Deliverance of Captives
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord. (Isa. 61:1-2, Luke 4:18-19)
These words of our Lord Jesus Christ, first spoken by the Prophet Isaiah and after chronicled by the Evangelist Luke as the proclamation by our Lord of His ministry among us, are of special importance to us as Orthodox Christians. The "deliverance of captives" is echoed again and again to us in the Paschal period and throughout the year in the weekly celebration of the Resurrection. The deliverance of captives is from Hell, from enemies "visible and invisible." What is captivity? Saint John Damascene describes it as "the forcible and compulsive abduction of the heart already dominated by prepossession and long habit" (Philokalia, vol. 2). In his treatise "On the Virtues and the Vices," he distinguishes between seven different terms in relation to our power regarding sin-provoking thoughts; captivity is the last. Saint John sees captivity as the end result of our having linked up with a thought or suggestion of the enemy, and through assent brought the evil to actualization. Captivity, in the language of the Fathers, is the darkening of the nous, the "intellect" or "eye of the soul." The result of this darkening is profound.
Made in the "image and likeness" of God, mankind instinctively seeks out freedom. From our very conception in the womb to the moment of our repose, we find ourselves in some form of captivity-whether we acknowledge it or not. We begin in total dependency upon our mothers. We are literally fed by their life blood and breath. After our birth we are held captive in the sphere of our family and community who nurture and guide us according to their strength and understanding. As we mature we begin making the choices which will determine our captivity in the present and future. In time we leave our family homes and take up life on our own. We often in these modern times seek the freedom to "be ourselves."
But what of freedom? The darkened nous of the world offers us a distorted notion of freedom-the precise opposite of the Truth. Freedom is seen as radical individuality. If we will acquire great personal wealth we will be free. If we will cast off the past, particularly "patriarchal" tradition, and be thorough "inclusive" in our thinking and relationships, we will be free. If we reject authority figures and establish ourselves as the sole arbiters of truth we will be free. If we wholeheartedly accept the hypotheses of modern science and other societal "professionals" we will be free. And, most recently, if we enter "virtual reality" we will be free. I am acquainted with a man who spends hundreds of dollars per month in on-line charges hooking up to the Internet and other "chat groups." He says that it is worth it because that's where he finds all of his friends. He believes that "being on-line" is the ultimate freedom because one can be whoever one wants to be, unrestrained by race, gender, ethnic or economic origin. One is not only free to be himself, but also free to be someone else. Contrary to the prevalent opinion, this is not freedom but an incredibly deep and dark captivity.
Our Lord Jesus Christ has set us free from captivity by His Resurrection. But the price of this freedom is our willing bondage to Him. The Apostle Paul calls himself "the prisoner of the Lord" (Eph. 4:1). The truth is that throughout our days we have to make choices. We choose to be captives to sin and death, or captives to virtue and life. There is no neutral ground, no other place to abide. We are not necessarily in complete captivity in any given moment to either of these ends, but our hearts are moving in one or the other direction. As we continually make the choice of bondage to Christ, He reveals to us deeper levels of our bondage to sin so that we can struggle the more to come to Him. The contemporary fascination with "being saved" as a unique and singular experience is at best superficial. We will only be finally and completely "free" when we are in the heavenly realm in the loving and captive embrace of our God.
Our work as Orthodox is for our freedom from captivity and the freedom of all those who are captives. "Acquire the Holy Spirit of God and thousands around you will be saved," counsels Saint Seraphim of Sarov. In this acquisition of the Holy Spirit we are freed from captivity to "the world, the flesh and the devil," and we become captives to divine freedom. Let us return for a moment to Saint John Damascene's definition of captivity as the result of prepossession and long habit. This is, converse to his reference, the goal of the Jesus Prayer-that through constant attention and practice it becomes self-actuating. We struggle to become captive to the prayer for in its simplicity the fullness of the Gospel is expressed.
It is not until we take up the ministry of our Lord "to set at liberty"-and this is the ministry of all baptized Christians who have "put on Christ"-that we begin to recognize the depth of our own captivity. How often do we put aside this ministry, even deny that it has been given to us, in favor of the cares and seeming pleasures of this world. This itself is the in-dication of our captivity. The ministry of Christ is the freedom of the person who has been returned to his true nature, the "image and likeness" which was God's plan from the beginning. While the potential for this return is given to us in Holy Baptism, it requires a tremendous struggle to be so "natural" in the whole of our lives.
Obedience to the Law of God is the only path to freedom in this life, the freedom to be as God means us to be, not slaves to the unnatural passions. Though captivity to the passions may appear to bring immediate pleasure, it brings nothing but the ultimate degradation and alienation of the person from God and from himself, while captivity to Christ brings freedom and holy fulfillment.
We must continually remember that the choices we make set the direction of our captivity. Our Lord Jesus Christ has promised deliverance to those who choose bondage to Him. Let us then embrace this heavenly captivity, willingly taking up the struggle against the passions as arduous as it is, with faith and hope that He will reward us with eternal freedom and rest.
Priest Michael Crowley
Holy Nativity Mission,
S. Portland, Maine