The Feast of the Nativity in the flesh of our Lord, and God, and Saviour, Jesus Christ.
From the “Manual for Orthodox Priests” (Nastolnaya Kniga), Kharkov, 1900 ~ Sergei Vassilevich Bulgakov*.
[*not to be confused with Father Sergei Nicolaevich Bulgakov who was condemned by the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia in 1935 for his teachings].
THE ESTABLISHMENT of this feast belongs to the very earliest period of the Church. The very content of the feast already indicates the reason for its establishment, namely: the remembrance and glorification of the Nativity in the flesh by the Most Holy Virgin Mary of our Lord Jesus Christ. To this original and fundamental reason another was added very early: in order, through a precise establishment of the feast by revealing the true teaching of the Incarnation and Birth of the Saviour, to counteract the errors of certain heretics: Ebionites, Docetists, and Basilidians. Because of these false teachings the ancient Church chiefly emphasized remembrance of the event of Christ’s Birth as the revelation of God Himself in the flesh. In the 4th century, with the appearance and spread of Arianism, there appeared a new and more powerful stimulus for the Orthodox Church to glorify the event of Christ’s Birth. The Feast was not celebrated on a uniform date until the Church connected the Feast with its opposition to Arianism and Paganism. By removing the feast to December 25, the Church had in view to counteract the insidious errors of Arius concerning the Nature of Christ, and also to counteract the pagan cult on that day and preserve the faithful from participating in it. It is known that the Romans had on December 25 a feast, the so-called dies natalis Solis invicti, which served to express the idea of the sun’s constant return to summer, as if it were renewing itself, and which was a day of unbridled merrymaking among the people, a day of diversion for slaves, children, and the like. Thus in itself this day was better suited than any other for the commemoration of the Birth of Jesus Christ, Who is often called in the New Testament the Sun of justice, the Light of the world, the Salvation of men, the Vanquisher of life and death; and the reprehensible pagan celebration of it was sufficient motive for the Church to ennoble it in the sense of an elevated Christian commemoration. The Troparion hymn of the Feast emphasizes the point of replacing the Pagan feast of the Sun with the celebration of the Birth of God in the flesh, witnessed to by pagan astrologers, the magi:
“Thy Nativity, O Christ, our God, / Hath shined upon the world the light of knowledge. / For thereby, those who worshipped the stars, / Were taught by a star / to worship Thee, The Sun of Righteousness; / And to know Thee, the Dayspring from on high. // O Lord, glory be to Thee.”
The ancient Church, denying the identity of the two analogous feasts — the pagan and the Christian – – had already appropriated to the feast of the Nativity of Christ a character of energetic renunciation of pagan superstitions and customs. Affirming our faith in the great mystery of the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ and accusing all heretics who disfigured this dogma by their sophistry, the Holy Church, in celebrating the Nativity of Christ, represents this feast in its hymns as a day of universal joy, “for unto us is born this day a Saviour, Who is Christ the Lord” (Lt. Luke 2:10-11). Let Heaven and earth” exclaims the Holy Church, “this day prophetically rejoice; every creature delights for the sake of the Lord our Saviour born in Bethlehem: for every idolatrous delusion has passed, and Christ reigns forever.” At the same time the Holy Church, by her celebration of the Nativity of Christ, instructs us morally in a holy life worthy of the Lord Who is born. “Today a Saviour has been born to us, Who is Christ the Lord, for us men and for our salvation”, and we, celebrating now this Birth of Christ the Lord, naturally must kindle in ourselves a determination to be reborn from a life of sin to a life holy and God-pleasing. Our Lord Jesus Christ has come down to earth and entered into a relationship of grace with us whom He “is not ashamed to call brethren” (Romans 2:11). But in order for us to be worthy of this exalted communion and tie, in order not to reject the Lord come down from heaven, it is necessary for us to withdraw from the darkness of sin and draw near to the light of faith, piety, and good works. Not in glory and magnificence, but in poverty, wretchedness, and humiliation does the Creator and Lord of heaven and earth appear in the world; not a luxurious palace, but a humble cave, receives the King of those who reign and the Lord of those who rule. By this we are shown the greatness of humility, poverty, meekness, and simplicity, and the ruinousness of pride, riches, vainglory, and luxury. The first deemed worthy to hear the Good News of the angels concerning the Birth of the Saviour of the world, and the first to bow before Him, were the simple shepherds of Bethlehem, and after them the wise Persian magi; and thus at the manger of the Saviour we see two kinds of people: pastors and magi, i.e., the simplest people and the most cultivated. By this it is suggested to us that the Lord receives all and everyone: He is pleased by unlettered simplicity, when it is united to faithful fulfillment of one’s calling, to purity of conscience and life; and He does not reject human wisdom, when it knows how to submit itself to illumination from above and make use of its learning for the glory of God and the benefit of one’s fellow men. This instructs each to be satisfied with his lot in life, and at the same time it shows that there is no calling or condition that prevents one from drawing near to God; that honest and industrious labor, conscientious fulfillment of obligations, inspired by faith and hope in God, are always pleasing to God and draw His blessing; that in the eyes of God it is not outward pre-eminence in the world that is precious, but simplicity of heart and conscience, meekness and humility of spirit, submissiveness and obedience to God’s law, patience and good-heartedness, hope and devotion to the will of God, kindness and benevolence toward one’s neighbor, a walking before God irreproachable in all His commandments and statutes; that these precious qualities do not belong exclusively to any particular class of men; that in every calling and condition a man can be pleasing to God, if he will please Him in word and deed, in wish and thought. In general the manifestation of God in the flesh, so graphically depicted in the Church services of the Feast, with all the accompanying circumstances, is an inexhaustible source for our edification. On the same day is celebrated the memory of the three magi from the East, who learned of the Birth of the Saviour by a miraculous star and brought gifts and worshipped Him, and later received baptism from the Apostle Thomas in Parthia and themselves preached Christ. They, as Archbishop Innocent of Kherson has written, “represent the whole of mankind; and their gifts — gold, frankincense, and myrrh — symbolically represent all that we can offer to our Saviour. Gold represents material gifts and is offered by those who sacrifice something from their labor or acquisitions for the glory of God…Frankincense is offered by those who use, for the glory of God and the benefit of their neighbor, their talents, knowledge, and skill, which are something that cannot be bought with gold. These are God’s gift to man, but they can and should also be man’s gift to God…Myrrh, like frankincense, gives a fragrance, but its distinguishing characteristic lies in its extreme bitterness; therefore it represents our misfortunes, sorrows, tears, and suffering. They offer myrrh as a gift to the Lord who bear misfortunes in life and suffer innocently, without falling into despondency or complaining…This is the most precious of all the gifts that we can offer the Lord…” Commemoration is made also on this day of the simple shepherds who were the first of the Chosen People to hear of the Birth of the awaited Messiah. The second day of the Feast is dedicated to the glorification of her through whom the Feast was made possible: the Most Holy Mother of God.