Sons of the Living God

“What is Christianity? Likeness to God as is possible for human nature. If you are shown to be a Christian, hasten to become like God, put on Christ.” ~ St. Basil, (On the Origin of Humanity 1, Ch. 18)

What do Christians mean when they talk about humans being made in the ‘Image of God’? Like everything in Christianity, the doctrine of the Imago Dei has been discussed and interpreted many times over, but at its core, it’s a powerfully simple idea: human beings have the unique privilege of being able to reflect God’s own beauty and power.

Source: Eric McGregor

“There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.” ~ CS Lewis (Source: Eric McGregor)

On the face of it, this idea is pretty out of step with reality. The dreary herd of commuters with whom we trek to work every morning certainly don’t seem like a pantheon of brilliant gods and goddesses; they’re an unwieldy and rather annoying bunch, who cough too loud and would sooner let you be beaten to death than acknowledge your existence. And then there are those of us who seem not only un-godlike, but positively demonic: serial murderers, rapists, war criminals. When faced with the horror of an Auschwitz or a Hiroshima, it’s hard not to conclude that if we bear the image of any god, that god must be a foul and violent monster.

But no Christian believes that human violence and brutality is the fruit of beings who bear the perfect image of God. The whole Christian worldview, especially for the early Church, revolved around the idea that humanity had damaged the Image of God and so turned themselves from radiant beauties into bestial monsters. In St. Athanasius’ view, it was precisely when we lost the Image of God through an act of cosmic rebellion that evil entered the world: “Adulteries and thefts were everywhere, murder and rapine filled the earth, law was disregarded in corruption and injustice …” (De Inc. 1.4) In the wake of this spiritual catastrophe, the world is now full of creatures more dangerous than either gods or beasts: fallen gods; gods gone mad.

And that’s why, as St. Basil says above, the whole purpose of Christianity is to make men again like God. We plunged ourselves and our world into chaos by being unlike God; only being like Him can heal us. This transformation is something all humans must go through. Even the best of us do things every day which feed into the hideous cycle of injustice and suffering that afflicts the world; there’s a part of all of us that wants to keep every good thing to ourselves and enforce the tyranny of our will over others. The whole life of the Church, from its sacraments to its prayers, is aimed at slaying these destructive, ungodly impulses, and so restoring the Image of God to our inward persons.

For St. Athanasius, humanity was like a damaged portrait which needed to be repainted:

“You know what happens when a portrait that has been painted on a panel becomes obliterated through external stains. The artist does not throw away the panel, but the subject of the portrait has to come and sit for it again, and then the likeness is re-drawn on the same material. Even so was it with the All-holy Son of God. He, the Image of the Father, came and dwelt in our midst, in order that He might renew mankind made after Himself …” (De Inc. 3.14)

This is the whole of Christianity. By putting on Christ, eating His Flesh and drinking His Blood and so truly becoming a part of His Body, we become again what we are always meant to be: spotless mirrors of divine radiance. Continue reading

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Healing a Hungry World – Fasting

From the outside, fasting can seem like a pretty boring thing. People change their diet all the time; it rarely makes headlines. It’s an action that carries no more significance in itself than using a new brand of toothpaste, or changing phone carriers. Fasting, as a purely dietary practice, is quite possibly one of the most boring activities in the world.

The horrifying reality of hunger: a Somali boy being treated for malnourishment (source)

The horrifying reality of hunger: a Somali boy being treated for malnourishment (source)

But to conclude from this that fasting is boring, is rather like concluding that every movie with blazing guns and fast cars must be good. Even Sunday School children know that the Christian practice of fasting has never been a mere change of diet; the act of giving up certain kinds of food – namely the bloody kind, prepared in abattoirs and slaughterhouses – is symbolic of a much more mystical endeavour. What I want to argue here is that fasting, far from being a mere selfish and ritualistic supersition, is actually a mystical way of healing the world. St. Basil, in his fantastic Homily on Fasting, explains that in an important sense, the world is fallen precisely because we failed to fast:

“[Fasting] is as old as humanity itself; it was prescribed in Paradise. It was the first commandment that Adam received: “Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil ye shall not eat.” Through the words “ye shall not eat” the law of fasting and abstinence is laid down. If Eve had fasted from the tree, we would not now be in need of this fast.Continue reading

Early Christian Symbols: The Anchor

In the ancient world, written symbols were viewed with a sense of mystical fascination. Pagans and Christians alike had a coded language of symbolism to express the mystical and mysterious truths of their religion; they used to sign their letters with these symbols, scratch them onto walls and paving stones, and (most powerfully) inscribe them on the tombs of their loved ones. Perhaps the most famous Christian symbol still recognisable today is the ‘ichthys’ fish. Another is the ‘chi-rho’: ‘⳩’, a combination of the first two letters of ‘Christ’ in Greek (‘χριστὀς’).

A Chi-Rho from Algeria, c. 380 CE (Wikimedia Commons)

There’s a sense in which these symbols express something which detailed images and icons never could. A drawn image of Christ is forced to represent Him visually, with hair of a certain length, skin of a certain shade, a certain facial expression; such details are usually more the imagination of the artist than an accurate representation of the real person of Christ (whose exact appearance we cannot know). A symbol like the ‘chi-rho’ however, is not bound by any imagined or conjectured images of Christ. Rather than represent Christ, its function is to refer to the real Christ; the chi-rho isn’t an image of Christ, it’s an invocation of His name, a calling out to the real, concrete being that we call Christ. And yet the symbol is more than a written word; it possesses the beauty and simplicity of an image, without resorting to imagined representations of its subject. While I certainly love iconography (there’s no Orthodox that doesn’t), there’s a part of me which is far more enchanted by a humble chi-rho carved onto a mother’s grave by her Christian son in hope of her resurrection than by the greatest Catholic and Byzantine mosaics. Continue reading