Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh

Orthodoxy. Talk 4

3 May 1967
Theme: Christ, The Incarnation   Place: The Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Serguis   Period: 1966-1970   Genre: Talk

We have been speaking for a certain time about the revelation of God, and I think I have insisted enough, if not too much, on the fact that the revelation of God is always correlative with the revelation of man. I remind you of the analogy which has been at the root of our discussions, that of the stained-glass window, which, on the one hand, reveals the light beyond or behind it and at the same time is revealed by this light. No light behind the stained-glass windows – no colour, no lines, no vision of beauty. At the same time, no stained-glass window, – no perception of light in its rich complexity.

And today I would like to say something, because of the period of the year in which we are, about the revelation of God in Christ, which I think is one of the most striking examples of this theme, of this correlative revelation. On the one hand, God reveals himself to us in the Incarnation; on the other hand he reveals to us what man is, is capable of, can be and can be revealed only through the Incarnation. On the one hand , he reveals himself, but we must be careful to understand what we mean by this revelation of God’s. The simplest way of thinking of it, the way in which we tend to think of it and in which piety thinks of it very often, is that God who was thought of as being transcendent, unapproachable, beyond understanding, etc., in the Incarnation becomes so close, so familiar. To put it in a way perhaps too simple, very often people have an impression that now that they see the crib they can see the whole of God in the shape of a child, that their God can be handled, can be held, is there. Well, this is true. On the one hand the fulness of Godhead abides in the flesh, is revealed in the flesh, but on the other hand this revelation is anything but a limitation of God: it does not mean that God who is all eternity, all immensity, all of a sudden in the act of Incarnation becomes a small child and that the One who was beyond being known, suddenly becomes small enough for us to know him, to hold him, to perceive him totally.

There is something else in this revelation, as in every revelation. On the one hand, God makes himself known in a new way, and that is what we call revelation when we think of it. On the other hand, every time God reveals himself in a new way he appears to us more mysterious, more unthinkable perhaps than he was before, because to a human mind it is infinitely easier to think of God in philosophical terms of eternity, immensity, to think of God as being totally transcendental, than to imagine that without ceasing to be all, that he can unite himself to things visible, enter into history, become our King.

The Incarnation of the Lord in that respect shows us something quite new about God, but something more unfathomable, more incredible, than the great God of Heaven whom one could invent. Also in the given particular case there is something more to it. Men have always tried, when they thought of God, of their gods, to endow their gods or their God with all the possible qualities which they admired. It was greatness, it was goodness, it was equity, it was power, it was immortality, etc. These gods could be invented. What one sees in the Incarnation is a God whom no one would have invented , because no one would have wished himself a God like that. A God who accepts finitude, who enters into all the limitations of the human condition, who becomes subjected not only to the limitations natural to the created but to the limitations and the very narrow limitations of a fallen, distorted world, a God who accepts being vulnerable and totally so, a God who accepts becoming despicable in the eyes of men, reviled, of no account, is not a God one can wish for oneself, because there is nothing one can admire unless one discovers something more about him.

And when one thinks that this God who has become limited, imprisoned, vulnerable, contemptible, who could be killed in his flesh, who could be tormented, reviled, cast out, etc., calls us to be like him and to become like him, says that he has set us an example that we should follow it, then I think that one can see with ever greater conviction that that kind of God no one would have wished to invent, because it is simply a calamity to have a God like that. It is no pleasure. To have a God who is a hero, a God of all beauty and all power, to whom one can turn with the certainty of obtaining help, a God whom one can turn to with the certainty of obtaining victory, deliverance, etc., yes, – but a God who will say to you, ‘This is exactly the blessedness I promised you; the baptism which I am going to be baptised with, you will be baptised with, the cup which I am going to drink, you shall drink. As to glory, it is not for me to decide: this is beside the point’, a God who promises us as a child of the Kingdom of the Beatitudes, of which each one is a peculiar calamity of human life, is not simply revelation of a God who does reveal himself completely, solve problems and create none.

The revelation of God in Christ sets before us an infinity of problems,- and of problems which are not intellectual but which are existential, of problems which we have got to solve in the torment of our soul and in the suffering of our flash. And in that respect the revelation of God in Christ is not simply an increase of knowledge about him and is not simply a new closeness, a new familiarity with him. It is this also, but a new familiarity which creates a dangerous kinship, a dangerous relationship. And we can see them in a new way that Isaiah, and then later St Paul, meant when they said that it is a dread thing to fall into the hands of the living God. So this, I think, is important for us to realise, that the revelation of God himself in the Incarnation confronts us with a God quite incredible, quite beyond inventing, – confronts us with closeness and at the same time with a new mystery about God. How can that be? So much so, that this problem of the infinite being contained in the finite, of the eternal entering into time and so forth, was the stumbling-block on which a man like Arius lost his faith and created the first dramatic heresy in Christendom. He could not understand intellectually how these things could be, and in­stead of standing in awe, standing in amazement before something which could be contemplated and perhaps learned by participation but could not be understood and explained, he refused the fact, because he could not substantiate it with intellection.

