“You are gods . . .”

“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
John 1:14a

“The Son of God became human so that we might become God.”
St. Athanasius: On the Incarnation.

“The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made human, might make us gods.”
(St. Thomas Aquinas, Opusc., 57:1-4)

The feast of the Incarnation coincides with Palm Sunday this year. Because it’s such an important feast, I’ve chosen to explore and celebrate it in this post.

Even as a very young person, the Incarnation struck me as a most alluring miracle. Back then, I didn’t know about the astonishing comments from Saints Athanasius and Thomas Aquinas, quoted above. Somehow, for many of us, the truth that Christ first existed as God and then became man, existing in time in a specific place, living and dying as a human being in every way – somehow this half of the truth is much more acceptable than the second half. After all, God can do all things, so becoming a human being is certainly not out of reach. That half of St. Athanasius’ statement is credible.

But the rest of the statement – so that we might become God – may sound as blasphemous to our ears as it was to the unbelieving Jews in the Gospel of John, recently read at a Lenten Mass. (Ch. 10:31-41) In this passage, the danger surrounding Jesus has come to a head as the incredulous crowd takes up rocks to stone him. Jesus says:

“I have shown you many good works from my Father. For which of these are you trying to stone me?” The Jews answered him, “We are not stoning you for a good work but for blasphemy. You, a man, are making yourself God.”

Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, “You are gods”’? If it calls them gods to whom the word of God came, and scripture cannot be set aside, can you say that the one whom the Father has consecrated and sent into the world blasphemes because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’”?

An indisputable line of reasoning which Jesus’ enemies refuse to accept.

Jesus repeatedly referred to God as his Father, to being sent by God, and to being obedient to everything he hears from God. Furthermore, in many passages from the Gospels, he frequently refers to God as our Father. Every time we repeat the Lord’s Prayer, we refer to God as Father. Are we too blasphemous?

We commonly believe that certain qualities that apply to Christ cannot possibly refer to us. Especially divinity. And this is where we come to the second half of Athanasius’ outrageous statement.

I think it’s safe to say that part of Christ’s mission on earth was to teach us how to live as children of God.

In his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5, 6, 7) Jesus teaches us how to imitate God the Father, how to take on godlike habits and attitudes. He points out the basic teachings of the law, but then calls his followers to go beyond them. Difficult as those commands are (and have been for millennia already), Jesus calls us to an even higher standard. But it’s impossible for us to go higher on our own until we have received the teaching and example of Christ, along with his strength through the Holy Spirit, i.e. grace.

You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, “You shall not kill”; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment. But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment, and whoever says to his brother, “Raqa,” will be answerable to the Sanhedrin. . . So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect. 

The message and teachings of Christ call us to go beyond what is humanly good in order to achieve what is supernaturally holy – in other words, to become God-like. The second Vatican Council confirmed that we are ALL called to this holiness, which is the same as what Athanasius and Thomas meant by saying we are all called to be gods. The God we are called to imitate, and whose children we are, is the God who has total and infinite love for all humanity – the just as well as the unjust.

The purpose, then, of the Incarnation and why God became man, was to redeem us, to show us what divine love is, to model holiness, and to receive through Christ the ability to partake in his divine nature.

At every Mass we repeat God’s invitation to transformation, to holiness. As the priest mingles the sacramental water and wine, he says, “By the mystery of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.”

If this were an impossible ideal, we would not have had so many urgings from Christ to dare follow him into the imitation of God. In doing so, we are divinized; we become God’s children, and become the face of Christ in this, our life on earth.

“Copy Cat”

I’m the youngest of six siblings. I vividly remember one of my brothers, five years my senior, being seriously annoyed that I was copying his every activity. He would be constructing a house of cards, for example, and I’d attempt to do likewise. He would sing a particular song, and I’d soon be humming it too. He’d disdainfully chant, “Copy cat, copy cat!” My mother tried to convince him that imitation is the highest form of flattery, but he’d have none of it.

I can also remember imitating my mother: how she walked with a dignified step; the hat and gloves she wore to go downtown; how she composed her features in a ladylike way.

Other family habits and traits also influenced me – some, indeed, that I needed to shed later on, but others stood me in good stead: how the older sibs would retreat to their rooms after supper to spend a couple of hours on their homework. They never had to be sent there either. No wonder they did so well at school!

