A Prayer on Why Christ Came Into the World (with apologies to St. Augustine)

nativity iconO Father, forgive me, a sinner, for the words I am about to speak to you. For I am a fallen and finite creature, who am I to address the Holy and Infinite one? I am ashamed that the impure should address He who alone is pure. Please forgive me for the inadequacy of my words, the limitedness of what I have to say, and for my ignorance.

I confess that you alone are love, O Lord.[1] There are those who say that you created primarily or solely for your glory, but I know that you created out of love. For what can you do that does not display your glory or love? You had no need of creation, no need of us as humans. Your glory was eternally recognized by yourself; you did not need creatures to recognize your glory for you. You, being the only perfect being that is without limit and lacks in nothing, but is infinite, had no need to gain glory for you are glory. You had no need of us for fellowship, for you have eternally existed as one God in three Persons. Love has existed within yourself for all eternity, for you are love and this love has been displayed in your Triune nature.

Oh what beautiful sacrifice to create us! For you had no need and thus the mere act of creation was an act of sacrifice. Who can add to you, O God? Is there anything you can create that can make reality better? No, because you are Reality. Thus, you plus nothing is ultimate reality, absolute perfection, but in creation something lesser than you has been added, something to which you must divert your attention. Were you to turn your attention away from any aspect of creation, were you to forget about this tree, or that planet, or that galaxy, or the electron in an atom, then it would cease to exist. It is through your attention that creation continues on, for all things have their beginning and sustainment in you.[2] As your Word stated, you are concerned over even the birds and do not turn your attention away from them.[3] You even know the hairs on our heads.[4] You have counted and named all the stars.[5] All of this is done and known through your love.

You created man in your image and likeness[6], calling him to be holy as you are holy.[7] To man alone you bestowed your reason and love, both of which we were to use to glorify you and unite with you. We were created to enjoy your love and grow in you. You, God, are our purpose for living, you are the reason we exist, you are our goal, our happiness, our everything.

A Lament Over Our Darkness

Oh what folly we humans have brought upon ourselves! For you created us for yourself, to be with you and love you and yet we have turned away; in the Garden Adam looked upon the fruit and disobeyed you.[8] In a desire to be autonomous from you, to be his own master and slave to none, he submitted to the slavery of autonomy and allowed the Devil to become his master. For this, all of creation is now subject to death. Death touches everything, from a loving marriage to the greatest stars to the tiniest particles. All things must end because of Adam’s sin.[9] The very act of our existence comes with the realization that we will die. From the moment of conception, we begin to die; all men know they will die, they just lack knowledge of when. We are left without hope, O Lord.

In your mercy, you do not hold us culpable for Adam’s sin; you do not make us guilty for what he has done. Yet, as a consequence Adam’s actions have infected human nature, leaving it crippled and unable to find you. We did not sin with Adam, but we sin like Adam; we are not guilty of Adam’s sin, but we sin enough to be guilty; we did not eat the fruit you forbade Adam from eating, but we consume the things that separate us from you. Instead, we have inherited fallen wills from our father Adam. Our wills are damaged and turned against you. As your servant St. John of Damascus wrote, “If, then, Adam willingly gave ear, and willed and ate, then the will was the first thing to suffer in us.”[10] We sin against you because we cannot find you, we sin against you because we do not want to find you, and this is the condition of all men who are born in this world.

We are separated from you and this is the scandal of humanity. You created us to be for you, but we now rebel against you. You are the reason for our nature, thus when we sin we do what is unnatural, we do what is against our nature. We are in pain and misery on our own accord. You have not cast us out from your presence, you have not thrown us out of the castle into the dark leaving us clawing at your door for admittance; rather, we have cast ourselves into the dark, we have snuffed out your light, we are the arbiters of our own demise and judgment. We are left without hope because we are unwilling and unable to find you.

