By Stephanie Perdew VanSlyke, M.Div., Ph.D.
Reflecting on Christmas & the Incarnation
Last year, Suzanne and I sat down with our pastor, the Rev. Dr. Stephanie Perdew VanSlyke to introduce us to some of the thinkers of the early church, their writings and sermons about Christ’s incarnation, and why it was central to their interpretations of God’s saving work with humankind. The video discussion, originally posted at Teaching Nonviolent Atonement, along with Stephanie’s show notes, are below.
When Protestant or Roman Catholic Christians from the contemporary West delve into the writings of the early church, we often conclude that something is missing from the theologies we encounter. We expect to find more discussion of the cross, or more explication of atonement. Yet what we find is a discussion of the whole salvific narrative from incarnation to resurrection, of which the cross is a part, but not the whole, an event which makes no sense unless interpreted through the lens of both incarnation and resurrection.
John 1: 1-18
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. 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. (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’”) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.
Irenaeus (c. 125-200 C.E.)
Irenaeus, born in Smyrna and a student of Polycarp, eventually became Bishop of Lyons. He is known for his treatise Against Heresies, an engagement with forms of Docetism and Gnosticism which claimed that Christ was not really human, but only seemed so. For these groups, Christ’s fully humanity would jeopardize the power and impassability of his full divinity.
But for Irenaeus, Christ’s full human incarnation was no threat to divine power. Rather, it was a gracious, generous expression of God’s power, necessary for the work of our full salvation. Irenaeus beautifully articulates a cosmic theology of ‘recapitulation’ in which Jesus takes on full humanity in order that we may become fully alive. Read a bit more here:
Athanasius of Alexandria (c. 297-373 C.E.)
Athanasius is known for his role as a deacon and theologian leading up to, the Council of Nicaea in 325 C.E., which was convened to resolve the “Trinitarian Controversy” surrounding whether God the Father and God the Son (Jesus) could be spoken of as sharing one divine substance (homoousios). Athanasius continued his advocacy for this way of thinking after the Council, when he became Bishop of Alexandria in Egypt.
He is thought to have written his treatise On the Incarnation prior to the Council, perhaps c. 319 C.E. In these excerpts Athanasius explains why God became incarnate, even unto the cross: because Father and Son worked as one to overcome our death:
From Chapter II:
“For God is good—or rather, of all goodness God is fountainhead, and it is impossible for one who is good to be mean or grudging about anything. Grudging existence to none therefore, he made all things out of nothing through his own word, our Lord Jesus Christ; and of all these his earthly creatures he reserved special mercy for the human race. Upon them, therefore, upon those who as animals were essentially impermanent, he bestowed a grace which other creatures lacked, namely the impress of his own image, a share in the reasonable being of the very Word himself, so that, reflecting him, and themselves becoming reasonable and expressing the mind of God even as he does, though in a limited degree, they might continue forever in the blessed and only true life of the saints in paradise…
For God had made humanity thus (that is, as an embodied spirit), and had willed that humanity should remain in incorruption. But humans, having turned away from the contemplation of God to evil of their own devising, had come inevitably under the law of death…
…the human race was in the process of destruction. Humans, who were created in God’s own image and in their possession of reason reflected the very Word himself, were disappearing, and the work of God was being undone…
…what then was God, being Good, to do? Was God to let corruption and death have their way with humans?…What then was God to do? Was God to demand repentance from humans for their transgression? You might say that that was worthy of God, and argue further that, as through the transgression they became subject to corruption, so through repentance they might return to incorruption again. [But repentance does not] recall humans from what is according to their nature; all that it does is to make them cease from sinning…but when once transgression had begun humans came under the power of the corruption proper to their nature and were bereft of the grace which belonged to them as creatures in the image of God. No, repentance could not meet the case. What—or rather who was it that was needed for such grace and such recall as we required? Who, save the Word of God himself, who also in the beginning had made all things out of nothing?…
For this purpose then, the incorporeal and incorruptible and immaterial Word of God entered our world. In one sense, indeed, he was not far from it before…but now God entered the world in a new way, stooping to our level in his love and self-revealing to us.
