Twelve Days of Incarnation



That is the traditional Christmas greeting for Orthodox Christians. It is analogous to the more familiar Easter greeting: “Christ is Risen! Truly he is risen!” The Christmas greeting comes from the first words of the Oration on the Theophany by St. Gregory of Nazianzus, which you can read in its entirety here. It is not known whether St. Gregory preached this homily on December 25th or January 6th, because in the early centuries of the Church the two days were inseparable. Dec. 25th became a celebration of Christ’s birth, while January 6th was the celebration of Christ’s baptism in the Jordan. But both feasts constituted the key events in the appearance of Christ, hence the word theophany, θεοφάνεια, which means manifestation of God (or the divine).

Nativity Icon (click to enlarge)
Nativity Icon (click to enlarge)
Baptism Icon (click to enlarge)
Baptism Icon (click to enlarge)








The New Testament tells us almost nothing about Christ between his birth and his baptism (except for two incidents in Luke’s Gospel). Although the two events were separated by about 30 years, the early church exercised spiritual insight by combining the two events into a 12-day celebration of Incarnation-Theophany. And if you ever wondered where the 12 Days of Christmas originated, it’s right here, in the theological wisdom of the early church. Although the idea of the 12 days of gift-giving is more closely related to the later Roman Catholic observance of Epiphany (Jan. 6th) as the Visit of the gift-bearing Magi, the Eastern Church preserved the more theological understanding of Nativity and Baptism being the two key events in the manifestation/appearance of Christ, hence Gregory’s Oration on the Theophany.

The birth of Jesus Christ brought about the incarnation, the key event in God’s history with humankind. God was no longer above everything, interacting with humans through dictates from a distance or through intermediaries: “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). Grace and truth came because human nature was joined to the divine nature. As a result of the incarnation, God now has access to our hearts and can write truth into our being. The incarnation brought to fulfillment the prophecy spoken by Jeremiah 31:33. “[Thus] says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.

The incarnation of Christ united human nature to the divine nature. It made it possible for human beings to share in the divine life – what Orthodox theology calls deification. In his baptism, Jesus Christ shared not only our human nature, but the fullness of our human existence. Though he himself had no sins to repent of (except maybe disobeying his mom as a teenager), he joined the crowds who went to John to receive baptism of repentance. But the baptism did more than complete God’s identification with us. By entering the waters of the Jordan, Christ also sanctified all of creation. The earth is essential to our mortal existence. We cannot exist without the earth. God made holy the fullness of our human existence: our bodies, our hearts and souls, and the creation that surrounds and nourishes our lives. This is why on January 6th in the Orthodox Church we have the Great Blessing of Water. We symbolically remind ourselves that the natural world and all life in it are holy to the Lord. He has made all things holy. There is no sacred and un-sacred any more. Everything is holy! Polluting the environment, abusing a dog, or abusing a child are all evil acts in the eyes of God.

The traditional period for gift-giving was the 12-day period between Christmas and Epiphany/Theophany. That’s what the popular song, The Twelve Days of Christmas, is all about. Unfortunately, as market capitalism has replaced the Christian lifestyle, the 12 days have lost much of their meaning, even if we continue to sing the popular song. But no matter, the twelve days continue to be the source of divine gift-giving. When we become exhausted from partying and shopping in the days before Christmas, perhaps we might be in a better place to experience the quiet of the divine birth and the immeasurable gift of holiness that it brought into our lives and to the natural world around us. Perhaps during these days between Christmas and Epiphany/Theophany we can learn to experience holiness and sanctification in our own lives and to treat the planet and all life on it as holy gifts of God. We are called to be agents of holiness, just as we are being made holy. Let the Twelve Days of Christmas be more than a song that has lost its meaning and purpose. Let them be Twelve Days of Incarnation and Sanctification. And then, come to the Great Blessing of Water on Theophany and take holy water, as a year-round reminder of what Christ did for us and for the world at his Baptism. May the holy water you take home become the means of a “liturgy of holiness” in your own life during the year. May it be the start of restoring something of the Christian lifestyle in your home!

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