The Mystery and Purpose of the Incarnation

In the beginning you spoke into the darkness and created all, from the chaos you brought order and fashioned creation to your liking.[11] So too, into the darkness of this sinful world you spoke your Word again, bringing Light into darkness, sending Him into the chaos to bring order and fashioning everything back to your desires.[12] Out of your love for your creation, for our sorry case, you sent your Word into the world to become like us and die for us so that we might obtain life to become like you to reign with you in Heaven.[13]

Though we turned from you, you did not turn from us. In your justice you could have wiped us off the face of the earth, you could have left us in our own filth. In the Garden you could have left Adam and Eve naked and ashamed, but instead you sacrificed an animal to cover them, all the while knowing you would one day send your Son as a sacrifice to clothe humanity. It was in your plan to call us back, for as your servant St. Basil the Great state, “God our Savior planned to recall man from the fall. Man’s disobedience separated him from God’s household, and God wished to bring him back.”[14] Your poet, St. Ephrem the Syrian, wrote,

“Adam had been most pure in that fair Garden, but he became leprous and repulsive because the serpent had breathed on him. The Garden cast him from its midst; all shining, it thrust him forth. The High Priest, the Exalted One, beheld him cast out from Himself: He stooped down and came to him, He cleansed him with hyssop, and led him back to Paradise.”[15]

In the first Garden you walked amongst man and could not find him. You called out to him, but in his shame he hid from you. Not content to let him continue in his sequestered state, you became a man in order to seek him out. You are one and this I confess, but I also confess that you are three persons, Father, Word, and Holy Spirit. I confess that the person of the Word put on human flesh in order to save us.

You did not mix the divine nature with the human nature so as to create a new nature, nor did you abandon your divine nature and become a mere human, rather you subsisted as God with a fully divine nature, but also became man in all things that make man who he is, save for sin.[16] Your servant the Damascene repeated the revelation of our earlier brothers by writing, “The natures were united to each other without change and without alteration. The divine nature did not give up its proper simplicity, and the human nature was certainly not changed into the nature of the divinity, nor did it become non-existent.”[17] Fully God in all ways, fully man in all ways except sin, you took on our flesh in order to lead us back into paradise.

You became as man in order to save man. I lack the ability to even begin to understand what you saw, the Creator looking at His creation through created eyes. It was for our sin that you took on our nature, out of your love that you were born of a virgin. For St. Athanasius states, “…it was our sorry case that caused the Word to come down, our transgression that called out His love for us, so that He made haste to help us and to appear among us.”[18] You put on the flesh that rebelled against you in order to turn it toward you; you took on our fallen will and perfected it. You became all that we are not so that we might become all that you are.

Salvation from Death

It is a truthful statement that you did not become incarnate so that you might love us, but that you loved us and so became incarnate. Yet, the ultimate display of your love in the Incarnation is found on the cross, the greatest scandal and injustice in the history of the world where the imperfect creation murdered the perfect Creator. Yet, why did you die? I confess that in your divinity you did not die. Nor did you, Father, nor you, Holy Spirit, participate in the death of Jesus Christ. Only you, O Word, suffered on the cross and you did not die in your divinity, but you did die in your humanity. I ask for your forgiveness for already writing too much ignorance on this mystery. I must know, however, why did you have to die?

Was your death meant to appease your justice, to satisfy the requirements of the law you made, as some claim? Certainly, you are holy and just, for you are the Lawgiver and all goodness comes from you for you are good. Yet, you are also all-powerful infinite, you are omnipotent. You can do all things. Certainly, you could have alleviated our sin without the shedding of blood. While our sin offends your holiness, are you so limited that only blood will appease you? For you have even stated, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.”[19] It would seem that sacrifice is not enough to appease you; if you died as a sacrifice to appease your anger, then a mere acceptance would be enough for salvation. However, you require us to change our entire lives, not to simply intellectually accept what you did and move on in our sin. There must be more to what you accomplished on the cross.

