Audio length: 56:11 minutes
Transcript published: May 18, 2011
Fr. Thomas has explored Jesus as the Way, the Truth, and now, the Life. What does life mean and how is Christ identified as THE life?
In St. John’s Gospel, Jesus says, “I am the way and the truth and the life.” We want to think a little bit today about what does it mean when Jesus says, “I am the life.” We have to think what life is. What do we mean when I say the term “life” or “living”? Here we know that in Holy Scripture and in Tradition, that term “life,” like the term “death,” is used very many different ways. Simply today what we want to see are two meanings of that term.
First of all, there is the term “life” [which] can mean biological life, just that something or someone is physically, biologically alive. Even the term “biological” comes from the Greek word “bios,” and “bios” means “life, living.” “Biological” usually has to do with the living of plants, of cells, like trees and flowers that can live and can die. A tree can die. A flower can wither. So there is biological life.
But then there is also animal life, and it’s interesting here also to note that the term “zoe” has to do with living things in the sense of their being animate. And it’s interesting that the word “zoe” means “life,” but the term “animal” in English comes from the Latin “anima” and “anima” means “soul,” “psyche” in Greek. Here you also have another difficulty because in the Hebrew language, the term for life is “nephesh.” It’s like breath. It’s being vivified, acting, living. That is sometimes, in fact it’s always translated in the Greek Scripture, the Old and the New Testaments, as “psyche,” which is “soul,” which complicates the issue very, very much.
When Jesus says, “What will man give in return for his—“Well, does he say “life” or does he say “soul”? It amounts to the same thing, and certainly in Hebrew it would amount to the same thing. But here we’re simply talking about living in the normal, everyday, earthly sense of the term. So we say that the plants are living, trees are living, flowers are living. Then we know that animals are living: fish and birds and bears and bulls and horses, whatever, dogs, cats. They’re all living. They’re living things, and they can die.
The same thing is true about the human being. The human being is created to live. In Genesis, you have the Genesis stories. There’s two of them, where Jesus says, “Let the earth and let the waters bring forth all swarms of living things.” Now Genesis 24: “Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kinds.” Cattle, creeping things, birds, beasts, and so on. He says, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures. Let birds fly above the earth, across the firmament of heaven.” God created the sea monster and every living creature that moves, and the waters swarm with life according to their kinds.
So there is this vivifying, coming alive, moving, acting, eating, drinking, and then all the things that living creatures do. They even struggle with one another and so on. Now when you come to the human being, you have the very same thing. Not only according to Genesis are all the living beings brought to Adam to name them—it’s a wonderful part of Scripture that God asks Adam, man, to name them, everything that has, as it says, “the breath of life within it”: the green plants and the animals, the things that creep and the things that fly and swim in the waters; Adam himself is the Lord over all of these—but Adam himself is created from the beginning as a living being.
It says, “The Lord God formed man from the dust from the ground. He breathed in his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being.” St. Paul is going to pick that up when he contemplates who Jesus Christ is. He’s going to say the first Adam was a living being, but the second Adam, Jesus, is a life-creating spirit. As we bore the image of the man of dust, we’ll bear the image of the man of heaven. But what we have to see now is that the human being is a living being also.
The human being is an animal in that sense, but, as the old Aristotelians and rationalists used to say, we are a rational animal. We are not only psychic, we are spiritual. We’re not only psychikos, we are pneumatikos. In addition to being psychikos and somatikos. In other words, we are bodily, we are flesh, we are vivified, we are animals in the sense that we are alive, but we are also spiritual. We’re logikos, pneumatikos; that means that we can think, that we can speak, that we can act, that we can will, that we can choose, that we can know, and that we can do good. And then, of course, because we have that kind of life, the life in the image and likeness of God, then, sadly, we can also choose to do evil. We can choose to do harm. We can turn our back on the God who made us. We can refuse to be grateful. We can refuse to offer God glory and honor. And therefore, it is certainly the case that we are capable of dying.
Now when we think about dying, biological dying, there [are] plenty of question about this issue. Is death a natural thing for man? Is it not? How do we understand that? I can only tell you what I think about it now, at this point in my life, and that is this: that the Scripture tells us that human beings were made to live, not to die. It says in the Wisdom of Solomon, God did not make death for human beings. There’s a question about, in the natural world, the trees and the plants and the animals. Yeah, they die; they live and they die, but there is a sense in which I do believe that the Christians would hold, according to our understanding of things, certainly through the Cross of Christ as we read the Scriptures of the Old Covenant, that God did not want human beings to die, that human beings had the possibility of keeping themselves alive, of not being under the powers, like the animals and the plants, of simply growing old and growing weak and becoming senile and dying.
You could say, well, if you look at the world naturally, that’s what we see. But the Christian faith would hold: yeah, that’s certainly what we see, but that’s not God’s intention. God’s intention was that human beings, made in his image and likeness, would have control over the cosmos, would be able to govern and take care of the animals and the plants who are raging and warring and living and dying and so on. And that if the human being would be what God created us to be, if we would be the way God made us to be, then our conviction is we would never die. We would have the Holy Spirit in us. We would have the power of life in us. Therefore, for human beings, biological death is a tragedy. It’s a tragedy. Here you don’t need the Bible or anything else to know that we really feel that it’s a tragedy.
