Divine Joy / On First Principles

Divine Joy / On First Principles

The Theophany at the River Jordan

Mark 1: 9-11

Christ the Lord – The Road to Cana

The Baptism of Jesus

At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. As Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

And this is where we begin our discussion about God and his goodness. The one point in the Holy Scriptures where God the Father, Jesus the Son and the Holy Spirit make their appearance at the banks of the river Jordan where Jesus is baptized by John the Baptist. This is where David Bentley Hart opens his discussion about Divine Joy. Hart says “here God declares himself, and the Father’s everlasting utterance of the Son becomes discernable; and the form of his utterance is a declaration of pleasure.”[1]

This theophany is very important in the life and ministry of Jesus as it thrusts Jesus from life as a normal man about Nazareth to become the messiah who will touch, heal and teach many along his path. Hart has a way about word to further explain the relationship between God the Father, the Son and the Spirit. And beginning with the Theophany is a most excellent visual to tell us how the three coexist in the same area. Yet we know from Hart that God is not a being of place and destination, but God is everywhere, in the near and the distant the now and the then. God shows us his beauty in the referencing that in the Son he is well pleased. There is a beauty in this image of the baptism of Jesus that everyone who was standing at the river Jordan would have seen. Hart continues “God’s beauty is delight and the object of delight, the shared gaze of love that belongs to the persons of the Trinity; it is what God beholds, what the Father sees and rejoices in the Son, in the sweetness of the Spirit, what the Son and Spirit find delightful in one another, because as Son and Spirit of the Father they share his knowledge and love as persons… God is boundless and so is never a boundary; his music possesses the richness of every transition, interval, measure, variation – all dancing and delight. And because he is beautiful, being abounds with difference, shape, variety, manifold relation.”[2]

We find in Hart the discussion of perichoresis “the dance” another visual that is used to explain the interweaving of the persons of the trinity. The Spirit is as much a part of God as God is a part of God, with the Son. Hart writes “the triune perichoresis of God is not a substance in which difference is grounded in its principles or in which it achieves the unity of a higher synthesis, even if God is the fullness and actuality of all that is; rather, the truly unexpected implication of Trinitarian dogma is that Christian thought has no metaphysics of the one and the many, the same and the different, because that is a polarity that has no place in the Christian narrative.” [3]

As we move throughout Hart exposition on God the Father and his constituent parts Hart tells us that God can not be plotted on a map nor given to one particular space. That God is love and beauty that is immeasurable on the human scale of perception.

This leads us to our next discussion about God from the viewpoint of Origen of Alexandria. Now Origen has a beautiful way of painting a visual of God and his parts in Christian writing. And unlike Hart, who is complicated and at a point, much deeper than I can understand at some times, Origen is a breath of fresh air. He writes simply and from the heart when it comes to all things spiritual. Let me begin this exposition by sharing Origen with you. “For whatever may be the knowledge which we have been able to obtain about God, whether by perception or by reflection, we must of necessity believe that he is far and away better than our thoughts about him. For if we see a man who can scarcely look at a glimmer or the light of the smallest lamp, and if we wish to teach such a one, whose eyesight is not strong enough to receive more light than we have said, about the brightness and splendour of the sun, shall we not have to tell him that the splendour of the sun is unspeakably and immeasurably better and more glorious than all this light he can see?”[4]

We find that David Bentley Hart and Origen of Alexandria have similar views about God on a greater scale. And if we read closely the two texts we find that there is a common voice shared between the two men. One from ages past and one from the recent present. Yet they both share a grandiose vision of God’s beauty. Origen asks the questions of his readers to the effect of “is God corporeal or is he spirit?” This notion is something that Hart speaks about in his writing God cannot be seen by human eye or can we even conceive of who or what he is in our limited manner of the senses. In order to see God we must look beyond our limited means and search for him in the spiritual realm of senses. Hart tells us that God is in the “inbetween” he is in the spaces between here and there that God is present yet Origen discusses that we are unable to behold God as he is. Yet for the spiritually inclined, God is there to be found. God makes himself known to us through his creations and created beings. Origen writes “there is no existence to which God is visible; not as if he were one who is visible by nature and eludes and escapes the gaze of his creatures because of their frailty, but that he is in his nature impossible to be seen.”[5]

