Fr. Steven Kostoff, Rector of Christ the Saviour/Holy Spirit Orthodox Church, at the Women's Retreat of the Midwest Antiochian Women's Association held at the monastery in May of 2008
May 9, 2008 Length: 1:11:15
Fr. Steven Kostoff: This is a very lively group, which is wonderful. And excellent questions, difficult questions based on those kind of eschatological questions from the first half. I just want to go back and… Let me read what a Greek Orthodox theologian wrote some time ago after kind of an exhaustive study of the descent of Christ into Hades. Here is his final summation—hopefully what I tried to bring out in the first half. Karmiris is his name.
According to the teaching of almost all the Eastern Fathers, the preaching of the Savior was extended to all without exception, and salvation was offered to all the souls who passed away from the beginning of time, whether Jew or Greek, righteous or unrighteous.
That’s his concluding summary after a long study, and I found it in the article by the Russian bishop that I was just reading about the descent of Christ into Hades, so just to mention that.
I didn’t complete a thought in the first half, and someone reminded me of that as we were chatting here during the interval. Back to the myrrh-bearing women. I cut myself off. Christ appeared to them first, especially Mary Magdalene, and I believe that Christ granted them that privilege because of their faithfulness. They remained loyal even when Christ was in death, so Jesus somehow rewarded them, if you like, with first appearing to them. They became the apostles to the apostles. It’s a very wonderful phrase that we use. They proclaimed the Gospel to the apostles who could then proclaim the Gospel.
There’s that incredible, incredible encounter with Jesus and Mary Magdalene in the garden. The garden is not an accident. The garden, the place where the reversal of the first Adam’s fall happens is this new garden of crucifixion and burial. There’s that wonderful encounter, just that Jesus and Mary Magdalene… There’s a beautiful text in I think it’s the ninth ode of the Paschal canon. “The sweet voice of Christ,” because Mary Magdalene heard her name, “Mary.” When she heard “Mary,” she knew it was Jesus; she was overwhelmed. It’s a beautiful scene, so somehow Christ privileged those myrrh-bearing women who were to this day the greatest icons of trusting, humble service to Christ, [an] image for women and for men, so I just wanted to complete that thought. Very wonderful.
I think our topic was “Living in the Light of the Resurrection,” and I think we need to know about the Resurrection before we talk about living in the light of the Resurrection, so the first half of the talk dealt more with the resurrection of Christ. We looked at a few aspects of it, including the historical and the theological. So now we want to see more: how do we apply this, or—I like the word—how do we actualize the Resurrection in our own lives? How do we live as followers of the risen Lord, of the risen Christ, and somehow reveal that in our lives? I’ve got a few thoughts here. Again, we’ll open up to some questions and answers and discussions after that.
Somewhat connecting to what I said to begin with, though, I think it is more difficult to live the Resurrection than to keep Great Lent. I mean, honestly. You can fast, you can intensely pray, you can be an almsgiver, you can go to all the services—you’re doing something. There’s a discipline. I call it a Lenten rhythm that we get into, and it’s very essential, but it’s maybe less—how to put it?—less concrete when we come to the Paschal season. We’re not fasting any more. I mean, we fast on Wednesday and Friday, we’ve done our Lenten fasting, but the real challenge is to carry something with us into that Paschal season.
How often people keep Lent, and then it’s over; then we’re just back to whatever, our “normal” way of life, and whatever we’ve worked on in Lent we can lose quickly, including watching our tongue or the things we see or the things we say. Living the Resurrection in the Paschal season I think is more difficult than keeping Lent, no matter how intense you keep Great Lent, so it’s a real challenge for us, and maybe even a retreat like this can help us. I call it the “post-Paschal blues.” [Audience laughter] That’s my term, the “post-Paschal blues,” that sometimes we go through. They attack us like a swarm of demons at times.
So to begin with, I should have a handout there. I want to read through this to kind of set the tone for our second half here. We all know the great Paschal homily of St. John Chrysostom which is read at the Paschal matins. We talked about the embitterment of Hell and proclaiming, “Even you at the eleventh hour, come and enjoy the feast!” But there’s another beautiful Paschal homily, one of many. This is from St. Gregory the Theologian, one of his Easter Orations. St. Gregory, of course, was a contemporary, a little younger contemporary of St. John Chrysostom, one of the great Cappadocian Fathers. In fact, if you know your Paschal canon well, you’ll hear echoes of it in his oration. St. John of Damascus took some of the teachings of St. Gregory the Theologian and wove them into his Paschal canon just like he did with the Nativity canon: “Christ is born, glorify him!” That was said by St. Gregory in the fourth century; right before the first ode of the Nativity canon he had it.
But what I want you to concentrate on in this oration is the use of the words “yesterday” and “today,” because when we celebrate a feast, we’re in the today of the feast. We’re not celebrating a past event, [rather] the past event is made present in the today in which we gather. So he’s referring to the past but he’s making it contemporary in today, and even eventually his use of the word “we” is very effective here. Let me read through this oration on death and resurrection in Christ.
Yesterday I was crucified with him; today I am glorified with him. Yesterday I died with him; today I am made alive with him. Yesterday I was buried with him; today I am raised up with him. Let us offer to him who suffered and rose again for us ourselves, the possession most precious to God and most proper.
Let us become like Christ, since Christ became like us. Let us become divine for his sake, since for us he became man. He assumed the worse that he might give us the better. He became poor that by his poverty we might become rich. He accepted the form of a servant that we might win back our freedom. He came down that we might be lifted up. He was tempted that through him we might conquer. He was dishonored that he might glorify us. He died that he might save us. He ascended that he might draw to himself us who were thrown down through the fall of sin.
