431. 1) The Unfathomable Mystery of Christ’s Incarnation. 2) In What Year was Jesus Really Born?

1  The Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ Who “came to earth without leaving Heaven”.

Matthias Stom (c. 1615–1649)

Let’s begin with the more than puzzling words of Jesus to Nicodemus, that night when he came to Him by stealth:

“No one has ever ascended into Heaven except the one who descended from Heaven, the Son of Man, who is in Heaven.” * John 3:13

  • Translations can mislead, so I checked this out with the original New Testament Greek. Yes, that is what it says.

Note carefully:

1 Three years before His Ascension, Christ says He has already ascended ino Heaven.

2 The Son of Man descended from Heaven. That’s what the Creed affirms. There He was talking with Nicodemus.

3 Yet while talking to Nicodemus, He says He still is in Heaven.

This one verse takes our earthly, spatial, linear understanding of Jesus Christ and turns it upside down and inside out. And it reflects the Church’s attempted understanding of the unfathomable Mystery of Jesus Christ and His Incarnation.

[For a while now we won’t have any images, as we deal with indescribable things.]

I don’t mean to make everything hang on only one verse from the Scriptures. This is also the Church’s understanding. Listen to this verse from Saturday Vespers: “O Christ Savior, Who became incarnate without leaving Heaven, We magnify You with voices of song.” Aposticha, Saturday, Tone 5

Other verses from Orthodox hymnody teach us that Christ “came to earth while undergoing no change of place”, or “without leaving the ‘bosom’ of the Father”.

At first this sounds completely non-sensical. However, it describes what must be true.

Jesus Christ is the eternal God, the Son of the eternal Father. To Him earthly time and space have no relevance. Past, present, future, up, down – these mean nothing to Him who is eternal, everywhere present.

So what did it mean for Jesus to say (and as we say, following Him, in the Creed) that He “descended from Heaven”? It can’t have meant He had a “change of place”, that He left Heaven and came here! As God He can’t leave anywhere. To say that He “ascended” from Heaven because that is the best earthly word to describe the indescribable. Even though Heaven isn’t “up there” somewhere… to say He “came over” from Heaven sounds absurd, and to say He “came up” from Heaven would obviously be just wrong! So He “came down” the least inadequate of all our completely inadequate words to express the Incarnation, that Christ “lowered Himself spiritually”, “emptied Himself” (as some say) of His Heavenly Glory to take on human nature. Except that He didn’t really empty Himself of His Glory, as was shown at His Transfiguration, when for a moment He let His Glory shine through. John says it best: simply “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us”.

What happened in the Incarnation was not that Christ our God changed in any way or moved in any way. Rather for the first time since our Creation and fall into sin, mankind changed in a substantial way. God began to take mankind, our human nature into Himself. Christ took into Himself all that it means to be human: conception, birth, childhood, manhood, joy, temptation, suffering, death, and everything in-between – except for sin.

When the time was right, “in the fullness of time * had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, Galatians 4:4 and began the process of drawing human beings into eternity, the eternal Kingdom of God. After the apparent end of His human life, He added to mankind something entirely new: He rose bodily from the dead. He “ascended” bodily into Heaven.

  • Why was the year 2 (or 1 or 3) BC – see below – the “right time”? This is only my own speculation: I think many factors. The Jews believed so firmly in one Creator God that when He came in the flesh, those few who recognized Him would know He must be the One True God. (Had He come to the pagan world, they would have made Him just one more god, one more candle to light.)  There was great spiritual thirst in the Roman Empire: The old gods were dying, becoming irrelevant, and many people were seekinging something new and better. “Pax Romana” made it possible for the Gospel to be proclaimed easily and quickly be spread through the Empire. Mankind as a whole, from its beginnings in the Garden till then, had progressed sufficiently that the Faith could take hold in many places – as indeed it did.

In His Ascension, here again He underwent no change of place. He did not “return” to Heaven. He had never left. Nor did He leave earth. Among His last words before He “left” were, “Lo, I am with you to the end of the age.”

However, in His Ascension in His risen human Body, mankind began a change of place. “I go to prepare a place for you, so that where I am, you may be also”.

To go back to Nicodemus’ night visit to Jesus: Why did Jesus say that He had already ascended into Heaven? I do not know. But I wonder if it was to make the point that present and past mean nothing to Him who dwells in the eternal “Now”. All things on earth, from Creation to His Incarnation to this moment right now, to the End of the Age, are eternally present to Him in Heaven.

We get one hint of that in Holy Scripture, where Christ is described as the “Lamb slain from the foundation of the world”. Revelation 13:8  So do we as the Body of Christ somehow always already exist in Eternity? Here’s where our speculation begins to go entirely over the edge. Probably should not take it any further than that one mysterious line from Saint John.

That’s it. Enough of trying to explain the inexplicable, to give words to that which is inexpressible, to know what is beyond our human knowing.

Late 20th century, Greek (available from skete.com)

It’s good now and then for us to stretch our minds and try to understand the unfathomable Mystery of Christ’s Incarnation. But what really matters, as we approach this Holy Feast of Christ’s Nativity, is for us to enter into the Mystery. To know our God’s love in becoming one with us. The infinite God becoming a speck of life in His Mother’s womb. God Who is uncircumscribable, has no boundaries, living as an unborn Baby in His Mother’s womb. The eternal God being born of a human Mother. God who gives life to all the world taking milk from His Mother’s breasts. God whom the archangels worship being worshiped by shepherds. God whose “home” is everywhere becoming an exile. * God Who created mankind becoming One of mankind – like an author becoming a character who dies for his friends in one of his stories. Love beyond measure.

