Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Liberty and Obedience

Our faith is not founded upon empty words; nor are we carried away by mere caprice or beguiled by specious arguments. On the contrary, we put our faith in words spoken by the power of God, spoken by the Word himself at God’s command. God wished to win men back from disobedience, not by using force to reduce him to slavery but by addressing to his free will a call to liberty.

The Word spoke first of all through the prophets, but because the message was couched in such obscure language that it could be only dimly apprehended, in the last days the Father sent the Word in person, commanding him to show himself openly so that the world could see him and be saved.

We know that by taking a body from the Virgin he re-fashioned our fallen nature. We know that his manhood was of the same clay as our own; if this were not so, he would hardly have been a teacher who could expect to be imitated. If he were of a different substance from me, he would surely not have ordered me to do as he did, when by my very nature I am so weak. Such a demand could not be reconciled with his goodness and justice.

No. He wanted us to consider him as no different from ourselves, and so he worked, he was hungry and thirsty, he slept. Without protest he endured his passion, he submitted to death and revealed his resurrection. In all these ways he offered his own manhood as the first fruits of our race to keep us from losing heart when suffering comes our way, and to make us look forward to receiving the same reward as he did, since we know that we possess the same humanity…

So let us not be at enmity with ourselves, but change our way of life without delay. For Christ who is God, exalted above all creation, has taken away man’s sin and has re-fashioned our fallen nature. In the beginning God made man in his image and so gave proof of his love for us. If we obey his holy commands and learn to imitate his goodness, we shall be like him and he will honor us. God is not beggarly, and for the sake of his own glory he has given us a share in his divinity.
St. Hippolytus, Office of Readings, December 30

Reflection – This reading struck me when it came up in the Office yesterday, so I thought I would share it with you all.

We see in it quite a few of the central themes of the Christmas season. First, there is the realism of the Incarnation. It is not a fantasy or a myth or a ‘symbol’ (whatever that means). God really became man. It is all real, the Word becoming flesh, God sharing our humanity so that we might share his divinity.

Christianity does indeed call us to heroism, to heroic generosity and love, to totality of service, to an obedience that is willing to endure whatever hardship or sacrifice may come, even to the point of martyrdom. Hippolytus of course is writing in the age of martyrs, so this was not a vague abstraction for him. People he personally knew and loved had been killed for following Christ (it’s always good to remember that about the ante-Nicene fathers—these weren’t dusty academics writing treatises in libraries, but men who were preaching the Gospel in situations of imminent terror and death).

So if God didn’t really become a man, as some of the contemporary Gnostic versions of Christianity held, but it was all some kind of optical illusion or pretense, then what good could He be to us in our human struggles and weaknesses? But He did, and He is.

The other great theme here, even though it is just a short passing reference, is liberty. God came this way—making Himself one of us, so small, so humble, so tender—so that we might not be simply terrified and cowed into obedience, but moved by the gentle beautiful love of God to it. Liberty is for obedience, our freedom is to be exercised in the free and loving choice to obey God unreservedly.

But this obedience is not that of the slave, afraid of a beating, or of the wage-slave, looking for a paycheck. It is the obedience of the son, or rather of the Son, an obedience that comes out of total love and total trust in the goodness of the Father.

It is this that the Lord of Christmas wishes to bring us. This is why it is such a beautiful story, why He came with such light and loveliness. It is so that we could finally be persuaded, as we were persuaded otherwise in the garden, that God is good, that He does desire our happiness, that He is on our side, that He is with us.

And this is not to free us up so we can do any bloody foolish thing we choose, but so we can really choose to do what is good, true, and beautiful. Really choose God, ultimately, and welcome Him into our lives, our hearts, and allow Him to teach us and empower us to live good lives, ultimately to live so thoroughly through, with, and in Him that our lives may become a true sharing in his divine life and so bear us into eternal light and splendor with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

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