The Great Feasts of the Church

December 25/January 7

By Fr. Panagiotes Carras

Christ is born! Glorify Him! The phrase is not Christ was born but Christ is born. That's because the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord is not simply the commemoration of some historical event that happened two thousand years ago.  We commemorate the birth of famous people as historical events that happened at a certain time but ceased to exist the moment after they happened.  These events are remembered.

The Birth of our Lord is not simply a historical event which we remember, neither can we speak about the Birth of our Saviour in terms of once upon a time.  Christ is born for us and for our salvation, the Son of God takes on flesh in order to make us sons of God.  The Incarnation of our Lord is of such magnitude that it transforms time.   God actually assumes our human nature.  He is one with us and ushers us into eternity and allows us to take part in our own salvation.  This is why the Incarnation of our Saviour is beyond time.  The Feast of the Nativity opens up to us this Mystery which is beyond time.  The Feast makes us present at the Incarnation and we can participate along with the Magi and shepherds. God is born in our souls every time and in every place where Christians gather to glorify the birth of God.  The Feast calls us to be present at the Saviour’s Nativity: Today the Virgin giveth birth to the Creator of all... Let us follow with the KIngs, even the Magi from the East, unto the place where the star doth direct their journey.   Today the Son of God from heaven descends to earth and it is fitting that we should to go meet Him. We too are invited to enter into this present Mystery of the eternity of God. We cannot comprehend with our minds the Mystery of the Incarnation, but we can receive it in faith, desiring to be partakers in it.

Teachings From the Service of the Feast

Some of the hymns chanted on the Eve of the Feast of the Nativity are parallel to those chanted during Holy Week.  This is because the purpose of the Incarnation was to destroy death, the power of Satan.  Saint Paul teaches us:

For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive... The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death. (1Corinthians 15:21-26).

During the service of the Royal Hours, the Canonarch stands in the middle of the Church and intones the verses which begin: Today is born of the Virgin, He that holdeth all creation in the palm of his hand.  This is intoned in the same tone as the verses:  Today is hung on the wood, He Who hung the Earth amid the waters.  The first Sticharion of, Lord I have cried, in Vespers of the Feast, invites us to partake of the present mysteryCome, let us rejoice in the Lord as we declare this present mystery.  The middle wall of partition is broken asunder; the flaming sword is turned back, the Cherubim withdraw from the Tree of Life, and I partake of the Paradise of Delight, whence I was cast out before through disobedience...

Throughout the holy services we are reminded that our Lord was born for our sakes at the fulness of times (Galatians 4:4).   During Vespers there are eight readings from the Old Testament, beginning with the account of the creation of the world by the Word of God and including the major prophecies of the Incarnation.  It was during this time that God prepared the world for the Birth of Christ.  Divine Wisdom ordained that mankind had to be prepared to receive the Saviour and to participate in His Incarnation. These Old Testament readings of the Vesper service, as well as the first Canon of Matins and many other verses, allow us to view how our fallen nature was brought to the fulness of time when, we could offer the Theotokos as our portion of the Mystery of the Incarnation of God.  In the fourth Sticheron  of the Lord I have cried we ask how did we take part in this great mystery: What shall we offer Thee, O Christ?  And we answer: We offer Thee a Virgin Mother.  Throughout the services reference is made to the mystery of the Theotokos: Magnify, O my soul, her that hath delivered us from the curse (Ode Nine). 

Teachings From the Icon of the Feast

The icon of our Lord’s Nativity dis­closes the immutable fact of the Incarnation of God.  It proclaims, by its details, both the Divinity and the human nature of the Word of God made flesh.  The icon of the Nativity also shows us the effect of this event on the world.  Saint Gregory the Theologian’s Oration 38, dedicated to the Nativity of Christ teaches us that the Nativity of Christ is not a festival of creation but a festival of re-creation.  Through the Incarnation of God, the whole of creation acquires a new meaning.  It has entered into the final purpose of its being.  So all creation takes part in the event and round our incarnate Lord, newly born, we see representatives of the whole created world, each rendering his fitting service, or as the Church says, each giving thanks in his own way. What shall we offer Thee, 0 Christ? for Thou hast appeared on earth as Man for our sakes.  Of all the creatures made by Thee, each offereth Thee thanksgiving.  The angels offer Thee the hymn; the Heavens, the star;  the Magi, their gifts; the shepherds, their wonder; the earth, her cave; the wilderness, the manger.

The centre of the icon, to which all the details relate in one way or another, is our incarnate Lord, wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in the manger, with the dark cave where he was born as background. The Gospel of Saint Luke (2:7) tells us about the manger and the swaddling clothes.  Saint Ephraim the Syrian comments on this: The Lord of David and Son of David hid His glory in swaddling clothes. His swaddling clothes gave a robe of glory to human beings

The cave, manger and swaddling clothes are all part of the extreme humility of Him who, invisible in His nature, becomes visible in the flesh for man's sake, is born in a cave, is wrapped in swaddling clothes, thus foreshadowing His death and burial, the sepulchre and the burial clothes.

In the cave, close by the manger, stand an ox and an ass.  Their place in the very centre of the icon points to the importance given by the to this detail. It is nothing less than the fulfilment of the prophecy of Isaiah (10:3) with the deepest instructive significance: The ox knows his owner, and the ass his master but Israel does not know Me, and the people has not regarded Me.  

The position of the Mother of God and the place She occupies in the icon underlines this role of the Theotokos, singling Her out from among the other figures by Her central position and larger size.  The posture of the Mother of God emphasises the human nature of the Saviour. She is lying down, showing in her posture a great weariness.  This reminds us that the Incarnation was real and not an illusion.

Angels perform a twofold service.  They glorify God and they bring good tidings to man. This is expressed by the fact that some of them turn upwards and sing glory to God while others lean downwards, towards men, to whom they bring good tidings.

The shepherds are shown listening to the angels' message.  One of them is playing the reed-pipe, thus adding human song to that of the angels.  The wise men, led by the star, bring their gifts. A long ray from the star points the direcetion to the cave. The star is not merely a cosmic phenomenon, but more so a messenger from heaven (an angel) bringing tidings of the Birth of the Lord.

In a bottom corner of the icon two women are washing the Child. The two women are the two midwives whom Saint Joseph, in accordance with the practice at that time, brought to the Mother of God. This scene from everyday life shows clearly that the Child is like any other new-born child and is subject to the natural requirements of human nature.

Another detail brings out that in the Birth of Christ, Saint Joseph was not the father of the child.  He is emphatically separated from the centre of the icon. Before him, under the guise of an old and bent shepherd, stands the devil tempting him.  This state is expressed in the icon by his confused attitude.  

The icon of Anapeson and the icon of Christ Emmanuel are also icons of the Nativity.  Christ at the Nativity was reveled to us as the King of Israel.   In the icon Anapeson, also known as the Sleeping eye, he is depicted as a peaceful sleeping child.  It is called Anapason in Greek meaning reclining.  The icon recalls the prophecy of Jacob (Genesis 49:9): Judah is a lion's whelp: from the prey, my son, thou art gone up: he stooped down, he couched as a lion, and as an old lion; who shall rouse him up?

The icon of Christ Emmanuel depicts our Saviour as prophetically spoken of by Prophet Isaiah: Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel which being interpreted is: 'God with us' (Mattew 1: 18-23; (Isaiah 7:14)).

Nativity of Christ



The Menaion - Volume Three, Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Boston, Massachusetts, 2005