||Last Updated: Feb 8th, 2011 - 05:50:02
Source: St. John Chrysostom Orthodox Church
A lecture delivered by Fr John Behr, Dean of St Vladimir’s Theological Seminary, at the parish of St John Chrysostom Orthodox Church, September 29, 2007, on the occasion of the 1600th Anniversary of St John’s repose.
In his oration of thanks to his teacher, St Gregory the Wonderworker commented:
For a mighty and energetic thing is the discourse of man, and subtle with its sophisms, and quick to find its way into the ears and mould the mind, and impress us with what it conveys; and when once it has taken possession of us, it can win us over to love it as truth; and it holds its place within us even though it be false and deceitful, overmastering us like some enchanter and retaining as its champion the very man it has persuaded (deluded).
Words are very important things and also very powerful. Usually when we speak of “rhetoric” it has a pejorative sense: it implies dissimulation, deception, covering over or diverting from reality, from the truth; political rhetoric tries to make something seem better or worse than it really is; advertising rhetoric, whether in words or images, tries persuade us that, unknown to us, we really do need what they have to sell, and that alone. There are so many ways in which rhetoric is used negatively that we forget that its persuasive power can also be used positively: we also need to be persuaded to love the truth and to orient our whole lives by it. The words I quoted from St Gregory are just as rhetorical as those of his opponents (and so too are disclaimers not to speak in ornate language).
It is precisely this importance of words, language and rhetoric, that St John Chrysostom develops with great insight in his work On the Priesthood. That it is not one that usually comes to mind when we reflect on the nature and task of the priesthood makes his words all the more striking. And, I will suggest, we should take note of what he wrote, not only because he left us his treatise as a word to us, but also because I believe it may help us out of a predicament into which much modern theology has fallen.
This predicament is exemplified in the way in which modern scholarship focuses on Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus and Gregory of Nyssa—the “Cappadocians”—the leading figures of the late fourth century in the development of theology (as modern scholarship thinks of it, that is). The Church, on the other hand, singles out Sts Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, and John Chrysostom as being the “universal teachers.” When the feast of these Three Hierarchs begins to be commemorated, in the centuries after iconoclasm, it is as part of a flourishing or renaissance of interest in rhetoric. While the iconoclastic period had devoted much attention to images, the following centuries turned their attention to words and language: just as there could be such a thing as a true image/icon of Christ so also, in the realm of words, the writings of the great saints are also true icons/images. As George Kustas puts it:
“We see the theory in full flower in the eleventh century in the glorification of Basil, John Chrysostom and Gregory Nazianzus, the three Hierarchs of the Church, as paragons of a true rhetoric, based not on style alone but also on theological content. These new wise men become not merely the philosophical and theological models of Byzantium, the keepers of her heritage and Christian learning; they are the rhetorical models as well. If philosophy and rhetoric, as antiquity had sometimes wished, are one, the Christian now said that in a larger sense theology and rhetoric are one. The three figures are saints and saintly in all they say and do. Rhetoric is now a sacred art, part of the sacred cosmos of man. It is a sacrament—Doxapatres and Siceliotes actually call it a ìõóôÞñéïí—and we, skilled in its ways, are its celebrants, for the act of formal expression in words is a religious act, charged with divinity and embracing at once the logos of man and the Logos of God.”
Kustas further notes how the scholar John Mauropus, a professor in Constantinople at this time, in an address on the feast of the Three Hierarchs, describes how these three saints were sent by the Lord to restore and proclaim the true interpretation of the Gospel; they accomplished this, he said, through the charm of their words, their human logos being assisted by the divine Logos, so that in their words the natural and the supernatural come together, and the true harmony of word and spirit is restored.
All three—Sts Basil, Gregory and John—were highly trained rhetoricians/orators, praised even by the great pagan orators such as Libanius, and they put this talent to the service of the Christian faith. Yet among these three, it is St John who has been given the title “Chrysostom”—the golden mouthed. He is known not so much for his involvement in the dogmatic disputes of his day (though he does have important things to say), but precisely for his oratory—his preaching.