So the problem is old and it is basic. This is the first thing I wanted to say about the revelation of God in Christ.

The other one is that God in Christ reveals also something about man and not only about himself, – about man in the general sense and also about the visible tangible material world of which man is part and parcel, because the Incarnation is not the union of the Godhead with a disembodied human being, it is the becoming flesh on the part of God. In other words, it is an act of God by which he, without ceasing to be himself, unites himself with the visible and tangible substance of this visible, tangible, created world. That should open our eyes to the potentialities of this tangible and visible world. We miss that very often, we do not think enough of it.

There is a whole theology of matter which is implicit in the act of Incarnation: matter no longer seen as an inert substance but as something capable of being drawn into more than fellowship with God, being capable of becoming a party in the Incarnation and belonging together with God after this act of Incarnation. In the act of Incarnation God takes flesh, but He takes flesh forever, and this flesh, this visible substance of the world, is not destroyed; it does not cease to be itself. It continues to be itself but it becomes itself to a far greater degree. It reaches to its true vocation.

And in the Ascension of the Lord something perhaps even more striking happens to this material substance of our world, because in the Ascension of the Lord the body of the Incarnation becomes intrinsic to the mystery of the Holy Trinity. And this body of the Incarnation represents all things visible and tangible, all things created, so that again we discover that the created can vocationally, if or when it reaches the fullness of what it is called to be, enter with God into more than a relationship. While preserving its otherness it can be united with God in a way of which we can really say nothing yet, because all we know about it is the Incarnation of the Lord, His Ascension, His Transfiguration, the Resurrection, all events that are the Lord’s life. Yet it is not quite true, because we believe more than this. But again, for a lack of the theology of matter, we miss links in our theology of the sacraments. If we truly believe that on the Holy Table this bread and this wine become the Body and Blood of Christ – in one way or another, because we have no way of putting it, of understanding it, of accounting for it – but these are the words of the Lord, then it means again that by the power and descent of the Holy Spirit this material substance of our world can be integrated, can be made one with the mystery of Christ.

Again it is the union of the divine and the created, and in a way which is perhaps more revealing about the visible world than the Incarnation, because in the incarnation one can argue the role of man. In the given case one can argue no role of man. There is matter and God. And this matter proves to be capable of a relatedness to God that is so intimate, so deep, that what He is it becomes without ceasing to be what it is by nature. So that in this complex revelation which the Incarnation of the Lord gives we have a double vision, not only of God in a new way, but also of man, but also, apart from man, of things created visible and tangible.

And then we begin to discover other things. We can discover them in the Gospel also, but they become alive when we have a way of approaching them. What we discover in the Gospel which is so striking is that God is not the God of a clique, a faction, of a nation, of a group or a denomination or a church or a confession or a faith. He is the God of all. This is the greatest joy which streams out of the Gospel. We have at last a God who is vast enough for all things, a God who is not limited in any way to relationships with even a chosen people. And then, if that is true – or rather, we see that it is true – far beyond the limits of denominations or churches, if the Incarnation is a reality it is a reality that seizes, that holds the total cosmos far beyond our human dividedness or otherwise, if this Body of Christ, this body of the Incarnation, is representative of the total visible world, then the Incarnation has meaning, concrete, effective mean­ing, not only for those who believe, although it has peculiar meaning for them, but also for those who do not know and those who refuse to believe and for those who need not believe, that is, the things which we call inert and which are the visible substance of our world. It is an event which has a cosmic significance apart from the fact of an intellectual knowledge of it. And that I think is very important for us to realise: it would make us understand the way in which all men and all things are summed up and fulfilled in Christ and related to Him beyond every barrier, beyond any kind of division, in a direct and unbreakable way, and it would perhaps teach us to appreciate quite differently things and situations if we realise how deeply connected with the Lord they are.

There is a corollary to it, the attitude of God in Christ to man, the extraordinary respect, reverence, which God exhibits in Christ to every human being, the refusal of God to accept slaves, the necessity in which we are to accept the fact that we cannot debase ourselves: we must be up to our calling, up to whet we are. The type of this situation is the Prodigal Son, the prodigal son who comes back and who in order to be reintegrated into the house of his father, is prepared to recognise his fault, his sin, his unfaithfulness, his unworthiness, to the point of ask­ing to be readmitted as a slave. He is prepared to say that, but the Lord does not give him a chance, the Lord does not allow him to. When he has made his confession of sin, before he can pronounce his last sentence, `Let me by like one of the hirelings’, the Lord, the Father, stops him. He calls the servants and commands them to bring him his first robe, not the best clothes there are in the house but the robe of sonship which he discarded and dropped before he went into the far country, the signet ring that gives him all power over the Father’s goods, the father’s name, the father’s life, – and shoes, the image we find so often in ancient writings signifying the walking, the fulfilling of a mission, the going towards a goal. Here again we find a God who is everyone’s God, who has reverence for everyone, respect for everyone, and is not prepared to accept us on other terms than our own dignity. And in doing so he is a God who accepts final and total solidarity with us.

