TODAY WAS A BIT of a rough one for me: it began at 4AM with the news that my mom was in the hospital (but somewhat ok as compared to last night). Getting to work I was alerted to the news that one of seven speakers I had arranged for Good Friday might not be there for their own family emergency and a parent in the hospital. So with two hours to go I locked myself in my office with a double espresso and composed a backup essay which, thankfully, I didn’t need to deliver. It follows:
In her writings, Saint Catherine of Siena teaches, “All the way to heaven is heaven because Jesus says I am the way.”
Jesus says to the thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”
The thief is on a cross… Jesus is on a cross. What can this mean in Paradise? Today.
My road to the fullness of the Catholic Faith is broken. I made choices early in my life to prioritize certain aspects of my experience over my religious faith and, as a result, my faith started to fall apart.
For a long time I doubted things like the Resurrection and the Virgin Birth, the sacraments, the Bible, the Church, but – at the same time – I struggled knowing I was making moral choices contrary to the historic teachings of the faith.
At the point (sometime in college) where I realized the only part of the Nicene Creed I could say was the first word – “I” – I left my Episcopal Congregation. Then I journeyed outside of the church denying the faith entirely.
After about ten years something was still missing from my “spiritual but not religious” life.
I returned to a liberal Mainline congregation – where I could still live by my choices. But something was still off and so I went first to Eastern Orthodoxy, finally to the Catholic Church. I walked into this building and this community five years ago.
Leaving liberal, progressive Christianity for the traditional faith, I knew I was making new choices that were contrary to my earlier life. There could be no compromise if my faith was to take priority. Something had to change: I would have to let go of those earlier choices.
This new struggle began, seeking healing from the wounds caused by those earlier choices. Wounds leave scars, tearing muscles, and making one week in certain areas. Moral choices, as Saint Paul says, can sear the conscience so that it becomes nearly impossible to make the right choice again in the future without God’s grace.
When Saint Paul says, “I am crucified with Christ” he means that this life, the choices we’ve made, the choices I’ve made become the cross upon which we nail ourselves; hanging there like the thief begging Christ to remember me in his kingdom.
When walking away from former choices toward Christ becomes our whole way of life he says “today you will be with me in Paradise”.
The former choices, these ways of life that were contrary to the faith, that were actually ways of death become the sacrifice made Thanksgiving.
Eventually, Jesus called me back. My Mom said, “No matter where you went, he never let go of your hand, did he?”
I discovered that she was right: all the time that I was walking – even when I was walking away in pride – I was actually walking towards Jesus.
My Sacrifice, once nailed to the cross, he takes and blesses. All of the broken road turns it into my path to him.
Jesus is our Paradise hanging on the cross and when we hang on the cross with him we are in Paradise today.
All the way to heaven is heaven because Jesus says I am the way.
WITHIN THE JEWISH TRADITION the last prayer one says before dying is called the Shema (or Sh’ma) :
שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יי אֱלֹהֵינוּ יי אֶחָֽד
Hear, Israel, the Lord our God: the Lord is one.
The recitation of this line of scripture, along with some other passages of scripture form the keystone in both the morning and evening prayer services of the Synagogue liturgy. Additionally, it is traditional to recite it just as one is going to bed and, as noted, as the last breath before death.
Before one says the Shema, one says a prayer called the Vidui. It’s a confession of sin and an acknowledgment that, before God, one is entirely without merit. It’s a prayer for mercy and grace in death. Although many of the modern versions include the verse “into thy hands…” it was not always so. In the 16th Century, the “Code of Jewish Law” (Shulchan Aruch) does not have this in the “official” Vidui. And, even in the modern versions that include that verse, it’s in the middle of the prayer – not at the end. And, again, the final thing said is the Shema.
All of that by way of saying that I find Our Lord’s choice of final words to be interesting in that it’s not the Shema. It’s something else.
As I mentioned in the last post in this series, we are meant to rest in the bosom of the Son as the Son rests in the Father. We are all called to this intimacy. The theological description of the Son resting in the Father and of the Holy Spirit proceeding is Perichoresis (from two Greek words meaning “around” and “to go, or come”) or Circumincession (from Latin). It’s often rendered as interpenetration. (Pardon me for ranting a bit: There is a modern etymology that incorrectly links the Greek root words with the word for dancing. This, however, is not valid and is more akin to the father in My Big Fat Greek Wedding finding Greek roots for english words or other such bad scholarship such as is found in certain branches of religious studies. End of Rant.) ANYWAY… Perichoresis. When Jesus prays that Christians should be one even as he and the Father are one (John 17:22), this is part of what he means. When he prays that we should be in him (and him in us) as he is in the Father (John 17:23) it’s also talking about perchoresis or circumincession. We move together, we move through and with each other and – my ranting aside – it is rather like dancing when you think about it.
