CHRISTMAS : TRUTH AND MYTHS
By Protopresbyter Fr. George D. Metallinos
Professor Emeritus of the Athens University School of Theology
With His Incarnation and Birth, the Godman Jesus Christ actualizes the purpose that man was fashioned for, which was the eventual emergence of the Godman in History - the union of the created creature with the Uncreated Creator.
The purpose of the Incarnation was man’s deification (theosis).
“God becomes man, in order to make Adam God” (Christmas Troparion hymn).
“He became man, so that we might be deified” (Athanasius the Great).
“For God became man, and man, God.” (John Chrysostom)
To a moralist’s mindset, the choice of the term “deification” (theosis) used by Fathers such as Athanasius the Great is scandalous.
That is why moralists speak of “moral theosis”: they are afraid to accept that man is actually transformed “by Grace” through theosis, into that which the Triune God is “by nature” (uncreated, beginning-less, immortal). It is for this reason that Christmas is directly linked to the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, but also to the Ascension and the Pentecost. Christ – the Godman – carved the path upon which every person being saved is invited to walk, when becoming united with Him.
The Incarnation and the Nativity lead to the Pentecost – the event of man’s in-Christ deification – that is, within the corpus of Christ. If Christ’s Nativity is the Birth of God as a man, the Pentecost is man’s completion as a God by Grace. With our Baptism, we partake of the incarnation, the death and the resurrection of Christ; we too experience “our Christmas” – our regeneration. As for the Saints who attain union with Christ (theosis), they partake of the Pentecost and thus reach a re-born man’s in-Christ completion and fulfilment. Ecclesiastically speaking, this is man’s realization – in other words, the fulfilment of his life’s purpose.
As tiresome as the theological word may seem, and especially to the theologically uninitiated person, it basically expresses the reality of our Saints’ experience. It is through this experience alone that Christmas can be understood ecclesiastically – that is, “Christ-centredly”. Reversely, the inability of the non-reborn-in-Christ person to give meaning to Christmas has led to the rise of certain myths about it. With their inability to experience Christmas, those who have not savoured a Holy-Spiritual life tend to mythologize about it, within the confines of fantasy and fiction, thus losing its true meaning. As we shall in fact see, this disorientation is not always linked to the per se denial of the mystery, but to the inability to experience it, which inevitably leads to its misinterpretation.
A first mythological answer to the question of Christmas is given by heresy, that is, by a speculative and groundless (=lacking in experience) theology.
Docetism – the worst heresy of all time – asserted an imaginary incarnation of God the Logos; that is, a “seemingly present” God within endo-cosmic reality. One could ask: for what reason? Well, the Docetes of every era cannot –within the limits of their logic– accept the incarnation and the birth of God as a human being. Having transformed themselves into self-appointed defenders of God’s authority, they are ashamed to accept something that God Himself had chosen for our salvation, which was the path of maternity: that is, for Him to have been born of a Mother, even though She was none other than the purest creation in the entire History of mankind: the Most Holy Virgin.
All of the aforementioned believers can be ranked among the “hyper-exaggerating” Orthodox (according to Saint Gregory the Theologian), because Docetism led to the denial of Christ’s human status, in the form of Monophysitism (=having one nature). These are the conservatives, the ritualists, the easily scandalized. Truth, reality and historicity are scandals, in the minds of all of these. Whereas the former reject Christ’s divinity, the latter deny His humanity. And yet, Orthodoxy – that is, Christianity in its authenticity – is the “most historic religion” according to the ever-memorable Fr. George Florovsky. It lives within the reality of God’s energies for our salvation and accepts them with the realism displayed by the Holy Mother: “Behold, the handmaiden of the Lord; may it be to me, according to Your word”! (Luke 1:38). “Pilate also in the Creed”, says a charming Serbian maxim. Because Pilate, as the most spineless officer in History but nevertheless an existent historical personage, actually confirms the historical truth of the Gospel. Anyway, in spite of the Docetes, God the Logos “became flesh (a man) and dwelt among us, and we have beheld His glory (the uncreated light of His divinity)” (John 1:14). “For in Him dwells all the entire fullness of Godhead, bodily” (Coloss.2:9) – in other words, He is fully God and fully human.
The incarnation and the birth of the Godman is a scandal for human wisdom, which abolishes and negates itself when it hastens to characterize as “folly” the mystery of Christ that culminates in His crucifixional death (1 Cor.1:23). Is it ever possible for God to have reached such a degree of self-vacating, that He would die on the Cross as Godman? That is precisely what scandalizes the wise of the world. To them, the “gods” of this world usually sacrifice people for themselves; they do not sacrifice themselves for the people. So, how can they possibly accept the mystery of the Divine Selflessness? “For thus did God love the world, that He gave (sacrificed) His only-begotten Son […] that the world be saved through Him” (John3:16,17). Within the confines of “logical” or “natural” theologizing , the divine element of Jesus Christ’s Person is eliminated, leaving only the human one, which is likewise misconstrued and misinterpreted, because -historically speaking- there is not a man-Christ, only the Godman-Christ. The union of God and man in the Person of God the Logos is not only “unconfused”; it is also “indivisible”. The “logical” interpretations pertaining to the Person of Christ are proven to be irrational, inasmuch as they are unable to logically conceive something that is “above logic”.
The legal-juridical conscience likewise sees scandal in the Person of Christ; it seeks social expedience in the Incarnation and it too resorts to a myth, when it does not surrender itself to the Divine Logos. Through their renowned scholastic, Anselm (†1109), the Franks concocted the myth on the “satisfaction of divine atonement”: God the Logos is incarnated, in order to be crucified-sacrificed and thus provide satisfaction for the offense that man’s sin had caused God!
Whatever prevailed at the time in Frankish feudal society was projected (mythologically) onto God, Who was given the status of a super-emperor in the Franco-German imagination.
So what, if John cries out: “for thus God loved the world, that He gave His only-begotten Son” (3:16), or Paul: “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom.5:8)? No! The Western (or westernized) man will be taught to cry out that “it was to take revenge” and “He sought satisfaction” – which is how a “Christianity” of another kind was fashioned: a Christianity that does not differ from fiction, seeing that it projects our imagination and our superstitions onto God. The rationalizing and the legalization of the mystery of the Godman is the greatest threat to Christianity throughout History.
The religious (ritualistic) conscience lives the “scandal” of the Incarnation by having resorted to the “religionizing” of the Faith. It exhausts the meaning of Christmas with rituals and loses their true purpose, which is the “adoption” (theosis): “that we might enjoy the adoption as sons” (Gal.4:5). It is the scandal of Pharisaism, even if it is called Christianity.
But there are also the enemies of the “Child”, who suffer from the scandal of authority. Herodism! The potentates – or, rather, they “who consider themselves rulers” (who think they rule -Mark 10:42), like Herod, see a rival in the newborn Christ and a threat to their interests. That is why they “seek the young child’s life” (Matth.2:20). By doing so, they misinterpret the true character of Christ’s regal status, which “is never ending”. Christ, as King of all Creation, is its only true Lord, creator and saviour, unlike the Herods of this world, who unhesitatingly commit murder in order to hold on to their authority.
Saint Gregory the Theologian (P.G.36,516) provides the potential for a correct approach to Christmas: “Now therefore, let us celebrate, not in a festive manner but divinely; not in an earthly manner but an unearthly one; not that which is our own, but that which is the other’s (=not ourselves; let us rather honour Christ) - even more so, that which is the Lord’s; not that which is of infirmity, but of healing; not that which was formed, but that which has been re-formed”.
“Orthodox Press” Issue dated 25/12/2015
Translation by A.N.
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