Tag Archives: Origen

Living Tabernacles

Russian icon of the Crucifixion by Dionysius, ca. 1500, Tretiakov Gallery, Moscow

Why did the Son of God die on the Cross?

Many theories of atonement have been proposed since the early Church, but none of them are definitive. The Catechism of the Catholic Church simply states that the crucifixion is “part of the mystery of God’s plan” (599). 

Images of blood, sacrifice, temple, and altar dominate the book of Hebrews as Christ is shown to be the eternal high priest, final sacrifice for sins, and the fulfillment of the Old Covenant.

Jesus repaired what was broken in the center of the cosmos, temple, and heart of humanity. Blood spilled on the altar of the Cross to atone for the primordial disobedience in the garden of Eden. The first instance of animal sacrifice, according to many interpreters, took place when God clothed Adam and Eve in animal skins (Genesis 3:21). Fratricide and deicide followed in the wake of expulsion in the next generation.

Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let us go out in the field. ”When they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him. Then the Lord asked Cain, Where is your brother Abel? He answered, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” God then said: What have you done? Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground!

Genesis 4:8-10

Bloodshed was the last step in a series of thoughts and passions ignited in the human heart. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus identified the root of murder in the angry, hateful heart.

“You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment. ’But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment, and whoever says to his brother, ‘Raqa,’ will be answerable to the Sanhedrin, and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna. Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.

Matthew 5:21-24

The book of Genesis stands as primeval witness to the heart of the “New Law” before lawmaking even began.

Then the Lord said to Cain: Why are you angry? Why are you dejected? If you act rightly, you will be accepted; but if not, sin lies in wait at the door: its urge is for you, yet you can rule over it.

Genesis 4:6-7

When his brother lay dead, consciousness of the law immediately sank in:

Cain said to the Lord: “My punishment is too great to bear. Look, you have now banished me from the ground. Anyone may kill me at sight.”

Genesis 4:13-14

A vague sense that Cain owed his own life for the life he had taken was expressed in his fear of retaliation. The Levitical law of “life for life” was instinctual.

Whoever takes the life of any human being shall be put to death.

Leviticus 24:17

Life is sacred on account of its divine origin. Since Adam is made in the image of Christ, the “firstborn of all creation” (Colossians 1:15), any harm done to Adam is done to Christ. Fratricide is deicide.

“Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? …I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”

Acts 9:4-5; 22:7-8; 26:14-15

These words could have also been addressed to Cain, for Abel is a type of Christ. 

All the blood spilled in the sacrificial system of the Old Law sought to restore the original unity of God and humankind but failed. No amount of animal blood could bring back the dead or grant access to the divine presence (shekinah) in the Holy of Holies. 

And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.

John 12:32

The Son of God assumed the humanity of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel—the whole human family—and united what was split asunder. With forgiveness and mercy on his lips and in his heart, Jesus laid down his life and rose victorious over sin and death. 

The New Law of theosis or transformation into Christ superseded the Mosaic law and Levitical priesthood. The animal instincts of the murderers Cain and Lamech were transformed by the grace of the Holy Spirit to enable the human heart to respond with divine charity from the Father’s heart:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil… “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same? So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Matthew 5:38-39, 43-48

The ultimate end of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross is to pour out the Holy Spirit on the earth, deify the children of Adam, and unite human persons and the cosmos in the love of God the Father. Persons and the cosmos are the temple of the Holy Spirit, and the heart is God’s sanctuary and Holy of Holies.

“This is the covenant I will establish with them after those days, says the Lord:
‘I will put my laws in their hearts,
and I will write them upon their minds,’”

he also says:
“Their sins and their evildoing
I will remember no more.”

Hebrews 10:16-17

Each one of us can build a tabernacle for God in himself. For if, as some before us have said, this tabernacle represents a figure of the whole world, and if each individual can have an image of the world in oneself, why should not each individual be able to fulfill the form of the tabernacle in oneself? …For that part within you which is most valuable of all can act the part of priest—the part which some call the first principle of the heart, others the rational sense or the substance of the mind or whatever other name one wishes to give to that part of us which makes us capable of receiving God.

Origen (fl. c. 200-254)1

The Image of the Blessed Trinity rests in the most intimate, hidden, and inmost ground of the soul, where God is present essentially, actively, and substantially. Here God acts and exists and rejoices in Himself, and to separate God from this inmost ground would be as impossible as separating Him from Himself… And thus in the depth of this ground the soul possesses everything by grace which God possesses by nature.

