Out of the Cradle (Christmas)
Fr. Philip Speranza
Babies are something special. I can’t help but melt whenever I see a little one cradled in his/her mother’s arms (and absolutely panic if mama tries to place her oh-so-fragile bundle of blessing into my clumsy arms). There’s just something captivating about a new life’s innocence and dependence that strikes at our emotions. We laugh as they yawn, and feel like we’ve conquered the world if we can get them to smile and coo. Maybe that’s one of the reasons that Christmas affects us the way it does: the cuteness of the new Baby. The shepherds, wise men, stars, and angels all add their special appeal; but what draws us to Christmas---we who have grown so old in our struggles and disappointments and shattered dreams, and who, as the Apostle says in Ephesians 2:3, were “dead in trespasses and sins”---what draws us is birth, new life, innocence, a life just begun and filled with fresh hope.
And that’s precisely what should draw us! In John 10:10 the Lord Jesus tells us why He, the pre-eternal Word, chose to take flesh and dwell among us: “I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.” In Ode 1 of the first Canon we sing at Christmas Matins we find this Troparion: “Man fell from the divine and better life. Though made in the image of God, through transgression he became subject to corruption and decay. But now the wise Creator fashions him anew; for He has been glorified.” Christ came as a baby precisely so that we, so old and tired and wrinkled and worn and sin-scarred in our spirits, could see what He offers us, the possibility He offers to Nicodemus in John 3: to be born again “of water and the Spirit,” to become new and fresh as a new-born. 2 Corinthians 5:17 sums it up neatly:“if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, new things have come.”
How could, how did, the eternal God, Who created the cosmos and all the life in it, become a helpless Infant? The second Sessional Hymn from Matins asks, “How is He contained in a womb, Whom nothing can contain? And how can He Who is in the bosom of the Father be held in the arms of His mother?” Good question, and only God knows the answer. But the fact remains that the Child of promise cooing in the cradle is the God Who rules in heaven and on earth. And at least at first, that makes us nervous. We like cute, but we avoid profound mystery. We prefer to think of the crib rather than the cross. The world likes to think about a Child born on earth rather than about Christ’s return to earth to judge the living and the dead; His infant helplessness appeals to us more than His omnipotence and Deity...and our accountability before Him. Well, while it’s good to enjoy the gentle charm of Christmas in this often-harsh world, we also have to grow up and understand the importance of what’s really going on in the Word becoming flesh. We cannot keep Christ forever in the cradle but have to allow our understanding of Christ to grow up, just as He Himself did not remain the Babe of Bethlehem but, says Luke 2:52, “increased in wisdom and stature and in favour with God and men.”
And that involves, first of all, moving from wonder to worship. In Isaiah 7:14 the Lord God speaks through the prophet to promise, “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Emmanuel,” which, as Matthew 1:23 explains, “is translated, ‘God-with-us.’” And the first duty we humans owe to God is worship. Even as an infant, Jesus was worshipped. After angels from heaven told them of the Child, the shepherds “came with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger.” And their response? Luke 2:20 says “the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God.” Matthew 2:11 says that when the wise men, too, “had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshipped Him.” Throughout Christ’s life we see Him accepting worship from people kneeling before him: a cleansed leper, a ruler of the synagogue, a man born blind whose sight was restored, a demon-possessed man now set free, frightened disciples in a storm-tossed boat who, says Matthew 14:33, fell at his feet “and worshipped Him saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’” And the point is that if He indeed was and is “God-with-us,” He deserves the worship of His creation. We begin to understand and celebrate the true meaning of Christmas when we go beyond cooing over the kid in the cradle to falling to our knees before Him in the temple of our heart and, perhaps with the words of Apocalypse 5:12, worshipping Him from the heart: “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom and might and honour and glory and blessing!”
And that leads, secondly, to our need to understand how God works. The superficial view of Christmas is that the warm glow of the manger reassures us that everything’s going to be alright. And so it will...but not by “the magic of the season” and not with ease. In Ode 6 of the second Canon for Christmas Matins, we sing “God the Word, Who was in the beginning with God, seeing our nature powerless to guard unharmed its ancient fellowship with Him, now grants it new strength; abasing Himself, in a second act of fellowship He makes it once again free from the passions.” And how did He abase Himself? Philippians 2:7-8 says that Christ, eternally equal in nature and of the same essence as the Father, “emptied Himself, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.” Jesus effected our salvation only by surrendering Himself totally to the Father’s will, a will that included the cross. And we too have to grow up to become “obedient to the point of death,” obedient to the Father’s plan and willing to embrace the self-sacrifice, the spending of our lives, that may entail, knowing that in Jesus Christ He can redeem even our suffering.
That leads us, thirdly, to our need to learn what God requires. If Christ is going to come out of the cradle and into our life as our truly saving Lord, the God Who cleanses us of the destructive sin in our life and Who puts all the broken pieces of our life back together and better than new, then we have to understand that God does not merely ask for a polite nod on Sundays and feast days. His demands are total. He does not a ask for a place in our life; he asks for our entire life. Jesus Himself spells that out in Luke 17:33, “Whoever seeks to save his life [to hang onto control of his own life] will lose it, and whoever loses his life [by surrendering complete control of it to God] will save it.” Our culture is doing its best to save its life by excluding God from it. Again this year lawsuits are being filed by those who want all signs and symbols of religious significance removed from the public properties...while of course keeping the stat holiday. The pagans want our holiday without accepting it as a holy day; they want the cuteness of Christmas without the Christ of Christmas, the gifts of men, but not the Gift of God, the tinsel but not the truth, the wonder of the season but not the worship of the Savior. But for this season to mean what it is supposed to mean, we have to go beyond decorations to dedication, beyond sentiment to surrender: surrender to the God who has chosen come to our world. Christmas is more than being charmed by a Child; it’s real meaning lies in saying, “Yes” to God. If He is not Emmanuel, then our worship is idolatry. But if He is who he claims to be, then He deserves our praise, our worship, our obedience, our all.
A true story. A California elementary school was putting on a “Winter Pageant.” (It would’ve been politically incorrect, of course, to call it a “Christmas Play.”) At the dress rehearsal, the students were led into the room; and each group rose to perform their decidedly secular song about reindeer, Santa Claus, snowflakes and good cheer. Then the kindergarten class rose to sing a song entitled “Christmas Love.” The children in the front row held up large letters, one by one, to spell out the title of the song. As the class sang “C is for Christmas,” a child would hold up the letter “C.” Then, “H is for Happy,” and so on, until each child had held up his or her letter to complete the message of “Christmas Love.” Everything was going smoothly until a shy little girl in the front row held her letter upside down. Instead of holding up her “M,” she was holding it so that it appeared to be a “W.” The adults smiled and the children from the other classes began to snicker. The teachers tried to shush the children, but the laughter continued until the last letter was raised. Then a hush came over the audience, and people stared in wonder as they saw the sign which, instead of “Christmas Love,” now read: “Christ was Love.” There in that moment, the Christ of Christmas made His message known. Out of the chaos and secularization of His birth, through that little girl Christ the King came out of the cradle to announce the reason he came. And through us, He always will. If we are faithful, not all the unbelief in the world can ever stop the message that the God of love has come to us at Christmas---our Emmanuel.