Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh

The shaking of the foundations. Lecture 4. On the Incarnation

Theme: The Incarnation   Place: London Parish   Period: 1961-1965   Genre: Talk

I would like to make a break in the normal series of our talks and say something about the Incarnation and Christmas, partly because we are still in the light and the revelation which this feast brings to us, partly because this is speaking of our God and the God who is also the subject of our investigation in Tillich’s work. Every revelation of God about Himself has got 2 sides, 2 aspects; on the one hand revealing Himself God makes Himself known, on the other hand revealing Himself He makes us see and perceive with new depth and new strength how far beyond any knowledge and any understanding He is. And in the mystery of the Incarnation we find this general rule exemplified: God becomes incredibly close to us, we can see Him, He is one of us, He is of our kin. We not only see Him, we could think we know about Him so much. He is the babe of Bethlehem; when we look at icons of the Nativity, when we look at the Madonnas of all schools and types, things seem to be so immensely simple: God is there circumscribed in the frailty of a human flesh, a human mother holds Him. We see things with human eyes; the shepherds, the wise men, Joseph and so many other people could touch Him; He was a child among other children and it seems to make Him so immensely close; so approachable and at the same time, if we are attentive to the event; we see that this closeness of God discloses a new mystery about Him. Because the God of Heaven, the Great Spirit, the unknowable God of the philosophers we can imagine somehow, we can encompass His immensity, we can somehow understand that He is unknowable, that He is beyond us so completely. But God reveals Himself in the Incarnation in a way in which we could not invent Him. He reveals Himself humble and frail. He reveals to us that He delivers Himself into our human hands and that we can treat or ill-treat Him and the Scriptures are clear about it: God came, and men dwelt with Him according to their ill-will. We see in this act of divine Incarna­tion that God reveals Himself as being infinitely close to us; He is one of our race, but His being of our race is something far more mysterious, far less understandable, far more incomprehensible that the thought we might have had of Him as the God of Heaven. And this is a general rule in every act of divine revelation: He reveals Himself as the One who is ultimately mysterious beyond understanding. And if we think of the Incarnation more precisely, more attentively, we discover that we can only marvel, we can only worship, we can only be silent when we face the event. The God who is infinite becomes finite apparently and yet remains infinite. He is limited in time and in space, moreover He bears all the finitude and all the limitations of our human and fallen nature, and yet He remains Himself. One of our Orthodox prayers says: “In the tomb according to the flesh, Thou wast, with Thy soul in the glory of Thy Godhead in Hell; in Paradise with the thief and on the right hand of the Father, because Thou art uncircumscribed”. And here we see the same God, both circumscribed and uncircumscribed because He transcends both the infinite and the immense. Immensity and Eternity, everything is only a category of our thoughts and He is beyond every category of our thoughts.

