Preaching Christ Crucified at Christmas
by Fr. Steven C. Salaris
St. Paul states in the opening chapter of the First Letter to the Corinthians, “ … we preach Christ crucified …” Two thousand years later, we Orthodox Christians, who are the direct descendants of the Church of the Apostles, must likewise continue to do the same. But it’s Christmas — the Nativity of Jesus Christ where we remember His birth from the Virgin Mary. Isn’t this a time of heavy incarnational theology or, at least, a time of bright lights, tinsel, and Santa Claus? Yes, it is all that, but it is also a great time to preach Christ crucified. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Cross of Christ, His shed blood and broken body, and His glorious Resurrection on the third day, are the very axis upon which our life of faith rotates. At every time and season throughout the Church year, these concepts are found at the heart of all that we do in our worship and in our hymns and spiritual songs, whereby we make melody in our hearts unto the Lord. Anyone who wishes to see Christ crucified at Christmas, from the Eastern Orthodox viewpoint, can do so quite easily. All you need is your Bible and the icon of the Nativity to do so. When you contemplate the icon, in the light of Scripture, the true meaning of Christmas shines forth.
When you first look at the icon, besides Jesus, one of the central figures in the icon is Mary, His mother. In some icons, Mary is seen holding her Son, the Incarnate Word of God, conceived in her by the Holy Spirit. She holds her Son in birth even as she will hold her Son in death. Anyone who has seen Michelangelo’s Pieta, where Mary is carved in stone holding the lifeless corpse of her crucified Son, will immediately recognize the parallel and the link that this aspect of the icon has to the death of Christ.
There are angels in the icon. In Luke’s Gospel, the angels appear to the shepherds in the field and announce, “… to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” In their announcement of “Christ is born,” they foreshadow for us the appearance of the angels on Easter morning, after the crucifixion of Christ, when the angels announce, at the end of Luke’s Gospel, to Mary and the other women, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? Remember how He told you (…) that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and on the third day rise.” The angelic heralds of “Christ is born” and “Christ is risen” are centered on the crucifixion of Christ.
Thirdly, there are the animals in the icon. How appropriate that Jesus be born in a manger with the animals. Emmanuel, God with us, deigns to be born among the very animals that He had fashioned so they can see the One who will end the sacrificial cult of Israel. We are told in chapter 10 of the Epistle to the Hebrews:
“… since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of those realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices which are continually offered year after year, make perfect those who draw near. (…) But in these sacrifices there is a remainder of sin year after year. For it is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sins. (…) He abolishes the first order to establish the second.”
Thus, the animals are there to remind us that the final and perfect sacrificial offering, the perfect and sinless Jesus, has come into the world to eradicate sin by the shedding of His own blood at His crucifixion.
The crucifixion of Christ is even foreshadowed in the visit by the three wise men. In Matthew 2:11, the wise men, with exceedingly great joy, come to see the infant Jesus and the gospel states, “… they saw the young Child with Mary, His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” Why these gifts? From the hymnography of Great Vespers for the Nativity we hear sung:
When the Lord Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, the Magi came from the east and worshiped him as incarnate God. Eagerly they opened their treasures and offered him precious gifts — pure gold for that he is King of the ages; frankincense in that he is God of all; and as dead for three days they offered myrrh to the deathless One.
In ancient times, myrrh was a fragrant spice that was used to anoint a dead body and cover up the stench of death. Imagine how scandalized we as parents would be if visitors came to visit our child just after he or she was born and brought a gift of myrrh to be used one day at that child’s funeral. However, our Orthodox Christian worship reminds us that this is no ordinary child, but the God who is born from one of us so that He can die for all of us.
Lastly, nothing is more definitive in its imagery of Christ crucified than what we see in the icon of the Nativity and what we hear in Luke 2:12. The angels announce to the shepherds keeping watch over their flocks that they “… will find a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” Not just any manger, but one that, according to sources outside of scripture and represented iconographically, was built inside a cave — inside rock. If you jump twenty-one chapters to the end of this gospel, you will read in Luke 23:53 that Joseph of Arimathea took the body of Christ “… wrapped it in linen, and laid it in a tomb that was hewn out of the rock …” So here we have Jesus, born in a cave hewn out of rock at His birth then placed in a tomb hewn out of rock at His death; Jesus was wrapped in swaddling clothes at His birth and wrapped in a linen shroud at His death. Coincidence? I think not, for our Orthodox hymnography again makes the connection for us when we sing at Nativity Vespers, “… by his swaddling clothes he hath loosened the chains of our sins.”
Scripture, iconography, hymnology — all part of our One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church — on this feastday of the Nativity allow us to see in this small child born in Bethlehem the redemption to come for all humanity. In the days to come, let us meditate on these concepts and, most of all, as Orthodox Christians, let us share and proclaim the good news with those around us. But for now, brothers and sisters, let us celebrate with much joy and thanksgiving the birth of the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world for the life of the world and for its salvation. Christ is born! Glorify Him!
Courtesy of the
December 2006 issue of The Word magazine.