Origen gives us little bits of knowledge as if he has insight to things spiritual that his readers may not in saying “It is one thing to see, another to know. To see and be seen is a property of bodies; to know and to be known is an attribute of intellectual existence.”[6]

Like Hart, the intellectual theologian who attempts to tell us about God and the Trinity, Origen himself is speaking in both spiritual and intellectual languages. He wants us to differentiate between what we see and what we know and by that note what we believe. Everything stems from the scriptures and Origen refers to them throughout his writing. To see and be seen – “This clearly shows that what is called ‘seeing’ and ‘being seen’ in the case of bodily existence is with the Father and the Son called ‘knowing’ and ‘being known,’ through the faculty of knowledge and not through our frail sense of sight.”[7]

Origen is asking us to see without vision. To believe at face value that God is a spiritual being. He asks us to see God within the heart. “For what else is to see God in the heart but to understand and know him with the mind, just as we have explained above? For the names of the organs of sense are often applied to the soul, so that we speak of seeing with the eyes of the heart, that is, of drawing some intellectual conclusion by means of the faculty of intelligence.”[8]

Like David Hart, the intellectual pursuit of God is the path we are being asked to walk. If God is all around and in the in between spaces, then for sure, God can be found by those who know how to seek him.

As we move deeper into the discussion of trinity and the Son, Origen speaks of wisdom as being created by God before all and that wisdom and the Son may occupy the same space for the word became incarnate wisdom became living in the person of the Son of God. “Whatever then we have said of the wisdom of God will also fitly apply to and be understood of him in his other titles as the Son of God, the life, the word, the truth, the way and the resurrection.”[9]

The knowing of God and the seeing of God becomes possible in the writing of Origen. Paul writes “that the only begotten Son is ‘the image of the invisible God’, and that he is the firstborn of all creation; and when writing to the Hebrews he says of the Son that he is the ‘brightness of God’s glory and the express image of his substance.”[10]

In order to see God we must look to the Son. And we must also ponder the spirit of God as well. The incarnation, the Son of God is the visible representation of Almighty God. In that there is no argument or question. For what is in the Father is in the Son and what is in the Son is in the Father. For Christ came to the earth and became incarnate at the will of the Father and by his grace. God bridges the distance between heaven and earth by sending his son to walk among God’s people. “For if ‘all things the father doeth, these also doeth the Son likewise’, then in this very fact that they Son does all things just as the Father does, the Father’s image is reproduced in the Son, whose birth from the Father is as it were an act of his will proceeding from the mind.”[11]

First there was the light and secondly the word and thirdly the creation of all that was. Origen continues his exposition on the Son. “For the Son is the Word, and therefore we must understand that nothing in him is perceptible to the senses. He is wisdom, and in wisdom we must not suspect to presence of anything corporeal. He is the true light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world’, but he has nothing in common with the light of our son. Our Savior is therefore the image of the invisible God, the Father, being the truth, when considered in relation to the Father himself, and the image when considered in relation to us, to whom he reveals the Father.”[12]

Where David Hart and Origen come close together is on the thought of the universe and that God fills that entire universe because God is ever-present and omnipresent. Origen writes “Accordingly, to prove that God is almighty we must assume the existence of the universe, For if anyone would have it that certain ages, or periods of time, or whatever he cares to call them, elapsed during which the present creation did not exist, he would undoubtedly prove that in those ages or periods God was not almighty, but that he afterwards became almighty from the time when he began to have creatures over whom he could exercise power.”[13]

David Hart speaks on this idea in a way, “The father’s entire being, which he possesses in his paternal depth, is always also both filial – manifest, known, imparted – and spiritual – loved, enjoyed, perfected – and this event of God’s knowledge and joy is the divine essence – exteriority, happiness, communion – in its infinite unity.”[14]

