The observance of a special period of preparation before the Feast of the Nativity of Christ has long been an established part of Christian practice. In the Orthodox Church this period is made up of the Christmas Fast and the special days of preparation before Christmas itself, with the week of the Holy Forefathers and the week of the Holy Fathers. The Church services for these days of preparation commemorate the patriarchs, the prophets and all who had lived by faith in the Saviour who was to come and had prophesied about Him long before His coming. The hymns for the Feast of the Nativity are full of the original joyful excitement at the thought of God’s appearance on earth. The Christmas canon1 begins with a joyous declaration, gradually swelling in volume, of the Saviour’s birth:
“Christ is born! Glorify Him!
Christ descends from the heavens, welcome Him!
Christ is now on earth, O be jubilant!
Sing to the Lord, the whole earth,
And sing praises to Him with joy, O ye people,
For He has been exalted!”1
In her Christmas hymns, as in her other hymnody, the Orthodox Church does not limit her vision to earthly happenings alone. In these hymns she contemplates the events of Christ’s life on earth from a dual perspective. Beyond the birth of a child in the poverty of a squalid cave, beyond the laying of the infant in a manger instead of a child’s crib, beyond His poor mother’s anxiety and alarm over His fate, supermundane events emerge -- events which are outside this world’s natural order:
“Today doth Bethlehem receive Him
Who sitteth with the Father for ever”2
This was not the first birth of the One “who lay in a manger.” First He was begotten of His Father “before all ages” as God; moreover He was begotten of the Father alone, without His Mother. In Bethlehem He was born as men are born, but in contrast to all the sons of earth He was born of His Mother alone, without an earthly father. Having proclaimed “Christ is born!” in the 1st Song of the Christmas canon, the Church next calls upon the faithful to praise
“...the Son who was born of the Father
Before all ages, and in this latter day
Was made incarnate of the Virgin
Without seed; Christ our God”.3
In the last Song of the Christmas canon the feeling of the human mind’s powerlessness to comprehend this union of Divine majesty and human insignificance, this glorious mystery, is expressed even more brilliantly and eloquently.
A dark cave had replaced the resplendent heavens; the earthly Virgin had taken the place of the Cherubim as the “throne” of the Lord of Glory; a little manger had become the receptacle of the omnipresent God Who could never be contained in space:
“I behold a strange but very glorious mystery:
Heaven -- the cave;
The throne of the Cherubim -- the Virgin.
The manger -- the receptacle in which Christ our God,
Whom nothing can contain, is lying”.4
But nowhere does the attitude of reverence before this incomprehensible union of things heavenly and earthly find a more forceful expression than in the Kontakion for Christmas written by the greatest Greek hymn-writer, St. Romanos Melodus. Every word in it is full of meaning and one brilliant image follows another:
“Today the Virgin brings forth the Supersubstantial One
And the earth offers a cave to the Unapproachable One”.
Mary gave birth but remained a virgin, and gave existence to the One who is above all that exists in the world. And in the cave the earth provided a sanctuary for the One whom, as a general rule, men may not even approach. Next, the second part of this kontakion gives us two pictures of events which unfolded simultaneously and harmoniously on earth and in heaven. In heaven the angels glorify God in unison with the shepherds on earth, and the Wise Men move across the earth according to the direction taken by the heavenly star. The meaning of all this is that the Child whose life on earth was as yet only a few hours old is at the same time God, who existed before time itself and yet was born now for our salvation:
“For for our sakes, God, Who is before all the ages, is born a little Child”.5
What does the coming to earth of the Son of God really mean? Above all it means that people are illumined, that spiritual light is bestowed upon them. This idea is continually being put forward in the Christmas hymnody of the Orthodox Church. The Troparion for the Christmas Feast explains the basic meaning of the Feast, there is this direct statement:
“Thy Nativity, O Christ our God,
Has illumined the world like the Light of Wisdom”.
God enlightens each of us in the way that is most accessible and understandable to the particular person. And when He wished to enlighten the Wise Men, whose custom it was to observe the stars and their movements, He sent them an unusual star which guided them to the Christ.
“... They who worshipped the stars were through a star,
Taught to worship Thee, the Sun of Righteousness,
And to know Thee, the Day-Spring from on high”.
