A Sacrifice of Emptiness – the Fullness of Life in Christ

IMG_1007Conversation this past week on this site has centered around mercy and justice and the understanding of the sacrifice of Christ. I began with an article on a quote by St. Isaac of Syria, who famously questions the human concept of justice and its relation to God. The Christian treatment of the atonement – what does it mean to say that “Christ died for us” – has found expression in a variety of forms over the centuries – not always compatible with one another.

I want to take the discussion into a different place with this post. Frequently the question of “sacrifice” drives the discussion of the atonement. It is a powerful presence in both Old and New Testament – though, I would suggest, the New Testament is not properly interpreted by the Old – but rather the Old by the New. Christ’s sacrifice is a redefinition of sacrifice – just as His revelation of the Father offers something that was not known before. The disciples do not “understand the Scriptures” until they are interpreted by Christ. They do not know Him to be the Christ because they first knew the Scriptures – rather they come to know the Scriptures because they know Him as Christ (Luke 24:27; Luke 24:45). 

There is an image in St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians that offers an understanding of the sacrifice of Christ – an image that has found a profound place within the inner life of the Orthodox faith:

Have this mind within you which is yours in Christ Jesus: who, though He was in the form of God did not consider equality with God as something to be grasped, but made Himself of no reputation; and taking the form of a bondservant came in the likeness of men; and being found in human form He emptied Himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Wherefore God has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:5-11).

This passage, which is generally acknowledged by scholars to be largely a quote by St. Paul from an early Christian hymn, represents an approach to “sacrifice” which suggests the imagery which plays a large role in the liturgical and spiritual life of the Christian East. Here there is no question of payment, whether to the Father or to Satan. Neither is the question of justice within the scope of its imagery. It is a passage, however, that is at one with the dominant hymn of Orthodox Pascha:

Christ is risen from the dead
Trampling down death by death.
And upon those in the tombs bestowing life!

It is an account of Christ’s saving action on behalf of humanity, defined by His emptying of Himself – His voluntary obedience to death by which He conquers death and sets humanity free.

For this reason does the Father love me: because I lay down my life that I might take it again. No man takes it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down and power to take it again (John 10:17-18).

The same thought is emphasized in the Eucharistic prayer of St. John Chrysostom:

On the night in which he was given up, or rather gave Himself up for the life of the world, He took bread…

The sacrifice in this account is Christ’s voluntary entrance into death – His voluntary self-emptying. 

The same image of self-emptying is a dominant image in the teaching of St. Silouan of Mt. Athos and his disciple, the Elder Sophrony (Sakharov). The union of the Christian with Christ is a union with His self-emptying. As Christ emptied Himself and entered the depths of Hades, “for the life of the world,” so, too, the Christian unites himself with Christ in prayer for the world – making himself the servant of all, entering even into the emptiness of Hades where he prays for all. Neither St. Silouan nor his biographer (Father Sophrony) can be characterized as modernizing or teaching anything other than the faith of the Church. St. Silouan’s canonization as a saint of the Church is an affirmation that his life and teaching are representative of the faith of the Church. 

Father Sophrony’s explicit teaching on this aspect of prayer is among the most revealing of the mystical life of union with Christ. It suggests a literal fulfillment of St. Paul’s command: “Have this mind within you…” It has as well the asset of removing discussion of the atonement from something that happens apart from us – and placing the atonement at the very heart of the Christian life of self-sacrificing love. Rather than compartmentalizing the Christian faith into moral theology and soteriology (atonement doctrine, etc.), everything is united in the likeness of Christ. We are not asked to offer ourselves as a penal substitute for the sin-debt of others, nor are we asked to become a propitiation. We are, however, asked to empty ourselves and to make ourselves of no reputation – to become the servants of all. And in the depths of understanding made known in the life of prayer, that servanthood extends even into the darkest corners of our existence (or near non-existence). 

Buried with Christ in baptism we are united with His death. By the same action we are united with Christ in His resurrection, trampling down death by death. And this model given to us in the mystery of baptism is not an isolated moment within the Christian life, but a definitive action by which we understand the whole of our life in Christ. It is proper that we are always dying with Christ and being united to His resurrection. In the context of our daily life – laying down our lives for others is the very meaning of love (of friend and enemy). It is the fulfilling of the gospel.

