“For he was incarnate that we might be made god; and he manifested himself through a body that we might receive an idea of the invisible Father; and he endured the insults of human beings, that we might inherit incorruptibility.”1
The period of Advent has a two-fold reason for being: it commemorates the historical event of the Incarnation of Christ, and it is also a period of waiting for His return. The Catechism defines the Incarnation as “. . . the mystery of the wonderful union of the divine and human natures in one person of the Word.”2 This then also involves the Trinity, the relationship between the three persons of God: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and their relationship to us. Of course, there has been tremendous debate regarding this seemingly mathematical impossibility — 100% human and 100% divine leaves a good 100% more to swallow than seems possible! St. Athanasius the Great of Alexandria (c. 296 – 373), in On the Incarnation, written before the year 319, cogently defended this view against the tide of Arianism and served to support the Council of Nicaea that declared Christ as both fully divine and fully human.
In his argument, he presents God’s dilemma as one of attention. He writes: “. . . human beings had become so irrational and demonic deceit was thus overshadowing every place and hiding the knowledge of the true God, what was God to do?”3 He provides the answer using the analogy of a king, who:
. . . does not permit the lands established under him to pass to and serve others, nor does he abandon them to others, but he reminds them with letters, and often enjoins them by friends, and, if need be, comes himself, shaming them by his own presence, only so that they not serve others and his work be in vain.4
We see, then, that God sent us His only-begotten Son through the Incarnation to rightly reorient our attention toward Him, to gather us back to Him.
God’s solution of the Incarnation is unique in salvation history, but the problem of distraction is as old as humanity. From Adam and Eve’s temptation to “be like God but without God,” the worship of the golden calf after Moses went up Mount Sinai, to man ignoring God by repeatedly “doing that which was right in his own eyes” in the book of Judges and in large swaths of the Bible, it seems that as soon as we get what we want, we stop paying attention to God.5 The Bible points this pattern out repeatedly: we sin, fall into slavery, recognize our error, ask for help, are rescued, and from there, it isn’t long before we fall silent, forgetting to praise and worship the source of our salvation.6 And the cycle begins again anew.
But like the king mentioned by St. Athanasius above, God tried everything. He sent warnings (the Flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, slavery in Egypt, and exile), He sent the Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) to try to establish a People set apart, and He sent the prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, etc.) warning and pleading with us to turn back to Him. Finally, when all else failed, like in The Parable of the Wicked Tenants, He sent His son.7
St. Athanasius calls us to focus our attention: “Marvel at the Word’s love for human beings, that he is dishonored for our sake, that we might be honored.”8 The Incarnation then is God’s beacon to us, His children, calling us back to Him in the most tangible, concrete, incarnate way possible. Human beings learn best through imitation, and how good and loving is our God that we have been given the gift of a model to imitate in His Son, Jesus Christ?
We know then why the image of God needed to descend into human ranks, but if we stop here, we reduce the Incarnation to the merely historical, and Advent and Christmas to the anticipation and celebration of a birthday party. While undoubtedly relevant as a legitimate historical reality, perhaps more important for us today is to see the promise of Christ’s return as ongoing, and how in many ways, He never left. Doing so is a key to better grasp how Advent, and the Incarnation in particular, can help us more clearly understand our lives and God’s role in them.
A word is an idea, a symbol, while a human being, made of matter, is a tangible manifestation of life in this world. The Incarnation of the Logos, as reason, was embodied in the world, manifesting the union of heaven and earth in the symbol of Symbols, Jesus Christ.9 Understanding this meaning through words provides a good example, as Matthieu Pageau explains:
. . . it takes levels upon levels of organization to form a meaningful sentence from a jumble of marks. The result is a physical construction, the written word, capable of encoding the events of our world within the confines of this page. Miraculously, by ordering these marks with the technical laws of our language (alphabet, vocabulary, and grammar), they point to a relatively higher reality. Thus, a real but invisible connection is established between those physical marks and a universe that reaches far beyond the limits of this page.10
For this communication to work, the “matter” of the marks that form letters need to be ordered toward a purpose, an aim we wish to communicate. Consequently, this use of symbol posits a teleological view of the world and in turn, that we are not wandering aimlessly upon some lonely rock in the middle of a cold unreasoned universe, but that we have a place, a part to play in the theo-drama unfolding before us.11 Quite simply, the meaning comes first. It has to, otherwise we do not know how to order those marks as letters on the page.
