Audio length: 13:11 minutes
Transcript published: December 31, 2010
God came to earth to undo the ravages of sin and death. He could only do this by taking upon himself our flesh.
St Gregory the Theologian can always be relied upon to sing the theology of the Church in words beautiful and profound. For this most excellent reason he is declared as one of the great three Theologians of the Church. This day when Christ is born let us attend to his words that God may speak to our hearts through them.
St. Gregory the Theologian on The Incarnation—St Gregory writes:
The very Son of God, older than the ages, the invisible, the incomprehensible, the incorporeal, the beginning of beginning, the light of light, the fountain of life and immortality, the image of the archetype, the immovable seal, the perfect likeness, the definition and word of the Father: he it is who comes to his own image and takes our nature for the good of our nature, and unites himself to an intelligent soul for the good of my soul, to purify like by like. He takes to himself all that is human, except for sin. He was conceived by the Virgin Mary, who had been first prepared in soul and body by the Spirit; his coming to birth had to be treated with honour, virginity had to receive new honour. He comes forth as God, in the human nature he has taken, one being, made of two contrary elements, flesh and spirit. Spirit gave divinity, flesh received it.
St Gregory starts with who Christ is. We might summarise his teaching as saying that “all that is human is joined to all that is God.” This is the confession of all the great Councils of the Church which in turn is sung in our Eucharistic liturgies. St Gregory is very clear. God in Christ has taken to himself all that is human in his conception by the Virgin Mary. The Holy Spirit has thereby united divinity to our humanity. “Spirit gave divinity, flesh received it.”
When we survey our society at this time, what remains of Christianity seems very weak, gutted and sentimental in comparison. Christmas is of course about a holy birth but only because it celebrates the incarnation of the Word, the Logos. If this is what the birth of the baby Jesus means to you then fine, but if it is not, look again. God came to earth to undo the ravages of sin and death. He could only do this by taking upon himself our flesh. In so doing he has imparted the great dignity and glory of his divinity, healing in the process the breach between God and man that the Fall brought upon us all. This is what the manger is about, this the dark cave, this the worship of the angels, the shepherds and the myrrh-bearing magi.
St Gregory continues:
He who makes rich is made poor; he takes on the poverty of my flesh, that I may gain the riches of his divinity. He who is full is made empty; he is emptied for a brief space of his glory, that I may share in his fullness. What is this wealth of goodness? What is this mystery that surrounds me? I received the likeness of God, but failed to keep it. He takes on my flesh, to bring salvation to the image, immortality to the flesh. He enters into a second union with us, a union far more wonderful than the first.
The Theologian now introduces a key insight embedded in a hymn or poem used by St Paul in his letter to the church at Philippi when speaking of the Incarnation (Phil 2:5-11). St Paul talks about the word of God emptying Himself, taking upon Him the form of a bondservant or slave (v.7). Elsewhere St Paul (Ephesians 1:23) and St. John (Jn 1:16) talk about a fullness that is Christ’s by virtue of this emptiness and in yet another place, St. Paul contrasts his riches being exchanged for our poverty in an exchange of opposites (2 Corinthians 8:9). Both of these contrasting pairs, emptiness / fullness, poverty / wealth, speak of what we are offered by God when He receives our humanity from the Mother of God and then re-fashions it according to the perfection of His divinity. All this He grants to us in a continual process of transformation, so that we might partake of His glory from one degree to the next.
This then is the second union of which St Gregory speaks, theosis, deification. It means that we cannot walk away from Christmas unchanged. In the world pounds are put on the body as pounds are removed from the bank. In the kingdom of God sins are removed from what is human so that the fullness of glory may give an even greater increase to both humans and the cosmos. I know which one I would rather choose even though my flesh is often too weak to follow it through. We need, therefore, more than a New Year’s resolution to make these permanent changes in our humanity. We need an Incarnate Lord, an empowering Spirit, and on our side a lively faith working through love striving mightily by God’s grace to acquire salvation for ourselves and for all.
St Gregory once more: Holiness had to be brought to man by the humanity assumed by one who was God, so that God might overcome the tyrant by force and so deliver us and lead us back to himself through the mediation of his Son. The Son arranged this for the honour of the Father, to whom the Son is clearly obedient in all things. The Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep, came in search of the straying sheep to the mountains and hills on which you used to offer sacrifice. When he found it, he took it on the shoulders that bore the wood of the cross, and led it back to the life of heaven.
St Gregory goes on to consider how God was able to transform our humanity in the Incarnation of the Word. He refers to God “overcoming the tyrant by force,” which is of course the devil… but what is this “force?” Christ wasn’t particularly forceful on the cross. He was broken and in agony both physical and spiritual. No, the use of “forceful” is a reference to the resurrection. This is how our humanity has been transformed; namely, by overcoming that great tyrant, the devil who for so long had held us in bondage. Now that Christ has come we can escape our sins, both in their power and consequence for our lives. He has set us free by his precious death and glorious resurrection; free to hope, free to love, freely to take joy in God’s world once more and to become, all of us, his priests in creation.
Have you ever wondered with me why it is that the good news of the Incarnation in the prologue to St John’s Gospel is chanted on the night of Pascha rather than Christmas? The answer can be seen right here and now in St Gregory’s sermon for the Christmas feast where he makes it quite clear that Christ was born to destroy death. It is in the icon of the Nativity itself where the infant Christ is born against the backcloth of a pitch black cave prefiguring his death. His coming to die is so that we might live. Easter at Christmas, Christmas at Easter. So as surely as Christ is born this day and we glorify Him still, we also are reborn to newness of life. Let us leave the last word with St Gregory himself:
We need God to take our flesh and die, that we might live. We have died with him, that we may be purified. We have risen again with him, because we have died with him. We have been glorified with him, because we have risen again with him.