Jesus Opens Heaven to Us

The way by which the man Jesus ascended – from earth to heaven, from humanity to Divinity – is opened up to everyone after his resurrection. Deification is perceived dynamically, as an ascent of the human being, together with the whole created world, to divine glory, holiness and light.

(Hilarion Alfeyev, The Spiritual World of St. Isaac the Syrian, p. 57)

Christ: God’s Image, Human Likeness

Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:4-11)

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The Scriptures reveal to us that Jesus Christ is both God’s image/ God’s icon and is in our likeness.  We in turn are made in the image of the incarnate Christ.

All icons are forms of  the theological artistry of Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy is one of the few forms of Christianity in which beauty is central to its theology and which has a unique art form, the icon, which is purely theological. The icon is said to be theology in lines and color. Truth and beauty are the same reality.

In Genesis 1:27 we hear, “God created a human in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” The Bible has God being the first iconographer, for the word we read in English as “image” in Greek is icon.   In a sense all icons are icons of God – and yet, they are icons of humans. They reveal the image of God in each holy person portrayed in the icon.  For God came in the flesh (John 1:14) to reveal what we humans are to be, and to reveal that from all eternity God’s plan was to become human. The true human is in the image of God. As we read in John 10:34 – “Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, you are gods’?

And since we each have the image of God embedded in ourselves from the moment we are conceived, we too are able to share in the divine life. We do not have to begin our search for Christ or God out there somewhere, for the Kingdom of God is within each of us. We can find that icon which God put in our hearts. God’s own image is imprinted on each human. God is not just a God distant from us but is present in us. No amount of sin could take that away. No matter how sinful you are and no matter how distant you might feel God is, God is never further away than a prayer.

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If we want to know something about this God who created us, all we have to do is look at the people around us, for each is created in the image of God. We learn about God and about ourselves through truly seeing others, not with our eyes, but truly from and through our own heart. This is why love for one another is so central to the teaching of Christ. It is the only way to see others in God’s image. It’s the only way to see the world as full human beings.

If we want to know what God had in mind as the perfect human being, we look not to the creation of Adam, but rather to the incarnate Christ. For Adam is created in the image of the incarnate Christ. It is not until Christ comes that we see upon whom Adam was modeled and only with Christ and in Christ do we see fully what it is to be human. We don’t go back in time to try to discover what Adam was at the beginning of creation, rather we look to who Christ is, even now in the Kingdom of Heaven.

In Orthodoxy, we think of Adam and Eve not created as the perfect human beings, but rather as a potential human beings. Eve and Adam were given opportunity to mature into perfect humans, but they like all of us chose to follow their own path rather than God’s. But we all have before us the potential to become the human beings God intended for us to be. That is the nature of the spiritual life, of taking up the cross and denying yourself to follow Christ. For Christ to become fully human, he had to empty himself. If we want to follow Christ and become fully human we too have to learn how to empty the self, to deny the self, so that we can be united to Christ.

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Orthodoxy does not have Eve and Adam falling from the heights of perfection into some abysmal depraved state. You won’t find Orthodox Church fathers and mothers talking about original sin, a phrase that dominates in Western Christianity but was unknown in the Christian East.

A key phrase in the writings of St. Paul is

Therefore as sin came into the world through one human and death through sin, and so death spread to all humans because all humans sinned— (Romans 5:12)

It is not sin that spread to all humanity. We are not controlled by the power of original sin. It is mortality that has spread to all people, mortality is the true enemy of humanity. Death is what Christ came to destroy through his own life and resurrection. For us Orthodox, salvation is made known not on the cross but in the resurrection of Christ.

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Adam and Eve were given free will and could choose their way to godly perfection, or not. But they, like each of us continued to be in the image of God. We never lose that perfect image of God in ourselves no matter how much we fail as humans or sin against God.

