". . . all celebrate seeing God on earth and man in the heavens; because of his condescension they see down on earth him who, through his philanthropy, is found in heaven" (St. John Chrysostom, Second Homily on the Nativity).
Why is Christmas important to you? Undoubtedly, people of all ages and different backgrounds will answer this seemingly uncomplicated question in their own unique way. Many express contentment about receiving gifts during this season, while others look forward to sharing their time and resources with others. Some find excitement knowing that the holidays will provide them with some much needed respite from work or school, while still others anticipate being surrounded by good friends and food - and not necessarily in that order! Realizing then the great diversity of such views, I have attempted to avoid transforming this present contribution into one more personal opinion about the significance of Christmas.
As Christians, we believe that the birth in the flesh of the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, our Lord Jesus Christ, has set into motion the process of salvation. St. John Chrysostom's insightful characterization of the Nativity feast as "the center of all festivals" indicates that all subsequent events in the life of our Lord, celebrated liturgically by the Church, find their commencement with the human birth of Christ (On the Incomprehensible Nature of God, Homily 6, PG 48.752). In other words, had Christ not been born in the flesh, He would never have been baptized, crucified, or resurrected in the flesh.
Nevertheless, the Nativity does more than set a sequential basis for the other Christian holidays. More importantly, it imbues the other feasts of the Church with a profound realism, linking the incarnated God with every aspect and phase of human life. In other words, since God is now tangible, He is finally understandable in the full breadth of His love and compassion for the world. Likewise, man perceives that God, through Jesus Christ, has finally visited His people in the most special of ways and has comprehended and assumed in toto the human condition (despite the fact that God's awareness and concern for man has always far surpassed man's own expectation).
This ability then to understand and be understood lies at the very core of the Christmas message, and it is precisely this model of Christian life that our Lord offers to each of us this holy season as His gift of love. Though the Wise Men from the East offered the innocent Babe wrapped in swaddling clothes precious material gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, the Lamb of God offers to His worshippers a spiritual gift far more precious than money can buy. Man adorns the Christ Child with the material best of his world; God adorns man with the spiritual wealth of His heavenly Kingdom. And this gift of God comes complete with the following simple directions: "I have entered your beautiful world, the work of My hands, and have embraced you, My people. It is now your turn to learn from My humble example, to enter My Kingdom and embrace God."
What our Lord offers us at Christmastime is the opportunity to essentially adopt a new approach to life and people, His approach. He invites us to incarnate ourselves into the very fabric of our neighbor's reality, to understand and love him rather than to despise him, to forgive her rather than to judge her, and to support rather than to humiliate. In assuming this 'incarnational approach' to life, we would indeed be fulfilling the will of God and living up to the noble motto which proudly graced and still graces the halls of my old Catholic high school: Efficiamur Christiferi ("Let us become Christbearers").
This "foreign and strange mystery" of Christ's birth in the flesh beholds the powerful union of both the heavenly and earthly realms, "the cave as heaven, the Virgin as a Cherubic throne . . . upon which reclined the Boundless One, Christ God" (9th Ode of the katavasiai of the Nativity). Chrysostom makes a most interesting observation, namely, that the Incarnation was necessitated by a "lack of space in heaven", so to speak: "This is why he became flesh, so that the manger could accept him whom heaven cannot contain" (St. John Chrysostom, Second Homily on the Nativity). Put otherwise, God's limitless love for man overflowed from heaven and trickled down upon the earth, making our world, with the divine presence of the incarnate Logos, an extension of God's super-celestial Kingdom. And this expression of divine agape took the form of One who not only fully understood but was fully understood by others, giving to the world a model of living capable of transforming man into god, in St. Athanasius' estimation (On the Incarnation 54).
Christmas is indeed a time of warmth, togetherness, and sharing. However, we cannot and should not overlook the greatest gift God gives to each of us, which is Himself and the model of life He taught us through His humbling condescension and daily example of genuine concern and charity. It is in this 'incarnational approach' that the secrets of true happiness, joy, and peace - sought by people the world over -- are made manifest in their entirety.
Fr. Stylianos Muksuris, BA, MDiv, MLitt, PhD (cand.), is a graduate of Hellenic College and Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, Brookline, MA, and the University of Durham, Durham, UK, and specializes in Eastern Liturgy and Theology. His doctoral dissertation is entitled "Economia and Eschatology: The Mystagogical Significance of the Byzantine Divine Liturgy's Prothesis Rite in the Commentaries of Sts. Nicholas Cabasilas and Symeon of Thessalonike". He has also authored "The Anaphorae of the Liturgy of Sts. Addai and Mari" and the "Byzantine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great: A Comparative Study" (unpublished MLitt thesis). He may be reached at: email@example.com.