Creation and Sacrifice in St. Symeon the New Theologian

December 14, 2008 Length: 20:50

Fr Dcn Matthew explores the homilies of St Symeon on man and creation, and in particular the way in which the Christian response to ecological concerns resides in the theology of sacrifice and the participation in divine Communion - including brief remarks from a recent talk by Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia.





Here in the northern English county of West Yorkshire, the signs of autumn are definitely showing: leaves crunch underfoot alongside this stream near the small village of Esholt at the outskirts of Leeds. And this season, this time of year, always calls to mind the created order in which we live, as it now becomes so visible in its cycles of death and rebirth that mark out the seasons. It is a time of year that causes us to become more conscious, more aware of the created order in which we live and walk every day of our lives.

Our theme for this week is the relationship of the cosmos, of that which in the modern world we often call the environment, to the condition of humanity, and indeed the relationship of the environment to sacrifice in the human condition. And as a subject and source for these reflections, we will turn to the writings of St Symeon the New Theologian, writing in the 11th century. The following text is taken from the 45th Homily of St Symeon the New Theologian, often given the title, “Adam and the First Created World.” Speaking on the creation of the world and in particular the creation of Adam, the first human person, “dust-creature,” as the name literally means, St Symeon writes the following:

Do you see how God gave over to man at the beginning this whole world as a kind of paradise? Therefore, immediately after this the Lord says also, “Behold, I have given to you every seed-bearing herb with seed which is upon the face of the earth, and every tree which has in itself the fruit of the seed that is sown. To you it shall be for food, and to all the wild beasts of the earth and to all the flying creatures of heaven and to every reptile that creeps upon the earth, even every green plant for food.”

This a quotation from Genesis 1:26-30. St Symeon then continues.

Do you see how everything visible which is on the earth and all that is in the sea, everything, God gave over to the authority of Adam and his descendents? For what he said to Adam, he said to all of us. Just as to the apostles he said, “What I say unto you I say unto all,” because he knew that our race was to increase and there was to be an innumerable multitude of men.

In this, St Symeon gives a portrait of humanity bearing lordship over creation. This is not the kind of domineering power in St Symeon’s mind, but is the fact of creation itself. God fashions the cosmos, all that is in it, and hands it to the human creature as caretaker and lord, for humanity is not to sit above creation but to be part of it. A great multitude of human persons is to abound within creation. Thus the charge of lordship is a charge for humanity’s own context, its own world. Here is what St Symeon says on the development of the race, drawn immediately after our former reading in that same homily.

If now, after we transgressed the commandment and were condemned to die, people have so multiplied, then just imagine how many there would have been if all those born from the creation of the world had not died. And what kind of life would they have lived, being immortal and incorrupt, strangers to sins, sorrows, cares, and difficult necessities? And how, prospering in the keeping of the commandments and the good ordering of the dispositions of the heart, in time, they would have ascended into most perfect glory and, being changed, would have drawn near to God. The soul of each one would have become light-bearing by reason of the illuminations which would have been poured out upon it from the divinity.

St Symeon stresses that the human condition in paradise was to be creative lord, companion of God’s creation and guide of it into sanctity, so that creation itself might lead the human person into divine communion and illumination. But—and this is quite clear in St Symeon’s reading—the transgression of Adam, the sin of humankind, mars this development. Humanity’s lordship over creation is disfigured. This is not the fault of creation: it is not the fault of the trees and the earth, the sun, the sky, and all the elements of the six days; but the fault of that creature endowed with freedom who has used that freedom to rebel. The path of lordship is distorted into a path of destruction so that rather than bringing up creation into a fuller communion with God, humanity brings it down into a broken state of division. We might call this a patristic ecology: the view of creation defined by the sinful contours of humanity.

Then question then is: What is the creature to do in the context of this existence? If the creature, through his transgression, is responsible for the disfigured and deformed state of creation, is it not the case that the creature has some part to play, this human person, in the restoration of created beauty? The answer is clearly a resounding yes, but it is not simply that humanity can reclaim creation simply by willing that it were so. Creation is disfigured by an act of rebellion; therefore its reclamation comes by an act of submission. It is when the creature returns to communion with God, abandoning the will which led it into rebellion, that the human person becomes a mediator for creation’s renewal. It was the harboring of self-will that caused creation to be disfigured; it is the sacrifice of self-will that causes creation to be reclaimed. And so sacrifice becomes a key element in the Christian approach to ecology. I was reminded of this recently through the words of Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia. Speaking to an audience in Leeds in the north of England, Metr. Kallistos took up as a theme “man and the cosmos,” and speaking specifically of ecology and sacrifice, he had this to say.

Only through the cross, only through sacrifice, only through voluntary suffering can the world be changed and transfigured. As we say in the Orthodox Church at orthros (matins) on Sunday: “Behold, through the cross, joy has come to all the world.” Through the cross, that is the only way. Only through sacrifice, kenosis, voluntary self-denial can we cleanse the doors of our perception and rediscover the sacredness of the earth. Sacrifice is often the missing dimension in our ecological program. There is need for cosmic metanoia (repentance), repentance in the sense of change of mind, but costly change of mind.

That was His Eminence Kallistos, Metropolitan of Diokleia, in Great Britain, speaking to the Leeds Eastern Christian Study Seminar on 15 October 2008.