This is what he means when he hands over his Spirit to the Father – this unity, this circumincession. And that brings us back to the beginning.
In saying “Father into thy hands…” instead of merely reciting the Shema, he did it.
This essay is an edited version of last year’s post. I seem to be. on the same track this year.
It is finished.
Perelandra Is CS Lewis’ brilliant and engaging meditation on the Fall. It takes place on Venus in the 1940s where God is making a new race of persons and they are again being tempted to fall away from him. The action plays out through human mediation: God sends an earthman there to act for good since an earthly scientist is already going there in a spaceship, unwittingly to act as the agent of evil. I say “unwittingly” because the scientist believes in nothing: neither good nor evil. The good man sent, Dr Ransom, is a believer in Christianity but it’s not the Christian faith he’s sent to bring to Venus. Over the course of the novel, Ransom actually plays out more of the role of St Michael than of Christ, defending the Venusian Eve from the wickedness and snares of the devil (being mediated by the scientist). Thus, provided with a tempter and a defender, Eve, must undergo the trial and make her choices. No real spoilers here, but there are deep thoughts in the book about what humanity would have been like without The Fall or the need for redemption.
Man is created in God’s “image and likeness”. What does this mean? The Church Fathers have tossed the question back and forth, all the while acknowledging that we are fallen now so we cannot know for certain what it would have been like before. But there are some key signs: like our creator we have Free Will, meaning we can submit to God. Like our creator we, too, are creators. These hallmarks are damaged in the fall. There is a third, I think, and Lewis draws it out fully in Perelandra. As Children of one divine Father, we are meant to be in as intimate communication with him as God the Son is with his Father, offering back our love in the communion of the Holy Spirit and participating in the Divine life, even as we have our own, individual actions and lives here.
We are meant to rest in the bosom of the Son as the Son rests in the Father. We are all called to this intimacy. In the Fall our ability to do so is lost. We hear other communications, other voices – of our passions, from the world around us, from our fallen affections and sex drives, our desires, and temptations. Our communication skills are so damaged that many of us hear those other voices and assume they are god. Some hear those other voices and don’t think of them as divine but follow them anyway. Even the devout are torn: we cannot hear the will of God as easily as we can talk to a friend in Slack or Zoom.
We are lost. We don’t hear God (or we think we do when it’s only an “undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato”). Our creative skills turn inward to make golden idols, and our free will is damaged so that we usually pick the wrong things. Yet, God loves us. God dies for us.
It is finished.
This sometimes gets played up like it might mean the debt for our sins is paid by Jesus, or that our redemption is accomplished here – when it’s not: the resurrection and the ascension are both part of our salvation-in-process. Even the second coming is part of the working out of our salvation. Yes, the blood of Christ saves us, but not from some cosmic debt we cannot pay, so God paid himself by his own blood.
It is finished. What? Fr John Behr’s The Mystery of Christ: Life in Death offers an extended meditation on this question: What is finished? He follows the Patristic tradition as does CS Lewis’s work. The Greek word rendered as “finished” gives the clue: Τετέλεσται tetelestai, fulfilled – brought to its proper conclusion or use.
Adam and Eve were not yet adults in the Garden. All of human history was thrown off by, in essence, two teens letting their hormones get the best of them. Think Romeo & Juliet as not a romance but rather, “two teens disobey their parents, do what they shouldn’t do and a lot of people die”. The Garden is not about two adults making choices, it’s about two kids failing to grow up. And we have been only children ever since. You can’t pass on what you don’t have: all of world history has been written by adolescents unable to mature.
The Cross is God dragging us out of puberty into adulthood, bringing us to our Telos. We can freely decide to keep running around doing whatever we want but now we have the option to reconnect to God. To open our hearts to the same level of intimacy enjoyed by the Son with his Father, to have our creativity restored to its rightful use to glorify God, to have our passions put in right order, to have God as our Father, not just our creator. We have the option to grow up.
To be and to be in communion are the same thing: in Christ we have communion restored with each other and with God. We can run away, but we have, now, the option, to become fully human.
It is finished: we’ve been reconnected, rewired. We now have our freedom to respond. Time to grow up, to reach our telos which is only possible through the cross.
