The Light of the World

19 July 2021

On the occasion of the commemoration of the holy six hundred and thirty God-bearing Fathers who attended the 4th Ecumenical Synod in Chalcedon, the Church reminds us of its answer to the ever-present question, which of course is expressed in different ways at different times, regarding the method and measure of God’s cooperation with humankind. It does this by recalling the historical vicissitudes of the 5th century, when the Christian world was thrown into turmoil by heresies which contradicted each other. On the surface it seems as though they were at odds with each other, but in reality they both attacked Orthodoxy.

At issue was the extreme rivalry between Nestorianism and Monophytism. Arius had considered Christ to be a created being and, in his zealous reaction to this heretical doctrine, Nestorius claimed that there were two Christs: the human person to whom Our Lady gave birth; and the Only-Begotten Son and Word of God. According to Nestorius, Christ the man was so devoted to God that he attracted the Son and Word of God, who occupied him and dwelt within him. This didn’t happen at Christ’s conception, however, but as he grew up. This is why, in Nestorius’ view, Our Lady isn’t the Mother of God, but the ‘Mother of Christ’, since she gave birth to a purely human person. On the other hand, the Monophysites, who fought fanatically against the delusion of Nestorius, went to the other extreme. Starting with the correct premise that the Only-Begotten Son and Word became incarnate and therefore took on flesh in the womb of Our Most Holy Lady the Mother of God, they then went on to teach that the divine nature, being the more powerful, completely expelled the human, with the result that, in the end, Christ has only divine nature. From the extreme of the domination of the human to the other extreme, of the domination of the divine. Both equally erroneous. Both equally catastrophic.

The divinely-inspired answer

What is our faith concerning Christ? Who is Christ in the Orthodox faith, particularly in relation to the specific problem over which the Nestorians and Monophysites were at odds? The Fathers of the 4th Ecumenical Synod said quite simply that Christ is one, a unified person, God and human and that there are not two Christs, one human and one divine. This one Christ, however, has two natures, being at the same time perfect God and perfect human- unchangeable, indivisible and unconfused. ‘One and the same (not two, as Nestorius claimed) ‘in two natures’ (not one as the Monophysites taught).

In today’s Gospel reading, Christ calls his disciples the light of the world, precisely in order to show that Christians have the ability, through the luminous manner of their life, to enlighten other people who are enslaved in the darkness of sin and delusion. At the same time, however, he implies something else which he clarifies further with the example of the lamp which burns, not to be hidden under a bushel, but to shed light throughout the house. How does this light exist? Of course, there’s combustible material, but that isn’t enough; the spark has to be struck to light the flame. In this way, the combination of the combustible material and the spark produces light.

In other words, if we’re to get to the point of talking about spiritual production, illumined people, saints of God, there has to be collaboration between God and humankind. This can be understood from the ascetic practices of Orthodoxy, from the way of life these dictate, in which the dominant feature is the cooperation between God and humankind in order to produce illumination, glorification and sanctification. This is why, later in the reading, Christ refers to the Law and the Prophets, explaining that he came not to abolish them but to fulfill them.

Today’s thinking

Today, too, we see the same rivalry as regards the terms concerning the collaboration between God and humankind. On the one side we have the modern Nestorians, Western people, who, with their clear emphasis on humanity, have not only come to the point of regarding God as an object of cold rational research, but have finally ended up by killing him, by rejecting him completely. On the other, we have the modern Monophysites, the people of the East who, by ceding the dominant power of authority to God have arrived at the abolition of humankind, to the point of physical annihilation. The former believe that, merely through their human powers- which have, indeed, achieved amazing scientific feats, as well as terrible catastrophes- they can attain to the truth  and perfect humankind in an anthropocentric system. The latter, bound in chains to a domineering God, have shown some progress in wisdom and culture- since both Islam and other Eastern religions are able to produce ideas, safe in their dependence on God as they conceive him- but at the same time they also produce and justify inhumane and volatile situations within the framework of a theocentric system.

The solution juxtaposed for centuries now by Orthodoxy is the collaboration of God and humankind for the salvation of the latter through the glory of the former. And this theanthropocentric system is expressed in the efforts which we make, with the weapons of prayer, watchfulness, self-restraint and also through the grace of God which blesses, strengthens and in the end illumines, so that we don’t abolish God and neither does God annihilate us. In a few days, our Church will celebrate the feast of the Prophet Elijah, which will remind us of the battle with the pseudo-prophets of Baal. During this struggle, Elijah gathered wood for the altar and poured abundant water on it. Despite the fact that the wood was soaked, the Lord sent down fire and burned it all up. Although he recognized his own sinfulness, Elijah fully expected the Lord to rain down fire, while, in turn, God expected Elijah to gather wood, showing forbearance to his weak creation. It is this collaboration that shapes the terms of the spiritual life for each one of us.