The Incarnation: Light Overcomes Darkness

“The union of Christ’s full divinity and humanity is the touchstone of the Orthodox understanding of salvation. The Church fathers widely exploit this biblical teaching of the incarnation as sharing and participation in the very life of God. According to Athanasius, if the problem was the guilt of sin, forgiveness could have been granted from heaven upon repentance of transgressions. But the problem was the power of corruption and death that ruled the world and held humanity captive. The incarnation was necessary not only for the forgiveness of sins, but also for the rescue of humanity from the corruptive powers of darkness. This rescue was shown decisively by the resurrection of Christ. To use the language of the Gospel of John, the incarnation is an invasion of light and life into the realm of darkness and death.

The incarnation provides the basis for the redemption from sin as a universal power, and liberation of life from the forces of evil. It is life confronting and overcoming death. The victory is decisively achieved through Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection, viewed as one movement of the Son’s return to the Father, which John’s Gospel calls the ‘hour of glory’ (John 12:23-24; 17:1-5).”

(Theodore G. Stylianopoulos, Encouraged by the Scriptures, p. 8)

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Through the Prayers of the Theotokos

“‘She is the leaven of our new creation, the root of the true vine whose branches we have become, by virtue of the germination proper to baptism. She is the point of arrival of the reconciliation of God with men, on which occasion the angels sang: “Glory to God in the highest heaven; peace on earth and good will toward men” (Lk 2:14).

For this reason the recollection of the Virgin wakes up our souls, making them consider how, by his intervention, we have been called from such a great irreconcilable enmity, from a situation of war, so to speak, to such a great peace, to divine familiarity, to a marvelous association.’ (Severus of Antioch)

This role of Mary continues even in the time of the Church, seeing that she intercedes before God on our behalf. Our author is certainly convinced of this, since he exhorts his audience to take advantage of her intercession:

‘We implore her who is the birthgiver of God and pray her to intercede for us, she who is honored by all the saints.'” 

(Luigi Gambero, Mary and the Fathers of the Church, p. 315)

The Incarnation, Christmas, The Nativity

Through the years as I was blogging, I sometimes gathered all the posts related to a particular theme from a given year into a PDF.  If you are interested in finding quotes from the Fathers or other Orthodox authors related to the Nativity of Christ, Christmas or the incarnation, you might want to glance through the PDFs listed below.  These are posts I used either during the Nativity Fast (Advent) period or following the Feast of the Nativity itself.

Twelve Quotes for Christmas

2010 Christmas Blogs

2011 Christmas Blogs

2012 Christmas Blogs

2013 Christmas Blogs

2014 Christmas Blogs

2015 Christmas Blogs

2016 Christmas Blogs

Mary: A Spiritual Heaven

Theologically, Christmas is a Feast of the Incarnation of God, something which is easily lost in all the cookies, parties, gifts, decorations, piles of wrapping paper which have come to dominate the celebration of the Nativity of Christ.  For those Christian who take time to find that place of holy silence (“Silent Night, Holy Night!”) there is still the ability to be awed and overjoyed by the mystery of God entering into the human condition.

Toward the beginning of the Nativity Fast, we Orthodox celebrate another theological Feast: the Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple on November 21.  It is another day for us to contemplate the mystery of God incarnate by focusing on the human side of the equation: God became human so that the human can become God.  The incarnation as God chose to do it, required a human mother from whom God received His human nature.  God does not miraculously manufacture a completely novel, virginal and sinless human nature for Himself in the incarnation – to protect Himself from being tainted by sin and the fallen world.   No doubt God could have done that.  Instead, God enters into the human condition as all humans do – through conception in a mother’s womb, growing through gestation and then being born into the world.  He receives human nature from his mother including  genes and flesh – all that makes us human.   Christ has a fully human nature including a body made up of cells and organs which formed in the womb.  Jesus, who is fully God, becomes fully human.  As St. John says it: “the Word became flesh...”

