Changed Into Him

by Maria Grizzetti

Sassetta, St. Thomas at Prayer, 1423. Museum of Art, Budapest.
Sassetta, St. Thomas Aquinas  at Prayer | Tempera on wood, 1423 | Museum of Art, Budapest.

It is a presupposition in modern culture that the more we align ourselves with the majority, the more we gain in identity. Self-determination by aggregation with the will of others is not a new phenomenon. Long wars have been fought this way, the great philosophical movements have emerged by mass ideological consent, and even in the Church, significant debates on doctrine took shape in this manner. What usually emerges, after long-standing struggle, is the truth of a movement. Its core is tested not by mere mass assent, but by perseverance and the disclosure of truth. We are either assimilated, and gradually become anonymous, or we dissent, opting out in the process.

The assent of the crowds during Christ’s earthly pilgrimage bears resemblance to the type of assent we make in our day and age. Many went along to hear him because he was the latest novelty. In our day, each clarion call that crowds our social media feeds is a clamor for attention, a podium for secular proclamations. Hashtags may have replaced the gatherings on the shores of the Sea of Tiberias, but the same human behaviors persist. The moment someone proclaims a cause, we ally ourselves with the throngs that gather. Curiosity drives inquiry.

What, then, made Christ different? And why did some actually believe Him to be the Son of God?

He did not possess a smartphone, nor was his day a chronology of ideology in soundbites. He did not have a PR team. At best we can say that he had had a spokesman in John the Baptist, but even he deflected attention from himself. His message was clear: “One is coming after me who is greater than me;” “I must decrease, He must increase.”

The perennial search for the most convincing prophets of our time ultimately fails to satisfy. Each day brings new headlines, new influencers. Over the course of history, every movement of mass appeal has had to reinvent itself to remain relevant.

What is distinct with Christ is that he did not come to create a movement, but the Church. He did not come seek our support for new thought experiments, but to give us a share in his Father’s eternal beneficence. He did not come to launch a group, but to incorporate us into His Body. The favor of the Incarnation was for us. He took on flesh that we might have a share in Him—a share of God’s own life.

The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods.

-St. Thomas Aquinas, Opusc., 57:1-4

Peripheral closeness was not sufficient for the God who took on our flesh. He does not just want us to agree with him, or merely to be near; He desires us to be One with him. From Bethlehem, to Calvary, to the Ascension that followed His rising from the dead, every step Christ took on earth was one less step we would have to take to arrive at God. Ultimately, the very advent of the Savior meant our ability to be born into Him.

Over the ages the great saints have assimilated this reality in their flesh: in the consecration of their lives, their penances and ecstasies, spiritual espousals, visions, heroic works of charity, through their preaching in chains, and even their joy in martyrdom, they have all witnessed for us time and time again that God does not desire mere closeness—He desires union with Himself for us, and He renders it possible. While every movement unites by proximity of vision or ideology, Christianity unites in the flesh.

Were this not enough, the great process within which this union unfolds is one of divinization by which, becoming one with God, we are changed into Him. This transformation, worked by grace, enables frail human flesh to transcend its corporeal limitations, and to ascend to perfection.

Here we are faced with a love beyond our own that calls us, literally, to a perfection beyond ourselves.

Every human love is content with more of itself, and therefore with little: with closeness and semblance of interests, and shared experience. Every longing yearns for companionship, yet the dearest of companionships is still temporal. Even in marriage, where the precept is the one flesh union, communion is frail, and points to fulfillment beyond itself. There is a tendency inbuilt in creation that leads all things to ultimately long for their own perfection—having tried it all, as we often find ourselves saying, we still long for more. The glory of God permeates his beings so fully, that often only long-suffering reveals the core of who we are: fundamentally poor in ourselves, and awaiting the fulfillment of communion with God in beatitude.

This communion of love is enshrined in the sacramental life. The Sacraments are the bridge between human incompleteness, and our assumption into Christ. Our body becomes the temple of the glory of God. He dwells in us, actually, here, and wishes us to live with Him forever.

Lest this sound unrealizable, we have the pledge of this truth in the Eucharist. “Do this in remembrance of me” is the final commandment of the New Testament. He would not command something that He had not already made possible. This remembrance is our way of entering into His memorial: our share in the oblation He made of himself. And then it becomes clear that the oblation is no less than the instrument of communion—a cohesion of love so perfect, it changes everything: it changes us.

In writing on the Eucharist, St. Thomas Aquinas, speaks of this cohesion of love in powerful terms:

And thus, since every sacrament ought to be proposed in the likeness of some sensible thing, it is fitting that the sacrament in which the very Word incarnate, as to be joined to us, is contained, is proposed to us in the likeness of food, not indeed as being converted into us through its conjunction with us, but rather we ourselves being converted into it by conjunction with it, according to what Augustine says, speaking in the person of the incarnate Word: “You shall not change me into you, as food of your flesh, but you shall be changed into me.”

– St.Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Sentences, IV. d. 8, q. 1

This conversion, this incorporation, this divinization, is a singular choice we are left free to permit. It requires no mass assent, nor aggregation by popularity. It is not dependent on accolades, nor on popular affirmation. Rather, it is the most hidden of all human possibilities, for it take place in the tabernacle of the soul. And it ennobles no less than all that we are.

Gazing upon reality manifested around us, we are blinded the scintillating variety of distractions—a barrage of clamoring ideologies, a plethora of competing identities. Prophets everywhere offer us ways to better ourselves, to ameliorate the human condition. Amid it all, a striking simplicity illumines the whole. As a battered creation thirsts for wholeness, Christ’s testament of love permeates the chaos.

Still now, as at that Last Supper, everywhere in the world two hands will over and over again elevate a host and exclaim in His name: “This is my Body, given up for you”.

In that womb, He changed human flesh into godly flesh. At Cana, He changed dirty water into the best wine. In the Upper Room, He changed tasteless unleavened bread into himself. On the Cross, He changed the course of history, espousing a barren creation to himself by the outpouring of blood.

Today, He changes us into Him.

Amen.

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Maria Grizzetti lives New York, and is a consecrated member of the Lay Fraternities of the Dominican Order. You may reach her at: incarnationandmodernity@gmail.com

 

 

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