“Mystical, Profound, and Truly Wonderful”

“The mystery of Christ runs the risk of being disbelieved precisely because it is so incredibly wonderful. For God was in humanity. He who was above all creation was in our human condition; the invisible one was made visible in the flesh; he who is from the heavens and from on high was in the likeness of earthly things; the immaterial one could be touched; he who is free in his own nature came in the form of a slave; he who blesses all creation became accursed; he who is all righteousness was numbered among transgressors; life itself came in the appearance of death.”

-St. Cyril of Alexandria, On the Unity of Christ

Cyril calls the Incarnation many things: “Mysterious,” “truly wonderful,” “incomprehensible,” “profound,” a “strange and rare paradox.” Turn to almost any page in his treatise and you will find him extolling the many and varied virtues of Christ’s “holy, wonderful, and truly amazing birth and life.”  And the reason for this rampant rejoicing, this extravagant ecstasy, this passionate, persistent, poetic praise? Simply this: “he who is and exists from all eternity, as he is God, underwent birth from a woman according to the flesh;” in the Incarnation, “God was in humanity.”

To Cyril, the Christian faith hangs on the fact that the being named Jesus, who was born into a dirty stable from a human mother, who walked with dusty feet along the paths of Judea, who was hungry, and thirsty, and tired, was and is utterly and completely God and utterly and completely man. In the being named Jesus of Nazareth we see God and man in an inseparable union.

And the picture of God painted by the Old Testament demonstrates how stunning, how incomprehensible, how graceful and marvelous such a union is.  God laid the foundations of the world. He determined its measurements. He has commanded the morning since there was a morning to command. He has created marvelous things, including man from the dust of the ground. He speaks out of the whirlwind, out of the storm, out of a blinding, radiant cloud.

His arm is strong, his voice is thunderous, his place is on high. He is a pillar of fire that lights up the dark. He is waited on by seraphim who eternally sing his praise. He is All-Sufficient, Lord of Hosts, the Holy One of Israel. His very name is so holy that it cannot even be spoken. He is God, and not a man.

And then the Most High God is born in a cave, below even the ground. The God that spoke out of the whirlwind cries out from an empty feeding trough. The Shepherd of Israel is chided by his parents. The creator of heaven and earth learns to help his father craft chairs and tables. The All-Sufficient One hungers and thirsts, and falls from weariness. The Lord of Hosts is a wanderer, with nowhere to lay his head. One of his names is spoken with scornful familiarity by those who dare not utter the other.

“God was in humanity.” Every word here is vitally important to the Christian faith. God, in the full sense of the term, in all majesty, power, and divinity, fully entered into humanity in a way that had never happened before. God was born of a woman. God was truly human.

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The Wonder of Advent

An unfortunate consequence of having so many great predecessors in the Christian faith is that Christians today often take incredible things for granted. After all, incredible things take some explaining, and once they’ve been explained, they often lose their sparkle: “A talking donkey? Oh, I’ve heard that one before.” This problem of tepid enthusiasm is particularly pronounced during the Advent season, when Christians celebrate the most important miracle of all – the Incarnation. The God-man is incredible, but it’s easy to take Him for granted and pretend that He’s fully understood. In the late fourth century, Cyril of Alexandria fought against a similar under-appreciation of the Incarnation, in the form of Nestorianism. Walking through Cyril’s fight to preserve the wonder of the Incarnation provides a valuable opportunity for modern Christians to look at the Incarnation in a new way, and begin to lay again the foundations for an Advent season filled with awe.

In one of his best-known works, On the Unity of Christ, Cyril refutes the teachings of a Constantinopolitan archbishop named Nestorius. Nestorius, the namesake of Nestorianism, had a concern with Christological doctrine. He worried that in the excitement of ‘the Word becoming flesh,’ Christians were blurring the line between God and man and tainting the sanctity of God the Son with the messy flaws of humanity. Nestorius wanted a clear ontological divide between God and man in the Incarnation. It took some fancy semantic footwork to make this happen, but in the end, he produced this doctrine.

God the Word assumed a perfect man who was of the line of Abraham and David. … God the Word conjoined this man to himself in an entirely new way…bringing him to death…but raising him from the dead and taking him up to heaven and sitting him at the right hand of God.

Nestorius’ teaching hinged on a new theological idea, that the Son “assumed” or “conjoined himself to” a human rather than truly becoming human Himself. For many Christians in the fourth and fifth centuries, the Nestorian view was an acceptable compromise between logic and piety – God the Son was still holy, and became human in a way that was easy to understand. The influence of Nestorianism and the validity of Nestorious’ concern spurred the church fathers to gather and address the burgeoning ideology. How could the Son take on a fleshly, broken body without lowering His holiness, power, and majesty? For Cyril and many church fathers, Nestorius’ answer was unacceptable. Cyril recognized the problem Nestorius identified, but was unwilling to compromise Christ’s full human nature. He took a different approach.

Well, Godhead is one thing, and manhood is another thing, considered in the perspective of their respective and intrinsic beings, but in the case of Christ they came together in a mysterious and incomprehensible union without confusion or change. The manner of this union is entirely beyond conception.

The implications of Cyril’s doctrine are expansive. Cyril claimed that God took two ontologically distinct natures and brought them together, without mixing or demeaning either, as Nestorius feared. In other words, God did something impossible in the Incarnation. He broke the rules, but not just the rules of the playground or the schoolroom – He broke the rules of existence. As Dr. John McGuckin, author of St. Cyril of Alexandria: The Christological Controversy, says,

The Incarnation does not limit or remove the infinite power of God, it is itself simply an expression or act of that infinite power, one which presses the limits of our understanding.

The incomprehensibility of God’s action in the Incarnation is the foundation of the wonder that modern Christians often lack. The Incarnation is not just a baby in a manger. It is not cute or trite. It is an act of omnipotence that defies human categories and an act of love that can change the human heart more radically than we can imagine. The Incarnation is so unfathomable that it is often easier to relegate it to a nativity scene or lose it in a maze of complex theological terms than it is to grapple with its reality. But during Advent, we have a chance approach the Incarnation with the attitude that is most truly demanded by its profundity: that of reverent wonder.