So there is a human like existence to God in Harts writing. In kind, the same human aspect of god that Origen has been talking about. That God became known, almighty, incarnate and spirit. As we move into the speaking of the Holy Spirit, “from all of which we learn that the person of the Holy Spirit is of so great authority and dignity that saving baptism is not complete except when performed with the authority of the whole most excellent Trinity, that is by the naming of Father, Son and Holy Spirit; and that the name of the Holy Spirit must be joined to that of the unbegotten God the Father and his only begotten Son.”[15]

Hart continues “In this way the Holy Spirit indeed perfects the love of God, immanently and economically: immanently, completing it as love, deepening it in his “excessive” difference, the further sharing of love, beyond what would be contained in mere mutuality; and economically, by being the differentiation and perfection of divine love “outward,” whereby, graciously, it opens out to address freely (and so to constitute) the otherness of creation, and invest it with boundless difference, endless inflections of divine glory.”[16]

Origen continues with his discussion of the Trinity and we begin to understand that he has a firm knowledge of the three aspects of the Trinity, of God, the Son and the Spirit and I get a sense that in his writing, that Origen knew exactly what he was saying and that the words were not just words, but they were living words that were written to the community that he was writing for. Much of these ideas as undisputed today in our study of theology, doctrine and dogma. He has the ability to teach such wise words from a place of authority and knowledge. Let us complete our survey of the Spirit with Origen as he writes “For it is this Trinity alone which exceeds all comprehension, not only of temporal but even of eternal intelligence.

The rest of things, however, which are external to the Trinity, must be measured by ages and periods of time. The fact, therefore, that the Word is God, and was in the beginning with god, must not lead anyone to suppose that this Son of God is contained in any place; nor must the fact that he is wisdom, or truth, or righteousness, or sanctification, or redemption; for all these need no place in which to act or work, but each of them must be understood as referring to those who receive a share of the Word’s power and effectiveness… From this we can clearly perceive that the divinity of the Son of God is not confined in any place, otherwise it would be present in that place and not present in any other; but that while, in virtue of the majesty of its incorporeal nature, it is confined to no place, in no place, on the other hand, can we think of it as being absent.”[17]

Hart tells us that God cannot be contained in one spot and that God is everywhere and nowhere. After this overview of the Trinity from the perspective of Origen of Alexandria, I would like to return to David Bently Hart and his discussion of the Theophany. “A case in point: in Eastern Orthodox tradition the church’s celebration of Jesus’ baptism by John is called the Feast of the Theophany, because what is revealed in the audible and visible coincidence of the voice of God declaring the Father’s pleasure in his Son, the dove descending, and the incarnate Word is nothing less than trinity itself, in the fullness of its shared love, its immanent dynamism of distinction and unity.

The constellation of figures in the tableau constitutes an icon, a crystallization of the mystery of faith in one perfect image; not, that is, a simple allegory, but a real showing of God, manifesting simultaneously the full drama of salvation and the full order of intradivine relations, revealing them to be not only compatible motions but identical… In Matthew’s Gospel, at the baptism of Jesus (as at the transfiguration), the voice of God proclaims the Father’s favor; the Son is indicated, declared, offered outward as the Father’s true image.”[18]

I return to the image and icon of the baptism of Jesus because it is so powerful in today’s liturgical calendar. It is one of the most studied visuals in my studies of Gospels and Acts. So much is happening on the banks of the river Jordan. God the Father speaks to the Son, and to us, that in his son he is well pleased.

The appearance of the Holy Spirit makes the triune divinity complete. It is said that at the moment when Jesus was baptized that a rush of wind blew through the air and the rustling of doves wings was heard overhead as he saw a dove spiraling skywards to disappear in the firmament. This is a little liberty of the side of fictional literature. The coming of the Spirit and the voice of God changed Jesus and prepared him to pursue his calling into the world as messiah.

