Entries with tag incarnation .

I’m Only Human

As a society, we fluctuate between extremes in how we see humankind and its potential. On the one hand, we love self-help books, we want to fix ourselves and to fulfill our individual dreams. On the other hand, we look at man as just another animal filled with its own sets of instincts and innate desires that need to be met. If we follow these to their natural conclusions, we’re led either to the temptation of pride or to despair. It’s this negative vision of humanity that causes us to say that exasperated expression, “I’m only human!”

 

Saint Irenaeus famously wrote, Gloria Dei est vivens homo, "The glory of God is man fully alive," or,  "the glory of God is a living man." He went on to say that "the life of a man is the vision of God.” So there must be something more to being human than society assumes. There must be something more profound in our human experience, if it’s through being human that we encounter and know the Living God.

 

What are we actually saying when we refer to ourselves as only human? After all, what we say matters, and our words about God and mankind reveal what we believe about ourselves and God. Here are three reasons Orthodox Christians probably shouldn’t say we’re “only human.”

 

1. It denies the work of Christ

 

If we refer to ourselves as “only human,” what does that say about our belief in the work of Jesus Christ? It gets to something deeper: why Jesus even came in the first place. Father Thomas Hopko, of blessed memory, has a beautiful reflection on Jesus Christ as a man that’s really worth listening to (along with any and all of his podcasts!).

 

Something truly remarkable happened 2000 years ago. God - in all of His glory and power - became human. He entered into our experience, He took on our humanity and lifted it up, lifted us up into a relationship with Him. And in case we forget this mystery, we confess our belief “in one Lord Jesus Christ...Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became man.” And on Pascha we hear the words from the Gospel of John, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God...and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:1, 14). That God became human is key to our understanding of ourselves and God.

 

"Though He was in the form of God, [Jesus] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men." (Philippians 2:6-7). God did all of this, He tells us, so that we "may have life and have it abundantly" (John 10:10). When we have put on Christ (Galatians 3:27) in baptism, when we have been grafted into Christ (John 15: 1; Romans 11:17), when we “become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1) by receiving Christ in Eucharist, we have this abundant life.

 

Jesus didn’t become human so that we could be “only human”; He became human so that we could be more truly human.

 

2. We lose hope

 

Usually when someone says that they’re “only human,” they’re making a statement of defeat. Somehow there’s no reason to keep on, no reason to grow further, because this state we’re in is inescapable. We might think it’s pointless to fight against our temptations or pointless to surrender and let God work in our lives because each time we try, we fail.

 

But St. Paul tells us to “be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58). To internalize a vision of ourselves as only human, we lose hope in the work that God is doing in our lives. So St. Paul reminds us again:

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)

The life of a Christian is a life of hope and expectation. Imperfect though we may be, God can and does work in our lives. We have reason to hope.

 

3. We make excuses

 

As soon as we accept being “only human,” we’re not only losing hope and denying the work of Jesus, but also making an excuse not to move forward. We become like the paralytic who waits for years at the pool but is never healed. To him and to us Jesus asks, “Do you want to be healed?” We identify with the sick man who answers Him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me” (John 5:6-7). The sick man’s paralysis and our humanity are not the issue; that’s not what keeps us back. Our excuses help us to avoid answering Jesus’ question, “Do you want to be healed?”

 

So we make excuses and keep ourselves from prayer or from being the hands and feet of Christ in our communities because we’re just one person or because we’re only human. We forget the words of St. Paul when he urges us to “not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:9-10).

 

Each one of us has limitations; that’s true. But we have to give ourselves an honest evaluation of our motives and the excuses we make. God became man so that we could be raised up into a relationship with Him. He wouldn’t have done that work without also giving us the strength to carry the weight of that responsibility.

 

*****

 

We worship a God who intimately knows the experience of being human. After Christ, our being human is no longer a barrier to an encounter with the Living God. Jesus Christ revealed to us the fullness of what it means to be human and makes that goal of unity with Him possible.

 

How we speak about ourselves as being human reveals what we believe about being human. It can reveal our need to reflect on the work of Christ and His human experience. And while saying, “I’m only human,” can lead us to despair, we have reason to hope. And though we might just want to make excuses, Scripture calls us to move forward with the strength of Jesus Christ - our God Who became human.

 

How does reflecting on the humanity of Christ inspire you to live a Christian life today? What excuses are you making that keep you from moving forward in your walk with Christ?

 

 

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Sam is the Pastoral Assistant at Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Virginia Beach, Virginia. He grew up in Powhatan, Virginia and studied International Affairs and Spanish at James Madison University. Sam received his MDiv from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in 2013. He loves food, languages, genealogy, and good coffee.

