Understanding the Incarnation

img_0408Of words that have been important in my life in Christ I cannot omit “incarnation.” Of course, the word refers to the doctrine of God become man, the Word made flesh. I wrote previously about the importance of reading St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation and its impact on my life as an Orthodox Christian.

Of course, Orthodox Christianity does not have a patent on the word “incarnation.” It is a favorite as well among other groups of Christians. When I studied under Stanley Hauerwas at Duke University, he noted that the word “incarnation” was particularly beloved by some. I was interested in what he had to say.

“Some people should be forbidden to use the word ‘incarnation’,” he said in his usual teasing manner. “They have an understanding of the incarnation that says: “The Word became flesh. And then, looking around, He said, ‘Hey this isn’t so bad!’”

His humor was an indictment of the misuse of the doctrine – a case where the doctrine of the incarnation was simply another way of saying “things aren’t so bad around here, isn’t life great!” Of course, if you are a wealthy Christian and enjoy good health, you might take that view on creation. His comic comment points to how the word incarnation is frequently misunderstood and misused.

That God became flesh (matter) and dwelt among us, does not suddenly confer an inherent blessing on all matter. The world into which the Word was born, was and still is a fallen world. What is immediately changed and restored is the matter which the Word became. It is indeed the same matter which we all share – but this matter is also united to the Second Person of the Trinity and is thus restored into its proper communion with God. Thus at the Last Supper, Christ can say to His disciples, “Take, eat. This is my body which is given for you for the forgiveness of sins.” This matter, now the bearer of the very life of God, becomes for believers the source of true life.  “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you have no life in you.”

The key to this proper understanding of the incarnation is incarnation as communion or participation. The Word does not become flesh in order to confer an inherent legitimacy on the material world. The Word becomes flesh to restore communion between creation and God. It is in this communion of Uncreated and created that God says of the world, “It is good.” As Christ Himself would later note, “There is none good but God.” Thus nothing is good in itself, but only as it exists in communion with the only Good.

A true  incarnational theology is thus not a theology that speaks about the material order that has an inherent goodness. This is simply a modernist attempt to convey Divine blessing on the world conceived in the secular model [secularism is not the belief that there is no God, but that the world is self-existent, God remaining at some defined distance]. In the name of such a secularized goodness, everything thing that exists becomes “blessed.” Thus the world, without reference to God, becomes good in itself, and our various cultural arrangements doubtless blessed as well.

In such a misunderstanding the Incarnation is simply an act of Divine Affirmation – a saving event only in the sense that it proclaims “good will towards humanity” (sic).

True incarnational theology is rooted in the Biblical understanding of koinonia, participation or communion. God has become one with us, that we might become one with Him. Or in the famous words of the early fathers, “God became man so that man could become god.” I prefer to state this in the terms: “God took our life upon Himself, that we might become partakers of His Divine Life.” All that we do in our life in Christ is done with an eye to our communion with Him. Thus even the alms we do, we are told, “You did it unto Me.”

This proper incarnational theology, rooted in koinonia and all that it means, is also the source of the Church’s understanding of what it means to be Church. We pray with and even to the saints simply because we are in communion with them. Their life and our life is a common life. How can we pray and ignore our common life?

By the same token, our salvation is a common salvation, never a private matter. There is no such thing as a private salvation. The Fathers say, “No man is saved alone. If we are lost we are lost alone. But none of us is saved alone.”

Incarnation is the Divine Solidarity, to use a phrase of St. Athanasius. God has united Himself to us that we might be united with Him. The true Christian life is the life that is lived increasingly in union with the God/man, Jesus Christ. His incarnation makes possible our deification. One without the other is a departure from the faith.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.






22 responses to “Understanding the Incarnation”

  1. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman


  2. Deb Seeger Avatar

    oh you stir so many things and I am so overwhelmed. Yes, there is a fine line between ask and ye shall receive and lay down your life, take up your cross and follow me. I know you were speaking more about spiritual things but many DO believe that the righteous will have no want or need. The longer I walk with Christ the more difficult it becomes, not in making the right choice so to speak but all the things I have been taught and accepted as truth get tested. Though we all know that without faith it is impossible to please Him and the testing of our faith is more precious than gold (money). So when you say salvation is not an alone thing is true, yet ,we must work out our salvation with fear and trembling and this is done alone in our prayer closet. Often that working out is alone, not shared by others.

  3. Robert Avatar


    Even the closet prayer is made with communion in God and the Saints; and this communion is made possible by the Incarnation.

  4. david peri Avatar

    This may be the real reason why most christian fellowships seem to lack a real fellowship when they may not be in communion/fellowship with their LORD.

  5. selena Avatar

    This is one of the most important subjects for me at the moment. Still not in the Orthodox Church yet (waiting and hoping), I feel more and more that I have no life in me because I have not received the Eucharist. If any protestant friends really pushed me to answer, I would have to say that no, neither they nor I have the Life in us because we have not partaken of the Eucharist. But they would find that offensive, and also they would wonder, what’s the difference? Are these Orthodox Christians really more “full of life” than us? Where’s the tangible outcome?

  6. Mrs. Mutton Avatar
    Mrs. Mutton

    My priest talks all the time about the importance of receiving the Body and Blood of Christ. Your post explains perfectly what he means.

  7. Meskerem Eshetu Avatar
    Meskerem Eshetu

    Thankyou again for pointing an important part of the Doctrine of Incarnation and Communion “God became man so that man could become GOD.” I prefer to state this in the terms: “God took our life upon Himself, that we might become partakers of His Divine Life.”

    This takes us to the main reason of why GOD created us; so we can become like HIM.

    This is why it is so important we need to prepare ourselves by Confessing and Fasting before we take the body and blood. That is why we need to go clean. Eventhough we are humans and we fall over and over and sin, we need to confess before we present ourselves to commune with the LORD.