Let us give all, offer all, to him who gave himself a ransom and reconciliation for us. We needed an incarnate God, a God put to death, that we might live. We were put to death together with him that we might be cleansed. We rose again with him because we were put to death with him. We were glorified with him because we rose again with him. A few drops of blood recreates the whole of creation.
It’s a wonderful oration, but it’s about us and we living today. Christ represents all of humanity. He is the last Adam, if you like. The first Adam failed in his vocation; the last Adam repaired, if you like, the work of the failed vocation of the first Adam, so when Christ assumes our human nature, he, [in] a sense, assumes all of us into himself. What occurs in his human nature affects our human nature that we all share together as created beings. So that’s why he is the last Adam.
His humanity was resurrected. The humanity that the Son of God assumed in the Incarnation was resurrected from the dead following his death and burial. Therefore, our humanity is resurrectable. In a sense, we are now resurrectable beings because the Son of God was resurrected. So everything that Christ accomplishes, [he] accomplishes for our sake as our Savior. He’s not kind of apotheosized divinity or god from the Hellenistic world, that we kind of look [at] as some kind of remote model. Again, he is the prototype, he is the pioneer of our salvation. He raises us with himself, so we await that resurrection. We’ll come to that again a little bit later, but the key here is that concept of the last Adam.
The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second Adam is from heaven. I Corinthians 15:22: “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” We’ll come back to I Corinthians 15, but I want to impress upon us that wonderful theology of the last Adam which is very much part of St. Paul’s epistles. That’s why St. Gregory can say: I, us, or we are all in Christ potentially, and now we are baptized into him or grafted into his body through our baptism. We become divine by grace as Christ is divine by nature.
You know the famous patristic aphorism: The Son of God became man that we as human beings can become divine or like God. That’s theosis. You have these beautiful paradoxes. He emptied himself, he impoverished himself so that we can be filled, we can be enriched. His descent makes our ascent possible. His katavasis, descent, makes our anavasis, [ascent] possible. This concept of last Adam is crucial, I think, to the whole New Testament and understanding of Christ. I think this homily captures that very well.
So Jesus, the risen Christ, spoke to his disciples at chapter 20, verse 29, in John’s gospel, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believed.” In a sense, Christ was talking about us. We have not seen the same way the apostles saw the risen Christ. It was a very unique, privileged, awesome period, if you like, of those forty days. Christ appeared and reappeared for forty days to his disciples, teaching them more about the kingdom of heaven so they could be prepared and go proclaim it once the Holy Spirit came upon them at Pentecost. That’s a very, if you like, a privileged period. They saw him…
That beautiful opening of St. John’s first epistle, the word of life that we heard, that we saw, and that we touched, he is the word of life that we’re now passing on to you. It’s all very incarnational; it’s very concrete. He was the word of life, and we saw him, we touched him, we were in his presence, so it’s very, very powerful. The whole fourth gospel is the story of the Word of God incarnate, basically. That Incarnation is very essential. We’ll see how it ties in. It ties into the sacraments, of course. We’ll see how it ties into bodily resurrection shortly here.
We have not seen in that sense, but we are more blessed now that we believe, according to Christ. There’s that really fine text from in the one hymn we sing. Did I lose it here? Let’s see. St. Symeon… The text is: “Having beheld the Resurrection of Christ, let us worship the holy Lord Jesus.” St. Symeon the New Theologian says… The text doesn’t say, “Having believed,” [but] “Having beheld,” so sometimes there’s spiritual vision or spiritual sight. We behold, we beheld the Resurrection of Christ. It’s a wonderful… “Having beheld the Resurrection of Christ, let us worship the holy Lord Jesus, the only sinless One.” St. Symeon stresses that “beheld,” it’s like our spiritual vision, our faith; we still behold the resurrected Christ.
One of our great more contemporary saints, St. Seraphim of Sarov—I’m sure many are familiar with him, that wonderful Russian saint—he wrote, “You must not sorrow, for Christ has conquered all. Adam is resurrected, Eve set free, death is slain.” He’s paraphrasing, I believe, one of the troparia, but again, “You must not sorrow, for Christ has conquered all. Adam is resurrected, Eve set free, death is slain.” He was so wonderful because, if you know his life, it says: any time of the year, no matter what time of the year, he would meet people and say, “Christ is risen, my joy! Khristos voskrese, radost’ moya!” in Russian. Always, no matter what time of the year. Always: “Christ is risen, my joy!” He was just shining with this resurrectional glory. He’s a very, very incredible figure, St. Seraphim of Sarov, but he just always had that resurrectional joy within him.
Perhaps one way, one of the more profound ways we could look at the influence of the Resurrection in our lives is that slowly, steadily—this is a long, hard process—we’re very human, we have our fallen nature, but the death of Christ which is liberating [us from] death can deliver us from the very fear of death. And that… We know how great of a fear that is, but if we read the epistle to the Hebrews, there’s one of my very favorite texts there. We read this during Great Lent, when we read from Hebrews, chapter 2.
Since, therefore, the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same nature, that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage.
It’s a very, very powerful passage. The devil has the power of death according to Hebrews here, but he keeps us in lifelong bondage through the fear of death, because the fear of death makes us self-centered. It makes us kind of alienated and afraid. There’s a kind of anxiety and dread, and we’re not free to love God and neighbor as well as we potentially could. St. Gregory Palamas, with his typical very theological language, very richly, he wrote the following:
The Resurrection of the Lord is the renewal of human nature and the renewal, recreation, and return to immortality of the first Adam who was swallowed up by death because of sin, and through death went back to earth from which he was formed.
