Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos
When we talk about the birth of Christ we are speaking of two births. One is the pre-eternal birth of the Word from the Father, according to the divine nature, and the other is the birth in time from the All-Holy Virgin, according to the human nature. This refers to Christ’s two natures: the divine and the human.
“The important thing is that this Word, before His birth in the flesh, is like the Father in every respect. He does not come from nothing. The Word has two births. One birth was before all ages and the other birth was in time, which is the birth as a man, the incarnation.
This theological fact is revelational and above all it is empirical, as the glorified flesh of Christ becomes a source of life for the members of the Church, particularly the saints.
“It is not only the Old and New Testaments that clearly teach the fact that the Word, the Lord of Glory, Who is God by nature and co-essential (homoousios) with the Father, truly took flesh and was born in His own normal and separate humanity of the Virgin Mary – who is literally, really and truly the Theotokos or Mother of God. Thus He became man by nature, not just by indwelling, and, as the Word in flesh, He became co-essential with us through His humanity. This truth is clearly revealed to all who have reached glorification, from which they learn empirically that Christ is the Word, that He is God by nature and man by nature, and also by nature the source of glory. He passes on to His human nature the existence of the source of glory, by means of which the actual flesh of the Word becomes the source of our life and life-giving, because the Word Himself is incarnate, and on account of the union and exchange of natural properties between the divine and human natures of the Word.”
In the Old Testament there was the tabernacle of witness, where the pot of manna, the tablets of the covenant and Aaron’s rod were kept in the Holy of Holies. Now, in the New Covenant, the tabernacle is the flesh that He took from the All-Holy Virgin.
“This is why the statement that ‘the Word became flesh and dwelt (literally: ‘tabernacled’) among us’ (John 1:14) is so important. This dwelling is the tabernacle. God ‘tabernacled’ among us. How? He became flesh and dwelt among us.”
“The tabernacle of witness is the created form of the uncreated Temple, because the uncreated Temple is Christ Himself, the Word, this Angel of the Lord. For that reason Christ says, I am in the Father, and the Father in Me’ (John 14:10-11) and so on. That Christ is in the Father and the Father is in Christ means, in Hebrew terms, that Christ is the Temple of God. So we have the uncreated Temple, as we have the uncreated Law, which is Christ; and we have a created temple, which is the tabernacle of witness, which they later enclosed in Solomon’s temple. This is why the created temple, the temple of Solomon, has been abolished and replaced by the created Temple, the human nature of Christ.”
Christ as God-man is like God the Father and the Holy Spirit in every respect according to His divinity, and like man in every respect according to His human nature. The phrase that Christ is “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15), refers to His uncreated divine nature.
“This is what the Apostle Paul says: ‘the image of the invisible God’, Christ, that is. When he says ‘image’ he does not mean something created, because there cannot be a created image of God. It is different if we speak about an image of Christ; in that case we have an image of something created, because Christ is man and we have an icon of Christ the man, not of Christ’s divinity. But when we say that Christ is the image of God, as God is not incarnate, how can God have a created icon? He is the image of the invisible God as an uncreated reality, not as a created reality.”
The incarnation of the Second Person of the Holy Trinity was in the pre-eternal plan of God, because through the union of the divine and human natures in the Person of the Word, the glorification of every human being could come about. From this perspective, the Theotokos was in God’s pre-eternal plan. St Nikodemos of the Holy Mountain wrote a specific text About our Lady the Theotokos, in which, by quoting the Fathers’ words, he asserts that ‘All the intelligible and perceptible world came into being for this end, that is, on account of the Lady Theotokos, but the Lady Theotokos came into being on account of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
“The All-Holy Virgin is in the pre-eternal plan of God, as the troparia and the Fathers of the Church say. This is a matter of description. It is not a philosophical question about whether or not the All-Holy Virgin is necessary for the incarnation. It is a fact that the All-Holy Mother of God is ever-virgin. We cannot philosophise about something that is a fact and say that the incarnation could have come about even without the All-Holy Virgin, or from a Mother of God who was not a virgin.”
