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.

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Between the Presence of Christ

1]  Often times Christians speak about our life on earth as being a time between the first and second comings of Christ.  He came first into the world as a baby, lived a human life, and was executed as a criminal, only to rise from the dead.  He ascended to heaven and promised to return to earth at the time of the judgement day.  Our life on earth is thus always between the first and second comings of Christ, we live in His presence and between His presence.

2]  The Evangelist Matthew in his Gospel also presents us a view of the Messiah in which at the beginning of the Gospel we are told Jesus is God  with us (Matthew 1:23) and at the end of Gospel (Matthew 28:20) we are told He is with us always to the close of the age.  The entire Gospel is written as if between the presence of God in the incarnation of Christ and His ascension into heaven and promise that He is with us always.

In Matthew 1:1-16 we read the Genealogy of Jesus Christ.  We realize all these generations, no matter how great these people are in Israel’s history, have passed away.  None of them represents the abiding presence of God in the world.  In contrast to the generations is Emmanuel, God with us.  God’s presence with us  continues forever in Christ, and is not completely dependent on any one generation.  Each generation passes away but the Word of God lives forever.

“Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel” (which means, God with us).  (Matthew 1:23)

Matthew’s Gospel moves quickly from Christ’s birth to His temptation as an adult by Satan.  Satan tempts Christ with the claim that Satan himself has the power to give Christ all the kingdoms of the world and their glory.  Jesus rejects the offer and the claim.  Christ in fact will wrest any such power from Satan through His own death on the cross and through His resurrection from the dead.

Again, the devil took Jesus to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”   (Matthew 4:8 -9)

We see in Matthew’s Gospel it is Christ’s willingness to reject Satan’s offer and to reject the satanic ideas of power and glory which will lead to Christ’s receiving the glory of God.    Christ’s life  witnesses to the power and glory of God which is so different than worldly ideas of power.  So on Palm Sunday , Christ our king, rides humbly on a donkey into Jerusalem.  A few days later, Christ dies on the Cross as the King of Glory.

Then we come to the concluding words of Matthew’s Gospel:

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.”   (Matthew 28:16 -20)

St. Matthew begins his Gospel narrative telling us that Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us.  He ends his Gospel by having Jesus proclaim that He (Jesus) is with us always even to the end of the age.   We live in this presence of Christ even though we live between Christ’s two comings to earth.

3]   Liturgically we show our life between the incarnation and the second coming in the church by the way the icons are arranged and by our receiving the Body and Blood of Christ in this time between the two comings –   between the Icon of the Theotokos and the Icon of Christ which show us His incarnation and first coming, and His coming again in His Kingdom.

 

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)

Ascending to God

In this way we live in God. We remove our life from this visible world to that world which is not seen by exchanging, not the place, but the very life itself and its mode. It was not we ourselves who were moved towards God, nor did we ascend to him; but it was He who came and descended to us. It was not we who sought, but we were the object of His seeking. The sheep did not seek for the shepherd, nor did the lost coin search for the master of the house; He it was who came to the earth and retrieved His own image, and He came to the place where the sheep was straying and lifted it up and stopped it from straying.

He did not remove us from here but He made us heavenly while yet remaining on earth and imparted to us the heavenly life without leading us up to heaven, but by bending heaven to us and bringing it down. As the prophet says, “He bowed the heavens also, and came down” (Ps. 18:10).

(St Nicholas Cabasilias, The Life in Christ, p. 50)

The Universality of Death vs. the Inevitability of Sin

Every year at the beginning of Great Lent, the Orthodox Church remembers the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise.  This ancestral sin affected the course of the human race.

Adam and Eve, whether or not historical figures, symbolize all of humanity in its relationship to God.  Their story is our story, and each of our lives is their story.  Sin has become part of human life, and sin has corrupted human nature such that even an act of repentance cannot heal the wound to humanity.  None of this implies that humans have lost free will or responsibility for their own sins.  We are not destined to sin, for sin comes from each human will, not from human nature.  Human nature has only been corrupted by the consequences of sin – mortality has become part of our existence.  So we can note how did the early Church Fathers understand the role of sin in our lives?  Church historian  Jaroslav Pelikan writes:

“Despite all the strong language about sin, however, the fundamental problem of man was not sin, but his corruptibility.  The reason the incarnation was necessary was that man had not merely done wrong–for this, repentance would have sufficed– but had fallen into a corruption, a transiency that threatened him with annihilation.  As the agent of creation who had called man out of nothing, the Logos was also the one to rescue him from annihilation.  This the Logos did by taking flesh.