Of course, people could say, “Oh, well, Lucy had a long life and she lived to 90. She didn’t suffer much, so she had a good life.” But as a matter of fact, Lucy’s dead! Even if Lucy lived to 90, she’s dead. Everybody’s dead. When people die, we weep. We say, “No! This is alien. This is an enemy.” We sing like John of Damascus says, “Why are we wedded unto death?” Why did God give us, as the poet says, “intimations of immortality”? Why could we have intuitions and intimations and contemplations of unending, perfect, glorious life, living forever in love with all our loved ones and with the whole of creation, only to know that, it says in the psalm, we die like any beast. We’re cursed and rotten, corrupt and stink like any beast.
Even if you take the best-case scenario, that you’d have a long life, and you wouldn’t have much suffering, and you’d die with a lot of kids, you could say, “Well, that’s about as good as it gets, naturally speaking.” I would even claim that it’s the teaching of the Old Testament, the scriptures of the Old Testament, that in this world, that is as good as it gets. [That is] the best that you can hope for in this world. I believe, when I read the law, the psalms, and the prophets, that, unless God acts to raise the dead, unless death is destroyed and conquered, the best that you could hope for is that you would have a happy life, that you wouldn’t suffer, you wouldn’t have much pain, you would have food and drink, that you would have good friends, that you would have lots of children that would carry on your name and your memory from generation to generation, and that you would die in old age a natural death, and then be taken into the bosom of Abraham, unto the Fathers, “returning to God” while your body returns to the dust.
That seems to be as good as it gets in the Bible. It doesn’t get better than that. But even that is outrageous. Even that is unacceptable to a human being who can think and who can act and who can say, “Why should we grow old? Why should we get sick? Why should we just die even if we have a peaceful death?” Or as they say nowadays, “a death with dignity.” I’ve been a priest now for 46 years, and I’ve seen lots of people die. I’ve been up close with all kinds of deaths, from babies born dead to whatever, hangings. I’ve cut down three people in my life. It ain’t dignified. It’s not dignified ever. There’s no such thing. It’s ugly. It’s repulsive. It’s horrid. If the person dies and you just leave them there, they’ll just rot and stink and smell, and I’ve smelled that smell, too. It ain’t good.
Some people solve it by saying, “Well, that’s how it is, and if you have a long, good, happy life, and you just disappear afterwards, your sorrows are over and that’s as good as it gets.” Some people say, “Oh, no. You have a spirit in you. You have a soul in you. And when you die, your body rots, but your soul goes off to contemplate eternal realities in some purely spiritually heavenly world.” That’s Platonism, basically, and even in some sense, that’s Hinduism and Buddhism, that the spiritual reality somehow remains and so on. But that’s not the Biblical teaching at all.
If you read the Old Testament, when it speaks about life and death, I think that you could say that if I described what seems to be about as good as it gets, what would it be when it’s as bad as it gets? Well, it’s as bad as it gets when a person dies young, when they don’t have a chance to live. Maybe they die in their mother’s womb, as it says in the psalm: the untimely birth that never sees the sun. That’s a tragedy. Or an infant, or a child who dies young.
Actually, I think if you were accurate in the Scripture, it would say the worst possible death is not even when you die young. It’s when you die at the height of your humanity. It’s when you die when you’re in your early middle age; when you’re grown up and you can do lots of things and you can live and you can act and you can make love and you can do all these things, and then you die. And then the worst possible death is if you die by disease.
The death even worse than that is if you die at the hands of natural catastrophe: the tree falls on you and it kills you, or the rocks, or you drown in the water. Or, even worse than that is if your enemy kills you. If your human enemy comes and simply murders you. To be murdered at middle age, at the height of your humanity, and you can even add something worse to that: no children! Suppose you have no family, no children, no wife. You’re strong, you’re healthy, you’re going to start, you’re going to live, and you get struck down and you die. Well, if you read the Scripture, that’s what the people are praying against all the time. They say, “Let me live [to be] old. Let me [have] length of days.” In fact, you can say that the Old Testament really doesn’t know everlasting life, at least in the earlier texts.
Then a huge debate raged among the people of Israel. Is there resurrection or is there not? When we read the New Testament, we know that that was a huge, huge issue at the time of Jesus. The Gospels and the writing of St. Paul are filled with this issue, because there were the Pharisees who believed in resurrection, who expected the resurrection. When they interpreted the Old Testament scriptures, they believed that God was going to act to raise the dead. That’s how they understand it, that there would be a resurrection of the dead and that everything would be restored and the graves would be opened.
The Pharisees not only believed in the resurrection of the dead, but they believed in angels and they believed in spirits. They believed [also] that human beings are vivified and living and are souls, living souls. The question is do we have a soul or are we a soul? Do we have a body or are we a body? It just depends how you speak. I can say, “I have a soul. I have a body,” but more technically, I think you have to say, “I am an ensouled body. I am a vivified flesh. I am an incarnate spirit, and I’m a whole person.” Spirit, soul, and body, according to the Scriptures as the ancient Christians understand them, all go together. When those things disintegrate, you’re dead.
