“For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity… But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities,… following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred.” The Epistle to Diognetus, 5.
In a prior post (The Epistle to Diognetus Part 4 – The Manner of The Christians Continued) we have looked at what it means to say that the Christians are citizens of heaven. The following passage, which we have cited above, seems to simply be an elaboration upon this statement-that Christians are ‘citizens of Heaven’. Our author seems to answer the question, ‘What does it mean to be a citizen of heaven?’ We have said it can not somehow be simply reduced to a state where one is removed from the body, it is not about dwelling in a cave or being part of a secretive society. Let us peer into the following sentences as these seem to be our author giving us an explanation of his foregoing comments.
“They love all.”
This may almost seem like a ‘fluffy’ statement simply made by the author to arouse warm feelings about the Christian people. Let us look a little deeper at this comment of his. In English we only have one word available to describe bonds of affection, union and/or desire whether with other persons or even with inanimate objects or even with the french fries in front of me, love. The murderer whose jealousy drives them to a crime of passion and the woman who dutifully cares for their husband and children while never taking a moment for herself are both (unfortunately) said to “love” those others they have affected by their life. However, the Greek language has multiple words and expressions to denote love, differentiating forms of love and the implications. The word used in this instance is agape. This may seem familiar to those who summon up the image of the agape meal partaken of after the Divine Liturgy in many Orthodox churches especially called by this name in the Coptic Orthodox Church. Interestingly, the most often used word to translate agape into English, other than simply calling it ‘love’, is by use of the word, ‘charity’ (Lampe, Geoffrey William Hugo, ed. A patristic Greek lexicon. Clarendon, 1976. p 7).
This strikes us English speakers as a strange choice of words. Charities are institutions, things we donate to, protected tax exempt corporations, etc. Charity does not exactly strike us as a form of ‘love’ in English even if we stretch the meaning to state that I ‘give’ or I ‘do something’ out of my love. But the meaning of agape here goes much deeper than this. The word charity seems to be the best word in English because charity denotes a disinterested love (note not indifferent), love that is not awaiting full return of services or goods rendered to the other. Charity bears the full meaning of giving out of one’s own while not expecting anything in return. Rather than a self-interested love this could be said to be a self-abasing love, a love not centered around me but rather is seeking out the good of the other.
This self-abasing love is the love which God has towards us and ultimately to which we are called. One only needs to look as far as Matthew 5 to see this. We often read the beatitudes in isolation are forget the text that comes after. Christ gives the beatitudes and then moves on to elaborate ever elevating measures to which we are called to live. Christ continues saying that when it comes to murder we are called not even to be angry and to reconcile our brother before coming to offer at the alter. Christ condemns the leery eye which glances at another with lust or the one who wishes to cast off their spouse. We are demanded to proceed the extra mile and give more than even the law requires when one sues us for our tunic (offering our cloak also). Finally we are called to an even higher ‘burden’, the idea that we would love our enemies, we would ask prayers of blessing upon those who curse us and we would exchange good for evil. This chilling series of exhortations is followed by its reason, “Therefore you shall be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect (Matthew 5.48).” The Triune God of love is the measure to which we wish to attain. St. John the evangelist summarizes succinctly, “God is love” (1 John 4.8).
Let us turn even to what seems to the primal act according to the Scriptures which we perhaps gloss over without much thought, the action of creation. Many may have pondered creation and wondered ‘why’? While some have ventured to say that God needed beings to praise Him, others have said that humanity was a ‘Plan B’ after the fall of the angelic powers that would subsequently become the satanic powers, but this is not the Orthodox answer.