  8. fatherstephen Avatar

    Fasting and confession are traditional preparations for communion in Orthodoxy, though there is a variety of practice with how confession, in particular, is required. Nevertheless, preparation for communion through repentance (when rightly understood) is essential.

  9. Aitor de la Morena Avatar

    Very good post, father Stephen.

  10. PastorS Avatar

    That’s a good way to talk about the Eucharist. I hope you don’t mind if I borrow it. (I’m a Lutheran pastor – just thought I’d introduce myself!)

  11. fatherstephen Avatar

    I’m just working from the Fathers – they belong to all of us.

  12. The Byzantine Rambler Avatar
    The Byzantine Rambler

    Quick note to say I tagged you with an award. 🙂

    The Superior Scribbler Award

  13. Ormonde Plater Avatar
    Ormonde Plater

    You mention St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation. Which of the other patristic writings would you recommend, or is there a booklist online of essential writings of the Fathers?

  14. Karen C Avatar
    Karen C

    Dear Father, bless! I will be interested in your response to Selena’s question about not partaking of the Orthodox Eucharist being equivalent to not having Christ’s life because she is a Protestant. Would it not be true to say that anyone who is genuinely receptive to Christ through the working of the Holy Spirit (Who is not bound by the norms of the Church, though we are) may be nourished by His life, although we cannot say exactly how? Also, don’t the Desert Fathers speak of prayer (which is ultimately available to all) as the most fundamental or essential means of Communion with Christ (though, doubtless, they wouldn’t divorce personal prayer from that offered in the Liturgy of the Church, which includes the Eucharist)? I say this as Protestant turned Orthodox, knowing there is both continuity as well as discontinuity in my experience of Christ then and now, but not knowing how to verbalize that exactly. I would say that, as a Christian, not Orthodox, I had no idea where my next spiritual glass or sip of the water of Christ’s life was going to come from exactly, except that He found various ways to reach me and expand my experience of and understanding of Him (Bible study, prayer, the testimony of other believers, as well as deeply personal inner processes and experiences were all part of that). In the Orthodox Church, I experience having come to the Wellspring of His Life, and I never have to wonder where to get my next drink. It’s always available to me in the Church, through prayer and sacrament alike and especially in the cycle of its corporate Liturgy. I would also say that now even when I pray in my “prayer closet,” I don’t experience that as being alone, but in the company of Christ, the Saints and Holy Angels, ever present with me. But beyond this, I am an ignorant woman! Help us out here, Father.

  15. fatherstephen Avatar

    I think you put it well, recognizing a certain ambiguity, but recognizing that God is a good God and extends Himself to us all. Her hunger is a proper hunger for God in the fullness of the Church – be she need not be without Him now.

  16. Barbara Avatar

    The idea of none of us being saved alone is probably one of the biggest paradigm shifts I have had to make as a new orthodox convert. As a protestant it was always just me and Jesus…my decision for Christ…His plan for my life… Being baptized was a personal confession of my faith in Christ… Having communion was a time of personal reflection and remembrance… Going to church was for my personal edification…

    I wish I could find the words to express of the fullness of what it really means “to share the life of Christ” through the Eucharist and other sacraments. Since before Christmas, our church has not been able to meet in its church building due to extreme weather conditions. The weather also prevented many from coming to the alternative place for liturgy. Although I missed the beauty and familiarity of our building, I missed all of those that share the chalice with me more. I have only known this community for 1 1/2 years, and I am amazed at the incredible bond formed through the liturgy we do together. I so appreciate that the liturgy itself models the exchange of life in its form/structure.

    I would also appreciate Fr. Stephen’s response to Selena and hearing more about what it means to be saved together and lost alone. I think I understand the saved together part, but I also feel like I have contributed to the “lostness” of others. Lord, have mercy.

  17. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    A short true story that I think is a telling metaphor for the necessity of community for salvation:

    I wore a new suit to Divine Liturgy the other day. After Liturgy, a friend noticed that the split in the rear of the jacket was still sewn together. She got a knife from her husband and cut the thread, thus allowing the suit to be more as it was tailored.

    From the Scriptures, the story of the paralytic whose sins were forgiven by Jesus because of the faith of his friends who tore the roof off the house were Jesus was so that their friend could get to Jesus.

    We are all paralyzed at times, we all have bindings of which we are unaware that distort and truncate who we are.

  18. Mary Avatar

    I too have been amazed at the reality of being a family in Christ, in my Orthodox parish. I’ve never experienced this anywhere else, even though I’ve always been very involved in every church I’ve been a member of. And I had recently been thinking about this very deep bond we seem to have and concluded that it must be the Eucharist – there is no other explanation.

  19. fatherstephen Avatar

    This aspect of our life – which is often revealed in its depths in the lives of the saints – is only gradually revealed in prayer, in the Eucharist and the life in Christ. I think it is too often tragically hidden in the cultural milieu of individualism (see the next article). The struggle to love, to forgive, to live in such a way that your life is my life, is the life in Christ in its most visible manifestation.

    The character Markel (in the Bros. Karam.) says, “I am guilty before everyone for everything.” And it is in this and the forgiveness that he seeks that he knows paradise.

  20. Ben McKelahan Avatar

    Not coming from the Orthdox tradition myself, what I’m really curious about is what is the star shaped object in the picture?

  21. fatherstephen Avatar

    The picture is of the floor of the cave in Bethlehem where Christ was born. There is a marble floor (as you can see) with a silver star inlaid. The star surrounds a hole in the marble, where pilgrims an reach through and touch the actual rock that is traditionally the place where Christ was born. There is a similar arrangement at Golgotha where Christ was crucified.

  22. Ben McKelahan Avatar

    Fascinating! Thanks!

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