Come and See the Stench of Death

Come and See the Stench of Death

As we have seen, the first two callings of “come and see” are both directed toward a new disciple. First, to come and see the place where Christ dwells and then to come and see for oneself who He really is. The third “come and see,” however, is different.

As Jesus nears His own crucifixion, His friend Lazarus dies and is laid in a stone tomb. Lazarus’ sisters come to Him, weeping over the death of their brother. They doubt that His presence will do any good at this point because Lazarus has been dead four days and the sweet smell of the spices that were used to anoint his body have worn off revealing the real stench of death. They weep at His feet and reprimand Him for not coming sooner.

Jesus seemingly remains unconcerned as he gets nearer to the tomb, continually reminding Mary and Martha of who He is.

Finally, He asks them, “Where have you laid him?” and they respond, “Lord, come and see.”

The third “come and see” of the gospels is an invitation for the Lord to come and see the wages of sin, to confront the death and corruption that plagues humanity–that plagues each of us.

It is an invitation we must extend to Jesus knowing that we are Lazarus, dead four days and stinking from our own sins within the stone tomb of our harden hearts. Experience (the first come and see) and knowledge (the second) of Christ are gifts of grace, freely offered by Him to those who will receive Him.

What is required of us is to respond.

And we respond by asking Jesus to come and see the sins that bind us like Lazarus in the grave no matter how foul we may think they have become. What is asked of us is that we weep bitterly, like Mary at her brother’s tomb, over the death that is within us.

When they reach the tomb, Jesus, confronted with the death of His friend and the end result of humanity’s fallen state, joins Mary in her lament. And then, incredibly and in spite of the doubts and disgust of the crowd, He asked for the tomb to be opened, and He calls the rotting Lazarus out of the tomb and into Life.

So too it is with our hearts when we truly and honestly invite Jesus to come and see what lies within. He takes away the stony hardness of our hearts, and He does not flinch at the stench of the dead man who lies therein. Instead, He weeps with us, His own heart breaking to know what tragedies we suffer at our own hands, and then He calls forth the real man saying, “Loose him, and let him go,” freeing us from the grave clothes of our the sins which bind us and offering to us True Life in Him.

The Everyday Martyrdom of the Cross

The Everyday Martyrdom of the Cross

© Copyright Edwin Graham and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

© Copyright Edwin Graham and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it. –Mark 8:35

What clearer call to martyrdom could there be than to hear Jesus say, “If you willingly give up your life for my sake, then you will be saved”? But it’s not only a commandment for the martyrs–you, too, are asked to lose your life for the sake of True Life by denying yourself, taking up your cross, and following Christ.

Deny Yourself

There’s a bit of a paradox in the command, “Deny yourself,” because the self you are asked to deny isn’t really your true self. Who you really are rests in God. The divine spark of the Holy Spirit is already in each of us and has been fueled and fanned by our baptism and chrismation. And this is who you really are–your true self is Christ in you.

Christ asks, then, that we deny ourselves in the sense that we deny the false self–the selfish ego and the passionate desires that seem to be who we are but which are merely distortions that mask our deeper, truer being. Christ asks that we deny ourselves so that we can find ourselves. He tells us, “The ego must go, your passions and selfish desires cannot reign in you if I am to reign in your heart.”

Take Up Your Cross

The way of self-denial is the way of the Cross. To strip the passions of their power is neither easy nor painless. And it’s not a one-time deal, but a constant, life-long struggle. As our true self is being uncovered, the false, egotistical self constantly struggles to win out, and the heart is the battleground where we fight this war.

There are two kinds of crosses we will be asked to bear in this battle. The first are the crosses of circumstance. These are the difficulties, the temptations, and the situations which are out of our control. We do not ask for illness and death to enter our lives, we do not control the propensities towards certain sins that we have inherited or acquired through our upbringing, we do not plan to have a boss that’s unkind or a friend that betrays us. Nonetheless, these things all confront us and require our response.

The crosses of circumstance, though initially thrust upon us, can still be voluntarily taken up. It is an act of self-denial to bear illness with faith and hope. It is an act of self-denial to live a life of purity when faced with strong propensity toward sexual sin. It is an act of self-denial not to exact revenge on a person who has hurt you. These crosses will grieve us, yes, and they may even seem senseless and unfair when we try to fight them. But if we accept them, if we pray, “God, enter into this suffering, be with me, may this cross lead me to a resurrection,” then the suffering and sorrow of the crosses of circumstance will be transformed with hope and light and will allow us to thank God for all things as we begin to see Him act in our lives.

