Prayer in the Spirit

ascension-coptic

Coptic Icon of the Ascension

I am examining Balthasar’s insights from his book Prayer. In this post I want to walk through the paradox of flesh and spirit. Balthasar introduces the two opposing realities of flesh and spirit, saying,

the tension between flesh and spirit which characterizes man in particular brings out the starkest contrasts in the way contemplation is viewed. If God is pure spirit, and if contemplation is a matter of encountering God, it seems to follow that the contemplative’s task is to purify himself and lift himself into the purely spiritual sphere by slowly detaching himself from the external world of sense (p 259)

The logic is there: God is spirit, and man is called to contemplate God; but of course, this quote wreaks of Gnosticism. Christianity is a wholly this worldly. It is a physical religion; incarnational. How then can this be the call for the contemplative? Balthasar, aware of the possible objections, qualifies his call to purely spiritual prayer:

[We cannot not presume that] man’s soul belongs with God and thus seeks to return to him (whereas the body comes from below and must return thither to death), and that man’s bodily existence is alienated from God through sin and bondage to death, the conclusions of natural religion seem to be almost inevitable: man, at the core of his being, is a soul which comes from God; the body is involved in some kind of “displacement” or “fall”; and soul’s return and redemption must take place through a movement away from the body and toward the spirit (p 260)

On the contrary, says Balthasar, “God, who is pure spirit, condescends to become man in order thus to lead us up to him. For Christ is both God and man: in the flesh he not only manifests the reality and power of the soul, the spirit: he even manifests the divine in the medium of the flesh” (p 262).

In other words, it is not that God wants to break the chains of the flesh and free us from bodily existence. On the contrary, the reality of the God-man means that God has come into and through the medium of the flesh. This means that divine and fleshly existence are not in competition with one another. In Christ, God and man have entered into a cooperative relationship.

So then, how is the Christian to contemplate God in pure spirit if he is not called to escape the flesh? How can he be purely spiritual and yet in the flesh? Balthasar explains:

God did not descend to the level of flesh simply so that we should “ascend” from flesh to spirit; the revelation of agape, of his self-sacrificing and self-emptying love is not solely or primarily intended to assist our natural religious eros to reach its goal… In other words, God’s entering into flesh must not be seen as a mere means to our redemption, nor as a preliminary stage on the way to our “divinization”; it is not something that passes away, as it were, is extinguished, is canceled by the Risen Lord’s return to the Father. The Risen One returns to the Father with his whole humanity, including his body. This is what makes him the firstborn of many brethren. But what kind of body is his? Is it not a glorified body, adopted into the Spirit’s mode of existence? (p 263)

OK then, we come to the answer: Christ returned to the Father with his entire humanity. What this means is that mankind is not destined to break free of the flesh, but rather to entire into a new mode of spiritual-physical existence. Paul calls this existence glorification; a world, a body, enriched and animated by the power of the Spirit. This is what it means to be spiritual: to participate fully in God’s eternal life through the Son and the Spirit.

Let us dig a bit deeper. Balthasar expounds:

There is truth in the Platonic view (that body is bondage), and it is this: through sin we forfeited our native home and have taken lodging in a lower region; we have fallen from a world governed by the Spirit to a world governed by subspiritual laws (p 268)

Flesh is fallen not in the sense that it is bad and we must escape it, but in the sense that it has lost a life enlivened by the Spirit. Our bodies are given over to temporality; to non-eternity; to life outside of God’s own life, to be overtaken by corruption and death. Redemption therefore includes a participation in Christ’s full resurrected life in the Spirit. The Son became one of us to breathe the Spirit back into our flesh; to give us a participation in his own triune life. If this was not needed, then why the incarnation? Death had come as a result of the fall, and God entered into that situation to destroy death in the flesh, and to make our very flesh participants in his life.

Christ came, in other words, to give us a physical-pneumatic life, a fully embodied life governed, empowered, enhanced, transfigured by the life of the Spirit. Balthasar explains,

As believers privileged to share in the Lord’s resurrection, our senses acquire something of the pneumatic quality of the Lord’s glorified sense even prior to our own resurrection, so that, in him and together with him, we can grasp the Father and the Spirit and the entire world beyond (p 270)

What all of this means is that to pray in the Spirit, to be spiritual, is not to leave the flesh. It is not to be otherworldly. Rather, it is to be illumined and to participate in the life of Christ through the Spirit. This world was destined to participate in God, to be elevated, to be raised to a new and higher pitch through God’s own power. This is the logic of the incarnation: the Son took the fallen finite flesh of humanity and breathed life into it. And he gives us this very life in the Spirit!

