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.