…Thus, taking a body like our own, because all our bodies were liable to the corruption of death, he surrendered his body to death in place of all…this he did out of sheer love for us, so that in his death all might die…for the solidarity of humankind is such that, by virtue of the Word’s indwelling in a single human body, the corruption which goes with death has lost its power over all.”
From Chapter III:
“What was God to do in the face of this dehumanizing of humankind, this universal hiding of the knowledge of God by the wiles of evil spirits? Was God to keep silence before so great a wrong and let humans go on being thus deceived and kept in ignorance of himself? If so, what was the use of having made them in the divine image originally?…
What, then, was God to do? What else could he possibly do, being God, but renew his image in humankind, so that through it they might once more come to know him? And how could this be done save by the coming of the very image himself, our Savior Jesus Christ?…The Word of God came in his own person, because it was he alone, the image of the Father, who could recreate humankind after the image. In order to effect this re-creation, however, he had first to do away with death and corruption. Therefore he assumed a human body, in order that in it death might once and for all be destroyed, and that humans might be renewed according to the image. The image of the Father only was sufficient for this need.”
Gregory of Nazianzus (329-389 C.E.)
Gregory, along with his friends the brothers Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa, are known as the ‘Cappadocian Fathers,’ (from Cappadocia in Turkey). All three played pivotal roles in Christian thinking about the Trinity and about Christ’s humanity and divinity.
From Epistle 101, (c. 382 or 383 C.E.), addressing the ‘Christological controversy’ in which some argued that Jesus’ incarnation was not full but partial. In response, Gregory argues that only Christ’s full incarnation (full divinity and full humanity) can heal and restore us fully from a fallen state to one fully redeemed:
“If anyone has put his trust in him as a man without a human mind, he is really bereft of mind, and quite unworthy of salvation. For that which he has not assumed he has not healed; but that which is united to his Godhead is also saved. If only half Adam fell, then that which Christ assumes and saves may be half also; but if the whole of his nature fell, it must be united to the whole nature of him that was begotten, and so be saved as a whole. Let them not, then, begrudge us our complete salvation, or clothe the Savior only with bones and nerves and the portraiture of humanity…”
John Chrysostom, c. 349-371 C.E.
John, nicknamed the Chrysostom, the “Golden-tongued” was a reluctant preacher who would have preferred to have been a monk. Yet he consented to be ordained lector, deacon, priest, and finally a bishop. As Bishop of Constantinople, his preaching against the excesses of imperial wealth and power in a newly Christian Empire led to his subsequent removal from his preaching post and his exile.
These quotes illustrate his preaching at the feast of Christmas during his tenure as a priest in the city of Antioch of Syria. At this point, Christmas is a new holiday, beginning perhaps a few decades earlier as a Roman observance and just making its way East. Prior to this—and continuing to this day in many Eastern Christian traditions—the birth of Jesus was celebrated along with the commemoration of the arrival of the Magi on the ‘Theophany’ or ‘Epiphany’ on January 6.
Homily VI: On Saint Philogonius (23-24), preached in Antioch, December 20, 386 C.E.
“A feast is approaching which is the most solemn and awe-inspiring of all feasts….What is it? The birth of Christ according to the flesh. In this feast namely Epiphany, holy Easter, Ascension and Pentecost have their beginning and their purpose. For if Christ hadn’t been born according to the flesh, he wouldn’t have been baptized, which is Epiphany. He wouldn’t have been crucified, which is Easter. He wouldn’t have sent the Spirit, which is Pentecost. So from this event, as from some spring, different rivers flow—these feasts of ours are born.”
Excerpts from a Sermon on the Nativity, preached in Antioch, December 25, 386 C.E, in which Chrysostom illustrates the concept of the “great exchange”: that Christ takes on our humanity and in exchange offers us divine salvation.
“I behold a new and wondrous mystery. My ears resound to the Shepherd’s song, piping no soft melody, but chanting forth a heavenly hymn. The Angels sing. The Archangels blend their voice in harmony. The Cherubim hymn their joyful praise. The Seraphim exalt His glory. All join to praise this holy feast, beholding the Godhead here on earth, and man in heaven. He who is above, now for our redemption dwells here below; and he that was lowly is by divine mercy raised.