Now to push further, as the source of telos, of meaning and purpose, the Incarnation of the Logos — of reason — remains constant in our world today, right now, holding it together. To explore this, let’s briefly look at one of the more famous explanations for God’s existence, The Cosmological Argument.12 First attributed to Aristotle and further developed by St. Thomas Aquinas, it is also known as the argument of the Unmoved Mover.13
Bishop Barron lays out the argument simply, stating: “Things move. Nothing moves itself. There can be no infinite regress of moved movers. Hence, there must be some first Unmoved Mover, and this all people call God.”14 The idea is that, like dominoes, there must be one that falls first, but that cannot have been caused to fall, otherwise it isn’t, by definition, the starting point. This is easy enough to see on a linear path, as in the fact that I exist because of my parents, and their parents before them, etc. Or, take a cup of coffee now turned cold. Someone had to make it, then set it on a table in a room with air conditioning, which then cooled the coffee.15 Each of these examples depends on a series of dominoes falling in the past to get to the present. But this idea also exists at every level of the ontological hierarchy, in the present as well as through time, so that the same pattern or law of contingency plays out indefinitely for everything that exists, at all times.16
Edward Feser, an American philosopher, Thomist, and professor, who gave the example above, continues with the same analogy:
So, consider, once again, the coffee cup as it sits on your desk. It is, we may suppose, three feet above the floor. Why? Because the desk is holding it up, naturally. But what holds the desk up? The floor, of course. The floor, in turn, is held up by the foundation of the house, and the foundation of the house by the earth. Now, unlike the coffee being cooled by the surrounding air, which is in turn cooled by the air conditioner, and so forth, this is not a series which need be thought of as extending backward in time. Of course, the cup may in fact have been sitting there on the desk for hours. But the point is that even if we consider the cup as it sits there at some particular moment, it is sitting there at that moment only because the desk is holding it up at that moment, and the desk is holding it up at that moment only because it is in turn being held up, at the same moment, by the floor.17
Tracing this back fully, we get to God as the Unmoved Mover, allowing each of those things to hold together in order for the coffee cup to remain stably on the table. Feser continues, explaining this relationship between this First Cause and the elements mentioned above, writing:
You might say that if the desk, floor, walls, and so forth are acting like instruments of a sort, then there must, as it were, be something whose instruments they are. Or to put the point another way, if they have only derivative [or secondary] power to hold things up, then there must be something from which they derive it, something which does not have to derive it from anything else in turn but just has it “built in.”18
St. Athanasius makes a similar case in relation to the Incarnation, writing: “He became a human being . . . and used his body as a human instrument.”19 As the material objects of the desk, floor, walls, etc. can be used as tools by God to support the coffee cup and hold the world together, so too, can a human body be used as an instrument for similar ends.
A crucial component for understanding this argument and its relevance for the Incarnation of the Logos, is to see this First Cause as necessarily and actively unfolding in the present. Grasping this allows us to see that all these contingent things, which do not have to exist but nonetheless do, are held together by God at every moment. St. Athanasius writes: “Created from nothing, creation rests upon nothing; it depends totally for its existence upon the will of God alone, by which it was called into being. Yet rather than allowing it to relapse into nothingness, God acts to ensure its stability.”20 God is then the active agent, who through His Word, Christ, holds the world together at every moment of its existence.
St. Maximus the Confessor (c. 580 – 662), a 7th century Christian monk, theologian and scholar, pushes further, telling us that God “. . . is the secret origin and telos of all things. His energies are actively underlying the entire cosmos. He is constantly calling fallen things to Himself, making it possible once again to become aspects of His glory by transforming them.”21 God, and in turn His Word, His Son as active agent, hold contingent things together not just to give them identity and purpose, but also to gather and draw them back toward Him. Through St. Maximus, we can see that God’s purpose remains to reorient our attention rightly toward Himself.
As imagers of God, we accomplish fractally what the Word does on a cosmic scale. We are so used to doing it that we take our ability to identify purpose and to see the unity of things for granted. Pageau has often used the example of the chair or the glass to explore this idea of unity and multiplicity.22 It is this ability to see unity, to see purpose, that allows me to identify a pencil as a writing tool rather than a jabbing stick or a chopstick. Or again, why do we see a table and chairs as a set? Or a series of books as being part of the same genre? They could just as easily be grouped together by size or colour, but we don’t do that because we recognize that the meaning of books is found in their content.
