Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Hypostatic What? (aka Musings on the Blessed Incarnation and Nativity of Christ)

The Feast of the Nativity is perhaps one of the most widely-anticipated events in both the secular and sacred realms. While the latter would probably hold Pascha up as the pinnacle of its anticipation and joy, Christmas still holds a very important place in the Christian Church Year. After all, what is Christmas but a foretaste of the Pascha, for at both events Christ bursts forth vicariously and victoriously: at Christmas from the womb of His Mother with angelic acclamation, taking our corrupted flesh into His perfection; at the latter from the womb of the tomb, trampling Satan under foot and freeing us from his tyrannical reign.

Simply put, Christmas is the celebration of Immanuel, “God With Us;” that is, the Incarnation of the fullness of the Deity in bodily form - our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. In honor of this marvelous Day, I think it is meet, right, and salutary to consider just what the Incarnation means, both dogmatically and practically.

When I was young, I tried rationalizing the mystery of the Incarnation by contorted acts of reason. At one point I think I believed that Christ was half man by virtue of His Virgin Mother, and half God by virtue of His miraculous conception by the Holy Spirit.  I know for sure that this eventually manifested itself as the belief that Christ was a human body with a God-spirit. To be sure, I was taught the truth that Christ is both fully man and fully God - as in, 100% man and 100% God. But I couldn’t understand this. I didn’t understand that, by virtue of His humanity, Christ still has a “Y” chromosome. How exactly that is, we do not understand. Church Fathers like Tertullian and St. Theodoret postulated that because Adam was not begotten from human seed (being created by God Himself), so too the “New Adam," Christ, was begotten without means of a human father.  Some have taken this to mean that Christ shares Adam's Y chromosome.  This is pious speculation, but what we do know from the Sacred Scriptures is that Christ is fully, 100%, really, truly human. He is not some Herculean half-breed. He is not only slightly human. He is not a human body with God for a soul; He is 100% human with a 100% human soul.

But He is also 100%, truly, really God. Yes, in Him “all the fullness of the Deity dwells in bodily form,” as the Blessed Apostle tells us. How can this be? Surely, an apple cannot be an orange. One can cut up apples and oranges and mix them together, but they are still separate entities. One might even puree them beyond recognition, seemingly combining them into one solid blend, but each is still separate. It is still possible to micro-analyze the mixture and separate apple from orange.

Not so with Christ. Christ is both 100% man and 100% God, but this is no mere mixture, and the natures are not separable. He is not two Persons - one Man, and one God - in the appearance of one. He has the two natures, God and man, each retaining its own character and distinct properties, but inseparably united in one Person. The Church has used the term “Hypostatic Union” to describe this blessed reality.

The Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord treats this topic well when it says: “We believe, teach, and confess also that now, since the incarnation, each nature in Christ does not so subsist of itself that each is or constitutes a separate person, but that they are so united that they constitute one single person, in which the divine and the assumed human nature are and subsist at the same time, so that now, since the incarnation, there belongs to the entire person of Christ personally, not only His divine, but also His assumed human nature; and that, as without His divinity, so also without His humanity, the person of Christ or Filii Dei incarnati (of the incarnate Son of God), that is, of the Son of God who has assumed flesh and become man, is not entire. Hence Christ is not two distinct persons, but one single person, notwithstanding that two distinct natures are found in Him, unconfused in their natural essence and properties” (VIII:11).

The Church Fathers (and our Confessions) have likened the "Sacramental union" of the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar to this "Hypostatic Union" of the Incarnation.  While the analogy isn't perfect, 
"many eminent ancient teachers, Justin, Cyprian, Augustine, Leo, Gelasius, Chrysostom and others, use this simile concerning the words of Christ's testament: This is My body, that just as in Christ two distinct, unchanged natures are inseparably united, so in the Holy Supper the two substances, the natural bread and the true natural body of Christ, are present together here upon earth in the appointed administration of the Sacrament" (SD:VII:37).

The Incarnation, then, is an important reminder that God is both the fullness of humanity and Deity.  Without this important truth, the truth of the Gospel is lost.  In our fallen condition, we are incapable of restoring ourselves, much less others and the universe.  When we think of Christ as anything less than fully human and fully God, we deny His ability to do what we can not.

In this light, the Nativity is all about recognizing the reality of a condescending God.  A God Who has done all things necessary to "bring back man who was lost," as one of the Responsory texts at Christmas Matins reminds us.  We celebrate a God Who sought not - and seeks not! - to be served, but to serve, and to take on mortal life that it might be sacrificially extinguished as a ransom for many. A God who did not spurn the cruelest of curses - for cursed is the one who hangs on a tree - but willingly went to slaughter without opening His mouth.  With the whole company of the heavenly army, we stand in exultant awe as the One Who holds all things in the palm of His hand lies helpless where cattle feed - the very same One Who lies humbly on an Altar to be fed upon by His sheep.  The Creator Who brought all things into existence with “Let there be” takes on our flesh that He might bear all our woes, suffer our trials, carry our Cross, and secure all things necessary for our salvation with three more Words, “It is finished," providing that finished work in His Body once-slain and Blood outpoured for our forgiveness in the Supper.   Yes, this very Word-Made-Flesh is the One and Only, Who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

In a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, He will come again in glory with that heavenly army, which He now leads in spiritual warfare against all the forces of evil in the heavenly realms, and with three more words, “It is done,” will herald the recreation of the universe and its restoration to Edenic glory. By virtue of His incarnation and vicarious life on behalf of Man, He will raise all men and give them bodies that will never fade or decay. By virtue of His immortal perfection taking on our mortal imperfection, our frail humanity becomes like unto the very Son of God. God With Us.  God with us then at Bethlehem, on Calvary, and God-With-Us now on the Altar.  God comes to us that all whose names are written in His book of life might dwell with Him eternally.

I will end this post with the words of a good friend, Mr. Jonathan Cariveau, who summarizes these thoughts with exceedingly great words of wisdom:

"Today is brought forth in the flesh the Creator of the flesh; today He who bears all is borne in a womb; today the One who is everywhere present and fills all things is born to be present anew unto men! Rejoice, O cosmos, sing aloud, O angelic powers, shout for joy, O hosts of Heaven, for the One to whom no novelty is possible has inaugurated a new thing; He has deigned to descend and take upon Himself the dust of the earth, renewing all things in Himself. Today, the corruption of the tomb is transfigured into glory, and the Resurrection is present in the birth. From a sealed womb and a sealed tomb united into one has the Eternal sprung, trampling down death by death, and to those in the grave giving life.

Today, love has transcended sin, communion has overcome separation, and weakness has been demolished by strength; Prayer Personified has united mankind in one song to a Father of all harmony. No sooner has the Almighty's face shown upon his mother, than has His mother seen Him suspended on the Cross, for His very being is sacrificial love, and His coming among us, an offering of peace. The Kingdom has been established, the victory has been realized, and the conquest has begun, and the Light has shined on those in darkness. May the Prince of Peace, the King of all, the Savior of the world be with each and every one of you today, and may His reign of reconciliation and His throne of power extend over all the world, that the Spirit of mercy and justice may wash away our imperfections, and transfigure us in love."

Amen! This is most certainly true.

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