Fr. Sophrony Sakharov, a highly esteemed Russian monk who died in 1993 at his monastery in England, used to say, ‘To be a Christian, one must be like an artist.’ Just as artists are captivated by the subjects they paint and by the desire to portray them as perfectly as possible, so too the Christian is captivated by Christ and by a desire to attain to His endless perfection. ‘I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me His own’ (Philippians 3:12).
The Christian life is meant to be a masterpiece of sublime art because God is an artist. And God’s masterpiece is the product of his love. God’s love is infinite and glorious, a mystery beyond human comprehension. It is the mystery of the Holy Trinity. “God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him” (1 John 4:9). The Son gave himself “for our sins, that he might deliver us from this present evil world, according to the will of God and our Father” (Galatians 1:4). And the Holy Spirit also offers himself, in order to “guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13) of the fullness of God’s love.
Επεθύμησε πόρνης, John Chrysostom said in one of his sermons. God desired a harlot. God desired a humanity that had gone astray, that had sold itself to sinful, self-serving, self-pleasing behavior. But he did not send a servant, or an angel or archangel, not the cherubim or the seraphim. He himself came as a lover.
God desired a harlot. And what did he do? Chrysostom asks. He continues (in my translation). Because she could not rise to the heights, he came down to the low depths. He comes to her hut. He sees her drunk. And how does he come? Not with divinity shining, but he comes as she is – so as not to terrify her and cause her to run away.
He finds her wounded, wild and unkempt. And what does he do? He takes her as wife. And what does he give her? A ring. What ring? The Holy Spirit!
He tells her: Didn’t I plant you in Paradise?
Yes, she says.
How did you fall out from there?
The devil came and took me out of paradise.
So you were planted in paradise and he took you out. Here, I will plant you in me. No one dares approach me. I the shepherd hold you and the wolf does not come.
But I am sinful and dirty.
Don’t worry, I am a doctor.
Look at what he does, so that you may learn the love of the Bridegroom, ίνα μάθης του νυμφίου τον έρωτα. This is the way of the lover: He does not ask for causes and reasons or a rendering of accounts, but he forgives and he heals. Τούτο ερώντος, το μή απαιτήσαι ευθύνας αμαρτημάτων…
Throughout this imagery, Chrysostom uses the word eros, not agape! So God is ο ερών, ο ερωτευμένος in modern Greek, the lover. Chrysostom does not use the New Testament word agape because he really wants to speak the language of human love and human passion. Chrysostom’s God is not the dispassionate god of Aristotle and the Greek philosophers. Chrysostom has no use for classical Greek ideas and images. He was steeped in biblical language – and in the Bible, especially the Old Testament, God is passionate; God is a passionate lover. God is intoxicated with love for humanity. That kind of love does not see ugliness, Chrysostom says. The lover doesn’t care much about his behavior or what others will say – ουκ εξετάζει τρόπον: he doesn’t calculate how he is to behave. This is what Christ did: He saw the ugliness of humanity, he loved us – and he renews us.
Ώ νυμφίου καλλωπίζοντος αμορφίαν νύμφης!
Oh, Bridegroom, you make beautiful the ugliness of the bride!
Ugliness is such a terrible English word, and it doesn’t capture the Greek αμορφία – which literally means lacking form, μορφή; so αμορφία is formlessness, formless chaos (as in Genesis 1:2), unshapeliness. So human nature is not so much ugly in the conventional sense, but lacking form, lacking order, lacking the beauty that God originally meant – waiting to be recreated and renewed as the universe was waiting for God’s ordering Word in the beginning of Genesis.
Chrysostom captured the meaning of our Gospel reading today – “God so loved the world…” – in this little parable that I came across when looking through an old theological magazine from 1982 – issue no. 2 of Σύναξη, Τριμηνιαία έκδοση σπουδής στην Ορθοδοξία, a magazine still published in Greece every three months, now in its 35th year.