"And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold, the angel of the Lord came upon them and the glory of the Lord shone about them: and they were afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not, for, behold, I bring you glad tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
For to you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; You shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly powers praising God, and saying: Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace good will among men!" (Luke 2: 7-14)
"Glory to god in the highest, and on earth peace good will among men!"
"Silent Night, Holy Night," "Away in a Manger" "O Holy Night", and other moving hymns are heard every Christmas season in many parts of the world, and confer joy to people. In the Orthodox Church, the spirit of Christmas is celebrated, not only with external decorations, but it enters our minds and hearts through fasting, prayer and services with numerous hymns of praise.
Even more enlightening and triumphant praises are drawn from the treasury of holy tradition, dating back as much as two-thousand years ago. We sing praises to the New Child, to the Mother who gave birth to Him, to the shepherds and magi who adored Him, and to the angels who celebrate the birth of God in the flesh. Together with the Fathers and Saints we praise the Nativity of our Lord in the following manner: "Today the Virgin gives birth to the transcendent One, "Christ is born, glorify Him; Christ from the heavens, meet Him", "Your Nativity Christ our God, arose upon the world as the light of knowledge." The words sung by the angels to the shepherds on Christmas, are perpetually enshrined in Orthodoxy's Great Doxology, which reminds us of the angelic words: "Glory to God in the highest; and on earth peace and for good will among men."
Such words which seek to portray the magnificent beauty and exceptional glory of God being born in the flesh, may seem inadequate, nevertheless this sublime knowledge and uplifting form of praise has been faithfully preserved and handed down to us and to our posterity. It is also unique for much of our festal music was formulated by Saints and Angels. But what arouses such joy in the secular world? Why does Christmas have such a profound effect upon so many people, in so many places, even upon those who are not church goers?
Amazingly, we see that in many cases there is joy and celebrating even without the thought of Jesus Christ! The solution lies in the words of Christ when the Jews complained about the honor given Him by small children on Palm Sunday, and He rebuked them saying: "I tell you that, if these should keep silent, the stones would immediately cry out" (Luke 19:40). The event of God becoming a man, electrifies the entire creation, especially the angelic powers with the Cherubim and Seraphim. The great Feast of the Christ's birth is celebrated both in heaven and upon earth, by old and young alike.
Contributing are the celebrations of the Nativity in Orthodox Churches which overflow everywhere spreading the goodwill of God among men. This great event, detailed in many prophecies in the Old Testament, was first revealed by heavenly angels to the humble shepherds watching over their flock at night, and through this event the heavenly angels aroused all mankind to joyfully sing out: "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill among men."
The Nativity of Christ is the beginning of the preaching of the Gospel with its promise of eternal life. But what is the promise of eternal life? It answers the "hopes and fears of all the years" of all mankind. It is the promise of the restoration of man to his pristine glory. It bars no one and welcomes everyone, especially the worst of sinners, the iniquitous, the liars and slanderers, for all are welcome to enter the new life of the Gospel - and this is good news, for this is the night of our dear Savior's birth.
The word gospel is filled with wonderful meaning expressed in the glad tidings spoken of by the angel: "Behold, I bring you glad tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people." Why does this news bring joy and gladness to mankind? It foretells the end of pain and suffering and forgiveness to those struggling under the burden of sins. It offers forgiveness for the many evil things we have done and a new start in this newness of life. It offers divine help to fight against evil and enables us to become sinless and holy. Because we all are wounded and need help, crushed under the burden of sin and afflicted by the ever present threat of death. Because of illness, sadness, despondency, family problems, and many other afflictions. Even if we were to go through life with only a few afflictions, we will certainly face the greatest of afflictions - inevitable death. Although we know that we must die, yet it is our firm desire to stay alive for a long time , and even for ever.
Thus the mystery of our joy and gladness is clearly seen to be our yearning for life, abundant life- eternal life. Christmas is the introduction into this new and eternal life filled with unlimited youth, joy and exultation. Christmas is about our return to Paradise and its delights. That is what is couched in songs such as, "Joy to the world, the Lord is come", which is a universal invitation from the God on high to everyone without exclusions.
The only restriction to those invited was expressed by the Child in the manger, for He said, as He picked up a little child: "Unless you become like this child you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven" We need the trusting innocent and desire to learn as a young child. The Babe in the manger will become the Christ, who alone can return us to the innocence of a small child.
Jesus Christ came into our world born from the Virgin, while angels from heaven bore witness from on high. In the moonlit fields shepherds were called to bear witness to the only hope of mankind, and obeying the angels they went to Bethlehem offering adoration to the New Child. Magi from the East, upon following a star, traveling from afar, arrived offering gifts of gold, myrrh and frankincense.
