This Sunday we remember the 630 Holy Fathers of the Fourth Ecumenical Council held in Chalcedon, a suburb of Constantinople, in the middle of the fifth century in 451. This council was held to seek a reconciliation between the Byzantine, Syrian, Roman and Egyptian understandings of Christ—to draw the different national and theological perspectives on Orthodoxy into a single whole—an issue that still concerns us today, as Father Gregory pointed out a few weeks ago. The key statement of faith from the council said, and I quote, the “Lord Jesus Christ … is perfect in Godhead . . . perfect in manhood . . . truly God and truly man . . . recognized in two natures . . . [but] combining in one person and [one underlying reality].” In other words, the Council considered precisely what the Incarnation meant: How had God become human in the person of Jesus Christ? Like the Fathers of this council, we too need to understand to the best of our ability the meaning of the Incarnation.
The Incarnation includes many different events: the conception of Jesus Christ in the womb of Holy Mary in Nazareth through the power of the Holy Spirit; the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem; and all the events in the life of Jesus Christ—what Father John Anthony McGuckin has called the “teachings, sufferings and glorification of the Lord.” In less grand language, we sometimes refer to Christians who seldom come to their local church as coming only when they are “hatched, matched and dispatched.” In other words, they come to be baptized after they are born, to be married and for their funerals after they die. In rather more polite language, one could refer to the Incarnation as how Jesus Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit and the Theotokos, united to all humanity and the Cosmos, and then crucified, resurrected and ascended to heaven. The Incarnation applies to the whole of the life of Jesus Christ on earth and to the whole of each of our lives.
All of this happened a long time ago. Children, do you know how long ago Jesus Christ lived on earth? . . . Yes, some 2,000 years ago. Yet Christ still lives in our lives today—in His teachings as a model for how to live, in the Divine Liturgy when we receive the Holy Eucharist and are united to Christ, and in our prayers, especially when we pray again and again the words of the Jesus Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. Let’s all say those words together three times: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God have mercy on me, a sinner. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God have mercy on me, a sinner. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
I’ve called this sermon “The Ancient Life of Jesus Christ—Does It Matter to Us Now?” We know that the life of Jesus Christ occurred some 2,000 years ago; and this sermon is being recorded for Ancient Faith radio. Although the precise dates of the life of Jesus Christ are earth are not known, it is generally agreed that King Herod died in 4 B.C. and that the probable date of the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem was about 7 or 6 B.C. Not much is known about more than 30 years of the life of Jesus Christ. However, we do know that St Joseph and the Theotokos and the infant child Jesus Christ fled to Egypt to escape King Herod; and we know that this family returned to their home in Nazareth, where they lived together until Jesus Christ was baptized in the Jordan River by St. John the Baptist about the year 27 or 26 A.D. So Jesus Christ began His public ministry some time when he was probably about 33 years old.
What was Jesus Christ seeking to achieve in His life on earth? In the helpful Westminster Handbook to Patristic Theology, Father McGuckin explains quite simply and clearly that “the whole of the appearance of Jesus on earth was itself the divine plan of salvation for the human race. The key to all patristic thought on the issue [of the incarnation] . . . is that Christ Himself is salvation incarnate.” The word “incarnate” means in bodily form, especially in human form, so the incarnation is about how Christ, the Son of God, became the human being, Jesus Christ, on earth.
It is important to remember that when Christ came to earth 2,000 years ago, He spent many years growing up, just as all of you children are growing up. Christ did not rush to become an adult and begin His public ministry. He studied the Old Testament; He experienced the love of His mother Holy Mary, the Theotokos; and he experienced the strength of His foster father, St. Joseph, both of whom looked after Him and helped Him to grow up. Today within every Christian family it is still possible for each member of the family to find the time to love each other and to grow up slowly. Perhaps the mother in the family of today is working outside the home, whereas the Theotokos was working inside her home. However, those of us who are parents can still try to live now with the patience of the Theotokos and St. Joseph. We can remember the words of the prophet Isaiah in the Old Testament book of that prophet, chapter 40, verse 31: “Those who wait for God will gain new strength; they will mount up with wings like eagles; they will run and not get tired; they will walk and not become weary.”
So before Jesus Christ began His public ministry he waited for the right time to begin—at the wedding feast in the village of Cana, when, according to the second chapter of the Gospel of St. John, the Theotokos pointed out to her Son the need for more wine. Then what did Jesus Christ do? He turned the water into wine so that the wedding celebration could continue happily. Taking a longer view, to conclude, what fundamentally did Jesus Christ seek to tell the people around Him in first century Palestine; and what does He seek to tell us today? The message is not difficult to understand, but challenging to live. As St. Matthew phrased the challenge in the seventh and 19th chapters of his gospel, “Treat people the same way you want them to treat you . . . Love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus Christ lived on earth many years ago, but His life and teachings still matter to us now.
And so we ascribe as is justly due all might, majesty, dominion, power and praise to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, always now and ever and undo the ages of ages. Amen
Deacon Emmanuel Kahn