The star of Bethlehem gave the Wise Men an opportunity to see the rise of the Sun of Righteousness. But the light of Christ’s righteousness is not an earthly light. Its motion was not from out of the earth towards the firmament of heaven, but from above downwards. Shining high above the earth, it descended thereon from the heights of heaven and illumined the world with Divine light. It was the Day-Spring from on high. And all who have sat in spiritual darkness and waited for the true light have, like the Wise Men, come to know this extraordinary Day-Spring of the Sun of Righteousness.
“Our Saviour hath visited us from on high...
And we who were plunged in darkness and shadows
Have found the truth,
For the Lord hath been born of the Virgin”.6
The Church addresses this prayer of praise and thanksgiving to the Infant born in Bethlehem:
“Glory and praise to the One born on earth Who hath divinized earthly human nature.”7
The gifts of grace in the Holy Mysteries which strengthen enfeebled humanity, cure men, and regenerate them to a Godlike life, were imparted by Christ in the final, culminating days of His earthly mission and are linked to His death on the cross and Resurrection. But these last things were prepared for by Christ’s entire earthly life from Bethlehem to Golgotha. The Coming of Christ was the beginning of the salvation of mankind. And the Orthodox Church sings of Christ’s Nativity as the morning of men’s salvation, as the dawn after a long and anxious night -- the dawn with which the new, shining day in the life of the human race has already started.
The triumphal hymn of the Feast of Christmas is the “Gloria” sung by the angels to the Shepherds, to herald the coming of the Messiah.
“Glory in the Highest to God, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men” (Luke 2:14).
It is just as characteristic of Christmas as the hymn “Christ is Risen from the dead” is of Pascha (Easter).
According to the text of the second chapter of St. Luke’s Gospel the “good tidings” proclaimed by the angels was not a repetition from the heavens of things that were well-known before. The innumerable heavenly host which appeared suddenly in the wake of the Angel who had stood before the shepherds of Bethlehem confirmed his “tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.” (Luke2:10). They also sang of the new, marvelous act of God’s goodwill, His sending the Saviour to this earth. This was the meaning of their good news: “Glory to God in the Highest; salvation had come to a sinful earth with the birth of the Christ Child, the loving-kindness of God had descended upon men.”
The extraordinary and wondrous Birth from a Pure Virgin is one of the fundamental themes of Christmas hymnody; at the same time the Mother of God, whom the Orthodox Church venerates with such pious devotion, is given in this hymnody a special place of honour. A number of examples from sacred history are used in these hymns in order to glorify Her perpetual virginity, Her conception by the Holy Spirit and Her “supermundane act of giving birth to God.” The most important of these are the prophet Jonah’s sojourn in the belly of the sea-monster and the Babylonian fiery furnace.” The fiery furnace of Babylon did not burn the young men, who were covered with its flames, likewise:
“The fire of the Godhead scorched not the Virgin,
When He entered into Her womb”.8
Despite the birth Mary was preserved a virgin like the Burning Bush on Mt. Sinai which could not be consumed but remained green in the flames.9 The Church sings praises to Mary alike for Her virginity and Her touching maternal love. Her tenderness as a mother toward Her wondrous Infant Child, whom as Her son She held in Her arms at Her breast, but before whom She bowed in worship as before “the Son of the Highest,” is expressed in the following lullaby which Church hymnody assigns to the lips of the Lady Most Pure, calling upon us men “to magnify Her without ceasing”:
“O my child, child of sweetness,
How is it that I hold Thee, Almighty?
And how that I feed Thee,
Who givest bread to all men?
How is it that I swaddle Thee,
Who with the clouds encompasseth the whole earth”.10
She who “knew not a man” and yet gave birth to the Incorporeal God is for the Orthodox Church at once mother and virgin.
“Magnify, O my soul, the Virgin Most Pure,
The God-Bearer, who is more honourable
And more glorious than the heavenly hosts”.11
The best and holiest of earthly creatures, exalted above the angels, the God-Bearer is the pride of this earth, a fitting gift from mankind to the Creator and Saviour:
“What shall we present unto Thee, O Christ,
For Thy coming to earth for us men?