Eve and Adam were created to be who and what Christ is. If we want to know what a human being who is perfect would look like and do, we have to seek out Christ. For as St. Paul says

Christ is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible… all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the first-born from the dead, … For in him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (Colossians 1:15-20)

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As Christians we are to share in that ministry of reconciliation which Christ began – uniting all things in heaven and on earth in Himself. What Christ is, we are to become. Again St. Paul writes

And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:18)

In Christ, God became human that we humans might become like god, to become godly, to share in the divine life. This is always what God intends for us His human creatures.

In 1 Corinthians 15:47-49, St. Paul promises us:

The first human was from the earth, a human of dust; the second human is from heaven. As was the human of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the human of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the human of dust, we shall also bear the image of the human of heaven.

We are created to share Christ’s glory, which is to share the glory of the Lord.

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It is true that we share in Adam’s nature, we are made from the dust of the earth, which in turn is made from the dust of the stars. We share in Adam’s nature, but so too Christ has come to show us that our true nature is not in the dust but in the heavens and in the heavens of the heavens. In Christ we are united to divinity, we share in the life of the Holy Trinity. We experience that life on earth and are lifted from earth to heaven.

Put off your old nature which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.    (Ephesians 4:22-24)

We are in Orthodoxy endeavoring to be more human, not less. We are not trying to escape the earth or our bodies, for God came to earth to become incarnate as a human being. Spirituality and salvation both consist in deification, theosis, which means becoming more human, becoming like Christ, the God-man, in whose image we each are made. We each are to become, as St. Peter says (2 Peter 1:4), “partakers of the divine nature.

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( A message delivered on 20 September 2018 at Ohio Northern University)

The Theotokos as an Image of the Church

It might not be surprising that the use of a virgin-mother as an image of the Church began to be paralleled at this time by the use of Mary, virgin and mother, for the same purpose. Preceded by Ephrem in the East, Ambrose was the first to develop this metaphor in the West, and in an important passage he does so in terms that recall his virgin-mother-Church metaphor. After recounting the relationship between Mary and Joseph as recorded in the Gospel of Luke, he comments on its deeper meaning:

Let us address the mystery: She was truly espoused, but a virgin, because she is a type of the Church, which is immaculate but married. As a virgin she begot us form the Spirit, as a virgin she bears us without groaning. And this is perhaps why the holy Mary, although married to one person, was impregnated by another, because the individual churches as well are in fact filled with the Spirit and with grace, while simultaneously being joined under the aegis of a temporal priest.

(Boniface Ramsey, Beginning to Read the Fathers, pp. 112-113)

Deification: Becoming God’s Children

Patristic tradition usually sees a man’s potential for deification in the fact that man is created by God in his own image. Because of this natural affinity, the fathers spoke of a man as potentially a son of God. The process of deification involves the realization of the status of son of God through the process of hyiothesia (“adoption of sons”).The idea is present already in the New Testament. Christ gave power to those who receive him “to become the sons of God” (Jn. 1:12), that the faithful might “receive the adoption as Sons” (Gal 4:5; cf Rom 8:15). This adoption of sons was accomplished through Christ’s incarnation. Athanasius represents one set of ideas when he asserts that “Christ made us the sons of the Father and deified man by becoming himself a man.”

His thought hinges upon the idea of the incarnation: humanity is deified in a natural (physikos) manner, being assumed by God in the incarnation. Due to this understanding – our becoming God’s children as a natural consequence of God the Son becoming man – he uses the concept of hyiothesia as synonymous with “deification”: to be a son or daughter of God is to be deified. Another set of ideas is presented by Basil, who speaks of our adoption not so much through natural deification at the incarnation as through its subsequent effects: the descending and indwelling in man of the Holy Spirit.”   (Nicholas V. Sakharov, I Love Therefore I am, pp. 144-145)

Christ Removes All Barriers to God

Since having Christmas in July (sales!) is popular these days, we can think what this means for us Christians.

