“The Virgin has Begotten the Wonderful; Let us go and Behold Him” Reflections on the Nativity of Christ
When the Creator saw that man, who He had made with His own hands, perish, He was so moved that, “He bowed the heavens and came down”. The Feast of Nativity is the reconciliation of heaven and earth. The birth of Christ has united those on high and those below. Today God has come down to earth, and man ascends to heaven. Today the invisible God, manifests himself in flesh for the sake of His creation. Let our souls and lips cry out – Christ is Born, Glorify Him! Today the Creator has come down into the full reality of His creation.
The Feast of Nativity is a time of joy and celebration – of much giving – but we need to ask ourselves, what is the true meaning of the Feast? If we look around, Christmas in the world today is heavily commercialized, and how much do we as Orthodox Christians contribute to the cheapening of this great Feast? Today, Christmas is about everything but Christ. To a lot of us, the Feast is just an opportunity to have a jolly good time with mulled wine and sumptuous food. It is important for us to step away from the noise and hear the real significance of this Feast. In the words of Isaiah the glorious Prophet: “… to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government will be upon his shoulder, and his name will be called ‘Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace’” (Isaiah 9: 6).
The words of the popular Christmas carol echo a great truth, “O holy night! The stars are brightly shining, it is the night of our dear Savior’s birth. Long lay the world in sin and error pining, ‘Til He appear’d and the soul felt its worth… It was not until the coming of the Son of God, that man/the soul realized his/its true worth, meaning and significance. The mystery of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ speaks to us of something so deep and impossible, today God who fashions everything, cries and breathes the breath, which at first He gave to man, now as a babe. The coming together of God and man is at the heart of this great mystery, this great Feast. The Fathers of the Church say, “In the glory of the Incarnation, the divine and the worldly are suddenly, triumphantly, united and transformed.” This Feast is an opportunity for every believer to behold the Wonderful, and be struck with awe because, “today the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords, rests in a cave.”
The Feast of God’s Embracing Love: Christmas is a time of coming to terms with God’s all embracing and redemptive love for us, in spite of all our failures and betrayals. When we journey to Bethlehem, this redemptive love becomes so visible. The truth is not only that God became man, not just that the eternally begotten second Person of the Holy Trinity took flesh, but in the manger lies not only God, but also ME. God took my nature for Himself, this is the all embracing and redemptive love. A love that is so beyond description, where me, who am but clay, we, who are but dust are made perfect in Christ.
The Feast of the Greatest Mission: Today is the day of the greatest mission the world has ever seen. In the New Testament you will not find the word “mission” but there are numerous references to God sending his Son, and Jesus sending us. The Nativity Feast proclaims the act of the Father sending His only begotten into the world. The Father does not send Jesus Christ into the world simply to speak, but He sends Jesus Christ to share the life of His people. He sends Christ to give His life for His people, and to give new life to the whole world. Christ shares in the sufferings, the struggles, the hopes and the joys of the people around Him and the Gospels bear witness to that on numerous occasions. We too are sent to give our love and our compassion. St. Paul says that Jesus is sent into the world to “destroy the power of death, and to bring everlasting life to light”. And so we are sent in order to challenge the power of death, and to bring life. Our mission is always more than words – our mission is the sharing of life – life that transforms another life.
The Feast of the Greatest Surprise: The greatest thing about Christmas morning is the surprises of the gifts wrapped and placed under the tree. As Charles Swindoll so beautifully put it, “Surprises are woven through the very fabric of all our lives. They await each one of us at unexpected and unpredictable junctures.” This Feast is an amazing surprise in that God himself decided to become man. “God comes to us, gives Himself to us, and not only in deed and action. Our very nature is taken up into His, and to our mortal frame is imparted a portion of the divine life.”
The Feast of God Descending into Our Reality: The Incarnation is about God becoming man, God descending into the world, but more so He descends into the deeper reality of our hearts – our life. The reality of our weakness. Christ becomes the very center of our life, the source of our energy in the world and the purpose of our life in this world. The sin of Adam banished him from Paradise and today that exile is banished and man is set free and Christ unites in His Person what is fallen in man and what is perfect in His. Today Eden is opened and the fullness of salvation is made manifest: “salvation enters the world, and the curse is destroyed.”
The Feast that Refuses to Compel Us: God has given Himself away so completely that we meet Him in poverty and weakness, with no splendor or glory. The whole of creation “lives by a love that refuses to bully us or force us or compel us, it is the love of the cradle and the cross.” Christ is the “the fire in the equations” that sustain everything. We live in a world where power is everything, in fact we are so obsessed with power that as Christians we have failed to see the two most vivid images of love – that of the helpless babe in the manger and the dying man on the cross. God empties Himself in the manger and the cross. He gives away all that He is to restore mankind. We live in Him, from Him, and through Him. God never held back His love, instead extended it unconditionally to man. “The eternal God, utterly unknowable, unfathomable, incomprehensible in His innermost being, deigned to enter into the sphere of our daily life, to assume the burdens and suffering of people like ourselves, He did so for one purpose only: to rescue us from the consequences of our sinful rebellion against the Author of Life, and to raise us up from death and corruption.” St. Athanasius puts is so well when he says, “He became what we are, so that we might become what He is.” The eternal Son of God “took flesh” and “became man” so that we might participate now and forever in all the joy and all the glory of His divine Life. Bethlehem points us to Jerusalem, there is no manger without the Cross and Resurrection – all the services in the Orthodox Christian tradition points to the salvific sacrifice of Christ and the glorious Resurrection.