In fact, to this day in the Orthodox Church, the prayers that are in the priest’s prayerbook for someone who is dying is called “The Separation of Soul and Body.” When the soul and body separate, you’re dead. People could say, “Well, the soul’s in the hands of God.” Well, it is. Everything’s in the hands of God. No Christian would ever say, “Oh, it’s good that we die. The soul now is liberated from the curséd flesh.” That’s Platonism. And, “The soul now goes back to where it was.” Even when people say “return to God” or “going home.” Those are not Biblical expressions at all, in my opinion.
To say when someone dies, “They go home”: where’s home? This is our home. Earth is our home. This is where we’re supposed to live. Christians believe that God is going to raise the dead and recreate creation and we’re going to live in this created order forever and ever, with a hundred thousand billion galaxies, a hundred thousand billion stars and all the trees and the plants and the animals. We believe that all that is going to be restored and is restored by the resurrected Christ. We don’t believe in a spiritual heaven where souls go. This is where we belong.
The kingdom of God is not of this world, but this world is created to be the kingdom of God. This world was not created to corrupt and disappear and be useless. So, in the Orthodox way of understanding the Bible, there [are] angels and spirits and human beings and plants and animals, and all this is good and created to live and created to go forever. We could even say that, perhaps—maybe not even perhaps, but it seems pretty sure—the animals and the plants do live in a kind of a cyclical way. The human beings that feed from them, they live for them, they care for them, but you have to say that the plants and the animals, they live for the sake of the human being. That’s pretty clear from Scripture. They serve the human being. That’s how they fulfill themselves as creatures of God.
What we want to see now is that there were the Sadducees also, who did not believe in resurrection, did not believe in angel or spirit. They believe when you’re dead, you’re dead and that’s it, and the best you can get in this live is to keep God’s commandments and have a long, happy life with a lot of kids and then die in old age and that’s it. It’s over. If you read the New Testament, which is highly recommended if you’re going to think about these things as a Christian… I’m still amazed in my old age how many people have opinions about the Bible and the New Testament and the Gospels and St. Paul and hardly ever read it, and never really study it. You have kids who say, “I don’t believe in God.” I say, “Did you ever read the New Testament?” “Well, a little here and there. I heard it in church.” You can’t do that. If you’re going to be serious about it, you’ve got to read it and read what it says and read it all. Excuse me for that, but that’s really the truth.
What is it that St. Paul is doing all the time? He says he’s on trial for the Resurrection. He’s preaching the Resurrection. He was preaching the Resurrection so much that they Gentiles thought he was preaching a new god, one called “Christos” and one called “Anastasia” or “Anastasis”: one called “the Anointed” and one called “the Resurrection.” If you read the end of the Book of Acts, for example, St. Paul gets out of trouble all the time. When he’s arrested, he creates arguments among the Jews themselves, because the minute he says, “I’m on trial for the Resurrection,” the Jews start fighting among themselves about whether there is a resurrection or whether there isn’t any.
We’re going to see, of course, that Jesus is not only “the life,” he is “the resurrection and the life.” He says not only, “I am the way, the truth, and the life”—that’s what we’re thinking about now—but he says, “I am the resurrection and the life.” We’ll get to that in the future, God willing. For today, we have to see first of all that there’s just life; life as we live it in this world; the lives of the plants, the animals, and the human beings, and there’s this biological life.
Here, the claim would be that the human beings are not supposed to die. The teaching of the Scripture would be that we only die—or you might even want to put it another way—we only lose the power of keeping ourselves alive, in other words, death triumphs over us, because death is inherent in our nature. If we’re creatures, there’s always the possibility of dying. Theoretically, the human beings are supposed to keep themselves alive.
Then the claim of Holy Scripture would be: if you keep the commandments of God, if you do not sin, if you glorify God, thank God, and obey God and love God, God will keep you alive forever. That’s the way you keep yourself alive. You keep yourself alive by keeping the commandments of God.
We would understand the very first pages of the Bible, of the book of Genesis in this way, that in the symbolical language of the Genesis stories, you have two trees in the garden where the human beings are living, Adam and Eve. That means humanity: man and woman. Their life would be a paradise and they would enjoy everything that God gave them and would take care of all the plants and animals, and they would cultivate the whole creation.
Some saints, I think even St. Maximus and others, would even somehow give us the idea that humanity was meant to transform the whole of the cosmos into the kingdom of God, because in the Genesis stories, there’s an “outside Paradise.” There’s a chaos out there. There’s a place where the demons, so to speak, are already raging. And man was supposed to bring the presence of God there and destroy the demons and overcome death and increase and multiply and live forever. That seems to be the vision from the beginning. It’s certainly the vision that’s given in Christ, and Christ always says that what he was teaching was God’s intention from the beginning.
