Encountering Christ: Incarnation and Inscripturation

Robert J. Daly  (in the book edited by Hans Urs von Balthasar, Spirit and Fire) explains the theology of the 3rd Century’s great scripture scholar, Origen, regarding the Word or Logos of God:

“When God reveals himself in history, the eternal Logos takes on the form of earthly, temporal existence. Daly’s summary of the various ‘incarnations’ of the Logos is worth quoting in full:

‘When Origen speaks of the biblical WORD, the WORD incarnate in the scriptures, at least four interconnected levels of meaning are in play. First, this WORD is the pre-existent, eternal, divine Logos, the Logos proclaimed in the prologue of John’s gospel and expounded in extraordinary detail and depth in Origen’s commentary on this prologue.

Second, this same divine Logos is the one who took flesh of the Virgin Mary, lived and worked among us, suffered, died, rose again and ascended to the Father, where he continues to intercede for us and to work until all things have become subjected to the Father who is all in all. Third, this same eternal WORD who took flesh of Mary has also become incarnate in the words of scripture. Fourth, this same divine WORD, born of Mary and also incarnate in the scriptures, also dwells and is at work within us, espoused to our souls, calling us to make progress toward perfection, and to work with him in ascending to and subjecting all things to the Father.’

Daly explains that there are four levels of meaning in connection with the word ‘Logos.’”  (Hans Boersma, Scripture as Real Presence: Sacramental Exegesis in the Early Church, Kindle Loc 3230-3243)

Ashish Naidu draws attention to this analogy between incarnation and inscripturation in Chrysostom’s thought:

‘As in the incarnation of the Word, so in the Bible the glory of God is veiled in the flesh of the text—human language and thought. It is by the careful reading and study of the Scriptures that one encounters its true Subject: Jesus Christ. The historical incarnation therefore is viewed as a paradigm for the nature of the Scriptures: God’s message is inextricably fused in the human message of the text.  God accommodates himself to the reader in the interpretive encounter, thus providing a divine pedagogy for the reader’s edification and spiritual life.’”   (Hans Boersma, Scripture as Real Presence: Sacramental Exegesis in the Early Church, Kindle Loc 2060-2066)

 

The Finite and the Infinite Meet in Christ


He has delivered us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the first-born from the dead, that in everything he might be pre-eminent. For in him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. And you, who once were estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him, provided that you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel which you heard, which has been preached to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister.  (Colossians 1:13-23)

Vincent Pizzuto in his excellent book, Contemplating Christ: The Gospels and the Interior Life, comments:

Raimon Panikkar speaks eloquently of this immanence of the divine in Christ, In Jesus Christ the finite and the infinite meet, the human and the divine are joined. In him the material and the spiritual are one, and also the male and the female, high and low, heaven and earth, the historical and the transhistorical, time and eternity. From the historic-religious point of view the figure of Christ could be described as that of a person who reduces to zero the distance between heaven and earth, God and [humanity], transcendent and imminent, without sacrificing either pole.    (Kindle Loc 1050-1056)

Refashioning Corrupted Adam

Orthodox liturgical hymnography gives us a full picture of the theological meaning of the Christmas Feast: the incarnation of God means the salvation of humanity.

The background picture is this: sin separates us from God. Christ who is God the Son has come and overcome sin and all its consequences so that humanity is no longer separated from God. This is the Good News. God has decided to bring an end to the enmity between humans and God.  All that separates humanity from divinity is taken away in the incarnation,  and then Christ in His death, resurrection and ascension completely reunites earth to heaven, humanity to God, creation to Creator.  Salvation is made possible because God has decided to enter into the human condition and to become human in order to unite humanity to God.  Vassilios Papavassiliou quoting various Orthodox hymns tells us exactly what Orthodoxy understands from the Christmas Feast:

“The New Adam

The Creator has come, raising up mankind from the earth, making His royal image new again! (Matins of the Forefeast, December 20, third hymn of the Praises)

AT THE HEART OF THE FEAST of the Nativity is the proclamation that Christ has come to restore Adam to Paradise:

Christ comes voluntarily to serve; the Creator now receives the image of impoverished Adam, enriching him with divinity, and granting him a strange restoration and regeneration, for He is compassionate. (Triode of Compline of the Forefeast, December 20, first ode)

