As we approach Pascha, the Feast of Feasts, it is fitting that we consider once again the nature of the banquet to which we are invited. As we will sing at Matins on Holy Thursday, we are called to ascend, with our minds on high, to enjoy the Master’s hospitality, the banquet of immortality in the upper chamber, receiving the words of the Word. The nourishment that we are offered is a feast of theology; the food that we will feast on is the body and blood of the Word, the one who opens the Scriptures to show how they all speak of him and provide the means for entering into communion with him.
Our chapel here at St Vladimir’s Seminary is dedicated to Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, and John Chrysostom. Although they each have a particular day of celebration, our patronal feast celebrates them together, as the Three Great Hierarchs. The hymnography for the feast celebrates first of all their words, their words of theology, how they spoke about God. The feast was conceived in the eleventh century as a feast of oratory: it was a celebration of those who found the words adequate to express the Word of God. Such theology is a sacred art – the Byzantines even called it a mysterion, a sacrament – and it is charged with divinity. It embraces and elevates the words of men to convey Jesus Christ, the Word of God.
The Church celebrates the Three Hierarchs as great examples of those who took on this work. Having studied at Athens and other intellectual centers of the ancient world, they used all their God-given intellectual powers for the celebration of this divine task. If we too wish be disciples, or, more accurately, “students” of Christ, we must take on this task of theology, learning Christ and being renewed in our minds. And there are two very important aspects of this that we always need to bear in mind.
First, that theology is not an abstract discipline or specialized profession. It is not speculation about God himself, separated from his own revelation or what his revelation says about us. It is not taking all the things that humans might think of as divine – omnipotence, omniscience, immortality – and then projecting them into the heavens. This approach creates nothing better than a “super-human”, with divine attributes, perhaps, but nothing more than the best we can humanly conceive. Rather, theology begins and ends with the contemplation of the revelation of God, as he has shown himself to be. Anything else is not theology at all, but fantasy. We do theology when we contemplate God’s own revelation: God, whose strength and wisdom is shown in the weakness and the folly of the cross. Christ himself, the Word of God, demonstrates his strength and power in this all-too-human way, by dying a shameful death on the cross, in humility and servitude – trampling down death by death – showing that true lordship is service. This one is the image of the invisible God: in Christ the fullness of divinity dwells bodily – the whole fullness, such that divinity is found nowhere else and known by no other means.
All of us, therefore, all of the people of God, must focus on the transforming power of God revealed in Christ by the power of the Spirit. As the Great Hierarchs affirmed, we cannot know what God is in himself, but we know how he acts. We are invited to come to a proper appreciation of the work of God in Christ by the Spirit. We are called to understand that Jesus Christ is indeed the Word of God, whom, by the same Spirit, we must convey in our words. To recognize him as the Word of God is not a matter of human perception, but to find the words to convey him certainly demands the application of our minds. It requires that we raise our minds to a properly theological level, that we may be transformed by the renewal of our minds. As Great Lent prepares us for the Feast of Feasts, so also honing our mental skills should prepare us for the feast of theology.
The second point to remember is that the theology that we celebrate is a pastoral theology. The hymns for the Great Hierarchs proclaim that the pastoral power of their theology has overthrown the illusory words of the orators, of those who play with words, speaking on a merely human level. Their theology is pastoral, in that it shepherds us into true life. It invites us to understand ourselves, and the whole of creation, in the light of God revealed in Christ by the Holy Spirit. This is not simply a matter of asking “What Would Jesus Do?” Nor is it simply a matter of being “pastoral,” as we often hear that word used today, in the sense of ministering to others on their own terms, enabling them to feel comfortable with themselves. Rather, it is the challenge to transfigure our own lives by allowing God’s own transforming power to be at work within us.
This means that we must confront our own brokenness and weakness, for this is how God has shown his own strength: it is only in our weakness that God’s strength is made perfect. And we will only have the strength to do this, we can do this only if we begin with God’s own revelation, if we begin with the theology taught to us by the Great Hierarchs. We have to abandon what we humanly think divinity is, and to let God show us who and what he is. We must begin, therefore, with the God who confronts us on the cross, who shows his love for us in this: the love that he embodies. Reflect on this: that when we are confronted with divine love in action, it is in the crucified Christ. This reality reveals two things: how alienated we are from the call that brought us into existence, yet, at the same time, how much we are loved and forgiven. In the light of Christ, we can begin both to understand our brokenness, our emptiness without him, and also to be filled with his love. Theology shows us that the truth about God and the truth about ourselves always go together.
So, as we approach the Feast of Feasts, let us prepare ourselves to receive this revelation of God on his own terms. Let us prepare ourselves for the challenge that his revelation presents, so that the Resurrection will transform us and renew our minds and we will find the words appropriate to offer the Word to others.
Fr. John Behr (SVOTS ’97) is Dean and Professor of Patristics at St. Vladimir’s Seminary. His early work was on issues of asceticism and anthropology, focusing on St. Irenaeus of Lyons and Clement of Alexandria. After spending almost a decade in the second century, Fr John began the publication of a series on the Formation of Christian Theology, and has now reached the fifth and sixth centuries. He has recently completed an edition and translation of, and introduction to, the remaining texts of Diodore of Tarsus and Theodore of Mopsuestia. He has also published a synthetic presentation of the theology of the early centuries, focused on the mystery of Christ. He is also a passionate cyclist, often rescheduling family events around the Tour de France. Fr. John’s wife, a Tour de France enthusiast and armchair cyclist, teaches English at a nearby college, and their two sons and daughter are being taught to appreciate the finer points of French culture: the great “constructeurs” of the last century, Le Grande Boucle, and … cheese.