Let the Manger Be Prepared

by Rev. Economos Romanos Russo
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Melkite Eparchy of Newton
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Make ready, O Bethlehem: let the manger he prepared, let the cave show its welcome. The truth has come, the shadow has passed away. Born of a virgin, God has appeared to men, formed as we are and making godlike the garment He has put on. Therefore Adam is renewed with Eve and they call out, “Your good pleasure has appeared on earth to save our kind.”

St. Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem

“God became man so that man could become God.” With this sentence St. Athanasius summed up the entire Bible. The liturgical year in the Byzantine tradition is a prolonged celebration of the two truths contained in those few words. During the first half of the year, from September 1st to February 2nd we rejoice in the first mystery: God become man. During the Lenten and Paschal seasons we contemplate the second mystery: man becomes God.

The main focus in preparing for the feast of the Nativity of our Lord in the Byzantine tradition is on the incarnation of the Son or Word of God: in other words, God hecoming man. In order to more fully enter into the meaning of this mystery, we must reread the Genesis account of the creation and fall of man.

In the Image of God

“Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness’… So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created them; male and female He created them.”(Genesis 1:26-27)

The Church recognizes certain of its earliest teachers as having received the divine gift of interpreting the Holy Scriptures and Tradition in the orthodox (i.e. correct) manner, and calls them the ‘Fathers of the Church’. The Eastern Fathers made the above passage from Genesis the cornerstone of their anthropologv or doctrine of man. In the plural pronouns “Let US make…in OUR image, after OUR likeness” they saw a prefiguring of the Holy Trinity. Though the work of creation is attributed to the Father, they saw the Son and the Holy Spirit as the “two hands by which the Father created.”

The patristic tradition (i.e. the thought of the Fathers) also saw profound implications in the words “in our IMAGE” and “after our LIKENESS”. They conceived of the image as something static or unchanging. Either it was there or it wasn’t, but the likeness was something dynamic or changing: it could become greater or less. In other words man was created such that he bore a resemblance to God in a way that could grow more and more like God.

Now perhaps the temptation of the serpent in Genesis 3:1–5 is clearer. The serpent “…said to the woman, ‘Did God say, “You shall not eat of any tree of the garden”?’ And the woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden; but God said, “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.”‘ But the serpent said. to the woman, ‘You will not die. For God knows that when You eat of it, your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”‘

How clever is the Evil One! He knew that Adam and Eve had been created in the likeness of God and that they desired nothing so much as to become more like God; so he tempts them to achieve a good end by an evil means. Know good and evil and you will he move like God. That was the essence of the temptation.

“So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, and he ate.” (Genesis 3:6)

The act of eating involves taking something outside of you and, by ingesting it, making it part of you. Thus eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of coed and evil means that Adam and Eve made evil part of themselves:

“Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons.” (Genesis 3:7)

Their first reaction was one of guilt. They who, up till then, had rejoiced in their natural nakedness, now that they had ingested evil, felt guilt and, in their embarrassment, covered their nakedness. The Fathers saw this as the darkening of the image of God in man. As a mirror when mottled reflects a distorted image, so was the image of God in man distorted beyond recognition.

Creation to Be Redeemed

God could have abandoned man to his new found evil, but He loved His creation so much that He decided to redeem man from his sin. God says to the serpent: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” (Genesis 3:15) So God promised that a descendant of Eve would bruise the head of the serpent, which is to say destroy the source of that evil. The rest of the Old Testament is the story of that hope for the deliverance or redemption promised by God to man in paradise.

A descendant of Eve, a man, will deliver us from evil. But who will restore the distorted image and bring the likeness to the highest degree? The closest that one thing can resemble another is that the one actually participates in the life of another. Or, as St. Peter says, “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us to His own glory and excellence, by which He has granted to us His precious and very great promises, that through these you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of passion and become partakers of the divine nature.” (2 Peter 1:3–4)

In other words, God intends us to be so much like Him that we will actually share in His being. The process of becoming sharers in the divine nature is called THEOSIS (deification or divinization. This is what St. Athanasius means when he says, “…so that man might become God”. But who can give us this power? Only God can give us a share in Himself. And so only God can fully redeem man. If God promised that a descendant of Eve – i.e. man – will crush the source of evil and if only God Himself can restore His image and likeness in mankind, then only the God-Man, Jesus Christ, truly God and truly man, can accomplish the mystery of our salvation.

Since He is the eternal Son of God, He must take upon Himself a human nature and become man, so that the Divine image in fallen man might be restored and the likeness dynamically oriented to sharing in His nature. God becomes man so that man might become God.

Kenosis: the Mystery of God’s Love

The mystery of God-becoming-man is called the INCARNATION, the enfleshment, from St. John’s Gospel: “And the Word became flesh and dwelled among us” (John l:14). But the Eastern tradition has a special fondness for another word to describe this mystery and its implications for us: KENOSIS or self-emptying, from St. Paul’s words in the epistle to the Philippians: “Though He was in the form of God, He did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” (Phil 2:6-7)

The Second Person of the all-holy Trinity “emptied Himself” and took the form of a servant, that is, became man. He did not count equality with God the Father a thing to be clutched. Our thoughts go back to Adam and Eve in Eden grasping at the forbidden fruit because they thought it would make them more like God. Now it is God the Son, the Word of Cod, who does not grasp at the Divinity, but is born in the likeness of men to give us as a gift what we tried to steal in paradise: likeness to God.

During the Christmas Preparation Period, the Byzantine Churches invite the faithful to enter into the spirit of this mystery by experiencing the expectation felt by the first-chosen people as they awaited the coming of the Savior. But this Savior is God and man: He is the God-Man. And so the period of preparation focuses on these two natures of our Savior. He is true God: He is born of the Father before all ages, the pre-eternal Word of God. In His divine nature He has a Father but no mother. He is also true man. He did not merely appear in human form: He really took upon Himself a human nature.

Jesus Christ is true God and true Man. This is the message of the Fast in preparation for Christmas. In His divine manhood we see an icon of our own divinization. Thus, to celebrate Christmas is not just to recall the birth of our Lord ‘way back then’ but to reapplv the reality of Christ’s being to the continuing process of rebirth in our hearts that is the Orthodox way of salvation. As the process by which the Son of Cod became the Son of Man involved ‘kenosis’ or self-emptying, a similar kenosis is required of us if we are to be remade in the image and likeness of God. This self-emptying is achieved by prayer, repentance, fasting and the works of charity. When thus purified we can become, like St. Paul, chosen vessels. Into these living chalices are worthily placed the divine body and blood of Christ, so that, as St. Leo the Great says, through these Holy Mysteries we may be transformed into that which we consume.

Rev. Economos Romanos Russo