I consider it both a strange mystery and a settled matter of the faith that God prefers not to do things alone. Repeatedly, He acts in a manner that involves the actions of others when, it would seem, He could have acted alone.
Why would God reveal His Word to the world through the agency of men? Why would He bother to use writing? Why not simply communicate directly with people? Why speak to Moses in a burning bush? Why did the Incarnation involve Mary? Could He not have simply become man, whole, complete, adult, in a single moment?
Such questions could be multiplied ad infinitum. But at every turn, what we know of God involves others as well. We may rightly conclude that such a means of acting pleases Him.
Today is the Feast of the Annunciation when the Church celebrates the Incarnation of Christ at word of the angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary. An Orthodox hymn on the feast says:
The manner of His emptying cannot be known;
the manner of His conception is beyond speech.
An Angel ministers at the miracle; a virginal womb receives the Son;
the Holy Spirit is sent down; the Father on high is well pleased,
and according to their common counsel, a reconciliation is brought to pass
in which and through which we are saved.
“According to their common counsel” is a rich phrase describing this conciliar action of God.
At the same time that this conciliar mode of action seems obvious to Orthodoxy, it is frequently denied or diminished by others. There is a fear in some Christian quarters that were we to admit that God shared His action with any other, our salvation would be a matter of our own works and not the sovereign act of God. It is feared that a conciliar mode of action shares the glory of God with mere mortals.
It is true. This understanding shares the glory of God with mere mortals. But, interestingly, St. Paul says that man is the “image and glory of God” (1 Cor. 11:7). Apparently, we were brought into existence in order to have such a share.
The failure to understand this and the effort to re-invent the Christian story with diminished roles for angels and saints, or Christians themselves, comes very close to setting forth a different gospel altogether.
The Word became flesh of the Virgin Mary. The flesh of the Virgin is also the flesh that is nailed to the Cross (when her soul was itself mysteriously pierced). The flesh which we eat in the Eucharist is also the flesh of the Virgin – for there is no flesh of God that is not the flesh of the Virgin.
And it does no good to protest that the Word merely “took flesh” of the Virgin. For Adam cried out concerning Eve, “This is truly bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” And St. Paul noted concerning the wife of a man that a man should love her, “For no one ever yet hated his own flesh.”
I puzzle at how Christians who understand that it is wrong for a woman to say, “It’s my body and I can do with it what I want,” when she is carrying a child, can at the same time treat the Mother of God as though she had merely lent her womb to God for a period of time.
God’s conciliar action in our salvation is so thoroughly established that it involves our will, our soul, our flesh and bones. This is not only true in the Incarnation, but continues to be true for every saving effort in our lives. We cannot save ourselves, of course, for that, too, would be denying the conciliar action of God.
There is a saying among the fathers, “If anyone falls, he falls alone, but no one can be saved alone.” But I think we cannot even say that we fall alone – for the one who falls is equally bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh. Christ does not distance Himself from the one who falls, but unites Himself with him so completely that He endures the consequence of our fall, entering death and hell to bring us back alive.
The Church is nothing other than the conciliar salvation of God, bone of His bone and flesh of His flesh – His body. We are being saved together whether we will admit it or not. Those who study and quote the Bible are themselves handling documents that were written, copied and preserved by others. It is a conciliar document.
The Orthodox way of life urges us to embrace the fullness of our conciliar being. In sacraments and saints in worship and wonder we live within the cloud of witnesses and share the common struggle.
For this reason let us unite our song with Gabriel’s,
crying aloud to the Virgin:
“Rejoice, O Lady full of grace, the Lord is with you!
From you is our salvation, Christ our God,
Who, by assuming our nature, has led us back to Himself.
Humbly pray to Him for the salvation of our souls!”