But in the language of Genesis, there’s not only this tree of life which symbolizes participation in God and keeping his commandments and not dying, but there’s the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. If you even touch it and taste of it you die. The day you touch it or taste of it, you die. What does that mean? It seems to mean that that tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and tasting it and touching it and making it your own, means you give yourself over to sin. You break the commandments of God. You don’t love God, because you don’t honor him and glorify him, and you follow your own mind and you listen to the serpent, the serpent which stands for earthly wisdom or the devil himself.
In any case, whatever those fine points might be, the main point is very clear: The minute you sin, you die. If you sin, you die. St. Paul puts it very starkly: “The wages of sin is death.” So we can’t keep ourselves alive? “Who can keep themselves alive?” the psalmist sings. Why can’t we keep ourselves alive? We know that we should live, yet we die like any beast. Why is it? Because our relationship with God has been broken. It’s skewed.
We need to be ransomed from death. The psalms are filled with those sentences. Who’s going to ransom himself from death? Who’s going to bring me up from Sheol? How am I going to be delivered from all of this? Why am I wedded to death? Why do I die? Well, it’s because I’m an unrighteous person, so the best thing I can hope for is to have a long, happy life with not suffering and lots of kids. That’s beautiful, but that ain’t the end of it, because even that is tragic. In some sense, that’s even more tragic. If you live a long life and don’t suffer too much and everything was happy, and then you die anyway, and everything is gone, it’s madness. According to the proverbs, that’s just madness to live for that.
But the claim, certainly as Orthodox Christians understand the Scriptures, is that if you don’t sin, you don’t die. And if you don’t sin, you really cannot die, biologically die. You can keep yourself alive. You can have that power. But when you read the Genesis story, it’s very clear: Humanity sins and dies and returns to the earth, and life becomes a pain and suffering. Therefore, either that’s it, or God has to act to save the world. God has to redeem what he made. Our conviction is that he does. God does redeem what he made.
When you look at it this way… and you can even equate biological life with everlasting life, because everlasting life has to be biological life. We believe in the resurrection of the dead with our bodies, and they’re not just disincarnate or detached spirits with no bodies. No, that’s not the Biblical teaching as far as Orthodox Christians understand it. So in a sense, we have to say: Eternal and everlasting life has to be biological life. It has to be the life of this world as we know it that God created us for, that would literally never end. It wouldn’t just be “length of days,” it would be “eis tous aionas ton aionon,” unto ages of ages with never dying.
Understanding it this way, we would say this, that biological life for a human being is to keep the commandments of God and to love God and to love God with all our mind, soul, heart, and strength; to love our neighbors as [ourselves]; and to do no evil. Then the claim would be if we would do that then we would live forever. So biological life would become everlasting life. It would become eternal life.
Here you’ve got to be careful with the word “eternal,” because “eternal” technically means “without time.” Only God in that sense is eternal, and even beyond eternity. Our holy Fathers say God is beyond time and no-time. He’s beyond eternity and time. But technically “eternity” means an absence of time. For a creature there can never be an absence of time, because we are creatures. And if you’re creatures, then you’re not perfect. And if you’re not perfect, then you’re developing, you’re growing. You need to have time.
But the Scripture rather speaks of the “everlasting life,” a life “without end.” Yeah, it grows, it moves, there’s time, but even here when we think of time, time, relative in the sinful world, is an enemy, so to speak, because in the chronological time, we grow weaker, we grow older, we grow senile, we lose our memory, we get sick, and we die. But the claim is, it doesn’t have to be that way. There can be a time where it’s better and better and fuller and fuller and deeper and deeper and more alive and more alive and more alive forever!
In fact, that would be the Christian view of what it means to be a human being, to be an unending—St. Gregory of Nyssa called it—epektasis, an unending growth of life, where you become more alive, more godlike, more knowing, more acting, more loving, more—in relation with everything, every star, every planet, every seed, every drop of rain, every grain of sand. We have a deeper relation with that forever, but there is a sense that there is a time.
I would say you cannot say that in the kingdom of God there is no time. There is no chronos, yeah. That means there’s no senility and you don’t corrupt and die. You don’t grow older. There’s no growing older. You might even say that when time is operating as God created it to be, we are constantly growing younger. We are constantly being rejuvenated, more vivified, more alive, more human, more godlike.
What we want to see here now is that the life as we know is meant to be everlasting. When Jesus says that he gives “eternal life,” he means that we can have that life right now. We could live in the everlasting life, the life of God himself, the life of the living God. We can have that life right now, and our life can be this way. Then the claim is even made that when we have this life, what St. Paul in [the] letter to Timothy calls “the life that is life indeed”—and here what we have to say right now: the life that Christ himself is when he says, “I am the life,” or when St. Paul says, “When Christ who is our life appears, we will appear with him in glory”...
So both St. Paul and St. John call Jesus—according to their writings, Jesus is the life. In St. John’s writing, Jesus says, “I am the life.” St. Paul says, “When Christ who is our life appears.” So we would say as Christians that Christ is the life. He’s the life of everything that lives. He’s the life of the tree, the life of the bird, the life of the plant. He’s the life of every human being. He is the life.
