As affirmed by the Council of Nicaea in 325AD, the Incarnation – that God became man in Jesus Christ – is one of the fundamental beliefs of Christianity. The fathers of the First Ecumenical Council were simply and clearly restating the teaching of the Scriptures. St. John tells us that “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.” St. Paul declared that Christ “being in the form of God… made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men.” The fathers of the church, particularly St. Irenaeus of Lyon and St. Athanasius of Alexandria, explained the reason for the Incarnation using the startling language that “God became man, that man might become god.” God so loved mankind that He would humble Himself to become one of us, to live our life, to experience our condition, our temptations, our joys and sorrows – even enter into our death. He did these things that He might show us how we were created to be, how we were meant to live. He came to show us how to conquer sin and death, and return to life with the Father. Because God loved the world so much, those who love God must also love the world and work for its healing, despite the continuing power and influence of, and destruction wrought by, evil throughout the world.
Belief in the Incarnation has practical implications. If you truly believe that God became man, it should shape the way you live. Orthodox Christians at times question whether Protestants truly believe in the Incarnation, rather than merely give it an intellectual ‘nod,’ because Orthodox Christians do not see this belief lived out within Protestantism. Robert Arakaki, writing at orthodoxbridge.com (a ‘blog’ to help explain Orthodoxy to those coming from a Reformed background), summarizes the concern in this manner:
For the Orthodox Christian believing in the Incarnation means: (1) accepting the biblical accounts of Jesus’ conception and birth by Mary, (2) his two natures as defined by Chalcedon, (3) the climactic revelation of God through the person of Jesus which far surpasses all other forms of revelation, (4) Jesus as the Second Adam, the new Man into whom we are united through baptism, (3) Mary becoming the Theotokos (God Bearer), the Throne of God, the Ark of the Covenant; (4) the Church as the Body of Christ, (5) the invisible God becoming visible not only to the first Christians but also to later Christians through icons, (6) the transcendent God becoming accessible through the Church the Body of Christ, and (7) the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist.
For the Orthodox, if one takes the Incarnation seriously one will: (1) celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation (March 25th) every year, (2) publicly honor Mary by addressing her as the Theotokos, (3) confess the Incarnation in every Sunday worship, (4) celebrate the Lord’s Supper (Eucharist) every Sunday, (6) affirm the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist, and (7) display pictures of Jesus in his incarnated state. For the Orthodox faith and action go together. It is not enough to have a strong mental affirmation of the Incarnation or to have systematic theology texts with well articulated exposition of the Incarnation. For the Orthodox theological belief is expressed not in theology books but in liturgical worship.
While all Orthodox Christians profess a strong belief in the Incarnation of Christ, during the fourth and fifth centuries two general schools of thought developed in Alexandria and Antioch, and the latter is often thought of as placing a stronger emphasis on the humanity of Christ. Following the challenges of Arianism, Alexandria stressed the oneness of Christ, a unity both human and divine, a focus which later led to charges of “Monophysitism” and the divisions following Chalcedon. Alexandria also placed a greater emphasis on allegorical, mystical and meta-physical exegesis. Antioch, on the other hand, emphasized the historical, factual and concrete, focusing on the separate natures of Christ, human and divine. (see http://www. monachos.net/library/index.php/patristics/themes/244-two-schools-alexandria-and-antioch for more information). These two emphases are still present in general, often subtle, ways, not only between Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian orthodoxies, but even between Antiochian and non-Antiochian Chalcedonian orthodoxies. Patriarch JOHN X of Antioch, writing before his elevation and when he was Dean of Balamand Seminary in Lebanon, wrote,
Antioch [understands] that the friendship of man with God shall be completed when man, by God’s grace, participates in the mystery of the Cross, in the death and the resurrection of Christ… Therefore, Theology, as understood by Antioch, is not a philosophical discourse or some theoretical and mental dialectic. It is rather a “Theology of Incarnation,” touching upon all aspects of human life and being, stirring it towards its divine beauty. For this reason Antioch listed theology on the list of practical sciences… (Antioch: Incarnational Theology & Ministry; ed. J. Allen, Antiochian House of Studies, 2006).
This “practical” understanding of the Incarnation has led the church of Antioch to found hospitals and schools and training centers for the handicapped, and recently to care for large numbers of refugees. These services are offered to all, regardless of religious background, as the Church seeks to serve Christ in all people. In North America, where there are numerous governmental and non-governmental agencies providing medical care, education and other forms of aid, and the Orthodox Church is still relatively young, this “practical” understanding of the Incarnation has led Antiochians to the forefront of domestic missions and evangelism, to establish FOCUS (Fellowship of Orthodox Christians United to Serve – a pan-Orthodox organization seeking to provide “sustainable solutions to poverty in communities across America”) and Orthodox Prison Ministries, among other programs.
Within the Church of England, one of the greatest gifts of the 19th century Oxford Movement to English speaking Christians was the rediscovery and translation of the writings of the Fathers of the Church. John Mason Neale, Edward Pusey, John Henry Newman, John Keble and others translated volume after volume of sermons, letters, treatises, hymns and other patristic writings which provided a window into the mind of the early Church. Painfully aware of the distance between the church described in those writings and the state of the Church of England, some leaders of the Oxford Movement soon converted to the Roman Catholic Church (at that time, Orthodoxy was largely unknown in England and was considered to be “too ethnic,” though J. M. Neale showed greater appreciation for the churches of the East, translating much of the Eastern liturgical materials). Successive generations of Catholic-minded Anglicans, reading the Fathers, sought not only to recover the richer worship of the ancient Church, but also its life, discipline and thought. They held “higher” views of the Church, the Sacraments, the Saints – and of the Incarnation. They understanding that, as God became man for our salvation and every man still retains the image of God within him, it is thus essential for the church to serve and minister to even the “least” of the brethren. In 1932, Evelyn Underhill, in Light of Christ, wrote of the Incarnation, saying,
We are being shown here something profoundly significant about human life – “God speaks in a Son,” a Baby Son, and reverses all our pet values. He speaks in our language and shows us His secret beauty on our scale. We have got to begin not by an arrogant other-worldliness, but by a humble recognition that human things can be very holy, very full of God, and that high-minded speculations about His nature need not be holy at all; that all life is engulfed in Him and He can reach out to us anywhere at any level.