Johannes Tauler (c. 1300-1361)2

Fractured Adam
Shattered glass
Made one in Christ
By Love on the Cross
Not glued together
Nor sewn in patches
But indivisibly divided
Divided indivisibly
Trinity in Unity 
Unity in Trinity
We are children of God
Living tabernacles

-GMC

1 Origen, Homilies on Exodus 9.4. From Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Hebrews, Erik M. Heen and Philip D. W. Krey, editors, and Thomas C. Oden, general editor (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 132-3.

2 Sermon 29 from Johannes Tauler, Sermons, trans. Maria Shrady, Classics of Western Spirituality (Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1985), 105.

No Person is an Island

In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets; in these last days, he spoke to us through a son, whom he made heir of all things and through whom he created the universe, who is the refulgence of his glory, the very imprint of his being, and who sustains all things by his mighty word.

Hebrews 1:1-3a

In the previous post, God from God, Light from Light, a development in understanding the being of God was seen in the exegesis of Hebrews 1:3 by Origen and St. Gregory Thaumaturgus. The statement that Christ is “the very imprint,” seal, stamp, impression, or image (charakter, χαρακτήρ) of the Father’s hupostasis (ὑπόστασις) was stretched beyond its original conceptual boundaries (being, essence, nature, substance) to include the notion of person.

But since He is called by the apostle not only the brightness of His glory, but also the express figure of His person or subsistence, it does not seem idle to inquire how there can be said to be another figure of that person besides the person of God Himself, whatever be the meaning of person and subsistence.1

Origen (fl. c. 200-254)

For He is the brightness of His glory, the express image of His Father’s person.2

St. Gregory Thaumaturgus (fl. c. 248-264)

Later Fathers picked up their thread and contemplated Hebrews 1:3 in a new, personalistic light beyond Greek philosophical categories.

For the apostle says that the Son is the express image of the person of the Father.3

St. Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335-394)

I believe that there is one God the Father and one Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father. Also that there is one Lord Jesus Christ, only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all ages, brightness of his glory and express image of the Father’s person…4

Theodoret of Cyr (c. 393-466)

St. John Chrysostom (fl. 386-407), while recognizing that God is utterly beyond thought and conception, embraces the personalistic turn: 

For instance, that God is everywhere we know, but how we do not understand. That there is a certain incorporeal power, the cause of all our good things, we know, but how it is or what it is, we know not. We speak and do not understand! I said that he is everywhere, but I do not understand it. I said that he begot from himself, and again I know not how I shall understand it… 

And to show you that even Paul is weak and does not put out his illustrations with exactness, and to make you tremble and refrain from searching too far, hear what he says, having called him Son and named him Creator, “who being the brightness of his glory and the express image of his person.”5

St. Athanasius (fl. 325-373), among others, retains the original Greek meaning of hupostasis in Hebrews 1:3, which suits his defense of the Son’s consubstantiality (“one in being”) with the Father:

Therefore, he is true God, existing consubstantially (homoousios) with the true Father, while other beings to whom he said, “I say, ‘you are gods,’” have this grace from the Father only by participation in the Word through the Spirit. For he is the “very stamp” of the Father’s “being,” and “light” from “light,” and the “power” and true “image” of the Father’s substance.6

Both interpretations of hupostasis approach but do not encompass divinity, for being and person are not bounded concepts but fluid, dynamic, interpenetrating realities.

This survey of patristic commentary on Hebrews 1:3 reveals a new revolution in the history of metaphysics.

What God is (being/nature) and Who God is (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) interpenetrate in an indivisible perichoresis (“dance”) without borders.

The notion of “person” is permeable and bursts the bounds of Hellenistic individual substance.

To be a person is to be in all other persons. No person is an island.

-GMC

1 Origen, In Principiis, Book I, Chapter 2, 8.

2 St. Gregory Thaumaturgus, Epistles on the Arian Heresy and the Deposition of Arius, To Alexander of Alexandria, 12.

3 St. Gregory of Nyssa, On the Faith.

4 Theodoret of Cyr, Letter 83.

5 St. John Chrysostom, On the Epistle to the Hebrews 2.1.

6 St. Athanasius, Four Discourses Against the Arians 1.3.9.

The last four quotations are from Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Hebrews, Erik M. Heen and Philip D. W. Krey, editors, and Thomas C. Oden, general editor (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 12-15.

God from God, Light from Light

Christ in Glory (mandorla)

Monday of the First Week in Ordinary Time (Year I)

Hebrews 1:1-6; Psalm 97

In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets; in these last days, he spoke to us through a son, whom he made heir of all things and through whom he created the universe, who is the refulgence of his glory, the very imprint of his being, and who sustains all things by his mighty word.

Hebrews 1:1-3a

From words to the Word, and from prophets to the very Son of God, the anonymous author of Hebrews sweeps us into the “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God” that the Nicene Creed epitomized in the maturing Christian consciousness of the fourth century. 

