Image of God

I recently read Father Alexander Schmemann’s little book, The Virgin Mary, in the Celebration of Faith series. I’m not going to discuss the whole book, which is a combination of helpful reflections on the feasts of the Mother of God and various papers that he had presented on “Mariology,” usually in an ecumenical context. But what struck me, and got me thinking, was his discussion on the virgin birth near the beginning of the book.

Father Schmemann notes that, while miracles are an indisputable part of the New Testament witness and of the faith of the Church, we would nevertheless do well to ask about their meaning. Jesus Christ did not “use” miracles in order to prove anything, much less to force our belief, for that would be to override our human freedom.

Indeed, if anything in Christ’s unique image is predominant, then it is His extreme humility and not at all any desire to “prove” His Divinity by using miracles. The Apostle Paul writes some extraordinary words about this humility of Christ: “He was in the form of God … but emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant… He humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross…” (Phil 2:6-8). He never used His miraculous birth as “proof” and never once in the Gospels even mentions it Himself. And when He was hanging on the Cross, abandoned by everyone and in terrible agony, His accusers mocked Him precisely by requesting a miracle: “…come down now from the cross that we may see and believe” (Mk 15:32). But He did not come down and they did not believe. Others, however, believed because of the fact that He did not come down from the cross, for they could sense the full divinity, the boundless height of that humility, of that total forgiveness radiating from the Cross: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34). (17)

Instead of trying to “prove” anything, the miracles presented in the gospels are motivated by Christ’s compassion and rooted in His love, for “He cannot endure the suffering of a human being hopelessly imprisoned by evil.” (18)

However, this does not appear to explain the miracle of Christ’s birth and the need for the virgin birth. Father Schmemann argues that this unique miracle that is also rooted in God’s love that, out of love for us, “took upon Himself our humanity in order to save it.” (19)

But to save it from what? From its total and inescapable slavery precisely to nature and those merciless laws which reduce us to just another human species, just matter, just “flesh and blood.” Man, however, is not merely of nature. Above all, he is of God, of God’s freely given love, of the Spirit. And therefore what our faith affirms is this: Christ is from God and of God, that His Father is God Himself. In Christ, in His birth, in His coming into the world a new humanity is born that comes not from the flesh nor from our self-imposed slavery to passions, but from God. God Himself is betrothed to humanity in the person of the most sublime fruit of His Creation: the all-pure Virgin Mary. The New Adam enters the world to be united with us and to lift up the first Adam who was created not “by nature” but by God. (19)

Leaving aside a terminological quibble about the word “nature,” which I think Father Schmemann is using to mean “fallen nature,” his words reminded me of Metropolitan John (Zizioiulas) of Pergamon’s discussion on the biological and ecclesial hypostasis in Being and Communion. For Metropolitan John, it is precisely the necessity of the biological that is overcome in the person of Christ, who thereby also opens up the way for us to become truly free persons. In such a perspective, it is necessity that keeps us enslaved and a radical freedom that is the mark of human persons who reflect God’s Image. In this context, the virginity of the Mother of God, in overcoming biological necessity, becomes the herald of a new way of being, a truly ecclesial hypostasis.

Of course, this may all be totally obvious – and from an Orthodox perspective it should be obvious – and I may just be slow in coming to grasp it. But I also think that it touches on themes that are not easily understood in our contemporary western context. I sometimes have the impression that some of those who defend the virgin birth do so more out of commitment to God being able to work whatever miracles He likes than any particular meaning that it conveys. And then it becomes no big deal for more liberal Christians to sit rather lightly to the dogma, especially given the way it is often presented as tied up with negative views about sexuality – and the layers of misconception in those assumptions still need to be seriously unmasked. But the reality is that the virginity of the Mother of God is a fundamentally eschatological reality, for in her we recognise the “Bright Dawn of the Mystical Day.”

This six- seven-part series of blog posts is based on a talk I gave earlier in the year to a group of Christians who wanted to know more about Orthodox spirituality. It is quite basic and possibly in need of further reworking, but I post it here in the hope that it may be of help to some. (Continued from here).

