The Incarnation and the Resurrection

Through His Resurrection, Christ put an end to death, changing it into a necessary passage to immortality. Seen in this perspective, death frees us from the demands and conditions of the fall. Death, the fruit of corruption and “corruptibility,” allows us to move beyond time, which in turn abolishes the corruptibility of death. There is one condition, however: that this movement be an entrance into the Kingdom already present in this world. This is what allows Death to open onto eternity.

According to St. Irenaeus of Lyons:

This is why God cast [Adam] out of Paradise and sent him far from the tree of life; not because He kept this tree of life form him out of jealousy, as some have dared to maintain, but He acted out of compassion, so that man might not remain in sin forever, so that the sin which weighed him down might not be immortal, so that evil might not be without end and thus without remedy. He kept him from his transgression, therefore, by introducing death…giving him an end through the dissolution of the flesh which would take place in the earth so that man, having “died to sin” [Rom 6:2], might be “alive to God” (Adv. Haer., III, 23, 6).

Through His Incarnation, the Logos of creation penetrated matter, His own work. The Infinite became incarnate and subject to space; the Eternal entered time. By coming into the world Christ transformed time and space, effecting a revolution with profound consequences. As God-Man He did not merely assume the corporeal limitations of our condition, He surpassed them. Destined to die by virtue of His Incarnation, whereby He entered into time and space, the crucified Christ bears the suffering and death of every person throughout time and space. Through His Ascension and Resurrection, He leads us beyond the cycle of time, to the never-setting sun.”

(Michael Quenot, The Resurrection and the Icon, p. 210)

Mary, The Virgin Earth

The Good News of the birth of Jesus Christ has been proclaimed to the world for 2000 years.  That message is as new and refreshing today as it was when first proclaimed.  Tertullian writing in the 2nd Century gives us a look at not only how long ago the Good News was received with joy but also how early in Christian history the depth of the message was recognized, for the Gospel is salvation for the world.  Christmas is not about sentimentality but about divinity and what it means to be human.

First of all, we need to show the reason why the Son of God had to be born of a Virgin. The initiator of a new birth had to be born in a new way, and Isaiah had predicted that the Lord would give a sign of this. What is that sign? ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive in her womb and bear a Son’ (Is. 7:14). Therefore the Virgin conceived and bore Emmanuel, God-with-us.

And this is the new birth: that man is born in God when God is born in man, having assumed the flesh of the old seed, but without using this seed, and to purify the flesh after having eliminated all its ancient stains. But, as it happened, this whole new manner of birth was prefigured in the ancient wise design that depended upon a virgin. When man was created by God’s action, the earth was still virgin, not yet pressed down by man’s toil, not having been sown. We know that, from this virgin earth, God created man as a living soul.

If, then, the first Adam was introduced in this way, all the more reason that the second Adam, as the apostle said, had to come forth from a virgin earth, that is, from a body not yet violated by generation, by God’s action, so that he might become the spirit who gives life. However, lest my introduction of Adam’s name appear meaningless, why did the apostle call Christ ‘Adam’ (cf. 1 Cor. 15:45), if his humanity did not have an earthly origin? But here, too, reason comes to our aid: through a contrary operation, God recovered his image and likeness, which had been stolen by the devil.

For just as the death-creating word of the devil had penetrated Eve, who was still a virgin, analogously the life-building Word of God had to enter into a Virgin, so that he who had fallen into perdition because of a woman might be led back to salvation by means of the same sex. Eve believed the serpent; Mary believed Gabriel. The fault that Eve introduced by believing, Mary, by believing, erased.”  

(quoted in Mary and the Fathers of the Church, p 67)

Christ is born!    Glorify Him!

Christ: God’s Image, Human Likeness

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 2:4-11)

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The Scriptures reveal to us that Jesus Christ is both God’s image/ God’s icon and is in our likeness.  We in turn are made in the image of the incarnate Christ.

All icons are forms of  the theological artistry of Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy is one of the few forms of Christianity in which beauty is central to its theology and which has a unique art form, the icon, which is purely theological. The icon is said to be theology in lines and color. Truth and beauty are the same reality.

In Genesis 1:27 we hear, “God created a human in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” The Bible has God being the first iconographer, for the word we read in English as “image” in Greek is icon.   In a sense all icons are icons of God – and yet, they are icons of humans. They reveal the image of God in each holy person portrayed in the icon.  For God came in the flesh (John 1:14) to reveal what we humans are to be, and to reveal that from all eternity God’s plan was to become human. The true human is in the image of God. As we read in John 10:34 – “Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, you are gods’?