The second kind of crosses we will be asked to bear are the crosses of asceticism. These are the voluntary acts of self-denial we pursue to crucify our passions. This is our response to the usurping, selfish, ego that desires to reign on the throne of our hearts. The false self tells us, “Be angry, you are justified,” and we respond, “I shall not murder my brother, but will let peace reign among us.” The false self tells us, “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you die,” and we respond, “For my brother’s sake, for the sake of love, I shall take less than my share so that he might have more.” The false self tell us, “You are a good person, you are certainly better than the great sinners,” and we respond, “Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.”

The Church gives us many small crosses of asceticism that we can voluntarily take up so that our will can be formed to the will of the Father. We don’t have to make up an ascetical practice ourselves but simply allow our lives to be shaped by the life of the Church. We fast when and how the Church tells us to fast. We pray with the words of the Church. We give alms though it deprives us of material wealth. We submit in obedience and love to our parents, our spiritual father, our spouse, our bishop. These small acts of self-denial help us face and battle the thoughts and promptings of our ego and of the Evil One.

Together, the crosses of circumstance and the crosses of asceticism slowly uncover Christ in us and strip away the false self. We should expect that crucifixion will be painful and difficult. As the character of C. S. Lewis says in The Shadowlands:

You see, we are like blocks of stone out of which the sculptor carves forms of men. The blows of His chisel, which hurt so much, are what makes us perfect.

Follow Me

The last and perhaps most essential part of Christ’s command for us to live everyday as martyrs is this: Follow Me. We are asked not only to deny our selfish desires and bear the suffering that denial will bring, but to move towards Christ. It is the completion of the denial of the false self to allow Christ in us to shine through, for the Holy Spirit to guide our thoughts, words, and deeds.

Follow Me also means that the way of the Cross that we are to walk is the way that Christ has already walked. He does not ask us to bear anything that He Himself has not already borne. He assures us that any difficulty we face, He will face with us. He asks only that we unite ourselves to Him with faith and love.

Christ says to us, “Follow Me, do as I have done, love as I have loved, and most of all, trust that I will love you and walk with you on the path.”

***

It is striking that the Lord does not force us to follow this path, to bear the cross, to live a life of everyday martyrdom, but says, “If anyone is willing, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me.” May we have the strength and faith to become everyday martyrs, dying to sin so that we can be alive in Christ.

Image from Mystagogy

Image from Mystagogy

Love the Sinner, Hate Your Own Sin

Love the Sinner, Hate Your Own Sin

Christ and the Adulteress by Lucas Cranach the Elder. Image from Wikimedia

Christ and the Adulteress by Lucas Cranach the Elder. Image from Wikimedia

How do we tell someone they sin in a loving way?

When we see a person commit sin, we often feel compelled to point it out to them. We may feel that they need us to recognize the sin for them so that they can correct it or we may want to shame them into changing or perhaps we have been hurt and we want retribution. Maybe we have good intentions and desire simply to see our brother turn away from destruction and get on a healthier path. What can we do?

Perhaps if God’s commandments were arbitrary and without consequence, then He would need the righteous (those who followed the arbitrary rules) to point out the sins of the unrighteous (those who ignored them). But that’s just not the case. God’s laws are not without purpose or meaning. They are given to us to shape us into persons of love, to draw us away from the stinking death that is the consequence of a life of sin and to lead us instead along God’s path of freedom and communion to the loving embrace of the Father Himself. He even endows each of us with a conscience to lead us on this path, if only we will listen to it. When a person chooses to disobey the commandments of God, the natural consequences are emptiness, fear, isolation, and spiritual death.

It is also often the case that sin begets sin and suffering begets suffering. Life is a complicated matter, an intricate web of relationships, experiences, and decisions, and the path that leads a person to commit the most grievous sins may be a path that was riddled with suffering, pain, and loneliness caused by the sins of others. A person who has only known brokenness may feel trapped and their actions may be a reflection of their own abuse and an imitation of the examples they have been given. He may lash out against being broken by others by adding to the brokenness of the world, and he may start to believe that he is unworthy of any other mode of existence–even when his conscience tells him that sin and death are tearing him apart.

