The Faith of a Physicist: The Incarnation

Christ the Divine Wisdom

“Yet the redeemer is not a gnostic Christ imparting the secrets of divine wisdom, who could indeed be a heavenly figure in human disguise.  The mystery of our redemption is something altogether deeper than that.  It proceeds, not from the outside by illumination, but from the inside by participation.  We need transformation, not information.  That is why docetisim is so totally unacceptable to Christian thought.  The Saviour must be truly and fully human.  In Gregory of Nazianzus‘ famous words, ‘what is not assumed is not redeemed.’  A heavenly figure could be of no redemptive  significance for us.  We should have no share in him.”   (John Polkinghorne, THE FAITH OF A PHYSICIST, p 136)

God Conceived of Mary Before the World was Made

It is obvious that the Feast of the Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple is a very theological feast in Orthodoxy.  Few historians would give it any factual credibility and recently even some Orthodox scholars acknowledge its importance is far more theological than historical.  It is a theological meditation on the incarnation of God, and all of the events which led to the incarnation.  Many Orthodox writers and saints through the centuries have treated it as a historical event, but that isn’t what makes the Feast significant.

So consider somethings we can glean from this Feast as well as from other Feasts of the Theotokos and the Lord:

Long before Mary was conceived on earth, God had conceived of her – for God’s plan for all humanity involved the incarnation,  which means it required a woman to be mother to the God who entered into the world.  God conceived of a Mary,  chose motherhood and willed her existence before the world was made.  Before God created anything, God knew the need for a mother, Mary, to fulfill His plan for humanity.  From all eternity God knew what was needed for our salvation.  The incarnation is not an after thought, a reaction to sin, but rather the plan hidden from all eternity revealed in Jesus Christ(Ephesians 3:9-13, Colossians 1:25-27).  If there was to be an incarnation in which God became fully human, there had to be a mother in which the incarnation would occur.

God knew His plan of salvation, knew He needed a mother to make the incarnation possible, and God planned this salvation before Mary was ever born.

Mary, for her part, carried the Word of God in herself long before she conceived God in her womb.  She heard God’s Word growing up in a pious Jewish family, and so was prepared to recognize God’s voice and to obey God’s Word.

Mary longed for God’s Word with all her heart, which is why she found favor in the eyes of God and why she was chosen to be the mother of God’s son.  God saw His plan for the salvation of humanity realized in a woman who was capable of being the Mother of God.  Mary is, after all, the one conceived of by God to bring His plan of salvation to fruition.  She is the one God needed to carry God’s Word on earth.  She is the temple God wished for Himself to dwell on earth from the beginning.

As it turns out, the temple in Jerusalem was a mere foreshadowing of Mary who became the temple of God on earth, the one in whom heaven was united with earth to become the dwelling place of God.  The feast of the Entry is thus much more a celebration of what happened theologically, than what happened historically.  The temple was real and historical, and Mary is real and historical.  Their relationship is a theological truth to which the Feast draws our attention.

And for those who believe in  God and God’s plan for our salvation – we are God’s people, God’s vineyard.  God plants His vineyard, cultivates and nurtures it, so that it would bear fruit for Him.  God chose His people and for centuries prepared them to be the location for His dwelling on earth.  Mary is the choice fruit of God’s vineyard.  She is the best product of God’s people, for in her God’s plan is fulfilled, and brought to fruition.  God comes to dwell in His people, and begins that in the Virgin’s womb.  The Feast of the Entry is simply making for us the connection between God, the temple and our salvation.

We fulfill our task by completing the words of our Lord Jesus:

Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you will, and it shall be done for you.   (John 15:4-7)

We should ask ourselves, on his Feast Day, what am I going to do today that is distinctively Christian?  What am I going to do today that non-believers aren’t going to do or can’t do or won’t do?

As Christians we need to think in those terms.

