Seeking What Is Above

“BLESSED IS HE WHO HAS COME AND WILL COME in the name of the Lord.” This verse from the Syriac liturgies sums up the entire Church’s approach to the feasts of the Nativity of Christ and His Theophany at the Jordan. Both feasts celebrate the coming of Christ hidden in the flesh yet revealing God through that same flesh. Both feasts also point us to His coming in glory in the last days when His divinity will no longer be hidden in His flesh but revealed in it.

If God has manifested Himself in the world, where is God? We can “find” God first of all in His works, in which anyone can marvel, Christian or not. At the beginning of the scientific age people came to believe that they understood nature and could explain it without God. Today’s scientists are more likely to see our cosmos as beyond their grasp. It continually reveals new dimensions and, for many of them, more than ever does it point to God.

The greatest manifestation of God in human experience to date has been in Christ. His life and death reveal a love which point to the essence of the divine nature. “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8), and it is that love which is expressed in our understanding of God as the Holy Trinity. It is because of love that Christ can say things like “I and the Father are one” (Jn 10:30). The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are an eternal circle of love overflowing in love for us. The coming of the eternal Word of God into the world incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth is the decisive sign of this overflowing love. “In this the love of God was manifested towards us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world that we might live through Him” (1 Jn 4:9).

As our liturgy for the feasts of the Nativity and Theophany indicate, the ultimate coming of God and the ultimate revelation of Him will take place on the last day of human history. Until then, because of our fallen humanity, we are only capable of glimpsing God in a very limited way. As the second century Father, Theophilos of Antioch, wrote to his pagan friend Autolycos: “If you say, ‘show me your God,’ I would reply, ‘show me yourself…’ Show that the eyes of your soul are capable of seeing and the ears of your heart able to hear…”

Our broken humanity is meant to be transformed in Christ at the last day: “When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory” (Col 3:4). Then what we could only glimpse in this present life will be manifest to us. “For God will raise your flesh immortal with your soul,” Theophilos tells his friend, “and then, having become immortal, you shall see the Immortal One if now you believe in Him.”

Preparing for That Day

To see the Immortal One on that day is not like seeing the president in a parade, or even meeting someone renowned for their holiness. When St Peter first experienced the power of God working in Christ to provide an unexpected catch of fish, his response was to fall on his knees and cry, “Depart from me, O Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (Lk 5:8). Not that he was unusually sinful, but that he was a son of Adam, tied to this hearth, subject to the passions. And when he, with James and John beheld Christ transfigured on Mount Tabor the same thing happened: they fell on their faces. If we are to see the Lord in an even more glorious state, we must be prepared in some way.

We must become people who “seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on things on the earth” (Col 3:1-2). When we are young, we are anxious to amass one thing after another: a diploma, a car, a good job, a spouse, a home, a baby, etc, etc. Our minds are on things of the earth. If we grow in wisdom as well as in age, however, we realize that the material things that we have striven to own, own us. We find that we do not need the things we thought would make for a good life. We discover that holiness is a matter of subtraction, simplifying our lives so that we do not crowd God out of them.

In the monastic life people are called to put aside material attachments, family life and even one’s own will to devote themselves as much as is humanly possible to the things above. Monasticism is thus called the “angelic life” in the Christian East. Monastics strive to live in the heavenly realm rather than in this world.
Most believers are not monastics, and St. Paul was not writing to monks or nuns. Yet he insists, we must at least moderate our attachments to this world to the best of our ability. The Church would come to recommend practices such as fasting and almsgiving a ways to foster this detachment. Even more fundamentally, as St Paul says, we must “put to death” things such as the desire to possess (“fornication, uncleanness, passion, etc.”) or to control (“anger, wrath, malice, etc.”). Rather we are to put on virtues like compassion, kindness, humility forgiveness and love after the model of Christ’s earthly life. “As Christ forgave you, so also you must do” (Col 3:13).

Possessing and Controlling Others

In the ancient world chieftains prided themselves on the number of cattle, slaves and women they possessed. This was even true in Israel where, we read in 1 Kings 11:1-3, that King Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines! Today sexual promiscuity is often an acting-out of the desire to possess. Whether officially rape or not, it turns an act of love into an act of self-gratification at another’s expense. St Paul in Col 3, pairs it with “covetousness which is idolatry” (v. 5). If we have an abundance of material goods, Paul repeatedly insists, it is to supply the lack of others. Covetousness is to claim what belongs to others– or what God has given us to supply the wants of others – for ourselves. And, as Paul concludes, to so seek to possess others’ goods – or others themselves – is actually idolatry. We make a god of whatever we put at the center of our life.

St Paul’s second list of vices (Col 3:8-9) is a collection of devices designed to give us power over others. Anger, cursing, blasphemy, (and we might add obscene gestures) are ways we seek to intimidate others. Lying is often a more subtle way to do the same thing. The popular expression, to “get over on” someone, is an apt way of saying that all such dynamics are simply attempts to control situations and people.

To become a person more prepared to see the vision of God at Christ’s coming in glory we must begin by eliminating passions such as the above and cultivating the love for others which characterizes Christ and His true disciples.