T HIS SIMPLE REQUEST of Jesus pulls many into theological arabesques. What is Jesus thristing for? For our faith! For our love! For souls to heal and bring to heaven! None of that is in the text, of course: they arise from meditation on the text as does this essay. Jesus, having hung on the cross for three hours, having been tortured and up all night gave voice to a simple need. It’s not far-fetched to imagine he’s slightly delirious. What is a bit of a surprise is that someone responded to his request. I know it’s a prophetic sign, but you’d be hard-pressed to prove that it’s a sign of anything important.
It’s a root complaint in our world. You can fast for a long while, but you need to drink often. It’s so ingrained that drinking a lot of water can help you fast from food! “You’re not really hungry,” you say to yourself. “Have some water.” Good tap water goes a long way, but something sour (like vinegar and gall) makes it taste much nicer, and makes it all that much more satisfying. There needn’t be anything mystical going on here. The Early Christians recorded this because it happened. Jesus actually said these lines. God said this while dying.
“I thirst,” said God as he was dying.
Having simple, human needs is one thing that God does. Dying is something that God does.
Have you seen how beautiful this world is? I mean really? Yes, there is beauty in a shot of San Francisco Bay from the side of Russian Hill, especially at dawn. But there is beauty in a decayed leaf, or a collapsing squash. Stars collapsing, maggots on corpses, and even ancient skeletons (and by extension, our own) all have their own beauty. A stary night, a rainy afternoon, a Haboob, or a tornado all reveal an intense beauty that – once experienced – leaves us wanting more.
Who among the readers of these pages have one delicacy that they imagine that they would love to eat forever? Fried fish, chocolate mousse, avocado toast, lattes, caviar, fritos with cheese sauce, biscuits and gravy, or caramel corn?
In moments of deepest intimacy or near-spiritual elation, who does not wish to remain there?
Each beauty of our world, each joy, each taste, even each pain, calls from us a visceral response. We are called up and out of ourselves and yet – at that same moment – we are nailed deeply in our souls, rooted in ourselves. We are one with all things and yet isolated, alone, me. There is a moment there where I thirst becomes our own cry. We thirst for more of whatever it is and we are sorry when it has passed without slaking our thirst, our need.
These moments – even the ones that hurt – pull us towards the possibility that there is something more, something that we are craving constantly – even though we cannot name it. We can get caught in a constant round of trying to satisfy our thirst here, in this world. Every dawn over the Bay is beautiful and I have been fully blessed to see dawn here for 25 years. Dawn has happened for millenia continuously on this revolving world. But we want it again.
We thirst for more.
Jesus is that more. All of it poured out filling hearts. Jesus is the more for which we thirst. The greatest beauty, the highest joy, the deepest love is only a sip, a drop of moisture, a hint of the fullness that is Jesus.
And in eternity we may find the slaking of that thirst.
WE HAD A GUEST show up at our homeless ministry. It was her first time. She seemed a little out of it. She seemed more than a little confused. We fed her. Then we closed our doors, as we do at a certain time, and folks left. Guests usually sit at our outdoor tables until Noon or so, so we don’t worry about it. It’s sunny and nearly 85 today. An hour later someone said there was a woman trying to go to the bathroom in our parking lot. So we go out and find her and say this can’t happen. And then we come inside and wonder why she didn’t ask for the restroom downstairs when we were serving folks.
Two hours later she was found still outside in our parking lot… and we walk out to see what was happening. In her slow shuffle, she got to the fence. And called to people outside on the sidewalk. They assumed she was asking for money, but it was something else. We softly directed her through the gate and she asked for help. It dawns on us that she was mostly blind, making her way but suddenly trapped in a strange new parking lot that was surrounded by fences, unable to feel her way out. She wasn’t out of it at all. She wasn’t confused: she wasn’t able to see.
Once we got her on the sidewalk, she practically ran: no shuffle. Back in the world she knew and heading home. I had to run to keep up with her!
Walking back to the office John and Mary came to mind. There is your mother. There is your son.
CAN GOD FORSAKE HIMSELF or can he be forsaken by himself? It always seems that this verse gets called out to prove that Jesus didn’t see himself as God – or that the earliest Christians didn’t see him as God. Then, sometimes, this verse gets thrown around to say the Father somehow abandoned Jesus as if the eternal Trinal Unity of God could sever himself and leave part of himself behind.
Was Jesus abandoned?
The Liturgy of Byzantine Catholics and Orthodox Christians replies loudly NO. At Pascha (Easter) they sing:
In the tomb with the body, in hades with Thy soul as God, in paradise with the thief, and on the throne with the Father and the Spirit, wast Thou, O boundless Christ, filling all things.
