We are Made into Icons of Christ

With unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, we are all being transformed into the same image [Greek: icon], from glory to glory, and this is from the Lord, the Spirit.  . . . Even if our Good News is veiled, it is veiled in those who perish, as the god of this world has blinded the minds of those who do not believe, so that the light of the Good News of the glory of Christ who is the image [Greek: icon] of God should not dawn on them.” (2 Corinthians 3:18, 4:3-4, EOB)

This transformation of all believers into the likeness of Christ (cf. “the same image” [2 Corinthians 3:18] and “Christ who is the image of God [4:4] – the key word eikon is used in both places) should be understood as a further clarification of the senses in which Paul can claim that the Corinthians are a letter from Christ that can be known and read by everyone. Because they are being changed into the likeness of Christ, they manifest the life of Jesus in their mortal flesh (cf. 2 Cor. 4:11). Consequently, the deepest paradox of the passage emerges: Paul’s reading of the sacred text (Exodus 34) reveals that revelation occurs not primarily in the sacred text but in the transformed community of readers.  

(Richard B. Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, p. 144)

As St. Paul states it Jesus Christ is the image (icon) of God the Father and we believers are being transformed into that same image!  We believers are becoming Christ.  We are the Church (1 Corinthians 12:27), the Church is the Body of Christ (Colossians 1:18), and so we together are becoming Christ.  We are being transformed by the Holy Spirit into Christ – not individually, but collectively as part of the Church which is Christ’s body.  In as much as we become the image of God, in as much as we become Christ, we become the Word of God to the world.  To read and understand Scripture, we need to be able to see Christ manifested in the world – we need to see the Church.  The Church is to be light to the world thus fulfilling Christ’s own teaching.  We are to be the fullness of Christ in the world.  As Richard Hayes notes above for people to understand a passage such as Exodus 34 they need to see Christ, visible to them in His Body, the Church.

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St. Cyprian’s Images of the Church

Finally, again in Cyprian, the Church is the virgin-bride who lives not for the pleasure of this world, but only for Christ. “The bride of Christ cannot be defiled; she is incorrupt and chaste. She knows but one home; in chaste modesty she guards the sanctity of one couch.”

Indeed, Cyprian piles image upon image in his search to impress the importance of unity on his readers. The Church, he says, is like the sun, whose rays are many but whose light is one.

It is like a tree with many branches but with a single strength surging through one root. 

It is like a source from which flow many streams, which nevertheless maintain a unity because of their unique beginning.

It may be compared to Christ’s seamless garment, which was not divided at his death; or to the house in which the Jews ate the paschal lamb, which was not permitted to be eaten outside; or to a dove, which keeps to one cote and which is faithful to its mate.

To the early Christians, therefore, the unity of the Church had to do with nothing less than the content of the faith itself, namely, with what had been derived from Scripture and what had been handed down by the apostles or by the fathers assembled in the synod. (Boniface Ramsey, Beginning to Read the Fathers, p. 99 & 100)

Images of the Church: The Crowd Around Jesus

In the Scriptures and in Tradition there are many images of the Church –  Body of Christ, a living temple, a holy nation, a local community, a flock, , vine and branches, a revelation, a bride, a gathering of the saints, a hospital for sick sinners, a household, a family, the Kingdom of God.       In today’s Gospel lesson (Luke 8:41-56 – synagogue ruler Jairus and the woman with the flow of blood) , the church – the assembly of those who are following Christ is envisioned as a large crowd of people.   And not a passive crowd at that but a jostling, pushing and shoving throng.   This one is perhaps my favorite image of the Church.

The Athonite Monk Archimandrite Amilianos offers a vision of the local church which is a family gathering big enough to include everyone in the world (see The Church is God’s House for Prayer).  His vision of the Church goes way beyond any legalistic “member in good standing” way of viewing Christianity.  His vision certainly incorporates the Eucharistic offering: “Again we offer to You this reasonable worship: for the whole world…”   This certainly encompasses everyone in a crowd of people, not just the “cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1), but “all mankind” – the entirety of the human race.

Who is in this crowd, following Jesus?               His apostles, his disciples, the sick, miracle seekers, the curious, Pharisees, synagogue attendees and synagogue leaders, men and women, those who love Christ and those who hate Him, friends and enemies, those seeking the Kingdom of God and those seeking to entrap Christ in this world.   People whose names we know (Peter, James and John for example) and the unknown.  Rich people, rulers and beggars as well.  Let’s consider the Gospel Lesson:

 And behold, there came a man named Jairus, and he was a ruler of the synagogue.

