Seeing is Loving

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This installment of my church fathers paraphrase series comes from St. Peter Chrysologus.

Not much is known of Peter’s early life or even his death. He was ordained a deacon by Cornelius the bishop of his hometown Imola. In A.D. 433 he was appointed to the bishopric of Ravenna by Pope Sixtus III.

Peter had an enormous influence in his times, and took part in some the theological controversies among that time, the Monophysite controversy notable amongst them. Peter was also known to be a confidant of St. Leo the Great.

Peter’s claim to fame was his oratorical abilities. The surname of sorts- Chrysologus- means ‘golden-worded’ and was given hm by the Empress Galla Placidia, apparently after hearing his first homily given as the bishop of Ravenna. Most of his orations were very short, rarely lasting longer than 5 minutes. Yet brevity is surely the soul of wit, for he was renowned for his homilies both for their rhetorical merit and theological and spiritual content.

It is not clear when he died, but most accounts place it sometime near A.D. 450 or thereafter. He was later canonized and declared a Doctor of the Church by Benedict XIII in 1729.

In paraphrasing this selection, I must confess that I was largely ignorant of Peter’s life and writings. I had some vague remembrance of him from his role in the Monophysite controversy, but I had never read more than a few phrases from his pen. It wasn’t until about a week ago when I was going through some of the scriptural readings for the day and happened upon one of his homilies. Much like his contemporaries, I was struck by the beauty and power of his oratory, as well as the densely packed theology that he was able to convey in so few words. I have heard a lot of sermons in my life, and I must also confess that it is one of the very few that I actually remember!

This passage comes from one of his homilies On the Mystery of the Incarnation. This one seems to be part of a set, and is in some respects in preparation for the second part. Peter is attempting to describe the motivation of the Incarnation, but takes a different tack than many of the other church fathers. St. Athanasius, for example, locates the motivation in the disorder of the universe falling into non-being through sin, and that the Incarnation becomes a way of God’s love not allowing creation to dissolve into nothingness. In this selection, however, Peter goes a different direction. He does a quick historical survey of love and fear, and finds in that a line from the fall to the Incarnation.

Creation, as coming to be from God’s will and love, naturally seeks to know God and to see him and love him. The consequence of our created nature means that we cannot see God, but can perceive his actions in history. Sin compounds this lack of tactile apprehension by creating fear within us; since we cannot see God, we desire to love something that we can give our being to completely. This something, when it becomes something other than God, gives rise to disordered desire and brings about slavery to fear and dread and terror.

Unless this fear can be mitigated by love, it brings torment. Love reaches out for God or what it will choose to substitute for God. This love cannot not reach out, it must have what it desires. Peter sees idolatry as being this attempt to love God. Naturally, it is a disordered love in that its object is not worthy of worship and love as God alone is; nevertheless, this very act of wanting to worship shows that deep down in everyone is the instinctual desire to reach out for God. Sin causes us to create a counterfeit that we can see and handle and touch, leaving aside faith that is the handmaiden of love.

This is where Peter locates the motive for the Incarnation. God comes down to us in a nature that is visible to us. Not only is it simply visible, but it is our very nature, and thus the ‘visible-ness’ of that nature is consummated fully, in that it is not something to simply intellectually perceive or acknowledge, but to participate in. Peter sees God’s making humankind in his image as not merely a historical fact, but rather something that points forward to the Incarnation; that is, the Incarnation becomes the summit of the human experience, the end to which we are intended, for the nature that we all share is united to God and thus is raised above what it is to become what it was always intended to be.

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God has never been a hidden God; rather, our minds can grasp him as he works in the world, like seeing the leaves blown about by the wind. But seeing is believing, and the lack of sight has become our shackles and our taskmaster. In this servitude humanity offered up a pathetic excuse for worship, a gift unfit for the King. Fear had leavened the lot of it, working its way into every nook and cranny of the universe, unleashing chaos into creation’s orderly movements, leaving it in shambles.

But fear is not as strong as love, and the King could not be withstood.

Fear had clipped the wings of angels, debased the race of men to offer homage to stone, and collected in bottomless darkened pools of errors. The King was abandoned; everyone ran away in cowardice and terror to grasp onto creation in fealty and devotion.

When fear has had its fill, love has no space to breathe. Dread becomes a corpse to carry about, smothering the fire of love, the asphyxiation of faith. If love does not set the boundaries of fear, if it does not channel the course, then even devotion to God is made into a mockery.

God was not blind to our fear, nor did he overlook the destruction it had left in its wake. The decay that pervades everything and rots it from within did not dissuade him from continuously reaching out in love, wooing it back through grace, and enfolding it in kindness.

Through all of God’s actions, through all of God’s breaking into history a spark of love was kindled in the breast of humankind, as supernatural love calls to the senses like the irresistible perfume of a newly blossomed flower. In this state of divine inebriation, we want to not only perceive God; we want to see him face to face.

But how could this be? How could the infinite be contained in a glance, when even the totality of the created order is hidden from our gaze? But love does not concern itself with this calculus of possibilities or potentialities or logical consistencies. In the throes of ardor all reason is cast aside, all judgement is scorned and all proportion is reviled. To say that something is impossible is cold comfort for desire, for it considers any difficulty to be of no account, only that it attain its beloved.

God knows our weaknesses, and saw the torment of our ceaseless aching to see him. Therefore, he chose to be made manifest visibly to us, the invisible God of heaven’s majesty clothed in the raiments of earth. He considered it no debasement, but rather elevated our nature to honor above its humble state, for the Scripture says “Let us make mankind in our image and likeness.”

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Jason Watson

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