The Incarnation and Humility
This treatise by Holy Hieromartyr Hilarion (Troitsky) (1886–1929) on the incarnation of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ was published in the early twentieth century, when European scholars (particularly in Germany) were blatantly re-writing Christian history and theology. Their light-minded efforts have resounded to our day, reiterating themselves in modern articles, books, and films, rendering St. Hilarion’s treatise ever relevant as well.
With modern religious society’s cooling toward God’s Church, there are not likely to be many people who feel in full measure how the Church celebrates the remembrance of “The Incarnation of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ”. There is perhaps only one attribute that has not yet been forgotten—the irmos, “Christ is born, give ye glory…” is sung in Church more than a month before the feast [of the Nativity] itself. After all, the Church dedicates whole weeks to preparation for the feast. In parish churches the advent of the great feast is not very noticeable, because the Church typicon has lost there all its charm, its profound theology; there the feast comes on almost immediately. I will not even talk about the fact that in the life of the laity, the feast’s approach is felt only in an increase of domestic hustle-bustle. The original element of Church life can only be caught these days in the monasteries, most notably in the lavras (especially the Kiev-Caves Lavra), where not a single canon or a single stichera is skipped. These hymns are given full voice beneath the monastic church domes and fill all present with their content. Hearing them, the Faithfull’s consciousness breaks away from the earth; not for one day or for a few hours, as in the parish churches—no, it breaks away from the earth long before the feast and remains in the heights of spiritual upliftment, spiritual rapture, for nearly an entire week. Only the Bright Resurrection of Christ is celebrated more radiantly. But in a certain sense, the Nativity services even exceed the Paschal services; and if they do not exceed them, then they at any rate bear an absolutely special character. The Paschal service is one triumphant, joyful, exultant hymn by the Church to the Risen Lord. The Nativity service has a special element of theology. Throughout the cycle of the Church’s service books, you will not find more abundant dogmatic content than in the services for the Nativity. Here, in short but powerful expressions is contained the fundamental idea of Christianity—the renewal of corrupt human nature by the incarnation of the Son of God.
For example, there is the incomparable irmos of the canon read during Compline on the day of the forefeast—unknown, unfortunately, to parish churches:
“Marvel not this day, O Mother, seeing the Infant, Who was born of the Father before the world: Who has come manifestly to raise and glorify fallen human nature, with faith and love magnifying Thee.”
As in these brief words, so throughout the entire Nativity service is revealed the fundamental idea of Christianity, from which must proceed all Christian theology. In the scholastic theology taught in our church schools, this great idea of the incarnation for the restoration of fallen human nature is not given its due place; but in the theology of the greatest fathers and teachers of the Church, this very idea lay at the foundation of everything. Look, for example, at the homily of St. Athanasius the Great “On the Incarnation of God the Word and on His Coming to Us in the Flesh.” The ancient Church lived by this idea more intensely than the Church of our times. It fought for this idea and suffered for it, striking down those who betrayed it with fearsome anathemas.
But in the modern religious awareness, this idea departs from its royal place, and at times this fundamental idea of true religious awareness disappears altogether. Are there many who could now say together with St. Basil the Great, “I cannot worship creatures, because I myself have the commandment to become a god!” Denial of the incarnation, denial of the Lord Jesus Christ’s divine dignity is unthinkable to a member of the Church, and any denier of it has of course already thereby apostatized from the Church. Who is the liar if not he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? He is antichrist who denies the Father and the Son (cf. 1 Jn. 2:22). These words of the first theologian, who reclined upon the breast of the incarnate Son of God, need to be repeated as often as possible in our day, when people talk so much about the Gospels, about Christ’s teachings, but do not want to know in Him the incarnate Only-Begotten Son of God. They talk about Christ as a great man, a great teacher, and think that this is quite sufficient. The rest in not important. You can be a Christian without all the rest. Let them all know the words of the son of Thunder, that any denial of the incarnation makes a person antichrist, the greatest liar.
Listening to the modern religious pulse beat, you involuntarily notice that in this sense, antichrist reigns in religious consciousness. Lately large waves of scientific ideas have rushed upon the rock that lies in the foundation of the Church. In the area of New Testament studies, especially many new—or renewed—ideas are appearing lately from comparative study of religion. New, monumental discoveries are broadening our knowledge of the ancient East, and people have started to discuss the Gospels in the light of this knowledge. Once, the magi came from the East to worship the Infant God-Man, and brought their treasures of gold, frankincense and myrrh. From the same countries that produced the magi, now different wise men are coming to Europe. Entire scientific expeditions, supplied by governments and private individuals, are carrying away their loot in huge treasure boxes. There are no gold, frankincense, or myrrh in these treasure boxes, but rather entire blocks of stone, or broken pieces of stone with mysterious inscriptions. Scholars in Europe will read these mysterious inscriptions and will not worship the newborn Infant. The star of the East leads science away from Bethlehem. Comparative studies of eastern religions end in nothing other than the very denial of the incarnation of the Son of God.