Chrysostom on Priesthood
In his work on the Priesthood, St John does occasionally speak in very high terms of the priest as the liturgical officiant, but his main concern is with the priestly ministry more generally, following the example of Christ, who came to serve rather than be served. As he puts it, while the priesthood is ranked among the heavenly ordinances, it is nevertheless is enacted on earth. And the tasks of the priest are numerous: he was the teacher and moral guide of the community; he was the liturgical leader, deciding which catechumens should be admitted to baptism, and he presided at the Eucharist; he was the spiritual guide for those who wanted to lead more ascetic lives; he received guests from other churches; he maintained an elaborate system of charity for the care of strangers, the support of widows, orphans and the poor, he cared for the women who were ranked in the order of “virgins,” ordained presbyters and deacons.
Judging from his writings, it was the concern for the widows, the virgins, and the poor which caused him the greatest anxiety: he speaks of the holiness and knowledge necessary for such work, and also the endless patience and ability to steward alms in an irreproachable manner (On the Priesthood 3.12). Elsewhere, he mentions that in Antioch there were some three thousand of widows and virgins who were looked after by the Church. One can only imagine the immense amount of work that this required!
When St John turns to speak of the tools or instruments that the priest has at his disposal, he focuses upon the priest’s words (On the Priesthood 4.2 ff). It is Christ’s own body that the priest is entrusted with, and he is responsible for training it to perfect health and incredible beauty, being vigilant to ensure that no spot or blemish mars its grace and loveliness. His whole energy must be devoted to making sure that the body is worthy of the Head to which it is subjected. But unlike a doctor who cures physical diseases and ailment by prescribing medications, rest, or surgery, the spiritual doctor only has recourse to words, to exhortations and persuasions:
In the case before us, it is impossible to use any of these things; there is but one method and way of healing appointed, after we have gone wrong, and that is the powerful application of the Word. This is the one instrument, the only diet, the finest atmosphere. This takes the place of medicine, cautery and cutting, and if it be needful to sear and amputate, this is the means which we must use, and if this is of no avail, all else is wasted; with this we both rouse the soul when it sleeps and reduce it when it is inflamed; with this we cut off excesses and fill up defects, and perform all manner of other operations which are needed for the soul’s health. (On the Priesthood 4.3)
It is only through the words that a priest uses, St John is saying, that those under his charge can be persuaded to pay attention to themselves, to orient their lives towards Christ, to willingly cooperate in the surgery being applied by the priest, for this can only be done through words and cooperation.
St John continues by asking whether or not an exemplary life of the priest is sufficient, for this may well stimulate others to emulation. He concedes that this may well be the case for the ordering of our daily lives, but when it comes to matters of doctrine, which is not simply a matter of accepting abstract items of belief, but a matter of having the mind of Christ, so that the whole outlook of the Christian is informed and shaped by a Christian perspective, In such matters, an exemplary life is not sufficient: “Should a conflict arise on matters of doctrine and all the combatants rely on the same scriptures, what weight will his life carry then?” (On the Priesthood, 4.9)
Even if a bishop or priest were able to perform miracles, as did the apostles, even this is not sufficient:
Even in the days of miracles the Word was by no means useless, but essentially necessary. For St. Paul made use of it himself, although he was everywhere so great an object of wonder for his miracles; and another of those who belonged to the ‘glorious company of the Apostles’ exhorts us to apply ourselves to acquiring this power, when he says: ‘Be ready always to give an answer to every man that asks of you a reason concerning the hope that is in you’ (1 Pet 3.15), and they all, with one accord, committed the care of the poor widows to Stephen, for no other reason than that they themselves might have time “for the ministry of the Word. (Acts 6.4; On the Priesthood 4.3)
Again using the example of the Apostle Paul, St John also answers those who would point out that the apostles and apostles—unlettered fishermen—had no knowledge of the finer points of oratory, that they did not have “the polish of Isocrates, the weight of Demosthenes, the dignity of Thucydides, and the sublimity of Plato.” But he points out that Paul makes a careful distinction, saying that “even if I am unskilled in speaking, I am not in knowledge” (2 Cor 11.6, so likening himself to Moses). St John then continues:
But I pass by all such matters and the elaborate ornaments of profane oratory; and I take no account of style or of delivery; even if a man’s diction be poor and his composition simple and unadorned, let him not be unskilled in the knowledge and accurate statement of doctrine; nor in order to hide his own sloth, deprive that holy apostle of the greatest of his gifts, and the sum of his praises. (On the Priesthood 4.6)
The content of Paul’s preaching may well be folly to the Greeks and a stumbling block to the Jews, and it may also be expressed in unpolished terseness, but it is nevertheless a clear, concise and profound statement of the Wisdom and Power of God. Paul’s rhetoric (for rhetoric it is) matches the content.
