Eastern Orthodox Perspective on Members of Its Church who Suicide

What is the Eastern Orthodox Perspective on Members of Its Church Who are Depressed and Suicide?

Katina Michael

In this paper I argue that the Eastern Orthodox Church has increasingly become sensitive to members of its Church who suicide due to clinical depression, offering them in some cases through economy (oikonomia [Gk]), full burial rites akin to those who have died due to natural causes (e.g. advanced age), physical illness (e.g. cancer) or accident (e.g. road fatality). Suicide is defined as the deliberate act of taking one’s own life, in actuality it is self-murder breaking with God’s sixth commandment (Exodus 20:13) and causing an immediate separation from the Holy Spirit, (1 Corinthians 6:19). Clinical depression, also known as major depressive disorder (MDD) is a form of mental illness (Hall-Flavin, May 13, 2017). It is more than just occasionally feeling down and having the “blues”, or suffering immense sadness, for example, at the death of a close relative. Clinical depression is marked by an ongoing depressed mood most of the day, disallowing the sufferer from engaging in normal activities and relationships for a contiguous period of time, lasting anywhere from a few weeks to a lifetime. Examples of depression subtypes include major depression, chronic depression (dysthymia), seasonal affective disorder (SAD), and bipolar disorder (manic depression) (WebMD, 2017).

One of the major difficulties for clergy of the Orthodox Church in determining how a suicide of a depressed person should be considered, may include the lack of available evidence towards the clinical assessment of the sufferer. A simple letter of support, written by the deceased’s mental health professional (e.g. psychiatrist), can be used to provide evidence of his/her ongoing condition (S. S. Harakas, 1987, p. 324). Additional complexities may include the identification of the range of spectrum of depression suffered by one who has taken their life. For example, what happens to one who has remitted from their severe state of depression for some years and then relapses and subsequently suicides? Or one who has never been diagnosed with a specific depressive disorder but has been assessed on the mood disorder (affective) spectrum? One could posit that anyone at the point of taking their own life has suffered so much mental anguish and torment that they must be severely depressed to kill themselves through self-inflicted injury, poisoning or suffocation. But this is not always the case if we are to regard suicide notes left behind by the deceased, as providing insights into the motivation for their suicide. People have taken their life for varied non-medical reasons such as the committing of a heinous crime, an onset of a terminal illness, falling pregnant out of wedlock (and especially after an abortion), unemployment and financial crisis, revenge toward a person for a wrongdoing, and even a philosophical desire to know “what’s on the other side”. These latter reasons for suicide are considered separately from one who has taken their life due to mental illness, and on the whole are seen as an individual not valuing the “gift of life” (Breck, 1998) given to us by God Himself.

Although major inroads have been made into understanding major depression and other forms of mental illness (e.g. schizophrenia), psychological instability remains a taboo in communities in many parts of the world (S. Harakas, 1990). Families dealing with a child or parent who is suffering from mental illness may hide or deny that their loved one requires medical attention and pastoral help (Hopko, March 24, 2010). Thus, it is possible that a sufferer’s condition can go undetected by the most discerning of priests, despite the illness often manifests itself outwardly in some visible behavioural traits (e.g. obsessive compulsive disorder). One reason for this difficulty could be that the parishioner with the major depression may be an infrequent participant to weekly Church Services and parish activities in general, or may have never sought medical treatment due to feelings of shame or perceived judgement. This is a dilemma for the serving priest, especially in the event of a sudden and “unexpected suicide”. Additionally, men who perceive themselves as self-reliant and reject seeking medical help from a general practitioner for their suicidality may also take their life suddenly. In fact, men are on average 3 to 4 times more likely to commit suicide than women (Lester, Gunn, & Quinnett, 2014). None of this is straightforward to address for a priest when there are grieving family members seeking answers to “why” a loved one has taken their life, what will happen with funeral preparations for the deceased, and what will happen to their loved one’s soul eternally. The due process is for the parish priest to present evidence to his hierarch, usually a Bishop, on behalf of the deceased’s family, and then await a decision on how to proceed toward funeral preparations (Theodosius, 1998). The parish priest’s care is also for the surviving family members who have to learn to go on without their loved one, and not to lose hope in God’s eternal promises. According to Archbishop Theodosius of Washington (1998) the “act of suicide is a profound tragedy affecting a parish. It necessitates prayers for forgiveness for the sake of the departed and exhorts the members of the parish community to repentance and sorrow”.

