Inauguration Meeting of Silver Jubilee Celebrations of St. Thomas Orthodox Seminary, Nagpur
(Devotional Address by Fr KM George, Silver Jubilee of STOTS Nagpur. Joint meeting of the two Seminaries, 20 June 2019)
“For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we proclaimed among you, Silvanus and Timothy and I, was not “Yes and No”; but in him it is always Yes. For in him every one of God’s promises is a Yes. For this reason it is through him that we say the Amen to the glory of God.” (2 Corinthians 1:19-20)
In Jesus Christ every promise of God is a Yes. Christ himself is the Yes. The apostle Paul’s affirmation of the yes in Jesus Christ has a profound significance for the worship, theology and spirituality of the Church. The context is his offering of an apology for delaying his visit to the young church of Corinth. He was accused of vacillating when he was not able to go there as had been planned.
The word yes can be ambiguous. One can say yes to good things that promote the welfare and happiness of all. One can also say yes to evil things that finally destroy oneself and all others. So we need to be careful. The question ‘yes to what?’ is important. Here St Paul clearly speaks of the yes to the promises of God in Jesus Christ.
What, then, are the promises of God? Some Bible readers literally count about 3000 promises of God in the Bible. Maybe. But we may miss the point if we go after a literal counting of words, phrases and allusions. The very word promise originating in Latin means ‘to place in front’, or ‘to put forth’. Something or somebody or a word is placed before us as a guarantee that something will be done. In Malayalam it is vagdanam , giving one’s word, and no self-respecting person would normally break his or her word of promise.
In the very brief time allotted to me let me make some very broad strokes arising from the life and wisdom of the Church:
First, the whole creation is God’s promise, and in Christ the eternal Word of God it is Yes to creation, and our response to it is Amen. Orthodox worship at its heart is the singing of Yes or Amen to God’s creation, with the creation and on behalf of the creation. We see the creative indwelling of the Holy Spirit from the very beginning of creation as narrated in the book of Genesis (1:2). “All things came into being through the eternal Logos, and without him not one thing came into being” as stated by St John in the fourth gospel. (John 1:3). Our worship, therefore, is the great doxology, praising the triune God in the company of the whole created reality. Our theology and spirituality arise from this doxological Yes or Amen to God’s creation. If we understand that creation is God’s gracious promise in Christ and that it is being completed or perfected by the Holy Spirit we will get the right direction for our theological reflection and spiritual exercises.
Above all, we need to develop a sense of wonder. The ancient Greeks (Socrates?) said: ‘Philosophy begins with wonder (thaumasia)’. We can say that theology too begins with wonder. As children we had the sense of wonder, but we shed it off as we grew. Now as Jesus asked us, turn and become like children. Then only we perceive the mysteries of the Kingdom of God manifested in God’s creation. If we take our sacramental understanding of God’s creation seriously enough we will never stop wondering. As the 19th century English poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote,
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
and every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.
Nature is theophanic or hierophanic, Every speck of created reality is holy and can manifest the glory of God, and can utter yes to the promises of God. We should return to that ancient sacramental perception of the goodness and holiness of all that God created.
We have absolutely no idea of the immensity of the cosmos. What we perceive now using Hubble telescope or various space station telescopes is only infinitesimally small. They say the universe is inflationary, galaxies are moving apart, but is still held together by forces like electromagnetism, gravity, weak and strong nuclear force and so on. In one of our ancient Sedro prayers it is said that God expands the universe in the four directions and yet holds the whole together by love. I find it an amazing insight and keep wondering about it. Get out of bed in the middle of night and watch the starry sky and meditate on the mysteries of creation. The scientists tell us that our visible universe is only 4 or 5% of what is there as matter and material universe. Of the rest 25% is dark matter, and 70% is dark energy. But we have no idea what this dark energy is.
In every religion there is some sort of an intellectual-conceptual grappling with the reality that we perceive and experience every day. In Hinduism it could be the sophisticated maya concept as taught by the Advaita Vedanta or other schools of Indian philosophy. In Buddhism it could be Pratityasamudpada or conditioned co-origination of all. In Judaism, Christianity and Islam it is the idea of divine creation couched in ancient west Asian myths. Whatever be the theological-philosophical notion of reality in these religious world views, everybody agrees that there is something rather than nothing. We may not know what this something is but there is something. Modern physics would tell us that there is matter and antimatter. For every particle of matter there is an antimatter particle. If they collide with each other both are eliminated. Strangely, there is more matter particles than antimatter particles in our visible universe. So we have an observable material reality around us. Otherwise we are not there to observe, and there would be nothing to observe. This asymmetry of matter and antimatter still remains a mystery for the physicists. Well, so there is something rather than nothing. Why yes and not no ? We do not know. But let’s say Amen to the yes of God in creation.
