|18 - The Key to the Meaning of Christmas? Dec 29, 2019|
How many kept Christmas? How do you keep Christmas? What is the meaning of Christmas?
God the LORD is born as a little child of the Virgin Mary. He is laid in a manger in the cave. In the cave, in the arms of His Mother and protected by the Righteous Joseph (or is it the Child who is protecting Joseph and His Mother!), God the WORD incarnate is hidden from the world. The ‘Holy Family’ is an icon of the Church. And, Herod and his soldiers, like Pharaoh and his armies, so many lackeys of the prince of the power of the air (Eph 2:2), cannot find Him in their desire to destroy Him.
But, the shepherds and the Magi, who want to worship Him, are guided by the angels and by the stars of heaven. They find Him in the cave, and they join Joseph and all of creation in magnifying the Virgin as they glorify her only-begotten Son, God in the highest now born in the flesh as a little child and laid in a manger in the cave. The icon of Christmas reveals what, or rather Who now dwells in the creation. It reveals all of creation rejoicing, in the spiritual essence of its being, the uncreated God who now dwells among us, sharing in our flesh and blood (Heb 2:14).
Yes! How do you keep such a Feast! Is it not by following the Shepherds and the Magi to find the true Christmas hidden in the Cave from the world? How do you do that? What is its meaning? What is Christmas all about?
So, Christmas happens in the cave. In the cave, the uncreated, invisible God becomes visible in His created flesh received from His Mother, the blessed Panagia. For me, the readings from the Royal Hours for Christmas brought the cave into view as the mystery of heaven and earth, an image of the Law of Moses, and of the OT Temple. Into the Cave, into the heart of creation, the Law, the Temple, the LORD has come. All of creation has received into its sanctuary its Creator, the LORD God of Israel born as a little Child of the Blessed Virgin. She is the Living Temple, the real Temple of which the OT Temple was but the shadow (Heb 10:1). But, ultimately, the Cave is the mystery of the human body and soul. Hidden in the human heart is the very Image of God in whom we were made (Col 1:15, Gn 1:26-27).
But, all of creation together with all of mankind is subject to death and corruption because of man’s transgression. The cave of Bethlehem, then, is the mystery of death. In its inner reality, the Cave of Bethlehem is a Tomb; but now the tomb is the LORD’s Tomb.
Might this explain why the slaughter of the holy innocents is so prominent in the Church’s celebration of Christmas? We read of Herod slaughtering the innocents at the Feast itself, at the Synaxis of the Theotokos the day after, and this morning, on the Sunday immediately following Christmas! Why? Could it be that this gut-wrenching evil of the slaughter of the innocents is the key that opens the hidden meaning of Christmas?
Starting at the surface, outside the cave, the slaughter of the innocents shows us that the Gospel does not gloss over evil; in fact it meets evil head-on. But, this is the evil that hides also in the empty seductions and promises of the pleasures of this worldly life. Through them, the prince of the power of the air seeks to lay hold of us in order to destroy the Image of God that is in us.
But now let’s enter the Cave of Bethlehem. What do we see? We see that we have entered the mystery of the LORD’s Tomb, that Christmas opens onto Pascha. And, in the Cave of Bethlehem, we begin already to see the fearsome wonder and glory of the power and Light of Christ that the darkness cannot overcome, let alone find if the LORD does not will it; and He wills it only at His Pascha; and when, by His voluntary suffering, He permits it to ‘overcome’ Him, He destroys it and gives life to all those in the tombs!
Look around here in the Cave—like St John looking around in the LORD’s Tomb. What do we see? The last day of Great Lent is Lazarus Saturday. We celebrate the LORD raising Lazarus from the dead, and the Church proclaims the universal resurrection even before the LORD’s Passion. From Lazarus Saturday, we move into the LORD’s Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem and the beginning of Holy Week, the beginning of the LORD’s Holy Pascha. On the last day of Holy Week, at the end of the Matins for Great and Holy Saturday (sung on the evening of Great and Holy Friday), we leave the temple and process around the Church three times, following the Shroud going before us; then, still led by the Shroud, we come back into the Church. Mystically, we are leaving this world of death and corruption in order to follow Christ into the Cave, His Tomb. Mystically inside the cave, now, we gather round the bier on which rests the icon of the crucified God’s corpse, and, standing before it, we proclaim in a loud voice the prophecy of Ezekiel: “Thus says the LORD God: ‘Behold, my people, I will open your graves and cause you to come up out of your graves and bring you into land of Israel. I shall put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I shall place you in your own land. Then shall you know that I the LORD have spoken it, and I have done it!” (37:12&14)
Beloved faithful: at the Matins for Christmas, there is this wonderful hymn: “Of old, the Master that works wonders saved His people, making the watery wave of the sea into dry land; and now of His own will has He been born from a Maiden, and so He establishes a path for us whereby we may mount to heaven. (Festal Menaion, 270). It goes with this troparion from the Octoechos: “Of old, the strangely solidified path amid the sea revealed thy birthgiving, O pure one.” (vol I, Tone II, p. 88) “Thy birthgiving” refers to the Christ born of the Virgin. He is the “strangely solidified path amid the sea,” which is the sea of death. As Israel was able to pass through the Red Sea on this path and cross over to the other side, so also, all who in the fear of God, with faith and love draw near to the Christ God in the Cave, come upon this Path that leads through the waters of death into the Resurrection on the other side. That Path, of course, is Christ! That is, in the Cave, our grave is opened and walking in Christ, the “strangely solidified” Path, we are brought out into our own land, the Kingdom of Heaven. That’s why the LORD’s Tomb is empty. There is no death in it. Every corpse laid to rest in the LORD’s Tomb does not ‘survive’; for, it is raised to life and led out onto the other side, and the LORD’s Tomb remains forever and eternally empty, empty of death, empty of corpses!
This mystery of the cave of Bethlehem and the LORD’s Holy Pascha is what we see ‘hiding’ in the heart of this gut-wrenching slaughter of the innocents. Put to death by the sword, the innocents go down into the grave. But, are not the infants slaughtered for the sake of Christ? Their graves, then, take them into the LORD’s Cave, into the LORD’s Tomb. There, in the mystery of Christmas, we behold the ineffably tender love of the Virgin and her Child, whom the Herods of the world are seeking to destroy together with all those who are like Him—as were these innocents, having been united to Him in baptism into the likeness of His death—cannot find! The LORD remains hidden. And, those who are united to Him remain hidden, for having died in Christ, their life is hidden with Christ in God (Col 3:3). As these holy innocents are struck down, then, they go down into the grave. They enter the Cave of Christmas, the Cave of the LORD’s Tomb. There, they are gathered into the loving arms of the LORD’s most merciful Mother. She is the Rachel, the Ewe, the Mother Sheep, weeping for these her children, as she wept for her Son at His life-giving Cross. They come into the cave and into the embrace of the most loving Mother of God. They are gathered up into the outstretched arms of her Son, the Savior, on the Cross. In His visceral, gut-wrenching compassion, He cries out with a loud voice as He did at the tomb of Lazarus. (Mt 27:50, Jn 11:43) He sends forth His Spirit and opens their graves (Mt 27:50-52); He empties their tombs. They are ‘no more,’ it says, like the righteous Enoch (Gn 5:24). Like him, they are taken up into Christ’s Holy Resurrection, and the Church—the mystery of Christ embraced by His Mother and Joseph—knows them as martyrs.
Thus, we see that the slaughter of the innocents proclaims the beginning of the fulfillment of Ezekiel’s prophecy that we read before the LORD’s Tomb on Great and Holy Saturday! Pascha has begun! So, this is Christmas! Amen!