Pondering the Mystery of Christmas

by Doru Costache

The scriptural readings prescribed for the liturgical celebration of Christmas constitute a sustained mystagogy of the festival. The message the readings suggest seems to be focusing on two related topics. First, to realise the identity of Christ and the significance of his ministry. Second, to realise the content of our Christian identity in the light of the previous message. In what follow, to keep this essay at a manageable size, I merely indicate the scriptural references without engaging them. In turn, I offer my own meditation on the prescribed passages within the festal context.

Sunday of the Lord’s Holy Ancestors (two Sundays before Christmas)

Colossians 3:4–11. Luke 14:16–24. One should not become a slave to material things. This is not about rich people: it is about all of us and what we should prioritise in life. The gospel reading gives three examples of prioritising material values—property, means, family. Likewise, the apostolic reading mentions passions related to pleasure and anger, showing that these affect those who experience them and the people around them. Both readings point out that our choices have consequences: the materialists in the gospel reading missed the banquet, whereas the passionate and the violent cannot make sense of the will of God who wishes all to be saved. One is not called to stop working, earning, and having a family. But one should understand that life remains unfulfilled without God and the neighbour. The other message of today’s passages refers to the love of God. The icon of God, the host of the banquet in the gospel, desires that people enjoy the banquet. And there is ever more room for whomever accepts the invitation. In the letter, God’s love is that all be saved, irrespective of their blood, religion, and social status. The true children of God know God’s love and are not blinded by wrong priorities and choices. They know that Christmas is the love of God for all. So is likewise this liturgy dedicated to the bodily ancestors of the Lord—the love of God for all who desire to taste from the Master’s dinner.

The Forefeast of Christmas and Saint Ignatius the God-bearer (20 December)

Hebrews 10:32–38. Mark 6:33–41. On 20 December, together with celebrating the Forefeast of Christ’s Birth, the Church remembers Saint Ignatius the God-bearer (d. ca 108), Bishop of Antioch in Syria. This association of events is telling. Christmas, festival of the Lord’s birth, brings hope and joy to the world by renewing the promise of God that all are called to become his children, a promise accomplished through his Son, Jesus Christ, incarnated for the life of the world. But the joy of Christmas is no worldly joy. Christian life cannot be reduced to a momentary respite. The joy of Christmas is the joy of a divine reward for all who receive Christ, but this joy is ever linked with trial, sorrow, and pain. The hymns of Christmas in the Orthodox tradition, indeed, do not just give expression to our joy; they already announce that the Child born for us is the Crucified Lord. Today’s celebration subtly conveys the same message, by associating the Forefeast of Christmas and the memory of Saint Ignatius, a martyr bishop. The readings of today make this message plain. Christians should not expect all the best in the world. The world is hostile to Christ, the world is hostile to those who bear the name of Christ, Christians. This is why Christianity is never a matter of ruling over the world or who is first and who is second. Christians should understand that they are that humble child from the Gospel, fragile, defenceless, vulnerable. They are hated and mocked and persecuted. But, like Christ, they are here to serve one another and this world, to bring hope and joy to whomever wishes these. Their place and their task are not easy, but they should take heart–the promise is true. Saint Ignatius has shown the way, serving with love, serving with joy, well knowing that those who belong to Christ cannot walk a different path from that of their Crucified Lord. Saint Ignatius, pray to God for us, children of Christmas!

Saturday before Christmas

Galatians 3:8–12. Luke 13:19–29. Christmas renews our hope by reminding us the promise of God. The kingdom is now open to all the birds of the air who find shelter in the leafy branches of the tree of life. We all are called to salvation, to inherit the kingdom, and to rejoice with the saints in the presence of the Lord. The promise is true, for the Lord, the incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ, is in our midst. He talks to us, showing to all where to go and what to do to get there. Not a code of conduct will make us righteous. It is the Word of God who makes us righteous. Through him we are saved, through him we inherit the kingdom, with him do we enter through the narrow door. The faith of Abraham, of the patriarchs, and of the prophets guides us to the path, but to walk on the path we also must maintain consistency—to live as we believe, to be what we say we are, to be transformed from within like the flour by the added leaven. Then the kingdom’s hall will welcome us. Then shall we rejoice in the presence of the Lord, together with all the faithful from all nations.

