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Bishop Kallistos Ware
Orthodox Church

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  • Part II: Faith and Worship
    • God and man
      • Jesus Christ
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Jesus Christ

The Incarnation is an act of God’s philanthropia, of His lovingkindness towards mankind.

Many eastern writers, looking at the Incarnation from this point of view, have argued that even if

man had never fallen, God in His love for humanity would still have become man: the Incarnation

must be seen as part of the eternal purpose of God, and not simply as an answer to the fall.

Such was the view of Maximus the Confessor and of Isaac the Syrian; such has also been the

view of certain western writers, most notably Duns Scotus (1265-1308).

But because man fell, the Incarnation is not only an act of love but an act of salvation. Jesus

Christ, by uniting man and God in His own person, reopened for man the path to union with

God. In His own person Christ showed what the truelikeness of God’ is, and through His redeeming

and victorious sacrifice He set that likeness once again within man’s reach. Christ, the

Second Adam, came to earth and reversed the effects of the first Adam’s disobedience.

The essential elements in the Orthodox doctrine of Christ have already been outlined in

Chapter 2:true God and true man, one person in two natures, without separation and without confusion:

a single person, but endowed with two wills and two energies.

True God and true man; as Bishop Theophan the Recluse put it: ‘Behind the veil of Christ’s

flesh, Christians behold the Triune God.’ These words bring us face to face with what is perhaps

the most striking feature in the Orthodox approach to the Incarnate Christ: an overwhelming

sense of His divine glory. There are two moments in Christ’s life when this divine glory was

made especially manifest: the Transfiguration, when on Mount Thabor the uncreated light of His

Godhead shone visibly through the garments of His flesh; and the Resurrection, when the tomb

burst open under the pressure of divine life, and Christ returned triumphant from the dead. In Orthodox

worship and spirituality tremendous emphasis is placed on both these events. In the Byzantine

calendar the Transfiguration is reckoned as one of the Twelve Great Feasts, and enjoys a

far greater prominence in the Church’s year than it possesses in the west; and we have already

seen the central place which the uncreated light of Thabor holds in the Orthodox doctrine of

mystical prayer. As for the Resurrection, its spirit fills the whole life of the Orthodox Church:

Through all the vicissitudes of her history the Greek Church has been enabled to preserve something

of the very spirit of the first age of Christianity. Her liturgy still enshrines that element of

sheer joy in the Resurrection of the Lord that we find in so many of the early Christian writings

(P. Hammond, The Waters of Marah, p. 20).


The theme of the Resurrection of Christ binds together all theological concepts and realities

in eastern Christianity and unites them in a harmonious whole (O. Rousseau, ‘Incarnation et anthropologie

en orient et en occident,’ in Irénikon, vol. 26 (1953), p. 373).

Yet it would be wrong to think of Orthodoxy simply as the cult of Christ’s divine glory, of

His Transfiguration and Resurrection, and nothing more. However great their devotion to the divine

glory of Our Lord, Orthodox do not overlook His humanity. Consider for example the Orthodox

love of the Holy Land: nothing could exceed the vivid reverence of Russian peasants for

the exact places where the Incarnate Christ lived as a man, where as a man He ate, taught, suffered,

and died. Nor does the sense of Resurrection joy lead Orthodoxy to minimize the importance

of the Cross. Representations of the Crucifixion are no less prominent in Orthodox than in

non-Orthodox churches, while the veneration of the Cross is more developed in Byzantine than

in Latin worship.

One must therefore reject as misleading the common assertion that the east concentrates on

the Risen Christ, the west on Christ Crucified. If we are going to draw a contrast, it would be

more exact to say that east and west think of the Crucifixion in slightly different ways. The Orthodox

attitude to the Crucifixion is best seen in the hymns sung on Good Friday, such as the following:

He who clothes himself with light as with a garment,

Stood naked at the judgement.

On his cheek he received blows

From the hands which he had formed.

The lawless multitude nailed to the Cross

The Lord of glory.