A similar point is made by St Gregory the Theologian, when he speaks of education (ðáéäåßá), as being the supreme advantage of human beings, especially the use of words:
We must not then dishonor education, because some men are pleased to do so, but rather suppose such men to be boorish and uneducated, desiring all men to be as they themselves are, in order to hide themselves in the general, and escape the detection of their want of culture. (Oration 43.11)
St Basil also makes similar comments at the beginning of his work On the Holy Spirit, pointing out that:
Those who are idle in the pursuit of righteousness count theological terminology as secondary, together with attempts to search out the hidden meaning in this phrase or that syllable, but those conscious of the goal of our calling realize that we are to become like God as far as this is possible for human beings. But we cannot become like God unless we have knowledge of Him, and without lessons there will be no knowledge. Instruction begins with the proper use of speech, and syllabus and words are the elements of speech. (On the Holy Spirit 1.2)
Word and deed go together for St John: a priest with a gift for oratory undermines what he says if he is not himself striving to live the life that he speaks about; and likewise, an exemplary life, without a good apologia for one’s faith, can easily be misunderstood by others, and will not necessarily lead them into the life of Christ.
This is the ultimate aim of their teaching: to lead disciples, both by what they do and what they say, into the way of that blessed life which Christ commanded. Example alone is not sufficient.” (On the Priesthood 4.8)
If the priest is to shepherd his people into growth in life and faith and spiritual understanding, then he must devote his energy to the development of the means by which alone he can do this:
In short, to meet all these difficulties, there is no help given but that of speech, and if any be destitute of this power, the souls of those who are put under his charge (I mean of the weaker and more meddlesome kind) are no better off than ships continually storm tossed. So that the Priest should do all that in him lies, to gain this means of strength. (On the Priesthood 4.5)
Words are important; and finding the right words is indispensable, not necessarily those of worldly rhetorical beauty, but certainly those which enable the communication of the Gospel to others, the ministry of the Word. This is, for St John, the means by which the priest carries out his ministry. When we contemplate St John as “the Golden-Mouthed,” and consider how he is celebrated alongside Sts Basil and Gregory as a Great Hierarch and Universal Teacher, we should take to heart the importance of this verbal dimension of the priestly art, the art of arts.
The Pastoral Power of Theology
This appreciation of the verbal dimension of the pastoral art, in turn, helps us to appreciate better the pastoral nature of theology itself. The discipline of theology has fragmented in various unfortunate ways. During the course of the first millennium, a student of theology was formed by the discipline of reading Scripture in the context of the tradition of the Fathers and the liturgical life of the Church. But during the course of the second millennium, this unified discipline has fallen apart, for various reasons. One key factor is the systematization of theology over many centuries into handbooks of dogmatic theology which are then drawn upon to provide the categories by which the writings of the Fathers can be categorized, so that theology itself comes to be seen as an abstract discipline, a system of dogmas.
