Monthly Archives: May 2012

Remade in the Likeness of the Son

We were made “in the likeness of God.”  But in course of time that image has become obscured, like a  face on a very old portrait, dimmed with dust and dirt.

When a portrait is spoiled, the only way to  renew it is for the subject to come back to the studio and sit  for the artist all over again. That is why Christ came–to make  it possible for the divine image in man to be recreated. We were  made in God’s likeness; we are remade in the likeness of his  Son.

To bring about this re-creation, Christ still  comes to men and lives among them. In a special way he comes  to his Church, his “body”, to show us what the “image  of God” is really like.

What a responsibility the Church has, to be  Christ’s “body,” showing him to those who are unwilling  or unable to see him in providence, or in creation! Through the  Word of God lived out in the Body of Christ they can come to  the Father, and themselves be made again “in the likeness  of God.”

Last week we celebrated the feast day of St. Athanasius, who lived from around 296 A.D. until 373.  He was the 20th bishop of Alexandria, which was a center of the Christian faith at that time.  He fought against the Arian heresy, which suggested that God the Father created the Son (and thus called into question the co-equality of the Trinity) .

Athanasius defended traditional trinitarian doctrine even when it required him to stand against other powerful bishops and two emperors.  For a good while, he lived in exile, fleeing to seek shelter for a time with the Desert Fathers.  His steadfast devotion to the Trinity despite political and religious opposition led to his nickname Athanasius Contra Mundum (Athanasius Against the World).  The Roman Catholic Church considers him one of the four great Doctors of the Church, and the Eastern Orthodox Church regards him as one of the Great Doctors also.

In the quotations above, St. Athanasius reminds us that although we were created in God’s image, that likeness had become marred over time.  (I find this formulation much more sound, and more palatable than Calvin’s notion that we had fallen into “total depravity”.)  He then suggests that the Incarnation of Jesus became necessary because we had strayed so far from God’s original likeness.  God sent his Son, he argues, to restore creation to His original intent.

But Athanasius argues the Incarnation didn’t end two thousand years ago, in fact he teaches that it hasn’t ended yet.  He says, “To bring about this re-creation, Christ still  comes to men and lives among them.”  In prayer, in the eucharist, and in our love for each other, we still encounter the Living Christ.  C.S. Lewis echoed this view when he wrote, “God became man to turn creatures into sons: not simply to produce better men of the old kind but to produce a new kind of man.”  Through the mystery of the Incarnation, God calls his creation back to Himself.  I think that’s what Jesus had in mind when He talked about His sheep, who know His voice.

Athanasius then recognizes the wonderful and terrible burden on the Church.  As the mystical body of Christ, the Church must make the Incarnate Christ visible to a troubled world.  The Church must reveal Jesus and the Father to those who are “unwilling or unable” to recognize them otherwise.  By drawing everyone to the Father and the Son (through the power of the Spirit), the Church participates in the re-creation of the world.  Heaven help us if we’re not doing that.  Heaven help us indeed.

God watch over thee and me,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Do You Understand What You Are Reading?

An angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:

Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
     and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
     so he does not open his mouth.

In his humiliation justice was denied him.
      Who can describe his generation?
      For his life is taken away from the earth.”

The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.  Acts 8:26-40.

In today’s Lectionary reading from the book of Acts, we encounter the disciple Phillip.  After the stoning of St. Stephen, while Saul was still persecuting the Church, Phillip preached in Samaria.  Now, Phillip was a layman, a deacon who waited on tables and distributed food to widows.  But while in Samaria, he healed many people and cast out unclean Spirits.  Then an angel appeared and told him to go south toward Gaza.  Without question or protest, Phillip goes down this “wilderness road.”

Phillip then meets this Ethiopian eunuch, a court official in the queen’s court, a man entrusted with the queen’s treasury.  (Because of their castration, eunuchs were considered particularly suitable to work in the courts of royal women. Because of their mutilation, however, good Jews could not touch, eat with, or even talk to eunuchs.) The Spirit directs Phillip to join him in the chariot.  There, the eunuch sits, reading a scroll from the 53rd chapter of Isaiah. 

