Round Table: Incarnation
‘Tis the Christmas season. Our music, parties, concerts and plays, nativity scenes, lights, eggnog, and (if you’re lucky enough) snow tell us that Christmas comes swiftly. Gifts are being purchased. Plans to see family are being finalized. The busyness and joys of the Christmas season are pervasive, even for those who don’t celebrate Christmas.
But why do we celebrate Christmas? The “Christmas Wars” rightfully remind us the real reason for the season: the birth of Jesus Christ in a stable in Bethlehem over 2,000 years ago. In our zeal to remember the real origins of Christmas, however, we often fail to move beyond affirmation of an historic event. That is, we often affirm that Jesus was born and that Christmas stands as a reminder of this birth, but we neglect to reflect on what his birth means for the world. All important people have been born; only one person has come to earth. Understanding why Christ’s coming is so important constitutes an important part of the Good News of Christmas.
This roundtable is perfectly suited for the pre-Christmas season of Advent, that time when we prepare our hearts for the joy, mystery, and beauty of the coming of Christ at Christmas. We asked our authors to answer the following question: “What is the incarnation and why is it important?” Their answers make the important move from merely affirming the coming of Christ to discussing why his coming is important. The perspectives below on how Christ’s incarnation stands at the center of God’s plan of salvation, the true blessing of Christmas.
Senior Editor at Conciliar Post
Advent begins the Church calendar in the Western traditions. This is fitting, as the word means a coming, approach, [or] arrival,1 and often is used to mean the birth or dawn of an event. The birth of Jesus is the singular event which resets the course of history, including the Church calendar. Many persons would argue that Jesus’ birth is not the earth-shattering event, that rather that distinction belongs to his resurrection from the dead. I posit that both events are equally prodigious and crucial—because until Jesus was formed in Mary’s womb, there was no incarnation of God.
We see a few theophanies—times where God appeared unto persons—in the Old Testament: walking with Adam and Eve in the garden, wrestling with Jacob, alongside the Israelites in the fiery furnace, and a few other places. Whether this is the enfleshed Christ appearing out of chronology, or whether it is the image God took on so that humans could see him in a way that their minds would understand, I cannot say. What I do know is that never before had there been a being who was both fully God and fully human.
The Incarnation is as important as the Resurrection because we need a connecting point between men and God. Jesus is the only sinless man who has ever been. He is the perfect sacrifice for sin, joining man to God, where before there was no perfect go-between. Prior to the Incarnation was the imperfect system of sacrificing bulls, goats, and lambs—a picture or symbol of the coming Saviour. Jesus was that enfleshed, promised Saviour—the Messiah. He was this Messiah not only for the Israelites, but for the whole world, Jews and gentiles alike.
The Incarnation is the joyous news that salvation from the Fall, death, and Hell is not for one people alone, but for all who will believe on Jesus. The implications of this stretch far and wide across the face of the earth and throughout history in all directions. Jesus assumed human flesh, blood, and bone. He experienced first-hand the joys, sorrows, pains, trials, and hope that all humans encounter. He limited his “God-ness”—his omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, and more—so that he could squeeze into the tiny space of a man’s body and soul. Inside that tiny frame he split the curtain barring us all from entering the Holy of Holies. Jesus, who was—and still is—God with us, also made a way for us to be made holy and spotless in order to step into God’s Kingdom coming. The Incarnation—and subsequent Resurrection—brings us beyond the Fall, into the depth of knowing God as if we were walking right beside him, as did our first parents.Show Sources
Editor-in-Chief at Conciliar Post
“God became man so that man might become god.”1 With these words, St. Athanasius summarized the connection between the incarnation and telos of man. To this point, St. Maximus the Confessor elaborated that the end of all things is their recapitulation in Christ;2 and St. Nikodemus the Hagiorite wrote,
“The entire noetic and sensible world was created for this end, that is, for the sake of our Lady, the Theotokos, and our Lady, the Theotokos, was, in turn, created for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ.”3
St. Gregory of Palamas furthers this point by saying,
“The original creation of man was for His [Christ’s] sake, since man was formed in the image of God, so that he might be able at some point to contain the Archetype”4
St. Gregory Palamas, along with St. Nikodemus, St. Maximus and many others, continued to say that the incarnation would have taken place even if humankind had not fallen into sin. In this sense, the incarnation is not viewed as a reaction to man’s fall but rather a plan in accordance with the eternal will of the Father. This is, indeed, a great and hidden mystery.5
The mystery of the incarnation is inexorably tied to the mystery of salvation; and salvation, theosis, which is union and communion with God, is a dynamic, perpetual reality. In this sense, the Eastern understanding of salvation differs from that of the West. We are not only saved from something, but to something; man was in need of salvation, theosis, even before Adam and Eve ate of the apple—although the negative aspect of salvation, salvation from death and damnation, had not yet reared it’s head. It is within this framework that we understand the incarnation as the ultimate expression of love.