Many Anglo-Catholics, seeing the practical implications of the Incarnation, were drawn to social ministries in the slums. They sought to minister to body, mind and spirit, feeding the hungry, counseling the needy, even campaigning for legal and political reform to help the poor. Fr. Radclyffe Dolling (d. 1902), author of “Ten Years in a Portsmouth Slum” worked towards improvements in the sewers and sanitation of his neighborhood saying, “I speak out and fight about the drains because I believe in the Incarnation.”
Outward forms of worship gradually became more Catholic in many places within the Church of England and its daughter churches, but often without the attendant theology. As the Anglican world was built on a spirit of compromise, to keep Catholics and Protestants in the same church at the time of the Reformation, outward form has arguably always been more important for many Anglicans, completely contrary to the aims of the first generation of the Oxford Movement. The full extent of the risks and dangers of holding “compromise” as a guiding principal for Anglicanism did not become apparent until England, America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand entered the “post-Christian era” (Anglicanism is still more recognizably Christian, in the traditional sense, in the so-called “developing world,” especially in Africa). Guided by the “spirit of the age” Anglicanism has been quick to embrace changes of every sort (moral, social, theological and liturgical), causing a mass exodus from the pews since the 1970’s. Some have become Roman Catholic; some have entered one of the many, fragmented “continuing Anglican” churches; many have simply given up on church altogether. Some have found that the hopes and dreams of Anglo-Catholicism are fulfilled and given a proper home in Orthodoxy.
At a clergy symposium of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese, around the year 2000, observers remarked that approximately half of the clergy of the archdiocese at that time were converts, and that roughly half of those were former Episcopal or Continuing Anglican clergy. There were even jokes about forming a “Canterbury Club.” Today the percentages have changed with converts from many different diverse backgrounds, as well as continued immigration of clergy from the middle East, but many “Anglican refugees” continue to find a home within the Antiochian church. The warmth of middle-Eastern hospitality and the presence of the Western Rite have certainly been factors for many Anglicans moving to Antiochian Orthodoxy, but former Catholic-minded Anglicans have also found a familiar theological framework in Antioch, one which emphasizes the Incarnation and its practical ramifications.
Patriarch IGNATIUS IV of Antioch, of thrice-blessed memory, was frequently called an “Incarnational Theologian; ” he often said, “I learn my theology from looking at the faces of people.” He preached a balanced theology saying “even truth itself, without love, loses its power.” This approach resonates well with Anglo-Catholics who hold that, as the Anglican priest, Kenneth Leech wrote “the Incarnation is more than a belief, it is a principle of life and of transformation. The principle that salvation and all spirituality comes through the flesh and through matter lies at the heart of the entire Christian understanding. Spirituality which is rooted in the Incarnation can never be world-denying or private. Nor can it be reduced to the “imitation of Christ”. Rather it is a call to be transformed into the divine life.”
As Anglicanism has embraced the spirit of the age and moved further and further from traditional Christianity, many Anglicans have found a home in Orthodoxy, many within the Patriarchate of Antioch. It is a home that, while clearly rooted in the Middle East, does not feel alien or foreign at its foundation, because that foundation is built upon the Incarnation of Christ. Rather than feeling as though they are living in a strange land, Anglican converts to Orthodoxy typically feel that they have truly “come home” to a place which values what they hold dearest, but within the fulness of the Ancient Faith. This is equally true both for those who have chosen the Western Rite and for those who have chosen the Eastern Rite. In Orthodoxy they find a Church which provides continuity with the early Church and the saints through the ages, which understands the importance of beauty in worship, and which expects one’s faith to be expressed in the events and choices of daily living. The Orthodox Church has acknowledged that there is much that is good, healthy and Orthodox in the heritage of the Western Church. We have the witness of a thousand years of Western Orthodox saints, and both the Patriarchate of Antioch and the Patriarchate of Russia have embraced the Western Rite, including the Daily Office and Communion Service from the Book of Common Prayer (in their enriched forms), along with the older Roman Liturgy, which was used in England from the 6th to the 16th centuries.
Combining Middle-Eastern hospitality and Christian charity, the Church of Antioch has welcomed great numbers of converts. Our late Metropolitan PHILIP said to those joining the church, “Welcome home! Today I say to America: Come home America! Come home to the faith of Peter and Paul!” We speak of the Orthodox Church as the Body of Christ, the Bride of Christ, the Ark of Salvation and the hospital for our souls. The Orthodox Church has withstood the trials and tribulations of two thousand years, continues to serve Christ faithfully, and to help people find God and enter into His Kingdom.
Fr. Nicholas Alford, a “recovering Anglican” himself, resigned the ministry of the Episcopal Church in 1995, having served parishes in Pennsylvania and Indiana. He was previously a member of the various “Catholic societies” of the Episcopal Church, a priest of the Society of the Holy Cross (SSC), and a Priest Associate of the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. Chrismated in the Orthodox Church in 1995 and ordained in 1996, he is blessed to serve at St. Gregory Orthodox Church, a Western Rite congregation of the Antiochian Archdiocese in Washington, DC.