Think of how many books on Church History or Patristics divide up the theological reflection of the early Church into various periods corresponding to modern systematic categories: the “Trinitarian” debates of the fourth century (clarifying how we speak of unity and multiplicity in God, a divine arithmetic as it were), followed by the “Christological” debates of the following centuries (explaining how one of the divine Persons became incarnate). Dogmatics or systematic theology (and consequently the reading of the Fathers) has become an abstract discourse about God, only occasionally providing a quotation from Scripture. Scriptural study, on the other hand, tends to set out on the quest to discover “the real history” behind the text, or the history of the text, uninformed by or unengaged with the theological positions of those who had been reading the Scriptures for centuries.
Theology has become an abstract, neutral discourse about God. If one looks the word up in a dictionary, one will find that the term “theology” is comprised of theos-God and logos-word/discourse and so the definition of theology is “words about God.” It is a discipline that speaks about God, his revelation and relation to the world. Theology is therefore analogous to geology or zoology, it just happens that its subject-matter is God, rather than the earth or animals.
With theology defined in this way, it is hard to see its pastoral implications. How does one, for instance, explain the pastoral dimension of the term consubstantial when it is understood as part of the language about God. And so it is not surprising that a whole field of “pastoral theology” has opened up in the past century, as a separate discipline, more often than not drawing upon what the social sciences have to offer: how to counsel people in various situations, work with addictions, look after different groups – youth, the aged etc. I’m not suggesting that these are not necessary, but I would question whether they are in fact theology.
Even to insist that prayer is also essential for true theology, following the saying of Evagrius that “one who prays is a theologian, and a theologian is one who prays” (On Prayer 66), is not enough: we would be giving a prayerful aspect to our current understanding of theology, rather than asking if by the high title of “theology” (or “prayer” for that matter), the fathers understood something else.
The apophatic aspect of orthodox theology should caution us against thinking that theology can simply be words about God, as if theological statements are “informative propositions” about God “out there,” as if he were subject to our investigation and scrutiny, to be described by our objective and unengaged words about him. The Fathers knew very well that God is not “out there,” at least if we are using the word “is” in any way commensurate with how we speak about creation and ourselves. As St Gregory Palamas put it, God “is not a being, if others are beings, and if He is a being, the others are not beings”: as the creator of all being, God is not a part of “being,” and as such, we cannot use the word “is” with respect to God in the same manner in which we use it of ourselves and created reality, even if we do so prayerfully.
For the early Christians, theology was not a matter of speaking about God. Indeed, the presumption and arrogance of such a discourse would have been shocking to them, if even comprehensible—as if we can look upon, and thereby stand over, God to describe him and his activity in neutral, uninvolved terms. Instead of speaking about God, theology was more specifically the affirmation of the divinity of the crucified and exalted Lord, Jesus Christ. As an anonymous writer at the end of the second century put it, in the Scriptures and the writings of many Christians “Christ is spoken of as God” (lit. “Christ is theologized”); likewise, he continued, “all the psalms and hymns which were written by the faithful from the beginning, hymn Christ as the Word of God, speaking of him as God” (lit. “theologizing him”). For St Athanasius the Great, it was writers of Scripture, such as David, who are “theologians”; and the apostles, such as Paul “who speaks of the Savior himself,” are also “theologians,” especially the evangelist John, “the theologian.” They are the theologians in a unique and unrepeatable manner, for it is they who spoke and wrote about Christ; those who “theologize” Christ thereafter, do so on the basis of their account.
One can perhaps be even more specific about this. From the end of the second century, the Gospel of John was widely regarded as being the most “spiritual” amongst the Gospels, and the Evangelist thereafter was known in Church tradition as “the theologian,” a title he eventually came to share with St Gregory the Theologian, and later on with St Symeon the New Theologian. While the bestowal of this honorific upon these figures is often explained in terms of their lofty theology and their poetic and forceful writing, a more immediate and specific reason would be that they each “theologized” in a particular manner: the Gospel of John contains the clearest affirmation that Christ is “my Lord and my God” (20.28)”; St Gregory, unlike St Basil, unabashedly affirmed that, even if the Scriptures do not speak of the Holy Spirit as “God,” nevertheless “God” the Spirit is, for that is how Scripture speaks of him, even if not using the term theos; and St Symeon reverses the biblical affirmation that “God is light” (1 Jn 1.5) to approach the divine Light asking “My God, is it you?” and hearing the reply “Yes, I am God who became man for your sake and behold I have made you, as you see, and will make you into a god.”
