by Father Vladimir Zielinski (Russian Orthodox)
Nicolas Fedorov, the great Russian thinker of the 19th century, says: “Our social program is the Trinity.” Today, we can say — with reason — almost the same thing: our program of reconciliation is also the Trinity. Because the very essence of the Trinity is relation and love. It is the same in the bosom of the Trinity. Relation-love unites the Three Persons within the divine essence, and our Christian faith, if we try to break it down into elements, is also made up of relation, love, hope, joy, fear, the certitude of a certain presence and amazement, wonder. Let us begin with wonder, because, before thinking we must be able to be filled with wonder. We must pause and plunge into a prayerful silence so that the Trinitarian mystery enters in us and engages us, embraces us, unites us.
A feeling of wonder before the Trinity is not a fleeting sentiment, but a way of letting it reveal itself within ourselves. If we are searching for unity and reconciliation in wonder and contemplative veneration, we arrive also at unity in the unveiling of the mystery, lived together, and, at the end, we can with the grace of the Spirit attain also unity in thought, experience and the triadological formulas which express the incomprehensible.
I will try to approach the incomprehensible as it is seen and lived in my Orthodox Church. But I believe that the vision of God in his depth is common to us all. Divided in our understanding, we are secretly united in this inexpressible reality which manifests itself openly or secretly. The path to reconciliation is here, on the road toward the mystery which lies at the origin of humankind.
Let us start, then, with the visible and go to the revelation of the invisible, on the traces left by the light and, as a starting point, let us take the words of St. John at the beginning of his Gospel.
“No one has ever seen God;
it is the only son, who is nearest to the Father’s heart,
who has made him known” (Jn 1:18)
1. The images of Christ
“He has made him known”. We enter the abyss of the Trinity through the door of the only Son. “I am the gate of the sheepfold,” says Christ. Those sheep are our souls, our bodies, our thoughts. Through that door, the abyss opens and God enters and makes himself at home in the human family. Christ is the gate to vision, because He is visible, we can hear his voice, we can almost touch his hand. But when we get closer to Him we touch the unfathomable. We enter the mystery, the ineffable.
We, humans, live outside this mystery, at the boundary. It challenges us from everywhere. It cannot be seized, neither by the thoughts that reflect it nor by the words that seek to describe it. But everything that makes us human is rooted in Christ and in the abyss which he uncovers, discloses or unveils. Thanks to Him, we are gifted with our concepts of good and evil, our images of beauty and ugliness, our notions of heaven and hell. This abyss hidden in us is the habitat of our nostalgia and of this anguished questioning before death which cannot be separated from man. All those human things are in a way illuminated from inside by this light coming from the depths of the mystery. Everything that is truly human may serve its direct or discreet messenger.
I>”The Word was the true light that enlightens all men” (Jn 1.9). The light touches everyone of us, but often remains unnameable. But it is not an enigma to be deciphered. And it will not let itself be reached by darkness. And, for this reason, the eye accustomed to confusion between light and darkness perceives it with difficulty. It is the heart that recognises it first, because the light shines in its depths. But, everywhere it leaves traces of its presence, of its residence. The light talks. The Word shines from the heart of silence, the face is drawn in the depths of the mystery. That interior face is engraved on every human being. It is like a personal message to each one of us. It often remains anonymous, when we do not wish to see it, but, from its anonymity, it calls us to dialogue, to acknowledgement. It looks at us, scrutinises us, listens to us. It reveals itself constantly but, for the true meeting, we have to choose it, to take a step toward it, to call it: You.
The Mystery, the Light, the Face – those three words are the first that come to my mind when I reflect upon the immediate experience of Christ. They are common all. Every Christian knows that we are chosen by Him as His friends, His brothers, His fellow citizens living on the same earth and destined for the same heaven. Our faith comes from the acknowledgement, the encounter.
Man is created as the one who must encounter another one. This encounter is more intimate than any intimacy and, at the same time, it is social. In Christ’s word, every one can recognize another who becomes his neighbour, his brother; and, in that way, we all constitute the fellowship of the word. “I have spoken openly to the world,” Christ says and everyone can hear Him. Jesus speaks openly to the world and secretly in the hearts. Thus the word which “was with God in the beginning” achieves the sacrament of the human person. “The light inside you” (Luke 11.35), the image of God, the face of Christ in the depths of our being, “constitute” this divine beginning in man. We are always on our way toward that source or toward Christ who allows us to meet him, to discover him anew.
