By Chor-Episcopos Dr. Kyriakos of Chicago, Chief Editor
We hear the Christmas story every year during the month of December. What we hear is the story of purely mundane things. We hear about a couple looking for a lodge in an emergency situation; the young woman was in her full term of pregnancy and was about to give birth to a baby. We hear about a manger, which was the only alternative for them without the availability of a lodge in Bethlehem. This manger happened to be very frigid; the newborn shivered and happened to be wrapped up in straw. We hear about the whispering of a girl, whose eyes were lit with astonishment and wonder. The story is also loud about the first Christmas carol of a choir of angels singing “Glory to God in the highest…!” To our admiration, there was also a moving star which led some wise men to this manger. These men offered incense, myrrh and gold at the feet of this newborn baby… This is humanly speaking a very lovely story.
The mother of this baby, thirty-three later, was entrusted to a man called John when this baby grew up and revealed the ultimate truth about Himself and was sentenced to die on the cross. Her Son asked him to take care of her as his mother after his passing away, also asked her to take him as her son. This woman must have told him the mystery of her conception, and the truth about the Person she carried in her womb. Thus the true story of Christmas unravels itself, and the picture gets clear. John many decades later had the audacity declare “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1.14). When this truth is professed in the Nicene Symbol of faith, all Christians make a deep prostration to adore this enfleshment of the Sovereign Deity. Here the Story of Christmas becomes complete; when Divinity meets humanity we have the Christmas. Any Christmas (and its feast and celebration) devoid of the Divine meeting the human is not a Christmas; because it does not meet the criterion witnessed by John.
If one studies the early part first chapter of John’s gospel, it becomes clear who this Word is. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. (John 1: 1- 4: Orthodox Study Bible). John’s description of the Word actually elevates the human beauty of the Christmas story to a higher plane and connects it to the divine to make sense of the story and to make it worthy of global celebration.
John’s preamble to the enfleshment of the Word directs our rational imagination to the primordial scenes of human origins, to the first man and woman, to the first transgression of God’s law. Adam and Eve, the first humans, who were created to be the first parents of human genealogy, were meant to transmit their original innocence, which they had received directly from the breathing of the Creator, to the generations of men and women of their species. However, they both sinned and shattered and totally disfigured the image of God in which they were fashioned.
In the strictest sense this image was not just a reflection; the first humans possessed the basic characteristics of the Godhead. God is a person, who is fully rational, capable of thinking or reasoning and of possessing the most sublime faculty of a free will which is the source of His immeasurable love. In other words, it is reason and free will in their unfathomable magnitude that make God the Person who creates and sustains all that was, all that is and all that will be. It is to this divine realm that God raised His new species of humans, although in a very limited extent as a created being that has limitations of temporality. Actually instead of qualifying man as an image or reflection of God, we must call him an icon of God. An icon is the miniature of a reality, the replica of the very reality, but not the reality itself. Similarly man is miniature God.
But this status of the first humans did not last that long. Satan, having lost all his glory as an archangel wanted to expand his kingdom, and shot his arrow of deception at this new creation of God, who has almost all his qualities with an additional dimension taken from the dust of the earth, which made him more vulnerable to temptations. This vulnerability with a free will and rationality was a feast for Satan. His arrow hit at the right spot, and it was also swallowed by the first woman, who did not want to be herself as the sole victim. She shared it with her man, as any woman would naturally do. This led to a metaphysical tragedy making not only both of them but also all the generations that erupted from them lose their original innocence and justice. Thus they lost the real love infused in them by their Creator; “love had fled from their souls”. They both became terrified. Adam cried out in despair: “I heard Your voice in paradise, and I was afraid”. Thus Satan succeeded in his plan. His plan was to demolish the most noble relationship between a rational God and His rational creature. He poisoned the human race at its root. The human race thus had fallen away from the love of God. Man could not relate to Him in the absence of a true love. Being fallen, Adam’s race acquired a habit of sinning and offending God from Cain who had killed his innocent brother to the archenemy of Christ before the end of our generation, the Antichrist. Until there is no more relevance for time and space, this deception by Satan will go on, the devil in and around us would lead us to more sins. The first victim of Eve’s sin was Abel at whose death the first tears in human history fell from the eyes of a mourning Eve, the first mother, whose first sin had brought this first tragedy on her and her man! This was the first gift our first parents presented to us, a nature susceptible to sin.