At one moment in the Grave, in Hades, in Paradise, on the Heavenly throne. Even the incarnation itself did not part God from himself. The arc of salvation is the Messiah “filling all things”.
So what happened on the Cross?
The Incarnation is a mystery of the faith. The kenosis or self-emptying of the Son is one of the actions of his love for us. In this, he follows what he sees the Father doing: self-emptying to the Son. The Son self-emptying to us.
However, there’s another element here, for the manhood of Jesus was equally real and fully present. Our Lord and Saviour was not only the Divine Logos but also fully human. The feelings of that man are real, are fully human just like yours or mine. To use a sort of psychobabble, his feelings are valid. Jesus said, “I will do this for you” and the resultant feelings are real. Our feelings matter, too: not just our flesh, not just our spirit. Even though he was never abandoned, even though he was always “on the throne with the Father and the Spirit” Jesus’ emotions told him, “this sucks…”
And so, also, with us.
There are times when I can know in my head (even in my heart) that each thing that participates in beingness is doing so through God’s actions. Were I ever abandoned by God I would no longer be. The very act of being alone – which I cannot initiate or sustain – is proof of my being with God. I can know that. But my emotions can run another way, can turn against me can demand I cry out.
My God, why have you abandoned me?
Jesus knew this feeling and, here on the Cross, this feeling is elevated to a Divine state, to one of salvation in process. Your feeling of abandonment can be offered to God, and can even be celebrated as a participation in the passion of Christ.
You can – like Jesus – even blame them on God. This is the point, actually. Our feelings are not sins and yet they are very real. It’s what we do with them that is crucial. As Jesus said in the garden, “If it is possible, please take this away from me… but not my will. Rather, Father, may your will be done.” So he says here, “I feel abandoned. But I’m still trusting you, Father.” That should be us: and yet it takes a lot of faith to do it. If we find ourselves trying to pull away – letting our feelings get the better of us – we need to turn it all over to God again. But our feelings then become our Cross. We’re called to bear our cross including our feelings, but even if we fall under them we need to keep going.
Today there is a great drive to give into our feelings which largely means to run away from pain and things we’re afraid of.
BY WAY OF disclaimer, this admission: Pope Francis has stepped out to consecrate Russia and Ukraine to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and this seems to me a good thing. As the Pope is the Vicar of Christ, the whole world is his See, and he can make Eucharist with all that is his – as each servant of Christ is called to do. By that confession or what follows I hope that my opinion of the sitting Patriarch of Moscow would become clear as well.
Some think that the consecration will result in some sort of “automagical” end to the war or maybe some other apocalyptic event. But I think not. This event reads as the Pope asserting pastoral authority over a people seemingly abandoned by their own Pontiff, who, by throwing himself into the vanguard of someone we think of as a political bad actor, seems to have offered not only a pinch of incense to Caesar but also turned traitor against his own brethren in the name of that same Caesar. The sitting Patriarch of Moscow deserves to be removed from office if you ask me. The Holy Father is doing what he can, short of declaring the See of Moscow to be vacant – an act which neither side of the Great Schism has ever done. If you’ve never noticed: neither Rome nor Constantinople has ever tried to elect a successor to the See of the Opposition. There’s no Catholic Ecumenical Patriarch and no Orthodox Bishop of Rome. (This tacit agreement to let each other run their own show is a huge sign of hope to me!)
Orthodox Bishops around the world have made it clear that they reject the Patriarch’s actions. But, in doing so, they reveal to the west how messy Orthodox Ecclesiology can be. Yet – the rule of glass houses applies here – what makes this action any different from how certain bishops and priests reject our Holy Father as either too liberal, too conservative, or too vague? Rejoicing because secular politics is ripping up the Church is not a good look for us. Taking sides in a dispute internal to the Orthodox Church seems tone-deaf on our part, or else imperialistic: do we want them to fall apart?
The Pope is giving Russia and Ukraine – and by proxy all of us – a call to behold your Mother. Jesus says, “Behold your mother.” Yet the Pope is also unveiling (the real meaning of apocalypse) exactly how messy the Church is. As Mary is our Mother, so also is the Church. If the Pope is calling us to see one, we must see the other as well. Spiritually the Church is a spotless bride adorned as for her wedding. But. Look. Let’s be honest: to human eyes, the Church can be more like Stella Dallas than Stella Maris.
