by Fr Gabriel Allan Boyd
Years ago, when I was teaching a Sunday School class full of Middle School boys, I was trying to get them to remember…and more importantly, to understand… the meaning of the word, “Incarnation.” To help with this, I reminded them of the two basic types of chili you can order in a restaurant. On the one hand, if you’re fasting, you can get a vegetarian version …but… on the other hand you can order Chili con Carne (Chili with Meat). I explained to them that the “carne” in that phrase simply means, “meat” and that it’s essentially the same as the “carnat” in the middle of the word, “Incarnation.” The Incarnation is God con carne—God with meat (or more elegantly said…it is God with flesh). The boys loved it, because suddenly, they understood…and for the whole rest of the year (and in the years that followed) they never forgot the lesson. Incarnation is the act of becoming clothed with flesh. For those who follow Jesus Christ, it’s the most significant part of Christmas…that the invisible, bodiless God who existed from before all time took on a human body and nature. The “Logos—Word,” through whom all things were made, becomes part of His own creation. As we say in our creed, “... and He was Incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became man.” The God who, once, only had one nature, now has two—both human and divine— a single Person…but now having two natures, two wills and two energies. But why did God do this?
The view of Saint Maximus the Confessor, Saint Isaac the Syrian, and other Orthodox theologians is that the Incarnation was an act of love towards mankind. They say that even if humanity had never fallen, God in His love for humankind would still have become man. Saint Paul makes this very thing evident in a couple of his letters to the Churches. In Romans 8:29-30, St Paul says, “For those God foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those He predestined, He also called; those He called, He also justified; those He justified, He also glorified.” In Ephesians 1:4-5, he says, “God chose us as His own in Christ since before the foundation of the world to set us apart for Him that we may become blameless in His sight. He lovingly predestined and planned for us to be adopted as His own children through Jesus Christ, in accordance with His kind intention and good pleasure of His will…” It’s an awesome thing to ponder. Since before the beginning of time, God predestined that humanity would be united to Him through His Son’s Incarnation and brought to fullness and summation in Him. It was always God’s plan to live among us as one of us, in the midst of our language and culture…to make Himself known to us within our context and to unify our flesh with His divinity…adopting us as His children. God created us in order to deify us—to give all of Himself in jubilant love…granting the life of the uncreated Holy Trinity to humanity as a manifestation of His glory. So, the Incarnation isn’t just a remedy for something gone wrong; but rather, it launches the union between God and His creation for which all things were created.
However, we do have to acknowledge that because humankind fell, God’s love toward all of His creation was expressed even more profoundly by the things He in His Incarnation would now have to encounter. When God’s Son (the very source of all life) took on human flesh for Himself, He would also have to conquer death by dying, reopening the gateway for all people to have union with God…and for the entire cosmos to be transformed—restored to life in Him as well. We Orthodox Christians put a huge emphasis on this fulfillment of all things in Christ. So, our salvation doesn’t merely come about from His dying on the cross (as many of our Protestant friends believe), but rather, through the whole array of things that Jesus Christ did as the God-Man. The fullness of God’s salvation for us is about so much more than just the singular event of the crucifixion. Salvation encompasses God’s unconceivable mercy injected into the flow of human history as the God-Man Jesus Christ (Love enfleshed), who transformed human flesh to experience transcendence with Him in heaven.
Have you ever stopped to consider the significance of our Orthodox Christian Church’s combination of architecture and iconography…how much it emphasizes the implications of God’s Incarnation? First, the fact that we have representations of His image says something very theologically powerful. It says that God became so human that He could actually be depicted in an image, just like any of the rest of us. Second, in traditional Orthodox architecture, there’s a dome in the center of the ceiling, with an icon of Christ, called the “Pantocrator” (the “Sustainer of All”). That icon of Christ gives a sense of heaven bending down to touch us and to be very present with us. God bent down to become one of us, and then, after His crucifixion and resurrection, He carried human flesh with Him to be glorified at His Father’s side. Then from there, God send’s His Holy Spirit to Incarnate (to enflesh) His loving presence in us and through us to the world. So, the incarnation isn’t merely about that event that happened in a manger 2000 years ago.
Never again should we look at the stars, like we did when we were children, and wonder how far it is to God. If God had remained entirely outside our world, He would be a mere spectator. If He were merely a God who created, and then withdrew, He might be mighty, but He couldn’t be love. Who could love a God so remote, when our lives are filled with such suffering? But with God’s very purposeful intention…His Son became one of us, lived among us, worked among us, suffered with us, and even celebrated life events with us. And then, through His Holy Spirit, He becomes enfleshed in each one of us as well…all in order to win humanity’s hearts and unite us with Him.
As we enter our final week before Christ’s Nativity, where we celebrate God’s incarnation—His dwelling among us as one of us…we are called to prepare ourselves to be united with Him anew. If we are becoming united with Him anew, then let’s become extra mindful of His plea to us, “Just as the Father has sent Me, so also I am sending you” (John 20:21). God calls us, His beloved, to become one with Him in His very purposeful mission to win the hearts of the people around us, to continue Incarnating (enfleshing) His presence into the midst of our surrounding community, in order to lovingly draw them to Him. So, don’t just celebrate with the mere words, Christ is born! But, allowing Him to be enfleshed (Incarnated) in you, become unified with Him in His mission of love to mankind, and Glorify Him!