By Prof. Lambros Skontzos
The Incarnation of God the Word is not some abstract theoretical form, nor some fable of some imaginative myth writer, but a real event, which took place in a specific area and time (Gal. 4:4). The great feast of the Circumcision of the Lord reminds us of this great truth and stresses in particular the real human nature, which He voluntarily put on for the sake of our salvation.
In the establishment of the celebration of the Circumcision of the Lord by the Church the activity of some heretical circles of the ancient Church undoubtedly contributed. These heretics denied the real incarnation of God the Word and taught the not real incarnation of the God the Word. Such were the heretical Docetists, who taught the false belief that supposedly the incarnation of Christ happened in appearance, “seemingly” as they stressed. They together with the Marcionites, the Manichaeans and other heretics, all forerunners of the heretical Monophysites of the 5th century, tried to falsify the truth of our Church.
Our Church used every means in order to defend the once revealed and handed down truth (Jude 3). She even established feasts to safeguard the most high and saving truths. It is historically certain that the feasts of Christmas, of the Circumcision and of Theophany were established by the necessity of the anti-heretical struggle of our Church and then took on a festive character, as we experience them today.
The circumcision was a practice customary for many peoples of antiquity. Herodotus mentions that the first ones who used circumcision on their male children were the Ethiopians and Egyptians mainly for reasons of health (Herod. Hist. 2: 2, 104). Historically probably the Jews took this custom from the Egyptians. According to the Old Testament however, God Himself established circumcision as His command to the faithful Abraham, as an action of making his descendants different from the other peoples so that through them the plan for the salvation of the world could be materialized. “This covenant, which you shall keep, is between Me and you and between your seed after you unto their generations. Every male among you shall be circumcised. Circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and that shall be the mark of the covenant between you and me. And a child when he is eight days old, shall be circumcised” (Gen. 17:12).
The circumcision of all male infants was done by their fathers or by specialists in circumcision called mohel, on the eighth day from their birth, as God had commanded. It took place in the homes of infants or more often in the synagogues before relatives and friends. The service of the circumcision was for the Jews of that time an event of great importance. The child who was circumcised was now considered a member of the people of God and of Abraham. (Gen. 17:12). The circumcised person was obligated to keep the regulations of the Law and had the exclusive right to celebrate Passover, contrary to the uncircumcised, who did not have this right.
Together with the circumcision, the name giving also took place. The ritual of the circumcision was something like Christian baptism, of which it was a type. Just as the circumcised person became a member of the people of the Covenant, distinguished from the uncircumcised, thus also the baptized person is reborn and becomes a holy, distinct member of the Church of Christ, destined to inherit God’s kingdom (Rom. 6:4).
According to the Evangelist Luke, on the eight day from the birth of the Lord, Joseph and Mary kept the Mosaic commandment of circumcision. In a laconic manner the sacred Evangelist mentions that “the days for the Child to be circumcised were fulfilled, and His name was called Jesus, the name called by the angel before He was conceived in the womb” (Luke 2:21). Saint Ephraim the Syrian informs us that the betrothed Joseph did the circumcision. Also Saint Epiphanios of Cyprus mentions that the circumcision took place in the Cave of the Nativity. Of course the sacred Evangelist is silent about every detail from this service, because obviously it does not have to offer us, according to the Fathers, benefit for our salvation.
Our Church was not interested in the fulfillment in and of itself of this legal regulation from the Lord. She was interested mainly in stressing through His circumcision and to prove His real human nature, which the heretics denied. The divinely inspired Evangelist included in his Gospel the event of the circumcision also so that the Church could reject every Docetistic, Manichaeistic and Monophysitic false belief.
To not accept the Orthodox teaching of our Church concerning the true incarnation of the Son and Word of God, literally removes the foundations of the whole edifice of deliverance brought by the human nature in Christ. If a real incarnation of the Deliverer did not take place, we don’t have real salvation; Christ is not a real Savior but one of the many founders of religions of humanity. This problem intensely concerned the Church in the 5th century, when archimandrite Eutyches from Constantinople rejected Christ’s human nature. For this reason the 4th Ecumenical Synod in Chalcedon was called in 451.
