June / July 2015 - Vol. 80
The Magnificent Stranger
who transforms our lives into the likeness of Christ
by Carlos Mantica
If he withdraws his breath, we perish; if he breathes, he renews the whole face of the earth. It was he who in the beginning was moving over the waters, and through whose power everything was made.
It was he who begot Christ in the womb of Mary, who anointed him for the beginning of his mission, who led him to the desert to be tempted by the devil. It was with the power of the Spirit that Christ healed the sick and cast out demons.
It is the same Spirit who finally raised Christ from the dead and raised him up to heaven, where, having been established now as the Lord of all that exists, he is sitting at the right hand of the Father.
To be honest, for many of us Jesus Christ used to be somewhat like Clark Kent, the son of Jor-El: a being from a different world, who walks among men disguised as a man, but who is not at all like us but is Superman. Thatís why he can do really wonderful things that we cannot do. We are not like him and we are not supposed to imitate him, because we will never do the same things he does. Thus Christ ends up being a God disguised as a man, but not a true man. And if this is so, attempting to imitate him is absurd. The mission he charges us with is a mockery, because it goes far beyond our ability. Taking him as model is a utopia, something unreachable. It was then that we began to settle for imitating the saints, and began to ask St. Martin de Porres to do what we were supposed to do.
I now believe that Christ wanted to become like us in everything, and the concrete way to become like us in everything was that he wanted to share our human powerlessness with us. He decided to depend on Godís power for everything. For Christ, the power of the Holy Spirit was a need just as absolute as it is now for us. He could do nothing without it.
From the beginning, he was conceived in the womb of Mary by the work of the Holy Spirit. Godís life was in him, but he had not yet been anointed with power from on high in order to carry out his mission. That is why Christ does not perform miracles, or teach, or leave a track of his passing through the world, until he is anointed with the Holy Spirit and power in the Jordan River. Now, donít be scandalized Ė it is Peter himself who says this, in Acts 10:36-39:
You know the word... which was proclaimed throughout Judea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism which John preached: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all that were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. And we were witnesses to all that he did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem.Immediately after being baptized in the Jordan River, we read in Luke 4 that he came back full of the Spirit and was led by the Spirit into the desert, to be tempted by the devil. In the desert, the Lord conquers the devil. With what power? Christ himself explains it in Matthew 12:28:
But if it by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.It is, then, with the power of Godís Spirit that Jesus casts out demons. His first words as he comes back from the desert, the first known words of his public life, are these words he utters in Nazareth (Luke 4:18):
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor....Christ is anointed by the Spirit for his task of evangelization. That is why, a few verses below, we read that ďthey were astonished at his teaching, for his word was with authorityĒ (Luke 4:32). Later he reveals his secret to the apostles (Matthew 10:19-20):
The last words of Jesus are, ďFather, into thy hands I commit my spirit!Ē He has delivered up his Spirit to the Father, so he can send him to us. Thatís why he had said, ďIt is to your advantage that I go away.Ē Paul than tells us that it is the Spirit of God who raised Jesus (Romans 8:11):
If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit which dwells in you.Christ is no actor. He is not a God disguised as a man, like Jupiter, to mock us, nor does he bring with him a script that he will read as if in a soap opera. Instead, he is a God become true man, who needs to be guided and led by the Spirit in order to know what he has to do, and to be anointed with power from on high in order to do what he has to do.
If this is so, then Christ, in order to do all he did, did not have anything beyond what we have today. That is why he tells Paul, ďMy grace is sufficient for you.Ē We have Godís own omnipotence dwelling within ourselves. The Spirit of God, who on the day of creation was moving over the waters, is the same that has been give us for the construction of a new world. Christ was not mocking us when he said we would be able to do the same things he did and even greater things. Rather, he expects us to do such things, since he has given us, for us to do them, the same that he had received from the Father.
Christ shared our human nature in order that we might share with him his divine nature, for us to be like him, for us to be him, and for us to be gods in him one day.
Therefore, he does with us the same that his Father did with him Ė he makes us depend totally on his Spirit.
