Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Incarnation as Exaltation

Laura likes to do impressions of Michael Garten, which are usually right on, and then giggle to herself. We have grown very fond of this man during the time we spent at Saint Barnabas. He is super intelligent, but has a way of explaining things that even Laura and I can understand them. Michael, along with many others gave up hours of their time to help guide us through, and to, Orthodoxy. We are eternally grateful to all of them. 
In many of our 4-hour, after church lunches, Andrew Harrah introduced us to Michael as literally the most intelligent person he knew. I wish to give the same introduction, the following article is from the legendary Michael Garten, quite literally, the most intelligent person I have ever known. And a good friend too.
The Incarnation as Exaltation by Michael Garten
The mystery of Christ’s incarnation is too great for me. Any attempt to write about it myself—especially any attempt to say something new about it—would leave me with a sense of unworthiness. So I will borrow the words of Saints; my own comments are merely meant to draw attention to their profound unity and depth, which we sometimes miss.

In the Church we sing this hymn of praise:

Christ is born! Glorify Him!Christ descends from the heavens, welcome Him!Christ is now on earth, O be jubilant!
The first three lines of this Nativity Canon speak of a descent from heaven. We are invited to see Christ’s incarnation as an expression of divine humility. The Father regards humanity as worthy to be entered by the Word of God. St. Paul says:

Although He was in the form of God, He did not consider equality with God a thing to be grasped.
So He submits to the Father’s will and takes on the form of our lowly life as servants and creatures. What can compare to this humility?

What we are not always aware of is that Christ’s birth was an exaltation of him as well as a humiliation. The next three lines of the Nativity Canon say:

Sing to the Lord, the whole earth,And sing praises to Him with joy, O ye people,For He has been exalted!
How is Christ exalted in his birth? One way is by making our common human nature glorious and deathless in his Incarnation. St. John the Theologian wrote in his Gospel:

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 were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it…
The true light, which enlightens every man, was coming into the world.

There is a connection here between the life of God and the light of God. The life of God is deathlessness, or immortality; it is eternal and cannot be diminished. The light of God is the uncreated glory of God. This glory is God himself as he manifests his beauty and goodness. John says the life was the light of men. In other words, what makes us share in the glory of God is the immortality He has always offered us in Christ. In St. Irenaeus of Lyons’ magnificent words:

The glory of God is living humanity, and the life of the human being is the vision of God.
But humanity has been alienated from this immortal life of glory, and the human race has fallen into darkness. Human nature was passing out of existence, losing life. So Christ is sent. And what does He do? The eternal Word, who is the source of our life, enters into human nature. Now we receive life from within instead of from God externally. Christ imparts the Holy Spirit to humanity from within. Before, sunlight shone on a flower from afar. Now the light has been let in; the sun itself is inside the flower. All is made bright with the glory of God.

Why did Christ have to become incarnate? God is needless. God is gracious. And as St. Maximus says, He never ceases from doing good because He never started (He is eternal). In contrast, humanity is needy. Humanity is receptive, taking in God’s life that He offers. But humanity even before the fall was unstable and could lose its share in God’s life if human nature was misused and turned aside from God. After the fall it was corrupting, getting sicker and sicker, closer to annihilation. The only way to ensure that we don’t lose the gifts of light and life that God offers is if someone who never ceases from doing good receives these gifts into our common humanity. Athanasius says:

For though He had no need, nevertheless He is said to have received what He received humanly, that on the other hand, inasmuch as the Lord has received, and the grant is lodged with Him, the grace may remain sure. For while mere man receives, he is liable to lose again (as was shewn in the case of Adam, for he received and he lost), but that the grace may be irrevocable, and may be kept sure by men, therefore He Himself appropriates the gift; and He says that He has received power, as man, which He ever had as God, and He says, "Glorify Me," who glorifies others, to shew that He hath a flesh which has need of these things.
So Christ securely receives forever as man what He had always given as God: light and life in the Holy Spirit. Christ’s choice from within our shared human life changes its relation to God forever. Because He is the true light that enlightens every human, He is also the true life that enlivens all. His life is permanently given to human nature, kept sure by all men because Christ is sinless and never ceases from receiving God’s life into our shared humanity. And so human nature is glorified and immortalized in Christ.

But Christ is divinely exalted and glorified in the incarnation too. God is not glorified by receiving something from us that He lacks. But whenever creation moves towards God, it shines with God’s light more. God wills that we see his glory—the manifestation of his beauty and goodness. And so He is glorified when His glory is manifested in his creatures more, because his will that we see his glory is accomplished. When Christ makes humanity alive in the Incarnation by imparting the Holy Spirit, the Father's glory shines out from us all the more.

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