Kenosis (emptying) is not often included within discussions on the atonement – a fact which leaves such discussions removed from a major portion of the Tradition and a deeply embedded understanding within the New Testament. Christ has reconciled us to God by uniting Himself to us, and us to Himself. Through his voluntary self-emptying He united Himself with us even to the point of death – raising us with Him into new life – a life whose very definition is communion with God.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.






35 responses to “A Sacrifice of Emptiness – the Fullness of Life in Christ”

  1. Epiphanist Avatar

    Thank you Father. I find the concept of sacrifice very confused and I am glad of your guidance. Sacrifice seems to reflect the logic of man rather than the logic of the Kingdom. It will be interesting to see where this discussion goes.

  2. David Avatar

    I keep getting this weird feeling (maybe common among converts) it’s not a conscious thought but more of a really deep breath… I get the distinct notion that my idols are all too small. I’ll read a blog post by you and be amazed and then suddenly I notice that your post points to something vastly bigger than itself, then I feel disoriented. Not disoriented like dizzy, but like I’ve never stood on the ground you invite me to.

    It reminds me of the first time I say Yosemite valley from the top of Glacier Point. For years I had been amazed from below, but the past held nothing on the present. I suppose this is not a very eloquent way of putting it. But it’s not really something I can talk about.

    That alone is something worth noting. 🙂

  3. Marsha Avatar

    Absolutely, David! Every now and then I get a glimpse or hear an echo of “something bigger” as well.

  4. fatherstephen Avatar

    David and Marsha,

    What you are describing is similar to my own experience in the approach taken by St. Silouan or Fr. Sophrony (or Dostoevsky for that matter) – which for lack of a better term, some refer to as an “existential” approach to these questions. There is a vast difference between discussions which verge on the abstract (as some atonement questions easily become) and bringing the matter both to where we live, and where we live to the matter at hand. Strangely, in the self-emptying of Christ, there is a vastness – His emptiness is also a fullness. And the invitation to us to “have this mind in you” carries into the same fullness as well. It seems a far more satisfactory approach.

    Thank you for your thoughts.

  5. Collator Avatar

    I’ve been reading Vol. 2 of Fr. John Behr’s _The Nicene Faith_, the section on St. Athanasios. Fr. Behr emphasizes the importance for Athanasios of considering the Incarnation as a whole, in the light of the triumphant Passion (death trampling on death), and vice versa. He puts in a more academic way the notions that Fr. Stephen has drawn from Ss. Silouan and Sophrony.

    On a side note, St. Athanasios might be one of the best Fathers to read in order to understand a possible legal/juridical model of salvation, since he does argue in _On the Incarnation_ that the Incarnation and Cross were necessary in order to fulfill God’s law that had been broken by Adam and Eve. But I suspect he meant something much closer to what Fr. Stephen has put his finger on, rather than an Anselmian theory of atonement (although I am admittedly not familiar with the details of Anselm’s thought or the way it was elaborated). Fr. Behr also draws out this existential/ascetical aspect of Christ’s work in fulfilling the law of God.

  6. fatherstephen Avatar

    Fr. Behr’s work is highly recommended on this site. 🙂

    I am deeply drawn to the existential/ascetical aspect of Orthodox theology – found in many (most) of the Fathers – a most decidedly in the prayers and hymns of the Church. For me the reason is simple. I don’t need to think about God – I need to be one with Him. What is wrong with me is not a legality – but the fact that I am in bondage to death and decay and its corruption destroys my very life. Without God we are already in Hades – nevermind fearing a judgment yet to come. Without Christ we are already condemned by deadness of our hearts.

    Glory to God Who freely gives us all things!

  7. Mary&Martha Avatar


    Your discussion of kenosis and sacrifice is illuminating and thought-provoking. I am an Anglican with an extremely limited understanding of Eastern Orthodoxy, and I am formulating my thoughts as I type, so forgive me if this is inchoate or wrong or unwittingly offensive!

    If Kenosis is essentially linked with sacrifice – which is, at least in its Latin roots, the act of making holy – then the whole work of the Incarnation (and not just the Passion) is atoning sacrifice; God becomes human so that humanity might become divine.

    So maybe this links back to some of the discussions on justice and mercy. Through Christ’s sacrifice, humanity is made holy, and its “just dessert” is nothing less than theosis. Ontologically, humanity is supposed to be in full communion with God – that is justice. Individually, we all mess it up, and yet God draws us to himself anyway – that is mercy.

