The Orthodox Spirit of Christmas
by V. Rev. Vladimir S. Borichevsky
Table of Contents
Father Vladimir deeply loved the feast days of the Church. All priests do. It is a measure of the calling of God to full service in the Church to love with one’s whole heart the succession of festal celebrations which both reveal and enable one to participate in the eternal realities. In his priestly service at the Feasts, Fr. Vladimir was one with that which was celebrated. He had a special love for the winter feasts: the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple, St. Nicholas, the Nativity Pre-feasts, the Nativity itself, Theophany, the Meeting of the Lord in the Temple. He celebrated these Feasts with a combination of mature insight into the meaning of the day along with a childlike wonder and exuberance. I remember the first Orthodox Theophany I witnessed. Fr. Vladimir was serving at his parish, St. Nicholas Church in Philadelphia, as usual, manifesting the transcendent. At the time of the sprinkling of the Church and the people with the newly-blessed water, he was clearly not sparing in his sprinkling; the altar, the icons, the people the whole Church were lavishly drenched in the “waters of the Jordan” as he moved around the Church singing in full voice along with the choir and people the Festal Tropar.
Total commitment, total identification with the Church, her worship and teachings: this is the mark of all true servants of God, and certainly was the case with Fr. Vladimir. This total self-giving to God and the Church was marked by a complete avoidance of coercion or any external force in presenting to others the truths of the Church. He understood well the principle that example speaks a thousand times more effectively than words and that force never accomplishes a true change but in the long run is self-defeating. This he taught, and this he practiced at all times. In one of the selections included herein Fr. Vladimir expresses his understanding of Christ’s method: “We,” he says, “often feel that the Kingdom of God must be demonstrated or preceded by some show of power ... [But] the way of the Lord ... has never been the way of coercion, of force, or of power. These are the tools of those who wish to build God’s Kingdom here on earth-not as He willed-but as they themselves will it. The way of the Lord is the way of self-humiliation and service, Christ was a servant among men.” (from the chapter, “He Humbled Himself and Became Obedient unto Death”) This was one of the deepest-held convictions of Father’s life and ministry.
At the same time the understood well the radical demands of the Christian Gospel and thus the inescapable requirement of heroic courage for everyone who would follow Christ. In Russian this is expressed in the word podvig - for which there is no English equivalent. A podvig is a heroic, ascetical effort, the accomplishment of the impossible by the grace of God. True Christianity has always and will always call for podvig, for it is the Way of the Cross. Fr. Vladimir had no use for the widespread saccharine or antiseptic views of Christianity; nor did he agree with any view which would seek to compromise the Church with the world. Accordingly, he always presented to his spiritual children the great contrast: the realities of a world severely damaged and pervaded by evil, versus the Good News of the Kingdom of Light, peace, and joy-this Kingdom requiring a discipline of sacrifice and self-denial.
It is that very contrast, the Church and the world, which comes to sharp focus in the two ways people today celebrate the Christmas season. In a particularly striking passage (in “God is With Us”) Fr. Vladimir describes the “thoughtless Christian” as one intoxicated, waking up with a “spiritual hangover,” and ending up despondent and disillusioned. “Without providing ourselves to be the place where the Newborn Christ finds His abode, there can be no Christmas Spirit within us,” he says. The true spirit, the true joy of the season of Christ’s Birth in the flesh is found in “giving ourselves to the Lord” and receiving “from Him the life we have offered to Him transformed, transfigured, redeemed, and made divine.”
The homilies presented here will help us all to rediscover or perhaps discover for the first time the true depths and wonder of the Incarnation, God come to dwell with His creatures as a little child.
V. Rev. Theodore Heckman
The Orthodox Spirit of Christmas
Sincere Christians of all faiths have become concerned with the manner in which the Christmas holidays are now being celebrated. There is a movement which calls for all to “put Christ back into Christmas.” Such a movement reflects the terrible fact that many have taken Christ out of Christmas. We are not speaking here only about the celebrations which take place outside the Church. The fact is that many Churches instead of discouraging the perversion of the Feast Day of Christmas, have actually succumbed to the same temptation. In our own Orthodox Churches we find the introduction of many customs from other traditions. Together with some good customs, a lot of “glitter and tinsel” have also been introduced and these have tended to obscure the true Orthodox spirit of this holy day.
What is the true Orthodox Spirit of Christmas? To find an answer to this question we must first turn to the historical events preceding and following the birth of Christ. After the fall of Adam and Eve, and with them all of mankind, the human race lived in the one hope that the Messiah would come and that He would redeem mankind and reconcile all men with God. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and David were all reassured that this Savior would be born from their seed. The Prophets, especially Isaiah, Micah and Jeremíah, foretold the Savior’s coming and told the spiritual impact He would make on the lives of all men.
The people of Israel were led out of Egypt and through Moses received the Law so that they might be prepared for His coming. Yet the Chosen People failed to recognize the Christ when He did come. What was worse, they rejected His Gospel and permitted Him to be crucified. Thus were fulfilled the prophesies which said that the Savior would be rejected by His own and that He would have to suffer and die in order to establish His Kingdom. Why then, did the Chosen People of Israel fail to recognize the promised Savior? Because they listened to the Prophets but failed to understand them. They recreated the Savior and molded Him into an image of their own making. The Messiah they wanted was one who would be a great king like David; one who would advise them like Solomon; one who would destroy the Roman oppressor and would conquer all the nations of the world and make them pay their tribute to the kingdom of Israel; one who would make Israel replace the Empire of Rome.
We know how completely Israel had failed to comprehend the purpose of the Messiah’s coming. We know that the Savior is indeed the greatest of all kings, the King of Kings, and that He is the wisest of all men. He is the destroyer of the Oppressor of all men, the Devil, and we know that He has overcome sin, evil and death. The glory of the Chosen People is the glory of God which they rejected. All believers of their own free will are enslaved by His sermon of love and they willingly pay tribute to the Son of God and to His Gospel of Salvation. The empire that the Messiah has established is not of this world but is the Eternal Kingdom of God in Heaven.