St. Gregory is telling us that our human nature has been renewed or re-created in the last Adam who becomes the root of a new humanity as the firstborn of the dead. He’s called the firstborn of the dead, Christ. He is eternal in his divine nature, and his humanity is that of those who will be raised up and revealed, the resurrectable character of our human nature. So St. Gregory is referring to the fact that death entered the world through sin. “The wages of sin is death.” That’s very clear. There’s a mysterious connection revealed in Genesis between sin and corruption and death. That becomes our human destiny and our cross. Again, the source of… Because it’s not according to nature.
Life according to nature was supposed to be a slow ascent into the likeness of God. The simplicity of Adam and Eve, they were supposed to spiritually mature and grow into communion with God. That whole vocation was derailed by their sin. Sin brought death into their life; death brought fear, anxiety, and dread into their lives. One of the great, tragic consequences of death is that we are beings struggling for biological survival. We’re caught in this kind of endless struggle for biological survival. Anything that threatens that biological survival we fear, we try and flee from it, and we’re very careful. There’s nothing wrong with that; it’s the instinct to life, but the point is it does make us fearful, and again kind of insular and self-centered. We can’t free ourselves enough to go out to the other, St. Gregory says, but we are potentially renewed through that death and resurrection of Christ.
In the Gospel, Jesus talks about life with two words. One is “vios” and one is “zōē.” “Vios” or “bios”—I think that’s the /v/ sound in Greek, but that’s always debated, right?—”vios” is our word for biological life. “Biology” comes from “bios.” All of us have this “vios”; we all have this biological existence. Flesh begets flesh, if you like. But Christ, when he talked about abundant life, he talked about zōē. He used a different word for “life.” “Zōē” implies a spiritual existence, life according to the spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh; what is born of the spirit is spirit. Jesus says that to Nicodemus in John 3. So we have this zōē, so we’re not just these biological creatures who are going to be born, mature, decline, and die and disappear. That’s what fills us with fear and dread if that’s how we see our human life. Now we have zōē.
So if you like fancy language—some people do; some people like fancy language—so if you like fancy language, there’s a nice Bishop John (Zizioulas)... Any of you familiar with Bishop John (Zizioulas)? Some of his books are published by St. Vladimir’s. Anyways, Bishop of Pergamum, brilliant theologian. He said the word “hypostasis” means “person.” The Greek word “hypostasis” means “person.” He says when we’re baptized, we’re moved from the realm of being a biological hypostasis, a biological being, into an ecclesial hypostasis, a churchly being. And life in the Church is that grace-filled life in Christ and the Spirit.
We’re fed by the sacraments. The source of the sacraments was the side of Christ that was pierced with a lance when he was on the cross. One of the soldiers took a spear and thrust it into his side; at once there came out blood and water. He who saw it bore witness, and his witness is true. The beloved disciple saw it; he bore witness to it. The blood and water are baptism and Eucharist. They flow from the side of Christ who is the new Adam. The Church is the new Eve, as the mother of God is the new Eve, and the Church now has this water and this blood, baptism and Eucharist, by which we’re fed from the side of Christ who fell asleep on the Cross in death, like Adam fell asleep in the garden and the woman was pulled out of his rib.
There’s a very powerful parallel there. All these Old Testament images are types of Christ who is yet to come. We are fed in the Church by the sacraments where we encounter zōē and not just vios. We’re living in two levels, in a certain way. That’s why St. John talked about being “born again,” which also means, in Greek, being born from above: “Unless you are born again, born from above, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.” There’s a whole Christian born-again movement. Couldn’t miss them for a while there, any street corner. We have that theology very embedded.
Like I said, it’s a very long, slow process. Everyone has to go through that cross. Everyone’s cross… Our death is going to be a cross. A pleasant death—whatever that means; it doesn’t make a lot of sense—but we pray for a peaceful death, painless, blameless before God. We do pray for that, but it’s a cross for everyone, and we have to pass through that fear or that dread. That’s just our human condition, but the Resurrection according to the epistle to the Hebrews can free us from that fear of death. The more we’re freed from the fear of death, the more we can be free to love God and neighbor. Then you can give yourself more and sacrifice more. That’s the power of the Resurrection in our lives.
That’s why the martyrs could offer their lives. That was hard. They knew what was coming—burning at the stake, being whipped, being beheaded—but they were so embued with the life of Christ, the resurrected Christ, they could offer their life as a sweet offering, almost like a prosphoron. They would give themselves, because they knew that zōē, that life in the kingdom of heaven that was awaiting them. They had that kind of certainty so they could overcome their fear of death of their body because of the risen Christ living in them. They were like an image of the crucified and risen Christ. Every martyr kind of recreates the death and resurrection of Christ in his or her life. There’s a lot of power that comes from the Resurrection here.
Also, Fr. John Meyendorff, who is of blessed memory, very wonderful teacher, theologian—I studied under him at St. Vladimir’s—he had a very fascinating term or idea. I think it was unique to him. He spoke about a resurrectional ethics. In other words, he said: look on the Sermon on the Mount. Look how challenging that is: to be poor in spirit, to mourn, to be meek, to hunger and thirst after righteousness, to be merciful, to be pure in heart, to be a peace-maker, to accept persecution for Christ’s sake. This all demands great effort and the grace of God, of course. It’s sort of a synergistic process. Synergy means a combination of divine grace and human freedom, acting together for salvation. But St. John says—“St. John”! Well, maybe he’s St. John, Fr. John… I hope… Very, very, very wonderful man. He’s gone to his rest, so we’ll call him St. John maybe, unofficially.
