A hunter always sets a gun or bow to aim higher than the target so that the trajectory of the bullet or arrow will land on the target.
The readings for this third Sunday of Lent invite us to aim high — to set our sights on nothing less than transformation, even divinization, and, ultimately, to see God!
It all begins with the word repent in the Gospel, and ends with the encounter Moses has with God through the burning bush.
In the Gospel, in recounting stories circulating at that time of local tragedies, as well as the parable about the gardener fertilizing the ground, Jesus is adamant about our need to repent. This passage brings to mind the first words of Jesus at the beginning of his ministry: “Repent and believe, the kingdom of God is near.” It is clear that repentance is the surest way into the reign of God.
Repentance has three distinct meanings. A first meaning comes from the Greek word metanoia that has the sense of “putting on our highest mind” and seeing reality through the lens of love, as God looks on reality. It involves a stance of complete and total trust in God, as opposed to paranoia, which is a fearful worldview and distrustful stance toward others and God.
A second meaning is to “let go” of anything that is holding us back from doing God’s will in our lives. In a world when most people want more of everything, especially possessions, prestige and power, we are being asked to trust and to let go of those temptations. We are invited to let go of especially our favourite sins, our negative attitudes, our painful emotions, our self-righteousness, our selfishness, and above all, any addictions in our lives. Good spirituality is all about letting go. “Let Go and Let God,” a slogan of Alcoholics Anonymous, is appropriate here.
A final meaning of metanoia is to “turn around,” to make a 180-degree about-face, to reverse directions, to turn back to God and take a new path through life. All three of these meanings lead us to a transformative encounter with God that Moses had in the desert, and that Peter, James and John had on the Mt. of Transfiguration.
All of them “saw God” through either a burning bush or a blinding light. Moses even hid his face because he was “afraid to look at God,” the text relates. How is it possible that Moses and the apostles could see what the Eastern divine liturgy calls the “ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible, always existing and ever the same” God?
In his writings, Brent Kostyniuk provides an explanation from Gregory Palmas (1296-1359), a monk who lived at Mt. Athos in Greece, later becoming Archbishop of Thessaloniki. Palmas teaches that while we cannot see God in God’s essence, we can see God in God’s energies. Moses and the apostles were given the grace to see the uncreated light of God, or God’s energies — that is, to know what God does, and who God is in relation to humanity, as God reveals God’s self to humanity.
According to Kostyniuk, Eastern theology tells us that the Transfiguration and the burning bush reveal the possibility of our own theosis, or transformative process whose goal is likeness to or union with God. We accomplish this, or more precisely, this happens to us through the effects of catharsis, the purification of mind and body. Moreover, we are taught that this theosis is the purpose of human life.
The Greek word for transfigured is metamorpho. It is a verb that means both to change into another form, and to change the outside to match the inward reality. Until the Transfiguration, Jesus’ divine nature had been “veiled” (Hebrews 10:20) in his humanity. At the Transfiguration, Peter, James and John were shown a unique display of Jesus’ divine character and a glimpse of the glory that Jesus had before all time. And at the burning bush, Moses (who appeared along with Elijah at the Transfiguration) was also shown a glimpse of the glory that God wants us all to experience through faith in his Son, Jesus Christ.
The theology of theosis calls us all to a like transformation and to seek to be God-like ourselves. The word that the Eastern Church uses to describe this process is divinization. Unfortunately, the western church with its bias toward the rational and scientific has largely neglected this process. It is high time to reclaim this beautiful teaching and theology that can make all the difference in our lives. Ultimately, according to Palmas, it is possible for us to see that same uncreated light of God with the help of repentance, spiritual discipline, genuine love, contemplative prayer and doing God’s will.
There are others beside Moses, the apostles and the prophets who can inspire us to aim high and shoot for this ultimate target of divinization, of God-likeness, of transformation, of even seeing this energy and uncreated light of God. People like Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Jean Vanier and Henry Nouwen all went through, to one degree or other, this process of theosis, of divinization that they shared with us through their example or writings.
More contemporary examples would be Joe Gunn, Douglas Roche and Bob McKeon, who consistently speak and write about social justice issues in our society. Theirs, too, would be the same process of metanoia, transformation, theosis and ultimately divinization, as they help us to see our own reality through the lens of love and justice, through the eyes of God, through God’s uncreated light.
The eucharist is itself an experience of transformation. Humble gifts of bread and wine are transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. Even more significant, we who receive are in turn transformed into the Body of Christ — a process of theosis, divinization.
All we have to do is to truly believe, enter into the process fully, and allow our loving God to transform us into images of God sent into the world to help transform and divinize our world.
Sylvain Lavoie, OMI, Archbishop Emeritus of the Archdiocese of Keewatin-The Pas, is chaplain at the Star of the North Retreat House in St. Albert, Alta. He continues to live out his motto, Regnum Dei Intra Vos (the kingdom of God is among you), which is his overriding focus and passion.