What happened on the Cross? Dispassion.

July 30/ Aug 12 2009 10th Wednesday after Pentecost


Thou didst endure suffering, O Master, that Thou mightest bestow dispassion upon all who worship Thy sufferings and voluntary sacrifice – the spear, nails and reed, which Thou didst endure with long-suffering of Thine own will – that for the sake of Thy sufferings, O Lord, Thou mightest win dispassion for me. (Tue Vespers, Tone 8, Lord I have Cried, Sticheron 1)



We are singing about the cross again – it must be Wednesday or Friday, when we meditate in our hymns about the cross every week of the year.


This hymn, from Tuesday Vespers (remember, the Vesper service points to the next calendar day, since it is the beginning of the liturgical day for us)  points out with particular clarity our Orthodox doctrine of the cross.


We consider our Lord’s death on the cross to be a part of His entire ministry, which was accomplished from His incarnation till His ascension and subsequent sending of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. He did not become man to take on a punishment for us so that we would not be punished, as most Protestants think. What an idea!  – That God would punish His son to avoid punishing us.


What good is forgiveness if we do not change? Sin is painful – is hurts the soul. A forgiven sinner is still a sinner, and is sick. Jesus Christ came to enable us to stop sinning and become perfected.


When we look at the cross, we should see redemption, and not only forgiveness. The redeemed man changes, so that the sources of his pain are obliterated, and he obtains perfect peace. Our hymns bring this point home many times. We also speak of our Lord’s exploits on the cross in order to emulate Him. Just as He voluntarily gave Himself over to His Father’s will, so must we voluntarily give ourselves over to His will.


Dispassion is a difficult and technical theological term. The ascetic fathers have written many things about this term. This short article cannot hope to explain it, and only those who have become completely dispassionate can understand it, so I can only understand is as “through a glass darkly”.


Here are a few quotes from the Fathers about dispassion. This will need to be enough for now.


"Love, dispassion, and adoption are distinguished by name, and name only. Light, fire, and flame join to fashion one activity. So too with love, dispassion and adoption." St. John Climacus.


Dispassion engenders love, hope in God engenders dispassion, and patience and forbearance engender hope in God; these in turn are the product of complete self-control, which itself springs from fear of God. Fear of God is the result of faith in God. St. Maximos the Confessor(First Century on Love no. 2 – taken from http://www.orthodox.net/gleanings/fear_of_god.html )

Priest Seraphim Holland 2009.     St Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, McKinney, Texas


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  1. Father, Bless,

    So is dispassion the ability to see things as they are, free from the coloring and distortion of our feelings, biases, desires, expectations, etc….?

    I think it will help if get a better handle on understanding what exactly each one of these stages is and how they relate to the next one:

    Faith in God
    Fear of God
    Self Control
    Patience and Forebearance
    Hope in God

    Thank you for this important and helpful post.


  2. “He did not become man to take on a punishment for us so that we would not be punished, as most Protestants think. What an idea! – That God would punish His son to avoid punishing us.”

    Father bless!

    One of the most difficult things for me in trying to adopt an Orthodox view of life, has been understanding how the Church interprets the apostle Paul and, by extension, the sacrificial system of the Old Testament. The idea that Jesus would become a punishment for us, which you rightfully note is a prominent Protestant them, is taken (rightly or wrongly) from St. Paul.

    For instance, in Romans 3:25 the Apostle tells us that Christ was set forth “as a propitiation by His blood”. And in Hebrews 3:17 we are told that Christ, as our high priest, made “propitiation for the sins of the people.” St. John likewise wrote that God “loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” 1 John 4:10.

    The key word “propitiation” carries the idea of being an appeasement or satisfaction. But appeasement of what? Of God’s wrath. The context of Paul’s letter to the Romans makes that clear. The world is faced with the problem of God’s wrath against all unrighteous and ungodly men (Rom 1:18), indeed, upon everyone, because all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory (3:23). But there is good news. Paul explains that Christ’s death is a propitiation for our sins in 3:25: thus God’s wrath is appeased.

    This is in keeping with Isaiah who prophesied the Messiah would be “smitten of God, and afflicted” (Isaiah 53:4). As the Prophet continues to say, the Messiah would endure chastening, and scourging, bearing what we ourselves should have rightfully borne. The scourging and chastening can only come from God, the one who smites.

    In sum, although Christ being punished for us is a Protestant theme, it was not invented willy nilly. Rather, it is derived from the Scriptures themselves. I understand that (we) Orthodox would demure and interpret God’s wrath as his love (e.g. Kalomiros), but even if we accept that (dubious?) interpretation, Christ would still experience God’s love as wrath so we would not have to.

    I haven’t yet come across a substantial Orthodox exegesis of this passage that would support any other reading of it. That being said, there is very little Orthodox exegesis anywhere to come across, but that is another matter. St. John Chrysostom says little about it (I rarely find his commentaries helpful anyway), where else can I turn for an alternate interpretation of Paul (and Isaiah)?

    In Christ,

  3. Dear Shawn:
    I promise you I will work on a response, but you are asking for a detailed exegesis, and that is not my forte. I have some ideas, and will try to do something soon.