He says: in the light of the Resurrection, we can follow that moral, ethical teaching of Christ. That’s very hard, very demanding. Christ knew that that teaching would be applied in a world that had been filled with his resurrectional or risen presence. Now, with our faith in the Resurrection, we can perhaps be poor in spirit, to mourn, to be meek, hunger and thirst after righteousness with a greater certainty or capacity. So he calls it a resurrectional ethics. It transforms even our capacity, our desire, our capability of fulfilling the teaching of Christ. It gives us the strength, having that faith within us and that grace by the Holy Spirit. I always thought that was a very fine expression of his.
In the Paschal verses, “Let God arise,” which we all love and know, and maybe we can all sing by heart, but at the end: “Let us forgive one another so that we might cry aloud: Christ is risen!” It’s one thing to sing that, whatever melody you like; it’s another thing to live that out. That’s living the Resurrection. “Let us forgive one another so that we might cry aloud: Christ is risen!” It sounds like it’s supposed to be an unconditional forgiveness. We’re either hurt, we’re offended, we have our bitterness or we have our regrets or we have our broken relationships, and we keep away from certain people because they have hurt us or whatever or even we perceive that, but the text is saying: let us forgive one another. We’re not to be like Cain slaughtering his brother, Abel, who was innocent, and our own kind of spiritual murderer of other people.
Jesus says: You heard it said not to not kill, but we can kill someone with our very words or thoughts. Can we forgive? God has forgiven us. If the Resurrection is for all humanity and for all time, God has forgiven all of us, then we have to somehow imitate that forgiveness and fulfill those words of the beautiful verses there. Again, I think that’s a pretty powerful challenge, but that one Desert Father: “I never went to bed needing to forgive someone or seeking to forgive anyone.” “I never went to bed,” you see? We go to bed angry, cold, uptight, or something like that. You can go to Pascha and come home and be in a miserable mood. [Audience laughter] You can come home and be miserable the next day, [after] you’ve been to Pascha. It’s like we’ve got to somehow make real what we experience, bring that out a little bit in our lives.
It’s a powerful verse there, and the Scriptures are filled with that sense of forgiveness. I think it’s St. Gregory of Nyssa who said, “Christianity is the imitation of the divine nature.” We have to act like God acts, but how God acts is revealed to us in Christ. Christ is the human face of God. So if we want to see how to act as a human being in all of our integrity and glory, we act like Christ acted. Now that’s a long, long, life-long process. We don’t teach immediate salvation and instant salvation and everything is kind of settled. The whole… We talk about theosis or deification; it’s a life-long process with ups and downs and obstacles that we work on, and we fall and get back up, all of that, but that’s kind of our goal here, to be able to imitate Christ who is the living face of God.
Another major point here: in the Creed, our Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed—too long to say that, so we say “Nicene Creed”; it was formed at two councils: first and second council—we affirm our belief in the Triune God: the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit; the virginal conception; the Incarnation; the redemptive death; the Resurrection; the ascension; descending of the Holy Spirit; our belief in the Church, which comes out of the Resurrection, as we said, even the side of the crucified Christ. “I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life in the world to come.” That’s a very powerful affirmation, claim, and “I look for hope,” if you like, “I look for the resurrection from the dead, and the life in the world to come. Amen.”
That’s kind of the crescendoing climax of the Nicene Creed. We don’t say, “I’m looking forward to the immortality of my soul.” We don’t say that. If we were a good Greek philosopher, that’s what we might say. The Greek philosopher will talk about the immortality of the soul that outlives its body, the body is a shell, the body is even a tomb, the body is shedded at death to liberate the soul, to fly back to that realm of the absolute. That’s all the realm of Greek philosphy. Sounds wonderful, and some of the Christian Fathers borrowed a lot of that imagery and incorporated it into their theology, but we don’t believe in the immortality of the soul; we believe in the resurrection of the dead. And the resurrection of the dead means the whole person, soul and body, restored, raised, reunited with God for all eternity. That is our ultimate hope.
Christians are people of hope. We’re kind of future-oriented, in a way. We need to live in the present, right? We can’t just dwell in the past, we live in the present, but we’re kind of future-oriented. That’s what we call eschatological hope. Eschatology means the last things, the ultimate fulfillment at the end of time. We don’t say the soul is not immortal. We can get into a long conversation there, but the point is: when St. Paul uses the word “body,” even there he means even the whole person. If the body wasn’t important, the Son of God would not have become incarnate. If the body was something meaningless or to be discarded at the end of time, then again there would be no Incarnation. We could have learned a different type of philosophy.
But Hebrew thought, Semitic, biblical thought, it’s very concrete. The body, you see, a kind of concrete, tangible existence, although with our spirit, of course, we acknowledge and we know God. So Jesus says: “The righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matthew 13:43). St. John in his first epistle—beautiful text—“Beloved, we are God’s children now. It does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” It’s a wonderful text. “We shall be like him”: well, Christ is resurrected.
Even there, some people think somehow Jesus no longer has a body. When Jesus is resurr-... Again, we come back to the point. He’s resurrected as he was in his incarnate state, his body reunited, and he ascends to heaven in that spiritual body of the Resurrection. So our human nature in all of its fullness is at the right hand of the Father in and through the ascended Christ. St. Paul has a beautiful text there in Colossians about we were at the right hand of the Father. Colossians 3—not getting it straight right now. In Philippians: “But our commonwealth is in heaven (polytevma, like our society, our world).”
But our commonwealth is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power which enables him even to subject all things to himself.