St. Gregory of Nyssa answers stating,
“God is in His own nature all that which our mind can conceive of good;—rather, transcending all good that we can conceive or comprehend. He creates the human for no other reason than that He is good; and being such, and having this as His reason for entering upon the creation of our nature, He would not exhibit the power of His goodness in an imperfect form, giving our nature some one of the things at His disposal, and grudging it a share in another: but the perfect form of goodness is here to be seen by His both bringing man into being from nothing, and fully supplying him with all good gifts: but since the list of individual good gifts is a long one, it is out of the question to apprehend it numerically. The language of Scripture therefore expresses it concisely by a comprehensive phrase, in saying that man was made “in the image of God”: for this is the same as to say that He made human nature participant in all good; for if the Deity is the fulness of good, and this is His image, then the image finds its resemblance to the Archetype in being filled with all good.” St. Gregory of Nyssa, On The Making of The Human Being, Chapter 16, Tract 10. Emphasis mine
St. Athanasius in turn writes:
“For the nature of created things, since it comes into being from nothing, is unstable, weak, and mortal when considered by itself. But the God of all is good and supremely noble by nature. Therefore he is the lover of humanity. For a good being would be envious of no one, and so he envies nobody existence but rather wishes existence for everyone, in order to exercise his love for humanity. So seeing that all created nature according to its inherent structures is in flux and subject to dissolution, and in order to prevent this happening and the universe dissolving back into nothing, he made everything by his own eternal Word and brought creation into existence. He did not abandon it to be tempest-tossed through its own nature, lest it run the risk of again lapsing into nothingness. But being good, he governs and establishes the whole world through his own Word who is himself God, so that creation, enlightened by the governance, providence, and ordering of the Word, may be able to remain secure, since it participates in the Word who is truly from the Father and is helped by him so as to exist. This was done so that what would have happened to creation, apart from the sustenance of the Word, did not happen—namely, a relapse into nothingness: “For he is the image of the invisible God, the first- born of all creation, because through him and in him subsist all things, visible and invisible, and he is the head of the church” [Col. 1:15–18], as the ministers of the truth teach in the holy writings.” St. Athanasius, Contra Gentes 41. Emphasis mine
For many of us, we require or atleast produce justifications for our love which others are to ‘earn’. When we think or speak about those we love usually the statement goes, “I love my mother because she ______” or “I love my brother because he always does _____ for me” etc. Yet, when we speak of the love of God there is no why. There is no justification on our part for we do not add to Him nor does our obedience magnify Him in any way. In Isaiah we read, “Of what value to me is the abundance of your sacrifices? saith the Lord: I am full of whole-burnt-offerings of rams; and I delight not in the fat of lambs, and the blood of bulls and goats (Isaiah 1.11).” St. Athanasius defines God’s love very differently, in fact. He states clearly, “The God of all is Good and supremely noble by nature. Therefore he is the lover of humanity.” By God’s definition, He is the self-emptying lover of humanity, the lover of the other. Both Sts. Athanasius and Gregory of Nyssa go on to elaborate that God did not create a self-sufficient being and leave those beings to their own devices, rather God continually pour Himself out into His creation, He is always supporting us in existence and were it not for God’s intervention we would be as a helpless babe left in the cold without life or sustenance.
This self-emptying love is what our author in the epistle to Diognetus is stating is characteristic of the Christians. The Christian who pursues the end goal that we might be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect is striving not simply for a ‘good’ or ‘decent’ life but rather that we might offer up all that we have, all that we are in the service and love of our neighbour in whom we see Christ (As St. Antony of the desert tells us, “Our life and our death is with our neighbor. If we gain our brother, we have gained God, but if we scandalize our brother, we have sinned against Christ.”). The Christians are those whose who truly ‘love all’ as our author says. In becoming outwardly oriented and self-offering in our love for our neighbour, we continue to form and develop the Divine Likeness for which we are created and we approximate something of what it is to live the Divine Life.
In the past week or month or year have we struggled to love even those of our own households let alone those whom we encounter daily at work, in line or buying groceries? Have I been able to set aside the desires of my heart in order to pursue the fulfillment of my neighbour?
May God grant us an ever-greater participation in His Life, in His Love.