When the long-promised Savior came, this true image of the Messiah was obscured, for Israel had measured His greatness against the limited image of the Christ which they had created. Since Jesus Christ did not measure down to this man-made image, they rejected Him. He was far too spiritual, far too great to be understood and accepted by men of limited ideas and ideals. But God’s plan was not to be frustrated by little men, and His Son ordered His servants to “go out quickly into the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in hither the poor, and the maimed, and the halt, and the blind ... Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled. ” (Luke 14:21-23) Many people, pagans from all the corners of the world heard this call and came to sit down at the great Feast at His table.
Today the Christians of the world, the New Israel, find themselves repeating the mistake of the Old Israel. They come flocking to Bethlehem on Christmas Day to pay tribute and to worship the Child Jesus, but they reject Christ as the Son of God. They have brought down the Christ Child into the sights of their limited spiritual vision. He has become to them a mere symbol representing all good, pure and innocent children-and nothing more. The Christ Child remains only a child, bound by his own helplessness, dependent on others for his food and his care. In a word, people today are afraid to see in the manger of Bethlehem Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who is destined to deliver the Gospel of Salvation, who will suffer and die, and will rise from the dead. They do not want to hear the words of His suffering and death. They prefer to adore the innocent Babe of Bethlehem laying helpless in His manger.
The Orthodox Church calls to us to come to Bethlehem on Christmas Day to pay homage to, and to worship the Savior of the world. In one breath it calls Him the King and Prophet, and the Servant who must suffer and die. In all of the prayers, hymns and rituals of the Feast of the Nativity, the Orthodox Church reminds us that this is the Savior who comes to suffer and die in order that we might rise together with Him and partake of His Eternal Kingdom. We see this holy day of the Nativity of Christ through the images of the Cross, the Grave, the Resurrection, the Ascension, and the promised day of His coming again. St. Paul wrote that “if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain.” (1 Cor 15: 17) To this we might add that the whole life of Christ would have been futile and foolish if He had not indeed risen from the dead. It is because we know and believe in Christ and in His glory that Bethlehem has any meaning whatsoever. The Nativity is the first act, the beginning of the Salvation of all mankind. Unless it is seen with the eyes of faith that Christ is indeed the Son of God who suffered and was buried, who rose again and who ascended into Heaven, who even now sits at the right hand of the Father, this day marks only the birth of another child. It is the birthday of a child born into a sinful world, destined to be engulfed and conquered by sin and death.
But we Orthodox Christians know this child as the Christ Child, born in innocence of the Virgin Mary, born into a sinful world, but born to conquer sin, evil and death. Only in this knowledge can our yearly journey to Bethlehem become a journey of renewing grace and revived spiritual strength. Only thus can we avoid the usual sentimental journey of tinsel and glitter made to the brittle sounds of sleigh bells ringing and shouts that Santa Claus is coming. Such journeys end only in despair, disgust and spiritual hangovers.
Let us now go to Bethlehem to pay homage to the Christ Child born this day of the Virgin. Let us bring our hearts, souls, minds and bodies dedicated to His Name and His Gospel. Let us return bearing His Cross even as He bore it for us that we might live forever.
The Dawn of the True Light
O Christ, Thou art the True Light which enlightens and sanctifies everyone that has come into the world! Let the Light of Thy countenance dawn upon us, that we may see the unapproachable Light, and do Thou straighten our steps to do Thy commandments, through the prayers of Thy All-Pure Mother and of all Thy Saints.
Mankind will never be completely certain of the beginnings of life except that God has revealed to mankind that we, and the world in which we live, were created by Him. Of this one thing we are certain, for of this were we the witnesses both in the world and in historical time, that at the very center of life is Christ, our Savior and Redeemer, who as Alpha and Omega is both the Beginning and the End. We have a written record of Christ and His Life, but it is only through Christ and through His Life and Death that we have the beginning of a new life in God through Jesus Christ, His Son.
It is now at the beginning of the Fast of the Nativity when we prepare for the glorious day of the birth of Christ into the world, that we think on Christ: why, when and how did He come into the world? When we contemplate His birth, we realize that it is on Him, the Son of God, that all history is centered. We understand that it is only because of Him that the beginning has meaning and the end has a sure and certain hope. Before He came into the world, man could say with conviction, “It would have been better were I never created.” Before He came into the world, our only hope lay in His Coming.
Is it any wonder then that the very world stands in awe before His manger in Bethlehem and that the Angels and men sing, “Glory to God in the Highest and on earth peace, good will to men?” Is it any wonder that it is from the time of His birth that we record the day of the year in which we live? Is it any wonder that we took on His Name, and everything in the world carries the imprint of His Life and His Cross, Death and Resurrection? For Christ was the hope of the ages, and in Him do we place our faith, and through Him do we express our love for both God and humanity.
Though we may never know our exact destination in life, we have not wandered in desperation and helplessness, for we have a guide in this life. We place our trust in Christ as we take our Cross and follow in His Way. No longer is our only certainty the knowledge that our destination is uncertain. Now everything has been resolved and we are certain that Christ is the beginning of a New Life which shall have no end.
Saint Paul calls Christ the cornerstone of this new life, the Church. We are the building of which the Apostles and the Prophets are the foundation. The foundation has been set, the cornerstone has been laid, and now the building of the souls of the faithful grows. However, this building did not come into existence without Christ-nor can it continue to exist without Him. He is its only cornerstone. While many have built their churches atop new foundations, they are fore-doomed to failure, for in fact they are competing against the divine work of the Savior Himself. As there is only one Christ, there is only one Church-the Body of Jesus Christ.
In all Christ is the center of life, history and meaning. Without Him everything becomes meaningless and impossible to comprehend. Nor can we understand anything from God’s point of view, unless we try to understand and comprehend the meaning of Christ and interpret the world through Him. It was Christ who taught us to pray to His Heavenly Father. It was Christ who intercedes for us as we beseech our God. It is through the prayer of Christ that the Comforter is sent by God the Father to guide His Church, the Body of Christ. Wherever we turn, we find that Christ is at the center. This is the only reason why the beginning and the end have any meaning at all. We hope and pray that God will send down upon us His manifold blessings and Grace as we approach the great day of His birth with anticipation and hope. Since we know the outcome of our hope, let us gain new strength in the renewed spirit of Christ. Suddenly the dark curtain of sin is drawn aside, and we sing praises to Christ with all our heart, mind and spirit, for He has reunited us with God.