The All-Holy Virgin was the greatest gift of the creation and humanity to Christ. The successive purifications of her forebears, her own struggle and, most of all, the grace of God, made her worthy to become the Mother of the Son and Word of God. She experienced glorification in the Holy of Holies.
“We know from the Tradition about the glorification of the All-Holy Virgin, who entered the Temple at three years old. She reached the Holy of Holies, which means that the All-Holy Virgin at three years of age had attained to the experience of glorification. She lived in the glory of God. She also beheld God from at least the age of three, and in this way she was made ready to be the Mother of God.”
Christ is co-essential (homoousios) with the Father according to His divine nature and co-essential with us according to His human nature. Some people in the early Church claimed that Christ was co-essential with the Father and with His Mother.
“Christ is co-essential (homoousios) with His mother. That means that Christ is co-essential with us. He cannot be co-essential with His mother and His mother co-essential with us, without Christ being co-essential with us.”
The Church ruled at the Third Ecumenical Council that the All-Holy Virgin was to be called Theotokos, because she did not give birth to a mere man, but to the Word of God. The teaching about the Theotokos is therefore included in the infallible teaching of the Church.
The Theotokos has an important place in the Church.
“In the Mysteries (Sacraments) of the Church the whole catholic Church is present: Christ with the Theotokos, the Prophets, the Apostles and the saints.”
The faithful have a spiritual relationship with the Church. Anyone who loves Christ also loves the All-Holy Virgin, who assisted in the mystery of the incarnation of the Son and Word of God and from whom Christ took human nature and glorified it. The relationship of the faithful with the All-Holy Virgin is not, therefore, simply sentimental but spiritual.
The glory of the Theotokos is not a theoretical teaching, but empirical, as many saints have seen the glory of the Theotokos.
In any case, the human nature that was assumed by the Word and united immutably, inseparably, indivisibly and unconfusedly with the divine nature, was glorified “at the same time as it was assumed” in the womb of the Theotokos. Christ was not gradually perfected, as human beings are. Christ is God according to essence, whereas man is glorified according to participation. Also, according to the Fathers of the Church, Christ brings about glorification: He is Himself the source of man’s glorification and does not ‘undergo’ glorification. Christ is God and glorifies others, like the other Persons of the Holy Trinity, whereas man is glorified. Christ revealed this glorified human nature to human beings by stages.
“There is no question of Christ having passed through the stages of perfection, purification and illumination in order to reach glorification or theoria. There was no progress towards perfection in Christ, since He had glorification or theoria or participation in the union of uncreated glory from the very conception of His human nature in the womb of the All-Holy Virgin.
He did not possess this by the grace of God, but naturally, seeing that He was God by nature and the actual hypostasis of the Word, Who was the only one of the Holy Trinity to become man by nature, uniting Himself with His own normal human nature, with all its natural properties, including the will and energy that are common to human nature in general.
Christ gradually revealed the stages of perfection in Himself (in other words, the glorification of human nature in Himself) to set an example to those who are on the way to perfection. He assumed everything that was common to human nature (except sin) not in external appearance, as the Docetists claimed, in order to delude those observing His human life, but in reality.”
“After the incarnation of the Word, exactly the same method of revelation and glorification that took place with the Prophets is repeated with the Apostles. The difference now is that the Word reveals Himself in the natural and uncreated glory of His nature, which is shared with the Father and the Holy Spirit, by means of His own humanity. This humanity did not advance towards the continuous vision of divine glory, but was glorified through its union -not by grace but by nature – with the Word from the beginning of its existence in the womb of the Theotokos.
Christ did not progress as a human being towards glorification, but was conceived as a glorified man, not by virtue of the union that the saints experience with the divine nature, but by virtue of the one unique natural or hypostatic union with the divine nature and energy.