Like the Virgin Mary, we too have a distinct vocation in the world.  We are God’s chosen people.  It is up to us to hear God’s Word and incarnate that Word in our hearts and minds, in our lives, in our homes and families and in our parish community, so that the rest of the world has a chance to hear God’s Word and see God’s light.

We are the living temple of God and when we live our faith, others in the world are given opportunity to find God as well.

The Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple (2018)

On November 21 each year we celebrate the feast of the The Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple.  The event itself is not found in the Scriptures of the Church, but represents a theological understanding of  what salvation in Christ means for the world and for each of us.  St. Gregory Palamas writing in the 14th Century writes of the Virgin Theotokos in this way:

By heeding the evil counsel of the pernicious angel, man transgressed the divine commandments, was shown to be unworthy, forfeited the pledge, and interrupted God’s plan. God’s grace, however, is unalterable and His purpose cannot prove false, so some of man’s offspring were chosen, that, from among many, a suitable receptacle for this divine adoption and grace might be found, who would serve God’s will perfectly, and would be revealed as a vessel worthy to unite divine and human nature in one person, not just exalting our nature, but restoring the human race.

The holy Maid and Virgin Mother of God was this vessel, so she was proclaimed by the Archangel Gabriel as full of grace (Lk. 1:28), being the chosen one among the chosen, blameless, undefiled and worthy to contain the person of the God-Man and to collaborate with Him. Therefore God pre-ordained her before all ages, chose her from among all that had ever lived, and deemed her worthy of more grace than anyone else, making her the holiest of saints, even before her mysterious childbearing. For that reason, He graciously willed that she should make her home in the Holy of Holies, and accepted her as His companion to share His dwelling from her childhood.

He did not simply choose her from the masses, but from the elect of all time, who were admired and renowned for their piety and wisdom, and for their character, words and deeds, which pleased God and brought benefit to all.

(The Homilies, p. 469)

Two hymns for the Feast of the Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple:

Today is the preview of the good will of God, of the preaching of the salvation of mankind. The Virgin appears in the temple of God, in anticipation proclaiming Christ to all. Let us rejoice and sing to her: Rejoice, O Divine Fulfillment of the Creator’s dispensation (Troparion).

The most pure Temple of the Savior, the precious Chamber and ­Virgin, the Sacred Treasure of the Glory of God, is presented today to the house of the Lord. She brings with her the grace of the Spirit, which the angels of God do praise. Truly this woman is the Abode of Heaven! (Kontakion).

The Theotokos Weaves our Salvation

In a famous fifth-century homily delivered at Constantinople (the centre of fine weaving in the eastern Roman world) St. Proclos called her [the Theotokos]

The awe-inspiring loom of the Incarnation on which the weaver, the Holy Spirit, ineffably wove the garment of the hypostatic union. The overshadowing power from on high was the interconnective thread of the weave; the ancient fleece of Adam was the wool; the undefiled flesh from the virgin was the threaded woof; and the shuttle – no less than the immeasurable gracefulness of her who bore him. Over all stood the Logos, that consummate artist.”

(John Anthony McGuckin, The Orthodox Church: An Introduction to its History Doctrine and Spiritual Culture, p. 222)

The Cross as the Garment of Salvation

One of the many images we find in the Scriptures are those of garments and their relationship to God and God’s salvation.

In the hymns of the Church and in the writings of many Patristic writers we note that Eve and Adam are stripped naked by their own sinfulness.  A nakedness which God in His love and mercy chooses to cover as God covers both our sin and shame:

In Paradise of old, the wood stripped me bare, for by giving its fruit to eat, the enemy brought in death.  But now the wood of the cross that clothes mankind with the garment of life has been set up in the midst of the earth, which is filled with boundless joy.  As we behold it exalted, people, in faith, let us cry out to God with one accord: Your house is full of glory!    (Matins hymn, Feast of the Elevation)

In Genesis 3:21, after Eve and Adam had sinned, it is God Himself who is said to cover their nakedness:

And the LORD God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins, and clothed them.