Come, let us rejoice in the Lord, as we tell of the present mystery. The middle wall of partition has been destroyed; the flaming sword turns back, the cherubim withdraw from the tree of life; and I partake of the delight of Paradise, from which I was cast out through disobedience. For the express Image of the Father, the Imprint of His eternity, takes the form of a servant, and without change He comes forth from a Mother who did not know wedlock. For what He was, He has remained: true God; and what He was not, He has taken upon Himself, becoming man through love for mankind. To Him let us cry: O God, who was born of a Virgin, have mercy on us. (Vespers of the Nativity, first hymn of the Stichera)

When He saw that the one in His image and likeness had fallen through transgression, Jesus bowed the heavens and came down and made His dwelling in a virgin womb without change, thereby refashioning corrupted Adam, who cried out: Glory to Your epiphany, my Redeemer and my God! (Fourth hymn of the Lity of the Nativity)

Man fell from the divine and better life. Though made in the Image of God, through transgression he became subject to decay. Him the wise Creator now refashions, for He has been glorified. (First ode of the Canon of the Nativity)

(Meditations for Advent: Preparing for Christ’s Birth, Kindle Loc. 765-81)

The Genesis account of Adam and Eve tell us more about Christ than they do about the origins of the human race.  We come to understand Adam and Eve in the event of the Nativity of Christ – the incarnation in the flesh of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ.  Rather than trying to discover the scientific beginnings of humanity in Genesis, we should be reading it to understand who Jesus Christ is and how He is our salvation.  If we read Genesis as if it is science, we miss the truth that it contains about Christ.  It is what Jesus made so abundantly clear:  “You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote of me” (John 5:39-46).  Moses was credited with writing Genesis.  Jesus said Moses wrote about Jesus, not a secular history of mankind.  The Genesis account of the creation of Adam is given so that we might understand who Jesus is.

The Blessedness of Mary

Jesus replied:  “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, and sister, and mother.”  (Matthew 12:48-50)

The great Orthodox poet and hymnographer St. Ephraim the Syrian in one of his beautiful poems has the Virgin Mother talking to her child, Jesus about jealousy.  Mary is often aware in Orthodox hymns of the theology of her child – she understands Him to be the incarnate God and Lord of the universe.  Knowing Him to be Lord of all, is she jealous that everyone has a relationship to Him, not just her?   Does she regret that she will always have to share His love, attention and affection with every single human on the planet – and so will she?  Mary shows her humanity in reflecting on the passion of jealousy, but also how she rises above human passion, pathos, sin and hubris – which is why she was chosen by God to be Theotokos.  She rises above the limits of her own humanity to share in the common humanity of all people.  Her role in human history is unique, yet it is what connects her to all humans who will ever live.  God could see her love for all which reflects God’s own love for the world.

I shall not be jealous, my Son,

that You are with me, and also with all people. 

Be God to the one that confesses You,

and be Lord to the one that serves You,

and be Brother to the one that loves You,

that You may gain all!  

(adapted from Hymns and Homilies of St. Ephraim the Syrian, Kindle Loc 3100-3102)

The hymns reflect an idea that Mary is Jesus’ mother not just because she physically gave birth to Him, but because she embodied God’s love for all humanity.  God chooses Mary not for her body but because of her soul and heart.  It is not only her womb which was heaven and able to contain the uncontainable.  Jesus Himself reflects this thought in response to something a woman once shouted at Him.

A woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to Jesus, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that you sucked!” But he said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!”  (Luke 11:27-28)

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Jesus recognizes in His Mother that is her having heard God’s word and kept it when enabled her to be Theotokos.  Her role in salvation is both physical and spiritual – she indeed is a bridge between these worlds.  As is sung in the Akathist to the Theotokos:

Rejoice, initiate of ineffable counsel;
Rejoice, faith of silent beseechers.
Rejoice, introduction to Christ’s miracles;
Rejoice, consummation of his doctrinal articles.
Rejoice, heavenly ladder by which God came down;
Rejoice, bridge leading those from earth to I heaven.

Rejoice, marvel greatly renowned among the Angels;
Rejoice, wound bitterly lamented by demons.
Rejoice, for you gave birth to the light ineffably;
Rejoice, for the “how” you taught to no one.
Rejoice, surpassing the knowledge of scholars;
Rejoice, dawn that illumines the minds of believers.
Rejoice, O Bride unwedded.