He is the life, and here, at some point on the radio when I get to tell about Darwin, I’m going to tell about how Metropolitan Tryfon Turkestanov—the one who wrote the beautiful Akathistos “Glory to God for All Things”; we’ll talk about that later—but he said, “Darwin couldn’t have been all bad if he was interested in life and wanting to know how life operates and how life moves and why we live and why we die and how species appear and all that kind of stuff.” He said, “Because whether Darwin knew it or not”—this metropolitan in Russia said, in the beginning of [the] last century—“he was interested in Christ, because Christ is life.”
You cannot be interested in life and not, ultimately, be interested in Christ. And certainly the opposite is true: If you are interested in Christ, you are interested in life. You are interested in living. Here we would say that even now in this world, even though we are going to die, Christ gives us the possibility to transform death into an act of life, to shatter death and to enter into everlasting life and to have the coming kingdom, when all things will be made alive again and everything will be vivified and God will know what to do with it all.
It may even be that God will raise up, I don’t know, the dinosaurs and every possible species that ever existed. We’ll all have unending life with God in ways that God himself knows. I believe Christians should believe that and hope in that, that’s for sure. That nothing would be lost, as Jesus says. “I have come that nothing would be lost, nothing.” Whatever existed, whatever’s extinct, all the species that no longer [exist].
I heard the other day in my studies about this science that probably scientists think that 99% of the species of the plants and animals that existed on earth are already extinct. So there needs to be a salvation of it all. Is there or is there not? Well, Christians believe there is: of everything, not just human souls, but everything. The whole of reality is saved.
What we want to say here is when we speak about Christ as “the life,” when Christ says, “I am the life,” what he is saying is that biological life is a gift and it’s a good gift from God. And human beings have biological life and we have animal life. We are living beings. We have cells in our bodies, just like the plants do, in our bones, in our flesh. We have also psychic life like animals. If you pinch us, we hurt. We can [move] around. We can walk. We can eat and drink.
But then we have brains that are developed in an animal form that allows us to be spiritual, [so] that we can be spiritual. We can be logical. We can think. We can act. We can create. We can be aesthetic. We can know what is beautiful and ugly, good and bad. We can have an awareness of all things that no animal, even the highest animal, whatever animal is closest to human beings, as they used to call it, “the great chain of being.” Chimpanzees or something like that. Well, they’re not human.
Humans have this quality that no other living creature has. Not to speak of inanimate creatures like rocks and stones and water and so on, all these various elements. But what we want to say is that Christ says, “I am the life.” So wherever we see any kind of life, we see Christ there. In fact, as St. Paul says it’s in God we live and move and have our being, and Christ is the dēmiourgos. He is the Logos of God, and according to the Church Fathers, the Word of God is indwelling and vivifying everything that possibly can exist on the planet Earth. “The heavens declare the glory of God. The earth shows forth his handiwork.” Everything is filled with the glory and the power of God, and that is hypostatically Jesus Christ himself, vivified by the Holy Spirit. By the Holy Spirit everything is made alive. The Holy Spirit is the life-creating spirit.
When we say Jesus is the life, it means he is the content of everything that lives. He is the meaning of it. He is the source of it. He is the goal of it. He is the savior of it. He is the purpose of it. And ... he is it! He is it, and I think that that’s really important, to make that distinction, that we human beings, we can talk a lot and think a lot about “the source of life,” “the goal of life,” “the beginning of life, the end of life, the meaning of life, the purpose of life, the aim of life, and those are all noble things to think about. And as Christians we can say that every single one of them is Christ. He is the beginning of life. He is the end of life. He is the content of life. He is the goal of life. He is the purpose of life.
But we would even go a step further. We would say Christ is not just the beginning and the end and the purpose and the aim and the goal of life. He is life. He is life itself. Not just the purpose, the aim, and the goal, but life itself. He is the life of life. He’s what makes life life. Here I think we could make a distinction between simply existing or surviving and actually living. Things can exist; things can survive. Even human beings can say, “How’re you doing?” “Surviving, existing.”
But a person can be eating and drinking and be dead! That’s certainly a scriptural teaching. Not all human beings who are existing are really living. In fact, C.S. Lewis, in the book The Abolition of Man, he said if we lose that faculty within us that he calls the tao or the inner law or the spark of God or the image of God or the Logos or whatever you want to call it, the heart, we’re not living any more. We’re not even human any more. We’re nothing but a mind in matter. We’re a brain in a body. I like to say we just become computers and consumers and calculators and copulators, but we’re not alive.
You can eat and drink and have sex and win basketball games and whatever but not be alive. To be alive is to glorify God, to thank God, and to see Christ in everything, and to know that God: in him we live and move and have our being. Here the Bible speaks two ways. It says everything is in God and God is in everything. Both things are true to say. Everything is vivified through the presence of God, through Christ and the Holy Spirit, through the Logos and the Spirit, and God is in everything and everything is in God. In him we live and move and have our being, as St. Paul says in Acts, quoting, actually, Hellenistic philosophers who came to the same conclusion.