How many discoveries have been made during those twenty centuries? It was thought that Christianity had been defeated in the 19th century; in the 20th century, pagan ideologies could celebrate their triumph, but today, at the dawn of the new millennium, it is becoming more obvious that the coming century (as, for that matter, every century since the Incarnation) shall be that of Christ.
The Gospel is not yet being preached in the world, not in the geographical sense, but in all its fullness, in its depth, in all its unknown grace. Christ, it seems, sometimes withdraws into the shadows of history, allows Himself to be driven away, to be ridiculed, and then manifests Himself again in an unexpected manner. The sap of his words is stronger than the “wisdom of this world”; its shoots pierce through all systems of thought, even those that call themselves Christian. I remember the words of Teilhard de Chardin that, after every crisis in history, Christ appears again in an unexpected depth, in the new light. That will be in the future until the time when he comes, because it is not men who have created Christ, but the Father created them in His Son and gave them a spark of His Spirit. And the Spirit will remain the mother who revives in our souls – in the unexpected holiness, in the new discovery – Christ who is the same today and throughout the centuries is the same, the one who saves, the one who unites.
II. The Holy Spirit and the transmutation of gifts
“Happy are those who have not seen and yet believe…” says Christ.
Our knowledge of Christ resembles the image drawn by the One who really knows Him. “No one knows the Son except the Father, just as no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Mt 11.27). This act of revelation wanted by the Father is the action of the Holy Spirit. The names of that we find in our memory, in our heart, are the names given by the Holy Spirit. Our experience of the Holy Spirit is the manifestation of the Holy Spirit. But he always remains invisible, out of reach.
God’s name is beyond anything man is able to say with his mouth or to define with his mind. Our Jewish or Muslim brothers are quite justified in wanting to protect it. But there are words that are messengers, words that are icons, words that unite the fire which created the world with its beauty and this little spark of faith ignited in us. The first of these words is love. It is not a matter of sentimental affection but, first of all, a bond which unites us, mortals, with the God incomprehensible and indefinable as the liturgy says. It is some mysterious common substance which exists between God and us, the truth which is one for heaven and for earth, the miracle of God’s presence among us. He is present not as a distant concept but as a friend, a brother, a Saviour. This bond which unites us, this miracle of the presence, this abyss of love is called the Holy Spirit.
When we invoke the name of the Trinity, of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, we not only confess a certain vision of God, but we are already at the centre of this mystery, open before us. And we are already united in the love that “has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit” as St. Paul says (Rm 5.5). What we call Revelation consists in this effusion of the mystery of love, unveiled by the Spirit.
We answer spontaneously with gratitude. But gratitude for love is also the action of the Spirit. The Son who discovers the Father through the Son is also the action of the Spirit. The heart which purifies itself to leave space for God is the action of the Spirit. Those actions are the three components of our faith. But faith is first the answer to love. The Spirit reveals the Father. The Spirit revives our memory. The Spirit suggests the words of the prayer. The Spirit is the exchange of gifts between God and us, our little gifts, our miniscule efforts and God’s immense gifts that surpass us.
The miracle of Christianity consists in God’s presence among us. Not only “God is in Heaven and you are on earth” which is the rule of all monotheistic religions, but God is with us, with his Word, His grace and His love put in our memory and in our heart.
We are not worthy of serving in that abode because of our sins, our weaknesses and our limits before the Lord and, at the same time, we are admitted into the Holy of holies. Jesus says : “If anyone loves me he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we shall come to him and make our home with him” (Jn 14.23). Oriental tradition understands this home in the most personal and concrete sense, as the house of God, built with us and within us. Let’s listen to the Orthodox liturgy: it can be assimilated to the building of God’s house in the community of the faithful and in the human heart. This building is done by means of art, prayer and even our sentiments. In the sacramental sense, this house is built through the transmutation of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. But the sacramental Eucharist is the sign of the Eucharist of creation about which spoke the Catholic theologian Teilhard de Chardin and the Orthodox theologian John Ziziulas. The Eucharist, in its direct and spiritual sense, is the gratitude of the son or sons who remember the eternal sacrifice of the Lord. That memory is transformed in the sacrament, in the corporal and spiritual union with our God. We are in the home of Jesus and his Father or in the union of love, that is in the Spirit who changes, who transforms, who accomplishes this union.
What does the Holy Spirit do? He enters into the love and desire of the man and woman, creating another human being, another soul, another temple of God. He touches the face of the animal endowed with thought, becomes a human face with its beauty, its enigma, its eyes that have encountered God’s gaze. He descends on simple human food and it becomes the home of God, His Body and His Blood, His sacrifice and His love.
The key-word of this action, of this incredible change is transmutation.