Christ is the radiance, brightness, or refulgence (apaugasma, ἀπαύγασμα) of the Father’s glory. The Father is identified in this passage as simply “God” (theos, θεός). “I am going to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God,” Jesus told Mary Magdalene (John 20:17). God is not a vague, impersonal being, but a Father from whom the Son is eternally begotten, and from whom the Spirit eternally proceeds. 

The Father never speaks alone, but always through the Son and in the Spirit. The indivisible Trinity was present in the theophany of the burning bush to Moses (Exodus 3:1-22).  “Before Abraham came to be, I AM,” Jesus told the Jews, identifying himself with God (John 8:58). The Son speaks and acts only in union with the Father (John 5:19; 12:49).

In the third century, Origen reflected at length on the first sentence of Hebrews in his work, In Principiis (On the First Principles) during heated controversies concerning the humanity and divinity of Christ, and the Trinity of persons. The inadequacy of words challenged the Fathers as they sought to grasp realities exceeding the concepts received from pagan philosophy.

Hebrews declares that Christ is “the very imprint,” seal, stamp, impression, or image (charakter, χαρακτήρ) of the Father’s hupostasis (ὑπόστασις), which has been variously translated as being, nature, essence, substance, or person. Greek philosophy had no conception of person, and thus the original word in this context vaguely denotes the transcendent being or nature of God. 

Concepts evolve as understanding grows. Neither the Old Testament nor Greek philosophy ever conceived God as simultaneously One and Three. Thus no word or thought existed to express the revelation of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit given by Christ. The meaning of “person” is far from clear, writes Origen in his perplexity:

“But since He is called by the apostle not only the brightness of His glory, but also the express figure of His person or subsistence, it does not seem idle to inquire how there can be said to be another figure of that person besides the person of God Himself, whatever be the meaning of person and subsistence.”1

In a work battling the Arian heresy that denied the divinity of Christ, St. Gregory Thaumaturgus, Origen’s contemporary, writes: “For He is the brightness of His glory, the express image of His Father’s person.”2

The wrestlings of Origen and St. Gregory Thaumaturgus would have been novel to the author of Hebrews, but the same could be said of David’s Psalms and most of the Old Testament when they were first interpreted in the light of Christ.3

The Son is truly God from God, according to Hebrews, but the text does not go so far as to disentangle the theological distinctions between the nature (being) and persons of the Trinity. In fact, the statements of Origen and St. Gregory Thaumaturgus actually conflate nature and person. For if the Son is the imprint of the “Father’s person,” the absolute distinction of Father and Son seems to be compromised. However, the effort of these Fathers to go beyond the limitations of words to the heart of who God is, represents a step forward in Christian reflection. Another way to express their thought is that the Son is the image of God the Father who is personal. 

Material experience causes the human mind to reify or delineate realities that are uncircumscribed. Thus changing “person” to “personal,” or noun to adjective, softens the hard lines drawn by the mind between nouns. However, these grammatical subtleties only suggest and point to what is beyond linguistic expression.

The concept of perichoresis or circumincession (mutual indwelling) was developed over time to overcome the barriers and borders set up by the intellect between the three divine persons and the two natures of Christ. Concepts divide the indivisible reality, but in truth, One (divine nature) and Three (persons) interpenetrate without division. The divine and human natures of Christ also interpenetrate without mixture or confusion. Thus, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father,” Jesus said, offering no explanation of how he and the Father are both one and distinct (John 14:9). Over the centuries, the Holy Spirit guided the Church to deepen her contemplation of the Most Holy Trinity who is “divided indivisibly.”

When he had accomplished purification from sins, he took his seat at the right hand of the Majesty on high, as far superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.

Hebrews 1:3b-4

In Hebrew cosmology, myriads upon myriads of angels served as mediators between humanity and a distant God. Thus it became necessary to demonstrate the absolute superiority of the Son over the angels, the “mediator of a new covenant” (Hebrews 9:15; 12:24).

For to which of the angels did God ever say: “You are my son; this day I have begotten you”? Or again: “I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me”? And again, when he leads the first-born into the world, he says: “Let all the angels of God worship him.”

Hebrews 1:5-6

Angelic worship of a human being was unthinkable until Mary said, “Yes!” to the invitation of the angel Gabriel.

The heavens proclaim his justice,
and all peoples see his glory.
Let all his angels worship him.

Responsorial Psalm from 97:6 and 7c

-GMC

1 Origen, In Principiis, Book I, Chapter 2, 8.

2 St. Gregory Thaumaturgus, Epistles on the Arian Heresy and the Deposition of Arius, To Alexander of Alexandria, 12.

3 See the post, Who is the “Son of David”?

Bread from Heaven

The dark green around the Lake of Galilee you see in the upper part of this Google satellite picture of Palestine says there’s good farmland there now; it was good farmland at the time of Jesus.

