And when the fullness of time had come, You spoke to us through Your Son Himself, through Whom You created the ages. He, being the splendor of Your glory and the image of Your being, upholding all things by the word of His power, thought it not robbery to be equal with You, God and Father. But, being God before all ages, He appeared on earth and lived with humankind. Becoming incarnate from a holy Virgin, He emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, conforming to the body of our lowliness, that He might change us in the likeness of the image of His glory.
(Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great, p. 26-27)
In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of grace which He lavished upon us. 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.
But when the time had fully come, God sent forth His Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.
One year, early on in my ministry, someone asked me the question “Why was it necessary for Christ to die for our sins?” I’m generally one to answer questions like this on a practical level, rather than a theological one. And so, I answered something to the effect, “when you run up a credit card debt, the company sends a bill and on the bottom of the bill, there is a perforation and below the perforation, something that oftentimes says “remittance.” This is where what you owe is paid. The credit card company honestly doesn’t care if you pay the bill or if someone pays the bill for you, so long as someone pays the bill. Someone could choose to remit the bill for you.
The consequence to the sin of Adam and Eve was death, estrangement from God. Yes, Adam and Eve would die a physical death—they would stop breathing. But they would also suffer a spiritual death, which is separation from God. Hence, they would be consigned to Hades, to live eternally outside of the presence of God. We’ll come back to that. . .
Another way to understand why it was necessary for Christ to come to earth to die for our sins compares to an algebra equation. When you are solving an algebra equation, my favorite example is 2x + 2 = 6, you have to do something to each side of the equation to keep it in balance. In this example, you subtract two from both sides, you divide by two on both sides and x = 2. God created us to be like Him—to live eternally, to enjoy divine fellowship constantly. When mankind fell, the equation was not balanced. On mankind’s side came temptation, fatigue, disappointment, sickness and eventually death. In order to balance the equation, Christ came to earth and experienced all the things that are on our side of the equation. He was tempted, but did not fall to sin. He eventually died on the cross, and in so doing, He balanced the equation, and He paid our remittance. This is why in our prayers, we refer to the “remission of our sins” rather than just their forgiveness. To forgive is to overlook. To remit is to pay someone else’s debt.
To put all this into motion, Christ needed to come to earth to be with us, to be like one of us. And how was that going to happen? It wouldn’t make sense for the Messiah to just appear out of nowhere, to just show up somewhere when He was 30 years old. When we meet people for the first time, one of the first questions is “where are you from?” Because everyone has a hometown, a set of parents, etc. Christ would have those things as well. He had a mother, Mary, and an earthly father, Joseph. He was incarnate, in other words, He came into the world at a certain time, in a certain place (Bethlehem). And Christ grew up under the Law. In other words, He, Mary and Joseph followed the Law. Christ was going to supersede the Law, but He started out doing what every devout Jewish person of His day was doing—going to the temple at His forty days, celebrating Passover, going to Jerusalem during the year, celebrating the various Jewish feast days, learning Scripture, etc.
Saint Basil is very intentional in His prayer to speak of Jesus Christ as equal with God. In the fourth century, the same century in which St. Basil wrote his Liturgy, there was controversy over the persons of the Holy Trinity, which resulted in two Ecumenical Councils, in Nicaea in 325 and in Constantinople in 381. Saint Basil is careful to mention that Christ is “God before all ages.”
An important person in the story of the Incarnation is the Virgin Mary. History says that the Virgin Mary was probably about 14 when she was visited by the Archangel Gabriel and told that she would bear in her womb the Son of God, and that this would happen through conception by the Holy Spirit. Mary, at this point, was betrothed to Joseph. What faith it took for both Mary and Joseph to go along with this plan. Mary risked the scorn of her society, being pregnant without being married. Joseph also faced the same potential scorn, as well as needing the faith to understand that the child was not his but came from God Himself. The “yes” of Mary is the reason why the Orthodox Church honors her to the degree that it does. Traditionally there is an icon of the Virgin Mary over the altar table in the Orthodox Church. And above the church, there is a dome. Inside the dome, there is an icon of Christ. This represents heaven and represents that Christ existed forever, in heaven, with God the Father and with the Holy Spirit. The half-dome coming down over the altar is a reminder that Christ was incarnate, and this happened through the Virgin Mary, that He came down from heaven to be with His creation.
One last note of importance which concerns the sacrifice of Christ, not only on the cross but to come down to heaven, “taking the form of a servant, conforming to the body of our lowliness.” (Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great, p. 27) He left heaven and came to earth, a sacrifice in itself. And He did this in order to “change us in the likeness of the image of His glory.” Or as St. Athanasios wrote in his treatise “On the Incarnation,” that God became a man so man can become like God.”
Fr. Stavros N. Akrotirianakis is the Proistamenos of St. John Greek Orthodox Church in Tampa, FL. Fr. contributes the Prayer Team Ministry, a daily reflection, which began in February 2015. The Prayer Team now has its own dedicated website!
Fr. Stavros has produced two books, “Let All Creation Rejoice: Reflections on Advent, the Nativity and Epiphany”: “https://amzn.to/2t1rXwh and “The Road Back to Christ: Reflections on Lent, Holy Week and the Resurrection.” https://amzn.to/2WAcfG0
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