Fr. Stephen Rogers is the priest at St. Ignatius Orthodox Church in Franklin, TN. He gave a series of 9 talks at the parish on Orthodox Spirituality concentrating on Purification, Illumination, and Deification.
Tonight we’ll conclude the purification component of our talks, which have taken seven sessions. When we get to illumination, it’s only going to take one session, and when it gets to deification, I may just stand here with my mouth shut for an hour. When it comes to the illumination aspects of what we’re talking about, what we’ll primarily look at is illumination as exhibited in the life of the saints, not techniques or methodologies, for there are none, but rather the result of all the things we have been talking about to this point.
So tonight I want to speak in general terms about purification and the mysteries of the Church, and the point of tonight is not to discuss the sacraments in their specific detail—that can be for another time and another place—but rather a general look at the sacraments in the context of what we’ve been talking about as our theme.
But when it comes to mystery, in contemplating God’s love for mankind and our experience of that love, there are three great mysteries to be contemplated, and each of these mysteries can be experienced in a very intimate way, but none of them can ever be intellectually be understood. Of those three great mysteries of which I am speaking, the first is the mystery of creation, the mystery that, as an act of divine will and divine love, God willed the cosmos out of nothing into being, and within that cosmos created beings capable of communion with him. And although all the great scientists and all the discoveries that mankind has achieved in the thousands of years in which this cosmos has been studied, and although many of the physical processes by which the cosmos operates are understood, the mystery of its creation remains a mystery, that how, out of nothing, by an act of his will, God creates all there is.
And this mystery of creation is a manifestation of God’s love. It’s as if the love that exists in the divine economy of the Holy Trinity is so great that God desired that it could be shared, that it could not be contained, that the love and perfect love experienced in the triune God would be experienced by created beings outside of that Trinity. And so the act of creation, as mysterious as it is, is a divine act of love. We have already spoken at great length of this, of the creation of man in God’s image, of our creation in his likeness. We’ve spoken at length of God’s placement of man in a physical paradise, as a place where, through creation, man could experience communion with God.
The maintenance of that paradise was a communal effort between God and man. God created and offered the garden to man, and man was to cultivate that garden and return an offering of praise and thanksgiving. Man’s work in the garden was to draw closer to God. Man’s work in the world was not simply to survive but to be deified, and we have spoken of that. We have also spoken of man’s rejection of that purpose, of his rejection of paradise, and how that rejection changed man’s whole relationship with the cosmos. And with the fall of man, man’s relationship with creation became one of surviving, not deifying.
So through man’s disobedience, the first great mystery of God’s love, the act of creation, became distorted and perverted. Death and sin ruled, and paradise was no more. But man’s disobedience did not extinguish God’s love for mankind, so the second great mystery was made manifest, the mystery which was hidden from the angels, the mystery that, when revealed, caused the angelic host to cry out in amazement, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill among men!” When the fullness of time had come, God became a man, and the second great mystery was revealed: the mystery of the Incarnation. Of this second great mystery of God’s love we have also spoken a great deal. We have spoken of God assuming our humanity, of his uniting of his divinity with our humanity, so that our humanity might be restored to its original purpose. And just as that first mystery was an act of love, so, too, was that second mystery.
But there’s a third great mystery, a third great mysterious manifestation of God’s love, and that third great mystery is the mystery of ecclesia, the mystery of the Church. For the mystery of the Church is great, for just as in the Incarnation man’s restoration is accomplished and made possible, so, too, in the mystery of the Church is the restoration of all creation accomplished and made possible. For the Church is the world in the process of transfiguration. The Church is the world in Christ. The Church is the Spirit moving across the face of the waters, bringing order from chaos. The Church is the replanting of the garden, the paradise in which God places man, to cultivate and partake of the fruits which have been planted there. And in the mystery of the Church, our relationship to God is the same as Adam’s was in the mystery of the garden. What was offered him in paradise is offered to us in the Church, and the responsibilities and calling he had in Eden, we have in the Church. And all that was lost in creation through Adam’s disobedience is restored through Christ and made available once again. Just as God walked in the garden, so, too, he is tangibly present in the Church, which is his body.