Certainly, your justice must be appeased, but is not your mercy the appeaser? Did your grace and mercy come into existence after the cross, or are they a part of your holy and divine nature? If they came into existence then they are finite and can just as easily go out of existence. But if they are a part of your nature – and as you have revealed, they are[20] – then would these not suffice to satisfy your justice? I confess that you “became sin,”[21] but I also confess that in becoming this sin you did not actually become sin, rather you took on the consequences for the sin I caused. As your child St. Maximus the Confessor wrote, “Neither did he assume nor become my sin. Rather, he became the ‘sin that I caused:’ in other words, he assumed the corruption of human nature that was a consequence of the mutability of my free choice.”[22] You took on the consequences of man’s sin while you died upon the cross, but this is only a part of the story, not the whole story.

Others have said that in your death you paid a ransom. For you said that you came to give your life as a ransom for many.[23] From whom or what did you ransom us? Some have argued that you ransomed us from yourself, from your wrath and anger, but again I must fall back on your mercy and grace. You who are perfect and simple cannot be divided, so your justice cannot stand against your mercy, for they are one in the same. Perhaps you ransomed us from the Devil, but we do not belong to the Devil. For the Devil could not even touch Job’s property, much less Job himself, without your permission.[24] If we belonged to the Devil and needed a ransom then the Devil would not need your permission to touch Job, for Job would be his property. Yet, you did pay a price, you did ransom us, but from what did you ransom us?

O holy Lord, I confess that on the cross you rescued us from death. You promised Adam that if he ate from the forbidden fruit that he would die[25], and you spoke through your Apostle Paul stating that the wage of sin are death.[26] We fell into sin and therefore fell into death, for by sinning we separated ourselves from you. You, O God, are life and the giver of life, so to separate ourselves from you requires us to align ourselves with your antithesis, or the absence of you, which is death. On the cross, you took on death in order to rescue us, to use our nature to defeat the one who had enslaved our nature.[27] As your servant the Damascene wrote,

“Wherefore, then, death approaches, gulps down the bait of the body, and is pierced by the hook of the divinity. Then, having tasted of the sinless and life-giving body, it is destroyed and gives up all those whom it had swallowed down of old. For, just as the darkness entirely disappears when light is let in, so is destruction drive away at onset of life, and life comes to all, while destruction comes to the destroyer.”[28]

Death was deceived by the mystery of the Incarnation, he thought he had ensnared another hapless soul, but instead he had taken in the divine. He could not contain Life and yielded to you. The consequences of sin are death and for this reason you became a substitute, dying in our place and descending into Hades. Rebelling against you, we sold ourselves into the slavery of death, but you ransomed us from death by dying in our place. On the cross, the atonement we search after, you defeated death, the consequence of our sin, and provided a way to be free from this self-imposed tyranny.

Your action against death was completed when you rose from the grave. All of human history turns on your death and resurrection for it truly changed the world. The death you suffered birthed us life eternal. The darkness of the tomb illuminated the light of your glory. Just as a newborn must enter into this world from the womb through much suffering, so too did you enter into this world from the womb of the earth, giving us a new life. Just as you are resurrected, so too are we be resurrected.[29] What hope you have given us, you who are Hope!

In your resurrection you left behind an empty tomb. It did not hold onto our sins, it did not keep death, but rather it was empty and void, containing only remnants of evidence that you had been there. It is in the emptiness of this tomb that we find everything we need. You defeated death in our nature so that we might obtain life and unite with you. You gained victory over sin in our nature that we might be free from this old tyrant. Just as Mary grasped you in the Garden, let us grasp you now.

In grasping you, send your Spirit to make us holy. Just as we are to be like you in eternity, let us begin to be like you now. Renew our minds so that we reflect upon you. Transform our hearts so that we might love you more completely and wholly. Grant us the power to follow you even when it seems impossible. Let us become pure and move away from our current slavery; deliver us from the tyranny of sin, break the chains of our oppression, allow us to live free and holy lives in you.