Raising Awareness of Suicide and its Effects in the Orthodox Church and Beyond

While the Eastern Orthodox Church plainly acknowledges that suicide is among the gravest sins against God, it also leaves the ultimate judgement to God who is all-knowing and intimately discerns human hearts in their fullness. It is clear that a severely mentally ill person is not morally culpable for their actions when they commit suicide (H. T. Engelhardt, Jr, 2004, p. 25; S. S. Harakas, 1987, p. 134; Nicodemus & Agapius, 1983, p. 746). Moreover, we could argue, that a person in the process of committing suicide, if they have their full faculties and sensibilities about them, could repent even at their last breath, even while in the process of dying after reaching the point of no return. God knows. It is not for us to ponder (Hopko, March 24, 2010). Today, the Church is not only asking itself what is the canonical response to suicide (for that has been spelled out through Ecumenical Councils and the collection brought together on Orthodox Canon Law, titled The Rudder (1983)), but also what should the pastoral response to suicide be (McCray, November 9, 2016). I believe this emphasis in thinking has occurred over the last two decades in particular, as the Church and its members, and indeed more broadly the discipline of medical science, have grown in awareness of mental health issues and the direct relationship between suicide and depression (SCOBA, May 23, 2007).

The number of suicides worldwide have steadily continued to increase over the last 20 years. About 800,000 people die every year (i.e. one person every forty seconds) by committing suicide in the world (1.4% of all deaths), and for every suicide there are an estimated 25 attempts (i.e. that is about 20 million attempts in total per annum) (AFSP, 2015; WHO, 2017). Of particular concern is that for 15-29 year olds, suicide is the second leading cause of death globally (WHO, 2017). Some have argued it has reached pandemic proportions, as it knows no barriers to geography, gender, demographic, religion, or income levels. Suicide not only affects the deceased who have chosen to take their life, but also many more millions of people who experience bereavement annually through the abrupt loss of their loved one (SCOBA, May 23, 2007). If this is not enough, we have also seen the introduction of laws in a small number of countries (e.g. The Netherlands, Belgium, Canada) allowing individuals to seek euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide for varying contexts, including old age, terminal illness, and depression (Breck, 1995; H. Engelhardt, Tristram, Jr. & Iltis, 2005; S. S. Harakas, March 6, 1997).

Of particular concern today is the manner in which suicide has become an acceptable option within our secularised society (G. Morelli, January 13, 2009). In a commentary on Emile Durkheim’s book titled Le suicide (1897), Robert Alun Jones (1986) writes that Durkheim insisted that “[t]he pathological increase in suicides [wa]s… a result of the "moral poverty" of our age”. If that statement was made in 1897, then what could be said 120 years on about the moral poverty of our age? Recent films like “Me Before You” that glorify euthanasia, are a fine example of the seed sown in individuals who may be disabled, terminally ill, or suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (e.g. war veterans) who are unassumingly lured into thought experiments about the possibility of taking their life in order to prevent their prolonged suffering. Astoundingly a visit to the official website confronts the viewer with a splash page of the film, with the words scrolling across, “live boldly, live well, just live” (Sharrock, 2016), despite the movie is about euthanasia and cutting one’s life short. The message is, “there is a way out”, instead of living with the pain and suffering patiently until one’s end of life. As Fr. John Breck (2003, p. 183) notes, it is a message that proclaims, “die with dignity”, and yet an Orthodox Christian’s petitions during the Divine Liturgy are about completing “…the remaining time of our life in peace and repentance” and asking God for a “Christian end to our life, peaceful, without shame and suffering, and for a good defense before the awesome judgment seat of Christ” (Chrysostom, 2017). Secular society is promoting that one can “die before they have to die”, and yet the Orthodox Christian Paschal Troparion emphasises that Christ has already trampled down death by death, and thus as believers we have hope no matter how dark the circumstances are. Very disturbingly, a new Netflix series graphically depicting youth suicide titled 13 Reasons Why (Yorkey, 2017), has been met with public outcry by psychologists, educators and parents in the United States for its potential to glamourise suicide. Backed by Hollywood celebrities and stars, the influence among youth will be significant no doubt encouraging copycat acts (Devitt, May 8, 2017). Work on a second season has already begun for 2018. It is no wonder that that the primary cause of death by injury in the United States today is now suicide, then followed by vehicular road accident (Rockett et al., 2012).

The Orthodox Church’s Canonical Response to Suicide

The Orthodox Church has held fast to its canonical position that suicide is unacceptable under any circumstance, indeed even for sufferers of mental illness. This position has never been negotiable and has remained unchanged since the formation of the Church. Holy Scripture records nine unambiguous suicides (Meredith, 1980, p. 143f; Murray, 2000). We have the examples of Abimelek (Judges 9:54), Samson (Judges 16:30), Saul (1 Samuel 31:4), Saul’s armour-bearer (1 Samuel 31:5), Ahithophel (2 Samuel 17:23), Zimri (1 Kings 16:18), Ptolemy Macron (II Maccabees. 10:13) and Razias (II Maccabees 14:43-6) in the Old Testament and Judas Iscariot in the New Testament (Matthew 27:5). While we do not see a pronounced moral condemnation of the acts of the deceased by at least the narrators of these suicide events in Holy Scripture (which is in line with how sordid events are usually recorded in the Bible), we can at least deduce in the case of Judas Iscariot that the taking of his own life by hanging, was out of a deep sense of despair for how he had betrayed our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Judas, we are told in Matthew 27:3-4, “repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders, saying, ‘I have sinned in betraying innocent blood’.” While we can point again to the Scriptures, “no expiation can be made for the land, for the blood that is shed in it, except by the blood of him who shed it” (Numbers 35:33), Judas contended with a dual crime, not only betraying Christ but also taking his own life, instead of believing that Christ could forgive all things. We can say therefore, that the condemnation of suicide, in the singular case recorded in the New Testament, is thus inferential. Whereas in the other suicides recorded in the Old Testament, for the greater part neutral language prevails. For example, Samson calls to the Lord God to “remember” him and beckons “I pray thee”, to allow him to grasp the two middle pillars of the pagan Philistine house and to let it topple on the Philistines and on him (Judges 16: 28-29). We are told reassuringly: “So the dead whom he [Samson] slew at his death were more than those whom he had slain during his life” (Judges 16:30). God seems to have answered Samson’s wishes giving him the strength to commit this act.