It is an act of mercy on God’s part for His human creatures who have through sin rebelled against Him.  But we are pitiable creatures in God’s eyes, and God provides for us so that we can survive in the world of the Fall.  The hymns of the Cross suggest it is through the Cross that we are clothed again with a garment of life.

In Exodus 19, the people of Israel are all told to wash their garments in preparation for the theophany that Moses was to experience on the mountain.  The people themselves are forbidden from even approaching the mountain, and yet they are commanded to wash their clothes in preparation for what Moses would receive from God on their behalf.  The washing of their clothes was a sacramental act as part of their cleansing themselves to meet the Holy God.  In Christianity, we take that all a step further in baptism when we wash not our clothes but ourselves in order to put on Christ.  We strip off our old garments belonging to the fallen world, and put on Christ as a garment as a sign of the new life we have embraced in Christ.

Garments play a significant part the sacramental life of Christians – through baptism we are given a special spiritual garment which we ask God in the petitions to help us “keep the garment undefiled”)  and for which we will have to give an account on Judgement Day (“and preserve the baptismal garment undefiled unto the day of Christ our God”).  This is symbolized in the white garment the newly baptized put on when they come up from the watery grave and rise to the new life.  As it says in Revelation 16:15 –  “Blessed is the one who keeps watch and preserves his garments in order not to walk naked and be shamefully exposed.

So we pray at the baptismal service:

Preserve pure and unpolluted the garment of incorruption with which You have clothed him (her), by Your grace, the seal of the Spirit, and showing mercy to him (her) and to us, through the multitude of Your mercies.

The priest declares immediately after baptizing the person that:

The servant of God, ______, is clothed in the robe of righteousness, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

And then everyone at the baptism sings:

Grant to me the robe of light, O Most Merciful Christ our God, Who clothe Yourself with light as with a garment.

And

As many as have been baptized into Christ, have put on Christ. (Galatians 3:27)

The newly baptized is said to clothe himself/ herself in  Christ our God.  Which also resonates with the the Transfiguration account in which the very clothes of Christ are said to show forth a brilliant whiteness (Mark 9:3; Matthew 17:2; Luke 9:22).

Not only is each newly baptized Christian spiritually clothed with the garment of salvation at baptism, but also, the priests who serve God since the time of Aaron in the Book of Exodus, have been commanded by God to wear special garments.  When Aaron is chosen with his sons to serve as priests, one of the first things God commands is:  “And you shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother, for glory and for beauty”  (Exodus 28:2).

In Isaiah 61:10, we read these words which the priest prays as he vests himself with the priestly garments before the Liturgy:

I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my soul shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.

The garments as a sign of salvation are not just for this world but belong to the eternal life in God.   In 2 Esdras 2:39, we encounter this prophecy of what we will receive in the glorious age to come:

Those who have departed from the shadow of this age have received glorious garments from the Lord.

St Isaac of Nineveh writes:

For the Cross is Christ’s garment just as the humanity of Christ is the garment of the divinity.   (Contemplating the Cross)

We put on Christ, Christ puts on our humanity.  We are clothed in each other.  The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil stripped us bare when we ate of its fruit.  Now the cross clothes Christ who is stripped naked and nailed to it.  The images of clothing and salvation are common throughout the scriptures.

Here indeed we groan, and long to put on our heavenly dwelling, so that by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we sigh with anxiety; not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.  (2 Corinthians 5:2-4)

Did Moses Foresee the Theotokos?

It seems to me that, already, the great Moses knew about this mystery by means of the light in which God appeared to him, when he saw the bush burning without being consumed (cf Ex 3:1ff). For Moses said: “I wish to go up closer and observe this great vision.” I believe that the term “go up closer” does not indicated motion in space but a drawing near in time. What was prefigured at that time in the flame of the bush was openly manifested in the mystery of the Virgin, once an intermediate space of time had passed.

