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“What mysteries beyond mind and speech! God in His compassion is born on earth, putting on the form of a servant that He may snatch from servitude to the enemy those who with fervent love cry out: Blessed art Thou, O Savior, who loves humankind” (Matins of the Pre-feast of the Nativity of the Lord)

Why did God become a man? Why did He take on the weakness of our human nature? What was the true purpose of the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity?

The answer to those questions reveals the fundamental mystery of our salvation; the “mystery of mysteries” which we ponder as we prepare for the celebration of our Lord’s birth in the flesh.

Over and over again the answer is given: because He loves us, because it is His will to save us from our oppressor, from the malice of the enemy who has enslaved us to fear, to sin, to death.

The surpassingly beautiful hymns of the Christmas services proclaim over and over again the mystery of Love Incarnate.

“The holy sayings of the Prophets have been fulfilled in the city of Bethlehem within a cave. The whole creation is made rich: let it rejoice and be of good cheer. The Master of all has come to live with His servants, and from the bondage of the enemy He delivers us who were made subject to corruption. In swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, He is made manifest a young Child, the pre-eternal God.”

Not only does He come for the sake of lost humanity, but, “the whole creation is made rich”! The very cave in which He is born is sanctified, the lowly beasts are witnesses to the unfathomable compassion of the Lord of All the Worlds!

Orthodoxy has never forgotten the words of St. Paul in Romans chapter eight where we are told that the whole creation has waited expectantly for the revelation of the Son of God, for the healing of the whole universe, which had been subjected to futility and suffering on account of the rebellion, first of the angels and, through temptation, humankind.

What beauty! What a sublime and lovely revelation of God’s mercy and compassion! He comes for the sake of all—no one, no thing, is excluded!

“Let the creation now cast off all things old, beholding You the Creator made a child. For through Your birth You shape all things afresh, making them new once more and leading them back again to their first beauty.”

Here are echoes of the hymns which we sing in Great Lent, reminding us of the “rustling leaves of Paradise” which we lost through disobedience. Now they are spiritually restored to us, now the whole creation is put back on the road to salvation—to it’s original beauty.

“ Behold, the Most Holy Word comes unto His own in a holy Body …. By a strange birth He makes His own the world that was estranged. To Him let us sing in praise, who became poor for us.”

What is the purpose for His coming? Why did God become a man?

To put an end to alienation and estrangement, to reconcile, to heal, to redeem, to undo the curse of separation.

“Let the kings of the whole earth sing rejoicing, and let the companies of the nations be exceedingly joyful. Mountains, hills and hollows, rivers and seas, and the whole creation magnify the Lord who now is born!”

The world is no longer separated into hostile ethnic groups, no longer subject to the caprice of fallen nature, because we recognize the “new creation” which is being established mysteriously in our midst—the Church! The wise men from Persia and the Chosen nation, Israel, come together to witness the birth of the Savior. The stars bear witness, the earth offers a cave, the lowly beasts offer their warmth, the human race offers our flesh through the Virgin mother. The old divisions are overcome! Who can fully comprehend this mystery?

“What shall we offer Thee, O Christ, who for our sakes has appeared on earth as man? Every creature made by Thee offers Thee thanks. The angels offer Thee a hymn; the heavens a star; the Magi, gifts; the shepherds, their wonder; the earth, its cave; the wilderness, the manger: and we offer Thee a Virgin Mother, O pre-eternal God, have mercy on us!”

Look as hard as you will in the hymns that proclaim the Lord’s birth, look as hard as you will in the Scriptures that record His coming among us and you will find no other message than that of liberation from darkness and perversion. You will discover no other reality than the joyful response of God’s creation to His infinite Love and Mercy. There is no wrath, no anger, no talk of judgment (except for the judgment laid against the enemy who corrupted us--and against those, like Herod, who consciously and knowingly reject Christ and attempt to destroy Him). There is only the gospel (good news) message of restored communion between God and His creation.

“Heaven and earth are united today, for Christ is born! Today God has come upon earth, and man has gone up to heaven. Today for man’s sake is seen in the flesh He Who by nature is invisible. Therefore let us also give glory and cry aloud to Him: Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, which Thy coming has bestowed upon us, O Savior, glory to Thee!”

How beautiful this mystery! How infinitely gracious, our God! Who can possibly tell of all His mighty works? Who can fathom the depths of His compassion and love? How precious the Name of the one by Whom we are saved: Jesus, our Emmanuel (God-with-us)!

