By Fr. Alexander Men
When we pass from the Gospel to the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles, we are obliged to stop our attention to the second person of the New Testament. As a French scholar says, the New Testament is composed of two biographies: of Jesus Christ and of His follower Paul Tarsian, the Apostle Paul. Each of you, passing from the Gospel to Paul’s epistles, seems to fall from heaven to earth. Although Paul is in many ways superior to the evangelical writers. He was a man of enormous talent, spiritual power, education. This person has created personal works. His messages are things written in his heart’s blood. In any case, it is difficult to compare them with the Gospels. Because the four gospels reflect not so much the literary gift of the apostles-evangelists, as the Model they saw before them. And if app. Paul stands before us as a man, then Christ is the Revelation of God. However, how is the apostle Paul important to us? Why did the Church place him next to Christ in the New Testament? Why are the majority of the epistles—fourteen—written by him? Why does his biography occupy a central place in the Acts of the Apostles? Because app. Paul apparently never saw the face of Jesus during His earthly life. There are, of course, historical hypotheses that their paths could have crossed in Jerusalem. He himself was born in the first years of the Christian era in Asia Minor, but he studied in Jerusalem, and then he was able to see Jesus. However, it is more credible to consider that he never saw Christ. I think this is precisely what draws the Church to his person. And we ourselves have not seen this Person. However, Christ appeared to Paul with such credibility that it greatly surpassed any external contact. Christ’s appearance was seen by His enemies, the scribes, the Pharisees, and Pilate. But that didn’t save them. Paul was also an enemy, but Christ stopped him on the road to Damascus and called him to become an apostle. This event changed not only his destiny, but also the destiny of the entire early Church, because Paul became one of those who carried the Gospel from Syria and Palestine to the wider world. They called him “apostle to the nations” and “apostle to the Gentiles”.
Brought up in Judaism, he knew very well that it is impossible to merge with God, that the man of the East who thinks that by experiencing ecstasy he merges with the Absolute is delusional. He only touches the divine, because in the bowels of the Godhead boils an eternal fire, dissolving everything in itself.
Between the Creator and the creation lies an abyss, like the abyss between the absolute and the conditional; it cannot be crossed, overcome – neither logically nor existentially. Paul himself discovered that there is a bridge over the chasm, because he saw Christ and was inwardly united with Him; through infinite love he was bound to Him so that it seemed to him as if he bore upon himself the wounds of Christ; that he died with Him on the cross and rose with Him. That is why he said: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.” With Him I died, and with Him I come back to life.” If it is impossible to merge with God, then with the God-man it is possible, because He belongs to two worlds at the same time – ours and the other world. The path of Christian mystics from Paul to the present day is built entirely on this. The way to the Father is through the Son. “I am a door,” says Jesus, “I am the gate, the door to heaven.”
By repeating various prayers, the Christian ascetics could be likened to the Eastern, the Indian, who repeat various mantras. One of the main prayers of Christian asceticism is called the “Jesus Prayer”, in which the Name of the one who was born on earth, crucified and resurrected is constantly repeated. And it is precisely this Christ-centeredness of the basic Christian prayer that radically distinguishes it from all other meditations and mantras, because here there is an encounter – not just a concentration of thought, not just a focus, not a simple immersion in the ocean or the abyss of spirituality, but an encounter of the personality with the Face of Jesus Christ, who stands above the world and in the world.
I remember a prose poem written by Turgenev when he was standing in a village church and suddenly felt that Christ was standing next to him. When he turned, he saw an ordinary person behind him. After turning away, however, he again felt that He was there near. This is true because it is true. Christ’s Church exists and develops because He dwells within it.
Note that He has not left us a single written sentence, as Plato left us his “Dialogues.” He has not left us tablets on which the Law was written, like the tablets of Moses. He did not dictate to us, like Muhammad’s Koran. He did not form orders like Gautama-Buddha. But He has told us, “I am with you to the end of time.” When it came time for Him to leave us, He spoke the eternal words: “I will not leave you orphans, but I will come to you.” And this continues and happens today. All the deepest experience of Christianity is built on this, the rest are some superficial layers. In everything else, Christianity prays like all other religions.
Religions in the world are part of culture. They arise together with the urge of the human spirit towards eternity, towards imperishable values. Here the direction is from heaven, and therefore one of the theologians of our century rightly says that “Christianity is not one of the religions, but a crisis (judgment) of all religions.” It rises above all else, as defined by Ap. Paul, “no one is saved by the works of the Law, but only through faith in Jesus Christ.”
In conclusion, I must explain this key phrase to you. What are the works of the Law? I am talking about the system of religious rites and rules. Are they necessary? Yes, they are needed as an educational tool. They are created by people. Sometimes, as a result of great insights, sometimes by virtue of tradition, sometimes – by delusion. Sometimes these laws come by revelation from God, as in the Old Testament. They serve a certain phase in mental and spiritual development.