Nothing Prevents Us from Being Virtuous

Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?   (Romans 7:24)

St. John Chrysostom was forever a moralist.  He believed strongly in human free will and that we had the ability to choose the good.   As he saw it, death – that last and great enemy of humanity – is really not so bad because death may end our lives but it doesn’t hinder us from being virtuous while we are alive.  If we want to be virtuous we can be and nothing on earth can stop us from choosing the good or doing the next right thing.

Where now are those who accuse death, and say that this passible and corruptible body is for them an impediment to virtue? Let them listen to Paul’s virtuous acts and cease from this wicked slander. For what harm has death caused the human race? What impediment has corruptibility caused to virtue? Consider Paul, and you will see that our being mortal brings us the greatest benefits. For if he were not mortal, then he would not have been able to say, or, rather, would not have been able to demonstrate what he said through his deeds, that, “every single day I die, by the boast about you which I have in Christ Jesus” (1 Cor 15:31).

For everywhere we just need a soul and the desire to act, and there will be nothing to hinder our being placed in the front ranks. Was not this man, Paul, mortal? Was he not unskilled? Was he not poor and earning his bread from daily labor? Did he not have a body endowed with all the constraints of nature? Then what prevented him from becoming such a man as he was? Nothing. Therefore let no one be disheartened to be poor, let no one be displeased to be unskilled, nor suffer pain for being among the lowest ranks, but only those who have a weakened soul and enfeebled mind. For this alone is a hindrance to virtue – wickedness of soul and weakness of purpose – and apart from this there is no other obstacle.   (The Heavenly Trumpet, p. 468)

Thus, we don’t need to fear death for as long as we live and have the desire to be virtuous, death is no impediment to our choosing  to be holy and to do the good.  Neither are we somehow predestined to sin because we have a body.  We experience temptations and sin in and through our bodies, but that does not mean the body is naturally evil.  For God became incarnate to unite us bodily to divinity.  It is through our bodies that we become united to Christ in baptism and in the Eucharist.

Pentecost: The Fullness of the Feast of Feasts

34358291504_beaf717427_nIn the Creed which we recite at every Liturgy, we confess our belief that Jesus Christ became incarnate… for us [humans] and for our salvation.”  The Creed professes a belief that all that Christ did was for the salvation of all humans, not just for Christians or for the Orthodox.  We repeat this same line on feast days in the Orthodox Church  when at the final dismissal the priest blesses the congregation saying, “may He who for us (humans) and our salvation, Christ our true God…”   Orthodoxy is very clear that Christ Jesus did everything for the life of the world, for the salvation of all humans – for all who are created in God’s image and likeness, whether everyone believes that  or not.

This sense that everything is moving us toward this salvation is also clear in the Church’s celebration of PaschaAscensionPentecost.  All three events are for our salvation and necessary for our salvation.  In the resurrection, Christ unites even the dead to God, filling all things with Himself, even the place of the dead.  Christ raises the dead with Himself, and then ascends bodily into heaven, bringing our created nature into the Kingdom, into God’s presence.  Then Christ sends the Holy Spirit upon all flesh at Pentecost, restoring the Holy Spirit to humanity.  We are thus not saved just by the death of Christ on the cross, but by the continuous work of Christ who lifts us from Hades to Heaven.  Both the incarnate Word and the Holy Spirit restore humanity’s union with divinity.   We sing about all of this throughout the Pascha-Pentecost cycle of services.  On the Monday of the Holy Spirit, one hymn proclaims:

COME, O FAITHFUL, LET US CELEBRATE THE FEAST OF THE FIFTIETH DAY,
THE DAY WHICH CONCLUDES THE FEAST OF FEASTS;
THE DAY ON WHICH THE PRE-ORDAINED PROMISE IS FULFILLED!
THE DAY WHEN THE COMFORTER DESCENDS UPON THE EARTH IN TONGUES OF FIRE;
THE DAY OF THE DISCIPLES’ ENLIGHTENMENT!
THEY ARE REVEALED AS INITIATES OF HEAVENLY MYSTERIES,
FOR TRULY THE LIGHT OF THE COMFORTER HAS ILLUMINED THE WORLD!

