The Feast of the Nativity according to the flesh of Our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ+
Ceasar Augustus, the first Roman Emperor (30 BC-AD 14), having made all the peoples of the known world subject to his sole authority, decided, in the height of his power, to take a census of the vast population of the Empire, and he thereby became the unwitting instrument of the realization of God’s plan.1 For in bringing together and establishing peace and harmony among the many peoples of the immense Empire, with their diverse customs and languages, he prepared them for the revelation of the One God in three Persons, and thus opened the way for the universal proclamation of the Gospel, in accordance with the divine promise: I shall give thee the nations for thine inheritance (Ps. 2:8). Thus this first census prophetically foretold the enrolment of the elect in the Book of Life (cf. Phil. 4:3; Rev. 21:27).
The imperial decree reached Palestine when Quirinius was Governor of Syria, and occasioned the fulfilment of the prophecy that the Messiah should be born of the lineage of Judah at Bethlehem, the native city of King David (Mic. 5:2). For Joseph, who was then with Mary at Nazareth in Galilee, had to be enrolled at Bethlehem, the town of his forefathers, even though the pregnancy was well advanced of her whom all took to be his wife.
On their arrival they found the place crowded with people from all over the country, who like themselves had come for the census. Unable to find lodging at the inn, they had to shelter for the night outside the town in a cave that was used as a cattle shed. Since Mary felt that the time had come for her to be delivered of her child, Joseph settled her as best he could in the straw, close by the ox and ass which they found there, and he went out in haste to look for a midwife.2 On his way, he noticed that the whole of nature had suddenly become utterly still as though seized with astonishment: the birds hung motionless in mid-air, men and beasts stopped in their tracks, and the waters ceased flowing. The continuous movement that leads everything from birth to death and imprisons it in vanity (cf. Pss. 38: 6-7; 102:15. Eccles. 1) was suspended, for at that moment the Eternal entered within the heart of time. The pre-eternal God became a newborn child. Time and history now took on a new dimension.
The universal hush did not last, and everything appeared to resume its normal course. Joseph found a midwife who was coming down the mountain. He told her, on the way to the cave, of her who was about to give birth. But on reaching the cave they were prevented from entering by a thick cloud which covered it like that on Mount Sinai when God revealed Himself to Moses (Exod. 19:16). The woman fell to the ground and cried out: ‘My soul has been magnified this day, for my eyes have seen a wonder: a Saviour has been born in Israel!’ The cloud lifted and gave place to a dazzling light which, decreasing little by little, allowed them entrance at last. They were in excess of mind to behold the All Holy Lady sitting beside the manger where she had placed the Child which she had wrapped in swaddling clothes. Joseph already knew from the Angel that the Blessed Virgin had conceived the Saviour by the operation of the Holy Spirit, and as he contemplated the little Child lying in the straw, he silently adored the Messiah, awaited and foretold by his fathers for so many generations. Indeed what could be more amazing that this sight, and how could words express it?
The Almighty God and Creator of all things became a lowly, weak creature, a little homeless sojourner, yet without ceasing to be divine and uncircumscribed. The Word of God took upon Himself the heaviness of flesh and, clothing Himself in our humanity, made of it a royal robe. He who is seated in impassibility upon His heavenly throne, attended by myriads of the heavenly host who glorify Him without cease, accepted to be contained in an obscure, narrow cave, rejected and despised by all. He who is of divine nature humbled himself, emptied himself, taking the form of a servant and being born in the likeness of men. (Phil. 2:7). He who cannot be touched accepted to be wrapped in swaddling bands in order to release us from our sins and to cover with divine glory those who were disgraced. God’s only Son, He who is in the bosom of the Father from all eternity, became Son of man and son of the Virgin without ceasing to be God, in order to become the first-born among many brethren (Rom. 8:29), so granting to men the dignity of adoptive sons of God (John 1:12; Luke 6:35; Gal. 4:4-7). He is laid in a crib and gazed upon by the ox and the ass, whereby the prophecies are fulfilled: In the midst of two animals thou shalt be known (Hab 3:2 LXX) and, The ox knows his Creator and the ass his Master’s crib (Is. 1:3 LXX). He who gives food to all flesh by His providence is laid in the manger of these animals without reason, which symbolize the Jews and the Gentiles, in order to heal mankind of its madness, and to reconcile those whom hatred had kept apart (Eph. 2:16) by offering himself for the sustenance of all as the true Bread of Life (John 6:51). Moreover, in this sence, say the holy Fathers, an image of the Church is presented to our contemplation: the crib represents the chalice containing Him who became flesh on this day and gives Himself as food for the life of the world: the Virgin is at once His throne and the altar of sacrifice; the cave, a temple; the Angels, Joseph and the shepherds serve as deacons and acolytes; and the Lord Himself ministers as High Priest in this divine Liturgy.
