Incarnation as Revelation of Humanity

by Jessica Rose

Our Christian belief is that human beings are made in the image of God, but this image has become distorted and opaque through the Fall. The world ceased to exist as God had created it and became subject to sin and death. Part of the work of prayer is cultivating a transparency which allows that image of the divine to be seen. As one therapist described it, “I try to place myself where something can come through.” Such transparency is a rare quality, of which the supreme example is Christ himself: “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” He is himself, as a human being, in the image of God. At the same time, by being man as man was intended to be, he is also true revelation of what a human being is. Yet, being born in time, he does not escape the effects of the Fall.

To understand the significance of this we have to clarify what we mean by the incarnate God. The God-man known in Jesus and described in the Gospels was not a super-charged human being with special powers, nor was he a god taking on the mere appearance of a human being in order to make a point, but was both God and man — not by a mix in certain proportions, but one hundred percent one and one hundred percent the other. Being completely man and completely God he entered into the human condition with all its implications for suffering and moved through it to overcome it.

At the same time, he was not two people, but one person who was both fully human and fully divine. It is still a struggle to hold these ideas together. The development of this understanding was the result of lengthy and often terrible arguments, and not only among theologians. St. Gregory of Nyssa, writing in the fourth century, complained that it was impossible even to buy a loaf of bread without getting involved in arguments about the person of Christ. It was also something that came about through experience, through generations of living with the legacy handed on by those who knew Jesus. This was passed on as story and through traditions of worship centered around the Eucharist and the liturgical year, and not by the simple positing of ideas. Because it takes time, for each individual as well as for the Church itself, to understand what is being said, the God-manhood of Christ is referred to and expounded again and again in the daily worship of the Orthodox Church.

The question arises: If something can only be understood gradually, over time, by living it, how can it be defended on any rationalist grounds? The counseling profession, of course, faces similar difficulties. It is hard there, too, to proceed without an ontological basis — a sense of how one thinks the world is. From the outside, the kind of repetition we find in worship can look like brainwashing. For someone who is trying to deepen their understanding of the faith, however, it is a matter of going on sounding the depths of a revelation which is too complex for the human mind to grasp with any ease. Which of these descriptions is closer to the truth is not something which can be solved by rational argument.

Within the context of the Incarnation, Christ, being both God and man, was totally in harmony with the nature of the Godhead, and at the same time a distinct and recognizable human person, showing the perfection of man in the image of God. For Christians engaged in prayer the implication is twofold. First, prayer should contribute to a growing transparency to the image of Christ in each of us, so that we try to reduce the barriers between God and the created world. In an individual person’s life, such barriers are often the result of a damaging personal history which makes it difficult to experience oneself as loved or valued, and all too often such damage has occurred in the name of religion. In order to provide an experience of acceptance, then, it may be better that the therapist’s religious belief is not explicit. What matters is that a person becomes able to feel love and to use it. What follows from that is between them and God.

At the same time, each person we meet is also an image of Christ, however difficult it may be to see that, so that prayer is not simply a matter of one’s own relationship with God, or self-improvement. It also requires us to relate to Christ in others as a truth which will be revealed at the end of time. In the story of the sheep and the goats, in Matthew’s Gospel, the reality of what has gone on in human relationships is shown to be a relationship to Christ: “In so far as you did this to the least of these my brethren, you did it unto me” (Matthew 25: 40).

When, therefore, I go into the consulting room and complain about my boss, I may find my therapist responding, “You must mean me,” thereby opening up my propensity to be dissatisfied with authority figures. For the Christian, since the human person is made in the image of God, broken relationships between human beings reflect a broken relationship between God and creation. In so far as we are prepared to work for the healing of those relationships we are involved in the task of healing creation itself. Hence the insistence by all early writers on prayer and the monastic life that prayer of itself is not enough. It must go with good practice in relationships, and a sense of reality about the world: not an escape, but a deeper participation.

There is a story of a desert monk who withdrew into solitude because he often became angry with members of his community and this interfered with his prayer. One day, after he had been living alone in a cave for some time, he went to fill his water jug. All went well until he put it down on the ground, when it promptly fell over. This happened three times over, and the third time he was so enraged that he seized the jug and broke it. Realizing solitude was no escape from himself or from the need for God’s help, he returned to his community to continue the struggle with anger among his fellow human beings.

Insofar as therapists and clients are working together towards the healing of damaged relationships, in a Christian understanding they can be said to be contributing to the healing of creation itself.

The Trinity: a model for relationship

At the heart of the Christian understanding of relationship is a second theological strand, God as Trinity: Father, Son and Spirit. This is also something to which most Christians subscribe, but less often think about, because it is very difficult to conceive in one’s mind. Again it is an understanding which developed gradually in the life of the Church, just as it may do in that of an individual Christian. After some kind of consensus had been reached about the full divinity and humanity of the Son, questions arose about the nature of the Spirit. Was the Spirit God in the same sense as Father and Son, or a creation, or some kind of emanation? It is worth noting that the most crucial arguments in favor of the divinity of the Spirit were not philosophical ones about the nature of God, but grew out of the practice of the Church. Since the Church prayed to the Spirit as God, then the Spirit was God.

As with the Incarnation, a paradox is involved. There is one God, not three. Yet God is also Father, Son and Spirit, three distinct persons in relationship to one another. A vital distinction is drawn between God — the Trinity — who is uncreated, and everything else, which is created. In Orthodox theology the three persons are not seen as a hierarchy, with the Father at the top and then the Son and then the Spirit. Nor is the Spirit seen merely as the bond of love uniting Father and Son. The Spirit is a person in just the same way as the Father and Son are persons. The relationship between them is seen as one of perfect balance, as depicted in the well-known icon of the Trinity by Andrei Rublev. This shows the three angels who visited Abraham and prophesied the birth of Isaac (Genesis 18). From earliest Christian times this visit was thought of as a revelation of God and thus a precursor of the Incarnation. In the icon, the three figures are sitting around a table. None of them is dominant, and each is attentive to the others in an attitude of extraordinary peace and harmony; yet there is also a spaciousness about the image into which the observer is drawn.

The attitude between therapist and client can have something of this quality: a vigilance which is also at peace, so that it is possible to be alert to what is going on without needing to act on it. When therapists describe sitting with their clients in silence, refraining from any concrete intervention, this can be thought of as participating in a shared reality. There is the experience of being with another who is able simply to let be without attempting to solve anything or abandoning the other. There is also the sense of something shared, which relates to both people, but belongs to neither of them. This could be said to reflect the love of the three persons of the Trinity, distinct, yet sharing in one essence, in perfect harmony of will.

Jessica Rose is a freelance writer, lecturer, pastoral counselor and associate editor of In Communion. She also directs the Russian choir of the Orthodox parish in Oxford, England. This essay is an extract from her recent book, Sharing Spaces? Prayer and the Counseling Relationship, published by Darton, Longman and Todd, London.