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Salvation, the restoration of human communion with God, fully occurs in all of the events of Pascha-Ascension-Pentecost and as we participate in these events through life in the Church, especially through baptism and the Eucharist.  In Christ, we are saved from sin and death and by the Holy Spirit we are enlivened and enlightened.  We are thus saved – restored to being fully human – by both the work of the Son/Word of God and the Holy Spirit.

With Pentecost we see a full restoration of what was lost by our sins.  In Genesis 6:3, the grieving Creator says of us humans, the focal point of His creation:

“My spirit shall not abide in man for ever, for he is flesh, but his days shall be a hundred and twenty years.”

God withdrew the Divine and Holy Spirit from us, and with this separation from God’s Spirit, death became part of our condition on earth.

With the coming of Christ, this ‘curse’ is lifted from us as John the Baptist bears witness:

The next day John the Baptist saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, for he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but for this I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John bore witness, “I saw the Spirit descend as a dove from heaven, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him; but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.”  (John 1:29-35)

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In the incarnate Word of God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit also remains on a human, which was the sign for John the Baptist that Jesus is the Savior of the world.  At Pentecost, that Spirit which came to dwell in Jesus and remain on Him, comes to dwell on all humanity.  The curse from Genesis 6:3 is lifted, and humanity is restored to full communion with God.  The salvation of us humans is brought to completion in this complete cycle of incarnation, resurrection and the giving of the Holy Spirit to humanity.

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Fathers of the 1st Ecumenical Council: Defending Jesus

“It was with a spirit of reverential fear that the Fathers were then compelled to defend the divinity of the Son at the council of Nicea in AD 325. They sought to remind Christians that Christ’s coming into the world was a true manifestation of the eternal God and that his Incarnation opened the way to the fullness of salvation and of deification: ‘[God] was made man,’ said St. Athanasius, following St. Irenaeus, ‘that we might be made God.’ But such insistence on the eternal unity of the Father and the Son risked compromising or minimising the uniqueness, or irreducible specificity, of each of the divine persons. The Cappadocian Fathers worked in the course of the fourth century to formulate a theological language and to establish the meaning of precise terms that would permit Christians on one hand to distinguish the unity of the Three in essence, or shared substance, and, on the other, to express the mystery of each of the three persons by using the philosophical term ‘hypostasis.’ This term settled the trinitarian debate more conclusively than did the term ‘person,’ which had been introduced by Tertullian in the early third century, by emphasizing the unfathomable depth of personal being of each member of the Trinity.”   (Boris Bobrinskoy, “God in Trinity,” The Cambridge Companion to Orthodox Christian Theology, p. 50)

The Ascension: Rejoice that I Go to the Father

Orthodox hymns for the Feast of the Ascension  (Acts 1:1-12) mention a pain that the disciples of Christ feel at the Ascension.  They are despondent and feel like orphans having lost their only parent.  For example, from Vespers for the Ascension:

Lord, when Your Apostles saw You carried up upon the clouds,

they were filled with despondency, O Christ, Giver of life:

with wailing and tears they lamented and said:

“Master, do not leave us orphans,

Your servants whom through pity You have loved, as You are compassionate;

but, as You promised, send us Your all-holy Spirit to enlighten our souls!”

The Apostles had gone through the shock of losing their Master at the crucifixion, only to learn three days later that He is alive, risen from the dead! But now forty days after the resurrection, the emotional roller coaster plunges downward as the Risen Lord is taken from them at the Ascension and they are left to ponder what it all means.

When Jesus had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.  While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them.  They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

The angels were astonished at the bewilderment of the Apostles, but humanly speaking, the Apostles must have felt like Dorothy in the movie The Wizard of Oz: “My!  People come and go so quickly here!

For us Christians in the 21st Century, we too may find it difficult to find joy in the event in which Christ departs form us and leaves us here on earth to continue our mission amidst the daily problems we face in the world.   Christ tried to prepare us for this reality as we can see in His  words to His Apostles at the Last Supper as reported in John 14.  Jesus says:

“Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.”