The incarnate Christ reveals, also, what it means to be truly human. The early councils of the Church were held in order to combat heretical notions of Christ’s person and dual nature; to become fully human, Jesus Christ assumed our human nature, a human body, a human will, and a human soul. It was essential that Christ assume all of what it means to be human, for “what was not assumed, was not healed.”6 And it is exactly this, the healing of the human person, that constitutes salvation.
Jesus Christ became fully, and truly, human; and so, through the unity of divine and human natures in the hypostasis of Christ, we too, as human beings, are granted to become by grace what God is by nature;7 to supercede created being and be grafted into the Divine, uncreated life of the Holy Trinity; so that we might share in Christ’s divine nature just as he took on our human nature. All of this, as St. Peter put it, so that we might become “partakers of the divine nature.”8
Ultimately, the incarnation is a proactive pursuit of man and creation; an invitation-to-relationship that requires a response. And so, may we respond today by allowing Christ to become incarnate in us, enabling his deifying energies to flow through our person, by so sanctifying the world. This is the telos of man; this is a great mystery. O! what Love, what beauty. And it is this very love and beauty of the incarnation that informs how we worship today—and two thousand years ago—in the Orthodox Church.
Forgive me for speaking about this mystery, for the most appropriate response would have been silence.Show Sources
2 St. Maximus the Confessor.
3 St. Nikodemus the Hagiorite, Unseen Warfare; also note the ancient hymnography of this point: “He whom the entire universe could not contain was contained within your womb, O Theotokos.”
4 St. Gregory Palamas, “Homily VII, ‘On Theophany,’”
5 St Maximus the Confessor: “This is the great and hidden mystery (viz., the mystery of the Divine Incarnation); this is the blessed end for which all things were created.”
6 St. Gregory of Nazianzus
7 St. Athanasius, On The Incarnation.
8 2 Peter 1:4
Other resources: http://www.hsir.org/Theology_en/E3c8002dGiatiEns4.pdf
Methodists have as our founder a pastor, preacher, and organizer who was a practical rather than systematic theologian. Thus, to this day, the best sources for Wesleyan theology are John Wesley’s sermons and Notes on the New Testament and his brother Charles’ widely respected hymnody. To these we properly turn to consider the importance and implications of the Incarnation for Christians in the Wesleyan/Methodist family.
John Wesley paraphrases John 1:14 thus:
“In order to raise us to this dignity and happiness, the eternal Word, by a most amazing condescension, was made flesh…And he did not make us a transient visit, but tabernacled among us on earth.”1
John emphasizes here what can later be recognized as classic Wesleyan teaching. Christ does not merely forgive, but raises us in “dignity and happiness,” not merely saving us but restoring us to who were meant to be. Playing on the Greek, John also notes that the Second Person of the Trinity did not make a mere weekend retreat, but pitched his tent among us (an insight which will later show up in the Wesleyan ethos to incarnate Christ’s love among the poor and marginalized).
Furthermore, Charles’ hymnody goes into fascinating depth explicating these matters. Notice how, in a few short lines, he hints at the wonder and majesty of the Incarnation:
“Our God, ever blest/With oxen doth rest/Is nursed by His creature, and hangs at the breast.”2
Methodists, perhaps owing to John’s own exposure to Eastern Christianity, have never been afraid of mystery, not least the mystery that God enfleshed is nursed at the breast of his own creation.
Charles’ musical poems were unapologetically doctrinal in nature. From early on, Wesleyan soteriology was marked by its rejection of Calvinism, which shows up even in Christmas hymns. In one, Charles links the Incarnation to universal atonement: “Once thou didst/on earth appear/For all mankind to atone.”3 The Incarnation is thus not good news for an elect few, but for all humanity and indeed the whole of creation.
Finally, in his most popular Christmas hymn, Charles pushes the soteriological implications of the Incarnation even further. In classic Wesleyan fashion, he holds together justification and sanctification, the juridical and the therapeutic, in a unique synthesis. Jesus, we are told in verse 6 is, “Born to raise the Sons of Earth/Born to give them Second Birth.” But the Second Birth is not the end of the story. In verse 8 – left out of most modern hymnals – he circles back to soteriology:
“Ruin’d Nature now restore/Now in Mystic Union join/Thine to Ours, and Ours to Thine.”4
Ergo, the Incarnation is not merely about being “saved from our sins,” but being united with Christ and thus restored, in John’s favorite language for salvation, to the likeness of the Divine Image which was ours by birthright.