“How is he contained in a womb, whom nothing can contain? How held in his Mother’s arms, he who is in the Father’s bosom? This is all as he knows, as he wished and as he was well pleased. For being without flesh, willingly he was made flesh; and He Who Is, for our sake has become what he was not; without departing from his own nature he shared in our matter; wishing to fill the world on high, Christ was born in two natures.” (Christmas Day Matins)

The great mystery of the Orthodox Christian faith is that the incomprehensible, almighty, eternal, and infinite Second Person of the Holy Trinity, God the Son, also partook of the finite, limited, ignorant, and mortal human nature that we all share. It is an article of faith that He became “like us in every way but sin” (Hebrews 4:15). In other word, the infant Jesus really and truly was utterly helpless, in need of the same care as any other baby. Though, as the eternal Son of God He continued to uphold the universe, as the Son of Mary—the “Son of Man”—was completely dependent on others for survival. This is the great paradox of the Christian faith and forms its central theme: He became like us that we might become like Him (St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation of Christ; The Liturgy of St. Basil: “He emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, conforming to the body of our lowliness, that He might change us in the likeness of the image of His glory”).

He became like us, so that we might become like Him!

What an astonishing affirmation of God’s love—and of our potential! Think of it, if He had simply come down from heaven in the full power and might of His divinity, He would have merely shown us what we already know: that He is perfect and we are not. But in choosing to share in the fullness of our nature—from the very moment of conception—He also chose to make our nature perfect, to show us that we can truly be healed of our afflictions, sin, and death because He has taken all these things on and redeemed them. What we could not do because of our weakness, He has done through taking on our weakness. This can only be expressed adequately in the poetry of Scripture and the Church’s hymnody. The rational mind cannot grasp it, which is why our faith is opaque to those who would rely solely on philosophy or science to make sense of the world. To accept the mystery of God-with-Us in the flesh, we must take a leap of faith, in love.

We must take a leap of faith, in love! Love alone can explain (if that word is even adequate) why God would become one of us and faith alone can accept it. There is no logical reason for the gift we receive in the incarnation of Christ. Strict justice would demand the annihilation of our race for its sins (and the condemnation of each one of us, for our constant failure to repent). Love alone can explain God’s compassion and forgiveness—to the point of even lowering Himself to become what we are.

Madeleine L’Engle, an Episcopalian writer and poet, in a poem about the Virgin Mary contemplating the birth of Jesus (alas, I cannot trace the poem anywhere) portrays the Mother of God watching a cockroach run across the door-sill and imagining a love so strong as to be willing to become such a creature! The point of the poem, at least as I took it, was that the willingness of God to condescend to our nature was akin to our willingness to become cockroaches for the sake of their nature! Of course, she was taking poetic license—but the whole, extraordinary point is that God’s leap from His infinite holiness to our finite brokenness is far, far, greater than the leap from being human to becoming a cockroach!
The hymns and carols of Christmas are full of such poetry and wonder. As we enter the season of Advent and contemplate through prayer and fasting the mystery of Christ’s birth, let’s take time to read the Scriptures and hymns appointed for the pre-feasts and festivals of Christmas and Theophany and let them sink deeply into our hearts.

May the Light of Christ which fills this Holy Season, enter each and every home and bring with it the joy that comes from that “wondrous love” which knows no limits or bounds in its compassion for us.

Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus,  who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God,  but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, andcoming in the likeness of men.  And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, 1that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth,  and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:5-11 NKJV)


Nearly 1600 years ago there arose a great controversy between the Patriarchs of Alexandria and Constantinople over the nature (or natures) of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Nestorius, the Patriarch of the Imperial City (Constantinople) had declared that it was wrong to refer to the Virgin Mary as ‘Theotokos’  (Birth-giver, or, Mother of God).  He stated that Mary was the mother of the man Jesus, but could never be the Mother of God (who has no beginning  and who cannot be limited in any way). He stated that it was foolish, if not sinful, to refer to a mortal woman as the mother of the immortal God.

On the surface Nestorius’ argument seemed quite logical. But Cyril saw more deeply into the implications of his opponent’s point of view If Mary is not the Mother of God but simply the mother of a man, he reasoned,  then why should we worship him? In fact, offering worship to a mere man would make us idolaters!

