“In origin a symbol was a token that had been broken in two and the parts given to two people who in some way belonged to each other, or were committed to some venture; when the two parts were brought together again this common purpose and their commitment to it was reaffirmed. From this a symbol came to mean something that points beyond itself, something the meaning of which is not exhausted by what it seems to be.” (Kindle Loc. 1933-36)
There are several stories in legends and myth about such symbols and when the bearers of the pieces are brought together and the two pieces of the symbol rejoined something wonderfully mysterious happens. The bringing together of the separated parts of the symbol becomes a key opening the way to some other, even greater truth. The symbol points to something greater and beyond.
What was triggered in my mind from Fr. Louth’s portrayal of a “symbol” is that humans are exactly such a “symbol.” First, in Genesis 1:27 humans are created by God as icons of God. In some manner we are representative of God, in God’s own image. Second, in Genesis 2:7 God forms the human from the dust of the earth and breathes His life-giving breath into the corporeal thing and the dust of the earth comes to life as the soul is formed. The soul is the very interface point of God’s breath with the dust of the earth. The human exists only as the union of God’s breath and the dust of the earth. The “symbol” has been formed. The Holy Prophet Isaiah paraphrases the Genesis 2 account of the creation of humans like this: “… O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.” (Isaiah 64:80) Formed from the dust of the earth, we indeed are a clay symbol with God’s breath being the other part of that symbol. And as symbol, we point to the divine life beyond ourselves and yet attainable in a union between divinity and humanity.
The symbol of humanity is indeed broken in two, but is broken they humans themselves. For humanity rebels against God its Creator and sins bringing about death. In Genesis 6:3, the LORD says,
“My spirit shall not abide in man for ever, for he is flesh, but his days shall be a hundred and twenty years.”
The ancestral sin and the Fall of humankind breaks the unity of the symbol, and the two “pieces” of the symbol are separated. Adam returns to the dust of the earth.
But as we know, the Biblical story does not end there, for in the Gospel of John we read this amazing story of undoing and reunion:
The next day he (John the Forerunner and Baptizer) saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” (John 1:29-34)
The Spirit which God said would not remain forever on the fallen humans, now. in Christ comes upon us again, and remains! The human symbol broken in two parts by human sin becomes the background for the narrative of the Bible, the quest and venture to bring the separated pieces together again. And in the incarnation when the Word of God becomes flesh, the union of the pieces of the symbol are indeed brought together again the venture of the people of God is revealed to have been the history to reveal that great mystery hidden from all eternity (Colossians 1:26-27; Ephesians 3:4-12). The Holy Spirit comes upon the Virgin Mary and remains, and the fruit which is born is God in the flesh. As Fr. Louth puts it:
“The mystery of Christ in the Incarnation is intended to bring to perfection in man his role as a being who relates, who brings together – something that culminates in human kind’s bridging even the divide between the uncreated and the created in his deification. That was always the purpose of the mystery of Christ, but in the circumstances brought about by the Fall, that purpose is now to restore to human kind the cosmic role of bond of the cosmos that he was meant to exercise through being in the image of God…” (Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology, Kindle Loc. 1964-68)
The human “symbol” is revealed in Jesus Christ: the human is not merely dust of the earth to which each human returns then they die. Each human’s destiny is in heaven united with God. The body of clay is only half of the real identity of the human. Jesus Christ, and every icon (image) of Him, reveals the symbol which is human. Humans created as icons of God are revealed in their fullness in Jesus Christ who is both fully God and human.
“The wider context is made clear if we look at the prayer of invocation, or epiklesis, in the anaphora, or eucharistic prayer, of St John Chrysostom, the one most commonly used in the Orthodox Church. There the priest prays:
Also we offer you this spiritual worship without shedding of blood, and we ask, pray and implore you: send down your Holy Spirit upon us and upon these gifts here set forth, and make this bread the precious body of your Christ, and what is in this cup the precious blood of your Christ, changing them by your Holy Spirit.
The invocation to the Holy Spirit is for him to descend on ‘us’ and the ‘gifts’. We pray that the Holy Spirit may change the gifts of bread and wine into the precious body and blood of Christ, and that the Holy Spirit, coming on us, may work a change in us who receive them, so that those who partake of them may obtain vigilance of soul, forgiveness of sins, communion of your Holy Spirit, fulness of your kingdom, freedom to speak in your presence, not judgment or condemnation. For the wider context of change is the change that Christ came to effect through his Incarnation – in which God paradoxically accepted change, remaining what he was, God, and assuming what he was not, humanity: the change of all human kind into the image and likeness of God in which and for which we were created. This is one of the fundamental reasons why we Orthodox talk about deification; for what is offered to us by the Incarnate Christ, through the Eucharist and through our being faithful in our discipleship, is a change that will reach to the roots of our being – not some change simply in how we are regarded, nor even a change in our behaviour (though that will certainly take place), but a fundamental change so that the roots from which our actions flow are transformed, deified, and what others experience at our hands is the cherishing love of God himself.” (Andrew Louth , Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology, Kindle Loc. 2125-41)
In this we come to understand the “symbolic” nature of the Eucharist for it brings together those parts of the human symbol broken by sin and restores them to their original state so that the human can be fully human, fully symbolic for the venture has been accomplished to restore humanity to its original state. Every human is thus a symbol, and in this sense so is every Eucharist and every icon. So too the Theotokos and the Church for in all of them God and humanity are reunited.
For further reflection on Jesus Christ as restoring to humanity what humans had lost through sin see also my blogs: Genesis 6:3 and John 1:32-34, God Questions His Creation: Genesis 6:3, The Holy Spirit and Humanity: Loss and Restoration, The Feast of the Annunciation (2014)
Next: God and Humanity (IV)