“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.

What They Forgot to Teach Us in Sunday School

Or, the world’s best-kept secret.

Actually, they didn’t forget to teach it, but must have trembled to repeat such an outrageous statement, even though it had been repeated by several Fathers of the Church for the first several centuries of Christianity. Here it is:

God became human so that humans might become gods. (Or variably, so that we might become God.)

This shocking statement appeared in the Gospel of John –

But to those who did accept him he gave power to become children of God. (1: 12)

Then Peter –

. . . he has bestowed on us the precious and very great promises, so that through them you may come to share in the divine nature.  (2 Peter 1:4) –

Followed by other similar proclamations by Bishops Irenaeus, Athenasius, and Augustine – where I’ll stop in the interest of brevity.

But really I ought to have included the very first message of this truth as emphatically recorded in Genesis:

Then God said: Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness. . . [And] God created mankind in his image . . . in the image of God he created them. (1:26,27)

Most convincing of all are the urgings of our Lord Jesus Christ who commands us to imitate our Father by being perfect in the way we treat others: with mercy, forgiveness, and unconditional love.

Somehow in the western church we got caught up in rules, just as our Jewish forebears had done. Ideally, the church’s rules might have been created to prop up and help us live out the teachings of Christ. Alas! All too frequently the props on the spiritual stage became a greater reality than what they were meant to be. So we imitated what had occurred with the Jewish laws, causing Isaiah to write and later Jesus to quote:

This people honors me with their lips but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines human precepts. ( Matthew 15: 8-9)

Jesus did indeed make some commandments more difficult than the original.

You have heard it said, he begins, that . . .

You shall not kill —

But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment,

You shall not commit adultery —

But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth —

But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil.

You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy — 

But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father. (Matthew 5)

Being  a real Christian requires that we rise above even the basic human standards of being a “good person.”

We are called to be so much more than that. We are called to take on the holiness of God’s own Self. Of course we’ve failed to do that, which is why the world repeats the same-old same-old practices of greed, selfishness, cruelty, etc., etc., etc.

We who wish (or claim) to be Christians must therefore look closely at the actions and words of Christ, especially those where he teaches us the “rules” regarding love of God and neighbor. Why are so many of us eager to see other people (who are judged to be “sinners”) kicked out of the church? We see someone breaking what we think is a rule and demand that they be removed, or denied Communion, or have some other privilege taken away.

It is not the healthy who need a physician, Jesus reminds the Pharisee, outraged to see “sinners” eat at the same table; or view the wanton, vile woman who shamelessly displays her tears and uncovers her hair to weep at the feet of Christ.

A new law I give you: Love one another as I have loved you.

How easy Christ makes it for us! Only one law to remember, only one law to obey. Love covers all the rest.

Transfiguration of Christ; Transformation of Christians

For me, the narrative of the Transfiguration of Jesus is one of the most mysterious in the Gospels.

At the top of Mount Tabor, Peter, James and John were allowed a vision of Jesus in the company of major Old Testament prophets, Moses and Elijah. His position at their center, along with the command of the Father to listen to him, emphasized Jesus’ authority and supreme holiness. No wonder the apostles were astonished and wanted to stay there indefinitely! They had already, through Peter, announced their belief that Jesus was the promised one of God, the Messiah. The Transfiguration vision cemented that belief.

But there is another aspect to this vision that touches us personally.

Jesus, fully human and fully divine, allowed his apostles to observe his divinity. What they were also observing (but weren’t yet ready to understand) was their own eventual transformation into the very image of the divine, since through Christ we are made children and heirs of the Father.

Why did Jesus tell the Apostles to say nothing about this event until after his Resurrection? Could it be because they were far from understanding or accepting so bold a concept as our own divinization? We needed the spiritual strength and insight that would be offered to us only after the Resurrection and the Pentecost.

Are we ready even now?

The late Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner said, “[t]he Christian of the future will be a mystic, or he will not exist at all.” Mysticism, he wrote, is “a genuine experience of God emerging from the very heart of our existence.”

The Transfiguration tells us that our faith must transcend robotic habits. We aren’t meant to spend our earth-years with our eyes half-shut, stumbling through what appears to be a hopeless world. There’s too much that we’re missing if we do not open our hearts to the experience of God of which Rahner speaks.

A constant and growing search for deeper intimacy with Christ and his teachings is what will bring about our transformation into the divine, as Christ showed us and his disciples at the Transfiguration.

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“The days which begin on the feast of the Lord’s transfiguration and end on the threshold of Our Lady’s glorification provide an opportunity for the Christian faithful to reflect on God’s transforming grace at work in their lives, and to seek from the Lord whatever they need to deepen that grace not only in themselves, but indeed in the Church and world.”

These are the opening words of a Transfiguration Novena provided by Father John Colacino of Rochester. If you would like to join us in praying this Novena starting on the Feast of the Transfiguration (August 6) and ending on the eve of the Assumption (August 14), please make your request via the  “Leave a Reply” or “Comment” section and it will be sent to your email address.

Play here: “What a Wonderful World”