Postcards from Greece:
In our previous program we succinctly laid out the path we planned to follow and our purpose in sending you these postcards from Greece. We said we will center our attention on that which gives Greece her life and vitality—the experience of the grace of God as it has been and is still today lived out in the church here.
But before we delve into particular examples of the expression of the grace of God, it would be best if we spent this time together exploring some important aspects surrounding our experience of the grace of God. The Apostle John tells us in the beginning of his gospel, “For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.” We often assume we know for what purpose the incarnation of the Word of God has come about. Did Christ come to make us better people, more moral, more just, to make us good? Did he come to enlighten us with a new theory of life, a new philosophy, new ideas? Did he come to establish a religion? Or did he come to make us sons of God, refashioned in his image and likeness—gods by grace.
If the answer is one of the former and not the latter, then Christ has come in vain. For with the law, we had the means to be good people; and with the ideas of the various religions and philosophies, we had an abundance of theories, ideas and ideologies. But what we lacked was communion with God himself. What we lacked was the grace of the living God himself, and his truth, and his life.
So we can see then that the first thing that grace is not is created. Grace is not a created thing, as scholastic theologians in the medieval west claimed. It is not like anything at all we know emanating from this world. But if grace is uncreated, it can only be one thing—God himself. We may hear it often likened to something familiar like a still, small voice or a blazing light. This is only by way of comparison. In actuality, there can be no comparison between God, the uncreated, and the world, his creation.
That does not mean, however, that grace eludes man. Grace is the uncreated energy of God poured out upon mankind without partiality but accepted and enjoyed by those alone who so seek and desire it with all their heart. Grace, God himself, pursues man from without, all the days of his life, until man finally decides to turn and embrace him. Then the two are united, and grace dwells within.
But just how does he dwell within us? How does he give us himself? All that he has done for us, from his birth, to his resurrection, to his ascension and to his second and glorious coming, he did once and for all mankind. But since he loves us and his love means he wants us free to choose him and his grace and truth freely, this salvation is made our own only when we reciprocate, when we say “yes”. And we do that, we partake of God’s grace, above all when we are participants in the whole mystery of the incarnation in its many manifestations in the Church, in the Holy Mysteries—be it in Holy Baptism, Holy Chrismation, Divine Communion, and the other mysteries.
So above all, it is in and through these mysteries that the economy of salvation, which the incarnate God wrought in the midst of the earth 2,000 years ago, is extended to each one of us personally. It is through the mysteries that the objective salvation, the universal resurrection, is made subjective, is made a resurrection unto life eternal.
But it is not enough that we simply participate in the mysteries. For many a notable but failed Christian has done that. It is necessary that when we do a good thing we do it in a good way. For as St. John Chrysostom has said, “A good thing done in a bad way is in fact not a good thing at all.” The means and the ends are one. Method, the way, is inseparable from the truth and the life.
So how we approach Christ, the mysteries, his grace, is of utmost importance. This is why the life in Christ is an ascetic life, a struggle against the passions, a struggle to keep Christ’s commandments. It will do little good if we obtain the grace only to scatter it abroad immediately out of ignorance of the spiritual life, or worse, a dissolute life. Rather, the grace of God will not take up its abode in an indifferent, unrepentant soul to begin with. The keeping of the commandments, which entails leading an ascetic life, is a prerequisite for the soul to become an abode of the grace of God.
To better understand how this happens, the Fathers of the Church have alluded to the following scheme by which we can generally understand the stages of the spiritual life and the acceptance of God’s grace. It refers to the well known biblical diagram of the spiritual life as prefigured in the people of Israel in the periods of: Call, Trial in the Desert, and Entry into the Promised Land.
The first period of the Call is a period of lightness and inspiration, grace abundantly given wherein man feels the presence of God as light and love, and he is drawn out of the Egypt of the passions and illusion.
The second period, Trial in the Desert, is by far the longest and toughest period, when grace seemingly abandons man but also in which man matures and grows ready and worthy of the Promised Land.
The third period is that in which divine grace returns in strength and is preserved consciously in the wisdom born of experience. Man’s nature has now been transfigured, and the commandments of Christ have become the law of his being.
Through these three stages, then, have all the holy ones passed, including those who have graced this land of Greece. All creation has been visited by the grace of God. Yet, just as the sun shines brighter and warmer in certain places of the world, so too has the Son of God shone more brilliantly and left more enduringly his uncreated light in certain places among certain peoples. This is not because God is a respecter of persons. God forbid; he plays no favoritism. It is not because he prefers some places and people to others, but rather because certain people have preferred him to others, to other gods, to themselves.
God’s providence is guided by his foreknowledge. God foreknew and thus he provided. If this land of Greece is holy today, it is because it has been set aside by so great a cloud of witnesses, so mighty a host of spiritual warriors, who have chosen the good fight and the Champion Leader over the world, the flesh, and the devil. They have rejected the passions of Egypt. They have passed through the waters of baptism. They have endured the long, arduous abandonment in the desert. They have emerged victorious and have secured an immovable Promised Land.
If this land of Greece, or any land for that matter, has been set apart and made holy by the presence of God, it is so because one soul at a time has made it his or her life’s purpose to be a receptacle of Jesus Christ’s grace and truth.
Our journey, therefore, and the content of these postcards I’ll be sending you, will be a journey through the lives of the god-bearers and god-seers, who like Moses have passed through all the stages, seen the back of God, been visited with the uncreated light, and been revealed for us for our benefit, for our salvation. They will be our guides, not only through Orthodox Greece, but moreover through the sea of life and into the harbor of salvation.
Until we meet again then, may our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, through the intercessions of the great Apostle Paul, the Great Martyr Demetrius, and the Holy Hierarch Gregory the Wonderworker of Thessaloniki, have mercy on us and save us.