Melkite Greek Catholic Church
 
CHAPTER THREE OF ST PAUL'S EPISTLE to the Colossians begins with this enigmatic statement: “For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). The questions it raises are obvious: when did we die, and how is our life hidden with Christ?

Baptism as Death and Resurrection

Many Christians, particularly in the Eastern Churches, can answer the first question. We died with Christ in baptism. The passage from the Epistle to the Romans read at every baptism in Byzantine churches includes the following teaching: “Do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3, 4).

Baptism is our personal union with the death and resurrection of Christ through which the ultimate power of Death was destroyed. At our baptism, this burial is graphically represented when we are “buried” (immersed) in the baptismal water. Our resurrection is represented when we are raised up out of the water. What cannot be depicted, of course, is the effect of our baptism: our life in Christ, hidden in God.

The life of the risen Christ is indescribable, but images help us to appreciate what it might mean. In his Catechetical Sermon on the Resurrection, St John Chrysostom gives us a glimpse into some aspects of this hidden life. "All of you, enjoy this feast of faith. Receive all the riches of His loving-kindness. Let no one bewail his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed. Let no one weep for his iniquities, for pardon has shone forth from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free… O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen and you are overthrown. Christ is risen and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigns. Christ is risen, and not one of the dead remains in the grave. For Christ, being risen from the dead, has become the first fruits of those who have fallen sleep.”

St John Chrysostom mentions three aspects of resurrection life we have received:

1. Forgiveness of sins – “Let no one weep for his iniquities, for pardon has shone forth from the grave.” When we are baptized, our sins are forgiven. Future sins can be forgiven in the Church, to which Christ entrusted this gift.

2. Freedom from death – “Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free.” The heart of Death is the rupture of communion with God. Death of the body cannot break that unity for those who are living their baptism.

3. All that is His is ours – “Let no one bewail his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed.” Our “wealth” as heirs of the kingdom includes the general gifts of the Spirit (wisdom, understanding, know-ledge, counsel, fortitude, piety, fear of the Lord) and the particular gifts which enable ministry. Living in the kingdom of God includes enjoying a relationship with the Theotokos, all the heavenly hosts, and all the saints, as well as all believers, living or dead (the communion of saints).

These blessings are hidden from the world, but “When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory” (v. 4).

Consequences of This Hidden Life

St Paul insists that receiving the gift of life in Christ has consequences. “Set your mind on things above, not on those on the earth… Therefore put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. Because of these things the wrath of God is coming upon the sons of disobedience, in which you yourselves once walked when you lived in them.

But now you yourselves are to put off all these: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth. Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old man with his deeds, and have put on the new man…” (vv. 2, 5-10).

Elsewhere St Paul had explained why Christians must put away things of the earth. “Do not be deceived. God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap. For he who sows to his flesh will of the flesh reap corruption, but he who sows to the Spirit will of the Spirit reap everlasting life” (Galatians 6:7,8). Things of the earth, like our mortal bodies, die and decay no matter how much we pamper them. Lust, envy, wrath, filthy language and the rest of St Paul’s list in Colossians are simply ways we pamper our decaying flesh. By cherishing the “wealth of the kingdom” mentioned above – sowing “to the Spirit” – we enjoy in this world a measure of the life to come.

Putting Off the Old Man

From time to time Christians have misinterpreted St Paul’s teaching on putting off the old man. People like the Amish, for example, thought to express their detachment from the world by adopting a particular form of dress or hair style, or by living apart from others in closed communities because they are Christians. As early as the second century, however, most believers have known the distinction between living in the world but not of the world. An unknown “disciple of the apostles” wrote the following description of the Christians for a certain Diognetus, somewhere in the Roman Empire.

“For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by county, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own counties, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native county, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children, but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives."

“They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonored, and yet in their very dishonor are glorified… To sum up all in one word – what the soul is in the body, Christians are in the world… God has assigned them this illustrious position, which it is unlawful for them to forsake.”

While monastics would later separate themselves from the world, they would do so because they had a particular vocation, not simply because they were Christians.
 
EACH MYSTERY OF THE GOSPEL may be said to have three dimensions: the past, the present and the future. To see the “past” of the Incarnation, we look to the Old Testament prophecies and their fulfillment in the New Covenant. For its “present,” we look to the fruits of the incarnation in our experience today. Its “future” shows the completion of this mystery in the life of the world to come.

As we approach the feast of the Lord’s Nativity, our Church “celebrates the past,” by commemorating the forefathers, the spiritual and physical ancestors of Christ, the holy prophets and patriarchs of the Old Testament. To some of them, the Scripture specifically attributes particular prophetic texts which point to Christ. Others, simply by their place in the Genealogy of Christ, point to the reality of His human nature and His connection to the people of Israel: “Son of David, son of Abraham.”

Finally, our celebration of the Nativity, built around the imagery of the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke, takes us back to the time of His coming in the flesh, the event to which the Old Testament pointed. As we sing on the Sunday before Christmas, “O Mary, unwedded Mother, in your virginal womb you bore Christ, whom the prophets had once foretold in contemplation. By His Nativity He now makes the Fathers exult with joy!” (canon, ode 6).

