Table of contents
"Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death - even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." [Philippians 2:5-11]
God's Plan for Our Salvation
8. The birth of Jesus Christ was an extraordinary event. We look back on it and, from the benefit of our historical perspective, are able to appreciate its significance. For those who participated in and witnessed His birth, its true importance was not immediately understood. Nevertheless, the Gospel records that each person who encountered this event knew that something unique and different was occurring in this birth.
9. The account of Jesus' birth begins with the appearance of the Archangel Gabriel to a young virgin, Mary (cf. Luke 1:24-34). The angel tells her that she has found favor with God, and that she will conceive and bear a son. Mary is perplexed and awed by this news. She asks how this will happen. The angel tells her that it will be by the power of the Holy Spirit. As proof of his word, the angel tells Mary that her relative, Elizabeth, who had been unable to conceive, is now pregnant. Mary's immediate response is, "Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your word."
10. A similar test of faith confronts Joseph, Mary's betrothed husband. When he discovers that she is with child, he is upset and resolves to "divorce her quietly" (cf. Matthew 1:18-25). However, an angel appears to him in a dream and tells him that "the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit," and that this son "will save his people from their sins." When he wakes from sleep, Joseph has a change of heart and "does as the angel of the Lord commanded him."
11. We are told of shepherds informed of the birth by angels (Luke 2:8-20) who go to see what has happened; of wise men who had seen a star in the sky announcing the birth of a king (Matthew 2:1-12); of an old man, Simeon, (Luke 2:25-38) who had been promised by the Holy Spirit that he would not die until he had seen the Lord's Messiah; and a prophetess, Anna, who was living in the Temple in her old age also waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem. Each of these people encountered this divine child and was forever changed by what they saw as God's presence among us, a dramatic sign of His loving concern for us. For her part, Mary "treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart" (Luke 2:19).
12. In one sense, starting to speak of God's love for us by recounting the birth of Jesus Christ is like beginning a story in the middle. The real beginning is in the creation of the world itself. Christians do not believe that the world's existence is an "accident" of cosmic forces. We believe with our whole being that God created the world and everything in it out of His love. He had no need to create. But He desired to create beings who were free, and capable of sharing in His own glory. For us, the world and those in it are here according to His plan and for a purpose.
13. The birth of Jesus Christ and His life here on earth is the most dramatic example of God's love for us. God, in Jesus, reached out to us, even when we were still distant and separated from Him as a result of our own actions (cf. Romans 5:8). He came and preached peace to those who were far off as well as to those who were near (cf. Ephesians 2:17). In the words of St. Athanasius, "He has united in peace those who hated each other and by His own love endured all things for our salvation."(4) All that God asks in return is that we love Him with all our heart, soul, and mind, and that we love our neighbor as we would love ourselves (cf. Matthew 22:37-40).
14. Our God is not remote. He is close and near. He makes Himself accessible to us. Even "though He was in the form of God," our Lord Christ Jesus "did not count equality with God a thing to be exploited, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness" (Philippians 2:5-8). This self-emptying of God is the mark of His love for us. "When He saw us whom He had created with His own hands perishing, the Creator bowed the heavens and came down to us."(5)
15. God did this for our salvation and the salvation of the whole world. We could give many different definitions and interpretations to the word "salvation." Perhaps St. Athanasius sums it up best: "God became human so that we might become gods. [Jesus] manifested Himself by a body that we might receive the idea of the unseen Father, and He endured shame from us so that we might inherit immortality."(6) God, the second person of the Holy Trinity, became one of us so that we could become one with God.
16. Salvation means that the world is not an end in and of itself. It is a reality that points to the larger reality of God's love for us and all that surrounds us. The world, time, history, our very lives are "an epiphany of God, a means of His revelation, presence and power."(7) This is a point to which we shall return. For the present we would like to emphasize this: God is not an idea or a device of our imagination, but a reality, a tri-personal reality. He has made Himself known to us directly and personally. Not only did the Triune God create the world, but God personally entered human history when the Word became flesh. God not only saves and loves all that is, He also saves and loves each and everyone of us.
