Christmas Christology: An Interview with Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos
This interview with his Eminence Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos and Agiou Vlasiou was published in the journal „Καθ’ οδόν” by the Community Youth of the Sacred Metropolis of Limassol, and as the reader will see, the questions cover a large part of the Christology of Christmas.
Question: The word Χριστούγεννα (Greek word for „Christmas”) means the birth of Christ. We would like you to tell us what was the purpose of the birth of Christ and generally why did the Word of God have to incarnate. Couldn’t there have been another way for the salvation of the human race?
Answer: As it is written throughout our biblical-patristic tradition, the purpose of the Incarnation of the Word of God is the theosis of humanity, which means that He who according to His nature is God became man, that we may become gods according to Grace. In one of his discourses, Athanasius the Great analyzes that God sent the Prophets in the Old Testament to speak to His people, but ultimately the issue was how man will be deified and how he will be released from death. The law could not save, but it prepared the people to accept Christ, which is why it was our „pedagogue in Christ” (Gal. 3:24). Christ by His incarnation united to His Person the divine and human nature, that it may be the „medicine” for our theosis, and He received an extremely pure yet mortal and sufferable body that He may suffer and conquer death. For example, when a drug is discovered the possibility is given to each person to use it for their healing. This is what took place with the incarnation of Christ, who offered the „medicine of immortality”, according to Saint Ignatius the God-bearer.
Question: What does history reveal about the events of the birth of Christ (the time, the place, the circumstances, the persecution, etc.)?
Answer: Two points are shown in the event of the birth of Christ. The first is the love of God towards man, His great philanthropy, that He is, as Saint Maximus the Confessor says, both eros and the object of eros, and as eros He moves towards man and as the object of eros He attracts to Himself those receptive to His eros. The second is the tragedy of fallen man, who did not understand the benevolence of God and created many problems for Him. This is also a contemporary reality. And today there is a struggle between the philanthropy of God and the apostasy of fallen tragic man. It is a terrible thing for man to refuse and resist the love of Christ, which is offered in many ways.
Question: Why was Christ born of the Virgin Mary and why did He come from the Jewish race and not by another woman?
Answer: Christ was „the expectation of the nations” (Gen. 49:10), since all nations were expecting a redeemer, a savior. We see this also in ancient Greece, such as the trilogy of Aeschylus (Prometheus Bound, Prometheus Unbound,Prometheus the Fire-Bringer) and Socrates, as well as among the eastern peoples. But the Prophets prepared the Jewish nation better for the coming of the Messiah. The Virgin Mary became His mother, because, according to Saint Gregory Palamas, before the Annunciation she reached theosis according to Grace within the Holy of Holies. However, the incarnate Christ called all nations to His Church, He became the Savior of all humanity, and His work was universal.
Question: Christ was born in time. The second Person of the Holy Trinity was born. Why didn’t the Father or the Holy Spirit incarnate?
Answer: By His birth Christ entered history and time, and in this way He sanctified history and time. The incarnation of the second Person of the Holy Trinity took place, according to Saint John of Damascus, for two reasons. The first is because the Son and Word of God was the prototype of the creation of man, that is, man was created in the image of the Word and for this reason it is through the Word that our regeneration should take place. The second reason is that the Word was born before all ages by the Father according to His divinity, and He also had to be born in time according to His humanity, that this property (of birth) may not change and remain still. Thus, the Son of God became the Son of man.
However, the incarnation of the Word of God is a work of the entire Triune God, since the Father willed it, the Son was incarnated and the Holy Spirit participated in the incarnation. And we through Christ in the Holy Spirit know the Father. Everything is triadic.
Question: We hear the phrase „He was foretold by the Prophets”. Regarding this historical event of the Nativity, what was prophesied and by whom?
Answer: The Nativity of Christ was foretold by the Prophets in a clear way. The Prophet Isaiah, who is called the loudest voice of the Prophets (St. John Chrysostom) and the fifth Evangelist (St. Jerome), foresaw the birth of Christ by the Virgin. The Prophet Micah foresaw the place of the Nativity, in Bethlehem. The Prophet Jeremiah foresaw the slaughter of the infants. The Prophet Hosea foresaw the flight of Christ into Egypt. The Prophet David foresaw the adoration of the Magi. Everything was prophesied in the Old Testament.