We can also reflect on the martyrs, both Early Church martyrs and neomartyrs, who willingly gave their life for Christ. Were these suicides? No, they were not. The Synaxarion (1998) includes saints whose lives came to an abrupt end when they refused to give up their Christian beliefs. For example, female Orthodox Saints of the first four centuries willingly:

- walked into fires on seeing their brethren thrown into flames (e.g. St Agathonike according to Eusebius’s account, and separately St. Apollonia who endured terrible sufferings to the point of having her teeth extracted);

- threw themselves from rooftops at the risk of rape (e.g. St Pelagia of Antioch); and

- threw themselves into rivers to drown, fearing impending rape by drunken soldiers (e.g. St. Domnina and her two daughters Berenice and Prosdoce).

Yet, the intent of the female martyrs had naught to do with suicide. Constantelos (2004) writes of the martyrs in his excellent paper: “[t]he usual motive for defying death was their steadfastness to their religious faith and moral principles.” These were men and women of faith who when faced with an imminent threat to their lives, acted in the glory of God. They did not go out actively seeking death or torture. The Church Fathers, in particular Saint John Chrysostom and Saint Augustine of Hippo, are often juxtaposed by western commentators as having diametrically opposing thoughts on the subject of premature death which is incorrect. Saint John Chrysostom gave full support to female saints who leapt to their deaths instead of allowing themselves to be raped and being defiled. Saint Ambrose of Milan also showed sensitivity toward these exceptional cases (e.g. recounting the death of 12 year old St. Agnes, Concerning Virginity I.2.5-9), as did Saint Jerome (e.g. writing to St Paula about the martyrdom of Saint Blæsilla in Letters 39.3). While on the other hand, Saint Augustine was adamant that no one should kill themselves, no matter the magnitude of their desperation, but was circumspect in the context of martyrdom. It is worth quoting him in full:

“But, they say, during the time of persecution certain holy women plunged into the water with the intention of being swept away by the waves and drowned, and thus preserve their threatened chastity. Although they quitted life in this wise, nevertheless they receive high honour as martyrs in the Catholic Church and their feasts are observed with great ceremony. This is a matter on which I dare not pass judgment lightly. For I know not but that the Church was divinely authorized through trustworthy revelations to honour thus the memory of these Christians” (City of God 1.26).

Saint Augustine sharply condemns the practice of suicide, emphasising, “that no man ought to inflict on himself voluntary death” (City of God 1.27). Likewise, Saint John Chrysostom also condemns suicide: “Whereas God punished such men [those who commit suicide] more than murderers, and we all regard them with horror, and justly; for if it is base to destroy others, much more is it to destroy one’s self” (Commentary of St. John Chrysostom on Galatians 1.4). Engelhardt (2009, p. 79) adds to these, the author of The Shepherd of Hermes (written between AD 90-150), Saint Justin Martyr (AD ca. 100-ca 160), Saint Clement of Alexandria (AD 150-220), and Lucuius Caecilius Firmianus Lactantius (AD ca. 260-330). For instance, Saint Clement of Alexandria writes, “He who presents himself before the judgment-seat becomes guilty of his own death. And such is also the case with him who does not avoid persecution, but out of daring presents himself for capture. Such a person…becomes an accomplice in the crime of the persecutor” (The Stromata, or Miscellanies IV.10). And Lactantius (The Divine Institutes III.18) writes: “If homicide is wicked because it is the destroyer of a man, he who kills himself is fettered by the same guilt because he kills a man.” The Fathers used very strong language to describe their beliefs about suicide for good reason (i.e. the highly public and influential deaths of philosophers by suicide was seen as acceptable in the Roman and Greek pagan worlds). However, as Engelhardt (2009, p. 79) so importantly reflects, “[a]t about the time St. John Chrysostom wrote [his] remarks [on Galatians], the Orthodox Church issued its first canon bearing on suicide, underscoring that those who committed suicide while insane should be given a Christian burial”.

