Theosis - the goal of all Christians
Throughout the year and especially in this season of Lent, we are asked to pray, fast and repent. Why are we asked to do this?
In the Divine Liturgy the priest prays: "...so that those who partake of them may be given... communion of the Holy Spirit, fullness of the kingdom of heaven..."
The words "communion of the Holy Spirit, fullness of the kingdom of heaven" echo the message that is in John 1:12 "the right to become the children of God". The process is called "theosis" or "deification". Theosis is the mysterious joining by Divine Grace (God's uncreated energy) of a created being to the Creator.
In the words of Saint Irenaeus: "For this is why the Word became man, and the Son of God became the Son of man, so that man, by entering into communion with the Word and thus receiving divine sonship, might become a son of God."
Saint Athanasius states it more directly: "For the Son of God became man so that we might become God".
What a statement! What a promise! God became Man, so that we can become God! The Church Fathers base their teachings on theosis from scripture. The quote from John's Gospel above is an example. Another example is 2 Peter 1:4 "by which having been given to us exceedingly great and precious promises, that through these you may be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust" (NKJ translation). Other examples are in Romans 8:29, 1 Cor 13:12, 2 Cor 3:18 and 1 John 3:2.
In making our decision to follow Christ we participate as creatures in God's very nature through the uncreated divine energy we call Grace. In participating in God's nature we do not take on the essence of God. The Church Fathers likened the process to steel thrust into a furnace. The steel becomes hot. It glows and takes on the characteristic nature of the fiery furnace. The steel does not become the essential furnace it remains steel. The soul undergoing theosis is filled with God, permeated with divine light, life, glory and love. No change or confusion takes place between the uncreated substance of God and the created substance of humanity. The deified soul conforms to the divine will, while being neither obliterated nor rendered passive. We only participate in divinity.
The process of theosis does not make any created being worthy to receive divine worship. Only the Triune God is worthy of divine worship. No other person, whether that person be a Saint, an Angel or even Our Lady - the Theotokos - is eligible to receive divine worship.
This Sunday, the first Sunday of Lent, is proclaimed as the "Sunday of Orthodoxy" in the Church. This was first instituted in 842 to mark the defeat of iconoclasm and proclaimed the legitimacy of the veneration of icons.
As stated at the second council of Nicea, the use of icons:
"...Confirms that the incarnation of the Word of God was real and not imaginary, and to our benefit as well, for realities that illustrate each other undoubtedly reflect each other's meaning... we rightly define with full certainty and correctness that, like the figure of the precious and life-giving cross, venerable and holy images of our Lord and God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, our inviolate holy Mother of God, and the venerated angels, all the saints and the just, whether painted or made of mosaic or another suitable material, are to be exhibited..."
Icons signify Christ, who is glorified in them. In the icons we manifest the "cloud of witnesses" (Hebrews 12:1) who participate in our salvation. Through icons it is man "in the image of God", finally deified "into his likeness", who is revealed to our faith.
We know that we are following the path to theosis when we are bearing the fruits of the Spirit. Following scripture, the Church teaches us that to be on the path and stay on the path we must pray, fast and repent.
In this season of Lent, let us recommit ourselves to our journey with Christ, to our personal theosis, through prayer, fasting and repentance.