In the days of the celebration of the Nativity of Christ it is important to be imbued with the awareness of the combination of greatness and smallness, the Divine and the human, the festive and the everyday
By Augustine Sokolovski, Doctor of Theology, priest
The event of the Nativity of Christ is closely interconnected with the Resurrection of the Lord. Easter is the completion of the work of Christ: the victory over death and hell, a sign and guarantee of the resurrection of all people. The Nativity is the beginning of this saving plan for us, as it is said in the Liturgy of John Chrysostom.
There is another salvific connection between the Nativity and Easter. The Lord rose from the dead on the third day. The event of the Resurrection took place in the mystery of the Holy Sepulchre. According to the Gospel, the Birth of the Lord took place in a cave as well. The Nativity and Easter were hidden from the world, for it was blind, like the Cyclops from the Odyssey.
‘Anoint thine eyes with eyesalve, that thou mayest see’, the Apocalypse reads (Rev. 3:18). God has His own means of communication: it is Grace, transmitted through the World and the Church. These are two of His favourite works: one is the work of His Hands, the other is His Body. As St Irenaeus of Lyons wrote, the hands of God are the Son and the Divine Spirit.
God gave grace to feel the paradoxical reality of the Birth of the Messiah into the world to few people who lived in those ancient times – Mary, Joseph, the Wise Men and shepherds. A reality that was clothed in silence, obscurity, lack of glory and oblivion. Echoing the prophecy of Isaiah (Is. 9:6), the Nativity service refers to the Lord as to the ‘Prince of Peace.’ What is Silence if not Peace!
‘And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not’, the Gospel proclaims (Jn. 1:5). The Church Fathers wrote much about this ‘mysticism of light and fire’, which overcomes all darkness and human inability to perceive, but at the same time remains Divine darkness.
These words are hard to understand. In the days of the celebration of the Nativity of Christ it is extremely important to be imbued with the awareness of the combination in this event of greatness and smallness, the Divine and the human, the festive and the everyday. It is no coincidence that, in addition to the Liturgy, the symbolism of human communication did not find a better reflection for the celebration of the Nativity of Christ than a table full of treats. The meal of the Covenant of people with God or, rather, of God with people.
Because, according to the Bible, God is always the first to reveal Himself to man. God is the Infinite Self-revelation and Gift. ‘For all the promises of God in him are yea, and in him Amen, unto the glory of God by us’ (2 Cor. 1:20). Now through the Birth of Christ God, Who had received no answer from people, Himself became this answer.
On these Christmas days we should keep in mind the main Orthodox hymn of the season: ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men’ (Lk. 2:14). This ancient hymn is, in essence, one of the first Creeds because what is said in it is the confession, faith and conviction in what must certainly come.
This major Nativity hymn has two versions. The first is, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.’ It is used in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. Its ending demonstrates that the calling and election by God embrace everyone. The second is approximately as follows, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace be to men of good will.’ According to this interpretation, peace is given to those on whom God’s favour rests. In modern terms, on people of good will.
It should be noted that the theological teaching that being called is not the same thing as being chosen (God calls everyone but chooses only a few) is a legacy of the ancient theological thought of the then Orthodox West. This is how Blessed Augustine thought and what the Church Councils of Carthage and Gaul taught.
Thus the sublime theology which is full of meanings is built into the seemingly ‘familiar’ and ‘everyday’ Nativity hymn to call on us to reflect on an abundance of meanings with which we, Christians, are surrounded in this world.
God has not abandoned us. He teaches us, helps us, takes care of us and guides us towards salvation all the time, sometimes in obvious, but always mysterious ways.
‘To believe in God, to trust in God, to follow God’ is the threefold formula given by Blessed Augustine. It reflects the essence of Biblical spirituality. None of its elements should be missing in the perception of the faith by Christians.
Faith as trust, faith as conviction in the rightness, faith as your willingness to follow. The third part is especially characteristic of our postmodern era. Unfortunately, it often consciously ignores the first two. We should remember that Christian conviction and the Faith of the Church say there is true happiness and a blessing for all in the faithfulness to this triad of hypostases of faith. The gift of being the People of God and of the Nativity.
