Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Image and likeness, what Ash Wednesday is all about

“Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.‘ So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:26-27- ESV).

In his book, The Orthodox Way , Bishop Kallistos Ware, wonders about what Scripture clearly teaches regarding human beings created in God’s image and likeness. This brings up an interesting question, in the above verse from Genesis, do image and likeness represent a repetition employed to highlight our deep, abiding and ineradicable relationship to God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, or is there a distinction to be made between image and likeness? In keeping with what has been handed on by tradition, Ware holds that there is an important distinction to be made. However, this distinction only serves to highlight our relationship to God in the very depths of our being.

St. Irenaeus of Lyons, like St. Ignatius of Antioch, was a disciple of St. Polycarp of Smyrna, who, in turn, tradition indicates, was a disciple of the Apostle John, wrote in his seminal work, Against the Heresies, that "The glory of God is a human being fully alive." As Bishop Kallistos notes, the Talmud also teaches that "The glory of God is man." As to being created in God’s image, as noted on Monday, human beings are a tri-unity of body, soul, and spirit. Or, on another view, with reference only to our spiritual soul, we are memory, will, and intellect. In either instance, or in both instances, human beings are an ikon of the Triune God, that is, each bears in her/his own person the divine image, the imago dei, which is ineradicable. Nonetheless, being a bearer of the divine image indicates not merely human potential, but the potential to be what God created, redeemed you, and is now sanctifying you to be, namely like God, who is love, that is, agapé (1 Jn. 4:8.16- ESV). More contemporarily, this is often called "becoming who you already are."

So, if image is potential, likeness is the realization of your potential. In short, likeness is destiny. Bishop Kallistos points us to Origen, who discerned, "Man received the honor of the image at his first creation, but the full perfection of God’s likeness," what is called theosis, or divinization, "will only be conferred upon him at the final consummation of all things."

Pater Tom, who immersed himself in the study of the Desert Fathers, and whose own view of the human person remained very rooted in their take, writes about this reality in his characteristically deep, but accessible way:

"At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us. It is so to speak his name written in us, as our poverty, as our indigence, as our dependence, as our sonship. It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely" from Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander.
You must verify what Pater Tom writes through your own experience, or it only remains a sentimental thought, a kind of daydream. Verification is no easy task, but it is not an academic exercise; it is purely existential. For example, I think George Carlin verified at least part of this- the part about there being "a point of pure truth" at the center of our being- when he famously averred, "Scratch any cynic and you will find a disappointed idealist." In other words, we have an inherent sense of how things are supposed to be. The part about being cynical, I believe, verifies what Pater Tom wrote about our center being impervious to illusion.

All of your Lenten disciplines are merely means that serve the very end for which you were made. This is why we begin Lent with a communal memento mori. Or, as James Kushiner, himself an Orthodox Christian, succinctly put it: “What the discipline is meant to do is to help you get yourself, your ego, out of the way so you are open to His grace.” Practicing the disciplines taught us by the Lord and verified through the experience of men and women over two millennia serve no other purpose than teaching us to live in the awareness of our destiny. Ash Wednesday puts us face-to-face with the inescapable paradox that in order to truly live, you must die to yourself.

Meum cum sim pulvis et cinis

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