17 The Forefeast of Christ's Nativity - December 23, 2007

Hebrews 11:9-10, 17-23, 32-40

Matthew 1:1-25

“How shall I tell of this great mystery? He who is without flesh becomes incarnate; the Word puts on a body; the invisible is seen; he whom no hand can touch is handled; and he who knows no beginning now begins to be. The Son of God becomes the Son of man: Jesus Christ, the same yesterday and today and forever”[1] – even as he becomes man. As we draw near the joyous feast of Christ’s nativity, let us bend our ears to the voice of the Church and listen to her telling us the great mystery of Christmas.

She began telling us of this great mystery at the beginning of the Church year, with the feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos. The blessed Panagia – the all-holy one – is born from a barren mother and renews our nature that had grown barren.[2] How was our nature barren? Over the eons, Eve has given birth to countless billions of children. It was barren because, having partaken of the tree of good and evil, Eve could not give birth to children of God but to children of men bound by corruption and death. With the birth of the Theotokos, grace begins to bear its first fruits – she who is to be the Mother of God, through whom things on earth are joined to heaven for the salvation of our souls, is made manifest to the world in the celebration of her nativity by the Church.[3] She is hailed as the Bridal Chamber of Light, the Book of the Word of Life who comes forth from the barren womb of Anna. She is the East Gate who opens the entrance of Paradise to us all.[4] Newly born, she awaits the entrance of the Great Priest.[5] Through her, we children of earth are formed anew; we are restored from corruption to life without end. How so? Because in the Blessed Virgin Mary, human nature that before was barren, unable to give birth to children of God, receives the transcendent One and he who is God by nature, Christ the Lord, receives from the Virgin our humanity and makes it his own.[6] Clothing himself with our humanity that he has received from the holy and pure Virgin,[7] Christ God makes our clay godlike through his union with it,[8] and us he makes to be partakers in his own divine nature.[9] Human nature, in the blessed Virgin Theotokos, becomes the mother of many children: they are all those who are raised up from the baptismal font of Christ’s Holy Church, his beloved Bride, as children of God,[10] clothed in the robe of light, the life of the Holy Spirit that was in the Word of God who was with the Father in the beginning, Christ the Lord who is himself God through whom all things were made.[11] Christ comes forth from the pure Virgin and Eden is opened again.[12] The flaming sword that was set to guard the Tree of Life in the Garden now gives way before all who approach in faith and those who draw near in faith are granted to partake of the life-giving tree in Eden, the delight of Paradise, from which we were cast out through our own disobedience.[13] Bethlehem has opened Eden, the Church cries out; and in the Church, the faithful call out to one another: “Come and let us see. We have found joy in secret. Come, and let us take possession of the paradise that is within the cave. There the unwatered Root (the blessed Virgin Theotokos) has appeared from which forgiveness (Christ her Son and our God) flowers forth. There is found the undug well whence David longed to drink of old. There the Virgin has borne a Babe, and made the thirst of Adam and David to cease at once. Therefore, let us hasten to this place where now is born a young Child, the pre-eternal God.”[14]

Where is this place to which we are called to hasten, the place where we will find this joy? It is a place that is in secret; it is in Bethlehem, in the cave, where the Virgin has borne the pre-eternal God. But where is Bethlehem? Where is the cave?  To learn this is why we must bend our ears to listen closely to what the Church is telling us.

We hear on the feast of her nativity that the Virgin who gave birth to God is herself the fertile ground that came forth from the barren womb of Anna;[15] and the liturgical texts make it clear that the barrenness of Anna represents the barrenness of our own human nature.[16] The grace of the Holy Spirit touches the womb of Anna that was as good as dead – for she was past the age of child-bearing and therefore unable, by nature alone, to conceive a child – and she brings forth from within herself a human child who is to become the Mother of God; and so the Blessed Virgin is the true Eve, the Mother of all living, for she brings forth from within her own womb – and that means from within our own human nature – Christ the Lord, the Life and Light of that immaterial God was is not of the materia, who is not of the world, who is received into her womb, into our humanity, from beyond the world, from beyond our human nature, he who is the Son of the Father who is the pre-eternal God before all ages, born of the Virgin, born in our humanity as the Son of man. He is himself God before all ages. He is the invisible One, the transcendent One whom no hand can touch, who knows no beginning, who now begins to be in the flesh and becomes visible and can be handled. Those who are born of him and his bride in the spiritual marriage of his holy Church, are renewed in the baptismal font as children of God. They are made fresh, raised up from death to life and restored to their original beauty.[17]

