The sun lingers longer in the evenings, and the succulent on my windowsill has several small clusters of buds pressed against the glass like a rosy-cheeked child at a bakery window. As 12/31/16 changes to 01/01/17, Nature, and her boarders, ache for renewal. This evening, we’ll make New Year’s resolutions, some sheepish, some bold. We’ll blunder our way through Auld Lang Syne. But if we’re only uncorking the bubbles tonight, we’ve come late to the celebration of newness that the birth of Christ brings about.
Most Christians associate newness with the celebration of Easter, the feast of Jesus’s resurrection from the dead, but renewal is also an important theme at Christmastime. When God took on a human nature as a baby in Mary’s womb, humanity changed. It was now associated with divinity in a new way – not from without, but from within – because Jesus Christ possesses both full humanity and full divinity. Like an iron that has been stuck into fire, and glows red as it takes on the heat of the flames, humanity changes when it comes into contact with divinity (we looked at this a little in our last post, Who’s In the Manger?).
Maximus the Confessor (580 – 662 AD) appreciated the renewal that the Incarnation brought about, and this theme occurs in many of his works. He picks up a phrase from his predecessor, Gregory Nazianzen (329 – 390 AD) who describes the Incarnation thus: “The natures are innovated, and God becomes man.” The Greek word here for innovated is “καινοτομοῦνται.” Καινόν is an adjective meaning “new,” and so this could also be translated “refreshed” or “renewed.” So, when God takes on human nature, he renews it. Some New Year’s Resolution.
What does this renewal of human nature in Christ look like, exactly? In short, miracles. If Christ possesses two natures, then he possesses all the properties of a divine nature and a human nature in his one self, Jesus. He does astounding things with his divine nature that are revealed through his human nature. Quoting another predecessor, Dionysius, Maximus writes that Christ “did the things of man in a manner beyond man.” Humans walk, but Christ walked on water. Humans spit in the dirt, but Christ’s spittle heals a blind man. Even Christ’s birth is a mystery of newness, for humans are born, but Christ was born of a virgin. And while humans die, Christ died, then rose.
If you’re still into this, here are two very important things to note about Maximus’s position.
First, Christ’s renewing of humanity doesn’t mean he scraps his original project and starts over. God’s original project is good. God doesn’t destroy humanity to remake it; there is no Phoenix Effect. A renewal of nature is not a change of what the nature is, but a change in how that nature is lived out. Maximus calls this a change in the level of τρόπος, or mode. If you’ve ever heard a variation on a familiar song and thought, “Hey, that’s a really neat take on an old melody, and I like it,” you understand what Maximus means.
Second, Christ’s miraculous activity is wondrous in its own right, but perhaps even more wonderful, according to Maximus (and me), is that Christ accomplished this all for our sake (1). The Incarnation isn’t meant simply to impress us, but to renew us. While people can’t take on a divine nature like Christ took on a human nature, they can participate in the same wondrous life that Christ inaugurated. This is the life of grace, a life in which people willingly open themselves up to the love of God and act accordingly. Our life takes a Christological shape; and the mode of our human nature is transformed. It’s like a mini-Incarnation (2).
This means our actions, too, can be wonderful (3). Perhaps we cannot cure a sick person, but we can visit and comfort them. Perhaps we cannot turn water into wine, but we can make sure the thirsty receive water, and we can revel in the beauty of life (wine or no wine). Perhaps our feet will not tread over water, but they may tread over the turbulent waters of jealousy and gossip. And perhaps, though we suffer many things, we can offer them to Christ, who came for us, to make all things new.
(1) Think for a moment of the part of the Creed where we speak about the Incarnation. The sentence begins, “For us men and for our salvation, he came down from heaven.”
(2) Maximus writes that “The Word of God always and in all things longs to accomplish the mystery of his embodiment.”
(3) Maximus thought this too, and he wrote fondly of how Gregory Nazianzen and Dionysius wrote wonderfully because of their intimacy with Christ. In his Ambigua to Thomas, he writes that Christ “became the soul of their souls, manifest to all through all their deeds, words, and thoughts, by which one is persuaded that the passages cited hereinafter were authored, not by them, but by Christ, who by grace has exchanged places with them.”