The rulers of the synagogues were frequently in the Gospel among those who opposed Jesus because He didn’t keep their rules about the Sabbath.  They are sometimes his most vocal critics, and yet they are in the crowd following Christ where He goes.  Not everyone in the church community has to agree with what I think or with what most of us think.  The Church community is big enough even to consist of people who disagree with most of us or find most of us disagreeable.

And he fell down at Jesus’ feet and begged Him to come to his house, for he had an only daughter about twelve years of age, and she was dying.

Those looking for miracles.  Desperate for help from any source. Those who loved their children.  Those who are distraught and despairing and running out of hope.  Those who socially outranked Jesus and His followers.  Those who represent groups we criticize – for the synagogue leaders like the Pharisees are among those Jesus criticizes most frequently.

But as He went, the multitudes thronged Him. Now a woman, having a flow of blood for twelve years, who had spent all her livelihood on physicians and could not be healed by any, came from behind and touched the border of His garment. And immediately her flow of blood stopped.

The socially unacceptable.  The outcast. The forsaken.  Social diseased.  The despised.  Strangers.  Foreigners.  Immigrants.   Those whose lives do not matter.  But also those with means and money – this women had spent her fortune on doctors.  Those with hope and some kind of faith even if the faith is only for some self-serving end.

And Jesus said, “Who touched Me?” When all denied it, Peter and those with him said, “Master, the multitudes throng and press You, and You say, ‘Who touched Me?’” But Jesus said, “Somebody touched Me, for I perceived power going out from Me.”

The disciples are there too.  Those who think they understand Jesus but don’t.  Those who don’t understand Jesus but who follow Him anyway.  The crowd – the great unwashed masses.  The constantly needy.  The dependent.

Now when the woman saw that she was not hidden, she came trembling; and falling down before Him, she declared to Him in the presence of all the people the reason she had touched Him and how she was healed immediately. And He said to her, “Daughter, be of good cheer; your faith has made you well. Go in peace.”    

There are also in the crowd the timid, introverts, those who wish they could disappear.  The shy and retiring.  But also those who like to be the center of attention, the extroverts and expressives.  Those commanding attention, and those who are willing to be commanded.

 While He was still speaking, someone came from the ruler of the synagogue’s house, saying to him, “Your daughter is dead. Do not trouble the Teacher.”

Those who serve others.  Those who have more important things to do in life – those on a mission.  The doubters.  Those who don’t really believe in Him.  Those who want to remain respectable.  Those who are there merely because it is their job to be there. These are the aids and spokespeople for those with power and prestige.

But when Jesus heard it, He answered him, saying, “Do not be afraid; only believe, and she will be made well.” When He came into the house, He permitted no one to go in except Peter, James, and John, and the father and mother of the girl. Now all wept and mourned for her; but He said, “Do not weep; she is not dead, but sleeping.” And they ridiculed Him, knowing that she was dead.

Unbelievers.  The incredulous.  The scientists.  The realist.  The skeptical.  The Jaded. Scorners. Those who see believers as naïve and ready to be deceived.  The Pessimist.  The Cynic.  The sarcastic.  The know-it-all.  The presumptious.

 But He put them all outside, took her by the hand and called, saying, “Little girl, arise.” Then her spirit returned, and she arose immediately. And He commanded that she be given something to eat. And her parents were astonished, but He charged them to tell no one what had happened.

Parents and children.  Families and neighbors.  Brothers and sisters.

And today, we the Church are asked to be the same, followers of Christ, one and all, no matter what the reason or attraction, we assemble to be around Christ to   have Christ in our midst.  We need to be something to all the people of the world, not just a motley crowd, but visibly to be the Body of Christ – to make the One present whom the world is seeking.

For though I am free from all, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews; to those under the law I became as one under the law—though not being myself under the law—that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law—not being without law toward God but under the law of Christ—that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.  (1 Corinthians 9:19)

No one person can do that, but together as the Body of Christ, the parish community can become all things to all people.   We have friends, neighbors, family who might be looking for something from Christ, we are to be those who make Christ present to them.  We are to encourage them to look for Christ and to follow Him.  There may be women seeking help from God, or people with sick children, or the needy or the lost.

 

There may be people that some of us don’t want to minister to and don’t want in our midst, but others in the Church community will be able to be Christ to them.  That is the real image of the Church.

We, the Church – all of us together – are responsible for making Christ present, for giving the crowd, the world an opportunity to be with Christ.

The Church: Encountering God in Community

“The Church is seen primarily as a place of encounter, where God is not so much learned about as met, and where human lives are brought into an ecclesia, a community, of relation to this encountered God. At the beginning of its main service, the Divine Liturgy, the deacon proclaims to the celebrant bishop the intention of the Church’s work: ‘Master, it is time for the Lord to act.’ (cf. Ps. 118 [119]: 126] – announcing an act that culminates in the eucharistic encounter of the communicant faithful with the body and blood of Christ.