In our quest for holiness, give us the power to display your love to the unloved. Just as the hungry will feast in eternity, grant us the ability to feed them now. Just as the blind will see, grant us to be their eyes now. You will liberate the oppressed, but let us give them a taste of what is to come. The poor will find riches in your Kingdom, but let us give them the riches we have now. As we await your Kingdom, O Lord, let us live in it now.

Theosis, Recovering Our Meaning

What does it mean to be saved? I have heard many preachers invoke your name when calling on us sinners to “be saved.” I have heard that salvation belongs to you, that you came to save us from Hell, from your judgment, from the Devil, from ourselves, and the list goes on. Is this all you intended when you called upon us to “be saved?” Are we merely to say a prayer, go through an initiation rite? Is not salvation past, present, and future; are we not saved[30], being saved[31], and shall be saved?[32] You have revealed to us that salvation is more than saying a prayer, more than a one-time act, but a continuous and eternal act of relationship, of union with you. Salvation is not man seeking you, but you seeking man, finding him, and uniting him to yourself.

Your love should guide our salvation, not a fear of Hell or a want of Heaven. A child adorns his father’s shoes not to earn the praise of his father or to avoid his rebuke, but because he loves his father and wants to be like him. So too do you call us to be like you through you, not out of fear of your judgment or desire for your praise, but out of love for who you are.

What mystery you have provided us in our own lives that we ought to be saved and be in the process of salvation, all while hoping for salvation! In being saved, we are called to be in your likeness, the image restored.[33] You became man that we might become as you are. In becoming as you are you have made us by grace who you are by nature; whereas you, O Christ, are the Son of God by nature, in communion with the Father, we are the adopted sons of God, sons of God by grace.[34] Your saint, Maximus the Confessor, wrote, “And therefore whoever, by the exercise of wisdom, enables God to become incarnate within him or her and, in fulfillment of this mystery, undergoes deification by grace, is truly blessed, because that deification has no end.”[35]

Your servant Maximus has declared the truth to us, that we shall forever be unified in you and continue to unify in you. Marriage serves as the icon for the love that we will experience with you for all eternity. Young couples that fall in love and get married discover they are strangers within the first few moments of living together. As their relationship develops, they grow in each other and become more like each other. In their twilight, they know each other better than anyone else, yet their love existed at all parts throughout the relationship. As it is with them, so it is with you and those who love you.

You, O God, are infinite and therefore your love is without end. We cannot fathom the depth of your love. Some have compared it to an endless abyss where the bottom is never seen, but this is inadequate as an abyss still has a bottom. Rather, your love is like the heavens, boundless and stretching on forever beyond what the eye can see and the mind can fathom. Your love is infinite and cannot be searched to a capacity or experienced enough. For all eternity we will grow in you, we will unite with you more day in and day out, never finding an end, never reaching enlightenment. We will be as children who endlessly chase after lightning bugs on a calm summer’s night, never catching them all, but remaining in awe: So too will we chase after you for all eternity, never completely grasping you while being wholly grasped by you.

Yet, we begin the adventure of our love with you in the here and now. What a great mystery you have provided to us that we should have the expectation of Heaven, yet have the lifestyle of Heaven; we should await your Kingdom, but preach that it has already come; we should desire after our unification with you while uniting with you now. Let us become as you are, O Lord, let your grace allow us the strength to be holy as you are holy, let your Spirit who proceeds from the Father make us like the Son so that we might becomes sons.

Closing (Thoughts on the Four Gardens of Salvation)

With you, there are no coincidences. You are Reality, you are truly eternal and beyond all time; just as a skilled commander masters the seas with his ship, so too do you sail across the winds of time, mastering it and never bowing to it. All things that will be or could have been reveal themselves to you. In your divine foresight and providence, you knew that our salvation would be told across four gardens.

