31 October 2007

Christ's descent into Hades

Ok, bear with me people. I have a lot I want to share, but not exactly sure how I'm going to put it. Forgive me if I am all over the place with it.

This is the first I have learned about the Orthodox (and Western, for that matter) beliefs on what it meant when Christ conquered hell--more precisely it is the first I have thought about it as an actual event rather than a concept.

This is taken from a lecture of Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev entitled Christ the Conqueror of Hell: The Descent of Christ into Hades in Eastern and Western Theological Traditions

In his ‘Festive Letters’, Cyril of Alexandria elaborates on the theme of the preaching of Christ in Hades...

Cyril emphasizes the universality of the salvation given by Christ to humanity, perceiving the descent of Christ into Hades as salvific for the entire human race. He is not inclined to limit salvation to a particular part of humanity, such as the Old Testament righteous. Salvation is likened to rain sent by God on both the just and the unjust[23]....The descent of Christ into Hades, according to Cyril’s teaching, signified victory over that which previously appeared unconquerable and ensured the salvation of all humanity:

Death unwilling to be defeated is defeated; corruption is transformed; unconquerable passion is destroyed. While hell, diseased with excessive insatiability and never satisfied with the dead, is taught, even if against its will, that which it could not learn previously. For it not only ceases to claim those who are still to fall [in the future], but also lets free those already captured, being subjected to splendid devastation by the power of our Saviour... Having preached to the spirits in hell, once disobedient, He came out as conqueror by resurrecting His temple like a beginning of our hope and by showing to [our] nature the manner of the raising from the dead, and giving us along with it other blessings as well[25].

In John Damascene we find lines which sum up the development of the theme of the descent of Christ into Hades in Eastern patristic writings of the 2nd¾8th centuries:

The soul [of Christ] when it is deified descended into Hades, in order that, just as the Sun of Righteousness rose for those upon the earth, so likewise He might bring light[28] to those who sit under the earth in darkness and the shadow of death: in order that just as he brought the message of peace to those upon the earth, and of release to the prisoners, and of sight to the blind[29], and became to those who believed the Author of everlasting salvation and to those who did not believe, a denunciation of their unbelief, so He might become the same to those in Hades: That every knee should bow to Him, of things in heaven, and things in earth and things under the earth[30]. And thus after He had freed those who has been bound for ages, straightway He rose again from the dead, showing us the way of resurrection[31].

According to John Damascene, Christ preached to all those who were in hell, but His preaching did not prove salutary for all, as not all were capable of responding to it. For some it could become only ‘a denunciation of their disbelief’, not the cause of salvation. In this judgement, Damascene actually repeats the teaching on salvation articulated not long before him by Maximus the Confessor. According to Maximus, human history will be accomplished when all without exception will unite with God and God will become ‘all in all’[32]. For some, however, this unity will mean eternal bliss, while for others it will become the source of suffering and torment, as each will be united with God ‘according to the quality of his disposition’ towards God[33]. In other words, all will be united with God, but each will have his own, subjective, feeling of this unity, according to the measure of the closeness to God he has achieved. Along a similar line, John Damascene understands also the teaching on the descent to Hades: Christ opens the way to paradise to all and calls all to salvation, but the response to Christ’s call may lie in either consent to follow Him or voluntary rejection of salvation. Ultimately it depends on a person, on his free choice. God does not save anybody by force, but calls everybody to salvation: ‘Behold, I stand at the door, and knock; if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him’[34]. God knocks at the door of the human heart rather than breaks into it.

A couple days after reading the above, I listened to Matthew Gallatin's The Sacraments. My mind was still mulling over the above text, and in the middle of the podcast I had an "Ah hah!" moment (but not as cheesy as Oprah's). In his concise, slow manner, Gallatin helped me grasp the basics of what I had just read.

He starts the podcast off with explaining that sacraments do not make us acceptable to God nor do they reconcile us to Him. Rather, it is in the sacraments that we run to God. From there he takes a moment to clarify: "We do not require reconciliation with God because He is angry with us and can have nothing to do with us until He is appeased for the sins we have committed against Him. God is not anger. God is love." Rather, reconciliation is required because we, through Adam and Eve, have plunged into death and separation from God.