And since we each have the image of God embedded in ourselves from the moment we are conceived, we too are able to share in the divine life. We do not have to begin our search for Christ or God out there somewhere, for the Kingdom of God is within each of us. We can find that icon which God put in our hearts. God’s own image is imprinted on each human. God is not just a God distant from us but is present in us. No amount of sin could take that away. No matter how sinful you are and no matter how distant you might feel God is, God is never further away than a prayer.

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If we want to know something about this God who created us, all we have to do is look at the people around us, for each is created in the image of God. We learn about God and about ourselves through truly seeing others, not with our eyes, but truly from and through our own heart. This is why love for one another is so central to the teaching of Christ. It is the only way to see others in God’s image. It’s the only way to see the world as full human beings.

If we want to know what God had in mind as the perfect human being, we look not to the creation of Adam, but rather to the incarnate Christ. For Adam is created in the image of the incarnate Christ. It is not until Christ comes that we see upon whom Adam was modeled and only with Christ and in Christ do we see fully what it is to be human. We don’t go back in time to try to discover what Adam was at the beginning of creation, rather we look to who Christ is, even now in the Kingdom of Heaven.

In Orthodoxy, we think of Adam and Eve not created as the perfect human beings, but rather as a potential human beings. Eve and Adam were given opportunity to mature into perfect humans, but they like all of us chose to follow their own path rather than God’s. But we all have before us the potential to become the human beings God intended for us to be. That is the nature of the spiritual life, of taking up the cross and denying yourself to follow Christ. For Christ to become fully human, he had to empty himself. If we want to follow Christ and become fully human we too have to learn how to empty the self, to deny the self, so that we can be united to Christ.

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Orthodoxy does not have Eve and Adam falling from the heights of perfection into some abysmal depraved state. You won’t find Orthodox Church fathers and mothers talking about original sin, a phrase that dominates in Western Christianity but was unknown in the Christian East.

A key phrase in the writings of St. Paul is

Therefore as sin came into the world through one human and death through sin, and so death spread to all humans because all humans sinned— (Romans 5:12)

It is not sin that spread to all humanity. We are not controlled by the power of original sin. It is mortality that has spread to all people, mortality is the true enemy of humanity. Death is what Christ came to destroy through his own life and resurrection. For us Orthodox, salvation is made known not on the cross but in the resurrection of Christ.

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Adam and Eve were given free will and could choose their way to godly perfection, or not. But they, like each of us continued to be in the image of God. We never lose that perfect image of God in ourselves no matter how much we fail as humans or sin against God.

Eve and Adam were created to be who and what Christ is. If we want to know what a human being who is perfect would look like and do, we have to seek out Christ. For as St. Paul says

Christ 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… 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, … 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. (Colossians 1:15-20)

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As Christians we are to share in that ministry of reconciliation which Christ began – uniting all things in heaven and on earth in Himself. What Christ is, we are to become. Again St. Paul writes

And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:18)

In Christ, God became human that we humans might become like god, to become godly, to share in the divine life. This is always what God intends for us His human creatures.

In 1 Corinthians 15:47-49, St. Paul promises us:

The first human was from the earth, a human of dust; the second human is from heaven. As was the human of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the human of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the human of dust, we shall also bear the image of the human of heaven.

We are created to share Christ’s glory, which is to share the glory of the Lord.

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It is true that we share in Adam’s nature, we are made from the dust of the earth, which in turn is made from the dust of the stars. We share in Adam’s nature, but so too Christ has come to show us that our true nature is not in the dust but in the heavens and in the heavens of the heavens. In Christ we are united to divinity, we share in the life of the Holy Trinity. We experience that life on earth and are lifted from earth to heaven.

Put off your old nature which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.    (Ephesians 4:22-24)

We are in Orthodoxy endeavoring to be more human, not less. We are not trying to escape the earth or our bodies, for God came to earth to become incarnate as a human being. Spirituality and salvation both consist in deification, theosis, which means becoming more human, becoming like Christ, the God-man, in whose image we each are made. We each are to become, as St. Peter says (2 Peter 1:4), “partakers of the divine nature.

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( A message delivered on 20 September 2018 at Ohio Northern University)

O Delightful Sight

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When time began its motion, darkness engulfed the earth.