Engelhardt (2009, p. 79) stresses that outside this context of insanity, “[a]ll that we have historically concerning the church’s life is incompatible with the praxis of suicide.” Thus, we know by the Orthodox Church’s canon law that 1) a person who willingly commits suicide and is not insane endures a separation from God and should not receive a funeral rite (1 John 3.15), and 2) one who commits suicide in the condition of insanity, is able, through economy under the Bishop’s authority, to receive a funeral rite. We have much to gain also in the distinction of the voluntary and involuntary murder as legislated in the canons 22 and 23 in the Synod of Ancyra in 314. Fr. Stanley Harakas reflects that independent of whether a murder was voluntary or involuntary, a period of repentance had to be fulfilled before the one who had committed the crime could partake in sacraments again. But the difference with a suicide was that no repentance for the act of self-murder could take place because the one who takes their life is instantaneously cut off from the ability to request forgiveness of their sins (S. S. Harakas, March 6, 1997, p. 25f). One reason the Church Fathers applied such strict definitions around suicide from the outset of the Church’s formation was because “the Greco-Roman world tended both to disparage the body and to endorse suicide in circumstances of severe hardship. The Cynics, Epicureans, Stoics, and Gnostics, for example, all endorsed voluntary death for reasons consistent with each group’s broader ethical vision” (SCOBA, May 23, 2007).

Ways Forward: An Integrated Canonical and Pastoral Response to Suicide

It is true that in some cases like in parts of rural Orthodox Russia, those who suicided were not buried in cemeteries as recently as the 1880s. According to Paperno (1997, p. 55), the custom was to bury suicides by a road, at a crossroads, at the edge of a field or in the woods, swamp, or ravine. But those who were considered as “insane suicides” committing the act “in a state of delirium, illness, or melancholia, were to be buried in a “special place” (that is, beyond the cemetery)…” (Paperno, 1997, p. 55f). Much has changed since that time, not in the Orthodox Church’s position on suicide, but in the primary importance of pastoral care and outreach. For the departed person who has suicided under mental duress, we are seeing that the funeral service which belongs to the “special liturgical rites of the People of God” is a practice in which the faithful can request forgiveness on behalf of the departed, and also come together to console the family, and bind the faithful in hope in God’s mercy. Farley (2017) who reflects on the vital 2007 pastoral letter to Orthodox Christians by the bishops at the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas (SCOBA, May 23, 2007), states that “motivation is everything” when it comes to suicide. Since the early 2000s in particular, we have witnessed discussions within the Church on how we might be able to better respond as a community of the faithful in dealing with those in our parishes who are faced with mental illness (F. G. Morelli, September 23, 2009). For the Orthodox Church there is a fine line that cannot be crossed when making proclamations about suicide, before it opens the floodgates to the slippery slope argument (Smith, September 9, 2015). Yet, canonically, the Church has always known where it stands regarding suicide and the Fathers when consulted accurately have had one voice on the matter. What we are witnessing at present are significant pastoral responses that seek to communicate clearly that the Church is here for those who need it and that God will “wipe away every tear” (Revelation 21:4), no matter if one is struggling with mental illness, physical unwellness, very difficult life situations, or even atheism.

Last year, Kate McCray (November 9, 2016), a Canadian PhD candidate who spoke at the Orthodox Christian Association of Medicine, Psychology, and Religion (OCAMPR 2016) Conference with the theme “On Pain and Suffering” cited Fr. John Breck, suggesting the possibility that a specific funeral service for those who have suicided be devised. The idea of such a service would be to plainly acknowledge before God, that the “Servant of God who has taken their life be forgiven for their sins etc.” This would be more than is presently conducted in the Trisagion Service alone prior to burial (Constandinides, 1994). The precedence for this, according to Fr. John Breck could be argued in the existence in the altered wedding service of a divorced person who has decided to remarry. The Order of the Second or Third Marriage carries a certain penitential character about it, and can only be performed through economy and the local Bishop’s authority. Thus that too is an exception to the “rule” (OCA, June 5, 2017). By other clergy, it has been suggested that the current funeral service could be somewhat “tweaked”, blessed by the Church’s bishops, with the “prayers normally used at Christian burials expressing the ambiguous and tragic nature of the situation and accentuating the mercy of God” (Farley, 2017). Furthermore, Fr Lawrence Farley (2017) suggests “…that clergy should be allowed to preside at such funerals, and to offer the comfort of the Church’s intercession for the dead”. The awareness now, reached by many clergy of the Orthodox Church, as more and more suicides take place, and in the direct pastoral communications with the family of the departed, is that all suffer in a parish, and a single loss of life can send reverberations throughout the whole church (Cuceu & Pontikes, 2016; OCA, 2017). The pressing issue for us all perhaps, is not whether or not a person who has suicided will receive the prayers of a funeral service (albeit how important this is according to Church canon), but how over time the Church will play a major role in stifling and reducing the number of suicides of its parishioners. There is evidence to suggest, that religiosity plays an important role in keeping people alive. Sisask et al. (2010) found that: “individual-level associations between different dimensions of religiosity and attempting suicide exist”, and that “subjective religiosity… serve[s] as a protective factor against non-fatal suicidal behaviours”. There is thus a great deal that Christians can do to ensure that less of our young people, less men, and less depressed persons in particular, find themselves in a situation of vulnerability where suicide becomes an irrational option (Vlachos, 2005). Fr. George Morelli from the Antiochian Orthodox Church, who is also a clinical psychologist, has an excellent 12 part series available on Ancient Faith Ministries on the topic of suicide, and partly about the role of Church communities to be there for mentally ill persons (and brethren in general), to assist them with dealing with depression through the application of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT), mindfulness strategies and more (G. Morelli, Fr., 2008-2009).

