Dr. Nos’hi Abdel-Shaheed
The Aim and Means of Orthodox Spirituality (contd.)
(1) Aim of Christian Life (contd.)
Union with God in the Church Fathers:
Since the first century A.D., after the Apostles’ time, we began hearing discourses and expressions from the fathers and teachers of the Church about fellowship and union with God, such as St. Clement and St. Irenaeus. One of the many fathers that spoke in a natural way in his writings about union with God is St. Athanasius the Apostolic so that his writings were distinguished by the abundance of those expressions.
Some sayings of the Fathers about union with God:
Before the end of the first century, St. Ignatius of Antioch said: “I pray (for the Churches) for a union with the flesh and spirit of Jesus Christ, the constant source of our life, and of faith and love, to which nothing is to be preferred, but especially (a union) with Jesus and The Father” (The epistle to the Magnesians, first chapter, Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1).
In the second century, St. Irenaeus, (a disciple of St. Polycarp, who is a disciple of the Apostle John, i.e. in the third generation from the Apostle John), who was Bishop of Lyons (now in France), said “Since the Lord thus has redeemed us through His own blood, giving His soul for our souls, and His flesh for our flesh, and has also poured out the Spirit of The Father for the union and communion of God and man, imparting indeed God to men by means of the Spirit, and, on the other hand, attaching man to God by His own incarnation, and bestowing upon us at His coming immortality durably and truly, by means of communion with God.”
St. Clement of Alexandria (around 180 A.D.) says, “For He (the Word) is the eternal life and everyone who partakes of Him lives. This is the meaning of the new creation. … With this light which transformed our dusk (sunset) to dawn (sunrise), and with the cross transformed death into life; He rescued man from perdition and lifted him up to heaven … Granting us the divine inheritance of God the Father, deifying man with the heavenly teaching, putting His law in our minds, written in our hearts.(114,88, Protrepticus 11).
St. Athanasius, in chapter 54 of the book “Incarnation of the Word”, says: “For He (the Word) was made man that we might be made God.”
He also says: “For therefore the union was of this kind, that He might unite what is man by nature to Him who is in the nature of Godhead, and his (man’s) salvation and deification might be sure.”
He also says in his letter to Adelphius, paragraph 4: “For He has become man, that He might deify us in Himself, and He has been born of a woman, and begotten of a Virgin, in order to transfer to Himself our erring generation, and that we may become henceforth a holy race, and ‘partakers of the Divine Nature,’ as blessed Peter wrote.”
Thus, St. Athanasius emphasizes in his writings the strong relation between the incarnation of the Word and the union of man with God and his partaking of God’s life, considering that this is the main reason for His coming and that the deification and union of man with God’s life is the natural and logical result of the union of the Word with human nature in the incarnation.
(2) The Way of Orthodox Spirituality
Generally speaking, the union between God and man, which is the aim of Christian life, cannot be achieved just by human longing and seeking. It cannot be achieved without a Mediator, who is the Son of God, the Word who became flesh, i.e. Jesus Christ the Lord (1st Timothy 2:5); or as the Lord Jesus Himself said: “I am the way ... No one comes to the Father except through Me.” (John 14:6), and also “I in them and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one”, i.e. through Christ we are united with The Father that we all may become one by our union with Christ. And because the Father is in Christ, then the Mediator of our union with the nature of God and the life of God is the Son, the Word who became flesh.
For man to have union with God’s life itself, God has revealed Himself to man in the person of Jesus Christ His Son, “for in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily” (Col. 2:9). He Himself is the “eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us” (1 John 1:2). Through the coming of “eternal life” to us in the flesh, in the person of the Lord Jesus, He has opened the way for man to partake in the life of God (eternal life). This is by faith in Christ and communion with Him so that His eternal life flows in us by our union with Jesus the Son of God.
St. Athanasius says: “In the Son we become sons of God”. He is probably here referring to St. Paul in Galatians 3:26, “for you are sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus”. This is because he, who believes in Jesus Christ, accepts Him, and becomes baptized in His name; he puts on Christ; “for as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” (Gal. 3:27) Putting on Christ means union of man with Christ, and with this union we become sons of the Father by grace, i.e. becoming sons of God by adoption and not by nature.
This union and incorporation in Christ is the only way to reach our goal which is beyond nature and that is the union with God and the partaking of His divine glory.
This incorporation in Christ comes by the action of the Holy Spirit and is completed to its fullest also by the action of the Holy Spirit; i.e. it is started and is completed by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit attracts us to Christ to know Him and believe in Him and be washed with His blood from our sins. And Christ brings us to the Father so that we know Him; or as St. Irenaeus says “Through the Holy Spirit we are raised to Christ the Son, and through the Son we are raised to the Father.”
(To be continued)
St. Athanasius the Apostolic
The 20th Pope of the Church of Alexandria
(328 – 373 AD)
1- To read more about St. Athanasius: Orthodox
2- To read some of his writings: Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd Series, Vol. IV
 - Adv. Haeres. V.1, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1.
 - Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. IV, Incarnation of the Word, 54.3.
 - Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. IV, Against the Arians, II.70.
 - Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. IV, Letters of Athanasius, LX.4.
 - II Contra Arians, XLIII.
 - Adv. Haeres. V. 36.2.