The gifts he gave were… for the building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the full stature of Christ.
Last week I said that an important principle in Christian morality and spirituality was that to know what is truly virtuous, truly righteous, we need to look at the end for which we are created: and we are made to be with God forever. The Ascension makes that quite plain.
Jesus says in the Gospel of John, in His famous farewell discourse before he undergoes His passion and death, “I go to prepare a place for you, and if I go to prepare a place for you, I will come and take you to myself, so that where I am you may be also.”
Where is He? He has ascended; He lives upon the higher divine plane of existence in eternity, both as God and as Man in the presence of God the Father.
Now, we say Christ sits at God’s right hand. So, we know where Jesus is. And while that description of Him being “at the right hand” is figurative language, what this is saying is that Christ is present to God quite differently from how we will be. After all, Christ is part of the Trinity, He is one with the Father and the Holy Spirit; He is God. Nonetheless, we are meant to be there too! We will be in perpetual communion with the God who is Trinity, and through Christ participate in the divine life.
So, what do we do now in this life to prepare for that eternal existence?
We work to be in communion with God now; and we do so imperfectly, disjointedly, inconsistently. The Eucharist is the instance, par excellence, of this. Sins, of omission and commission, what we do and what we fail to do, all break that communion that must be restored. The important thing is that we strive to maintain that communion, restore it when it is broken, cooperate with grace to keep those breaks less frequent, less severe. But it’s not only about prevention of disruption, it’s about our maturity, our growing in the full stature of Christ. It’s not just about playing defense, of keeping ourselves from sin, it’s about growing strong in Christ, and being able to be in the world, with all its temptations, its transitory satisfactions, and being increasingly confident that they are diminishing in their power over us.
In the Eastern Christian tradition (and by that, I mean all Eastern Christians both Catholic and Orthodox), we would say that this strengthening our defenses and developing ourselves spiritually is a process of deification, of becoming god. Now that might sound blasphemous, so let me put it another way: deification of the human person is participation in God’s nature through grace. We do that now in part, we will do that fully in the Resurrection and in that new life in the world to come.
And again, we know this to be true because of Jesus Christ’s own life, death, resurrection and ascension.
The great theologian and Church Father, Maximus the Confessor wrote,
“A sure warrant for looking forward with hope to deification of human nature is provided by the incarnation of God, which makes man god to the same degree as God Himself became man.”
God made Man made manifest in Jesus who shows us the way to be humanity made god by grace.
And Maximus writes further to describe, as a summation of the wisdom of the early Church, what that means for us as individuals and as a community:
“… Let us become the image of the one whole God, bearing nothing earthly in ourselves, so that we may consort with God and become gods, receiving from God our existence as gods.” (Maximus Confessor, Philokalia, Vol.2)
Bearing nothing earthly has to be understood in the context of the fall, of the brokenness that we find here. Earthly desires as distinct from those heavenly aspirations we have; satisfaction of appetites versus realization of eternal life.
And we see that ethic of detachment from earthly things apparent in other religious traditions, most notably Buddhism. But where Buddhism is about the extinguishing of our being as the answer to the suffering that comes of our frustrated desires; the gospel sees in desire an instinct to seek the good, but being corrupted we look to immediate satisfaction. We are to refine our desire, ask what is beneath our desires, the drive to achieve joy and see that in the earthly appetites for food, sex, material possessions, status, power, these all are poor substitutes. Jesus is offered all these things, and He refuses them so as not to interfere with that profound communion He enjoys with God the Father; the source of His power, a power unlike earthly power, greater than worldly power; a power that He offers to us.
Perhaps the most insidious desire is that of belonging, for belonging is so natural to us; and it is twisted and corrupted into tribalisms and nationalisms that divide and set humanity against itself. The divisions seem to multiply daily, and we will fast bankrupt our social capital if we allow this to continue. Be it gender, sexuality, race, creed, political ideology, economic theory, with the turn from God we look to these earthly and base ideas to define us, to bring us the dignity of identity, forgetting in whose image we are made.
Instead of looking to our end, we look to our immediate circumstances, and try to make sense of who we are and what are aspirations are to be. In the problems of the moment are the absolute priorities of humanity. So, if the problem is climate change, racism, economic crisis, pandemic; salvation lies in what answers now and effects the apparent solution immediately without much thought given to the unforeseen consequences, the unintended follow-on results of the panicked decisions, the choices made from fear, the option taken out of expediency.
If the media is telling me racism must be extinguished, and then says my race is determinant of my character, we have some horrific reasoning to follow upon that mistaken assumption. To erase the stain of racism, for example, then some races simply have to be punished, they may need to just go. Such is the bent logic of too many people who can’t see the ramifications of their ridiculous and contradictory theories because we have failed to teach them how to think.
If I am one of those to be society’s whipping boy, if I can anticipate my eventual elimination, why should I submit? Why go quietly? Why not band together with others, agreeing that race is everything, and so oppose and defeat my enemies? Vanquish those who hold themselves superior to me, and so judge me? This is the toxic response to the poison coursing through the world today.
Yes, it’s true that the Bible speaks of nations, and does not in any way indicate that they will end; for they are to be gathered to the new Jerusalem, at the culmination of God’s design. The tree of life there, it is said in scripture, is for the healing of the nations, not their elimination.
The history of salvation involves a nation, Israel; a tribe and a family, the House of David. This is the nature of humanity in its organization. To try, as so many neo-marxist thinkers advocate we try, to eliminate the natural family, deconstruct the institution of marriage, declare the country post-national, and demonize Christianity as just a species of narrow tribalism, is to work against the truth of who we are, and who are meant to be.
And every nation, in a Catholic understanding of history is legitimate in God’s eyes insofar as it understands itself as sharing in ancient Israel’s vocation of being a vehicle of God’s revelation and a cooperator by grace in the salvation of humankind.
But we must remember the Bible does not report any promise made by God that we will find fulfillment in our earthly identities. Rather the message is that it is found in our good relationship with God. God is the source of all goodness and joy, and compared to Him, any earthly identity is dust in the wind, no matter how strongly felt.
Am I unpatriotic if the sight of the flag does not put a lump in my throat, but rather it is the sacrifice of my Lord that brings a tear to my eye? No, I love my country, and all those who live here, but not for the sake of that flag, or the continuation of particular customs, or because of some social contract of mutual benefit; these are all earthly things. Rather, my desire, which I trust to have come from Heaven, is for their lives and this nation to be the means by which they find God, and so elevate their spirits, and have God cause their souls to rise, to ascend to Him, and be with Him, forever.