Though we speak of three mysteries—the mystery of creation, the mystery of the Incarnation, the mystery of the Church—we can also say that each of these mysteries is an expression and extension of one truth, and that truth is Christ. For in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, was in the beginning with God. Christ was manifest in the mystery of the creation, all things came into being through him, and without him not even one thing came into being.
The Gospel of John tells us that the mystery of creation is centered in Christ. But then he goes on to say, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Christ is at the center of the Incarnation. And then St. Paul tells us, “For the Church is the body of Christ, the fullness of him.” Christ is at the center of the mystery of the Church.
So all of these three great mysteries, these three great expressions of God’s love that is beyond anything we can comprehend, are centered in Christ. And the mystery of the creation brought forth man. The mystery of the Incarnation brought forth the restoration of man’s potential. And the mystery of the Church brings forth the actualization of that potential. Whereas the Incarnation restores the image that was lost, the Church restores the likeness. It is the place and the means for purification, illumination, and deification. Just as Eden was the physical place of actualizing the likeness in which man was created, so, too, is this new Eden that we find ourselves in—the Church. Just as the fruits of Eden were the means of communion with God, so, too, the fruits of the Church are the means to that communion.
These fruits, these sacraments, are the indispensable means through which our purification, our illumination, and our deification are actualized. The sacraments are the invisible operations of Christ through the visible acts instituted by him and given to the Church, his body, to minister. The sacramental actions of the Church are the activity of Christ himself, who instituted them and is at work in them. Christ is the celebrant of the sacraments, and hence he is the One who sustains the Church. Christ himself passed through baptism, and he continues to baptize. Christ himself, as a man, received the Holy Spirit, after his baptism, in the form of a dove, so that all who follow after him may receive that same Holy Spirit through the sacrament of chrismation.
Christ forgave sins, and he continues to forgive sins through the priests, having empowered the apostles by the breathing of the Holy Spirit upon them. He founds the Eucharist on the basis of his death and resurrection, and he celebrates that first Eucharist, commanding his successors to celebrate it, while he remains permanently within it, as both the offering and the [offerer]. He blessed the wedding-feast at Cana, and he continues to bless marriage. He healed the sick, and he continues to heal the sick, through the sacrament of unction. He called apart apostles as bishops and priests, and he continues to set apart, through the sacrament of orders.
In all these actions that he did, he continues to do as our High Priest within the Church which is his body. And through them the members of that body are joined, set apart, purified, illumined, deified, and made into the likeness of Christ.
In the words of the late Romanian theologian, Fr. Dumitru Stăniloae:
The light of the same ocean of grace, of brilliance and power, that shines forth from Christ, penetrates through all those who receive the sacraments, and within this light and its penetrating energy, the sun of righteousness is present and active. Through the sacraments, the energies of Christ’s love enters into all who receive them, bringing them into union with himself and with one another, thereby strengthening both the individual and the Church in its entirety.
The presence and activity of Christ himself are present in the sacraments, by the fact that the grace of the sacraments is the uncreated energy of Christ. And through each sacrament, Christ instills in each believer the experience and the power of certain exalted states by which he raised up human nature in his humanity to its full height and deification. Through our participation in the sacraments, our human nature goes through what Christ’s human nature experienced: his baptism, his chrismation, his anointing, his ordination. St. Nicholas Cabasilas says, “Union with Christ belongs to those who have gone all that the Savior has undergone, and have experienced and become all that he has.”
Just as the fruits of Eden were offered by God and Adam was called to tend that garden, so, too, must each individual approach the sacraments with intention and faith in the High Priest who administers them. And in receiving those sacraments, the individual makes a profession of faith, as in baptism, in the Eucharist, in ordination, in confession; or makes a commitment to act, as in marriage or confession or ordination. And we must never lose sight of the fact that the partaking of the sacrament is a personal encounter with Christ; that our baptism is a participation in his baptism, our chrismation is participation in his chrismation. Our communion is the one he offers. Our priesthood is his priesthood, for he is our High Priest.
Each sacrament is a personal encounter with Christ. Why do you think I want you to tell me your name when you come for Communion? “The servant of God, Mark...” You are addressed by your name. It is a personal encounter with Christ. And the reception of each sacrament is an act of personal submission to Christ through faith, to receive that which is offered.
