My RICC F&O Presentation: Sacramental Theology through Genesis and the Psalms

Genesis, the Psalms, and the Church’s Calling to Heal and Perfect Creation

(An introduction to Orthodox Sacramental Theology)
Fr. Anthony Perkins (for the RICC F&O, September 2011)
Comments and critiques are encouraged
Bottom line up front: We are made in the image of God; the world responds to us,our actions, and our beliefs. It suffers because we have not been loving and true. The Good News is that we can become loving and true through Christ. Through Him, we can become the stewards of Creation we were made to be. In Him, we can participate in the healing and perfection of all. The transformation of the world is the power and calling of the Church (i.e. the mystical union of all those who are in Christ and Him in them). When it affects the changes that contribute to the perfection of creation, be it through teaching, preaching, feeding, clothing, healing, praying, forgiving, or blessing, its work is “sacramental”. This synergetic power is transformational, changing the world and allowing us a foretaste of the great transformation that is to come.
Setting Up the Narrative: Creation and the Fall
Among the many messages of Genesis 1:1-2:3 is this: it is through the cult that we are enabled to cope with evil, for it is the cult that builds and maintains order, transforms chaos into creation, ennobles humanity, and realizes the kingship of the God who has ordained the cult and commanded that it be guarded and practiced. It is though obedience to the directives of the divine master that his good world comes into existence.
Jon D. Levenson. 1988. Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Omnipotence. p. 127.
A foundational narrative of Christianity is that creation “groans in sin” (Romans 8:22), but that it is redeemed through Christ (St. John 3:17; Colossians 1:20; Ephesians 1:10; 2 Corinthians 5:19). This is a teaching this is common to all “mere” Christians.
One of the great Charisms of Eastern Orthodoxy is its sacramental theology, a theology that flows from a recognition that Christ’s Body (the Church, the “New Adam/Humanity”) is the mechanism of this perfection. We are called, through Christ, to be participants in the continual healing and perfection of creation. Like the Liturgy and Law it assumes, Levenson’s words (above) are given even more meaning when filled by the New Covenant: it is through “obedience” and “cult” that we and the world are transformed and brought into the Unity and Love that is with God. This is how God works through His saints to bring about His will.
Act One: The Fall
The structure of Genesis One is intentional: God is establishing and ordering the world as a Temple in which everything is purposeful and good (1-25; see also Isaiah 66:1). We are created last of all, ordained to be God’s image and commissioned to be stewards of this world (26, 28, 31; repeated in Psalm 8:4-9). We are to preserve, tend, and continue perfecting it as we ourselves are being perfected (ibid). It is designed to respond to us just as it naturally responds to its Creator. Had we remained true, this synergia would have led to an eternity of growth as everything moved from one joy to another forever. Unfortunately, we chose another way separate from God. His image within us became perverted and, as a result, our actions spread curses rather than joy throughout creation. As it says in Genesis three: the ground was “cursed” due to Adam’s sin, bringing forth “thorns and thistles”, and requiring that he “sweat” for his “bread” (Genesis 3:17-19). Sacramental theology goes both ways: blessings and curses are ontological; creation responds to its steward.
Act Two: The Great Flood as a Variation on a Theme
Going back to the priestly theme, mankind (Adam) had desecrated the Temple of Creation through his sin. This desecration continues through the next few chapters of Genesis, culminating with a collapse of the order God had first established; “all the fountains of the great deep [were] broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened.” (7:11) God had tamed the waters and the dragons that were in it “before the ages”, (Psalm 73/74:12-14);
Why withdrawest Thou Thy hand, even Thy right hand? Pluck it out of Thy bosom. For God is my King of old, working salvation in the midst of the earth. Thou didst divide the sea by They strength; Thou brakest the heads of the dragons in the waters. Thou brakest the heads of Leviathan in pieces, and gavest him to be meat to the people inhabiting the wilderness. Thou didst cleave the fountain and the flood: Thou driedst up mighty rivers.