The sin of the human race distorts creation, and so creation awaits the redemption of the human race so that it, too, may be transfigured and returned to a newness of life. This is St Symeon’s point a little later in his 45th Homily on the creation of Adam. Reading from that text:

Thus the men of iniquity, for the course of many years, learned from one another by tradition and knew their Creator and God; but later, when people had multiplied and began to give their mind over from their youth to evil thoughts, they forgot God and no longer knew their Creator, and began not to worship only demons but to deify even such creatures as had been given them by God to serve them. From this they gave themselves over to every impurity and defiled their unclean works, the earth, the air, the heaven: they defiled all things under the heaven. For nothing so defiles and so makes impure the pure works of the hands of God as when someone begins to deify it and worship it like God who created the universe. And when finally the whole creation, being thus deified, became impure, and all men had fallen into the stream-abyss of sin, then the Son of God and God came down to earth so as to re-create man who had become so low to give life to him who had been dead and to call him from deception and error.

St Symeon portrays the fall of creation, or, more properly, the following of creation into the fall of man. It is our impure use, our impure regarded approach to that which God has fashioned, which defiles it, and it defiles it precisely by attempting to deify it. In the depth of this sorry state, Christ comes, and the work of the incarnate Son is re-creation, renewal, and newness of life and the beauty of that first created order. As Metr. Kallistos said in his lecture a few weeks ago, it is sacrifice which is the forgotten element in our ecological discussions. The sacrifice of Christ is the only hope for the ecological disaster which has as its root sin itself. There are scientific causes behind specific deformations of our created order, and yet, at the root of these deformations, is human sin, that which sets the will at rebellion against God and in rebellion against creation itself.

How is this to be healed? It is to be healed by the sacrifice of Christ. And the human person, re-created anew after this incarnate Son, is to emulate in his or her person the very sacrifice by which creation is restored. My life is to be a life of offering. I cannot redeem the world, redeem the time, as the Scriptures enjoin, if I am unwilling to lay down my own life, my own will, for the sake of that which God has fashioned for me. The redemption of the cosmos is enjoined to be an act in which I take part. I am united by Christ to his work and can fulfill this unique and holy charge only inasmuch as I, too, am willing to make sacrifice: of certain pleasures which abuse creation, of certain actions which do not cherish this world which God has given to me, but, more fundamentally, the sacrifice of a will which, again and again, with deadly consistency, rebels against God and takes all of creation with it.

The sacrifice of the will, that which each Christian is charged to make, ultimately draws us closer to the will of God. When one lays down his or her own desires, what is left is the desire of the Son for his creature, which infuses and transforms the human person. And we are drawn by this renewed desire into an ever-closer union with God, and so the fruit of our sacrifice of ascesis is the chalice. We are drawn into the direct communion of God even as he drew himself unto us in the Incarnation. So the response to the ecological concerns of this world, the Christian’s reaction to the brokenness of creation, centers itself, as so much of the Christian life, at the eucharistic table. Here is what St Symeon has to say on this particular matter.

This mystery of the Incarnation, made evident for the whole world in the way I have related, which occurred at the time of the economy of the incarnate Christ, afterwards also was accomplished and is accomplished in every Christian in the same way. For when we receive the grace of Jesus Christ our God, we become participants of his divinity, and when we eat his most-pure body, that is, when we receive communion of the holy mysteries, we are of one body with him, and in truth akin to him, as St Paul also says. Thus, by grace, we become like unto him, our man-befriending God and Lord, and in soul are renewed from being old, brought to life, as it were, from being dead. The fulfillment of the sacrifice every Christian is charged to make is a new engagement with the living Christ. He who came to the world to re-create it in its fallen state comes into the mouth, into the heart, the blood, the reins, and every member of the Christian person.

This is the great insight of St Symeon into the created world. It is broken not because of some scientific disaster but a theological disaster, and it is healed fundamentally not in fieldwork, not in scientific concerns, but in the healing of the human heart, for when this is healed, creation follows the healing, and so the wonderful mystery, the great surprise, as St Symeon’s ecological awareness, is that the chief tool for the restoration of this world, is the chalice. It is the eucharistic communion of God and man which has the power and the potential to redeem a suffering world. In the modern-day concerns, with ecology, with the environment, with so many issues which are pressing and are needful for the future life of our societies, how often do we Christian persons stop to think in the terms given to us in this holy Father? How many of us, when discussing the foundational elements of ecology and environmental issues start, as does he, with my own sin; and when we look for redemption how many of us turn first and foremost to the mystery of divine communion?

This is where the voice of the Fathers have resounding relevance to the modern world. We are so easily distracted by the scientific advances of our day that we easily lose sight of what is true and needful in the human condition. At the chalice, redemption is found, not just of my weak person, but of all the cosmos. Let us then go out from this communion, taking within us hearts transfigured and redeemed by the work of the incarnate Son, redeeming the world, redeeming the time through his grace and power.

Through the prayers of our holy Father, St Symeon the New Theologian, and of all the saints, have mercy on us and save us, O God. Amen.

Join us next week when we shall address God’s strengthening of humanity in the Incarnation of Christ in the thought of St Athanasius the Great of Alexandria.