The Nativity of Christ
The Great Mystery of Piety
Bishop Alexander (Mileant).
Translated by Seraphim Larin and Daniel Olson
In the history of mankind, there is no event greater and more joyful than the incarnation and coming of the Son of God into the world. It is an act of the endless love of God the Father, Who so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
The incarnation of the Son of God from the Virgin Mary changed the world for the better in a radical way: It gave men a new way of thinking, ennobled their morals and directed world events along a new course. It brought men power to struggle against sin, reconciled men to God, brought about the adoption of men by the Father, and regenerated their whole nature. It poured a stream of divine life into the corrupted human organism and thereby brought eternal life to men. For these reasons, the incarnation of the Son of God proved to be at the very center of world events, and chronology is reckoned relative to it - before and after the Nativity of Christ. The celebration of the Nativity of Christ became a most joyous festival of believing humanity.
In the present article, we shall recount the events surrounding the Nativity of Christ, we shall talk about the spiritual significance of this event, and finally we shall discuss the main features of the Nativity divine service.
The Event of the Nativity of Christ
Preceding the Nativity of Jesus Christ, there was a general expectation of the Saviour. The Jews expected His coming on the basis of prophecies, and all the prophecies relating to the coming of the Son of God had been fulfilled. For example, the Patriarch Jacob had foretold that the Saviour would come when the scepter would depart from Judah (Gen 49:10). The prophet Daniel had foretold that the Kingdom of the Messiah would begin at the seventieth week (490 years) after the issuance of a command concerning the restoration of Jerusalem, during the era of a powerful pagan kingdom, which would be as strong as iron (Dan 9:24-27). And, indeed, at the end of Daniel's seventy weeks, Judæa fell under the dominion of the mighty Roman Empire, while the scepter passed from Judah to Herod, an Idumæan by birth.
The pagans also, in misery from unbelief and a general dissipation of morals, expected a Deliverer with impatience. Men, having fallen away from God, began to deify earthly good things, wealth and worldly glory. The Son of God rejected these worthless idols as the fruit of sin and human passions and was pleased to come into the world under the most modest conditions.
Two Evangelists describe the events of the Nativity: Apostles Matthew (of the twelve) and Luke (of the seventy disciples). Since the Evangelist Matthew wrote his Gospel for the Hebrews, he set himself the aim of proving that the Messiah descended from the forefathers Abraham and King David, as had been foretold by the prophets. Therefore, the Evangelist Matthew begins his narrative of the Nativity of Christ with a genealogy (Matt. 1:1-17).
Knowing that Jesus was not the son of Joseph, the Evangelist does not say that Joseph begat Jesus, but says that Jacob begat Joseph, the husband of Mary, from whom was born Jesus, Who is called Christ. But why, then, does he adduce Joseph's genealogy and not Mary's? The Hebrews did not have the custom of reckoning genealogies according to the female line, but their Law commanded a man to take a wife without fail from the tribe to which he belonged. Therefore, the Evangelist, not deviating from custom, adduces Joseph's genealogy, to show that Mary, Joseph's wife, and consequently also Jesus, descend from the same tribe of Judah and clan of David.
The most holy Virgin, informed by the Archangel Gabriel that she had been chosen to become the mother of the Messiah, set out for a meeting with Elizabeth, being only the espoused bride of Joseph. Almost three months had already passed since the good tidings of the angel. Joseph, who had not been initiated into this mystery, noticed her condition; her outward appearance gave him cause to consider unfaithfulness. He could have publicly denounced her and subjected her to the severe punishment established by the Law of Moses, but, in accordance with his goodness, he did not want to resort to such a drastic measure. After long vacillations, he decided to put his bride away secretly, without making any publicity, having delivered to her a bill of divorcement.
But an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and declared that the bride espoused to him would give birth from the Holy Spirit; therefore he advised Joseph, 'fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife.' And he was further instructed to name the Son born of her Jesus (Ieshua), that is, Saviour, since He would save His people from their sins. Joseph recognized this dream as inspiration from on high and obeyed it, taking Mary as his wife, but knew her not, that is, he lived with her not as a husband with a wife, but as a brother with a sister (or, judging from the enormous difference in years, rather as a father with a daughter). In narrating this, the Evangelist adds for himself: Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel (Isaiah 7:14). The name "Emmanuel" means "God with us." Here, Isaiah is not calling the One born of the Virgin Emmanuel: he is saying that men will call him such. Thus, this is not the proper name of the One born of the Virgin, but only a prophetic indication that God will be in His person.
The holy Evangelist Luke notes that the time of the Nativity of Christ coincided with a census of the inhabitants of the Roman Empire. This census was carried out in accordance with the command of Cæsar Augustus, that is, the Roman emperor Octavian, who had received the title Augustus ("sacred") from the Roman Senate. The edict on the census came out in the 746th year from the founding of Rome, but in Judæa the census began approximately in the 750th year, during the final years of the reign of Herod, who was surnamed the Great.