The implications of this are legion. As previously hinted at, an enfleshed God demands enfleshed followers incarnating his love (Methodists have always been more interested in God’s love in Christ through the Spirit than his sovereignty). This happens in small groups, the core of Methodist spirituality, in worship and song, and by an embodied witness consisting of visiting prisons, preaching in open fields, and educating the poor (to name just a few instances). It meant an insistence that the incarnate One could be known in bread and cup, and thus Methodism would be known as a sacramental as well as an evangelical revival (at a time when most Anglicans only communed once a year, on average). The Incarnation was lived out on horseback, throughout the British Isles and later a colony called America, where preachers and laity transformed not just individual souls but communities and indeed whole nations.
What could be more incarnate than that?Read more
2 Charles Wesley. “O Mercy Divine.” Edited by George Osborn. The Poetical Works of John and Charles Wesley, Reprinted from Originals, With the Last Corrections of the Authors, Volume 4. London: Wesleyan-Methodist Conference Office, 1869. 122-3. Online.
3 Charles Wesley. “Once Thou Didst on Earth Appear.” In Sacred Poetry: Selected from the Works of the Rev. Charles Wesley, M.A. New York: W. H. Kelly and Brother, 1864. 363-4. Online.
4 Charles Wesley. “Hark, How All the Welkin Rings.” In Hymns and Sacred Poems, Fourth Edition. Bristol: Felix Farley, 1743. 142-3. Online.
Author at Conciliar Post
The Catholic Catechism lists four reasons why Jesus Christ took on flesh. The first is perhaps the most obvious: “to save us by reconciling us with God.” All notions of “substitutionary atonement” emerge from this basic truth. Examples spring to mind from the book of Hebrews—Jesus was like us in every respect (Heb 2:17), yet without sin. Hence he fulfilled the role of humanity’s true high priest (Heb 4), serving as the pioneer of faith (Heb 12:2) leading the way back to God. Another commonly encountered metaphor is Anselm’s “satisfaction” theory, articulated in Cur Deus Homo. Finally, Athanasius’s general narrative in De Incarnatione also falls within this first category. Since humanity was sliding towards nothingness due to the consequences of sin, Christ appeared “lest what had been created should perish and the work of the Father for human being should be in vain.”1 The beauty of this first explanation is that it summates the primary truth of Christ’s pro nobis (“for us”) in the most basic and universal terms, and is open to many beautiful and complementary expressions.
The second explanation from the Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “the Word became flesh so that thus we might know God’s love.” Placing the grace of God as the primary effect of Christ’s reconciliation, this distinction also hints at the inseparable relationship between love and knowledge—the former serving to completely fulfill the latter. As Paul articulates, love is the greatest of the three perduring virtues (1 Cor 13:13). Without love, exemplified in Christ himself by the act of taking the form of a servant (kenosis, Phil 2), it would not be possible for us to relate to God or to our neighbor.
Our neighbor plays a constitutive role in the third explanation provided: “the Word became flesh to be our model of holiness.” Christ’s disciples were struck to the core by the person Jesus. His words and deeds were so compelling that humans have felt compelled (doubtlessly, through the compunction of the Holy Spirit) to preserve them in unbroken oral and written Tradition. As Augustine famously fleshed out (no pun intended), we ascend to the divinity of Christ always through the humanity.2
Finally, we come to the most interesting and controversial explanation: “The Word became flesh to make us ‘partakers of the divine nature.’” Interestingly enough, the Scripture passage quoted here also mentions knowledge. It begins, “His divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness” (2 Pet 1). The Christian philosophical tradition has had a field day elaborating upon the mystery of human elevation to God. Let us remember, though, that Christ himself used language of divinization: “Jesus answered, ‘Is it not written in your law, “I said, you are gods”? If those to whom the word of God came were called “gods”—and the scripture cannot be annulled— can you say that the one whom the Father has sanctified and sent into the world is blaspheming because I said, ‘I am God’s Son?’” (John 10:34-36). Acknowledging, with the Council of Chalcedon, that Christ is “consubstantial with us in our humanity,” it becomes clear that “leading the way back to God”3 means leading human nature back to full communion with the Triune God. Paul’s depiction of Christ as the “Second Adam” (1 Cor 15) also bolsters this view of the redemption of human nature. We were created to find rest in God. Assenting—with heart, mind, and soul (Matt 22:37)—to the love, knowledge, and humility given by Christ, we grow in grace toward the super-luminous summit of Christian life: the eternal movement from glory to glory in God (2 Cor 3:18).Show Sources
2 Michael Cameron’s monograph Christ Meets Me Everywhere is a brilliant exposition of this theme.
3 See Section I, above.