Irenaeus: Reminding Us Who We Are


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Today, June 28, the Christian world remembers Irenaeus of Lyons, an early church father from the 2nd century AD. We do well to remember him, as we have Irenaeus to thank for much, including the ordering of our four canonical gospels, his contribution to the establishment of scripture’s authority and a theology of the unity and goodness of God within the Trinity.

In response to the Gnostic view of God as separate and distant, Irenaeus wrote: "The Father is above all, and He is the Head of Christ; the Word (Logos) is through all things and is Himself the Head of the Church, while the Spirit is in us all, and His is the living water which the Lord gave to those who believe in Him and love Him, and who know that there is one Father above all things and through all things" (Against Heresies).

And then, of course, there is Irenaeus’ most winning and frequently quoted sentence: “The glory of God is a man fully alive.”

Forget the masculine language—a linguistic convention (really, could God, who created male and female in “his” image, be glorified in just a man fully alive?). It’s a profound statement, a challenging and inspiring concept—that to represent God best is to be fully alive, fully human.

The glory of God is a human being fully alive.

Irenaeus believed Christ to be the recapitulation or summation of human life—a human fully alive. He saw atonement as being accomplished more through Christ’s incarnation than through his crucifixion; in essence, God’s enfleshment in Jesus reminds us of our inherent union with God, as Jesus prayed, “That all may be one, just as you and I are one” (John 17:21). At-one-ment. We are who we are, the glory of God.

We each have a niche in our ecosystem, a unique place and role in the universe. And there’s no better way to fill that niche than to live alive, authentically. Irenaeus’ understanding of Creation—that God intended humanity to come to full maturity over time, rather than right from the get-go—leaves room for us to figure out who our true selves are.

Sometimes it feels unfair that other earth-bound creatures don’t share this struggle. They know, perhaps with a bit of training from parents, herd, or predators, exactly what is theirs to do and precisely how to do it—be that to fly, swim, or gallop. But that’s also the unique gift of being human. Life is a long learning how to embody God in mind, spirit, flesh and bones. The mystery is that even as we learn, mature, evolve, we are already living out God’s glory.

Irenaeus believed that spiritual maturity comes the hard way, through suffering and death—and not just the final death when we are forced to let go of ego, selfishness and the violence of superiority, but the little, day-by-day deaths when we face reality and let go of our so-called identity. Suffering—which is really just unmet expectation—invites us to remember that we are not defined by success, by being right, by belonging to a tribe (religious, cultural, political, socio-economic, sexual orientation, ethnic group), or by any other label we and others give ourselves. We are who we are, at base, God’s likeness, children of Love, one with God. Remember who you are and be it, Irenaeus advises.

Today I’d like to offer a trio of poems, each a different way of saying the same thing in imagery, rhythm, and metaphor:

“The glory of God is a human fully alive.”

* * *

When I was the stream, when I was the

forest, when I was still the field,

when I was every hoof, foot,

fin and wing, when I

was the sky itself,

no one ever asked me did I have a purpose, no one ever

wondered was there anything I might need,

for there was nothing

I could not

love.

It was when I left all we once were that

the agony began, the fear and questions came,

and I wept, I wept. And tears

I had never known

before.

So I returned to the river, I returned to

the mountains. I asked for their hand in marriage again,

I begged—I begged to wed every object

and creature,

and when they accepted,

God was ever present in my arms.

And He did not say,

“Where have you

been?”

For then I knew my soul—every soul—

has always held

Him.

- Meister Eckhart (translated by Daniel Ladinsky, Love Poems from God: Twelve Sacred Voices from the East and West, Penguin Compass, 2002).

* * *

Genus, Genius

Follow the trailing

meander of your story

to roots snaking in loamy

soil, clinging to bedrock.

Find the dark place where

you draw up water into

veins that feed sky-tossed

leaves. From what secret,

sacred river do you drink

underground? Go to that

Spring and ask the

meaning of your word. The

root fingers dabbling in

groundwater know it well and

can translate nutrients into

sap and vibrant green.

An old word it is, of ancient

Latin and Greek parentage, as

old as you and older. It speaks

of borning and being and

begetting and always joy. It

sings a genial celebration of

giving birth to one’s smile. Let the

deep tell you your genus, genius.

- Joelle Chase

* * *

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;

As tumbled over rim in roundy wells

Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s

Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:

Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;

Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,

Crying What I do is me: for that I came.

I say more: the just man justices;

Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;

Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—

Christ—for Christ plays in ten thousand places,

Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his

To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

- Gerard Manley Hopkins


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/4571