Just as human affection, when it abounds, overpowers those who love and causes them to be beside themselves, so God’s love for men emptied God.
~ St. Nicholas Cabasilas, The Life in Christ, 6.3
St. Nicholas Cabasilas lived in the middle ages, which is later than I usually go for sayings to reflect on. However, this one struck me as too profound not to share. I have written before on how our love for Christ can take on a romantic quality—that overpowering eros that compels us to leave everything to follow Jesus. But according to St. Nicholas, that is only half the story, and the beauty of the other half outshines the former as the light of the sun outshines the moon and the stars: God loved us in this way first.
This is, in fact, precisely what St. John the Theologian writes: “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be an atonement for our sins” (1 John 4:10). He continues, “We love him because he first loved us” (4:19).
St. Nicholas, furthermore, is clearly alluding to this passage from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians:
Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus,
who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God,
but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in the likeness of men.
And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death, even the death of the cross.
Therefore God also has highly exalted him and given him the name which is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth,
and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:5-11)
Christians believe that Jesus Christ is the Son and Logos of God. Before being born of the Virgin for our salvation, he was eternally begotten of the Father “before all ages.” Just as fire does not exist without the light and heat it gives off, so the Father does not exist without the Son begotten of him or the Holy Spirit who proceeds from him.
As the Son of God, he is God by nature, just as my own son is human by nature just like me. As St. Paul puts it, he is “in the form of God” and “equal with God.”
Nevertheless, in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, God “emptied himself,” suffered all things, even the most cursed death, that he might put death to death and give to us new life, blessing, and the hope of the resurrection.
St. Nicholas continues,
He does not stay in His own place and call the slave, He seeks him in person by coming down to him. He who is rich reaches the pauper’s hovel, and He displays His love by approaching the person. He seeks love in return and does not withdraw when He is treated with disdain. He is not angry over ill treatment, but even when He has been repulsed He sits by the door (cf. Rev. 3:20) and does everything to show us that He loves, even enduring suffering and death to prove it.
Thus, among all else that the incarnation, death, and resurrection of the Son of God accomplishes, it serves as the ultimate gesture of God’s love for us. It is true that Christ commands us to let go of all else, even and especially our very selves, to follow him. But he only does so after first doing the same for us.
In the biblical story of Adam and Eve, when Adam first sees Eve he rejoices to finally meet his equal: “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” And the narration continues to say, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:23-24).
Christ, while remaining what he was, yet “emptied himself” by taking on what he was not, that which was made from the dust of the earth and emptiness itself: our bone, our flesh. In this sense he left his Father to be joined to us, in order that “the two shall become one flesh.” He did not care what the cost, for true love is priceless.
Cabasilas continues a little further on by marveling at this:
What could be equal to that affection? What man has ever loved so greatly? What mother ever loved so tenderly (Is. 49:15), what father so loved his children? Who has ever been seized by such a mania of love for anything beautiful whatever, so that because of it he not only willingly allows himself to be wounded by the object of his love without swerving from his affection towards the ungrateful one, but even prizes the very wounds above everything? Though these prove not only that He loves us but also that He greatly honours us, yet it belongs to the greatest honour that He is not ashamed even of the infirmities of our nature, but is seated on His royal throne with the scars which He has acquired from human weakness.
What a scandalous thing to say! How can it be that God could be “seized by … a mania of love”? Yet so it is. This is the why the Christian message is called the Gospel, the Good News. It is the best news. Jesus takes on our body and blood and bears our infirmities that we might partake of his body and blood and be clothed in incorruption.
For the Christian our ascent to God in the mysteries of the Church and prayer is first empowered by the descent of God to us in Jesus Christ, who though seated on his throne shining brighter than the sun, does so unashamed of the scars on his hands and feet and side. What “a mania of love,” indeed.