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