Christmas is a time for giving and receiving gifts and enjoying the feasts and parties surrounding a very special day. It is a sacred day of remembrance: what God has done for us in the Incarnation; but also a sacred moment of potential: what God can incarnate in us as a result.
As faithful people, much of our time is dedicated to doing the things we think we ought to do for God: being helpful, loving, caring, considerate, forgiving, happy, etc. As people of faith, we accredit this life to God and try to be in response to God’s call to us. Even so, there is a barrier between us and God which, despite our best efforts, makes it almost impossible to truly act or “be” for God. As Thomas Merton, a renowned 20th century American Trappist monk, writer, theologian, mystic, poet, social activist, and scholar of comparative religion wrote, “The ‘I’ that works in the world, thinks about itself, observes its own reactions, and talks about itself is not the true ‘I’ that has been united to God in Christ” (New Seeds of Contemplation, pg.7).
We are complicated creatures, and we will always live lives of self-observance mixed with self-realization. As people of faith, our goal is to grow through self-observance and relinquishment to godly realization. Our self-observant self (helping us to decide what to do and how to be) relinquishes our self to God, admitting we are unable to self-realize ourselves. Giving up our self-observant “what should I do/be self” to God, our deeper identity that lives in the heart of God, our true self, the one we are trying to self-realize, is actualized.
Our true self can only be found in this inner place of heart and soul where we relinquish ourselves to God. It is the self that contains the full potential of God’s image, the imago Dei, and is waiting to be birthed in us as the Image of Christ. Among all the treasures of our life, this is the pearl of great price we must acquire (Matt. 13:46). Through the love and peace of Christ, the true self is birthed into the world when our self-observant selves are integrated into the imago Dei, in the core of our being.
With the birth of our true self, our self in the image of Christ, Christ is born again in us as we lose our old life and find a new life in Christ’s self. While we all bear God’s image, the Christian journey includes an invitation to grow into God’s likeness, becoming like God in order to love as God loves–unconditionally without hesitation (2 Corinthians 3:18). In this new life, we become free to love God, others, and self as Christ loves. With a clear understanding of our own failures and limitations, and with an equal awareness of the power of God to complete our deficiencies, we exhibit the virtue of humility. When Christ calls us to follow, he invites us to journey inward to the true self.
The Desert Fathers called this process theosis (divinization), the transfiguration of the individual into the likeness of Christ. Almost all the Early Church Fathers wrote and preached about theosis (divinization), Saint Clement of Alexandria (ca. 150 to 215 A.D.) wrote:
For if one knows himself, he will know God; and knowing God, he will be made like God, theosis... Now, God alone is in need of nothing, and rejoices most when He sees us bright with the ornament of intelligence; ... [that man] has the form which is of the Word; he is made like to God; he is beautiful; he does not ornament himself: his is beauty, the true beauty, for it is God; and that man becomes God, since God so wills.(Exhortation to the Heathens, 11)
And again, St Basil the Great of Caesarea (330 to 379 A.D.) wrote:
He makes them spiritual by fellowship with Himself. Just as when a sunbeam falls on bright and transparent bodies, they themselves become brilliant too, and shed forth a fresh brightness from themselves, so souls wherein the Spirit dwells, illuminated by the Spirit, themselves become spiritual, and send forth their grace to others. Hence comes foreknowledge of the future, understanding of mysteries, apprehension of what is hidden, distribution of good gifts, the heavenly citizenship, a place in the chorus of angels, joy without end, abiding in God, the being made like to God, and, highest of all, the being made God." (On the Spirit, 23)
Saint Marcus Eremita the Ascetic (ca. 451 A.D.) reflected:
All the penalties imposed by divine judgment upon man for the sin of the first transgression - death, toil, hunger, thirst and the like - He took upon Himself, becoming what we are, so that we might become what He is. The Logos became man, so that man might become Logos. Being rich, He became poor for our sakes, so that through His poverty we might become rich. In His great love for man He became like us, so that through every virtue we might become like Him. From the time that Christ came to dwell with us, man created according to God's image and likeness is truly renewed through the grace and power of the Spirit, attaining to the perfect love which 'casts out fear' - the love which is no longer able to fail, for 'love never fails'. (To Nicolas the Solitary)
The ardency with which the Fathers address this topic and the fact that virtually all of them spoke with one voice shows us how important and vital this teaching was and is. Indeed, Jesus’ promise to draw closer to us through the Holy Spirit and our participation and devotion to Him are, perhaps, the most important aspects of our faith.
Using language such as “birthing” is appropriate and resonates with the imagery of effort and sacrifice, wonder and blessing. The stories of the Desert Fathers reveal their devotion to Christ and their serious attention to the inner spiritual life. Today we would refer to their difficult psychological reflections in which they worked to reconcile competing values and motivations in the dismantling of their false self. These desert ascetics worked at incarnating the peace of Christ in order to change the world, but they succeeded in knowing the love of Christ so they could become the love of God for others.
In the desert solitude, those fourth century Christians encountered the things that divide the heart and diminish the ability to love. Each encounter with a habit, belief, emotion, or false identity that stood in opposition to love was an opportunity to invite God to reign over those broken places within the human heart. The ensuing struggle for dominance, between their desire to be like Christ and their behavior or state of being, was a spiritual birthing process. The pain inherent in the labor and struggle was as real and palpable as a woman’s relentless contractions in the birth of a baby. In the end, they gave birth to their true self, embodying Christ’s love in their heart through their disciplined spiritual practices and the overwhelming grace of God.
Though the way was paved by the Desert Fathers, the journey is ours. It is our privilege and blessing to undertake the arduous and difficult spiritual trek, indeed, it is our Baptismal promise to do so. In our Baptismal rite, we proclaim that God initiates the process of birthing the true self through water and spirit. The newly Baptized must labor and cooperate with God in his or her own transformation, as well as work with God toward the transformation of the world. The Baptized is asked to “renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God,” to “renounce the evil powers of the world,” the “sinful desires that draw us from the love of God,” and to “turn to Jesus” (BCP pg. 302) These vows are not only meant to direct our attention to the brokenness of the world around us, but also to the brokenness and sin found within us.
The Reverend Father George Anthony Maloney+, Jesuit Monk and Eastern Orthodox Priest, Theologian and author of over 80 books, wrote that seeking God is to, “to transcend the limitations of human words and mental images to reach an inner ‘still point’ where God and . . . [the praying person] meet in silent self-surrender” (Prayer of the Heart: The Contemplative Tradition of the Christian East, pg. 65.)
That “inner still point” is the place of birth. Birth of a new life in Christ, birth of Christ in us to the world, birth of ourselves to the glory prepared for us.
"Divine grace confers on us two gifts ... The first gift is given to us at once, ... the image of God ... The second - our likeness to God - requires our co-operation. When the intellect begins to perceive the Holy Spirit with full consciousness, we should realize that grace is beginning to paint the divine likeness over the divine image in us. ... St. Diadochos of Photiki (ca. 400) "On Spiritual Knowledge and Discrimination” 89.
Father Bill Burk†