At Caesarea Philippi, Christ asked His disciples Whom do men say that I the Son of man am? They said, Some say that thou art John the Baptist: some, Elias; and others, Jeremias, or one of the prophets. He said to them, But whom say ye that I am? And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God. (Mt. 16:13–16). The question was put about the dignity of the Messiah, the Savior of the world. In the disciple’s reply through the lips of Peter was given the entire Christology of the Church. The Savior of the world is the incarnate Only-Begotten Son of God. This Christology was new. Flesh and blood of the Jewish religious consciousness could not reveal the truth of the incarnation. But who do you, representatives of modern comparative religion, say that Jesus Christ is? Oh, anything but the incarnate Son of God. He is Buddha, He is Marduk, Attis, Adonis, He is Mithra, god of the magi, He is one of the eastern gods, He is whoever you like, other than the Son of the Living God. In new works, where comparative study of religion is applied to the evaluation of Christ and Christianity, a section can always be found under the title of “Pre-Christian Jesus”. Christianity could also have arisen without Christ; it was sufficient to collect, mix, and clean up the eastern myths, in which Jesus was already given in His main characteristics. It is not Christ who created Christianity, but Christianity which created Christ. So here you have the mythological theories of (Joseph) Smith, (Arthur) Drews, (Johannes) Jensen, who so daringly acclaimed the “Monist’s Union” all across Germany. They try to prove—no more no less—that Jesus Christ was never on the earth. Jesus is only the personification of an eastern myth. Take Arthur Drews’s two volumes entitled, The Myth of Christ. They spawned an entire swarm of brochures entitled, Did Jesus really live? Drews’s book was translated into Russian also, but it was confiscated only a month and a half ago. The liberal press wept crocodile tears over “the persecution of science”. They say there was nothing dangerous in them, only pure science. Yes, pure science agitating against Christianity; science created by dilettantes, as “His Theological Excellency” of German science called them—Adolf von Harnack, who himself made such noise only recently with his liberal lectures on “the essence of Christianity”.
The religious consciousness of the ancient Church was outraged by Arianism, which after all did not deny the incarnation. Well now something worse than Arianism has appeared—it denies even the reality of Christ’s earthly life, and in an Orthodox country the newspapers are lamenting, “Why did they confiscate A. Drews’s book, The Myth of Christ! But the religious consciousness of Protestantism, spawning from its bowels a new child worthy of its progenitor, barely shudders: even pastors come to the defense of the mythological theory. Society is more disturbed over it than the “hierarchy”. For instance, this is what an observer of the public dispute between pastors and monists wrote about the question of the historical existence of Jesus Christ: “At the tribune where the question of the historical existence of the Savior was being debated, all was calm: the monists and pastors amicably whispered amongst themselves, ate sandwiches, drank beer…” (Priest N. N. Sakharov, Theological Herald, , 3:777 [Russian]).
Well, could a similar scene have been thinkable during the time of the First Ecumenical Council, when St. Athanasius the Great rebuked the impious Arians? There was a feat of the soul, its struggle for life—for he who has the Son of God has life, and he who does not have the Son of God, does not have life (1 Jn. 5:12). But here… Here we have no more than an academic debate, with beer and sandwiches taken by a sated and self-satisfied bourgeoisie.
Why is there such a relationship to the incarnation of the Son of God? It seems that the roots of this relationship are deeply seated in the moral self-awareness of modern man. This self-awareness is mainly proud. And what does it mean to believe in the incarnation? It means, first of all, merely to confess that earlier, human nature was very good. It came that way from the hands of the Creator. Human freedom brought sin, the breakdown of man’s nature, and “a civil war began in human nature,” as one holy father writes. By abusing his freedom, man so corrupted his nature that he could only exclaim, “I am an accursed, wretched man!” I cannot save myself. We need a new creation, we need an inpouring of new, grace-filled strength. This is what all mankind should say in order to believe in the incarnation of the Son of God. Such a humble awareness, such a humble confession of our weakness, our guilt before the work of God’s hands—is this in the spirit of modern man? But the modern consciousness is penetrated with the idea of evolution, the idea of progress; that is, with the very ideas that can feed human pride.
Christianity requires a humble awareness. My forefather, Adam, was perfect, but I, mankind, introduced only sin and corruption. The Church calls us to humility when it calls Adam our ancestor. But evolution? Descent from the ape? No matter how modestly we rate ourselves, it is impossible not to think with a certain pride: “After all, I am not an ape; after all, progress is manifest in me.” Thus, by calling the ape our ancestor, evolution feeds human pride. If we compare ourselves to the ape we can be proud of our progress, but if we think of sinless Adam, outward progress losses its value. The progress is external, but it is also a sophisticated sin. If mankind is steadily progressing forward, then we can hope in ourselves. We create ourselves. But the Church says the opposite: “We could not become incorrupt and immortal had not the Incorrupt and Immortal One first become the same as we are.” Believing in the incarnation means confessing that without God, all of mankind is nothing.
Throughout the ages, the Church carries the ideal of deification. This ideal is very high, but it demands very much from man. It is unthinkable without the incarnation; it demands first of all that man be humble. Mankind is renouncing this high ideal, and has no need of the incarnation of the Son of God. An infinitely depreciated ideal of life allows man to talk of progress, and gives him the opportunity to be proud of his accomplishments. These two series of ideas make up two different worldviews: that of the Church, and that which is not of the Church. The worldview that is not of the Church—descent from the ape, progress, having no need of and denying the incarnation—is pride. Accepting the incarnation is inseparably bound with humility. Pride wars with the incarnation, as with something unneeded.
Taking part in the triumphant Church celebration of the Nativity of Christ, we should shout aloud:
Be humble, proud man, and believe in the incarnation of the Only Begotten Son of God!
From Hieromartyr Hilarion (Troitsky), Works in Three Volumes (Moscow: Sretensky Monastery, 2004), 3:294.
New Hieromartyr Hilarion (Troitsky), Archbishop of Verey