Sunday before Christmas

Hebrews 11:9–10,32–40. Matthew 1:1–25. Passing away just a couple of decades before the Lord’s birth, Virgil, the Roman poet, gave voice to our terror, saying fugit irreparabile tempus, irretrievably, time flies. This was and still is our perception, that time flies meaninglessly and there is nothing we can do about it. But not all think the same, not all thought the same. Carpe diem, exhorted Horace, Virgil’s younger contemporary, who also passed before the Lord’s birth. Seize the day! This is what Horace learnt from the epicureans. There was this sense, therefore, that time can be redeemed, transformed, made meaningful. There was hope that the flow of time and space and matter and all things — Heraclitus’ panta rei, everything flows—is not impossible to steer towards better things. This was, long before all, even before Heraclitus, the hope of the patriarchs and the judges and the kings and the prophets of Israel. They “looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” They hoped in the Lord. The genealogy of Christ shows that a plan was underway behind the scenes of the historical unfolding. The hopes of all were not in vain. Nor is ours. Corresponding to the providentially marked history of the Lord’s ancestry, there is a divine providence which, against all odds, turns all things for the best—for the benefit of God’s people. There is comfort in this. When we experience tribulation we must remember that God’s children are neither abandoned nor defeated. There is hope, there is light, there is joy. The scope and purpose of history is Jesus the Anointed, Emmanuel, the Saviour Lord, God-with-us. On the scale of the broader history of God’s people as well as in our personal stories, God’s children experience the same trajectory: mobilised by the Promise, they walk in the midst of peril and turmoil, towards the reward, namely, the victory granted by Emmanuel. Glory to the Lord of Peace, Jesus Christ, born on earth to restore the fullness of life to all those who desire it.

The Eve of Christmas (24 December)

Hebrews 1:1–12. Luke 2:1–20. Through the centuries, people have attempted to make sense of the identity of Jesus Christ to the best of their ability. The usual stumbling block proved to be, as still is, the Lord’s human birth, life, and death. Thus, some have considered him a mere man, possibly inhabited by a divine power. Others have called him an angel or a divine power, but definitely not God. The Church has established Christmas, and the culmination of this festival, the day of Theophany, which means God’s Revelation or Manifestation, in order to help the believers make sense of who the Lord is. The Sunday before Christmas celebrated those who lived their lives in expectation of God’s Anointed, the Messiah, and the first human witnesses of the incarnation, his mother, Virgin Mary, and her guardian, Righteous Joseph. They have learnt from an angel his name, Yeshua, Jesus, “God-who-saves,” and that he was whom Isaiah prophetically announced, Emmanuel, “God-with-us.” Today’s readings add more references to and witnesses of Christ’s identity.  Not an angel, Christ bears the mark of God’s nature and glory, namely, he is God. Christ is the creator of the universe. Christ is the source of the ultimate revelation and the priest of our salvation. We should not be fouled by the mystery of his humility, his kenosis. We should not be blinded to the evidence of his witnesses and the proofs of his divinity. God is with us. Therefore we are children of God. If God is not with us, we are not children, but slaves. But the saints among us show that our divine adoption through Christ is true: they shine like the sun, a pale refraction of the glory of the Onlybegotten.

Christmas: The Lord’s Birth (25 December)

Galatians 4:4–7. Matthew 2:1–12. The readings of Sunday before Christmas taught us that history is not only the chaotic arena where human passions, victories, and defeats take place. They taught us that time is not irredeemable and that history is divinely led towards a purpose. Today we learn that this purpose is the liberation from all forms of slavery, including religious, of all who believe in Jesus Christ as Son of God incarnate. And so, when the time was ripe, at the very crux of history, God’s Son was born to us like one of us and, becoming our brother, he made us, his sisters and brothers, children of God, his Father, our Father. Christmas, therefore, proclaims the fulfilment of God’s plan for us. Christmas reveals the opportunity given to us to fulfil our own destiny by embracing a new identity, as God’s children. And should we embrace it, we we will able to make better sense of things. As God’s children and disciples of Christ, we become able to discern the truth of things. Thus do we see Christmas, namely, the birth of Christ, as the point of convergence of all history and of all the regions. In the mystery of Christmas we commune with the patriarchs, the judges, the kings, and the prophets of Israel; with the sages of the pagans who sought him; with the shepherds who visited him; with the angels; with the star and the whole of the universe. Christmas day reminds us of the universal togetherness to which we are called and foremost of our new, divine identity. There, where the Spirit whispers “Abba! Father!,” there, in our hearts, the Son makes us divine children; there it is where we meet of Father in heaven, together with all the visible and invisible heavens, together with the angels and all peoples.

