By Fr. Stephen Freeman, August 8, 2016
My childhood in the 1950’s had the innocence of the time, fed by stories of our elders and the clumsy movies. We played soldiers (everyone’s father had been in the Second World War) and “Cowboys and Indians.” Despite the clear bias of the movies and the slanted propaganda that passed for history, almost everyone wanted to be an Indian. Cowboys never seemed terribly romantic, while the Indians clearly knew how to survive in every wild environment. They were tragic figures in our imaginations, with a sad mourning that acknowledged that their disappearance had been no accident.
Of the many fantasies that we understood, one has remained very vivid to me – the phenomenon of “blood brothers.” Two individuals, unrelated, but sharing a deep bond of the heart, would seal that bond in a simple ceremony. Both would cut across the palm of a hand with a knife, revealing a flow of blood. Every child in the neighborhood winced at the bravery of the act, and somehow, knew that the pain was as important as the blood itself. Bloody hand clasped bloody hand, blood mingling, and the two unrelated now became “blood brothers,” as solemnly bound as any two sons of the same mother.
The Scriptures are filled with images of blood, from that of righteous Abel to that of Jesus Himself. “The life is in the blood,” we read in Leviticus. In the Scriptures blood can “cry out.” It stains but also cleanses. It is the stuff of a solemn offering. It is an image and reality that stretches beyond the bounds of Scripture and holds a place of primacy in most of the religions of the world. The Native American practice of “blood brotherhood” seems instinctively true, immediately understood by anyone who hears of it.
Our contemporary culture has a strange relationship with physical things, including our bodies. Modernity has moved decade-by-decade towards an increasingly abstracted notion of what it means to be a human being. We are driven by a contractual, legal concept of relationships that downplays the role of biology. In a world in which freedom is valued above all else, the tyranny of biology (it simply is what it is) is almost intolerable.
This contractual/legal understanding has found its way into Christian thought as well. In many modern accounts of the Incarnation, Christ becomes a man only in order to have legal standing for His payment for our sins. This is not the thought of the early fathers.
When you read St. Athanasius’ seminal On the Incarnation, the emphasis on the complete solidarity involved in the physical reality of Christ and all humanity is so strong that it would be easy to wonder whether the Incarnation itself alone would have been sufficient to bring about our salvation. Of course, St. Athanasius does not draw that conclusion, but the very union of God with our humanity, the Divine joined to the created, is explored in its depths.
It is difficult for modern people, nurtured in the abstractions of the contractual/legal world, to come to their senses and grasp the simple realities of their own biological existence. God did not create us as legal entities. He formed us from the dirt and breathed into us. The modern creation myth ignores biology and proclaims: “All men are created equal [a legal concept] and endowed with certain inalienable rights, including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Increasingly, these legal abstractions are seen as superior to and preferable to human biological existence. Despite the undeniable biological reality of human life, an unborn child is conveniently excused from contractual/legal standing, making its destruction a matter of no consequence. Abortion is the sacrament of contract, celebrating the triumph of legal freedom over biological reality.
This same contractual/legal model also underlies the modern language of “personal relationship with Christ.” This language has no standing or origin within the Tradition. Rather, it is wholly the construct of the false consciousness of the modern world. Modern Christians say, “I have a personal relationship with Christ,” and exalt this above all else. It often means nothing more than a psychological construction, itself understood in contractual/legal terms. But the life of the Church as given us by Christ Himself has a very different understanding.
Christ says, “Whosoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in Me and I in him.” This is rooted and grounded in flesh and blood. We are spiritually and organically related and united to Christ. “Spiritual,” “Spiritually,” and their cognates are words that I refuse to give up, but they should be relieved of their psychological/contractual/legal meanings and restored to the more concrete world of biology/substance/concrete. St. Paul, in describing our relationship with Christ, draws on the imagery of sexual union:
Do you not know that he who joins himself to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, “The two shall become one flesh.” But he who is united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. (1Co 6:16-17)
This statement makes no sense within the contractual/legal world. It presumes biology as the primary reality of our existence and sees spiritual relationships as governed by the same imagery. The modern imagination is repulsed and confused by the suggestion that we eat God. It has no problem, however, imagining contracts and legal arrangements with Him. We have forgotten the true nature of our existence.
Take this verse in St. John’s First Epistle. I have rendered the translation myself:
If we say that we have communion (koinonia) with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have communion (koinonia) with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin. (1Jo 1:6-7)
Contemporary treatments of this verse reconfigure everything into contractual language (it is almost the sole language of our imagination). Koinonia is rendered as “fellowship” rather than “communion,” changing a very physical/organic meaning into a vague psychologized one. “Walking in the light” is taken to refer to the moral life, with a resulting abstraction invoking the atonement.
The passage has a very different meaning when seen in the more primitive concrete/biological understanding. Communion refers to a true coinherence, a co-participation in the life of another. “To lie” is to “walk in darkness,” to break life-giving communion with Christ and others. Repentance and true communion with Christ restore this co-participation which is concretely manifested in the Holy Eucharist (“the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin”). The modern imagination is deaf to the most obvious meanings within Scripture.
Biology is easily the most fundamental aspect of our human existence. We do not “have” bodies – we “are” bodies. The fictional reality of contractual/legal thinking alienates people from the very ground of their humanity. Life becomes an ersatz conglomeration of ideas and abstractions, while the body abides with its ceaseless demands (reality is like that). We live as though the truth of our existence transcends our bodies – even seeking to deny the body’s demands in death. A local mega-Church in my area has now forbidden the presence of the body at funerals in the Church. The service, a “Celebration of Life,” can maintain the happy fiction of our abstracted reality much more easily if the embarrassment of a dead body can be avoided.
A true and faithful practice of the Christian faith should be grounded in the body and in the givenness of life. Biology is not our enemy nor is it something to be overcome. It is the vehicle of our existence. Our hope of the resurrection is not something lived apart from the body, but sees the biological raised and transformed to the dignity of eternity.
In the Incarnation, God has made us “blood brothers.” We are bone of His bone and flesh of His flesh. Our humanity, in the most concrete and literal form, has been united irrevocably with Him. The classical tradition of the Christian faith has maintained its loyalty to this reality (though the modern world certainly strains it). The doctrines of the Great Councils can only be understood within this framework.
“And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth…” (Act 17:26)
In His great love, that one blood is now His as well.
~Fr. Stephen Freeman, Glory to God for All Things, https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/2016/08/08/blood-brothers-incarnation/.