And what does it mean to save yourself? It means uniting your ephemeral temporal life with immortality and God. This is salvation. Incorporation into the Divine life. The thirst for such inclusion lives in us, in every person. It is hidden, hidden, but it is there in man anyway. Therefore the apostle speaks that the Law is holy. The Old Testament Law is holy and good, and was given by God, but participation in the Divine life is possible only through faith in Jesus Christ.
What does faith in Christ mean? Belief that He lived on earth? This is not faith, but knowledge. His contemporaries remembered that he lived. The evangelists have left us reliable testimonies. Today’s historians will say that he lived, that there was such a person. Attempts by various propagandists to assert that this is a myth have long been debunked. Only in our country, as in some reserve of various miracles, this concept is still preserved. What does it mean to believe in Him? Faith in Jesus Christ? That He existed, then, is not faith? Belief that He came from other worlds? And this is just another theory.
Let us remember this faith that is revealed in the Old Testament: trust in being. Even when Abraham says “yes” to God, he rather does not say, but silently obeys His call – that’s when faith was born. In the ancient Hebrew language, the word “faith” sounds like “emunah” and comes from the word “omen” (faithfulness). “Faith” is a very close term to “faithfulness”. God is faithful to His promise, man is faithful to God; weak, sinful, but nevertheless faithful to God. But whose God? Of treasures, fearful as the universe, too far from man, like the ocean. But Christ reveals another image of God through Himself. He does not call Him by any other name than Father. Jesus Christ almost never uttered the word God. He always calls Him Father. And in His earthly life He used for this that tender and flattering word which children use in the East, addressing their father. Although untranslatable, but it is so. Christ reveals God to us as our heavenly Father and thus creates brothers and sisters, because brothers and sisters exist only with a common father.
The common spiritual Father is God. And an open heart knows Jesus Christ – this is the secret of the Gospel. Everyone knows how confused man is, how weak he is, to the extent that all sorts of complexes and sins have nested in him.
There is a power that Christ left on earth, and it is freely given to us. It is called grace. A good that is freely given. It cannot be earned, it is given. Yes, we are bound to make an effort; yes, we are bound to fight sin; yes, we must strive for self-improvement, not forgetting that we will not succeed in pulling ourselves out by the hair. This in just the preparatory work. Herein lies the fundamental difference between Christianity and Yoga, a teaching which believes that man can reach and enter God, so to speak, of his own volition. Christianity teaches – you can improve yourself, but reaching God is impossible until He Himself comes to you.
Behold, Grace surpasses the Law. The law is the initial stage in religion that begins with the child. This should not be done, this may; rules, norms… Is this necessary? Yes, of course. But then Grace comes – in the way of the inner experience of meeting God. She is a new life. And the apostle Paul said: “Look, people argue with each other. Some are supporters of preserving the ancient rites, the Old Testament. Others, third – against it. And actually, neither one nor the other is important. All that matters is…faith working through love.”
This is true Christianity. Everything else in it is merely a historical shell, a frame, an entourage; that which is related to culture.
I am talking to you about the very essence of the Christian faith. The boundless value of the human person. The victory of light over death and decay. The New Testament that grows like a tree from a small seed. The New Testament leavens history as leaven leavens dough. And even today this Kingdom of God secretly manifests itself among people when you do good, when you love, when you contemplate beauty, when you feel the fullness of life. The kingdom of God has already touched you. It is not only in the distant future, not only in futurological contemplation; it exists here and now. This is what Jesus Christ teaches us. The kingdom will come, but it has already come. The judgment of the world will come, but it has already begun. It began when Christ first proclaimed the gospel.
He also said: “And the judgment is concluded in the fact that the light has come into the world, and people have loved the darkness more.” This judgment began during His preaching in Galilee, in Jerusalem, on Calvary, and the Roman Empire, in medieval Europe and Russia, today, in the 20th century, and in the 21st century, and throughout the history of mankind. The judgment will continue because this is the Christian story – the story through which the world walks with the Son of Man.
And if we once again ask ourselves the question: what is the essence of Christianity? – we must answer: this is God-manhood, the union of limitations and temporary human spirit with the infinite Divine. This is the sanctification of the flesh from the moment when the Son of Man accepted our joys and sufferings, our love, our work – nature, the world. Everything in which He was, in which He was born as a man and God-man, was not rejected, was not destroyed, but was raised to a new level, sanctified. In Christianity we have sanctification of the world, victory over evil, over darkness, over sin. But this victory belongs to God. It began on the night of resurrection and continues as long as the world exists.
Note: A lecture delivered in the Moscow Technical House on September 8, on the eve of the tragic death of Father Alexander Men; published on a tape recording in “Literaturnaya Gazeta”, No. 51 of 19.12.1990, p. 5).