The Feast of the Theophany: Salvation of the Cosmos, Part 2 (Notes)


The Feast of Theophany: Salvation of the Cosmos, Part 2

Part 1: Problem of Pain

Tremors of Doubt
What kind of God would allow a deadly tsunami?

Friday, December 31, 2004 12:01 a.m. EST

On Nov. 1, 1755, a great earthquake struck offshore of Lisbon. In that city alone, some 60,000 perished, first from the tremors, then from the massive tsunami that arrived half an hour later. Fires consumed much of what remained of the city. The tidal waves spread death along the coasts of Iberia and North Africa.

Voltaire’s “Poëme sur le désastre de Lisbonne” of the following year was an exquisitely savage–though sober–assault upon the theodicies prevalent in his time. For those who would argue that “all is good” and “all is necessary,” that the universe is an elaborately calibrated harmony of pain and pleasure, or that this is the best of all possible worlds, Voltaire’s scorn was boundless: By what calculus of universal good can one reckon the value of “infants crushed upon their mothers’ breasts,” the dying “sad inhabitants of desolate shores,” the whole “fatal chaos of individual miseries”?

Perhaps the most disturbing argument against submission to “the will of God” in human suffering–especially the suffering of children–was placed in the mouth of Ivan Karamazov by Dostoyevsky; but the evils Ivan enumerates are all acts of human cruelty, for which one can at least assign a clear culpability. Natural calamities usually seem a greater challenge to the certitudes of believers in a just and beneficent God than the sorrows induced by human iniquity.

Considered dispassionately, though, man is part of the natural order, and his propensity for malice should be no less a scandal to the conscience of the metaphysical optimist than the most violent convulsions of the physical world. The same ancient question is apposite to the horrors of history and nature alike: Whence comes evil? And as Voltaire so elegantly apostrophizes, it is useless to invoke the balances of the great chain of being, for that chain is held in God’s hand and he is not enchained.

As a Christian, I cannot imagine any answer to the question of evil likely to satisfy an unbeliever; I can note, though, that–for all its urgency–Voltaire’s version of the question is not in any proper sense “theological.” The God of Voltaire’s poem is a particular kind of “deist” God, who has shaped and ordered the world just as it now is, in accord with his exact intentions, and who presides over all its eventualities austerely attentive to a precise equilibrium between felicity and morality. Not that reckless Christians have not occasionally spoken in such terms; but this is not the Christian God.

The Christian understanding of evil has always been more radical and fantastic than that of any theodicist; for it denies from the outset that suffering, death and evil have any ultimate meaning at all. Perhaps no doctrine is more insufferably fabulous to non-Christians than the claim that we exist in the long melancholy aftermath of a primordial catastrophe, that this is a broken and wounded world, that cosmic time is the shadow of true time, and that the universe languishes in bondage to “powers” and “principalities”–spiritual and terrestrial–alien to God. In the Gospel of John, especially, the incarnate God enters a world at once his own and yet hostile to him–“He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not”–and his appearance within “this cosmos” is both an act of judgment and a rescue of the beauties of creation from the torments of fallen nature.

Whatever one makes of this story, it is no bland cosmic optimism. Yes, at the heart of the gospel is an ineradicable triumphalism, a conviction that the victory over evil and death has been won; but it is also a victory yet to come. As Paul says, all creation groans in anguished anticipation of the day when God’s glory will transfigure all things. For now, we live amid a strife of darkness and light.

When confronted by the sheer savage immensity of worldly suffering–when we see the entire littoral rim of the Indian Ocean strewn with tens of thousands of corpses, a third of them children’s–no Christian is licensed to utter odious banalities about God’s inscrutable counsels or blasphemous suggestions that all this mysteriously serves God’s good ends. We are permitted only to hate death and waste and the imbecile forces of chance that shatter living souls, to believe that creation is in agony in its bonds, to see this world as divided between two kingdoms–knowing all the while that it is only charity that can sustain us against “fate,” and that must do so until the end of days.

Mr. Hart, an Eastern Orthodox theologian, is the author of “The Beauty of the Infinite” (Eerdmans).

On the Mystery of Suffering

By Father John Breck

Why do bad things happen to good people?

Orthodoxy Online –

Exploring the human reality of suffering confronts our belief in God. With proper understanding, suffering can deepen our spiritual experience rather than diminish it.

Two statements about the risen Christ offer special hope and consolation in the face of human suffering.

The first is the word of the angel to the myrrh-bearing women at the Empty Tomb, according to Matthew and Mark. The Greek text reads literally, “You seek Jesus of Nazareth the Crucified One. He is risen, He is not here.” That is, the Risen One remains forever the Crucified One. Even in the glory of His resurrection, Jesus Christ bears the suffering of crucifixion, the pain and anguish of the world’s sin, death and corruption.

This leads to the second statement, made by the French philosopher Pascal: “Christ is in agony until the end of the world.” The meaning is the same. Although risen and glorified, the eternal Son of God bears the suffering of the fallen world, and particularly of those who surrender their own suffering into His hands.

There is a question to which we all want a reasonable answer: Why do bad things happen to good people (meaning ourselves)? Why is the world filled with innocent suffering, including our own? Regrettably, the question is unanswerable.

Suffering remains a mystery in the popular sense of the term, precisely because we cannot explain–or explain away–its ultimate origin or meaning. This is why it is suffering, and not simply pain, hurt or grief.