    Incidentally, I have always been interested in the relationship between people’s understanding of the atonement and their (for want of a better phrase) social theology and praxis. At least in the Western tradition, it seems to me that Kenotic theology has often been linked with a rather condescending attitude towards others – the rich deigning to dine with the poor. But if kenosis and sacrifice are taken together, then the Christian’s self-emptying is (should be) more radical, because holiness is found (already present) in poverty and nothingness – hence the Beatitudes. Would that be the kind of understanding on which the ascetic tradition and the saintly “holy fools” are based? A kind of apophatic life?

    Lastly, a question. Somewhere in the dim recesses of my mind, I remember learning about something called (I think) apokatastasis, promulgated (I think) by Origen, that is the idea that all creation, even the Devil, will ultimately be brought into full communion with God. This seems like such a logical outworking of all you have said about divine mercy (or justice), but I think it was anathematized as a heresy. Why?

  8. fatherstephen Avatar

    The last – first.

    The apokatastasis, as taught by Origen, was condemned, both on account of how it was formulated – but also because he went beyond what the Church can say on the basis of what it knows. Dogma, in Orthodoxy, is always rooted in what God has made known to us, never on theology as an abstraction (derived by logic, etc.). But you are right – there is a “logic” that extends from the thought of St. Isaac of Syria to an account in which universal salvation would be possible (St. Isaac himself speculated on this) but it goes beyond the dogma of the Church and is thus not taught nor embraced as something we know by the faithful. Our opinions in such matters don’t matter. I would say, however, that not to pray for the salvation of all falls short of Christian charity.

    On kenotic theology – Father Sophrony pushes this element within Orthodox understanding into Trinitarian theology – and understands the love of the persons for one another in a kenotic manner. His thought is an extension of earlier Russian thought. True kenosis, it would seem to me, should be radically different than the “noblesse oblige” of a condescension of the rich for the poor. I would suggest that the living experience of Orthodoxy is far removed from much of Western experience. The practice and form of Orthodox monasticism and ascetic practice have little if any parallel in the West. Within Orthodox history monasticism/asceticism have had a profound effect on the whole of the Church – even certain aspects of monarchy during particular periods of history. It’s a very rich spiritual tradition – well worth study.

  9. asiaticus Avatar

    “Without Christ were are already condemned by deadness of our hearts.” Thank you so much, Father, for these words.

  10. asiaticus Avatar

    A last minute thought:

    If the drama of human life and salvation, the tragedies of sins and sufferings could be reduced to the terms of mere legal technicality-howbeit heavenly- the Holy Spirit would not have inspired David to write Miserere mei, Deus and other such psalms as consitute the most vibrant, exalted and sincere monuments to human feelings and Faith in God’s love for us.

  11. fatherstephen Avatar

    Yes, the legal metaphor is a pleasant mental exercise, but satisfies pretty much nothing else and leaves huge portions of Scripture, the Fathers, liturgy, etc., completely out of the picture. A good theological account should, to some extent, contain or imply everything. It is the fullness that bears the reality.

  12. Subdeacon Eusebios Avatar

    As always I find your words inspiring and thought provoking. Thank you!

  13. fatherstephen Avatar

    There is a difference in exploring an idea – which these saints did (St. Clement was so early that things were fairly fluid on the point and it was never addressed) and asserting a teaching in the form of a dogma. Unlike Origen who taught an apokatastasis as dogma, these men did not. There is no sin or heresy in considering a question – even speculating – but none of those whom you mention was considered guilty of heresy.

    It is, of course, an obvious question: Does the love and mercy of God triumph finally over all rebellion? If someone is committed to the love of God the question arises fairly naturally.

    But, as I have noted, it goes to a place that God has not made known to us and thus we cannot make doctrine in the matter. Most who raise the question (most famously St. Isaac of Syria) offer the caveat that he does not know and can only wonder. It’s not a heresy to wonder in such a manner.

    Unlike some Christians – Orthodoxy is secure in saying that there are somethings that are unknown. The only danger is to say we know what we do not. What the Church proclaims – she knows.

    I should also add that although Origen was condemned for heresy (some several hundred years after his death – mostly to say that certain parts of his teaching were in error) he is still well regarded as a theologian of major importance in the early Church who had profound influence on many who are regarded as saints. He never acted in disobedience to the Church, or opposed the Church’s teaching. He is not a heretic in the manner of Arius nor can his teachings be compared to Arianism.