In the forty days before the Feast of the Nativity of Christ we are called to prepare ourselves to meet the coming Savior. These forty liturgical days are equivalent to the thousands of years that mankind had awaited and prepared itself to meet the Savior of the world. Compared to God’s infinite Wisdom, man’s finite knowledge is as nothing. The chasm which separates God and man seems to be eternal and infinite; yet the mystery of the Incarnation is that God has chosen to unite His Divinity with man’s humanity.
Heaven and earth have today become united, since Christ is born. God has come down to earth today, and man has gone up to Heaven; He who by nature is invisible, is for the sake of man seen today in the mortal flesh.
It is not only in the historical Person of Jesus Christ that God and man have come into perfect unity-this same mystery of the Incarnation is open to all men throughout time, for Christ established His Church which is His Living Body, and into this Church are we all born again; that is to say, “we put on Christ” and in this we become mystically united with the Divine human life in Christ-the Church.
The Creator seeing man, whom He fashioned with His own hands, perishing, bowed the Heavens and came down; and from the Virgin divine and pure, had taken on the whole of man’s substance, becoming truly Incarnate, for truly is He is glorified.
(Canon of St. Cosmas-Troparion, Ode 1)
It becomes very clear that the mystery of the birth of the Savior is also the mystery of the birth of a new humanity recreated in the Image and Likeness of God, through the redeeming work and Life of the Savior, and sanctified by the Holy Spirit. How can we prepare ourselves for this great event in our lives? The answer can be found in the words of the prayer at the end of the First Hour:
Let the Light of Thy countenance dawn upon us, that we may see the unapproachable Light...
Though this True Light shines forth upon all of God’s creation and gives it the nurturing and sanctifying Grace by which we all live, it is not capable of penetrating into our hearts unless we open them to receive “that unapproachable Light.” Christ stands at the door and knocks. The Archangel Gabriel appears to the Virgin to await her acceptance of God’s will of choosing her to be the Mother of Immanuel, God with us, Christ the Savior. God’s love pursues man through history and into eternity but never does God force Himself upon mankind; for in giving us free will, God, as it were, took the calculated risk that an would come to love Him, which is possible only as an act of free will. As we prepare ourselves during this season to join with the Angels in singing praises to the newborn Savior, let us “straighten our steps” to do God’s commandments, for the Son of God chooses our hearts as the cavern in which He is to be born.
The Fast of the Nativity is a season of anticipation. Some wait for the season of Christmas, a time of giving and receiving gifts. Some wait for Santa Claus. Still others wait for the season to end because it means more work, more expenses, long Christmas gift lists and still longer Christmas card lists. But the true Christian waits for the Coming of Christ, the Son of God, the Savior and Redeemer. He comes to dwell in the midst of His people. He comes to take His abode in our hearts. All other anticipations of this season should not overshadow this coming of the Son of God and all that it brings-peace, reconciliation and joy to the hearts of mankind weary with wars and anxious for the future. Christ Jesus was the answer for the people of His time, a time very much like our own. Though He was the answer, many refused to accept Him, and among those who refused were many sincere and devout followers of the Old Covenant which He came to fulfill.
This paradox of old is repeated today. Christ Jesus is the answer to the problems of our time. He alone can bring the Peace that passes all understanding. He is the only One who can bring reconciliation between man and God. The lack of this reconciliation is the true cause of our anxiety, of our frustrations, of our search for finding ourselves. It is only when we have lost our old selves-self-centered, selfish, and self-seeking-and found our new selves-Christ-centered, outgoing, open-hearted, humble, that reconciliation with God is possible. The loss can be truly permanent and the gain equally so, in and through Jesus Christ, whose coming we should all anxiously await. For He alone brings the gift which we ancticipate-our renewed life in Him.
To receive this gift we must give of ourselves; we must actually go so far as to lose our worldly selves. This loss of self is probably the most difficult thing we could ever force ourselves to do. It must be an act of free will; an act which is only possible if we come to the realization of the failure of all other fallible human solutions. A simple study of the history of mankind and of our repeated failures to “save” ourselves should be sufficient to convince most. Nor can the solution be found in men banded together with only the bonds of human weakness. The only bond that can bind men is the divine power of God. This is the bond that Jesus Christ gives mankind-Himself, the Son of God and the Son of Man. In Christ we find the greatest possibilities of mankind fully realized, tied in an unbreakable bond of God’s almighty power. Does not this gift make all others meaningless phantoms?
Christ Jesus came and brought that peace, reconciliation and joy to all mankind. But then, as now, it is up to the individual to receive Him. Christ’s Mother, the Virgin Theotokos, could not find room at the Inn and as a result the Son of God was born in a cavern and His Mother had to place Him in a manger. Today Christ comes into the world and seeks a place to be born. Do you turn Him away because there is no room for Him in your heart? Shall He go to find someone else who will receive Him? Most certainly He will, for God comes, and in the world there must be a place for Him, even if it be only a humble cavern. Let that cavern be your heart, purified and cleansed of sin, broken of pride, a humble abode wherein God shall make His home.
Compiled from sermons delivered in 1949, 1962 and 1966.
Adorn Thyself, O Manger!
The Feast of the Nativity of Jesus Christ in the Flesh of the Virgin Mary-even as the Incarnation of Christ in history-has its period of preparation. The Old Testament times can be called the period of the Advent in history. As a reminder to us, and also as an opportunity for us to relive spiritually the experience of the Old Testament, we have in the Church calendar a period of preparation for His Coming.
In the Western churches this period is called the season of Advent, and it lasts for four weeks. In the Orthodox Catholic Church this period lasts for forty days and is called either the Fast of the Nativity, for it precedes the Feast of the Nativity of Christ, or it is called St. Philip’s Fast, because it begins on November 15 (27), the day after the Feast of the Holy Apostle Philip.
The spiritual symbolism of a forty day fast is twofold. First of all, it represents the forty years of wandering of the Twelve Tribes of Israel in the desert in search of the Promised land. Then also, it is a living reminder to us of the forty days of fasting which our Lord underwent before coming forth to be baptized of John in the River Jordan.