The transmutation of human words into the Word of the Lord.
The transmutation of our fragile memories into sacred memory.
The transmutation of our thoughts and feelings into the mystery of faith
The transmutation of the community of the faithful into the Church.
The transmutation of human love into the temple of the Holy Spirit
The transmutation of our food into the sacrifice of the Lord
Each time, the new reality appears and builds itself from the elements of this world. This temporary earthly reality has its roots in another reality, eternal and heavenly, which surpasses us infinitely. It unites without confusing them two orders of being and creates a new reality, divino-human, which carries the principal message of Christianity: God has given the gift of the transmutation of his existence in our life and that gift is always achieved through the action of the Spirit. The action of the Spirit signifies that what God gives us is united to man and becomes divine. The most radical transmutation is that which makes us into citizens of the Kingdom.
In the long and difficult process of transforming our souls and bodies to prepare them for the Kingdom, one part belongs to man, the other to God. Man becomes God’s associate and participates in the common task, in the work of transmutation or transfiguration of humankind into Christ. But in order that this task may be achieved, another transmutation must occur: that of divided, often opposed communities into a united family.
The Spirit makes Christ present and near, but glorified Christ sends us the Spirit. They are two reciprocal missions of those two hands of the Father, as St. Irenee says. The Orthodox Church declares that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and becomes the splendour of the Son, but the Spirit illuminates the Son not only at the side of the Father but also in us, in our hearts, in our lives. The Spirit penetrates our conscience and creates a kind of reciprocity, of correlation, that is the capacity of knowing the Son and, through the Son, the Father. Now, true knowledge can happen only in the conciliarity of our souls, of our consciences, in the sacrament of reconciliation before our common Father.
III. The revelation of the Father through the mirror of liturgy
There are a thousand reflections of the invisible Father in the reality that is accessible to man. “The heavens declare the glory of God, the vault of heaven proclaims his handiwork; day discourses it to day, night to night hands on the knowledge” (Ps 18.1). If we lend an ear to the knowledge conveyed by heavens, days, nights, mountains, clouds, rivers, herbs, we’ll say that the Son has made it appear, that he has incarnated it everywhere, that the invisible Spirit has made it present in the glory of being. But here we choose a praying man as a witness to the Father, a liturgical man as His son who loves the One he knows “as if seeing the invisible,” according to the words of St. Paul.
In the environment of the Byzantine liturgy, created by prayer and spiritual experience, we can get closer to the Father, speak to Him informally (In French: Lui dire “Toi”) as Christ Himself did. The miracle of the liturgy, which only opens itself to the eyes of faith, is our future, the Body of Christ, that is in the transmutation of our selves. And, inasmuch as we are His Body, we become seers, the Trinitarian mystery reveals itself to us. Prayer transmits us the knowledge of the One who cannot be known. “No one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Mt 11.27).
The Son reveals the Father to us in the place and time where He is Himself present. There are a thousand ways to approach the Father (through beauty, the wisdom of creation, the human face), but, to avoid falling into vague and worn out words, we take the royal way, that of the Oriental liturgy. Here we approach the Father in incredible and redoubtable intimacy. Here we are so close to Him that we are like Moses who was forced “to cover his face, afraid to look at God” (Ex 3.6). But it is the liturgy itself which gives us the courage, because it is Christ who is looking at the Father with our eyes, it is Christ who is praying with our words.
But let’s examine more closely the steps (symbolic and approximate, of course) of this revelation of the Father as it is developed in the Eucharistic celebration.
The first part could be called the liturgy of memory. The rite of preparation (or prothesis or proskomidia) is entirely dedicated to the commemoration being celebrated. The prayer said by the priest gathers together around Christ his whole Church, from the Mother of God and John the Baptist to all those near us, living or dead, all those who live in our memory and in our heart. And with Christ, represented by the Lamb (a small loaf of bread which will be consecrated), His whole flock presents itself before the invisible Father:
“Bless us and sanctify us, bless this offering, and accept it upon your Heavenly altar”, prays the Church with Christ at the head, because it is the Father who is the recipient of all the liturgical prayers and of the sacrifice itself. The Father looks at us, listens to us, greets us. We perceive His face through “the obscure mirror” (1 Co 13.12) of our words, our supplications, and that face is that of love and compassion.
In this gathering of names and memories, memory becomes a sacrament, a sign of unity… and of division. The “other sheep that are not of this fold”, as Christ says (Jn 10.16) are forgotten, left outside. For this reason every liturgy, for me as a celebrant, is a silent and urgent call to reconciliation not only in our sentiments but in the mystical and sacramental Body of Christ.