Theology as Confession
To understand further the particular nature of theological discourse, we must look more closely at how the first “theologians” spoke about Christ. It is a striking fact that, with one exception, the disciples are presented in the canonical Gospels as continually failing to understand who Jesus is. The one time that Peter confesses that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the Living God” (Mat 16.16)—a confession following which Jesus begins to explain how he must go to Jerusalem to suffer, die and be raised—Peter is then called “Satan” for attempting to get between Christ and his Cross (Mat 16.23).
Whatever the disciples heard about Jesus’ birth from his mother, or about his baptism from others, whatever divine teachings they themselves heard from his lips or miracles they saw him doing with their own eyes, even transfigured on Tabor in glory—they abandoned him at the time of the Passion. Neither did the empty tomb persuade them. When the women arrive at the tomb early in the morning, they are perplexed, not knowing what to make of it being empty; they require an angel to explain what has happened. The Christian faith is not based on the empty tomb, for this “bare fact” requires interpretation—was the body perhaps stolen? The same holds true for the resurrectional appearances: when he appears, not only did they not recognize him, but they start telling him about this Jesus who was put to death, and that the tomb was found empty (Lk 24.22-4). The Christian faith is not based on the appearances of the risen Lord. It is only when the crucified and risen Christ opens the Scriptures to them to show how it was necessary for him to have gone to his Passion to enter his glory, that the disciples’ hearts began to burn, so that they were prepared to recognize him in the breaking of the bread (Lk 24.28-35).
The disciples did not come to a true knowledge of the revelation of God in Christ by hearing reports about his birth, nor by accompanying him for a period of time. This simply reflects the fact that the usual methods of human knowledge—scientific analysis, historical inquiry or philosophical reflection—are inadequate when the desired object of knowledge is God, for God is not subject to human, physical or mental, perception, but shows himself as and when he wills, just as the risen Christ comes and goes at his own pleasure, and, as we have seen, disappears from sight once he is recognized, so that he does not remain as an external object for our scrutiny (we are to become his body, his tangible and perceptible presence in this world). Neither was it merely seeing Christ on the cross that prompted the disciples, finally, to know the Lord, nor even the report about the empty tomb or the encounter with the risen Christ: the tomb is empty, but this in itself is ambiguous, and when he appears he is not immediately recognized.
Rather, the disciples came to recognize the Lord as the one whose Passion is spoken of by the Scriptures (meaning what we call “the Old Testament”) and encountered in the breaking of the bread, at which point, consuming his offering, they become his body. These two complementary ways—the engagement with the Scriptures, understanding how Christ “died according to the Scriptures and was raised according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor 15.3-5), and sharing in the Lord’s meal, “proclaiming his death until he comes” (1 Cor 11.26)—are what Paul has received and handed down (from the Lord himself in the case of the eucharistic meal) to later generations (cf. 1 Cor 11.23, 15.3). They are, as it were, the matrix and the sustenance of the Christian tradition, within which theology speaks.
If this is so, then Christian theology proceeds by reflecting upon the crucified and risen Christ understood through the medium of the Scriptures (the “Old Testament”) in the context of the liturgy. This one is “the image of the invisible God,” “in whom the fullness of divinity dwelt bodily” (Col 1.15, 2.9)—there is no surplus of divinity, as it were, elsewhere, to be discovered by any other means. Christian theology is intrinsically confessional and scriptural, in the sense that it does not simply affirm a mere “historical” statement, for instance, that Jesus “was crucified under Pontius Pilate,” something that anyone on hand that day could have verified. Instead, theology affirms that the one who was crucified is the Son of God; this is a confession of faith, and one, moreover, that the disciples were able to make only once the risen Christ opened the Scriptures to them.
