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"Today the concept of truth is viewed with suspicion, because truth is identified with violence. Over history there have, unfortunately, been episodes when people sought to defend the truth with violence. But they are two contrasting realities. Truth cannot be imposed with means other than itself! Truth can only come with its own light. Yet, we need truth. ... Without truth we are blind in the world, we have no path to follow. The great gift of Christ was that He enabled us to see the face of God".Pope Benedict xvi, February 24th, 2012

The Church is ecumenical, catholic, God-human, ageless, and it is therefore a blasphemy—an unpardonable blasphemy against Christ and against the Holy Ghost—to turn the Church into a national institution, to narrow her down to petty, transient, time-bound aspirations and ways of doing things. Her purpose is beyond nationality, ecumenical, all-embracing: to unite all men in Christ, all without exception to nation or race or social strata. - St Justin Popovitch

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Sunday, 10 June 2012

ASCENT AND TRANSFORMATION



There is a Christian document of the first or second century called The Ascension of Isaiah which is worth quoting:
And while he [Isaiah] was speaking to the Holy Spirit in the hearing of them all, he became silent and his mind was taken up from him, and he did not see the men who were standing before him. His eyes were open but his mouth was shut....but his breath was still in him because he was seeing a vision.   And the angel who was sent to show him [the vision] was not of this firmament, nor was he an angel of the glory of this world., but he came from the seventh heaven.   And the people who were standing by, apart from the prophets, did [not] think the Holy Isaiah had been taken up.   And the vision he saw was not of this world but was from the world that is hidden from the flesh.
This shows a constant theme in Jewish literature before, during and after the time of Christ, the ascension into heaven of a chosen human being who is made capable of a knowledge not normally given to humans, and is transformed into an angel or 'son of God' by being in God's presence.   God's transforming presence is frequently likened to fire.   Anyone who approaches God must pass through a wall of fire and be transformed by it.   Here is a transformation in the Third Book of Enoch in which Enoch is turned into an angel:
When the Holy One, blessed be he, took me to serve the throne of glory...at once my flesh turned into flame, my sinews to blazing fire, my bones to juniper coals, my eyelashes into lightening flashes, my eyeballs to fiery torches, the hairs of my head to hot flames, all my limbs to wings of burning fire and the substance of my body to blazing fire. (3 Enoch, 15, 1)

Margaret Barker argues that the baptism of Jesus was an ascension experience in the Jewish mystical tradition, that Jesus received the name of Yahweh and became or was declared to be son of God, that his time of temptation in the desert continued this experience, and that he was served by angels and beasts, the four beasts of the Apocalypse.   His state as Son of God, of having been transformed by fire so that he was living by the divine life, was revealed at the Transfiguration. 


  Of course, she reaches these conclusions by interpreting historical documents, while we see Christ's baptism through the filtre of the baptismal liturgy by which we enter the Christian Mystery.   From this perspective, the events of Christ's life, death and resurrection, together with our participation in them through liturgical celebration, form an organic whole in such a way that our concentration on any one of these components of the Christian Mystery immediately brings us into a relationship with all the others.   

For example, only deskbound theologians see an opposition between the liturgy's emphasis on the resurrection of Christ as the culmination of the Christian Mystery and  the emphasis, especially in Hispanic and Italian popular devotion, on the passion of Christ with his sufferings on the Cross.   The simple reality is that the resurrection would not make sense without the passion, and the passion would be a remote, two thousand years old event if it were not for the resurrection.   Thus we are not surprised when we discover, with Margaret Barker, that there are early liturgical texts that place the defeat of the devil and the trampling on the head of Leviathan by Christ at his baptism rather than at his death and resurrection.   When we are in touch with Christ's baptism we are in touch with our own baptism and with the whole  Christian Mystery.   Christ's baptism and the death and resurrection of Christ are not unconnected events, and the Church's theology of baptism has influenced the liturgical accounts of Christ's baptism.   Thus the Church clearly sees the pattern of his death and resurrection already as an organic dimension of his baptism.   As Rowan Williams points out, 
In Jesus, the world of ordinary prosaic time is not destroyed, but it is broken up and reconnected, it works no longer in straight lines but in layers and spirals of meaning.
Nevertheless, it seems to me that Margaret Barker has established a real connection between Jewish apocalyptic tradition and the Gospel, most explicit in the Letter to the Hebrews and the Apocalypse, but underlying the whole gospel account.

The impression is reinforced when we read of the ascension tradition in Eucharistic theology.   Our first quotation is taken from The Ascension of Isaiah.   Although speaking of Old Testament times, it is really speaking about the Church.   The Christians are the prophets, as are "the faithful who believe in the ascension into heaven".  What ascension is The Ascension talking about?   Perhaps Fr Alexander Schmemann can give us a clue in a passage on the Eucharist in his book The World as Sacrament that belongs to the same tradition:
The early Christians realised that in order to become the temple of the Holy Spirit they must ascend to heaven where Christ had ascended.   They realised also that this ascension was the very condition of their mission in the world, of their ministry to the world.   For there - in heaven - they were immersed in the new life of the kingdom; and, when after this 'liturgy of ascension', they returned to the world, their faces reflected the light of that Kingdom and they were truly its witnesses.

