Monday, February 22, 2010

Transfiguration in the Hospital for Sinners, Part 1

Most of the time, it seems, we look at our Christian lives as a list of duties which we are bound to perform. Even many of those Christians who claim that works have nothing to do with Salvation can find themselves in this mindset. Certainly there is something profoundly right about recognizing that there is an element of duty to Christianity. We have a duty to Christ Jesus to represent Him in our world. But duty is not all there is.

There is also something profoundly right about the question which some Christians insist on asking anyone they meet, "do you have a personal relationship with Jesus?" Being a Christian is about a relationship! Thanks to Christ's own work, we are in a relationship with Him! We are His workmanship, His body, His Bride, His brothers and sisters. This aspect has little to do with our own action; rather it is His choice, or election, if you prefer. He chooses to be in relationship with us. We can choose to accept Him or reject Him. That is where our actions enter in.

When we choose to accept Him, we choose to place our trust in Him in all things, at least on the surface of it. I suspect that most of us do not really think of the actual meaning of this statement of faith. Do we really trust Christ Jesus for everything? This is a wonderful statement to take some time on which to reflect.

In the Gospels as well as the other writings of the New Testament, there are a large number of things stated to which Salvation in Christ is linked. A serviceable summary of this would be to avoid sin and do what is right according to God's own definition of that. God is the standard. It should, nonetheless, be obvious that we do not succeed in living up to that standard, even with the living example of Christ. If following a perfect example were within our power, then the Torah would have been sufficient for us to achieve salvation. The Bible mentions specifically that "all have sinned and fallen short of God's glory" and "none is righteous, no, not one." Simple obedience is not in our power. This is where empowerment comes in.

When we are initiated into Christ, the Holy Spirit comes and takes up his dwelling within us. He never travels alone, for God is Trinity. When He enters us, so do the Father and the Son. This Divine Indwelling is what gives us the power to keep Jesus' words. We are to do this out of love for Jesus Christ, and we can love Him only by Him loving within us. It is only then that we also receive the power to trust Him in everything.

St. Paul, also mentions something else which is involved. "I chastise my body to bring it into submission lest after having preached to others, I myself should be lost (1 Corinthians 9: 27)." Duty and empowerment are important, but they can only stand if we also remember this leg of Chistian Spirituality. All must be done for love of Christ and our fellow human beings. Who would embrace duty and self discipline, what the Church calls asceticism (from the Greek word askesis) without love? Daily prayer is an important part of this and of loving God. How does love grow, after all, in the absence of communication?

What does love mean? It certainly doesn't mean that we get warm fuzzy feelings about people or about God, for that matter. I don't look at anyone who has hurt me, my enemies, betrayers, etc. with warm fuzzy feelings. I do, however want what is best for them. That is what love means. It means, no matter how someone has hurt me personally, I want to see them go to heaven to be with God for all eternity. It is contrary to Christian love to say to someone either face to face, or within our hearts, "I want you to go to Hell!" Mercy is for those who show Mercy. Have Mercy on your enemies. Christ tells us to love our enemies. It is ok to remember that our feelings may not catch up right away. Looking at my enemies may very well give me a burning in the pit of my stomach. That doesn't mean I don't love them. It means that there is something which has hurt me, and I have to square with that. But I can commit to wanting the best for my enemies. Where the rubber can meet the road is when God asks us to be the one doing what is best for our enemies.

What about loving God? It is true that God sometimes permits things to happen which cause us to suffer. He permits some of us to suffer horribly. We are right to admit that this hurts us. We are right to admit that we even become angry with God. Why lie to Him? He already knows. What does it mean to love God in these circumstances? Can we trust that the suffering may be for a reason? What of a doctor who must break someones bone after it had begun to heal so that it will heal properly, or of a doctor who must cut a gangrenous leg off of a person in order to save that person's life? Do these things not hurt? Are they still not for the benefit of the one being hurt? Does trusting that God is actually allowing us to be hurt for our own good mean that we pretend that it doesn't hurt? Do we smile through gritted teeth, and deny that anything is wrong? Certainly not! That is dishonest. God loves us, but He knows that sometimes it actually takes suffering to bring healing. He knows that it would not be loving to prevent us from suffering at times.