When I left the Episcopal Church, I looked briefly at the Catholic Church but thought I saw many of the same problems I was fleeing in ECUSA: sexual issues, feminism, bad theology, wonky liturgy. The Orthodox Church seemed a safe haven. I needed to be there for 3 years or so before I saw my mistake. After 10 years there the Apocalypse had shown sexual abuse, issues around the understanding of sex and the two human genders, wonky theology and ecclesiology, and even a form of the Liturgy Wars. Hearing of the sexual antics of monastics in a monastery I had – pardon me – idolized even before I became Orthodox was the last straw in a lot of ways. As news of the sex scandal breaks (over and over, it seems) and as political infighting becomes the main soundtrack, maybe casting it all aside seems like a good idea. But that would be to betray our divinely appointed mother.
This post is not about the scandal that may thus arise any more than it’s about Putin’s ecclesial shenanigans. It’s about our mother, the Church.
And she’s a bit messy. You may even say tawdry. She’s filled up with mere human beings who are all sinners. Left to our own devices she’s bound to end up with a torn dress, with bruised muscles, with a black eye now and then.
But she’s trying very hard to get sainthood out of us anyway.
The consecration of Russia and Ukraine – and all of mankind – to the Heart of the Immaculate Virgin is a reminder that while we have a mother here on Earth we have a pure mother in Heaven as well. One who prays for us, one who sits at the side of her son offering intercession for us along with all the saints; and through her Son to the Father. The Church Militant is both an expression of her intercession as well as a foretaste of what Mary is. Only by God’s grace can we move there, only by God’s grace can she – the Church – move there. The process of ecclesial reform is first and foremost the process of making each of us holy. We cannot fix the Church – she fixes us – and when we are healed so will she be. We are the Church. Those public sins we did not commit damaged souls as surely as the private ones we did.
Behold your mother: she’s a bit of a mess but she has one thing to do. She’s going to get you holy and, by a grace-filled sort of transubstantiation, when you are holy she will be too.
TODAY.How hard it is to imagine this. Today in paradise. Sometime in the distant future or, perhaps, sometime in the distant past, certainly. But today? Hardly. Of course, the Wise Thief is about to die, so that makes sense, right? Your going to die and you’ll be with me in paradise after you die. And the Greek does say that after a fashion. But what it really says is, “Today with me you will be in paradise.” It’s a subtle change, but it’s important. Not, “today you and I will be in paradise together” but rather “today, by means of me, you will be in paradise.” That’s an important change for two reasons:
First, I think we usually imagine this as being a change in “spiritual location” for both Jesus and the thief. Jesus is not saying we’ll be here (on earth) for a little while and then “we’ll go to heaven by and by when we die”. In fact, the Creed says Jesus descended from the cross into Hell. This is where the harrowing of hell takes place – from Friday at Sunset and through the course of the Holy Shabbat. Jesus is making a different promise to the thief here. The second reason this is important is related to modern soteriology: the Wise Thief is the only person promised anything like “paradise” after death. Look through the New Testament. Although there are lots of conversations about salvation, none of them talk about “going to heaven after you die”. None of the evangelists promise “life after death” as a way to get converts.
My final presentation in New Testament class was research on the Lake of Fire in St John’s Apocalypse. If it had been longer (my presentation timed at just under five minutes) it would have been called a “deep dive” but that pun would not have worked too well. How is the Lake of Fire linked with Jesus’ promise to be with him in Paradise?
The Lake of Fire is only mentioned four times in the Apocalypse:
Revelation 19:20: The beast and the False Prophet are thrown in. No previous discussion or description happened.
Revelation 20:10 The devil is cast in.
Revelation 20:14–15 Then Death and Hades go in. Wait, hell goes into hell? Then “anyone not found written in the Book of Life.”
Revelation 21:8 A list of sorts of people get tossed in as well. There are three classes of Christians and four classes of nonbelievers: – cowardly. Are these people who walked away when persecution arose? – faithless. People who walked away just because? – detestable. Unclear – perhaps heretics? – murderers – sexually immoral – sorcerers – idolaters – liars
The lake is described as burning with fire and brimstone or sulfur. I think that detail is important, but we’ll get back to that.