Conclusion

As we move away from the classical point of view to be found in literature during the time of antiquity that says someone who has taken their own life might have done so in a rational manner, towards the point of view that denotes that a person who would self-life take is either insane or near the point of insanity, we are faced with the need to develop the way in which we as individuals, extended families, and a Church community respond to suicide. Plainly mental health issues substantially reduce one’s capacity to act rationally. Clergy and laity in the Orthodox Church, particularly over the last two decades have demonstrated a heightened pastoral awareness to suicide in general and have increased their outward facing communications on such vital matters, not in conflict with the Church’s canonical laws. The Orthodox Church is growing and learning about suicide at a pace akin to the medical science community. And with these new findings come pressing educational requirements, especially to graduate more clergy with backgrounds in mental health, psychology, social work, and even specialisations in psychiatry. But even more emphatic is the individual responsibility we all have toward the mentally ill, and to each other as parishioners and a co-suffering community. The emphasis today has to be on the pastoral outreach and response to suicide, as the number of suicides are reaching pandemic proportions. How can the Orthodox Church reach out those in need?

References

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Breck, J. (1998). The Sacred Gift of Life: Orthodox Christianity and Bioethics. Crestwood: New York: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press.

Breck, J. (2003). God With Us: Critical Issues in Christian Life and Faith. Crestwood, New York: St Vladimir's Press.

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Cuceu, M., & Pontikes, T. (2016). The Physician and Community of Faithful in the Integrated Care of the Mentally Ill: An Orthodox Christian Discussion of the Physician’s Moral and Professional Obligations. Christian Bioethics, 22(3), 301-314.

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Engelhardt, H., Tristram, Jr., & Iltis, A. S. (2005). End-of-life: the traditional Christian view. Lancet, 366, 1045-1049.

Engelhardt, H. T., Jr. (2004). Orthodox Christian Bioethics: Medical Morality in the Mind of the Fathers. In J. F. Peppin, M. J. Cherry, & A. Iltis (Eds.), Religious Perspectives in Bioethics (pp. 21-30). London: Taylor and Francis.Farley, L., Fr. (2017). What's Wrong with Suicide? Orthodox Church of America.  Retrieved from https://oca.org/reflections/fr.-lawrence-farley/whats-wrong-with-suicide

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Topic 8 - Lecture: The Christology of St John's Gospel

These notes are assembled after listening to the lecture delivered by Rev. Dr. Nikolai Sakharov. Disclaimer: Any errors are completely my own as I intertwine the lecture material with my own reflections and additional source material.

We can credit the Gospel of John for the way in which Christianity has been shaped. We see in the very first lines of the Gospel of John the uniqueness becomes manifest read away, we're dealing here with the divine absolute who becomes a particular person who enters history and lives with us. And it was he, God himself, John says to us.

In John's Gospel we are dealing with a very different kind of Christology that we will not find in the Gospels of Mark, Matthew or Luke. 

There are three types of Christology: 1. Love (?) Christology. 2. Christology of divine agency and 3. Incarnation Christology.

In Mark's Gospel we are dealing with so-called adoptionistic Christology. We don't hear for example anything about Christ's birth, and we are thrust into the later stages of his life. We know course that Christ is baptised by John in the River Jordan and the next thing we hear a voice from heaven 'you are my beloved son'. The words are addressed to Christ himself in this gospel. For the greater part we don't see anything particularly divine about Christ, only towards the end Christ is called son of God. So in Mark's Gospel you do not get a sense that Christ is pre-eternal.

In Matthew and Luke we have a very different type of Christology, known as ancient. Here we hear about the birth of Christ, how he was conceived by the Holy Ghost, and his baptism. We hear the words 'this is my beloved son'. It was a revelation of Christ not so much adoption of Christ, to the crowd of people.
 

John says to us Christ is before the incarnation, that is why there is not so much description of Christ birth. In John it is the Logos, God. He was in the beginning, and no single thing was created without him.

So the three other evangelists, who sent us only with economical activities, oikonomia in Greek. They speak about his earthly economy.

John tells us about Christ pre-eternal existence. In this way he breaks the confines of time, and goes into eternity. 

