Christmas is days away. I want to share a few thoughts on the incarnation, inspired by the writings of some of my favorite of the early Church Fathers. Since I first discovered the early church fathers and mothers when I was in seminary, my faith has been enriched by reading them.
God Became Human = Humans Become God: Irenaeus
Irenaeus was born around 130 AD in Smyrna (modern-day Turkey). Smyrna was one of the seven churches to which the book of Revelation was sent (Revelation 2-3). Revelation was written by John, traditionally John the Apostle who also wrote the Gospel of John (though some bible scholars argue for a different John). Irenaeus would later claim he learned the faith from Polycarp who had learned it from John the Apostle, so we are still pretty close to the original events of Jesus’ life. Irenaeus eventually became the bishop in Lyons (modern day France) and is notable for his opposition to the Gnostics. Gnosticism is hard to pin down, but the simplest explanation for our purpose is to say that Gnostics argued there was a special knowledge (gnosis = knowledge) that was only given to a special group of people. The Christian Gnostics then had their own scriptures (such as the Gospel of Truth by a man named Valentinus). Irenaeus argued for the tradition passed down from the first apostles. This tradition is seen in the four Gospels we know, as well as how to interpret these gospels.
Ireneaus’ big idea is “recapitulation” which means Jesus “summed up”, or brought to completion, salvation history by being the final Adam (or the new Adam) who undoes the sin of Adam (Ephesians 1:10). Just as Adam sinned and led all humanity into sin, so Jesus lives a perfect life and leads all humanity into union with God. God became human to unite humanity to God and provide the path to save and restore creation. Irenaeus writes in his classic work Against Heresies:
“For it was for this end that the Word of God was made man, and He who was the Son of God became the Son of man, that man, having been taken into the Word, and receiving the adoption, might become the son of God. For by no other means could we have attained to incorruptibility and immortality, unless we had been united to incorruptibility and immortality. But how could we be joined to incorruptibility and immortality, unless, first, incorruptibility and immortality had become that which we also are, so that the corruptible might be swallowed up by incorruptibility, and the mortal by immortality, that we might receive the adoption of sons?”
In Jesus, the divine is joined to the human. As Irenaeus says, the Word of God was made man. Through this, we humans are able to be adopted into the Trinitarian family of God and become divine. Irenaeus later writes, “our Lord Jesus Christ, who did, through His transcendent love, become what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself.” God became human so that we humans can come to union with God. We shift from union with the first man, the broken and sinful man, Adam to union with the God-man, the final and perfect man, Jesus.
God Becomes Human = Humans Become God – Athanasius
Irenaeus set the tone for later theologians. One such theologian was Athanasius (298-373). Athanasius was a deacon in Alexandria, and assistant to the bishop, when the Arian controversy broke out. Arius taught that the Son of God was not equal to God the Father but instead was a created being. Arius still saw the Son as the greatest and most majestic being created, but he was created – there was a time when the Son was not (or as Jehovah’s Witnesses might say, the Son was “a god”). Athanasius is famous for opposing Arius and defending the Trinity at the Council of Nicea, and throughout the rest of his life as bishop in Alexandria. Athanasius argued that the Son was uncreated; the Father and Son and Spirit exist from forever and to forever as Father, Son and Spirit. Fun fact, Saint Nicholas (yes, that Saint Nicholas) attended the Council of Nicea and supported Athanasius.
When we think about subjects like this it is tempting to imagine seeing God as Trinity is just something we are supposed to believe, but that makes no difference in real life. Yet for Athanasius, like Irenaeus (and I’d argue, anyone who has a beginning understanding of it), this idea was not just some theological esoteric mumbo-jumbo. Instead, it cut right to the heart of who humans are and how humans are saved. If Arius was correct, then God and humanity are not united in Jesus. Essentially, if God (not “a god” or some created secondary being) has not been totally united to humanity then humanity is not saved. Athanasius wrote in his classic On the Incarnation:
“For He was made man that we might be made God; and He manifested Himself by a body that we might receive the idea of the unseen Father; and He endured the insolence of men that we might inherit immortality. For while He Himself was in no way injured, being impossible and incorruptible and very Word and God, men who were suffering, and for whose sakes He endured all this, He maintained and preserved in His own impassibility.”