The second symbolic meaning of the forty day fast which precedes the Feast of The Nativity becomes especially vivid and meaningful when we consider that the early Church commemorated the Manifestation of God together with His Incarnation. The Manifestation of God occurred at the time of His Baptism of John when Heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended in a visible form like a dove upon Jesus, and a Voice came from Heaven which said, “Thou art My Beloved Son; in Thee I am well pleased.” (Luke 3: 22) The Incarnation occurred at the birth of Jesus Christ of the Virgin Mary. The early Church, and the Orthodox Church, even now, is aware that the two events belong together and are the beginning and end of one process. What was initiated in the Incarnation was completed in the Manifestation, the purpose was the preparation of the Word for the short three years of the active public ministry of Jesus Christ, the Lord and Savior of all.
At the moment of the Nativity of Jesus in Bethlehem, the Incarnation became a definite, distinct and complete fact in history. However, it was not until the time when Jesus reached maturity that it could be said in a real physical sense that Jesus took on the fullness of fully developed human nature. We can come to understand this better if we consider that a newborn child is a man but only in a potential sense. In actuality the child becomes a man only upon reaching maturity. The time when Jesus reached maturity is remembered in the Church Year during the Feast of the Baptism of Christ.
The Church places its emphasis on the Feast of the Manifestation, but not to the exclusion of the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord. In a real sense they are inseparable, and this was the underlying motive of the early Church for celebrating both events together. The historical emphasis is also on the beginning of the ministry of Jesus, and the Gospels of St. Mark and St. John begin with the prophetic words of St. John the Baptist and his Baptism of Jesus Christ. The Birth of Jesus occurred in obscurity and its mystery was revealed to relatively few, the shepherds and the Three Magi. It was then followed by the obscurity of Egypt and of Nazareth. Whereas, the Baptism of Jesus Christ in the Jordan was followed by the three years of His public ministry.
Just as Moses fasted for forty days in order that he might be purified and worthy to receive the Word of God on the stone tablets; so we prepare ourselves for the coming into our lives of the Living Word, Jesus Christ, the Son of God. These fast days also serve as a reminder to us that our forefathers also waited, for many generations, for the coming of the Messiah and Savior-waited in hope and in fear.
Throughout this season of preparation on Saturdays and Sundays, the Irmosi of the Christmas Canon are sung in Church. In addition, many of the other hymns that are sung, as well as the readings, speak of the coming of the Messiah and Savior. In all these there is a recurrent theme, a theme of hope, a theme of a promise to be fulfilled in the immediate future. In these forty days we relive that long period of hope and of promise in which our ancestors had lived. They all lived in this hope and their lives were motivated by this long-awaited fulfillment made by Almighty God Himself.
A special period occurs during the Nativity Fast which lasts for two weeks. It begins on the 2nd Sunday before the Nativity which is called the Week of the Holy Forefathers and lasts through the Sunday before the Nativity, called the Week of the Holy Fathers. Although there is a distinction in the names of these two weeks, in actual liturgical practice there is none. During this period the Church remembers all those who lived in the faith of the coming Messiah, as the Vespers Stikhera expresses it,
Come ye lovers of the Feast, and let us praise in hymns the Sobor of the Forefathers, Adam the forefather, Enoch, Noah, Melchízedek, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; after the Law, Moses and Aaron, Joshua, Samuel, and David: with them Isaiah, Jeremíah, Ezekiel, and Daniel, and the twelve together with Elijah, Elisha and all: Zacarius and the Baptist and those who preached the Christ, the Life and the Resurrection of our race.
They awaited the coming of the Messiah and they did not wait in vain, for He has come, born of the Virgin in Bethlehem even as it was written by the Prophets. In the Troparion of the Week of the Forefathers we sing:
Thou didst justify the Forefathers in their faith when through them Thou didst plead for Thy Church among the nations. These Saints boast with glory that from their seed there is a fruit of good report, She who bore Thee in purity. By their intercessions, do Thou O Christ, have mercy on us.
In the Week of the Holy Fathers, there is an emphasis on the Forefathers in direct relation by flesh to the Virgin Mary and thus to Jesus, although not to the exclusion of all the Forefathers, Prophets and Patriarchs in the faith. There are also frequent references to the Three Holy Youths cast into a fiery furnace by Nebuchadnezzar. These three youths, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, are the classical examples of true hope and unflinching faith in the One God, even in the face of torture and persecution.
The Church dedicates these weeks to all those who in the Law, and before the Law enlightened mankind in the True Faith, and nurtured them in the hope of the coming of the Savior and the Messiah.
Prepare thyself, O Bethlehem! Adorn thyself, O Manger! And thou, O Cavern, receive the Truth that comes-for the shadow hath passed away and God is made manifest unto men out of the Virgin; Having been formed like unto us and having deified the flesh. Therefore Adam and Eve are restored and cry out: ‘Goodwill hath appeared on earth to save the race of men.’
Christ comes into the world once more and again, he searches for a place which will receive Him. There are millions of homes throughout the world in which the Name of Christ is revered, yet there at least twice as many homes in which the Name of our Lord is rejected. Many years ago the doors of the Inn and some homes in Bethlehem were closed to the Lord; today there are millions closed to Him. Yesterday the Cave gave shelter to Him; today all of mankind can give Him an abode in their hearts.
Every person is chosen by Christ our Lord, but not all men choose to accept Him into their hearts. Many appear to open their hearts, but keep Him closed up in a small remote room, never opening to Him their inner secret places. Others open their hearts but He finds little place there because priding themselves in their “democratic” approach to religion, they also make room for many ideals often alien to Christ while others are openly anti-Christ.
The Three Wise Men followed the star and it led them to the place where Jesus was. The wise men of today search the sky for other stars, and they will follow any on of them for as long as they are assured that they will not have to pay homage to Christ at the end of their journey. There are also those who will pay homage to Him, but only if they can also pay homage to mammon, and to their own selfish egos. It is not that these reject Christ outright-after all, they appear to accept Him; they even pay Him formal worship... But they also give like homage to the idols of the modern world: success, power, money, physical security and many, many others. Modern man does not choose to kill the Spirit of Christ outright-for this would seem to him to be unethical-instead, he dilutes the Spirit of Christ to ineffectiveness. Modern man does not turn Christ away from the door of his heart; he opens it wide, but then banishes the Truth into some remote, little room. Christ does not capture the soul of this man for such a man can not give his loyalty to Him.
