“Nice” Is Not Enough

IN OCTOBER, 1936 THE COVER of The Saturday Evening Post displayed a drawing by Leslie Thrasher depicting a Friendly Neighborhood Butcher and a Sweet Old Lady weighing her purchase at the butcher shop. The Friendly Butcher and the Sweet Lady were each trying to tip the scale in their own favor! The point was clear: no matter how Friendly or how Sweet, each of us is touched by the desire to put ourselves first, ahead of the next person. Even People Like Us, no matter how Nice we may be, are all subject to the dictates of our fallen nature leading us to sin.

The Old Creation

The Biblical vision of creation is found in many books of the Old Testament: the Psalms, the Wisdom literature and, most extensively, in the book of Genesis. In this view there are two dynamics at work: God’s and man’s. God’s all-embracing love seeks to share existence, to share something of Himself as much as possible. God, the One who truly is, shares His being simply that other things might be. The Wisdom of Solomon summarizes this teaching: “For he created all things that they might be: and he made the nations of the earth for health: and there is no poison of destruction in them, nor kingdom of hell upon the earth” (1:14).

Of all the things that share God’s existence, one – humanity – comes closest to reflecting the Creator. The Book of Genesis teaches that mankind was created to mirror God: “God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27).

Human beings alone were created in the image of God. There is a part of the human person that is literally not of this world. Human beings are possessed of an intrinsic worth which is unique in creation. But, as we know, the story doesn’t end there.

From the beginning mankind’s relationship with God has been characterized by disobedience. Our relationships with one another have been marked by entrapments, recriminations and murder. Eve entices Adam, Adam blames Eve, Cain kills Abel and on it goes. The result is that the human race, created in God’s image, is bound by sin and subject to death and corruption. Adam drank the “poison of destruction” and all are ill as a result.

The New Creation

The New Testament speaks of a “new creation,” creation made new in Christ. Christ’s relationship with His Father is described as one of obedience, in contrast to Adam’s disobedience. He is the new Adam who is not bound by sin. He voluntarily takes up the cross but is no longer subject to death or corruption. He changes the experience of death in Himself.

On Holy and Great Saturday the vesper hymns describes this from the viewpoint of Death itself! “Today Hades groans: ‘My power has vanished. I received One who died as mortals die, but I could not hold Him. With Him and through Him, I lost those over which I had ruled. I had held control over the dead since the world began; and lo, He raises them all up with Him!’ O Lord, glory to Your Cross and to Your holy Resurrection!”

The Church Fathers would teach that whatever Christ touched was transformed. As St. Gregory of Nyssa would say, Christ healed the effects of the fall of humankind in the same way as He healed the sick in his earthly ministry – simply by His touch.

Christ “touched” the human race be becoming man. He began the transformation of humanity into the new creation which St Paul proclaims has come: “If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: the old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

In terms of God’s People this “new creation” meant to St Paul that the old division between Jews and Gentiles, between circumcised and uncircumcised no longer mattered. Belonging was no longer about being of this or that race, nation, clan or family. What mattered was Christ and being “in Him.” Many sociologists think that this approach accounted for many Greeks and Romans joining the Church in its earliest days. Many had been sympathetic to Judaism and embraced its monotheistic faith, but did not join the Jewish community because that would require that they sever relations with their families. They would not be able to eat with uncircumcised people, for example. But, according to Paul and the Church which espoused his teachings, “Neither circumcision nor un-circumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation” (Galatians 6:16).

Touching Christ

By becoming human Christ touched the human race and made it possible for us to be part of the new creation. As individuals, the first step in our transformation is an organic one: being physically joined to Christ in His Body, the Church. We first “touch” Christ by being buried and rising with Him in Baptism. Hence St Paul – and the Church ever since – proclaimed: “All of you who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Galatians 3:27).

In his Great Catechism St Gregory says that, as baptism is to the soul, so the Eucharist is to the body. In baptism, Christ “transforms what is born with a corruptible nature into a state of incorruption” (Great Catechism 33 [84]). In the Eucharist, Christ “disseminates himself in every believer through that flesh, whose substance comes from bread and wine, blending Himself with the bodies of believers, to secure that, by this union with the immortal, man, too, may be a sharer in incorruption.” Our bodies are touched by the transforming presence of Christ.

With the likeness to God in us restored through Christ, we are enabled to continue our transformation by addressing the deficiencies in our likeness to God through the ongoing conscious step of imitating Christ in our way of life. “We recognize both the true and the apparent Christian by what they reveal in their actions,” Gregory writes. “The characteristics of the true Christian are the same we apply to Christ. We imitate those characteristics we are able to assume, while we venerate and worship what our nature cannot imitate” (On Perfection).

God’s nature is infinitely removed from ours, but – as St Gregory teaches – it is possible for us to use Christ’s human life as a model for our own. Becoming like God as revealed in Christ does not happen instantaneously; it begins in us by fits and starts. If we persevere, we continue in this process through the rest of our life. Living “in Christ” gradually becomes second nature. Even then this journey is not over. For St Gregory the process of perfection is unending: “This is the real meaning of ‘seeing God:’ never to have this desire completely satisfied”.

Adam and Christ stand for two different ways of being human (1 Corinthians 15:45,49). From Adam we inherit our physical life: we bear “the image of the man of dust” In the new creation we “shall bear the image of the heavenly Man,” Christ risen from the dead.