By Sergei V. Bulgakov
The birth of our Lord Jesus Christ by the Ever Virgin Mary (Mt. 1:18-25, 2:1-12; Lk. 2:1-20) in Bethlehem is celebrated on the present day. The beginning of the establishment of this feast belongs to the earliest time of the Church. In the standard opinion, the feast of the Nativity of Christ is older in the Western Church than in the Eastern; but this should only be understood about the time of celebrating the feast on December 25. In the Eastern Churches it was celebrated on January 6 until the 4th century and was known by the name of Theophany. This feast had a special character and was dedicated not only strictly to the memory of the birth or baptism of Christ, but in general to the appearance of God in the flesh, to the revelation in Christ and through Christ of divine grace. This is why the feast is called Theophany or, more precisely, the manifestation - epifaneia. The initial basis to celebrate the Nativity of Christ on January 6 served not the historical connection with the birth of the Lord to this date, who even for antiquity remained an unknown person, but the mystical understanding of the relationship between the first and second Adam, between the originator of sin and death and the Author of life and salvation. The second Adam, according to the mystical understanding of the ancient Church, was born and died on the same day on which the first Adam was created and died, - on the sixth corresponding to January 6, the first month of year. Thus the unity between the Eastern and Western Churches concerning the time of celebrating the birth on December 25 is established only since the 4th century. From this view point the feast was entered into the Constantinopolitan
Church for the first time about the year 377 under the decree of Emperor Arcadius according to the custom of the Roman Church and due to the energy and the power of the eloquence of St. John Chrysostom, and from here it spread to all the Orthodox East.
Already the very subject of the feast also points out the purpose of its establishment: the commemoration and glorification of the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ in the flesh by the All Holy Virgin Mary. This is the first and basic purpose of the establishment of the feast. Very early another idea was connected to it: in this precise establishment of the feast by means of disclosing true doctrines about the incarnation and the birth of the Savior counters the errors of the heretics: the Ebionites, Docetists and Basilidians. Due to these false doctrines and that on the very feast on January 6 the ancient Church paid its main attention to the commemoration of the event of the birth of Christ as the very appearance of God in the flesh. In the 4th century with the occurrence and spread of Arianism, the new and strongest motive appeared to glorify the event of the birth of Christ for theOrthodox Church. Finally, with reference to feast on December 25 the Church meant to give a counterbalance to the pagan cult and to protect believers from participating in it. It is known, that among the Romans the feast of the so-called, dies natalis Solis invicti [day of the nativity of the unconquerable Sun] falls on December 25, serving the expression of the idea of the continual return of the year and as if the sun is renewed and of the former day of unbridled amusements of the people, with the day of entertainment for slaves and children and so forth. Thus in itself this day was more appropriate for the commemoration of the event of the birth of Jesus Christ, Who in the New Testament frequently is referred to as the sun of the truth, light of the world, salvation of the people and victor of life and death, but the reprehensible pagan commemoration was sufficient motive for the Church to improve it according to the meaning of its lofty Christian commemoration. Therefore the ancient Church, already denying the identity of the two similar feasts, the pagan and Christian, will adopt the feast of the Nativity of Christ of the observed meaning and the expressive denial also of pagan superstitions and customs.
Asserting our faith in the greatest mystery of the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ and condemning all heretics, who deformed this teaching by sophism, the Holy Church, celebrating the Nativity of Christ, in its hymns describes this feast as a day of universal joy, "for today is born a Savior, Who is Christ the Lord" (Lk. 2:10-11). "Let heaven and earth", exclaims the Holy Church, "today be gladdened in the prophecy"; "all creation leaps for joy for the Savior Lord was born for its sake in Bethlehem: for every idolatrous deception ceased, and Christ reigns forever". At the same time the Holy Church celebrating the Nativity of Christ morally teaches us the holy life of the One Who was worthy to be born the Lord. "For us today is born a Savior, Who is Christ the Lord", "for the sake of humanity and for our salvation", and we, now celebrating this birth of Christ the Lord, naturally, should ignite in ourselves the determination to be reborn from a sinful life to a life holy and pleasing to God. Our Lord Jesus Christ having come down to earth entered into a relationship of grace with us and "was not ashamed to call us brethren" (Heb. 2:11); but, in order for us to be worthy of this lofty dialogue and of union, in order not to turn ourselves away from the Lord Who came down from the heavens, it is necessary for us to leave the darkness of sin and to come nearer to light of faith, piety and good deeds. The Creator and Master of heaven and earth appeared in the world not in glory and magnificence, but in need, poverty and humiliation; the King Who reigns and the Lord Who dominates accepts not luxurious chambers, but a poor cave. By this the majesty of humility, poverty, meekness, simplicity and the perniciousness of pride, riches, vanity and luxury is shown to us. Worthy to be the first to hear the good news of the angels about the birth of the Savior of the world and the first to worship Him were simple Bethlehem shepherds (about them see below), and after them the wise Persian magi (about them see below), and thus at the manger of the Savior we see two sorts of people - shepherds and magi, i.e. the simplest people and the most educated people. By this we are inspired that the Lord accepts each and all: those pleasing to Him and the simple illiterate, when they are connected to the true fulfillment of their calling, with the purity of conscience and life; human wisdom is not rejected by Him when it is able to subordinate itself to the inspiration from above and uses its knowledge to the glory of God and for the use of neighbor. This teaches each one to be content with his participation and at the same time demonstrates that no calling and position interferes with their coming nearer to God, that pure and sincere labor, inspired by faith and hope in God is the conscientious fulfillment of the duties always pleasing to God and attracts His blessing that in the eyes of God the precious things are not external advantages in the light, but purity of heart and of conscience, meekness and humility of spirit, submissiveness and obedience to the law of God, patience and compliance, hope and fidelity to will of God, gentleness and goodwill to neighbor, going irreproachably before God in all the commandments and precepts, that these precious qualities do not belong exclusively to any estate, that in all callings and positions the person may be pleasing to God, if he will be well pleasing to Him in word, desire and thought. In general the event of the appearance of God in the flesh picturesquely described in the festal services with all the circumstances surrounding it represents by itself an inexhaustible source for our edification.