We have seen something of the “big picture” of what we believe Christian life is all about. Created in the Image of God, our whole life is a journey towards the restoration of that Image in us, in which, through cooperating with the work of the Holy Spirit we may become Spirit bearers who radiate the Light of Christ. The question remains, however, how we are to do this, for we need to cooperate with the work of the Holy Spirit, actively struggling to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” (Phil 2:12)

This process of transformation is what we understand as a life of repentance. Sin and repentance can be difficult topics to address in our contemporary society, for too often people associate them with a crippling guilt which would seem to deny our God-given dignity, making us feel like worthless sinners who cannot do anything good. Yes, sin is a reality in our world, and we need to acknowledge that. But, more fundamentally, sin is something that Christ comes to save us from and repentance is not about feeling guilty but about changing our lives so that they might become transparent to God.

In an Orthodox understanding, sin is not seen so much in legal terms as having broken laws and thus incurring God’s wrath, but rather as having missed the mark, of being aware that our lives are not what they were meant to be. There is a fundamental brokenness that runs through our lives which we are not able to put right on our own. Repentance means learning our need for God and our dependence on Him. It is recognising that we are sick and in need of healing. It is to pray, as Saint Macarius teaches us, “Lord, as you will and as you know, have mercy!” or simply, “Lord help!” And we are able to do this because, no matter what our sins, God does not abandon us.

A soldier asked Abba Mius if God accepted repentance. After the old man had taught him many things he said, ‘Tell me, my dear, if your cloak is torn, do you throw it away?’ He replied, ‘No, I mend it and use it again.’ The old man said to him, ‘If you are so careful about your cloak, will not God be equally careful about His creature?’

Repentance involves coming to acknowledge the truth about ourselves – a gradual process as we grow in self knowledge and are able to begin to recognise the ways in which we have become adept at deceiving ourselves. This is no purely intellectual exercise, but is rather about getting in touch with what Scripture and the Fathers call the heart, that centre of our being that is the core of our consciousness and desires. As Saint Macarius the Great wrote:

The heart itself is but a small vessel, yet dragons are there, and there are also lions; there are poisonous beasts and all the treasures of evil. But there too is God, the angels, the life and the kingdom, the light and the apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasuries of grace—all things are there.

Repentance involves mourning for our sins, but the Fathers speak of it, if it is genuine, as a joyful mourning, for it is a mourning that liberates and frees us, enabling us to move forward to greater knowledge of God and of ourselves. At the beginning of Lent we commemorate the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise, and in the Lenten texts we identify ourselves with them, recognising that our human life is in many ways an experience of exile, for we have lost our true home and our true identity. And yet this very recognition is the beginning of a desire to return home, and our whole journey to Easter is a journey to that home, to the victory of Christ, the New Adam, who in his own flesh conquers death.

This six-part series of blog posts is based on a talk I gave earlier in the year to a group of Christians who wanted to know more about Orthodox spirituality. It is quite basic and possibly in need of further reworking, but I post it here in the hope that it may be of help to some. (Continued from here).

Central to the biblical understanding of the human being is the affirmation that we are created in the Image and Likeness of God (Gen 1:26) and this affirmation became fundamental to the Christian understanding of what it means to be a human being. Creation establishes a relationship between God and humankind. Moreover, Jesus Christ, the true Image of God was the model according to which we were created, even before His Incarnation. We are images of Christ and therefore images of the Father, although not in the absolute way that He is. This is what gives human beings their true worth.

Central to our being created in the Image of God is the freedom and royal dignity that we have as human beings, and this freedom is a reflection of God’s own freedom. However, instead of using this freedom to stay close to God and to continue to grow in relationship with Him, human beings used their freedom to drift away from God. The early Fathers developed this understanding in various ways, but they were aware that the Image of God in us has been affected by the entry of sin into the world. This Image is not destroyed, but has become tarnished and corrupted. Some of them spoke about having kept the Image and lost the Likeness, but, whatever the vocabulary, there was a recognition that we are no longer able to reflect the divine likeness as we were created to do.

The Christian answer to this state of alienation from God came in the Incarnation, death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. He is the Image according to which we were created, and by assuming our human nature, He restored what had become corrupted, and by His death and Resurrection destroyed the power of death. Through this He opened up the way for us to recover the Image and Likeness of God according to which we have been created. It is, fundamentally, about the restoration of our original beauty, a beauty that resides deep within us but which has been covered up and distorted by sin. Saint Gregory of Nyssa writes:

Evil, however, overlaying the Godlike pattern, has made the good useless to you, hidden under a curtain of shame. If, by conscientious living, you wash away once more the filth that has accumulated on your heart, the Godlike beauty will again shine forth for you.

