by Archimandrite Michael Shaheen
from The Word, December 1957
At the stroke of midnight on Christmas Eve, our church bells will peel out their cheerful tidings that recall the most unique event in history; for on that night almost 2000 years ago in the East, Christ was born of the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem.
Christmas (Christ-Mass), the Birthday of Jesus, ranks supreme among all the fixed feasts of our Eastern Orthodox Church. Without Christmas, as was stated by St. John Chrysostom, we could not have Epiphany, Easter and Pentecost. Therefore, our Church acts wisely in ushering in this Holy Day with elaborate religious services befitting the One whose birthday it is.
December 25 is only the traditional date of Christ’s birth: the exact time is not really known. In the early Church the Birth of Christ was remembered along with His Baptism (Epiphany) on the 6th of January. However, in the 4th century, when Christianity took over many heathen festivals in order to facilitate their conversion, December 25 was selected for commemorating the Birth of Christ. This was originally a festival of gaiety that honored the unconquered sun. It was first celebrated in Rome around 380 A.D. and is known to have been celebrated in Antioch around 380 A.D. This explains many of the customs that prevail today, which are not in harmony with the true spirit of Christmas. Since then, December 25 became accepted everywhere as the customary time to recall the Birth of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the world.
In theology Christmas is known as the Incarnation, the doctrine of God made man. This means that God, without ceasing to be God, took on a whole and complete human nature, and united it to the divinity of the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, Jesus Christ. Through the Incarnation our salvation has been made possible. This is indeed the greatest proof of God’s love for mankind.
The reason for all this is clearly stated in our Nicene Creed, article 3 which reads, “WHO FOR US MEN AND OUR SALVATION, CAME DOWN FROM HEAVEN; AND WAS INCARNATE OF THE HOLY SPIRIT AND THE VIRGIN MARY AND MADE MAN.”
God came down from heaven to save mankind. When Adam ate the forbidden fruit, mankind lost their right to heaven, and were condemned to die. The world abided in moral darkness and in the fear and shadow of death. Few could understand the real purpose of life and their ultimate destination after life upon earth. Many worshipped the creation instead of the Creator. Bitterness, hatred, injustice and numerous other evils prevailed everywhere. Only a few among the Hebrews actually worshipped the true God.
However, God took pity on man, created in His image and likeness, and promised to send a Redeemer. Numerous prophecies concerning the birth, life, and death of this Saviour were proclaimed by the prophets and saints and were recorded in the Old Testament. These prophecies began to be fulfilled when Christ was born. It is no wonder then that this momentous event divided the history of world into either B.C. (before Christ) or A.D. (after Christ).
Jesus came to free us from sin and its many evils, to enlighten and educate us in the Truth, to bear all our sins, and set the perfect example of compassion, gentleness and sinlessness. He taught the brotherhood of all men under One God, the Father of all, regardless of origin, position, sex, color, or language.
Jesus was the greatest creative moral force this world has ever known. He inspired man with such a spiritual uplift and such a noble conception of a loving God, that His teachings in their entirety, Orthodox Christianity, revolutionized the former order of things and supplied the basis of our present civilization.
By Christmas God demonstrated His perfect love for mankind. At Christmas God became man in order that man might become a god. Christmas is man’s greatest gift from God. May our Christmas be blessed, beautiful and meaningful.
St. Ignatius the Godbearer - December 20
Soaring with love for Him Who holds thee in His hands, thou wast shown to be a God- bearer, O Ignatius. Thou didst finish thy course in the West and pitch thy dwelling in the unwaning day of the heavens. O righteous Father, entreat Christ our God to grant us His great mercy.
Kontakion of St. Ignatius, Tone 3
The day of thy glorious struggles heralds the One to be born of a Virgin for, thirsting for His presence, thou didst hasten to be devoured by wild beasts. Therefore thou wast named Godbearer, O glorious Ignatius.