It is he who comes to us on the day of Baptism, through whom we are born again of water and of the Spirit; it is he who anoints and empowers us on our Confirmation so that we would witness to our faith and preach the word of Christ with power; it is he who, as ďlight of our hearts,Ē teaches us all things; it is he who convicts us of sin, of justice and of judgment. It is he who will speak for us when we are driven to the courts, our Paraclete or Defender, and the ďsweet guest in our souls, Comforter in anguish, rest and refreshment in wearinessĒ. It is he who manifests himself in each of us with various gifts for the upbuilding of the Body of Christ. It is he who strengthens our inner man through his fruits. Finally, it is he who will one day give life to our mortal bodies, as St. Paul says, and raise us from the dead.
What we learned as young children is simply that the Spirit of God sanctifies us. This is what the Holy Spirit does in us. But I havenít yet heard among you any exclamations of amazement or shrieks of unbelief or deep cries of praise and thanksgiving, which clearly indicates that you have not understood what this means.
St. Thomas Aquinas explains the same thing with different words, and tells us that the Holy Spirit divinizes us Ė that is, he makes us like God.
Itís good to realize that itís not I who am saying this, because in that case I would be a sure candidate for excommunication, but it is the Church Fathers who say it. Letís listen to some of them. I take the following quote from the book of St. Basil the Great, the Bishop, on the Holy Spirit:
Just as clean, smooth bodies become shining when they receive a ray of the sun, and issue of themselves something like a new light, just the same those souls that bear the Holy Spirit become fully spiritual and convey grace to others. It is from this fellowship with the Spirit that comes the foreknowledge of the future, the insight into mysteries, the understanding of hidden things, the distribution of gifts, the life supernatural, the exchange with angels. It is from here that comes this joy that will have no end. It is from here that comes being like unto God; it is from here, finally, that comes the most sublime thing one can desire Ė for man to become like God.
So praise the Lord! This saint does know how the whole thing works!
Saying that the Holy Spirit sanctifies us (i.e.,
makes us holy) and saying that he divinizes us are but
two different ways of saying the same thing. Because
God is holy; but holiness or sanctity is not just an
attribute of God, but Godís character. Thatís what
God is. Thatís what defines him. Thus, becoming
holy amounts to becoming increasingly like God.
Up to this point, we havenít found the gist of this talk. And the gist of this talk lies in the fact that, in this truth that God wants us to be right now as he is, is the solution to everything that now hinders us from living as Christians. That in being like God is the key for us to be able to live as Christians in a natural, free, joyous way, or to spend the rest of our lives kicking the goads and fighting with myself against the grain. That on this depends whether trying to live as a Christian is a tooth and nail fight, where we try to do what we donít like and cease to do all that we like, or living in doing whatever I feel like because thatís how I feel like living.
Let me give a clearer explanation. Suppose I ask one of you right now, ďWhat do you think about this idea of living as a Christian?Ē Some of you will reply, ďThatís real tough, brother.Ē Another one will probably say, ďThatís hard... but you can do it.Ē This ďyou can do itĒ means that you can do it every once in a while Ė sometimes yes, sometimes no. A kind, pious lady is likely to answer, ďThatís really easy.Ē Somebody else will add, ďItís very easy, and in addition itís the most beautiful thing in the world. Iím infinitely happy since I began walking the ways of the Lord.Ē
Why do we get so many different responses? My answer is very simple Ė living as a Christian is impossible... unless youíre like Christ. If youíre like Christ, or if you become more and more like Christ each day, then itís the easiest thing in the world. Itís only difficult to be a Christian when you are not. That is, when you donít have the character of Christ.
Godís plan is for us to be able to live out Christianity in joy and peace, doing what we feel like Ė living like this because you are like this, and you are like this because you are Godís son or daughter and have inherited your fatherís own character as part of your heredity. Because itís very easy to live the way God wants us to live, when we are the way God is.
Christians, I repeat, can follow either of two ways Ė the way of the old covenant, walking in the law and regarding being a Christian as fulfilling a series of precepts or norms of behavior that we strive to abide by through the effort of our own will, even though our fallen nature rebels and drags us towards a way of acting which is often contrary to Godís law; or we can walk in the Spirit, expecting from God, asking God and collaborating with God in order to allow him to give us his own character, so that our actions will then be free, spontaneous, joyful.
