In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
During March of every year, we Orthodox Christians devote two days in a more specific way to the doctrine of the Incarnation. We throw that word around. All I knew when I was a boy about the Incarnation: it sounded something like Carnation milk. [Laughter] That’s really all I knew. I did not know at that times that it comes from the word “caro” which means “flesh”: the enfleshing of God.
Those of us who grew up with that idea of the enfleshing of God, the Incarnation, rather tend to take it for granted. Sometimes I think we don’t realize what an astounding doctrine that is. When I think about it, what most surprises me is that I believe in it, because it’s a most absolutely improbable thing, that God became one of us and assumed our nature. His assumption of our nature is what permits us to be shared in his.
As the Fathers of the Church say, on the one side you have sarcosis, enfleshing; on the other you have theosis, and sarcosis leads to theosis. It’s just… It really… I’m always surprised that I actually believe this. I mean, I do, but it’s such an improbable idea! Not only is it an improbable idea, it’s the basis on which the Christian life is built: that persuasion that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son to be one of us.
I say on two days each March we celebrate, we meditate, we devote to, our attention to the doctrine of the Incarnation—two days each March. One of these days, March 25, is fixed by the annual calendar, the day on which the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, exactly nine months before Christmas. The other day in March, called the Sunday of Orthodoxy, is not determined or fixed by the annual calendar, but by the date of Pascha. This year, it falls on today, the first day of March. On both of these days, as well as on all of the Sundays throughout Lent, we read sections from the epistle to the Hebrews, which is without a doubt, the most important single body, single work, of Christian literature in the formation of the theology of the seven Ecumenical Councils. Humanly speaking, I cannot see how there would have been these dogmatic propositions in the seven Ecumenical Councils without the epistle to the Hebrews. This is the epistle, this is the work in the New Testament most cited as an authority.
Accordingly, this morning, beloved, I propose that we reflect together on the mystery of the Incarnation, the sarcosis, the enfleshing of God. Three points especially I hope I can make.
First, because this is the Sunday of Orthodoxy, it’s imperative that I speak about the Incarnation and iconography. Any visitor to an Orthodox temple, even one so modest as ours, cannot fail to observe a pronounced attention to iconography. It’s the first thing you notice just walking into an Orthodox church, as distinct from really other Christian church.
Why this big emphasis on iconography in the Eastern Church? That’s where the problem arose. The West had relatively little problem at all with the iconoclasts. There was almost no iconoclasm; very little iconoclasm in the West, [but] there was in the East. I’m absolutely convinced of the influence of Islam.
Christian history explains this connection with special significance to the Christian East. What we call the Sunday of Orthodoxy is a fairly recent development in the Church. We heard about it in Matins this morning, this talk about the Sunday of Orthodoxy. It practically just started yesterday; it was the early ninth century, which for the Orthodox Church is kind of late. So the custom is barely more than a thousand years old. It is the annual commemoration of the victory over the iconoclasts in the early ninth century. The Church herself settled the legitimacy of icons at a synod of bishops, assembled in the city of Nicaea in the year 787. It’s instructive to observe that these bishops made the choice of the city of Nicaea as the place to meet to determine this question, because it was in Nicaea more than 500 years earlier that the bishops had assembled and determined how to phrase the dogma of the Incarnation. It was that synod that gave us the Nicene Creed. So in the late eighth century they chose that same place as the place to condemn the iconoclasts, because they perceived the union between these two ideas: the enfleshing of God and the visibility of God. Both of them extraordinary ideas, the enfleshing of God and the visibility of God.
Those bishops had in mind to declare that the custom and discipline of iconography rested solidly on the truth of the Incarnation. Those bishops reasoned that the legitimacy of icons in the Church was an organic inference from the thesis that God became visible in the man Jesus of Nazareth. In the view of those bishops, that is to say, the Old Testament’s prohibition of images was abrogated from the moment that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Why does the Decalogue forbid images of God? Because nobody knows what he looks like. But as soon as you know what he looks like, there’s no more reason for the prohibition.
This Jesus, according to the epistle to the Colossians, is the icon—that’s the Greek word that’s used—the icon of the invisible God. Think about that. He’s invisible, but there’s a picture of him: the icon of the invisible God.
It was the faith of these men, consequently, that the invisible God painted his own portrait on the canvas of the Incarnation so that everyone who looked upon Jesus gazed upon a personal manifestation of God. “He who sees me,” he said, “He who sees me sees the Father.” For those bishops in 787, any Christology, any doctrine of Christ, that felt uneasy about iconography should be regarded as suspect. If people feel uneasy about this, they haven’t got it yet. Correct—Greek word: “orthodox”—Christology has a necessary component of iconography— necessary, not an optional, a necessary component of iconography. And this is the practical attitude of the Orthodox Church to the present day. We take our visual representations very seriously because we take seriously the thesis that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.
The Orthodox faith directs our attention to what now can be seen. We contend that God made himself visible in Jesus of Nazareth. If this is the case, then a picture of Jesus is the image of God. When you look at this icon here, around the halo you see the letters, the Greek letters, “Ho Ōn” in Greek. “Ho Ōn.” That’s the voice from the burning bush: He who Is. He who is. And the Lord’s icon in the apse, they put it in English: “I Am.” That’s the voice from the burning bush. I am.
