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Thoughts on the Incarnation of the Word

By Steven Clark

 

In the beginning was the Word; and the Word was with God; and the Word was God. (John 1:1)

A little over 2000 years ago, the eternal Word (Greek "logos") of God took flesh from the Theotokos, Mary the Virgin. St. John speaks of this Word taking on all of our flesh, every aspect of it, including our human nature. And by taking on our entire human nature, the Word renews it and redeems it. "Jesus" is the Name of the Word. Jesus IS the Word, and the only manifestation of that Word. Jesus is the Word truly made flesh.

This notion is unique to Christian literature. The Greek word "logos" has a long philosophical history, and how St. John (and the Church) used that term is far less philosophical than the Greeks did. Even Philo of Alexandria, a Platonic Jewish writer, used it in a highly philosophical way. For John and the Church the Word was something very personal. No classical Platonist believed that the Word could become flesh. In fact such a belief would have been an anathema. But the Word's personal-ness did not suddenly start when the Word became flesh. The Word is, always has been, and always will be, the second Person of the Holy Trinity.

Thus, we should not limit our understanding of the Word's activity to the historical limits of Jesus' life. The Biblical and classical Christian understandings of the Word are many. Jesus is the same Word that was active in Creation, and who spoke through the prophets of old. Whenever there were other "manifestations of the Word," it was this same Word of God that manifested Himself historically as Jesus of Nazareth. St. Paul says that the Word is the image of the Father (rather than IN the image), and that by Him all things were created, and through Him all things hold together. Yes, the same Word that became flesh permeates all things.

He was in the beginning with God; All things are created through Him; and without Him was nothing made that was made (John 1:2-3)

For the Word of God is living, active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing the division of soul and spirit, of joint and marrow, discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. There is no creature hidden from HIM; but all are laid naked and open before the eyes of HIM with Whom we have to do, the Word. (Hebrews 4:12-13)

Notice in the above passage that the Word is a "Him," and not an "it." The Word is personal. The Word discerns. Rather than read this Word, we must have a relationship with this Word, Who was in the beginning with God, and through Whom all things were created. The Word of God wields ultimate power in the universe. The Word of God is King of all.

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Paradox

When examining the notion of Incarnation, we cannot expect to fully grasp its intricacies. This is because the incarnation, like the love and joy we often experience, is laden with paradox. We cannot dismiss the paradox of the Eternal God taking flesh and becoming part of His creation. The Church, instead, launches headlong into the paradox, even glorifying in it. The perfect and impassible God became flesh and took on our humanity. Eternal Love became a baby. He Who created the heavens and earth deigns to be held by His creatures. The Uncontainable becomes contained in the womb of the virgin. He Who grants breath to all creation, takes breath. He Who IS before all ages, condescends to be constrained with in space and time. The paradoxes of the Word's Incarnation are many, and account for the love and awe many have felt for God's incarnation in Christ.

The Word of God IS that paradox that both exists beyond all ages, and yet has become flesh and dwelt among us (in time, in a human culture and context). Holy Scripture points to Jesus as the Word. This puts us face to face with that paradox. In time we encounter the Word of God as a little child, as a young boy, as a Man who teaches, and as one Who both is offered and offers Himself. This Word is both a frail lamb led to slaughter, and the divine shepherd of straying sheep. Yet this Word is the Word was before all ages, and by Whom all things were created, and in Whom all things hold together.

Having become flesh, undergone birth and death, the risen Christ ascends to His Father, offering to Him His humanity -- and our humanity. Since The Word is one of the Holy Trinity, He is complete.

Rather than sending instructions, or a mere teacher with instructions, God sends Himself. We have a person to encounter, rather than an account about others' encounter. Knowing about others' encounter is helpful, but does not exempt us from having to encounter Him ourselves. Ultimately we must encounter the living Word, rather than simply reading about or intellectualizing Him.

We encounter Him both in His timelessness and in time. It is an encounter that is too near to us (and at the same time too far beyond us) to adequately put in human words. Yet we struggle to express that dynamic relationship in words. Our words are poor and are effective only insofar as they preserve the paradox. And as the dynamic relationship between God and ourselves changes, we grow. But it is not the eternal God who has grown. Rather, it is we, and our relationship with God, that grows (if we let it).

God Loves

Jesus did not only die and rise again for our sake and for our salvation. Jesus was also born, was circumcised, baptized by John in the Jordan, ministered, healed, performed miracles, taught, all for our sake, for our health and salvation. God did not only die and rise again, He became one with us; He took on our flesh, our humanity; He grew up in a dysfunctional family; He was tempted; He ate, slept, loved, cried, got angry, ALL FOR OUR SAKE. Without all of this, a death and resurrection is diminished to a petty substitution and magic act. God Who CANNOT BE CONTAINED deigned to be conceived in a womb, wrapped in swaddling clothes in a manger, wrapped in winding sheets (epitaphion/plashchenitsa) in a tomb, confined in time and space... FOR OUR SALVATION!

While many in the medieval and Western Church narrowed the atoning work of Jesus down to his shed blood, we must not narrow God's work in this way. Jesus' blood DOES save us, but it is not just His blood. Jesus' LIFE saves us. Everything He did in taking on our disease saves us - from his miraculous conception to His death and resurrection. And through it all, His Love saves us, for He gave of Himself out of Love. By Love He reversed the typical ways that we relate to each other. By Love He exalted those of low degree. By Love He heals our infirmities.

By proclaiming the Incarnation of God in history, we are not being elitist or exclusionary. God's love is not "confined" by the second person of the trinity -- rather it is made manifest, not just in the age of His Incarnation in the flesh, but in all times both before and after, and unto the ages of ages. Rather than being exclusionary, the Incarnation is the event whereby God redeemed the entire creation. This is hardly an act of exclusion, but rather an act of supreme love available to all who choose it.

