06 - The Compassionate God, Oct 9, 2016


2 Corinthians 6:1-10

Luke 7:11-16

An Orthodox Church building expresses by its architecture, layout and liturgical appointments the Faith of the Church.

Christian Faith, understand, is not guesswork or unproved religious opinion – although there are many, including those who call themselves Christian, who understand faith in that way. Christian Faith is higher than worldly knowledge. It is a gift of grace, given to those who receive it by denying themselves and reaching out to take up the cross of the Church’s ascetic disciplines for the sake of Christ. Christian Faith is direct and immediate knowledge, not mediated, induced or deduced. In Faith, we know not from observation but from participation in the One Who is known by faith and by His indwelling in the one who knows Him. The Faith of the Church is “divine” knowledge that is in the Church from the simple fact that she is the very “Body of Christ, the Fullness of Him Who is all in all” (Eph 1:23).

Indeed, in that the knowledge of faith is received from the Holy Spirit who indwells the Church and who raised Jesus from the dead, this knowledge isn’t just of certain “facts” or “data”. It is a living knowledge that raises those who were spiritually dead to life, that heals certainly the soul and even the body, if God wills the healing of the body for our salvation. It illumines the eye that is the lamp of the body so that it sees the mysteries of God, it opens the ear of the soul to hear the “still, small voice” of God. It is a knowledge that cleanses and sanctifies the heart and so transfigures us that we are refashioned, born from above as children of God. In short, it is a knowledge that restores us to our true nature and destiny.

This is the Faith that is expressed in the architecture, the layout and liturgical appointments of an Orthodox Church Temple.

Now, when you walk into an Orthodox Temple that has been built from the ground up governed by the theology of the Orthodox Faith, you will walk into a nave covered by a high domed ceiling. The nave with its domed ceiling is an icon of heaven and earth. It is a mirror, meaning that when we stand in the nave, and the services of the Church begin, we are looking at a reflection of the mystery of heaven and earth that is in us; and so, we enter into and participate in that mystery. It is therefore most important to see at the center of the domed ceiling, “overshadowing” everything below, the large icon of Christ Pantacrator, Christ, the All-Powerful Ruler of the Universe, the “All”, Christ the LORD who is the Fullness Who fills everything, Christ the Great Mystery of God who is in you (Col 1:27; cf. Dt 30:14). This iconographic structure of Orthodox architecture shows that the principle of the universe that makes it to be what it is, is rooted not in some impersonal cosmic processes expressible in mathematical formulae, but in the mystery of Christ, in the Person or Hypostasis of Christ, the WORD of God Who stands underneath everything as the foundation on which everything moves and has its being. Reality, i.e., is personal, not impersonal; it is the mystery of our personal union with Christ, our participation in the mystery of Christ such that He fills us with Himself and we become radiant with the life-giving Light of His Glory that He has from the Father in the Holy Spirit.

But not yet have we caught the essential quality of this personal root of all things that makes the universe’s “music of the spheres” a hymn of praise and joy, thanksgiving and worship. We catch it in this morning’s Gospel. “Attend” to how you feel when you hear this morning’s Gospel and enter into its pathos. Does not this Gospel open us onto our “inner man”? It takes us down into our “guts” where we can feel our heart moving deeply. It gives us, I think we can say, an experience of how the knowledge of Faith in Christ the LORD works on us to soften us, to humble us, to cleanse us, to heal us, and to raise us up into the life of God that swims in the inexpressible beauty of divine compassion.

For, we hear that when the LORD saw the funeral procession of the widow’s only son, He felt splangchna, visceral compassion. The word refers to the bowels or the guts, and from this, it denotes a deep and powerful compassion that is felt in the gut.

But, Jesus Christ the LORD and Son of God, the Pantacrator, is the One Who is feeling this visceral compassion. That means, does it not, that this is a fundamental quality of the “really real” that “overshadows” us in Whom and by Whom we exist, move and have our being; for, this compassion that goes to the gut or the “root” of our being is the compassion of Him Who stands underneath all things as the foundation, the soil, in Whom the world and everything in it is rooted. I.e., the mystery of the universe, the mystery of being and of our existence, is not found in the study of geometry or music theory (as per the philosophical wisdom of the ancients) but in the mystery of our own capacity for compassion.

Here, I think, may be an instance where the English translation actually aids the Greek instead of obscuring it. For, com-passion means to “suffer with”, and so it conveys the note of identifying with and feeling in one’s own “gut” what the other is feeling; and so, in this morning’s Gospel, it means the LORD, the Principle of the Universe, is identifying with the widow and sharing in her grief over the death of her only son.

But, splangchna, because it is a compassion one feels in one’s gut, is a compassion that can be experienced only in the human body. And so, it is most interesting to observe that this word – used four times in the OT: twice it refers to the bowels, and twice it refers to the compassion felt by humans – is never used for the mercy of God in the OT. That is to say, God could not feel splangchna until He became flesh. He became flesh precisely because of His tender mercy (oiktirmos). He could not bear to see us suffering and grieving in the darkness of death and corruption, and so He did not cease to do all things until He had raised us up to heaven, and this He did by becoming flesh in order that He might become dead (Rev 1:18) and become perfectly one with us in our death. This splangchna of the LORD we read of this morning, then, is the Incarnation of His great and tender mercy. It means that the Principle of the universe stands underneath us and all things in the tender mercy of His uncreated divine nature, and in the visceral compassion of His human nature, so that we are “overshadowed” from above by the “tender mercy” of God, and from below we are rooted in the visceral compassion of the incarnate God Who fills all things with Himself, with His tender mercy and visceral compassion – as it says repeatedly in the Psalms: the earth is full of the LORD’s steadfast love. That means, that we become truly ourselves when we turn away from, when we repent of our hardness of heart and we turn around so that the face of our heart is facing the Light of the tenderly compassionate LORD Jesus Christ, so that the light of His mercy falls on our inherent capacity for mercy and brings it to life, healing us by uniting us to Himself in the mercy and visceral compassion of His death and Resurrection.

I would note, in closing, that this Gospel of the grieving widow burying her only son also brings into view the upcoming feast of the LORD’s own Mother, her Entrance into the Temple, and of Christmas, the Birth of the Theotokos’ Son and our God. These two feasts already anticipate Holy Pascha, when the Theotokos will stand at the foot of the Cross grieving over the death of her Son. This morning’s Gospel, then, inasmuch as it puts us in view of the Nativity of Christ and of His Holy Pascha, and shows the inexpressibly tender love of the Mother for her Son and of the Son for His Mother, sets before us the essential quality of the Christian Faith that proceeds from Christ Pantacrator: the inexpressible divine mercy of God becoming one with the warm, humanly visceral compassion of Christ and His Holy Mother. Where the Theotokos is honored and loved, there the Christian Faith is to be found not as a school of thought or set of arid beliefs but as the tender compassion of the Son for His Mother and of the Mother for her Son that heals our soul and restores us to life. Amen!