We then ask ourselves this question, ďSo what can I do to be like God?Ē Well, thatís easy. I have at least one son who wants to be like me. He may have to do a few things to become more like me each day. But there are other areas in which he doesnít need to do anything. Why? Well, because heís my son. Heís got my life and my genes inside himself. Heís like me even if he doesnít want to.
So here is the key to why it is that God wants us to be like him, and to why it is that we can in fact be like him. And thatís because we are his children. Because, from eternity, Godís plan was for us to be his children. God wanted man to be his son, with all that a son was supposed to be for a Jew Ė among other things, someone who is just like his father, a photocopy of himself, the image of the living God. We read in Genesis 1:26:
The Hebrew word ďAdamĒ means ďmanĒ. Godís plan for
Adam is Godís plan for the whole human race. Genesis
goes on (vv. 26-28):
ď...and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.Ē So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, ďBe fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it...Ē
In many and various ways god spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has obtained is more excellent than theirs. (Hebrews 1:1-4)
It then says that Jesus ďreflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature,Ē that is, that Jesus is the very image of God, and that he is also given dominion over all things, and is established as Lord of the universe, as Adam had been of old.
In other words, what God intends with Christ is to start again the whole history of creation. Jesus, true God and true man, will be his Son, his image and likeness, and the Lord of the universe. With him God wants to start a new human race, which is the Body of Christ.
Since the man Adam spoiled this plan through sin, he lost the Spirit of God, who was the one that could give him his own character and make him like God, as God intended when he created man in his image and likeness.
When the Spirit of God was absent from man, God showed his mercy on man and gave him a law, so that he would at least know how he was supposed to act, even though inside he felt a tremendous inclination to the opposite. The law is then like a mirror that tells us that our face is dirty, and in that sense it is very useful, but it will not cleanse our face. So my flesh continues to push me towards the things I must not do. Thatís what I say, and thatís what St. Paul says in Romans 7:19:
And then Paul cries out (vv. 24-25):
God gives his law to the Jewish people, but he also makes them a promise Ė that some day everything will be as it was in the beginning, before the fall of Adam; and that at that time the law will not be written on stone any more, but he will instead give them a new heart, that is, a new nature; and that his law will be written in their new hearts. And this is the new covenant.
And thatís what Christ comes for. He pays for our sins, he redeems us, he re-establishes our relationship to God, and he finally sends his Holy Spirit to us in order to write his law on our hearts and thus begin a new creation, where the new man can actually be Godís image and likeness and have Godís own character. Godís promise has been fulfilled.
St. Paul states this clearly in Galatians 3:26-27:
For in Christ you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.
This means we are once again in Adamís original situation! In chapter 3 of 2 Corinthians, St. Paul gives a wonderful explanation of what has happened. He says (vv. 6-11):
And now the best of it comes! He says in verses 17-18:
In the Office of Readings we find a commentary by Bishop St. Cyril of Alexandria on the Gospel of John, where he speaks of this transformation. He says:
In fact, on the day of Pentecost, the Lord changed his apostles from cowards into brave men, and he even made Peter a theologian. A homonym of the author we quoted, St. Cyril of Jerusalem, says this:
Here is the key to the whole thing! The Spirit of the Lord gradually transforms us into his own image, so that what is reflected in the mirror is more and more the image of God, the image of the son that increasingly resembles his father. Thus, we are increasingly able to do what we feel like doing, because we feel like doing what our father wants, because we want the same things he wants, and because we think as he thinks and we feel the way he feels, and therefore we behave increasingly like him.
It turns out, in fact, that the new character God wants to give us is not just any old character. What he wants to give us is Christís character, his own way of thinking, of feeling, of wanting, of loving, of acting. And this God achieves through his Spirit. If we understand God the Holy Spirit as Godís way of being, we realize that when God gives us his own Spirit he wants to give us more and more his own way of being. And this is what we call the fruit of the Spirit, that is, what the Spirit produces in us.
Now what is it that the Spirit produces within us? Well, itís Godís image, a portrait of God. Today we would rather say, a photocopy of God. He gives us all of Godís traits. And since God has no physical traits, then what he gives us is Godís character traits.