Question: What does the hymn that was chanted by the Angels at the time of the birth mean: „Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth peace to men of good pleasure”? What „peace” (ειρήνη) did the Angels mean here, and what does the word „good pleasure” (ευδοκία) mean?
Answer: The peace of which the angels sang at the birth of Christ is the union of the divine and human nature in the Person of Christ. Christ assumed human nature in His Person and deified it, by which all of human nature was brought peace from the consequences of the fall, and in this way every person was given the opportunity to participate in this peace, by living within the Church, with her sacramental and ascetic life. The Church is the „place” in which man experiences the love and peace of God.
The word good pleasure, according to Saint Nikodemos the Hagiorite, who used various patristic texts, such as Saint Maximus the Confessor, Saint John of Damascus and Saint Gregory Palamas, means that the reception of human nature by Christ was the original/prior will of God for the deification of humanity (according to the will of His good pleasure). The deification of man could not take place if there was not a hypostatic union of the divine and human natures, the uncreated and the created natures. However, the law through Moses, the words of the Prophets, etc. were imperfect (according to the will of concession) due to the fall, but were perfected through the incarnation of Christ. This is the difference between the will „according to good pleasure” (κατ’ ευδοκίαν) and „according to concession” (κατά παραχώρησιν). The incarnation of Christ was the original plan of God, His good pleasure. What was introduced after the fall of Adam, was the Cross and death.
Question: Many things are heard about the star of Bethlehem and the Magi. How did the Fathers of the Church interpret them?
Answer: Astronomers try to give various explanations for the appearance of the star. However, the star cannot be interpreted through scientific explanations, particularly if one observes that it moved from east to west, from north to south, that it was concealed and it appeared again, that it leads the Magi, that it comes low and shows the location of Christ. This is why the Fathers of the Church say that the star was a bright Angel, even the Archangel Gabriel, who led the Magi, and worked out the incarnation of Christ. Saint John Chrysostom says that it was not a star but „some invisible power transformed into this appearance”. This patristic interpretation is shown in various icons where the star is depicted as an Angel.
Question: The incarnation of Christ is called an emptiness (κένωσις) and a condescension (συγκατάβασις). What do these terms mean?
Answer: The term „emptiness” was determined by the Apostle Paul, when he writes of Christ: „Who, being in the form of God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to His own advantage; rather, He emptied Himself by taking the form of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled himself by becoming obedient to death — even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:6-8). According to Saint John Chrysostom, the term „emptied” does not mean a change, a migration or an extinction of the divine nature, but that Christ, as God, remained what He was: „Being made flesh He remained God, in that He was the Word.”
Emptiness is associated with the word „condescension”, because Christ assumed human nature without eliminating His divine nature, the glory of divinity, which is why He condescended to humanity, without losing His glory. In the Akathist Hymn we chant: „For it was God’s condescension, and not a change of place.” Here lies the greatness of God’s love, since as Saint John of Damascus says: „He humbled without humiliation His lofty station which yet could not be humbled.” In this manner it is indicated to us to live our own emptiness as an expression of love for God and man.
Thus, God’s descent to earth means the reception of mortality and a sufferable body, and the ascension of Christ to heaven means the release of the body from corruptibility and mortality.
Question: „Christ is eternally born” and „Christ is born in us”. What is your view?
Answer: Christ, according to Saint Maximus the Confessor, was born once in the flesh, but He is always born spiritually in those who are united with Him. The birth of Christ within us, which is experienced as our regeneration, takes place through the sacramental life of the Church, especially through Holy Communion, when we commune with the prerequisites of prayer, repentance and the hesychastic life, which is called the neptic tradition of the Church. This is why Saint John Chrysostom speaks of the „eternal Christmas”, the „eternal Pentecost”.
When one reads the works of Saint Symeon the New Theologian, they understand what it is for Christ to be born within us. A person must feel within themselves Christ „stirring in the womb”, like a pregnant woman feels the stirrings of an embryo within her. Our union with Christ does not take place in an abstract way, but existentially and spiritually, and it is experienced psychosomatically. One feels within themselves repentance, love for God and man, the sense of eternal life, the transformation of the passions, unceasing prayer and finally, if God allows, man can see God in His uncreated Light. The birth of God should cause our personal spiritual regeneration. If we do not experience this, it is as if Christ was not born for us. And it is a terrible thing to celebrate the Nativity of Christ, without feeling our own regeneration. It is as if we are celebrating the birth of an infant that is absent.