Photo Credit: depositphotos

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The Incarnation and Interstellar

The start of the month of December this week reminded me that it’s time to sync my spiritual and mental clocks, so that I’m consciously focused on and preparing for the miracle that we remember on December 25th: the Incarnation, an event which, for every Orthodox Christian, constitutes the promise of salvation.

It may seem self-evident that we are keeping our hearts and minds trained on the approaching Christmas celebration throughout these next few weeks.  After all, as Orthodox Christians, we acknowledge the miracle and the Divine Mystery of the Incarnation each and every time that we speak the Nicene Creed, whose precise formulation is our statement of faith that, “…Who for us men and our salvation, He came down from Heaven and was Incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became man.”  Likewise, the prayers and hymns of the Church, as well as the breathtaking beauty and gentleness of the icon of the Theotokos and the Christ child, remind us to take notice of the joyful promise of the young Mary’s exclamation about our Incarnate God: “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior…henceforth all generations shall call me blessed (Luke 1:46-47.) Similarly, Scripture tells us, “For God so loved the world, that he gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life (John 3:16), a message that communicates the direct connection between the event of the Incarnation and the hope of the Resurrection—a connection that liberates each of us from “the law of sin and death (Romans 8:2) and that suggests the possibility for the restoration of the wholeness of humankind and all the created order. 

In addition to the roadmap designed through the wisdom of the Apostles, the Church Fathers, and the Holy Mothers of Orthodoxy (the wonderful term popularized by the late Eva Catafygiotu Topping), by which the Incarnation links the Annunciation to the Resurrection, Orthodox Christians in America are inundated with ubiquitous reminders of the approaching Nativity, offered up by secular society in these United States.  Whether it’s the sounds of Bing Crosby or Perry Como or Alvin and the Chipmunks singing Christmas carols on most radio stations, or the month-long cable t.v. offerings of Christmas classics like Little Drummer BoyA Christmas StoryThe Nativity Story, and Elf, or the deluge of paper circulars and e-mails that advertise everything from Christmas fruitcake to Christmas destination vacations, Christmas, the event of the Incarnation, is being branded into our collective psyche, for 25 consecutive days.

But let’s be honest with ourselves.  Are we actually alert enough, conscious enough, reflective enough, to recognize that the motif of the Incarnation runs throughout our Orthodox prayers, hymns, iconography, and Liturgical life?  Answers to this question inevitably require that we engage in self-critique, that we take stock of our level of spiritual literacy, our commitment to spiritual training and education.  Whatever measuring stick that I might use, I cannot pretend to be satisfied with either the consistency or the sophistication of my contemplation of the Incarnation.  And, really, do we actually believe that the commercialization and secularization of Christmas in our society will help us to focus on the Incarnation?  My own sense is that the glorious celebration of the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, is under continual assault, degraded by a political correctness which aims to stifle the kindness of heartfelt wishes of “Merry Christmas” with family, friends, and strangers, and perverted by the pathological shopping frenzy, the bread and circus, that begins with “Black Friday” and stretches up to the eve of Christmas.   

Admittedly, I was not contemplating the Incarnation when my husband and I settled comfortably into the Lazy Boy-style recliners that have been installed as ergonomically-correct, luxurious seats in the refurbished, suburban Cineplex near our house, to watch Interstellar.  This newly-released, science fiction film centers on the journey of an intrepid team of NASA research scientists braving cross-galaxy space travel through a wormhole, in order to determine which of three possible planets might be hospitable for mankind facing its own destruction in the face of the implosion of the Earth’s ecosystem. The movie boasts an Oscar-caliber cast (Michael Cain, Jessica Chastain, Anne Hathaway, and Matthew McConaughey) and a decorated team of directors and cinematographers known for their vanguard visual-effects work on other futuristic films.  All these factors, coupled with the reality that we were viewing Interstellar because our first choice—Jon Stewart’s directorial debut film, Rosewater, which depicts the true-life story of a British-Iranian journalist imprisoned and tortured while covering the summer 2009 elections in Iran—had been crowded out of the cinema by zillion showings of the latest installment of The Hunger Games serial, meant that we were surprised, intrigued, and provoked, by the ethical and moral questions that we encountered in Interstellar.

Because I have no expertise in writing movie reviews, and because that’s not the point of this blog post, I’ll refrain from any detailed critique Interstellar and, instead, will leave the assignment of tomatoes or stars to your individual preference, in the event that you see the movie.  In fact, I would encourage you to view Interstellar, simply because it’s an absorbing, if unusual, opportunity to think about and ponder on the Incarnation, catalyzed by two-plus-hours of a visually-stimulating and morally-sobering, narrative.

