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)

Refashioning Corrupted Adam

Orthodox liturgical hymnography gives us a full picture of the theological meaning of the Christmas Feast: the incarnation of God means the salvation of humanity.

The background picture is this: sin separates us from God. Christ who is God the Son has come and overcome sin and all its consequences so that humanity is no longer separated from God. This is the Good News. God has decided to bring an end to the enmity between humans and God.  All that separates humanity from divinity is taken away in the incarnation,  and then Christ in His death, resurrection and ascension completely reunites earth to heaven, humanity to God, creation to Creator.  Salvation is made possible because God has decided to enter into the human condition and to become human in order to unite humanity to God.  Vassilios Papavassiliou quoting various Orthodox hymns tells us exactly what Orthodoxy understands from the Christmas Feast:

“The New Adam

The Creator has come, raising up mankind from the earth, making His royal image new again! (Matins of the Forefeast, December 20, third hymn of the Praises)

AT THE HEART OF THE FEAST of the Nativity is the proclamation that Christ has come to restore Adam to Paradise:

Christ comes voluntarily to serve; the Creator now receives the image of impoverished Adam, enriching him with divinity, and granting him a strange restoration and regeneration, for He is compassionate. (Triode of Compline of the Forefeast, December 20, first ode)

Come, let us rejoice in the Lord, as we tell of the present mystery. The middle wall of partition has been destroyed; the flaming sword turns back, the cherubim withdraw from the tree of life; and I partake of the delight of Paradise, from which I was cast out through disobedience. For the express Image of the Father, the Imprint of His eternity, takes the form of a servant, and without change He comes forth from a Mother who did not know wedlock. For what He was, He has remained: true God; and what He was not, He has taken upon Himself, becoming man through love for mankind. To Him let us cry: O God, who was born of a Virgin, have mercy on us. (Vespers of the Nativity, first hymn of the Stichera)

When He saw that the one in His image and likeness had fallen through transgression, Jesus bowed the heavens and came down and made His dwelling in a virgin womb without change, thereby refashioning corrupted Adam, who cried out: Glory to Your epiphany, my Redeemer and my God! (Fourth hymn of the Lity of the Nativity)

Man fell from the divine and better life. Though made in the Image of God, through transgression he became subject to decay. Him the wise Creator now refashions, for He has been glorified. (First ode of the Canon of the Nativity)

(Meditations for Advent: Preparing for Christ’s Birth, Kindle Loc. 765-81)

The Genesis account of Adam and Eve tell us more about Christ than they do about the origins of the human race.  We come to understand Adam and Eve in the event of the Nativity of Christ – the incarnation in the flesh of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ.  Rather than trying to discover the scientific beginnings of humanity in Genesis, we should be reading it to understand who Jesus Christ is and how He is our salvation.  If we read Genesis as if it is science, we miss the truth that it contains about Christ.  It is what Jesus made so abundantly clear:  “You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote of me” (John 5:39-46).  Moses was credited with writing Genesis.  Jesus said Moses wrote about Jesus, not a secular history of mankind.  The Genesis account of the creation of Adam is given so that we might understand who Jesus is.

The words and the Word of God

Though for many Christians today “the Word of God” means a book of Scriptures or the Bible, in the Bible itself the Word of God is associated with a spoken word or a word we hear but not a written word.  Or, as early Christians would come to understand it “the Word of God” means the Second Person of the Holy Trinity especially obvious in chapter 1 of John’s Gospel but also in the Old Testament prophets when the Word of the Lord comes too them and speaks to them.  The Word of God has power to act and enact while the written word bears witness to the Word of God which is heard and obeyed.

Just read the Acts of the Apostles to get a sense of this.   The Word of God is spoken (4:31, 13:46), preached (6:2),  received (8:14, 11:1), proclaimed (13:5), sought (13:7), heard (13:44), glorified (13:48) and taught (18:11).  The Word of God both increases (6:7) as well as  grows & multiplies (12:24).  Clearly the Word of God is not a book but something more.  As it says in Hebrews 4:12 – “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”  There is a relationship between the written letters on a page and the Word of God, but the Word of God is living, is a spiritual force.  For Christians the Word of God is Jesus Christ, the God who becomes incarnate as a human (John 1:14).