The reference that Saint Gregory makes here to the heart is central to the understanding of the Fathers of the Church. What is called for is not simply a moral response, nor is the heart about something emotional. Rather, in the biblical and patristic tradition, the heart is the centre of the human person and the seat of all consciousness and desires. What is required is the transformation of “the inner person of the heart” (1 Peter 3:4) or, as Saint Paul puts it, “the renewal of your mind” (Rom 12:2) – and we should note that the word “nous” that is translated mind is far closer to the biblical “heart” than it is to the modern idea of the cerebral mind. Saint Gregory of Nyssa describes this transformation as follows:

When iron is stripped of rust by a whetstone, what once was dull itself shines as it faces the sun and gives forth beams and shafts of light. So also, when the inner human being, which is what the Lord calls “the heart,” has wiped off the rusty filth that has spread by evil decay over its form, it will again recover its likeness to its model and be good. What is like the good is surely good.

This salvation is a life-long task. It can be said to be both Christological and Pneumatological in that it relies on the work of both Christ and the Holy Spirit, whom St Irenaeus describes as the two hands of God, and who work together in a reciprocal relationship. We are fashioned and refashioned after the Image of Christ who shares and renews our human nature. But it is also accomplished by the work of the Holy Spirit in us, for the whole purpose of our life is to become a Spirit-bearer, to live and breathe in the Spirit of God whose task it is to refashion us into the Image of the Son, enabling us to return to the Father and to become partakers of the Divine Nature. (2 Pet 1:4)


If you see a man pure and humble, that is a great vision. For what is greater than such a vision, to see the invisible God in a visible man, the temple of God.

Saint Pachomius the Great,  quoted in The Synaxarion, The Lives of the Saints of the Orthodox Church, Volume 5. 164.

I love this quote. I am also reminded that Saint Pachomius, whose feast we celebrate today, was first attracted to Christianity through the love of the Christians of Thebes for the conscripts-cum-prisoners among whom he was numbered. And how he understood his vocation to be be to serve all humanity, despite it being a pretty withdrawn one – indeed, perhaps even because of it being a pretty withdrawn one.

Deep within Shinto temples in Japan yοu find οnly a mirror. It is a symbol and a riddle. The risk there is of turning in upοn the Self. Βut the Christian knows that the Self is the image of Christ. And Christ is the faithful mirror who reflects the truth not only of creatures and objects, but also of the Self that is nο longer an undifferentiated abyss but the interior expression of a face.

Olivier L. Clément, The Roots of Christian Mysticism, here.

This morning I was reflecting on the decided coolness that some Christians around here seem to display towards Orthodoxy. While this is no doubt partly because we are really pretty unknown, I suspect that there is also more going on. On the one hand, there are  Evangelicals I know who I suspect regard us as some sort of weird sect, or else as a more exotic version of Catholicism which, for some of them, is probably hardly any better. But there are also, on the other hand, more liberal Protestants, Anglicans and Catholics, who show more interest in the Church, being fascinated by the icons, music, Liturgy and so on, until, well, until we give offence. The discovery that we do not accept “intercommunion,” or believe that all religious expressions are of equal validity, or buy into an agenda of “inclusivity,” seems to lead – understandably enough if one is committed to such things – to a coolness even if this is not expressed as an outright rejection.

Anyway, I  as I was washing the bath this morning I found myself thinking that Orthodox Christianity does indeed go “against the grain” of many contemporary cultural assumptions. However, no sooner had I voiced that phrase than I caught myself. While it is an expression that I have used before, I had never really considered where it came from until now. And, as a bookbinder who had only yesterday emailed a prospective client explaining the importance of grain direction, I really ought to know. And, as I reflected on this, I realised that it is actually a misconception to say that Orthodox Christianity goes “against the grain” or that it can ever be a good thing to go “against the grain.”