    The examples in all of this simply point to the fact that there are different circumstances in many historical situations and the Church takes them into consideration. It’s not quite as cut and dry as we would sometimes think.

    For instance, St. Ephrem of Edessa and St. Isaac of Syria. The first is more-or-less a Nestorian (though he never formally teaches Nestorianism but was part of the Church that had become identified as the Nestorians) and the latter was part of the so-called Monophysite Church (but did not particularly expound anything contrary to the faith). Both are venerated as saints on the Orthodox calendar – probably indicating just how important they were as spiritual writers in the life of Orthodox Church. There are areas where this was possible – particularly during certain centuries and settings. I find it fascinating and it restrains me from some of my worst instincts.

  14. David Avatar

    Is it possible that not-knowing is as important as knowing? Or is it too much speculation to consider God’s purpose in not revealing something?

  15. fatherstephen Avatar

    I don’t know about “too much” but still, it’s just speculation. Better to spend our time with what we do know.

  16. David Avatar

    I think that’s what I meant. By not revealing it to us God is telling us “nothing to see here move along” or more particularly “this isn’t a priority, don’t be distracted by this.” Titus 3:9?

  17. fatherstephen Avatar

    The Orthodox would certainly embrace St. Paul’s teaching that Christ “became sin that we might become the righteousness of God,” but do not generally take this to mean that the Father then hated Him (this would be problematic in Trinitarian thought). Rather it is an affirmation that Christ entered fully into the depths in which we were bound in order to rescue us.

    I have also always taken it as a personal reminder – that even in my sin – God has united Himself to me – that He never leaves me nor forsakes me – but rather “Lo, if I descend into Hell, Thou art there.”

    It’s the punishment element (punished by God) that I find less than helpful.

  18. Dharmashaiva Avatar

    Would it be more accurate to say that the Church condemned a particular type of “Origenism” taught by certain individuals hundreds of years after Origen’s death?

  19. Collator Avatar

    Father, I think you mixed up the “denominations” of Ss. Isaac and Ephrem. It was St. Isaac who was almost certainly a member of the Church of the East (i.e. Nestorian Church). St. Ephrem lived and died (379) long before the Monophysite schism began (451), and as far as I know none of his theology is considered a precursor of Monophysitism. Perhaps you were thinking of Jacob of Serug, the second-greatest Syriac hymn-writer, who was a Monophysite bishop but was rather irenic with regard to Chalcedon?

    Re: apocatastasis, it is my understanding that the Church has taken a stronger position than you indicate. It is not simply a matter of agnosticism on the question, but a definite rejection of the doctrine of universal salvation. St. Barsanuphius of Gaza, as meek and loving a saint as ever there was, was uncharacteristically strong in his condemnation of this heresy (in contrast to his forbearance toward the Monophysite and Nestorian heresies also current at his time). In several of his letters he articulates his position against it primarily based on the fact that Scripture clearly teaches otherwise (passages such as the judgment in Matthew 25 with the punishment of everlasting fire prepared for the Devil and his angels, Christ’s mention of the fire that is not extinguished and the worm that dies not, etc.) and the belief that it is a snare of the devil to make Christians lazy out of false hope for apocatastasis. The heresy was officially condemned during the lifetime of St. Barsanuphius, at the Fifth Ecumenical Council in 553. Historically, although St. Isaac lived after the 5th Council, since he was in the Nestorian Church which did not recognize it, he was more free to draw on Origenist writings than later Chalcedonian writers (although Origen stirred controversy in the Church of the East as well).

    On a more abstract level, the idea that God’s love will eventually overwhelm all resistance might be seen as abolishing free will, in a kind of reverse Calvinism.

  20. Basil Avatar

    Collator, I once mentioned to my spiritual father that I was curious about the ‘restorative’ eschatological ideas of St Gregory of Nyssa and St Isaac the Syrian. He stopped me mid-thought and told me that the eschatology of St Isaac had nothing to do with that of St Gregory– the latter heavily influenced by Origin and very philosophical in his speculations while the former (St Isaac) was simply overwhelmed by his own direct, experiential knowledge of the vastness of God’s love. This is also consistent with St Silouan the Athonite’s own great prayer for the likes of reposed atheists (what is the meaning of this?), as “love could not bear” their eternal suffering. Let’s recall that Christ decended into Hades and preached to those who perished (i.e. the unrighteous) in the days of Noah. I see hope in this.
    (An Orthodox theologian friend of mine mentioned that there is some room for interpretation of the concept and words translated as “eternal” in the scriptures with respect to Hell, though I know little about this myself and dont really have anything to say about it).