We can see immediately that Christ knew our hearts would be troubled by the events which were to unfold.  But in talking to us about these things, He is saying to us that what will happen is according to the plan and will of God.  The events will be troubling to us, but they not be unexpected.  Jesus told us in advance what was going to happen so that we would not be caught off guard.  He departs from the earth to prepare a place for us to live with Him.  Thus, we are not waiting for something to happen, nor are we in a time when nothing is happening.  Rather, Christ is doing what needs to be done for our salvation.  If we believe He is good, then we trust that all that is happening now for us is necessary for our salvation.  We are working out our salvation on earth while Christ prepares the place where we will join Him.  We exist in time and so have to wait for time to pass, while Christ is working out our salvation in eternity.  Eternity and time come together in Christ, but for us temporal beings we have to wait on the Lord, which can be agonizing for us.

Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him; you know him, for he dwells with you, and will be in you.”

If we love Christ, we will keep His commandments, now, here on earth, while He continues to prepare for us in heaven.  Our task is not simply to wait, but to love Christ by keeping His Gospel commandments.  We have been given our task, Christ is accomplishing what only He can do for us.

“He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me; and he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.  . . .  If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.”

A double blessing awaits us – Christ is preparing a place for us in heaven, and promises to make our home with us, with all those who love Him and do His word.

“These things I have spoken to you, while I am still with you. But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.”

Christ understood we would be troubled by how things were going to unfold and are now unfolding.  He loves us and so is concerned about our reaction to events.   The Holy Spirit has been sent to us to teach us all we need to know in this world.  The Holy Spirit will help us remember what we need to know to live in the here and now – for forgetting God is one of worst signs of the Fallen world (see for example Psalm 106).   Christ gives us His peace to help us in times of trouble and fear.

“You heard me say to you, ‘I go away, and I will come to you.’ If you loved me, you would have rejoiced, because I go to the Father; for the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you before it takes place, so that when it does take place, you may believe.”

Christ acknowledges we will feel fear and sorrow in this world, and yet He says if we love Him, we should rejoice in his return to the Father.  He doesn’t say we have to accept it or acquiesce to events we can’t control.    We should rejoice that He goes to the Father for He ascended to heaven to prepare a place for us.  It is necessary for us to experience this separation from Christ – for us to continue in this world while we await the coming of our Lord.   We have to remind ourselfves– the current time on earth is necessary for our salvation as Christ fulfills His preparations for us.  Our attitude is to be: This is the day which the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.  If we love Him, we will rejoice that He ascended for our salvation – to prepare that place for us.  It is with this joy that we face the world and all the challenges it brings to us.

The Ascension of Humanity to Divinity

The Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ completes  cycle of salvation in which God became  human in the incarnation of the Word (John 1: ) and then the incarnate Word ascended bodily into heaven.  Thus all that divided humanity from divinity came to an end (see my post The Ascension: No Barrier to Heaven Ever Again).  God who always wished to dwell with and in us humans, whom God created in His own image and likeness, dwells with us in the incarnation and brings us to dwell with God in the ascension.  Salvation is thus by definition the elimination of all barriers to God’s unity with us and the establishment of this eternal communion between humanity and divinity. This definition of salvation was expressed in various ways from the earliest days of Christianity.  Norman Russell in his book, FELLOW WORKERS WITH GOD: ORTHODOX THINKING ON THEOSIS (pp 38-39) offers a collection of quotes from early church fathers which repeat this truth.

The Son of God ‘became what we are in order to make us what he is himself’ (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 5, pref.).

‘The Word of God became man so that you too may learn from a man how it is even possible for a man to become a god’ (Clement of Alexandria, Exhortation to the Greeks 1.8.4).

‘He became human that we might become divine’ (Athanasius, On the Incarnation 54).

‘He gave us divinity, we gave him humanity’ (Ephrem, Hymns on Faith 5.7).

‘Let us become as Christ is, since Christ became as we are; let us become gods for his sake, since he became man for our sake’ (Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 1.5)

The Word became incarnate ‘so that by becoming as we are, he might make us as he is’ (Gregory of Nyssa, Refutations 11).

‘The Son of God became the Son of Man that he might make the sons of men sons of God’ (Augustine, Mainz sermons 13.1).

‘He became like us, a human being, that we might become like him, I mean gods and sons.  On the one hand he accepts what belongs to us, taking it to himself as his own, and on the other he gives us in exchange what belongs to him’ (Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on John 12:1)

‘God and man are paradigms of one another, that as much as God is humanized to man through love for mankind, so much has man been able to deify himself to God through love’ (Maximus the Confessor, Amgibua, 10).