lenses dirty. The sacraments are God working on us to clean our glasses, over and over again. A life of desiring to see God and of allowing Jesus to give us vision prepares us for the day when our vision will be restored. When we die, we’ll finally be able to see God clearly and will have no need for glasses any more. We will either rejoice in finally seeing Him clearly (if that is what we had been seeking after in this life) or our eyes will hurt with the sudden vision of light after being so long in the dark.

Each time we attend the Divine Liturgy, each time that we receive the sacraments of the Church, we get a foretaste of the Kingdom of God. It’s like taste-testing the food before the wedding. We don’t get the whole meal yet, but we certainly get enough to want to come back for more.

So when we die in this life, we will have a vision of God (whether we like it or not) and we will be before the throne of God. Yet, because our souls have not been reunited with our bodies (and thus we’re not fully ourselves), we will not have the fullness of what the Kingdom of God will be. This experience of heaven is itself only like the appetizer of what is next. The best is yet to come!

 

3. The Kingdom is the main course

At every Divine Liturgy, we confess in the Creed that we “look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the age to come.” This is the fulfillment of all that God has desired for us: to be with Him body and soul, fully experiencing His presence. He desired more for us than this fallen world. He desired that we live with Him in paradise, and this is what the Kingdom will be.

Scripture is clear that we will receive our bodies when Christ returns. We know that our bodies will be different somehow; Jesus was able to eat after His resurrection, but He could also walk through walls (John 20:26). The Kingdom will be a new heaven and a new earth (Revelation 21:1) which is to say that everything will be transfigured, and perfected. This is necessarily a physical kingdom because we will have our bodies resurrected. This is pretty different from the world’s image of an ephemeral, puffy-cloud filled spirit world with little baby angels playing harps, isn’t it?

The Kingdom of God is about this world, renewed and transfigured, free of death and suffering.

Until the Kingdom is established, all who have died will experience Christ’s presence (either as heaven or as torment) but they too will await the Kingdom. So when we discuss the Orthodox understanding of life after death, we have to remember that it isn’t just this life and then the next. We await the Kingdom of God!

*****

In this life, Orthodox Christians have the blessing to experience a taste of the Kingdom of God, and we can take comfort knowing that our departed loved ones have already started on the first course. But one day, we will all be together before the Lord in His Kingdom, forever experiencing the banquet that He has prepared for all of us that love Him (Matthew 22:1-14, Matthew 25:1-13, Revelation 19:9).

At the end of the day, it’s less important that we know exactly what heaven and the Kingdom of God will be like than that we trust in Jesus Christ today. Our mission is to desire to know Him today, to strive to be with Him, to have faith in Him, and to pursue His will over our own. Our Church teaching on the nature of the soul and what happens to us after this life are only meant to direct our attention more and more to know Jesus.

How has the world impacted how you view life after death? Does it change anything for you knowing that the body and the soul are both important? How does this direct you to have a relationship with Christ, today?

 

Sam is the Director of Youth & Young Adult Ministries at Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Wyckoff, New Jersey. He grew up in Powhatan, Virginia and studied International Affairs and Spanish at James Madison University. Sam received his MDiv from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in 2013. He loves food, languages and good coffee.

 

Photo Credit:

Body and Soul

Live through glasses

The Church of the Protection of the Mother of God at Yasenevo

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How to Handle Sadness and Grief

I had mixed emotions after seeing Inside Out. I walked out of the theater feeling uncomfortably sad. The film is set in the mind of a young girl who grapples with joy, sadness, fear, anger, and disgust. Now, I’m used to watching dramas (so I welcome the emotional roller coaster that film can take us on) but somehow Inside Out felt more personal than other movies.

It made me feel my emotions and, after all, who likes to feel sad?

But as the film Inside Out shows us, sadness is a part of this life. As much as we may want to escape feelings we do not enjoy, ignoring them does nothing but keep us from dealing with reality.

Ignoring sadness and grief keeps us from living in the present.

When we experience loss, it can be hard to think of anything else. It can be hard to remember the Resurrection when you’re standing before the Cross. So how can we as Christians better navigate that least favorite of emotions, sadness, and the process of grief?