A man of the Nativity was Righteous Joseph. The Church tradition calls him the ‘Betrothed’. The Church emphasises that Joseph was Mary’s husband by law. However, their relations were pure and their marriage was never consummated.
This is not because the Church has some special attitude towards the relations between the sexes (of course, both the Bible and the Church bless them when it is in accordance with God’s plan), but it has to do exclusively with the essence of the Gospel message.
The Church teaches us that the Lord Jesus was a new creation. He was born apart from the normal process of procreation, but, like the first man, Adam, was re-created by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Mother of God. At the same time, and this is perhaps the most difficult thing, He is the Son of God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, Who received the human name ‘Jesus’.
This is how God entered history. And Mary and Joseph played an incredibly great role. Mary was the Mother of Jesus by flesh, and Joseph was His father by law. It should be remembered that the Bible constantly emphasises that the Law of God is above that of flesh.
At the Divine Liturgy on the feast of the Nativity of Christ an extract from the Gospel of Matthew is read. The first twelve verses of chapter 2 speak of the Adoration of the Magi. Following the star, they came to the ruler Herod and found out the birthplace of the future Messiah, as it was written in the Biblical prophecies. Then they, following the star, found the newly-born Infant and worshipped Him. They brought Him Gifts and, having received in a dream the news that Herod had decided to kill Christ, they left for their homeland in their own way.
The Gospel narratives are extremely important to understand the dramatic complexity of the time in which the Lord was born. Righteous Joseph is visibly present in them. He was destined to take the Baby and His Mother and flee to Egypt in order to save Him from inevitable death since Herod had decreed that all the newborn around Bethlehem be killed. Joseph was destined to return and take up residence in Nazareth, the area that was not subject to the authorities that represented danger to Jesus. Thanks to this decision the Lord Jesus would forever be called ‘Jesus of Nazareth.’ Pontius Pilate would order for the inscription to be put on His Cross: ‘Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews’ (Jn. 19:19).
Joseph was among those who surrounded the Lord Jesus in infancy and was with Him as He grew up. Joseph was a carpenter. He brought up the Lord and, according to the Scriptures and Tradition, taught Him the skills of his trade. Thanks to this for all time in the Christian faith work would be perceived as something very honourable. We meet Joseph the last time in the Gospel when the Lord at the age of twelve visited God’s Temple in Jerusalem.
Joseph was the Lord’s guardian angel, like a good father, helper and first teacher in God’s Law. At the same time, in our Orthodox tradition Joseph seems to be forgotten. He his not specially venerated among the saints. He is liturgically commemorated on the Sunday after the Nativity of Christ together with King David and all those who are directly connected with the Lord’s genealogy and law. This is a synaxis, not a particular feast in the calendar that most saints have. It is explained by the fact that thanks to Joseph and his genealogy Jesus was called the ‘Son of David’, and therefore the Messiah.
On a superficial examination, it may seem that God Himself through the Scriptures and Tradition hides Joseph’s presence. However, it is not the case. Indeed, in the Scriptures Joseph is mentioned no less often than the Virgin Mary. But all these references are connected exclusively with the Lord. We do not know anything about Joseph’s biography.
Joseph’s age is also unknown. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, which is reflected in iconography, Joseph is depicted as a very old man, but in the Western tradition, when it was still Orthodox, the image of Joseph as a young man appeared. In Catholic theology, originating from the early Western Fathers, such as Jerome and Augustine, Joseph became the prototype of… monastic life.
According to the Western tradition, the marriage with the Most Holy Virgin was his first marriage. God commanded him to protect and take care of the Virgin and live in chastity. Thus, Blessed Augustine (354-430), who taught in Carthage, wrote that Joseph was the only person who simultaneously perfectly kept two vows – of monasticism and marriage, keeping the bonds of matrimony and virginity inviolable. An amazing wealth of blessing was bestowed on one person!
It appears that if for the Eastern tradition Joseph was a character of the Old Testament or, like John the Baptist, a bridge between the two Testaments, then for the Western tradition Joseph is one of us. Moreover, by his youth Joseph shows us the image of God. For, according to Blessed Augustine, ‘God is eternally young and eternally old; He is the youngest of us.’