God poetically spoke His animating Verse.

Mindfully Light dawned

Before the sun ruled the day or the stars the night.

Before creating eyes to see, even Darwin would agree,

There was light.

The Voice made both the light good and the good light

To illumine all things, before there was sight

Or a sun to shine.

The first eyes could see but childishly not comprehend.

The clever serpent promised they would be opened

She would see what she now believed God had hid.

Right then darkly the eyes of her heart closed

Could Eve still see the fruit was good?

Sightless eyes delighted in the Garden Tree.

Then, Adam and Eve hid what God gloriously clothed

Hoping to blind the Omniscient’s eyes.

He played along. “Where are you?”

Like young children covering their eyes,

With certainty to watchful parents mirthfully proclaim:

“You can’t see me”  and truly believe the lie.

So Adam, so Eve hid among the trees

Covering themselves with  the leaves

Convinced the Creator could not see them or their deed.

Gospel truth: In this sunlit world a man born

Without his ancestors’ eyes to see.

Eve faithlessly believed her eyes were closed, was deaf to the Light.

The sightless man listened to the Word

As only the blind can do with heightened sense he hears.

His eyes opened.  He listened to Whom Eve would not.

The Invisible God can be seen?

With the eyes of faith 

The Blind Man saw the Word

He had obeyed.

In time, Paradise was also opened

By the Light of the World.

 

Humans Were Created for Christ

St Nicholas Cabasilas  says that we humans were created by God with our unique set of characteristics precisely that we might know Christ. Adam was created with Christ already “in mind”  –  God didn’t send Christ into the world in response to a broken Adam, rather God created Adam in Christ’s image so that Christ could become incarnate as a human.   The human was designed to be capable of bearing God.   God knew where He was going with these creatures created in God’s image – with mind, desire, reason and memory.  God the Trinity was planning for the incarnation of God the Son from before the humans were ever first created.  Adam was not the model for Christ, but rather Christ was the Archetype which made the particular human characteristics necessary so that God could be incarnate as a human.  God knew what was needed in a creature for the incarnation to take place, and God created us accordingly to prepare us and the world for the incarnation.

“It was for the new man that human nature was created at the beginning, and for him mind and desire were prepared. Our reason we have received in order that we may know Christ, our desire in order that we might hasten to Him. We have memory in order that we may carry Him in us, since He Himself is the Archetype for those who are created. It was not the old Adam who was the model for the new, but the new Adam for the old, even though it is said that the new Adam was generated according to the likeness of the old (Rom 8:3) because of the corruption which the old Adam initiated.

The latter Adam inherited it in order that He might abolish the infirmity of our nature by means of the remedies which He brings and, as Paul says, so ‘that which is mortal might be swallowed up by life‘ (2 Cor. 5:4).”   (The Life in Christ, p 190)

The “Punishment” of Adam and Eve

 

It is quite common among Orthodox saints to view God’s activities in the world through the lens “God is love.”  They felt this was a non-negotiable truth.  If something reported in Scripture does not seem consistent with a loving God, then the issue is we don’t understand the story, how it was written and/or how it is to be interpreted.  The fault is not with God but with our limited understanding of the world.  There is mystery in the world, and much happens that we simply don’t understand because we don’t have the big picture – we can’t see how God sees the world, and so our interpretation of events and logic are very limited.

These saints were totally OK with moving away from a literal interpretation of a text if the literal interpretation seemed to show that God is not love.   Some Patristic writers and Orthodox saints for example interpreted God’s comment to Adam that if you eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge you will die as a loving warning to Adam rather than as a threat of punishment.  And they saw death not as punishment but God preventing a person from growing endlessly in evil – terminating life was to stop the negative growth of evil in a person.  God thus uses death to stop us from increasingly falling under Satan’s power.   As an example, St Isaac the Syrian writes:

“Just as He decreed death, under the appearance of a sentence, for Adam because of sin, and just as He showed that (the sin) existed by means of the punishment–even though this (punishment) was not His (real) aim: He showed it as though it was something which (Adam) would receive as repayment for his wrong, but He hid its true mystery, and under the guise of something to be feared, He concealed His eternal intention concerning death and what His wisdom was aiming at: even though this matter might be grievous, ignominious and hard at first, nevertheless in truth it would be the means of transporting us to that wonderful and glorious world.  Without it, there would be no way of crossing over from this world and being there.”

