Top Ten Reasons Christmas Doesn’t Need the Cross: #2

Jason Micheli —  January 2, 2014 — 2 Comments

lightstock_59323_small_user_2741517Every year during Advent we let our confirmation students loose through the church building to take an informal poll.

The question we give the confirmands is the same every year:

Why did Jesus come to earth?

In other words, why Christmas?

Every year the questions are the same:

More than 3/4 answer:

that Jesus comes

in order to die.

And the problem with that answer is…it’s wrong.

Or better still, it’s incomplete. As St Augustine argued:

“In the Incarnation of Christ, other things must be considered besides absolution from sin.”

De Trinitate, XIII. 17

#2 Reason Christmas Doesn’t Need the Cross:

Because Emmanuel isn’t just the beginning.

Emmanuel, God-with-Us, is the End.

As in, telos.

Whereas Western Christianity- and by Western I don’t mean the flyover states but all of Protestant Christianity and the vast majority of Roman Catholic Christianity- has privileged the Atonement over the Incarnation, Eastern Christianity- what eventually became the Orthodox traditions- historically has treated the Incarnation not as simple prologue to the salvation plot but as constitutive of salvation itself.

The Eastern Fathers (like Maximus the Confessor and Gregory of Nazianzus, whom John Wesley sought to retrieve for Western Christianity) viewed the Incarnation as the eternally necessary outworking of God’s creative act, for God’s creative aim is not creation itself nor creation apart from God nor (contra Jean Calvin an eventual overcoming of creation’s Sin by the Son’s cross).

God’s creative aim is the joining together of divinity and humanity, Spirit and flesh, Creator and creature, heaven with Earth.

God’s eternal aim is Emmanuel: God with us.

In this sense, the God-Man, Jesus Christ, whom Paul calls the first first of the New Creation is presupposed in the first creation.

The with-ness of God’s creative aim or end (telos) thus requires Incarnation quite apart from the Fall. As Russian Orthodox theologian, Georges Florovosky, notes in The Motive of the Incarnation:

This was the main line of reasoning of St. Gregory of Nazianzus in his refutation of Apollinarianism:

“That is saved which is united with God.”

Typically Gregory’s quote gets cited in argument for the full humanity of Christ. Christ must be fully human, encompassing all of our human experiences (male and female etc) or else we- or those of us who aren’t Jewish men- do not have share in his sacrificial death for sin’s sake.

While of course our share in the atoning work of Christ is part of Gregory’s meaning it’s not the full or primary meaning Gregory intends. Gregory’s quote means to point out that the word ‘salvation’ names not only the overcoming of sin but more largely the joining together of God and man.

To paraphrase Athanasius without distorting his original intent:

God became man and was always going to do so;

so that, man could be with God.

Uniting is/was God’s larger, more general intent of which Atoning became a necessary work.

All of this is meant only as preface to this excerpt from Orthodox theologian Sergei Bulgakov‘s ‘Du Verbe Incarne.’ Nesterov_Florensky_Bulgakov

Bulgakov’s book Lamb of God is a must read.

God wants to communicate to the world his divine life and himself to “dwell” in the world, to become human, in order to make of human kind a god too. That transcends the limits of human imagination and daring, it is the mystery of the love of God “hidden from the beginning in God” (Eph 3:9), unknown to the angels themselves (Eph 3:10; 1 Pet 1:12; 1Tim 3:16).

The love of God knows no limits and cannot reach its furthest limit in the fullness of the divine abnegation for the sake of the world: the Incarnation. And if the very nature of the world, raised from non-being to its created state, does not appear here as an obstacle, its fallenstate is not one either.

God comes even to a fallen world; the love of God is not repelled by the powerlessness of the creature, nor by his fallen image, nor even by the sin of the world: the Lamb of God, who voluntarily bears the sins of the world, is manifest in him. In this way, God gives all for the divinization of the world and its salvation, and nothing remains that he has not given.

Such is the love of God, such is Love.

