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)

Scripture, Humankind, the Mother of God

Christ is born!   Glorify Him!

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On December 26, the day after Christmas, we commemorate the Virgin Mother of Christ for the role she played in the incarnation of God and the salvation of us all.  St Gregory Palamas perhaps thinking about the genealogy of Christ writes:

“Observe also that the Holy Spirit makes it clear to such as have understanding that the whole of divinely inspired Scripture was written because of the Virgin Mother of God. It relates in detail the entire line of her ancestry, which begins with Adam, then passes through Seth, Noah and Abraham, as well as David and Zerubbabel, those in between them and their successors, and goes up to the time of the Virgin Mother of God.

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By contrast, Scripture does not touch upon some races at all, and in the case of others, it makes a start at tracing their descent, then soon abandons them, leaving them in the depths of oblivion. Above all, it commemorates those of the Mother of God’s forebears who, in their own lives and the deeds wrought by them, prefigured Christ, who was to be born of the Virgin.”   (On the Saints, Kindle Location 298-303)

St Gregory acknowledges that the Scriptures are not the history of all humankind – Scriptures follow those people who lead to the birth of the Messiah and ignore the many other people of the world who were not part of this salvation history.  One will not learn the complete history of the human race by reading the Bible, for it is a book which focuses on our salvation which comes through the incarnation, through the Theotokos and those righteous men and women who were faithful to God for all the centuries leading to the Nativity of Christ.

The Nativity: Humanity United to Divinity

Christ is born!  Glorify Him!

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“Do you see that the same person who was born of Mary is also called ‘Son of God‘ by means of the union effected in his mother’s womb? He himself both spoke and taught; he himself both performed divine deeds and suffered human sufferings. Although it was the Word who did the divine deeds, this was nonetheless not God ‘stripped down,’ but was rather God the Word united with humanity, and even if it was a human being who suffered human sufferings, it was nevertheless not humanity divided from Divinity, but was rather humanity united with the Godhead.  I am speaking therefore of the transformation of neither the Word nor the flesh, but rather am confessing their undivided union.

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Thus we can conceive of the impassible Word and believe that he is the Son of God who suffered for us, since each nature, in a manner befitting God, remained integral to itself while making the properties of the other its own for us. As a result, Christ, composed of both natures, became mediator between God and humanity [1 Tim 2.5]. May he be conceived of as sole Son of God and believed in at every moment and in every place and through every powerful act and deed, in accordance with Holy Scripture. To Christ be the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.”   (St Mark the Monk, Counsels on the Spiritual Life, Kindle Location 5571-5583)

Wishing everyone a blessed and safe Christmas celebration.

“… it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”  (Galatians 2:20)

The Body and Christmas: Coming in the Flesh

There has been a great deal written in recent years about ancient Syrian Christianity as a form of the Church distinct from the Greek or Latin Churches.  Syrian Christianity had its own language and thus a different way to frame theological ideas while participating in the controversies and councils of the early Church.   Even Orthodox scholars today believe that Syriac Christianity preserved some ancient ideas and expressions that would disappear from Greek/Hellenistic Orthodoxy; the rediscovery of  Syrian Christian tradition enriches our understanding of the theology of the early Church.  Byzantine scholar Hannah Hunt writes about the Syrian Christian understanding of the human body:

“Whatever variations there are in the Syrian understanding of the integrity of the human person, underlying them is the Semitic concept of the heart as the centre of the human person: ‘the heart of the inner man is also the heart of the outer man; neither heart can function properly without the other’.  This is rooted in a biblical rather than a Hellenistic concept, in which the heart ‘denotes the seat, not just of the emotions, but also of the intellectual faculties as well’. Because of this integration of feelings and thoughts, seeing the heart as the spiritual centre of the human person means that there is ‘no dichotomy between the heart and the mind’.