“He did not change place, nor did He penetrate or pass over a wall, but, as He Himself showed, He left no barrier standing which could separate us from Him. Since God occupies every place He was not separated from man by place, but by man’s variance with Him. Our nature separated itself from God by being contrary to Him in everything that it possessed and by having nothing in common with Him. God remained Himself alone; our nature was human, and no more.

When, however, flesh was deified and human nature gained possession of God Himself by hypostatic union, the former barrier opposed to God became joined to the Chrism. The difference gave way when God became man, thus removing the separation between Godhead and manhood. So chrism represents Christ as the point of contact between both natures; there could be no point of contact were they still separate.”  (St. Nicholas Cabasilas, The Life in Christ, pp. 104-105)

It is not living on earth which separates us from God – it is our own freely chosen sins which separate God from us.  Christ in the incarnation shows divinity is united to our humanity.  We are capable of bearing God in our selves, our bodies, our lives!  We are not separated from God by space or distance, but only by our wills.  God stands at the door of our hearts and knocks waiting for each of us to invite Him into our lives, our hearts and our homes.

“Those whom I love, I reprove and chasten; so be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. He who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne.”  (Revelation 3:19-21)

 

Theosis: Creation and Creator Have Become One

Today, the 2nd Sunday of Great Lent, in the Church we honor the memory of St. Gregory Palamas.  As a theologian, St. Gregory is famous for defending the Orthodox faith and explaining how we participate in the Divine Life.  He is noted for having helped explicate the theology of salvation as deification/theosis.  Many Orthodox saints helped to explain theosis, or reveal it through their own lives.  St. Isaac of Ninevah writes:

We give thanks to You, O God, for Your gift to the world, (a gift) whose richness created beings are not capable of describing; seeing that I too am part of that (world), may I not begrudge my portion of thanksgiving which I owe to You. For this reason I will praise You and confess Your name. You have given Your entire treasure to the world: if You gave the Only-Begotten from Your bosom and from the throne of Your Being for the benefit of all, what further do you have which You have not given to Your creation? The world has become mingled with God, and creation and Creator have become one!

Praise to You for Your inscrutable purpose: truly this mystery is vast. Glory to You for Your mysteries which are hidden from us. Make me worthy, Lord to taste of this great mystery which is hidden and concealed, (a mystery) of which the world is not yet worthy of perceiving. Maybe You indicated something of it to Your saints who live in the body above the world and who are at all times above the impulses of the flesh.

O Christ who are covered with light as though with a garment, who for my sake stood naked in front of Pilate, clothe me with that might which You caused to overshadow the saints, whereby they conquered this world of struggle. May Your divinity, Lord, take pleasure in me, and lead me above the world to be with You.

(Isaac of Nineveh: The Second Part, pp. 13-15)

Lost Innocence

A week ago this past Sunday, we had the Gospel Lesson of the Publican and Pharisee  (Luke 18:10-14) .   There were tw0 hymns from the Matins Canon that caught my attention for their theological content.   The first states a simple truth in the Orthodox understanding of what it is to be human.  Humans in this view were not created perfect, but were created with the possibility of perfection, if they chose that way of life.

Adam and Eve are seen in this theological understanding more as innocent children who did not fully understand the consequences of their behavior because they lacked real world experience with evil.  This is why Satan was able to deceive Adam and Eve.  The first two humans were not created with a fatal flaw, nor did they have evil inside themselves.  They were innocent or immature and thus easily led astray by the allurement of temptation.  So the first hymn says:

I was created naked in innocence and simplicity;

then the enemy clothed me with the garment of sin and passionate flesh.

But now I am saved, Maiden, through your intercession.

The sin of Adam and Eve was not to trust God in both protecting them from evil but also leading them toward a beautiful maturity.   Satan promised them something more immediate and they trusted that Serpent whom they hardly knew at all.  God knew the path for Eve and Adam to reach the maturity of theosis, but humans rejected God’s plan and decide to follow the Serpent’s plan to deification.