Each of Thy creatures brings Thee a thank-offering:
The angels -- singing; the heavens -- a star;
The Wise Men -- treasures; the shepherds devotion;
The earth -- a cave; the desert -- a manger;
But we offer Thee the Virgin-Mother. O Eternal God, have mercy upon us”.12
In rendering “maternal-virginal glory” to Mary Full-of-Grace the Church venerates Mary because, through Her unspotted purity, She was made worthy to bring the Saviour into this world and Herself became the door of salvation and deliverance from the curse of sin which had weighed upon men:
“Magnify, O my soul, Her who hath delivered us from the curse”.13
Paradise is now once again opened to us. If sin entered the world through Eve, it is also through the New Eve (the Mother of our God) that victory over sin has come into the world.
The Church likewise summons us:
“Let us glorify in song the true God-Bearer
Through who sinners have been reconciled with God.14
The Mother of God represents the point at which the Godhead came into direct contact with Old Testament humanity. She is in this respect the living symbol of all the triumphant joy of Christmas, which is the celebration of God’s reestablished union with men. God, who had driven our forefathers out of Paradise, had set them far apart from Himself. Now, with the birth of Christ, He has again come to men, just as He once came to them in Paradise. It has become possible again for men to be in communion with God. The barrier between,Heaven and earth has fallen and so we sing along with Adam and Eve:
“The wall of partition is destroyed,
The flaming sword is dropped,
The Cherubim withdraw from the Tree of Life,
And I partake of the fruits of Paradise,
Whence, for my disobedience, I was driven forth”.15
The underlying feeling of the Christmas Feast is one of peace. This is a result of the reconciliation and new unity between heaven and earth:
“Heaven and earth now are united through Christ’s Birth!
Now is God come down to earth
And man arisen to the heaven”.16
This unity is the source of general exultation -- a note which resounds vigorously in the Christmas hymnody:
“Today Christ is born in Bethlehem of the Virgin.
Today He who is without a beginning begins,
And the Word is made flesh.
The powers of Heaven rejoice,
The earth and her people are jubilant;
The Wise Men bring gifts to the Lord,
The shepherds marvel at the One who is born;
And we sing without ceasing:
“Glory to God in the Highest, And on earth peace, (God’s) good will toward men”.17
There is one solitary note, however, which breaks into these hymns of general rejoicing like a forewarning of future lamentations. The Wise Men -- according to the Christmas Eve stichera -- came toworship the Incarnate God and devotedly offered Him their gifts -- gold, because He is the King of ages; frankincense, because He is the God of all men; but then they also brought Him myrrh, with which the Jews were accustomed to anoint their dead, because He was to “lie three days in death.”
The heart of the Mother of God must have been seized by a premonition of that which awaited the innocent Child who was sleeping peacefully in the manger. This minor note of sadness is drowned, however, in the general chorus of exultation. Heaven and earth rejoice together and this does not mean simply that the angels’ singing harmonises with that of the shepherds. The Church does not even view so-called “inanimate nature” as indifferent to the higher world. The Creator has willed the existence of a special link between them. At an earlier time man’s sinfulness had brought general disorder into nature, but now all nature leaps for joy, rejoicing at the overcoming of this sin:
“Today the whole creation rejoices and is jubilant,
For Christ is born of the Virgin”.18
In the Christmas hymnody the Star is not merely the voice which made known to the world the Saviour’s appearance. It is also a sign, a symbol of this appearance, just as the Cross is the symbol of victory over the forces of darkness. Then, too, the Star is a symbol of Christ Himself, “the Star which rose from Jacob”.19
For more than 19 centuries Christ has been shining down upon mankind as a guiding star, not as a myth or mirage, but as the living God, who has been on earth and spoken with men. There have been many subsequent attempts to obscure the pure silver light of the Star of Bethlehem in human consciousness. But the centuries of the Christian era have not passed by in vain. And if the Christmas hymns continue to resound each year in churches scattered all over the world and to be sung as they were sung many hundreds of years ago by the grandfathers and forbears of the present generation, this means that the light shed by the Christmas Star is deeply rooted in human hearts and shines on in them undimmed.
From Orthodox Hymns of Christmas, Holy Week and Easter, published by the Russian Orthodox Theological Fund Inc.