(Psalm 73/74: 12-14, ; see also Psalm 88/89:10-12 & Job 40:25-32 (Septuagint)),
Order had been established, but mankind had forsaken his part in the maintenance of this condition. As a punishment, God withdrew His power from the water and allowed it to bring chaos (disorder) across the earth; But this was not the end: God preserved the vessels of His Temple and the re-establishment of order in the ark. After God pulls back the water, Noah (the only righteous one) demonstrates his willingness to serve as God’s steward; “then [after taking care of the animals under his care], Noah built an altar to God, and a took of every clean animal and of every clean bird, and offered whole burnt offerings on the altar.” God ends this lesson by re-affirming mankind’s commission (Genesis 9:1-7) and promising never again to allow the floods to destroy all life, offering the rainbow as a sign of His promise (Genesis 9:8-17).
And so we have the image of God’s complete control over the waters (chaos). For example, Psalm 103/104 (the Creation Psalm and the first Psalm chanted each day), echoing Genesis One, doesn’t just describe the ordering of the elements (1-6), but also how God keeps the chaos of the waters at bay; “At Your rebuke [the waters] shall flee; at the sound of Your thunder, they shall be afraid.” (7) Moreover, the waters now bring the potential for life and refreshment (10-13). Even the Leviathan and all the sea dragons within the waters have become tame (26). As Psalm 28/29 says;
The voice of the Lord is upon the waters; the God of glory thundered; the Lord is upon many waters… the Lord sat enthroned at the Flood and the Lord shall be enthroned as King forever” (3, 10).
To reiterate the theme, God is actively maintaining the borders between order and chaos and mankind is called to be steward of this order. Psalm 32/33 reaffirms this state;
By the word of the Lord the heavens were established, and all the host of them by the breath of His mouth. / Who gathers the waters of the sea together as in a wineskin, Who put the abysses in storehouses/…
The counsel of the Lord abides forever, the thoughts of His heart from generation to generation. / Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord, the people He chose as an inheritance for Himself. (Psalm 32/33: 6-7 & 11-12)

Act Three: The Division and Tutelage of the Nations

To summarize what came next, mankind soon forsook its commission and joined together to misuse its power. God saw that there was no end to the curses that would come from its intentions and protected creation (and mankind) by dividing the nations and assigning a divine guardian over each to guide and teach it (Genesis 11:6-8; Deuteronomy 32:8; Daniel 10:13; Psalm 81/82; and eventually Psalm 95/96:5). The Lord Himself remained as the God/Guardian/Protector of His chosen people (later called Israel; Deuteronomy 32:9). He gave His people Law and Liturgy (“common work”, commonly referred to as cult) to guide them in their work [NOTE: should add a section on Exodus and the parting of the water – ed.]. Through St. Paul, Christians often focus on the Law as it relates to the individual believer or perhaps to the ordering of a more just society. These are fine, but there is a sense in which the righteous are participating in something greater. So, for example, Leviticus is not just teaching people how to behave, but allowing them, through their behavior, to uphold the order of creation (e.g. 20:24b-26). When this order is maintained, blessings follow; when it is not, curses do (e.g. Leviticus 6). The Psalms describe this dynamic many times, both with regard to the cursing of “the nations” and wayward Israelites as well as the blessing of the righteous. They reaffirm the fact that the cycle is repeating itself again, with the Israelites unable (and often unwilling) to live up to their high calling. By this time, the other nations had given themselves over to idolatry and demon-worship (Psalm 95/96:5) – and many of the Jews, either voluntarily or under duress, joined them. As in the days of Noah, creation suffered. But the Psalms, along with the prophets, do not just describe the problem, they also speak to the hope and promise that a new equilibrium – a new world and a new temple – would be established when the Messiah came (e.g. Psalm 88/89:26; Psalm 2:8; Psalm 109/110:1-3; Psalm 17/18:9-17). But the Psalms could only hint and the change that would be wrought through Him – and they themselves would find their meaning deepened.
The Penultimate Act: The New Adam Fulfills Mankind’s Task
The Second Temple was a difficult time – the faithful Jews were hard pressed. Many were falling away. But as in the days of Noah, a righteous one was found through whom the commission might be renewed: the Virgin Mary gave birth to the God-man Jesus Christ, the “new Adam” (1 Corinthian 15:45,47), the “New Mankind”, the one whose every thought and action would be a blessing to the world around Him. Creation responded to Him in a special way, the way that is should respond to its master, the way that it was meant to respond to its mankind from the beginning. He resisted the temptations that mankind could not (St. Matthew 4:1-11; Hebrews 4:15). The accumulated curses that resulted from generations of mankind’s perversions were annulled by His presence; evil fled from His touch. For most, this is manifested in His healing ministry, but there is another event in His life that gives great witness to His power over all of creation: His baptism in the Jordan (St. Matthew 3:13-17, St. Mark 1:9-11; St. Luke 3:21-22; St. John 1:32-34). As in the case of the Crucifixion, the details of Christ’s baptism as recounted in the Gospels are filled in by the Psalms (e.g. Psalm 21/22 for the Crucifixion). While this presentation does not present them, the composite picture thus created is then preserved (and occasionally embellished) in Liturgical hymns.