This great mystery of Christ’s Nativity, of which the Church sings, comes from beyond the being of this world; but it descends into the womb of the Virgin and becomes one with us in our own humanity, so that God is to be found not outside of us but within us, in the deeps of the human heart. The cave of Bethlehem to which the Church tells us to hasten is not across the sea; it is to be found within our own nature just as the cave is found within the earth. This is why we can see this great mystery here and now: today, as the liturgical texts say. The whole world – not just Bethlehem – has been enlightened;[18] the whole of creation – not just the cave – has been made rich by the birth of the Savior from the holy Virgin[19] say the liturgical texts, because Bethlehem represents not just a city on the map, but our human nature; the cave represents our soul; the manger, our own heart.

Therefore, when the Church calls out: “Make ready, O Bethlehem; let the manger be prepared, let the cave show its welcome,”[20] the call is to us, each one, to make ourselves ready to receive the glad tidings of this great mystery that is to be found within our own humanity, our own soul, our own heart, that we may celebrate it in faith and in our faithful celebration of this wondrous mystery, that we may find in our own heart and soul the ineffable love of that God who condescended to clothe himself with our humanity and to share with us in our flesh and blood, that he may pour out upon us the riches of his great mercy and make our thirst for meaning, for joy, for love to cease straightaway, having found joy in secret, having taken possession of paradise in the cave, having been washed and made clean in the waters of the Holy Spirit that pour forth from the unwatered Root, the blessed Virgin, and having found that blessed forgiveness that has flowered forth from her womb, from within our own humanity, from him who is the pre-eternal God before all ages. 

The Church tells us also how to make ourselves ready for the birth of the Savior, how to prepare the manger of our heart: “Cleansing our minds, let us offer through our lives virtues instead of myrrh, preparing with faith our entry into the feast of the nativity, storing up treasure in our souls and crying: ‘Glory in the highest to God in Trinity, whose good pleasure is now revealed to men, that in his love for mankind he may set Adam free from the ancestral curse.’”[21]

The treasure we are to store up in our souls is a reference to Christ’s Cross: “the divine treasure hidden in the earth, the Cross of the Giver of Life, that appeared in the heavens to the godly King.”[22] It is a poetic description of how we go about preparing to behold this great mystery of Christ within the cave of our own heart. It is through repentance: turning our minds away from the vanity that consumes us and calling out to the Savior to forgive us our sins, to kill our fleshly lusts so that, putting off the old man, we may put on the new and may live for Christ God our Master and our Protector.[23] This mind of repentance is the mind of true faith in which we draw near to the Tree of Life, “raising our minds on high that we may go in spirit to Bethlehem and with the eyes of our soul look upon the Virgin as she hastens to the cave – this is the cave of our heart – to give birth to our God, the Lord of all.”[24]

Bend your ear to the voice of the Church. Turn your mind to dwell on this ineffable mystery of Christ God coming forth as a Babe in the cave of your own heart, and in the joy of the feast, let us live no longer for the vanity of the world but for Him who alone is the Lover of mankind, Christ our Lord, Christ our God, Christ our beloved Savior. O Lord glory to Thee! 

[1] Festal Menaion (FM) 291

[2] FM 100

[3] FM 101

[4] FM 105

[5] FM 101

[6] FM 102

[7] FM 269

[8] FM 275

[9] FM 271

[10] Cf FM 211

[11] Jn 1:1-4

[12] FM 201

[13] FM 207 & 253

[14] FM 278

[15] FM 99

[16] FM 100

[17] FM 212

[18] FM 253

[19] FM 214

[20] FM 224

[21] FM 238.

[22] FM 137

[23] FM 249

[24] FM 201