The first appearance of fire in the Apocalypse is as something flashing from Jesus’ eyes in 1:14: “His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire.” This description is repeated in 19:12 (His eyes were as a flame of fire, and on his head were many crowns). Fire is, somehow (in some way) tried to Jesus here. But that link between God and fire is throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. There are two words, a Hebrew one for most of the Old Testament and an Aramaic one for Daniel:
esh: a fire (Strong’s #784) Original Word: אֵשׂ (Hebrew) Part of Speech: Noun Feminine Transliteration: esh Phonetic Spelling: (aysh) Definition: a fire
nur: a fire (Strong’s #5135) Original Word: נוּר (Aramaic) Part of Speech: Noun Transliteration: nur Phonetic Spelling: (noor) Definition: a fire
Daniel uses his word 17 times. Most are talking about the “Firery Furnace” into which people have been tossed. The Hebrew word gets used 377 times. It’s a normal “fire” in Genesis 22:6, but of the first 17 times it’s used in Genesis and Exodus, 11 times it is the fire of God. 19 times in Deuteronomy it is the fire of God. This goes on! 2 Samuel 22:9, 2 Kings 2:11, 1 Chronicles 21:26, 2 Chronicles 7:1, Nehemiah 9:12… gracious. It’s constantly on fire here. There is a flaming torch (God) there is a flaming bush (God), there is a pillar of fire (God), a river of fire, a throne of fire, and wheels of fire. God shows up as fire. Flashes fire from the sky in Sodom, Egypt, and on the prophets of Baal. God has a fire that goes before him consuming foes (Psalms 97:3), and God is a consuming fire (Deuteronomy 4:24). This last we hear repeated in Hebrews 12:29, which we might see as a bridge between the fires of the first testament and those of the second one.
Isaiah reports (33:14) The sinners in Zion are afraid; fearfulness hath surprised the hypocrites. Who among us shall dwell with the devouring fire? who among us shall dwell with everlasting burnings? Indeed it is terrifying. Who of us can live in the consuming fire? Wait, why do we have to? Don’t we get a pass because of our baptism? Well, no. For the ones who dwell with “everlasting burnings” are exactly, “He that walketh righteously, and speaketh uprightly; he that despiseth the gain of oppressions, that shaketh his hands from holding of bribes, that stoppeth his ears from hearing of blood, and shutteth his eyes from seeing evil” but suddenly the image changes and “they are the ones who will dwell on the heights, whose refuge will be the mountain fortress. Their bread will be supplied, and water will not fail them.”
Water? Food? Were we not discussing fire?
Time for another set of images.
Also in Heaven, there is a glassy sea. That may mean the sea is made of glass, but I’m going with “placid sea” because in other places in the Apocalypse there is an Ocean as well. There is a river of the water of life, there is the living water rising from within Jesus – and from within the believer. God is not only a pillar of fire, but also a pillar of cloud. There is the crucial clue, pardon the pun. It’s something to do with God being fire and water, qith God being either fire or water (bother, actually). Who can live in the consuming flames? Those who are just – who have been washed in the living waters.
There is a way where the presence of God is as refreshing as living water for some and as deadly as a fiery furnace for others. Better, using the images from Daniel: the fires of the divine furnace are somehow bedewed by the presence of one like the Son of Man walking with us.
I mentioned this story in an earlier post on Hebrews (where God is a consuming fire): Abba Lot went to Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba, insofar as I can, I say my prayers, I keep my little fast, and I pray and meditate… Now what more shall I do?” The elder stood up and stretched his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of flame, and he said to him, “If you wish, become all fire.” Here, the fire is within us, God’s fire becomes us.
And that’s what it means to be in Paradise: to be in the presence of God and to not be destroyed by the fires.
Unfortunately, for all most all Americans, Christian or not, to be saved means “going to heaven.” There is no scriptural reason to hold that meaning. None. At all. Period. Nothing in the Bible makes any sense if that’s all that “paradise” means. Where is paradise? Where is hell? Is there anywhere an omnipresent God is not?
There is only one eternity – equally true for me, for you, for Ivan the Terrible, for Adolf Hitler, for Mother Theresa, and for your great-grandma Mae. The answer is totally the same for everyone:
We will all spend Eternity with God. Eternity is that omega point where our human, fear-based self-shielding mechanisms of time, space, sin, self-interest, ignorance, and doubt all collapse into the event horizon of God’s very beingness, from whom nothing can escape, by whom all things are known, and in whom all things live and move and have their fullest being. We discover that the very fire in our being that animates us is our participation in God – as it is for the demons. They know this already and it burns them even as they live. We will see it fully then… will it burn? Or will we burn alive?
There is no place else to go, nowhere to run in eternity where God is not. There is no place to run here in Space-Time, either, if you really want to know. It is our delusions that allow us to think that we’re safe from him. We can ignore him for a few minutes, hiding behind fig leaves, as he walks in the evening crying out, “Earthling, where are you?”