This focus on encounter establishes the nature of the church as intrinsically sacramental. The sacraments stand at the centre of the Church’s life and mission, not because of a symbolic significance or merit of ritual, but because in each sacrament the person is drawn farther into the encounter with God which transforms and transfigures. 

…The perception of the Church as, above all, a living organism, Christ’s very body into which his creation is drawn through encounter and relation, rather than an institution or complex that can be neatly defined.”

(Mary B. Cunningham, The Cambridge Companion to Orthodox Christian Theology, pp. 121-122)

The Church as the Ark of Salvation

“Wayfarers, behold the ark! When the flood came, Noah was saved in a secure ark.

Photo by Jim Forest
Photo by Jim Forest

The flood of madness and sin continues incessantly. Therefore, the Lover of Mankind constructed the ark of salvation. Ask for His ark, and you will soon be entering it. Do not let yourselves be led astray by the multitude of variegated vessels, decorated and adorned on the outside. Ask about the power of the engine and about the skill of the captain. The most powerful engine and the most skilled helmsman are to be found in the ark of Christ. This is the all-seeing, all-powerful, Holy Spirit himself.

Neither let yourselves be led astray by those who invite you into their tiny and new rowboats, or those who offer you private rowboats just for yourselves. The journey is distant and the storms are dangerous.

Neither let yourselves be led astray by those who say that on the other side of the ocean there is no new land, no new world, and that there is no reason to prepare for a distant voyage. They invite you to go fishing on the shore. To such a little extent do they see or know. Truly, they are setting out for destruction, and are inviting you to destruction as well.

Do not allow yourselves to be deceived, but rather ask about His ark. Even though it may be less dazzling to the eyes than others, nevertheless it is strong and secure. Even though it does not have many variegated banners, except the sign of the cross, know that your life is safe aboard it.

And on a sea voyage the first and primary concern should be that the life of the passenger is safe. If you believe in Christ the Savior, O Christ-bearers, you also believe in His work. His work is the Church, the Ark of Salvation. Aboard it are sailing the hosts of the saved and of those being saved.

Noah3

The Lord founded this work of His on faith, as strong as rock. Just as He said and prophesied: ‘On this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it’ (Matt. 16:18). And truly, up to the present day they have never prevailed, nor will they from this day forward.

The Church is called the body of Christ. ‘You are the body of Christ’ (Rom. 15:5; 1 Cor. 12:27). Therefore, there is only one Church. For there cannot be two bodies under one head, and Christ is called the head of the Church (Col. 1:18). Therefore: one Christ, one head, one body – one Church.”    (Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich, The Faith of the Chosen People, pp 69-71)

The Church as a Haven

“For every holy church is also a piece of heaven on earth. And whenever you are in a church, behold, you are already in heaven. When the world torments you with its hell, hasten into a church; enter it, and behold, you have entered paradise. If people persecute you with their evil, take refuge in church, fall down before God, and He will take you under His gentle and almighty protection. Should it happen that entire legions of demons attack you, flee into church – among the angels; for a church is always full of angels, and the angels of God will defend you from all the demons of this world.” (Archimandrite Justin Popovich in The Struggle for Faith and other writings of Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich and Archimandrite Justin Popovich, pg. 86)

The Church as Christian Community

The New Testament writers use a number of images for the Church – it is the Body of  Christ and a living temple.  We are to build up the Church, to edify our fellow members in order to build up the living edifice.  Our spiritual lives and efforts are thus not directed selfishly to our own salvation, but rather toward loving neighbor and fellow church member.  St. John Chrysostom said:

“St. Paul said: Let no one seek his own interests, but those of his neighbor. And again: Edify one another. Therefore, do not look only to your own health and freedom from disease, but take considerable thought and care that your fellow member is set free from the hurt which comes from this evil and that he flees this disease. For we are members of the other. And if one member suffers anything, all the members suffer with it, or if one member glories, all the members rejoice with it.”   (Ancient Christian Writers: Baptismal Instructions, pg. 86)

Christian Citizenship and Occupation

“For the person who says ‘I am a Christian’ has revealed both their country and family history and occupation. Let me explain how. The Christian does not have a city on earth, but the Jerusalem in heaven. For the heavenly Jerusalem, which is our mother,’ scripture says, ‘is free’ (Gal. 4:26). The Christian doesn’t have an earthly occupation, but arrives at the heavenly way of life. ‘Our citizenship’ scripture says, ‘is in heaven’ (Phil. 3:20). The Christian has as relatives and fellow citizens all the saints. ‘We are fellow citizens of the saints,’ scripture says, ‘and God’s own’ (Eph. 2:19).” (St. John Chyrsostom, The Cult of the Saints, pg. 72)

Repentance: Opening One’s Heart to Receiving Spiritual Gifts

Ephesians 4:11-16

The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ,  until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.  We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.   But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,  from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.

