With the beginning of the Advent Season and the Nativity Fast, I felt I might best offer some reflections on the Mystery of the Incarnation, and specifically how pondering that can divinely strengthen us for the challenges we face. This week, Fr. Steven Kostoff of my home parish, has begun a series of brief meditations precisely on exploring the Incarnation of Christ. The first two of these are exceptional, especially when one reads them with an eye to understanding how the Christian Faith is, truly, the end of all religion, and especially of Islam.
This first meditation features a selection from Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh on The Jesus Prayer as Perfect Confession of Faith. I will interject a few points below [enclosed in brackets], and will end this preface by asking you to especially consider everything said about the Incarnation in the context of how it impacts certain key dogmas of Islam, including its denial of the Holy Trinity, its teaching that Jesus was merely a man, a Muslim prophet, and its belief that God is so other, so removed from mankind, that his ways cannot be known by humans, who are commanded simply to "submit" (the literal meaning of the word "Islam").
Exploring the Incarnation I
Fr. Steven C. Kostoff
...The Incarnation of Christ is a dogma of the Church. This does not mean that it is an arid concept that demands blind adherence. That would be true of a totalitarian ideology.
[This is precisely the nature of Islam, which has a highly rigid, legalistic structure, founded on the Koran as the literal, pre-eternal and unchanging words of Allah, and on the example of Muhammad, who is held up as the perfect man and the best example to be emulated, and whose example guides the formation of Islamic law and life. Islam exerts totalitarian control over every facet of a person's life, breaking down and superseding individual conscience, and establishing shariah law as the ultimate uber-conscience, which directs a person in how to think, how to live, how to behave in every situation. Actions and beliefs are categorized as either obligatory, recommended, permitted, disliked, or forbidden. Going against core Islamic pillars such as belief in Allah as the only god and in Muhammad as his messenger is to commit apostasy, for which extreme punishment (death) is prescribed.]
A dogma is the revelation of divine Truth; a description of reality at its most deepest level; and an invitation to assimilate that Truth to our own lives in a transformative manner. Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. This implies and combines orthodoxy (right belief) and orthopraxis (right practice/living). A dogma is meant to “count” in our lives, so that our lives reflect a living faith in the truth of what a particular dogma expresses. Our faith in the Incarnation should have a daily impact on our lives: God became man so that man could become like God! (Or God was humanized so that humans could be divinized). The New Adam has come to restore our fellowship with God.
Perhaps a good way to maintain such a focus during this Advent season is to be supplied with a series of well-written passages from Orthodox theologians – both ancient and contemporary - that uncover for us some of the depth and profundity of the Incarnation. From now and until Nativity, I will hopefully send out a fair amount of such wonderful texts that show the consistency of Orthodox belief in the Incarnation “from generation to generation,” together with the endlessly creative and insightful ways that the truth of the Incarnation can be expressed.
What does it actually mean to say that God became man? Can God actually be born? If so, what does that say of His mother? If Jesus is God how can He also be human? How do we understand the union of the divine and the human natures in the Person of Jesus Christ? Reading some of these texts carefully, and then meditating on what we read will help us with dealing with such perplexing questions and in our search to further understand the mystery of the Incarnation “in an Orthodox manner.”
We will begin with a passage from Metropolitan Anthony Bloom that our Fall Adult Education class read and discussed together the other evening. This passage is taken from Met. Anthony’s discussion of the practice of the Jesus Prayer. What are we saying when we address Christ in prayer as the Lord Jesus Christ? The metropolitan writes the following as a kind of profession of faith:
To see in the man of Galilee, in the prophet of truth, the incarnate Word of God, God become man, we must be guided by the Spirit, because it is the Spirit of God who reveals to us both the Incarnation and the lordship of Christ. We call him Christ, and we affirm thereby that in him were fulfilled the prophecies of the Old Testament. To affirm that Jesus is the Christ implies that the whole history of the Old Testament is ours, that we accept it as the truth of God. We call him Son of God, because we know that the Messiah expected by the Jews, the man who was called “son of David” by Bartimaeus, is the incarnate Son of God. These words sum up all we know, all we believe about Jesus Christ, from the Old Testament through the ages. In these few words we make a complete and perfect profession of faith.
From Metropolitan Anthony of Sorouzh – Selected Writings, p. 135
[In this brief paragraph, Metropolitan Anthony sums up one of the most important components of our faith, that is, the perfect continuity and linkage between the Old Testament and the New. Jesus Christ is prophesied about, foreshadowed, pointed to and even seen (as through a glass darkly), throughout the Old Testament. Jesus Christ fulfills and completes the Old Testament, transfiguring it into the New through His birth, baptism, public ministry, and ultimately by His suffering, crucifixion, death, burial, resurrection and ascension. Islam seeks, on the other hand, to appropriate and re-cast the Old and New Testaments to justify its own existence. Yet what we see, when we honestly look at the history, teachings, practices and fruits of Islam, is a sad and dark return to pre-Christian pagan ignorance, brutality, bondage and legalism. Christ came to set us free of such things. And if the Son sets us free, then we are free indeed!]