If the Eucharist is our ascension into heaven into the presence of the Father through the veil which is Christ's flesh, as the Letter to the Hebrews puts it, then we must expect some reference in Tradition to the transforming effect of fire.   Sure enough, it is there.   :
We are fed with bread from heaven, our thirst is quenched with the cup of joy, the chalice afire with the Spirit, the blood wholly warmed by the fire from on high by the Spirit.  
 The same idea recurs with St Ephraem of Edessa:
Fire and Spirit are in our baptism.   In the bread and the cup are also fire and Spirit.

If there is transforming fire in the Eucharist for those who receive it, this must show itself in their ordinary lives. Here are three testimonies from the Fathers in the Desert:
Abba Lot came to visit Abba Joseph and said, "When I am able, I recite a short office, I fast a little, I pray, I meditate, I stay recollected.   As far as I can, I try to keep my thought pure.   What else should I do?   Then Abba Joseph got up.   He stretched out his hands to heaven and his fingers became like burning lamps.   He said to Abba Lot, "If you will, become all fire."  

There was somebody they called Abba Pambo and they said of him that for three years he had begged God saying, 'Do not give me glory in this world.'   And God glorified him to the point that no one could look at him in the face because of the glory in it.  


A brother came to the cell of Abba Arsenius in Scetis.   He looked through the window.   He saw the old man as though he were all on fire.   (This brother was worthy to see such a thing.)

 
 In case you think this kind of thing happened only in the early Church, here is an account of a visit to St Seraphim of Sarov by N. A. Motovilov in the early nineteenth century.   He wanted to know from St Seraphim what is meant by "acquisition of the Holy Spirit" which St Seraphim taught is the central task of the Christian life.   He simply did not understand what St Seraphim was talking about.   This is his account of what happened next.
"What I want," I said, "is to understand completely."   Then Fr Seraphim took me firmly by the shoulders and said to me, "Right now, good Father, we are both in the Holy Spirit.   Why, then, do you not look at me?   I said, "I cannot look at you now, Father, because lightening flashes from your eyes.   Your face has become brighter than the sun, and my eyes ache."At these words I looked into his face, and an even greater awe filled me.   Picture to yourself the centre of the sun in the most dazzling brightness of its noonday rays, and in this centre is the face of the man who is conversing with you.   You see his lips move, you watch the changing expression of his eyes, you hear his voice, you are conscious that someone is holding you by the shoulders.   Yet you not only do not see the hands that hold you, but you do not see yourself nor the man's figure, only the dazzling sphere of light spreading in a radius of many feet, flooding the snow on the field, and the falling sleet, and myself, and the great staretz.

 From a very different tradition comes the account of St Francis of Assisi receiving the stigmata.   Before we proceed, it will be rewarding to some if I say something about the stigmata, the five wounds of Christ crucified appearing on the body of some people.   Orthodox writers sometimes write that the stigmata is typical of western spirituality.   It isn't.   As far as I know, St Francis is the first saint to receive the stigmata; and for the first priest to receive the stigmata, we have to wait until the 20th century and the life of Padre Pio.   No other canonised saint, apart from these two, exists in the West who had the stigmata.   It is true that there is a small number of cases of others who have not been canonised, and the Church authorities view the phenomena with great suspicion because they fear fanaticism, mental illness or worse.   


Far from being automatically accepted as a sign of God's favour, Padre Pio suffered much from the local archbishop in his lifetime because of the stigmata, access to him was restricted by the Vatican and he was ordered to keep out of sight and was forbidden to show people the wounds for many years.  It can be justly said that he was canonised in spite of his stigmata.   It had to be proved in the canonisation process that the stigmata was not the product of a deranged mind or rampant pride.  Certainly, St Padre Pio was canonised after a very detailed examination of his life, every effort having been made by the "devil's advocate" to cast doubt on his sanctity,   and St Francis's life has withstood the scrutiny of history, but this matters little to the Orthodox critics who believe, for some reason, that stigmata are commonplace in the West.   With that in mind we can return to our subject.


There are some characteristics which are common to to both St Francis and St Seraphim, all the more striking for the differences.   The emphasis on flame and light, on being transformed, even consumed by fire, and the presence of the seraphim, show that St Bonaventure's account of the stigmata belongs, along with N. A. Motovilov's account of St Seraphim's transfiguration, to the tradition that can be traced back to the Jewish and Christian mysticism from the time of Christ.   Now follows the account by St Bonaventure.   

Because of the many austerities of his previous life and because he had borne Christ's cross continually, he was very much weakened in his body, but in no way in his resolve which made him even more eager to suffer martyrdom.   In effect, the fire of his uncontainable love for Jesus became such a raging furnace that no amount of water, however torrential, could have extinguished the passion of his charity.