The second hymn is not actually related to the first, except that both have the the Virgin Mary as part of the plan of salvation.  In this hymn we see clearly expressed the theological interpretation of the Old Testament that Mary herself is the ladder climbing to heaven which Jacob saw (Genesis 28:10-17).  She connects earth to heaven because God descends through her in the Incarnation not only into the earth but also into the place of the dead.

You are the beauty of Jacob, Holy Virgin;

the divine ladder he saw in the days of old, stretching from earth to heaven,

for you bring down the Incarnate God from on high,

and bring mortal men up to heaven.

Mary’s role in salvation is thus foretold by the Old Testament.  God promised to give us the means by which it would be possible for God to be united to humanity and for humanity to gain access to heaven itself.  This promise turns out to be the Theotokos.  In her the incarnation takes place, thus in her is realized the salvation of the world which God had promised from the earliest days of human existence.

Revealing Adam: The Transfiguration

Although the events of the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-9) fit so well into Orthodox incarnational theology and salvation as theosis, the Feast of the Transfiguration became universally celebrated throughout the Orthodox world relatively late in history.  It was celebrated in certain parts of Orthodoxy, but the fact that it ended up in the middle of the Dormition Fast is one sign that it became popular universally later than other feasts and fasts of the Church.

Be that as it may, the Feast of the Transfiguration does fit nicely into Orthodox theology, bringing together so many elements from the story of creation, the fall and salvation in Christ.  The festal Apostikha hymns especially reveal how the feast reveals the theology of salvation.  First we note in the hymns the claim that it is the pre-incarnate Christ who speaks to both Moses and Elijah.  There is an assumption in Orthodoxy that all of the anthropomorphic encounters with God in the Old Testament are encounters with the pre-Incarnate Christ.

HE WHO ONCE SPOKE THROUGH SYMBOLS TO MOSES ON MOUNT SINAI  SAYING: I AM HE WHO IS!   WAS TRANSFIGURED TODAY UPON MOUNT TABOR BEFORE THE DISCIPLES.
IN HIS OWN PERSON HE SHOWED THEM THE NATURE OF MANKIND ARRAYED IN THE ORIGINAL BEAUTY OF THE IMAGE.

Humans are said in Genesis 1 to be created in God’s image and likeness.  It is assumed in Orthodoxy that it is Christ, the real image of God the Father, in whose image we are made.  Jesus Christ, God incarnate, reveals the original beauty of the image of God in us.  At the transfiguration the three disciples’ eyes were open, and suddenly they saw the image of God in us, but now in all its glory.  Adam and Eve were gloriously created in God’s image and likeness and glorious arrayed in garments provided them by God.

YOU WERE TRANSFIGURED, O CHRIST,  AND MADE ADAM’S DARKENED IMAGE TO SHINE AGAIN AS LIGHTNING,
TRANSFORMING IT INTO THE GLORY AND SPLENDOR OF YOUR OWN DIVINITY.  THEREFORE WE CRY ALOUD TO YOU:
LORD AND CREATOR OF ALL THINGS, GLORY TO YOU!

The image of God in Adam and Eve was glorious – like lightening, and that is what the three apostles saw.  They saw how a human is in God’s glorious image, how humanity is supposed to reveal divinity.   This doesn’t denigrate God, but is revealed in a lightening flash where humanity is as bright as the sun.

LORD, TODAY ON MOUNT TABOR,  YOU HAVE REVEALED THE GLORY OF YOUR DIVINE IMAGE TO YOUR CHOSEN DISCIPLES, PETER, JAMES AND JOHN.  FOR THEY LOOKED UPON YOUR GARMENTS THAT GLEAMED AS THE LIGHT, AND AT YOUR FACE THAT SHONE MORE THAN THE SUN!

Christ’s garments shown with this divine light – brighter than the sun.  This revelation comes not in the darkness of the night but at mid-day, the sun is shining brightly.  Yet the divine light in Christ shines even more brightly.  Christ’s very garments are shining with this divine light, just as Adam and Eve’s did in the Garden of Delight.  Christ is showing to the disciples not only what humanity was like in the beginning, in Paradise, but what creation itself was like.