Athanasius understood God as the infinite one, the ground of all being, the incomprehensible and impassible Being who totally transcends all the cosmos. If we make a list of everything in the universe, God is not a thing in the universe. God is in God’s own category. Thus, when Christians said God became human, this is not like some kind of demigod (like Hercules or Maui from Moana). This is not one of the gods running around like some more powerful human. Instead, the one Creator and Sustainer of all Creation took on human flesh. As Athanasius says, God did all this while preserving His own identity as God. God is both God and Human at the same time. In Jesus, humanity and divinity are united.
The purpose for this is our own union with God (our own salvation): God became what we are so we can become Gods. This may sound shocking to some. It is an idea we Western Christians can learn from our Eastern Orthodox friends who emphasize it. Yet if it troubles you, think of it this way: our basic call as Christians is to become Christ-like. We believe that Jesus is God in the flesh. This means that as we become more like Jesus we also become more like God. It also means, as Jesus is the perfect human, we are not even fully human yet but only become human as we become like Jesus. Of course, we will never become like God in all things (uncreated, eternal, infinite), but through adoption we are in union with God. We are welcomed into the eternal family relationship of Trinity as we are unified with the New Adam and filled with the Spirit.
Mary Carries God Within Her – God Lives Within Us
Reflecting on the Trinity and the Incarnation leads us to the one who gave birth to the baby in whom God and humanity are united: Mary. If we believe Jesus is fully God (Trinity) then it is entirely appropriate to refer to Mary as the “Mother of God.” There was a debate about this in the early church, about a century after Athanasius (Google “Nestorian Controversy” if you’re interested). If Jesus was fully God, then he had to be fully God even in Mary’s womb. The point is not really about Mary then, for she remains human. The point is about Jesus: when God took on human flesh, this occurred in Mary’s womb. Mary truly is the “Mother of God.”
One of my favorite podcasts is Mysterion. The last few weeks they’ve been talking about Mary. If you get time, give some of the episodes a listen. In one episode, they draw parallels between Mary and the Ark of the Covenant. Hebrews 9:4 states that the ark contained manna, Aaron’s staff and the stone tablets of the covenant. Mary had in her womb the one who was the true bread of life (John 6:35), the true priest (Hebrews 4:14-16) and the word of God made flesh (John 1:1-14). Further, they draw tons of parallels between the story of King David bringing the Ark to Jerusalem in 2 Samuel 6 and Mary going to visit Elizabeth in Luke 1:39-45.
The title of Mysterion’s series is Only Human, for while they say all these amazing things about Mary, they emphasize that she is still “only human”. As a human though, she is an example for the rest of us who are also only human. Mary said yes to God and was indwelt by the Son of God in whom humanity and divinity were united. She carried a human baby inside of her while also carrying the Creator and Sustainer of the Cosmos inside of her.
In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul tells the that they are the temple of God: “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?” (1 Cor. 3:16). God came to dwell in Mary and God dwells in you. In Romans Paul wrote on similar ideas:
9 You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ. 10 But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of righteousness. 11 And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.
God eternally exists as a relationship of Father, Son and Spirit. When God took on flesh in Mary’s womb, she carried God’s Son inside of her. But its not like she had 1/3 of God, as if the Trinity means God is divided into thirds. Each of the Father, Son and Spirit are 100% God, fully indwelling in one another, so the child inside of her was fully God. Likewise, though we do not carry God’s Son in us as Mary did, but we are indwelt by the Spirit of God who is 100% God which means, as Paul notes, Christ is in us.
The birth of Jesus reveals to us the unifying of divinity with humanity.
Mary carried inside of her the one in whom divinity and humanity were united.
As the Spirit lives in us, so we to experience the unity of divinity and humanity.
This is what both blows my mind and inspires me as I reflect on it further. The incarnation reveals to us that God fills everything: God became human and filled all creation with divinity. After being crucified, the Son of God even descended into Hades (1 Peter 3:18-20; Ephesians 4:9-10, filling even hell with God’s own presence. The Psalmist asks, “where can I go from your Spirit, oh God?” (Psalm 139:7-12) and the answer is, simply, nowhere. The incarnation reveals to us that God is not far away in heaven, but fills all creation even to its very depths. The earth is filled with the glory of God, as the waters cover the sea (Habakkuk 2:14; Isaiah 11:9). God, as Paul and Irenaeus and Athanasius taught, became human to lift up and unite humans (and all creation!) to God.
The only question I am left with is how do we live into this reality? There is nothing we can do to earn God’s love, for God’s love has already overflowed to us. We can choose to resist it or we can choose to live into it, living as people who allow love to overflow from us to others.
May you choose union with the overflowing love of God. Merry Christmas.