God dwells in the Virgin‘s womb, and this mystery is the inspiration for many feasts, poems, icons and hymns in the Orthodox Church.  God who dwells in heaven also dwells in the Virgin’s womb.  Her womb becomes heaven, for heaven is the place where God dwells.

One of the hymns from the Entry of the Theotokos states it even more intriguingly:

Heaven and earth rejoice, beholding the spiritual heaven, the only Virgin without blemish…

If heaven is the place where God naturally dwells, the Virgin becomes “the spiritual heaven.”  She is not the “natural” heaven which is distinguished from the rest of creation in Genesis.   God makes use of a human to create a spiritual reality.  In fact it is not possible without her.   A human, a human body, becomes a “spiritual” heaven.  This is a most wonderful turning of a phrase.  And it reflects that reality of the incarnation and of theosis:  God becomes human so that the human can become God.  We might think “heaven” is a spiritual place, but God creates an additional spiritual heaven in order to dwell on earth with us humans.

In another hymn from the Entry of the Theotokos, Anna (Mary’s mother) tells Mary:

Go into the place which none may enter: Learn its mysteries and prepare yourself to become the pleasing and beautiful dwelling-place of Jesus

Again, the wonderful turn of a phrase – Mary is told to go into the place where none can enter – the Holy of Holies of the Jerusalem Temple.  But there is a mystery here, for if none can enter, then Mary can’t enter and if Mary can enter than it isn’t the place that none can enter. Lines are being crossed and blurred – which is exactly what happens in the incarnation of God the Word.

Mary is told to go into the place where God dwells in order to prepare herself for God dwelling in her. (see also The Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple  2017)    The mutual indwelling of Mary (and thus humanity) in God and God in Mary (and thus in humanity) is realized in the Feast of Christmas.  This is the very concept of salvation in Orthodoxy.

Adam, Moses and Christ: Denying Salvation Alone

Exodus 32:9 (NRSV)
The LORD said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.”   . . . On the next day Moses said to the people, “You have sinned a great sin. But now I will go up to the LORD; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.” So Moses returned to the LORD and said, “Alas, this people has sinned a great sin; they have made for themselves gods of gold. But now, if you will only forgive their sin—but if not, blot me out of the book that you have written.”
(Exodus 32:30)

Holy Moses!  There are many great events in the life of Moses which are wonderful to contemplate.  Exodus 32 describes one such stunning moment.  God is fed up with Israel and tells Moses to stand aside as God intends to destroy Israel.  Moses puts his own life on the line in defense of Israel – a people who have done nothing but rebel against Moses and blame him for all their troubles.  Yet, Moses tells God, he won’t separate himself from Israel – whatever Israel’s fate is to be, Moses demands that he should share their same judgment.  Even though Moses did not sin against God on this occasion and God tells Moses that he alone is to be made into a great nation, Moses tells God: “If you won’t save Israel, then don’t bother to save me either.”  God is not willing to destroy His faithful servant, so chooses to spare Israel rather than lose Moses.  The notion of salvation being a social construct is an idea revealed in Scripture.  No one is saved alone.  In Christianity all  are saved as part of the Body of Christ – and thus together with all of God’s redeemed people.  Moses shows us to choose that communal way of thinking – even if I’m the only one not sinning, still I choose to be identified with all of the people of God, to share with them whatever judgment they deserve.  Moses tells God: Do not look at me and see me as the lone righteous person.  I’m either part of the people, or I am nothing.

The idea that we are saved in, through, with and because of community is not one that meshes well with the extreme individualistic thinking of the modern West.  It does, however, remind us of what it is to be truly and fully human – to share in a common human nature, to be part of social history, to be lovingly united to one’s fellow humans.