It’s the power at the end: our lowly body, this miserable body, this dust and ashes, somehow mysteriously by the grace of God is transformed to be like his glorious body, the spiritual body. The body is essential to Orthodox Christian what we call anthropology, our understanding of what it means to be human. We are a psychosomatic whole, body and soul united, created by God. We have a physical, material nature, if you like, biological, dust from the earth that was created by the hand of God. We have a spiritual nature: God breathed into that first man and made him a living creature. We’re simultaenously spiritual and material, noetic and material, if you like. That’s why the Church Fathers say we’re greater than the angels. Angels don’t have bodies like we do. Only the human person is made in God’s image and likeness. Even angels aren’t so described. That’s because of our bodies. We’re a microcosm of all reality because we’re spiritual and material.
So Mother Gabriella said we need to look up. [If] we’re merely biological, then you’re on all fours looking at the ground, but we can look up, we can reflect, we can love, we can create, we’re made in God’s image and likeness. But that whole person is soul and body. We’re not waiting for our soul to escape our body, but ultimately we will die and be with Christ, but we’re waiting for the reunion of soul and body.
The word “flesh” can be used differently in the Scriptures. It can be used positively: “And the Word became flesh—O Logos sarx egeneto.” “And the Word became flesh” simply means that human nature was assumed by the Word in all of its fullness. But the word “flesh” usually means the human person in rebellion against God, what we call fleshly living or a fleshly life. You have to read your Scriptures carefully. “Body” is the term that’s used more positively, the soma. We’re somatic beings, like in psychosomatic, as I said before.
St. Paul, in I Corinthians 15: “Christ is the firstfruits of them that have fallen asleep.” There’s a harvest here. He’s the firstfruit, so that first stalk of the harvest, implying there’s a harvest yet to come. He’s the firstfruit; we’re the later fruit that will be gathered. Like a seed put into the ground then we’ll be gathered together with him.
My old professor at St. Vladimir’s, Saint…—again “saint”; I’m calling them saints; how about that?—Dr. Veselin Kesich, a wonderful New Testament professor. He wrote a book called The First Day of the New Creation: The Resurrection and the Christian Faith. A wonderful book, probably about 20 years old. If you haven’t read this, this belongs in your library. The First Day of the New Creation. It’s a wonderful, in-depth analysis of everything I’m just kind of summarizing here today.
He said, “I Corinthians 15 is St. Paul’s gospel of Resurrection.” That whole chapter is about the Resurrection. Remember back: “I delivered to you what I received,” and it goes through the whole discussion of resurrection there. I would even say this chapter—we should know this chapter by heart. I would even say, I’d read this chapter once a week all through Pascha. I Corinthians 15, it’s such a powerful chapter, and our hope is expressed there. I would just read that chapter over and over, once a week during the Paschal season. It’s just so powerful a text. So the climax of that chapter [is] verses 51-54.
Lo, I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable nature must put on the imperishable, and this mortal nature must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: Death is swallowed up in victory.
Wonderful passage. “O death, where is thy sting?” I think he took that from Isaiah, but it’s a beautiful passage.
The word “immortality”: be careful. Sometimes people say “immorality.” [Audience laughter] Doesn’t work. I mean, I’ve heard seminarians do that reading the epistle. You get those two mixed up, it’s terrible. It’s a real… It’s pure heresy when you mix those two up in the wrong time and the wrong place. I’ve heard that. When Paul says, “Put off immorality,” I’ve heard people say, “Put off immortality.” It’s just crazy.
There’s that beautiful text; St. Paul, referring back to Christ, said, “Unless a grain of wheat dies and falls in the ground it abides alone, but if it dies it bears much fruit.” That’s in John 12, prophesying his own resurrection. St. Paul uses the same image of the seed that goes into the ground. So our perishable bodies suffer biological death. Our bodies… Earth back to earth, if you like. But we await the resurrection of the dead at the end of time. Obviously, this is a matter of faith and of our hope, but our faith and hope are based upon the fact of the Resurrection of Christ. It’s not simply a hope that we’re not sure of, if you like. It’s based upon the Resurrection of Christ. He is the firstfruits.
The stronger our faith in that Resurrection, the more we can somehow mysteriously assimilate this mysterious promise of the Resurrection and the whole person being restored before God. If our bodies are not resurrected, part of God’s creation would perish, but God allows nothing to perish [of] what he created. He wants to save the whole person. All this happens from the Incarnation. All this is incarnational. We’re so incarnational. That’s why we have the sacraments and things of that nature. This is where the Greek philosopher can never follow the Gospel. They back off when we start talking about the body and resurrection. We’ll hear that tomorrow, and I’m going to develop that a bit—I’m supposed to stay tomorrow for the Liturgy.
Here’s a nice text. St. Cyril of Jerusalem, fourth century, commenting on the Pauline text I just read, especially verse 53 concerning perishable and imperishable. He writes the following.
For this very body will be raised up, but it will not continue to be weak as it is now. Yet while the identical body is raised up, it will be transformed by the putting on of incorruption in a manner known to the Lord who raised up the dead, so this body will be raised up. It will not continue just as it is now, but will be everlasting. No longer will it need food to sustain life as it needs now. It will not need stairs to ascend by, for it will be spiritual, and that is something wonderful beyond anything that I am equal to describing. Lo, this is a mystery.