For this theology, it was the universality of death, not the inevitability of sin, that was fundamental.  The statement of Romans 5:14 that ‘death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam,’ was taken  to prove that there were many who had been ‘pure of every sin,’ such as Jeremiah and John the Baptist.  It was death and corruption that stood in the way of man’s participation in the divine nature, and these had to be overcome in the incarnation of the Logos.”

That various people in the Old and New Testaments are considered righteous gets forgotten in the tsunami which Augustine’s idea of original sin came to represent especially in Western Christianity.  So the texts of St. Paul in Romans 3:10, 23 seem to erase the claims of the rest of Scripture: “...as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one…” and “… since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…”   But human sinning did not mean that God no longer saw goodness in His creatures.  For even David is considered a man after God’s heart (1 Samuel 13:14).  Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Elijah, Daniel, Job, Zachariah, Elizabeth, John the Baptist, the Virgin Mary and Simeon the Elder just to name a few are righteous people in the Scriptures.  Instead of taking St. Paul’s words as the lens through which one must see all of humanity, we need to view St. Paul’s claims about all being sinners within the context of the entire Scriptures in which some people are identified as being righteous.  St. Paul himself acknowledges this in Romans 11:2-5 where he says:  “God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. Do you not know what the scripture says of Elijah, how he pleads with God against Israel? ‘Lord, they have killed thy prophets, they have demolished thy altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life.’ But what is God’s reply to him? ‘I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.’ So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace.” 

In 2 Chronicles 33 of the Septuagint, Manasseh prays:   “Surely, Lord, God of the heavenly Powers, You have not appointed repentance for the righteous, for Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, who did not sin against You; but You have appointed repentance for me a sinner.”

Since there are righteous people specifically named in the Scriptures, and some who may even be considered sinless, sinning is not the problem.  It is the fact that human nature has fallen under corruption, separated from God, we have become mortal beings.  It is from this that Christ comes to save us.  Focusing narrowly on “orginal sin” gives us an incomplete idea as to the salvation brought about by Jesus Christ.  Pelikan continues:

“… it is clear some fragments that have survived of a treatise AGAINST THE DEFENDERS OF ORIGINAL SIN by Theodore Mopsuestia that he ‘reiterates in effect that it is only nature which can be inherited, not sin, which is the disobedience of the free and unconstrained will.’ Despite their fundamental differences, the theory of the hypostatic union and the theory of the indwelling of the Logos both concentrated on death rather than on sin.”

(THE EMERGENCE OF THE CATHOLIC TRADITION (100-600), pp 285-286)

Pelikan’s last point is that in the Christian East, the two main competing schools of thought in interpreting the Scriptures, the Alexandrians and the Antiochians, though their teachings conflicted were still in agreement that death and not sin was the human problem.  And though the Church East and West agreed on the theology of the hypostatic union against the indwelling of the Logos, all those disputants (Orthodox and heretic, Chalcedonian and Non-Chalcedonian) still thought the greater human problems was death rather than sin.  The Eastern tradition as a whole, and much of the West in accepting the decision of the 4th Ecumenical Council all embrace this same idea which in some ways is a rejection of the implications of “original sin” that Christ came mostly to pay the price for sin rather than to destroy death.

2017 Nativity of Christ (PDF)

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I have gathered all of the 2017 posts from my Blog related to the Nativity Fast and the Feast of the Nativity of Christ into one PDF, which is now available at 2017 Nativity Posts (PDF).

Each year I gather related posts into a PDF  for the Nativity, Great Lent, Holy Week and Pascha and other themes.   You can find a list of all the PDFs I’ve created since 2008 related to scripture, feasts or other Orthodox topics at  Fr. Ted’s PDFs.

