This sermon may be heard as a recording via Ancient Faith Radio here.
Twelfth Sunday of Luke / Feast of Ss. Athanasius and Cyril, January 18, 2015
Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
Today is the feast of two great saints of the Orthodox Church—Athanasius and Cyril, patriarchs of Alexandria in Egypt. Perhaps interesting to note is that both also held the title of pope, which is a traditional title of the patriarch of Alexandria in the Orthodox Church and incidentally predates its use by the bishop of Rome. Even today, the Orthodox bishop of Alexandria is called “Pope of Alexandria,” though of course he is not given the universal authority in Orthodoxy that the Roman Pope is given for Catholics.
Yet both Athanasius and Cyril are prominent not only because they were the bishop of one of the most prominent churches in the early centuries of Christianity, but also because of their profound and extensive theological contributions to Christianity. One could dedicate one’s whole life to learning the teachings of either one of these great saints, and it would be time well spent, especially if it were spent in learning them by imitating them.
We do not have time this morning to make such an offering, but I would like to sketch briefly something about the life and teachings of the one who is perhaps the more familiar to Orthodox Christians—Athanasius.
He is called “Athanasius the Great.” Amongst Egyptian Christians, he is called “Athanasius the Apostolic.” And because he stood up for the truth against so many, he is sometimes called Athanasius contra mundum, a Latin phrase meaning “Athanasius against the world.”
He was the hero of the First Ecumenical Council in 325, having been the one whose theological expressions won the day, sifting out falsehood from the truth and resulting in the first version of the Creed we recite in every Divine Liturgy. Yet for all that, he was actually only a deacon at that first great council, not even allowed a vote in the proceedings. He was there only as an assistant to his bishop, St. Alexander of Alexandria. He eventually succeeded St. Alexander on his throne, and as the Pope of Alexandria, in 367 he wrote one of the letters that came to be famous in Church history as the first known listing of the canonical New Testament books.
But Athanasius showed remarkable wisdom even when he was young. His most well-known work, On the Incarnation, may have been written when he was as young as 23. And it is on this work that I would like us to rest for a few moments today, particularly on its most famous sentence.
In the fifty-fourth chapter of On the Incarnation, St. Athanasius wrote a sentence that has echoed down through the centuries even into our own time as a brilliant summary of the Gospel. He wrote this: “God became man so that man might become god” (54:3).
This doctrine is called theosis. And although there are many kinds of language taken from Scripture in which the Orthodox Church has expressed salvation—such as being ransomed from captivity, having a great debt paid off, being pardoned for a crime, being spared from punishment, being healed of a wound, and so on—it is theosis which is probably the most dominant and explicit of all our language regarding what it means for us to be saved.
So what is theosis?
Theosis is a word from Greek which can be translated as either “deification” or sometimes “divinization.” There really isn’t a single word in English that communicates the whole meaning. It comes from the Greek word theos, which means “god,” either in the sense of the one God Whom we worship or in the sense of the little “gods” of polytheistic paganism. This is important to understand if we’re going to learn what Athanasius meant when he said that the reason why God became man was so that man might become god.
First, we should note that it is ambiguous whether Athanasius meant the “big-G God” or the “little-G god” when he wrote “so that man might become god.” In other words, he might mean that we can become “gods” or that we become the Almighty God. So let’s talk about how both are actually true.
If we can become gods, or become divine, deified, etc., then we are of course not changing into the Holy Trinity. There is only one God. The doctrine of theosis is no threat to monotheism. Even though we “become gods,” we do not supplant God from His eternal throne, nor do we get our own universes to create and rule. No, we are only “gods” in a somewhat lesser sense. This sense aligns with a quotation that Jesus Himself made in John 10:34, when He quoted from Psalm 82:6: “I have said: ye are gods; ye are all sons of the Most High.” So we become adopted into God’s family, as His sons and daughters. And that makes us brothers and sisters of the Son of God Jesus Christ. And it means that we become like God. When you’re in someone’s family, you’re like that person in a deeply intimate way. It’s how you know you’re family.
But what if we read Athanasius to be saying that we can “become God” in the “big-G” sense? That’s a bit scarier. That almost sounds like a threat to monotheism. That almost sounds like he’s saying that we can become the Holy Trinity. To get inside this difficult teaching, we have to understand what it means to “become.”
In this case, to “become God” doesn’t mean to turn from one thing into another. Why? It is because God is infinite, and we are finite. We cannot become infinite, because it is not in our nature. But we can be in the process of becoming more like God. And because God is infinite, the road to doing that is also infinite—it is an eternal process. And because it’s an eternal process, that means that the life of the age to come is not going to be some static, boring existence of sitting around on clouds and playing harps. It will be dynamic and always richer and richer.
We remain human beings. We remain ourselves. But we also have a union with God without fusion. He is present in us, but we remain ourselves, and He remains Himself. But His presence in us changes us. We become not just better versions of ourselves, but like Him.
In theosis, we take on God’s attributes in a lesser way, though we do not become identical to Him. If you think about why the saints are the way they are, you can see that it’s because they are becoming like God—that is why they can work miracles and why they are so holy.
We become more like God by becoming “partakers of the divine nature,” as St. Peter puts it in 2 Peter 1:4. That means that our ability to take on God’s attributes depends on our actual interaction with Him. We have to commune with Him in order to become like Him, and this became possible because He became a man—through His humanity, we gained access to His divinity. We have to spend time with Him in prayer and worship, partake of the sacraments and love Him by keeping His commandments, in order to become like Him. His presence in us is a free gift, but if we do not cooperate with it, then we will not be changed to be like Him. All of this is what it actually means to be “saved” when considering salvation through the model of theosis.
It is not be too hard to imagine someone saying, “I want to be saved, but I don’t want to become like God.” But that’s what being saved actually is. So if we’re not in the process of becoming like God, then we are not being saved. Anything else is just empty religiosity. We have to be becoming like God, and we do that by participating in His presence, becoming partakers of the divine nature. We’re here as Orthodox Christians because we’re trying to become gods, because we’re trying to get ever further along that infinite path of intimacy and likeness with our Creator.
So, according to St. Athanasius, that’s why God became man. And the Church has accepted his statement of what salvation means as normative for all Orthodox Christians, because it’s just an explication of what Athanasius saw in Scripture and what he himself experienced as a saint. And while his statement is not a slogan, it does work very well as a neat summary of what the message of the Gospel is: God became man so that man might become god.
To the God Who is man, with His Father and the Holy Spirit, be all glory, honor, and worship, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.