17. God's action seeks a response on our part. As the Apostle James says, "Draw near to God and He will draw near to you" (James 4:8). The Epistle to the Hebrews adds, "Whoever would draw near to God must believe that He exists and that He rewards those who seek Him" (Hebrews 11:6). To some this scriptural verse might seem like a circular argument. If God were simply an idea, then indeed this would be the case. However, God calls us into a personal relationship with Him.
18. When we do not respond to God's love for us, we are diminished as human beings. The act of faith that He asks of us is not so very different from the faith and trust we place in those people who surround us. When we do not respond to the love given us by the people who love us, we become shallow and hardened individuals.
19. God's taking on of human nature, the Incarnation, is the concrete indication of His desire to be completely approachable. "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us," - literally, "pitched His tent" among us (John 1:14). God's desire was to engage us directly on our own level, and to travel with us on our human journey. In the poetry of the Church's hymns: "The Virgin gives birth to Him who is above being, and the earth offers a cave to Him whom no one can approach."(8) These are human words trying to describe something that is beyond human comprehension: the person Jesus Christ is actually God with us in the flesh. This is who the early Christians who first encountered Jesus understood Him to be. Believing in Him and experiencing Him in our lives, this is who we understand Him to be.
20. Orthodox Christians have consistently affirmed the inherent dignity and value of every human person, because each is created "in the image and likeness of God" (Genesis 1:26). This dignity is expressed not only in our creation but also through the coming of Christ. With the Incarnation, divinity was united to our humanity in the person of Christ. Through this act of divine love, our humanity was profoundly enriched and transfigured. Through His words and actions, Christ revealed to us the Father who calls us to be His children. He gave to us the Spirit who enlivens us and bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God (cf. Romans 8:16). Christ's coming revealed that each of us belongs to God.
21. Our human dignity and value are rooted ultimately in God and His love for each of us. Our dignity and value are not dependent upon our stage of development, our race, our gender, our social status, our education, our mental or physical abilities, our age, our income or even our religious beliefs. We are each of supreme value simply because we belong to God. He is our Maker.
22. Jesus clearly affirmed the inherent value of each person when He lifted up those who were considered the marginalized of His day. He encountered, welcomed, ate with and healed people. Among these were people with disabilities, outcasts, poor and sinners. Our Lord affirmed fundamental dignity of each. In inviting them to follow Him, our Lord revealed the truth of their identity as God's sons and daughters.
23. Christ's actions and words of love frequently ran contrary to the religious laws and social customs of the time. His affirmation of the dignity and value of each person often clashed with the views of the leaders of the day who had little regard for those considered to be "the least" members of the community. Our Lord affirmed the worth of each person by identifying Himself with the needy, especially "the least" among us (Matthew 25:45).
24. The Incarnation has another important implication, especially for those who struggle to understand the relationship between the physical and the spiritual. The Orthodox Church has always pre-supposed the intrinsic goodness of matter. The Church understands this based on the account of creation found in Genesis. "And God saw everything that He had made, and behold, it was very good" (Genesis 1:31). The Holy Scriptures openly declare the wonder of God's creation (cf. Psalms 104). But in the Incarnation something even more profound took place. Matter - human flesh and blood - became the dwelling place of God Himself.
25. We see this theological affirmation at work in the worship of the Church. The Orthodox Church is perhaps best known for the holy images - the icons - it employs in its worship. For us, the icon is not merely art or decoration. It expresses our understanding of the implications of God's decision to take on our nature. When He took on our flesh and blood He not only showed that creation "is good," but also revealed that matter is holy, that the divinity could dwell in it. This is a radically different understanding of the relationship between the spiritual and the material than we normally see in post-Enlightenment thought. Where other philosophies see a tension or even a mutual exclusivity between matter and spirit, body and soul, we see the potential for harmony and transfiguration.
26. Consequently, when we hear the words of the Apostle that our Lord Jesus Christ "is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; [that] He is before all things and in Him all things hold together" (Colossians 1:15,17), we understand this to refer to Him as both the One who creates and the One who transfigures all that we see and do not see. Moreover, we understand matter itself as that which points us toward God.
