The Sacred Gift of Life

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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.

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THE SACRED GIFT OF LIFE: ORTHODOX CHRISTIANITY AND BIOETHICS
By Father John Breck (St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1998)

Introduction

"The glory of God is a living person and the life of the person is the vision of God" (Saint Irenaeus).

"Abba Lot went to see Abba (Father) Joseph and said to him, 'Abba, as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?' Then the old man (geronda) stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, 'If you will, you can become all flame!" - Joseph of Panephysis

"Ascend, brothers, ascend eagerly, and be resolved in your hearts to ascend and bear Him who says: 'Come and let us up to the mountain of the Lord and to the house of our God, who makes our feet like hinds' feet and sets us on high places, that we may be victorious with His song." -- Saint John Climacus

The Sacredness and Sanctity of Human Life

Orthodox Christianity affirms that life is a gift freely bestowed by the God of love. Human life, therefore, is to be received and welcomed with an attitude of joy and thanksgiving. It is to be cherished, preserved and protected as the most sublime expression of God's creative activity. God has brought us "from non-being into being" for more than mere biological existence. He has chosen us for life, of which the ultimate end is participation in the eternal glory of the risen Christ, "in the inheritance of the saints in light" (Col. 1:123; Ephesians 1:18).

In the language of the Eastern Church Holy Fathers, this transcendent destiny of telos of human existence is expressed as theosis or "deification." To the Patristic mind, God in His innermost Being remains forever transcendent, beyond all we can know or experience. An unbridgeable gulf separates the creature from the Creator, human nature from divine nature. The Orthodox teaching on theosis nevertheless affirms that our primal vocation or calling is to participate in divine life itself, to "ascend to the house of our God," where we shall enjoy eternal communion with the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity. How does Orthodox teaching resolve this tension between the absolute transcendence of God and his accessibility in the life of faith? We can answer the question, briefly and schematically, in the following way.

From the inner mystery of his absolute "otherness," the total inaccessibility of His Divine nature or being, God reaches out to the created world and to his human creatures, to save, restore and heal all that is sinful and corrupt. By means of what Saint Irenaeus called his "two hands" - the Son and the Spirit-God the Father assumes and embraces human life, filling it with his attributes or energies" of love, power, justice, goodness and beauty. Thereby he opens the way for our ascension into the realm of holiness, where those who live and die in Christ join with the Saints of all ages, to offer their worship of praise and thanksgiving before the Divine glory and majesty. Human life, therefore, finds its ultimate fulfillment beyond death, in the boundless communion of "righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit" that constitutes the Kingdom of God (Romans 14:17)...

"...It is as personal beings that we bear the ineradicable image of God; in fact, that image determines our personhood. Yet we are fulfilled as persons, and thus actualize within ourselves authentic sanctity, through the arduous work of ongoing repentance and ascetic struggle that leads to personal growth in the Divine likeness. The "sacredness" of life, in other words, is intrinsic to our very nature; yet it is "actualized," made concrete and effective in daily existence, through our ceaseless effort to affirm and preserve an authentic "sanctity" or holiness of life. Acquisition of sanctity therefore, requires our active participation , a "synergy" or cooperation in these terms: "Put off your old nature which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God (ton kata theon) in true righteousness and holiness" (Ephesians 4:22-24, RSV).

"Sacredness" and "sanctity" are often used synonymously to speak of the Divine origin and purpose of human existence. In light of what we have just stressed, however, it might be preferable to speak of our life as "sacred" by virtue of its created nature that embodies and gives expression to the Divine "image." The life of every person is "sacred", insofar as it is created by God with the purpose of participating in his own holiness, and possesses the capacity to reflect the presence and glory of God from its depths. (However much that capacity may be diminished by sin and willful rejection of God, Orthodox anthropology affirms that the Divine image can be obscured but never eradicated; there is no "total depravity," however morally depraved a given individual may in fact be.) "Sanctity," on the other hand, would refer to the personal or "hypostatic" qualities that one attains through ascetic struggle against temptation and sin, as well as through the acquisition of virtue. Sacredness would thus be considered as a function of "nature" and sanctity, as a function of "person."

"...Endowed with "sacredness" from its conception, human life thus finds its ultimate sense, its deeply "spiritual" meaning, in the quest for "sanctity" or holiness. This distinction between sacredness and sanctity is useful, and it conforms to Orthodox anthropology. Modern ethical discourse nevertheless tends to confuse the terms. This is especially evident in the impassioned discussions between those who represent either a "sanctity of life" or a "quality of life" perspective in assessing moral issues.

"...Today's world is one that poses radically new and extraordinarily difficult ethical dilemmas for all of us. This is particularly true in those areas where modern technology has created problems and possibilities that were never envisioned or addressed life-support and euthanasia, together with the burning issue of physician-assisted suicide.

Introduction into this country of the French manufactured RU-486 pill is opening the okay to do-it-yourself abortions, and other combinations of available chemicals will soon permit a woman to abort an embryo or fetus in the privacy of her own bathroom. Extra-uterine conception has become routine, and its consequences in the realm of sexuality are dramatic. If the pill separated sex from procreation, in vitro fertilization (IVF) has separated procreation from sex. As a result, the covenantal, unitive value of conjugal relations, as a means of participating in God's own creative activity, has been largely obscured. Marriage is no longer perceived as an eternal bond of mutual faithfulness, responsibility and devotion. Prenuptial contracts, live-in experimentation and quickie divorce are becoming increasingly the norm. We should hardly be surprised, then, at the exponential growth in ersatz homosexual "marriage," teen-pregnancies with single-parenting, and prime-time sexual exploitation.

"...Orthodox ethics, and particularly medical ethics or bioethics that deals specifically with issues of life and death, is based on at least the following presumptions:

1) God is absolutely sovereign over every aspect of human existence, from conception to the grave and beyond. This conviction is well expressed in a popular morning prayer, attributed variously to Saint Philaret of Moscow (+1867) or to spiritual father of the Optino Monastery: "Teach me to treat all that comes to me throughout the day with peace of soul and with firm conviction that Thy will governs all...in unforeseen events, let me not forget that all am sent by Thee." The Divine imperative to "Choose life!" is fulfilled by loving the Lord, obeying His voice and cleaving to Him (Dt 30:19); that is, by offering ourselves in total surrender to His Sovereign Authority and purpose. That authority is precisely what requires Orthodox Christians to reject "abortion on demand," active euthanasia, and any procedure that means taking life (and death) into our own hands.

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

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

+Father George