Wednesday, December 5, 2007

St. Clement of Alexandria

Weds. Dec. 5, 2007
The Chapel of the Resurrection
Gethsemane Episcopal Cathedral
Fargo, North Dakota

John 6.57-63

In the Name of God, Father, + Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today is the feast of St. Clement of Alexandria. He comes to us right in the middle of a series of days celebrating several so-called Fathers of the Church. Yesterday we celebrated the Feast of John of Damascus. Tomorrow we celebrate the Feast of St. Nicholas and on the Friday we celebrate the Feast of St. Ambrose of Milan. All of this leads us to an unofficial feast of our Church and a Holy Day of Obligation in the Roman Catholic Church—the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady on Saturday (which also happen to be my birthday). In the midst of this celebration of Church Fathers and in this time in which we ponder such things as Incarnation—Our God made flesh—I thought I would talk a bit about who these men were and why they are important to us.

I have been reading a lot of Patristics lately—Patristics being the study of the writing of these Church Fathers. It has been a great experience for me. I love these Fathers of the Church and I can’t get enough of their works. I have been amazed by their brilliance, their clarity, the depth of their thinking. And I have been especially amazed at how their words still speak with such power even now. Even after a thousand or so years, these Fathers are still fresh. They still speak to us and the Church, just as they spoke to the Christians of their time and, for a large part, what they said still speaks loud and clear to us.

One of my favorite of the Father is St. Gregory of Nyssa. Just when one thinks that the Fathers can’t be radical in this time of seemingly radical theology, one is amazed to find Gregory, who died in about 394, writing things like this:

“The soul of the dead man will be brought before judgment, it will hear the sentence on its past life, it will receive punishment and reward according to its desert, either to be cleansed by fire according to the word of the gospels, or to be blessed and comforted in the dew of grace.” (Patrologia Graeca, XLVI, 167)

At first, we might think this is pretty standard. But if you were listening closely, what Gregory—good, Orthodox (or “right –thinking”)—Gregory is talking about is what is now called Universal Salvation. He is saying that, yes, there is a time of damnation and fire for those who are damned, but, he says, it is not eternal. What the time of fire does is cleanse the soul and makes it ready for eternal life with Christ. In other words, even those whoa re damned are not damned for all eternity. Eventually, they will be brought into a full relationship with Christ and will be redeemed. To state it simply, no one is lost forever. In the end, all will be saved.

But this isn’t the most radical thing Gregory has to say on the topic. He says that because there is no eternal damnation, not even our greatest enemy, Satan, will be damned forever. Another Church Father, Origen, had already, before Gregory, stated that he believed eventually even Satan would be redeemed. For Origen, however, this idea of Universal Salvation—even for Satan—is seen in the ”light of an abstract idea,” according to Robert Payne in his book, The Fathers of the Eastern Church. For Gregory, this salvation of all of us, including “the Prince of Darkness” is “accomplished in the joyfulness of God.”

I love that. Our salvation—the salvation of all of us—is accomplished in the “joyfulness of God.” For Gregory, he saw a day in which “even the Prince of Darkness would once more be restored to his seat beside the throne of God.” Talk about radical thinking. To even bring up this concept that the damned—and even the Devil—could be saved in certain company today is seen as radically liberal, radically left of center, radically crazy, But for the Church Fathers, this was simply a way of saying that unless the damned are ultimately redeemed, unless Satan himself is redeemed, the full mission of Christ’s salvation of the created order has not been accomplished and, in a sense, shows that God has failed somewhere along the way.

You can start to see why I love the Church Fathers so much. These Fathers lived in a time not all that long removed from the time of Jesus, As Robert Payne said in his book, they lived in a time when “[t]he face of Jesus has left a shining on the air; they see His face; and in His pathways they walked in fear and trembling, for they could almost see His shadow at the turning of the road.”

They are important to us now because, as I said, the Church is in a similar place as it was in their day. We too are being rent apart by schisms. We too find Christians fighting against other Christians over matters of dogma and policy, over scripture and tradition. And it may be time for us to turn to these Fathers, who saw the Church through the tumultuous times in their day to lead us yet again through the tumultuous times of our Church now.

Or maybe, we should be praying for new Fathers and Mothers in our midst. We should be praying for another Clement or Nicholas, another John of Damascus or Ambrose of Milan, another Gregory of Nyssa. We should be praying for those people who will lead us with strength of faith and gentleness of compassion. We should be praying for people who are radical in their thinking and yet orthodox in their foundation. We should be praying for men and women who can inspire us and lead us, who can say to us, as St. Polycarp did in the early Church:

“Let your baptism serve as a shield, your faith as a helmet, your love as spear, your endurance as full armor.” (Ad Polyc. VI)

We need people in the church like Clement who can say to us—and convince us—that “All this life is a holy festival.” Because it is. All life is a holy festival. And we should be rejoicing. So, like those early Fathers and Mothers of our Church, rejoice in this holy festival of life

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