A New Testament’s Man. A man of the Nativity. A man of the Resurrection. A man of Easter. Like Patriarch Joseph from the Old Testament, he kept his chastity. Like him, he had dreams. Through them God’s will was revealed to him. Interestingly, Joseph the Betrothed became the last person of the Holy Scriptures with whom God spoke through dreams.
Joseph’s biography is unknown to us. No specific dates from it have come down to us. Moreover, the circumstances of his death are unknown either.
The Portuguese writer José Saramago (1922-2010) who won the Nobel Prize in Literature, in one of his works suggested that Joseph was crucified on the Cross for speaking out against the Roman Empire: he allegedly suffered from the Empire, just as his Son Jesus was later crucified for the sins of the world, albeit at the hands of the Empire in the person of Pilate. Regardless of the writer’s reflections, we know that according to the Scriptures, Joseph did everything God told him to do. In addition, according to the Gospel, the Lord did not have anti-Roman sentiments. As He told Pilate, ‘My kingdom is not of this world’ (Jn. 18:36).
While meditating on the image of Righteous Joseph during the Christmas season, we should wonder why the Lord often left only one fragment from the lives and biographies of His chosen ones in the memory of the Scriptures, and later in the memory of the Church. Only precious grains from the biographies of the Apostles have come down to us. In the Lives of the early saints (and most of them were martyrs) their sufferings and torments are often so similar that it seems that we are reading about the same person or martyrs who suffered together.
Most of what we would like to know about the saints (not only historically important, but also useful and salvific information) has not come down to us. To answer the question why it is so, we should take into account that every human being has by definition a biography and a Life. A Life is the part of human existence that belongs to God. Thus, we know little or almost nothing from the Scriptures about the Mother of God, but the great confession of faith of the Church is built on this little information. ‘The faith of the Church is in short words,’ Blessed Augustine wrote.
From every human being, whether he is a saint or not, the Lord requires and takes for Himself only a tiny particle and puts it into the great building of His plan of salvation, to the foundation of the great city of Heavenly Jerusalem mentioned in the Revelation (chapter 21).
For this a person by his Life comes into contact with the History of God and in his Life he becomes everyone’s heritage. But above all, this applies to the saints, each of whom is A grain of His plan for the salvation of the world, part of Divine dispensation – the Greek word ‘economy’ which means ‘the rules or order of the household’ is used here – where everything is taken into account. ‘Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? And one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered’ (Mt. 10:29). It is God’s art to manage the world, which He Himself created and will certainly save.
However, in addition to Life, which belongs exclusively to God, man is given a biography, which is sovereign, inviolable and blessed in its uniqueness.
A biography concerns all of us in a personal biographical dimension. A biography is given by God to man in order to live by a blessing from above, to rejoice and embody the great gift of life in creative ability, which in man is the image of God. As a song by Bulat Okudzhava (1924–1997) says:
‘I shall bury a grape stone in the warm fertile soil by my house,
and I’ll kiss the vine twig and gather sweet grapes, my reward,
and I’ll call all my friends to the feast, and love in my heart I will rouse…
Otherwise, what’s the purpose of living in this lasting world?’
(Translated by Alec Vagapov)
The image of ripe grapes and a solemn supper is very close to the spirit of the Gospel parables and the symbols of the Apocalypse!
So, through examples, instructions, meanings and signs the celebration of the Nativity not only becomes the recollection of the Gospel events, but also (and this is the great Biblical boldness of those who call themselves Christians) the renewal of the Covenant – that is, the people’s pledge of faithfulness to God and God’s pledge to the people – of The Church and the Universe – to bring the world to salvation in Jesus Christ by all means.
A life as a blessing from God, which every human being is called to live in love and joy. The image of the feast, fellowship and meal is closely connected with the celebration of the Nativity.
It turns out that in our ignorance of the biography of Righteous Joseph a special Divine plan for everyone is also revealed.
A model of the ability to hear the voice of God, wait for His commands and fulfill exactly what truly matters – as an image of true religiousness in Christ. The art of separating the Divine from the human so what is ‘not interesting to God’ (i.e., what does not take part in Divine dispensation) should remain in the shadow. Joseph, whose name means ‘God will add.’ Joseph is righteousness from God. Joseph is an icon of appropriateness in Christ. Joseph is the guardian of the Lord of the New Testament. Joseph is a man called the Nativity.