    I was greatly aided by Bp Hilarion’s exposition of St Isaac’s thought on the matter, and especially the manner in which he sees St Isaac’s eschatology as consistent with Holy Tradition.
    I recommend these writings:

    As far as your last comment about God’s love overcoming all rebellion as threatening our freedom– God’s love has overpowered my own rebellious heart and this is a miracle for which I am eternally grateful, but in no way do I take it as His abolishing my free will. Our freedom is deeply mysterious, and we are rarely acting all the freely (St Paul wrestles with his lack of freedom, in Rom. 8 I think. We need healing to become truly free in our will).
    With the help of St Isaac I have come to feel more hopeful about the salvation of vastly more than we may imagine (and *others* than we imagine). Ours is a world of distortion and illusion where the love of God is not all there is to see and experience freely; so many who are swept into lives of unrighteousness may have hidden hearts with some good in them, awaiting the light of Christ.
    If we are made in the image of God and all our desires find fulfillment in Him alone, then it’s worth asking why do so many sin and live lives of darkness and passion? This fallen world is a hostile place- for some far more than for others (like myself). And let us not forget that we have a slandering, murdering enemy who strangles the freedom of so many of God’s creatures; again I have had it relatively easy compared to many. It is not implausible for me to imagine that these hearts which are perverted in their desires today, may still have some good in them at the end; they are not necessarily satisfied with the broken lives they live.
    When I look at the unhealthy lives of my secular co-workers, I often imagine them as no different from myself really, except by God’s mysterious will I have been given answers and a Way that has not been made clear to them. They wear masks of unrighteousness and passion, and suffer quite miserable lives because of it. But the Love of God may in the end have a place for them in paradise, where the deep longings of their hidden hearts may find fulfillment at last in the God they were unable to know in these “evil times”.

    I find it increasingly possible for myself to hope– and to long and to pray– for the salvation of all.

    -Mark Basil

  21. Darlene Avatar


    On Dictionary.com (perhaps not a reliable source for understanding matters of faith), it says that Clement of Alexandria articulated and defended apokatastasis, and that this view was also held by Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus discussed it without reach a decision. Is this true? I ask because these men are considered saints, yet how could they be held in such high honor if they did not condemn heresy and some even supported it?

  22. Darlene Avatar


    On this matter of Christ’s sacrifice and the Atonement, I have much to unlearn and much to understand. The Reformed view of punishment is continually being preached and therefore, to repudiate it is considered heresy.

    In my earnest desire to embrace the orthodox teaching of the early church on the sacrifice and Atonement of Christ, I have been coming to the realization how troubling the Reformed view is. The following is a quote from a Plymouth brethren pastor/teacher, that seems almost blasphemous to me.

    “The atonement which we preach is one of absolute exchange, that Christ took our place literally–that God regarded and treated Christ as a sinner, and that He regards and treats the believing sinner as Christ. From the moment we believe, God looks upon us as if we were Christ…we then are saved, straight through eternity, by what the Son of God has done in our place. Other considerations have nothing to do with it. It matters nothing what we have been, what we are, or what we shall be. From the moment we believe Christ, we are forever in God’s sight, AS CHRIST.”

    This is referred to as “the sublime equation.” The teaching is taken from II Corinthians 5:21, “For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” Jesus becomes guilty of our sins and suffers punishment, and His righteousness is henceforth reckoned as ours. The exchange of our sin for Christ’s righteousness is “absolute.”

    Martin Luther first formulated this understanding of the sacrifice and Atonement of our Lord. Two quotes that are attributed to Luther are: “The prophets did foresee in Spirit that Christ would become the greatest transgressor, murderer, thief, rebel, and blasphemer that ever was or can be.” and “Whatsoever sins I, thou, and we shall have done, or shall do hereafter, they are Christ’s own sins, as verily as if He had done them Himself.”

    I had never read these quotes before, but found them on a website that is refuting this belief. Father, are you familiar with these quotes from Luther? If so, did Luther ever disavow himself from this view of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross? The idea of God punishing Jesus and Jesus actually becoming sin in the sense that is expounded upon here seems reprehensible to me. Is it proper to say that this is the understanding of Christ’s sacrifice and Atonement within the Reformed Churches? (Reformed Baptist, Presbyterian, Lutheran).

