Nativity Encyclical of 2021 Diocese of Western Europe3 min read
“When Augustus became supreme ruler of the earth, the multiplicity of rule among men ceased. And when Thou becamest human from the spotless one, the worship of many heathen gods also ceased. Then the cities came under one worldly rule; and the nations believed in one divine supremacy. The nations were enrolled by an order of Caesar; but we believers were enrolled in the name of Thy Divinity, O our incarnate God. Wherefore, great are Thy mercies, glory to Thee.” (Doxasticon of the Vespers of the Nativity of Christ)
Beloved in Christ our Lord, born in the flesh for our salvation,
In this beautiful doxasticon cited above, the Nun Cassiani (Kassia) (+c. 865) clearly points out to us that God chose a time of great world events to come to us in the very flesh He received from the most worthy human of all ages, the All-holy Theotokos. Again, in our present stressful times, the “nations are enrolled by an order of Caesar” – the one who hath ears to hear, let him hear – but we believers prefer to be “enrolled in the name of the Divinity of our incarnate God.” When the nations now gather together to eliminate the free will of man, we the believers gather together to proclaim that we have given our lives to the One who took on human nature to lead us into another nation – the very Kingdom of God.
God becomes man for the salvation of man; taking on the very nature that He created in His own image and likeness. Among other things, the Holy Fathers see the “image of God” as free will. According to St. John of Damascus, “according to the image of God” reveals to us the noetic power and free will given to man (Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith 2, 12, PG 94, 320). The noetic power is the ability of man to judge and divide things according to what is Godly, and free will is the power of man to either work in agreement with the will of God, or against it. This interpretation is especially found in the works of St. Maximus the Confessor. Even the very salvation of mankind, which is the reason for the Incarnation, is a matter of free will on our part. St. Maximus the Confessor tells us, “The mystery of salvation belongs to those who willfully partake of it since no one can be tyrannized to accept it” (On the Prayer “Our Father”). In this way, man is given the right to voluntarily choose good or bad. And if this was not so, then no one could be justly rewarded or punished for anything, since it is not of our own will that our own good or bad steps are chosen. The enemy of our souls was not able to remove from us the image of God that we were created in, so he simply tarnished this image with the sin of our forefathers. Through Christ’s becoming man, and subsequently, through the mystery of baptism, Christ renews this “image of God” in us. He does not force us to follow Him, but rather He invites, and calls us close to Him (see St. Gregory Palamas, Epistle to the Most-Modest Among Nuns, Xeni). As 1 Corinthians 3:9 tells us, in this way we are “co-workers of God.”
Beloved, today, in many ways, different forces try to remove our free will from us. Not only is what we must do in society restricted (and oftentimes rightfully so) but our very right to make decisions concerning our own selves is being sacrificed to the god of imposed fear. What does St. Maximus the Confessor say about this? In his Comments on the Writings of St. Dionysius the Areopagite (PG 4, 308 A), St. Maximus writes, “Remove free will from us and then we are neither the image of God nor are we logical and noetic souls.”
Dearly precious to Christ, neither a man nor an angel from heaven could have attracted man again through free will back to God. And so was performed “the mystery which has been hidden from ages and from generations, but now has been revealed to His saints” (Colossians 1:26).
“Christ comes to restore the image which He made in the beginning!” (Troparion of the Forefeast of the Nativity of Christ).
Beseeching the Incarnate Christ for our “Image of God,”
+ Philaretos, Bishop of Pallini and Western Europe