Passion

Behold the King cometh. He has taken our flesh to be one in essence with our humanity. Now He offers Himself for that humanity. Behold the extreme humility of the King of the Universe. He hath not clothed Himself in finery as befits a King.

He was despised, rejected, a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. He had no beauty that we should desire Him; no comeliness that we should delight in Him. (a euphemism for 'dead') (Isaiah 53:2-3). Surely He hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed Him not and regarded Him as one smitten by God. And with His stripes we are healed; and the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:4-5).

Indeed these servant poems from the prophet Isaiah are about the Kingdom of God -- as we see Jesus Himself teach at the Capernaum synagogue. From these we learn that Jesus suffered in the flesh; he underwent His voluntary death in His flesh. This DOES have supra-historical import. The order of the universe is altered as it beholds the Creator dead at the hands of His creature. The earth quakes; the skies darken. He Who IS God dies! Yet is not separated from the Father.

His Resurrection also has supra-historical import for all mankind. No longer does the flaming sword bar mankind from paradise, for He has opened it again, even unto the thief who repents. Hell has been embittered, for the presence of God has gone to where it was not. "Christ is risen from the dead! Trampling down death by death! and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!"

How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? (Hebrews 2:3)

Where others can plead ignorance, those that "do it the right way" have no such plea. God will not listen to it. "You had the Law and the Prophets." "You had even the revelation of Me in My Son." That is why many of those that turn away from God are those that have called, "Lord, Lord." "Lord, Lord; we hid your gospel from the homeless; we turned aside from those who are afflicted, for they were not worthy."

God will have mercy upon the homeless and afflicted. But to those of us who disdained His Image in them, Jesus will say: "Away from Me ye workers of iniquity." The Incarnation calls us to a higher standard, to a standard of enfleshing our God, Who became flesh for our sakes, in our own flesh.

Our Response

The Word of God has been complete since before the ages -- before time. (John 1:1-18) It is our understanding of God's Word that remains incomplete. We are the darkness that "understood it not." There is nothing we can do to complete God. We best, then, work on completing ourselves.

The Word was not just a form of human example; He was truly human. Not only did He bring the divine to humanity, but He also brings humanity up to divinity. He has made it possible for us lowly humans to have a share and communion with divinity. Through His incarnation, we have been empowered to become "sons of God."

As we put on Christ, we become "anointed ones" (christs) by grace. Thus we participate in the ongoing incarnation of the Word. Our problem is that we do not want to live so much in the continuing presence of God. "The True Light, which enlightens all was coming into the world." But we prefer darkness. We want God to be the quiet child, the "good god" who stays in heaven, and doesn't bother us. We don't want to stand in the presence of God and let ourselves be transformed by Him. We prefer the comfort of our self-destructive ways, and don't want Him monkeying around with our concept of who we are.

He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, but the world knew Him not. He came to His own people, and His own people received Him not. But to all who received Him, He gave power to become sons of God. (John 1:10-12)

Christianity was born of God coming into the world. One of the problems that God coming into the world had for the Judaism of His day was with the Lawyers. Now the lawyers have done unto Christianity the same thing they did unto Judaism: Christianity has become about keeping rules and laws. Law looks not at following God, but at "What is required?" In other words it asks, "What is the minimum I have to do to get by?" This is different from following God. Following God requires faith. Doing what you need to do to 'get by' removes yourself from a relationship with God, and puts you at a level of APPEASING God. A lot of people in the past (and even today) embrace this approach to God, and have an elaborate system of thought to justify why we all should have the same approach.

But when we move away from a kind of law-based minimalism to a relationship with God, we see that the beginning of that relationship is truly just the beginning. There is no magic that suddenly transforms us warped humans into the likeness of God. We have to cooperate with God for that transformation to take place. God is with us. And through His presence (if we choose to come into that presence) He can un-warp us. Salvation is a process, not a magical cure. St. Paul was converted unto Christ in a dramatic manner, but he was still an angry, raging person. It took most of his life to un-warp that in him. It took years of effort and prayer to heal that. It took humility and allowing God to be with him in his frailty. But this is available to all of us. For indeed through the incarnation, God is with us.

Let us look at the phrase "God is with us." Isaiah said it like this: "God is with us, understand all ye nations and submit yourselves, for God is with us." I hear a lot of people quote that as if it means, "God is on our side." We rarely look at it as "God is here with us, and we (not others) must submit ourselves to God's rule (not our interpretation of how we want God to rule)" Indeed, God is on our side, but often we are not on our own side. For in order to be on our own side, we must be on God's side.

Yes, God has given us freedom to say "no" to Him. From a human perspective it seems to be a mistake that the eternal God keeps giving us small humans chance after chance. He seems to think that eventually we'll get it right after we have suffered enough from doing it our way. As our planet gets smaller we come up against a larger variety of ways of "doing it our way." As our technology has progressed, so has our ability to do both good, and of course, evil.

It is difficult, often, to see God as working all this towards an ultimate good. It is hard to see this in light of great evil that surrounds us. Hope looks at the evil and says defiantly "God is victorious." Hope looks at our warpedness and says, "God can heal this." Hope knows that the Incarnation is the beginning of God's final victory.

In conclusion, "Let us, the faithful, praise and worship the Word, co-eternal with the Father, born for our salvation from the virgin. For He will to be lifted up on the cross for our sake, and to suffer death, and to raise the dead by His glorious resurrection." (Resurrection Tropar, tone 5)

"O Lord Jesus Christ, Who for our sakes didst become incarnate, have mercy on us, who prefer our sin to Thy grace."

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