So Christ is the life. He’s what makes life life. And for human beings, that means he makes life more than biological or animal existence. He makes life in God’s image. He is God’s image and therefore he is the life that we are created to have. So the claim would be: when we are in Christ we are alive; when we are outside of Christ we are dead, even though we may be existing, and we don’t know the life of life.
What makes life life? Well, the answer would be goodness and truth and beauty and communion with God who is goodness and truth and beauty in itself and even beyond all these things, but reveals himself as goodness and truth and beauty and life and relationship and communion in the created order and in the entire cosmos where everything is made into a whole communal harmonious interrelationship of distinct beings who are living and active and are to be governed by human beings who are made in the image and likeness of God to bring life to everything and not to bring death, and to choose life.
So here we can go back and speak again about “the way.” In Deuteronomy, in the law of Moses, I present before you two ways: life and death, blessing and curse, good and evil. And then: choose life! So if you choose good and if you choose truth and if you choose beauty, then you’re choosing life. Then you are alive. Then you are really alive. And the claim would be: because of Christ who is the life, nothing can destroy you, even biological death can no longer destroy you. And until the end of the ages, we human beings are still wedded unto biological death because we’re still caught in this demon-riddled, death-bound world.
But if we’re baptized and if we have died with Christ, if we have [been] raised with him, if we live with him, if he is our life—and as we will see in our reflections as we go on, if we eat his Body, which is the bread of life, and drink his Blood, which is life itself… Because in the Holy Scripture we should remember that blood was a synonym of life. That’s why in the sacrificial systems of the Old Testament, you couldn’t touch the blood. You couldn’t eat the blood. When Jesus says, “Drink my blood,” that’s some revolutionary language, because the life was in the blood, and the life belonged to God, and the life was even sacred.
That’s why in the Levitical code, any time a person touches blood or deals with blood or disease or semen or ova or whatever, they have to be purified, because they’re in touch with something sacred. Not sinful, but sacred. That’s why blood was used in the sacrifices. There can be no life without the shedding of blood, according to Scripture. Christ has to shed his blood and give his blood, because he’s giving his life, the life that he himself is. And, boy, that shows how biological and material and concrete we’re talking. We’re not talking about detached souls around here. We’re talking about flesh-and-blood human beings. Even the song of Johnny Cash says, “Flesh and blood needs flesh and blood.” That’s what we’re made for.
In the Scriptures, it’s a very clear teaching which we must emphasize and repeat, that is: that God is the living God; Christ is our life; the Holy Spirit is the life-creating Spirit; and this life is given to us by God, biologically, animally, spiritually, in every possible way. We have everything the angels have. We have everything the animals have. We have everything the plants have, we human beings. We’re a microcosm, and we’re the mediator.
The teaching is: if I seek God, my soul will live, my life will live. That’s even a psalm verse that we use at the beginning of Great Lent. “Turn not thy face away from thy servant, for I am afflicted. Hear me speedily. Attend to my life and deliver me.” That’s a psalm. Then the verse says, “Seek God, and your soul will live.”
I would suggest to everyone listening right now, if you want to have a good spiritual exercise, read Psalm 119, the big long one, the real long one. It’s Psalm 118 in [the] Septuagint, Psalm 119 in Hebrew numbering. It’s the psalm that Orthodox Christians read over the tomb of the dead Christ on Great and Holy Saturday. It’s the psalm that’s used with all the services of funerals. It’s the psalm that’s sung as the verse, when we sing about the resurrection of the dead: “Blessed art thou, Lord, teach me thy statutes.” “Blessed are the undefiled, who walk in the way of the Lord.” Read that psalm from this perspective, because what that psalm is saying is this: If you keep the ordinances, the commandments, and the statutes of God, if you follow the law and the word of God, you cannot die.
So the psalmist keeps saying to me: Teach me your statutes. Let me follow your law. I love your law. And it says: Because it gives me life. And in the old English Bibles, they would always translate it “quicken me.” Quicken me according to thy word. Quicken me in the keeping of your commandments. In fact, in the old translation of the Nicene Creed that was read in my church when I was a child, it said that the Lord comes to judge the quick and the dead. Well, “quick” in modern English means “fast” or “speedy,” but “quick” meant “alive” in old English.
So there’s that verb in that whole psalm: enliven me, make me alive, quicken me, because in thy commandments [is] life. Here, one of the tragedies according to Scripture is that when you’re biologically dead, you can’t sing “Alleluia”; you can’t praise God. “Can the dead praise thee? Can they praise thee from the pit? Can they praise thee from Sheol?” And the answer is No. And that’s why the Pharisees and the Lord Jesus Christ and the Apostle Paul and all Orthodox Christians hold that there must be a resurrection from the dead. We must be quickened. We must be made alive again, so that we can sing “Alleluia” to God and thank God and have divine life and can live and no longer be dead.
