Understanding the Incarnation

Fr. Stephen Freeman # Faith

Of words that have been important in my life in Christ I cannot omit “incarnation.” Of course, the word refers to the doctrine of God become man, the Word made flesh. I wrote previously about the importance of reading St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation and its impact on my life as an Orthodox Christian.

Of course, Orthodox Christianity does not have a patent on the word “incarnation.” It is a favorite as well among other groups of Christians. When I studied under Stanley Hauerwas at Duke University, he noted that the word “incarnation” was particularly beloved by some. I was interested in what he had to say.

“Some people should be forbidden to use the word ‘incarnation’,” he said in his usual teasing manner. “They have an understanding of the incarnation that says: “The Word became flesh. And then, looking around, He said, ‘Hey this isn’t so bad!'”

His humor was an indictment of the misuse of the doctrine – a case where the doctrine of the incarnation was simply another way of saying “things aren’t so bad around here, isn’t life great!” Of course, if you are a wealthy Christian and enjoy good health, you might take that view on creation. His comic comment points to how the word incarnation is frequently misunderstood and misused.

That God became flesh (matter) and dwelt among us, does not suddenly confer an inherent blessing on all matter. The world into which the Word was born, was and still is a fallen world. What is immediately changed and restored is the matter which the Word became. It is indeed the same matter which we all share – but this matter is also united to the Second Person of the Trinity and is thus restored into its proper communion with God. Thus at the Last Supper, Christ can say to His disciples,

“Take, eat. This is my body which is given for you for the forgiveness of sins.”
This matter, now the bearer of the very life of God, becomes for believers the source of true life. “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you have no life in you.”

The key to this proper understanding of the incarnation is incarnation as communion or participation. The Word does not become flesh in order to confer an inherent legitimacy on the material world. The Word becomes flesh to restore communion between creation and God. It is in this communion of Uncreated and created that God says of the world, “It is good.” As Christ Himself would later note,

“There is none good but God.”
Thus nothing is good in itself, but only as it exists in communion with the only Good.

A true incarnational theology is thus not a theology that speaks about the material order that has an inherent goodness. This is simply a modernist attempt to convey Divine blessing on the world conceived in the secular model [secularism is not the belief that there is no God, but that the world is self-existent, God remaining at some defined distance]. In the name of such a secularized goodness, everything thing that exists becomes “blessed.” Thus the world, without reference to God, becomes good in itself, and our various cultural arrangements doubtless blessed as well.

In such a misunderstanding the Incarnation is simply an act of Divine Affirmation – a saving event only in the sense that it proclaims “good will towards humanity” (sic).

True incarnational theology is rooted in the Biblical understanding of koinonia, participation or communion. God has become one with us, that we might become one with Him. Or in the famous words of the early fathers, “God became man so that man could become god.” I prefer to state this in the terms: “God took our life upon Himself, that we might become partakers of His Divine Life.” All that we do in our life in Christ is done with an eye to our communion with Him. Thus even the alms we do, we are told,

“You did it unto Me.”

This proper incarnational theology, rooted in koinonia and all that it means, is also the source of the Church’s understanding of what it means to be Church. We pray with and even to the saints simply because we are in communion with them. Their life and our life is a common life. How can we pray and ignore our common life?

By the same token, our salvation is a common salvation, never a private matter. There is no such thing as a private salvation. The Fathers say,

No man is saved alone. If we are lost we are lost alone. But none of us is saved alone.”

Incarnation is the Divine Solidarity, to use a phrase of St. Athanasius. God has united Himself to us that we might be united with Him. The true Christian life is the life that is lived increasingly in union with the God/man, Jesus Christ. His incarnation makes possible our deification. One without the other is a departure from the faith.