What we find in the Epistle of Philippians written by St Paul, 2:6-11, Christ was in the form of God but he took the form of a servant.

However as a member of the Orthodox church, I would not like to stress the differences in the Gospel each individualistically. In fact, they produce a common vision of Christ.

A book titled 'the preexistence of Christ: in the Gospels of Matthew Mark and Luke'. Even in the synoptic gospels we do see clear descriptions on the preexistence of Christ.

'I have come to fulfil the law, not to destroy.': This formula 'I have come' points to his pre-eternal existence. Matthew 5:17. When this formula is used here refers not to a geographical location but this idea of coming into the world. He didn't come from Galilee to Jerusalem into the world. 

These things change the course of the history of mankind. The first 18 verses of the Gospel of John, are our the most significant in our scriptures in terms of having been studied the most. They present the mystery that has remained unsolved until now.

The style, the message, the ideas, are so surprisingly and so convincingly confident that there is no need for further attestation, because they encode the entire message of Christianity. No wonder these magnificent versus we read in our church. 

It was important to elevate the Gospel to its authentic level.

The opening verses embrace this universal scale from the outset, both in terms of space and time. It goes even before time, presenting the universal context. Goes beyond any space, with such universal concepts as: light and darkness, the world.

The absolute became flesh. This divine absolute becomes a human person.

The prologue to the Gospel of John as it stands in Greek, reads like poetry. In many translations you will see that the prologue, the first 18 verses, but published in poetic form. There is such a hymnic rhythm, to the opening of the Gospel of John, that some propose that you was added on later. But I do not agree with this. The language may well be different but Christology are in fact completely integral to the rest of the Gospel. The rest of the Gospel sort of sets and explains out for us what is written in the prologue.

The concept of Logos

The term Logos appears here only in the new Testament. It won't appear anywhere else. Why does evangelist John use this term in the Gospel of John. We see here inferences of Stoicism, so much so, that they try to equate the Logos being Christ with historical Logos. 

Logos in stoicism is a cosmic reason, the governing principle of all that is. And yet all other reasonable creatures, there have seeds of laws. And was a similar ideas in John's Gospel. Christ enlightens every man that comes into the world, Gospel of John 1.1. In stoicism of course is very flexible, it can be adapted to other religions.

I tried to see this concept of Logos not as historic images, but as all embracing concept. The definition of Logos means the word in Greek. In Greek it has many meanings for example it might mean principle, it may mean reason, it may mean thought. In this context it is used to embrace as wide a meaning as possible. In the concept of word of God can be found in Judaism.

The word of God acquires semi-personified existence.

For the Jewish people the word of God was the Torah itself. It was the law that was given to Moses. And in John, find the synthesis of all of these ideas.

Finally the word of God became a person. We have this tendency towards personification in Judaism, and John brings this tendency towards final fulfilment in his Gospel. The word of God becomes flesh, it becomes a human person.

One of the striking images of the Gospel, is that no one else would you find Christ referring to himself as "I am". You will find this in various Eastern religions and also in the Hellenic world, Bultmann makes this comparison with Hellenic ideas. For example various mythical gods are quoted as saying I am. And in the hermetic(?)  corpus, X(?) reveals himself to Hermes, 'who am I the treasure of life'. In the mundene(?) literature, 'a shepherd and my who loves his sheep'. We should not really press these arguments and parallels to far. Because it is undoubtably a reference to Exodus chapter 3:14 'I am that I am', says God in his revelation. And Christ repeats the same revelation.

In chapter 18 Christ asks? "Whom do you seek?" The reply is "Jesus of Nazareth", and Christ says "I am". And as soon as he said this to them, they went backwards and fell to the ground, because they recognised the divine name.

So soon as John uses this title "I am", whatever other title that he had used like "the chosen one", the Messiah, the man spoken of by Moses and the prophets, all of them imply a divinity of Christ, and reinterpreted in the context of Christ saying "I am that I am".

Characteristic of John

Can you think of the Christological title that was in John's Gospel that was not in the synoptic gospels? Well, the various first thing that John the Baptist says about Christ: "this is the Lamb of God". Why do you think he uses this title? On the one hand, all the Jewish hearers would recall to memory the only begotten son of Abraham, the sacrificial lamb Genesis chapter 22, in Exodus, and many other associations in the old Testament. Before the coming of Christ, there was an association of Israel the nation with a lamb. If you look at the images of the suffering servant of Isaiah chapter 42 and 49, Israel is associated with suffering, and this imagery in fact, is the Lamb of God which takes upon its self the sins of others. This would have been quite understanding to Jewish hearts and minds, so when John the Baptist uses this term, the Israelites would be very much at home with this term. But the something more to this.

So what do these titles tell us? For example, "the son of God". This refers to Christ's divinity. And when we say, "the son of man", this speaks of his human nature. So these points to nature, divine or human.