Yet there is another way of considering the mystery of suffering. That is by taking the term “mystery” in its more basic sense of “sacrament.” Few of us who are grieving the loss of a beloved family member, or going through the stress of chemotherapy, or struggling with depression, can appreciate the etymology of the term “mysterion.” But it does signify sacramental reality.

Therefore it casts upon the problem of suffering a new, radiant and healing light.

We are members of the Body of Christ. This is our most basic identity and it defines our most basic calling (Rom 12; 1 Cor 12). “If one member suffers,” St. Paul tells us, “all suffer together” (1 Cor 12:26). Yet the Head of the Body suffers as well. This means that whatever we experience is never experienced in isolation. We never suffer alone. Although other members of the Body may be oblivious to our suffering, Christ the Head bears it to the full. He drinks the cup of suffering–His own and ours–to the bitter dregs. We know that He even longs to assume our suffering, to assimilate it to His own, in order to transfigure it and ourselves into the image of His glory.

God allows our suffering, but He never imposes it. Human suffering is not punishment for sin, except (as a former seminary professor of mine once put it) to the extent that God “allows us to stew in our own juice.” “Who sinned,” the disciples ask Jesus, “that this man was born blind?” And the answer: “Neither he nor his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him” (John 9:3).

In the best of times, suffering can educate and fortify us. It can purify our heart, curb our ambitions and lead us to focus on “the one thing needful” (Luke 10:42). At other times, suffering can overwhelm us, leading us to the brink of despair. This occurs especially when it remains a “mystery” in the usual sense: a crushing, perplexing, unexplainable and apparently unjust weight of anguish, loss and pain.

What is it that transforms such suffering into a genuine mystery, an experience permeated by sacramental grace? One thing–one gesture only: that is to surrender our suffering–whatever its cause, whatever its form–into the loving hands of the Crucified One. It is to offer our suffering–through gritted teeth, if necessary–to the One who is “in agony until the end of the world.”

By this simple sacramental gesture, accomplished through prayer, we can offer every shred of pain, anguish and despair to Him who is the source of all genuine peace, healing and joy. In this way–but only in this way–we can “rejoice in our sufferings,” as the apostle declares, knowing that through it all God ceaselessly pours into our hearts His inexhaustible love (Rom 5:3-5).


Jesus fulfilled the role that the human being was intended to accomplish in creation. We were to be the “priests of Creation”, offering the blessing of it to God in praise and thanksgiving and God would offer it back to man as a blessing. Jesus’ incarnate relationship with creation shows us how Man was to be (in St. Maximos the Confessor’s terms) “transparent to creation”, ie., in total harmony/communion with creation. When the disciples said “Who is this man that the winds and the waves obey him?” And Jesus walked on water, when He gave thanks for the bread and fish and fed 5,000 etc., this demonstrated the “Natural” state of man, the sacramental union of the human being with creation in God. Jesus did not do something “supernatural” but “truly natural”. The state in which we live with creation is unnatural, creation and the human being live in tension, creation “kills” the human being, and we have to subdue it like we do. There was no discontinuity between creation and man in the person of Jesus Christ, the Adam we were supposed to be. The sacramental view of creation acknowledges that the material world is more than merely “utilitarian” to support the survival of the biological life of man (which is a post fall state) and more than merely a “symbolic signpost” back to God’s “spiritual existence” as though the “spiritual world” is the ultimate goal of creation, ie., the material world will be somehow completely done away with rather than “transformed”. The material world IS spiritual and the incarnation of Christ affirms that its goal is not destruction but transformation IN HIM, BY HIM, THROUGH HIM and UNTO HIM. (Eph. 1, Col. 1). Subtle but real differences.

But some would say: Believing in sacraments that really do something seems weird, almost superstitious or magical. The issue with this line of thinking is that it does not take the ramifications of the Incarnation seriously. Orthodoxy is absolutely Incarnational, which means God became flesh, matter, material, REALLY!!! Which means that God can (and in fact DID) join Himself to the material world. He can inhabit it, fill it with Himself, manifest His divinity through it, make it holy and grant Himself to the world in it. Magic is not of faith, the sacraments are of faith. Gnosticism (at least one form of it) denigrated matter and said God cannot join Himself to it because it is inherently lower than Him. That is why the modern non-sacramental view seems quasi-gnostic from our perspective.
The real question is: Just what IS the problem with a sacramental view of creation? The non-sacramental view elevates what is perceived as “spiritual” things above the material. So faith, metaphor, symbols which are mentally and rationally discerned, intellect and reason are elevated above the reality and tangible elements of the sacraments, ie., water, wine, bread, oil etc. Is “faith” and “symbolism” and our imagination that God is working through creation a greater thing than God ACTUALLY working in and through creation to give Himself to us? If so, why didn’t God just tell us to THINK about the incarnation and imagine God in the flesh by faith?

The modern Protestant Christian’s “reality” is ethereal, “spiritual”, non-tangible, non-accessible to the physical being of the person, as a result of the non-physical encounter with Christ “in your heart”). The meaning of “born again” and partaking of and participating in Christ’s life-giving Flesh is reduced to “spiritual experience” and/or rationality alone, whereas the Scriptures speak of salvation in material terms through water in baptism, through bread and wine in the Eucharist, through oil in healing of the body, etc. The WHOLE human being is saved, body, soul and spirit (I Thess. 5:23), our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit, not just our minds and hearts. Christ did not come to merely reform us mentally and morally but to save us entirely. By uniting Himself to creation He sanctified all of creation and brought it back to its true relationship to God and man.

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