Copying others is how all of us learn, right from infancy. Our babbling baby talk is our elementary effort that ultimately leads (we hope) to conversations of substance.

If we were blessed to have constant good example, it was natural and even easy to copy it. Of course, the same thing is true for those subjected daily to bad examples.

And so it is in our spiritual life.

We who were blessed with a parochial school upbringing, were routinely presented with the examples of saints of every personality and walk of life. I can remember being very excited hearing about their lives: such remarkable people! If the story told of a missionary, I wanted to become a missionary too. If it was about a founder of a teaching order, I wanted to join. Even learning about a cloistered contemplative like Thérèse moved me to desire that life, though I had no idea what “contemplative” meant.

Sometimes I think that the best way to teach youngsters about our faith is not through the various dogmas and beliefs (head), but first through the passionate idealism of saints (heart). The rest could follow as necessary.

Jesus drew people to himself by teaching them about his Father’s attributes, especially his infinite love and forgiveness. Imitating these gives us happiness and entry into the Kingdom of God.

Look, this is what your Father does: when one of his children goes off course, leaves home, squanders his youth and fortune on prostitutes and drunken companions, the father simply watches for him every day, patiently waiting to welcome him home with a party and new clothes to replace his rags.

Look, this is what your Father does: if a stranger or even an enemy is injured, he picks him up, tends his wounds, and sees him through to a total recovery.

Look, this is what your Father does: he doesn’t hate those who hate and disrespect him, but loves them no matter what; he loves sinners into holiness.

“For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same?”

Ultimately, Christ pointed to himself for us to imitate:

Love one another as I have loved you . . .

By copying Jesus, we grow into his very likeness and show ourselves to be true children of the Father, as he is.

“. . . I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good. So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5)

And twice blessed are we if we’re given a human face of goodness to see, study, love and imitate.

 

The Unending Gift

I tell you the truth, it is better for you that I go. For if I do not go, the Advocate will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. (John 16:7)

Why did Christ consider his absence so important? Couldn’t Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, joined from all eternity with the Father, co-exist on this earth, even with us?

Abba, Father!
Though he was leaving, Jesus did assure us that he would not leave us orphans.

Ah, that word! I understand “orphan” very well, having lost my father before the age when I might have remembered him. Richard Rohr, in an interview, referred to the prevalence of “father hunger” among men doing time in prisons. The apostle Philip asked Jesus, “Just show us the Father; that will be enough.” Even though Philip had lived with Jesus for all that time, he didn’t realize that he was already seeing the Father in the Person of his Teacher who always lived in the presence of his Father:

The one who sent me is with me. He has not left me alone, because I always do what is pleasing to him. (John 8:29)

Reaching for the Eternal
One possible explanation for Christ insisting on the need for his absence  is that we must learn to stretch our spiritual capacity by reaching for the very soul of God, almost on our own. Jesus would physically leave but not abandon us, as he 
then lavished the Holy Spirit upon us.

“Absence makes the heart grow fonder,” says the old proverb. This statement might be true in Harlequin romances, but not in real life. Absence makes the heart hurt. And well Jesus knew this, and emphasized how much we need to reach out to the Holy Spirit, detaching ourselves little by little from all that is not Spirit, thus preparing to become true children of the heavenly Father.

Our vision, like Philip’s needs to extend beyond the physical, beyond the absence, beyond that empty space that we think is nothingness, reaching ultimately to that world beyond, into the “kingdom that is not of this world.”

Sometimes referred to as the “forgotten” person of the Trinity, we come to realize the importance of the Spirit in how Jesus refers to Him, especially in the Gospel of John. Here Jesus names the Spirit Comforter, Advocate, Paraclete. The Spirit is the One who will stand by us always, to enlighten and strengthen  us, to appeal to the Father on our behalf, and to speak for us in our clumsy efforts at prayer (see Romans 8:14-17).

The Unending Gift
St. Paul tells the Ephesians that we have been “sealed with the promised holy Spirit, which is the first installment of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s possession.”  (Eph. 1:13b-14a) “Sealed”: fixed, glued to the Spirit, 
never to be separated from God (despite Christ’s apparent absence). We have been given the Spirit and with this, an everlasting legacy as God’s children, adopted through our brotherhood with Christ.