And within the grace of each of the sacraments, there is an element of purification, an element of illumination, and an element of deification. We can see them present in baptism, in chrismation, in confession, in communion, in ordination, in marriage, in unction. In the baptism service, we pray: “O Lord our God, call thy servant unto thy holy illumination.” In chrismation: “Thou art washed, thou art illumined, thou art sanctified.” In the Eucharist we pray “that those who partake may partake unto communion with the Holy Spirit.” In marriage: “Grant them to lead an upright and blameless life, even to a ripe old age, walking in thy commandments, with a pure heart.” In ordination: “O Lord, deign to preserve in pureness this man.”
And purification takes place in the preparation for participation in the sacraments and the actual participation in them. They are a mutual act of us giving ourselves to Christ and partaking of Christ. There is illumination through them, and they lead to deification. In baptism, a new birth occurs, and the image that had fallen is restored. Again, quoting St. Nicholas Cabasilas—he’s speaking of baptism:
New birth means nothing else than those who are born and lost their original form are now returned to it by a second birth. It is as when the material of a statue has lost its shape, and a sculptor restores and refashions the image. Baptism restores the form of our soul by conforming it to the death and resurrection of the Savior. “As many as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”
And then he goes on to say this, what I alluded to earlier. Quoting St. Nicholas Cabasilas:
Perhaps this is why the saving day of baptism becomes the name day for Christians. It is the day on which they are reborn. It is the day on which we hear our name. It is the day we are properly known, for to be known by God is to become truly known.
St. Nicholas is saying our true identity as human beings is restored; we’re reborn into our true identity. And that baptismal name marks the significance of that.
Baptism is the new birth; chrismation is the new life. Fr. Alexander Schmemann of blessed memory says:
Chrismation can be distinguished from baptism insofar as life is distinguished from birth. The Holy Spirit confirms the whole life of the Church because he is that life, the manifestation of the Church as the world to come. Chrismation is entry into the new life of the Spirit, which is the true life of the Church. Chrismation is man’s ordination as true and full man, for to be fully man is precisely to belong to the kingdom of God.
Baptism is birth, chrismation is life, and Eucharist is sustenance. The Eucharist is our partaking of Christ’s body and blood, the body that was resurrected, the body that ascended into heaven. Have you ever stopped to consider what you’re consuming. It’s awesome enough to consider you’re consuming Christ’s body, but you’re consuming the body that was raised from the dead and ascended into heaven. In the words again of Dumitru Stăniloae:
The Eucharist is the sacrament of eternal life, given principally for the purpose of raising us above earthly life. The Eucharist is given that we may progress beyond a new life given in baptism into eternal life, into the life of the resurrected Christ.
St. Paul says, “We all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of God, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory.”
And you can see from the statements of these godly men that the sacraments of the Church—of the new birth of baptism, of the new life in the Church bestowed by chrismation—is all about purifying, illuminating, and restoring the image, and giving us back our true humanity. You can’t help but notice the serendipity between the statements of St. Paul, St. Nicholas Cabasilas, and Fr. Alexander Schmemann. Paul says as we grow in Christ, we reflect more and more our true identity in him. St. Cabasilas says it is no wonder that we receive our name at baptism. Alexander Schmemann says we only realize our true identity as members of the kingdom of God. Our partaking of the sacraments is given to allow us to reflect the image of God more and more, thereby making our own image more clear and more distinct. The sacraments have everything to do with purification, illumination, and deification, which is nothing more than the process of finding our true identity and our true selves in God.
Again, in the sacrament of confession, the ultimate purpose is to have the thoughts, words, and deeds removed which distort our identity. Many of you have been encouraged by me during confession not to consider sin as a list of moral and ethical transgressions, but as those thoughts and words and deeds which separate us from God. And if it is in God that we find our true identity, then sin prevents us from being our true selves: the person that we are intended to be. And confession is a return to our true identity.
Confession and unction are both sacraments through which we surrender our false selves, our false identities, the selves that would control and master our own destiny, to the mercy and power of God. For the rejecting of our false self is very much a part of the discovery of our true self. In order to gain our life, we must lose it. In order to be first, the false self must be last.