We encounter this same thinking in a rather rare, yet beautiful interpretation of Scripture found in the writings of Johannes Duns Scotus, a prominent Franciscan theologian of the 13th century.  Going against the Augustinian tradition which dominated Western Christianity, Scotus has the first human, Adam,  choosing to eat the fruit God forbade them to eat, not in rebellion against God but rather choosing to be united with his wife Eve, who had already fallen in sin and become mortal.  For Scotus, Adam commits not the original sin, but rather chooses self-denial, kenotic love.  Instead of being separated from the woman whom God gave him because of her sin, Adam decides to share Eve’s fate, showing his true humanity.  Adam may think the whole mess is God’s fault (“the woman YOU gave me...” – Genesis 3:12), but he denies himself in order to remain united to God’s gift to him – united to “the bone of his bones and the flesh of his flesh” (Genesis 2:23).  All humans share the same life, a life which God in the incarnation chooses also to share with us.   Scotus says:

“Adam saw perfectly clearly that his wife had been deceived and that the serpent had lured her into a trap from which she could not now escape. She will have to die, he thought, and God will offer to create a new companion for me, either from another one of my ribs or from some other source. But I do not want a new companion. I want this one and only this one. There is but a single way in which I can remain with her, and that is by conjoining my fate to hers. We will live — and, when the time comes, we will rot together.”   [quoted in Stephen Greenblatt’s The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve, p 308]

Scotus has Adam thinking like Moses – I do not want to be considered by God apart from the people God gave to me.  It is a tradition not of salvation alone, but salvation as a member of God’s chosen people.

Both Exodus 32 and Scotus’s quote also reveal to us the Lord Jesus, who chose to deny His exalted, heavenly position, and to become a human, in order to completely identify with us, including choosing to die for us and with us and because of us, rather than to be a transcendent God separated from us His creatures.

So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any incentive of love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.  (Philippians 2:1-11)

Jesus Christ becomes incarnate, takes on Himself human nature and the human condition in order to redeem us and be eternally united to us.  Salvation alone is no salvation at all for it denies our humanity which Christ embraced.

And all these, though well attested by their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had foreseen something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.  Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.   (Hebrews 11:39-12:3)

In Praise of Our Lady, Mary

On August 15 we in the Orthodox Church remember the Dormition of the Theotokos.

There is a great deal of beautiful poetic reflection on Mary’s role in our salvation.  The poem below is from the Ethiopian Orthodox tradition:

My Lady Mary–

Consecrated to virginity from your earliest years,

Whose heart gave no entry to the desires of this world,

There is none among men or angels that can compare with you.

You are the thorn bush that bore the flames of fire,

Out of which God himself spoke

About how he would deliver the tent of his people Jacob from it.

You are the Cloud of Manna raining down at the time dew descends

All manner of delightful food, flavored according to each one’s taste.

(Enzira Sebhat, Harp of Glory, p. 81).

Mary Opens Heaven to Us

“This hymn sums up the entire body of hymnography for the feast. Mary, the chosen dwelling-place of God, is offered as a pure and blameless sacrifice. She is preordained as the one who brings salvation to mankind. It is precisely at this point, however, that we may ask whether the hymnography has passed into the realm of hyperbole. If, as we have already noted, the hymnography of this period presupposes an understanding of salvation (theosis) in which God alone can save man, how can it be said that Mary “has opened the Kingdom of Heaven to us”? Or, how can it be affirmed that Mary is the “restoration of all who dwell on earth: for through thee we are reconciled to God”?

It is precisely because salvation is defined in terms of theosis that these hymnographers can make such statements about the Virgin without encroaching upon the uniqueness of Christ. God alone can redeem man and deify human nature, but man must be able to receive that gift. This is the role of the Virgin Mary. She is the pure and blameless sacrifice that mankind offers to God as the one who is able to receive the salvation that God has prepared for the human race. It is important to note here, however, that while this hymnography often refers to Mary as reconciler and mediatrix, she is never referred to as redemptrix or co-redemptrix. Mary is the necessary human component in the reconciliation of man with God, but in no way is she said to redeem or deify man.”  (C. Clark Carlton, “The Temple that Held God”, from St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly Vol 50, No 1-2   2006 , p. 112).