Herod the Great and his son Herod Antipas,  Galilee’s rulers then, appreciated the prospects  then and they created a network of roads and large cities – Tiberius, Sepphoris and Caesarea Maritima on the sea– to export goods from Galilee to the rest of the world. Could this information help us appreciate the miracle of Jesus, feeding the crowd bread and some fish?

“I am the bread of life”,  Jesus says in today’s gospel from John. I’m the source of your blessings and everything that is. God the creator works through me.  Moses asked for bread for his people journeying from Egypt.  Jesus says: “I am the bread of life.”

Jesus makes a divine claim in this miraculous sign, feeding a multitude. The crowd  wants to make him king, (John 6, 15) but the kingship they see doesn’t approach the kingship that’s his. It’s much too small. Jesus rejects their plan.

In a wonderful commentary on Jesus as the bread of life, the early theologian Origen says that Jesus calls himself bread because he is “nourishment of every kind,” not just nourishment of our bodies. He nourishes our minds and our souls; he brings life to creation itself.  When we ask “Give us this day our daily bread,” we’re asking for everything that nourishes our “true humanity, made in the image of God.”

Jesus is the bread that helps us “grow in the likeness of our creator.” (On Prayer 27,2) Sometimes– in fact most of the time–we don’t know the nourishment we or our world needs, but God does. “The true bread come down from heaven”  knows how to feed us.

“Give us this day our daily bread.”

Bread from Heaven

Jordan satellite
The dark green around the Lake of Galilee you see in the upper part of this Google satellite picture of Palestine says there’s good farmland there now; it was good farmland at the time of Jesus.

Herod the Great and his son Herod Antipas,  Galilee’s rulers then, appreciated the prospects  then and they created a network of roads and large cities – Tiberius, Sepphoris and Caesarea Maritima on the sea– to export goods from Galilee to the rest of the world. Could this information help us appreciate the miracle of Jesus, feeding the crowd bread and some fish?

“I am the bread of life”,  Jesus says in today’s gospel from John. I’m the source of your blessings and everything that is. God the creator works through me.  Moses asked for bread for his people journeying from Egypt.  Jesus says: “I am the bread of life.”

Jesus makes a divine claim in this miraculous sign, feeding a multitude. The crowd  wants to make him king, (John 6, 15) but the kingship they see doesn’t approach the kingship that’s his. It’s much too small. Jesus rejects their plan.

In a wonderful commentary on Jesus as the bread of life, the early theologian Origen says that Jesus calls himself bread because he is “nourishment of every kind,” not just nourishment of our bodies. He nourishes our minds and our souls; he brings life to creation itself.  When we ask “Give us this day our daily bread,” we’re asking for everything that nourishes our “true humanity, made in the image of God.”

Jesus is the bread that helps us “grow in the likeness of our creator.” (On Prayer 27,2) Sometimes– in fact most of the time–we don’t know the nourishment we or our world needs, but God does. “The true bread come down from heaven”  knows how to feed us.

“Give us this day our daily bread.”

By a Winding Road

The great 3rd century scholar Origin, whom I mentioned in my last post, was well acquainted with the holy land, since he was a native of Alexandria in Egypt and taught for a time in Caesarea Maritima, about 60 miles from Jerusalem. He’s one of the first Christian sources to speak of the cave at Bethlehem, where Jesus was born, and he must have been aware of other places associated with Jesus as well.

I remember  a pilgrimage I made  to Mount Sinai years ago, with Origin’s commentary “On Exodus” in hand, traveling by bus from the Red Sea through the mountains on what seemed like an interminable, narrow winding road. “We go to God by a winding road,” Origin said in his commentary, and I knew he had traveled this road.

His commentary explored the spiritual meaning of the scriptural events, but he was there all right. He didn’t forget what was there.

As a pilgrim in Jerusalem he must have stood before the ruins of the temple in Jerusalem. According to early sources, Jews came regularly to the Mount of Olives across from the Kidron Valley to look upon the ruined temple and mourn its passing. Origen must have seen them there. The present custom of gathering for prayer and remembrance at the “wailing wall” or western wall today began with them.

Then as now, some thought of rebuilding the temple, because they couldn’t envision their faith without it. Others realized that the Presence they sought there could be found elsewhere in other towns and places. Their synagogues and homes became more important as places of faith and worship.

Origen thought like the Jews who looked beyond the ruins. “Troubles and persecutions” led to rebuilding, but somewhere else and in another way. At the same time, he looked upon the ruins and acknowledged their glory, as signs of the One “who is, who was, and is to come.”