Eternity with God is not “salvation” though, except in the abstract: certainly Jesus didn’t send Bartimaeus there when he said “you’ve been σῴζωed – sozoed.” Nor did he send anyone else to “the Gold Streets of Glory, halleluia!” when he said to the woman at his feet, the lepers, the bleeding woman, the Syrophoenician woman, the Centurion, “Your faith has sozoed you.” Neither is it what St Paul and the other Apostles mean when they say, preaching, “You and your whole household can be sozoed this night…”
In the LXX, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, σῴζω – sozo is used for the word הושִׁיעַ, hoshia. Both mean “to save”. And the Hebrew is related to Jesus’ own name, Yeshua. There is our clue, really: think of it that way for just a moment and it will make sense:
Being “saved” means being “made more like Jesus”.
No one will be excluded from God’s presence – but to see God is to be plunged into what? “Our God is a Consuming Fire.” The only Human who can be there is Jesus, who is God, himself. To be saved… to be brought into communion-via-likeness with Jesus… is to stand alive in the Fountain of Life itself, to be made like the Burning Bush: raised to a fullness of Beauty unimagined, burning and yet not consumed.
Dante takes us so close to heaven:
This heaven has no other where than this: the mind of God, in which are kindled both the love that turns it and the force it rains.
As in a circle, light and love enclose it, as it surrounds the rest and that enclosing, only He who encloses understands. … Like sudden lightning scattering the spirits of sight so that the eye is then too weak to act on other things it would perceive,
such was the living light encircling me, leaving me so enveloped by its veil of radiance that I could see no thing.
As he is ending his glorious quest Dante links heaven with us here, on earth: we are being made ready, turned…
The Love that calms this heaven always welcomes into Itself with such a salutation, to make the candle ready for its flame … But already my desire and my will were being turned like a wheel, all at one speed, by the Love which moves the sun and the other stars.
We want seriously to think that “I’ve found the only way into heaven”. We want to think “We can keep out the wrong sort of people.” I know one pastor who keeps a gun in his pulpit because he thinks the wrong sort of people will try to stop him from getting into heaven. Even Dante put the wrong sort of people in other places. But that was humorous and educational. We need to stop imagining heaven like an old Simpsons Episode:
Oh, my friends, I have no doubt that God will call all men to himself – he is doing so now. Not everyone will want to be there. We have to be saved – to be made as much like Jesus as possible. We are working out our salvation here, now – working out our transformation into Jesus. When the opening of our presence to God’s Being is at the fullest, some of us will have been prepared and some will fight it off. In that Divine Light our only defence will be to self-destruct as we burn. Or we can live there forever – only if we, even now, are being turned like a wheel, being brought up to speed, by the Love which moved the Sun and other stars.
Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.
FORGIVENESS is a full-circle claim. We know this from “forgive us as we forgive others.” Certainly, we wrestle with that. It is hard. Resentments, parents, bullies in school, coworkers, backstabbing, etc. How we navigate forgiveness is an ongoing process of grace: Christianity is only always about relationships and forgiveness is the healing of relationships with others and with God. We bring those relationships into Love. We can only love God by his grace and we can only love others when he helps. Further, we can only love others as we love ourselves. And so that means, somewhere deep inside, we must also forgive ourselves.
Sin is an autoimmune issue, we all have it, and we will all die from it: but it will manifest in each of us with unique symptoms. Confession is a healing thing – getting all our sins out in the open, all of our brokenness. God gives us forgiveness and absolution. We can live in that grace and begin our healing process – healing from the universal sickness that is sin, as well as from the particular manifestations of that sickness in our individual lives. Those symptoms may always form identical patterns leading to death, but they are always unique to the person.
The odd reality is that the symptoms of our shared autoimmune disease are literally what God uses to draw us to him. In fact, God uses everything to draw us to him. Let me rephrase. It’s not odd. It’s God. Grace is what God uses to draw us via our shared autoimmune disease to himself.
Forgiveness – of ourselves – is the healing process that lets us see that God was not using some of our past: God was using all of our past. We need to admit first that it was a sinful past, yes. Then we need to let baptismal grace wash over our eyes as we look to see clearly that even when we thought we were running away, God was drawing us to him. Even when we screamed and kicked, God held on.
Seeing God’s process of socializing us, if you will, into the kingdom of heaven, we can begin to see that we were – by his grace – cooperating with him. Yes, we need to repent and confess those sins. But we also need to realize that no one loves evil because it’s evil. We were loving too much the wrong things – but we were loving. God used the love we understood to draw us to the love we needed, the love we craved, to the Love that is God. And so, while none of it was (or even, yet, is) perfect we can forgive ourselves because God has done so.