Of course, as we already said, you can die spiritually before you die physically. You can die spiritually before you die biologically. In Christ, who is our life, the claim is even if we die biologically, we can’t be killed. Even if we die biologically now, we are still alive. Jesus says this in St. John’s Gospel. He says, “The hour is coming and now is when those who hear the voice of the Son of God shall live.” He says, “He who believes in me, even though he dies, he lives.”
This whole thing is already overcome and victorious in Christ, and in anticipation in the Holy Spirit, as the foretaste of the kingdom, we already experience life which is “life indeed”: true life, the life that Christ is. We experience that in this world, already, now. However, we are still preaching and teaching and hoping and praying that this will become a permanent reality, that the kingdom of God will come; the dead will be raised; God will be all and in all and there’ll be no death any more.
We don’t know how the physical cosmos is going to act in the coming kingdom. Some Church Fathers think that it will still be cyclical: You’ll have blossoms and plants and they’ll wither away and they’ll come back again, but there won’t be anything tragic about it, because everything will be in constant restoring and the human being will never lose consciousness. The soul and the body of the human being will never be separated. The nephesh will never leave the basar, to speak Hebrew. The life will never leave the flesh.
The body and the life will always be together, and human life will always be spiritual life, and therefore be conscious. It will be filled with knowledge and morality and goodness and truth, and will care for all of the rest of the whole of creation, all the animals and all the plants. There will be a cosmic shalom, a cosmic peace. We still have to reflect on Christ who is our peace. He is our life. He is our truth. He is our way. But he is our peace also. God’s peace, God’s way, God’s truth.
In the Old Testament, there is the anticipation of all of this, with the hope that, even in the best-case scenario, that won’t be the end. Even if you live a long, happy life with a minimum of suffering and die a peaceful death and are surrounded by loving family and lots of progeny, that tragedy—which is still a tragedy—will be overcome because there will be the resurrection.
According to Scripture, we should never forget, that people who do have a relatively painless, relatively happy, relatively healthy life—nobody has it perfectly because we all die ultimately—those people, we people—I’m one of them, by the way—we are obliged to help the people who are suffering.
It’s like Mother Theresa of Calcutta said, when some nasty journalist said to her, “Well you don’t suffer, Mother Theresa. All these other people suffer.” And Mother Theresa said, “Christ my God suffered so that no one would suffer. He died so that no one would die. And if I have health and if I don’t have much pain and if I’m not suffering myself, then I am obliged by my God to serve and to love and to help those who are suffering, who are dying, who are tragically struck by the corruption and the fallenness of this world.
So those who believe that Christ is the life are obliged to enhance life, to protect life, to try to create a culture of life. Pope John Paul II called our present age in the West a “culture of death”: We abort our unborn children. We take stem cells of babies in order to… And so what we’ve done is we’ve made biological life the be-all and end-all of reality. It seems that our only goal is to live long in this world in a peaceful and happy life. Well, if that’s our only goal, then we’re really in the hands of the devil, we’re really insane.
Sure, who would not want a happier, healthier, longer life? But if it’s not a holier life, then what good is it? It’s nothing but a spreading of death. So here we see that Christ is life in every possible meaning. Christ is life, biologically. Christ is life, animally. Christ is life, spiritually. Christ is life for human beings. Christ is life for everything that lives. Christ is the life, the life of everyone and everything. But that life that Christ is is the life of God himself. He is the life-creating spirit who gives the life-creating spirit, according to St. Paul. So that when we are in him, we not only cannot die spiritually, but we cannot even die biologically, and even our biological death, which we have to go through, which remains an enemy, death still has to be destroyed.
Death is still something to weep over. When people die, we weep, because it shouldn’t be, even if they’re old and happy. It shouldn’t be. There should be no tsunamis and earthquakes and tragedies. Or, to put it another way, when the created order, which is filled with all of these realities, when human beings come, when human beings appear, we’re supposed to take care of all those things. We’re supposed to remove their death-dealing powers. Maybe there will be great earthquakes and floods and tsunamis, but they won’t destroy anybody any more when human beings take care of the universe. Then when God is all and in all, we can expect a cosmic harmony. That’s our expectations as Christians; that’s our hope, because Christ is risen from the dead. But he had to be human and crucified and [die] in order to destroy all that and to recreate it.
So the death-bound, demon-riddled world that we know cannot simply be “patched up.” It’s got to be recreated. It’s got to be saved. It’s got to be made alive again. So our confession is that Christ is the life. He’s the life of all life. He’s every kind of life. He is the life of everything that lives. He is the life, and what we have said already: he is the source of life. And what the psalm says, “For with you is the fountain of life, and in your light we shall see light.” That line is now in the Great Doxology in our Church. But the source of life, the fountain of life, is God himself and Christ and the Holy Spirit.
Life comes from him. Life is for him. He is the aim of life, the purpose of life, but he’s also the substance and the content of life. Here, our final word today has to be: He is the life of life. He is what makes life life. If Christ is not there, life is not life. It’s just ... mortal existence. In a sense, it’s just tragic madness. It’s, as Shakespeare says, “filled with sound and fury, signifying nothing.” It’s got to have the Logos. It’s got to have the meaning. It’s got to have the inner ... It’s got to be what it is.