Look at 2 Chronicles 34:21-

“Go, inquire of the LORD for me and for those who are left in Israel and in Judah, concerning the words of the book that has been found; for great is the wrath of the LORD that is poured out on us, because our fathers have not kept the word of the LORD, to do according to all that is written in this book.”

King Josiah sees the writings in the book that the priest reads to him, not as the Word of the Lord but rather the written word in the book is what the Word of the Lord commanded.  Or, perhaps, the written word is simply what needed to be done to show that people listened to the Word of God and obeyed.  But the written word is not equivalent to the Word of God.  Rather the written word bears witness to the Word of God.  We see a similar thing in the New Testament when Jesus says to Satan:

“It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.'”    (Matthew 4:4)

What is written is not the Word of God but rather only the commandments related to how people should live.  The written word bears witness to the Word of God.   Which is what Jesus teaches in John 5:39-46 –

You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me; yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. … If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote of me.

As Jesus understands Torah, Torah is about Jesus.  Moses in writing the books of the Law was really writing about Jesus.  Moses is a prophet who bears witness to Jesus more than a historian writing the narration of human history.

We see an interesting relationship between the Word of God and a written word in Exodus.  “Moses came and told the people all the words of the LORD and all the ordinances; and all the people answered with one voice, and said, ‘All the words which the LORD has spoken we will do.’ And Moses wrote all the words of the LORD.”  (Exodus 24:3-4)    Moses comes to the people and tells them the words of the Lord – God’s word is spoken and to be heard.  Only after all the people hear the words and agree to obey them does Moses write them down.  They are not put into a written form until the people agree to do them.  The covenant will involve a written agreement, but the Word of God must first be heard and willingly accepted as that which is to be obeyed; Only then is it put into writing.   After this, the written covenant is accepted again this time in ritual worship – it is sanctified as the people once more agree to it: “Then Moses took the book of the covenant, and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, ‘All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.’ And Moses took the blood and threw it upon the people, and said, ‘Behold the blood of the covenant which the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.’”  (Exodus 24:7-8)

It is the same for us today, for in the Liturgy again we have the Blood of Christ and the spoken Word proclaimed and we agree to God’s new covenant.  And interestingly the very next thing that happens in Exodus is a meal eaten before God:

Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, and they saw the God of Israel; and there was under his feet as it were a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness. And he did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; they beheld God, and ate and drank. (Exodus 24:9-11)

It is only after Moses spoke God’s words to the people and the people agreed to obey that the covenant was confirmed in liturgical ritual that involved blood. Only after all of this does God speak about putting His words into writing.  In Exodus 24:12, we read:  The LORD said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tables of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.”  But even then another 40 days will pass before it happens (Exodus 24:18).

Only in Exodus 31 does God finally write the words which Moses proclaimed to the people and wrote down for the people.  But first God tells Moses he must once again proclaim (verbally) these words of the perpetual covenant.  Only then do we read in Exodus 31:18 – And he gave to Moses, when he had made an end of speaking with him upon Mount Sinai, the two tables of the testimony, tables of stone, written with the finger of God.

In Deuteronomy 9:10-11 we read another version of this same narrative:

And the LORD gave me the two tables of stone written with the finger of God; and on them were all the words which the LORD had spoken with you on the mountain out of the midst of the fire on the day of the assembly. And at the end of forty days and forty nights the LORD gave me the two tables of stone, the tables of the covenant.

God’s Word is first spoken, it was written down by God on the stone tablets only after the people agreed to the terms of the covenant.  Moses was to smash God’s written words, the stone tablets,  when the people disobeyed God even before Moses could bring the written word to them.  But even tablets of stone written by  God’s own hand were not permanent and cannot be equated with God’s word.  For as it says in  1 Peter 1:24 -25 – ‘The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord abides for ever.That word is the good news which was preached to you.”

God’s Word cannot be equated with a written form.  God’s Word is not coterminous with the scriptures for the scriptures bear witness to God’s Word.  The Word of God is Jesus Christ.