Thus Christ, as man, participates by nature in the divine glory and is the natural source of this glory. The glorification of the Prophets, Apostles and saints is a union by grace with the natural glory and energy of the divine nature, but the glorification of the human nature of the Word is its hypostatic union with God the Word and the resultant union with the divine nature. All glorified creatures see the divine glory and share in it. Only Christ, because He is the Word by nature, sees and participates by nature in the divine essence.”
The saints understand this from their experience. When they reach glorification, the theoria of Christ’s glory in His human nature, they realise that Christ is the source of the uncreated Light, whereas they themselves are participants in the Light.
The fact that Christ was perfect from the beginning was made clear on many occasions, even during His struggle with the devil.
“In Christ this state of perfection was natural and not acquired. For that reason His struggle with the devil in the wilderness and His forty-day fast were not an achievement but a manifestation of perfection. At the same time it was a real fight with temptations, not from within but from the devil.”
Christ voluntarily assumed the passible and corruptible aspects of human nature because He really took flesh. However, the so-called ‘blameless’ or natural passions – hunger, thirst, weariness, sleep – did not act in Christ by compulsion. Christ’s divine nature had authority over them. So Christ was hungry when He wished to be, thirsty when He wished to be, slept or rested when He wished to.
The saints understand this to some extent from their experience. They too, when they reach glorification according to grace, observe a suspension of the natural and blameless passions: hunger, thirst, sleep and so on. In Christ this happened naturally because He was true God, and the human nature followed the divine nature.
“The incarnate Word not only possesses the state of theoria naturally, not by grace, but even as man He Himself is the natural source of glorification and glory. If some of the natural and blameless passions are suspended in those who by grace are in a temporary state of glorification, how much more must those passions have no natural place in Christ, Who is glorified by nature and the source of glorification as man.
So one can see why it is a basic doctrine of the Orthodox Church that the Word as man wants to have the natural and blameless human passions, and really to share in them, transforming them into a source of our salvation and a means by which we ourselves can overcome the devil and pass through the stages of purification and illumination on our way to glorification. On the one hand these passions are a result of the Fall, but at the same time, through the glory of the Cross, they become the source of our salvation, perfection and glorification, and the means by which the devil is defeated and destroyed.
Paradoxically, the devil is destroyed by means of the very passions by which he attempts to destroy man. The most basic weapon with which Satan tries to destroy human beings is death, but through death Christ and the saints destroy the devil.
It should be noted at this point that the Triune God – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit – is present everywhere in the world according to energy but not according to essence. The God-man Christ, however, is absent from the world according to His essence as Word, but “the human nature of Christ is everywhere present according to essence”, by reason of the hypostatic union of the divine and human natures. This issue is linked with the teaching about the essence and energy of God, but also about the hypostatic union of the divine and human natures in Christ.
“The foundation of this teaching is the actual experience of glorification. These distinctions that the Fathers of the Church make are not the outcome of philosophical speculation. They know from the experience itself that in the experience of glorification the one who is glorified is united with God according to energy.”
At Christ’s Baptism in the River Jordan, John the Forerunner was accounted worthy to experience the Triune God.
“It came to pass in those days that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptised by John in the Jordan. And immediately coming up from the water, He saw the heavens parting and the Spirit descending upon Him like a dove. Then a voice came from heaven, ‘You are My beloved Son, in Whom I am well pleased'” (Mark 1:9-11).
“For the Forerunner, at least for the day of the Baptism, this is the experience of glorification. When he saw the heavens opened and so on, this means that he had a revelation of the uncreated glory of Christ. That is also why we sing in the troparion of the Feast of Theophany that the Holy Trinity was revealed in the Baptism. How is the Holy Trinity revealed in the Baptism? Through the manifestation of the glory of God, which is the experience of glorification for John the Baptist.”
—Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos. Empirical Dogmatics, Volume Two. Part 4: The Incarnation of the Son and Word of God