The Nativity of Christ has tremendous theological and religious significance that cannot be exhausted
Augustin Sokolovski, Doctor of Theology, Priest
There are so many meanings hidden in the great and saving Nativity of Christ that on the day of the feast it is important to be able to focus on the important things. The main proclamation, a kind of motto of the Orthodox Christmas celebrations, can truly be found in the biblical proclamation: “God is with us!” “The Lord Himself will give you a sign: behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Emmanuel,” says Isaiah (Isaiah 7:14). This very name “Emmanuel” translated into our language means “God is with us”.
The Nativity of Christ has tremendous theological and religious significance that cannot be exhausted. However, the meaning of the event and the celebration can also be translated into secular language. In this way, what humanity has dreamed, dreamed of and will long for is fulfilled, has come true in Christmas. To transcend oneself, to escape from limitation, to go to heaven, to learn to fly. It is done, it is accomplished. At the same time, it has been accomplished in a way that no dream could ever have been, in the dreams of no one alive today. God is with us, God became human. Not as a fantasy, nor as an idea or a notion. God became the answer to humanity’s unanswered prayer. A prayer that, for centuries and millennia, continues and goes on in silence.
The tragedy of the original sin can be understood in different ways. As inescapable curse on human and planetary existence, which is tragically inexplicable but obvious to everyone. The tragedy of the fall into sin as the absence of an answer – to God’s Covenant, call, commandment, gift. It demanded an answer to the divine call and commandment, but this answer could not come from men. Then God Himself became that answer. He made us happy, became for us a gift and a gift above which there can be no higher in our being, nor in the being of the world. “The Lord Jesus, Faithful and True Witness and Martyr, the Beginning of God’s creation”, as the Book of Revelation calls Him (Rev. 3:14).
Celebrating Jesus’ birthday, which is what the word Christmas literally means, as a remembrance and celebration at the same time, it is important to be able to see this celebration as a call, not just as a historical remembrance. For in this beautifully designed appeal to every citizen of our planet, the very essence of human existence revealed is really present. God became human, His flesh and His blood vivifies people with the Eucharist. The Bible tells us that believers live His life, the life of the Lord. The Lord who became man and lives in our midst. Jesus dwells in our midst because He gave Himself for us. He abides in Churches, Communities and Families. After all, the family is a small Church. God is with us!
More than two thousand years ago the Lord was born in Bethlehem. By greeting one another with the words “Christ is born”, the members of the Community find the opportunity to experience the one Christmas reality through the sacramental retrospection of sacramentality. For the event of the Lord’s birth is revealed in the Paschal Mystery of Christ crucified and risen. She, as both memory and presence, embraces all past and all present, every day and every moment, even the future. In this way, the celebration of the Nativity is able to bring us into the eternity of the divine existence (2 Pet. 1:4). In the words of the ancient Church: “God became human in order that human might become God. God became human in order that human might know the divine within himself”.
Like any true celebration, Christmas is not limited to a single day. Therefore, on 8 January, the second day of the feast of the Nativity of Christ, the Church continues to celebrate Christmas by celebrating the Feast of the Synaxis of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The word “Synaxis”, literally from the Greek original meaning “assembly”, in this case means the common solemn worship and the celebration of the Eucharist in honour of the One whom Scripture calls Mary, the mother of Jesus (Acts 1:14).
Like many of the liturgical traditions in our Orthodox Church, the celebration of the Synaxis of the Blessed Virgin Mary owes its origin to the ancient Church of Constantinople. At that time the religious life of the Capital of the Empire was organized around two ecclesial centres: the Cathedral of Saint Sophia and the Church of the Theotokos in Blachernae. It was here, in the miraculous Church in honour of the Blessed Virgin, that the Patriarch served the liturgy on the second day of Christmas. If we draw an analogy with our Russian contemporaneity, then the Church of St. Sophia in its ecclesiastical significance was similar to the Church of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, while the Temple of the Mother of God in Blachernae – the place of numerous apparitions and miracles of the Mother of God – is the prototype of our Holy Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius.
This historical explanation of the origin of the Synaxis of the Most Holy Mother of God does not contradict another theological one. According to ancient accounts, on this day the Church remembered the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt. Indeed, according to the Gospel of Matthew, immediately after the birth of the Divine Child, Joseph and Mary were forced to flee to Egypt from the wrath of Herod, about whom is said, having commanded to exterminate the infants in Bethlehem. When the Magi departed, behold, an Angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said: “Arise, take the Divine Child and His Mother and flee into Egypt and remain there until I tell you, for Herod wishes to seek the Child to destroy Him” (Matthew 2:13).
To understand the essence of the feast of the Synaxis of the Blessed Virgin Mary, it is important to turn to the holy of holies of Orthodox worship –- the text of the Eucharistic Prayer. Thus, after the consecration of the Blessed Sacrament, when the bread and wine, by the power of the Holy Spirit become the Body and Blood of the Lord, the Church, through the mouth of the priest, in her prayer remembers all “who rested in faith, the forefathers, patriarchs, prophets, apostles, martyrs, confessors, ascetics and every spirit that is just, who died in the faith”. Then, with the words “in remembrance of the Most Holy, Immaculate, Blessed, and Glorious Mother of God and the Ever-Virgin Mary”, the congregation remembers the Blessed Virgin. After the commemoration of the Baptist and the Saints of the Day, there follows the commemoration of the deceased by name.
