Incarnation of the Word
When it comes to understanding the principles behind why God chose to take flesh dwell with us and then die on our behalf, no one to this day has explained it better than St. Athanasius in his small book on the incarnation.
What follows is a brief summary of parts of this book. It is important to fully understand these concepts as they form the framework we build our understanding of God on. They are principles of truth of our Lord; we use this knowledge to launch our contemplative and prayerful life, allowing us to develop a deep and rich spiritual life. Refreshing our memories and clarifying forgotten points allows us to prepare for the feasts of the Nativity and Resurrection and brings these joyful occasions to life in the correct and complete way. Also having a firm understanding of these principles means we are in a strong position to be witnesses to our Lord to the entire world with courage, truth and confidence.
When God created the world and the entire universe He did so through His Word. It is important to recognise that this is the same Word that becomes incarnate as Jesus Christ later on. It is also important to note that He is the true creator of all things. We credit God not as a builder who took the materials to produce what we see, but as the creator who made matter itself making something from nothing at all, a feat only possible by an Almighty and Infinite God.
Apart from making the earth, heavens and all living creatures both spiritual and physical, we must understand exactly who we are in His creation. For we stand apart from all living things according to the most important and beautiful verse in Genesis “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness” Gen 1:26 (the “Our likeness” refers to the presence of the all Holy Trinity). We actually share in the qualities of God, we resemble Him like a son can be recognised because he looks or behaves just like his father. We are also the same, when we look at each other closely our inner nature resembles that of our creator. We resemble him in our capability to love and sacrifice for each other and for these reasons we should not be surprised by verses in the epistles calling us to live our lives as if it is Christ who lives and not us: “it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” Gal 2:20. Nor should we think it unrealistic when it says “Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect” Matt 5:48. Our very nature is truly remarkable and is worthy of much more contemplation, as it is a lesser but direct image of God. I have not mentioned the two most important qualities in us that come as a result of being in the image of God: we are free and immortal. We were made to be free so as to ensure we are capable of true love as this is what truly makes us the most like God, of course this means we can also chose to not live with God and try things our own way as ultimately did happen. But also we are immortal; we were never meant to die, Gods original intention for us is that we would live forever and with Him.
Along with this original intention of God, He set us in a place on earth to live forever and a law so that we may demonstrate our commitment to Him by choosing to follow this law. So in Paradise we were told not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Most would agree this is hardly an oppressive or controlling law especially as it was the only one.
This puts us under a heavenly law and in Gods domain and provided we chose to stay we would live forever with Him. If however, we decide we don’t want to remain under the heavenly law and do our own thing. We abandon our God given right to live with Him and fall under earthly law. This is precisely what happened by the guile of the devil we disobeyed the heavenly law and as a result lost our right to dwell in the presence of God. We lost our connection with God and fell under an earthly law. Living bound by the earth we also lost our immortality; we would have to face death. Remember that death is a separation from God so becomes a state in which we exist in permanent corruption.
Moving from heavenly to earthly and from incorruptible to corruptible, we truly put our selves in a hopeless state. Sin started as disobeying God but without His light and love to guide us things very quickly went down hill. Our driving forces became greed, lust and selfish ambition. Murder, rape, theft and oppression became the human way. Man already bound to death was on the road to destruction. Man is not excused for his behaviour for despite loosing sight of God our natures still were similar to His and our sense of right and wrong never left us but rather became suppressed and perverted. “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools,and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things. Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves, who exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” Rom 1:20-25.
Mankind has lost his way and we are all bound to death. But God created all things for us; we are the masterpiece in His creation. We were a great joy to Him and His love for us is immeasurable. God’s love does not let Him ignore the fact that we are heading for destruction. Even if we were to turn around and repent it will do nothing to take us off the road to death. For the most heartfelt repentance does not have any bearing in justice. It will not account for the damage done and the penalty will not be paid. It makes no sense to accept the heartfelt apology of a murderer as an acceptable repayment for his crimes. A prison sentence must be carried out. So the fact remains that man must die even if he no longer wants to and has tried his very best to live worthy of God.
This leaves a big question for God is it possible to accept the death of one person on behalf of all others?
To be possible this man would have to be able to represent all mankind. It may be possible for a father to step in and pay the debt of his son. It may even be acceptable for the sins of a whole nation to be paid by those in charge only. But no one can claim they are able to represent all mankind. This can only be true of the father of all mankind who can represent every man. That is why it is important to say the Word became flesh; Jesus Christ is the Word who created all things and as such can represent the entire human race.
The second point is that the man who dies has to also be incorruptible, immortal and has full access to heaven. This is essential as He will not only die on our behalf but will have to restore us back to our original nature. Only God can do this as only He has the power to turn our natures that went from godly to earthly back to being godly (from corruptible to incorruptible again).
Hence the incorruptible Word of God became a man revealing Himself again to a world that had long forgotten Him and reminded mankind that it was and is again a Godly and wonderful thing to be human beings.