So though death appears to be a punishment, God was actually hiding his intention.  His intention was to give us eternal life, but the way to that end was through death – the death of the Son of God on the cross. 

Why can’t we enter heaven without dying? Because sin that clings to us cannot enter heaven – death purges us of sin, we resurrect to a new life free of sin.   This is the imagery of baptism as well – we die with Christ and are buried with Him, but then resurrected to the new life free of sin as our sins remain in the watery grave of the baptismal font.   St. Isaac continues:

“Again, when he expelled Adam and Eve from Paradise, He expelled them under the (outward aspect of anger: ‘Because you have transgressed the commandment, you have found yourselves outside (Paradise)–as though dwelling in Paradise had been taken away from them because they were unworthy. But inside all this stood (the divine) plan, fulfilling and guiding everything towards the Creator’s original intention from the beginning. It was not disobedience which introduced death to the house of Adam, nor did transgression remove them from Paradise, for it is clear that (God) did not create Adam and Eve to be in Paradise, (just) a small portion of the earth; rather, they were going to subjugate the entire earth. For this reason we do not even say that He removed them because of the commandment which had been transgressed; for it is not the case that, had they not transgressed the commandment, they would have been left in Paradise forever.”

(Isaac the Syrian ‘The Second Part,’ Chapters IV-XLI, p 164)

For St. Isaac, God was not responding to human behavior such as sin, but had a plan in place all along.  God knew what humans were going to do, and used human action as the very means for human salvation.  This is far from the angry vengeful God portrayed in some forms of Christianity.  It is a God who is infinitely loving and who works with us despite our penchant for sin and rebellion.  God has not interest in our death or punishment but forever works to bring us to salvation.

The Incarnation of God is Our Salvation

“It is important to note that, in accordance with Irenaeus’s general understanding of the human person, the focus of Christ’s work is located in the flesh: it is in the flesh that Christ suffered, and through it that he reconciled the flesh which was in bondage, bringing it into union with God. Nevertheless, the work of redemption is solely the work of God, the incarnate Son, throughout:

‘The Lord has redeemed us through his own blood, giving his soul for our soul, his flesh for our flesh, and has poured out the Spirit of the Father for the union and communion of God and men, bringing God down to men through the Spirit, and lifting man up to God through his incarnation, and by his granting to us incorruptibility, firmly and truly, through communion with him.’  (AH 5.1.1)

Again, it is God, who in man, by himself becoming man, accomplishes the economy.

‘…That the manner of Christ’s incarnation preserved the manner of Adam’s formation is due both to the fact that Adam was a type of Christ and to the need for Christ’s flesh to be that of Adam, if he is to recapitulate all in himself, so becoming the head of all those whose ‘head’ had been Adam.'”

(John Behr, Asceticism and Anthropology in Irenaeus and Clement, p. 62 & 63)

The Tree at the Heart of Creation

And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground the LORD God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  (Genesis 2:8-9)

According to Genesis 2, God planted the Tree of Life in the very center of the Garden of Delight.   As wonderful as this Tree seems, it is not the Tree that plays the first and great role in the history of humanity.    That Tree is the more infamous Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  However, in Christian history, many poems and hymns were written connecting the Tree of Life to the Cross of Christ.  Christ is nailed to the Tree that gives life to the world.  And so we Orthodox sing:  “Through the Cross joy has come into all the world.”  So we honor the Cross the instrument which brought salvation to the world and to each and everyone of us.

One of the daily Matins hymns offers an interesting picture of the cross:

When you freely willed to die on the cross, O Savior, you planted the cross at the heart of the entire creation, and to save us you allowed them to fix you to that tree with nails, so that the sun and the moon were stunned into darkness. 

The thief gazed in disbelief at all that was happening, but his faith won him the blessing of paradise when he cried out to you:  Remember me, Lord, when you come in the glory of your Kingdom.   (Friday, Tone 3)

The reference to the cross planted “at the heart of creation” certainly makes me think about the Tree of Life which also had this central location in God’s planted Garden of Eden.   The cross is at the heart of creation for the God who is love also makes love central to created world which the Holy Trinity brought into existence.

Yet the humans whom God created, do not embrace this love.  They see the Tree of Life, the Cross, at the center of the Garden and are not willing to deny themselves in order to lovingly obey God.  Instead, they turn away from the Tree of Life (which they were not forbidden to eat), the Tree that gives eternal life, and they instead selfishly eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Not willing to die for God, they think they can live without God.   It was a terribly grave deception.