UNABLE TO ENDURE THE VISION OF YOUR BRIGHTNESS WHICH NONE CAN BEAR, THEY FELL TO THE EARTH, POWERLESS TO LIFT UP THEIR GAZE, FOR THEY HEARD A VOICE THAT SPOKE FROM ABOVE: THIS IS MY BELOVED SON
WHO HAS COME INTO THE WORLD TO SAVE MANKIND!

The apostles saw what Adam and Eve had lost through sin and being expelled from Eden.  The saw even the importance of the original garments worn by the first humans and restored by Christ. They saw what the physical creation was capable and what it was meant to be.  They saw the material world once again in communion with divinity as it was intended by God to be.  In Christ, at the Transfiguration, they saw the spiritual world and the physical world reunited, and the material world fulfilling all God created it to be.

God’s Miracle: Loving Us to Death

“To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make all men see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places.”   (St. Paul writing to the Ephesians 3:8-10)

The plan of God for the salvation of the world, was also a mystery, hidden from everyone – even the angelic powers didn’t know God’s plan – and yet glimpses of it were revealed through the prophets to God’s people.  Finally, in Jesus Christ the full plan was revealed – the incarnation of God.  St Gregory Palamas writes:

“When the prophet and psalmist was enumerating the different aspects of creation and observing God’s wisdom in them all, he was filled with amazement and cried out while writing, ‘O Lord, how manifold are thy works! in wisdom have you made them all’ (Ps. 104:24). Now that I am attempting, if I can, to tell you about the manifestation in the flesh of the Word who made all things, what fitting word of praise will I find? If all things that exist inspire wonder, and their coming out of non-being into being is something divine and greatly to be hymned, how much more amazing, divine and demanding of our praises is it for a being to become god, and not just god, but the God who truly is?

Especially as it was our nature which was neither able nor willing to preserve the image in which it was made, and had therefore been rightly banished to the lower parts of the earth.  That our nature should become like God, and that through it we should receive the gift of returning to what is better, is a mystery so great and divine, so ineffable and beyond understanding, that it remained absolutely unrecognized by holy angels and men, and even by prophets, although they had spiritual vision, and was hidden throughout the ages.” (The Homilies, p 100)

For Palamas, the miracle and the mystery of God is that God made us in His own image, but we scorned that gift.  We didn’t even have to earn that status, God gave it to us and we willfully tarnished it.  Despite this high-handed rejection of God, God still willed that our nature should become like God!  This is so beyond comprehension – pure grace, undeserved.   Even the angels in heaven, according to St. Gregory didn’t know what God had in mind and where God was headed with His continued loved toward humans.

The incarnation has a further and tremendous mystery hidden in it that is revealed in Christ:  the Cross.  Christ dies on the cross.  Christ dies for our sins.  The death of God in the flesh is the revelation of God’s love for us.  While we were still sinners Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).  God appears on earth as a man, and dies on the cross in order that we might share in God’s divine and eternal life.  God loves us to death, even death on the cross!

The Theotokos and Theosis

“But the Virgin, by conceiving the Word within her body, ‘deified the human race and made earth a heaven.’ The Word ‘became the Son of Man, sharing in mortality, to turn human beings into sons of God and make them partakers of divine immortality.’ How believers appropriate this within the ecclesial community is illustrated typologically. The incarnate Word gave us baptism as a sacrament and type of his burial and resurrection to deify both the soul and body. His transfiguration opened the eyes of his disciples, showing them that human nature has been deified by union with the Word of God.

We must imitate him in his earthly life to become partakers of his resurrection and fellow-heirs with Christ. Through fasting and  night vigils we are ‘renewed and deified’ in our inner being. This transformation of our human nature, first in the representative humanity of Christ and then in our own person through the life of faith, is thoroughly traditional and patristic.” (Norman Russel in St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly: Vol. 50, #4, p 377-378)