Wednesday, July 14, 2010

the priesthood of all believers (de incarnatione, pt. 3/3)

"Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives." (Hebrews 2:14-15)

If you've been following along with previous posts (or if you just read this post's title), you've noted that this is the third and closing comments de incarnatione[1] ("on the incarnation") of Jesus as mentioned in Hebrews 2:14-15. Previously, we discussed a holistic approach to the Person and work of Christ in a way that unites, for example, the incarnation and its purpose to His passion, death, and resurrection. In the second post in this "series," we looked at the incarnation from the aspect of the kenosis, and the humility with which Jesus "emptied Himself" in order to become part of creation by entering into humanity as one of humanity, so that He might voluntarily offer Himself as the sacrifice for the life of the world (Philippians 2:7). In each of these, we (hopefully) retained the theme present in Hebrews 2:14-15, wherein it is evident that Jesus, to use St. John's language, "tabernacled" among us so that "through death" He might conquer death (and him who had "power of death") in order to set humanity free and grant us life in Him (John 1:14; Hebrews 2:14-15). In this third and final post, I would like to take a slightly different approach to discussing the incarnation while continuing to expound upon this latter theme, though in a somewhat indirect manner.
What I would like to do is consider the incarnation in light of Alexander Schmemann's argument(s) set forth in For the Life of the World in order to view part of humankind's transformative restoration by Christ Himself with regard to His becoming man in order to conquer death and hell. Before I delve into this topic, I feel obligated to offer some type of explanation for my motive, as well as a disclaimer. First, I was introduced to this particular book (and to Schmemann, in general) by and Orthodox friend of mine who, along with me and another friend, started an informal book club for the summer. We each selected texts to bring to the table, and this was his. In my opinion, this is excellent reading regardless of one's theological standpoints. This, then, brings me to my disclaimer: I am not Orthodox, nor am I attempting to "represent" Orthodoxy. In fact, I will most likely misrepresent Orthodoxy, since I will be taking what I see as true from this book and applying it within a Protestant perspective, and one that does not view the traditional liturgy as either (necessarily) essential for the Christian life or as the primary means by which we realize communion with Christ (or, more properly, the means by which Christ realizes communion with us in light of His incarnation,death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven). Consequently, though this is not my intention, I may disappoint the Orthodox reader by applying Schmemman's arguments to a broader scope to be realized outside of the liturgy, since I am going against his argument in this respect. Additionally, I may or may not disappoint Protestants because of the emphasis on Orthodoxy. Still, I hope that the reader will find value in this discussion despite these potential weaknesses. If anything, may the reader at least grant that I am being honest and transparent in my own biases. With that, I now turn to Schmemann's text, knowing that I cannot do it full justice. Still, perhaps the reader will be drawn to the source.
The constant theme that resonates through For the Life of the World is that modern Christians have uncritically assumed a reductionist framework of "religion" that forces us toward one of two options: either the spiritual/sacred/supernatural or the material/profane/natural. Yet, Schmemann urges us to consider that this is ultimately both a false dichotomy and a false dilemma. To stress this, he introduces us to a concept that may seem cliche to us now, namely, that "Man is what he eats" (Schmemman 1977:14). Schmemann essentially considers this view to be biblically grounded:

"But the Bible, we have seen, also begins with man as a hungry being, with the man who is that which he eats. The perspective, however, is wholly different [than that of material and spiritual opposition], for nowhere in the Bible do we find the dichotomies which for us are the self-evident framework of all approaches to religion. In the Bible the food that man eats, the world of which he must partake in order to live, is given to him by God, and it is given as communion with God. The world as man's food is not something 'material' and limited to material functions, thus different from, and opposed to, the specifically 'spiritual' functions by which man is related to God. All that exists is God's gift to man, to make man's life communion with God. It is divine love made food, made life for man. God blesses everything He creates, and, in biblical language, this means that He makes all creation the sign and means of His presence and wisdom, love and revelation: 'O taste and see that the Lord is good.'" (14)

Additionally, man is not to find the satisfaction for his hunger in the world as an end to itself (as secularism might advocate), but instead humanity at its core is worshipful: "'Homo sapiens,' 'homo faber'...yes, but, first of all, 'homo adorans.' The first, the basic definition of man is that he is the priest" (15). Humanity has an inherent need to worship God in order to know "the meaning of the thirst and hunger that constitutes his life." God gives, in a sense, the world to humanity, and humanity, in their proper role, offers it to God as a eucharistic sacrament.
What purpose does the incarnation of Christ have to do with all of this? In order to understand this aspect, we must first realize that we live in a fallen world, marred by the devastating consequences of sin, for "the wages of sin is death" (17; see Romans 6:23a). Significantly, though, for Schmemann disobedience is not itself the principal characteristic of the fall and cause of our great loss. Instead, humankind rejects love because it is "not easy" (16). That is, "Man has loved the world as an end in itself and not as transparent to God," and thus we "experience the world as opaque," resulting in a non-eucharistic life that does not return God's love in thanksgiving. Since we treated the world itself as sufficiently telic, we lose the sense of depending on the world in order "to be transformed constantly into communion with God in whom is in all life" (17). Schmemann continues,

