Why the Incarnation?

Sermon preached by Bishop Basil of Amphipolis at the church of the Holy Trinity and the Annunciation, Oxford (the church is shared by a Thyateira parish which follows the New Calendar, and a Vicariate parish which follows the Old Calendar).

Ephesians 4: 7-13

Every year, because we keep two calendars in this church, the feasts of Christmas and Theophany, or Epiphany, are somehow meshed together: we celebrate one after the other and one before the other. But it is important to remember that this overlap is not out of place.

Epiphany is the earlier feast. It is already mentioned at the beginning of the third century, when Clement of Alexandria refers to its being celebrated at about this time of year, and by the fourth century there are, throughout the Church, basically three major feasts. First, of course, there is Easter, then Pentecost, celebrated automatically fifty days after Easter, and then the Feast of Theophany, celebrated in the winter, celebrated to commemorate the Baptism of Christ, and the appearance of Christ to the world.

Christmas as a distinct feast developed later, and it developed in the West. The first mention is, in fact, near the beginning of the fourth century in 336, when in Rome 25th December was celebrated as the birthday of Christ.

In the West, in the liturgical calendar, there was a gradual shift of emphasis from Theophany, from Epiphany, to Christmas. The feast of Epiphany on the twelfth day after Christmas is kept as a revelation to the gentiles, who are represented in the West by the Magi, and the coming of the Magi on the twelfth day. In fact there was, apparently, no separate Christmas day in Jerusalem until the sixth century. The two feasts were kept together on 6th January. And the same is true today of the Armenians, who base their calendar on the calendar of Jerusalem.

Both these feasts are feasts of revelation. The feast of the Baptism of Christ is a revelation of the Trinitarian nature of God and of the anointing of the Son of God with the Spirit. And of course the feast of Christmas commemorates in a particular way the Incarnation of Christ. It commemorates the way in which God has entered the world, the way we now find, in Christ, God in the flesh.

Immediately that raises the question, why should this be the case? Why should God seek to reveal himself through incarnation? Are there not other ways of doing this?
In Ephesians, in the epistle reading which we heard this morning, two reasons are given – two attempts to understand what is happening in the Incarnation and coming of Christ.

In the first part, St Paul speaks of the ascent of the Son of God in order to give gifts to mankind. These gifts which Christ ascends in order to give us are the gifts of the Spirit: they are the various charisms. And they are given in order that some, as a result of these gifts, should become apostles, some should become prophets, others evangelists, others pastors and teachers – but all these gifts are given for the ‘building up of the Body of Christ’. That is their purpose. It is for that reason that Christ has come into the world, conquered death, ascended to heaven and gave these gifts – at Pentecost and afterwards.

St Paul goes on, however, in the same short passage, to say that this is done – all these gifts are given – for yet another, further purpose. They are given that me might all ‘come to the unity of the faith and to the knowledge of the Son of God’ – to ‘mature manhood’ as it says in the Revised Standard Version, or ‘to maturity’ as it says in the New Revised Standard Version. They are given that we should come ‘to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ’. This is the ultimate purpose of God’s Incarnation – that we should reach that stature. The Authorised version, where the NRSV says ‘that we may come to maturity’, says that ‘we may come unto a perfect man’. Now that is not quite the same thing, because we immediately ask ourselves, when we hear the phrase, ‘to come unto a perfect man’, to whom does this expression refer? Is it that each one of us should arrive at the full stature of Christ, to ‘that perfect Man’, or is it that we together should arrive at the full stature of Christ. I think that the second interpretation is a deeper and truer one.

Yes, we are all called to completeness – but we are called to that completeness not simply one by one, but together. In the last days we shall all be different from one another. We shall all have, and have received, different gifts, and as a result we shall all be playing different roles – we have different roles to fulfil. But together, in our difference, we shall make up the one Body of Christ.

The result of that is that we do not have to worry about being different. This is in fact God’s will for us. What we do have worry about is finding our own true place in the Body of Christ. As the Apostle says, this will depend on our gifts – which are not ours in the long run, but are in fact God’s gifts and belong to God.

These gifts, especially when they are taken to include everything that we are, including our own existence, create difference. They create otherness. And it is our task to work with God to create oneness in Christ out of that diversity, since we are all, each one of us, the recipients of a place, and of a role to play, in the one Body of Christ – a Body made up of many different members. In fact the ‘building up of the Body of Christ’ is not possible without us. It is not possible unless we – both as individuals and as a community – are in Christ – the one Son and Word of God.


Episcopal Vicariate ofGreat Britain and Ireland

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