The Incarnation, The Priesthood and Communion with God

John Gavin FAITH Magazine January-February 2008

We Shall Become Like Him

One of the “hot topics” in Patristic studies these days i s theosiso r deificatio. Dionysius the Areopogite defines theosis as “the attaining of likeness to God and union with him in so far as it is possible”[1]. Long considered to be primarily an Eastern doctrine, overlooked by the West in its emphasis upon redemption in Christ, deificatiohas become the focus of many contemporary readings of such Western Fathers as Augustine of Hippo, Hilary of Poitiers, and Ambrose of Milan. Thus we find these remarkable words in Augustine’s homily on Psalm 49, regarding the elevation of the human to the divine in Jesus Christ:

It is clear that he called men gods, who have been deified by His (Christ’s) grace and not born of His substance. For He justifies, who is just of himself and not from another, and He deifies, who is God through himself and not by participation in another. But He who justifies, He himself deifies, because by justifying He makes sons of God. ‘For to them gave he power to become sons of God’ (John 1:12). If we have been made sons of God, we have been made gods; but this is from the grace of adoption and not from the nature
of the one begetting.[2]
Despite such passages in the works of Augustine and other Fathers of the Church, the doctrine of deification has always inspired a certain degree of wariness within the Christian tradition. On the one hand, an overemphasis upon the identification of the divine nature with the creature could lead to a form of pantheism and an elimination of the absolute transcendence of the Creator. On the other hand, the teaching also threatens to transgress the integrity of human nature, leading to a complete absorption of the person in the infinite sea of divine spirit. Indeed, we can witness the results of these tendencies in certain Neoplatonic doctrines of emanation and return, as well as in such contemporary theological movements as “process theology”. An authentic doctrine of deification musttherefore maintain the absolute transcendence of the creator, while also assuring the integrity of the human person.

Union and Communion, the Purpose of The Incarnation

For Christianity, however, the dangers inherent to deificatioare obviated by the doctrine of the Incarnation. If we consider the centuries of debate surrounding the Christological controversies, we can see that the issues revolved precisely around the problem of the union of divine and human natures in the person of Jesus Christ. Docetism, which reduced Jesus’ humanity to mere appearance; Nestorianism, which threatened to split the unity of Jesus’ person; monophysitism, monoenergism and monothelitism, which eliminated the sphere of Christ’s human action at the expense of the divine: all of these heresies represent extreme positions in the attempt to explain the mystery of the God-Man. Only the balanced expression of the Chalcedonian formula – one person in two natures, “withoutconfusion, without change, without division, without separation” – and subsequent centuries of reflection and debate could begin to unfold the overwhelming truths inherent to this mystery “hidden for the ages”. In the Incarnation we witness both the achievement and the source of deificatio, the paradox of the infinite and the finite united, without mixture or confusion, in the person of Jesus Christ.

The doctrine of theosis also puts into startling relief the “goal” or “end” of the Incarnation: The elevation of the creature to divine union, that “all might be one in God” and glorify Him. In the words of Fr. David Meconi, S.J.: “From the beginning of time, Christ’s perfect union of divinity and humanity has been the goal toward which all created humans hasten, and such union demanded a unique creature capable of receiving God in a special and friendly way, God’s own icons who have no more important vocation than to enter into loving union with him.”[3] In this presentation I would like to reflect upon the doctrine of theosiso r deificatioand the vocation to the priesthood. Our guide will be the great bishop andtheologian, St. Gregory of Nazianzus (329-390), who describes the priest as the “diviniser”, who must also be “divinised.”

Gregory Nazianzus on The Priest as Diviniser

In the year 361, St. Gregory of Nazianzus, happily ensconced in monastic seclusion in Pontus on the Black Sea, received a summons from his Father, the elderly Bishop of Nazianzus, in south-western Cappadocia. The obedient son returned to discover the real motivations behind his recall to the family’s diocese: The congregation called out for Gregory’s ordination to the priesthood in order to make him the potential successor to the ailing bishop. He was reluctantly ordained on Christmas day, 361 A.D.