Celebrating the Present: Theosis

While the secular celebration of Christmas, with its crèches and carols, is often content to focus only on the past, the tradition of our Church is more interested in the present: the meaning of Christ’s coming for our life today. Our Byzantine hymns continually connect Gospel events from the past to the present by affirming that “Today the Virgin is on her way to the cave…” – “Now the prophecy is about to be fulfilled…” and “Christ is born…” Christ’s nativity – and all the mysteries of the Church year – are not are not a matter of looking back in time; we celebrate them because they are affecting us now.

The purpose of Christ’s coming in the flesh – His incarnation – is to change our life. The early Fathers expressed that purpose in this way: “Christ became human so that man might become divine.” As we sing at every Divine Liturgy, the “only-begotten Son and Word of God” took flesh, became incarnate, assumed our human nature. He took up our nature, becoming like us in all things, except sin, in order to give us a share in His divine nature. The fruit of His incarnation is our deification.

Theosis, the Greek term for deification, means that, because God has become one of us, we can become like Him. He is the only truly Holy One, yet we can become holy by sharing in His life. Because of the incarnation, the impossible has become possible: we can become perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect.

Our celebration of Christ’s Nativity proclaims Theosis as the very purpose of the incarnation. During the week leading up to Christmas, we sing this troparion which portrays the Incarnation as fulfilling the original purpose of creation: “Bethlehem, make ready, for Eden has been opened for all… Christ is coming forth to bring back to life the likeness that had been lost in the beginning.” This reflects the Genesis story of creation, in which “God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness’… so God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Genesis 1:26, 27). In the teaching of the Church Fathers, this “image” of God in us means the spiritual side of our nature, which distinguishes us from the lower orders of creation. They explained the “likeness” to mean the ability to act in a holy, godlike manner. With the fall, the Fathers teach, we lost that likeness. We retained the image of God in us, but it was scarred, unable to function as God intended.

With the Incarnation, this likeness was restored to mankind in the person of the Lord Jesus. He was a “new Adam,” the man that God intended. Christ communicated a share in this restored likeness to others after His death and resurrection. By being united to Him in baptism, we could become by God’s grace “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). We no longer relate to God simple as creature to Creator, but as sharers in His own life.

Christ’s incarnation, then, is an invitation to believers to be what we have become, to live in accordance with this share we have in the divine nature. We can live in a close fellowship with God: the intimacy described in Genesis as “walking with God” in the Garden. When we struggle to conform to the image of Christ as depicted in the Gospels, our potential to reflect the likeness to God gradually becomes evident. This is the path to sainthood, made possible by the incarnation.

Celebrating the Future: Transfiguration

The word “incarnation” literally means “becoming flesh.” The Son of God took on the fullness of our human nature, including the body, and transformed it. He rose from the dead and ascended into heaven in the body. The result of the Incarnation is that there is a human body in heaven, seated at the Father’s right! The incarnation is unto the ages.

In several of his epistles, St Paul sets forth the Gospel teaching that the risen Christ is “the firstborn among many brethren” {Romans 8:29), “the firstborn from the dead” (Colossians 1:18). As He is, so we are meant to be.

But someone will say, ‘How are the dead raised up? And with what body do they come?’” (1 Corinthians 15:35). After all, the dissolution of the dead body as it returns to the earth is visible to all. St Paul explains at length what the resurrection entails: “When you sow, you do not sow that body that shall be, but mere grain—perhaps wheat or some other grain. But God gives it a body as He pleases, and to each seed its own body… So also is the resurrection of the dead. The body is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power.  It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body … And as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man” (1 Corinthians 15:37-49). This “image of the heavenly Man” was revealed to us in the transfiguration of Christ: the human body imbued with the presence of the divine life.

When we celebrate the Incarnation, then, we are celebrating the future of the body which the Son of God assumed – and that is our future as well. As Christ’s body is glorified now, so our bodies – our “spiritual bodies,” to use St Paul’s phrase – are meant to be glorified in the age to come. Because of the incarnation, our life in Christ lived in our earthly bodies is destined to be climaxed by an eternal life lived in bodies raised in glory and power – in the image of the heavenly Man.

Hymns on the Sunday before Christmas

“He has shared my poverty, becoming man so that I might become God-like and share in His riches” (sticheron at vespers).

“A strange mystery, wondrous, which causes amazement: the Lord of glory has come down upon earth! He has appeared in a cave, bearing our nature, in order to raise up Adam and to free from her pains the ancient mother of all the living” (canon, ode 9).
 
EACH MYSTERY OF THE GOSPEL may be said to have three dimensions: the past, the present and the future. In the past we look to the Old Testament prophecies and their fulfillment in the New Covenant. In the present we look to the fruits of the incarnation in our experience today. The future shows the completion of this mystery in the life of the world to come.