If we consider other titles, like "King of Israel", they point to function, like Messiah. This is Christ's function in salvation. But they do not point to his character. For example if we say, "King of Israel", this does not point to character, a good king or about King, it does not point to what Christ is like as a person. Same as, "Lamb of God", "son of man", they point instead to Christ's nature in function. But when we speak about the Lamb of God, Christ immediately emerges as a personality, a person. And what kind of feeling does this title "Lamb of God" evoke in us? Someone that is innocent, defenceless, one who would do harm to anyone, so these labels can evoke an image of Christ. This is very specific to John who tries to present us with Christ who is not just the son of God, but also of man, as a person, so that we would know Christ, what he is like as a person. 

Q&A. What about the title 'Son of David'? This label points to his lineage, his Messiah-ship. The Jewish peoples expected the Messiah to be a descendant of King David. David had received the promise. 

Uniqueness of John's presentation of Christ

For John it was importance, to present Christ as a person. And perhaps you might notice, hacking you learn about someone another person? How do you go about this? How do you know if a person is good or bad for instance? How can you know another person? By talking to them. When you enter relationship, you get to know another person. When you enter a dialogue, for example you can lecture, see a professor at University in lecture hall, for 5 to 10 years, but you would not know what he's like as a person. But if he invited for a cup of tea, you can get a rough idea of what he is like as a person. And this is something unique in John's Gospel, he tries to present to us Christ through his relationship to other people. He gives us pictures, sketches of his dialogues, his relationship with other people so his person is clear to us. 

And there is something unique in principle here, if you look, he does not like public scenes very much, there are of course public teachings, but all of his dialogues, where Christ actually reveals himself, who he is and where is from, come from personal contact. John tries to depict this from public, to behind closed doors. To intimate settings where Christ enters a dialogue, and enters a personal relationship, and his divinity, his Messiah-ship becomes manifest. Let us look at the first chapter 1:38-39. The very first disciples who followed Christ, he asked them, who do you seek? And they said to him, Rabbi, that is teacher, where do you live? And he says to them, come and see. And they came and saw where he lived and stayed with him that they, and it was about the 10th hour. At first where there is no personal dialogue taken place, Christ addresses as preacher someone who has a message, but this title Rabbi could be applied to anything in Judaism. But then they go to his house, far more intimate, and after one day of staying with him, after this personal communication, the confession of Christ as Messiah grows. In 1:41, we read, Simon said to him, we have found the Messiah. And this was after only a mere 24 hours of staying with Christ. There was personal contact with him. Now when you come to chapter 3, we John has meaning of these personal settings, where man can open his heart. When Nicodemus came to him, by night, again it was a very personal setting when no one can see someone, and you come face-to-face with Christ. Again this is another intimate context. 

If we continue this approach in reading the Gospel of John, we can point to the Samaritan lady and her conversation with Christ at the fountain. Again Christ speaks to the Samaritan woman face to face. And John writes, and "Jesus spoke to her". And when this was happening it was important for John to emphasise that the disciples had gone away to buy food. And it was Jesus, face-to-face with the Samaritan woman. The result after this conversation? She confesses him as Messiah. 

If you study all the other personal dialogues, you will see that they all have a personal setting. Even if the setting, is in the midst of a crowd. And we see that this courses, and dialogues is the main form of revelation in John's Gospel. It is through the personal contact the people have with Christ, when they confess him as Messiah. And when we study the reaction of the Pharisees for example, they are not described in this personal way, we do not hear about their names for instance.

And when the plot of the Gospel of John moves to the Last Supper, again we see an intimate setting. And in chapter 13, again we read that it was night. And he devotes three chapters to the setting of the Last Supper which is an enormous amount of space relative to the Gospels size in words. For John such settings were important, this is where God opens his heart, in the dialogue with the disciples, and John wants to convey every single detail.

That is why perhaps you will notice that there is no public appearances of Christ after his resurrection. He appears to his disciples, he appears to Peter, but never to crowds. In fact, perhaps you now understand why we believe, that public manifestation of Christ in a large crowd today would not happen. If it is not in private, then we do not believe it.

This is known as intimate Christology as it is through personal encounter.

Johannine Vision of the Godhead

When we consider John's vision of the Godhead, the Holy Trinity. We cannot say for sure that it was John that developed Triadology as we understand it now in 2000 years of Orthodoxy. But nevertheless he lays the foundation for our Trinitarian teaching. 

And it is only in John's gospel that we find the title 'Son' without any predicate. He just says "son" and "father". Christ is presented, not only, in the context of belonging to simply as Son God, or Son of Man, but also he presents him as the Son of the Father. What is the difference if we present him as Son of the Father, what does this mean? Why is this word used "Son"? He uses this term deliberately to point to Christ's status in relation to his "Father". We have the Christology of Relationship. We do not invent this or weave it into the Gospel, the evangelist tries to show us that he is in relationship with the Father and the Holy Spirit. It justifies our approach.