Nestorius said that He believed that Christ consisted of two separate subjects (identities) one of which was human and the other of which was divine. When the Gospels spoke of the human subject (the one who hungered, was afraid of death, wept for his friend Lazarus, etc.), it was the man, Jesus, that they were referring to. When they spoke of the One who raised Lazarus and the son of the widow of Nain from the dead, who walked on water and stilled the raging storm, then it was the Eternal Word of God who was being referred to. For Nestorius the two were united in the “Christ”.

St. Cyril objected to this by saying that there could only be one ‘subject’ in Christ—only one ‘identity’, only one ‘Person’, the Eternal Word and only begotten Son of God. In this case, Mary, as the one in whose womb the Eternal Word of God took flesh, could and must be called the Mother of God. Of course, Cyril did not believe that Mary gave birth to the Son of God from all eternity. She gave birth to Him in the flesh, at a certain time and place in history—in the ‘fullness of time’ as the Scriptures teach (Galatians 4:4-5).

And that is very heart of why Cyril’s teaching matters so much. In the fullness of time God Himself became a man—a human being in the tininess of a young maiden’s womb, carried for nine months, born among animals in a manger, growing in wisdom and strength through the years of childhood and adolescence, preaching the Kingdom of God and doing miracles in His manhood, and suffering a violent death at the hands of His own creatures that He might rise in glory by His own divine power! God, Who is without beginning, Who is infinite and without any kind of limitations, became finite and limited, “emptying himself and taking on the form of a slave” (Philippians 2:7).

The great mystery of the Incarnation, according to St. Cyril, is that we can truly say that God—Personally— united Himself to our broken and limited condition in order to heal our nature and to restore us to communion with Himself.

He left nothing that is natural to us outside His experience. He took on a human body (from the moment of conception); He had a human mind, soul, will, emotions—everything that pertains to being human, while at the same time remaining unchanged in His divine nature. He became what He was not (human) while remaining what He was ( the eternal, almighty, all knowing Word of God).  We confess this every week when we sing:

“Only Begotten Son and immortal Word of God, Who for our salvation willed to be incarnate of the holy Theotokos and ever-Virgin Mary, Who without change became man and was crucified, Who are One of the Holy Trinity, glorified with the Father and the Holy Spirit: O Christ our God, trampling down death by death, save us!”

St. Cyril, as with all truly Orthodox teachers, was wise enough to say that this is a mystery beyond human comprehension. We can believe it, but we cannot fully explain it. In fact, Nestorius’ problem was exactly the same problem that all heretics have—he relied too much on intellectual reasoning alone to try and ‘solve’ the mystery of God. He attempted to put everything into neat, logical, categories, forgetting that the wisdom (logic/reason) of God is foolishness to the world and the foolishness of God undoes the wisdom of the world (see 1 Corinthians 1:21-25).

This directly relates, of course, to the great mystery we celebrate on Christmas—that a weak and tiny baby is at the same time the eternal God. He is not merely ‘veiled in flesh’, He is made flesh. He unites Himself fully and completely with human flesh, and He will never again be separated from it.

We can never speak of Jesus without at the same time speaking of the Eternal Word and Son of God. Jesus is the Eternal Word and Son of the Father. JESUS IS GOD.  And on that our salvation depends.
If Jesus were a man somehow united to the Word of God (as ‘the Christ’—whatever that means), then we are not saved. Unless Jesus IS the Word of God made flesh, then He can do nothing for us. He would be nothing more than another prophet, as the Muslims teach.

St. Cyril, along with all the Orthodox teachers, confessed that the flesh of Christ is life giving because it has been united inseparably with God. The fact that we receive holy communion—believing it to be the “body of our Lord and God and Savior, Jesus Christ”—is a concrete statement of our faith that Christ is one, that He cannot be divided into a ‘human’ side and a ‘divine’ side. They is only One Christ, One Divine Person, who has taken on our human nature so that we might be lifted up from degradation, death, and satanic oppression.

Our faith is not ‘neat’. It does not accommodate itself to human categories of thought. It cannot be explained or contained by philosophical arguments. But neither can love. Love cannot be explained or contained in mathematical equations. It must be experienced. It must be given and received. It is a mystery beyond comprehension, and yet, anyone who has ever experienced it knows that it is real—perhaps the most real of all experiences. And in the end, the deepest and truest expression of God is that of Love. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son…”
St. Cyril knew that. Nestorius just couldn’t get it.

The mystery of Christmas is that Infinite and everlasting Love entered into the world, into our smallness, into our weakness, into our foolishness that we might one day be made great and strong and wise in Him—that we too might Love fully and without limit, even if we will never be able to find words to adequately explain it.

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