Here are three things to keep in mind.

1. Let yourself feel

Nobody likes to feel uncomfortable. In fact, we go to great lengths to stay comfortable. It’s what keeps many of us from working out, from keeping a healthy diet, or from going to Confession. So instead of letting ourselves feel negative emotions (sadness, anger, frustration), we try to avoid them or to cover these feelings up with something else. This avoidance of reality can even cause people to turn to food, work, or an addictive behavior in an attempt to cover up the unwelcome feeling.

Unfortunately, this never works. Eventually the feelings bubble up again and we’re forced to work through them. We’re forced to feel. If we never let ourselves feel sad or grieve for our loss, we’ll stay in the first stage of grief (shock and denial) and never get to the last stage of acceptance.

I’ve found that the arts, since they put us to work doing something, are effective in helping us feel. At a recent concert I went to, the singer spoke about how writing music has been her greatest asset in working through her own emotions. And even Pete Docter, the writer and director of Inside Out, spoke of this as he accepted the Oscar for Best Animated Feature earlier this year. He said:

“Anyone out there who’s in junior high, high school, working it out, suffering — there are days you’re going to feel sad. You’re going to feel angry. You’re going to feel scared. That’s nothing you can choose. But you can make stuff. Make films. Draw. Write. It will make a world of difference.”

I was so taken by this statement, because I found it to be true in my own life. In moments of sadness or even moments of joy, I’ve taken to writing. Getting my thoughts and emotions out on paper let me get out of myself and help me sort through the emotions I don’t want to feel.

Not everyone is a writer. Not everyone is creative in the artistic sense of the word, but everyone can create. We all need to feel and then let that emotion out in a healthy way, avoiding one key danger.

2. Don’t fall into despair

When we grieve the loss of something or someone, the temptation is to think we’re alone. We might think we’re the only one that can understand what we feel in that moment, so we try to bear it alone. We can forget that in the Church, we help bear one another’s burdens and that it is Christ who gives us rest when we think we have to bear the weight of the world.

I’m reminded of a quote about despair by an important figure in modern Orthodox history named Elder Sophrony of Essex. He said, "Stand at the brink of the abyss of despair, and when you see that you cannot bear it anymore, draw back a little and have a cup of tea." As one Orthodox blogger commented on this quote, when we feel overwhelmed by our present circumstances, tea helps us rest and stay in the present moment. Taking time to step back and rest helps us to have a better vision of reality.

Despair, on the other hand, keeps us worrying about the past or projecting into the future. So despair has no room in the Christian life.

Staying connected to one another and to Christ keeps us grounded and in the moment. It keeps us from slipping into despair. But that doesn’t mean that there’s no place for mourning and sadness in the life of a Christian.

3. Mourn with hope

At every funeral service, we hear the words of Saint Paul about how to grieve as Christians (1 Thessalonians 4:13-17). We grieve death, but there’s an element of hope behind our grief. At every baptism service, we hear that everyone who has been baptized into Christ gets to participate in His life (Romans 6:3-5). So when we die, we actually live because we are part of His risen Body.

As a Christian, I can have joy in the midst of suffering – even if I can’t feel happy just yet. Happiness is a feeling based on circumstances. But joy is about expectation; it’s an attitude that defies circumstances. It’s about being able to look past the present circumstances to see something greater to come.

We have hope because of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and of our own resurrection. In the midst of our sadness, we can take hope in the fact even Jesus mourned death. He wept when He learned of His friend Lazarus’ death (John 11:35). He didn’t stand stoically and try to bear His pain without showing emotion. But neither did He get lost in waves of pain.

Jesus grieved the pain of separation from His friend and the sadness of death. And then He raised His friend from the dead.

If we are mourning our departed loved ones, having the joy of Christ reminds us to pray for them. This joy calls us to pray for the other members of our family who are dealing with their grief too. We pray for the departed, that their memory will be eternal, and that God will have mercy on those still living in this life.

In prayer, we are able to get out of our own heads and reach out to others. If we are having a hard time putting words to our grief, it’s possible other people are too. That’s why simply being present with our family and being there for them is an inseparable component of dealing with our own grief too.

