Thursday, December 25, 2008

Incarnation: This is No Zeus

A sermon from Fr. Charles Dinkler, RIP.

God, who at sundry times and in diverse manners, spake in time past unto the fathers by the Prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the world.” Hebrews 1:1-2.

Everyone knows that a Christian has to stay on the straight and narrow way. One thing this means is that if he finds himself falling off the horse on one side, he must not overcompensate by getting back on the horse and then falling off on the other side.

The same is true of theology.

In the first 1000 years of Christianity, more time was spent defending the humanity of Jesus Christ than his divinity. Influenced by the pagan world and its sensibilities, many then could never conceive of God actually becoming a man. The flesh was too fallen, low, mortal, undivine, ungodly for there ever to be union betwixt the two.

Nestorious taught - amongst other egregious and grievous errors - that the Son of God “passed through Mary as water through a pipe.” He meant that she was merely a conduit. Jesus took nothing of her, nothing of her nature. He and she were not in any way consubstantial - i.e., He was not in any way, shape, or form of the same nature as she was.

The Church during the Christmas and Epiphany holidays takes special care to dispute this heresy. The feast we celebrate, the hymns we sing, the evidence we hear all rebut it. They keep his divinity in union with his humanity.

St. Paul says in Hebrews that Christ was made of a woman. “When the fullness of time was come, God sent forth his son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons.” He is made of her, he takes something of her nature, just as a merely human baby takes on his mother’s nature.

And the Word became flesh. It says “became”. Not “posed as” or “pretended to be” or “projected an image that looked like” flesh. He actually became flesh. He actually became a human like us.

Whatever there was of humanity, he became it. He took it all on. He became in every way like us, except for one thing: sin.

Sin is not of our human essence. It is the destructor of our essence. It is an addition to our humanity - or more accurately, a subtraction of it. We are less, not more, human when we sin.

Christ became human, he did all of this, without ever ceasing to be God.

Take the hymn we sing at the Christmas liturgy, Hymn No. 20: Of The Father’s Love Begotten. This hymn comes down to us from Prudentius in the 5th Century. Christians have been singing it for 1500 years.

The first verse nails down Christ’s divinity. The opening words are: “Of the Father’s love begotten/Ere the worlds began to be.” Look at that word “begotten”. That means that he partakes of everything the father partakes. He is “the express image of the father.” As C. S. Lewis notes, beavers beget beavers, dogs beget dogs, god begets god. Whatever is begotten is of the same nature as what begat it.

“Ere the worlds began to be.” Before one iota of creation came into being, God the Son existed. “For by him were all things created, that are in heaven and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers; all things were created by him, and for him: And he is before all things, and by him all things consist.” Colossians 1:16-17. The last gospel reminds us of this every week: All things were made by Him, and without Him was not anything made that was made.

It applies as well to everything that shall be made in the future. Because all things are made for him. Everything that comes into existence is equally subject to him, equally made by him. He is very god of very god. He truly is the Son of the Living God.

The second verse of the hymn nails down Christ’s humanity.

O that birth forever blessed
When the Virgin, full of grace
By the Holy Ghost conceiving
Bare the savior of our race
And the babe, the world’s redeemer
First revealed his sacred face.

He was conceived by God the Holy Ghost. So God is involved in all of this. God, who is the Father of His only-begotten Son before all time, remains His Father now in His Incarnation. This is truly an act of God.

But it is not an act of God alone. Mary is a participant. By the Holy Ghost overshadowing her, Mary conceived. It is a virginal - but real -- conception. It entails real growth and development. She is his mother. Christ is a real partaker of her nature, which is our nature, though she is more pure and blessed. He is really divine, and really human.

Some might say “Bully for him. But what does all this abstract theological speculation have to do with me?” To put the question theologically, who cares if the Arians went around saying “there was a time when He was not”? Who cares if the Nestorians believed Christ to be divine, but not fully, completely, absolutely human. So what if He did pass through Mary as water through a pipe? Isn’t that better, since he therefore is uncontaminated by her humanity?

No. The Fathers have a saying: “What is not joined to God is not saved.” If our humanity is not made one with God through the incarnation, then our humanity is not saved. Our salvation is not merely by thinking good thoughts, or having some kind of bodiless mind-link with God. That might have been sufficient if God had created us as unfleshly, disincorporate minds, floating around freely anywhere we choose. But that’s not how we’re made. We are flesh and blood. And the way we’re made was good. God has chosen to redeem our life. He redeemed all of it: body, soul, spirit, humanity, human nature, the cosmos.

Christ takes all of it on. He consecrates all life anew. He hallows every moment of it from conception to death. Everything.

Are we conceived? So is He. Did we dwell in our mother’s womb for 9 months? So does He. Did we undergo birth? He was born too, just the way we are. If, as some new age psychologists say, people are messed up by birth trauma, he redeems that too.

He whom the heavens and the earth and the universe cannot contain is contained and constrained to dwell for 9 months in the womb. This is genuine birth. This is not some pagan god pretending to be a baby in a manger. This is not like those stories of the Zeus posing as a human for some sneaky or amorous purpose. Our god does it for real: He really becomes a human embryo and from there - like us - is born, grows up, and dies.

It’s not a case of “I was a teenage Messiah”. Or “My time as a baby miracle worker.” His humanity remains his forever.

Remember the words from another Christmas hymn, Hark the Herald Angels Sing: “Mild he lays his glory by”. Does this mean he ceases to be God? No. Not for one moment does he cease to be God. He retains the fullness of his divinity, but he lays it aside, he voluntarily forgoes it. He willingly forsakes the heavens and his godly prerogatives and power and glory and dominion - all for our sakes.

Note the well-balanced theology in the hymn: “Offspring of the Virgin’s womb” -- he has her human nature. “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see” - - he remains God. Then the two points are put together: “Hail the incarnate Deity”.

He was “pleased as man with man to dwell”. What does it mean to dwell as a man, as a human? When we’re babies do we get hungry and need to be fed by our parents? Yes, and so does he. Do we need our nappies changed? So did he. Do we have to obey and be subject to our parents? He does that too. Do we grow in wisdom and stature - at least in stature? St. Luke tells us explicitly that He grew in wisdom and stature.

Every aspect of our life, our humanity is joined to Him who at all times remains God and at all times since the incarnation is man, fully and completely. Our job is to continue in this union forever and ever, even through and beyond death.

So at this holiday time, we sing: Mild he lays his glory by, born that man no more may die. Born to raise the sons of earth. Born to give them second birth.


Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Keep the "Mass" in Christmas

From the Orthodixie blog, Fr. Joseph Honeycutt writes that the Church needs to adopt a slogan besides "Keep Christ in Christmas":
[S]houldn’t we be encouraging people to keep the MASS in Christmas? Face it, if we believe as we claim to: Christ is already there!

Yet it is the MASS, the Divine Liturgy for the Feast, that constitutes Christ’s Mass – CHRISTMAS!
Hear the whole thing here. (Plugged in part because I really enjoy Orthodixie, in part for the use of the term "Mass"!)