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)

The Transfiguration: Making Visible What He Is

The Transfiguration of Christ  (Matthew 17:1-9) is not so much that Christ was somehow changed, but that the apostles themselves were changed enabling them to see Christ as is always is.  The limits of seeing only with one’s eyes was lifted in that moment and the Apostles saw with the eyes of their heart who Jesus is.

“He was transfigured, then: not taking on what he was not, nor being changed to what he was not, but making what he was visible to his own disciples, opening their eyes and enabling them, who had been blind, to see. This is what the phrase means, “He was transfigured before their faces”; he remained exactly the same as he was, but appeared in a way beyond the way he had appeared before, and in that appearance seemed different to his disciples.”  (St John of Damascus, Light on the Mountain, p. 221)

“To speak of a ‘transfiguration of creation’ in such cases is clearly to speak from the viewpoint of human experience. Just as the transfigured Christ does not change in himself, but simply allows his disciples to briefly perceive him as he is, so it is with creation’s praise of God: it becomes perceptible only when humans have ears to hear.”  (Elizabeth Theokritoff, Living in God’s Creation, pp. 144-145)

Nothing Prevents Us from Being Virtuous

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

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

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

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

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

Fathers of the 1st Ecumenical Council: Defending Jesus

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

The Ascension: Rejoice that I Go to the Father

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

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

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

with wailing and tears they lamented and said:

“Master, do not leave us orphans,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ascension of Humanity to Divinity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Place Where No Human Had Trod

And finally, those who received His teaching were confirmed in the hope that He gave them, thanks to His sealing His words to them with His very own blood. Through His death and resurrection He confirmed the twelve men who had been chosen, through the foreknowledge of God, out of the entire race of Adam for this ministry.

Then, amid ineffable splendour (the Father) raised Him to Himself to heaven, to that place which no created being had trod, but whither He had, through His own (action), invited all rational beings, angels, and human beings, to that blessed Entry, in order to delight in the divine light in which was clothed that Man who is filled with all that is holy, who is now with God in ineffable honor and splendor. (St Isaac of Nineveh, Isaac of Nineveh, p. 61)