This is an expression that originates in the grain direction of paper. If you take a sheet of paper and bend it to fold it, you will notice that it folds more easily in one direction than the other (usually in the length with a sheet of A4 paper). When one is binding a book, it is very important that the paper is folded and glued “with the grain” and that the board for the covers and all other paper used should likewise run in the same direction. If this does not happen one gets friction between the different elements of the book, one may get warping and, quite simply, the finished product does not open and read as easily. (Regrettably publishers of many commercially bound books ignore this in the name of economy, but if you wonder why some books are not as supple to open as others, this could be why).

Anyway, reflecting on this, I realised that the Christian vision, while it may go “against the grain” of certain contemporary cultural assumptions – and, indeed, of the dominant assumptions of any era – does not go “against the grain” of our human nature, and of our deepest human identity. For we are created “with the grain,” in harmony with the grain direction of the universe, for we are created in the image and likeness of God. While that image has been distorted and marred due to sin, it is still our deepest identity and salvation in a Christian perspective is not only to recognise that image, but also to recover the likeness that has been lost by sin.

In this context, the life of the Church is there to form us – and re-form us – in the right direction, not simply in order to adapt us to a standard outside of ourselves, but because this is the direction of our own deepest nature. It is to ensure that we are in harmony with those to whom we are attached in a greater whole, to re-orientate us to the true reality in the universe. In this context, to try and go “against the grain,” to use the bookbinding analogy, is asking for trouble, not simply because it is being rebellious, but because it is inattentive to our own deepest identity.

The Spirit is the Great Forerunner of Jesus whose coming into our heart He prepares; He hides behind His own gifts: the new state of grace, of sweetness and joy, of the good fragrance of Christ whose aroma the Spirit is. Lastly, the Spirit constitutes the mystery of the human person, in the image of the One Hypostasis of the Incarnate Word. In this human person, the Spirit blends, fades out and asserts Himself; He prays in us (Gal 4:6) and Rom 8:26) and we in Him (Rom 8:15); he hollows out in our being a growing space where the Kingdom of Jesus is renewed, where “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:2).

Boris Bobrinskoy, The Mystery of the Trinity: Trinitarian Experience and Vision in the Biblical and Patristic Tradition (Crestwood, N.Y.: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1999) 194

The Divine Person of Jesus Christ, Who possessed all the fullness of Divine life, and Who at the same time became perfect Man (i.e. man in all things but sin), not only re-establishes in its original purity the image of God defiled by man in his fall (“having refashioned the soiled image to its former estate”),[Kontakion for the Sunday of Orthodoxy] but also conjoins the human nature assumed by Him with the Divine life – “suffused it with Divine beauty”. The Fathers of the VIIth Oecumenical Council say, “He (God) recreated him (man) into immortality by giving him this inalienable gift. This recreation was more in God’s likeness and better than the first creation – this gift is eternal”, the gift of communion with the Divine beauty and glory. Christ, the new Adam, the beginning of the new creature – the heavenly man bearing the Holy Spirit within him – brings man to that aim for which the first Adam was created and from which he turned away through his fall; he brings him to the fulfilment of the design of the Holy Trinity concerning him: “Let us make man according to our own image and likeness” (Gen. i,26). According to this design, man should be not only an image of God, his Creator, but should also bear His likeness. Yet in the description of the accomplished act of creation “And God made man, according to the image of God he made him” (Gen. i,27), nothing is said about likeness. It is given to man as a task, to be fulfilled by the action of the grace of the Holy Spirit, with the free participation of man himself. Freely and consciously, “since the expression ‘according to the image’ indicates capacity of mind and freedom”, man enters into the design of the Holy Trinity concerning him and creates his likeness to God, insofar as is possible for him, “for the expression ‘according to the likeness’ means likeness to God in virtues (perfections)” [St John of Damascus], in this way participating in the work of Divine creation.

Thus, if the Divine Hypostasis of the Son of God became Man, our case is the reverse: man can become god, not by nature, but by grace. God descends in becoming Man; man ascends in becoming god. Assuming the likeness of Christ, he becomes “the temple of the Holy Ghost” which is in him (I Cor. vi, 19), re-establishes his likeness to God. Human nature remains what it is – the nature of a creature; but his person, his hypostasis, by acquiring the grace of the Holy Spirit, by this very fact associates itself with Divine life, thus changing the very being of its creaturely nature. The grace of the Holy Spirit penetrates into his nature, combines with it, fills and transfigures it. Man grows, as it were, into the eternal life, the beginning of deification, which will be made fully manifest in the life to come.