The Hebrews reckoned their genealogies according to tribes and clans. This custom was so strong that, having learned of the command of Augustus, they went to be registered each to the town of his clan. Joseph and the Virgin Mary descended, as is well known, from the clan of David. Therefore, they went to set out for Bethlehem, called the city of David because David was born there. Thus, by God's Providence, the ancient prophesy of the Prophet Micah was fulfilled, that Christ would be born precisely in Bethlehem: But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall come forth unto me that is to be a ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting (Micah 5:2, Matt. 2:6).
According to Roman laws, women were subject to the universal census equally with men. Therefore, Joseph went to Bethlehem not alone, but with the Most Holy Virgin. An unexpected journey to his native Bethlehem, a journey so close to the delivery of the Infant, must have convinced Joseph that Cæsar's decree was providential, directing events for the Son of Mary to be born precisely where the Messiah-Saviour ought to be born.
After an exhausting journey, the elderly Joseph and the Virgin Mary arrived in Bethlehem. There was no room in the inn for the mother of the Saviour of the world, and she, with her companion, was forced to lodge in a cave, where livestock were driven from pasture during bad weather. Here, during a winter night, under the most wretched conditions, the Saviour of the world - Christ - was born.
Having borne a Son, the Most Holy Virgin herself swaddled Him and laid Him in a manger. In these brief words, the Evangelist informs us that the Mother of God gave birth painlessly. The Evangelist's expression, brought forth her firstborn son, causes unbelievers to say that, after Jesus the first-born, the Most Holy Virgin had other children, since the Evangelists mention the "brethren" of Christ (Simon, Joses, Judas and James). However, according to the Law of Moses (Ex. 13:2), every infant of the male sex that openeth the womb was called the first-born, even if he were the last. The so-called "brethren" of Jesus in the Gospels are not His own brothers, but only relatives, the children of the aged Joseph by his first wife, Salome, and also the children of Mary the wife of Cleophas (whom the Evangelist John calls his mother's sister). In any case, they all were much older than Christ and therefore could not in any way be the children of the Virgin Mary.
Jesus Christ was born at night, when everyone in Bethlehem and its environs was sleeping. Only the shepherds, who were watching over the flock entrusted to them, were not sleeping. Unto these modest men, who labored and were heavy laden, an angel appeared with the joyous tidings of the birth of the Saviour of the world. The resplendent light surrounding the angel amidst the nocturnal darkness frightened the shepherds. But the angel at once calmed them, saying: Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. By these words, the angel gave them to understand the true purpose of the Messiah, Who had come not for the Jews alone, but for all people, for joy would be to all people who would accept Him as the Saviour. The angel explained to the shepherds that they would find Christ, the Lord Who had been born, in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
Why did an angel not announce the birth of Christ to the Jewish elders, to the scribes and the Pharisees, calling them also to worship the Divine Infant? Because these blind leaders of the blind had ceased to understand the true meaning of the prophecies concerning the Messiah and, on account of their exclusiveness and haughtiness, they imagined that the Deliverer would appear in the full splendor of a majestic conqueror-king, to subjugate the whole world. The modest preacher of peace and love toward one's enemies was unacceptable to them.
The shepherds did not doubt that the angel had been sent to them from God, and therefore they were counted worthy to hear the triumphant heavenly hymn: Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will among men. The angels glorify God, Who had sent the Saviour to men, for from that time, the peace of the conscience has been restored and the enmity between heaven and earth, which arose as a consequence of sin, has been eliminated.
The angels withdrew, while the shepherds hastily set out for Bethlehem; they found the Infant lying in a manger and were the first to worship Him. They told Mary and Joseph about the event that had brought them to the cradle of Christ; they told the same to others also, and all that heard their story were astonished. But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart, i.e., she remembered all that she had heard. The Evangelist Luke, who describes many events in the life of the Virgin, such as the Annunciation and the details of the birth of Christ (Luke, Ch. 2), evidently wrote from her words. On the eighth day after his birth, the Infant was circumscribed as prescribed by the Law of Moses.
The Adoration of the Magi
A further Gospel story, concerning the adoration of the Magi (Matt., Ch. 2), is very edifying. This is, first of all, a story about the "epiphany" or manifestation of Christ to the pagans.