The next question is how should God complete this task? He could just appear in the flesh as a fully-grown man or fly down from heaven. But remember if He is to represent mankind than He must also be fully man. So He came into this world just like every single one of us, after nine months in the womb and as a baby with all the weakness and dependence of a newborn child. He came in like us and would go out like us. This satisfied the need for a man in the complete sense to die for all men, “Thus he would make death disappear from them as utterly as straw from fire” St. Athanasius. “But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, for the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that He, by the grace of God, might taste death for everyone”. Heb 2:9
God born as a man
During the Christmas period we should stop to think what a wonderful thing it is that our Lord became a child and grew up just like us. Imagine someone highly powerful or famous coming into our church one day. They don’t make a scene and don’t act better than any of us. In fact they just become a normal member of the church loving, generous and completely unimpressive. What does that do to the image of this famous person? Does it lower him to our standards? It does not make that person any less to be with us in fact it does the exact opposite we ourselves feel elevated and are made to feel the more special by him. Imagine what God taking flesh does to us? It certainly does not decrease God at all, it tells us that God does not consider it beneath Him to become just like us. It tells us that He wants to see us behave, feel and act more like Him. Our nature is blessed and worthy of God Himself. We must take great comfort and joy in the fact that we are worth saving, it is worth striving for goodness because God thinks we are worth it and how better to demonstrate that than He Himself becoming just like us!
In the readings of the third weak of Kiahk Psalm 85:10 says, “Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other”. For it was in the moment of the incarnation that we saw how God would combine His mercy and love for us while satisfying His absolute justice. It is His commitment and His immeasurable love for us that is revealed to us when He shows us just what He is prepared to do for us. In fact the true meaning of the incarnation is distorted and meaningless if it is not seen as the advent of love. It is love that draws God to us and drives all His actions throughout the universe, love compels Him to answer the sacrifice required of our sins, love drives Him to become our personal shepherd as He cannot bear to see us in despair and lost.
Not only does He delight in being just like us physically. As far as He is concerned the moment He died on the cross was the moment we died to our lives and He expected us to take over and carry on just like Him. “For the love of Christ compels us, because we judge thus: that if One died for all, then all died” 2 Cor 5:14, “Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory” Col 3:2-4.
Think also what having God on earth with us does to our relationship with Him. Remember we had fallen far from what He had originally planted (psalm 80). We neglected to maintain any proper relationship with God and that lack of communication led to a depraved and dark existence where we made our own rules and our own Gods to satisfy our desires.
So the path back to God had to be re-established again. St Athanasius comments on three ways God did this:
First through the few people that did not loose sight of God, these were the priests and prophets of the Old Testament who showed them the correct way and emphasised strongly just how dangerous sin was.
Secondly through the law, this was to be the torch in the dark, if it could be followed in obedience and love God would dwell with them. Of these two St. Athanasius says “Prophets and the law were a sacred school of the knowledge of God and the conduct of the spiritual life for the whole world”.
Thirdly Only God in the flesh could truly show us what we once were; it is like a re-creation of an original image. He uses the example of a portrait that has worn away with time to look dark and faded. The painter will take this painting and bring back the person in the same pose and will restore the same painting back to its former glory. This was the effect of our Lord dwelling on earth with us.
“The Word became flesh in order to make man receptive to His Divinity. He became poor in order that we, through His poverty, might become rich. He descended that He might raise us up. He was tempted that we might conquer. He accepted the worst, to give us the best.” St. Athanasius. Ultimately, the purpose of Christ’s Nativity is that we might find our original calling to be re-made in His image, to be re-made to such an extent that we actually are born anew.
Points on the nature of God as a man
Being the word He did not cease to still be everywhere and in all things. He never at any stage ceased to have knowledge of all and be in complete control of all. He took a body but maintained to be the source of life for all.
His body was not a limitation but an instrument. Being a man did not lessen Him in any way instead it sanctified and blessed St. Mary for bearing Him.
As a man His body required Him to eat, drink and sleep.
We say that the life-giving flesh that are Lord took was made one with His Divinity without mingling, without confusion and without alteration a complete Hypostatic Union.
Saint Cyril teaches that inside the virginal womb the human and divine natures were united as one nature “The One Nature of God the Incarnate Logos”. St Cyril taught us not to separate the two natures of Christ in our understanding of Him but to recognise the unity of the two as one hypostatically
This phrase has been misinterpreted to say that we only believe in one nature rejecting either His Humanity or Divinity but this one nature of Christ is in fact a combination of His complete Divinity and complete Humanity in a unity that cannot be fully expressed with words alone. As a result of this misunderstanding we had been labelled as heretics and “monophysites” since the council of Chalcedon (5th Century). This misunderstanding occurred in complex circumstances confused by violence and secondary agendas. Fortunately this misunderstanding between the Oriental and Eastern Orthodox has been mostly addressed in the 21st Century and most people no longer label us “monophysites”.
Lots is written on this theological point and the heresies and disagreements throughout history, if you which to study this subject in detail I recommend you start by reading the article written by H.H Pope Shenouda on the Nature of Christ.