God was very much disturbed by this deplorable lot of humans. The antidote for sin is its own antonym- LOVE. God cursed Satan, but made a covenant for man’s emancipation from the deceptive grip of Satan out of His true love: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and your seed and her seed. He shall bruise your head, and you shall be on guard for His heel” Gen. #; 15). To paraphrase, (God said to Satan): “The first human beings that I have created betrayed my love. To restore that love I will raise a Son from her, and I will create a shield of grace between you and her Son, between your treachery (sin) and her Son; and finally He will crush your head”. Let me quote from the Wisdom of Solomon now: “For while gentle silence embraced everything and night at its own speed was half over, Your all-powerful Word leaped from heaven, and from the royal throne into the midst of a doomed land” (18:14-15)[*These verses of Wisdom may have other implications]. How lovely and cogent are the words of Solomon to depict the descent of the Word on earth from His royal throne in heaven! Almost a thousand years later, about this Word (Logos), John confirmed the same after having been inspired by the Holy Spirit “The Word became flesh (on earth)”.
Christmas is nothing if it is not about Love, if it is not the restoration of love. In fact we celebrate God’s benevolent and all-forgiving kiss on the sad face of humanity charred by a first degree burning inflicted by sin; it is a kiss of love to lay the foundation for reconciliation between desperate humanity and a just God who seeks propitiation from His offender. Christmas is not about a cold manger, swaddling cloths, a Mary and Joseph kneeling in front of an infant and a few cattle gazing at him, the angels and their choir, the three magi and their gifts of incense, myrrh and gold, and not even the many innocent infants killed by Herod, but about the Son of a woman who came to bruise the head of the archenemy of God, Satan. Humanity needed a Savior; and on the first Christmas day in Bethlehem He was born from a woman untainted by man’s voluptuousness. This Son born of a virgin could take away the sin of humanity and give forgiveness.
The beauty of Christmas lies in forgiveness; not in the manger, not in the garland decorating it, not in a Virgin Mary and her betrothed husband, and not even in the mesmerizing melody produced by the angelic choir up in the air. What Bethlehem had witnessed was the birth of this forgiveness, which was obtained from this Child of the Virgin. Christmas without the guarantee of forgiveness is just a celebratory extravaganza; it just is an entertainment without substance, without a raison d’etre. So it is with most of our Christians. Forgiveness demands many prerequisites. The conviction that we have sinned, the contrition creating genuine remorse, the unwavering resolution not to sin again, the confession of the sins committed or omitted, and readiness to repair the damage inflicted by the sin are the major prerequisites. Every Christmas is an occasion for a Christian to spiritually and emotionally prepare for God’s forgiveness; commercial interests have very little room in its celebrations. It is not primarily meant for the entrepreneurial man to dig in for more gold. In Capitalism it may be ethical, but in Christianity this mentality is spiritually and morally deceptive and destructive.
Our festivities in connection with our Christmas bypass all supernatural exhortations and preternatural considerations. We sink in more deep sins during these festivities. It is reported that on a Christmas day, the Beverages Corporation in the State of Kerala In India sells millions of liters of liquor driving thousands and thousands of families into irrevocable poverty, immorality, destitution, accidents, and diseases for many months, or years, to come. Instead of forgiveness, these festivities gather the wrath of God and His judgment. In order to become worthy of His forgiveness, it is not enough that the Christ-Child stay in His manger. The other name of this Child is Emmanuel, which means “God with us”; in other words, this Child should be “with us and within us”, not just “in the manger”. Rather than keeping this Christ-Child in a manger, we have to taste His presence “with us and in us”. There is a Christian name, Christopher, which literally means “the one who carries Christ”. Rather than letting a manger carry Christ, we should become the bearers of Christ. The truth is that one cannot bear Christ if he has driven out the Spirit of God from by becoming an obedient servant of Satan. If Christ-God lives in us, if we bear Him, we are not at all afraid of Him or His presence; on the contrary we would rejoice. Centuries ago Adam said: “I heard Your voice in the garden, and I was afraid”; however with Christ-Child in us, each of us could say: “I heard Your voice in the manger in Bethlehem; and I was very happy; I rejoice”. What a transformation Christmas has effected on our souls! We read in I Corin-thians (15:55) that death comes from sin and the victory that the Hell is joyful about; the Hell was rejoicing about death effected by our sin. But Paul emphatically declares that “Thanks be to God, who gives victory (over death and sin) through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Co. 15:56). Christmas started the combat against the reign of death. If the first Christmas was in a manger in Bethlehem, every Christmas since then must have occurred in our hearts. Imperial Rome must have recorded the birth of Christ then in Bethlehem (because it was for meeting the census requirement that Mary and Joseph had gone to Bethlehem), and it was indeed a significant birth as it recoded one more citizen within the dominion of the Roman Emperor. Every Christmas since then would be significant only after His birth is recorded in our hearts and souls as the most significant in our history. One cannot record Christ’s birth in his heart until His birth is an event for him, until it imprints a salvific seal in his soul, until he becomes equipped to fight sin which is the cause of death.
