It is the Annunciation, the Euaggelismos, the Announcing of the Good News to Mary that she will bear the Christ child whom she will name Jesus; the day of the Incarnation, the day God became human in the form of a man. We celebrate this story on March 25th.
Our Orthodox tradition very much affirms that on this day God became human, that Jesus who was conceived on this day is paradoxically God and man. This belief in the incarnation of God in the man Jesus—as it says in the creed, “incarnate by the Holy Spirit,” that is by the power of the Holy Spirit—is not an easy one to affirm. In fact, I would say that over the past few centuries, it has fallen into disfavor. One reason is that a scientific standard of truth has prevailed since the 17th century and the idea that God can become human is something that has never been observed before, nor is it something that is scientifically verifiable. In an age where trust is given to that which can be verified, that for which we can provide proof or evidence, the belief in God becoming human in a particular individual is something which simply cannot meet that standard of truth. Even before the Scientific Revolution, it wasn’t something easy to believe. A study of early Christian writings reveals that the Greek philosophers did not find such a belief very reasonable.
Yet much is at stake in its affirmation or its denial. What I wish to suggest is that what is at stake is the very essence of Christianity itself. In the Incarnation we don’t simply see a God who became man, we see a God who emptied Godself for us, as St. Paul says in his letter to the Philippians (2: 6-11); we see the love of a God who came to be with us, to be with paralytics, the blind, the tax collectors and the prostitutes, who were considered then the lowest segment of society, and showed them love; we see a God who, as St. Paul says in his letter to the Hebrews, that sympathizes with our weaknesses and knows our human suffering, because God himself suffered (4:15); we see a God resurrected and who in this resurrection opened the way toward an unbreakable relationship of communion with God. Through the incarnation we see a God full of love and compassion for his creation, one who taught us how to love and be compassionate to others; one who unites Godself with us so that humans can go beyond what we are capable of; in the Incarnation we have a God who came to lead us to God, to an intimate union with God. Without the incarnation we don’t have any of this; we have a Christianity stripped of its essence, of love and compassion, of the capability of being united with God. This is why St. Athanasius, who lived in the 4th century, affirmed the reality of the Incarnation, because if it were not true, then there is no Christianity, and humankind is not saved from the great annihilator, which is death; without union with God, with the eternal source of life, we are beings unto death.
To the challenge that the idea of an Incarnation is simply a myth, then, I propose the counter-challenge to offer a better alternative. If the response is that there is no God, then that leaves us with very little hope, since humanity itself has shown itself capable of both great achievement and great barbarism. As the great Jewish philosopher of this century, Walter Benjamin, reminds us, behind every great work of civilization is a great act of barbarism. And if the answer is that there is a God but that God and humanity are two distinct realities that can never be brought together, then that also is not good enough. What good does it do us that God is simply out there with no way for us to be with God? We want, or at least I want, a God who is with us, a God whose power it is and whose freedom it is to be what is not God for the sake of uniting us with Godself. It is this God that we see in Jesus Christ, who is Jesus Christ.
And we don’t affirm this about Jesus simply because of what we desire, although this is part of it. We affirm it based on the witness of his earliest followers, recorded in the Bible, that in this Jesus they witnessed a man whose actions were truly human but which went beyond any human capacity in their power to bring us into an intimate union with God. We affirm it based on the lives of the true saints in our tradition, who based on the belief of Jesus as God and man, structured their lives in such a way that the divine presence became progressively more manifest in and through their very bodies.
After all this abstract consideration of the Incarnation, the obvious question would be, how does one get there, how can one be united with God, how do Lenten practices unite us more with God? There are answers to those questions, though they are not easy, but before one even considers those questions, before one embarks on a lifelong struggle of learning about this way of life, one first has to believe that such a union is possible, that it is worth it, and that it is possible through Jesus Christ, the God-man. Why the effort? Because there is nothing better, more stable, more secure, more joyful, more peaceful, simply nothing better than being with God. It’s simply what we were created to be, but the only way we can know this is if we heed the recommendation in the Book of Psalms to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34).
Aristotle Papanikolaou is the Archbishop Demetrios Chair in Orthodox Theology and Culture and the Co-Director of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University.
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.