Sunday, September 12, 2010

Honey and Hemlock

“There is something of benefit to be had even from the profane philosophers—but somewhat as in a mixture of honey and hemlock. So it is most needful that those who wish to separate the honey from the mixture should beware that they do not take the deadly residue by mistake.”1

There was no naiveté in Christ when He came to earth to be born of the flesh of the Virgin Mary His mother. The Pre-Raphaelite poet Christina Rossetti, a devout Anglican High Church woman, tells us of the infant Christ Child with great tenderness.

Lord God of Mary,
Whom His lips caress
While He rocks to rest
On her milky breast
In helplessness.2

He is born as a real child, wholly dependent on his mother; the Living Word of God uttering inarticulate baby sounds. All our understanding of the ways of God with man is governed by the paradigm, “God initiates, man responds” There is in such limitation and dependency a tremendous gift of love given for you and for me. God, the Living God, accommodates himself to the limitations of humankind, as the Psalmist says, “He stooped to me and heard my cry.”3 All of our praying is a response to His great gift of love already given.

The Act of Incarnation, the co-inherence of God the Word in the womb of Mary, provides a redemptive answer to Fall and the resulting predicament of humankind. The Fall and Original Sin reveal the inner posture of the human heart, the preference for doing things our own way instead of glad surrender to the God who created us. However rather than being solely the answer to the fallen state of humankind, that Act of Incarnation was predetermined by the joyful choice of God from before the serpent, from before the beginning of time itself. His intention in creating us was to become one with us, “not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by the taking of the Manhood into God.”4 He created us to become one with us, flesh of our flesh, bone of our bone, uniting us with him forever and drawing us up to be with Him in the eternal realms. Already as a Christian you have one foot in Paradise.

When God declared His intention to create humankind he said, “Let us make man in our own image, after our likeness”5 Having completed His work, “God saw everything that He had made, and behold,” he said, “it was very good.”6 What was it that he proclaimed, “very good?” It was humankind, in the flesh, in the Garden of Eden. It was the pleasure of God to walk with Adam and Eve in the garden. Note that the flesh is only fallen by virtue of its relationship with the soul; not because it is evil in itself. What was the purpose of creation? We were created that He might walk with us, and we with Him.

Lo, how far we have fallen, and how far all creation has fallen with us. We have a world of mixed honey and hemlock so mingled that it is hard for us to separate out the honey from the hemlock and not take the hemlock by mistake. If the truth be told we have developed a perverse taste for the bitter tang of hemlock. I grieve that I am so sinful, not that I am any different from you. I grieve that we are corporately so sinful; that we share the heritage of Adam and Eve for good and for ill.

Take seriously the extent of the Fall. Self-knowledge is a necessary precondition for the restoration of our relationship with the God who loves us; self-knowledge of the depth of our fall on a personal and corporate level. To encounter the love of God, one must first discover that God is holy, and that humankind at best is a mixture of honey and hemlock. When the Son of Righteousness, the outraying of the glory of God, arises in our souls, His brilliant light throws all of our darkness into clear relief. That is painful, and I often find it so. We are dangerous people who live in a dangerous world, and only by grace received through faith will we come through to safety.

That is the flip side of the coin. The other side is that we were created for fellowship with God and that He has provided the way for our restoration. We have no righteousness of our own, but Christ has become for us our “righteousness and sanctification and redemption.”7 Our baptism as individuals into Christ initiates the process of restoration in us, but it is a process that must be affirmed and accepted by us. Only the ability to say “No!” to the offer of grace guarantees our freedom of choice.

We are baptized not only into Christ, we are also baptized into the Body of Christ, we are baptized into community, we are baptized into the household of God. As we draw closer to Him we draw closer to each other. As deep as the depth of our fall, so great and greater is the power and glory of our redemption through the redemptive work of Christ upon the Cross. One cannot separate the Persons of the Trinity. It is not that God sent his Son as a surrogate; no, God Himself is born one of us and dies upon the cross. God dies to vanquish the death in us and bring us to life. “God has died in the flesh, and hell trembles with fear.”8 O Lord God intra tua vulnera absconde me, in your wounds hide me. Ne permittas me separari a te, do not permit be to be separated from Thee.9

You will hear Eastern writers like Gregory Palamas and others tell us that the purpose of the Incarnation is what they called theosis, that is that we become partakers of the divine nature, but I think the purpose is simpler than that. The purpose of the Incarnation is intimacy with God, that we might be with him; theosis, transformation, is a result of our growing intimacy with God the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

When we say that Christ is our righteousness we own that God gives His righteousness, the righteousness of Christ, to sinners if we trust in Him, and that by acceptance of Him and His righteousness, in lieu of our own, we are restored to right relationship with Him. That is to say, in more theological terms, we are made just, we are justified by grace through faith. One of the wonders of this state in which we find ourselves is that even though we are from time to time keenly aware of the things that we have done, and the things that we have left undone, nonetheless He loves us and keeps company with us out of His mercy, His steadfast and active love towards us. When He has won our hearts, when we surrender our hearts to Him, everything else will follow. Faith in His redemptive work takes a surrender of the heart. Faith in His redemptive work takes the courage to acknowledge that we cannot redeem ourselves, and the humility to accept His labour on our behalf.

The way is not one of passivity, but of active acceptance and co-operation with the grace of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. In the Prologue to the Rule, St. Benedict of Nursia writes, “In drawing up its regulations, we hope to set down nothing harsh, nothing burdensome. The good of all concerned, however may prompt us to a little strictness in order to amend faults and to safeguard love. Do not be daunted immediately by fear and run away from the road that leads to salvation. It is bound to be narrow at the outset. But as we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love. Never swerving from God’s instruction, then, but faithfully observing God’s teaching … until death, we shall through patience share in the sufferings of Christ that we may deserve also to share in the eternal presence.”10

However as children of the Anglican Reformation, let us remember that the basis on which we deserve to share in the eternal presence is not our own efforts, but the grace of Christ who is made for us “righteousness and sanctification and redemption,” and that as we lift our souls aloft to God, He delights for the sake of Christ to pour that free gift of grace upon us.


1 Gregory Palamas, The Triads, I i. 20
2 Christina Rossetti, “A Christmas Carol”, Christina Rossetti:
The Complete Poems
,(London: Penguin, 2005), p. 383
3 Psalm 40:1 BCP
4 Quincunque Vult, BCP, p. 865, (The Creed of St. Athanasius).
5 Genesis 1:26 ESV
6 Genesis 1:31
7 Romans I Corinthians 1:10
8 An Early Christian sermon
9 The Anima Christi
10 The Rule of St. Benedict, The Prologue