Sunday, February 21, 2010

Incarnation and Personal Transformation

At the beginning of Lent we are challenged with the task of self-evaluation and the call to personal transformation. The key is in the nature of the Incarnation of God the Son in human flesh; a perfect incarnation “complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body; of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us a regards his manhood.”[1] It is not just that Christ came down and became one with us in the Incarnation; that is only half of the story. St. Athanasius carefully says, “Who although he be God and Man, yet he is not two, but one Christ; One, not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by taking of the Manhood into God.”[2] In that two-fold motion; in his coming down and becoming Incarnate in human flesh and in his taking of that same flesh into God; we find the secret of our own transformation. While we work out our own salvation in fear and trembling it is the Christ who works in us to will and to do of the Father’s good pleasure.[3]

Of the Incarnation Charles Williams tells us, “At the beginning of life in the natural order is an act of substitution and co-inherence. A man can have no child unless his seed is received and carried by a woman; a woman can have no child unless she receives and carries the seed of a man – literally bearing the burden. It is not only a mutual act; it is a mutual act of substitution. The child itself for nine months co-inheres in its mother; there is no human creature that has not sprung from such a period of an interior growth.” [4] That co-inherence, and the resulting union of Christ in us, carries with it the gift of transformation, for it is in this that Christ Jesus has given us the gift of his own glory and identity, “The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.”[5]

There is a frequent misunderstanding that transformation can be achieved by human effort and discipline, but that is incorrect; transformation is a gift given to us as a result of our relationship with God. Two traditional words are used to describe this transformation. In the Western Church we are accustomed to the term sanctification, that is we are made holy; but in the Eastern Church this is referred to as theosis, or deification, designating that His divine nature is imparted to us and transforms us, that is that we become godly. The means of this theosis is in prayer, praise, and worship, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” [6] As we lift our souls, our very personhood, up to God, He pours His transforming grace upon us. The phrase “we are being transformed” is a present participle, and in Greek it is metamorpho’o, from which we get the word metamorphosis; we are being changed in a gradual ongoing process as we behold the glory of God in the face of Christ Jesus.

It is not that we behold the very essence of God, but rather that we behold His radiance. The distinction is like beholding the radiance of the Sun, rather than burning our eyes by directly beholding the Sun itself. I am mindful of St. Gregory Palamas’ distinction between essence and divine energies, the former in immutable transcendence, the latter incarnate in humanity. Palamas would remind us that in beholding not the essence of God, but the radiance of God, we ourselves enter into deification and take on that same radiance. It is the radiance of Christ on the Mount of Transfiguration. “And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light” [7]

When we kneel at the feet of the radiant Christ whom we adore, “we receive into ourselves the likeness of whatever we look upon.”[8] Lest we misunderstand the nature of this and make the assumption that this is only a mystical and spiritual exercise rather than practical one involving concrete personal responses on our part, Jesus, who is the God of love,[9] says, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. These things I command you, so that you will love one another.”[10]

If we are to be deified, we are to take on the identity of the God of love and let His love become fully incarnate in us. This has a direct effect on all of our relationships, but also on what we in the West think of as our sanctification, “the whole law is fulfilled in one word: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”[11] To be deified, to be sanctified, and made holy, is to be transformed into that Love which is a key element of the very nature of God.
[1] Council of Chalcedon, 451 A.D.., Act V, The Book of Common Prayer, p. 864
[2] The Creed of Saint Athanasius, The Book of Common Prayer, p. 865
[3] Philippians 2:12,13
[4] Charles Williams, “The Descent of the Dove”, in Charles Williams Essential Writings in Spirituality and Theology, ed. Charles Hefling, Cambridge:Cowley, 1993), pp. 145-148
2(Richard Rolle, The Fire of Love)
[5] John 17:22-23, ESV
[6] 2 Corinthians 3:17,18
[7] Matthew 17:1,2
[8] Gregory of Nyssa
[9] I John 4:16
[10] John 15:12-17
[11] Galatians 5:14