In this season of preparation, let us remember that we must prepare ourselves for His coming, an event for which the world had waited a long, dark period of time. The light of the star not only pierced the darkness of night but it foretold that the darkness of the spiritual world would also be dissipated by the Light of Christ in the hearts of all mankind. The world was prepared for His coming by the Prophets and Teachers of the Chosen people of Israel, the people of Abraham’s covenant with God. As it was foretold, Christ was be born of the seed of David, of the seed of Abraham and He was born in Bethlehem, the city of David. Yet when the time of His birth came, only a handful of people were aware of what was happening that day. The shepherds in the field were told by the Angels, and the star in the East led the Wise Men to Bethlehem. But most other people, even the Chosen people of the Old Covenant were not aware of the Great event that was taking place. Most of them expected great and wonderful signs; and they awaited the coming of the Savior as a traditional conqueror of the world. Who could expect that the Son of God would come in such an unheralded way-to be Born of a humble Virgin? True, birth itself was, and is a great miracle, but mankind, then as now, had become callous-expecting something “more” spectacular. But the miracles of God, then as now, are often clothed in the most ordinary way. The spiritually blind see nothing, but those whose hearts and souls have learned to see God’s hand in the most ordinary of places, see the Miracle in the Cave of Bethlehem and they open their hearts to Christ, and they let Him come in and they let Him abide therein.
Finally, this season is also the time during which we Orthodox believers prepare ourselves for the impending second coming of Christ. We not only commemorate the birth of Christ, but we also are reminded that after His Ascension into Heaven, He promised to come again, as we repeat in the Creed every day saying, “...and He shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead, and His Kingdom shall have no end.” We also are reminded of this in the parable of the Banquet Feast, which is the Kingdom of God, (Luke 14) where we learn that the final culminating act of the reunion of God and man is to take place at the second coming; that Christ is at this very moment preparing to call us to His Eternal Feast and Banquet. How shall we respond?
The early Church of the time of the Apostles lived in great hope and expectation. The early Christians thought that He would come soon and this hope alone sustained them. Though two thousand years have passed since He first came into the world and was born of the Virgin Mary, we still have nothing more lasting or more valuable than the hope that He will come again into the poor cave that is the existence of mankind.
The early Christians lived in a world as sojourners and waited with impatience for the second coming. They were little concerned with the usual worries of the day, and they lived in prayer and hope. At first they even shared all their property; for was not the Kingdom to come soon? In their Churches they held two feasts. At the Eucharist Feast they commemorated and relived the Life, Death and Resurrection of Christ. This was a service of thanksgiving for the great act of the redemption of our Lord. The second feast of the Church, sometimes celebrated with the Eucharist following it and sometimes separately from it, was a communal meal of the followers of the new way of life in Christ. Each brought to this meal (called the agape, or love feast) a portion of the food as one was able to bring. To this feast of love the Christian believers invited all the needy and poor and shared with love their food. Thus, this love feast helped the community of Christians to grow and live together as a family. At the same time, they thus fulfilled Christ’s teachings to feed and help the needy and poor. They reenacted the Banquet Feast and the day of great joy and glory when they would be joined forever with God through Christ in the Kingdom of Heaven.
As we go through life hurrying from our unfulfilled hopes to our never to be reached goals, finally arriving at complete frustration, it would do us good to reexamine our lives in the light of the early Christian community. Many of us think of the early Christians as religious fanatics who went too far in their hope and expectation of the immediate second coming of Christ. If that were true, it is even truer that they nevertheless lived joyous, happy and full lives, and that their hopes were indeed fulfilled, for in this life they had obtained the “peace” of Christ. It would do us well to strive in our lives for the only real and lasting security we can ever achieve-the Kingdom of God. The securities of this world all must come to an end, even as the world itself must come to an end, and our only security is in the Life of Christ Jesus. To live in Him, even as He lives in God; to labor for Him, even as He labored for us; to teach in His Name, even as He did in that of His Father; to sacrifice for Him, even as He did for us; to die for Him as even He died for us: Thus we can hope to live eternally as we can only live through Him. This is the way in which we can exchange the counterfeit coin of this world into an everlasting treasure in God’s Heaven. We can have only one loyalty and that to God through His Son. We become citizens of His Kingdom by living and behaving as citizens of that Kingdom even now. Christ has prepared a Joyous Feast for us. Are we prepared to enjoy it?
Compiled from sermons delivered in 1947,1949, 1951, 1953 and 1955.
Jesus Born of the Virgin
Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as His mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit. Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a public example, was minded to put her away privily. But while he thought on these things, behold, the Angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call His name Jesus: for He shall save His people from their sins. Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the Prophet, saying, ‘Behold, a Virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call His name Emmanuel,’ which being interpreted is, God with us. Then Joseph being raised from sleep did as the angel of the Lord had bidden him, and took unto him his wife: And knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name Jesus.
(Mat 1: 18-25)
There are many well-intentioned Christians who find the teaching of the Virgin Birth of our Savior difficult to “swallow” although the scriptural basis for this belief is clear and undeniable. These doubters are often the same people who accept without question the authority of various specialists, radio and television commentators or scientific pollsters. But the authority of the Church based on the words of our Lord, the revelations of the Holy Spirit, confirmed and attested to by the Saints, the doctors and teachers of the faith, and all the believers throughout these last 2,000 years, is to be questioned. They, who are the creation of God, find it difficult to accept this mystery on the basis of faith even though the great scholars of the world say that the sum total of man’s experience and knowledge is but a small fraction of what there is to know. As Christians, we accept this Mystery of the Virgin Birth on the basis of Faith, knowing that through this mystery God made possible our salvation from eternal death.
He Humbled Himself and became Obedient unto Death
What shall we offer Thee, O Christ, who for our sakes hast appeared on earth as man? Every creature made by Thee offers Thee thanks: the Angels offer Thee a hymn; the Heavens a star; the Magi gifts; the shepherds, their wonder; the earth, its cave; the wilderness, the manger; and we offer Thee a Virgin Mother! O Pre-eternal God, have mercy upon us.