As on the mountain the bush burned but was not consumed, so the Virgin gave birth to the light and was not corrupted. Nor should you consider the comparison to the bush to be embarrassing, for it prefigures the God-bearing body of the Virgin.

(St Gregory of Nyssa, in Luigi Gambero’s Mary and the Fathers of the Church, p. 155)

Most amazing in the quote is that St. Gregory is way “ahead of his time” in thinking that Moses is able to foresee the incarnation in the Virgin because of a miraculous condensing of time which enabled him to experience a prefiguring in the burning bush of what was to happen in the womb of the Virgin.  It is not that Moses got closer physically to the burning bush, but somehow he crossed through time to get a glimpse at what God was planning.  This relativity of time that St. Gregory describes predates Einstein by 1500 years.

The Feast of the Dormition (2018)

the Virgin’s pivotal role as the second Eve in the healing transformation of human nature damaged by the sins of the first Eve was already recognized by such Church fathers as St. Irenaeus as early as the second century. This recognition combined with the sifting of a very long oral tradition resulted by the late sixth to early seventh centuries in the establishment and celebration of the solemn Feast of her Dormition throughout the Christian Roman empire. With the addition of this feast to the Church calendar, later Church fathers began to offer rhetorical homage to Mary as the Theotokos in the form of sermons in honor of the Feast of her Dormition. Her death, after all, represented the completion of her mission as the second Eve. By grace, she experienced a reciprocal transformation, the deification of her humanity (and by extension, all human nature) as she offered her humanity to the divine presence within her womb.

In effect, her life and death represent the fullest flowering of the hope of all Christians: union with God in theosis. In contrast to the good thief, the second Eve, in the entirety of her life and death, is the confirmation of the very real possibility of an ever-expanding relationship between creature and Creator that transcends any conceivable earthly human hope, which can begin in this life well before the eleventh hour.

(Daniel B. Hinshaw, Touch and the Healing of the World, p. 126)

Christ: The Light Before the Sun

The Feast of  the Transfiguration of our Lord gives us a clear understanding of who Jesus is – one Person of the Holy Trinity and the incarnate God.  Consider the words of one of the festal hymns:

Christ, the Light that shone  before the sun, was on earth in the flesh.  In a manner fitting His divine majesty, He fulfilled His fearful dispensation before His crucifixion!  Today upon Mount Tabor He has mystically made known the image of the Trinity.  For taking apart the expressly chosen disciples, Peter, James and John, He led them up into the mountain alone.  Briefly, He concealed the flesh He had assumed, and was transfigured before them, manifesting the original beauty, though short of full perfection.  For He spared them as He assured them, lest seeing, they die.  Yest they saw as far as they could bear it.  He likewise called before Him the chief prophets Moses and Elijah, who testified to His divinity:  That He is indeed the true brightness of the essence of the Father, the Ruler of the living and the dead. (Vespers Hymn)

Christ is the Light of the world (John 8:12, 9:5) and He shone before there ever was a sun.  When we read in Genesis that God says in the beginning, “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3), and we also read that the sun did not yet exist, we are to understand this light in Genesis is not sunlight, but represents something – or rather, Someone – else.  The Word of God is the Light of the world.  Christ is the Light that existed and who brought all things into being.  He is also the One who is the image (icon) of the Father, and in whose image we each are made.  He, the Light of the world, became flesh, and yet in the Transfiguration, He concealed that flesh to show the disciples His glory and the original glory of humanity.  The three disciples were able to see what was within their own power to see of divinity.  They were able to see, however imperfectly what humans were created to be and able to experience the unity of God and humanity.

