Approaching the Nativity
By Father John Behr
From The Orthodox Church VOLUME 41 NOV/DEC 2005
Just what are we celebrating today?
Besides fasting and examining ourselves before going to confession, part of our preparation for the Great Feast of the Nativity of Our Savior should be to reflect again on what it is that we will be celebrating. We speak so readily of the Son of God being born from the Virgin that we often forget how it is that we affirm this, and overlook the full significance of the liturgical today – “Today Christ is born of the Virgin in Bethlehem” [Nativity Matins].
Whenever we approach any aspect of the mystery of Christ, we must always remember that our way into the mystery is through the Passion – the crucifixion, resurrection, elevation in glory, and bestowal of the Spirit. With the exception of Peter’s confession on the road to Caesarea Philippi before the Passion (the exception which proves the rule, for he then reveals his ignorance about Christ by trying to prevent Him going to Jerusalem to suffer, so receiving the harsh words, “get behind me Satan”), the disciples were unable to answer those who asked, “Is this not the son of Joseph?” In fact, whatever they had heard about His birth, whatever they had heard themselves from His lips, or whatever miracles they had seen Him work, even seeing Him transfigured in glory, in the first three Gospels they fall away from Him at the time of His Passion, even denying him like Peter. It is not the Cross itself, nor the empty tomb (which is ambiguous, causing anxiety until the angel explains what had happened), nor even the resurrectional appearances (for they did not recognize Him), that finally persuades them as to Who Christ is. Only when He begins to open the Scriptures to show how they all speak of how it was necessary that He should suffer these things before going to His glory – only then do their hearts start to burn, so that they are ready to recognize Him in the breaking of bread, at which point He disappears from their sight.
Perhaps now we are ready to be led into a deeper understanding of the feast of the Nativity. The presence of the saving Passion in the Nativity is already intimated by the wise men bringing gold, frankincense and myrrh – appropriate for a dead Lord, Whose birth is now being celebrated. This theological reflection is carried further by the icon for the feast, which is striking precisely because it does not attempt to represent what we read in the Gospels of Matthew or Luke. Instead we have a portrayal of Christ’s birth told in terms of His Passion. He already has a Cross in His halo. He is wrapped in swaddling clothes, as a corpse. He is placed in a manger, to be eaten, which is depicted as an altar or as a coffin. And He is placed in a cave, whose shape is completed by the Virgin, just as the crucified Christ was placed in a new-hewn tomb, in which no man had ever been lain (that is, a virgin tomb), belonging to Joseph. The same point could be made by looking at the hymnography for the feast, especially for the days leading to the feast, which is explicitly modeled on the hymnography for Holy Week. “To the tomb corresponds the womb,” as the Fathers said.
Perhaps now we are also ready to appreciate anew why it is that we celebrate the feast of the Nativity on December 25. The Nativity of Christ began to be celebrated in the East only in the late fourth century, and thereafter it is explained in terms of solar symbolism, as a replacement of the pagan feast of the birth of the invincible sun. But, before any such considerations arose, the feast was celebrated in the West, where the date of the 25th of December was based on the date of the Passion, for this was reckoned to have occurred, nine months earlier, on twenty-fifth of March (the Julian calendar equivalent of the fourteenth of Nissan). So in the liturgical calendar, the Passion of Christ was followed, nine months later, by the birth of Christ. Only subsequently was this date, counting now backwards from the Nativity, reckoned to be the date of the Annunciation.
Finally, perhaps, now that we have seen something of how it is that we speak of the birth of the Son of God from the Virgin, we will also be able to see the breadth of this mystery. We, who now stand in the light of Christ’s Passion, confessing that He is indeed the Son of God, born of the Virgin, are in the position of the beloved disciple in the Gospel of John, standing by the foot of the Cross, hearing the words of Christ: “Woman behold your son; son behold your mother.” The first Christians spoke beautifully and boldly of the Church as their mother, their virgin mother, in whom they were born again, putting on the identity of Christ. “I am in travail,” Paul says to those who received his words, “until Christ be formed in you.” Let us, then, bear all these dimensions of the Nativity of Christ in mind as we prepare ourselves for this feast, knowing that, as the body of Christ, it involves us too in the most immediate way possible – today!