It is 251 AD. A group of persecuted Christians in the catacombs are about to begin their evening prayers – called Vespers. They stand before two paintings, one of their Lord Jesus and the other of His Mother. Right before starting, some of their friends burst into the room joyously. Their secret mission to recover the bones of their slain brethren, who died as martyrs, was a success. They gather around the relics, each one kissing them and whispering a prayer. This gathering is not a macabre, secret cult. Rather, these beautiful bones testify to eternal life in Christ.
Most of these Christians converted from paganism, which, with its dualistic philosophy, held a low view of the body – that it was nothing more than a cage entrapping the spirit. What cosmic event could have created such an extreme paradigm shift in the way that humans viewed matter?
FALLING FROM PERFECTION
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Mankind himself was created in the “image and likeness of God.” After everything was formed, God looked upon all creation and declared it to be “very good” (Genesis 1:1,26,31). However, mankind fell into sin, bringing death, corruption, and decay into the world. Now, the matter that was once perfect groaned under the weight of sin and death. It needed redemption, but how? Mankind continued in sin, becoming worse and worse. Eventually, the Law of Moses was given. But that could not free matter from its bondage to death, nor could it empower man to overcome his slavery to sin. The chosen Israel of God continually mixed worldly ideas and pagan spirituality into their lives. Prophets were sent by God to warn the people; Israel was captured and exiled when they would not listen; yet, in none of these things could redemption from the formidable grave be found.
THE TURNING POINT
Within the remnant of righteous Israel, humanity produced the best possible offering they could bring to God: a young Hebrew girl called Mary who was dedicated to the service of God from her youth. She grew up in the holy of holies, being fed the bread of angels and dedicating her entire being to God. “In this way she made it clear,” states the divine Palamas, “and declared in advance to as many as have understanding, that she was to be the true shrine and resting-place of God, an incomparably better mercy-seat for Him, and the divinely beautiful treasure-house of the highest pinnacle of the Spirit’s mysteries.”[i]
From this holy young virgin, God took flesh and became incarnate, initiating the greatest mystery and event in all of human history. St. Gregory continues, “God emptied Himself in an indescribable way, came down from on high to the lowest state of man’s nature, and indissolubly linked it with Himself…He gathered both things into one, mingling humanity with divinity, and by so doing He taught everyone that humility is the road which leads upwards.”[iii]
In the womb of this Virgin, the divine nature was mingled with human nature in the Person of Christ Jesus, who assumed a human body, soul, and spirit – in order to heal our entire human nature. Our Lord did not mingle with only a little bit of our humanity, but embraced it all. St. Gregory the Theologian wrote, “For that which He has not assumed He has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved. If only half Adam fell, then that which Christ assumes and saves may be half also; but if the whole of his nature fell, it must be united to the whole nature of Him that was begotten, and so be saved as a whole.”[iv]
To humanity, the Virgin offered God in her womb; likewise, the Son brought humanity into the Father’s bosom. “The Lord’s Body [was given] as a gift to God…placing it in the bosom of the Father,”[v] wrote St. Nicholas Kavasilas.
Forever human nature was changed as well as the entire purpose of life. No longer did those who followed the Lord God do so in the hope of receiving earthly blessings. Instead, man’s one goal and purpose became union with God, also called deification, divinization, or theosis (Greek). Unlike cannot unite with unlike – oil and water cannot be mixed. For that reason, God became man and mingled divinity into human nature so that the two could come together. Now, we are lifted up to divinity by grace without the necessity of pulling God down to something less than divine, being partakers of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4). Like is united to like in the mystery of the Incarnation.
Through sin and disobedience, mankind, the crown and head of all creation, brought everything into death and ruin. A head cannot sustain injury – and fall to the ground – without bringing the body down with it. But through the New Man, the Second Adam, grace and life flooded into the physical world, initiating the healing and redemption of all creation. As the Apostle testifies, “For if by the one man’s offense death reigned through the one, much more those who receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:17). And a little later he writes,
For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly…creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now. Not only that, but we also who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body (Romans 8:19-23).
