The Violent Love of God

Prophet Amos

Prophet Amos

My beloved spiritual children in Christ Our Only True God and Our Only True Savior,
CHRIST IS IN OUR MIDST! HE WAS, IS, AND EVER SHALL BE. Ο ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ ΕΝ ΤΩ ΜΕΣΩ ΗΜΩΝ! ΚΑΙ ΗΝ ΚΑΙ ΕΣΤΙ ΚΑΙ ΕΣΤΑΙ.

THE VIOLENT LOVE OF GOD
(Commencement address delivered at Saint Vladimir's Seminary)
by Father Thomas Hopko of blessed memory

Glory to Jesus Christ!

I am delighted to speak to you at this commencement ceremony today. This honor is especially significant for me since I came to this school a student exactly a half century ago...

The first and most important thing is that we are boundlessly loved by God Who blesses us to love Him boundlessly in return.

I can also tell you that we can love God as He loves us only by faith and grace, by His own Divine power, and that we prove our love for Him by loving everyone and everything, beginning with our worst enemies, just as He does, with the very same love with which He loves us, the very love that He Himself is.

And I can tell you that being loved by God, and loving Him in return, is the greatest joy given to creatures, and that without it there is no real and lasting happiness for humanity. And I can also tell you, alas, that such loving is always a violent, brutal and bloody affair.

The God Who is merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, Who gives us His Divine life and peace and joy forever, is the first of all the Divine Lover Who wounds His beloved, and then hides from her, hoping to be sought and found. He is the Father Who chastens and disciplines His children. He is the Vinekeeper Who cuts and prunes His vines so that they bear much fruit. He is the Jeweler Who burns His gold in His divine fire so that it would be purged of all impurities. And He is the Potter Who continually smashes and refashions and re-bakes His muddy clay so that it be earthen vessel that He wants it to be, capable of bearing His own transcendent grace and power and glory and peace.

I learned that all of these terrible teachings of the Holy Scripture and the Saints are real and true. And so I became convinced that God's Gospel in His Son Jesus is really and truly God's final act on earth. It is the act in which God's Logos/Word is now not simply inscribed in letters on pages of parchment, but is personally incarnate as a human being in His own human body and blood. And so I became convinced of the truth of all truths: that the ultimate revelation of God as Love and the ultimate revelation of humanity's love of God, are both to be found in the bloody corpse of a dead Jew, hanging on a cross between two criminals, outside the walls of Jerusalem, executed at the hands of Gentiles, by the instigation of His own people's leaders, in the most painful, cursed, shameful and wretched death that a human being -- and especially a Jew -- can possibly die.

So to the measure that we are honest and faithful, and try to keep God's Commandments, and repent for our failures and sins, we come to know, and to know ever more clearly and deeply as time goes by, what we have learned here at St. Vladimir's. We come to know by experience that the Word of God (ho Logos tou Theou) is always and necessarily the word of the Cross (ho Logos tou Stavrou). And -- in language befitting a commencement ceremony at an Orthodox graduate school of theology -- we come to see that true theologia is always stavrologia. And real orthodoxia is always paradoxia. And that there is no theosis (deification) without kenosis (self-emptying).

Theology is stavrology and Orthodoxy is paradoxy: the Almighty God reveals Himself as an infinitely humble, totally self-emptying and absolutely ruthless and relentless lover of sinners. And men and women made in His image and likeness must be the same. Thus we come to see that as there is no resurrection without crucifixion, there is also no sanctification without suffering, no glorification without humiliation; no deification (theosis) without degradation; and no life without death. We learn, in a word, the truth of the early Christian hymn recorded in Holy Scripture:

"If we have died with Him, we shall also live with Him; If we endure with Him, we shall also reign with Him; If we deny Him, He will also deny us; If we are faithless, He remains faithful - for He cannot deny Himself" (2 Timothy 2:11-13).

According to the Gospel, therefore, those who wish to be wise are constrained to be fools. Those who would be great become small. Those who would be first put themselves last. Those who want to be strong become weak. And those who desire to find and fulfill themselves as persons deny and empty themselves for the sake of the Gospel. And, finally, and most important of all, those who want really to live have really to die. They voluntarily die, in truth and in love, to everyone and everything that is not God and of God.

And so, once again, if we have learned anything at all in our theological education, spiritual formation and pastoral service, we have learned to beware, and to be wary, of all contentment, consolation and comfort before our co-crucifixion in love with Christ. We have learned that though we can know about God through formal theological education, we can only come to know God by taking up our daily crosses with patient endurance in love with Jesus. And we can only do this by faith and grace through the Holy Spirit's abiding power.

