A portrait

Saint Irenaeus of Lyons

The Letter from Cochabamba refers in a note to words written by Irenaeus of Lyons: “Our Lord Jesus Christ, through his transcendent love, became what we are, that he might bring us to be what he is himself.” The figure of Irenaeus has a particular fascination because he brings us so close to the very first Christian believers. He was born in the second century and grew up in the town of Smyrna, on the western coast of Turkey, where he heard the elderly bishop Polycarp teach. Polycarp had been taught by the apostle John. Irenaeus later became the second bishop of Lyons, in France, not far from Taizé.

Irenaeus was one of the first teachers in the church to give his ideas systematic form. His most important surviving text, the five books Against Heresies, is difficult to read. Yet we can sense that he wanted to stress ideas that are important for us, too. At the very heart of his faith was a conviction that the unseen, unknowable God who had created everything so loved humanity that he had become a human being just like us. By becoming the human being Jesus, God wanted to share with every human person his own, eternal life in such a way that our fragile, contradictory human nature would not be overwhelmed or crushed, but fulfilled utterly. All that we are was designed from the beginning for a fullness beyond anything we could imagine, in and by communion with God.

Irenaeus wrote one very remarkable phrase, which is often quoted: “Life in man is the glory of God; the life of man is the vision of God.” Another translation says: “The glory of God is a living man; and the life of man consists in beholding God” (Against Heresies, Book 4, 20:7). What is so appealing in Irenaeus’ writings is this notion of “life,” because surely every human being wants to be truly alive and discover ways of living more truly and fully. If so many today speak of “alienation” and “absurdity” it is precisely because of an awareness that there is something essential that is missing in life, something to be looked for beyond or rather in place of the instant “satisfactions” proposed in today’s consumption-oriented societies. We are invited to share in a life that is simply the love God longs to share with all; as Brother Roger often said: “God can only give his love.”

Love, for God as for us, always means giving oneself. Therefore, for Irenaeus, Christmas was the key to the meaning of life, not simply the beautiful story of a baby being born: “It was for this end that the Word of God was made man, and He who was the Son of God became the Son of man, that man, having been taken into the Word, and receiving the adoption, might become the son of God” (Against Heresies, Book 3, 19:1). It sounds, of course, quite impossible. Every definition of “God” is bound to end up by stressing that God is completely different, other, unlike us or anything we can imagine. Likewise, every definition of what it is to be human is almost sure to stress our limitations, our poverty and fragility, and our mortality that seems to challenge every search for ultimate meaning.

Underlying Irenaeus’ thought is the very simple, utterly amazing assertion that stands at the beginning of St. John’s Gospel: “The Word became flesh.” Or as Irenaeus puts it: “The only true and steadfast Teacher, the Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, through his transcendent love, became what we are, that he might bring us to be what he is himself” (Against Heresies, Book 5, preface). The first Christians had a very clear understanding of the unity of everything. As humans, we are one with the whole material world. All that exists is created and kept in being by the love of God, the maker of all things. The act of bridging the immense gulf between God and the physical cosmos, drawing human beings into a life like his, was no haphazard afterthought; it had been the plan and intention of divine Love from the outset. It is as we are that we are loved, for what we can become through the communion that God offers. Sharing the light of God’s eternal love, we discover that truly we are all made for a life that we never imagined possible.

Last updated: 19 February 2008