The sinner starts to forget that he is loved by God and that he is made in His image and likeness. Instead, a person who has fallen into sin finds himself drawn back to the dust from which he was formed–though he may not reveal it on the outside–he stands at the edge of the abyss.

It is mercy, not judgement, that pulls our neighbor out of the abyss.

Image from Andrew  on Flickr

Image from Andrew on Flickr

When a person expects or even deserves justice, it is precisely mercy that offers a space for repentance. Think St. Dionysios and the murderer or Bishop Myriel and Jean Valjean. Mercy, in all its forms–silence when one could point out another’s sin, ignoring a desire to exact retribution, making light of a situation by which another is burdened by guilt, assuming good intentions–transcend earthly justice and draw us, and more importantly, our neighbor toward the heavenly realm. Mercy, more than pointing out another’s faults, invites a sinner to turn around, to change his ways. Mercy, more than judgement, recognizes Christ in our neighbor and reveals Christ in us.

Love covers a multitude of sins means not only that when we love another person, we are less inclined to see their sins against us, though that is certainly true, too. Love covers another’s sin like a soothing, healing balm covers a burning, festering wound. Why deepen the wound that sin causes with our own infectious judgement or “righteous” commentary? Love and mercy are the salves we can offer each others’ brokenness. Love and mercy shed Light in the abyss.

Does this mean that we have no voice against sin in the world? In an age when moral relativism tells us that we are expected to accept what is done as what should be done, this is a legitimate concern. We often get tongue-tied when it comes to morality even when we know clearly the commandments of God: in order to avoid offending anyone, we accept anything and everything anyone ever does (or at least we pretend we do).

There is a way of life and a way of death and between the two ways there is a great difference. –Didache

Being merciful, abstaining from judgement, doesn’t mean losing our moral compass. We don’t have to pretend there is no way of darkness. You don’t have to think stealing is an ok thing to do to have mercy on a thief. You don’t have to buy into the culture’s image of sexuality to love your friends who do buy into it.

Sounds like the common adage, “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” Right? Well, not quite. I’d like to amend that statement to say, “Love the sinner, hate your own sin.” What spiritual benefit can come from hating an abstract sin? Hate the sin you commit. Hate the moments when you contribute to the brokenness of the world. Hate the times that you have thrown yourself or your brother into the abyss. Hate the thoughts that you have that slash open the already bleeding wounds of others. Hate your own denials of Christ, and do not condemn Peter.

It’s a hard task to be merciful to others when we think we ourselves are righteous. But if you don’t make time to contemplate and point out the sins of others and spend your time rather working out your own salvation, you’ll find that you yourself are in desperate need of mercy and love. If you look to yourself in the instant you are tempted to look at another, you will encounter your own brokenness and can ask for God’s mercy. Make an effort to remember that you, too, stand on the edge of the abyss and, but for the love and mercy of Christ, would plummet downward. Run to embrace the source of Light and Life.

Do not be disgusted by the sin of your brother–be disgusted by the darkness that lurks within your own heart. Do not find opportunities to convict your neighbor–find opportunities to convict your own wayward soul. Do not deepen the wounds of those suffering from sin–uncover your own hidden wounds, and while you allow God’s mercy to bandage and heal your broken life, be His healing hands on earth by learning to love your neighbor. For God desires mercy and not sacrifice, and He desires it of you.

Why Go?

Why Go?

Image from  MMCHS

Image from MMCHS

So, I went to the doctor recently since I wasn’t feeling at all well after dragging a cold around for a few weeks. As usually happens, it had locked my chest up tight and I wasn’t getting any better. The friendly receptionist checked me in quickly and, after taking my vitals, directed me to the examination room.

Soon enough the doctor entered the room and asked “What seems to be the problem?” I really wanted to tell him about my cold and chest congestion and how miserable I felt but was embarrassed and afraid that he might think poorly of me for not washing my hands frequently, not eating properly, and not exercising, so I mumbled; “Nothing.”

There I sat with relief from my suffering at hand but I couldn’t bring myself to admit the reality of my illness. So I left the office no better, with no prescription in hand, and no reason to hope I would improve anytime soon!

Rather silly, huh? We can easily understand how vitally important it is for us to level with our family doctor about our physical ailments but we struggle with applying the same logic to our spiritually lives. Simply substitute the word “priest” for “doctor” and “sins” for “a cold” in the anecdote above and you get the point.