As St. Paul said, he can’t overly describe it. If you’re not happy with your body, there is hope. Let’s put it that way. [Audience laughter] But on a more serious level, I remember reading this one… I think a Protestant scholar wrote a beautiful book on the Resurrection, and he said—he had a very bad physical defect, and he said how he’s awaiting the Resurrection, how God will even… There’s disability, there’s crippling diseases. This world is the way it is. Sin has entered this world; it’s a fallen world. So we believe all that can be transformed and changed by God. So that’s a powerful hope. Yes, we all probably want a new body, but on a deeper level, that’s the fulfillment of our deepest hopes and the promise of the Gospel.
Now back to Professor Kesich, who kind of summarizes the Pauline passage and St. Cyril; he’s a 20th century biblical scholar. He wrote the following.
At the Resurrection, man will finally be freed from foreign, unnatural elements that cling to the body. The body will be resurrection, and corruption and death will be eliminated by the power of God. Then the final destiny of mankind will be realized, and in the new life, death and corruption will no longer have dominion over men. There will be no resistance to the appeals of the Spirit of God. Wherever the Spirit moves, the new, transformed body will follow in perfect harmony with it. What is perishable will now be raised as imperishable and glorious. The weak will be raised as powerful, the slave as finally free.
Great passage from Prof. Kesich’s book there. Just one more, going back to I Corinthians one more time, about the image of the sown seed.
What you sow does not come to life unless it dies, and what you sow is not the body which is to be but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain, but God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body.
I think we have to be very careful here. Again, we’re not a religion about the immortality of the soul. We’re a religion about the salvation of the entire person, soul and body. There are too many funeral homilies about the… You want to comfort the [family of the] departed. “Oh, Joseph’s soul is in heaven.” That’s fine; we don’t say that’s not true, but we kind of cut it short there. We’ve kind of Platonized ourselves, if you know what I mean by that. We kind of become like Platonic philosophers believing in the immortality of the soul, [and] we forget about the body here a little bit, that transformation. We’ve got to be careful [that] we’re more Semitic than we’re Hellenistic, in a way.
How do we even worship God with body and soul? According to the Apostle Paul:
I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.
It’s nice: the way you present your body to God is part of your spiritual worship. I think it’s logikē [latreia].
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
St. Gregory Palamas comments on that.
We must then offer to God the passionate part of the soul, living and active, that it may be a living sacrifice. How can our living body be offered? It is offered when the look in our eyes is gentle; when our ears are attentive to the divine teachings, not hearing them only, but as David says, remembering the commandments of God to accomplish them; when our tongue, our hands, and our feet are at the service of the divine will.
So we worship God in our bodies as well as in our souls, that’s spiritual worship. How we use our body and how we relate to the world and our neighbor says a lot about our so-called spiritual worship. We can’t have false dichotomy or separation between the two. This body which anticipates the Resurrection is being fed by the Eucharist which is a pledge to eternal life, as we pray in the prayers. How we use this body in our service to the world and to the neighbor is very essential. It is part of our spiritual worship. It’s not something that we just disregard.
One last comment. The Resurrection and mission. The apostles were appointed and commissioned with a mission. “Go and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” The Resurrection has a centrifugal force to it. The early community formed in Jerusalem, but by divine providence they were pushed out of Jerusalem into the world at large, so there is always a missionary dimension to our Christian faith, that kind of proclaiming the Gospel to the ends of the world which has to be fulfilled before the second coming of Christ, as we read.
We are baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit; we’re grafted into that body of Christ, we’re members together, and at some level we have to all be missionaries, at some level, even by example. Some people are quiet, they’re not vocal, they have a hard time articulating their faith—then it’s how you live it. That becomes your missionary activity: to your family, to your neighbors, to your fellow church members. So there’s a missionary dimension to all of our lives here on some level. Hopefully, there’s a certain re-energizing at a retreat. We go back and we can speak about it, take something of it with us if there was something that we learned or that was said that we can actualize in our lives somehow.
I’m going to leave it at that and anticipate… It’s already going on four o’clock. We’re well past our scheduled time, but that’s fine. So let me open up to any more questions or comments. I think we have some more time. I’d love to hear what you have to say, or anything that was said that raises anything? Yes? I think you’re waiting for the microphone, yes?
Q1: Okay, so talking about the body and how our theology is incarnational and that having a body is part of being made in the likeness of God, something that I struggle with and wonder about, then, is how do we read some of the Church Fathers or monastic literature that says to completely stifle the wants and desires of the body—only eat every three days? If God made our bodies to need nourishment, how is that…?
Fr. Steven: Right, that’s a very good question. Sometimes the monastic literature and practices really pushed it in their endeavor to be ascetical. Even St. John Chrysostom ruined his health by being over-ascetical. He was a monk for a while. He had to come back to Antioch because he’d ruined his stomach the way he fasted. He may have regretted that; I don’t know. St. Basil the Great died when he was 49. He was very ascetical, so he might have worn himself out a little bit. But at its best, there’s one great desert saying, a very simple: “I kill the flesh in order to save the body.”
“I kill the flesh in order to save the body”—so we are at warfare with our flesh. When “flesh” means our fallen human nature, with its appetites and desires that need to be fed and always fulfilled, that’s the flesh we’re warring with. If we can win that warfare, then we kind of save the body. Then the body becomes a real receptacle of the Holy Spirit. So at its best they’re saying you have to practice some ascetical self-discipline in order for your body to really do what it’s meant to do, so to speak, and not to become something that drags down your soul because you’re feeding its appetites. That’s why the Fathers talked about warfare against the passions. I’m sure that’s what Joy’s book is probably filled with, right?
It’s how you read the literature. Sometimes they almost sound Platonic. They really talk about the body; sometimes you feel a little uneasy about it. Even like the troparion for St. Mary of Egypt. It almost talks about “disregarding her flesh.” Some of the hymnography, you have to see it in context or put it in a bigger incarnational picture, I think.