St. Ephrem the Syrian writes, “The Lord of David and Son of David hid His glory in swaddling clothes. His swaddling clothes gave a robe of glory to human beings.” The Son of God is a gift to mankind, and He take up residence in the world. “This dwelling in the midst of Creation, as a part of it, makes God the Son close to, and available to, the surrounding creatures in a way that was not possible before. The presence of the Son here is a “personal” one that involves Him as a complete whole.” Exchanging gifts has become a universal Christmas tradition. I leave you with a question – “What is the best Christmas gift you can give another person?” For what God has given to us, what do we have to give back to Him and to His world?
I personally think the best gift we can give another person is ourselves. I am sure that I will not win many friends by such a statement, what I mean is love and genuine relationship. “The best gift is the gift of self, because in giving oneself, one is giving everything else.” This is what Christ Himself did. In His Incarnation, He gives Himself. He is Immanuel – God With Us. The real meaning of Christmas is to have Christ born in us, indwelling in our hearts.
The Nativity of Jesus Christ is a “crossing of paths” where God meets humanity and in love transforms the fallen human condition. The love of God lays in a manger in the House of Bread (Bethlehem), to feed humanity that hungers for love. It is the birth of that love into our world that we celebrate today. Christ becomes the very center of our life, our faith and our existence. The babe in the manger becomes the light of the world, even when the world is in shambles, for in Christ the Divine and the human cross paths. “No matter where we are in life, no matter in what condition we find ourselves, no matter how far we might stray away, or how unfaithful we are, God, the supreme lover, will pursue us in love for eternity!” God’s love never stops shining on us, and never stops searching for us.
“On this day when the Rich One was made poor for our sake, let the rich man also make the poor man a sharer at his table. On this day a gift came out to us without our asking for it; let us then give alms to those who cry out and beg from us. This is the day when the high gate opened to us for our prayers; let us also open the gates to the seekers who have stayed but sought [forgiveness].”
Christ is Born! Glorify Him!
Troparion from Canticle 1 of the Matins Canon for the Nativity.
Fr. Matthew Steenberg, “He Bowed the Heavens and Came Down”, in http://www.monachos.net/content/liturgics/liturgical-reflections/101.
Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen, Divine Intimacy, Volume 3, (Ignatius Press, 1987), p. 292.
Charles Swindoll, The Finishing Touch: Becoming God’s Masterpiece, (Word Publishing, 1994), p. 268.
Witness Lee, God’s New Testament Economy, (Living Stream Ministry, 1996), p. 63.
Fr. Thomas Hopko, Winter Pascha: Readings for the Christmas-Epiphany Season, (SVS Press, 1984), p. 89.
Archbishop Rowan Williams, Christmas Sermon, December 2004, http://www.thinkinganglicans.org.uk/archives/000950.html.
Kitty Ferguson, The Fire in the Equations: Science, Religion and the Search for God, (W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1997).
Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Glorious Christianity, (Crossway, 2004), p. 105.
Very Rev. john Breck, “Celebrating Christ’s Nativity” in http://legacy.oca.org/CHRIST-life-print.asp?ID=121, December, 2006.
The Incarnation of the Word by St Athanasius. Trans. by Rev. A. Robertson; Modernized, abridged and introduced by Stephen Tomkins. Edited and prepared for the web by Dan Graves.
Paul Russell, “The Image of the Infant Jesus in Ephrem the Syrian”, in Hugoye: Journal of Syriac Studies, Vol. 5, No. 1, January 2002, http://syrcom.cua.edu/Hugoye/Vol5No1/HV5N1Russell.html#S4.
Bill Steigerwald, “Christ, Christmas and Capitalism” in Front Page Magazine, December, 2006, http://archive.frontpagemag.com/readArticle.aspx?ARTID=889
Fr. George Morelli, “Christmas and Its Significance” in Christianity Today, http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles5/MorelliChristmas.php.
Rev. Bill Adams, “The Original Love Story” in http://www.rockies.net/~spirit/sermons/b-ch00-adams.php.
Hymns on the Nativity 1. Translation in Ephrem the Syrian Hymns, translated and introduced by Kathleen E. McVey New York: Paulist Press 1989. Syriac text at Des Heiligen Ephraem des Syrers Hymnen de Nativitate (Epiphania), herausgegeben von Edmund Beck Louvain: 1959 CSCO 186.