*****

My Uncle Art passed away two weeks ago. As I write this, I’m still coming to realize how I’m grieving his life and the relationship we weren’t able to cultivate. But when I remember to pray for him and to pray for my family, and when I try to be present with them, I see that I don’t bear my grief alone. As frustrating and painful as death is, I have hope in Christ.

It’s important that we allow ourselves to feel and to be aware of our own sadness and grief. Turning to Christ and to the Church guides our mourning and keeps us from falling into despair.

How do you handle sadness and grief? Have you found that the arts help you to mourn and to navigate loss? How does having a relationship with Jesus, rooted in the life of the Church, keep you from falling into despair?

 

Sam is the Director of Youth & Young Adult Ministries at Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Wyckoff, New Jersey. He grew up in Powhatan, Virginia and studied International Affairs and Spanish at James Madison University. Sam received his MDiv from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in 2013. He loves food, languages and good coffee.

Photo Credit:

Eye 

Maryia Paskovsky – “Tea Cup illustration2”

Candles

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Crosses That Kill - Sunday After Holy Cross

Die before you die. There is no chance after.
- C.S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces

For most of my early adulthood, I moved a lot. I lived in Illinois, then in various places in California, then I moved to Minnesota, and then to Arizona. I did all of this without so much as a second thought. I was almost always thinking about the future or what my next move was or what it would be like to be somewhere else. And at the time, I could do that because I was single.

My wanderlust and obsession with what I was going to do with my life wasn’t necessarily a problem, but it was kind of selfish. But even this selfishness didn’t seem problematic because I didn’t have to answer to anybody. My life was just that: mine.

But then I got married. And suddenly, my life wasnt my own anymore.

Indeed, it never really had been.

Now, with a wife and two kids, every day I see that my family and I can’t just up and leave Arizona whenever I feel like it. Moving homes, jobs, states is more difficult than before because suddenly there are far more people to consider: not just my family but our friends, our children’s grandparents, our parish community. Simply wanting to move is not a good enough reason to do so.

This has been one of the most difficult realizations for me. Having to stay in one place has been remarkably (and unexpectedly) hard for me.

In my early adulthood, I didn’t stay put because I didn’t have to. I was always thinking about “what was next” because the future presented unlimited possibility, and that was exciting. But in retrospect, that excitement hid a deeper problem: excitement for where I was headed was making discontentment over where I was.

I didn’t have to experience discontentedness now as long as I kept my focus on what (I hoped) was to come.

I was oblivious for years. It was only when I stopped moving that I first realized that I dont have a love for adventure; rather, I have a distaste for the present.

When my life was in constant motion, when I lived in hopes for the future instead of the reality of the present, I never had to confront this sin (yes, sin) of mine. Yet now that I’m forced to sit still, finding satisfaction where I am is a bit more difficult.

But God desires to transform my heart.

And God has decided to do this through the cross of my marriage and family.

We usually think of “our crosses” as the things in our lives that “we just have put up with,” like a bad boss or a difficult sibling relationship: “Well, hes just my cross to bear.” We consider “bearing the cross” tantamount simply to putting up with hard things, things we’d rather not deal with.

Indeed, sometimes I’m tempted to do think this way myself:

Well, I guess we cant move to Chicago, where I really want to be. I guess this whole having to think of a family is just my cross to bear!

So while that is an option, I highly doubt that resigning myself to being a victim of my circumstances is what Christ had in mind in this passage, which we’ll read on Sunday:

If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it. For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? (Mk. 8:34-36)

Christ shows us that crosses are more than burdens to be carried. They are things upon which we die. But not only that, they are things upon which we die willingly as we seek to become increasingly like Christ.

Sure, our crosses will be painful. They must be. Dying hurts. Crucifixion hurts. But the point of the cross is not the pain; it is the death. And for Christians, taking up the cross is a matter of willingly embracing the burdens we face for the sake of becoming like Christ.

For the sake of the Resurrection.

For me, the cross of my marriage and family forces me to stay put, and its up to me whether I will crucify my Discontented Self in order to meet Christ here and now, in my marriage and family, as my cross finds its meaning in Christs Cross.