He didn’t stay long. Shortly after, Gregory fled the diocese and returned to the isolated mountain tranquility of his friend Basil. In Gregory’s own words:
Like an ox stricken by the gadfly, I made for Pontus, anxious to have the most godly of my friends as medicine for my agitation. For there, hidden in that cloud, like one of the sages of old, practising union with God, was Basil, who is now with the angels. With him I soothed my agony of spirit.[4]
This time of prayerful retreat, however, opened Gregory’s eyes to the importance of his new duties, and he returned to the diocese sometime before Easter 362. Needless to say, the people were rather angry about being abandoned by the famous orator and ascetic. In order to reconcile himself with the diocese, Gregory composed a defense for his actions, now known as the Second Orationo r Defence for the Flight.

In this work, Gregory declares that he wished to explain not only the reasons for his flight, but also for his return. He had fled before the overwhelming responsibilities and the awesome dignity of the priesthood; he returned out of a sense of duty, humility, and obedience. While the basic structure of the argument appears simple, the Oration in fact offers a rich meditation upon the nature and duties of the priesthood, as well as an inspiring call to fidelity in vocation. Furthermore, I believe that Gregory’s presentation unfolds within the theme of the priest as “diviniser and divinised”, the mediator of theosiswho is himself transformed in Christ.

The Priest as “Soul in the Body of Christ”

The first part of Gregory’s defense involves a demonstration of the overwhelming responsibilities and the awesome dignity of the priesthood. He develops a comparison between the governing and divinising role of the soul in the body, and the governing and divinising role of the priest in the body of Christ. Early in the discourse he establishes this theme:
Now, just as in the body there is one member (i.e., the soul) which rules and, so to say, presides, while another is ruled over and subject; so too in the churches, God has ordained, according either to a law of equality, which admits of an order of merit, or to one of providence, by which he has knit all together, that those for whom such treatment is beneficial, we should be subject to pastoral care and rule, and be guided by word and deed in the
path of duty...[5]
This comparison becomes even more striking when Gregory takes up a common patristic theme, the sanctifying or divinising role of the soul in relation to the body. Christians sought to eschew any form of Platonic dualism that would portray the human soul/body composite as a prison for the authentic spiritual essence of man. Yet, they also recognised the higher nature of the soul and the importance of its purity and dominance over the often rebellious corporeal senses. The soul, through exercise and cooperation with the power of grace, grows in sanctity and holiness and, in turn, imparts this holiness upon the body through its governance. Thus, God divinises the soul growing in virtue, and the soul divinises the body – as far as possible in this life, but perfectly when the soul is reunitedwith the resurrected body for eternity. In the words of Gregory:
...(the soul) is divine, and partakes of the heavenly nobility, and presses on to it, even if it be bound to an inferior nature. Perhaps indeed there are other reasons also for this, which only God, who bound them together, and those who are instructed by God in such mysteries, can know, but as far as I and men like myself can perceive, there are two: one, that it may inherit the glory above by means of a struggle and wrestling with things below, being tried as gold in the fire by things here, and gain the objects of our hope as a prize of virtue, and not merely as the gift of God. This, indeed, was the will of Supreme Goodness, to make the good even our own, not only because sown in our nature, but because cultivated by our own choice, and by the motions of our will, free toact in either direction. The second reason is, that it may draw to itself and raise to heaven the lower nature (the body), by gradually freeing it from its grossness, in order that the soul may be to the body what God is to the soul, itself leading on the matter which ministers to it, and uniting it, as its fellow servant, to God.[6]
The priest, as the “soul” in the body of Christ, has a similar task in sanctifying and divinising the people of the flock. The priest is a healer, a physician who applies his craft to the souls wounded by sin, and in turn elevates those souls to the divine. In Gregory’s words:
But the scope of our art is to provide the soul (i.e., of the people) with wings, to rescue it from the world and give it to God, and to watch over that which is in his image, if it abides, to take it by the hand if it is in danger, or restore it, if ruined, to make Christ to dwell in the heart by the Spirit: and, in short, to deify, and bestow heavenly bliss upon one who belongs to the heavenly host.[7]
This, according to Gregory, is the most overwhelming and humbling aspect of the “priestly art”: that a mere man, wrapped in his own spiritual struggle and working out his own salvation “in fear and trembling”, is called to lead and sanctify the people for union with God. Unlike Jesus, the priest is a “diviniser” who himself must be “deified”. The priest receives the vocation to act as the soul in the body of Christ, and “deifies” his flock that it might be one with God; but he himself constantly requires the mediation of the incarnate Word, who is the fulfilment and source of all deification.