In precisely the same way that we wouldn’t anticipate being judged for being ill (after all, even doctors get sick, right?) we should not anticipate being judged when we go to confession in our parish (after all, even priests sin, right?) As with the physician, so with the priest; confession is not about judgment, it is about divine healing!

Like a cold virus, sin attacks the host. St. Paul wrote the believers in Rome (6:23) “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” God is not offended or diminished in any way by my sins. It is I myself who am harmed by the sins I commit. Sin pays a “wage” and that wage is death.

But since Jesus Christ is the “Great Physician,” He desires to make us well, to bind up our broken parts, to cleanse our wounds, to nurture us back to good health, and to set us on the path to recovery. And the means He has ordained for this healing ministry is the Holy Mystery of Confession.

Some people today make the claim that confession is unnecessary but St. James disagrees when he writes (James 5:16) “Confess your faults one to another that you may be healed.” And for centuries Christians did precisely that; confessed their sins publicly in the Church before receiving Holy Communion. But as our Church communities grew, it became necessary for confession to take place privately between the penitent and the priest.

Image from  Wikimedia

Image from Wikimedia

God is merciful and He desires our salvation as St. John famously wrote (1 John 1:9) “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” And much hinges on that little word “if.” In order to confess our sins we must first admit that we have them. And everyone sins!

But beyond merely wiping the slate clean of our sins through confession, these regular check-ups with our spiritual physicians establishes a regimen of spiritual wellness. We receive wisdom from the Holy Spirit, light for our path, and the strength to keep walking. The weight of our sins is removed as we reconcile with God as He pulls us into His embrace to say “I love you, my child! Don’t give up! I walk beside you!”

We may have many who judge us in this life but God isn’t one of them! Jesus Himself says; (John 3:17) “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world but so that the world might be saved through Him.” And as I kneel in front of my spiritual father when I confess I know that I am not receiving judgment but divine healing!

For the sake of our souls, we must run to Holy Confession frequently to be refreshed and made well and to be reminded of Christ’s love for us “who Himself bore our sins” (1 Peter 2:24) as we lay our sins, doubts, and worries at His feet!

About the Author


This is a guest post from Fr. Apostolos Hill at Holy Trinity Cathedral in Phoenix, AZ. Fr. Apostolos has been active in OCF in a variety of areas; hosting regional retreats, leading OCF Real Break trips to Greece, Guatemala, and Skid Row, and in the College Conference West.

So You’re Not Catholic?

So You’re Not Catholic?

As I promised last week, today we’ll tackle another really common question you probably get asked on campus:

So you’re sort of like Catholic? What’s the difference?

Image from Nemo on Pixabay

Talking about Orthodox-Catholic relations and history is no easy task. Don’t get me wrong, there are volumes and volumes on the subject, but not a whole lot that you can share palatably to the guy across the table from you in the dining hall. Let’s just say Facebook knows our relationship status best: It’s complicated. 

You have to remember that, although 1054 is the date everyone throws around as our official break up date, the Great Schism was anything but a clean break which started long before the mutual excommunications between Rome and Constantinople that happened in 1054 and lingered on into at least the 15th century. Even today, you’ll get all sorts of versions of how things happened and how they are going depending on who you ask.

So when someone drops this question in your lap, what can you say without: a) a degree in theology and Church history; b) being polemical and harsh; and c) making the inquirer regret asking?

Here are three things that are real theological issues on which we as Orthodox do not see eye to eye with our Catholic brothers and sisters.

Reminder: Get to know who you are talking to–it definitely matters in this conversation if the person to whom you are speaking is Catholic themselves or not!

The Trinity

You’ve probably heard of the filioque, but if you’re like me, you’re never quite sure what it really means. The word filioque translates from Latin to mean “and the Son” which is a Latin addition to the Nicaean-Constantinopolitan Creed that we recite at every Liturgy. Specifically, here’s the difference:

And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son

Historically, the filioque was added at a local council in Spain in an attempt to combat Arianism (the denial that Christ was fully God). It was not accepted as a valid addition ever in the East, and only much later in the West (even Pope Leo III forbade its usage in the 9th century). So besides its addition being novel and not accepted by the entirety of the Church, what does it actually mean and why don’t the Orthodox accept it?

