[I will be using the Byzantine lectionary for a while — perhaps even for the whole year — on this blog.]
If I in Thy likeness, O Lord, may awake, / And shine a pure image of Thee,
Then I shall be satisfied when I can break / These fetters of flesh and be free;
I know this stained tablet must first be washed white, / To let Thy bright features be drawn.
I know I must suffer the darkness of night / To welcome the coming of dawn.
Then I shall be satisfied, when I can cast / The shadows of nature all by,
When this cold, dreary world from my vision is pass'd / To let this soul open her eye;
I gladly shall feel the blest morn drawing near, / When time's dreary fancy shall fade,
If then in Thy likeness I may but appear, / and rise with Thy beauty arrayed.
To see Thee in glory, O Lord, as Thou art, / From this mortal and perishing clay
The spirit immortal in peace would depart, / And joyous mount up her bright way.
When on Thine own image in me Thou hast smiled, / Within Thy blest mansions, and when
The arms of my Father encircle his child, / Oh, I shall be satisfied then.
If some of the sentiments in George Clair Wells' hymn might require some bit of theological refinement, not the least the implicit suggestion that salvation consists principally in being delivered from the body, the overall vision it promotes is surely a wholesome one. This life, as we experience it, is in the end unsatisfying. For all of the beauties of nature as God's creation, it is nonetheless marked by shadows. Our flesh, however marvelous the work of God's hands, is nonetheless mortal and perishing, and from its conflict with the better intentions of our minds and hearts, our soul would surely and in peace depart from it. Even the most splendid things here and now, God's creations though they be, are in the end and inevitably passing, time's dreary fancies which cannot but fade.
More than that, the crown of our nature, and the crown of God's visible creations, that is, the human person made in the image and likeness of God, does not, and indeed cannot, here and now, successfully image God, does not permit God's bright features to be drawn upon it. In part, of course, this is due to sin, and it is our failure to restore as we can, through the power of God's grace, through the saving power of Jesus Christ in the sacraments to wash our tablets white, that accounts in large part our inability to appear in God's likeness.
Even so, sin is not the whole of it. The fact is, we were never meant only for this cold, dreary world marred as it has been by sin, nor even for the world untouched by the darkness of night before the primordial calamity that drove man from the Garden. We we ever meant to share in God's inner life, to let the soul open her eye and look upon the splendor of God, to see him as he is, and so to be irrevocably and gloriously transformed. It is to share the likeness of the Son, that the arms of the Father might encircle us as they encircle the eternal Word by the bond that is the Holy Spirit — this is the joy for which we were made from the beginning, and it is in this joy, and this joy alone, that we shall be satisfied.
When the ruler comes to Jesus in the Gospel to ask what must be done to inherit eternal life, Jesus knows his heart all to well. It is not that the ruler has been wicked. When he insists that he has kept the commandments from his youth, Jesus does not correct him, and so we, too, have no reason to doubt the truth of what he says. If his tablet must first be washed white, it is not that it has been stained by some sin of disobedience against God's holy Law. However, the ruler suspects that he may have something left to do, here and now, on this earth, such that, having done it, he can finally be satisfied, at rest, confident that he will inherit eternal life.
What Jesus knows, what the ruler finds it so hard to hear that he goes away sad, what we find it so difficult to hear, is that there is always something more. In this life, there is always one thing we still lack. It is not, to be sure, simply that many of us still own things, or even many things as the ruler did. Rather, what we lack, is the sequela Christi, the following of Christ. Yet, are we who have been baptized not followers of Christ? Have we not been following him our whole lives? Perhaps we have, but there is the catch. We are, each one of us, called to follow Jesus Christ for the whole of our lives, and nothing, not even the following of Christ, will satisfy us. Indeed, it was never meant to do so.
The deeper truth to which Jesus called the ruler, the deeper truth to which he calls each one of us, is that, here and now, we must be satisfied with not being satisfied. We must not expect any act, any virtue, any pattern or state in life, any insight of the intellect or stirring of the heart, or anything else for that matter to quiet our insistent question — What more must I do to inherit eternal life? The answer to this question is always and ever the same: Come, follow Me. That following of Christ is, as it must be, ceaseless until the day we are brought through the power of the Holy Spirit and the grace of Jesus Christ to the presence of the Father. Then, and only then, will we be satisfied.