These painful crosses demand our reflection if we are to understand why they have been given to us. By asking tough questions, we may find what God is doing in our hearts through the struggle: “Why is this cross so particularly painful? What in me is being crucified?

For me, part of leaning into my salvation and gaining my soul means forfeiting my desire to move any given time. The Lord is inviting me to release my impulse to seek fulfillment through new experiences and is instead trying to teach me how to be content in Him, wherever I may be. He is inviting me to say along with St. Paul, “I have learned to be content with whatever I have…I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength” (Phil. 4:11,13).

My burden feels heavy because my propensity toward discontentment is being slaughtered, and its painful. So when we find ourselves thinking, “This is just my cross to bear,” chances are we exactly in the place where God is inviting us to crucify the old man in us and put on the new man (Ephesians 4:20-24).

As we put on Christ. 

Our hearts are full of jealousies and addictions and deceit. We are called to die before we die, to put our attachments and our entitlement to death that we might cling to Christ and find new life.

But it’s going to hurt before that..

Our crosses are burdens, yes, but they aren’t just burdens. Crosses aren’t for carrying: they’re for crucifying; putting our disordered loves to death as we find new life in Love Himself.

Our crosses give us life if we will let them, and the only way they can do so is if we willingly take them up and die upon them.

If we wish to truly live, we must die before we die.

Photo Credit:

Luggage pinprick via Compfight cc

Cross: freefotouk via Compfight cc 

Christian is a Young Adult Ministries Coordinator for Y2AM. He is a husband, father, mover, shaker, coffee drinker, sandal wearer, and CrossFitter. Christian has his MA from Azusa Pacific University in Marriage and Family Therapy and is working toward a second MA in Children, Youth, and Family Ministry from Luther Seminary. Christian and his family live in Phoenix, Arizona.

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For more:

For more on the Cross, check out this episode of Be the Bee:

For more on the releasing attachments, check out this episode of Be the Bee:

For more on getting involved, check out this episode of Be the Bee:

I'm Just Gonna Shave, Shave, Shave...Shave It Off – Sunday of the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council

Sometimes I really want to shave my beard.

I’ve been thinking about it a lot, if I may admit it.

I’ve had the beard since 2009, so 6 years of having hair on my face has left me a little curious as to what it looks like underneath.

My wife and I have had multiple conversations about when it would be a good idea for me to shave my beard (like maybe when I’m on a trip for a few days or something, that way it is at least partially grown back by the time I return home). Ultimately, however, it keeps coming back to a pretty basic reality: my family, especially my daughter, has gotten used to what I look like with the beard.

If I were to shave, she likely wouldn’t recognize me because what my face actually looks like would confront her image of me. If she were to see what my bare face actually looks like, it might scare her or cause her to wonder, “Are you really my dad?”

And some times, I wonder if we do the same thing with God.

The other day I asked my daughter what I thought would be a very simple question: “What is God like?”

She paused, looked at me for a few seconds, shrugged her shoulders and offered perhaps the most theologically sound response of all time: “I can’t even spell ‘God!’”

The more I think about it, the more I realize that all great theology, that is to say, all great knowledge about God starts with the simple admission of God’s utter transcendence, magnificence, and otherness.

Following my conversation with my little one, I asked a handful of my friends to describe God. Their initial responses were all fairly consistent:

  • “Describe the indescribable?”
  • “I can’t.”
  • “That’s a big question!”
  • “Is it weird that that makes me panic a little bit?”

In each response, it was clear that my friends were on to the same thing as my daughter: I can’t even spell “God.”

After pushing a little further, however, I started receiving answers like this:

  • “He’s paradoxical. He’s somehow personable and mysterious. Like Jesus feels knowable and relatable, but the other aspects of God seem so much more lofty and full of theology to the point of making my stomach hurt.”
  • “The fact that He’s the God of the Old Testament and the New seems paradoxical because He’s described as jealous and vengeful, but is not that in the New Testament or at least in a different way.”
  • “He’s loving. Fatherly. Strict, but fair. He created us, so I think He wants us to be the best we can be.”
  • “Our all-knowing, all-loving creator. He is the truth, life, light. Yet inconceivable.”