Joseph and the Most Holy Mother of God with the Infant Jesus were still in Bethlehem when Magi came to Jerusalem from a distant land to the east (Persia or Babylon). Learned men, engaged in observing and studying the stars, were called Magi or wise men. At that time, men believed that, at the birth of a great man, a new star appears in the sky. Many pagans within the confines of Persia, had learned from the dispersed Jews of the coming of the Messiah, the Great King of Israel. From the Jews, they could even have learned the following prophecy of Balaam relating to the Messiah: I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh: there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite the corners of Moab (Num. 24:17). ("Moab" is a personification of the enemies of the Messiah.) The Persian Magi thus expected that, when the promised King would be born, a new star would appear in the sky. The prophecy of Balaam spoke of a star in the spiritual sense; nevertheless, the Lord, in His mercy, to bring the pagans to faith, gave a sign in the sky in the form of the appearance of an extraordinary star. Having seen it, the Magi understood that the expected King had been born.
After a protracted and long journey, they finally reached Jerusalem, the capital of the Jewish kingdom, and began to ask: Where is he that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him. These words from such conspicuous strangers, stirred up many of the inhabitants of Jerusalem, including King Herod, to whom the arrival of the exotic eastern scholars was immediately reported.
From the first days of his accession, Herod's throne had been shaky. The people hated him as a usurper of the Davidic throne and a tyrant, and they abhorred him as a pagan. The last years of Herod's life were complicated still more by personal adversities and bloody reprisals. He became extremely suspicious, and for the least cause executed enemies both real and imagined. Thus perished several of Herod's children and even his wife, whom earlier he had loved ardently. Ill and decrepit, Herod now resided in his new palace in Sion. Having heard of a King Who had been born, he became particularly agitated. Vulnerable in his old age, he feared that his rule would be overthrown and handed over to the new-born King.
In order to clear up just who this new pretender to the throne was, Herod gathered all the priests and scribes - men that knew the books of Sacred Scripture well - and he inquired of them where Christ should be born. They answered: In Bethlehem of Judæa: for thus it is written by the prophet Micah. Then Herod privately summoned the Magi, found out from them the time of the appearance of the star, and sent them on to Bethlehem. Feigning piety, the cunning Herod said to them: Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also. In fact, Herod was going to use their report to put the Infant to death.
The Magi listened to King Herod without suspecting anything, and went to Bethlehem. There again that star appeared, which they had seen before in the east. Moving across the sky, it went before them, indicating the way. In Bethlehem, the star stopped over that spot where the Infant Jesus was, Who had been born.
The Magi went into the house and saw the Infant Jesus with His mother. They bowed down to the ground before Him and presented to Him their gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh (a precious aromatic oil). In the gifts of the Magi, one may see the following symbolic significance. They brought gold to Him, as to a King (as tribute or taxes); frankincense, as to God (incense is used at divine services); and myrrh, as to a Man Who must die (the dead were anointed with oils mixed with aromatic myrrh).
Having worshipped the King awaited by all, the Magi would have returned to Jerusalem and to King Herod. However, an angel appeared to them in a dream, revealing Herod's perfidious designs, and commanded them to return to their own country by another way, without passing through Jerusalem. Tradition has preserved the names of the Magi, who afterwards became Christians: Melchior, Gaspar and Balthasar.
Thus, the first to worship the Saviour Who had been born were shepherds, nature's true children, who could open up before Him only the treasure of their hearts, full of simplicity, faith and humility. Significantly later came the Magi from the East, imbued with erudite wisdom, who laid down gold, frankincense and myrrh, together with reverent joy, before the Divine Infant. They had had to make a long journey to reach Judæa, and even from Jerusalem, they were not immediately able to find the birthplace of the King of the Jews. Does this not indicate that both simplicity of heart and profound, conscientious erudition lead equally to Christ? But the first way is more direct, short and sure than the second. The shepherds were guided directly by angels, while the Magi were "taught" by an unreasoning star, and, through Herod, by the scribes and the Jewish elders. Not without difficulties and dangers did they attain their desired goal, and they did not hear the heavenly harmony that sounded over the earth - Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will among men. (Metropolitan Anastasy's thought).
The Son of God
and the Son of Man
"Great is the mystery of godliness [piety]: God was manifest in the flesh" (I Tim. 3:16). These words of the holy Apostle testify that the miracle of the incarnation of the Son of God exceeds the understanding of our limited mind. Indeed, we can believe, but cannot explain, the event that took place two thousand years ago in Bethlehem: that, in the one Person of Jesus Christ, two natures so different and contrary in essence were joined together: the superterrestrial, eternal and infinite divine nature with the material, limited and feeble human nature.
Nonetheless, the Gospels and the apostolic epistles reveal to us, to the extent of our abilities, certain aspects of the miracle of the incarnation of the Son of God. Saint John the Theologian, at the very beginning of his Gospel, elevates our thought to the pre-eternal existence of the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity, Whom he calls the Word, saying: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not anything made that was made. And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us (John 1:1-3, 14).