If canít understand this, we wonít understand anything. St. Paul tells us in Galatians 5:22 that the fruit of the Spirit [i.e., what the Spirit produces] is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.
Brother and sisters, this is nothing more than a portrait of Christ, painted by St. Paul! Thatís what Christ is like. Thatís his character. If we wanted to define what Christ is like, we couldnít put it better. And that way of being is what the Spirit of God is supposed to produce in us, so that we can be a photocopy of Christ.
Let us remark that Paul doesnít say, ďThe fruits of the Spirit are, what the Spirit produces are...Ē this whole lot of good things. Instead, he says, ďThe fruit of the Spirit is.Ē What is the fruit? The living portrait of Christ, a photocopy of Christís character, the image of God, because Christ is the Logos, the idea God has of himself, that which expresses and embodies what God is.
Thatís the reason why Paul begins by saying that the fruit of the Spirit is love, because God is love. And then he explains to us what love is like, because thatís the same as explaining what God is like: love (like God) is patient, kind, without envy. It does not act with baseness or seek its own interest. (Jesus says, ďLearn of me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart.Ē) Love does not allow anger to master it, but forgets offences and pardons them. Thatís how God manifests himself to Moses Ė as a God who is slow to anger. Love never rejoices in something unjust, but is pleased with truth. (And God reveals himself as the truth.) Love excuses everything (like God, who forgives even sin, which is unforgivable). It believes all things, hopes all things, bears all things. Like God, who believes in us, trusts us and bears us with patience (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:4-7). Now all of this is a list of character traits Ė Godís character traits.
Elsewhere Paul says that the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Spirit. He is not merely saying that God loves us. That has already been said. Rather, he says that God has given us his own way of loving, through his Spirit. And since he has given us his own Spirit, we can now comply with the new commandment to love like he loves us, because with his Spirit he has given us the ability to love his way.
The day we have Christís way of being, that is, his character, we will habitually, naturally and spontaneously respond the same way he did. We will have self-control, which includes control over our passions.
Given all that, it is really easy to be a Christian! And this is the only way to be a Christian in a free, joyful and natural way, instead of spending our lives kicking against the goad of emotions, passions and desires. I always say that a Christian is a man who does whatever he desires, because he has inside himself the Spirit of Christ who gives him the right desires. What we need to do is allow him to fulfill all his desires in us. He will turn us inside out until he has formed the Image of the Son of God in us.
The central message of this talk is that God wants to give us his own character through his Spirit. The only problem with this talk is that it will normally seem too good to be true. A human being finds it just too easy to let God transform him, and prefers to go on walking in the law, despite the fact that receiving this new heart from God is the quintessence of the new covenant promised by God and inaugurated by Jesus Christ.
All of this is too beautiful to be true, and man
finds it hard to understand, but this is precisely the
Good News that we are supposed to proclaim to all men,
while at the same time showing to them, with our own
transformation, that this is serious; that being a
Christian is above all having Christís character and
Godís way of loving, and that everything else will be
added unto us in a natural, spontaneous, joyful way.
It was in order to make all of this a reality that the Lord sent the Holy Spirit upon us. In the work of the Spirit in us, the new covenant established from of old is fulfilled.... and most people donít even know it. Thatís why they continue to walk in the law, and not in the free grace of Godís gift Ė in the Kingdom of God, where all that is not grace is sin, as St. Paul says, and it is sin because it falls short of Godís actual plan. So people spend their lives kicking against the goads, and regarding following Christ as an unbearable burden and an uphill walk, where you fall down again and again and never find rest.
Our conversion will be completely a work of God. But there is something we can do to collaborate with him, and we are going to understand this better with an example. In chapter 40 of Isaiah we have found the best illustration concerning how we can collaborate with Godís transforming work. Isaiah says, ďBut they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faintĒ (v. 31).
Brothers and sisters, we have discussed Godís perfect plan for us. We have discussed the sanctifying work of God the Holy Spirit within us, that intends to form in us the image of God. This is the fruit of the Spirit. This is the same fruit which he shaped in the womb of Mary: Jesus, the Image and Logos of the living God, the very splendor of his glory and the very stamp of his essence. Blessed be the fruit of thy womb, Jesus!
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