The feast of the Nativity of Christ is one of the twelve major feasts. It has 5 days of Forefeast (from Dec. 20 to 24) and six days of Afterfeast; its Leave-taking is Dec. 31. The liturgical books call it "a three day Pascha". According to the majesty of commemorated events this feast is celebrated as the most festive of all feasts, except for Pascha. St. John Chrysostom calls the day of the Nativity of Christ the most honorable and important of all feasts", "the mother of all feasts".
Adoration of the Magi
Three Magi, Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar, having learned about the birth of the Messiah according to the wonderful star which appeared to them in the sky and led them to the birthplace of the world's Savior and they presented to Christ gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh (Mt. 2:1-12). They believe that these magi (i.e. eastern wise men) came from Persia. Obviously, they knew the Jewish expectation of the Messiah. According to the opinion of some, these magi were descendants of the Babylonian wise men, who formerly were under the leadership of Daniel (Acts 2:48), who even has sown among his subordinates the seed of the true faith and expectation of the Messiah (Num. 24:17; Dan. 9:24-27). Being worthy to bow to the born Savior, the magi, undoubtedly, were distinguished with lofty spiritual qualities. Apparently, in the use of their reason and in their acquisition of human knowledge they were inspired by piety and faith in the promised Savior and with all their enlightenment there was the glory of God and their own salvation. Their very trip for the adoration of the Savior bears witness to their faith, love and diligence. According to some tales, the magi, having returned to their country, were turned to contemplative life and prayer. Subsequently the Apostle Thomas met them in Parthia, and they, having accepted baptism from him, themselves became preachers of Christ. After their death, their relics, found by St. Helen, were first placed in Constantinople, but from there were transferred to Mediolanum (Milan), and later to Cologne. In the Cologne cathedral they even now show visitors the skulls of these three wise men, opened by the Bishop of Cologne Reynold in the 12th century. In honor of the magi the West established the special feast called "the feast of the three kings", which superseded the feast of Theophany on Jan. 6. Among simple people in the West the magi were honored as the protectors of travelers.
Commemoration of the Shepherds who saw the Lord
Undoubtedly, the shepherds were people who were strictly devout, true Israelites, who were fervently awaiting and desiring the coming of the promised Messiah, frequently, especially in the silence of the night, under the light of the heavenly bodies, turned to pious reflections and conversations on the holy subject of their desires and expectations. Through all their simplicity they were powerful in faith, through their seeming roughness they had cleansed and softened their hearts with the fear of God, through all their scarcity of externally possessed precious treasure in the world, with pure conscience before God and the people, they carefully fulfilled their small service and did not expect another reward, except for their uprightness before God and before the people. For their fervent expectations of the Messiah, for their fair and sincere labor, for their conscientious discharge of the duties of their service inspired by faith and hope in God, for their piety and their lofty spiritual qualities, the humble Bethlehem shepherds received the greatest mercy from the Lord: they were the first to whom the angels revealed the birth of the Savior and they were the first to have seen Him, they were the first on behalf of all the human race to have bowed down to Him (Lk. 2:8-20).
Apolytikion in the Fourth Tone
Thy Nativity, O Christ our God, has shone to the world the light of wisdom, for by it those who worshipped the stars, were taught by a star, to adore Thee the Sun of righteousness, and to know Thee the Orient from on high: O Lord glory to Thee.
Kontakion in the Third Tone
Today the Virgin gives birth to the transcendent One and the earth offers a cave to the unapproachable One, angels and shepherds glorify Him, wise men journey with the star: since for our sake the eternal God was born as a little child.
We magnify Thee, O Lifegiver Christ, who for our sake is now born in the flesh from the unwedded and immaculate Virgin Mary.