27. Another concrete way in which this theological understanding is shown is in the Orthodox Church's concern for the environment. This is not a new concern. Orthodox liturgy and prayer are replete with references to God's creation. We bless the fruits of the earth and the waters of river and sea. The bread and wine, offered by faithful Christians, that God changes into the very Body and Blood of our Lord, is the most powerful sign we have that matter can be a means of sanctification. We, human beings, are composed of matter and spirit. God created us to be mediators between the visible and invisible worlds. So, we are charged to be stewards of the earth while we offer back to God the creation which He first offered to us.
28. In addition to giving us a clearer understanding of the relationship between the spiritual and material aspects of creation, the Incarnation also reveals God's plan for the world. As Christians we remember that we were created not just as part of God's plan, but as central to it. The original word used in the Holy Scriptures for this plan is "economy." The earliest Christian preachers spoke about the Divine Economy or the Economy of our Salvation. By this they meant first and foremost the Incarnation; but in a larger sense they also spoke about the entire plan God had laid out for us and for the world, even before the foundation of the world.
29. Economy is derived from a composite Greek word meaning the "management of a household." It can also mean, in the same sense, "stewardship." Today we use the word almost exclusively to refer to the management of material affairs; for example, we speak of the national economy, or micro- and macro-economics. However, the financial and material organization of a nation has as much to do with its cultural and spiritual climate as it has to do with material resources. Nonetheless, it would be useful to keep our current understanding of that word in mind as we talk about God's economy: the way He decided to "manage" His "household."
30. As we read in the Letter to the Ephesians, God "destined us in love to be His children through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of His will" (Ephesians 1:5). In order for us to know His plan, God spoke "in many and various ways to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days He has spoken to us by a Son" (Hebrews 1:1-2). Orthodox Christians believe that when God created us, He implanted within each one of us the desire and need to know Him. This need is so basic to our nature that we could liken it to our need for food and drink or to our need for human companionship. So, God reached out to us through prophets and holy people. Finally He sent His Son "whom He appointed the heir of all things, through whom also He created the world" (Hebrews 1:2).
31. The coming of our Lord Jesus Christ into the world was the culmination, the apex of God's economy. Again, St. Paul tells us that God "has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of His will, according to His purpose which He set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to sum up all things in Him, things in heaven and things on earth" (Ephesians 1:9-10). This phrase, the "fullness of time" is used in the Holy Scriptures to signal that Christ is the center of time as well as the total expression of the Father's will, of His plan for us. Jesus, in a very real sense, sums up or recapitulates everything that came before Him, as well as all that comes after Him. God's plan is made known in Him.
32. The Good News is that not only is this plan now revealed for us to understand but even to join as participants. The fulfillment of time has not terminated with the Incarnation of Christ the Word (Logos) of God. The work of the Incarnate Word (John 1:1) continues to the end of the ages. Time is fulfilled by the coming of Jesus into history, but in a greater sense, time is fulfilled by the degree to which humanity is more and more penetrated by the Incarnate Word. Our cooperation with God's plan makes Christ more and more present in humanity, even in ways that we might not be able to perceive.(9) This is God's purpose for us. We participate in Christ in the re-creation of the world.
33. St. Paul talks about this Economy or Plan of Salvation in two different ways. In his letter to the Ephesians (Ephesians 1:10) he tells us that Christ has "summed up" or united this whole plan in Himself. His saving work reveals the totality of God's plan for us. He also speaks of the "working out" of our salvation (cf. Philippians 2:12) - the long view of God's plan. St. John Chrysostom(10) sees in these two ways of looking at God's plan, a path for us to participate in the unfolding of history. Our work- both personally and communally - is directed toward one purpose: that God's "will be done on earth as it is in heaven" (Matthew 6:10).
34. Historically, Orthodox Christianity has resisted the temptation to view this participation in largely individualistic terms. The first followers of Jesus were not isolated individuals engaged in their private quest for truth. They were Israelites - members of an established and instituted community of the "Chosen People" of God.(11) As Christians we now participate in this community, now centered upon the coming of Christ, the Messiah. St. Peter tells the earliest Christians that, "You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people. Once you were not a people but now you are God's people" (1 Peter 2:2-10).
35. The plan of salvation revealed and actualized in Jesus Christ makes membership in the "holy nation" available to all people. In Christ, God adopts us as His sons and daughters. "See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are" (1 John 3:1). This message that Christ brought into the world is Good News.