There Is No Other Way to Learn the Things of God

“For in no other way could we have learned the things of God, unless our Master, existing as the Word, had become man. For no other being had the power of revealing to us the things of the Father, except His own proper Word. For what other person knew the mind of the Lord, or who else has become His counselor? (Rom 11:34). Again, we could have learned in no other way than by seeing our Teacher, and hearing His voice with our own ears, that, having become imitators of His works as well as doers of His words, we may have communion with Him…”

(St Irenaeus, from The Christian Life in the Early Church, p. 12)

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)

The Annunciation (2019)

Two thoughts about the Annunciation from the Patristic era.  First, Origen (d 254) taught that “Mary’s holy confession in Luke 1:38 (“I am a handmaid of the Lord”) should be taken to mean “I am a tablet on which to be written.” (Elizabeth A. Clark, Reading Renunciation, p. 59).  Mary as Scripture is a beautiful image not only of her but of how Scriptures are an incarnation of the Word, and Mary is the living Scriptures on whom the word is written: “ … written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Corinthians 3:3).   Not only does she keep God’s word written in the Law with all her heart (see Deuteronomy 30:10; 2 Kings 23:3; 2 Chronicles 34:31), her heart becomes the Scriptures on which God’s Word is written which enables the Word to become flesh (John 1:14

St Ambrose of Milan (d 397) commenting on Luke 1:41 writes:

And it came to pass that, when Elizabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the infant leaped in her womb.

Note the distinctness of each of these words, and their particular significance. Elizabeth was the first to hear her voice; but John was the first to be aware of the divine favor. She heard in the natural manner; he leaped for joy because of the Mystery. She sees Mary’s coming, he the Coming of the Lord. (The Sunday Sermons of the Great Fathers, p. 412)

The Theotokos Weaves our Salvation

In a famous fifth-century homily delivered at Constantinople (the centre of fine weaving in the eastern Roman world) St. Proclos called her [the Theotokos]

The awe-inspiring loom of the Incarnation on which the weaver, the Holy Spirit, ineffably wove the garment of the hypostatic union. The overshadowing power from on high was the interconnective thread of the weave; the ancient fleece of Adam was the wool; the undefiled flesh from the virgin was the threaded woof; and the shuttle – no less than the immeasurable gracefulness of her who bore him. Over all stood the Logos, that consummate artist.”

(John Anthony McGuckin, The Orthodox Church: An Introduction to its History Doctrine and Spiritual Culture, p. 222)

How God Speaks to Us in Scripture

EphremSt. Ephrem of Syria offers us some insight regarding how Scriptures might be the Word of God.  The question is how can God who is invisible, incomprehensible, inconceivable and ineffable still be able to communicate with us creatures? Isn’t God so transcendent as to be beyond our capabilities for communicating with the Divine?  For Ephrem the answer is that “God speaks to humanity through the biblical text, allowing himself, as it were, to become incarnated into human language.”  As the Evangelist John tells, “The Word became flesh” (J0hn 1:14). The incarnation of God is the key – creation is capable of bearing God, thus God can become incarnate in ways which make divinity accessible to us.  The biblical text is one such way in which God chooses to reveal Himself to us.

“God, stirred by love for his creation, has himself crossed this gap and entered the created world, allowing himself to be described in human terms and in human language in the Bible. Thus, before becoming incarnate in the human body, he first became incarnate in human language, or, in Ephrem’s own homely metaphor or clothing, God put on names.’ or metaphors, in the Old Testament, just as subsequently he ‘put on a body’ at the incarnation. Of great importance for Ephrem in all this is the fact that God is not forcing himself on humanity; rather, he is deliberately encouraging the use of his gift to humanity of free will. …

Christ the Wisdom of God

The very fact that the biblical text moves from on metaphor for God to another should be a sufficient warning against any such misconception. Thus, instead of fixing one’s mind on the literal meaning of the metaphors, one should allow these metaphors to act as pointers upwards, as it were, towards the hiddenness of God, whose true nature cannot be described by, let alone contained in, human language.” (Sebastian Brock & George A. Kiraz, Ephrem the Syrian: Select Poems, pp 16-17) 


The Prophet and The Word of God

The Prophet Joel is commemorated in the Orthodox Church on October 19th each year. Old Testament Professor Terence E. Fretheim describes the relationship that a prophet of God has with the Word of God:

“God does not, as in the older theophanies, just appear, speak a word, and then leave. God leaves the word behind imbedded in the prophet. God calls the prophet to take the word received and embody that word from the moment of the call onward. The prophet, in effect, is called to function as an ongoing theophany. In the prophet we see a development from the more transient messenger of God to a more extended appearance of the Word of God in human form. One can thus now speak, not only of the participation of God in the appearance of the human, but also in the history of the human. The story of God is lived out in the story of the prophet.”The Suffering of God: An Old Testament Perspective, pp 151-152)

In some ways Fretheim is describing what in Orthodoxy is sometimes called the pre-Incarnation of the Word:  centuries before God became flesh in Jesus Christ, the Word of God was being manifested in the world in various ways.

