(L to R) The Holy and Righteous Joseph the Betrothed, David the Prophet, James the Brother of God
Galatians 1:11-19; Matthew 2:13-23
Christ is born!
Today is a day with many titles. It is the Second Day of Nativity, the Sunday after Nativity, the Sunday of the Holy Righteous Ones: Joseph the Betrothed, David the King, and James the Brother of the Lord. It is also the day of the Synaxis of the Theotokos.
With these themes and our Scripture readings, there are many possible things we can reflect upon. It seems appropriate today, especially since we are only one day past the specific day for Nativity, that we reflect on the Incarnation, God taking on our flesh, and what that can mean for us.
The Incarnation is underlined, not only in the fact that it is the second day of, and the Sunday after, Nativity, but in the fact the Holy Righteous Ones are commemorated—ancestors of Christ, according to the flesh (thus emphasizing His humanity), and that this is the day on which we commemorate the Synaxis of the Theotokos. The Theotokos is often a primary reference point for affirming Christ’s genuine humanity. Our Scripture readings, too—especially the one from Matthew’s Gospel—underline what this humanity of Christ, what the Incarnation of God, can mean to us.
The beginning of our reading from Matthew tells of how Christ, born in Bethlehem, had to be whisked away by Joseph and taken to safety in Egypt. Joseph had been warned in a dream of the danger that awaited Christ if they remained in Israel. Herod the King was bent on destroying this new king he had heard about, to protect his own power. So Joseph, Mary, and Jesus retreated to Egypt. It was not until later they were able to return (again, with Joseph being instructed in a dream that things were now safe) into Israel.
So Christ, born in Israel, nonetheless takes a strange, early detour into the land of Egypt, before He enters Israel again. It’s like someone leaving the US, traveling to Europe, before being issued a birth certificate, then returning through customs and establishing citizenship as an immigrant would. This seems like a roundabout way to become an Israelite. Why this detour?
Matthew, referring to these events, says they happened for one reason: “That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet,” he says … “‘Out of Egypt have I called my son’” (Mt 2:15). Matthew is referring, here, to the words of Hosea 11, in which that prophet says: “When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called my son out of Egypt” (v. 1). In other words, Matthew, in quoting these words of Hosea, is referring to the origins of the people of Israel, where it is that they began. In saying that Christ came out of Egypt so that Hosea’s words might be fulfilled, he means that Christ, coming out of Egypt Himself, recapitulates this history of Israel. He joins Himself to the birth story of Israel, and of each Israelite in particular. When we look at salvation from the standpoint of God taking on human flesh, there’s a sense in which we can properly say that God grafts Himself into the autobiography of everyone He comes to save. We will see this again when we come to Theophany. In Theophany, Christ once again enters Israel anew—that time by coming out of the Jordan, just as his forebears had. He makes sure there’s nothing essential to the lives of those He comes to save—the people of Israel, and also us—that He does not also make essential to His own identity, His own biography, His own story.
When Hosea describes Israel being loved, then called, by God out of Egypt, he is giving us one account of what we might call Israel’s conception—their coming into being. He’s going back to the very beginning. Christ, in going back to Egypt, then coming out of Egypt, retraces that exact same path.
That’s not all Hosea tells us, though. Immediately after telling us how God called His son out of Egypt, he tells us how this son “burned incense to graven images” (Hos 11:2). Through Hosea, God says His son (Israel and, by inference, this applies also to us) was “bent to backsliding from me” (v. 7). Nonetheless, God says (in the words of the New Jerusalem Bible) that He “was leading them with human ties, with leading-strings of love, that, with them, I was like someone lifting an infant to his cheek, and that I bent down to feed him” (v. 4). In other words, this origin story includes not just the innocence of that initial birth, but the painful rebellions of adolescence, and God’s gentle yet passionate care to bring His son (Israel, and us) from the brink of our own self-willed destruction. And into that history Christ Himself voluntarily enters, so that, at no point might we imagine that He does not fully know us.
In common speech, when we feel that someone prematurely understands us, when they presume to know who we are, we might say something like, “You don’t know where I come from. You don’t know what I’ve been through.” We say this to indicate that they only know us superficially. They don’t know the twists and turns in the road that have made us who we really are. They can’t pretend to be able to really sympathize with us, and they aren’t really prepared to offer us help that is going to have any meaningful effect.
With Christ, if we say, “You don’t know where I come from. You don’t know what I’ve been through,” He says back, “I came from the same place. I’ve been through the same things.” Because of His love, He can say not only “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you” (Jer 1:5; cf. Ps 139:13), but also that He became our older brother, in the womb with us, and lived through the critical moments in which we formed our identities, forged our path, and received our wounds. He has identified Himself with us in all of this.
The Incarnation is a central theme (if not the central theme) in our Christian faith. The creeds, which bring to us this message of God becoming human, were written in a time when philosophical language was the medium for telling us about things that were real. Because of this, when we think about God becoming fully human, we might be tempted to think of how God takes on Himself our very substance. We might emphasize what, in philosophical language, could be called the ontological implications of this. We might miss something every bit as important …what we might call the psychological implications of the Incarnation. The psychological implications include the fact that we don’t ever have to feel alone, or believe that we are inadequately understood, by the God who tells us He loves us. He’s seen it all (including the defects and failures), and lived our biography Himself. He’s made our autobiography His autobiography, so that we might know His autobiography as our autobiography.
The letter to the Hebrews highlights this in its own way. It tells us, “It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, in bringing many sons into glory, should make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For both He that sanctifies and they who are sanctified are all of one: for which cause He is not ashamed to call them brethren” (Heb 2:10-11). Again, it tells us, “In all things it behooved Him to be made like His brethren [that is, like unto us], that He might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of His people. For in that He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to succour [or support] them that are tempted” (v. 17-18). Hebrews also tell us that Christ, in some mysterious way, “though He were a Son, yet learned obedience by the things which He suffered” (5:8). Finally, Hebrews tells us, “We have not a high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.” Hebrews then encourages us, “Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need” (4:15-16).
‘We have not a high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities” (He 4:15). This makes a difference, doesn’t it? Isn’t this where the rubber meets the road? Isn’t it in this knowledge that our Christian faith provides an incomparable support to those who need not only to know, in some historical or philosophical sense, that God has become incarnate, but who need to feel they are not abandoned.
“Out of Egypt I have called my son” (Mt. 2:15), God tells us today. The Egypt out of which Christ comes is not just the historical Egypt of the 1st century. It’s the Egypt from which you yourself come, with all the episodes and stories that make you who you are. The cave out of which Christ is born is not just a cave in general. It’s the cave out of which you yourself were born. Your story is now God’s story. God’s story is now yours.
May we celebrate the Incarnation with ever-growing awareness of what it means.
To Him belongs all honor, glory, and worship, together with His Father who is without beginning, and His all-holy, good, and life-creating Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.
Christ is born!
V. Rev. Dr. Isaac Skidmore is a licensed therapist in Oregon, an adjunct professor in the school of clinical mental health counseling at Southern Oregon University, and auxiliary priest at Archangel Gabriel Orthodox Church in Ashland OR. He is the author of Edge of the Abyss: The Usefulness of Antichrist Terminology in the Era of Donald Trump (see our review here). Check both archives for his previous contributions to Orthodoxy in Dialogue.