Even marriage and ordination have these elements. The crowns of marriage are a symbol of martyrdom. The vows of ordination call for obedience. Both are an acknowledgment and a sacramental setting-aside of our false self and our false identity. Why can marriage be so hard? Why can being a priest be so hard? Because in them we are constantly confronted with our distorted image. We see ourselves in our distortion.
Brothers and sisters, over the course of the past few weeks, we’ve talked at great length about the process of purification. We’ve talked about renouncing the world, of no longer seeing the world as a thing to be possessed in and of itself. We’ve talked of maintaining a repentant heart, of constant examination of our thoughts and motives before God. We’ve talked about obedience, obedience to the ascetical practice of the Church, of fasting, of prayer as a means of purification, of the reading and praying of Scripture as a means of purification. We’ve talked of participation in the liturgical life of the Church, as a means of transformation of both time and ourselves. And we’ve talked of the sacramental life of the Church as part of this process.
And, brothers and sisters, these things are not given to us as theory. They are not given to us simply as a topic of study. They are a means of actualization. Because Christ has become a man, we can in actuality become like Christ. We can in actuality reflect the glory of God and know him. But as is apparent, if you’ve been listening to any of these talks, the effort is hard. It is hard because it is all-encompassing. It’s life in Christ. It is the way, the truth, the life. It is the commitment of the highest importance: “Let us commit ourselves and each other and all of our lives unto Christ our God.” Yes, this process of purification is hard, maybe even impossible in our own strength. But God is our hope, God is our refuge, God is our Savior, and God is our deliverer, and in Christ we can be more than conquerors.
So I want to close this evening, which has been briefer than the evenings past, by reading a rather long passage of Scripture from the book of Romans, a passage you’ve heard many times, but I want you to listen to it in the light of the theme of our talks. Listen to the words of St. Paul framed in this process of purification, illumination, and deification. From Romans 8:
For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are the sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the spirit of adoption, by whom we call out, “Abba, Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God. And if we are children, then we are heirs, heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer through him, with him [if we go through this process of purification], that we may also be glorified together.
For I consider the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed within us. For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected in hope. Because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into that glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth-pangs unto now.
Have you ever considered that the Church was what creation was groaning for? That the Church is Eden, creation, restored?
Not only that, but we also have the first-fruits of the Spirit, for even ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly awaiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body. For we are saved in this hope, but hope that is seen is not hope. For why does one still hope for what one sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly await for it with perseverance.
Likewise, the Spirit also helps in our weakness.
You’ve got help in this purification process.
For we do not know what we should pray or how we should pray, but the Spirit himself makes intercession for us, with groanings which cannot be uttered. Now he who searches the heart knows what the mind of the Spirit is because he makes intercession for the saints according to the will of God.
And we know that all things work together for good for those who love God, to those who are called according to his purpose.
What is his purpose? For you to reflect his glory.
For him whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren.
The Spirit of God is going to see to it that you will make it, if you will persevere.
Moreover, whom he predestined, these he also called; whom called, these he also justified; and whom he justified, these he also glorified.
What shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not, with him, freely give us all things? Who shall bring a charge against God’s elect? Is it God who justifies? Who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died, and furthermore he is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation or distress or persecution or famine or nakedness or peril or sword? As it is written, “For your sake, we are killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.”
This purification process is a dying to self. It is a martyrdom. Sometimes it does feel like we’re sheep being led to the slaughter.
But yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life nor angels nor principalities nor powers nor things present nor things to come nor height nor depth nor any other created thing [and that includes you yourself] shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus, our Lord.
Brothers and sisters, our lives are hidden with God in Christ. And this struggle is hard, and we will struggle, but we will struggle out of gratitude, and we will struggle with assurance of what has already been done for us. And no matter what we think, or no matter what we see, the Spirit makes intercession for us, and all things are working together for good, and we are children of God and therefore joint-heirs with Christ. And though we might suffer along the way, if that suffering is with him, if we endure this purification process for him, then we shall also be glorified with him. Amen.