Leonid Ouspensky, “The Meaning and Language of Icons,” in Leonid Ouspensky and Vladimir Lossky, The Meaning of Icons(Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1983) 34-35.

As the visual center of the body, the face dominates everything else. In his Notes of an icon painter, which we have already mentioned, Monk Gregory [Krug] writes:

Only a picture that has a face looking at us and a human face transfigured by divine grace has the right to be a holy icon.

And further on he states:

The eagle which holds the Gospel Book cannot be an icon or image of John the Evangelist, but only his symbol.

Let us note here that the ancient Greeks called a slave aprosopos, i.e., he who has no face. So by assuming the features of a human face, God restored to us a face in His own image, chained as we were like slaves without faces – aprosopos – because of sin.

If Christian art from the beginning of Christianity gave us figures with full frontal views, the same was not true later on, without speaking of today, when real faces simply tend to disappear or just turn up as caricatures.

This is exactly what the renowned art critic René Huyghe declares in his book: L’art et l’âme – Art and the soul:

As fast as the human face, above all in its nobility, has disappeared from contemporary art works, its opposite – the Beast – has substituted itself in a strange way, appearing frequently as if to witness to a tacit obsession of our times. (Paris: Flammation, 1980, p. 342)

Does not today’s art reflect a world in crisis, deprived of security and truth? Despite a profusion without precedent of media at his disposal, modern man experiences a growing difficulty to meet or encounter his neighbor, whose face he so often does not even notice.

Michel Quenot, The Icon: Window on the Kingdom(St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1991 / Mowbray, 1992) 93.

I’ve been reading on icons for a talk I have to give. Will say more again, but this book is a very good introduction.

Father Gabriel (Bunge) continues the introduction to Earthen Vessels: The Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Patristic Traditionby pointing to Christ’s relationship to His Father as the foundation of Christian prayer, which He transmits to His disciples by teaching them the Our Father.

Even before there was a Creed to sum up the Christian faith, this simple text epitomized what it means to be a Christian, precisely in the form of a prayer – that is to say, that new relationship between God and man which the only begotten, incarnate Son of God established in his own person. This is surely no coincidence. (11-12)

Human beings are created in the image of God but are also destined to grow into the likeness of God. The most essential thing about our humanity is that it is relational, a relationship that is akin to that between an original image and its copy.

Yet this relation is not static, like the one between a seal and its impression, for instance, but rather living, dynamic, and fully realized only through becoming. (12)

Just as Christ is the “face” of God who is Person, and is turned towards humanity, so too we as created personal beings have a “face.”

The “face” is that “side” of the person that he turns toward another person when he enters into a personal relationship with the other. “Face” really means: being turned toward. Only a person can have, strictly speaking, a real “counterpart” to which he turns or from which he turns away. Being a person – and for man this always means becoming more and more a person – always comes about “face to face” with a counterpart. Therefore Paul contrasts our present, indirect knowledge of God, “in a mirror dimly [Greek: en ainígmati = enigmatically]”, with the perfect eschatological beatitude in knowing God “face to face”, whereby man “shall know as he is known”. (13)

This spiritual essence is reflected in our corporal nature.

To turn one’s face toward another or deliberately turn it away from him is not something indifferent, as everyone knows from daily experience, but rather a gesture of profound, symbolic meaning. Indeed, it indicates whether we want to enter into a personal relationship with another or want to deny him this.

The purest expression of this “being turned towards God” to be found here on earth is prayer, in which the creature does in fact “turn” towards his Creator, in those moments when the person at prayer “seeks the face of God” and asks that the Lord might “let his face shine” upon him. In these and similar phrases from the Book of Psalms, which are by no means merely poetic metaphors, the fundamental experience of biblical man is expressed, for whom God is not an abstract impersonal principle, after all, but rather is Person in the absolute sense. God turns towards man, calls him to himself, and wants man to turn to him also. And man does this quintessentially in prayer, in which he, with both soul and body, “places himself in God’s presence.” (13-14)

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