In the Garden of Eden, where we were created to love you and to experience the infinite power of your love, we turned and rebelled against you. All that was meant to be never was because of our pride and desire for autonomy. Adam’s sin infected us all with death; though you do not hold us accountable or count his guilt as our guilt for you are merciful, his act turned our wills against you. Nevertheless, you were not content to let us simply wallow in our sin, to run away from you. You could have killed every human at that point and ended our suffering, but in your love, you took on the form of a human and endured suffering by our hand so that we could live again.

It is in the Garden of Gethsemane that our salvation is found. In this Garden, man betrayed you again. Just as in Eden where we turned against you for a desire to be like you, we turned you over for money, for a desire to appease our selfishness. This time, however, our act of betrayal did not beget death upon us, but was the ultimate undoing of death. The events of the Garden led to the events of the cross, whereupon you allowed death to consume you, to take your body into its depths.

In the Garden of the tomb, where Mary Magdalene even mistook you for the gardener (though you are the gardener in many ways), you declared your victory over death. You arose from the grave not in spirit, but in bodily form, taking the whole of humanity with you. The skin of humanity is what kept you to the cross, dying on our behalf, suffering as we suffer, but you kept this skin on, you took our nature from Hades and brought it back to life when you arose from the grave.

In the Garden of Paradise, where the tree of life returns,[36] we unite to you and we are found. We begin the unification in this life, living holy lives, but we await the actual Garden of Paradise where we shall rest forever in you. In this new Garden, the hungry feast at the elaborate dinners you have prepared; the blind look with new eyes upon the beauty of your creation; the deaf hear your angels sing of your glory and love; the crippled leap across the mountains of your creation; the cancer-stricken walk about whole and free from any disease; the widows and widowers find completion and love in you; the orphans discover their loving Father; the abused find their Comfort, the sick find their Healing, and the oppressed find their Liberator.

You, O Lord, are the Tree of Life in this new Garden and of you we shall eat forever so that we might be united with you. In this new Garden, all anger disappears, all pain ceases to be, all loneliness is eradicated by your fullness, and every tear is wiped away forever. In this new Garden, the impure are made pure, the spurned are loved, the neglected are cared for, and the sinner becomes a saint. How we look forward to this eternal unification with you, where we shall love you and shall be loved by you, never experiencing separation, never allowing the dark of night to hide your Light from us; we are your prodigal children come home, to feast with you and to be held by you unto ages of ages. Amen.

[1] 1 John 4:8

[2] St. John of Damascus, An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith. Writing, trans., Frederic H. Chase, Jr. (Washington D.C.: CUA Press, 1999), 202.

[3] Matthew 6:26

[4] Luke 12:7

[5] Psalm 147:4

[6] Genesis 1:21

[7] Leviticus 20:26

[8] Genesis 3

[9] Romans 5:12

[10] St. John of Damascus, 301

[11] Genesis 1:1-2

[12] John 1:1-14

[13] Romans 5:8

[14] St. Basil the Great, On the Holy Spirit, trans. David Anderson (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladamir’s Seminary Press, 1980), 57.

[15] St. Ephrem the Syrian, Hymns on Paradise, trans. Sebastian Brock (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladamir’s Seminary Press, 1990), 98-99

[16] Hebrews 4:15

[17] John of Damascus, 271

[18] St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation, trans. A Religious of C.S.M.V. (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladamir’s Seminary Press, 1993), 29

[19] Hosea 6:6

[20] Exodus 34:6

[21] 2 Corinthians 5:21

[22] St. Maximus the Confessor, On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ, trans. Paul M. Blowers and Robert L. Wilken (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladamir’s Seminary Press, 2003), 120

[23] Matthew 20:28

[24] Job 1

[25] Genesis 2:17

[26] Romans 6:23

[27] St. John of Damascus, 293

[28] Ibid., 332

[29] 1 John 4:17

[30] Ephesians 2:8

[31] 1 Corinthians 15:1-2

[32] Galatians 5:5

[33] Ephesians 5:1

[34] Ephesians 1:5

[35] St. Maximus the Confessor, 118

[36] Revelation 22:2