In the Image and Likeness of God
by Al Fragola
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:26-27)
There it is, right in the very beginning of Scripture. We were created in the image and likeness of God!
Now, if we were to use the Hollywood notion of God, we would be told that image and likeness in which we were created would look like Charlton Heston, with white, flowing hair and a beard to match, and our voice would be just like that of James Earl Jones. With that in mind, I would ask you to go straight into your bedroom, close the door, stand in front of the mirror and say, in your best speaking voice, “This (pause) is CNN.” If your experience is anything like mine, there is no plastic surgeon nor voice coach alive that could make the necessary adjustments to bring you up to Hollywood’s expectations! But then, to Hollywood, beauty is only skin deep. Surely, when God created man in His image and likeness, He did not stop at superficialities. Hopefully, I am more that an exterior surface. Perhaps it would be better to think in terms of God’s expectations!
We Orthodox believe that we are indeed created with much more than physical attributes that allow us to carry God’s image and likeness. After all, God Himself is more than a physical existence. He must have given us beauty that is more than skin deep. And He most certainly did!
The answer to this question is found in many places. There is one place with which we all should not only have familiarity, but where we regularly hear exactly what that “image and likeness” of God actually is. We may not choose to accept to act upon this “image and likeness”, but it has been offered to us as a magnificent gift from God. The place in which we shall look is where we worship and receive the Sacred Gifts - the Divine Liturgy.
We believe in a Triune God. Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the undivided Trinity. It is one of the most oft repeated parts of the Liturgy. A living God. And a God within Whom there is a relationship amongst the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. What is this relationship? Well, the priest expresses it clearly when he blesses us saying, “May the Grace of our Lord, Jesus Christ, and the love of God the Father, and the Communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all”. Grace, Love and Communion. What beautiful attributes! And this is not communicated to us once, but in slightly different wordings on many other occasions. “that our God, Who loveth mankind”, “Send down His Divine Grace”, “Through the grace, and mercy and loving kindness of Thine Only –begotten Son” are amongst the examples of the “image and likeness of God” that are communicated to us during the Liturgy.”
It is so very superficial and actually tragic to only think of our likeness to God in physical terms. For it is the grace that we should exhibit, the love that we should share and the communion we should practice that makes us more and more perfect in our having been created “in the image and likeness of God.” We are created in the image and likeness of a God in Whom there is an eternally pre-existing relationship of Grace, Love and Communion within the undivided Holy Trinity.
We cannot, should not and need not try to change our physical image to make it more Godlike. We can, however, change and improve the way we live our lives to show more grace and love and establish communion with His creation around us, making our “image and likeness” more and more like God. This is what Christ clearly demonstrated in His life and ministry. He cared for the needy. Not just at arm’s length, such as charitable donations, but face-to-face, hands-on helping. He gave sight to the blind man, rather than just paying his medical expenses. He cured the leper, rather protest the lack of leprosariums. The acts of face to face love in His life abound. His ministry to help the least among us was in person and personal. On so many occasions, He touched those whom he was helping, and He indeed helped the least of us.
God’s grace is demonstrated in His relations with His creation. It is a relationship that is loving, generous, free, totally unexpected and undeserved. Christ has granted salvation unto us. If we are indeed created in this image and likeness, then our graciousness to those around us should exhibit these same qualities of love, generosity, spontaneity and giving without questioning the worthiness of the recipient. It is graceful to give help to the beggar even if we suspect he or she might not really be in need. And, would it not be more in the image and likeness of God to not only give some money to the beggar, but to briefly express a few sincere words of interest in him, and depart saying, “God bless you”? It is graceful to make a donation to the food bank for the poor regularly, and not just wait until the annual parish appeal. Just add a few extra items of food to your cart every time you go to the grocery, just for the needy. It is graceful to go out of your way any time someone needs you, not just when it’s convenient.
We are all created in His image and likeness, and we must therefore see God in the face of everyone we encounter. In the Sermon of the Last Judgment, Christ said: Then he will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me’. Our failure to see the image and likeness of God in everyone is a failure to see God Himself! We must respond to the needy without reservation and with generosity. Not just send help, but GIVE it, as often as we can. We must be gracious to each and every person, not just those in need. Grace, Love, Communion.
Christ explicitly told us to love one another and to love our enemies. Pretty all-encompassing. The Apostle Paul describes love, “Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (1 Corr 13:4-7) Our love should be a love that is not lacking in self-sacrifice.
We have hints as how to express our love in the Sermon of the Last Judgment: Feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit those who are sick and in prison, and be welcoming to strangers. Based on the example of Christ, it is even more of an expression of love to do this in person, but at times we just can’t. Visiting those in prison may be difficult, but our love can be visited upon them by donating books to the local jail. We can visit the sick in person, or by phone. And it is even a greater act of love when what we give in love causes us to do without ourselves.
We are called upon to love all, not just family and friends. Christ repeatedly charges us to love our enemies. Pretty strong stuff, but “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Grace, Love, Communion.
This image and likeness calls us to be in communion with His creation around us. We must love and respect our neighbor. We should not isolate ourselves from those around us. Harboring anger and animosity break our communion with our fellow man. Gossiping and spreading untruths are not acts of communion. Just as there are no divisions within the Trinity, there should be no divisions amongst us, who share His image and likeness. When someone offends us, we must work to forgive, as he or she is as much a child of God as we.
Communion with His creation calls us to be stewards of the world that He created - all of that world. We cannot turn our backs on that and claim to bear His image and likeness. We cannot savage this Earth and claim to be, at the same time, in communion with it. We cannot endanger His wildlife and claim to be in communion with them. Grace, Love, Communion.
God granted us free will. It is our choice as to how we live our lives. We can simply settle for just our very imperfect physical sharing of His image and likeness, or we can strive to take on the image and likeness of His Grace, Love and Communion as well. This cannot be done solely through worship, prayer, fasting and almsgiving. To take on this divine image and likeness, we must love in person, and in a personal way, seeing God in the face of everyone we encounter. We must exhibit the Grace of God, with which we have been blessed, to all of those around us, not just our Orthodox brothers and sisters. And we must be in communion with God, our neighbor and all of His creation, gracefully loving all as we love ourselves. This is the very heart of the Orthodox concept of theosis – becoming more and more like God. Grace, Love, Communion.
It takes a bit of work to exhibit the real and full “image and likeness of God”. But He has given us everything we need to meet the task, especially the living example of Christ. All we need to do is decide to do it and then apply ourselves to the task. But perfecting that “image and likeness of God” within ourselves is truly a worthwhile endeavor! And those around us, as well as all of creation, will be blessed by the love and actions of the better Christians we have become. They will share in our Grace, Love and Communion.
Lt Colonel Al Fragola is a retired Army Aviator and former member of St Andrew Antiochian Orthodox Parish in Arlington, WA. He was received into the Russian Orthodox Church at St Vladimir Seminary, NY, in 1968. His military career moved him from place to place, and thus, he was fortunate to worship in a number of parishes of the OCA, Greek Archdiocese and Antiochian Archdiocese, from newly planted missions to urban cathedrals. He and his wife, Ardy, were members of the first class of students at the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, Cambridge, England, completing their studies for the Certificate in Higher Education in 2002. The Fragolas now live on the island of Paros in Greece.