I would not be me but for where I’ve been.
No understanding of where I’ve been can exclude sin. It was not enough: not good enough, not the highest love, not the purest way to walk. It was not the walk of Christ. But it was the walk of a Christian. God was drawing me to himself.
We are tempted to draw a picture of a Christian’s life as if there are two parts: one before conversion and one after. However, the bread of the Eucharist still has gluten, calories, starch, nutritional value, color, taste both before and after consecration. Only now it is God. All the things that go into a Christian’s life are still there only now God. And since God is beyond time in some grace-filled way a Christian’s life is suddenly all God.
So forgiveness. Forgive us as we forgive. Let us forgive others as we forgive ourselves.
You didn’t know God. You walked contrary to him. You do not do so any longer and – somehow – that contrary walk was what brought you to him.
This is the final post in a series on the Seven Last Words of Our Lord from the cross. There is a menu and a posting schedule at the bottom of this post.
Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit.
WITH GOD AS OUR Father brothers all are we.” That’s a line from the 1955 song Let There be Peace on Earth, composed by Jill Jackson and Sy Miller. It’s a bit treacly, but it was intended for a children’s choir so that’s ok. It’s the Father line I want to call out. Man is created by God. In that respect, God is our Father as Geppetto can be said to be the father of Pinocchio. God is the Father, in this respect, of all creation: all of existence is equally from the hand of the same God. It matters not if you believe in creationism or some form of theistic evolution where God tends us as we evolve. God is the source of all that is, and so a Father. This is certainly no scandal at all. Addressing the Creator as Father is a concept going way back. In some cultures it’s not only the creator that gets this title, it’s every “elder being” if you will, or anything higher up the spiritual food chain.
Jesus’ experience of God as Father was different though. The clergy and people who came to hear him talk called him out on this. John 5:18 says, “Therefore the Jews sought the more to kill him, because he not only had broken the sabbath, but said also that God was his Father, making himself equal with God.” To use a modern phrase, they saw what he did there. This became a stumbling block for both Jews, who felt it blasphemous against monotheism and, later, for Gentiles who while allowing deities to have children, felt the child of a peasant stock who died a traitor to Ceasar and a common criminal was clearly not one of The Family. But, dear reader, this is not the real scandal, nor even that we Christians worship this dead criminal.
We claim that through this dead criminal we, too, have the same relationship to God. The theological term is “filiation” or “son-becoming”. When the spirit of Christ resides in us we call God by a personal name, Abba. Not a title, not a status, but by relationship which we enjoy by participation in the Body of Christ. That is a scandal. We actually claim a relationship that others – who place themselves outside of the Body of Christ – do not have. We claim kinship with God.
And so this prayer of Our Lord, Father, into thy hands..., must become our prayer at every moment. Over and over we must commend to the Father ourselves and one another and all our lives as the Byzantine Liturgy phrases it. This last word must be our first word and, indeed, our only word. The more we pray it the more we must make use of it to pray it all the more: Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.
Spirit here is the Greek word, πνεῦμά, pneuma and it gets used twice in this verse, although we miss it because we’re not reading the Greek. The last word in the verse is ἐξέπνευσεν exepnusen he “breathed his last” one might also render it “he spirited his last” and I think St Luke intends us to hear it both ways at the same time. Jesus is not handing over his “ghost” to the Father: the Son and the Father aspirate the Holy Spirit between them. Jesus is disconnecting here. And he will sink into hell itself to free us all.
We are called to render every breath to God the Father, through the Son (in whose body we participate) in the communion of the Holy Spirit. We are made sons in Christ not as mere creations but as Children of our Heavenly Father.
Sin is a damage to this relationship. I was listening to Gomer and Dave talk about this topic in their episode on Divine Filiation. Gomer pointed out that we’re so used to thinking of Sin as a breaking of a rule: venial sins are little rules, mortal sins are big rules. But sin is a shattering of this relationship of son-ness with Father. It destroys us, literally, as sons of God. We do this in other ways in our culture too: we “identify” as things that are not what God made us to be. In fact, we deny science to do this, and make stuff up. But our pretend “identities” are not who God can save: God can only save who we are, and can only raise us to what he intends us to be: the body of his Son. Our venial sins may never add up to one mortal sin, but they damage us too, our perceptions, our minds, our spiritual vision, can no longer see the road before us. And we all the more easily fall into mortal sin, then.
So every action: every breath you take, every move you make… every step you take must be rendered to God. Into thy hands I commend…
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