We proceed toward the liturgy of the Word; in the Orthodox church it is called the liturgy of the catechumens, but I would rather call it the liturgy of initiation. We are now being introduced, carried, initiated into the vision of the “new creature” renewed in Christ. With the words of Psalm 102, we enter the prayerful dialogue of man with his soul seized with admiration and wonder. “Bless Yahweh, my soul, bless his holy name, all that is in me”. The son discovers and confesses the Father through His works. Right away the liturgy proclaims the revelation of Christ (Only begotten Son and Word of God, although immortal You humbled Yourself for our salvation, taking flesh…) and a few minutes later the choir sings the Beatitudes. Each beatitude is like a reflection which allows us to see the reality of Heavens in the secret of the human heart. With the beatitudes, we anticipate our transfiguration of children of the Father into the only Son. “We now pray in Christ and He with His Holy Spirit prays in us who are gathered in His Name” (Fr. A. Schmemann). And that prayer achieves in itself the unity that has been initiated.
The liturgy of the catechumens is realised in the metanoia which signifies the change of the heart. From this change proceeds the beginning of the liturgy of the faithful which I dare call the liturgy of adoption. It is the adoption by the Father in Christ who makes us discover the face of the invisible Father. We approach Him like the Angels. – “We who mystically represent the Cherubim”, sings the choir. We see the face of love as Christ saw it, because we are adopted by the Father in the Eucharist. “The soul”, says St. Maxim the Confessor, “with a dignity equal to that of the holy angels, is led to adoption according to grace by means of the same identity”.
This identity with Christ is a central point, more mysterious and incredible, of every liturgical action. Here is revealed the mystery of the Church as communion and as adoption. We enter this mystery through the sacrament of the Eucharist, through the transmutation of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. The adoption is a mystery of the Eucharistic and spiritual identity, through the grace of the transmutation of humankind in Christ, through the transfiguration of the members of the Church into the Body of Christ. “The spiritual man is the Church,” adds St. Maxim the Confessor, “and the mystical Church is man.”
In the formula of the anamnesis, after the words of Christ: “Take, eat…” come the words of Christ himself addressed to the Father: “We offer to You these gifts from Your own gifts in all and for all”. Christ’s sacrifice has become our offering in the liturgy; we enter into mystical, spiritual, sacramental communion with the Father Himself.
The revelation of the Father is open in the Church, yet we are often outside. The presence of Christ is revealed but, without Christ living in us, in our hearts, we can be blind to His presence. The liturgy puts important questions to man: who are you? Where are you? With whom are you? With Christ or with his enemy? Are you truly united and reconciled with those around you, with your brothers, with the others? But those questions come from answers already given. The liturgy leads us into the Father’s bosom and presents us with a triple image of man: a sinner who repents, an angel who serves the glory of God, and a Christ who knows His Father and our Father from within, in Spirit.
In the Trinitarian approach the challenge of unity is becoming clearer. There are three ways of solving this problem. We can pursue our long-drawn-out theological discussions and ask for a solution in yet a thousand or two thousand years.. We can proclaim unity and reconciliation with the finest sentiments as if all those centuries-old divisions had never existed and the differences were nothing more than the invention of a few medieval fogies. In a burst of enthusiasm, we can sign a contract to decree unity and reconciliation effective the day after, or the next, or any date we will find suitable.
Finally, we can enter into the mystery of the other, into the intimacy of his relation to God, into his vision of God, and try to share it, to live it truly. It is here, in the intimate space of prayer, of contemplation, of wonder and repentance that the call of the divine Bridegroom, of the Trinity, of Christ, speaks to our heart: “May they all be one. Father, may they be one in us, as you are in me and I am in you, so that the world may believe…” (Jn 17.21)
I have proposed to you the Orthodox vision of the Trinity and I invite you to share it with me. That doesn’t mean that I refuse to enter into other visions, on the contrary; but I think that true reconciliation, before being celebrated on the public squares, must be concluded in everyone’s house.
That means that the unity in Trinity, a reconciliation stronger and deeper than that of enthusiasm or theological formulas, must begin in the mystery shared and lived together. It opens our hearts, and even our heart of hearts, to the others, beginning with love for the others. But love, as we have said before, is already the communion to the Holy Trinity. The key to unity is to be found in us, in the Trinitarian life itself to which we communicate. We must find it in our hearts open to the Trinity which already unites us. “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also”, says Christ (Luke 12:34). For, on the reconciliation of the hearts, he celebrates Himself the sacrament of unity.