Over-simplistic antithesis between heart and mind, affective and noetic spirituality, may be something which is erroneously read back into the early Syrian context through the lens of the later Hesychast movement, which also insisted on the prayer of the heart as a key mode of spiritual practise.  As we have seen, the early Syrian context is affirming of the integrity of all parts of the human person, as a mirror of the perfect unity of two natures in Christ. Human salvation is shown by Syrian writers to depend on Christ’s salvific death on the one hand and on human integrity on the other. Adam can only re-enter Paradise when he is complete and whole.  Redemption cannot exclude the bodily; it has to embrace it to bring the whole person before God.”  (Clothed in the Body: Asceticism, the Body and the Spiritual in the Late Antique Era, Kindle Loc Location 3081-3094)

Christmas is the Orthodox Feast of God in the flesh – God became human to unite humanity to God.  The body, flesh, is not evil but all is being saved by God in and through the incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ.  Hunt points out that Hellenistic Orthodoxy in its hesychast expression sometimes denies the body or acts as if the body has to be overcome through prayer.  Prayer and fasting are emphasized suggesting one is to minimize the body in order to be spiritual.   Syrian Christianity can help remind us of the true nature of the incarnation and salvation.  The human body is essential to salvation which is why Christ became incarnate.  A spirituality which denies the body also forgets St John’s admonition:  “For many deceivers have gone out into the world, men who will not acknowledge the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh; such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist”  (2 John 7).

Today, there is a popular idea that hesychasm was the only form of monasticism in Orthodoxy, but this is simply false.  Many monks in Orthodoxy were not hesychasts, and not because they failed in their efforts.  One can see in Orthodox history whole monasteries and some saints challenged and even opposed hesychasm – even monks from Mt Athos.  There were centuries in which one could hardly find any hesychasts among Orthodox monks.  Syrian Christianity is a form of ancient Eastern Christian monasticism which held to theological and anthropological ideas that hesychasm does not accept.  But it is true that hesychast writers often adopted Syrian Christian writers, reinterpreting their ideas from a hesychast point of view.

Double Vision: God and Human

St. Ephraim the Syrian, poetically captures the mystery of the incarnation of God which we celebrate at Christmas.  Look at Christ, then look again.  We can see Him as both God and human, but also as either God or human.  It is, as I’ve noted before for me as a photographer – I can pay attention to the big picture, the landscape, only at the expense of the smaller details.  My lens widens my view.  Or, I can use the macro-lens and focus on the detail, but only at the expense of losing sight of the big picture.  My lens through which I see the world won’t let me view fully both at the same time.  Both views can be beautiful and worth capturing in pictures, but I need to switch between lenses and so can only really view one at a time.  My mind knows both views exist and appreciates both, but isn’t able to picture both simultaneously.

St Ephrem lyrically expresses the theology of Christ:

We come to see You as God,

and, lo! You are a human:

we come to see You as human,

and there shines forth the Light of Your Godhead!

(adapted from Hymns and Homilies of St. Ephraim the Syrian, Kindle Loc 3039-40)

The mystery of the incarnation is that we see the God-man Jesus Christ, fully God and fully human.  It is also true though that in most encounters with Christ people tend to focus on His divinity or His humanity.  We do this not because we can’t accept the truth but because the truth is beyond comprehension.  If we know the theology of Christ, we can only marvel at how it is possible for Jesus to be both God and human.  The mystery and marvel of who Jesus caused many to wonder whether His mother gave to birth to God or to a man.  Holding the truth together was the constant challenge in early Christian theology.  God in the flesh – God becomes that which is not God.  God able to do what seems impossible.

The Son of God Became the Son of David

St. Irenaeus (d. 202AD) wrote a great deal about salvation and from him we can understand just how theologically minded they were in the early Church.  We also see how early in Christian history he writes for when Irenaeus says “the fathers,” he still means the Jewish Patriarchs of the Old Testament, not the church fathers.  Irenaeus himself is destined to become one of the church fathers quoted frequently by future generations of Orthodox theologians. But in the nascent church when they spoke of the scriptures they might still mean what we today call the Old Testament.