    While I used to believe that God punished Jesus on the cross for all my sins, I never held to such an extreme view as above. How could the sinless, perfect Son of God, the Lamb without spot or blemish ever be described in such vile terms? Yet, now I am wondering if this is what my Reformed friends believe. How disturbing if it is true.

    In Christ’s Immeasurable Love,


  23. fatherstephen Avatar

    St. Isaac does not contend an abolition of free will – but simply that the love of God eventually turns the choices to Him – but, again, it is not doctrine, and is stated in a carefully nuanced manner by St. Isaac. The apokatastasis is not a hope set forth for us in Scripture. The 5th council is an interesting event in a difficult theological moment. I do not reject it, of course.

  24. fatherstephen Avatar

    Mark Basil,

    A moving witness – thank you.

  25. MG Avatar


    Concerning Athanasius’ use of legal language to describe salvation, it seems you’re right–he’s using different words to express the same concept as Father Stephen holds about the incarnation and atonement. I wrote about that here:


  26. bethanytwins Avatar

    If “the idea that God’s love will eventually overwhelm all resistance might be seen as abolishing free will,” then the same could be said of virtually any Christian doctrine – the Creation, the Incarnation and the Resurrection of Christ, all of which fundamentally affect who and what we are, all happened without any democratic consultation, after all!
    In a sense, is not the ultimate aim of the Christian life a sort of abolition of free will? A self-emptying in which we are called to make ourselves ‘slaves for Christ’ and unite our will with his? It’s one of those paradoxes which (if I may say so) Orthodox spirituality expresses so well: we freely will to give up our free will, so that in perfect obedience lies perfect freedom.

    Off on a tangent:
    Fr. Stephen, in your gracious reply to my questions, you suggested that Orthodox monasticism and ascetism has little if any parallel in Latin Christianity. This would no doubt come as a surprise to many Catholics; we do, after all, have venerable traditions of both monasticism and ascetism (and of course, lots of Catholic Christians think we invented everything – and Anglo-Catholics think we rediscovered it all from obscurity in 1833!!).

    I think I know where the obvious differences lie between Eastern and Western monasticism and ascetism, but I’d be interested to hear a little more of your assessment from an Orthodox standpoint, if you wouldn’t mind. I know a little about the Desert Fathers and early Greek mystical theology (thanks in no small part to my undergraduate days, many moons ago, when I was blessed to attend lecture series by Bishop Kallistos Ware on such subjects) but after about the 6th or 7th Century, I’m afraid I languish in woeful ignorance.

    I’d be particularly interested to know your views on ascetism. I have read rather more than is probably healthy about Mediaeval Catholic ascetism (lots of scourging, though no Stylites as far as I am aware), and I am formulating the view that is probably a distortion of, rather than a natural development from, the ascetism taught and practised by the Desert Fathers and Mothers. Did Orthodox ascetism manage to remain more (at the risk of sounding dreadfully ‘Californian’) holistic and healthy? And if so, where do you think the West went wrong?

  27. fatherstephen Avatar


    Major topic! Monasticism and asceticism certainly have a history within R. Catholicism. Though I’m not certain that asceticism is as common (many orders exist for purposes other than prayer which would be very exceptional in Orthodoxy). Also, Western monasticism in many ways exists as something “ad extra.” It’s hard to sort all of the history out – there’s the influence of Jansenism during certain centuries as well as the mandatory celibacy of the priesthood, which I think confuses a lot of issues.

    In Orthodoxy, the canons and traditions on fasting are no different for the laity in the parish and those for monastics – asceticism is considered normative for all Christians. In typical Eastern fashion, the canons and traditions are modified when applied to the parish (as they would be for a young monastic though to an even greater extent) but there’s not two sets of rules – just one. The same is true of the services. Monastic worship and parish worship work from the same typicon, although it is modified in parish usage for obvious reasons.

    But monasticism exists along the same continuum of the spiritual life – something that I think is not quite true (certainly at present) in the West. Fasting has been so modified in Rome as to have lost most of its original meaning. There is no ascetical rhythm any longer. There are those who suggest that fasting rules should be modified in Orthodoxy for reasons of the present culture. I could not be in greater disagreement with such a suggestion.