None of this can happen in a vacuum. It requires support. God has taken the initiative in sending Christ to heal us by taking on our own nature, whole and entire. Firstly, we can never go anywhere in our suffering where Christ hasn't been. He came to join His life to ours. He poured out His entire life, human and divine, so that we could receive a transfusion of His life. Where do we receive any transfusion? We receive it in a hospital. So where do we, who are sinners, receive a the transfusion of Jesus Christ's own life? We receive it in the Hospital for Sinners. Jesus is the founder of this Hospital. He founded it most clearly on the feast of Pentecost, when He poured out the Holy Spirit upon his followers, empowering them to be His presence in the world, but He had founded it earlier, when He called His first apostle. It became a community at that moment. He named this Hospital later, in Matthew 16, calling it ekklesia or Church. The Church was entrusted with His message, His worldwide mission of healing and salvation, and with the treatment for sin, which is His very life.

We have no power on our own to obey Jesus's word, or to love our neighbor, or to avoid sin, or even do what is right without this New Life that He came to bring us. The Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ is central to this for as St. Athanasius of Alexandria stated "God became man so that man might become God." We have no power for this on our own. The Devil tried it once, and it changed him into a perverse creature who can only destroy. This is only accomplished by partaking in the very life and nature of Christ. To be a sinner means that we have been wounded in our very nature. We lie bleeding on the ground, losing our own life. Jesus poured out His whole life to heal us from this loss of mortal life, and bring us life eternal. In baptism we enter in to His death, and are raised to His New Life with Him.

The problem is that we also have to really have our old selves be put to death, and in spite of having entered in to the hospital for sinners, and receiving the transfusion, many Christians still do not go to therapy, and therefore, end up worse than if they'd never entered the hospital in the first place. All of the old self must be extracted, because it remains there to fester, and bring death and stench. Therapy does this extraction.

Having been baptized, and chrismated, we believe that the Holy Spirit has truly entered our bodies and made them His temple. Having received the Holy Eucharist, we believe that we receive Jesus Christ's own life, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. This is the transfusion. The therapy involves regular confession and spiritual direction. We confess our sins to Christ with the credentialed practicioner (the Priest) there as witness. This priest is then to give us advice born from his own prayer life, and the teaching of Christ and His Church. He can give us some practice to do which is supposed to be tailored to our situation and our life which will open us more for the extraction of the death which lives in us so that it may be removed.

This is where a priest who is also your own personal spiritual father is of supreme advantage. A person can go to confession, and genuinely repent, but never do anything differently, and continue in the same sin from which they've actually repented, and wonder why he or she can't break free. A spiritual father can see the pattern of our lives and our sins, and hold us accountable to do things differently. I have presumed that a spiritual father would be a priest so that one could go to confession sacramentally to this person, but if one chooses a lay person or monastic to be his or her spiritual parent, one may also have a spiritual mother. The main criteria for a spiritual father or mother is that the person chosen should be experienced in the Spiritual life and discipline, while being humble themselves, they should have a reputation for being holy and without reproach. One must be cautious and prayerful when selecting a spiritual father or mother, but one should still choose. When one does choose, he or she should also recognize that once one has chosen, he or she is binding themselves to obey that spiritual father or mother.

The spiritual father or mother can guide us with respect to our own spiritual journey, in avoiding sin and doing good, but also in how we should pray. The aim is deification or theosis. The spiritual father or mother knows that they have the responsibility to guide one to deification, to a point of transformation.

Perhaps, since this is just at the very beginning of the Great Fast, if you do not already have a spiritual father or mother, now would be a good time to seek one. God wants us to be transfigured and to transfigure the world around us. The choice of a holy spiritual father or mother can make a great deal of difference in this process.

Christ is among us!

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