The Incarnation is the cosmic example of identity and meaning. From the prologue of St. John’s Gospel, the Word is described as being the initial seed of all creation. He continues: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”23 As the Word incarnate, the Logos (i.e. the reason), all points back to Him as the First Cause that holds the world together. It has been like this from the outset, as the Genesis account makes clear. In it, God calls forth into being, through the power of the Word, that which previously did not exist.24 Embedded in the existence of anything is its utility, but even deeper is Christ hidden, for “. . . without this child in all things, the world does not exist.”25 This is as true of historical causal series as it is of the desk, floor and walls holding up the coffee cup, the parts of the chair or glass that form a whole, and for us to be held together as people, families, sports teams or groups of any kind.
Our world consists of contingent things. Bishop Barron explains that they “. . . do not contain within themselves the reason for their own existence, for if they did, they could not be otherwise than they are.26 So to maintain any sort of stability, any sense of intelligibility to the universe through scientific laws amidst the potentially infinite flux of contingent things, there needs to be a noncontingent force holding it all together.27 This is as much historical as it is active in the present. While things naturally fall apart, it is the Word that keeps the full chaos of entropy at bay.
As mentioned, we do the same thing on a smaller scale, as this ability that we have to identify and categorize, through the grace of God, is fundamental to our humanity. It affords us the ability to act in the world by seeing objects as tools to achieve ends. It permits us to evaluate and prioritize our values in order to manage the contingent flux of everything around us. For example, I may want to read a book, eat, play with my children, wash my face and get to work. My ability to rank order, to categorize these desires, lets me make a plan as to which needs doing first. Without this ability, I could potentially end up playing with my child while starving to death, or else choose to eat and lose my job because I missed an important meeting. Or, consider when driving a car, it is this ability that allows me to adapt to constantly changing situations, focusing on what is necessary to arrive safely at my destination.
Our capacity to name and to identify not only makes it possible to categorize and prioritize, but also to evaluate the good. Pageau argues that “the good” is defined by the ability of anything to accomplish its intended function.28 He also notes its connection to beauty, which is found through the perception of the truth of patterns, and accompanied by a sense that a thing’s purpose is being fulfilled. Something is true and good when it does what it is supposed to, such as a chair that is comfortable and safe to sit on. Beauty reveals the degree to which a thing is fulfilling its purpose and attaining the good.29 How loving then is our God? How good? That everything that exists comes through His judgement of it as beautiful and good is truly awe-inspiring.
I AM is not only Creation’s First Cause but the source of meaning for us, too.30 The Incarnation was present, is present, when we are formed from dust collected and gathered together for a reason, a purpose — imbued with meaning through the spirit, through the breath of God.31 In turn, since Jesus’s Ascension into heaven and the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, we are, as St. Paul says, “. . . the Body of Christ.”32 Ronald Rolheiser, a Canadian member of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, notes that, “This is not an exaggeration, nor a metaphor.”33 If we think of the Trinity as God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, consider the Incarnation as God’s showing us His son in the flesh. In turn, think of the Ascension as the promise, and Pentecost as the moment when God, in giving us the Holy Spirit, does the same thing. Where God became incarnate in human flesh through His son, the Holy Spirit is incarnated through us.
In many ways, Pentecost is the sequel to the Incarnation. Through the power of the descent of the Holy Spirit, we are called upon to incarnate God’s Word. Rolheiser writes: “As God once acted through Christ, so he now acts through those who are conformed to the image of his Son . . .”.34 He pushes even further, stating: “The word did not just become flesh and dwell among us — it became flesh and continues to dwell among us. In the body of believers and in the Eucharist, God still has physical skin and can still be physically seen, touched, smelled, heard, and tasted.”35
As part of Creation, like a rock thrown into water, we participate in this continued rippling-effect of the Incarnation every time we create a piece of art, have children, make a meal, etc. We participate in extending God’s creation and His light to the edges of the world, gathering together parts to form a whole, to form something new, imbuing matter with meaning, with identity and purpose.36
James B. Jordan, an American Protestant theologian, makes this same point, showing how we use the pattern of creation in Genesis in the simple act of making a meal: 1 – we take hold of creation by getting groceries, 2 – we restructure creation as we chop and prepare ingredients for a soup, 3 – we distribute our work by sharing the meal with friends or family, 4 – we taste and evaluate if the food is good and 5 – we enjoy the meal and rest with our company, all while glorying in the wonder of Creation.37 If you keep this pattern of creation in mind, you may start to see it play out everywhere in your life.