  4. Shawn, I know you didn’t ask me and I have only my thoughts to offer on this–no authoritative Orthodox understanding and teaching of the Fathers, as you will receive from Father Seraphim.

    I am much newer to Orthodoxy than you, but I have been a Protestant for many, many years and one who was long uncomfortable with the Western theological model of atonement, though, as you point out, there is much in Scripture that seems to support this interpretation. But I think the problem is that we are attempting to understand a mystery with not only our limited human understanding, but with the additional limitations of our native language and culture mindsets. We read words like ‘wrath’ and ‘propitiation’ and they convey to us certain meanings that perhaps the authors of Scripture did not intend.

    In addition, due to the limitations of our human minds, much of our discussion of these mysteries must be in the form of models and metaphors. This is comparable to showing children pictures of atoms that show a nucleus with rings of electrons, like little balls, circling around, when the reality is something much more complex and not representable at all in picture form. Still we must start somewhere. The danger lies in mistaking our models and metaphors for the reality. I think this is what has happened in Western Christian theology–for various reasons, in continuing to try to ‘nail down’ and describe and explain, explicitly, the atonement, the interpretation (and translation) of scripture was filtered through a certain set of assumptions–and theological models were, over time, and perhaps unconsciously, taken to be a description of the reality instead of just metaphors and aids in explaining a mystery.

    Orthodoxy appears to me to be much more aware of the limitations of the finite human mind when it comes to understanding God and more accepting of mystery in connection with the atonement and other spiritual concepts.

  5. I second the recomendation of Archbishop Dmitri’s commentary. It is not easy reading, but very good. I have it, and am in the process of making my way through it.

  6. Just a little clarification:

    >In addition, due to the limitations of our human minds, much of our discussion of these mysteries [even in scripture] must be in the form of models and metaphors.

    While much of the truth of the Bible appears to be, and often is, quite simple and straightforward, not all of Scripture is easily understood. It is full of metaphor, parables, hidden meanings and mystery. It cannot be really understood without the aid of the Holy Spirit and the Church.

  7. Thanks for the recommendations. I’ve been waiting to get my hand on the Archbishop’s commentaries. I’m interested to see how in depth he gets into the epistle, and I’ll be sure to get a copy.

    What you say is absolutely true, Deborah. Orthodoxy emphasizes mystery, metaphor and our own limitations in understanding these texts (not to mention the deference to tradition over private interpretation). But this being such a crucial point for St. Paul, and so central to the gospel as a whole (what could be more important than explaining and understanding why Jesus died on the cross?), before I can call something a mystery, I need to be certain whether God has tried to speak clearly on the subject or not.

    Besides, a metaphor is only effective insofar as it conveys a meaning, and conveys it accurately. So if St. Paul (and St. John and Isaiah) all seem to say Christ died to propitiate the wrath of God, what other meaning could that have? And if the meaning is completely different from the metaphor, then why use that metaphor at all? Rather than lead us to a greater understanding of God’s purpose in Christ, it leads us away into error.

    My concern here is even greater because I’ve never met a cradle Orthodox person who could explain to me why Christ died on the cross. And the converts I’ve spoken to, while grasping the import of the question, are, like me, struggling to make sense of Orthodoxy’s interpretation of it compared to the rather clear cut presentation by evangelicalism, which more or less takes St. Paul at face value.

  8. A couple of thoughts on this subject: First of all, the Scriptures are inspired by the same Holy Spirit that is active in the Church. Any given Scriptural text is reflective not only of Divine Truth, but also of the mind of its author, and its historical and literary context, and can be easily mis-interpreted by those with the best of intentions and the most meticulous scholarship. The mind of the Church, however, guided by the Holy Spirit, preserves us in the Truth.

    Second, the mystery of our salvation is — and is proclaimed by the Holy Church to be — a mystery, and many heresies (including most of those condemned at the seven ecumenical councils) have arisen from attempts by people, relying on their own reason, to create an overly simplistic understanding of this great mystery. The saints use metaphors to explain the great mysteries of dogma because this is the only way that we can understand them, and these metaphors do convey a meaning, but they also have limits, and we must not confuse the metaphor for the reality. This is why multiple metaphors are used, and this is where I think the best answer to this question lies: the Holy Scripture explain our salvation in a number of different ways in different places, and putting them all together we get a complete view that is in accordance with the tradition of the Church.

    St. Athanasius’ “On the Incarnation” is a very valuable thing to read on this subject. He explains the purpose of the Incarnation, and of the Crucifixion, in several different ways, because ““we are speaking of the good pleasure of God and of the things which He in His loving wisdom thought fit to do, and it is better to put the same thing in several ways than to run the risk of leaving something out” (IV, 20). The language of propitiation is included in his explanations. For example:

    “But beyond all this, there was a debt owing which must needs be paid; for, as I said before, all men were due to die. Here, then, is the second reason why the Word dwelt among us, namely that having proved His Godhead by His works, He might offer the sacrifice on behalf of all, surrendering His own temple to death in place of all, to settle man’s account with death and free him from the primal transgression. In the same act also He showed Himself mightier than death, displaying His own body incorruptible as the first-fruits of the resurrection” (IV, 20). He explained earlier that “It would, of course, have been unthinkable that God should go back upon His word and that man, having transgressed, should not die; but it was equally monstrous that beings which once had shared the nature of the Word should perish and turn back again into non-existence through corruption” (II, 6).