Athonite Monk Alexis Trader comments:

“According to the Fathers, spiritual gifts are given so that the struggling believer can more fully lead the Christian life by observing ‘all things whatsoever Christ commanded the Apostles to do.’ Saint Maximus goes so far as to define a gift of the Spirit as ‘every capacity for fulfilling a commandment.’[…]God is quiet ready to shed His gifts upon His children, but his children first must cleanse and ready the vessel (i.e., their entire existence: body and soul) in which the gifts can be received. Saint Basil the Great notes that God grants His gifts not only with the benefit of others in mind, but also according to the faith, peace, and purity from the passions of the one receiving the gift.[…]Purification through repentance is required before the believer reaches the stage of illumination in which the gifts are given.[…]Thus in order for a believer to receive spiritual gifts, he not only requires a general purity from the passions, but the good soil of a ready mind or heart well fertilized with the virtue that most corresponds to that spiritual gift. The reception of spiritual gifts, like every aspect in the work of man’s salvation, is the joint activity of (synergy between) the grace of God and the free will of man.” (In Peace Let Us Pray to the Lord, pgs. 48-50)

Reading the Old Testament in Consonance with the Saints

This is the 6th Blog in this series which began with Reading Scripture: the Old Testament, the Torah and Prophecy.   The immediate preceding blog is How to Read the Old Testament and How Not to Read It.

In the previous blog, we noted that the correct means of reading Scriptures is not to treat it as a book of magic incantations as if we were living in a Harry Potter world:  memorize the appropriate talisman, and then bring it out in the appropriate occasion and voila you get your way magically.  If you think about the Harry Potter stories, you come to realize it is not magic that wins the day for Harry and his friends.  All the wizards and witches have the same magic at their disposal.   There is no magic however that can make you courageous, virtuous, willing to suffer for the good, or willing to sacrifice yourself for others.  The courageous and good were willing to sacrifice themselves for others.  Those following evil were afraid and trying to spare their own lives.  Moral fortitude is stronger than magic even in Harry Potter.

St. Paul in Consonance with the OT Saints

With Harry Potter in mind, one can note that in the Orthodox tradition of reading Scripture, an essential factor for reading with understanding, is to be living a life of Christian virtue.  It is not magic, but courageous fortitude which enables us to follow the way of love and the way of the Cross.  It is keeping our eyes on the Kingdom of Heaven, and actively choosing to move toward that goal which opens the treasury of the Scriptures to us.

“Consonance with the ecclesial tradition, as the primary requirement for the Orthodox Christian biblical interpreter, is exactly what Athanasius meant when he wrote this axiomatic passage about biblical interpretation in the DE INCARNATIONE…:  ‘What are the requirements for the searching of the Scriptures, and for true knowledge of them?  An honorable life is needed, and a pure soul, and that virtue which is of Christ.  For the intellect must apply this to guide its path and then it shall be able to attain to what it desires, and to comprehend it, insofar as it is possible for a  human nature to learn of things concerning the Word of God.  But without a pure mind and the modeling of one’s life after the saints, a person could not possibly comprehend the words of the saints. … Or take the case of a person who wanted to see a certain city or country.  Such a person would surely journey to the place in order to be able to see it.  It is exactly the same for someone who desires to comprehend the mind of those who speak of God.  Such a person must begin washing and cleansing their own soul, and by addressing their manner of living.  They should approach the saints by imitating their own works.  By such consonance with the saints in the conduct of a shared life, a person may understand also what has been revealed to them by God.”  (John McGuckin in SACRED TEXT AND INTERPRETATION: PERSPECTIVES IN ORTHODOX BIBLICAL STUDIES  edited by Theodore Stylianapoulis, pp 309-310)

The Cloud of Witnesses

Consonance with the saints: that great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1 ) comes alive to us and inspires us in correct thinking and behavior.   The icons which are present in our homes, and which surround us in the church, are transformed from boards on the wall into windows into heaven.  We come to realize how we must live in order to be true disciples of Christ as we understand the lives of those saints who followed the Crucified Lord.

Thus reading the Scriptures is not an act separate from our daily lives.  For the reading of Scriptures should form our lives and shape our hearts and minds.  Conversely, as our lives conform to the Gospel commands, our hearts are opened to the Word of God (Luke 24:32), and we come to see and understand “greater things”  (John 1:50).

The disciples said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?” (Luke 24:32)

It is living in consonance with those who hearts were illumined and set on fire by Christ that we most and best understand the Bible.

Next:  Reading Torah and Keeping God’s Word