You hit on something. Sometimes it can be overstressed, but it’s all meant to liberate the body to save it from the flesh. You feel that distinction there. The two terms… The flesh is the sarx; the body is the soma. The flesh can usually mean that kind of part of human nature that kind of drags you down. That’s why we fast.
Q1: Like overdoing it.
Fr. Steven: Overdoing it… it’s the overdoing of it. I tell my students; I tell them: Well, the first three passions that the Church Fathers mention—gluttony, lust, and avarice—that means food and drink, sex, [and] material things.” We’re not saying those are evil things. We’re not saying those are intrinsically evil or bad. We’re saying they can easily be abused, because eating and drinking can quickly become gluttony; sex within our married life can become lustful.
I like telling young students this. I get my chance to preach them a little sermon at the university. [Audience laughter] I tell them: Lust is sex without love. That’s what lust is; it’s sex without love. The other person is just an object, an object for your satisfaction. There’s no love there. Avarice: money in itself is not intrinsically evil. Things are not intrinsically evil, but if you become avaricious and you’re just kind of hanging onto money or hanging onto things, that’s the sin. It’s taking a good thing and abusing it.
Save the body. Those are more bodily things there. I think that’s important, too. Nothing is intrinsically evil, because it comes from God. That’s a basic principle. There’s nothing created that’s intrinsically evil. We create evil things or we use the creation to make evil things; that’s how we abuse things. That’s how we have to look at, I think, that notion of the body. We have to free it from its over-attachment to things, but still it’s a vehicle of the Spirit. I tell my students: Sorry, all you people that smoke out there. There’s nothing evil about smoking. I mean, the gesture of smoking is neutral, but you’re pouring this poison into your body which is the temple of the Holy Spirit, so that’s kind of sinning against what God gave you. That’s always the sin there. So that’s how I would try and answer that.
Q2: Could you tell us more about our everyday life, how to have Christ in our everyday life?
Fr. Steven: Well, I’m struggling with that, so… You need to read the gospels and know the teaching of Christ as well as possible. Start with the Sermon on the Mount, and then your life is a struggle to embody that. Remember I talked about those beatitudes? Now you have to pray; you have to feed yourself with prayer. You nourish your body with food and drink; you nourish your soul with prayer. Your body breathes; your soul breathes through prayer. You have to pray.
You have to give alms. You have to be charitable. It doesn’t mean writing a check every other week; it means being open to people in need who are around you. Sometimes a word is your charity. St. Nilus of Sora said, “Monks in the desert, they have no money,” so, as Mother said, a smile, a gesture, that is your charity to someone. Jesus says even fasting. Fasting, that means a sense of discipline.
So you’re living your life trying to conform yourself to the image of Christ as well as possible. Don’t get ahead of yourself; don’t think it’s going to happen overnight. It’s a kind of a slow process. You have to work on your sinful side or your passionate side. You have to know yourself—What are my weaknesses?—and try to avoid things on that level. Let your spiritual father help you on that level.
But we’re trying to embody the teachings of Christ in our life, and we have the power to do it by the resurrected Christ and the gift of the Spirit, but you have to cooperate with God. It’s called synergy: divine grace and your human freedom and your human will working together. You have to be a Christian at the workplace, in school, wherever you are, you have to be a Christian. You have to embody your Christian principles in the most trying circumstances, when it’s more challenging. It’s easy in church. Sunday morning, that’s fine. How about in the cool light of a Thursday morning? When you get out of bed, that’s the challenge, to be a Christian on that day.
When you fall, you don’t despair. You get back up. The devil works through despair. The devil wants you to despair when you sin, not to repent. The devil will tell you it’s too late, you’re worthless, you can’t change. That’s not from God. God says: Repent, and you return, etc. So when you fall, you return again. You have to have the courage to do that.
So those are just general things I would say. Read the Scriptures, read the lives of the saints, and just try and embody that in your life as best as you can.
Q2: Another topic: what can you tell me about born-again Christians, about what the Orthodox Church’s view is on salvation?
Fr. Steven: Well, that’s… that’s a whole new retreat topic. [Audience laughter] But—no, it is. It is. It’s a process. I think it’s a process. Orthodox don’t use that question, “Are you saved?” I don’t think the Church Fathers… It’s not even in the New Testament. It’s not even in the New Testament. Oh, it’s kind of… you need to be saved, okay. So we look at it as a process. We call it deification, theosis, growing in the likeness of God. It’s not going to happen overnight. We don’t know when we reach that point to say definitively, “I am saved.” I think it’s kind of pretentious myself, just my personal opinion. We leave that up to God.
Objectively, God has done everything conceivable to save us. He died on the Cross, he descended into Hell, he is raised from the dead. Objectively, our salvation is done in that sense. Now, subjectively, each and every one of us as a person must appropriate the gifts of salvation, that’s through faith, how we lead our life, but it’s a process of salvation. As we heard earlier, even in the kingdom of heaven you’re growing; you don’t stop even there. So you’re part of a continuum of faith that’s going to grow and deepen and take you into the kingdom of heaven by the grace of God.
Biologically, from the moment of conception to biological death, we are a continuum of a human being, which is why arresting the process we consider sinful. But also spiritually when we’re reborn again in baptism, there’s a process that keeps, hopefully, ascending. Anyone else? Joy?
