In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: "Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!" And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: "Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!"
Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: "Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for."
And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" Then I said, "Here am I! Send me." (ESV)
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A Burning Coal
Thursday of Pentecost 9
14 August 2014
When Cyril of Alexandria (c. 376-444) takes up cudgels against Nestorius of Antioch (c. 386-450) in the debates about the two natures in Christ and their relationship, he is at pains to make clear that the communion or union of the two natures in Christ is such that after the incarnation there is a single united, subsisting person, who is Christ; Son of God and Son of man. Only a truly united person is able to effect the salvation of all sinners. If Christ the God is not united with Christ the man, then his divine acts would be of no value to humanity. If the two natures are not integrated into a single person, then their unique acts would have no relationship to the other nature. Then the human nature of Christ would be not significantly different from our own, if it would not be properly united with the divine nature in the personal union. If the unity of the natures is only tangential, temporary, and merely external, it calls into question our salvation. For we too may well be united with the divine by way of piety or experience. Such ways of experiencing God are truly tangential, temporary, and external. If Christ's divinity is merely related to His humanity in the way common to other human experiences of the divine, then His incarnation becomes unnecessary, or at best exemplary.
A great deal of modern preaching, of course, tends in this direction. But such Christologically-suspect ways of preaching leaves people gripped by the uncertainty and anxiety that are characteristic of fallen humanity. Fallen humans must fall back on their own resources, for which Christ is only the best example of resourcefulness. A Christologically-incomplete doctrine of the person of Christ will leave the Christian gripped by the monster of uncertainty and deprive him or her of the sweet consolation of the gospel of the Lord who gives Himself fully for our sakes into a true union of two natures in one undivided person.
Nor does this incarnation and becoming represent a change in His divine nature, but His every act and becoming is a becoming over against us, according to our need, and in our place. Nestorius was attempting to rescue Christ from being sullied by a true union of the divine with the human nature of Christ. And much heresy has been invented driven by the desire to save God from Himself and His radical love for the world and self-offering in the person of Christ. If we could keep Christ from being sullied by our fallen human nature, we might well be able to save God, but not ourselves. It is not God who needs saving. It is us. And he must do it, or it won't get done.
The article of justification and the person of Christ are certainly inseparable. Church communities that have an inadequate Christ will have an incomplete salvation. Those who have an inadequate salvation will also have an incomplete Christ. So Christology is not merely arguments about dusty ancient theology. Christology has a real-world theological impact on what we believe, teach and confess about God, man, and our salvation. The deep mystery of the incarnation; that God and man are united like fire and wood in charcoal, also comes to burn our lips at the feast of Christ's Supper. The burning coal of His body burns our tongues and lips, purifying them for the proclamation of the unity of his person and His salvation for all sinners.
Cyril of Alexandria
"It is obvious that the Only-begotten, being God by nature, has been made man, not merely by an external or temporary connection, as Nestorius says, but by a true union that is indescribable and beyond our understanding. Thus Christ is conceived of as one and only, and everything said fits Him and everything will be said of one person. For after the union the incarnate nature of the Word Himself is now conceived of as one. Perhaps this could be compared to the case with us, for man is really one, although compounded of unlike things; body and soul.
"It is necessary now to make clear that we say that the body united to God the Word is ensouled with a reasonable soul. It will be beneficial to add also that the Word who comes from God is the flesh in regard to its proper nature and is different than the essence of the nature of the Word itself. Even though the things may be conceived of as diverse and divided by diversity of nature, yet Christ is conceived of as one out of both, the Godhead and manhood having come together in true union.
"The God inspired Scripture confirms this to us by ten thousand words and acts: using similes, so that we may behold the mystery of Christ. The blessed prophet said therefore, 'One of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: "Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for"' (Is 6:6-7). After considering the depth of this vision using our power, we say that no other than our Lord Jesus Christ is the spiritual coal laid on the altar by which the sweet savor of incense is given to God the Father, 'for through him we both have access' (Eph 2:18) and are acceptable to offer spiritual worship. This divine coal, therefore, when it touches the lips of whomever approaches to it, will immediately exhibit him as pure and is free from any sin. And in whatever way touches our lips, blessed Paul will teach saying, 'The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart" (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved' (Rm 10:8-10). Christ is compared to a coal, because he was conceived from two different things, yet by a true concurrence they are all knit together for a union. For the fire entering the wood will change it somehow into its own brilliance and power, even though the wood remains wood."
Cyril of Alexandria,
Five Books Against Nestorius, 2
Lord Jesus Christ, by Your incarnation You took our human flesh, that You might cleanse it through its communion with Your divine nature in the personal union. Prepare our hearts to receive this unfathomable mystery by coming to the feast of Your body and blood, seeking from the altar the cleansing presence of Your body upon our tongues and lips. Help us to proclaim rightly who You are, that those who do not know You might receive from You the fullness of Your salvation. Amen.
For Tessa Pernoud, and all women with child, that they might be kept safe and that healthy children would be delivered into their arms through the mercy of God
For Madison Havers, who will receive the new life in Christ, the forgiveness of sins, and the promise of resurrection with Jesus in her baptism on Sunday, that she would be kept in this faith unto her end
For Dave Porter, who is undergoing heart surgery today, that the Lord would grant successful surgery and a full recovery to His servant
For the teachers and staff of Memorial Lutheran School as they prepare to welcome children to learn of Christ and His creation in a new school year, that they would be built up in their holy faith and grow in their confession of Christ
Art: Dürer, Albrecht The Adoration of the Trinity (1515)
© Scott R. Murray, 2014