In the early centuries this effort to understand how it was possible that the impossible happened lead Arius to his first great heresy. The substance of arianism lies really in his inabi­lity to accept that the God infinite could be finite, that the God eternal could enter into time, and his arguments run on those lines he had not perceived and he had not been able to establish philosophically that God and his creation were so completely incommensurable that they could meet because they were too diffe­rent, they belong to two categories and this is what the fourth Ecumenical Council of the Church has defined when it says that in Jesus Christ Godhead and humanity are united inseparably and yet without confusion, so that neither humanity swallows the divinity of God, not His divinity destroys His humanity, and this is possible because the two categories of being, his Godhead and his humanity are sufficiently different, are totally different and can meet without confusion; because they have no common ground; without destroying one another, because they can only remain themselves. And God reveals Himself in a way in which only He could do: hum­ble, poor, vulnerable, He enters into history. If one might have said before the Incarnation that God and the created world were standing face to face with one another, the created confron­ted with the Creator, man confronted with his Judge, now we can say nothing of the sort, because God, by this act of incarnation has become part of human history and whether we think of history day after day or whether we think of the last Judgement, the time when all the world will stand face to face with God, we must remember that this duality between God and the world somehow is shattered because when men shall stand together, one of them will be Jesus of Nazareth, and this man is the created Word of God, is the Saviour of the world, He is not only man, but God, very man and very God, and this gives to the Incarnation of the Word of God a significance which we very often overlook, a significance which goes far beyond the circle of the Christian believers, or of those who are aware of Jesus of Nazareth, born in Bethlehem; it is an event that is objectively true and affects the total mankind it affects it as a fact because as I said, when all men will stand together, one of them will be Jesus, whether we knew Him in the course of our life, or not; whether we were for Him or against Him, whatever our situation was; I would say even if whether we lived before Him or after Him. And this is perhaps the most difficult thing in Christianity and the only thing on which Christianity stands, the fact that we are convinced that Jesus is objectively, really, substantially God and man, and that this affects the whole history of mankind, but it goes far beyond human history, because by becoming man, God puts on not only our human frame but puts on all there is in our humanity. And we, men are a sort of summing up of all the created world; in our bodies is present the total substance of what exists outside of us, and uniting Himself to us the Lord Jesus takes upon Himself, becomes united to all these things that are, that exist, that were created that had developed out of the creative Word of God. The Incarna­tion is an event which is not only historical, it is cosmic. The situation of all things with regard to God after the Incarnation is different and new, and this explains expressions like those used consistently by Ireaneus of Lyon who says that Christ has recapitulated the world; in other words, has become the real head of the whole world, not only outwardly, as a leader, but substantially, because He belongs to it completely to the last atom. And in the Incarnation and what follows after the Incarnation, the situation of the whole world, not only of our human world, but of the total cosmos with regard to God is profoundly different; no longer does any face to face situation exists; God has entered into history and into the becoming of all things. But this is only a beginning, because in the ascension of our Lord, in the sitting on the right hand of the Father, we see Jesus, the Incarnate Word of God bringing into the very mystery of the Holy Trinity, the substance of the created world, so that the world in a way which remains still mysterious to us, which is not disclosed, which is only hinted to, the whole world becomes somehow intrinsic to the mystery of the Holy Trinity, and the becoming of all things stands on the stillness of the immutable, unshakeable stability of God, One in the Holy Trinity. The incarnation of the Lord is different and similar to our birth; outwardly a child is born to the Virgin, a child is born to the people of Israel, but what is this birth? Everyone of us when he is born is called out of nothing, of a radical absence, out of non being, by the creative Word of God, into being. He enters into the transitory, the ephemeral life of the earth in order to grow into the eternal life of the world to come; it is a movement out of naught into eternity. The birth of Christ in that respect is profoundly different; Christ is, He is in the plenitude of divine life, uncircumscribed, unlimited by time and space, immeasurable and eternal, and He enters into a world of becoming, of birth and of life and of decay and of death. He enters into this world, not in order to progress from non-being into being and to eternal life, but accepting to enter into a situation of limitations, to be born, unto death. Life eternal enters this world in order to undergo all the limitations of the fallen man and in order to undergo death. And here we are confron­ted with a new mysterious situation, because how can life die? It is not enough or simple enough to say that in the death on the Cross Christ died in his humanity while his Godhead remained life itself, because there is something about his humanity which creates a problem: death as we see it in the Old and the New Testament is the result of our being separated from God; to be in God and to die are incompatible things and yet in the incarnation of the Lord Jesus, Godhead is inseparably and for ever united to his humanity. In this union of the two natures He is immortal, not only according to his Godhead; He is immortal also according to his humanity; rooted in eternal life his humanity is beyond dying, and the death of Christ which He endures on the Cross is impossible according to the nature of things. Saint Maxim the Confessor pondering on this mystery says: “that there is two steps as it were by which the Word of God becomes the son of man; in His Incarnation He takes upon Himself human nature and his human nature united to his Godhead enters into the realm of immortality. And by a second act, by an act of will which is rooted in his love for man, the love that accepts to be identified with the beloved one, He takes upon Himself all the human conditions, the limitations of the fallen nature and the weight of it, hunger and thirst and tiredness and anguish and death, so that in the death of Christ upon the Cross, it is not an ordinary human death that we are witnessing, we are witnessing something that could not be: the tearing apart into death, into dying of what remains alive; and the Orthodox Church as the ancient Church were quite clear about it and are still absolutely clear, that in the death of Christ his soul and body are torn apart into death while both body and soul remain inseparably for ever united with his divinity. When the priest receives Communion at the hands of the bishop, the bishop says, giving him the Holy Bread: “The Holy precious and immortal Body of our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ is given unto thee”. We underline speaking of the entombment, that the body of Christ remain free from corruption, He is not another Lazarus raised from the dead. He is one whose body could not fall into corruption because it was united to his Godhead. He was one whose soul descended into Hades in the glory of his Godhead and conquered the realm of the devil. I am speaking of his death in spite of the fact that we are speaking of His Incarnation, because I have said before that Christ is born into death and He is born unto death. At the beginning of his life, his becoming a man bears already the marks of his crucifixion. He is born in order to save mankind by his death. And so the Incarnation of the Lord appears to us every time we think of it as deeper and deeper God becomes infinitely close and yet we do not know whether it is more awe inspiring to think of Him as the God of heaven or as the God who in our midst is frail and vulnerable and who conquers by humility and by unconquered love. We discover in Him, in his Incarnation an event which affects each of us personally if we are confronted with it, if we understand, if we discover in the man of Nazareth the Incarnate Word of God, but also an event which affects the totality of history and which has got a cosmic dimension whether we know about it or not. And we discover that the Incarnation of Christ is already the beginning of the way of the Cross, that it has all the glory of sacrificial love and that calling us to become one with Him he calls us into fellowship into a community of life which implies both life and death, a unique relationship with the Lord Creator and the Lord of history who wishes us to become co-workers with Him, to understand his will and to take part in the salvation, in the integrity, into the transfiguration of the world.

Well, these were the few things which I wanted to say about the Incarnation which we have just kept as a feast in Church within the last few weeks.

Listen to audio: no Watch video: no