To close our discussion about the Trinity and the Theophany at the river Jordan, I would like to share with you the telling of the story of that day through the eyes of Jesus himself told by the writer Anne Rice from Christ the Lord, The Road to Cana.

Here we join Jesus at the riverside:

I moved down into the river. I passed Joseph and my mother, and the toll collector who stood at Joseph’s elbow ready to assist him, on account of his age, even as James was there. I moved up in front of John bar Zechariah. My way had always been to look down. The subject of whisper and insult through much of my life, I seldom confronted a man with my gaze, but rather turned away and sought my work as a matter of course. It was a quiet demeanor. But I didn’t do this now. It was no longer my way. That was gone.

He stood frozen, staring at me. I looked at him – at his rugged frame, the hair matted to his chest, the dark camel-skin cloak half covering him. I saw his eyes then fixed on mine. They were glazed, his eyes, the inevitable defense against a multitude of faces, a multitude of gazes, a multitude of expectations. But as we faced one another – he only slightly taller than I – his eyes softened. They lost their tight puckering, their deep distance, I heard the breath pass out of him.

There came a sound like the flapping of wings, gentle yet large, as of doves startled in the dovecote, and all struggling heavenward. He stared upwards, to the right and left, then back at me. He hadn’t found the source of the sound.

I addressed him now in Hebrew: “Johanan bar Zechariah” I said his eyes grew wide. “Yeshua bar Joseph,” he said. The toll collector drew in to watch, to hear. I could see the vague shape of my mother and Joseph nearby. I could feel the others turning slowly towards us, moving clumsily towards us. “It’s you!” John whispered. “You … baptize me!” He held up the conch, dripping with water.

The disciples to the right and left stopped in the very midst of what they did. Those coming up out of the water remained standing, attentive. Something had changed in the holy man. What had changed? I felt the throng itself like a great connected and living thing breathing with us. I held up my hands.

“We’re made in His image, you and I,” I said. “This is flesh, is it not? Am I not a man? Baptize me as you’ve done everyone else; do this, in the name of righteousness”

I went down into the water. I felt his hand on my left shoulder. I felt his fingers close on my neck. I saw nothing and felt nothing and heard nothing but the cool flooding water, and then slowly I came up out of it, and stood shocked by the flood of sunlight. The coulds above had shifted. The sound of beating wings filled my ears. I stared forward and saw across John’s face the shadow of a dove moving upwards – and then I saw the bird itself rising into a great opening of blue sky, and I heard a whisper against my ears, a whisper that penetrated the sound of the wings, as though a pair of lips had touched both ears at the same time, and faint as it was, soft and secretive as it was, it seemed the edge of an immense echo.

This is my Son, this is my beloved.

All the riverbank had gone quiet…

[1] Hart, Coursepack, Divine Joy, pg. 20

[2] Hart. Coursepack, Divine Joy, pg. 21

[3] Hart, Coursepack, Divine Difference, pg. 23

[4] Origen of Alexandria, On First Priciples, pg. 101

[5] Origen of Alexandria, On First Principles, pg. 103

[6] Origen of Alexandria, On First Principles, pg. 103

[7] Origen of Alexandria, On First Principles, pg. 104

[8] Origen of Alexandria, On First Principles, pg. 104

[9] Origen of Alexandria, On First Principles, pg. 105

[10] Origen of Alexandria, On First Principles, pg. 106

[11] Origen of Alexandria, On First Principles, pg. 106

[12] Origen of Alexandria, On First Principles, pg. 107

[13] Origen of Alexandria, On First Principles, pg. 108

[14] The Beauty of the Infinite, Course pack, pg. 21

[15] Origen of Alexandria, On First Principles, pg. 112

[16] The Beauty of the Infinity, Divine Joy, pg. 21

[17] Origen of Alexandria, On First Principles, pg. 119

[18] The Beauty of the Infinity, Divine Fellowship, pg. 17