[Christ] was destined before the foundation of the world but was made manifest at the end of the times for your sake” (1:20). Bolstering this verse are the eloquent and poignant words found at the beginning of the letter to the Ephesians. Before the foundation of the world God has chosen us in Christ “that we should be holy and blameless … For He 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 unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (1:4, 9-10).
“Destined before the foundation of the world” implies that creation exists for the very purpose of incarnation. From this perspective the incarnation and the second coming of Christ are events that have a direct impact on understanding the meaning of history and the relationship we are to have with the triune and tri-personal God. But to grasp this perspective means that Christians need to move from a two-dimensional understanding of existence, i.e., an existence defined within the parameters of space and time, and recover a more complete understanding of existence that is characterized by space, time and eschatology.
The incarnation of the Son of God lies at the center of history. We can also say that the incarnation gives meaning to events preceding and following it. Here, however, we need to be careful to avoid relegating the “meaning” of events to easy explanations and lessons. The meaning of history and historical events are to be understood in relationship to the incarnation. In other terms, history is not an autonomous process with aimless goals. Nor is it a process in which God and man act independently of each other.
History is the unfolding of salvation. Its contours and contents are formed by the cooperation, by the synergy, generated between God and man. The Magnolia Dei bear witness to the divine providence and care unfolding in the creation. History as it unfolds tells the story of the creation, fall and redemption of the human person. Given this basic biblical scheme, we can see that there is a beginning (Genesis) and an end (i.e., an eschatology described in the Apocalypse). Both the Beginning and the End are bound together by the Incarnation. This means that the incarnation is an event that defines the very purpose and goal of creation. The pre-eternal Word of God was, in the words of 1 Peter, “destined before the foundation of the world and was made manifest at the end of the times for our sake.”
Before time and at the end of time stands the incarnation. It is important to note that the text referred to from I Peter should not be taken as a curious reference to a theological opinion or theory. Rather, it expresses a very keen insight that acknowledges the redemptive dimension of the Incarnation, which includes the death and resurrection of Christ, while also acknowledging the incarnation as not being contingent upon the felix culpa “the happy sin” — of Adam. If anything, the felix culpa shows us that even the fall of God’s image and likeness could not alter the divine aim or desire. And while the divine aim is unchangeable, the unfolding of history becomes the context in which God liberates humanity from sin and death by the incarnation, death and resurrection of his Son.
Through the sin of Adam the tyranny of death reigned over all creation. Yet this tyranny could not alter the divine will. For the divine providence pre-ordained that at the fullness of time all things in heaven and on earth would be united in Jesus Christ (cf. Eph. 1:3-10). Created existence, culminating in the creation of man, was destined before the beginning to be incorporated into the life of the God-Man Jesus Christ. And though the reign of sin and death divided and polarizes the creation, God, without usurping human freedom, ceaselessly sought to guide and prepare humanity for the incarnation. Listen to the words from the fourth century eucharistic canon of Saint Basil the Great, Archbishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia: “O Good One … you did not forget the works of your hands; through the tender compassion of your mercy, you visited man in various ways. You sent prophets; you performed mighty works by the saints who, in every generation, were well pleasing to you; you spoke to us by the mouths of your servants the prophets, who foretold to us the salvation which was to come; you gave us the law to aid us; you appointed guardian angels. And when the fullness of time was come, you spoke to us through your Son Himself . . . “
Based on what has been said we can begin to see that redemption should not be perceived as the primary cause or aim of the incarnation. Given this, we can now raise the principal question: Cur Deus Homo? — “Why did God become man?”
Our deliverance from the tyranny of sin and death made possible by the pre-eternal Word of God becoming a little child who takes upon himself our sin and death is only part of the story — part of the history. In his article entitled, “The Last Things and Last Events,” which appeared in a collection of articles examining the theology of Emil Brunner, the late Father George Florovsky, professor emeritus of Eastern Church History at Harvard, rightly stressed that the only history we know is salvation history. But woven into salvation history are strands that allow us to apprehend the primary purpose of the incarnation.
The great divines of Christendom — coming from both the East and West — point to these strands which draw our attention to the transfiguration and therefore deification of the human person. The insights of the Greek and Latin Fathers echo the cosmic aspect of the incarnation summed up in the simple but provocative acclamation: “God has become man so man might become God,” words of Saint Athanasius of Alexandria and Saint Augustine of Hippo. We can add the words of Saint Irenaeus of Lyons: “The Son of God becomes the Son of Man so man might become the Son of God.”
Intertwined with the strands of redemption are the strands of metamorphosis and deification. Yet many Christians, including the Orthodox, are unfamiliar with this basic aspect of the incarnation. Too often the incarnation is restricted to an event that is locked into the past and therefore has little if any direct impact here and now. Given this, the incarnation focuses exclusively on God’s descent into creation. What remains hidden or forgotten is the necessary complement, i.e., the human ascent to God. The ascent of the human person to God is the response — the penitential response — to the Magnolia Dei. This ascent is an activity that is not bound to the past but is an ongoing reality revealed and confirmed in and through us. Consequently, the primary purpose of the incarnation is to bring every one and every thing into divine life. But for this participation to occur, God himself had to become what He was not. In a Christmas hymn from vespers, dating back to about eighth century Byzantium, we hear that “the unchangeable image of the Father, who bears the “very character of His divinity, takes the form of a servant, coming from a virgin mother while not undergoing any change in divinity; for the one who was unchangeable — being true God —assumes what He was not, becoming a man on account of His love for mankind.”
In the history of salvation the Son of God, becoming what He was not, shows Himself as the new or second Adam. As the God-Man, Jesus Christ is the paradigm of perfected or deified humanity. Using the anthropology and cosmology of Saint Maximos the Confessor (+680), one of the most creative of the Eastern Fathers, we can see that as the center and even vortex of history the incarnation points to new and transfigured life. Perfecting the concept of man as microcosm, Maximos shows that from the beginning man was responsible for maintaining the harmony and unity of opposites existing in the universe. But, because of Adam’s sin there followed the disintegration of the cosmos. What was created good and harmonious fell into division and ultimately mortality.
Maximos lists five categories of division: 1) the created and uncreated; 2) heaven and earth; 3) paradise and the world; 4) man and woman; and 5) the intelligible and sensible. Through the incarnation these divisions are healed in the person of Jesus Christ — the new microcosm. Through the God-Man the old creation is being made new. In this metamorphosis the purpose of creation is being revealed. For, from within the chaos ensuing from fallen creation, every one and every thing is called to draw near to the One Who is at the beginning, the middle and end of history. In the incarnated Christ, created and uncreated embrace while heaven and earth, the material and immaterial co-exist as unity in diversity. All of creation is being transformed into paradise while man and woman, filled with the Holy Spirit, reflect the beauty of the incarnate Word of the Father.
Because of the incarnation we and the creation are beckoned by the God-Man to draw near. We are beckoned to ascend to Him and to enter the life of the Trinity, the supreme expression of unity in diversity. Because God became a man, because of his voluntary death and resurrection, a new day, the eighth day of creation, has begun to dawn. This is the day without evening, the day which continues to be created. It is the day which now brings us before the One who is coming again and who is among us now and forever. Amen.
(This sermon was delivered at The Memorial Church, Harvard University, on 9 January 2000.)