And as a confession, it also makes demands upon those who profess their belief: the affirmation that, as St Athanasius put it, “the one who ascended the cross is the Word of God,” is only truly demonstrated by those who “put on the faith of the cross” and, by their death in baptism and manner of living thereafter, become the body of Christ born again in the Virgin Mother, the Church.
Having considered briefly how theological language developed—what is its starting point and mode of operation—we also gain an insight into how theology speaks, and what it does.
The fourth-century assertion that the Son is “consubstantial” with the Father, for instance, should not be taken as an attempt to define how two persons relate to each other “out there,” in the articulation of a “Trinitarian theology,” but as an affirmation that what we see in Christ, as proclaimed by the apostles, is what it is to be God, yet other than the one he calls Father, and that this is known only in and through the Spirit, who is therefore also what it is to be God.
Likewise, the Chalcedonian Definition is not an attempt to articulate a better metaphysics of personhood, but the affirmation that divinity and humanity are found together with the same “face,” in the same “being”: that is, that we do not have to look to this to see what it is to be God, and to that to see what it is to be human—both are revealed to us in one and the same, as the Definition puts it, “without confusion, change, division or separation.”
And this fact—that Christ reveals to us his Father and shows us what it is to be divine, by an action, death, which is all-too-human—is what makes all theology a transformative, and truly pastoral, discourse. The one who before the Passion was known by the disciples as human, after the Passion is recognized by them (through the opening of the Scriptures) to be divine—the very same one! This means, to express it as forcefully as I can, that it is in and through the action that expresses all the weakness, impotence and futility of our created human nature—our subjection to death—in and through this, Christ shows himself to be truly divine, voluntarily taking this upon himself.
As one tries to comprehend this, one is simply lost for words.
It is perhaps not surprising that our all-too-human response to the revelation of God in the crucified and exalted Christ, understood through the Scriptures by the power of the Spirit, is to talk about something else—to make theology into an abstract discourse, or, like Peter before the Passion, to try to separate Christ from the cross. In one way or another, all the various heresies, against which the Fathers fought, attempted to dissolve the apparent paradox of Christ showing us what it is to be God through how he lived and died as human—or rather, died and lived, for it is his death which then enables the disciples to understand what he did before.
The Docetists denied that he was truly human, claiming that he only appeared to be such. Arius denied that he was truly divine, for how can one who is as divine as the Father, suffer in such a manner? Dioodore, Theodore and Nestorius, though affirming his full humanity in a manner palatable to today’s taste, do so at the expense of separating his divinity from his humanity: Christ no longer shows us what it is to be divine in the way that he is human, and so we remain, once again, separated from God.
The clear testimony of Scripture is that “Man shall not see God and live” (Ex 33.20). Even in the case of the Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ, our recognition of him coincides, as we saw, with his disappearance from sight. What we are left to contemplate is his activity, that which St Gregory of Nyssa describes as “the transcendent power of divinity.”
And as God is the creator of all, this transcendent power can only be manifest in that which is other than he. In fact, St Gregory continues, this is the central mystery of the apostolic proclamation:
All who preach the Word point out the marvel of the mystery in this respect: that ‘God was manifested in the flesh’ (1 Tim 3.16), that ‘the Word was made flesh’ (Jn 1.14), that ‘the Light shone in the darkness’ ([Jn 1.5), 'the Life tasted death' (Heb 2.9), and all such declarations which the heralds of the faith announce, whereby is increased the marvel of him who manifested the superabundance of his power by means external to his own nature.
What is beheld in the revelation of God in Jesus Christ is the transcendent power of divinity manifested in that which is not divine—in flesh, in darkness and in death. Yet this manifestation is simultaneously their transformation: the darkness no longer remains dark but is illumined; Christ’s death becomes the source of life to all who take up their cross to die to the world and sin; and human flesh is now flesh of the divine Word of God, and becomes Word, for we perceive the Incarnate Word in the apostolic proclamation of the crucified and exalted Christ, while the place where the Word becomes incarnate is now those who confess him, who are his body.
