Words of Love: Divine Philia

Christ and St Menas, Egyptian Icon from the 8th century

The greatest possible form of friendship we are told of in Scripture is between God Himself and man.“The Lord spoke with Moses face to face, as a man would speak with his friend” (Ex. 33:11). While God has equal agape for all, He does not share philia equally with all, since philia must be mutual.  Moses, as we see in Exodus, is a friend of God. In the Gospel of John we read how Jesus “loved (philein) Lazarus” and the Evangelist John is “the disciple whom Jesus loved (philein).” John the Baptist is the “friend (philos) of the Bridegroom” Christ. They accordingly take on privileged roles in bearing witness to Christ’s life. John the Baptist becomes the “Forerunner” of Christ, Lazarus is brought back from the dead as a living witness to the resurrection, and John the Beloved Disciple becomes the great Evangelist and Theologian.

It is in the Gospel of John that we find the deepest meaning of Christian friendship, where the verbs philein and agapan are used almost interchangeably. As we noted, the key characteristic of Christian friendship is mutuality, but it is also founded on Christ’s love, which even has the power to override denial and betrayal. In the synoptic Gospels, Christ repeats and fulfills the Old Testament command, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” but in the Gospel of John He gives a “new” commandment: “Love one another (allelous), as I have loved you.” This commandment is not new because it is a commandment to love. It is new because it teaches the manner in which to love: “as I have loved you.” This mutual love is specifically demanded of the disciples of Christ. All Christian believers should have this common love for one another (allelous). Likewise, the same word allelous is used about 15 times to describe Gregory and Basil’s mutual progress in life in the Funeral Oration for St Basil.

Although Jesus washes Judas’ feet like the other disciples, He still dismisses him from the Mystical Supper before disclosing the new commandment of divine philia to His disciples. This love is so sublime that it converges at the center of the circle of love, where divine agape, storge, philia, and eros meet. But I would like to discuss the aspect of friendship in Christ’s discourse on divine love, because it is something He emphasizes, partly with a view to Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s denial. While we discussed that Christ’s agape is unconditional (He died even for Judas), His philia is based on the condition of obedience. “You are my friends if you do my commandments” (Jn 15:14).

He warns his disciples of the betrayal, saying, “the Scripture will be fulfilled ‘He who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me’” (Jn. 13:18). Jesus is referring here to King David’s words about betrayal in Psalm 40 (41):10: “Even the man of my peace, in whom I put my trust, he who ate of my own bread, has lifted his heel against me.” The poignancy of Judas’ betrayal is intensified by the fact that he betrays Jesus with a kiss. In the NT Greek, the word for “kiss” (philein) is the verb form of the word “friend” (philos). A kiss was exchanged between friends and brothers as the ultimate sign of goodwill, peace, and trust. Judas makes it the sign of betrayal. “Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, ‘The one I will kiss is the man’ ” (Mk. 14:44).

Judas’ Betrayal (Prodosia), Theophanes the Cretan, 16th century

It is not only Psalm 40 that foreshadows the betrayal of the Messiah, but also Psalm 54 (LXX), which provides us with similarly vivid descriptions of the bond of trust that Judas broke: “For if an enemy had reproached me, I would have endured it; and if one who hated me had spoken vauntingly against me, I would have hid myself from him. But it was you, a man who was my equal (isopsychos), my guide and my acquaintance, who, sharing with me the same intent (epi to auto), sweetened my repasts: we walked in the house of God in concord (homonoia)” (vv. 14-15). All the Greek words put in parentheses here denote the intimacy of friendship we described in our last post. Isopsychos means “equality of soul”, while epi to auto and homonoia both suggest “identity of mind and purpose” and even “having the same nous”. 

The two prophecies alike speak of shared meals: “you sweetened my repasts” and “ate of my bread”. It is important to remember that Judas was allowed to partake of the Eucharist, even when he had already planned his betrayal of Christ. The two weekly fast days of the Orthodox Church, Wednesday and Friday, are specifically set apart for fasting in remembrance of Christ’s passion. Wednesday is the day of Judas’ betrayal, Friday the day of the Lord’s crucifixion. Just as we fast to renounce Adam and Eve’s betrayal of God (and of each other) in the garden of Eden, so we also fast to renounce Judas’ betrayal in the garden of Gethsemane. We may consider it an abstinence from those “meals of betrayal” mentioned in the Psalms, and as a way to remember our miniature betrayals of Christ, whose Body and Blood we are invited to partake of every Sunday. Wednesday, as the midpoint of the week, is a tool for measuring our own betrayal of Christ’s hospitality. 

Judas’ betrayal also raises a key point about human friendship in general. Choosing friends is inherently risky. Love, in any of its true forms, is dangerous. You will have to lay down your life for your friends. You must risk betrayal from them. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends (Jn. 15:12-13).”

However, despite all its risks, Christ has blessed this path of friendship. Moreover, this divine philia always refers back to the only One who really deserves our trust. What does friendship with Him entail? “You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you by His poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9). He calls us into friendship with Himself not because He needs us, but so that we may be enriched by Him. He took on our nature and established a strange equality with us, so that we may be exalted with Him. “No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (Jn. 15:15). He has entrusted His knowledge to us, that we may make Him known to the world.

As we saw Gregory and Basil striving for each other’s glory in classical Greek fashion, so we see God Himself sharing His glory with His friends: “The glory that You have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one (Jn 17:22).” So it is that “friends share everything in common.” And the end-goal is nothing short of the divine unity of deification: that we may be united in perfect philia with each other and in divine philia with God, so that in the words of St. Gregory, “joined together in one life and one vision we may behold the holy and blessed Trinity” (Fun. Or. 82). 


Join us next time as we come full circle with the last major Word of Love: Eros.

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