The Fourth Sunday of Advent
I will exalt you, O God, my King (Ps 144:1)
His lightning lights up the world (Ps 77:18)
At the edge of the sky is his departure (Ps 19:7)
He made the Splendor of Righteousness spring forth from the house of David
The Splendor of the Father who was unveiled in our humanity has been seen from the house of David: he reigns over those of the house of Jacob, and there is no end to his authority. An angel announced to Mary; he gave a greeting full of mercies to the Virgin, and announced a hope full of blessings to the holy woman: “Peace be with you, blessed among women, full of hope! Peace be with you, and blessed are you, giver of birth without copulation! For from you will dawn the Lord of height and depth and all within them! To him be glory from every mouth!” O Lord, glorious is the day of your annunciation!
In a certain radical way, everything we say about God is wrong. That is, none of the words we use can encapsulate his Being completely, or even signify something about him with total accuracy. When we say “God is good,” we know it is true, but we also know that it cannot be true in the same way that we normally use the word “good,” because God’s goodness is not only completely beyond any created goodness, but somehow even a goodness of a completely different kind. We also say that “pizza is good.” It is impossible that the same adjective can be used, in the same way, to describe God’s goodness, even if it is made ultra-superlative. It is not accurate to say “God is good in the way that pizza is good, but much much better.” No, God’s goodness is of a totally different order, one connected analogically to our language but utterly beyond it in itself.
This is all quite abstract, but its concrete application becomes very interesting when Christ comes into the picture. Christ is the Word of this same God made flesh. He is the One who is utterly beyond our language and our understanding who is expressed and expresses himself in our humanity. How is this so? How can it be that the Light of God, which is so bright that it would blind us, become visible before our very eyes?
There are necessarily two approaches to this question, both found in the tradition of the Church of the East within her own hymns and prayers. The first may be summarized by this stanza taken from the Basilica Hymn of Christmas Day, one of the handful that is not extant in the Chaldean Breviary:
It was not that the Existence became flesh in the womb, as you suppose, who are deaf to reasoning. It was a dwelling which he chose for himself to hide his radiance, that the mortal race might not perish in seeing him.
This stanza presents us with several problems. First, it contradicts the inspired terminology of Scripture when it denies the validity of saying “became flesh.” Second, it is clearly polemic, addressing those who are “deaf to reasoning,” and it is doubtful that such a tone and address are appropriate in the Church’s public prayer to God.
Still, is there something valid here? Is there some point that is worth making theologically? It was said to Moses that no one may see God and live (Exodus 33:20). Even in the Person of Christ, when he was walking upon the earth, what was seen in seeing him was his humanity, not his Divinity.
The question becomes, therefore, what is the function of Christ’s humanity? Is it, as this stanza suggests, to veil his Divinity, lest we see God’s pure Light and perish? Is the job of Christ’s humanity to hide God? Or is it something else?
The Basilica Hymn for the Fourth Sunday of Advent presents us another picture of the role of Christ’s humanity, which in its nature is identical to our own humanity:
The Splendor of the Father who was unveiled in our humanity has been seen from the house of David: he reigns over those of the house of Jacob, and there is no end to his authority.
In itself and directly, the Light of God is too bright for us to see – which metaphorically means that as a Spirit, God is not of a nature that is visible to physical eyes like ours.
But what if God himself were to make his Light shine in a way that was visible to us? What if there were a medium, a meeting-point between the spectrum of human life and the infinite brightness of God? This is the function of the humanity of Christ.
Christ is the meeting-point, the Medium, in Biblical terms the Mediator, between God and man; he presents each one to the other in their own respective understandings. To God he presents a humanity sinful but forgiven in his Blood and alive in him; to man he shows a God come down to talk to them face to face. Christ is the translator between the language of God and that of man; his humanity takes the One Uncreated Word which expresses the Fullness of God and makes it audible to us as we are accustomed to hearing.
Finally, we need to analyze an abrupt shift in the tone and content of our hymn. There is an immediate turn, without even a word of transition, from speaking of the “Splendor of the Father” and his authority on earth to the event of the annunciation to Mary by the angel:
An angel announced to Mary; he gave a greeting full of mercies to the Virgin, and announced a hope full of blessings to the holy woman: “Peace be with you, blessed among women, full of hope! Peace be with you, and blessed are you, giver of birth without copulation! For from you will dawn the Lord of height and depth and all within them! To him be glory from every mouth!” O Lord, glorious is the day of your annunciation!
Five times in these lines is the root “sbar” used in various ways and translated here as “announced,” “hope,” and “annunciation.”
The hope of the human race’s re-union with God exists in the Person of Christ, who is both God and man. But as the Son of God, he is not the Source of Divinity – that is reserved for the Father; and as the Son of man, the source of his humanity is Mary.