This transformative power of the Word of God is at work now in the confession of Christ. When the disciples finally come to confess Christ, they must also confess their own complicity in his death. Responding to his threefold denial of Christ, Peter must affirm three times that he loves Christ. And in both events he is standing by a charcoal fire (Jn 18.18, 21.9)—an allusion to the vision of Isaiah, who, after seeing the Lord enthroned in his heavenly temple, cried out: “Woe is me! For I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts,” but then saw a seraphim place in his mouth a burning coal taken from the altar, with the words “Behold this has touched your lips, your guilt is taken away and your sins forgiven” (Is 6.1-7).
Likewise before the persecutor Saul becomes the apostle Paul, he is confronted by the Lord asking “Why do you persecute me?” and is converted, recovering his sight and receiving baptism and the Holy Spirit through one of the persecuted members of the body of Christ (Acts 9.1-19). Whereas previously Paul held that while persecuting the Church he was “blameless as to righteousness under the law” (Phil 3.6), now persuaded that Christ is indeed the savior of all, the only conclusion he could draw was that all stood in need of salvation. Only now could he contrast Adam, through whose disobedience sin and death entered the world, with Christ, whose righteousness has become the means of life (Rom 5.12-14). The solution comes first, and then the problem is discerned.
The transforming vision that the encounter with Christ effects with respect to the comprehension of the Scriptures, brings about a similar transformation in our own lives. Before the encounter with the Christ proclaimed according to the Scriptures, we do not understand that—and how—we are sinful. We might know that we have some problems, but we usually think that we can overcome them, should we want to (through the means offered us by various therapies and counseling, should we need them). It is also clear to us that the world is beset by problems; but if we are honest, we would probably say that, if only everyone were to agree with us, most of these problems would be resolved. That we are sinful, broken and subject to death, to the very core of our being, is something that we can only begin to comprehend in the light of Christ, a light which simultaneously forgives, redeems and recreates. When we think about ourselves, we think of all the various experiences that we have had, told from the vantage point of the present, and that past acting in the present in ways of which we are largely unaware, and so to which we are subject unknowingly and involuntarily.
But the encounter with Christ provides a new, and yet eternal, vantage point from which to understand one’s own past: we are invited to see our own past retold as nothing less than our own “salvation history.” In this nothing is left aside or glossed over, as being too shameful or painful, something that we would prefer to forget, but which even as “forgotten” continues to act negatively in the present. Rather, just as it was in and through that which is all-too-human, his death, that Christ shows himself to be God, so also it is in and through our sinfulness and brokenness that we come to know the transforming and loving power of God, not that we should thereby sin some more, as Paul warns (Rom 6.1-2), but to see ever more clearly how deep our brokenness extends. “It is,” St Isaac of Syria affirmed, “a spiritual gift of God to be able to perceive one’s own sins,” and such a one is greater than those who see angels or raise the dead by their prayers.
To plumb the depth of our fallenness is to scale the heights of divine love. The more we are given the grace to see in this way, the more we begin to understand how everything is encompassed within the divine works of God: standing in the light of Christ, we can see him as having led us through our whole past, preparing us to encounter him. He alone knows the reason why he has led each of us on our particular path, for we walk by faith not by sight (2 Cor 5.7), but it is a faith that all things are in the hands of Christ, and that “in everything God works for good with those who love him” (Rom 8.28).
In this way, then, such theology is not merely words about God, but a living and active word. It does not merely report what happened in the past, nor pretend to describe, objectively and in an uninvolved manner, a God who is “out there” and his dealings with creation. It is nothing less than the proclamation of the Word of God to this world, allowing it to be at work through us here and now.
Such are some of the things that are implied by St John’s attention to words as the tools of the priest, when his words convey the Word of God, such that the Word is dynamically effective even now, transforming the vision, understanding, and reality of those willing to hear.
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