Let us go back to the area of John’s gospel we have quoted earlier and read on the most relevant portions thereafter: “He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name; who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (Jn 1:12-13). The entire theology of the economy of salvation is spelled out here by John. We have to become children of God, Godlike, or divine ultimately in order to accomplish the mission of incarnation. We lost our filial relationship to God through Adam’s sin; but Christ regained our sonship through adoption by His blood. Everyday we repeat the Nicene Symbol of Faith: “We believe in the one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God…who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and was made man…” This is the act of faith required of us at every Christmas, and always as Christians.
All the celebrations of Christmas become lovely when we really comprehend spiritually and rationally (“rationally” means our rational assent to a revealed truth, not that our intellect can totally comprehend the truth of incarnation) the basic doctrine of Christianity that “The Word became flesh”.
It is this truth that connects Christmas with the divine. Thus we realize it is not just Mary’s Child who lies in the manger, and it is God Himself, Who is wrapped in swaddling cloths. Now there is significance for Mary and Joseph gazing at the stunning Reality to which the former gave birth. Now it is meaningful for Mary and Joseph to kneel around this Wonder Baby in adoration. Now it makes sense for the angelic choir to chant “Hallel… Hallel.. Halleluiah…” in the heavens. The shepherds watching their sheep now hear a much more mellifluous melody coming from the angels which is contagious to the rest of humans to start fresh stanzas of lullaby for this new miracle babe: “The Word became flesh…, and dwelt among us…” We have a striking melody that was sung by Mary herself while she was kneeling by the side of the crib of her Baby:
“You strengthened me and I carried You…and when I bore You in the cave, You showed me Your glory. Flames surround the little crib and the Seraphim with six wings fly above it. Command them to raise their wings, that I may enter, Lord, and kneel and worship you; and I will give a pure milk which shall be pleasing to Your will… I have no house on earth, nor couch, nor bed, I am deprived of all; I will wrap in swaddling bands Him who is more ancient than all, and I will lay in manger the Lord of creatures. His Father has no equal in heaven, and there is none like His mother on earth; He is the Lord and I am His handmaid and the Church is His bride” (Syrian Breviary- Evening Prayers). What an unparalleled and unmatching poetic imagery the Syrian Orthodox Book of Hours provides!
Joseph definitely was stunned at the Reality in front of him.
The guiding star of the magi did not have a clue why it was moved to a definite destination, but when it stood above the crib the prostrations of the wise men told it that they had been hastening to worship the Sovereign-Child of the cosmos! And these magi may have thought of giving their guiding star as a toy for this Lord of lords who was lying as a Child in that crib, in addition to the other gifts!!
Readers: Is the Incarnate Word of God a Reality for all of us who celebrate this Christmas like Mary, Joseph, the angels, the shepherds, the magi and the whole Judea who were blessed with His really definite divine presence in human nature? If we do not see our God coming as a human baby for our redemption, our Christmas is totally devoid of its original substance. We are deceiving ourselves. Let us not be hypocritical.
Yes, Christmas is the story of Divinity coming down and meeting humanity.
Without the Lord God coming down to be spiritually born in our hearts and souls, Christmas is flavorless.
May the Incarnate Lord God be born in you and live in you, so that the peace He brought for all men of good will may remain in you during the New Year and always thereafter!
When Divinity meets humanity… we have Christmas!
We wish you a very Blessed Christmas and a Peaceful and Prosperous New Year!