Joy: You hit on it. You answered your own question from this morning when you talked about how the apostles were given the great commission to go out and preach in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and baptize in the name of the Father, Son… Sheol, up until that point when Christ came… [Christ] had to make himself known to those hitherto, because only the Israelites were the people, the chosen people of God. So the others would have to be covered under the baptism of desire, would they not? Because the baptism of desire exists still to this day. So he would have to make himself know to those, because he said, “I did not come for the righteous, but the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
So I’m wondering if once he made himself known to those [who lived] before he came, then as Sheol was now destroyed—because Hell is nothing more than separation from God, we separate ourselves from God, we’re in the outer darkness—then there’s no excuses any more, because the apostles have done their job, gone out throughout the world and the missionaries continue, the news media, television, everything. So now, it’s left to our individual decision.
Fr. Steven: Right. We have to somehow make some kind of modest contribution on some level. I agree with what you say.
Joy: Do you think that process might be…?
Fr. Steven: Yes, you said it quite well. I agree. So we’re kind of missionaries on some simple level or some modest level. Some are actual missionaries, like we mentioned Fr. Gregory, others like St. Herman of Alaska. Thank God we still have… Orthodox mission, we’re behind other churches in our missionary activity. These people are well-organized with a lot of money, and, frankly, we’re probably well behind on that level. We’ve got our OCMC together now. We’re trying to organize this a little better. That’s a wonderful organization to support. We need… I know in Africa we have good missions, and we need that. In Guatemala there’s a little mission and that new church there, but let’s face it: we can’t keep up with these other missionaries. I mean, they’re obsessed with mission. You can get obsessed with mission, too, but I’m not going to go into that right now.
Q3: Father, do you think we may be behind because of lack of unity? I know there’s unity of the faith in Orthodoxy, but we have so many different archdioceses that are based on our ethnic background, whereas Baptists and Catholics…
Fr. Steven: Right, well, that’s where something like OCMC is trans-jurisdictional. Everyone’s involved in OCMC, all the different bishops. Thank God, we’re realizing we’re harming ourselves, to use the old cliché, shooting ourselves in the foot by our disunity, so something like OCMC… Plus historically the Orthodox churches… The 20th century was a hard century on the Orthodox Church because of Communism. There was no even possibility of missionizing. We’re still coming out of a larger… the demise of Communism and could we somehow take advantage of this? It might take a few decades. Sometimes we don’t do a good job with that, but we were just so restricted for so long for part of our world.
North America, we’re free. We don’t have a whole lot of excuses to offer. But I think now we’re trying to come out of our ethnic enclave mentality, if I may use that term. If your parish is an ethnic center, then that’s fine, but if your parish is Christ-centered… I’m not saying they’re totally incompatible; I’m not trying to make that point, but the emphasis has to be Christ and preaching the Gospel before it is ethnic preservation. Then they can have a bad tension there.
So I think now, in 21st-century North America, our parishes are almost experimental in that they’re kind of pan-Orthodox. Half my parish are converts, so-called converts, if not more. I have a very nice mix. I have people from Romania, a few people from Russia, cradle Orthodox, but half the parish or more is converts, through marriage or reading or something, so it’s a nice… I feel like my parish is a new experiment because we’re not there because of our ethnic, social background. We’re there because of the Gospel, and we have our failings, but that’s how we have to go for the 21st century. Anyone else?
Q4: I just have a comment.
Fr. Steven: Oh, sure.
Q4: My father-in-law was a Russian Orthodox priest in Long Island.
Fr. Steven: What is his name?
Q4: Fr. Alexis Yonov. He died back in ‘76, I think.
Fr. Steven: Okay, before my time.
Q4: Yeah. I was Presbyterian and converted when we were married. It was a very small church that was started from a one-car garage, and very, very unique, I think. It was an old Russian Orthodox church, with the dark wood. And when I went into the church the icon stands around on the sides, there was one icon—it was a very small icon—and my husband pointed to it, pulled out a picture, and it was a battleground and dead bodies. And he said, “This icon came off of this soldier.” Everybody in that church had fought for their religion. That is really…
Fr. Steven: In Russia?
Q4: In Russia.
Fr. Steven: Wow. Yeah, Russia’s 20th century witness is incredible. The martyrdoms, it’s just incredible. That’s why I hope their church can just get themselves really together and be a strong presence again.
Q4: How many Orthodox Christians had been martyred in the Communist regime? Do you know?
Fr. Steven: Some people put it in the hundreds of thousands. There’s so many religious… My good friend is Dmitri Pospielovsky. He wrote a two-volume work entitled, The Russian Church Under the Soviet Regime, published by St. Vladimir’s Press back in the ‘80s. He was in my parish in Canada. He was a very good scholar. He estimated 45,000 clergy were put to death by 1938-39. That’s clergy, 45,000. Then you have all the faithful just pouring into the gulag, the prison system. It’s kind of innumerable. I mean, some were prisoners against their will, if you like they were forced to be martyrs, but they died for their religious convictions; others were just very strong in their faith, especially the clergy.
Q4: They came from Russia [inaudible], and his dad and his uncle came from churches that had thousands of people in them killed.
Fr. Steven: Wow.
Q4: It’s a lot.
Fr. Steven: Stalin tried to destroy it, and thank God he couldn’t. “The gates of hell will not prevail against the Church,” said Christ. Somehow, in some of these countries, that happened. Some of our churches have disappeared. We have to face it: northern Africa and Asia Minor, some of those churches disappeared in history, but the Church as the Church, the gates of hell will not prevail against it, even if it’s a small remnant at the end of time.
Any last… Does someone have…? Well, in that case, I really appreciate the invitation. It was wonderful to be here. Hope something good came out of it. [Applause]