The following is extremely important in this commemoration. Firstly, the original commemoration of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, is framed by the theological titles of the Mother of God. Secondly, the name of Mary with the saints, in the text, is a kind of bridge or transition to the names of the deceased who have not reached, or have not yet reached, sainthood. Thirdly, the way in which the prayer speaks of the Virgin Mary, simply listing her, albeit with praiseworthy epithets, along with other names of the living and the deceased, indicates that the text of this prayer was originally composed by the Virgin’s contemporaries. By those for whom she was the living Mother of the Messiah and Saviour of the World, Jesus Christ. Mary is one of us. The understanding of this is awe-inspiring.
On the third day of Christmas, the Church commemorates the Apostle, the First Martyr and Archdeacon Stephen. The ancient church calendars contain two possible dates for the commemoration of Stephen in relation to Christmas. This is the day after the Nativity of Christ, as it is fixed in the Roman and Carthaginian Church Calendar, or the day after the feast of the Synaxis of Mary: in the Church of Constantinople the memory of Stephen was commemorated in this way. This difference is due to the fact that the first date refers to the day of discovering the relics of the First Martyr in Palestine and the second to the day of their translation to the city of Jerusalem in the year 415.
The direct coincidence of the day of the memory of the First Martyr Stephen, with the days of Christmas at the same time, is both accidental and symbolic. It is accidental because it is linked “only” with the discovery and transfer of Stephen’s relics at the beginning of the fifth century. It is symbolic because it puts the memory of Stephen in the days of Christmas, when the Church also remembers all those who in this world were closest to the Lord in the flesh: King David, the Righteous Joseph, the Apostle James, whom the Tradition of the Church called the brother of the Lord.
However, both the words “accidental, by chance” and the word “symbolic” must be taken by us in the context of its biblical original meaning. For God is Accidental par excellence. He is an Accident whose non-accidentality is perceived in the context of man’s and the world’s awareness of its own accidentality – our common accidentality in relation to the original, revealed in Revelation and Scripture, sovereign, infinite, non-accidental, distinctive personal Being called God. God as Accidental is one of the definitions of God important in the context of our postmodern modernity.
The personality and work of Stephen, the correlation of his celebration to the celebration of Christmas, were already extremely important to the Church Fathers of the fourth century, who devoted their thought-provoking meditations to this theme. Thus, both traditions of celebrating Stephen’s memory – on the Second or Third Day of Christmas – are deeply symbolic and indicate, as St. Augustine says in his homily on Stephen, “the special will of God for his saint”.
On the twelfth day after Christmas, the Church celebrates Epiphany Day. This feast is also referred to as the Baptism of the Lord. The period from Christmas until Epiphany is called the “holy days” or in Russian “sviatki”. It is a continuation of the Nativity Feast. The texts of the divine service also speak of the event of the Baptism of the Lord.
Originally, Epiphany was the only pivotal, major Christian Feast after Easter. While the latter was a celebration in honour of the Lord Jesus, who rose from the dead, ascended into Heaven and sat at the right hand of the Father, Epiphany was a celebration in honour of the Incarnation of God and the Word. It combined the whole range of meanings relating to the earthly life of the Lord. Gradually, with the beginning of the separate celebration of Christmas in the West and later in the East, Epiphany began to be “shared” with the meaning and significance of the other feasts. Nowadays, in the Christian West it means the Adoration of the Magi, while in Orthodoxy it means the Baptism of the Lord Jesus, His coming out to preach, the beginning of His earthly ministry. It is worth noting that the ancient Oriental Churches, Armenian, Coptic, and others, as in ancient times, don’t celebrate Christmas separately, but only Epiphany.
When the Christian Church started to celebrate Christmas in different churches, the Feast of the Epiphany seems to have taken a back seat. This downplaying of Epiphany is only superficial.
Epiphany also means the Baptism of the Lord Jesus. And the return of God to the Garden of Adam – our world, our planet, and our creation. Epiphany is the renewal of nature and the expulsion of all that is evil and all that is demonic from it. Epiphany is a testimony that God in Christ Jesus lived among us here, knows us, our time, and our world. Epiphany means that the Lord Jesus has truly lived His human life. He knows this world and loves it. In genuine human terms, the Lord, who sits at the right hand of the Father, remembers this world of ours, we are dear to Him. He truly misses us, and He hurries back.
Finally, Epiphany is also a warning to kings and rulers. In the words of Revelation: “And the Gentiles were enraged; and Thy wrath came, and the time to judge the dead, and to give vengeance to Thy servants, to the prophets and to the saints and to those who fear Thy name, the small and the great; and to destroy those who destroy the earth” (Rev.11:18). “To destroy those who destroy the earth.” God has loved this world and will never leave it. “Outside the Church there is no salvation.” Paraphrasing this axiom of Christian antiquity, the Church believes that outside the world there is no salvation.