He who once spoke through symbols to Moses on Mount Sinai saying: “I am He Who is!”, was transfigured today upon Mount Tabor before the disciples.  In His own person He showed them the nature of mankind arrayed in the original beauty of the image.  Calling Moses and Elijah to be witnesses of this surpassing grace, He made them sharers in His joy, foretelling His death on the cross and His saving resurrection.   (Vespers Hymn)

It is the Word of God, Jesus Christ, who spoke to Moses but was still concealed from Moses, who is revealed at the Transfiguration.  Christ makes it possible for us to see God and to understand what our roll is in the world.  We come to realize God really does love the people of the world and created us to share in the divine life.

God Became Human so That We Humans Can Become Divine

Christ shares our experience, in order that we might share his; he came under Law, to set free those under Law, and the result is sonship – not of Abraham but of God himself. He who is Son of God was born of a woman in order that those who are born of woman might become sons of God. As proof that his work was effective, we find that the Spirit of Jesus himself. This time, certainly, we must interpret Paul’s statement in terms of the incarnation: Christ became what we are, in order that we might become what he is. But once again, it is not a straightforward exchange. Christ does not cease to be Son of God, and we receive the Spirit of the Son…

The basis of this reconciliation is the fact that the one who knew no sin was made sin on our behalf, in order that we might become the righteousness of God in him. As Paul is dealing here with reconciliation, it is natural that he should write in terms of ‘sin’ and ‘righteousness’. In some unfathomable way Christ is identified with what is opposed to God, in order that man should be reconciled to him…

It is because the second Adam took the form of the first Adam that men can be conformed to his likeness in a new creation; it is because of his obedience and his dikaioma (righteousness), that the dikaioma is fulfilled in us. Christ became what we are – adam – in order that we might share in what he is – namely the true image of God.

The idea of man’s conformity to the image of the second Adam is found widely in the Pauline epistles. Sometimes it is expressed directly in terms of being transformed into Christ’s image. In 2 Cor. 3.18, we find that we are changed into his image, through various stages of glory – and a few verses later, in 4.4, we are told that Christ himself is the image of God. In Col. 3.10 we are urged to put on the new man which is being renewed according to the image of the one who created him; we know from 1.15 that Christ himself is the image of God. In these passages, the ideas of a new Adam and a new creation are important. We may classify them as expansions of the second half of our original statements they describe what we become – in Christ. But since they refer to Christ as the image of God – a phrase which echoes Gen. 1.26f, the idea of Christs ‘manhood’ is fundamental.

(Morna D. Hooker, From Adam to Christ, p. 16, 17, 19)

Humans: Created to Unite Everything in the Universe

Within reality there are five divisions. The first is between uncreated nature and the created nature that acquires existence through coming into being. Second, the created nature that receives its existence from God is divided into the intelligible and the sensible. Third, within sensible or visible nature there is a division between heaven and earth. Fourth, earth is divided into paradise and the world. Fifth, man is divided into male and female.

Now man is, as it were, a workshop that contains everything in an all-inclusive way; and by virtue of his nature he acts as mediator, endowed with full power to link and unify the extreme points at the five different levels of division, because in the various aspects of his nature he is himself related to all these extremes. It is thus his vocation to make manifest in his person the great mystery of the divine intention–to show how the divided extremes in created things may be reconciled in harmony, the near with the far, the lower with the higher, so that through gradual ascent all are eventually brought into union with God.

That is why man was introduced last of all into the creation, as a natural bond of unity, mediating between all divided things because related to all through the different aspects of his own self, drawing them all to unity within himself, and so uniting them all to God their cause, in whom there is no division.

Through dispassion he transcends the division between male and female. Through the holiness of his life he unites heaven and earth, integrating the visible creation. Then, through his equality with the angels in spiritual knowledge, he unifies the intelligible and the sensible, making all created things into one single creation. Finally, in addition to all this, through love he unites created nature with the uncreated, rendering them one through the state of grace that he has attained. With the fullness of his being he coinheres fully in the fullness of God, becoming everything that God himself is, save for identity of essence.

(St. Maximus the Confessor, from The Time of the Spirit, p. 27)