With the hyper-commercialization of Christmas in American culture, it's important for us to step away from the noise and tinsel, in order to hear once again what Orthodox Christian tradition tells us about the real significance of this feast. This takes us back first of all to the Nativity stories of the Gospels. To interpret those stories, though, we need to turn as well to the ancient liturgical hymns that express the meaning of our celebration more fully, accurately and beautifully than any biblical commentary.
As much as any other Christian feast, the significance of Christ's Nativity comes to expression by means of "antinomies." These are paradoxical affirmations that speak of the ineffable mystery of the Incarnation by juxtaposing apparent contradictions.
The most obvious of these is found in the prolog of St John's Gospel, which declares that "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us ... " (1:14). As the context makes clear (a point missed by the translators of the New Revised Standard Version of the New Testament) that Word or Logos is the Person of the eternal Son of God. He whom the Church worships as "one of the Holy Trinity" has entered into the realm of time and space, the fallen world of human life and experience, to "become man," a human being like ourselves. Yet He does so "without change," that is, without ceasing to be divine; in theological language, the Subject of the incarnate Lord remains the eternal Logos. Although He takes upon Himself the fullness of human nature -- He assumes a human body and mind, He "becomes a human soul" -- He nevertheless remains the eternal Son, "one in essence" with the Father and the Holy Spirit. This is the first and most striking antinomy: through His Incarnation Jesus of Nazareth has become the "God-man." He is neither a mere human being who happens to work miracles, nor is He a God who simply "appears" to be a man. He is "God in the flesh." And He will remain so until the consummation of all things, when God will be "all in all" (1 Cor 15:28).
This ultimate mystery is hymned throughout the Nativity cycle of liturgical services. Nowhere is it expressed more poignantly or beautifully than in three passages found in the Great Compline service of Christmas eve.
The verses of the Litia1. evoke the paradoxical relationship between the great and the small, between heaven and earth, between grandeur and humility. "God is born from a woman and appears in the flesh ... A cave and a manger welcome Him. Shepherds announce the wonder. Wise men from the East offer gifts in Bethlehem." Then comes the exhortation, "Let us from our unworthy lips, offer praise like the angels: Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace!" The next stanza expresses the purpose of the wondrous Incarnation: "Today heaven and earth are united, for Christ is born. Today God has come to earth, and man ascends to heaven. Today God, who by nature cannot be seen, is seen in the flesh for our sake. Let us glorify Him ... !"
Mary, the Mother of Jesus, is accordingly exalted as Theotokos, the Mother of God. The language that describes her likewise sets in relief the unfathomable mystery of the God-manhood proper to her Son. Her womb, the hymns graphically declare, "has become more spacious than the heavens," for she has borne Him who is both Creator and Redeemer of all things.
The Aposticha verses that follow the Litia include similar images that hold together apparently irreconcilable opposites. "A great and wondrous mystery unfolds today: A virgin gives birth and remains a virgin!" Humble shepherds, drawn from the lowest class of society, "behold the wonder," perceiving with the angelic host the great miracle that now unfolds in human history. Mary again is proclaimed "the first-fruits of salvation for all the world, for God, the All-perfect, is born of her. By His birth He seals her virginity. He is bound in swaddling clothes to loose the bonds of sin!" Her Son's own humility seals the divine act of redemption: "Thou hast dwelt in a cave, O Christ our God ... Glory to thy condescension, O Thou who lovest mankind!"
But it is in the Kontakion of the feast that the great wonder of Christ's Nativity in the flesh finds its most succinct and sublime expression. "Today the virgin gives birth to the transcendent one, and the earth offers a cave to the unapproachable one. Angels, with shepherds, glorify Him! The wise men journey with the star. Since for our sake the eternal God was born as a little child."
"Since for our sake the eternal God was born as a little child." This is the true meaning, the ultimate and, indeed, the only true significance, of Christmas. If 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.
As the Church Fathers never tired of declaring, "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.
What occurred two thousand years ago in the obscure village of Bethlehem occurs even now, within the joys and hardships of our daily routine. All around us Christ's Nativity is mocked, ignored, or exploited for commercial reasons. Yet in the midst of this cultural travesty, we can rediscover once again the truth that the Liturgy of the feast also proclaims: that this wondrous event of Christ's Incarnation, which took place ages ago, also takes place today, here and now, in our own personal and ecclesial experience. "Today," we sing with Orthodox Christians throughout the world, "the virgin gives birth to the transcendent one." "Today heaven and earth are united, for Christ is born!"
1. Served toward the end of Vespers, especially on the eve of feasts, the Litia consists of a procession by the clergy to the narthex of the church, where the deacon intones a long prayer of supplication (litê) for the needs of the people and the world. It includes a series of hymns, together with the festal troparion that express the theme of the feast.
Read the entire article on the Orthodox Church in America website (new window will open). Reprinted with permission of the author.