God Became Man
by Anthony Bebawi
We again find ourselves approaching the time of year in which we celebrate the Incarnation of the Son of God, the Logos, who came and took on the form of His creation to achieve for us the salvation we could not hope to gain ourselves. Looking back, I wonder if I truly understood what this actually meant. It is all well and good that we celebrate this event, for as we see in the Gospel according to St Luke the angels could not stop themselves from proclaiming in awe “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!” (Luke 2:14), however I feel that every time I attend the liturgy on the eve of the feast, there is something I look over without truly realising its true value – God became man. What does this mean? How could God become His creation? To use a metaphor, it is equivalent to saying a carpenter became a chair. When it is put in this way, the incarnation becomes all the more amazing. In order to, God willing, assist in finding some way to understand the incarnation (as much as we are able) let us consider a few points.
Firstly, in contemplating the incarnation we must accept a concept which sounds strange to unfamiliar ears – the incarnation is not meant to be understood. When reading St Luke’s recount of the Incarnation, we strangely do not read of any crazy reactions from St Mary, St Joseph or even St Elizabeth upon hearing the news of Christ’s coming; in particular, St Mary’s lack of questioning is almost surreal. If we turn to the first chapter of the Gospel according to St Luke, after the Archangel Gabriel announces the good news, we read:
Then Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I do not know a man? “And the angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God. Now indeed, Elizabeth your relative has also conceived a son in her old age; and this is now the sixth month for her who was called barren. For with God nothing will be impossible.” Then Mary said, “Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her. (Luke 1:34-37)
The only thing that St Mary questions regarding the birth of Christ is “How can this be, since I do not know a man?” Even then, the response of Gabriel raises questions that I don’t think I could even begin to ponder. How was she then able to find comfort in those words? The answer to this and the first thing we must have when contemplating the incarnation is faith. It is by no mistake that St Paul says “For we walk by faith, not by sight.”(2 Corinthians 5:7) We are asked to accept the providence of God knowing full well that we may not understand what it is that may be planned for us. This, contrary to what we may be told, does not make us weak, but in fact makes us strong for we know that whatever happens to us, it has been allowed having first passed through the Hand of God. Thus, no matter what lays before us (and in the case of St Mary, the answer of the angel), knowing that it has been established by God should in fact grant us the same comfort Mary had. For as St John Chrysostom says:
If the Son of God has become a Son to David, therefore do not doubt, you son of Adam to become God’s son. If God has descended to such depths, then He has not done this in vain, but rather to raise us to the highest! He was born of the flesh so you would be born a second time according to the Spirit. He was born of a woman, so you would become a son to God.
The last line of St John Chrysostom commentary in fact brings us to the main point of this blog – what it means for God to become man. During Saturday Tasbeha (midnight praises), in the Psali, we chant “He took what is ours and gave us what is His” a phrase taken from St Athanasius’ book ‘On the Incarnation’; a work I will heavily quote in order to learn the meaning of the Incarnation from one of the church’s greatest theologians. For us to do this we must first touch on a little bit of theology (hopefully I don’t lose too many people).
We begin with the fall of man. Man, as we read in Genesis was made in the image of the Trinity: “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness” (Genesis 1:26 – partial quotation). However by disobeying God (through the deceit of the devil), man corrupted the Divine image which they held for they no longer were in union with God who was the source of their being. As a result of their free will (a thing which would not exist unless man was able to reject God, as well as accept Him) man faced corruption and death which propagated throughout generations becoming ever worse; similar, if you would like, to the way one mouldy apple can ruin an entire basket if left among the good apples.
God faced a Divine Dilemma (if it is possible to say that God could face a dilemma) upon which St Athanasius comments saying:
It was unworthy of the goodness of God that creatures made by Him should be brought to nothing through the deceit wrought upon man by the devil; and it was supremely unfitting that the work of God in mankind should disappear, either through their own negligence or through the deceit of evil spirits.
So, there was only one solution; God the Son was forced to take flesh and be incarnate in order to correct the corruption inherent in the nature of man. As St Athanasius puts it, the corruption could not be corrected by repentance since this could not stop men form sinning, causing then death, as this was their nature; the only way the corruption of man could be fixed was by God coming in the form of man to correct it in Himself. How so? By being the first to overcome death, having resurrected after His crucifixion.
What does all of this mean? To put it simply, the incarnation was the means by which man was able to overcome their weakness and attain to that which was lost to them i.e. they are again able to be in unity with God, returning to the original likeness they were created in. This feast of the Nativity becomes for us all the more amazing due to this fact. It is not simply the foreshadowing of the Passion, but a strong depiction of God’s selfless love for mankind for God the Son took on our likeness, knowing full well that we were corrupt; being God, yet willing to take the form of His creation (carpenter becoming a chair) in order that creation which he shaped and knew from the beginning would not be placed under the sway of the evil one.
To conclude, I would like to end with yet another quotation from St Athanasius that many of you have probably heard:
“God became man so that man could become god.”
+ Glory be to God forevermore. Amen +