At one of our recent Chapel meetings we discussed some excerpts from Maximus the Confessor about the incarnation of Christ. It led to a brilliant conversation from which this article has been written. Maximus was a theologian of the Eastern Orthodox tradition who lived in the seventh century. I was first introduced to Maximus because he was one of Eriugena’s favourite sources and much of what I love in Eriugena comes first from Maximus.
The usual format for our Chapel meetings is to have 15 min of fellowship, a short reading, 15 min of silence, a longer reading, and then an open discussion. The first reading which we used was this:
“By your generous dispositions, which were born from your heart, you nourish the Word in accordance with right praxis and contemplation – as if from breasts – and you nurse along the Word to growth in the abundance of pious conceptions and modes of life so that, paradoxical as it sounds, his own growth becomes the deification of the very mind that nourishes him.”
The theme of our conversation was this idea that Christ is born in us and that we, like the Mother Mary, are to nurture and support the growth of this divine infant inside us. There is a very common debate in Christian circles which has always been around but which is so central to much of modern Christianity. Are we saved by good works or by faith alone? We don’t have the space here to go into detail about all that, though it is something I explore in one of the virtual retreats which you can find HERE.
In our conversation we tried to break down this false dichotomy. One the one hand, if God does everything and we do nothing then what is the point of spiritual practice or even religion in general? On the other hand, how could we ever accomplish anything without God’s help since God is the source and origin of everything? Surely it’s not all one or the other.
In the passage above Maximus describes the spiritual journey as a kind of motherhood. If Christ is born inside us, then we must nourish him and help him grow. Babies grow in their mothers in a manner beyond what the mother can control or choose. She does not decide the colour of hair, the size, or the gender of the baby. In a certain sense her role in the creation of life is a passive one. Yet, at the same time, she must expend great effort. If she is negligent then the entire process may result in failure. If she drinks alcohol, or does not get enough nutrition then the child is affected. While the process of pregnancy is undoubtedly beyond what the mother can consciously orchestrate, she still has an active and important part to play. Our spiritual journeys are much the same.
The two breasts by which we nourish this growing life, Maximus tells us, are practice and contemplation – or said another way, action and contemplation. The paradox which Maximus mentioned is the fact that while we may nurture this child within us, in the end that which we nurture becomes the means of our deification, or spiritual realization. Maximus explained this more thoroughly in the second reading from our meeting:
“The mother of the Word is the true and unsullied faith. Just as the Word, who, as God, is by nature the creator of His Mother who gave birth to him according to the flesh, and made her His mother out of love for mankind, and accepted to be born from her as man, so too the Word first creates faith within us, and then becomes the son of that faith, from which He embodied through the practice of the virtues. And it is through faith that we accomplish all things, receiving from the word of God the graces necessary for salvation. For without faith, through which the Word is God by nature and a son by grace, we have no boldness of speech to address our petitions to Him…Blessed therefore is the one who through wisdom has actively made God in himself, who has brought to fullness the inception of this mystery, and who passively experiences becoming God by grace, for this experience will never come to an end.”
Maximus is using Jesus’ mother Mary as a metaphor of faith. He makes a startling point which is that Jesus, as God, first had to create the mother who gave him birth as a human being. If we take Mary as the example of faith inside us then we can draw from this realization that faith is first created inside us by God and afterwards the divine is born inside that faith. And so Christ places the light of faith in our hearts and then is born as a little baby inside of it. Once the Christ child is nurtured inside us, eventually he is born to the world through us. We embody the Christ within us by living virtuous lives of humility and compassion.
The faith of Mary is first created by Christ inside us before he humbles himself to be born within it. It is through contemplation that we nourish the fledgling Christ in our hearts until such a time that he is able to incarnate through our virtuous actions in the world. While we do not control the way in which the spirit of Jesus grows inside us, we still play an active part. If we are negligent and indulge in violence or greed then the child is affected. If we bring spiritual food into our souls then the Christ-child becomes strong and healthy.
The experience of nursing the Christ child within us never reaches a conclusion. Christ is constantly being born and incarnating through us. This pregnancy is not one which has a set term which comes to an end in an intense moment of agony and joy but rather one which unfolds slowly over time. Though Christ is born into the world through our actions he remains eternally a child within us who needs to be nurtured through contemplation. Because this child of faith inside us is none other than God, while we nurture it, it nurtures us. We are responsible to give life to that which give us life and this is the mystery of Christmas.
So, dear sisters and brothers, now that we are moving from the Advent season into the Christmas season, rather than waiting for Christ to come, ask yourself how you will nurture the Christ child which has been born inside you. Ask yourself if you are caring for the helpless infant to the best of your ability. Take in some healthy spiritual food and avoid consuming those things which do harm. Allow the living of your life to be an expression of the incarnation of God and remember that Jesus enters the world through you. Be a kind and gentle mother just like Mary.
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