If we look at the Synoptic gospels, we hear very little about what Christ felt about his father. yes we have witnessed the manifestation of the spirit during baptism, but these are somewhat impersonal, we are not told much about their relationship. At the baptism of Christ, the Holy Spirit, descends on the Son as a dove, we hear the voice of the Father, but we do not hear much about the relationship. And for John it is important to show the inter-relationship.

See how the father relates to the Son- an existential attitude is revealed. 

But in John, we find this relationship all over the text.

Yet, if there were no examples of this relationship in the synoptic gospels, it would be rather problematic. But certainly it is in the Gospel of John where this resonates more powerfully. Of course will see all the Gospels in unity.

Now let us see, what is this relationship? It is total commitment, total surrender, of all the fathers being to the son. John 3:35- the father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand. Again, throughout gospel John 13 'all things into his hands'; John 16 'all things that the father has is mine.'  There is also the commission of the Father's function. 'The father shows the son' everything... he commends to the Son, all his power and source of being. The father raises up the dead. John 5 'the Father has life in himself'... whole of Father's authority is given to the Son. Everything that he has has been given to the Son. The Father judges no man, but handed all judgement to the Son.

Fr Sophrony: once when he became a monk in Mount Athos, he had an argument with God. He said, how can you judge me, you are God, and I'm a human. And he was praying to God, and he said to him I am a feeble human being and any day I can die of hunger, illness, and any number of things. How can you judge me? Because the judge should been the same condition as the one being judged. And in his heart came these words: father judges no man, and has committed or judgement to his son, because he is the son of man. So Fr Sophrony lost his argument because the son of man lived with all these conditions, and endured much more difficulties, than father Sophrony himself.

So we seem from this passages at the father seems to almost belittle himself, in favour of the son, his whole life, his honour, his power, his authority, his real kenosis (emptying) for the son.

Now briefly, we turn to the attitude of the son towards the father. So we know from the previous verses that the sun, seems to have everything handed down to him from the father. But now we can illustrate the reciprocity, how the son returns everything back to the father that was given to him. And perhaps, that the mystery of Christ can be summarised under this formula: "Not I, but the Father". John 5: "I come in my father's name". His whole consciousness is focused on the Father. Whatever the sun does, he doesn't for the father, in the father's name. "The son can do nothing of himself saved through the father." "By my own self I can do nothing." Jesus does everything by the father. In the judgement for example, he does things, only as the father would have judged. "And my judgement is just, because I do not seek my own will but that of the father." Same with glory, Jesus is quick to return the glory to his father (John ch 14). So we have this notion of "perixorisis". This word in Greek means exchange, intercommunications between the persons of the holy Trinity. 

So we have a picture now, of the relationship within the Trinity. We hear about the son, we hear about the father and then we hear about another person, the Paraclete. So there is another apart from the two, and he is identified in a number of different ways. In chapter 14 his call the Paraclete, a spirit of truth, the Holy Spirit. And this theology of kenotic love which we outlined in our presentation of the father and son relationship, concerns also the Holy Spirit. The Greek word, "Parakletos", is difficult to translate. The King James version, translated as comforter, but this doesn't exhaust the meaning of this word. "Parakletos" might have a variety of meanings. For example, a common translation would be, someone who is present in the court. Someone who is called by "Para-kalw". You call someone to be by you, next to you. And in Greek courts, this meant the presence of an attorney. Like an intercessor, one who intercedes. An advocate. And, there is an element of this Court vocabulary, in chapter 15. 'The comforter is come whom I sent unto you from the Father, even the spirit of truth... He will testify of me'. The spirit will judge the world and divide the world of sin and righteousness. We can also translate this term as "proclaims". You can also translate this word as "helper". We see that John tries to combine all the meanings, in a new way to create a new concept. Just as the term "logos" is all embracing, the term "paraclete" give so much death to the meaning of the spirit. And John attaches this label, to the Holy Spirit, so is to show his activity, of his kind of service. 

The doctrine of the Holy Spirit, came into our church quite late. As late as 380 a.D., Gregory Nanzianzus, wrote, "to be in error of the Holy Spirit, was to be orthodox". Because until that time, people were hesitant to call the Holy Spirit, God. And how can we discern his divinity. And the main argument of St Athanasius was "we must take our knowledge of the spirit from the son and it is appropriate to put forward proofs that derive from him." And we can discern the divinity of the Holy Spirit through activity. Because he acts in the same way as the son. Christ did not speak of himself, but only with the father would tell him. So the Holy Spirit, chapter 16, "when we hear the spirit of truth... he cannot speak of himself, but whatsoever he hears he will speak". Just as the Son came in the name of the Father so will the Paraclete come in the name of the Son (John 14). So we can discern the same language, the same kenotic activity: The father towards the son, and the Holy Spirit towards the son. 

There is some interesting detail with respect to the Triadology found in John's Gospel. The father, engages the Holy Spirit, but only at the son's request. So there is a sense of coordination in the holy Trinity. Especially in the synoptic gospels, were Christ was led by the Holy Spirit in the wilderness.