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Ryan J. Jack McDermott on How Jesus Makes You Young Again
I woke to an epiphany in the middle of the night. I had been dreaming of Michael Jordan on the Wheaties box, coupled with the slogan, “Be like Mike.” When I came out of the dream, I saw, as in a vision, that part of the Gatorade commercial where Jordan tilts his head back to slug a bottle as his body turns into a silhouette, and the yellow and orange electrolytes swim down to his toes, and I thought: Gregory of Nyssa!
The “Be like Mike” campaign is proof that the patristic doctrine of deification—of deep and intimate union with Christ—was never forgotten, just culturally transposed. The Gatorade commercial could just as easily have illustrated Gregory of Nyssa’s explanation of how the body actually metabolizes the Eucharist to make the flesh incorruptible as it participates in Christ’s divinity. While many Christians may need retraining to think in terms of union with Christ, of bodily sanctification, of physical imitatio Christi and Eucharistic reconstitution of the body, analogous cultural apotheoses obsess secular culture.
When I was a boy, imitatio Jordani was—and still may be, for all I know—a powerful cult of discipleship and asceticism that offered Wheaties and Gatorade as eucharist, sacramentally annexed to the promise of literal metabolic union with Mike, within the context of a pilgrimage (in his Nike Airs) to the NBA.
While I was devoted to the cult of the English soccer star Gary Lineker, who replaced the disgraced and never completely resurrected Maradona, many of my friends devoted themselves to the cult of Michael Jordan. His true disciples called him by his full name, and to them the cheeky first-name familiarity of the Gatorade ads, coming rather late in his career, must have had the cotton-candyish heft of contemporary praise songs that vaguely grasp the idea of divinity, but are deaf and dumb to its glory.
By that time my friends were in the early years of high school and had been disciples for several years, having early taken up the call to be like Michael Jordan. They knew the purpose and value of Gatorade only after grueling workouts, and drank it not to relieve thirst (which it did) but to replace carbohydrates for more sprints and squats and one-armed pushups.
I imagine those friends led a holier existence in those years than many of their youth-group confreres, whose devotion to DC Talk and Carmen may have been just as idolatrous, but certainly less committed. I also know for a fact that one of those friends lost interest in basketball about the time many teens lose interest in Christ. Stranded of his own accord in his hometown, casting about for a career without a college degree, he now looks back on those days, like John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom, as a time of innocence and discipline that can never be reclaimed. He is older than his years.
The desire for deification is too universal to be an Oriental pet desire. If contemporary Western Christianity lacks a hankering for deification, we would do better to look for a reason in gerontology than in cultural anthropology. All too soon we grow spiritually wizened and crippled. But there is a season of youth when a boy’s reach exceeds his grasp, when no cost is too great, and the monastic call to a single-minded life of imitation seems more beautiful than all sandy-blonde braids and tanned ankles in yellow Keds.
When he fails to make the varsity cut, or Division I scouts pass him by, then the boy lowers his eyes . . . and continues to lower them, until in old age they settle on a Lexus or another man’s wife, shriveled from too much sun.
Gregory & Fitch
But what if at that critical moment—or at any later time—he would raise his eyes to the only truly worthy object of imitation? To labor again for deification, to hope for that uncanny ability to shift an orb from hand to hand while levitating between two defenders: This is youth. Read the right passage of Gregory of Nyssa to any 12-year-old boy, even one draped in Abercrombie & Fitch with his pants sagging nearly below his knees, and he will understand. The light in his eyes will be the same light that St. Francis and Mother Teresa had in theirs even in their old age.
This is youth, and only the hobbled of spirit and toothless of soul, who happen to be the majority of us, foolishly want to replace the vastness of youth’s ideals with more manageable and conceptually comfortable imperatives.
Which is why, for example, Roman Catholic recruiters for the priesthood, having gingerly concentrated their better efforts on “the mature” for a couple of decades, now find themselves with no takers and a dwindling, exhausted cohort of shepherds. They have forgotten what the Jesuit teachers in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man knew so well: Boys want to be deified, and they are prepared to accept whatever amount of gruel must precede glory.
Christ calls Christians to their true youth, and his call makes for an inversion of cultural expectation that appears folly to the wisdom of the Greeks and the family planners. Christian youths seem too careless in middle age and too full of care in old. They rent (says the culture) when they should be buying. They let their car rust because they know they will run it into the ground before they sell it. They keep popping out babies when they should be popping the pill.
They make poor career choices, staying put when they should move, or throwing it all to the wind when they should sit tight for advancement. And when they are old, when they should be taking their ease in the cool of the day, they set out on outrageous quests, bear the burdens of their juniors, and take on menial jobs to supplement the Social Security checks and make up the income lost in their careless youth.
No, deification does not seem strange to us because it is Eastern, but because it is the mirror image of everything our culture tells us about youth and age. The Christian doctrine of deification places our birth—the cause and fulfillment of our identity in Christ—at the end of what we call our life. Union with Christ is our Final Cause, the identity that causes who we are by pulling from the end, rather than pushing from the beginning.
We are born sagging under the age of a fallen world, but at our Baptism we die into a new, victorious life in Christ, a life that we only realize by growing young into it. Along the way of discipleship, in the life of the Church, nourished by the Eucharist, we are pulled along to become who we truly are, united in Christ, body and spirit, for his service.
There are boys out there who raised their eyes to higher things after the NBA passed from their sights. Here is my bet: When the trumpets blow, and the dead are raised, there will be a whole generation of boys jumping—with legs spread, tongue hanging out, and one arm raised in triumph—from the foul line.
Ryan J. Jack McDermott is a doctoral student in English literature at the University of Virginia. He, his wife Darrah, and their first child, Augustine (born in April) are Episcopalians.