Feast of the Martyr Juliana of Nicomedia
ST ANSELM famously asked, “Why did God become man?” [Cur Deus Homo]. After much wandering and weaving through a scholastic web of cause and effect, necessity and the freedom of God, the two natures of Christ, and a reflection upon the atonement, Anselm makes the following observation:
Now we have found the compassion of God which appeared lost to you when we were considering God’s holiness and man’s sin. (Bk 2; ch. 20)
Fascinating! As long as the subject was the state of man or even God in His holiness, there was no way to hear of God’s love.
Though the love of God is, as Anselm says, by no means inconsistent with His holiness, there’s no way to perceive His love by way of His holiness—at least not directly, and particularly not while yet in our sin. His holiness is too bright, too powerful, too all-encompassing, and too weighty. It destroys sin and sinner alike. “Who can stand in Your presence?” the Psalmist asks (Ps 76:7); and the Lord asks the same of Job: “Who then is he who can stand before me?” (Job 41:10).
Access to the Lord in His holiness was cut off with the fall; and Cherubim stood guard with flaming swords (Gen 3:24). Nevertheless, the Lord continuously provided the means by which His people might gain access to His presence and share in His holiness. The book of Leviticus might be best described as a manual for such access. Through the sacrifices offered in the manner prescribed, Israel was, again, to attain access to their God and to participate in His holiness: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev 19:2). More promise than command, this holiness of the people derives exclusively from access to their Lord and His holiness. And yet, such access is given only by His word and command.
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To consider Anselm once again, in light of this Levitical access to God’s holiness, it’s no wonder that Anselm’s work on the Incarnation is intimately tied to the atonement rendered at the cross of Christ. For Anselm, whatever you think of his theory, or model of the atonement, everything hinges on the temple curtain being torn in two and the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, being offered once and for all for the forgiveness of sin. What separated us from the holiness of God—our sinful condition—has, in Christ’s death and resurrection, been removed. As our Lord says in John’s Gospel,
No one has ascended into heaven except He who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life. For God loved the world in this way, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him. (Jn 3:13-17)
So, why did God become man—that is, why Christmas? That the world might be saved through Him—that’s why. But to pull it back just a bit further: why save the world? Why give access to sinners such as us to a holiness such as His? Why tear down the barrier of sin? Why disarm the Cherubim? Why rend the heavens and come down, or split the temple curtain in two?
Again, we hear in John 3: “For God loved the world…” It’s this love that’s so startling. It struck me particularly as we sang this Paul Gerhardt hymn in Church the first Sunday in Advent. Stanza four reads:
Love caused Your incarnation;
Love brought You down to me.
Your thirst for my salvation
Procured my liberty.
Oh, love beyond all telling,
That led You to embrace
In love, all love excelling,
Our lost and fallen race.
~ Paul Gerhardt, “O Lord, How Shall I Meet You,” Lutheran Service Book 334:4
Our only access to God comes from His self-giving love to us. Our “lost and fallen race” has no right or ability to stand in His presence or share in His holiness apart from the love that brings Him down to us. That’s Christmas: not us to Him, but Him to us. And the center of it all is love, “love beyond all telling.”
While it took Anselm many well-reasoned arguments to get to this love, he eventually did. And while the Israelites participated in this holiness through the sacrificial system according to the Levitical code, they did so with a much anticipated and long-awaited hope for a sign of this love in the coming of Christ from the Blessed Virgin. As members of the Church of God, and united to Christ through the means by which He has given us access to His holiness, we too are to rejoice in His love for us. And as we participate in His holiness, and share in His life, let us, too, love one another.
Fr. Geoff Boyle serves as Pastor of Grace Lutheran and Trinity Lutheran congregations in Wichita, KS. He loves gathering around the Advent wreath, singing hymns with his wife and five children as they, together, prepare for the coming Christ child, and His all excelling love for us.
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