This explains why the Orthodox Church has such restrictive rules about how Jesus is portrayed. Icons are not supposed to be an artist’s conception. He is the very image of God, so it is imperative that we do not render a likeness of him that is simply an artistic fancy. The Church’s inherited portrayal of Jesus comes from deep in the memory of the apostolic Church, and this is the reason all icons of Jesus look pretty much the same. You know right away who it is. They’re all clearly pictures of the same person, the very person identified in the second article of the Nicene Creed.
Tonight on CNN—I think it’s tonight, or sometime this week—they’re starting a special on “Finding Jesus.” From what I could see, I’m not going to watch that thing. [Laughter] Not going to watch that thing. I find it disturbing. The Church has fought very hard to keep the faith pure for 2000 years. I don’t… I’m not going to turn it over to CNN. [Laughter]
Second, the doctrine of the Incarnation, the enfleshing of God, has a particular pertinence to our understanding of biblical inspiration. Now this might be a little bit hard to follow, but I trust you. To grasp this pertinence, I think it’s useful to contrast our Christian understanding of biblical inspiration with the standard Muslim understanding of the Quran. I propose to do this with respect to the very notion of revelation. Now I hope to say nothing invidious in this comparison. It’s not my task here this morning to knock Muslims. I want seriously not to misrepresent Islam in even the slightest measure. I hope to say nothing about Islam this morning that Muslims do not say about themselves. That’s fair enough, at least for me.
According to universal Muslim teaching, Mohammed received the contents of the Quran by direct dictation from the Archangel Gabriel. Gabriel appears, he dictates the Quran, Mohammed writes it down. What Mohammed wrote down, therefore, was the unmixed word of God. It was in no formal sense the composition of Mohammed. He simply took the dictation. So that the Quran’s message in no way entered into or passed through the creative literary powers of Mohammed himself. This is solid Muslim teaching: Mohammed wrote from dictation word for word. In this sense, the Quran remained external to Mohammed. He was not its author. Now this is not how Christians say it happened. This is something on which all Muslims agree.
Now I submit to you this morning that this Muslim view of inspiration is radically, 180° at variance, completely alien to what the Christian religion means by the same word. What is missing in Islam is the Incarnation principle. That is to say, we Christians believe that God does not speak to the biblical writers in a way that remains external to them. The biblical writers did not simply take dictation from God. On the contrary, according to Christian theology, God speaks to human beings through their own creative powers, the workings of their minds and hearts. In other words, the Word takes flesh within human consciousness and within human creativity and within the context of real human lives.
In that inspiration by which God caused the holy Scriptures to be written, man becomes a co-worker of God, synergos, becomes a co-worker with God. That’s what we mean by synergia, that God and man together produce this book. So that God’s word is likewise the word of a human being, who is properly called an author. Thus we believe that the teaching of the Torah is not simply the word of God; it is also the word of Moses, and both expressions are used in the Scriptures: “God’s word” and “the law of Moses.” They use these interchangeably. We contend that God spoke through Moses through divine inspiration. It was a Spirit-breathed process that included the thinking and the imaginative powers and the experience, the religious experience, of Moses.
The Incarnation principle means that God’s word was filtered through, digested by, fermented in the mind and the heart of a human being. Thus two different writers, Amos and Hosea, living at exactly the same time and in precisely the same place and facing exactly the same social and religious situation—two men wrote two very different books. The Lord’s prophetic word came through and was assimilated by Amos and Hosea, two very different writers, each of whom was, we insist, a personal author of what he wrote.
We Christians contend that God’s word comes to us through inspiration, through the heart and mind of human beings elevated by the Holy Spirit, through the inner anguish of Jeremiah, the soaring mystic visions of John and Isaiah, the probing questions of Job and Habakkuk, the near-despair of Koheleth, the structured poetry of David, the doubts and frustrations of Jonah, the political struggles of Nehemiah, the slow, patient scholarship of Ezra, the careful narrative style of Mark, the historical investigations of Luke, and that pounding mill: the ponderous mind of Paul. According to this Incarnation principle, God’s word finds expression in inspired literature because it first assumes flesh in human thought and imagination. This truth is indicated in that vision where Ezekiel sees God’s word on the scroll that he must eat. God’s word always comes to us through a human being’s inner experience of it.
We always receive the word of God in an incarnational way. You see, if God can speak in human language, he can become a human being. Already the inspiration of the Bible, we had an adumbration and a prophecy that was to come. This elementary fact is one of the considerations that can make the study of the holy Scriptures a fascinating and a life-long pursuit. The student of the Bible is faced with more than a score of authors whose literary compositions span more than a millennium. There’s no other body of literature, even from a human perspective, like it in all of history.
Third—third and briefly—the doctrine of the Incarnation serves as the principle of the entire sacramental system of the Church. Although this is true with respect to all the sacraments, it is arguably more obvious with respect to the holy Eucharist. When the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, when he assumed for his own our flesh and blood, he went on to provide a unique means by which we on our part can be united to him in the very mystery of his enfleshing. Identifying the bread with his own body and the wine with his own blood, he solemnly hands them over to the Church for the benefit of all human beings to the end of time.
Moreover, that very flesh he assumed for our sake is the medium through which we receive the Holy Spirit. Each Sunday, immediately after we have received the holy Communion, we all stand, and what is the first thing we sing? “We have seen the true Light. We have received the heavenly Spirit.”
In the mystery of the holy Eucharist, the wheat which is Christ’s glorified body is baked in the oven of the Holy Spirit so that the nutritive energies of God may pass into those who receive them in faith. This is the metabolism of immortality. Through the cells and sinews of our own bodies, there course the divine energies that transform and deify our bodies and souls, our whole being, unto eternal life. “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” Amen.