It’s a little-known fact that we Orthodox don’t celebrate Christmas. Sorta. We celebrate the Nativity according to the flesh of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ.
I’ve been reminded several times within the past few days, months removed from Christmas, of the oddness of this expression according to the flesh, and even the crudeness of the terminology in the original language. God became sarx – meat; that’s the crude word that gets blanded down in English as “flesh.”
But first, a patristic snippet:
Come, then, let us observe the Feast. 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, paradise is unlocked, the curse is taken away, sin is removed from us, error driven out, truth has been brought back, the speech of kindliness diffused, and spreads on every side, a heavenly way of life has been ‘in planted on the earth, angels communicate with men without fear, and men now hold speech with angels.
Why is this? Because God is now on earth, and man in heaven; on every side all things commingle. He became Flesh. He did not become God. He was God. Wherefore He became flesh, so that He Whom heaven did not contain, a manger would this day receive. He was placed in a manger, so that He, by whom all things arc nourished, may receive an infant’s food from His Virgin Mother. So, the Father of all ages, as an infant at the breast, nestles in the virginal arms, that the Magi may more easily see Him. Since this day the Magi too have come, and made a beginning of withstanding tyranny; and the heavens give glory, as the Lord is revealed by a star….
To Him, then, Who out of confusion has wrought a clear path, to Christ, to the Father, and to the Holy Ghost, we offer all praise, now and for ever. Amen.
(St. John Chrysostom, “Homily on Christmas Morning”)
Imagine here my frequent disclaimer of being a theolgian.
The Church early on insisted on emphasizing the incarnation because it was true, it was scandalous, and a current heresy threatened to spiritualize Jesus away.
That era was shot through with gnostic dualism, wherein the flesh and spirit not only were separate, but the flesh was pretty base and embarrassing. Men were to transcend the flesh. Surely God would have nothing whatever to do with it. Apart from the Jews, few in that era even believed God had created this nasty, stinky old material world.
But flesh and spirit aren’t separate. We’re unified persons, and our personhood is inseparable from our bodies. That’s why Christians treat the body with respect. That’s at least part of why the Church historically has disallowed cremation.
(That’s even why marriage is gendered, not unisex. Men and women, moms and dads, are not fungible – but I’ll let someone else address that if you’re interested.)
So great is the dignity of human sarx that the second person of the Trinity, having assumed it (as celebrated at the Nativity according to the flesh of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ), did not leave it behind when he ascended again to the Father.
He remains incarnate. The Incarnation is forever.
That is why Christian churches should, and some do, still celebrate the Ascension. It is difficult to imagine that those for whom God-in-the-Flesh, Theanthropos, acsending to God the Father in human flesh is no big deal, are adherents of the Christian faith in any serious sense.
Gnosticism has lingered for 2000 or more years. I guess the urge to think that it doesn’t matter what your body does so long as “your heart’s right” is damned near irresistible.
But there is no room for gnosticism in the Christian faith proper, even if it persists in Christendom. God becoming human sarx drove a silver stake through that monster’s heart.
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I wrote the material above before I began my Lenten reading, including Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon’s The Jesus We Missed. I suspect that before I’m done, I’ll wonder why I presumed to write anything so puerile as this.
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“The remarks made in this essay do not represent scholarly research. They are intended as topical stimulations for conversation among intelligent and informed people.” (Gerhart Niemeyer)
Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.