The Divinising Activity of the Priesthood

How does the priest carry out this task of healing and transforming his flock in Christ? Gregory goes on to describe four main responsibilities of the priest, which, I believe, can be considered under two headings. The first three involve growth in virtue, or, the expression of “the image of God” in the people. The fourth, however, is of a different order entirely, since it involves the granting of divinisation, or “the likeness” of God to the people.

First, the priest preachesthe Word of God. This involves both spiritual and intellectual preparation, always with the intention to impart the truth to the people.
To me indeed it seems no slight task, and one requiring no little spiritual power, to give in due season to each his portion of the word, and to regulate with judgment the truth of our opinions, which are concerned with subjects as the world or worlds, matter, soul, mind, intelligent natures, better or worse, providence, which holds together and guides the universe...[8]
Closely tied with this task, the priest is also the teacher of right doctrine. Gregory emphasises the need for fidelity to the Church and an adherence to her tradition. A priest as teacher does not indulge in conveying his own personal opinions to the congregation, but rather he passes on the truths of the tradition safeguarded in the Church. Gregory has no tolerance for the so-called “open-minded” priest who considers the Church’s tradition to be just one product in the “market place of ideas”:
What again of those who come with no private idea, or form of words, better or worse, in regard to God, but listen to all kinds of doctrines and teachers, with the intention of selecting from all what is best and safest, in reliance upon no better judges of the truth than themselves? They are, in consequence, borne and turned about hither and thither by one plausible idea after another, and, after being deluged and trodden down by all kinds of doctrine, and having rung the changes on a long succession of teachers and formulae, which they throw to the winds as readily as dust, their ears and minds at last are wearied out, and, O what folly! They become equally disgusted with all forms of doctrine, and assume the wretched character of deriding and despising our faith as unstableand unsound...[9]
Finally, the priest must become a living example of the Christian lifefor his flock. He seeks holiness not only to acquire his own salvation, but also to illustrate the Gospel in his comportment and actions. Gregory acknowledges, however, the extreme difficulties of this task:
I am alarmed by the reproaches of the Pharisees, the conviction of the Scribes. For it is disgraceful for us, who ought greatly to surpass them, as we are bidden, if we desire the kingdom of heaven, to be found more deeply sunk in vice. ...A man must himself be cleansed, before cleansing others; himself become wise, that he may make others wise; become light, and then give light; draw near to God, and so bring others near; be hallowed, then hallow them; be possessed of hands to lead others by the hand, of wisdom to give advice.[10]
At this point, one may remark that these three tasks are not necessarily distinct to the priestly vocation and belong to some degree to every Christian calling. Yet, the priest, as the “soul in the body of Christ” and public witness to the Gospel, receives a greater responsibility to embody the truths and values of the Faith. He must engage in ascetic struggle, prepare himself intellectually to the best of his ability, and, above all, open himself to the transforming grace of the sacraments in order to become preacher, teacher, and living example of the follower of Christ.

The fourth activity, as noted above, belongs to an entirely different order: The priest has been ordained to celebrate the sacraments – above all the Eucharist – from which the divinising grace of Christ flows. No man, in fact, is worthy to become the celebrant of these rites; no man, through his own powers, can raise the creature to the likeness of God. Yet, the priest, while celebrating the liturgy, becomes divinised by the grace of the sacrament and, in turn, offers the grace which divinises the people. Gregory portrays the priest at the altar in awe-inspiring terms:
Who (speaking of the priest) can mould, as clay-figures are modelled in a single day, the defender of the truth, who is to take his stand with Angels, and give glory with Archangels, and cause the sacrifice to ascend to the altar on high, and share the priesthood of Christ, and renew the creature, and set forth the image, and create inhabitants for the world above, aye and, greatest of all, be God, and make others to be
God (theopoiesonta)?[11]
The priest as celebrant of the liturgy does not act of himself, as he does to a certain extent in the first three tasks. Rather, he assumes his place at the altar “in persona Christi” – in Gregory’s expression, “to be God” – and, through consecrating the bread and wine, and distributing the body of Christ, he “makes others to be God.” Here he fulfils perfectly his role as priest – “the soul in the body of Christ” – in receiving and offering divinising grace to the community.