Phillip asks this man if he understands the passage he is reading. The eunuch does not understand whether the passage is autobiographical or if the prophet is speaking of someone else.  Phillip explains to him the gospel (good news) about Jesus, demonstrating that the early Church had already begun to read the later passages of Isaiah (sometimes called 2nd Isaiah) through the lens of the Christian experience.

As they travel along, something remarkable happens.  They come upon a pool or creek or a puddle of water and the eunuch asks Phillip to baptize him. Phillip does so, expanding the Church well beyond the reach anyone would have imagined before.   Not coincidentally, this happens because two of God’s children read Scripture together, expanding the reach of the Word.  Often in community, we discover new ways to read and understand the good news Christ came to bring us.

Among other things, this passage reveals a remark able shift in the new Christian community:  a shift toward inclusion.  We remember that the holiness codes  mandated the exclusion of eunuchs from the community of believers.  Deut. 23:1; Lev . 21:17-21. The Holy Spirit directs Phillip to go a different direction.  The Holy Spirit (the real “actor” in this book we call Acts) continually pushes the boundaries of the Christian community.  Where we thought the answer was an obvious “no”, the Spirit responds with an enthusiastic “Yes!”  We often underestimate the breadth of God’s intent to save this world and His children.

The Ethiopian, who had been excluded from so much of the religious experience, found Jesus in the middle of the desert.  Out in the wilderness, Phillip saw the power of Jesus at work.  Scripture tells us that this Ethopian, this man excluded because of his brokenness, rejoiced when he was welcomed into the Church.

This passage also teaches that we do not come to the faith alone, and very few of us grow in the faith alone.  I pray that, as we encounter the living God in Holy Scripture and throughout creation, we remain, like Phillip, open to the movement of the Spirit.  And maybe then, like that Ethiopian in the desert, we will encounter Jesus in the wilderness.

Shabbat shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Not One Letter, Not One Stroke of a Letter

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.  Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  Matt. 5:17-20.

In the Gospel from today’s Daily Office, Jesus emphasizes his continuity with God’s message to His people, a message first announced in the law and the prophets.  That continuity shines forth in the story of the Transfiguration, which St. Matthew records at Matt. 17:1-9 and which the icon above depicts.  As God announces Jesus as his beloved Son, Christ appears flanked by Moses and Elijah.  We might wonder, “Why those two heroes of the Old Testament?”  Moses and Elijah, respectively, represented the Law (given by Moses) and the prophets.  Jesus comes as the full flowering, the conclusion or completion of the law and the prophets.

Rather than encouraging his disciples to abandon Scripture, he asks them to take it seriously. Like many of us today, the Pharisees and scribes had read scripture as calling us into a worthiness competition.  We find the perfect example of that view in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector.  (Luke 18:9-14; see here).  Jesus completes the law and the prophets by showing us that God’s love and grace has nothing to do with our worthiness.

A legalistic vision of Scripture works externally, requiring people to confirm to rules and to require such conformity from those around them.  Jesus calls us to internalize the Scripture, allowing it to transform our hearts so that we can live more deeply into it.  Legalism mistakes the packaging for the contents.  Thus, he tells his disciples that must go beyond the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees.  The impulse to legalism always calls us into a kind of idolatry, in which we substitute performance of a given set of obligations for a relationship with the living God.

Jesus asks us to move forward from the notion of right action to the idea of a right relationship with God. We find an example of what Jesus means in Matthew 23:23.  There, He notes that the Pharisees “tithe mint, dill, and cummin, but have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.”  Jesus doesn’t ask us to reject the Law (the Torah), merely to examine the principles which underlie it.  When our principle objective becomes a relationship with the Almighty that pushes us toward justice and mercy and faith, we will read the Law in the right context.

Jesus brings that Law into its fullness, pointing out how narrowly the people had come to understand God’s purposes.  The problem wasn’t that the scribes and Pharisees overvalued the Law; the problem lay in their underestimation of God’s purposes.  Thus, Jesus taught that the good Samaritan actually lived into loving his neighbor, while a more legalistic or superficial view asked, “And who is my neighbor?” Luke 10:29.  Like many of us today, while the scribes may have known exactly what the words of the law said, they had completely missed what they meant.  They had captured the notion of compliance, but missed the blessing of God’s spirit reshaping their lives.

I pray that we find that blessing today.

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis