‘his mother, in her maiden bliss’: Christina Rossetti and Ephraim the Syrian

This past Sunday was my church’s carol service, and the choir sang ‘In the Bleak Mid-Winter‘, apparently Britain’s favourite Christmas carol this year. In this beautiful hymn-poem by Christina Rossetti, most people are moved, it seems to me, by the final verse: ‘Yet what I can I give him — / Give my heart.’

This time, however, I was moved by the third verse:

Angels and archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Thronged the air;
But only his mother,
In her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the Beloved
With a kiss.

What is moving is not simply the tenderness of the moment but the theology that underpins it, stretching back to the second verse beginning, ‘Our God, heaven cannot hold him.’ Here we have the mystery of the Incarnation — God became an infant. And his maiden mother kissed him as any mother would kiss her child.

Note the juxtaposition in these two lines — ‘But only his mother, / In her maiden bliss.’ Normally, in order to have a child, a lady must no longer be a maiden. But this is no ordinary child, the Beloved. And his was no ordinary conception. (I imagine the birth itself was, save the singing of angels and brilliant star, quite ordinary.)

When I heard these lines, I could not help think of St Ephraim the Syrian’s hymns on the Incarnation. Specifically, these lines come to me:

From Hymn 12

Who indeed has seen the Babe Who is more ancient
than His bearer?  The Ancient One entered
and became young in her.  He emerged an infant
and grew by her milk.  He entered and became small in her;
He emerged and grew through her—a great wonder!

A great wonder, indeed! God, Creator of the Universe, Creator of Mary, became the son of Mary. He was, in Latin christological terms, fully consubstantial with his mother (and thus the human race) and fully consubstantial with the Father (and thus is God). This union of divine and human, inextricable yet unconfused, is what makes Jesus unique, what enables his death and resurrection to save us.

And so we celebrate his birth in Bethlehem and wonder at that moment when ‘his mother, / In her maiden bliss, / Worshipped the Beloved / With a kiss.’

The Scandal of the Incarnation’s Particularity (and the perils of academic theology)

Council of Chalcedon
Council of Chalcedon

The other day, I came across Towards a Feminist Christology by Julie Hopkins on the new books table in the Divinity library here. In an of itself, I don’t suppose feminist theology is any worse than any other particular vision of theology. The problems arise when people, rather critiquing theology or doing theology from a feminist perspective, seek to create a theology that is inherently feminist and that solves feminist problems.

Theology is thinking about God, and therefore transcends all barriers. The job of the theologian is to find the Truth and communicate it. But academic theology can often go astray seeking instead to apply philosophy to Christian issues or sociology to the Almighty or calling Christian philosophy theology or confusing anthropology with theology. Academia may, in fact, be the least hospitable environment for true theology to thrive because of the drive to create new things and publish them on a regular basis.

And so Hopkins challenges, in a mere six pages (I think), the Chalcedonian Definition (my translation here) of Christ’s dual nature, reducing it to, ‘fully god, fully man.’ Her first critique is that this is a decidedly sexist vision of the Incarnate Christ. I suppose it would be, if that were what the Fathers at Chalcedon actually said.

In fact, what the Chalcedonian Definition says in the criticised phrase is, theon aléthós kai anthrópon aléthós — truly God and truly a human being. We can always ask ourselves if ancient authors, when they wrote anthrópos or homo meant ‘human being regardless of gender’ or if they were often thinking of ‘male men’, but the word anthrópos refers to a human being of either gender. And throughout the Chalcedonian Definition itself, all the terms used to refer to Christ’s human nature are derived from anthrópos, not anér, the word for ‘man.’

Leo’s Tomus ad Flavianum is similar, using homo, basically the Latin equivalent of anthrópos.

Thus, the Chalcedonian Definition is not sexist.

I should probably stop there, but Hopkins did not (alas). Citing some other feminist theologians as well as Patristics scholar Frances Young, she maintains that the Fathers compromised the Gospel with Platonic dualism, thus leading to the tortured Christological debates of the fourth and fifth centuries. Whether the Fathers did compromise, to what extent, and why are all debatable issues.

What I can say is this, even without the question of dualism arising or the concern about impassibility, the question of how on earth a man could be God would have been a thorny question, and it would have arisen through the centuries of meditative exposition of the Scriptures anyway — so something like the Chalcedonian Definition would have been formed (although some people are leaning towards the position that, without Leo’s orchestration of Chalcedon, the formulation would have been more conservative Cyrillian [Mono-/Miaphysite] than Leo’s Augustinian vision).

Nonetheless, even dispensing with ideas that proclaim the weakness of the Church’s credal statements from Nicaea to Chalcedon — tainted by pagan philosophy as the appear to be — Hopkins brings up a decidedly modern (postmodern? contemporary? I dunno) concern. How can we discuss the Incarnation of the divine in the feminine?

My response: In short, we cannot.

Annunciation to the BVM, observe the Holy Spirit descending
Annunciation to the BVM

The Incarnation of the Divine Person as Jesus Christ is an unrepeatable historical event with cosmic significance. The actual Incarnation is the taking-on of human flesh by the Almighty. All human flesh is gendered. All human flesh is particular. In order for Christ to save all of us, he had to be one of us. The general significance of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension, and reigning in glory, comes from the particularity.

Jesus is not embodied humanity in some general way, although some Unitarian website I saw about a year ago thought that’s what Chalcedon teaches. He is a particular human — a man. And he lived and wrought wonders and taught great things, things recorded for us in the Gospels. He died a criminal’s death and rose the Victorious Saviour. He ascended into Heaven.

By living a ‘normal’ human life, Jesus recapitulated the Garden. He reversed the curse through obedience to the Father.

If somehow one were to argue that Incarnation is necessary from General or Natural Revelation (or whatever you call it), one could say that the Divine Being could become Incarnate in a woman. However, those things that make true, Christian theology Christian are the revelation and the tradition that inform us that when the Divine Person became flesh, it was as the Man, Jesus of Nazareth.

Yet God became man that man might become God, right? (Theosis, as some call it.)

Well, then. Think on this, if you wish to see the Divine in the human plane of the feminine.

After 40 days living His resurrected life amongst the Apostles, the God-Man Jesus returned to Heaven. As a result, his particularity can become general. Whereas before he was only with certain followers at certain places and certain times, now Jesus, God Himself, can be with any followers at any places and any times. With all of us at once. He has promised to be with us in a special way through communion, but I think we can find Him elsewhere.

And when we find Christ, God, Trinity, we can find union with the Divine in a way that is so intimate that the Scriptures — our first point of reference in doing true theology — can only describe it as being like a marriage. We have all become Christ’s bride.

The Divine Persons are not feminine. They transcend gender as a Trinity. However, their transcendence of gender makes them equally available to all. Therefore, we need not worry over the Incarnation of God in the feminine. God came as a man, but can return to any of us at any time, whether male or female.

Recapitulation

Pantokrator from Ayia Sofia

This is my third post on Irenaeus of late, and probably the last for a while. One of the important parts of Irenaeus’ vision of theology is called recapitulation. It is a beautiful theory that I first met in Robert E Webber’s book Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicallism for a Postmodern World (pp. 56ff).

The idea is that the human race by committing evil is tending towards destruction. We have turned from our sustainer and creator and therefore shall all die. God, in a grand rescue plan became a human being like us. In Against the Heresies, he writes:

Therefore, as I have already said, he caused man to become one wiht God. For unless a man had overcome the enemy of man, the enemy would not have been legitimately vanquished. And again: unless God had freely given salvation, we would not now possess it securely. And unless man had been joined to God, he could never have become a partaker of incorruptibility. For it was incumbent upon the Mediator between God and men, by his relationship to both, to bring both to friendship and concord, and present man to God, while he revealed God to man. (3.19.6, in A New Eusebius, p. 119)

For those, like me, who cannot read second-century theology without an eye to the future, will see shades of Athanasius’ On the Incarnation and Gregory of Nazianzus’ famous dictum, ‘What has not been assumed cannot be healed.’ The incarnation, the irruption of God as a man into human history changes the game.

Many people have maintained that Irenaeus’ theology has no place for the Cross, that simply by being incarnate Christ effected our salvation. However, Gustav Aulén, in his class work on the subject Christus Victor, demonstrates that when Irenaeus says incarnation he includes crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension in the bundle. Aulén puts it thus:

Assuredly, then, the death of Christ holds a central place in Irenaeus’ thought. But, we must add at once, it is not the death in isolation; it is the death seen in connection, on the one hand, with the life-work of Christ as a whole, and on the other with the Resurrection and the Ascension; the death irradiated with the ligh tof Easter and Pentecost. (48)

Aulén immediately gives us this footnote:

Some words of Zankow (The Orthodox Eastern Church, p. 55) are as true of Irenaeus, and of the later Greek Fathers, as of Eastern Christianity in general: “Christ’s Resurrection is inseparably connected with His death on the cross. For the Orthodox Church, as well for its theology as for its popular conceptions, salvation is only finally complete in the Resurrection. Sin and death are conquered, and life is bestowed upon men. Only the Resurrection is the real earnest of salvation and of eternal life.” (n. 2, p. 48)

Who does Christ triumph over? Christ is the conqueror of sin and death. And the devil, who is bound up with both. Because of all that transpired in the incarnation, we are set free from the power of sin, death, devil.

And what is the recapitulation bit of this Christ the Victor?

Christ brings us back to what one may call the ‘Adamic’ state. As the second Adam, a concept Irenaeus develops, Christ undoes the evil of Adam. The cosmic effects of the fall as well as the human effects are reversed, and we are able to enter into communion with God through faith in Christ.

Part of the ethical consequences of the cosmic nature of Irenaean recapitulation is our attitude towards the rest of creation. If creation was cursed with us and healed with us, we must treat it well. We are to live now as though we have already come into the Kingdom of the Heavens. This is a good thing, seeking to live in harmony with ‘nature’ (as Zeno the founder of Stoicism once said).

Irenaeus puts it best, and Webber puts it better than I.

I do not believe that recapitulation nullifies other views of the atonement. I believe that it works alongside them and shows different nuances to the wilful sacrifice of God for humanity and how that relates to us and the world around us.

Christmas with Pope Leo

Merry Christmas, one and all! Here are some bits from St. Leo the Great himself, translated by yours truly. Originally published in PRINT, the magazine of Little Trinity Anglican Church, Toronto.

Sermon 26, Christmas 450

Latin ed. Chavasse, CCSL 138, pp. 125f.

Indeed, on all days and at all times, dearly beloved, the birth of our Lord and Saviour from his Mother the Virgin comes before the souls of the faithful while meditating upon divine things, and the mind, raised up to confessing its creator, whether it is turned to the groan of supplication, or in the exultation of praise, or in the giving of sacrifice[—while all this transpires—]nothing more frequently and nothing more faithfully attaches to the spiritual insight than this: God, the Son of God, begotten from the co-eternal Father, was indeed also born from a human birth. But no day brings this nativity to be worshipped in heaven and on earth to us more than today, and with a new light also shining in the elements, it brings total clarity of the miraculous mystery in to our senses. For not only in memory but also in a certain way into view the conversation of the Angel Gabriel with amazed Mary returns, as does the conception from the Holy Spirit as wondrously promised as believed, the Author of the world is brought forth in a virginal womb, and he who established all natures, is made the son of her whom he created. Today the Word of God appeared garbed in flesh, and that which had never been visible to human eyes began even to be tangible to hands. Today the shepherds learned from angelic voices that the Saviour was born in the substance of our flesh and spirit, and today the form of evangelisation was prearranged amongst the superintendents of the Lord’s flocks, so that we also may say with the host of the heavenly army: Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men of goodwill (Luke 2:14).

 Tome of Leo (Ep. 28, June 13, 449)

Latin ed. Schwartz, ACO 2.2.1 pp. 26f.

 Or perhaps he [Eutyches] thought that the Lord Jesus Christ is not of our nature, since the angel sent to Blessed Mary said, ‘The Holy Spirit will come over you, and the power of the Most High will shadow you and, on account of that the holy one who will be born, will be called the Son of God,’ (Luke 1:35) with the result that, since he had been conceived of the virgin by the divine working, the flesh of the one conceived was not from the nature of the one conceiving? But that begetting—singularly marvellous and marvellously singular—is not to be so understood that through the newness of the creation the characteristics of the humanity are removed.

The Holy Spirit gave fertility to the Virgin, but the truth of his body was taken from her body, and while the Wisdom of God was building itself a home, ‘the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us,’ (John 1:14) that is to say, in that flesh which he took from a human being and which he quickened with the spirit of rational life.

Therefore, as the characteristics of each nature are preserved and come together into one person, humility is taken up by majesty, infirmity by strength, mortality by eternity, and an inviolable nature is united with a passible one for the restoration owed to our condition, so that, since it was fitting for our cure, ‘the one and the same mediator of God and human beings, the human being Christ Jesus’ (1 Timothy 2:5) both could die from the one aspect and could not die from the other. Thus, true God was born in the whole and perfect nature of a true human being, entire in his own characteristics, entire in ours.

 Sermon 70:3, April 2, 443

Latin ed. Chavasse, CCSL 138, pp. 428f.

 For it seemed illogical and irrational to accept with the mind that the inviolate Virgin begat the Creator of all natures in the substance of a true human being, that the Son of God, equal to the Father, who filled everything and contained all things, permitted himself to be seized by the hands of raging men, to be condemned by a trial of hostile men, and, after dishonours from shameful men, to be affixed to a cross. But in all these things at the same time are the lowliness of humanity and the loftiness of Divinity, nor does the plan of mercy hide away the majesty of the merciful one, since it came from the ineffable power that while true man is in inviolable God, and true God is in passible flesh, glory would be bestowed upon human through injury, incorruption through humiliation, life through death. For unless the Word were made flesh (cf. John 1:14), and so sturdy a unity existed between the two natures, that the brief time of death itself could not break the assumed [nature] from the assuming one, mortality would never have been strong enough to return to eternity. But unique aid was present to us in Christ, so that the condition of death would not remain in the passible nature, which the impassible nature had received, and through that which could not die, that which was dead could be raised up.

 Leonine Sacramentary (Attributed to but not by Leo)

Latin ed. Feltoe, p. 159

 O God, Who both marvellously established the dignity of human substance and more marvellously reformed it, make it, we beseech Thee through Jesus Christ Thy Son, that we become sharers in the Divinity of Him Who judged it worthy to become a participant in our humanity. Through Jesus Christ our Lord Who liveth and reigneth with Thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.

From the Gelasian Sacramentary

It is, indeed, right that, with hearts raised up on high, we worship the divine mystery* by which the human condition, with the old and earthly law ceasing, is brought forth as a new and heavenly substance, miraculously restored, so that which is carried out by the great gift of God may be celebrated with the great joy of the Church. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, ever one God, unto the ages of ages. Amen.

From Communion Prayers at Prime for Christmas morning. My terrible translation.

*Sc. the Incarnation.

Merry Christmas!

Given that he’s this week’s saint, here are some thoughts from Pope St. Leo the Great, Sermon 21, On the Nativity of the Lord I (the trans. will be that of Canon W. Bright, S. Leo the Great on the Incarnation):

Accordingly, God, the Word of God, the Son of God, Who ‘in the beginning was with God, by Whom all things were made, and without Whom was nothing made,’ in order to deliver man from eternal death, became Man; in such wise humbling Himself to assume our lowliness without lessening His own Majesty, that, remaining what He was, and putting on what He was not, He united the true ‘form of a servant’ to that form in which He was equal to God the Father, and combined both natures in a league so close, that the lower was not consumed by receiving glory, nor the higher lessened by assuming lowliness.  Accordingly, while the distinctness of both substances is preserved, and both meet in one Person, lowliness is assumed by majesty, weakness by strength, mortality by eternity; and in order to discharge the debt of our condition, the inviolable nature is united to the passible, and very God and very Man are combined in our one Lord:  so that, as the appropriate remedy for our ills, one and the same ‘Mediator between God and men’ might from one element be able to die, and from the other to rise again. –Sermon 21, On the Nativity of the Lord I (PL)

Saint of the Week: Leo the Great

In the year AD 440, the Archdeacon of Rome was away in Gaul on a diplomatic mission.  While he was there, the Bishop of Rome, St. Sixtus III, passed away.  Despite the fact that he wasn’t there, the powers that be in Rome elected the absent Archdeacon as Bishop.  They waited patiently for his return.  He thanked them for this patience in his accession speech.  This archdeacon was Leo I, the Great.

I have chosen Pope St. Leo the Great (c. 400-461; see my review of Leo the Great as well) because he is a big part of my life right now, and hopefully this state of affairs will continue for the next three and a half years.  I have also chosen him because tomorrow is Christmas, the Feast of the Nativity of Christ, the day we remember the coming of God as a man approximately 2000 years ago, and St. Leo was a theologian of the Incarnation.

We have scant knowledge about Leo before his election to the papacy.  We know that he was Archdeacon in the 430’s when he commissioned my friend John Cassian (this post gives a list of my major posts about Cassian) to write On the Incarnation of the Lord Against Nestorius (my thochts on that here).  He may also have been involved in the Roman See’s actions concerning the Pelagian Controversy.  The fact that he commissioned Cassian’s anti-Nestorian work lets us know that in the decade before his rise to the throne of Peter, St. Leo was involved in the Christological controversies sparked in the East by Nestorius in 428.

Thus, he was already a student of theology by the time he became pope.  As Bishop of Rome, he changed the previously un-preachy* nature of the Roman episcopacy (taking his cue from our friend St. Ambrose) and began a cycle of preaching that followed the church year, with at least fifteen occasions throughout the year, including the Advent fast, the Nativity, Lent, the Pasch, ultimately Pentecost, the Feast of St. Laurence, the anniversary of his elevation to the Roman See, and other liturgical moments (see the CCEL for translations of a number of these).

These sermons are explications of the feasts/fasts and the theological underpinnings of the remembrance at hand.  In his Advent and Christmas sermons, St. Leo explicates in wondrous beauty the necessity and nature of the Incarnation — a birth “wondrously singular and singularly wondrous” — for our salvation from sin, death, and the devil.  The peroration, or conclusion, of each sermon exhorts the people of Rome to virtuous action; he wants to help them see that being a Christian is the same as being a good Roman.  He also takes aim at heretics in his sermons, at times Manichees, who had a presence in Rome, at times Eutyches, at times Nestorius.

If you read these sermons, and I encourage you to, you see that St. Leo was a theologian with a pastor’s heart.  No, actually, he was a pastor with a theologian’s insight.  He demonstrated for the edification of his congregation the theology and action necessary for a healthy Christian life.  He also emphasized strongly, contra the now-deceased Bishop of Hippo Regius, the will of God to save all mankind.  The question of how it therefore comes about that God happens not to save all mankind is not fully treated in Leo’s corpus.

In the letters, we see Leo as a pastor’s pastor, as a pontifical statesman, and as a controversial theologian.  He answered letters, for example, from bishops who had congregants from North Africa who weren’t sure if they had been baptised Catholic or schismatic.  His answer was that it was being baptised into the threefold Name of the Most Holy Trinity that counted, not the baptiser.  He answered questions about Priscillianism for a bishop in Spain.

He also tried to impose his will, to a degree, on the bishops of Illyricum.  Most strikingly, he tried to impose his will on the Bishops of Gaul.  He largely succeeded, diminishing to a degree the see of Arles under Hilary, demonstrating the power of the Bishop of Rome in disputes.  He saw the Pope as the universal court of appeal for the Church, a man who could intervene in the affairs of other dioceses beyond his own metropolitan zone in order to maintain and restore order.

In the year 444, St. Cyril of Alexandria passed away.  St. Cyril had been the theologian of the Incarnation par excellence throughout Leo’s career.  He had spearheaded the offensive against Nestorius and had largely engineered the outcome of the First Council of Ephesus.  With St. Cyril dead, the mantle of Christologian passed to St. Leo.  But was he up to the task?

St. Leo’s time came in 449 when he received a letter from an Archimandrite (a senior abbot) named Eutyches, whom a local synod in Constantinople had deemed a heretic.  Eutyches was appealing to Leo.  Soon Leo also received a letter from Flavian, Bishop of Constantinople, explaining to Leo the circumstances of Eutyches’ trial.  Leo responded to Flavian on June 13 with his famous Tome, letter 28.

This document is the piece of writing for which St. Leo is most famous for.  In this letter, Leo has in his sights both Nestorius as Leo understood him and Eutyches.  The former, as far as Leo was concerned, denied Christ’s divinity; the latter, Christ’s humanity.  The Tome is a text of balance and duality.  Leo sets forth for his reader the balance and duality within Christ of the human and divine natures.  He strikes a balance that seeks to avoid the perceived pitfalls of Eutychianism and Nestorianism.  God the Word took on flesh, he became fully human without the stain of sin, the lowliness not diminishing the glory.  This was necessary for our salvation.  Christ was and is a living paradox.

That same year, 449, saw the calling of a second general council in Ephesus.  This council was engineered by Dioscorus, episcopal successor to St. Cyril in Alexandria, to rehabilitate Eutyches and hold aloft a one-nature Christology, an incipient Monophysite understanding of Christ’s nature.  Leo, as was the wont of Rome’s bishop, sent delegates.  They were to read aloud the Tome, Leo being convinced that all the Church needed was to read his account of the Incarnation and then all this controversy would end.  These delegates were steamrolled by Dioscorus and not allowed to speak.  Bishop Flavian received blows that may have led to his death shortly thereafter.  He was replaced by a supporter of Dioscorus.

Leo called Second Ephesus a Latrocinium, a den of pirates.  He wrote letters to Emperor Theodosius II trying to convince him to change his mind and overturn the decisions of the council.  He wrote letters to Pulcheria Augusta, the Emperor’s sister, enlisting her help to convince her brother.  Theodosius would not be convinced.

And then, in 450, he fell off his horse and died.  His sister married a nonentity named Marcian and became Empress.

In 451, the Council of Chalcedon occurred.  This time, Leo’s Tome, along with three letters of St. Cyril, was read out and approved by the Council — albeit, not unanimously, with protests coming from some of the Illyrian, Palestinian, and Egyptian delegates.

It seems, as Bernard Green has argued,** that Leo didn’t really know what Nestorianism was until after Chalcedon.  Seeing what the objections to the Tome were, he quickly adjusted certain passages and clarified his thinking.  Thus, his letter 124 to the monks of Palestine is more representative of the mature thought of St. Leo and would be a better testimony to his thought for the generations to come.

Leo spent the years from 451 to 465 maintaining his preaching practice in Rome, keeping order in his Metropolitan, clarifying what the Tome was supposed to say, and keeping Attila the Hun from sacking Rome (this last may not be true, but it colourful nonetheless).

He was one of the good popes.  He was also one of the first strong steps down the road to the papacy’s claims to universal jurisdiction.  We cannot have Innocent III (1160-1216) without Leo I.  He produced, ultimately, a clear, lucid theology that dealt with the problems of Eutyches and Nestorius while synthesising the teaching of the great western theologians Augustine, Ambrose, and Hilary of Poitiers with a dash of Cyril of Alexandria.  He truly deserves the appellation “the Great”, being one of only two such popes along with Gregory I.

*I was going to make up the word un-kerygmatic, but then I figured that if I’m going to neologise, why not at least make a word people will understand?

**See The Soteriology of Leo the Great, pp. 227-247.