Adam and Eve were not willing to choose the Tree of Life – the Cross.  They were not willing to sacrifice all to remain fully united to God.  They foolishly, selfishly and mortally choose to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  They could not see how the Cross could bring joy into all the world, they could not see how choosing the cross could lead to life.

Christ, however, showed the way.  The new Adam did not forsake the Cross, but saw it as the way to eternal life for all humans.  In love and obedience, Jesus Christ saw that the life of the world came through that cross, which could only be embraced by love.

For Adam and Eve, knowledge looked like life but turned out to be death. Christ, knowing the way to Life, walked the path to the Tree of Life and thereby gained salvation for all people.

May the cross be graven on our hearts.

(See also The Cross is the Mirror of My Soul)

Adam, Eve and Free Will

Scholar Sebastian Brock having studied the writings of St. Ephrem the Syrian, describes Ephrem’s understanding of being human and having free will.  For Ephrem the story of Adam and Eve is the story of everyone of us.  Their story is humanity’s story, and the story of our lives is the story of Adam and Eve.  Brock writes:

Adam and Eve (humanity) had been created in an intermediary state, neither mortal nor immortal: it was the exercise of their free will (heruta, “freedom”) over the instruction not to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge which would decide the matter: if they kept the command (Ephrem emphasizes how small it was), God would have rewarded them, not only with the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge but also with the fruit of the Tree of Life, and they would have become immortal and been divinized. As it was, of course, they failed to obey the commandment, and as a result were both expelled from Paradise and became subject to death (which Ephrem sees as a merciful deliverance from the terrible consequences of their disobedience).

The entire aim of God henceforth has been to effect the means for Adam/humanity to return to Paradise, which still respecting the awesome gift of free will with which humanity has been endowed. But it is not just to the intermediary state of primordial Paradise that God wishes humanity to return: in the eschatological Paradise humanity is to receive the gift of divinity from the Tree of Life that God had originally intended for the primordial Adam and Eve. (The Luminous Eye: The Spiritual Wisdom of Saint Ephrem the Syrian, pp. 31-32).

 

Adam’s Death And God’s Mercy

One aspect found in Patristic writings is that the authors always viewed God through the lens of “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16).   This was considered to be an unvarying, non-negotiable truth, never up for interpretation or revision.  So all the passages in Scripture in which God appears to be only just or even cruel or capricious were viewed by them through the lens that God is love.  They felt the problem was not God appearing to be different in different bible passages, but our inability to understand God or to read the Scriptures correctly.  We are limited, one-sided creatures, and so we write about God and interpret Scripture to mean that God is something other than love.  We even have a need for this at times to justify our own actions.  These Patristic writers, however, felt we had to hold to the truth that God is love even when that truth seems to conflict with what the Scriptures literally say.  The very fact that God is Trinity, testified to them all that God is love, for the Three Persons of the Trinity abide in a unity of love.  They felt the literal reading of the text was the problem, God remained love no matter how we read the text.  So we see St. Gregory the Theologian (d. 389AD) reading the passage in Genesis 3 where Adam is expelled from Paradise and in which death becomes part of human existence.  While reading the words of the passage, he still sees the text as bearing witness to the love and mercy of God.  He does not see this as a passage about God’s justice and anger, but rather how God limits evil in our lives.  Death prevents us from sinning eternally.  Death prevents us from moving away from God forever.  Death prevents sin and evil from becoming eternal powers in our lives.  Thus for St. Gregory, even when God appears to punish, it turns out to be another form of God’s love and mercy.

“This being (man) He placed in Paradise, having honored him with the gift of free will (in order that God might belong to him as the result of choice); naked in his simplicity. Also He gave him a law, as a material for his Free Will to act upon. This Law, was a commandment as to what plants he might partake of, and which one he might not touch. This latter was the The Tree of Knowledge. But when the Devil’s malice and the woman’s caprice, to which she succumbed as the more tender, brought to bear on the man, he forgot the commandments which had been given him, he yielded; and for his sin he was banished, at once from The Tree of Life, and from Paradise. Yet here too he makes a gain, namely death, and the cutting off of sin, in order that evil may not be immortal. Thus punishment is changed into a mercy; for it is in mercy, I am persuaded, that God inflicts punishment.”  (Gregory of Nazianzos, On the Birthday of Christ, p 7)