While he was lifting up to God the seraphic ardour of his desires and was transformed by his tender compassion who wished to be crucified because of his extreme love, on the day before the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, while he was praying on the side of the mountain, he saw coming down from the highest heaven a seraphim with six flaming wings that shone brightly.   In flight, at enormous speed, he came to the spot where the man of God was, and there he remained, suspended in the air.  

 
Between the wings there appeared an effigy of a crucified man whose hands and feet were extended as though nailed to a cross.   Two wings were lifted over the head, two were used for flying, and two covered his whole body.   Before the apparition the saint was overcome with amazement, and he felt in his heart a joy mixed with sorrow.   In effect he rejoiced at the gracious way that Christ, who was in the form of a seraphim, looked at him, while, at the same time, the sight of him nailed to a cross pierced his soul like a painful sword.



He was filled with wonder at such a mysterious vision, knowing that the pain of the passion in no way could bear comparison with the immortal joy of the seraphim.   
At last, the Lord gave him to understand that the vision had been given by divine Providence so that the friend of God would know beforehand that he must be transformed totally into the image of Christ crucified, not by a martyrdom in the flesh, but by his spirit being totally consumed by fire.   It happened in this way, that when the vision disappeared, he was left with a marvellous warmth in his heart, in no less marvellous  than the signs that were imprinted on his body.
 The total transformation by which mere creatures are brought into the divine life of the Trinity as sons of God is brought about by the sacraments and, in particular, the Mass, and by living the Christian life - nothing less than living the Mass - in our day-to-day lives.   We are introduced into this process by baptism and it continues in so far as we become one with Christ in the Eucharist and live our lives in union with him from moment to moment, so that it is not us who live but Christ who lives in us.  


The more space we give him in our lives, the stronger will be his presence' and we give him space by humility.  As St Benedict says, there is a ladder between us and God, between heaven and earth, and we climb the rungs which are ascending degrees of humility: the humbler we are, the nearer God in heaven we are.   Humility does not make us holy: it allows God to make us holy.  This is universally true, for Catholics, for Orthodox, whether we receive him in holy communion, or we receive him in our neighbour or we receive him in our heart: and these three ways of receiving him are really three dimensions of the same thing which becomes a reality only in so far as we are humble. 


 All this is the work of the Holy Spirit who came down as tongues of fire at Pentecost.  We experience our baptism when we enter into our conversion and continue our communion as we meet Christ in contemplation and in our neighbour.   Just as St Seraphim saw the Spirit come down on the bread and wine, transforming it into the body and blood of Christ, and then became fire himself, just as St Francis so wanted to be united in love to Christ in his sacrifice that he was transformed interiorly by the Spirit and bore the marks of Christ's sacrifice on his body, so with us.  


 Even though the fire of our love is but a flickering flame in danger of going out, so small that it would not be noticed even if God made it visible, nevertheless, it was lit by the consecration at Mass when bread and wine become Christ's body and blood and given to us in communion..   Even though by the Eucharistic action, Christ's death on the cross becomes our sacrifice, this humble Christified sacrificial love is scarcely visible in our daily lives; but, when it is, even momentarily, the love of God goes out and touches somebody, and we do, just for that moment, what we were baptised to do, we make Christ visible in the situation we are in.   Moreover, at Mass, we have listened to God's voice in the scripture and proclaimed our faith,   We then approach the Father's throne, participating in the death, resurrection and ascension of Christ, we pass through the veil which is Christ's own body into the heavenly sanctuary.   We make this journey by our external participation in the Eucharist  and interiorly by humble love.   As in the Ascension of Isaiah, the world does not note our ascent; but, God willing and to the degree that we are united to our eucharistic Christ, it will see the light of the Kingdom reflected on our faces, and we will be truly Christ's witnesses.


Europe was not converted by missionaries who centred their lives on the people they were going to convert.  It was converted by monks and hermits who centred their lives on God.   When St Boniface went to convert Germany, he did not set up his centre  where the people were.   He established his centre in an uninhabited marshland called Fulda, all the better to seek God in contemplation: and he converted Germany.   St Seraphim said that, when someone finds peace, the peace that comes from interior transformation, a thousand people around about will be saved.  If in his apostolic zeal St Francis had adapted his life to that of the young men of Assisi, there would have been no St Francis and he certainly would never have had the impact he had, let alone receive the stigmata.   Because he first sought God and allowed his style of life to be dictated by that search, not caring what the world thought of him, he was set alight by the love of God and became a true witness, "Proclaim the Gospel at all times, if necessary with words."   If the New Evangelization is merely a programme, it will be a complete waste of time.  The great mistake is to think that the burden of re-converting Europe is on our shoulders, when, in fact, it is a task of the Good Shepherd himself; but we have to allow him to live in us so that he can undertake the task by working through us.   The New Evangelization is, first and foremost, a call to sanctity, to prayer, to transformation so that we can be true witnesses.   The West will not be converted by second hand religion.


A bishop, I think the late Archbishop Anthony Bloom, talking about St Seraphim


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