For those who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received a spirit of adoption, through which we cry, “Abba, Father!” The Spirit itself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ. (Romans 8:14-17)

Therefore, from this season on, we do not need to sing the hymn “Come, Holy Ghost.” The Holy Spirit is already overflowing within us. All we have to do is to recognize and accept the Spirit of Christ and the Father, so that we may receive with joy the gift of our unending adoption into the Trinity. 

We don’t need to understand the Trinity. We only need to bask in it.

Trinity 1

Renaming the Feast

And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us..

On the 25th of March, we observed the solemn feast of the Annunciation.

Somehow, for as long as I can remember, I have only thought of this date as the feast of the of the Incarnation.  (Please blame my language teachers for my being picky about words.)

Certainly, observing the feast as Annunciation is of great importance. The Gospel for Mass on that day is taken from Luke and recounts the stunning appearance of the angel Gabriel to the young and holy maiden Mary. He does indeed make an announcement to her, hence Annunciation. What he announces is that she will conceive and bear a son who will be called Son of the Most High. The church has consistently taught that Mary’s “Yes” was required, though clearly Gabriel did not ask a question but made a statement to which she consented. And we thank God that she did.

Yet, we bow during the Creed as we assent to the Word made flesh, and not to the announcement. And though both occur at practically the same moment, there is a difference.

So what’s the issue?

Simply that it seems to me that the event is more important than the announcement of it. Just as being at a winning game is better than reading about it later. And what is the Event?

The Incarnation is as astonishing an event as the Resurrection. Naming the feast Incarnation  emphasizes how deep is God’s love, that He would join the human race and become one of us in the flesh.

Throughout the Hebrew scriptures, God is always described as working side by side with his people, present with them through hardships: hunger, foreign domination, slavery, floods, and all manner of evils as well as successes. But never is God seen or heard except under cover, so to speak, as in a cloud or in a soft whispering sound. Then, in the fullness of time, Jesus was born humanly into the world as the son of Mary and Son of God so that we could witness him with our own eyes and ears.

The enfleshment of God in the person of Jesus of Nazareth is a phenomenal event and a deep mystery. We can easily understand God’s enduring spiritual presence with the chosen people, but that he should become one of us? That he would live like us? Be tired like us? Work at a job like us? Deal with difficult people like us? Be rejected like us? Indeed. Like us in all ways except sin.

St. Athanasius (d. 373 AD) is famously quoted for having given us the reason for the Incarnation: “God became man so that man might become god.”  Another astounding statement! We are told, however, that whereas Jesus is God by nature, we are enabled to become “god” or “god-like” by participation. By our relationship to God through Jesus our Brother and with the grace-filled help of the Holy Spirit, we become children of God.

By his example Jesus taught us how to be reborn in the spirit as children of God and as God’s image here on earth. He refers to God as our Father — his and mine and yours. His teachings and example show us how we can enter the Kingdom of God — partially now, fully in the next life. Christ tells us to be holy as our heavenly Father is holy. He constantly strives to quiet our fears and guilty feelings about not being good enough to be called God’s children, when this is exactly why God made us in the first place.

With all due respect, I feel bound to put the fact of the Incarnation in first place over Gabriel’s Announcement. John’s first letter emphasizes the reality of God’s Son becoming human and our status as God’s children. As I gave John the first word in this meditation, I also give him the last. (1 John 1:1; 3:2)

“The Word was made flesh.
What was from the beginning,
what we have heard,
what we have seen with our eyes,
what we looked upon
and touched with our hands
concerns the Word of life. …
 “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”  

Hymn to the Word Incarnate, by Gabriel Fauré
Poem by Jean Racine, trans. RPK

O Word, equal to the Almighty, our only hope,
Eternal day of both Earth and Heaven;
We break the silence of this peaceful night:
Divine Saviour, cast your gaze on us!

Spread over us the fire of your mighty grace
So that all Hell might flee, hearing your voice.
Awaken the sleep of this languishing soul
Which so easily forgets your laws!

O Christ, be kind to your faithful people
Now gathered to bless you.
Welcome the hymns we offer to your immortal glory,
And may they return to us, filled with your grace!