Having made out our gift lists, we should return to the first page and at the head of the list in large block letters we should write-if we have not done it already-what shall we bring unto thee, O Christ? Our Lord gave to us the day of Christmas, and try as man sometimes does, he can never quite forget that this is the Day of the Nativity of the Savior and Redeemer of the world. The gifts that we give and receive on this day are but poor symbols of remembrance of the greatest of all gifts ever given-the New Life in our Lord Jesus Christ.
As we consider this day of His Birth, and its importance to us, we become aware that there is no gift that we can give that will be worthy of the Gift of Christ. He who created the world and all that is in it, gave as a gift to mankind, His Only Begotten Son. We sing on this day, “Christ is born to raise the image formerly fallen!” We who received that gift did not value Him. Some of us ignored Him, others spat upon Him and abused Him. In time He was abandoned by all but a few loyal followers at the Cross on Which He was crucified. He died and He was buried by a rich man in a stranger’s tomb. He rose again on the third day; and by His Death, He destroyed Death. He gave this Gift of Life Eternal to all mankind. What gift can we bring in return for this, His gift to us?
In the Troparion from the Hours of this Great Feast, the Church calls us to “...bring a life of virtue instead of myrrh, faithfully preparing for the return of the Nativity.” Is this then a gift worthy of the Gift of Christ? The life of virtue is actually but a reflection of the life that has been illumined by Christ. If we study the liturgical texts for this Feast of the Nativity, we find a great and powerful theme running throughout: the Song of the Angels, “Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth peace, goodwill to men,” for,
Today the Virgin gives birth to the transcendent One; And the earth offers a cave to the unapproachable One. Angels with shepherds glorify Him; The Wise Men journey with a star, Since for our sake the Eternal God was born as a little Child. (Kondak of the Feast)
We join with the Angels and shepherds to sing praise and glory. This is the only gift that we can truly give on this day and it is a gift that is worthy of our Lord. The gifts of the Magi are symbolic of the life of the Savior, but the first gift was that of the shepherds who came to the cave and saw the Newborn Child and they went away praising and glorifying God for what He had done. On this day of the Nativity of our Lord, we must make the same pilgrimage with the shepherds. We must become like them in order that the wonderful and glorious news which the Angels brought might move us to leave our daily tasks behind us and to go in haste to the manger to behold God’s Great Gift to mankind. And then and there we should become so overwhelmed by the sight which we have been privileged to behold, that we can only sing a great song of glory and praise to Christ our Lord:
Thy Nativity, O Christ our God, has risen upon the world as the light of understanding; For through it those who worshipped the stars were taught to worship Thee, the Sun of Righteousness, and to know Thee, the Orient from on high; O Lord, Glory to Thee! (Troparion of the Feast)
The Church calls us to this great Feast Day as the faithful to come and worship the Nativity of Christ. And we respond by manifesting the great inner joy and gladness that burns within us on this cold and dark night. It is this inner joy of heart and spirit that is so faithfully expressed in the great hymns of our Church and particularly in the Christmas Carols we all love so much. All of these hymns and songs are but one great exulting song of glory and praise, usually childlike in simple spiritual faith and hope.
Christmas is the beloved holiday of children because in some mystical way they understand the exultation which permeates the Feast, and they do not try to explain it. They join in and exult. They react as did the shepherds. They heard the song of the Angels and the announcement of the Birth of the Savior. They did not hesitate but went with the greatest speed to see that of which they had just heard. And when they saw, they fell down on their knees in awe, worship and homage; for they knew that this was the work of God the Creator. They fell down and worshipped the Savior. Nor did they stop at words of glory and praise which the Mother of God kept in her heart and mind; but they went out glorifying and praising God. The shepherds were the children of the first Christmas Day, and every year since then, men and women have tried to do as they did-to praise and glorify God in their own way.
Let us become as children, for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven! Let us journey with the star, and let us visit the cave as did the shepherds! No parent ever wants a greater gift from his or her child than the unsolicited word of praise. Here is a gift freely given which has value beyond price. The gift of Christ is given to us freely by God, our Father in Heaven. We are expected to be at least gracious receivers. But we should be much more than people who follow convention in order to receive social recognition. In the gift of Christ our plight is recognized and a solution-the only solution-is given:
The Creator shaped man with His own hands, but when He saw us perishing, He bowed the heavens and came down to earth... (Canon of the Nativity, Irmos - Ode 1)
These words recall to us the words of St. Paul:
Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: who, being in the form of God ... took upon Himself the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, He humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the Cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: that at the Name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the Glory of God the Father. (Phil. 2: 5-11)
On the day of the Feast of the Nativity of Christ and for the week that follows, we greet each other with the words, “Christ is Born!” to which the reply is “Glorify Him!” In these five words we have the near perfect expression of the essence of the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord. “Christ is Born!” is the announcement of the Angels to the shepherds in the field and to this announcement is added the natural response, “Let us Glorify Him!” The Christian world continues the dialogue between Angels and shepherds, between Heaven and earth... This idea is expressed in the verses of the Litiya of the Feast:
All the Angels in Heaven are of good cheer and greatly rejoice today. The whole creation leaps with joy, for the Savior and Lord is born in Bethlehem. Every error of idolatry has ceased, and Christ reigns unto all ages.
There is nothing that we can do as men on this or any other day which can be more befitting the occasion than to glorify and praise Him. For in the Birth of Christ mankind has the assurance given and the hope fulfilled. The assurance given that because of His abiding Love, God will not allow His creation to perish but He sent His Only Begotten Son into the world to reconcile mankind with God. The hope received and fulfilled in Jesus Christ is that through Him, mankind will receive Life Eternal and that the Kingdom of God will indeed come.