This promise of redemption is not yet fully realized, but hints of it are streaking into the cosmos like sunbeams through gaps in the clouds on a rainy day. Panayiotis Nellas, summarizing the theology of St. Kavasilas, states,
The portion of creation initially assumed by Christ became henceforth ‘chrism’ for the rest of creation. The movement is twofold. Christ is extended within time, and the world is assumed. Christ is extended as he assumes the world. The Church is not a static state, purely and simply a sacred institution in the world. It forms a dynamic, transforming movement. It is the endless marriage within time and space of the Creator with His creation, the enduring mingling of the created with the uncreated. In this unconfused mingling in Christ of created with uncreated nature, creation is recast within the flesh of the Lord; it is reconstructed sacramentally, transformed without being destroyed – sin is destroyed – and [creation] becomes [the] Body of Christ and lives as such.[vi]
Matter has become the chosen instrument of God’s divinizing grace. We are no longer to think of it as evil, or even as morally neutral. It is something “very good,” and beyond good, since God Himself has united it to His divine Hypostases (Greek for “Person”). St. John of Damascus confirms the ontological change that occurred in our humanity due to the Incarnation. He writes,
“And of old, Israel neither set up temples in the name of human beings nor celebrated their memorial – for human nature was still under the curse and death was condemnation, therefore they were enjoined that one who even touched the body of someone dead was to be reckoned unclean – but now, since the divinity has been united without confusion to our nature, as a kind of lifegiving and saving medicine, our nature has been truly glorified and its very elements changed into incorruption.”[vii]
Because our Lord took on a body, we can depict Him in images, for He is now circumscribed. To paint images of our Lord Jesus Christ is not idolatry, but a recognition and affirmation of the grace that God bestows upon us through the matter that He took as his flesh. However, we do not depict that which has not become circumscribed, such as the Father or the Holy Spirit. As St. John of Damascus wrote, “But if anyone dare to make an image of the immaterial and incorporeal divinity, we reject them as false.”[viii] If current photographing technology existed 2,000 years ago, then we would doubtless have thousands of pictures and videos of our Lord. But it did not, so the ancients painted his image. According to tradition, the Apostle Luke painted the first icons. St. John of Damascus confirms how we can now depict God, “In times past, God, without body and form, could in no way be represented. But now, since God has appeared in flesh and lived among men, I can depict that which is visible of God.” We do not merely depict it, but we even venerate God through these images. St. John continues, “I do not venerate the matter, but I venerate the Creator of matter, who became matter for me, who condescended to live in matter, and who, through matter, accomplished my salvation; and I do not cease to respect the matter through which my salvation is accomplished.”[ix]
THE BODY AND THE EUCHARIST
Our salvation is completely dependent on the deification of matter. By venerating matter, we are witnessing to God’s work in it. We are also acknowledging the obvious truth that we humans are both material and spiritual, therefore, we need a form of worship that engages both body and soul. St. John of Damascus reveals its necessity, “We can only arrive at the spiritual through the material, for we are created twofold, possessing both soul and body.”[x]
Relics, like icons, are witnesses of the deification of matter. We venerate them, not simply because the life of the saint was inspirational, but because we recognize that these men and women have been deified through God’s grace. Likewise, we even give our departed Orthodox brethren the last kiss of peace at their funerals, acknowledging God’s grace within that person as a fellow partaker of Christ.
All of this comes to a climax in the Eucharistic banquet. We are commanded by our Lord Himself, at the Last Supper, to eat His flesh and drink His blood. As we give thanksgiving at every Divine Liturgy, we remember “all those things which have come to pass for us: the Cross, the Tomb, the Resurrection on the third day, the Ascension into heaven, the Sitting at the right hand, and the second and glorious Coming.”[xi]
St. Paul wrote the divine command, “Do this in remembrance of me,” (1 Corinthians 11:24), which is not a mere practice of the will, mind, nor imagination. As Florovsky wrote, “It is undoubtedly not a mere commemoration of the Last Supper. In fact, it is the Last Supper itself. Christ Himself is actually present in the sacred rite…In the strong words of St. John Chrysostom, each Eucharistic celebration is actually the Last Supper itself, in its full reality, without any diminution. ‘This table is the same as that and has nothing less’” (In Matt. Hom. 82).[xii]
Speaking on Christ’s behalf to us, regarding the Eucharist, St. John Chrysostom writes,
“I united and joined thee to myself, ‘Eat Me, drink Me,’ I said. Above I hold thee, and below I embrace thee… I descended below: I not only am mingled with thee, I am entwined in thee. I am masticated, broken into minute particles, that the interspersion, commixture, and union may be more complete. Things united remain yet in their own limits, but I am interwoven with thee. I would have no more any division between us. I will that we both be one.”[xiii]
Matter has been redeemed; it is now salvific and it unifies us to God Himself.
[i] St. Gregory Palamas, “On the Entry of the Theotokos into the Holy of Holies II.” St. Gregory Palamas: the Homilies. Translated by Dr. Christopher Veniamin, pg. 423.
[iii] Ibid. Pg. 479.
[iv] St. Gregory the Theologian (Nazianzen), NPNF Series II Volume VII, “Letter to Cledonius the Priest Against Apollinarius” (Ep. CI.), pg. 440.
[v] St. Nicholas Kavasilas. “Redemption or Deification?…”
[vi] Ibid, pg. 27.
[vii] St. John of Damascus, Three Treatises on the Divine Images, SVS Press, 2003. Translator: Andrew Louth, pg. 91.
[ix] St. John of Damascus. Quoted from “’Never as Gods’ – Icons and their Veneration” by Constantine Scouteris.
[xi] The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. Hieratikon, Volume Two. Hieromonk Herman and Vitaly Permiakov, St. Tikhon’s Monastery Press, 2017, pg. 132.
[xii] Florovsky, Georges. “The Worshipping Church.” The Festal Menaion, Met. Kallistos & Mother Mary, St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 1990, pg. 29. (Emphasis in the original quote)
[xiii] St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on 1 Timothy, XV. NPNF Series I Volume XIII, pp. 463-464.