Christ became incarnate only because Mary allowed space within for Him who is our source and origin to dwell. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, it’s our turn. But the transformative power of Christ’s Incarnation in the world hinges first on our own fiat in His becoming incarnated in each of us. In this age of distraction, this is no easy feat. But to the degree that we imitate Christ, we become His flesh in turn. God’s Word has power, but it demands “our flesh to back it up,” to pronounce that Good News out into the world.38 St. Teresa of Ávila said: “We have to become God’s physical hands, feet, mouthpiece, and heart in this world.”39 Let us ask, then: what part of God’s Body are you in “. . . how you eat, how you dress, how you act in your family, how you do your job at work, how you apportion your time, how you look at and treat and handle your finances”?40 And moving forward, may we meditate on what part of God’s Body we are willing to become.
- St. Athanasius the Great of Alexandria. On the Incarnation, at 107. St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, January, 2012.
- Catholic Church. Catechism of the Catholic Church. 2nd ed., at No. 483. Double Day, 1995.
- Athanasius, “Incarnation,” at 62.
- Ibid. at 63.
- Catholic Church, “Catechism,” at No. 398.
- Cavins, Jeff. “The Covenants of Salvation History,” The Great Adventure Bible, at 268. Ascension Press, 2018.
- See Matthew 21:33-46, Mark 12:1-12 and Luke 20:9-18.
- Athanasius, “Incarnation,” at 85.
- Schmemann, Alexander. For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy, at 148. St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1973.
- Pageau, Matthieu. The Language of Creation: Cosmic Symbolism in the Book of Genesis, A Commentary, at 22. Self-Published, 2018.
- Barron, Bishop Robert. Centered: The Spirituality of Word on Fire, at 91. Word on Fire, 2020.
- See The Cosmological Argument.
- See Unmoved Mover.
- Barron, Bishop Robert. “Bishop Barron on Thomas Aquinas and the Argument from Motion,” at 00:00:58. YouTube, October 2014.
- Feser, Edward. Five Proofs of the Existence of God, at 17-20. Ignatius Press, August, 2017.
- Ibid. at 21.
- Ibid. at 23.
- Athanasius, “Incarnation,” at 97.
- Ibid. at 31.
- Pageau, Jonathan. “The Mark of Cain,” at 28:52. YouTube, no date.
- Pageau, Jonathan. “The Theology Behind the Culture War,” at 22:00. YouTube, no date, Pageau, Jonathan. “Introduction au symbolisme Chrétien,” at 48:20. YouTube, May, 2020.
- See John 1:14.
- See Genesis 1.
- Pageau, Jonathan, “Christmas as the Anchor of Reality,” at 21:30. Orthodox City Hermit, December, 2018.
- Barron, Bishop Robert. Light from Light: A Theological Reflection on the Nicene Creed, at 12. Word on Fire, 2021.
- Ibid. at 14.
- Pageau, Jonathan. “The Fractal Pattern of the Genesis Creation Narrative,” at 12:30. YouTube, no date.
- Pageau, Jonathan. “September Q&A,” at 2:19:49. YouTube, September 2021.
- See Exodus 3:14.
- See Genesis 2:7.
- See 1 Corinthians 12:27.
- Rolheiser, Ronald. The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality, at 79. Penguin Random House, 2019.
- Ibid. at 80-81.
- Ibid. at 80.
- Pageau, “Language,” at 53, Catholic Church, “Catechism,” at No. 460.
- Jordan, James B. Through New Eyes: Developing A Biblical View of the World, at 118-120. Wipf and Stock Publishers, July, 1999.
- Rolheiser, “Holy Longing,” at 84, 80.
- Ibid., at 80.
- Lord of Spirits, “Leviathan: It’s What’s for Dinner,” at 2:43:15. Ancient Faith, October, 2021.