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)

Nothing is as Sacred as a Human Being

“There is nothing as sacred as a human being, whose nature God Himself has shared.”  (St. Nicholas Cabasilas)

“The glory of God is a living human being.” (St. Irenaeus of Lyons)

Christmas focuses on the incarnation of our God.  And the incarnation is the most amazing act of God – for God sees in humanity something so sacred that God desires to be united to humanity.  The Holy God wishes to share in human nature because God sees in humanity something lovely and holy and blessed.  God chooses to share in human nature.  This is the mystery of the God of love which results in the incarnation – results in the Nativity of Christ.

St. John Chrysostom describes it this way in a homily:

And in what manner was the almighty with her, Who in a little while came forth from her? He was as the craftsman, who coming on some suitable material, fashions to himself a beautiful vessel; so Christ, finding the holy body and soul of the Virgin, builds for Himself a living temple, and as He had willed, formed there a man from the Virgin; and, putting Him on, this day came forth; unashamed of the loveliness of our nature. For it was to Him no lowering to put on what he Himself had made. Let that handiwork be forever glorified, which became the cloak of its own Creator. For as in the first creation of flesh, man could not be made before the clay had come into His hand, so neither could this corruptible body be glorified, until it had first become the garment of its Maker.

As Chrysostom envisions Christmas, Christ Himself as Creator fashions the body in the Virgin’s womb that He Himself will take for Himself.  God is able to see in humanity something so holy that God wishes to be united to the holiness of humanity.  God chooses to share His natural holiness with the humans created in God’s image and likeness.

Chrysostom goes on:

What shall I say! And how shall I describe this Birth to you? For this wonder fills me with astonishment. The Ancient of days has become an infant. He Who sits upon the sublime and heavenly Throne, now lies in a manger. And He Who cannot be touched, Who is simple, without complexity, and incorporeal, now lies subject to the hands of men. He Who has broken the bonds of sinners, is now bound by an infant’s bands. But He has decreed that ignominy shall become honor, infamy be clothed with glory, and total humiliation the measure of His Goodness.

For this He assumed my body, that I may become capable of His Word; taking my flesh, He gives me His spirit; and so He bestowing and I receiving, He prepares for me the treasure of Life. He takes my flesh, to sanctify me; He gives me His Spirit that He may save me.”   (St. John Chrysostom)

The mystery and the amazement continues.  For God chooses to unite Himself to humanity while human nature is still subject to the power of sin and death.  God doesn’t choose perfect and sinless human nature before the Fall, but accepts human nature as it is in the world.  God enters into the human condition and does not create a special humanity and a special world free of sin, temptation, violence, evil, suffering, sorrow or death.  God enters into the world that we experience with all of its suffering and sorrow and accepts our human nature.  God enters into our lives and embraces the same life that we all share.  God is not distant and transcendent, but near you where you are .

Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.  (Hebrews 2:14-18)

There is nothing as sacred as a human being.  Even an imperfect human, a sinner, a flawed person, one beset with temptation.  For God every human being is sacred – no matter who I am, no matter what I think about myself, or what others think about me.  In God’s eyes, I am still sacred, holy.  I am to be what God is.  “Be holy for I am holy, ” says the Lord (1 Peter 1:16).  This is why God became incarnate.  God became human because God sees humans as having a holiness to which God wishes to unit Himself.  God did not avoid the fallen, sinful world, but entered into and shared our life in this world.

The Eucharist and Christmas

“In his worldly obedience he emptied himself, and his emptying is the only example for our path.  God who became a child, God who fled into Egypt to escape Herod,

God who sought friends and disciples in this world, God who wept from the depths of his spirit over Lazarus, who denounced the pharisees, who spoke of the fate of Jerusalem, who drove out demons, healed the sick, raised the dead, who finally, and most importantly gave his flesh and blood as food for the world, lifted up his body on the cross between the two thieves – when and at what moment did his example teach us about inner walls that separate us from the world?  He was in the world with all his Godmanhood, not with some secondary properties.  He did not keep himself, he gave himself without stint.  ‘This is my body, which is broken for you‘ – shed to the end.  

In the sacrament of the eucharist, Christ gave himself, his God-man’s body, to the world, or rather, he united the world with himself in the communion with his God-man’s body.  He made it into Godmanhood.”  (St. Maria of Parish, Mother Maria Skobtsova: Essential Writings, p. 78)