A countrywoman called Salome who chanced to pass that way learned from the midwife of the wonder that had taken place, but she did not show the same faith. She thought it past belief that a virgin should give birth and, not only that, but remain a virgin after bringing forth her child. With an incredulity rather like that of the Apostle Thomas (John 20:25), she dared to extend a shameless hand to the body of the All Holy Lady. Her hand was immediately struck as if with palsy and she cried out: “Woe is me for my impiety and unbelief! I have provoked the living God! Look, my hand has been shrivelled up as though by fire and is dropping off!’ Falling to her knees, she implored the Lord to take pity on her, at which an Angel appeared and allowed her to take the Divine Infant in her arms. With sincere faith full of the fear of God, she exclaimed: ‘I bow down before Him, for a great King has been born in Israel!’ She was healed immediately, but the Angel counselled her to keep all these wonders to herself until the Lord should make Himself known in Israel.
The marvel accomplished today in the humble cave at Bethlehem is the fulfilment of all the revelations granted to the Prophets of Israel, and the outcome of a patient preparation of mankind through all the centuries since David, Abraham, Noah and Adam. Today, in these last times, God sends us His Only Son by whom He made all the ages (Heb. 1:2), thus revealing to the world the Great Mystery of our Salvation, which had been wrapped in silence and kept hidden in God, in the expressible counsel of the three Persons of the Holy Trinity, since before the creation of the world (cf. Rom. 16:25; 1 Cor. 2:7; Eph. 3:5, 10: Col. 1:26). To see this day dawn, the sun, the expanse of heaven, the earth and all living things have been created. That the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:4) is a mystery beyond the grasp of human understanding, and unfathomable even to the intellect of the Angels. He who is God by nature takes our humanity upon Himself and makes it His own in the womb of the Virgin, clothing Himself in it as a garment, in order that we may partake in His divinity. He is God and man, one only Person, Jesus Christ known in two natures which are united in Him without mixture, without division and without separation.3 Today God becomes man in the cave at Bethlehem in order that man may become god.4 God’s aim and purpose in bringing forth all things out of nothing and leading them into existence, has been that the Second Person of the Holy Trinity should come down even to us, should take upon Himself our humanity – grown old and deformed by sin – in order to heal our wounds by His sufferings, to cleanse His image defiled in us, to renew us in Himself (Eph. 2:15), to rescue us from the abyss of death into which we have fallen and bring us up to the heights of Heaven, above all the celestial powers, even so far as to enthrone us together with Him in God (Eph. 2:6; Rev. 3:21). Jesus Christ, the Saviour, Emmanuel – God with us – is born today as a tender babe upon whom the Angels gaze with awe (Is. 7:14; Matt. 1:23). The true light that enlightens every man coming into the world (John 1:9) has shone in the darkness of a poor stable, and the time of death and corruption is nearing its end. Solomon no longer has cause to exclaim that there is nothing new under the sun (Eccles. 1:9), for this small child is the second Adam, who has brought a new creation, a new man, into being (Eph. 2:15; 4:24). Henceforth by following Christ, by obeying His commandments and by suffering with Him, in order to arise through Him, mankind is called to find immortality.
The Word has become flesh; He has taken our sickness upon Himself, and has had compassion on our weakness, though having no share in our offence. He has assumed body and soul and, as a small child, He has submitted to the conditions of our fallen world: growth, hunger, thirst, sleep, want of knowledge; without, however, committing sin. He alone is without sin (Rom. 5:21) and He has come to dwell in the flesh which is subject to sin and to death in order that the flesh may become Word.5 He has taken upon Himself a body destined for the tomb, and has covered it with glory and light by making it the sharer of His immortality. For as the whole fullness of the Godhead dwells bodily in Him (Col. 2:9), so those who follow Him by faith will share in this fullness in their whole being: in their spirit, in their soul and in their body.
Today in keeping the feast of the Incarnation of the Word, the descent of God among men, we confess the accomplishment of the whole mystery of our Redemption: Christ is born and man thereby becomes heir to his glory. Certainly, a little child in a crib is all that meets our eye but, taught by the holy Fathers, we see the signs of the completion of the Mystery of Christ in the humble cave at Bethlehem. Christmas and Easter – the Feast of feasts – are together one and the same solemnity.6 The cave foretells the tomb, the swaddling bands prefigure the winding-sheet: here Christ appears in the world leaving the virginity of His mother without blemish; there He triumphs over death and comes forth from the tomb without breaking the seals: at Bethlehem an Angel is sent to the shepherds, and at Jerusalem a radiant Angel announces the Resurrection to the Myrrhbearing women. Always and everywhere one and the same Christ, become man like to ourselves even unto death, in order that the transgression committed by one man, Adam, might be removed from us by one man, the Second Adam. For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ, who gave Himself as a ransom for us all (1 Tim. 2:5). And today all beings in heaven and on earth bow down before Him as Saviour and Lord, and rejoice with great joy at being reconciled to God by Him in His body, which is Holy Church, the fullness of Him who fills all in all (Eph. 1:23).