God so longs to be united with us that He followed us into death by taking on our humanity. But death could not withstand His presence and it was destroyed. Now our humanity has been united with the divine. "So now we are no longer creatures who by nature die...Now we stand completely reconciled before God," says Gallatin. Furthermore, as I read in the Bishop's lecture and heard from Gallatin, God has reconciled the whole world to Himself--not just a select few or just those who have faith. We are all standing before God right now; we are either reaching out to embrace Him or we are turning our backs to Him, either in direct rejection of Him or simply because we are distracted by the world. I remember those tracts I was supposed to hand out to my middle school friends: they had a picture of a little kid standing on one cliff, the word GOD on the other cliff, and a cross spanning the abyss between them. Usually there were words or something to represent "Heaven" and "Hell" as well: "Which side do you think you're on right now?" "Where do you think you will be after death?" (I did this routine once. I was so shy and embarrassed about it, but I did it to be a good Christian. Although I knew she had no religious background whatsoever, the girl pointed to the side with God/Heaven/Happiness. "No, really, which side?" So much for that!) This is a false portrayal of where she stands before God. Although visual representations of stuff like this are usually avoided in Orthodoxy, I would put her, me and God on the same side. We both have the choice to either embrace God or turn around and walk off the cliff. We are reconciled and must now decide if we will run to Him and show love to Him, or if we will "spend endless ages trying to hide from Him" as Gallatin puts it. We have all already received Jesus' sacrificial gift, and only a few will see it for what it is, take advantage of His mercy and embrace God.

The hardest part about this is that it points out how self-destructive and prideful we are (what a combo). With death having been conquered and especially for those who have received the Holy Spirit through baptism, we can not longer blame our nature for our falling short, or as is more frequent for me anyway, outright ugliness. But how much lower can we get than to be given the gift of faith, the Holy Spirit and the sacraments and still sin!

I have heard people talk like: "Now that so-and-so has heard the Gospel and rejected it, they will be held accountable and can't claim ignorance at the the Great Judgment;" meanwhile the unbeliever's life could have more semblance of holiness than the believer's. My faith in God does not by itself make me more holy than my unbelieving sister. What separates me from her is my sacramental life: my movement with God and the direction of my gaze. When I cease to "dance" with God, as Gallatin would put it, I again look no different from the world. Thus it is the demon's job to distract me from God--to get me to turn around for only a moment. If I die in that moment, my back to God, what defense will I have? Jesus redeemed me and brought me before His Father, but like Lot's wife I looked back as if there was something I wasn't quite ready to leave behind.

God graciously grants us time in life to make our decision of where our treasure lies. He knows that we falter and have a terrible time with humility, so in His great mercy He gives us chance after chance to take two steps forward for every one step back. Here I realize more deeply the importance of continual prayer. Every time I pray (if I can call it that...I am so unworthy), I turn to God--that's one step forward. May God put a prayer of repentance on my lips at my death! Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy.

For a more complete, clearer picture of what I'm attempting to share, I highly, highly recommend taking the 15 mins or so to listen to Gallatin's podcast on Ancient Faith Radio (link at right). He has a way of speaking clearly and concisely and it helps me tremendously. Also the lecture by Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev was very interesting for me and didn't take too terribly long to read. He talks first about the Eastern views of Christ's decent to Hades and the following additions/changes to those views adopted by the Western Church.

30 October 2007

little 'tude

My dear sweet baby girl is developing quite the attitude. Her antics last night in particular took me by surprise. It's no mystery that she doesn't like falling asleep, especially at night. No matter how early or late or how much or little we did during the day, if she doesn't manage to fall asleep nursing she will then cry hard for about 5 minutes prior to conking out. When she starts nodding off, she realizes it and starts crying to wake up (so it seems). For a little while now, we've stopped bouncing/rocking her to sleep--she's too heavy and takes too long to fall asleep that way now. We just sit or lay next to her and give her a hug when she crawls to us, but we don't pick her up. For the most part it's been working well and has helped as we cut out her 10p feeding.

Last night all seemed well until she woke up at 9:30p. Too soon to nurse, so my husband went in to help her back to sleep with our new method. She screamed bloody murder for the next 3 hours. Half-way through he moved her into our bed since it was his bedtime. The only difference was that now she was able to cry right in his ear. We tried teething tabs with no luck. I began to wonder if her tummy hurt from the little bit of milk and wheat she had the day before. I eventually nursed her and rocked her, hoping to calm her down at least a little bit; you can imagine how worked up she was by then. Well she nursed quietly and took a few quiet sighs while I rocked her, and with renewed strength began crying again. It's the first time she's been pretty much inconsolable, so I was a little worried. Finally I got up with her to try a little Russian custom my mother-in-law recommended to help her sleep: say the Lord's Prayer over a little water, wash her face in it, then wipe it off with the inside of my shirt. As soon as I got off the bed with her and walked out, she started talking, smiling, and even laughing. Upset stomach...yeah right! So the little stinker got her way because Mama is a softy. Papa knew all along, but good luck reasoning with a mom whose baby has been crying (screaming!) for 3 hours :) As soon as we reentered the room she began her scream fest again. We tried having her lay with us for a while to see if she was worn out enough to fall asleep. After a while Papa took her to her mattress (next to our bed) and let her cry there while he sat nearby. That did the trick and sooner than I expected she fell over and slept. She did wake up again soon after, but she fell back asleep more easily.

