In seminary we learn a lot of big words and confounding concepts. One of which is soteriology. It is more or less the study of what Christ's atonement means for humanity. Now we are stuck with another big word - atonement. Atonement, at least according to The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, has to do with "man's reconciliation with God through the sacrificial death of Christ." Though there are many theories of atonement, one stands out at this time of year, Christmastide, and shines light on what the presence of God among us means - Emmanuel!
One of my friends in seminary was trying to explain to me something about Relational Atonement. I'm pretty thick when it comes to theology and though I did not fully appreciate it at the time it did make an impression. Relational Atonement speaks of God sending his only son, Jesus Christ, to share, not only our experience as humans, but to take on our human nature. By taking on our nature, he has effected a change in human nature, and has brought our nature into communication/union with God. This idea was held by St. Athanasius and many theologians of the Eastern Orthodox tradition. Athanasius held that Jesus became man that we might be made divine (De Inc. 54). This divinization, enabled by God in Jesus Christ, focuses less on theories of satisfaction and substitution, and more on the incarnation. It is the nature of God that saves us! We are mystically embraced in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Relationship is restored with our heavenly Father.
Another eastern theologian, St. Chrysostom, wrote a poem for Christmas that echoes this approach. I love this poem because it focuses on the mystery of atonement. The last two lines, "Because God is now on earth, and man in heaven; on every side all things commingle." also speak of the effect of the Babe of Bethlehem's presence among us. These are truly days of wonder and hope for all peoples!
God on Earth
Truly wondrous is the whole chronicle of the nativity.
For this day the ancient slavery is ended,
the devil confounded,
the demons take to flight,
the power of death is broken.
For this day paradise is unlocked,
the curse is taken away,
sin is removed,
error driven out,
truth has been brought back,
the speech of kindliness diffused
and spread on every side--
a heavenly way of life
has been implanted on the earth,
angels communicate with us
Why is this?
Because God is now on earth,
and man in heaven;
on every side all things commingle.