As we approach the feast of the Lord’s Nativity, our Church “celebrates the past,” by commemorating the forefathers, the spiritual and physical ancestors of Christ, the holy prophets and patriarchs of the Old Testament. To some of them the Scripture specifically attributes particular prophetic texts which point to Christ. Others, simply by their place in the Genealogy of Christ, point to the reality of His human nature and His connection to the people of Israel: “Son of David, son of Abraham.”

Finally, our celebration of the Nativity, built around the imagery of the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke, takes us back to the time of His coming in the flesh, the event to which the Old Testament pointed. As we sing on the Sunday before Christmas, “O Mary, unwedded Mother, in your virginal womb you bore Christ, whom the prophets had once foretold in contemplation. By His Nativity He now makes the Fathers exult with joy!” (canon, ode 6).

Celebrating the Present: Theosis

While the secular celebration of Christmas, with its crèches and carols, is often content to focus only on the past, the tradition of our Church is more interested in the present: the meaning of Christ’s coming for our life today. Our Byzantine hymns continually connect Gospel events from the past to the present by affirming that “Today the Virgin is on her way to the cave…” – “Now the prophecy is about to be fulfilled…” and “Christ is born…” Christ’s nativity – and all the mysteries of the Church year – are not are not a matter of looking back in time; we celebrate them because they are affecting us now.

The purpose of Christ’s coming in the flesh – His incarnation – is to change our life. The early Fathers expressed that purpose in this way: “Christ became human so that man might become divine.” As we sing at every Divine Liturgy, the “only-begotten Son and Word of God” took flesh, became incarnate, assumed our human nature. He took up our nature, becoming like us in all things, except sin, in order to give us a share in His divine nature. The fruit of His incarnation is our deification.

Theosis, the Greek term for deification, means that, because God has become one of us, we can become like Him. He is the only truly Holy One, yet we can become holy by sharing in His life. Because of the incarnation, the impossible has become possible: we can become perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect.

Our celebration of Christ’s Nativity proclaims Theosis as the very purpose of the incarnation. During the week leading up to Christmas, we sing this troparion which portrays the incarnation as fulfilling the original purpose of creation: “Bethlehem, make ready, for Eden has been opened for all… Christ is coming forth to bring back to life the likeness that had been lost in the beginning.” This reflects the Genesis story of creation, in which “God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness’… so God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Genesis 1;26, 27). In the teaching of the Church Fathers, this “image” of God in us means the spiritual side of our nature, which distinguishes us from the lower orders of creation. They explained the “likeness” to mean the ability to act in a holy, godlike manner. With the fall, the Fathers teach, we lost that likeness. We retained the image of God in us, but it was scarred, unable to function as God intended.

With the incarnation this likeness was restored to mankind in the person of the Lord Jesus. He was a “new Adam,” the man that God intended. Christ communicated a share in this restored likeness to others after His death and resurrection. By being united to Him in baptism, we could become by God’s grace “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). We no longer relate to God simple as creature to Creator, but as sharers in His own life.

Christ’s incarnation, then, is an invitation to believers to be what we have become, to live in accordance with this share we have in the divine nature. We can live in a close fellowship with God: the intimacy described in Genesis as “walking with God” in the Garden. When we struggle to conform to the image of Christ as depicted in the Gospels, our potential to reflect the likeness to God gradually becomes evident. This is the path to sainthood, made possible by the incarnation.

Celebrating the Future: Transfiguration

The word “incarnation” literally means “becoming flesh.” The Son of God took on the fulness of our human nature, including the body, and transformed it. He rose from the dead and ascended into heaven in the body. The result of the incarnation is that there is a human body in heaven, seated at the Father’s right! The incarnation is unto the ages.

In several of his epistles, St Paul sets forth the Gospel teaching that the risen Christ is “the firstborn among many brethren” {Romans 8:29), “the firstborn from the dead” (Colossians 1:18). As He is, so we are meant to be.

“But someone will say, ‘How are the dead raised up? And with what body do they come?’” (1 Corinthians 15:35). After all, the dissolution of the dead body as it returns to the earth is visible to all. St Paul explains at length what the resurrection entails: “When you sow, you do not sow that body that shall be, but mere grain—perhaps wheat or some other grain. But God gives it a body as He pleases, and to each seed its own body… So also is the resurrection of the dead. The body is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body … And as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man” (1 Corinthians 15:37-49).This “image of the heavenly Man” was revealed to us in the transfiguration of Christ: the human body imbued with the presence of the divine life.

When we celebrate the incarnation, then, we are celebrating the future of the body which the Son of God assumed – and that is our future as well. As Christ’s body is glorified now, so our bodies – our “spiritual bodies,” to use St Paul’s phrase – are meant to be glorified in the age to come. Because of the incarnation, our life in Christ lived in our earthly bodies is destined to be climaxed by an eternal life lived in bodies raised in glory and power – in the image of the heavenly Man.

Hymns on the Sunday before Christmas

“He has shared my poverty, becoming man so that I might become God-like and share in His riches” (sticheron at vespers).

“A strange mystery, wondrous, which causes amazement: the Lord of glory has come down upon earth! He has appeared in a cave, bearing our nature, in order to raise up Adam and to free from her pains the ancient mother of all the living” (canon, ode 9).

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