To be fair, we did get her off schedule this weekend on our mini-vacation in the mountains. It will be interesting (that's one way to put it) to see what she does the rest of the week.

Besides the bedtime issue, she is also beginning to laugh and crawl really fast toward the place she is NOT supposed to be. Often she does listen, but just as often she tests the water. What a funny girl. Parenting a growing child sure is an adventure!

22 October 2007

cash cow

Just came across this in my journal concerning the many awful, manipulative, truth-bending, money-hungry tele-evangelists: They are simply men of corrupt mind "who have been robbed of the truth and who think that godliness is a means to financial gain" (1 Timothy 6:5).

It drives me nuts to hear the idea that health and wealth are signs that someone is particularly holy and God-pleasing. "Sow a seed of money so God can reward you ten-fold!" Disgusting.

In the story of the rich man who approached Jesus and asked "Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?" it's easy to see how worldly possessions can more hinder our salvation than help.

"Why do you ask me about what is good?" Jesus replied. "There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, obey the commandments."

"Which ones?" the man inquired.

Jesus replied, "'Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor you father and mother,' and 'love your neighbor as yourself.'"

"All these I have kept," the young man said. "What do I still lack?"

Jesus answered, "If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give them to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me."

When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth. Then Jesus said to his disciples, "I tell you the truth, if is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God" (Matthew 19:16-24).

Every good thing comes from God (define "good"), and I should give thanks in everything. I am thankful for my very comfortable life, but I need to learn to hold in my heart the understanding that it would be better for Him to take everything away than for me to perish with my earthly treasure.

The last thing I need to get into my head is the idea to "sow" my money so that I can get a whole bunch more!

16 October 2007

Fr John Krestiankin

M.O., found this little treasure and wanted to just post it here for you to see.

12 October 2007

more thoughts on Halloween

After sharing our newly determined thoughts/beliefs concerning Halloween, we (husband and I) have received some predictable responses. I must say, though, that the gravity with which people tell us the consequences of not celebrating it surprises me a little; maybe it's one of those situations where people feel like our choice is silently accusing them...but, honestly, we're not interested in judging anyone and are only interested in the choices that affect our family. Mostly people are concerned that our daughter will be emotionally scarred if she is singled out by being the only one not allowed to participate in Halloween festivities at school and such. Kids so desperately need to fit in, and their peers can be cruel--that sure is true. Our reaction to this is that although she may suffer somewhat at the time, in the end she has two parents who love her and, Lord-willing, her needs will be met with abundance. We can't let her do things just because the rest of the school is doing it. Plus there is the option to miss school that day, and God has blessed us with a true Orthodox holiday on October 31, the feast day of St John of Kronstadt.

I never really celebrated Halloween (minus the giving candy at the door routine). At an early age I remember being taught the origin of Halloween and that it is not actually a holy day. When we were young we were not allowed to trick or treat (either for safety reasons or ethical reasons, I don't know--maybe both), and we often went to "Harvest Festivals". But I do remember the one year where my younger brother wanted to go trick or treating and my parents let him. I couldn't believe it and was staunchly opposed to the whole idea. I never changed my thinking. I remember one particular year in middle school where the whole school was supposed to dress up. The night before I was very upset and completely petrified because I knew I would be the ONLY person not in a costume and everyone would ask why. This is hard on any kid, and I was always particularly shy. I remember my parents telling me that it would be okay to wear a costume or even just stay home from school. Tearfully, I made my decision: there was no way I'd dress up and I didn't want to be a wimp and just stay home, so off to school I went to meet my fate (yes, it felt very dramatic at the time). It wasn't as horrible as I expected, but it was hard and embarrassing and I got way too much attention. If anyone didn't already know, they knew then that I was a Christian and didn't celebrate Halloween like them because I thought it was evil. Just what every 7th grader wants everyone to know. But I became a stronger person from it. I had the sense that my ethics and beliefs were more important than fitting in (I give my mom the credit there).

Do I want my baby to have to go through the same thing just because I did? Yes and no. No parent wants to see her child feel bad in any way, for any reason. Yet, to struggle/suffer for one's beliefs is the holiest of callings. As Bishop Kyrill mentions, there have been countless saints martyred for simple expressions of faith, such as refusing to remove the cross from around their neck, not to mention those killed for not celebrating pagan holidays! I do not see this as an extreme parallel. If there is anything I want her to learn, it is to despise all worldly things and love only God. I am completely unworthy and unable to teach her this, but I hope in the work of the Holy Spirit. Lord, have mercy on us sinners.

I guess that's it. No Halloween for this family! :)