Whenever we are tempted as people to consider the price that we must pay for the joy and happiness in life as too great, let us consider the price that was paid to redeem our lives from total destruction. For our lives were lost. In the fall of Adam, we all fell, and the perfection and goodness which God gave us in creation was stained. Mankind chose to glorify something less than God once he yielded to the temptation presented to him by the Evil One and ate of the forbidden fruit. Obedience to God is an essential ingredient in the Love of God, for the person who does not obey God does not love Him. Once having fallen into sin, Adam could not of himself raise the price of his redemption. When a person falls into a deep pit, he needs help from someone who has not fallen into the pit in order to be saved. This was the terrible predicament of Adam after his fall. He had fallen into the bottomless pit and with him he had doomed all his posterity. God in turn, chose to redeem us, Adam’s offspring, by an act of supreme Love. He sent His Only Begotten Son into that same bottomless pit. He entered into human life not as the Master, but as a servant. The Son of God came to mankind as the Son of Man in order that we might become sons of God.
It is difficult for us to comprehend the tremendous condescension that is expressed in the words of Saint Paul, “He humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the Cross.” This was the price that was paid by Christ, the Son of God, to redeem us from the death and destruction to which we had condemned ourselves by our own disobedience to God. The Son of God gave His own Life in order to redeem our lives. Therefore, our lives are no longer our own, for Christ has purchased us and He lives in us. When we are baptized in the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we literally put on Christ. But even as these words clearly indicate, the “putting on” of Christ is only the first step which must be followed by a willful and voluntary setting-out on the Way of the same Jesus Christ.
Christ is born, and He comes into our lives once again. This is the beginning of the Mysteries of the Incarnation and the Manifestation-the becoming of man by Jesus Christ the Son of God. Inseparable from His Birth is His Ministry, His Passion, His Death, His Resurrection and His Ascension into Heaven, from whence He shall come again in Glory to judge the living and the dead. This self-humiliation of Christ for our sake is one of the great mysteries of the Holy Scripture. There are many teachers of religion who say, “Ah, yes, I could accept your Jesus, but where is his power? Why doesn’t he use it?... ” These words can become a great stumbling block for us, for we too, often feel that the Kingdom of God must be demonstrated or preceded by some show of power. Yet we forget that the opportunity to rule the entire world has already been given to us-given to us by Jesus Christ Himself. His Kingdom will indeed come, but the way to it is still the Way of the Lord, and this Way has never been the way of coercion, of force, or of power. These are the tools of those who wish to build God’s Kingdom here on earth-not as He had willed-but as they themselves will it. The Way of the Lord is the way of self-humiliation and service. Christ was a servant among men.
We must also learn the true meaning of service. It is not difficult for the man who is a servant to act as a servant; but it is very difficult for the Master to become a servant. Today God who is the Master of all Creation comes to us as a servant. We must acknowledge this with joy and offer ourselves to Him.
Our first service must be to God Himself-a song of praise and glory both for our creation and for our redemption. Our next service then, must be to go out into the world and to continue to glorify and praise God on all occasions and in all places. Our witness to Christ our Lord must be a continuous act in which we try to express our thankfulness to God in every way possible, by word, by thought and by deed-and an essential part of this witness to Christ must be the witness in our lives of suffering, of rejection, and even death for His Name’s sake.
He never promises us more than that we are in this world, but not of it; for inasmuch as our True Kingdom is yet to come, we must prepare ourselves to receive the King and Eternal Judge, Jesus Christ. He comes among us once again, born in the humblest of places; let us be prepared to receive Him; let us glorify the Newborn Christ, our Savior and our Lord!
The Nativity of Christ, 1955
God is With Us!
Except for the moist warmth of the animals gathered in the stable, it would have been a very cold and lonely shelter in which the infant Jesus was born. The place was not very clean, and undoubtedly it carried the pungent odor of the livestock living there. But now, after so many years have passed, we have come to picture this scene through sentimental eyes. The stable is pictured in songs and advertisements as both a rustic and picturesque spot. The animals are sleek and well-fed, like those at the county fair. The straw is antiseptically clean and bright yellow in color, instead of the dirty tan of real stable straw. The odor we imagine is that of perfume and incense. The stable is cozy and warm like the thermostatically controlled heat of our homes.
All of this is symptomatic of the attempt made to escape the reality and the deepest implications of the great mystery of the Incarnation of Christ, in which the Son of God comes to earth to live as a man amongst men. Jesus was born is a harsh time. The Jews were a conquered people burdened by the heavy taxes and exacting demands of their Roman overlords. It was because the systematic Romans wanted a more accurate count of their subjects for the purpose of taxation that Joseph and Mary were obliged to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem. It was a cruel journey that was forced upon the Virgin Mary by the impersonal decree of the Roman Caesar.
The whole background of the birth of the Child represents a picture of a harsh, dispassionate, cruel and cold world. There was not even a sign of welcome. There was no room at the inn for the Holy Mother and St. Joseph. A stable in a cave is the place where the greatest mystery in the entire history of the world occurred. The only warmth was the warm glow of love in the hearts of Mary and Joseph and the physical warmth of the animals in the stable.
Among other things, this means that all events-political, social and personal-seemed to have conspired to focus our attention on the Child. We are directed to consider the Child, though the birth of a child is an ordinary event, except to those directly concerned. But the birth of a child is also a great and wonderful miracle of God’s creative power and abiding love for mankind. In the birth of Christ of the Virgin Mary, Almighty God uses an ordinary means to reveal to us the greatest of all mysteries-the Incarnation of His Only-begotten Son. It is upon this great truth, that the Son of God “emptied Himself, took the form of a servant, and was born in the likeness of man,” (Phil. 2:7) that we must focus our heart, mind, and spirit when we consider the Child born of the Virgin Mary.
Unlike the scene 2,000 years ago, the Nativity Feast of today is outwardly more pleasing to the senses, although in some parts of the world, even the background of the scene is much the same. In our own prosperous country the outward aspects of the Christmas festivities speak of great joy and happiness. But when the laughter and the cheers are examined more closely, we note a ring of desperation, hopelessness and futility. In fact, few take this Christmas cheer at its face value, and the more cynical say that it is stored away with the tinsel and the decorations. Even the more optimistic and charitable observers will admit that the Light of Christ seems to be dimmed when the Christmas tree lights are switched off and are put away for another year. It seems as though “Christ” is put away with the crib and the Christmas tree. The toys and gifts lose their original fascination and become quite ordinary as they take their place among all the other objects of our mundane lives.