When we speak about "taking up our crosses" and "bearing our burdens" in imitation of Christ, by the power of God's Holy Spirit, we also learn by painful experience that the crosses we take up and the burdens we bear must be those that God gives us, and not those that we ourselves choose and desire. Thus we become convinced that when our burdens are unbearable and our crosses crush us in joyless misery--and we become dark, depressed, despondent and desperate--the reasons are evident. Either we are choosing our own crosses and burdens, and rejecting those sent to us by our merciful God Whose thoughts and ways are not ours; or we are attempting to carry our crosses and bear our burdens by our own powers, and not by God's grace and strength given to us by Christ and the Holy Spirit in the Church.

And so we come to another conviction: The Church -- the communion of faith and love (as Saint Ignatius of Antioch defined it: henosis agapis kai pisteos), the community of Saints who are Christ's own very "members" as His body and bride -- is essential to our human being and life. We cannot be human beings -- still less, Christians and Saints -- by ourselves. We need God and His wise and faithful servants. We need God's Commandments and living examples of their fulfillment. We need the Church's Scripture, Mysteries (Sacraments), services and saints. And we need one another. As Tertullian said centuries ago, "One Christian is no Christian." And as the Russian proverb puts it, "The only thing that a person can do alone is perish." Like it or not, we are members of one another" in God. If we like it, it is life and Paradise. If we reject it, it is death and hell.

So, in the end, because everything is about the True God and Christ and the Holy Spirit, and the Church's Scripture, Sacraments, services and saints, and God's love, wisdom, truth and power, so too, therefore, is everything about the most important and Godlike reality of all, what Saint John Climakos called "thrice holy humility": the humility of God Himself that cannot be defined but can only be seen and adored in the crucified Christ, and in those who, by faith and grace, are co-crucified with Him.

Thus, if we have become convinced of anything at all as Orthodox Christians, we are convinced that human beings are not autonomous. The proclamation and defense of human autonomy is the most insidious lie of our day, especially here in North America, and in the Western and Westernized worlds generally. Human beings are by nature heteronoumous. Another law (heteros nomos) is always working in our minds and members. This "other law" is either the law of God, the law of Christ, the law of the Holy Spirit, the law of liberty and life that can only be recognized, received and realized by holy humility, or it is the law of sin and death (cf. Romans 7-8). When the law within us is God's law, then we are who we really are, and we are sane and free. But when that law is the law of sin and death, then we are not ourselves, and we are insane, enslaved and sold to sin.

More than fifteen hundred years ago Saint Anthony the Great declared that "a time is coming when people will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him saying, 'You are mad, you are not like us." (Saying 25)

It may well be that the time that Saint Anthony foresaw is now upon us, or at least is rapidly approaching, at least in the West. And because of what we have learned, we know what we have to do about it. The same Saint Anthony, with all holy people, has told us, I urge you, and, if I could, I would command you, to read Saint Anthony's thirty-eight sayings of the Desert Fathers. Everything we need to know in order to live is there for us in its simplest and clearest form.

Abba (Father) Anthony first tells us when we are plagued by whirling thoughts (logismoi) and worn down by an overwhelming sense of meaninglessness and futility (akedia), which we will be in this sinful world, we must simply and diligently work and pray, by pure devotion and sheer obedience. We must pay attention to ourselves and mind our own business. We must do our work, and let God -- and other people -- do theirs.

He also tells us that whoever we are, we should always have God before our eyes; and whatever we do, we should always do according to the testimony of the Holy Scripture; and wherever we are, we should not easily leave that place.

He further tells us (with his friend Abba Pambo) not to trust in our own righteousness, not to worry about the past, and to guard our mouths and our stomachs. He tells us to take responsibility for our own behavior, and to expect to be ferociously tempted to our very last breath. He tells us that there is no salvation for us without trial and temptation, and without being tested, no person can be healed, illumined and perfected. He tells us that each one of us has our own unique life, that no two people are the same, and that each of us has to be the person that God made us to be (as Father Paul Lazor, my dearest friend, so often says) where we are, when we are, with whom we are, from whom we are, and such as we are, according to God's inscrutable Providence.

Saint Anthony also tells us, as do all the Saints, that our life and our death begin and end with our fellow human beings. He insists that if we have gained our neighbor, we have gained our God, but if we have scandalized our neighbor, we have sinned against Christ. He says that all of our ascetical disciplines, including our scholarly studies, are means to an end; they are not ends in themselves. The end is discernment (diakrisis) and dispassion (apatheia) and the knowledge (epignosis) of God through keeping His Commandments, the first and greatest of which is love (agape). And He teaches that our only hope to escape the countless snares of this world that seek to enslave us is found in one thing alone: Christ-like humility, with "a broken, contrite and humble heart," as the Psalmist says, being our sole "sacrifice acceptable to God" (Psalm 50 [51].17)...

"...And this brings us to the last conviction that I may share with you today: Every day, by God's grace, brings us a new beginning. We are all always "commencing" a new spiritual adventure in living and loving as God lives and loves. It is never over. And it is never too late to start anew.

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"Glory Be To GOD For All Things!"--Saint John Chrysostom

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With sincere agape in His Holy Diakonia,
The sinner and unworthy servant of God

+Father George