By Mr. Carl Sommer | Lecturer in Church History & Patristics, Kenrick-Glennon Seminary
The Church’s Liturgical Calendar is packed with a great deal of hidden beauty. Nowhere is this more evident than on January 2, the Eighth Day of Christmas by traditional reckoning. This day is also the feast of Saints Basil and Gregory Nazianzen, two of the three great Saints who are known as the “Cappadocian Fathers.” The coincidence of celebrating their feast day within the Christmas season is startling. The Cappadocian Fathers spent a good part of their lives trying to understand the mystery of the Incarnation and explain it in a way that made sense to the people of their day.
Basil and Gregory lived in a time when there were numerous heresies about the relationship between God the Father and God the Son. These heresies were not harmless; they seriously damaged the faith of many people. One of these heresies, Apollinarianism, held that Jesus was not fully human, but rather that He had a human body and a divine mind or soul.
Basil and Gregory knew this teaching was wrong. The orthodox teaching is that Jesus is fully divine and fully human, “like us in all things but sin.” This is in many ways a mystery beyond human comprehension, but Basil and Gregory wanted to explain why it was necessary to hold to this teaching. It was Gregory who first realized why it was necessary to say that Jesus was fully human in every way except sin. He explained it in this pithy phrase: “That which He has not assumed He has not healed, but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved.”
This seems like a complicated thought, but let’s take it step by step. First, Gregory is saying that Jesus took on the burden of humanity, and all the aspects of humanity except our propensity for sin, in order to heal us. He took on every aspect of what it means to be a human because every aspect of our being needs divine healing. Furthermore, he provides that healing by allowing us to be united to Him, and in uniting ourselves to Him, we become more like Him. In this way the ugly thoughts and actions to which we are prone are slowly burned away. This transformation of our natures, difficult as it is, is necessary if we are to spend eternity with God in heaven.
So Christmas is a time of immense significance. The next time you find yourself in Church, spend some time before the Nativity Scene, contemplating the mystery of the Incarnation as Saints Basil and Gregory did. Realize that Jesus did not have to do any of the things he did. He did not have to become a human being at all. He did not have to undergo the embarrassments and humiliations that are the lot of all human babies. He certainly did not have to undergo the terrible agonies at the end of his life. He suffered them all of His own free will, for the sake of our healing. The very least we can do is accept His great gift, apply the healing He offers to our own lives, and extend this great mercy to all we encounter in our daily lives.
This is the eighth in a 12-day series of posts with the purpose of helping readers deepen their appreciation for, and celebration of, the 12 Days of Christmas, a season which traditionally concludes with the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6th.