Why did the Word become flesh in 0 A.D.

At a teaching group for our Orthodox Dogmatic Theology we were considering why the Word of God became man. We read together in the writings of St Athanasius that the Word came in the love of God to destroy the power of death, to overcome the works of Satan, to raise mankind to renewed life and to restore the image of God in man. Someone asked the great question, why did the incarnation take place at this particular time?

The Scriptures make it clear that the incarnation is an event in history. It occurs at a particular time and place. The Gospel of St Matthew locates the incarnation in a genealogy, a unique family history. It begins and ends…

The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham: Abraham begot Isaac, Isaac begot Jacob, and Jacob begot Judah and his brothers. Judah begot Perez and Zerah by Tamar, Perez begot Hezron, and Hezron begot Ram….Eliud begot Eleazar, Eleazar begot Matthan, and Matthan begot Jacob. And Jacob begot Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus who is called Christ.

The Gospel of St Luke places it in a unique historical context, when he writes…

And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city…. So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered.

Why did the incarnation take place at this particular time? St Paul speaks of this in his letter to the Galatians 4:1-5, saying…

Now I say that the heir, as long as he is a child, does not differ at all from a slave, though he is master of all, but is under guardians and stewards until the time appointed by the father. Even so we, when we were children, were in bondage under the elements of the world. But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons.

He calls this moment, the fullness of time. And he repeats this same idea in his letter to the Ephesians 1:9-11…

… having made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself, that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth—in Him. 

From the perspective of the Divine will and purpose, this moment in time was the fullness of time. It was just the right time. But what made it so? St John Chrysostom preached in one of his sermons on these passages…

The fullness of the times, however, was when He came. After, He had done everything, by the ministry both of Angels, and of Prophets, and of the Law, and nothing came of it, and it was almost come to this, that man had been made in vain, brought into the world in vain, indeed, rather to his ruin; when all were absolutely perishing, more fearfully than in the flood, He planned this dispensation, that is by grace; so that it might not be in vain, might not be to no purpose that man was created. This he calls “the fulness of the times,” and “wisdom.” And why so? Because at that time when they were on the very point of perishing, then they were rescued.

There is an answer here, though the complete answer is hidden in the wisdom of God. But it was after God had already done everything. After he had sent Angels and Prophets, after he had established the Law. It was after he had already done all that was possible without coming himself. It was at the very point that mankind was running out of possibilities without God. Indeed, it is interesting that at this time in history, all around the Mediterranean, the more thoughtful of people were abandoning their trust in the pagan gods altogether. It seemed impossible to worship super-heroes who lived lives of debauchery, vice and criminality and had nothing virtuous about them. This is one reason, it seems to me, that the Christian message spread so quickly.

Other Fathers, following the thought of St John Chrysostom, suggest that the Angels, Prophets and Law were all required to teach mankind humility, since the sin of Adam was essentially that of pride. It was not until mankind had learned that it was under the power of death and Satan, and that it was impossible for mankind to choose a life of virtue and holiness simply by self-will, that the fullness of times had come. If the incarnation had taken place immediately after the sin of Adam then the Fathers reflect that Adam, still conquered by pride, would not have understood or received the gracious gift of God with that humility and repentance which is necessary.

We can also reflect that many people around the Mediterranean were becoming interested in what we call the Mystery Religions. These were new forms of worship that emphasised a personal relation and experience of the gods. At the same time, among the Jews, groups of men and women were turning to the desert and forming religious communities, and were expecting the Messiah. And even the spread of the Roman Empire across the whole of Europe and North Africa meant that for the first time it was easy for the Christian message to be shared following the Roman network of roads and transport links. It was the Roman Empire which led St Paul to be taken from Jerusalem to Rome, and just some decades later St Ignatius of Antioch followed him. From a religious and political perspective it was the fullness of times.

Of course we cannot know all that is in the will and purpose of God, but we can say that he waited until mankind was ready to receive a Saviour, and he made every opportunity to communicate with mankind in the millennia before the incarnation. And so when he did become incarnate, in the fullness of time, it was as an act of mercy, and because it was the right time, not an arbitrary moment. In the same way, in our own lives, we imagine that God should act immediately, and just as we demand and expect, but for us also, he waits patiently until the right moment, the fullness of time, and then he works out our salvation when it will do us the most good, and bring about the greatest healing and renewal.


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