    So in St. Athanasius’ explanation, the idea of propitiation is tied in closely to the fall into death and corruption as a result of the fall: “For by the sacrifice of His own body He did two things: He put an end to the law of death which barred our way; and He made a new beginning of life for us, by giving us the hope of resurrection” (II,10). The sacrifice is connected closely to the renewing of our nature.

    If you read “On the Incarnation,” you will notice St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans — particularly the first several chapters — underlying much of section III, although not directly quoted. But St. Peter and others are also quoted, as well as other parts of the writings of St. Paul, giving us a fuller, more complete picture of this mystery by presenting it from multiple angles.

    I think that certain modern Orthodox theologians have gone a bit too far in rejecting certain aspects of patristic theology (like the juridical metaphor), in an attempt to combat the Western over-emphasis on this theme. And this brings me to Bishop Alexander (Mileant)’s exegesis (http://www.fatheralexander.org/booklets/english/romans_e.htm) , in which he explains Romans 3:21-25 precisely in juridical terms, but explains that St. Paul is using this particular analogy here simply because it would be easily understood by his readers. It follows from everything that has been said above that we cannot base our theology of the Incarnation on one passage from the writings of one Apostle to one city, but from all of them taken together.

    Finally, I think that St. John Chrysostom does address this point to some extent, pointing out that the word “propitiation” is used precisely to call to mind the OT sacrificial system, and thereby help them better understand and accept his words. This, of course, matches with the explanation given by Bp. Alexander.

    I hope that this explanation is at least somewhat helpful; I’m not an expert on this by any means : ).

  9. Thank you Nicholas!

    I’ve often thought of St. Athanasius as being something of an exception among Patristic writers (especially later ones) in seeming to deal, quite seriously, with the Biblical texts. At the same time, in On the Incarnation, Athanasius is taking a much broader look at the incarnation as a whole, is he not? Explaining how the very fact of the incarnation is somehow salvific or restorative for human nature, picking up on some Irenaean themes of recapitulation perhaps? I’ll have to re-read it. Its a truly wonderful book. Thanks you for the reminder.

    But, in any case, the question of the incarnation is distinct (though not separate) from Paul’s specific theology of the cross. It seems the broader, systematic view, is often used as an excuse to bypass what Paul has to say in the texts. Because, a theology of incarnation can, and often is, articulated without any reference whatsoever to the 2000+ years of the Tabernacle/Temple/sacrificial Semitic tradition which culminates atop Golgotha, and ultimately explains the logic of the Cross.

    In any case, I’m encouraged to hear about Bishop Alexander’s booklet on this passage. I’ll be sure to look it up. And, I’ll be putting an order in for Arch. Dmitri’s commentaries on Romans and Hebrews, which I’m sure will shed light on a few things.

  10. I am a bit confused by some of your statements, Shawn. All of the Holy Father lived and breathed the Holy Scriptures, and understood them on a level that neither of use can fathom, because they were inspired by the same Holy Spirit who inspired the Biblical authors. St. John Chrysostom in particular is considered by the church to be a truly inspired interpreter of St. Paul — consider, for example, the incident in his life when St. Prochorus saw a vision of St. Paul himself whispering in Chrysostom’s ear as the latter wrote his homily. After all, the Holy Scriptures can only be properly understood by the mind of the Church. The Church chose what books to include in the canon, under the inspiration of the same Spirit Who inspired the authors, and it is the Church that guides our interpretation of the books. The Song of Songs, for example, havs always been interpreted by the Church allegorically. This tells me that the Church included this book in the canon in large part for its allegorical meaning. And when it comes to theology, none of the apostles were attempting in their letters to write a dogmatic theology textbook; rather, they were attempting to express the truth to a particular group of people at a particular time, using a particular means of expression. And so these expressions are true, but they are not the whole truth. This is not an excuse, it is the truth. What is more reliable – our own understanding (or that of people who have rejected the Church) of the meaning of a few texts, or the overall message of the entire Scriptures, as understood by the consensus of the fathers?

    Anyway, I hope that Archbishop Dmitri’s and the late Bishop Alexander’s commentaries are helpful to you in understanding what these passage is mean! I had some similar difficulties with a few verses in Hebrews for several years, and it was not until I did enough exegetical research to write a term paper on them that I felt relatively comfortable with their meaning! Usually, for want of time, I have to content myself with uncertainty : ).

  11. Just an afterthought to this discussion:

    I think some of the problems that have come from Western theologians trying to determine and explain what exactly Christ accomplished on the Cross (i.e.how He did it, why He had to do it this way, elaborating on the idea of propitiation, etc..) are a result, in part, of trying to use the Old Testament sacrifices to explain the Cross. When in fact, it is the Cross that explains the Old Testament sacrifices. The Cross, itself, remains a mystery.

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