And the thing is that God is those things. As we pray daily, God is “everywhere present and filling all things,” and in the Liturgy we state that God “brought us from nothingness into being.” Only one who is all-powerful could bring forth something out of nothing.

Unfortunately, I wonder if the God we – I follow is too much a god of my own mental construction. Perhaps I think of Him too much as “God with a beard.” I wonder if I have become too comfortable with God existing in my own image of Him.

Bear with me.

The Jews of Christ’s time all had “Old Testament” ideas about Who God is and how God acts, but when Christ came to them, that is, when God “shaved His beard” and showed His actual face, they couldn’t handle it.

The first generation of Christians knew how completely mind-boggling the incarnation is, how completely incomprehensible Christ’s death on a Cross is. They knew that the Gospel is something that neither philosophers nor priests could fully comprehend, a challenge to everything that anyone thought we knew about anything, because “we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness” (1 Cor 1:23)

The Church has long confessed that Jesus Christ is all that it is to be God and all that it is to be human. To speak of the man Jesus is to speak of Almighty God. But the God we are given in Christ is so entirely different from the god we have in our minds that when God came near us as a human, we killed Him, just because we couldn’t stand it anymore. We liked our ideas about God better than the revelation of God’s very Person.

I think we see this in particular when Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the One they have been waiting for. Jesus enthusiastically says, “You’re right! Blessed are you, Simon Peter! And now I’m going to go to Jerusalem to die!” But for Peter, the Messiah is a political figure who conquers Rome and restores Israel as a kingdom, not someone who will suffer at the hands of sinful and violent men. So naturally, Peter tries to rebuke Jesus (i.e., “You’ve got it wrong, Jesus…let me tell you what the Messiah really does…”), but following this, Peter receives the harshest indictment that Christ conjures in the Gospels: “Get behind me, Satan. You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (Matt. 16:23).

Ouch.

Like Peter, I fear that we also are far too comfortable with our mental images of God being powerful according to a human definition of power. The God that Peter expected – and the God that we expect – does not come to us as a conquering King, but rather as a Suffering Servant.

And we struggle with this.

This Sunday is the commemoration of the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council, and we are invited to crucify our faulty ideas about the divine and instead contemplate the God who reveals Himself in the all-too-human Christ.

Part of the Gospel this Sunday reads, “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (Jn. 17:3). To know God as He willingly and fully reveals Himself in Jesus Christ is the key to eternal life. Thus, to know God, we cannot look anywhere else than at Christ.

Not our experiences, not our feelings – and certainly not our thoughts and reason.

The Council convened initially to dispel the destructive heresy of Arius, who taught that Jesus Christ was not God, but rather was a created being, just like you and me. This may make me unpopular, but…I guess I kind of get why Arius would have thought that.

Hear me out.

I wonder if Arius’ impulse was the same as ours. Perhaps he simply felt uncomfortable that God had “shaved His beard” in Christ, came down to us, dwelt among us, and (even more scandalously) had died as one of us. Perhaps the thought of the impassable God becoming a vulnerable human was simply inconceivable for Arius.

Perhaps Arius would have been more comfortable with a lightning bolt-throwing, cloud-parting, earth-quaking God whose power was made manifest in the kinds of ways we would expect a god to make himself known.

But that god is not our God.

Our God is a God who came into a world with no room for Him and considered a straw-filled manger to be a basinet fit for a King.

Our God is a God who touches the sick and makes them whole.

Our God is a God who snuck away from the crowds who wanted to make Him their ruler.

Our God is a God who had no place to lay His head.

Our God is a God who did not disdain humanity, but rather, chose fully to identify with humankind to the point of death – even death on the Cross.

And it is this God, whose power is made perfect in weakness, that we are invited to know this Sunday – not some god who is an amalgam of powerful images existing only in our heads.

No, our God is the crucified and exalted Christ, the Holy One of Israel.