 

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Trinitarian Atonement

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The cross is usually thought of as a work of the Son. And of course it is a work of the Son: a selfless giving-up — a priestly sacrifice — through which the sin of the world is forgiven.

But the cross is not just a work of the Son. Actually, the Bible presents the cross as a work of the entire Godhead done together. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:19 that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself”. What Paul means to communicate is that the whole God, not just the Son, was actively involved in the work of the cross to reconcile fallen humanity to himself. 

But in what way?

Donald Macleod, in his chapter on the atonement from Christian Dogmatics: Reformed Theology for the Church Catholic, explains that “as in every outgoing act of the Trinity, all three persons are involved” (p 255). Macleod explains firstly, that though the Father was not on the cross,

yet it is to him that the New Testament characteristically traces back the cost of Calvary, as if it were of his love that the cross speaks above all. But how, if he felt it not at all? If he has compassion for us, his children (Ps. 103), had he no pity for his Son? Did he not long to intervene as he did in the case of Abraham, and cry, “Don’t lay a hand on the boy!”?

The greatest indictment of sin is that even the divine love and wisdom could save the world only at the cost of God sacrificing his own Son. It was, indeed, a free and loving initiative, yet once it was embarked on, the sacrifice became a necessity. There was no other way. The cup could not pass (Mark 14: 35), and it was a sacrifice for both the Father and the Son. (p 255)

The Father gives up his Son, and he does not intervene in his sufferings. This is properly in what manner Jesus experiences the wrath of the Father. God lets him go; he abandons him. And on this account the curses of the law are said to be satisfied before the Father.

In this manner, the Father can be said to have offered Christ for the sins of the world. Macleod explains that while it is Christ who is priest of the New Covenant — and while Christ freely, lovingly, offers himself as the pure lamb for the covering of the sins of the world —

[there are also verses such] as John 3: 16; Romans 8: 32; and 1 John 4: 10 [that] speak of another priesthood: the priesthood of God the Father. Here is the heavenly archetype of the story of Abraham and Isaac, where the Father delivers up his jachid, his beloved Son, and where Father and Son together proclaim that there is no length to which they will not go to save the world. This is what “theories” of the atonement have to wrestle with: the cross not only as a demonstration of the love of Jesus but also as a demonstration of the love of God the Father. His, ultimately, was the cost, and his the loss. It is his Son who bleeds and dies. It is from his own Son that he must hide his face, to his cry he must turn a deaf ear, to him whom he can extend no comfort and offer no hint of recognition. (p 247)

All throughout this chapter, Macleod rightly compares Abraham and Isaac to the Father’s giving up of the Son. The Bible makes this comparison as well: “God so loved the world that He gave up his only Son” (John 3:16); Jesus is said to have carried wood on his back to the top of the mount, with no sacrifice but himself! Macleod concludes that just as Abraham and Isaac went up together to the place of sacrifice, “they [also] went up, ‘both of them together’ (Gen 22:6, 8), not as helpless victims of an unavoidable destiny but as divine persons who had covenanted together to share the cost of saving the world and were now walking together toward the pain” (p 255).

But it was not just the Father giving the Son up. The Spirit was also involved in the cross. But what did he do? Macleod says that the Spirit empowered the Son to (1) be the pure Lamb, having obeyed the entire law from the beginning of his life, and (2) “upheld the Son through all the challenges of his self-offering” (p 251).

Christ, in all humility, as Paul says, did not utilize his divine attributes during his time on earth “but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Phil 2:7). Rather than his own divine power, it was instead the anointing of the Spirit which enabled Christ to obey the covenant, and it was the same Spirit which empowered him to pain of the cross. It was by the Spirit that Christ refused to revile his enemies, but rather to ask the Father to forgive them. The Spirit was the power behind it all.

But one last thing must be said of the Father and Spirit at work in the cross: it was because Christ offered himself as the innocent victim, and suffered the violence of wicked men, that the Father, through the Spirit, infinitely pleased with Christ, raised Him up to glory. Macleod explains:

The loving, adoring Father, struck with the glory of his Son’s obedience, brings him back to life, raises him up, and seats him in the heavenlies (Eph. 2: 5– 6). He places that humanity, so abused by men, in the glory the Son had with the Father before the world was (John 17: 5). (p 255)

It is the Father, through the Spirit, who raises Christ to glory. Even the resurrection takes a Trinitarian shape! 

Thus the work of the cross is entirely Triune. In it, the Father gives up his Son, and the Spirit upholds the Son; and because of this Triune empowered obedience, the same Triune God lifts the Son to glory. What joy!