Well, there are many reasons that have been drawn up by Orthodox theologians and saints over the centuries, but here are the two that I think are most compelling:

  1. This line in the Creed is specifically quoting John 15:26: “But when the Counselor comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness to me.” So the addition of the filioque does not have the strength of the Scriptures behind it.
  2. Orthodox theology holds that the three Persons of the Trinity are one in essence and share all the attributes of that essence, and that they differ only in their relationship to each other–their personhood. Furthermore, there is no divine nature apart from the Persons of the Trinity, and the Father is the source of that divinity (in other words, there is no “god-ness” without the Father). This matters because it protects the
    In Rublev's Trinity, the angels in the middle and on the right, representing the Son and the Spirit respectively, look to the angel on the left, representing the Father, as an affirmation that the Father is their source. CC Image from Wikimedia

    In Rublev’s Trinity, the angels in the middle and on the right, representing the Son and the Spirit respectively, look to the angel on the left, representing the Father, as an affirmation that the Father is their source. CC Image from Wikimedia

    complete freedom of God–the Trinity is not a logical necessity of God’s existence, but an expression of His love and desire for communion. Thus, the Father is the Father in that He is the source of divinity for the Son and the Spirit, the Son is the Son in that He is begotten of the Father, and the Spirit is the Spirit in that He proceeds from the Father. You can probably see how the addition of the filioque skews this understanding of the Persons and the nature of God so that the Spirit either becomes subordinate to the Father and the Son (perhaps even becomes “less god”) or the Father no longer becomes the one source of divine nature. Ok, I’m turning it over to the saints here:

You ask what is the procession of the Holy Spirit? Do you tell me first what is the unbegottenness of the Father, and I will then explain to you the physiology of the generation of the Son, and the procession of the Spirit, and we shall both of us be stricken with madness for prying into the mystery of God.
— Saint Gregory the Theologian

The Papacy

As I mentioned in last week’s post, the Bishop of Rome was once in communion with the Bishops of the East, too. We do not dispute the validity of the See of Rome or its founding by Peter or even its original preeminence among its brother patriarchates. Here’s where we diverge:

  1. The universal jurisdiction of the pope: In other words, we don’t think any bishop has jurisdiction over  the entire Church, but rather that every bishop is the pastor for his own geographically-specific flock and comes  together with the other bishops (as well as the people) to affirm the Orthodox faith when called upon to do so. The claim of universal jurisdiction by the Pope of Rome was originally largely based of a forged document known as the Donation of Constantine which Pope Leo IX (in 1054), not knowing of its spurious origins, cited to Patriarch Michael I causing all sorts of problems.
  2. The infallibility of the pope: Not officially a dogma of the Roman Catholic Church until Vatican I, the idea that the pope is incapable of error when he is defining doctrine concerning faith and morals is not accepted by the Orthodox Church. In fact, we don’t think anyone is infallible in their theological statements, even the saints. Orthodox theology holds that the whole Church, gathered in council and under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is guided in making these decisions.

The Original Sin

Adam and Eve are expelled from the garden and now we are born in exile. Image from A Readers Guide to Icons

Adam and Eve are expelled from the garden and now we are born in exile. Image from A Readers Guide to Icons

Although it seems in its most recent catechism, the Catholic Church has softened its language to reflect a more Orthodox understanding of original sin, historically the understanding of original sin has varied greatly between the two churches causing a number of divergent doctrines as a result. Namely, the Catholic Church has traditionally held that we inherit not only the consequences of the first sin of Adam and Eve, but also bear the

guilt of that sin as if we committed it ourselves. The Orthodox understanding of the fall is that all of humanity–indeed, all of creation–was broken and distorted by the ancestral sin and left all future generations with its consequences, most importantly death, but that we do not bear the guilt of that sin. Sin is a distortion within a person, but does not change his being. This distinction is important primarily because over the years, a number of other doctrines have been articulated in the Catholic tradition based on this understanding of original sin which are not present in Orthodox theology. For example: the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, the idea that Mary was conceived by her parents without the stain of original sin. For a really great article on original sin and its theological implications, try Original and Ancestral Sin: A Brief Comparison.

It’s important to understand that these theological differences have grown from complex historical, theological, and practical roots, and that no casual conversation will explicate or solve our differences. And really, talking about who we’re not is not nearly as engaging and lovely as talking about who we are, but nonetheless, at times we are called upon to answer this particular question, and I hope that this post has helped you feel more prepared if and when that question is posed to you.