The Son and Word of God is the natural Son of God, an outpouring of His own nature. He was born before the ages of the Father, as the Holy Scripture very clearly assures us. “You are my Son today, I have begotten Thee” (Heb. 1:5), God the Father said through the Psalmist to God the Son. The pre-eternal will of God decided to send the Word to the world as its savior from the corruption of sin and of death. Thus “when the fullness of time came” (Gal. 4:4) the Word, through the Virgin Mary, took on human nature and He cleansed it from the stains of sin, He recreated it and brought it back to the condition before the fall, He made it His own nature, without leaving even for a moment His divine nature. He unconfusedly and harmoniously united the two natures in His theandric person. He became a God-man (Theanthropos). The union of the two natures in the person of the Deliverer means an objective realization of our salvation.
The Incarnation of the Word however is an event of His inconceivable self-humbling. “Being in the form of God...He emptied himself taking on the form of a servant, in the likeness of humans becoming, and being found in the form of a human He humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death, the death of the cross” (Phil. 2:7). If we see the mystery of divine condescension under the prism of God’s immeasurable love for His creature, man, this comprises the greatest scandal of all ages. The ancient Greek axiom “God does not mix with humans”, much more so the humanization of God, comprises rationally the worse foolishness of history. However the goodness and philanthropy of God exceeded all divisions with humanity. He made the great movement and humbled His Son and made Him a human, in order to save the human race. He descended to the human predicament, down to the condition of death even in order to resurrect man from the condition of spiritual deadness and to lift man to the heavens of His throne.
During all the time the incarnated Word was on earth, simultaneously as God He was also in heaven. He was everywhere, as everywhere present, because with the adoption of human nature He did not put off His divine nature. In this double quality of His, as true God and true man, lies also the event of the true Savior. He saves as true God with the fact that He became true man, since He really took on human nature and saved it in His person. Every straying from this truth comprises a heresy for our Church. Nestorianism had denied Christ’s divine nature and Monophystism had denied Christ’s human nature. Both of these dogmatic strayings were condemned by the 3rd and 4th Ecumenical Synods, as a straying from the truth and having very serious soteriological results. The evangelist John stressed in particular that “those who do not confess Jesus Christ coming in the flesh, the same is the deceiver and the antichrist” (2 John 7).
It is worth mentioning two excerpts from the dogmatic definitions of the aforementioned holy Synods, for us to see the theological clarity of our Church on this great truth: “...We therefore confess our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God the only-begotten, perfect God and perfect man, of a rational soul and body ... of one essence with the Father, the same in godhead, and one in essence with us according to humanity. For the union of two natures occurred. Therefore one Christ, one Son, one Lord we confess (3rd Ecumenical Synod, "Exposition of the Faith of the Reconciliations"). And “Therefore following the holy Fathers one and the same we confess the Son our Lord Jesus Christ, and in agreement we all teach Him as perfect in godhead and perfect in humanity, truly God and truly man, the same of a rational soul and body, of one essence with the Father according to the godhead, and of one essence with us the same according to humanity ... one and the same Christ, the Son, the Lord, only begotten, in two natures unconfusedly, unchangeably, undivided, inseparable, we know neither of the differences of the natures taken away through the union, rather the quality of each nature preserved and in one person and one hypostasis going together, not in two persons, apportioned or divided, but one and the same Son, only begotten, God, Word, Lord Jesus Christ...." (Definition of the 4th Ecumenical Synod, by J. Karmiris, The Dogmatic Symbolic Monuments, Athens, 1952, p. 165)
The event of the divine Incarnation must comprise for every believing Christian the basis of his faith. He should not have the slightest doubt that “Our Savior visited us from on high”, to deliver us from the slavery to sin and corruption and death. According to the wonderful hymnology of the feast, “The Savior condescending to the race of humans accepted the garbing of swaddling clothes. He did not abhor the circumcision of the flesh who was eight days old by the Mother and unbegotten by the Father” for our salvation. He made the great movement awaiting from man to make his own small movement, to give Him his hand, for Him to save him, to glorify him and to make him a son and inheritor of His unending kingdom. We need to escape from the noetic bonds of the sinful world and to lift up our mind to the heavens. Only thus will we be benefited from the gifts of divine condescension.