The “active submission” of the Priest

After considering these tasks of the priest, Gregory concludes his defense for the flight to Pontus. Who would not be terrified before duties of the priesthood and the call to become “diviniser and divinised” in the name of Christ? Gregory trembled and ran to the solace of his spiritual retreat, convinced of his wretchedness and weakness in contrast with the lofty virtues required by the call. In Gregory’s words:
Since then I knew these things, and that no one is worthy of the mightiness of God, and the sacrifice, and priesthood, who has not first presented himself to God, a living, holy sacrifice, and set forth the reasonable, well-pleasing service, and sacrificed to God the sacrifice of praise and the contrite spirit which is the only sacrifice required of us by the Giver of all; how could I dare to offer to Him the external sacrifice, the antitype of the great mysteries, or clothe myself with the garb and name of priest, before my hands had been consecrated
by holy works...[12]

Yet, while he may have explained the reasons behind his flight, Gregory must still explain why he chose to return. He notes that certain prophets also trembled and hesitated before their call from God: Moses resisted at first, and Jeremiah sought to excuse himself because of his youth. In the end, however, these prophets obeyed and submitted to the mission set upon them. They found their strength in humility and abandonment to God, recognising that God’s strength would make up for their own weaknesses. Only a complete concession through obedience to divine grace and to God’s call empowered these men to become instruments of God’s glory.

Gregory chose to imitate these examples, and above all, the example of his Saviour, through a humble acceptance of suffering and the knowledge of God’s support:

Therefore I was not rebellious, neither turned away back, saith my Lord, when, instead of being called to rule, He was led, as sheep to the slaughter; but I fell down and humbled myself under the mighty hand of God, and asked pardon for my former idleness and disobedience, if this is at all laid to my charge. I held my peace, but I will not hold my peace for ever: I withdrew for a little while, till I had considered myself and consoled my grief: but now I am commissioned to exalt Him in the congregation of the people, and praise Him in the seat of the elders.[13]
Gregory found the courage to return through an imitation of Christ’s active suffering as the “lamb led to the slaughter.” The priest finds the strength to fulfil his mission not through his own force, but rather through a constantly renewed submission to God’s grace: He must, in his vocation, abandon his self-determination to the Lord, above all at the sacrifice of the altar. On the one hand, this submission involves daily struggle in order to die to self; on the other hand, the more the priest offers himself to Christ, the more he opens himself to the divinising power of Christ’s grace. In this spiritual stance, he is deified; in this concession to love, he divinises others.


Perhaps we priests have often felt a little bit like Gregory when confronted with the exigencies of our vocation. Our work as teachers and preachers – not to mention as administrators, accountants, plumbers, electrical repairmen and many other unexpected jobs – robs us of the longed-for spiritual retreat with the Lord; or, worse, turns our vocations into a perpetual series of mundane tasks that seem to have little to do with our original calling. Furthermore, at times we find ourselves trembling before our spiritual weaknesses, saddened by our failure to convey sufficiently the Gospel message in word and example. We want to flee, and we imagine what life could have been – or could be – if we were in a mountain retreat or in another state of life.

The doctrine of divinisation, however, puts our vocation into a new perspective. First, we come to realise that our vocation, our mission in the body of Christ, is also our way of expressing God’s image and acquiring God’s likeness. The grace which we received in the bishop’s laying on of hands and the constant renewal of grace in the sacraments of the Eucharist and Confession deify us: through that grace we grow in virtue, through that grace we shine as “other Christs” in this world and for all eternity. Seen in human terms, the priesthood inspires a flight to a form of transient human peace and false hope; seen through the perspective of divinisation, the priesthood calls us to flee to the solace of Jesus himself, who raises us beyond our human natures to a union with the divinenature.