In the future the infant Christ, as a young man, would preach the glad tidings of great joy, perform many wonderful works, endure His awesome Passion, Crucifixion and Death on the Cross. On the third-day He will arise from the dead never to die again. The purpose of His birth was to enable Him, bearing our nature, to enter the dominion of death and destroy its authority over all humanity. Then by His glorious Resurrection, with divine fire, He permanently engraved and set our souls afire, with the hope and the certainty of our own resurrection to eternal life. For just as Christ arose from the dead we too shall arise with Him in the resurrection.
However, this is not simply something He did for us, and that's the end of it, for we must act and offer our own effort, actively coming forward to receive this gift and then struggle during our lifetime to increase this gift and present it to Him at the great judgment. Christ's nativity establishes a path to a new life of joy and happiness on earth and for eternity. Cherishing and holding fast to this hope, death to Orthodox Christians is transformed into something good, not dismal or depressing, for as the sun dissipates the darkness, so the hope of resurrection dissipates all sadness and despondency, and together we rejoice exceedingly, knowing that whether we live or die we live for ever in Jesus Christ, for His death is a life-giving death. Millions of Saints and Martyrs have lived and died in Christ and now abide with Him in Him for ever, and we celebrate their memories, for in Christ they too have conquered death and abide with Him for ever.
The Nativity of Christ concerns every one of us. Are we living a dissolute life? It is about us. Are we drunkards, fornicators, prostitutes, thieves or robbers? The Nativity is all about us sinners. Our Lord is being born to rescue and save sinners, thus Christ tells us that He came "not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance". We should not, then, rejoice that we are sinners, but rejoice that He is rescuing us from our deadly sins. His birth is about transformation of us sinners into saints our sins into virtues, our sorrows into joy, and our wickedness into goodness. Christ was born in order to change mankind and rescue him from the second death, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth and eternal fire. From Isaiah the Prophet we hear: "Come let us reason together says the Lord; though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow." There is hope for anybody and everybody, for everyone is welcome and no one is excluded.
The celebration of Christ's Nativity, reminds and attracts us to love God and all that He has done for us. Such God ought to consume us and nothing in this world should stand in its way. No one can love his father and mother, children, brother, spouse or enemies unless he first completely loves God more than he loves his own soul. The depth of this love is taught by our Lord: "He that does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. He that finds his soul shall lose it; he that loses his soul for my sake shall find it. ("soul" is mistranslated in English versions as "life") This love needs to be an unconditional love, accepting all that the Lord bestows. Such was the love of Job the Much sufferer. Such love will willingly sacrifice a person's soul for Christ. Showing such love when God threatened to destroy the Jews, Moses asked God to destroy him instead.
The Orthodox Church is the treasure house of divine grace and every member is able to abide in this love and the Church offers and gives all the help that is needed. Christ's Church brilliantly reflects the extreme love of its Head "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whoever believed in him should not perish, but have everlasting life." "A new commandment I give to you, that you love each other even as much as I have loved you. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for each other."
The majesty and wealth of the Nativity of Christ, Christmas, is a source of every good and noble thought and emotion possible. Joy and sorrow, happiness and sadness, exultation and fear, tears of unending joy and tears of sadness, for the little Child in the manger will increase and become a man and then go to the Cross to die as a sacrifice for our sins. Before us, He lies in a manger wrapped in swaddling clothes, and after the Cross, He will be wrapped and bound in burial clothes, and placed ,not in a manger, but in a new tomb. By His binding and wrapping, he will untie and release us from our passions.
For following the Nativity, the Passion and the Crucifixion of Christ is the indescribable Feast of joy and exultation, the brilliant Pascha, which will occur on the third day after His death, "Having slept in the flesh as a mortal man O King and God, you arose on the third day, and awakened as a lion of Judah bringing exultation and exceeding joy to all who believe and love Him."
This great benefit conferred upon us is conditional and places a great responsibility upon us. Christ taught us: "You are the light of the world". We must bear in mind what this responsibility entails. The Virgin gives birth to Jesus Christ, and thereby sets the example for all of us to follow. For we, having been cured and saved by the Lord, must give have Christ born in our hearts.
We also must give birth to Christ in our thoughts, actions and words. We must become saviors of other men by bringing them out of darkness into His Holy Church where they can receive forgiveness of their sins through baptism and enter a new life. We can accomplish this only if we are filled with ardent love for Christ, loving Him with all our minds, with all our souls with all our being, for God is love. May He grant us to acquire this love and live in Him and with Him for ever unto the ages of ages.
Raphael Masterjohn was ordained as lay preacher by the late Archbishop Michael of Greek Archdiocese in the 1950's and has been preaching ever since. He is a chanter at the Greek Orthodox Church in Longmeadow, Massachusetts. Mr. Masterjohn is the editor and publisher of "Canons of the Church: The Rudder" available on compact disc for $99 (discounts available for bookstores, monastics, and clergy). To order, contact Mr. Masterjohn at Rmorthodox@aol.com.