Yet, this is the way that it should be-for the true believer does not lose sight of the heart of his spiritual life, as he does not lose sight of the center of the Nativity scene of Bethlehem. The Christian who is both faithful and sincere is not dismayed that the Christmas season has come to an end. He knows that the shepherds returned to their flock, and that the Wise Men returned to their home lands. But he also knows that they all returned to their everyday lives “glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.” (Luke 2: 20) The journey to Bethlehem is but the first leg of the long and difficult journey... First to Egypt, then to Nazareth, Galilee, Jerusalem, Golgotha, and the Mount of the Ascension.
When the Christian looks at the Nativity scene he considers the Child Christ, for the light of the Newborn Savior shines within his heart and permeates the entire Christmas season. It is Christ within us that gives life to the “Christmas spirit,” for without Christ there can only be but a poor imitation of the true Christmas Spirit. It is Christ within us that makes it possible for the believer to say that the Christmas Spirit is the normal Christmas Spirit. For the Christian who has made his heart, mind and spirit a manger in which Christ has taken abode, the Christmas Spirit is the intensifying of the spirit which motivates his everyday life. When the tinsel, lights, gifts, trees and carols are put aside, Jesus Christ remains in his life and he shines forth with a spiritual light by which others may find their way to the Truth of Christ.
The situation for the thoughtless Christian, who thinks of the spirit of Christmas as something to intoxicate the spiritual life for one brief season every year, however, is very different. He wakes up after Christmas with a spiritual hangover-he is a very sad and disillusioned person. When the Christmas tree with all its decorations was put away, his Christmas spirit disappeared. This was the poor imitation of the True Spirit of Christ. Without providing ourselves to be the place where the Newborn Christ finds His abode, there can be no Christmas Spirit within us. Christmas is the day on which we remember the Nativity of Christ, the coming of the Son of God to live among men as Man. He was the greatest of all Gifts that was ever given to mankind. There can be no greater Gift.
It is in the giving of ourselves to our Lord that we will receive from Him the life we have offered to Him transformed, transfigured, redeemed and made divine. The act of giving ourselves is a continuing process-it begins with our Baptism when we put on Christ, and it continues through every moment of life for those of us who have decided to obey Christ’s command and have taken up the Cross to follow Him.
Let all who have followed the Star this day to the manger pay homage to Christ. Let us receive Him into our lives; giving ourselves to become transformed into true images and likenesses of God, for “God is with us” in Christ, Amen.
Nativity of Christ, 1953
Orthodox Christmas Customs
The day of the Nativity of Christ is preceded in all Orthodox lands by a strict day of fasting. This fast is to remind all of us that this season is a season of repentance, of hope and expectation. The fall of man in the garden of Eden separated us from God, for Adam had failed of his own free will to accept the Will and the Law of God. From this fall of Adam until the Coming of our Savior, mankind could only hope in the future coming of the Redeemer who would reestablish the lost unity between God and man.
On the Eve of the Nativity, usually before the All-Night Vigil, the Orthodox family gathers around the table for a “holy family supper” which is unusual in many ways. In some lands, the table is covered with straw, and on it are placed a variety of lenten dishes, twelve in number. One large candle is placed in the center of the table. The straw is a reminder of Christ’s humble manger in Bethlehem. The twelve lenten dishes are a reminder of the twelve Apostles chosen by Christ to proclaim His Gospel. The large candle serves as a reminder of Christ Himself, who is born on this day as the Light of the World.
In many Orthodox homes the master of the house first prepares a meal for all the animals of the household. As the master prepares to begin the family meal he asks, “Have the animals been fed?” And it is only if the reply is in the affirmative that the family continues with the holy family supper. Again, this is a reminder of the simple place of the birth of our Savior and that, according to tradition, there were animals present in the manger at the time of His birth. After the holy family supper, everyone leaves together to attend the services in Church, for this special evening has always been considered a day sacred to the family as a remembrance of Christ’s Holy Family, Mary and Joseph, established on this eve.
A great variety of customs exist among Orthodox people, all sharing in common the outward expression of the great inner spiritual joy and happiness that comes to all with the birth of Jesus.
After the midnight services the young children go from home to home, singing the Christmas carols announcing the birth of Christ as did the Angels to the shepherds in the field. In some lands the children carry a large star made of cloth, paper and wood with a candle burning within. Today in this country the custom of caroling is still very much alive. Though the star is carried in few places and carolers travel by car, yet the same spirit of Christmas prevails. It might be a reminder to all that caroling is a sacred custom and as such, truly belongs to the innocent children. And when adults take over the privilege of caroling, they must remember that they are playing the role of the Angels of old, and should try to behave in a manner worthy of this great honor. Above all, caroling should not deteriorate into the custom of carousing so popular in some places, for to do this is to be sacrilegious.
The popular custom of decorating the Christmas tree is a universal custom among people in northern lands, but the meaning of the tree varies from place to place. For some it is a symbol of the light, joy and happiness brought to the world by the birth of Christ which beautifies and sanctifies the world and all creation as symbolized by the tree. For others it is the light of the star that led the Wise Men to the manger. And for many it is the Light of Christ Himself which has destroyed the darkness of sin and evil that had ruled the world before His coming. The exchange of gifts properly belongs to either St. Nicholas Day or on the day of the Three Wise Men and belongs to the children alone. It is a symbolic reminder of the gifts of frankincense, myrrh and gold brought to the Christ Child by the Three Wise Men and also that Christ Himself is the greatest of all gifts that mankind has ever received.
...The true spirit of Christmas then is the Spirit of our Lord Jesus Christ come to dwell among men. It is much more than the Babe of Bethlehem. Christmas must be celebrated in the shadow of the Cross, and in the light of the Resurrection, the joy of the Ascension and in the hope of His Coming Again. Christmas is the day on which we remember the change from despair to Hope, even though at that time, even as now, mankind was unaware of the tremendous change that was occurring in the course of all history. The spirit of Christmas is the spirit of hope that is born anew in our hearts; it is the joy of the realization of mankind’s long awaited desire for our reunion with God; it is the spirit of humility, for Christ the Lord came down to earth and took on the body of man-He became one with man in order that man might become one with God.
December 23, 1951
Selections from the works of Father Vladimir Borichevsky; Number 3.