  • Did you know that on their trip to Egypt, the Holy Family necessarily traveled through Gaza and entered Egypt through the Rafah crossing, through which it is now occasionally possible to take meagre supplies in to alleviate the agony of the people of Gaza. At this season, please remember to give to Gaza relief – and also to Ukrainian relief, where the “unholy war” continues.

2 In What Year Was Jesus Really Born?

The following article is reprinted in its entirety, with permission of “The Greek Reporter” : https://greekreporter.com

By Caleb Howells

Holy Tuesday Greek easter
The year in which Jesus was born is a subject of controversy. What does the evidence really indicate about this event? Credit: Public domain

The birth of Jesus Christ has been used for centuries to mark our years. Events are dated a certain number of years before or after his birth. However, many people these days are familiar with the fact that the BC/AD dating system is not quite accurate (this is why ‘BCE/CE’ is often used instead).

According to the available evidence, Jesus was not born in the year 1 AD; hence, when was He born?

Calculating Jesus’ birth from his death

On the face of it, calculating the year in which Jesus was born appears quite easy, as some religious groups have pointed out. If we know how old he was when he died, then we can just count backwards. The death of Jesus is securely fixed at the beginning of April, 33 AD. How so?

The gospel accounts tell us that John the Baptist started his preaching in the 15th year of Tiberius, which was from August, 28 AD to August, 29 AD. Jesus started his preaching some time after that. We know that he preached for at least three years, because the gospels mention at least three different Passovers, which were annual festivals. Yet, Jesus died under the rule of Pontius Pilate, whose rule of Judea ended in 36 AD.

Within the period from 29 to 36 AD, only 33 AD satisfies the aforementioned information along with the fact that Jesus died during a Passover which fell on a Friday. This also confirms that he cannot have begun his preaching later than 29 AD, because that would not leave enough room for all the Passovers mentioned in the Gospels.

How the Gospel of Luke reveals the year of Jesus’ birth

The three wise kings following the biblical star of Bethlehem
Illustration of the Three Wise Men following the Star of Bethlehem. credit: Kai Stachowiak / Public Domain

As we have just seen, Jesus started his preaching after John. The start of John’s ministry likely fell in 29 or perhaps late 28 AD. Jesus began his preaching after John, yet definitely still within 29 AD. With this in mind, it is important to note that Luke gives Jesus’ age at the start of his preaching. Luke says that Jesus was ‘about 30 years old’ when he went to John to be baptised to start his work.

Counting back 30 years from 29 AD takes us to the year 2 BC (notice that there is no Year 0). This, seemingly, is the simple answer to the question of which year Jesus was born in. However, some people claim that this is not a valid calculation. Their basis is that Luke says that Jesus was ‘about’ 30 years old. Was Luke just rounding up or down to the nearest 5?

Evidence from elsewhere in Luke’s gospel shows that this is very unlikely to be the case. When referring to the daughter of a man named Jairus, Luke describes her as ‘about 12 years old’. This indicates that Luke’s use of the word ‘about’ in the context of ages has nothing to do with rounding to the nearest 5. His use of this word with the specific age of 12 indicates that his reference to Jesus’ age was probably quite specific too.

The death of King Herod

However, the major problem with placing the year in which Jesus was born in 2 BC is that it apparently contradicts evidence concerning King Herod. He was the king of Judea at the time of Jesus’ birth. Herod died a short time after that event. The problem is that many authorities place Herod’s death in 4 BC.

This would mean that Jesus would have had to have been born by that year at the very latest. This conflicts with the evidence placing his birth in 2 BC.

In reality, there is strong evidence that Herod died in 1 BC. The first-century historian Josephus explains that Herod was about 70 years old when he died. He seems to have been born in 72 BC, since he was 25 years old when he received his appointment as governor of Galilee, which he received in the year 47 BC. Counting forward about 70 years from 72 BC takes us to approximately 2 BC.

Herod allegedly died shortly after a lunar eclipse but before the Passover. Around the year 2 BC, there was a total lunar eclipse in January, 1 BC. This was just three months before the Passover. Therefore, the weight of evidence places Herod’s death in early 1 BC. This would accommodate 2 BC being the year in which Jesus was born. While it is true that there was a lunar eclipse in 4 BC, it took place early in the morning and was only partial. It was not a significant event, unlike the eclipse in 1 BC.

The issue of the census

Another issue is that Jesus was born at the time of a Roman census. Luke tells us that this occurred when Quirinius was governor of Syria. This refers to Publius Sulpicius Quirinius. He was governor of Syria in 6 CE, in which year a census took place. Obviously, this is inconsistent with the evidence of Jesus’ age at the start of his preaching and the evidence from Herod’s death.

The easy solution to this problem is that Quirinius also ruled over Syria during an earlier period. Josephus reveals that there could be co-governors of that territory, so there would be no conflict with records of the earlier governors.

Interestingly, archaeologists have found an inscription known as the Lapis Tiburtinus which provides evidence for this. The name on the inscription is lost, but it describes this nameless person as having been the proconsul of Cyrene, supressing the Homonadensians, and becoming governor of Syria. This clearly fits the career of Quirinius.

Notably, when the inscription refers to this person as becoming the governor of Syria, it says that this was ‘for the second time’. This provides strong evidence that Quirinius had been governor of Syria earlier in his career.

Therefore, the evidence from the census in the time of Quirinius is also consistent with placing Jesus’ birth in 2 BC.

When Was Jesus Born?

Next Week you’ll be too busy to read much. Therefore: A very short Christmas message

Week after Next when you’ll have more time: The best Orthodox Music for the Nativity of Our Lord


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