Here are some of the big themes and memes treated by the film:

1.     Faith and science may be (ir)reconcilable.  The wormhole is the main device for exploring the faith-science conundrum, since the scientists admit that there is no scientific explanation for the mysterious origin and location of the wormhole without which mankind’s hope for salvation would be impossible.  Did a “higher being” incarnate the wormhole?  Science’s nod to God also comes through in the importance of NASA’s previous “Lazarus Missions,” which have transmitted data from three (is the number a coincidence?), possibly salvific, planets.  Furthermore, the 10-year-old girl who eventually emerges, as an adult woman (Chastain, as Murphy) as the hero of the movie demonstrates an incorruptible faith in the deliberate and good intentions of “higher beings,” which she initially thinks is a “ghost,” that she believes is sending the indecipherable intelligence coding to her bedroom walls and floor. But the faith-science stand-off is, ultimately, unresolved in the movie.  For example, does Murphy hold the key to salvation because of her faith in and love for her father (McConaughey, as Cooper) or because of her faith in the rationality and empiricism of science?  And what of Murphy’s recalcitrant brother, Tom (Casey Affleck), who would rather die, and let his family perish, than trust in the scientific and medical assessments of his sister and her colleague?

2.     Salvation occurs relationally.  Interstellar leaves no doubt about the inextricable connection between the sustainability/destruction of planet Earth and the survival/eradication of mankind.  The NASA explorer team understands the risks of their search for the Lazarus Mission results as a responsibility towards all humanity, and at different junctures in the film, Dr. Amelia Brand (Hathaway), Cooper, and Romilly (Wes Bentley) step up to sacrifice their lives in order to sustain the mission and to keep alive the possibility for all of humanity’s salvation.  Even the artificial intelligence characters in the film, two robots named TARS and CASE, are willing to sacrifice themselves on behalf of the whole, hinting that they have absorbed their human programmers’ messages that there is no salvation alone.  Dr. Mann (played by Matt Damon, in one of his few film roles as a villain) brilliantly illustrates the message of the rupture in communion that is the Fall.  His Ego has driven him to evil, since he tries to murder Cooper as the first step to corralling the NASA spacecraft, the Endurance, back to Earth—a move that would have terminated prematurely the exploratory mission and, therefore, would have ended the possibility for humanity’s survival.  The character of Mann (man) was defined by his disregard for the collective consequences of his individual actions, a message that was played out in the revelation that Amelia’s father (Michael Caine’s Dr. Brand) knew all along that the only hope for human survival lay in Plan B—a harvested bank of fertilized human embryos that would be activated on the new planet, once all of Earth’s created order had been destroyed.  Dr. Brand confessed that his great ruse, whereby he had convinced NASA to build a colossal space station to take Earth’s remaining humans to another planet identified by Lazarus and Team Cooper-Amelia-Romilly, had been based on this straightforward assessment that people needed to be deceived into working cooperatively towards mankind’s (not necessarily their own) salvation.

3.     Love is the sine qua non for salvation and is the Incarnation.  The meme of unconditional love, which is the essence of the Incarnation, is echoed throughout the film—from the mysterious “They” who might have created the wormhole, with no intention other than compassion for humanity’s continuation, to Dr. Brand’s desperate plea (a scientific soliloquy on love) for The Endurance to go directly to the planet where her lover has been marooned.  However, it’s the evolution of the character of Murphy which offers the film’s most interesting, if sometimes convoluted, treatment of incarnate love.  In her growth from childhood to adulthood, Murphy moves beyond her disappointment and rejection of her father for his decision to leave their family to pilot the NASA vessel, to remember and to listen and to be alert to the quantum physics data that Cooper ultimately transmits back to her about the fifth dimension that holds the promise for humanity’s deliverance from death on Earth.  Murphy moves beyond her dejection and repudiation of her father, to forgive and to trust in his choice, thereby returning to him (as the prodigal), reconciling with him, and loving him unconditionally for the choices that he made. 

It might seem a stretch to go from an event as miraculous and incomprehensible as the Incarnation to the pedestrian platform of a sci-fi flick that, at times, is preposterous and pretentious.  I think that the stretch is worth the effort: simply put, if a movie helps me to contemplate, focus on, pray about, and give endless thanks for the miracle of Christ’s birth, then that movie is more than worth the price of admission.

Dr. Elizabeth H. Prodromou is Visiting Associate Professor of Conflict Resolution at The Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy at Tufts University, and Affiliate Scholar at Harvard University's Center for European Studies, where she Co-Chairs the Eastern Mediterranean and Europe Study Group.

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