“In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high …”  (Hebrews 1:1-3)

St. Paul writes that “the truth of Christ is in me(2 Corinthians 11:10).    The Word of God became incarnate in Christ Jesus the Savior, and continues to come and dwell in believers!


Humans: Flesh and Body (IV)

This is the 21st blog in this series which began with the blog Being and Becoming Human. The previous blog is Humans: Flesh and Body (III).  In this blog we will consider a few more authors who mention the connection between being human and having a body of flesh.

“Christian thinkers affirmed without qualification that in the absence of a body a soul is not a person.”  (Robert Wilken, THE SPIRIT OF EARLY CHRISTIAN THOUGHT, p 159)

As previously noted, a body without a soul is a corpse, and a soul without a body might be a ghost, but neither is human.  After His resurrection, Jesus tells the “startled and terrified” disciples:  “Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”  (Luke 24:39, NRSV)

The essential connection between flesh and soul/spirit is clear in the biblical narratives of God creating humans , in the Christian theology of the incarnation in which the Word becomes flesh and in the soteriology of theosis.   Poet Scott Cairns  beautifully weaves together the Orthodox theology of body and soul with poetic artistry.  [I often think it is the poetic nature of portions of Scripture and the hymnology of the Orthodox Church which will rescue Orthodoxy from being lured into the temptation of American fundamentalist biblical literalism.  Poetry reminds us that beauty and truth are the same realities.]   Cairns lyrically proclaims the truth of Orthodoxy:

“The tender flesh itself

will be found one day

—quite surprisingly—

to be capable of receiving,

and yes, fully

capable of embracing

the searing energies of God.

Go figure. Fear not.

For even at its beginning

the humble clay received

God’s art, whereby

One part became the eye,

another the ear, and yet

another this impetuous hand.

Therefore, the flesh

Is not to be excluded

From the wisdom and the power

That now and ever animates

all things.  His life-giving

agency is made perfect,

we are told, in weakness—

made perfect in the flesh.


Many people have recognized the poetic nature of Genesis 1, made clear in the Septuagint because of the etymological connection in Greek between poetry and creating or making.   In the beginning God makes (poetizes, if you will) the entire universe.  In the poetic language of Genesis and in biblical thinking as we have already seen the flesh and spirit are not dualistically opposed to one another but rather exist harmoniously as a whole with the human being an ensouled body or embodied soul.

“Ancient Hebrew thought is not dualistic, and so flesh is not opposed to “soul” or “spirit” as the material “body” is in Greek philosophy. The latter idea shows itself in modern thought as the body/soul dichotomy and divides the human being into the physical and the nonphysical. Although the Hebrew idea of “flesh” is transitory as belonging only to mortal life, it is not the same as our modern connotation of “body.” In fact, Paul does use the term “body,” but for him it is a completely neutral term that encompasses all of one’s concrete earthly life, good and bad, as when Paul says, “glorify God in your body” (1 Cor 6:20).”   (Elliott Maloney , Saint Paul, Kindle Loc. 338-42)

Fr. John Breck reiterates the same truth:

“From a biblical perspective a person does not ‘have’ a soul, in the sense that the soul is an independent entity that enters or is ‘infused’ into a physical body at some specific moment: at conception, at implantation, at birth or whenever.  The human person, rather, is characterized as a ‘living’ being’ (Gen 2:7), which means a ‘living  soul.’  Soul is the transcendent aspect of our being.  Although we speak of the ‘separation of soul and body’ at physical death, the soul is still not to be considered an entity distinct from the body.  (More accurately, it is distinct from the ‘flesh,’ which ‘is dust and returns to dust’).   In other words, we do not ‘have’ a soul; we ‘are’ soul.  Soul is the transcendent, animating principle of our entire being.”     (GOD WITH US, p 51)

Modern thought is far more dualistic than biblical thinking.  The physical side of being human is also spiritual, capable of being transformed and transfigured by the Spirit as well as capable of partaking of divinity (2 Peter 2:4).