Secondly, the world we live in is both a promise and a task, because it is both a gift or promise of God and it is the task of human beings to collaborate with the Spirit of God to bring that promise or the gift to its full realization. Human freedom plays a critical role in this process. It is most evident today in the ecological crisis. We human beings can make or break the future of our world. God’s promise of justice, freedom, love, joy, peace, forgiveness, reconciliation are to be worked out here and now.
As we create our world day by day there are so many things to which we should say yes or no. In economics and politics, in social and interpersonal relationships, in education and occupation, in family life, religious and cultural affiliations we are daily confronted with ethical choices and decisions. It seems to me that one word is crucial here. It is the word life. All that promotes life is good because it is life that God has promised to us in Christ Jesus. It is both biological life and spiritual life. One cannot be promoted at the expense of the other. Jesus provided food for the hungry, but he also spoke to them of food that never perishes, and brought them to taste eternal life.
The preface to the public reading of the gospel in our liturgy states: ” The life-giving Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ from the gospel according to (N) who proclaims life and salvation to the world“. These are very significant words. The life-giving gospel cannot be reduced to just the written text. It is the very person of Jesus Christ, his life, teachings, suffering, resurrection.. – all mysteries of Incarnation from Annunciation to Pentecost. This is Evangelion, the Good News for the life and salvation of the world. (The word gospel that occurs a second time in the preface refers to the written text by Matthew, Mark, Luke or John which is being read aloud.)
The gospel of Jesus Christ is our sole criterion to judge every situation and make the right choice. It fosters and renews life – life in all its fullness. To care for life one needs love, tenderness of heart, forgiveness, reconciliation, peacefulness, self- giving and readiness to suffer voluntarily. God in Christ has promised love and compassion, justice and mercy, freedom and equality to all the children of God. Therefore, in our engagement with the world and in all our ethical choices, we can and we should depend on the Gospel of Christ. What else can we rely on for our life in the world? If we, as Christians, do not pay heed to the Gospel what are we? It is on the basis of the Gospel experience that St Paul exhorts us not to be conformed to the scheme or pattern of this world. Instead, says he, we can transform ourselves and the world by renewing our minds, so that we may discern the will of God about what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Rom. 12:2) .
Thirdly, we human beings are the crucial promise God made when we are created in God’s own image and likeness. In our failure and fall we are aided and upheld by grace through Jesus Christ the eternal Son of God, the crucified and risen Lord, in the power of the Holy Spirit. The Incarnation of the Son of God in Jesus of Nazareth is the new process God graciously initiated to recreate everything, to make all things new. The life-giving gospel of Jesus Christ is the inexhaustible source of our Christian living in the world.
Whenever we say that the Word of God was incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth and became a human being we seem to assume that we know what a human being is. But do we know really what humanity is? I’m afraid we don’t. The more we delve into human nature the more confounded we become. There is an infinite vista within us. Like in the case of the physical universe at the macro level there is an infinite dimension at the micro psychological-spiritual dimension within us the human beings. This we can call created infinity while God’s infinity is uncreated.
Now, the traditional parameters that constitute our concept of the human seem to be inadequate to deal with what is happening to us as members of the species Homo Sapiens individually and socially at genetic, psychological, intellectual and spiritual levels. Human enhancement technologies, artificial intelligence, genetic sequencing, gene editing, mind-machine interface, and a host of deep social-political-psychological issues like gender identity, same sex marriage, and surrogacy together with information explosion, quantum computing and convergent technologies.. they are already altering substantially our self understanding and our concept of the human. How would the traditional theology of Incarnation cope with these unprecedented high-speed changes. Here is a major challenge for Christian theology and for all traditional paradigms about human nature. Are all these changes God’s yes in Christ? Can we say Amen to them all? We need to develop a theological anthropology taking into account the major shifts in human self-understanding in the 21st century.