    Orthodoxy has had its Stylites and there are extremes that I know of – but generally – the human condition has its own way of putting limits on asceticism. There is also a strong current within Orthodoxy that is self-critical of extremism (I think of St. Ignatius Brianchaninov’s The Arena). He accuses some monastics of having turned the religion of Christ into nothing more than beans.

    But I think that without asceticism we will not know normative Christianity. The heart will rarely yield itself up to our view without a proper asceticism (which is the proper point of asceticism in the first place).

    I’m not a very good source for the question of where something went wrong. It just went different, and I’m not sure that the West has much living knowledge of healthy asceticism. There is some – but it’s too isolated and confused with other issues. Most Western Christian traditions have no asceticism whatsoever, having condemned the idea as “works righteousness.”

  28. David Avatar

    As a ‘Californian’ I must say that a monastery of very healthy and holistic nuns is thankfully nearby. 🙂

    One of the challenges of being the father of two small children is that I don’t get to visit it often. But in the past such visits have been therapeutic (in all the best senses of the word).

    You’ve never heard laughter, until you’ve heard nuns laugh. (I hope it doesn’t scandalize anyone to say so.)

  29. luciasclay Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    A question perhaps only ever so slightly, if at all, tied to this post, but being the closest one I could find to ask it.

    When the gospel is proclaimed in divine liturgy it is preceded by “Wisdom Let us attend”

    By “Wisdom” what is meant. Does it in anyway tie to the prophecies of Christ as Wisdom in Wisdom of Solomon and the understanding of the Church of Christ himself as Wisdom ?

    Anything you can point me to for a more complete understanding ?

    Hope that question made a small degree of sense……………….

  30. fatherstephen Avatar

    I would imagine (thought I have no authoritative sources handy today) that Christ as Wisdom, Word and Power of God is referenced, even if the immediate reference is to the Scriptures. But since Christ is the meaning of the Scriptures it becomes much the same thing.

  31. Reid Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, I have come to wonder if we largely misunderstand the nature of OT sacrifices. When we speak of sacrifice in everyday language, we seem to think of it as something painful, the giving up of something pleasant or precious due to dire necessity. In the OT, however, it appears that sacrifices were often, perhaps usually, joyous occasions. The “fellowship offering” or “peace offering,” for instance seems to have been a feast. You offered a memorial portion on the altar, gave a choice portion to the priest, and then feasted on the rest of the meat. You had to burn up anything that wasn’t eaten the day of the sacrifice (or possibly the next day), so it appears you wanted to gather enough family, friends, widows, orphans, and strangers to make sure nothing was wasted. (Indeed feasting aspects of the sacrifice are so strong that when the adulteress of Proverbs 7 is seducing the young man, one of her temptations is that she has “fellowship offerings” at home. That is, she is tempting him by means of a meal of good meat in addition to the illicit pleasures she offers.) The sacrifice, then, was primarily food, a feast meal, becoming part of those who partook of it and sustaining their lives. It was also a means of communion as all who partook of it were united in being nourished by the same meat (and the communion was also with God through the memorial portion and the portion eaten by the priest).

    Thus, the man who offered a sacrifice was, in fact, hosting a feast for others. He gave something of his own riches, his own substance, for the nourishment and joy of others. I wonder, then, if the sacrifice of our Lord can profitably be understood in the same way. The Father is hosting a feast (perhaps a feast of reconciliation, as the father of the prodigal held), and the Son, Himself, is the sacrifice, the source of sustenance, life, and communion. The Son empties Himself to give us life, not as a substitute, but simply as the source of nourishment, of life within us. We “have the same mind” when we follow His example, emptying ourselves to give life to others through prayer, works of mercy, forgiveness of enemies, and faithfulness to family, friends, and the Church.

    Do you know if the Fathers speak in these terms, or is this an idea better dropped as a novelty?

  32. fatherstephen Avatar

    Sacrifice is indeed misunderstood. Western understandings of sacrifice have been greatly distorted by the penal substitutionary atonement model and the dominance of a legal metaphor which it introduced. There are many ways in which this distortion has truncated the understanding of many aspects of the faith – sacrifice perhaps among the chiefest. There is a wide range of patristic thought on sacrifice.

  33. Wonders for Oyarsa Avatar

    Sounds like another post is needed on the topic of sacrifice, Father Stephen.

  34. fatherstephen Avatar

    Perhaps so…though at the moment my mind is pondering the Grand Inquisitor (oddly related to the anger article). We’ll see…

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