What it is is the living God’s own life becoming ours. That’s what it is. So what makes life life is gratitude, praise, glory, truth, mercy, and that other four-letter word beginning with /l/. What makes life life is love. That’s why the Scripture says love is stronger than death, because love is life itself. Love, as St. Paul says in the Corinthian letter, can never end. Love never ends. Faith and hope will be over in the coming kingdom, but not love. If you don’t have love, you don’t have life. If you don’t have love and don’t have life, then nothing means anything. Even the good acts don’t mean anything. To have faith to move mountains and to give everything to the poor: without love, without it being alive and capable of living forever and never dying, it still is nothing and is tragic.
It still reverts back to the “nihil,” the “ouk on,” the nothing out of which we are created, as St. Athanasius said so eloquently. So this nothingness is filled with life, and Christ is that life. Here we would go even a step further: Christ who is life becomes dead. He who is everything becomes nothing. So when life dies, and he who is everything becomes nothing, in the tomb as a corpse, then it is death that is destroyed. Then nothing becomes filled with everything. Nothing is transformed into everything. All the mystical saints write this way. They said, “We who are nothing try to be everything without God, and that’s madness, and we end up dead.” Yet God, who is everything becomes nothing, voluntarily. He empties himself. He who is life himself dies. He becomes a corpse. He becomes dead. Through that act, everything is vivified, because that act is an act of love. It’s an act of truth. It’s an act of mercy. It’s an act of redemption and ransom. It’s an act of salvation. Therefore, it is by nature, life-producing. It not only cannot co-exist with death, death gets destroyed.
So Christ is our life. Christ is the life of life. Christ is the content of life. Christ is what makes life life. “I am the life,” he says. “I am life itself.” And this is the Christian faith. And it’s life in all its dimensions: physical, emotional, psychic, spiritual, animal, living. Every possible life is what it is because of Christ. And Christ will ultimately, and already does for us who believe, make life triumphant. It’s like the last line of St. John Chrysostom’s Paschal homily: “Life is risen. Christ is risen. And life reigns.” Actually, it says in Greek: “Christ is risen and life lives.” “Zhizn’ zhitel’stvuet,” it says in Slavonic: “Life lives.”
Life has to live, and everything is made to live and not to die. From the beginning that was so. If we think again of the beginning and that tree of life, we Christians would say: The tree of life is the Cross of Christ. That’s why he’s got to be hanged on a tree. In fact, in the Old Testament, it says that wisdom is the tree of life. If you know the wisdom of God, then you’re communing with life, and that wisdom makes you alive. If you keep the commandments, you can’t die. Only Christ kept the commandments perfectly, and therefore he destroyed death. But he destroys it by hanging on the tree of life.
When we eat Christ’s bread, his Body as bread, the bread of life, the living bread—we’re going to talk about that next—when we drink his Blood in which is his life and stands for his life, then we are communing of the tree of life. We’re communing out of the Cross. The fruit of the tree of life is the broken body and shed blood of Jesus Christ. When we go to church and have Holy Communion, we participate in the tree of life. It’s so interesting that for Christians the tree of life is the Cross, but we also know that that tree of life which was spoken about in the Genesis, in the very beginning of the Bible, is spoken about at the very end.
The last sentences of the Book of Revelation again speak about the tree of life. And this is what it says: “Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense to repay everyone for what he has done”: how we have lived. “I am the alpha and the omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end. Blessed are they who wash their robes, that they may have the right or the access, the boldness to approach the tree of life, and that they may enter the city by the gates.” Then it says, “Outside are the dogs, sorcerers, fornicators, murderers, idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood, but those who love God and glorify God and struggled against every type of sorcery and fornication and murder and idolatry and love [of falsehood] and practice truth and not falsehood, they are again allowed to participate in the tree of life.” We have everlasting life: the life of God himself.
Christians believe that Christ is the life. He not only speaks about life, he not only shows life, but he is the life. Now, he said that “the way is hard and the gate is narrow that leads to life, and few there be who find it, few there be who really want life, who want God, who want truth, who want beauty. But those who find it will have it.” How interesting it is, in the Sermon on the Mountain, that he says, “It leads to life.” And how often we have that in Jesus’ own teaching. He said, “I have come that you may have life, and have life in abundance.” That you may have life, that your life may be really life.
When the young man asked him about the commandments, he said, “Do these things and you will live.” You will live. Then he also says, when the people are against him and hating him and not following him or the commandments of God. He says, “Why don’t you come to me, that you may have life?” So he’s bringing life. In St. John’s Gospel it says, “And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” He comes for the life of the world. God so loved the world that those who believe in him should not perish, but would have everlasting life, every possible form of life forever, and that life is his Son, Jesus Christ.
He says, “I am the life.” “I am the life”: and that is the conviction of the Christians. That is the teaching of the Gospel. That is the truth that Christ himself is, and that is the way that Christ also himself is, because he said, “I am the way”—the way of life—and “I am the truth”—the truth of life—and he says, “I am the life.”
“I am the way and the truth and the life.”