At Christmas we celebrate the advent of our Lord, the mystery of Incarnation of the Son of God. For those of us with a theological bent, it raises a question that theologians have asked for centuries: if not for sin, would the Son have become incarnate anyways? Or, is the Incarnation the central act of salvation or the Passion? Christ’s birth or Christ’s death? Which is logically prior? Obviously they’re both important, but the way you answer this question has implications for other doctrines down the line and there are good arguments on both sides.
Catholic giant Hans Urs Von Balthasar addressed this question in one of the most fascinating atonement theologies of the 20th century, his Mysterium Paschale: The Mystery of Easter, a meditation on the Triduum Mortis, the three days of Christ’s atonement: Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Resurrection Sunday. Honestly, even though I’m not sure I can go for his controversial theology of Holy Saturday, brilliant though it is, most Evangelicals could stand to read his section on Good Friday–it’s worth the price of the book alone.
Before getting to the treatment of the three days, Balthasar argues that the Incarnation is clearly ordered to the Passion and that most attempts to reconcile the two trains of thought are misguided. Yet, the same time, if we look deeply into the Scriptures, the tradition, and the deeper theological logic, we will see that:
…to focus the Incarnation on the Passion enables both theories to reach a point where the mind is flooded by the same perfect thought: in serving, in washing the feet of his creatures, God reveals himself even in that which is most intimately divine in him, and manifests his supreme glory. (pg. 11)
East and West
Balthasar’s biblical arguments and later theological elucidation are both fascinating and convincing. The section that was most eye-opening for me in reading it a few years ago, was his section on the testimony of the tradition, both East and West on this subject matter.
Typically we are told that in the Orthodox East, a greater emphasis was laid on the Incarnation and that the Passion is accidental within the scheme, while the Latin West has placed a greater emphasis on the death on the Cross and so subordinates the Incarnation. Balthasar argues that this is a mischaracterization for “There can surely be no theological assertion in which East and West are so united as the statement that the Incarnation happened for the sake of man’s redemption on the Cross.” (pg. 20) Since this is somewhat uncontroversial of the West, specifically of the East he highlights that in their main theory, “the assuming of an individual taken from humanity as a whole…affects and sanctifies the latter in its totality, except in relation with the entire economy of the divine redemptive work. To ‘take on manhood’ means in fact to assume its concrete destiny with all that entails—suffering, death, hell—in solidarity with every human being.” (ibid.)
He then goes on to substantiate his claim with more citations from the Fathers than I have space to quote here; a number of them in Latin and Greek. I will reproduce only a few:
The Logos, who in himself could not die, accepted a body capable of death, so as to sacrifice it as his own for all.
The passionless Logos bore a body in himself…so as to take upon himself what is ours and offer it in sacrifice…so that the whole man might obtain salvation.
Gregory of Nyssa—
If one examines this mystery, one will prefer to say, not that his death was a consequence of his birth, but that the birth was undertaken so that he could die.
To be considered as like ourselves, he took upon him pain; he wanted to hunger, thirst, sleep; not to refuse suffering; to be obedient unto death; to rise again in a visible manner. In all this, he offered his humanity as the first-fruits.
In (all) the rest, the set of the Father’s will already shows itself the virgin, the birth, a body; and after that, a Cross, death, the underworld—our salvation.
The mystery of the Incarnation of the Word contains, as in a synthesis, the interpretation of all the enigmas and figures of Scripture, as well as the meaning of all material and spiritual creatures. But whoever knows the mystery of the Cross and the burial, that person knows the real reasons, logoi, for all these realities. Whoever lastly, penetrates the hidden power of the Resurrection, discovers the final end for which God created everything from the beginning.
Again, I have left out various citations by figures such as Irenaeus, Tertullian, Ambrose, Gregory Nazianzen, Cyril of Alexandria, Leo the Great, Augustine, and others (pp. 20-22). Still, as Balthasar notes, “These texts show…that the Incarnation is ordered to the Cross as its goal. They make a clean sweep of that widely disseminated myth” that the Greek Fathers, against the Latins, are focused on the Incarnation to the exclusion of the Cross. (pg. 22)
The Crib leads to the Cross
As interesting of a conclusion as this is for the history of theology, “more profoundly” says Balthasar, “the texts offered here also demonstrate that he who says Incarnation, also says Cross.” (pg. 22) Of course this should come as no surprise. In all these texts the Fathers were only repeating the apostles, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:4-5), and our Lord himself who said, “And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour.” (John 12:27)
As we look to the Crib, we must see the Cross in the background—both holding our Savior in his weakness and humility—the peaceful beginning pointing the agonizing end suffered for our sakes; the cries from the cradle foreshadowing the cries from the Cross. This Christmas, as we gather around to celebrate the mystery of Incarnation, we cannot forget the Passion.
Soli Deo Gloria