Second, deification allows us to see the suffering entailed in the priesthood as, in fact, the manner in which we acquire that “active submission” before the power of divine grace. Jesus modelled the human will in his own suffering, accepting the cup as God-man in obedience to the Father’s will. The daily trials that we willingly accept in union with Christ become our way of accepting “the cup”, that is, our daily offering and self-surrender before God.

This submission to grace also takes place in our dedication to the spiritual life. Like Gregory, we cease to see our vocation in human terms – for who could possibly live up to this calling! – and we turn ourselves entirely over to Jesus’ support. In our daily prayer and struggle for holiness we grow in friendship with him, and the more we “concede” to his will in love, the more strength and solace we shall receive. This occurs above all in our daily celebration of the Mass, when we live out our priestly vocation in the perfect manner of “diviniser and divinised” in Christ. The joy and peace we find in the moment of consecration comes from the intimate meeting with the One who called us, the Lord who continues to sustain us and to make us “gods”.

Finally, the doctrine of divinisation reminds us that, despite our personal inadequacies, it is not we, but Jesus who divinises his flock. We all bring our personal gifts to our vocation: some of us are preachers, others scholars; some of us have great organisational skills, others work better in a classroom setting; some of us are hospital chaplains, others youth group leaders. Yet, what unites us all is that we are servants of Christ’s grace through the celebration of the sacraments. In the sacraments, Jesus acts and transforms fallen man into his likeness. Like John the Baptist, in the sacraments we point away from ourselves and toward Jesus: “Behold, the Lamb of God.” When we remember who the real actor is, we feel humbled; but we also experience, like Gregory, a sense of relief: itis Jesus, not we, who leads his flock, heals the wounds of sin, and raises up the people to divine union. Our gift is to share in this divinising activity and to witness the wonder of wonders – man transformed by the love of Jesus and united to God.

In our daily prayer for ourselves and for our people, let us repeat the words of Gregory and grow in hunger for this perfect union with God:

May Jesus give strength and power unto his people and Himself present to Himself His flock resplendent and spotless and worthy of the fold on high, in the habitation of them that rejoice in the splendour of the saints, so that in His temple everyone, both flock and shepherds together may say, Glory, in Christ Jesus our Lord, to Whom be all glory for ever and ever.


[1] DIONYSIUS THE AREOPOGITE, De ecclesiastica hierarchia I, 3, PG 3, 376A.
][2]AUGUSTINE OF HIPPO, Enarrationes in Psalmos, 49, 1, CCL 38, p. 575-576, 8- 15. Manifestum est ergo, quia homines dixit deos, ex gratia sua deificatos, non de substantia sua natos. Ille enim iustificat, qui per semetipsum non ex alio iustus est; et ille deificat, qui per seipsum non alterius participatione Deus est. Qui autem iustificat, ipse deificat, quia iustificando, filios Dei facit. Dedit enim eis potestatem filios Dei fieri. Si filii Dei facti sumus, et dii facti sumus: sed hoc gratiae est adoptantis, non naturae generantis.
[3] D. MECONI, S.J., Union with God: Living the Christ Life, London 2006, pp. 15-16.
[4] GREGORY OF NAZIANZUS, On his own life, 350-356, in B. DALEY, Gregory of Nazianzus, London 2006, p. 9.
[5] GREGORY OF NAZIANZUS, Oration 2, 3, in A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church. VII. S. Cyril of Jerusalem and S. Gregory Nazianzan, trans. P. Schaff and H. Wace, Grand Rapids, Mich, 1983, p. 205. (Subsequent references to Or. 2 will be from Schaff-Wace.)
[6] Or. 2, 17, p. 208
[7] Or. 2, 22, p. 209.
[8] Or. 2, 35, p. 212.
[9] Or. 2, 42, p. 213.
[10]Or. 2, 70-71, p. 219.
[11] Or. 2, 73, p. 220.
[12]Or. 2, 95. p. 223.
[13]Or. 2, 115, p. 227.
[14]Or. 2, 117, p. 227.

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