Soon we will be greeting each other with the joyous greeting “Christ is Born – Glorify Him!” We have been growing in anticipation since we began the Nativity fast back on Nov. 15. Through our fasting and efforts, our hearts have been preparing to receive the awesome joy of the coming of Christ! The incarnation of God Himself into the world, come to gather us into His embrace and bring us into His family! What glory! This is the central fact of all our history. The beginning of our salvation. Christ put on a body for our sake, that He the Uncreated, who created all things, might physically enter all of creation and sanctify and redeem it. Christ comes, born as a little child, that He might through His voluntary death on the cross, find death and blot it out. Eternal Immortal God, He who is life itself, is born into the world, putting on human flesh and trampling down death by His death, destroying it’s hold, and rescuing Adam and Eve and all of mankind. All of us!
In the Nativity festal icon, we see the whole Nativity story; we see the Eternal God born as a little child. He is laying in a cave, foreshadowing His tomb, surrounded with pointed inaccessible mountains representing the hostility of the world. Laying in a manger that is shaped like a coffin or an Altar, and He is wrapped in fine linen as was customary when preparing a body for burial, foreshadowing His voluntarily death on the cross, entering into death to destroy death. In the corner we see a bewildered Joseph being tempted by the devil to put away Mary, wrestling with doubts, as this is a miracle beyond the bounds of nature and human comprehension. Even the angels are amazed and astonished. We see the wise men, foreigners enlightened by God and led by the star to the very cradle of Christ God. Somehow, we are missing the rulers of the synagogues, the prestigious and respected leaders of Israel, successful and well regarded in the eyes of the world. God’s chosen people are instead represented by the humble and pure hearted Shepherds, being instructed by the angels, who represent the entire immaterial creation of God. The shepherds then come to worship the Shepherd of all human shepherds. In the bottom corner we see Jesus’s mid-wife St. Salome whom we are told in the 2nd century writing the Protoevangelium of James, became the mother of the apostles James and John and one of the myrrh-bearing women. The ox and the donkey are present, reminding us of the verse in Isaiah (1:3) “The ox knows his Owner and the donkey his Master’s crib; but Israel does not know Me; and the people do not understand Me.” All of creation is present and filled with joy and awe; all has now changed. The mountains, the cave, the plants, the tree representing the root of Jesse (Isaiah 11:1-13), and the peace and reign of Christ. The animals and the very air resonate with joy as the healing of all creation begins, as creations’ groaning cries are answered. This is the beginning of our salvation.
Today we are given the “begots” These are the opening verses of the Gospel of Matthew. The list starts with Fr. Abraham and goes up until Christ’s birth. As we listen to this list of Christs’ human ancestors, we ask ourselves, “Why does the entire New Testament start with this list?” The short answer is that “Who Christ is,” matters more than anything else for us of the race of Adam, – we have no salvation apart from the person of Christ. We need to be very clear that He is completely human and one of us, as well as completely Divine and of one essence with the Father. All seven of the Ecumenical councils, that we in the Orthodox Church hold as irrevocable and foundational to our faith, were called to clarify this question. They refute and even anathematize those who would try to confuse and distort the fullness of the truth of Who Christ is. If He is not fully God and fully man, born of his human virgin mother the Theotokos, crucified and resurrected from the dead, our faith is in vain and we are deluded, and of all men to be most pitied. Our Orthodox faith rests on who Christ is, even more than what He said.
Matthew’s list of Christ’s ancestors demonstrates Christ’s love for us, His broken and wounded fellow brothers and sisters. It is full of repentant sinners. The central figures who anchor Christ’s human genealogy in this list are Father Abraham whom God promised to make the Father of uncountable millions, and King David, known as a type foreshadowing the Kingship of Christ. King David is a man whom God says is “a man after my own heart…the highest of the Kings of the earth”. Yet he is listed here in Matthew’s genealogy as “David the king begot Solomon by her who had been the wife of Uriah.” A very nasty story of lust, adultery, murder and terrible betrayal. which we all know. This serves to remind us that there is no such thing as hidden sin, everything is brought to the light and exposed in the illumination of His light. Yet, it also demonstrates that there is no sin so great that God in His great mercy will not forgive, if we truly repent – if we refuse to excuse or justify our actions, but in true humility repent.
