Monday, 24 December 2007

The Mercy of God

In what might be our last post for this calendar year, we would like, as a summary of our posts for this year, to turn to the mercy of God:

And his mercy is upon those who fear him for generations of generations (Luke 1, 50).

We are all sinners. A trite expression of the preacher, it’s Christmas. But let us consider the mercy of God upon us. Adam sinned; so did Eve. They were expelled from Paradise. Things have gone downhill since then. End of story.

Let us consider our own sins. Is there anyone among us without sin? Is there anyone among us who can look honestly at his own past life and say: ‘I am free of sin; I don’t need this Christian nonsense?’

Usually people with arrogance say: ‘I have a right to do what I want because there is no God—and not because I have not sinned. I just don’t accept that these moral norms apply to me. I am above this petty human moral law.’

But let us suppose that such a man comes to remorse after a sin. Let’s say he’s killed someone while ‘driving under the influence’. Let’s say it’s a young mother. He’s made a child an orphan, a husband who loves his wife a widower. He knew it was wrong to drink so much and then drive.

Let’s say that he goes to prison for his sin. The law of men, especially in the United States, has a rigorist, rationalist approach to things that finds it hard to deal with people as people. That would be favoritism.

The guy does time in the slammer. Now, American justice has given up on reforming the sinner—this is standing ‘If you can’t pay the time then don’t do the crime,’ on its head so that it reads ‘We have a menu of what each crime will cost you,’—and gives our man six months in a medium-security prison.

Not having been guests of the American government in one of its reformatories, we do not know the details of either what you pay for a DUI resulting in death or what conditions are like in the prison where you pay off your ‘debt to society’. So let’s just assume six months in a medium-security joint.

The guy has a lot of time to think. Now after rationalizing that he’s been shafted and plotting in his mind’s eye to off the judge when he gets out, he calms down a little with the pleasant routine of prison life and starts to think. He realizes willy-nilly, half-admitting it to himself, half-denying it, that he’s done a sin. He’s killed a pleasant young woman because he was arrogant enough to drive while under the influence thinking he is above all moral laws, because he is who he is.

He starts to feel bad. The prison psychiatrist—if there is one—might think he’s suffering from depression. He certainly is unhappy. There he is in prison; his family’s not happy; his wife—will she finally divorce him?—is icy with him on her few visits; his boss wants to get rid of him. But what really bugs him is the realization that he’s killed someone for no good reason, because of his sin.

Humanly speaking, the fellow is a jerk. And he’s killed someone.

Here’s where the mercy of God comes in. Essentially, without God, no one of us is any different from this guy. We fool ourselves if we are thinking otherwise. We all have to come to our senses and realize that we are actual sinners. Sometimes it’s a rough journey. We discussed this in this post, and this post (really the first two parts of the same post) in a completely different context.

Sometimes we die without having come to that realization. These are the mysterious and inscrutable judgements of God on us—for what is going to happen after death if we leave without repenting of our sins?

In any event, the mercy of God is something that we experience when AS SINNERS we turn to God. While it might be considered preposterous or worse to compare the repentant sinner to the Virgin Mary, Her Who Bore God, let us look at the whole text of the Magnificat:

My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour. For he has looked down upon the lowliness of his handmaiden. For behold from now all generations will pronounce blessings upon me. For the Strong One has done great things for me and Holy is his Name. And his mercy is upon those who fear him for generations of generations. He has established dominion in his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thought of their heart. He has brought the mighty down from their thrones and raised up the humble. He has filled the hungering with good things and sent away empty-handed those who are gathering wealth. He has defended Israel, his servant, so as to remember to the Age mercy to Abraham and to his seed [sing.], just as he spoke to our fathers. (Luke 1, 46 – 55.)

When we turn to God in Jesus Christ, God turns to us in mercy. We too experience something of the Holy Spirit that overshadowed the Mother of God, so that we can understand a little what would move her to pronounce those words.

Mary’s experience of being overshadowed by God came to her at the Annunciation.

And the Word was made flesh.’

Why was the Word made flesh?

Because God in his mercy loves mankind and wishes all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.

Getting back to the guy in prison, the mercy of God is this, that if he too turns to God, God will turn to him. And even if he doesn’t get out of the slammer early, and even if his wife does divorce him, and even if his boss finds a legally valid reason to sack him, and even if his children can’t stand the sight of him, he too will say: ‘Blessed be the God who has saved me.’

The most essential act of mercy is the incarnation of the Word into human flesh so that all men might be saved.

This is the essence of the mystery. St Athanasios the Great of Alexandria put it this way: ‘God became man so that Man might be made god.’ So not only are we ‘saved’ in a juridical sense, but we are made gods by grace. This applies even to the fellow in prison. Or to us.

This is the sense of St Paul’s remark to the Corinthians: they experienced great grace—even the fullness of the grace we are talking about—but some of them were formerly murderers.

Moreover, we receive this adoption as sons and daughters of God, this adoption as gods by grace, in seed in our baptism through our reception of the Holy Spirit in that baptism.

This is what Elder Porphyrios means by the Uncreated Church: in baptism we enter into uncreated communion with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, into the uncreated communion which they eternally have with one other, through our reception in baptism, by the mercy of God, of the Holy Spirit.

All we have to do is turn to God. He will turn to us, for his mercy is to the Age. The rest is our making an effort to draw close to Jesus and to his Father and to the Holy Spirit in their uncreated communion.

So let us not think that we are not acceptable to God. And let us not think that a method is what will save us. Yes, let us pray the Jesus Prayer but let us pray it once from the heart. And let us all say: ‘Blessed be God the Merciful who saved us in Christ Jesus our Lord, our Saviour, whose Incarnation we celebrate December 25.’

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
—Orthodox Monk

No comments:

Post a Comment