Christ’s Affect on Creation: The example of Theophany
As the celebration of Theophany moves from the pre-feast, through the each of the festal hours, Vespers, and Matins, culminating in the festal Divine Liturgy and the Great Blessing of Water, one is struck by the number of Psalms that deal with the theme of water. Superficially, the Psalms always serve as a framework of these services (even in their daily form), and one would expect the composers of the Theophany services to select ones that deal with water. But at a deeper level, the Psalms are prophetic, contextualizing the event for the participant. In the case of Theophany, we have the same Psalms (and other Hebrew scriptures) that inform the narrative I have presented: that there is something primordial and dangerous about water; that it is God’s power that holds back the water and preserves order; that evil is doomed by water (e.g. the Exodus crossing, Psalm 77/78:53; 105/106:11); that God will work through mankind to hold back the water (Exodus 14:21); and that water can, through grace, become a blessing (Exodus 14:25; Psalm 103/104:10-11,16). The most profound, though is the one that is repeated often throughout these services; “The waters saw Thee, O God, the waters saw Thee; they were afraid: the depths also were troubled.” (Psalm 76/77:16) and the even more prophetic Psalm 113:1-8/114 (note that the Septuagint continues with Psalm 115(MT), declaring the glory that came next);
When Israel went out of Egypt, the house of Jacob from a people of strange language; Judah was his sanctuary, and Israel his dominion. The sea saw it, and fled: Jordan was driven back. The mountains skipped like rams, and the little hills like lambs.
What ailed thee, O thou sea, that thou fleddest? thou Jordan, that thou wast driven back? Ye mountains, that ye skipped like rams; and ye little hills, like lambs?
Tremble, thou earth, at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the God of Jacob; Which turned the rock into a standing water, the flint into a fountain of waters.
The wickedness in the water, personified in Psalm and iconography as “Jordan” had to flee from the presence of the source of holiness (opt. cit. the strongest description of the effect is Psalm 15/16:10 about death). The water was purged of its corruption. Thereafter, it was able to take on its new purpose. This two-fold operation: the exorcism of demons from the water followed by its sacramental change into “Holy Water” occurs before every Baptism. The service of the Great Blessing of the Waters describes all the many blessings with which this transformed water is imbued (e.g the expelling of demons, the sanctification of homes, the cleansing of soul and body).
The Role of the Church
This act is referred to throughout the (very long and thorough) prayers as the “blessing of the Jordan”. Note that a subtle change has occurred here: the Church is continuing the transformational ministry that Christ began during His Incarnation. The theology here is sound: the Church is the body of Christ; through Him (and it) mankind becomes holy as God is holy. Mankind becomes the “New Mankind”, the “New Adam”, the “New Israel” through and in Christ. It is then commissioned once again to serve as God’s proper steward for creation. Creation responds to the Church as to its maker, and mankind’s touch becomes the source of unity, love, and perfection that it was originally meant to be.
This is the calling of the Church and of every Christian. It is transformational. For the Church, it began at its formation; for the individual Christian, it begins it begins at Baptism and Chrismation and is constantly renewed through every sacramental act (e.g. prayer, repentance, diaconia). Through baptism the Christian “puts on Christ”, through Chrismation, the Holy Spirit is brought into his heart. For both the Church and the person, it ends – and finds a new beginning – when all curses and the possibility for such are removed as the world is remade in glory (the eschaton).
Until then, it is the calling of the Church and every Christian (that is, for all those whose humanity has been fully realized and engaged) to heal, comfort, and bless creation through sacramental action. The Divine Liturgy (the Divine “Work of the People”) with the deacon proclaiming to the principle celebrant; “It is time for the Lord to act” (Psalm 118:126); The Lord acts through His Church and through its Liturgy. This action is nothing more or less than the sacramental perfecting of creation.