The glory of God is the human person fully alive.
I first read this quote by Irenaeus of Lyons while still a graduate student. In my early rendering of this evocative statement, I imagined people at play in a field of flowers, the sun shining brightly. Everyone is happy and smiling, laughing even, as they dance and play in the fields of the Lord. As I pictured it in my mind’s eye, the human person fully alive was a person alive to possibility, never-ending opportunities, and always happy. How could it be otherwise with God’s glory as the enlivening force?
It is easy to envision this kind of reality in the early days of spring. All of creation coming alive again coinciding with the Christian celebration of the resurrection of Jesus and the Jewish celebration of Passover. Yet, I am often perplexed as to just what “fully alive” looks like for many people in our world. How would this read to women in the Congo, for example, whose lives are torn apart by tribal war and violence against their own bodies? What would this mean to an acquaintance of mine who is a young father recently diagnosed with lymphoma? What about those who are depressed or homeless? Or those who live with profound disabilities?
If feeling alive is only that God is happy when we are happy, then perhaps God is quite sad. Surely God’s glory is much larger than human happiness, isn’t it? Certainly, happiness is a gift and a blessing of the human experience, and for many it is there in abundance. Still, are those who have reason for sorrow—those who do not find themselves amidst fields of flowers or bounty, those who have to work to find goodness—are they beyond the reflection of God’s glory?
Even as Christian mourning turns to joy with Easter resurrection celebrations, it is important to note that the fully alive Jesus bore the wounds of violence and oppression in his body—even after his resurrection. When he appeared to his disciples, according to John’s gospel, Jesus showed them “both his hands and his side” as a means by which to identify himself to them. Indeed, the text tells us that once the disciples took in these visible wounds, “they rejoiced when the saw the Lord.”(1)
The resurrection body of Jesus contained the scars from nail and sword, and these scars identified Jesus to his followers. And yet, the wounds of Jesus took on new significance in light of his resurrection. While still reminders of the violence of crucifixion his wound-marked resurrection body demonstrates that even in the most horrific circumstances, new life can emerge from in spite of them. We can be fully alive even as we bear the heartache and suffering of a world that is wounded.
When Irenaeus describes the glory of God as the human being fully alive he is correcting an aberrant and heretical notion that Jesus was not fully human.(3) Irenaeus countered that in fact, the glory of God so inhabited this man from Nazareth that he was fully alive to all of what it meant to be human. Jesus experienced hunger, thirst, weariness, frustration, sorrow, and despair—and he experienced the joy and beauty that came from complete dependence on God. To be fully alive, as one sees in the life of Jesus, includes all human experience—the joys as well as the sorrows.
Irenaeus continues his thought by saying: “[T]he life of man is the vision of God. If the revelation of God through creation already brings life to all living beings on the earth, how much more will the manifestation of the Father by the Word bring life to those who see God.”(2) Human beings are fully alive as they find life in this One who in his human life reveals both the eternal God and the vision of God for fully alive human beings. For Jesus, his being fully alive after his death by crucifixion was not a disembodied spiritual reality for life after the grave; it bore the marks of his wounded life here and now, yet with new significance.
Certainly, our lives include events and seasons that we wish were not part of the fully alive human experience. But perhaps those who seek true life might recognize these appointments with beginnings and endings, joys and sorrows, death and resurrection as an entryway into a deeper understanding of the human experience. Fully alive living does not preclude wounded living. Jesus was known by his wounds after his resurrection. As we seek to know this kind of dying into life, we can be ushered into the deep and abiding fellowship of the Divine Community—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—not a distant deity, but intimate to all that it means to be human.
Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.
(1) John 20:20.
(2) Cyril Richardson ed., Early Christian Fathers (New York: Collier Books, 1970), 345.
(3) Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies, (IV, 20, 7).