The Virgin Mary and the Robe of Glory

“In her virginity, Eve put on

leaves of shame, but your mother has put on,

in her virginity, a garment of glory

that encompasses all, while to Him who covers all

she gave a body as a tiny garment.”

(Ephrem the Syrian)

The imagery of the Robe of Glory, deeply embedded in the Syriac tradition, is used to describe the various stages of salvation history: Adam and Eve are originally clothed in it in Paradise, but lose it at the Fall; Christ, the Divine Word who “put on the body,” deposits humanity’s lost Robe of Glory in the River Jordan at his baptism, and at each Christian baptism it is received in potential from the Font (often described both as the Jordan and as a womb; …); finally, at the Last Judgement, it becomes the clothing of the Righteous in reality ….

Since Christ’s presence in the Jordan makes the Robe of Glory available again to humanity, his presence in Mary’s womb is understood as constituting her baptism, thus providing her with her Robe of Glory …. Mary’s giving Christ “a body as a tiny garment” and receiving in return a “Robe of Glory” is one of the ways in which Ephrem brings out the idea of exchanged involved in the incarnation; this is expressed in epigrammatic form: “He gave us divinity, we gave Him humanity” (Sebastian P. Brock & George A. Kiraz, Ephrem the Syrian: Select Poems, p. 51).

Deification: Becoming God’s Children

Patristic tradition usually sees a man’s potential for deification in the fact that man is created by God in his own image. Because of this natural affinity, the fathers spoke of a man as potentially a son of God. The process of deification involves the realization of the status of son of God through the process of hyiothesia (“adoption of sons”).The idea is present already in the New Testament. Christ gave power to those who receive him “to become the sons of God” (Jn. 1:12), that the faithful might “receive the adoption as Sons” (Gal 4:5; cf Rom 8:15). This adoption of sons was accomplished through Christ’s incarnation. Athanasius represents one set of ideas when he asserts that “Christ made us the sons of the Father and deified man by becoming himself a man.”

His thought hinges upon the idea of the incarnation: humanity is deified in a natural (physikos) manner, being assumed by God in the incarnation. Due to this understanding – our becoming God’s children as a natural consequence of God the Son becoming man – he uses the concept of hyiothesia as synonymous with “deification”: to be a son or daughter of God is to be deified. Another set of ideas is presented by Basil, who speaks of our adoption not so much through natural deification at the incarnation as through its subsequent effects: the descending and indwelling in man of the Holy Spirit.”   (Nicholas V. Sakharov, I Love Therefore I am, pp. 144-145)

Christ Removes All Barriers to God

Since having Christmas in July (sales!) is popular these days, we can think what this means for us Christians.

“He did not change place, nor did He penetrate or pass over a wall, but, as He Himself showed, He left no barrier standing which could separate us from Him. Since God occupies every place He was not separated from man by place, but by man’s variance with Him. Our nature separated itself from God by being contrary to Him in everything that it possessed and by having nothing in common with Him. God remained Himself alone; our nature was human, and no more.

When, however, flesh was deified and human nature gained possession of God Himself by hypostatic union, the former barrier opposed to God became joined to the Chrism. The difference gave way when God became man, thus removing the separation between Godhead and manhood. So chrism represents Christ as the point of contact between both natures; there could be no point of contact were they still separate.”  (St. Nicholas Cabasilas, The Life in Christ, pp. 104-105)

It is not living on earth which separates us from God – it is our own freely chosen sins which separate God from us.  Christ in the incarnation shows divinity is united to our humanity.  We are capable of bearing God in our selves, our bodies, our lives!  We are not separated from God by space or distance, but only by our wills.  God stands at the door of our hearts and knocks waiting for each of us to invite Him into our lives, our hearts and our homes.

“Those whom I love, I reprove and chasten; so be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. He who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne.”  (Revelation 3:19-21)