But this God, the God who is revealed in and through the crucified and exalted Christ, makes us a little uncomfortable compared with the God of our imaginings. We want a god who can zap bad guys, who can give us job promotions if we just pray hard enough, or (even) who gets really mad at us when we screw up.

But that god isn’t our God.

Instead, we are given Christ. The crucified one who willingly endured the shame of the Cross, even at the hands of those He came to save. The one who didn’t cast down thunderbolts from the Cross, but rather forgave His killers. 

But part of the reason that this God-Man, Jesus, makes us uncomfortable is not only because He reveals a God who willingly unites Himself to weakness, but because He also fully reveals to us our own weakness and vulnerability.

And that is what really makes us uncomfortable.

The reality is that just as much as we can look at Jesus and see all that it is to truly be God –  long-suffering, humble, healing, patient, self-giving – we also look at Jesus and see all that it is to be human – weak, frail, mortal, dependent, vulnerable.

We do not want to be vulnerable, because it feels like death, and this reminds us, that we, too, are mortal.

Often, in our fear-based culture, we think of ways to “insure” ourselves against disaster, disease, and death, thinking that if we just quit smoking, we might live another 10 years.

But it’s not just physical vulnerability that makes us nervous. It’s also social vulnerability that makes us dread being fragile and frail humans, so we often gird our loins and try to put our “best selves” forward, believing that if people saw us with “shaved faces,” they may not like what they see.

And so we ignore our family members so we can work longer hours, believing that the next job promotion will give us the status that will complete us. We gossip about others so that we can feel that at least we’re better off than someone. We lie to those we love in order to avoid disconnection with them for fear that “if they really knew who I am” we would lose them forever.

We are a culture that lives, breathes, and dies shame, “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”[1] And so we do all we can to avoid this kind of vulnerability wherever it appears, including turning away from those who are openly vulnerable themselves.

We look the other way when we see the poor at freeway off-ramps. We debate the ethics of abortion instead of doing the costly work of building an orphanage in every city in America. We distance ourselves with advice when our friends and family members open their suffering to us instead of simply “being there,” offering a hug and a mere “I’m with you until the end.

This is the vulnerability of our God. It is not a vulnerability that offered advice about our miserable state, but rather is a vulnerability that shared it. Willingly.

Shamelessly.

This kind of vulnerability scares us, though, because suffering sucks. But to avoid vulnerability is to cease to be human for to be human is to be vulnerable.

And this Sunday, Christ invites us to accept our vulnerability, praying, “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one” (Jn. 17:11). If Christ reveals a God who suffers with human beings, then we as His Living Body will also be called to be a Church that suffers with human beings.

Vulnerability is the name of the game. God has shaved His beard, inviting us to do the same. Instead of turning away from the vulnerability we each possess, God asks that we, instead, turn toward one another, holding each other close in our shared humanity – a shared humanity that suffers vulnerability and dies.

God shares that vulnerability doesn’t have to scare us because He has already “been there and done that,” revealing that on the other side of dying is not death, but abundant and everlasting life.

So let us be brave and walk the path of vulnerability with Jesus Christ, the God who shares in our common humanity, trusting that if vulnerability was good enough for Him, it’s certainly more than enough for us.

What do you think? Is vulnerability something that scares you? What do you do to avoid confronting your own vulnerability? How does it comfort or bother you to know that Christ has identified with your own vulnerability? Comment below!

 

[1] Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead (New York: Avery, 2012), p. 69.

Christian is a Young Adult Ministries Coordinator for Y2AM. He is a husband, father, mover, shaker, coffee drinker, sandal wearer, and CrossFitter. Christian has his MA from Azusa Pacific University in Marriage and Family Therapy and is working toward a second MA in Children, Youth, and Family Ministry from Luther Seminary. Christian and his family live in Phoenix, Arizona.

Photo Credits:

Half Shaved: Éole via Compfight cc

Nicea Icon: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Nicaea_icon.jpg

Crucifixion: RobertoUrrea via Compfight cc

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For more:

For more on Christ as revealing true humanity, check out this episode of Be the Bee:

For more on the power of the Cross and the transformation of vulnerability and death, check out this episode of Be the Bee:

 

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