The Second Day of Christmas (26 December)

Hebrews 2:11–18. Matthew 2:13–23. The double Christmas narrative continues. The events following Christ’s birth and the departure of the wise men from the East are rendered in simple yet dramatic prose. When the Light of the world began to shine on earth, the forces of darkness, upsurging from humankind’s untamed subconscious, offered bitter opposition. Even murderous opposition. Representing the worst within us, Herod, in his mad desire to maintain power for himself and his lineage, proceeded to have the Messiah, the heir of David, killed, but managed to commit a genocide. The killing of the innocent. Pure sacrifices, like Abel, put to death by our darkened soul. An angel of God, perhaps the same angel of the annunciation, who reassured Joseph’s worries, who revealed the name of Yeshua, Jesus, the Lord who saves, perhaps the same angel sent the holy family to Egypt and announced them when was safe to return. And so the Anointed was able to continue his journey on earth—the high priest of our salvation. This is where the second narrative comes into play. More precisely, the topic of adoption. Christ’s incarnation was instrumental for his effectiveness as our saviour, a task which required him to know human nature from within and so strengthen our race to withstand the storms of temptation. Thus has he freed us likewise from the fear of death that enslaved us, since he tasted it and vanquished it. And in becoming one of us, our brother, we are all one family, born from the same source, from above. The distinction between the sanctifier and the sanctified remains, but the features of all, both sanctifier and sanctified are the same. This is the tremendous mystery of Christmas: that he who was born for us meant to make us as he was. Glory be to him.

The Third Day of Christmas (27 December)

Acts 6:8–15; 7:1–5,47–60. Matthew 21:33–44. The good news of Christmas become increasingly laden with dramatic overtones. The second day of the festival already warned that whatever Christ experienced, that is what his disciples must experience. Today’s readings explicitly spell out that very message. The Gospel passage presents by way of a parable the long history of Israel’s disobedience. Indeed, the vineyard’s workers killed the prophets God sent to them in order to remind them that they cannot confiscate the promise of the kingdom, meaning, to transform the spiritual kingdom into an earthly power. Eventually the wicked workers murdered God’s Son and altogether lost the kingdom. In like manner, they killed the disciples of God’s Son, of whom the first was the deified saint Stephen, one of the deacons of the Church in Jerusalem. The similarity of the two stories is uncanny. As the Lord was falsely accused and unjustly condemned, so was Stephen. They killed the Lord because he made plain their blind, inhuman and unspiritual religion; so did the saint. Enraged, they killed the Source of Life, and they did the same to the saint who bore life. The Lord surrendered his life to God and so did Stephen, too. The Lord forgave his killers, and the saint did the same. This is the way of the Lord! Glorify him! This is the way of the saint! Follow in their footsteps!

Sunday after Christmas

Galatians 1:11–19. Matthew 2:13–23. The two passages address very different events, namely, the refuge of the holy family in Egypt and Nazareth, prompted by angelic visions, and Paul’s conversion prompted by divine revelation, followed by the Arabian retreat. The stories are somehow the same: those who listen to God, whether speaking directly or via messengers, and who serve God’s plans, will ever be led on the path. Different events tell therefore the same story. As God worked for the protection of the holy family from the criminal intentions of Herod, God worked for the salvation of Paul, who erred being mislead by his religion. Another side of the two stories also reveals their correspondence. Let me explain. It is about what blinds people from acknowledging God and from adhering to his will. In the first story, Herod rejected God’s plan because of his attachment to power; power corrupts and so he was corrupted. Consequently, Herod committed atrocities to maintain his hold on power. In the second story, before conversion, Saul/Paul was blind to God’s plan by his attachment to religion. Power and religion are equally blinding. Paul thought it right to oppose the Gospel out of a zealous commitment to rules and prescriptions that made no allowance for the breath of the Spirit. From this viewpoint, the two stories are consistent with the message reiterated again and again in the pre-Christmas season—about the factors which prevent people from obeying God’s will. Among such factors, greed, power-hunger, materialism, blind religiosity. But the two stories mirror likewise the message of Sunday before Christmas, which disclosed that history and our lives are not without divine providence and guidance. All these wrap up the mystery of Christmas, which in turn deciphers our experience, disclosing its negative and positive aspects.

27 December 2018 © AIOCS

For a fuller version of the above reflections, buy Reading Scripture in the Orthodox Church: The Festal Cycle either in hardcopy or as a PDF file.

Image: Wooden reliquary painted with scenes from the life of Christ. Palestine, the sixth century. From the “Treasury” of the Chapel of the Sancta Sanctorum in the Lateran Palace, Rome