Christmas: The Mystery of the Humility of God

“If there is any sense to be made of these tragedies from our poor, myopic perspective, it is one provided simply and eloquently by the Church’s liturgical worship. From Nativity, through Theophany, and on to Holy Pascha, the common theme that we celebrate and proclaim to each other and to the world is summed up in the name given to Jesus at His birth, the name Emmanuel, ‘God is with us.’ This means not only that God accompanies us, remains present with us, and provides hope and consolation in our times of grief and loss. It means above all that God shares our suffering. He takes part in our pain and anguish, fully and to the bitter end. To put it somewhat melodramatically, yet accurately: with every drowned infant, every starving refugee, every family buried beneath a mudslide, and every fisherman lost in a ‘perfect storm’, Christ the Son of God is present, and He suffers and weeps.

Since the high Middle Ages theologians have pondered the mystery of God’s omniscience and omnipotence. In the process they have often lost sight of another aspect of divinity, one that for us is far more important. It is what the apostle Paul refers to as God’s ‘kenotic’ or self-emptying descent into the darkness and frailty of human life (Phil. 2:7). Paul uses the word to speak of the incarnation of the Son of God, His taking flesh and becoming a human person, without ceasing to be God in His very essence. But, he declares, that kenotic descent does not end with Jesus’ birth. For the Son of God further ‘humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.’ This is the distinguishing mark of Christianity. The quality that sets Christian revelation and Christian faith off from every form of religion is the one celebrated in the Church’s worship. It is the truth that God’s love for His people – for us – is such that He humbles and sacrifices Himself on our behalf.  God suffers and dies, so that we might live in Him.”

(John Breck, Longing for God: Orthodox Reflections on Bible, Ethics, and Liturgy, pp. 186-187)

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