Bethlehem this day resembles heaven; hearing from the stars the singing of angelic voices; and in place of the sun, enfolds within itself on every side, the Sun of Justice. And ask not how: for where God wills, the order of nature yields. For He willed, He had the power, He descended, He redeemed; all things move in obedience to God. This day He who is, is born; and He who is, becomes what He is not.
What shall I say, and how shall I describe this birth to you? For this wonder fills me with astonishment. The Ancient of Days has become an infant. He who sits upon the sublime and heavenly throne now lies in a manger. And He who cannot be touched, who is simple, without complexity, and incorporeal, now lies subject to the hands of men. He who has broken the bond of sinners is now bound by an infant’s bands. But He has decreed that ignominy shall become honor, infamy be clothed with glory, and total humiliation be the measure of His goodness. For this He assumed my body, that I may become capable of His Word; taking my flesh, He gives me His spirit and so He bestowing and I receiving, He prepares me for the treasure of Life. He takes my flesh, to sanctify me; He gives me His Spirit that He may save me.
Come then, let us observe the Feast. Truly wondrous is the whole chronicle of the Nativity. For this day the ancient slavery is ended, the devil confounded, the demons take to flight, the power of death is broken, paradise is unlocked, the curse is taken away, sin is removed from us, error driven out, truth has been brought back, the speech of kindliness diffused, and spreads on every side, a heavenly way of life has been implanted on earth, angels communicate with men without fear, and now men hold speech with angels.
To Him then, who out of confusion has wrought a clear path,
To Christ, to the Father and to the Holy Spirit,
We offer all praise, now and forever, Amen.”
Theodotus of Ancyra (died 446 C.E.)
Theodotus, Bishop of Ancyra, was a supporter of Cyril, Bishop of Alexandria, who engaged in a debate with Nestorius, Bishop of Constantinople, about Christ’s full humanity and divinity or “two natures.” The initial dispute was the question of the liturgical use of the term Theotokos (God-bearer) for Mary. Nestorius had preached against it shortly after ascending the bishop’s seat in Constantinople (c. 429). The fundamental question Nestorius raised in his First Sermon against the Theotokos was whether Mary gave birth to the divine Logos or to a man who later assumed the divine nature. For Cyril and Theodotus, Christ’s divinity had to be eternal—he did not assume divinity at some later point—and thus for them, it was also appropriate to call Mary the Theotokos.
In this Sermon Preached at the Council of Ephesus, 431 C.E., Theodotus shows no nervousness about Christ coming to us in the form of a servant and a poor child.
“The Lord of all comes in the form of a servant, and he comes as a poor man, so that he will not frighten away those souls he seeks to capture like a huntsman. He is born in an obscure town, deliberately choosing a humble dwelling-place. His mother is a simple maiden, not a great lady. And the reason for all this lowly state is so that he may gently ensnare humankind and bring us to salvation. If he had been born amid the splendor of a rich family, unbelievers would surely have said that the face of the world had been changed by the power of wealth. If he had chosen to be born in Rome, the greatest of cities, they would have ascribed the same change to the power of her citizens.
Suppose our Lord had been the son of an emperor; they would have pointed to the advantage of authority. Imagine his father a legislator; their cry would have been, ‘See what can be brought about by the law.’ But, in fact, what did he do? He chose nothing but poverty and mean surroundings, everything that was plain and ordinary, and in the eyes of most people, obscure. And this so that it could be clearly seen that the Godhead alone transformed the world. That was why he chose his mother from among the poor of a very poor country, and became poor himself.
This is the lesson of the crib. Since there was no bed, our Lord was laid in a manger. This lack of the necessities of life was the best way of proclaiming the will of God. He was laid in a manger to show that he was to be the food even of simple folk. We know, in fact, how the divine Word, the Son of God, drew to himself both rich and poor, the eloquent and the inarticulate, as he lay in the manger surrounded by poverty.
See then how poverty acted as a prophecy—how his poverty showed that he who became poor for our sake was thereby made accessible to everyone. Christ made no ostentatious display of riches which would have made people frightened to approach him; he assumed no royal state, which would have driven people away from his presence. No, he came among ordinary people as one of themselves, offering himself freely for the salvation of all.”