The Orthodox Church on Good Friday thinks not simply of Christ’s human pain and suffering by

itself, but rather of the contrast between His outward humiliation and His inward glory. Orthodox

see not just the suffering humanity of Christ, but a suffering God:

Today is hanged upon the tree

He who hanged the earth in the midst of the waters.

A crown of thorns crowns him

Who is the king of the angels.

He is wrapped about with the purple of mockery

Who wraps the heaven in clouds.

Behind the veil of Christ’s bleeding and broken flesh, Orthodox still discern the Triune God.

Even Golgotha is a theophany; even on Good Friday the Church sounds a note of Resurrection


We worship thy Passion, O Christ:

Show us also thy glorious Resurrection!

I magnify thy sufferings,

I praise thy burial and thy Resurrection.

Shouting, Lord, glory to thee!


The Crucifixion is not separated from the Resurrection, for both are but a single action. Calvary

is seen always in the light of the empty tomb; the Cross is an emblem of victory. When Orthodox

think of Christ Crucified, they think not only of His suffering and desolation; they think of Him

as Christ the Victor, Christ the King, reigning in triumph from the Tree: The Lord came into the

world and dwelt among men, that he might destroy the tyranny of the Devil and set men free. On

the Tree he triumphed over the powers which opposed him, when the sun was darkened and the

earth was shaken, when the graves were opened and the bodies of the saints arose. By death he

destroyed death, and brought to nought him who had the power of death (From the First Exorcism

before Holy Baptism). Christ is our victorious king, not in spite of the Crucifixion, but because of it:

‘I call Him king, because I see Him crucified’ (John Chrysostom, Second Sermon on the Cross and the

Robber, 3 (P.G. 49, 413).

Such is the spirit in which Orthodox Christians regard Christ’s death upon the Cross. Between

this approach to the Crucifixion and that of the medieval and post-medieval west, there are

of course many points of contact; yet in the western approach there are also certain things which

make Orthodox feel uneasy. The west, so it seems to them, tends to think of the Crucifixion in

isolation, separating it too sharply from the Resurrection. As a result the vision of Christ as a suffering

God is in practice replaced by the picture of Christ’s suffering humanity: the western worshipper,

when he meditates upon the Cross, is encouraged all too often to feel a morbid sympathy

with the Man of Sorrows, rather than to adore the victorious and triumphant king. Orthodox feel

thoroughly at home in the language of the great Latin hymn by Venantius Fortunatus (530-609),

Pange lingua, which hails the Cross as an emblem of victory:

Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle,

Sing the ending of the fray;

Now above the Cross, our trophy,

Sound the loud triumphal lay:

Tell how Christ, the world’s redeemer,

As a victim won the day.

They feel equally at home in that other hymn by Fortunatus, Vexilla regis:

Fulfilled is all that David told

In true prophetic song of old:

Among the nations God, said he,

Hath reigned and triumphed from the Tree.

But Orthodox feel less happy about compositions of the later Middle Ages such as Stabat Mater:

For his people’s sins, in anguish,

There she saw the victim languish,

Bleed in torments, bleed and die:

Saw the Lord’s anointed taken;

Saw her Child in death forsaken;

Heard his last expiring cry.

It is significant that Stabat Mater, in the course of its sixty lines, makes not a single reference to

the Resurrection.


Where Orthodoxy sees chiefly Christ the Victor, the late medieval and post-medieval west

sees chiefly Christ the Victim. While Orthodoxy interprets the Crucifixion primarily as an act of

triumphant victory over the powers of evil, the west particularly since the time of Anselm of

Canterbury (?1033-1109) — has tended rather to think of the Cross in penal and juridical terms,

as an act of satisfaction or substitution designed to propitiate the wrath of an angry Father.

Yet these contrasts must not be pressed too far. Eastern writers, as well as western, have applied

juridical and penal language to the Crucifixion; western writers, as well as eastern, have

never ceased to think of Good Friday as a moment of victory. In the west during recent years

there has been a revival of the Patristic idea of Christus Victor, alike in theology, in spirituality,

and in art; and Orthodox are naturally very happy that this should be so.

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