"Man was to be the priest of a eucharist, offering the world to God, and in this offering he was to receive the gift of life. But in the fallen world man does not have the priestly power to do this. His dependence on the world becomes a closed circuit, and his love is deviated from its true direction [...] When we see the world as an end in itself, everything becomes itself a value and consequently loses all value, because only in God is found the meaning (value) of everything, and the world is meaningful only when it is the 'sacrament' of God's presence [...] For 'the wages of sin is death.' The life man chose was only the appearance of life. God showed him that he himself had decided to eat bread in a way that would simply return him to the ground from which both he and the bread had been taken: 'For dust thou art and into dust shalt thou return.' Man lost the euharistic life, he lost the life of life itself, the power to transform it into Life. He ceased to be the priest of the world and became its slave."

As a result of humanity's choice to not see God as all in all, which is a significant and crowning purpose of Christ's work (see 1 Corinthians 15:28), humanity chose a distorted "appearance of life" that resulted in death. And this death inhibits us from, as Schmemann puts it, fulfilling the priestly role for which we as homo adorans were created.
This state of death and need, of helplessness and failure on our part, is exactly what makes necessary the incarnation of the God-man, Jesus Christ. With all that we have said in mind, we are now prepared to return once again to our text in Hebrews:

"Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives." (Hebrews 2:14-15)

Jesus overcomes our despairing state and fulfills, through complete and eternal perfection, the eucharistic and priestly offering that we cannot. While we chose not to return God's love, Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, indeed returned God's love (see John 3:35; 5:20; 14:31a; 17:26) in pure obedience, and so has seated "at the right hand of the Majesty on high" (Hebrews 1:3). In the context of our discussion, one element that Jesus achieves for us by partaking of "flesh and blood" in order to conquer death and the devil so as to set us free from our "slavery" is a transformation by which he redeems us to be a "holy priestood." So, St. Peter writes, "you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood" (1 Peter 2:5). And how do we enter into this priesthood? On what or whom is our priesthood established? Peter deliberately notes prior to this verse that it is in "coming to Him," that is, to Jesus, that we are "built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ" (2:4a, 5, emphasis added).
It is, therefore, exclusively in Christ that we encounter the fulness of life as we now see everything as a means of communion with God as not only our hearts but all of our beings overflow with eucharistic thanksgiving to God. Not surprisingly, then, St. Paul encourages the believers in Ephesus that they be "filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks (eucharisteo) for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God, even the Father" (Ephesians 5:19-20, emphasis added; see also Colossians 3:15-16).
Let me close by reintroducing one final thought. Those that are familiar with the passage referred to in 1 Peter will note that it, too, is introduced by the theme of humanity's hunger which Schmemann addresses. For, Peter writes, "long for the pure milk of the word, so that by it you may grow in respect to salvation, if you have tasted the kindness of the Lord" (1 Peter 2:2-3, emphasis added). The wording is quite reminiscent of Schmemann's invocation of the psalms wherein we are given the invitation to "taste and see that the LORD is good" (Psalm 34:8). And, I hope that I will not be doing injustice to the text (for I really do not believe that what I am about to say regarding the play on words was necessarily intentional from the writer's standpoint) by noting that Christ "partook" of our "flesh and blood" (what we as human's commonly share) so that He might "taste" death on our behalf and "through death" conquer it. So, it is in Him that we find satiation for our want of food. For, He offers us to "taste" of His body and blood and "see" that the LORD is indeed very good. So Jesus extends an offer to find life in Him (note the incarnational references in this text!):

"I am the bread of life; he who comes to me will not hunger, and he who believes in me will never thirst [...] I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread also which I will give for the life of the world is my flesh [...] Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. As the living Father has sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats Me, will also live because of Me." (John 6: 35, 51-57)

"O taste and see that the LORD is good!"
[1] The title for this brief series alludes to a (and perhaps the) foundational work by St. Athanasius in the 4th century entitled De Incarnatione Verbi Dei ('On the Incarnation of the Word of God'). This is included in Schaff's famous volumes on the Church Fathers, but an online version (from a different translator) can be accessed here.

Schmemann, Alexander. (1973). For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy, 2nd Ed. Crestwood, NY: St. Valadimir's Seminary Press. (Original work published 1963)

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