We see included in this list many who we could be scandalized by. They were not good living, upright Jewish citizens by any common reckoning. Tamar and Rahab, for example. They were not born into the nation of Israel, they were Gentiles. Tamar disguised herself as a prostitute and bore twins by seducing her father-in-law Judah – he from whom the priestly line of Israel descends. Rahab actually was a prostitute. Their stories of redemption into God’s people came about because they chose to leave their old lives and their own people, and to loyally follow God in union with His chosen people. They are clearly included to show that God’s love and acceptance includes all people who would turn and follow Him. Christ reaches out His arms in compassion and forgiveness and welcomes them into His kingdom, even including them in His earthly bloodline. As we heard last Sunday, most of God’s people are not the rich and comfortable, the “pillars” of society. No, God’s people are largely gathered from the streets and the lanes, the highways and hedges, the poor, the maimed, the lame and the blind. Christ came for all of humanity and lovingly awaits our return. But too often the rich and self-sufficient do not even realize their true poverty and complete need for Christ. It is our actions, the desire of our hearts and the grace of God that unites us to God and His people, not the circumstances of our birth, nationality or position in society.
God’s plan for our salvation was formed before the beginning of time. God didn’t just look down in surprise when Adam chose to disobey Him and eat from the tree of knowledge, “Look at that! Now we’ll have to come up with a new plan.” No, from the very beginning Christ agreed to come and take on human flesh and obtain our salvation. Not just to correct the error of Adam and Eve, but to make it possible for us to be united with Him, transformed and deified. His work of the creation of children of God, begun with Adam and Eve was completed through the incarnation, when God was born as a little child then lived His human life in real human history, and ultimately went to His voluntary death on the cross, saving us and demonstrating His unfathomable love!
So, we celebrate the birth of Christ, born to us from her whom all generations will always called “Most blessed and the mother of our God.” Seven hundred years before Christ was born we hear Isaiah saying (Isa: 7:14) “Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign; behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and you shall call His name Immanuel. God is with us.”
We hear such beautiful descriptions of the beginning of our salvation in the Nativity services… we sing at Royal Hours:
Today He Who holds the whole creation in His hand is born of a virgin.
He Whose essence none can touch, is bound in swaddling clothes as a mortal man.
God, Who in the beginning fashioned the heavens, lies in a manger.
He Who rained manna on His people in the wilderness, is fed on milk from His mother’s breast.
The Bridegroom of the Church summons the wise men;
the Son of the Virgin accepts their gifts.
We worship Your birth, O Christ…
He came to call us all. Not one human being does He exclude from His invitation. The way is now clearly open; He has been born for us of the blessed virgin Theotokos, in a cave, in a manger with great humility and love. With the animals and the angels and all of creation looking on in wonder and astonishment. He has fulfilled every prophecy and all the signs of the Messiah. He has voluntarily hung on the cross and shed His blood for our sake and declared “It is completed.” He has shattered the very gates of hell, bound the devil, the enemy of mankind, and brought out all the prisoners who would follow Him – paving a path for all of mankind into His kingdom. He has Resurrected from the dead, destroying death and bringing new life to all humanity; establishing His Church to bring this good news to all men. Everything has been completed except for our part. Choosing to turn to Him always and in every situation, to lay our will at His feet.
Today as we prepare to celebrate the birth of the Christ child, this great day in the history of our race, let us all come and adore Him and give to Him our very lives in gratefulness. Let us join in the song of the angels, announcing to the shepherds the beginning of the salvation of mankind, with the very words of worship with which we start each Divine Liturgy.
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will towards men.”