Ancient Answers


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When God’s Name Changed

A group of men visited a remote monastery. They were given time to visit with a venerable holy monk, who answered all their questions. Finally one of the visitors spoke to the monk: “Father, could you tell us something about yourself?” He leaned back. “Myself?” he mused. There was a long pause. “My name used to be Me. But now it’s You.”

What happened to that monk sounds to me like what happened with God. When Moses asked for God’s name, God answered, ’ehyeh ’ašer ’ehyeh, I AM WHO I AM, or, I AM WHAT I AM, or, I AM, for short. Sounds like the monk saying, “My name used to be Me,” doesn’t it? But when Jesus was incarnate and became as one of us, God could say, “My Name is You”! When God looks at Jesus, God sees us. Underneath all the hoopla that goes with Christmas is this single profound truth. God is no longer I AM WHO I AM. God can now say I AM WHO YOU ARE. And because this is in fact the Christmas miracle, we can become as Jesus is, as God is! This sharing of existence is what the Orthodox Church proclaims through the doctrine of theosis, or deification. We can become what God is because God became as one of us.

Unfortunately in most Orthodox circles this idea of theosis has become an end in itself, a slogan, a kind of jingoistic affirmation that makes some people better than others – specifically some Orthodox better than everyone else, even better than most Orthodox, more holy, more deserving of heaven. All I can say to that is be careful. Jesus only spoke harsh words to those who thought they had salvation and truth all wrapped up. He never spoke with anger or judgment to the poor, ordinary folks who did not put on any airs. He only expressed anger at the religious self-righteous and to those who aligned themselves with political and economic powers. Here is something you won’t hear Orthodox proponents of theosis emphasise: Theosis is not something to be puffed up about. Theosis is a responsibility, a calling to transcend our self-righteousness and our religious pride and separatism.

Another visitor asked another hermit, “What do you actually do?” The hermit replied, “I live here.” An answer just as profound as the answer of the other monk about his name. What indeed do you do? I live here. What simpler, and yet more profound and life-altering answer than that? How many of us really live? And how fewer of us live here? Here, not in some never-never land, some mythological heaven that is tailored to our own needs and preferences? Here, on this earth, in this place where I am located right now. Do I live here? Or do I spend much of my time dreaming of someplace else, the proverbial place where the grass is greener? Where I don’t have to see people that I don’t like or don’t agree with?

“I live here.” This is the heart of what I call the eucharistic truth of a life truly lived; and a life that does lead to theosis. What do we do at every Liturgy? We offer the Eucharist. The Liturgy is the Eucharist. The Eucharist is the only reason why we have Liturgy. A sermon can be preached any time and any place; you don’t need a Liturgy to preach or her a sermon. In many churches the entire purpose of gathering is to hear a sermon. Fine, nothing wrong with that; just don’t call it a Liturgy or a Eucharist, because it’s not. What do we do at Eucharist? We live…here and now. We live the mystery of God becoming as one of us… and God changing God’s name, in a manner of speaking.

Your own of your own we offer to you – the words spoken at the most sacred moment of the Orthodox Eucharist. We offer to God what God has given us, and we offer it in thanksgiving, eucharistia. This has profound implications for how we live. We offer bread and wine as representing the goodness of life. We live here, so we take care of the here and now where we live, so we can offer it back to God. Can you offer to God a polluted life, a polluted gift, a polluted earth? This was the tragedy of the events that followed the birth of Christ. They were not events of thanksgiving. They were events of retaliation against God’s profound goodness. Yes, Herod, thought it was a case of political challenge. But in reality what he showed was his profoundly unhinged inhumanity – the opposite of God’s humanity. And Jesus ended up being a refugee to escape Herod’s evil. That’s how far Jesus identified with humanity that he even accepted to become a refugee like millions of humans have done throughout the ages; and millions do today.

Coptic icon of Mary, Joseph and Jesus fleeing to Egypt to escape Herod’s wrath.
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You see, when you put together the whole mystery of God’s incarnation…. when you see life as eucharist, you find what it is to live the Christian life and what the Christian life is all about. But does a theology of eucharist make us more accountable stewards of the gifts given to us, including the gift of life here? Or is it just words? Let’s live eucharistically. And let’s not stop there. Let’s not just talk about theosis. Let us resolve to live theosis, just as God chose to live humanness.