“The soul is very closely connected with the body.  … The soul is everywhere in man’s body.  The fact that the soul gives life to the body joined to it proves that man was made in God’s image to a greater degree than were the angels. . . . there is a clear distinction between the soul and the body, but it is not possible for both of them to exist independently of each other.  Furthermore, even at death the soul ‘is violently separated from the harmony and affinity of this natural bond’.  And this separation occurs ‘by divine will’.  Thus the soul is not man but the soul of man; and the body is not man, but the body of man.  Man consists of soul and body, he is a psychobiological being.  Therefore, the body will be deified also and it will be resurrected at the Second Coming and will pass into eternity.”  (Archimandrite Hierotheos Vlachos, THE ILLNESS AND CURE OF THE SOUL IN THE ORTHODOX TRADITION , pp 62-63)

So the empirical and corporeal world are made spiritual in the human because the human soul is the interface point between God and the physical world.  The human is the mediator between God and God’s creation.   However, Christianity recognizes that the world we live in is the world of the Fall, and human flesh has been tainted by sin.  So Orthodox Tradition speaks negatively of the works of the flesh which is understood in terms of the Fall – that will and energy in humans which has defiantly separated itself from the God of love.

“From the perspective of the Church, its Holy Tradition, and its reading of the Scriptures, the works of the flesh are not part of our human nature as God created us and wants us to be.  They are the results of wrong choices on our part.  It is true that repeated choices allowing us to succumb to the life of the flesh can become ingrained and sometimes even vicious habits.  These habits can control us to the point that we feel our behaviors are somehow natural to us.  However, they are really the most unnatural behaviors for people created in the image and likenss of God.”  (Stanley Harakas, OF LIFE AND SALVATION, p 105)

Living according to the flesh theologically means living only FOR one’s mortal nature, living merely as animal devoid of spirit.

“In today’s existentialist language we might explain flesh as the condition of any human person reacting defensively when left to him or herself and bereft of God’s help and encountering the menace of nonbeing and finitude (Gorgulho and Anderson 2006, 72). Such a person lives in a way that safeguards the ego and thereby closes off the higher calling of God’s will.”   (Elliott Maloney , Saint Paul, Kindle Loc. 354-56)

Sin and death can cause humans to live purely in a self-preservation mode which causes us to abandon love for others.  In such a mode of life the abandonment of love cuts the self off from relationships with others.  This is the very notion of what happened to Eve in choosing to eat the forbidden fruit.  “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, and he ate” (Genesis 3:6). From a selfish, self-centered, egotistical and narcissistic point of view, Eve sees the fruit as good for her.  She blinds herself to what her action will do to her relationships with  God, Adam and the rest of creation.  When one lives for oneself, one lives in self-love which is the opposite of true love, and dehumanizes the human who is created to live not alone but in relationship to God and all creation.  The practice of Confession is our acknowledgment of the ways in which we have abandoned love and become inhuman.   We confess our sins in order to repent and restore both sanity and humanity to ourselves.

As Eve and then Adam rejected both God and love, choosing to live according to the flesh, so they abandoned the Spirit and their own humanity.  Adam was made human by God inbreathing the breathe of life into the clay of the earth (Genesis 2).  So humans return to the dust when they lose the spirit.   In Christ, in and through the mysteries of baptism, chrismation and the Eucharist, we are reunited to the Spirit of God and recreated as humans.

“Christians now receive a ‘certain portion’ … of the Spirit towards their perfection and preparation for incorruptibility . . . Irenaeus is emphatic, as one would expect, that this takes place in  the flesh: they become spiritual not by abandoning the flesh, but by being ‘in the Spirit’, having the Spirit dwelling in them.  As Adam became a psychical being, flesh animated by the breath of life given from God, so too, by the imparting of the Holy Spirit, do Christians become spiritual beings, flesh vivified by the Spirit.”   (John Behr, ASCETICISM AND ANTHROPOLOGY IN IRENAEUS AND CLEMENT, p 75)

Next:  Humans as Relational and Communal Beings