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Maximus the Confessor

A Fearless Witness of Faith in Christ

BY The Editors

July 6-12, 2008 Issue | Posted 7/1/08 at 11:06 AM

 

Weekly General Audience June 25, 2006


During his general audience on June 25, Pope Benedict XVI spoke about St. Maximus the Confessor, a defender of the Church’s faith and Christ’s human nature amid the bitter theological debates of the seventh century. The salvation of man, and indeed the entire cosmos, is central to St. Maximus’ theology. Through the incarnation of the Son of God, the whole universe is now redeemed and unified.

Dear brothers and sisters,

Today I would like to speak about another great Father of the Eastern Church from later times. St. Maximus was a monk upon whom our Christian tradition has conferred the title of “confessor” for the dauntless courage with which he bore witness to — “confessed” — the fullness of his faith in Jesus Christ, true God and true man and savior of the world, even to the point of suffering.

Maximus was born in Palestine, the land where Our Lord was born, around the year 580. From his childhood, he entered monastic life and studied Scripture using the works of Origen, the great teacher who, as early as the third century, had managed to “set” the exegetical tradition of Alexandria.

From Jerusalem, Maximus went to Constantinople, but he then sought refuge in Africa because of the barbarian invasions. There, he distinguished himself with the great courage with which he defended orthodoxy.

Maximus refused any attempt to minimize Christ’s humanity. A theory had arisen according to which Christ had only one will — his divine will. To defend the oneness of his person, advocates of this theory denied that he had a truly human will.

At first glance, it might seem that it was all right to say that Christ had only one will.

But St. Maximus realized right away its destructive impact on the mystery of salvation, since a human nature without will, a man without will is not truly a man but a man who has been truncated.

Therefore, Jesus Christ, the man, would not have been truly a man and would not have experienced the drama of a human being, which consists precisely in the difficulty of making our will conform to the truth of our being.


God and Man

Thus, St. Maximus affirmed in a very decisive way that sacred Scripture does not present us a man who is truncated and without a will, but a man who is truly complete: God, in Jesus Christ, truly took on the totality of a human being — with the exception, of course, of sin — including, therefore, a human will. Thus stated, the question becomes clear: Christ either is or is not a man. If he is a man, then he also has a human will.

But then a problem arises. Does this result in some kind of dualism? Does this not end up in affirming two complete personalities with reason, will, and feeling?

How can this dualism be avoided in order to preserve the completeness of the human being while protecting the oneness of the person of Christ, who was not some split personality?

St. Maximus shows us that man finds his unity — the integration of his whole being and his totality — not by closing himself in on himself but by overcoming himself and stepping out from himself. Likewise, in Christ, his human nature, by stepping out of himself, finds himself in God, in the Son of God.

There is no need to “amputate” the Christ’s human nature in order to explain the Incarnation. We only need to understand the dynamism of the human being who finds fulfillment only by stepping out of himself.

We find ourselves — our totality and our completeness — in God alone.

Thus, we see that it is not the man who is closed in on himself who is a complete man. Rather, the man who opens himself up and who steps out of himself is the man who becomes complete and finds himself; in the Son of God he finds his true humanity.

For St. Maximus, this vision was not mere philosophical speculation. He saw that it was fulfilled concretely in Jesus’ life, especially in the drama of Gethsemane.

In the drama of Jesus’ agony at Gethsemane — the anguish of death and the conflict between the human will to resist death and the divine will to offer himself up to death — the entire drama of mankind was played out, the drama of our redemption.

St. Maximus tells us — and we know that it is true — that Adam (and Adam is us) thought that “No” was the culmination of freedom. Only those who could say No would truly be free and, in order to truly experience freedom, man had to say No to God. This is the only way he thinks he can finally be himself and reach the apex of his freedom.

This tendency was also inherent in Christ’s human nature, but he overcame it because Jesus saw that “No” was not the maximum expression of freedom. The greatest freedom is in saying Yes to God’s will and conforming to it. Only through his “Yes” does man really become himself. Only in the great openness of his “Yes,” of uniting his will to God’s will, does man become immensely open and “divine.”

Adam’s desire was to be like God — to be completely free. But a man who is closed in on himself is not divine and is not completely free. He becomes free by going out of himself; it is in his “Yes” that he becomes free.

This was the drama of Gethsemane: Not my will but yours! The true man emerges by transferring his human will to God’s will. That is how we are redeemed.

In brief, this was the fundamental point that St. Maximus wanted to make and we see that what is at stake here is the entirety of being human. This is the whole question regarding our life.


