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August 07, 2013
Irenaeus, the Radiant
By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *

By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *

If St. Irenaeus were to speak at a public forum today, his reflections might rouse his audience. What could this second-century Father of the Church possibly say to perk up contemporary ears? How could he enlighten Sophisticates, especially about the human body when the social media has given us more than enough information to ponder?

St. Irenaeus of Lyons was beside himself, dazzled by the teaching of Sacred Scripture on the beauty, wonder, and power of the human person. He just could not get over the fact that the human person has been raised to godlike status. Irenaeus saw in Genesis 1:26 that the human person is a God-bearer. Not like Mary the Mother of God, the true God-bearer, the bearer of the Divine Word but through God’s transforming grace. Irenaeus is totally amazed at the miracle of the human body made alive by the soul. If it is the soul that distinguishes the creature from all others, the flesh too shares in the artistic wisdom and power of God. From the beginning, the whole and entire person is God’s greatest glory, and all that was made by the Creator was made for man and woman.

Analogy of the Artist

When Michelangelo sculpted his two Pietàs, one in his twenties, the other in his eighties, he breathed life into them and not just in one part. Michelangelo’s life is felt in the eyes, the ears, the nose, the mouth—in all parts of both bodies, including the drapery. His spirit is felt in the whole. Where, in J.S. Bach’s music, is his artistic power not felt? Where, in “Pride and Prejudice,” is Jane Austen’s art not felt? These artists point to, and reflect, the Divine Artist.

Thus, Irenaeus teaches that the flesh receives and contains the power of God. From the beginning, one part of the flesh “became the eye for seeing, another an ear for hearing, another in all direction and holding the limbs together, another arteries and veins for the circulation of the blood and the soul-breath, another in turn different internal organs, and another blood, the link between body and soul"(Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord, Clerical Styles, 64). In other words, no part of one’s body—not one, lacks God’s life because the Divine Artist breathed life into every part. This gives every person a divine human dignity at birth. The body does not bear a trace of God, and the soul the image of God. No, the whole man, made up of body and soul, is created as God’s replica (von Balthasar, 73).

The creature goes to God in and through the body animated by the soul. Because of the Incarnation, everything turns on the disposition of the God-man. “In this the flesh is crucial: if the flesh had not had to be saved, the Word of God would on no account have become flesh, and flesh is really saved only by flesh” (von Balthasar, 68).

The Human Person as God-bearer

In English, the verb to bear connotes several nuanced meanings. In our context, the human person bears oneself, carries oneself, or conducts oneself in such a manner as to resemble the Son who shows us the Father. The verb to bear implies resemblance to the original. Put simply: when you see another person, you see God because that person is God’s replica, God’s reproduction, icon of God. “For Christ lives in ten-thousand places, lovely in limbs not his.”

Metaphorically, the verb to bear recalls phrases from St. Paul’s letters, paraphrased: You are an ambassador for Christ; you shine like the stars. You belong to Christ. You grow brighter and brighter as you are turned into the image you reflect. You are God’s temple; God lives there in the sinews of your body. You are called to participate in godly activities. You are God’s work of art.

For Irenaeus, proportion, order, and beauty must be found again in Biblical time or nowhere. But this cosmic beauty, which tells of the art of the creature, can never be separated or pondered in isolation from its true artistic intention, from the mystery of redemption. The human person is created for proper proportion and measure, for order and for beauty, thus to participate in, and to show forth the glorious proportion and measure, order, and beauty of God shining forth from creation (von Balthasar, 70). Irenaeus draws all this honey from Genesis 1:26.

To See God, the Human Vocation

The vocation of man and woman is to see God. Grasping this fact, Irenaeus writes: “The glory of God is man, fully alive, but the glory of man is seeing God.” Seeing the beauty of Christ and the human person is the first order of business. But this seeing remains a seeing in faith. It is not a seeing in some sort of out-of-the body experience which ignores the senses. No, it is the same eyes which before did not see and which now, through the healing miracle of grace, have attained vision. This seeing of God and this seeing of the divine human dignity of every person are life-giving in which the Holy Spirit plays the unifying role. The Father reveals the Son who becomes visible; in faith, we encounter the Word, Jesus Christ, whom the disciples saw and heard and touched. Jesus shows God to us; in the Spirit, he makes God visible to us. “What is seen is the living God, who is a God of the living.”

Irenaeus, the Radiant

Christian theology is born with the writings of St. Irenaeus of Lyons. Little is known of him except that he came from Smyrna and spent most of his life in Lyons, France where he served as its bishop. His radiates a beautiful teaching about the relationship between God and the human person, between creation and redemption. The creature does not have a relationship with God; the creature is in relationship with God. The Church celebrates the feast day of St. Irenaeus on June 28.

Searching for God

Human beings, whatever they are doing or saying, are always searching for God even if they don’t acknowledge or know it. As Ladislas Orsy, S.J. has reflected: ‘We believe in God the Father, we believe in God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. And, we believe in human beings; we honor them because in doing so, we honor God.’ After God made the heavens, the earth, and man and woman, he exclaimed how good it all was; he enjoyed his new creation. Man and woman—pinnacles of God’s creation, creation’s king and queen.

Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph, Brentwood, NY, holds degrees in philosophy (Ph.L), musicology (Ph.D.), theology (M.A.), and liturgical studies (Ph.D). She has taught at all levels of Catholic education and writes with a particular focus on a theology of beauty and the sacred arts. Her e-mail address is [email protected].
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