The Son of God's name, the Word, indicates that one must not understand His birth from the Father in the sense of an ordinary birth: it occurred passionlessly and without separation. The Son of God is born from the Father like a word is born from a thought. A thought and a word are distinct from one another, and at the same time inseparable. There is no word without a thought, and a thought is without fail expressed in a word.
The subsequent apostolic preaching reveals all the more fully the truth of Christ's divine-human nature: He is the only begotten (the only) Son of God, Who was begotten of the Father before all ages, i.e., He is eternal, as God the Father is also eternal. The Son of God has the same divine nature that God the Father has, and is therefore omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent. He is the Creator of the visible and invisible worlds, and of us men. In a word, He, being the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity, true and perfect God. Faith in Jesus Christ as the incarnate Son of God represents the stronghold or rock upon which the Church is established, according to the word of the Lord: Upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it (Matt. 16:18).
Being perfect God, Christ the Saviour is at the same time also perfect Man. He had a human body and soul with all its properties - reason, will and senses. As a man, He was born of the Virgin Mary. As the Son of Mary, He obeyed her and Joseph. As a man, He was baptized in the Jordan and went around the towns and villages with His salvific preaching. As a man, He experienced hunger, thirst, fatigue; he had a need for sleep and rest; he endured painful sensations and physical sufferings. Living the physical life inherent to a man, the Lord also lived a spiritual life as a man. He strengthened His spiritual powers by fasting and by prayer. He experienced human feelings - joy, wrath, sorrow; he shed tears. In this way, the Lord Jesus Christ, having taken on our human nature, was in all things like unto us, except for sin.
Having two natures, Jesus Christ also had two free wills. Jesus Christ's rational, conscious, human will invariably subordinates its human aspirations and desires to His divine will. But the human will in Christ is clearly visible during His difficult experiences in the garden of Gethsemane: O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt (Matt. 26:39).
Thus, by His obedience to God the Father, the Lord Jesus Christ corrected our disobedience and taught us to put God's will above our own desires.
The Purpose of the Incarnation
of the Son of God
The parable of the lost sheep speaks graphically and vividly of the purpose of the coming of the Son of God into the world. The good shepherd leaves the ninety-nine sheep, by which is meant the angelic world, and sets out for the mountains in order to seek out his lost sheep - the human race perishing in sins. The shepherd's great love for the perishing sheep is evident not only in the fact that he solicitously seeks it, but especially in the fact that after finding it, he takes it upon his shoulders and carries it back. In other words, God, by His power, returns to man the innocence, holiness and blessedness lost by him; having united Himself with our human nature, the Son of God, according to the word of the Prophet, hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows (Isaiah, Ch. 53).
Christ became man not only to teach us the true way and to show us a good example. He became man in order to unite us with Himself, to join our feeble, diseased human nature to His divinity. The Nativity of Christ testifies to the fact that we attain the ultimate aim of our life not only by faith and by striving for good, but chiefly by the regenerating power of the incarnate Son of God, with Whom we are united.
Delving deeply into the mystery of the incarnation of the Son of God, we see that it is closely bound up with the mystery of Holy Communion and with the Church, which, according to apostolic teaching, is the mystical Body of Christ. In the Holy Communion of the Body and Blood of Christ, a man is joined to the divine-human nature of Christ; he unites with Him and in this union is wholly transfigured. At the same time, in Holy Communion, a Christian unites also with other members of the Church - and thus the mystical Body of Christ grows.
Heterodox Christians who do not believe in Holy Communion understand union with Christ in an allegorical, metaphorical sense, or in the sense of only a spiritual communion with Him. But for spiritual communion, the incarnation of the Son of God is superfluous. After all, even before the Nativity of Christ, the prophets and the righteous were counted worthy of grace-filled communion with God.
One must understand that man is ill not only spiritually, but also physically: all of human nature has been harmed by sin. It is essential, therefore, to heal the whole man, not only his spiritual part. To remove any doubt in the necessity for total communion with Himself, the Lord Jesus Christ, in His discourse on the Bread of Life, speaks thus: Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day... He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him (John 6:53-54, 56). Later, Christ uses the metaphor of the grapevine to explain to His disciples that it is precisely in close union with Him that man receives the strength essential for spiritual development and perfection: As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me. I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing (John 15:4-5).
Some holy Fathers have justly likened Holy Communion to the mystical tree of life, from which our primogenitors ate in Eden, and which afterwards St. John the Theologian saw in paradise (Ex. 2:9, Rev. 2:7, 22:2). In Holy Communion, a Christian is joined to the immortal life of the God-Man.
Thus, the purpose of the incarnation of the Son of God lies in the spiritual and physical regeneration of man. Spiritual renewal is accomplished throughout the course of a Christian's whole life. But the renewal of his physical nature is completed on the day of the general resurrection of the dead, when the righteous shall shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father (Matt. 13:43).