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December 30, 2014

The Truth About Christmas and the Myth-Making of Christmas

By Protopresbyter Fr. George Metallinos

The purpose of the incarnation is the deification of man. "God becomes man to make Adam god" (Christmas hymn). "He became man, that we may become god" (Athanasius the Great). "God became a man and man became a god" (John Chrysostom). To the rationale of a moralist, the term "became god", as it is used by the Fathers, such as Athanasius the Great, is a scandal. This is why they talk about a "moral deification". They are afraid to accept that deification alters "by grace" to what the Triune God is "by nature" (uncreated, without beginning, immortal). Christmas is, therefore, directly connected with the Crucifixion and Resurrection, and the Ascension and Pentecost.

Christ the God-man carved the path that every saved person is called to walk, united to Him. The Annunciation and Christmas lead to Pentecost, which is the event of the deification of man in Christ, within, that is, the Body of Christ. If Christmas is the birth of God as man, Pentecost is the perfection of man as a god by grace. By our baptism we partake in the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ, we too live "our own Christmas", our re-creation. The saints, who arrive at union with Christ, or deification, participate in Pentecost, and in this way they attain perfection and completion of the regenerated man in Christ. Ecclesiastically this means the realization of man, namely the fulfillment of the purpose of his existence.

No matter how tiring theological words seem, especially to modern man who is uninitiated in theology, it expresses no more than the reality of the experiences of our saints. Only within this ecclesiastical and Christocentric experience can Christmas be understood. Conversely, the weakness of the unregenerated man in Christ is led to give meaning to Christmas through the formation of myths. Those who have not tasted of the spiritual life, and thus unable to experience Christmas, create myths about it within the limits of imagination and fiction, losing its true meaning. As we shall see, this disorientation is always associated with the denial of the mystery, as well as the weakness to live it, which inevitably leads to its misunderstanding.

An initial mythological answer to the question of Christmas is given by heresy, which is the theology of reflection without experience. Docetism (from the Greek δοκέω [dokeō], "to seem"), the most terrible heresy of all ages, accepted God the Word as an imaginary illusion. Thus the presence of God within the world is a phenomenol reality. For this reason the Docetists of every age cannot tolerate, within the limits of their own reason, the incarnation and birth of God as man.

Becoming self-appointed defenders of the status of God, they are ashamed to accept something that God Himself chose for our salvation: the path of motherhood. That is, to be born of a mother, even if it is none other than the purest creature of all human history, the Most Holy Virgin. All these can be classed as "extremist" Orthodox (according to St. Gregory the Theologian), because Docetism leads to Monophysitism, which is the denial of the humanity of Christ. They are conservatives, keepers of forms, and easily scandalized. For all of them truth, reality and history are scandalous. While others reject the divinity of Christ, they deny His humanity. Yet Orthodoxy as Christianity in its authentic form, is the "most historic religion" according to the late Fr. George Florovsky. It truly lives in the energies of God for our salvation and accepts its realism like the Theotokos did: "Behold the handmaid of the Lord, may it be done to me according to your word" (Lk. 1:38)! "Like Pilate in the Creed", says a nice Serbian proverb. Because Pilate, the most irresolute official in history, is a real historical person, and he affirms the historicity of the Gospel. But in spite of the Docetists, God the Word "became flesh (man, that is) and dwelt among us, and we have seen His glory (the uncreated light of His divinity)" (Jn 1:14). Because "in Him dwells the fullness of the godhead bodily" (Col. 2:9), that is, He is perfect God and perfect man.

The incarnation and birth of the God-man is a scandal for human wisdom, which self-repealingly and self-defeatingly hastens to characterize as "foolish" the mystery of Christ, which culminates in the death by crucifixion (1 Cor. 1:23). Is it possible for God to reach such a point of self-emptying, so that He dies on a cross as the God-man? This is a scandal for the wise of this world. For them the "gods" of this world usually have men sacrificing themselves for them, and not they who sacrifice themselves for humans.

How will they accept the mystery of Divine Selflessness? "For God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son...for the salvation of this world" (Jn. 3:16, 17). In the limits of "rational" and "natural" theology, the divine element in the person of Christ is eventually lost and all that remains is the human element, misunderstood and misinterpreted. Because there is not a historical man named Christ, but He is the God-man. The union of God and man in the person of God the Word is "without confusion" and also "without division". Rational interpretations of the Person of Christ prove unreasonable, because logic is unable to capture what is "beyond logic".

The legal-juridical consciousness also experiences Christ as a scandal. It seeks social desirability for the incarnation and this ends in myth when not given over to the Divine Word. The Franks developed through their distinguished scholastic Anselm (11th c.) the myth of the "satisfaction of divine justice". God the Word took flesh to be crucified/sacrificed and thereby give satisfaction for human sin which offended God! The practices of the then Frankish feudal society was displayed (mythologically) by God, and this takes place in a Franco-Germanic fantasy of a Super-Emperor. But let John shout out: "For God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son..." (3:16), and Paul: "But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us"(Rom. 5:8). "No!" the westerner will learn to shout back, for it is "to take revenge" and "seek satisfaction".

This is how another kind of "Christianity" was formed, which does not differ from being the product of myth-making, since it submits God to our imagination and superstitions. The rationalization and legalization of the divine-human mystery is the greatest threat to Christianity in history.

The religious (ritualistic) consciousness experiences the incarnation as a scandal, as it resorts to the religionization of the Faith. The meaning of Christmas is exhausted by ceremonies and loses its true purpose, which is "adoption" (deification). "That we may receive the adoption as sons..." (Gal. 4:5). It is the scandal of pharisaism, even if it is called Christianity.

The powerful experience the scandal since they are enemies of the "Child". Herodism! Those who "regard themselves as rulers" (Mk. 10:42), just as Herod, and who see the newborn Christ as a competitor and a risk to their interests. This is why he "sought the soul of the child" (Matt. 2:20). They misunderstand the true character of the royal status of Christ, which "is without end". Christ as King of all creation is its only true Lord, Creator and Savior, and not the Herods of this world, that ruthless murderer, who seek to keep their power.

Saint Gregory the Theologian offers the potential for a correct approach towards Christmas, a spiritual one that is: "Therefore let us keep the Feast, not after the manner of a heathen festival, but after a godly sort; not after the way of the world, but in a fashion above the world; not as our own but as belonging to Him Who is ours, or rather as our Master's; not as of weakness, but as of healing; not as of creation, but of re-creation" (Homily 38, "On the Theophany").

Source: From the book Παρεμβάσεις Ιστορικές και Θεολογικές (Historical and Theological Interventions), έκδ. «Διήγηση», Αθήνα 1998. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.