Trial and Exile

St. St. Maximus was already experiencing problems in Africa defending this vision of man and God when he was called to Rome. He took an active role in the Lateran Council that was convoked by Pope Martin I in 649 in order to defend the two natures of Christ against an imperial edict which — pro bono pacis (for the sake of peace) — prohibited any discussion on this matter.

Pope Martin I had to pay dearly for his courage. Although he was in poor health, he was arrested and taken to Constantinople. Tried and condemned to death, the sentence was commuted to permanent exile in the Crimea where he died on Sept. 16, 655 after two long years of humiliation and torture.

A while later — in 662 — it was Maximus’ turn. He, too, continued to oppose the emperor, steadfastly maintaining, “It is impossible to affirm only one will in Christ” (see PG 91, cc. 268269).

For this reason, together with two of his disciples who were both named Anastasius, Maximus was subjected to an exhausting trial, even though he was more than 80 years old.

The imperial court of justice accused him of heresy and condemned him to have his tongue and right hand cut off, the two organs through which — in speech and writing — Maximus had combated the erroneous doctrine that Christ had only one will.

Finally, the saintly monk, thus mutilated, was exiled to Colchides on the Black Sea where, exhausted by the sufferings he had endured, he died at the age of 82 on Aug. 13, 662.

When speaking about Maximus’ life, we referred to his writings in defense of orthodoxy. I refer in particular to his Dispute with Pirrus, who was then the Patriarch of Constantinople.

In this work, Maximus was successful in convincing his opponent of his errors. Indeed, with great honesty, Pirrus concluded the Dispute with the following words: “I ask forgiveness for myself and for those who preceded me. Out of ignorance, we adopted these absurd thoughts and arguments. I pray that we may find a way to combat these absurdities, while saving the memory of those who have erred” (PG 91, c. 352).

A few dozen of Maximus’ important works have been handed down to us, among which the Mystagogy especially stands out, one of St. Maximus’ most important works, which is a well-arranged summary of his theological thinking.

St. Maximus’ thinking was never merely theological, speculative and turned in on itself, because it was always oriented towards the concrete reality of the world and its salvation.

In this context, for which he had to suffer, he could not permit himself to seek refuge in merely theoretical, philosophical statements. He had to seek the meaning of life, asking himself, “Who am I? What is this world?”

God entrusted man, who was created in his image and likeness, with the mission of bringing unity to the cosmos. Just as Christ united man to himself, God the creator has brought about the unity of the cosmos in man. He has shown us how to bring about unity within the cosmos in communion of Christ and thus arrive at a world that has truly been redeemed.


St. Maximus Today

Hans Urs von Balthasar, one of the greatest theologians of the 20th century, has referred to this powerful vision of salvation when, in “re-launching” Maximus, he defined his thinking with the graphic expression of Kosmische Liturgie (cosmic liturgy).

Jesus Christ, the only savior of the world, is always at the center of this solemn “liturgy.” The efficacy of his work of salvation, which has, once and for all, unified the universe, is guaranteed by the fact that he, although he is God in all things, is also fully man, including the “energy” and will of a man.

Maximus’ life and thought were powerfully illuminated by his immense courage in testifying to the integral reality of Christ, without any reduction or compromise. Thus, it is apparent who man truly is and how we must live in order to respond to our vocation.

We must live united with God in order to remain united to one another and to the cosmos, thereby giving the cosmos and mankind their proper form. Christ’s universal “Yes” also shows us with clarity how to properly order all other values.

We are thinking of values that we rightly defend today such as tolerance, freedom and dialogue. However, a tolerance unable to distinguish between good and evil would lead to chaos and self-destruction.

In the same way, a freedom that would not respect the freedom of others and does not find a shared measure for our respective freedoms would lead to anarchy and destroy authority.

A dialogue that does not know what to dialogue about becomes empty chatter. All of these values are truly great and basic, but they can remain true values only if they have a reference point that unites them and gives them genuine authenticity.

This reference point is the synthesis between God and the cosmos; it is the person of Christ in whom we learn the truth about ourselves and thus learn how to order all other values in context because we discover their authentic meaning.

Jesus Christ is the reference point that sheds light on all other values.

This is where the testimony of this great confessor leads. Thus, Christ shows us that the cosmos must become liturgy, the glory of God, and that adoration is the beginning of the true transformation and of the true renewal of the world.

So, I would like to conclude with a key passage from the works of St. Maximus: “We adore the only Son, together with the Father and the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, as it is now, and for all times, and the times after time. Amen!” (PG 91, c. 269). Register translation