And a remarkable thing is that he does not become solid with Mankind with a capital M in a general sense: He becomes solid not with the people who are worthy, but with those who are unworthy. He identifies himself with the sinners. It is in their company that we find him because he has come for their sake, for the sake of those who are aware of being in need of help because they are unworthy of their calling, not because they fall short of an extraneous law, but because they are unworthy of being what they are called to be. And this goes very far. The Cross is no glorious event; it is a punitive crucifixion. He is condemned not as a great leader defeated by another party. He is not condemned by an equal who has had the upper hand, as so often in civil wars those who were vanquished were condemned to death. He is condemned simply as a criminal. He is crucified between two thieves because He is one more criminal. The crucifixion is purely punitive. It is not in the eyes of those who decided it or perform it a victory of a party: it is the punishment of an evil-doer, and He accepts it. And again – and here we find that the solidarity of God with us is far beyond anything we imagine usually – what we find is that Christ accepts to die.

Now in the Biblical background death and sin are connected, but also – and that I think is important to realise and to remember, that death is separation not only from men in the temporary life, the transitory life of the earth, but it means also separation from God. This is the most acute edge of the thing. Christ makes Himself solid with men in a general human condition. He is tired, thirsty, hungry. All right. He makes himself solid morally with those who are despicable and despised in the society. Yes. But he makes himself solid with men in accepting that he, who has no reason to die, shall die. He has no reason to die for a very simple reason – if I may put it this way: If God is life and life-giving, how can one who is God and whose very body is united to the Godhead die physically? The death of Christ in this respect is profoundly different from ours. Ours is a gradual decay and loss of life. His is a tearing apart of a soul alive from a body that could not die.

But again there is something more to it, because this dying is not conceivable, or rather, the most cruel edge of our human mortality lies in the fact that it is connected with the loss of God, with Godlessness, with total hopeless loss of our connection with God. And there are two things which we find in the Gospel and in the Creed which are very impressive if you think in those terms the words of Christ on the Cross “My God, my God, why has Thou forsaken me?” (in modern times I know there are many people who have discovered what everyone knew before, but put it in a new context, that these are words from a prophetic Psalm, and it has been said that to underline the event Christ as He was dying began to recite the Psalm. How credible that you should start reciting a Psalm at the moment when you are dying – because those are the last words on the Cross, apart from “It is fulfilled”!)

But if these words are to be taken for true, then it means that Christ in his death, in order to die, had to become partaker of the root tragedy of the basic, the essential tragedy of man: the loss of God, and that only having lost the Father could he die as a man dies. Otherwise it would not have had the depth and the tragic quality of a man’s life and death at all. And so we see that in these words Christ becomes partaker of our godlessness, of our loss of God, of the severance of connection there is between us and him.

And this is underlined even more perhaps in the Apostles’ Creed, where it says: `He descended into Hell’. Again, we think of this descending to hell in terms of art and in the imagery of later times: Christ descends in glory – and raises the dead. Yes. But to the ancient Hebrew world the sheol was the place where God was not. The descent into Hell after death meant that he merged into that world of the dead who had been deprived of God. It was radical Godlessness in the sense of deprivation of God, loss of God. Then we understand what the Church always meant when it said that Christ had become partaker of everything which was human. To become partaker of physical suffering, of hunger, thirst, to be surrounded by misunderstand­ing or hatred is nothing compared with this. This is the root tragedy of the created world, and in this he had taken part. And then again, in terms of solidarity, which is the point at which I began and for which I have spoken this, then we see that even on that level no one is outside the mystery of Christ’s solidarity with us, because no one, however godless – for lack of faith, for lack of a given concrete experience of God, for any other reason – no one can reach the depth of this ontological, substantial, essential loss of God which was Christ’s, and we see that there is not an atheist who is unknown to God, no one person who is dispossessed of God, who is beyond what God knows. And then the Psalm in which we are told that “where shall I flee from thy face? Into heaven, here, and there into Hell – Thou art there – becomes true as a paradox, because the Hell of which the Psalmist spoke is a hell where God is not and into which He has descended in utter dereliction.

So that we have now a revelation which is simultaneously of God on one hand, in a quite new way indeed. In that sense the New Testament is new, is new to the core, and also a revelation of man, and beyond man of all things created. Here we are back to the image of the stained-glass window, and this is the point at which I would like to end this talk.

Answer to question

For many people the love between husband and wife is the most significant thing in life, in human terms, and in those terms we feel cut off from Christ. What is the explanation of that? Or at least we feel that it is one of the things that He didn’t share with us.

Well I think if you want to speak of concrete situations, I would say that He has not shared with us an infinity of situations. He hasn’t been a workman in a modern factory. He hasn’t done an infinity of things which create concrete intellectual, moral and physical problems. But I think in the example which you give one can say two things, I believe. On the one hand, that love is basically one and the same thing, and on the other hand – and this may lead us into a greater discussion – one of the things on which the ancient world insisted is that the relationship between God and the present world was that of Bride and Groom, husband and wife, and I am not sure – and I am now being very English in my understatement – I am not sure at all that this should not be taken in an extremely concrete way. Now, being neither God nor married I find it a little difficult to tell you whether it’s true or not, but I think that perhaps someone could contribute something about it.

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