Writing about Jesus, he says:

Thus then He gloriously achieved our redemption, and fulfilled the promise of the fathers, and abolished the old disobedience. The Son of God became Son of David and Son of Abraham; perfecting and summing up this in Himself, that He might make us to possess life. The Word of God was made flesh by the dispensation of the Virgin, to abolish death and make man live. For we were imprisoned by sin, being born in sinfulness and living under death.   But God the Father was very merciful: He sent His creative Word, who in coming to deliver us came to the very place and spot in which we had lost life, and brake the bonds of our fetters.

And His light appeared and made the darkness of the prison disappear, and hallowed our birth and destroyed death, loosing those same fetters in which we were enchained. And He manifested the resurrection, Himself becoming the first-begotten of the dead, and in Himself raising up man that was fallen, lifting him up far above the heaven to the right hand of the glory of the Father: even as God promised.  (The Proof of The Apostolic Preaching, Kindle Loc 616-24)

For St Irenaeus there are two births of Christ.  First He, the timeless and pre-eternal Word of God, is born of the Virgin as Son of David, a human yet God, in the flesh.  Second Jesus becomes the first born of the dead in His resurrection. Christ does this in order to give us a new birth as well.  We too are born in the flesh but also because of the flesh we are mortal and die.  In being united to Christ in baptism we are born again.  Christ thus both redeems our first birth in the flesh and gives us the new birth to eternal life.  Just as Christ has two births and sanctifies them both, so He as our Creator has given us two births, the first into this world and the second into eternal life in the world to come.

The Human, The Male, The Theotokos

Man is called not to the implementation of rules but to the miracle of life. Family is a miracle. Creative work is a miracle. The Kingdom of God is a miracle. 

The Mother of God does not “fit” into any rules. But in Her, and not in canons, is the truth about the Church.

Inasmuch as a man is only a man, he is, above all, boring, full of principles, virile, decent, logical, cold-blooded, useful; he becomes interesting only when he outgrows his rather humorous virility. A man is interesting as a boy or an old man, and is almost scary as an adult; at the top of his manhood, of his male power.

A man’s holiness and a man’s creativity are, above all, the refusal, the denial of the specifically “male” in him.

In holiness, man is least of all a male. 

Christ is the boy, the only-begotten Son, the Child of Mary. In Him is absent the main emphasis, the main idol of the man – his autonomy. The icon of the infant Christ on His Mother’s lap is not simply the icon of the Incarnation. It is the icon of the essence of Christ. 

One must know and feel all this when discussing the issue of women in the Church. The Church rejects man in his self-sufficiency, strength, self-assertion. Christ proclaims: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

(Fr. Alexander Schmemann, The Journals of Father Alexander Schmemann, p. 272)

Communion: Partaking of God

That of which we partake is not something of His, but Himself. It is not some ray and light which we receive in our souls, but the very orb of the sun. So we dwell in Him and are indwelt and become one spirit with Him. The soul and the body and all their faculties forthwith become spiritual, for our souls, our bodies and blood, are united with His. 

What is the result? The more excellent things overcome the inferior, things divine prevail over the human, and that takes place which Paul says concerning the resurrection, “what is mortal is swallowed up by life” (2 Cor. 5:4), and further, “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). 

…Out of love for man He received all other things from us, and out of even greater love He joins what is His to us. The first means that God has come down to earth, the second that He has taken us from earth to heaven. So, on the one hand God became incarnate, on the other man has been deified. In the former case mankind as a whole is freed from reproach in that Christ has overcome sin in one body and one soul; in the latter each man individually is released from sin and made acceptable to God, which is an even greater act of love for man. Since is was not possible for us to ascend to Him and participate in that which is His, He came down to us and partook of that which is ours. So perfectly has He coalesced with that which He has taken that He imparts Himself to us by giving us what He has assumed from us. As we partake of His human Body and Blood we receive God Himself into our souls. It is thus God’s Body and Blood which we receive, His soul, mind and will, no less than those of His humanity.

(St Nicholas Cabasilas, The Life in Christ, p. 115-116, 122)