Such it is in the interior life of the Trinity, in the reciprocal surrender of the three hypostases, and such it is in the relation of God to the world.

If it is in such a way that we are to understand the Incarnation–and Christ himself teaches us to understand it in such a way (Jn 3:16)–there is no longer any room to ask if the Incarnation would have taken place apart from the Fall.

The greater contains the lesser, the conclusion presupposes the antecedent, and the concrete includes the general.

The love of God for fallen humankind, which finds it in no way repugnant to take the failed nature of Adam, already contains the love of stainless humankind.

And that is expressed in the wisdom of the brief words of the Nicene Creed: “for our sake and for our salvation.”

This and, in all the diversity and all the generality of its meaning, contains the theology of the Incarnation. In particular, this and can be taken in the sense of identification (as that is to say).

So it is understood by those who consider that salvation is the reason for the Incarnation; in fact, concretely, that is indeed what it signifies for fallen humanity.

But this can equally be understood in a distinctive sense (that is to say, “and in particular,” or similar expressions), separating the general from the particular, in other words, without limiting the power of the Incarnation nor exhausting it solely in redemption.

The Word became flesh: one must understand this in all the plenitude of of its meaning, from the theological point of view and the cosmic, the anthropological, the Christological and the soteriological.

The last, the most concrete, includes and does not exclude the other meanings; so too, the theology of the Incarnation cannot be limited to the bounds of soteriology; that would be, moreover, impossible, as the history of dogma bears witness.

The Incarnation is the interior basis of creation, its final cause.

God did not create the world to hold it at a distance from him, at that insurmountable metaphysical distance that separates the Creator from the creation.

God intended to surmount that distance and unite himself completely with the world; not only from the outside, as Creator, nor even as providence, but from within: “the Word became flesh”.

That is why the Incarnation is already predetermined in the very first human kind.





Jason Micheli


2 responses to Top Ten Reasons Christmas Doesn’t Need the Cross: #2

  1. You write:

    “To paraphrase Athanasius without distorting his original intent: God became man and was always going to do so; so that, man could be with God.”

    Paraphrase aside (why no direct quotes?), I can’t see how this doesn’t contradict Athanasius’s own words in a book of his I’ve actually read, On the Incarnation. Athanasius says repeatedly that Christ became incarnate in order to deliver us from the corruption wrought by sin during the Fall. He says it in many ways, but let me quote on part directly:

    “You may be wondering why we are discussing the origin of men when we set out to talk about the Word’s becoming Man”—he just finished talking about the Garden and the Fall “The former subject is relevant to the latter for this reason: it was our sorry case that caused the Word to come down, our transgression that called out His love for us, so that He made haste to help us and to appear among us. It is we who were the cause of His taking human form, and for our salvation that in His great love He was both born and manifested in a human body. For God had made man thus (that is, as an embodied spirit), and had willed that he should remain in incorruption. But men, having turned from the contemplation of God to evil of their own devising, had come inevitably under the law of death. Instead of remaining in the state in which God had created them, they were in process of becoming corrupted entirely, and death had them completely under its dominion.” [(Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003), 29]

    I could go on, but I hope you get the point. Athanasius does say or imply here that the Word would become incarnate regardless what happened in the Garden. On the contrary, it was because of what we lost through our disobedience that the Word was made flesh. The incarnation was a response to our sin. Its purpose, as Athanasius says, is to save us from the law of sin and death.

    Keep in mind, as a Wesleyan whose orientation is already prima scriptura, I don’t need Athanasius to affirm this for me. But I’m glad to know that he does: we have the same Bible, after all.

    If Athanasius sounds positively Western and soteriological in his orientation, it’s because Western Christianity didn’t get it all wrong, after all.

  2. Immediately, I see some typos:

    “on part directly”: one part directly

    “Athanasius does say or imply here that the Word would become incarnate regardless what happened in the Garden.”: obviously, it should say “doesn’t.”

Leave a Reply

Text formatting is available via select HTML. <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.