18 December 2016

The Incarnation matters

Today is (on the New Calendar) the Sunday of the Holy Forefathers of Christ, here represented on a Greek icon. It is a Sunday on which it is good to reflect on both the social and the subversive reality of the Incarnation – the reality in which the Word of God, God Himself, became a flesh-and-blood human being; interposed Himself within and interrupted history; and recapitulated within Himself all three of Old Israel, the Roman Empire and the philosophical truths of the Greeks.

The Incarnation matters, because in honouring the forefathers and righteous (and, indeed, often not-so-righteous) ancestors of Christ, we pay tribute to the fact that Our God is in every respect like us, and indeed in every respect like the least of us – with the exception that He does not sin. We in the Orthodox Church acknowledge that Jesus Christ had a name – Yehoshua, ‘God is salvation’. That He had a sex – He was a man. That He had a birthplace – Bethlehem – and a birthday, which we celebrate each year at this time. That He had a human mother – Our all-holy, immaculate, most-blessed and glorified Lady, the Mother of God and the Ever-Virgin Mary. We acknowledge that He had a tribe, the tribe of Judah. We acknowledge and celebrate the descent of Christ from Abraham and David the king. We acknowledge that He had a community – Nazareth; and we acknowledge that He was a political subject of the Roman Empire. We acknowledge that He had a trade – that of a carpenter. The Incarnation means that Christ was not only a man, not only a Jew, but a working man, a labourer, one of the common people – born not to wealth and luxury, but to the sweat of His brow and the fatigue of His back, the ache of His feet and the callus of His hands.

And, to be clear, we are talking about God. The Source of all Good. The uncreated, all-powerful and all-knowing. The Maker of all that is, seen and unseen, known and unknown. God made Himself humble and mortal and vulnerable, placed Himself squarely within every single one of the dependencies and limits human beings are subject to as contingent, created beings, subject to weakness, illness and death. In the words of the late, great Robin Williams: phenomenal cosmic powers – itty bitty living space. And we of the Orthodox faith in particular, believe that because God became this limited, dependent, mortal human being, named Jesus Christ – that we human beings, even in our limits, dependencies and mortality, are capable of becoming like God – if we take up our Cross and follow Him.

Being like God and taking up the Cross does not mean we must abandon completely our earthly homes for some kind of pie-in-the-sky Gnostic vision. Just as Christ laboured in His life in His native country and in his own village – among His people and also amongst the foreigners – so also must we labour where we are, and love the places where we live. Just as Jesus honoured His mother and loved her even until the end when He was nailed to the Cross, so also must we love our families. As the Apophthegmata have it, even cœnobites who forswear the world and all its goods, who leave their homes and birth-families for the cloister, must still be obedient to their brothers (or sisters) in that cloistered life. And even hesychasts who flee to the wilderness in emulation of Christ must still live lives of self-giving love for the strangers to whom they find themselves nearest, just as Saint Herman did.

But for most of us ‘in the world’, the Incarnation still calls upon us, not only to live as the heathen do, by ‘taking care of our own’ – though we must do that as well. If we would seek to become like God in the way God has become like us, then the Incarnation necessarily calls us to solidarity with the lowest and the least or, as the daily prayers of the Church would have it: the sick, the suffering, the sorrowing, the afflicted, the captives and the needy poor. The Incarnation has cosmic and ontological implications: God not only condescended to what we are, but also overcame the results of our sin in the reality of death.

As such, we are likewise called not only to charity for the least of our fellow human beings (as even the Pharisees gave charity in condescension!), but to seek for them the due of justice. The cosmic justice and the forgiveness of debts implied in the Incarnation and the Crucifixion of Christ is spelled out in the accounts of the righteous Forefathers of Christ. As the Lord spoke of Abraham as the latter begged Him to spare Sodom for the sake of even one innocent life: ‘for I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the LORD, to do justice and judgement; that the LORD may bring upon Abraham that which he hath spoken of him.’ For this reason Abraham was chosen to be called out of what is now Iraq, and in his great old age to be spared the misery of childlessness – which would be a death-sentence to slow starvation in such a society, in a strange land with no kin. But even in this wretched state, he and Sarah showed great kindness to three strange wayfarers (who, in Orthodox iconography, turn out to be the Trinity disguised).

As for King David, the egregious episode of adultery and murder with Bathsheba and Uriah (and the internecine conflict that followed) unfortunately overshadows a life – public, private and military – which was for the most part devoted to justice and equity. He defended his people from a brutal seafaring aggressor when he was only a boy, defeating a powerful general. He refused to indulge revenge against his enemies among his own people, such as Abner; and he showed great kindness and forbearance to both Saul and his family even after Saul tried, multiple times, to have him killed. He distributed the spoils of his military victories not only among his armies but among the common people of the tribes of Israel. For these reasons, and because after the death of his son Absalom he truly repented of his grievous injustice against Uriah, he is still regarded kindly by the authors of Scripture.

The radical promise of the Incarnation, and the examples of the Holy Forefathers of Our Lord, point us to a way of life in emulation of a God who, in the words of the Psalmist himself, ‘executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry… [who] sets the prisoners free… [who] opens the eyes of the blind… [who] lifts up those who are bowed down… [who] loves the righteous … [who] watches over the sojourners… [who] upholds the widow and the fatherless’.

These things are to be kept in mind as we celebrate the miraculous birth of Christ Our God, in a cave, in a manger among the animals, to a wayfaring young woman and her woodworking husband who could find no better lodgings.


  1. Amen! Props to the Herman reference. He's a hero of mine.

  2. Cheers, Cal! Glad to hear it. I currently attend a church where he is the patron saint; and I'm happy to have learned about his worthy and blessed life from the people there!