Metropolitan Kallistos Ware
(Orthodox Christians are currently in the midst of the forty day Nativity Fast, anticipating the Birth of our Lord, Jesus Christ. We pray that everyone has a fruitful Advent and a blessed Nativity. The following contains edited excerpts from Metropolitan Ware's explanation of the days leading up to Christmas, and the central meaning of the feast.)
"Before Christmas, as before Easter (Pascha), there is a lengthy and elaborate period of preparation. Christmas is preceded by a fast corresponding to Great Lent and lasting for forty days. On the Sundays immediately before December 25, there are special commemorations which emphasize the link between the Old Covenant and the New. The second Sunday before Christmas - the Sunday of the Forefathers - calls to remembrance the ancestors of Christ. The Sunday that follows is broader in scope, commemorating all the righteous men and women who pleased God from the days of Adam, the first man, to Joseph, the betrothed of the Mother of God. Approaching Christmas in this way, the worshipper is enabled to see the Incarnation, not as an abrupt and irrational intervention of the divine, but as the culmination of a long process extending over thousands of years.
On Christmas Day itself the services commemorate not only the birth of Christ in Bethlehem and the adoration of the shepherds. They also recall the arrival of the Magi with their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The story of these Wise Men (Matthew 2:1-12), which in the Roman and Anglican use is appointed for January 6, is read on the morning of December 25 in the Byzantine rite.
The familiar and homely elements of the Nativity story - the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger, the ox and the ass beside Him, the shepherds watching with their flocks by night - are by no means forgotten in the Orthodox hymns for this day. But the main center of interest lies elsewhere: not in these picturesque details, nor simply in the humanity of the child Jesus, but rather in the paradoxical union of that humanity with the divine. "A young child, the pre-eternal God" (Kontakion): this is the supreme and crucial meaning of Christmas. Without ceasing to be what He is from all eternity - true God - One of the Trinity, He became truly and entirely man, born as a baby from a human mother...
It is to this theme, under varying forms, that the liturgical texts of the day continually revert, to the contrast between the divine and the human in the one Person of the Incarnate Christ. For example:
"He who formed the world, now Himself 'takes form' as a creature; The Creator makes Himself to be created; He who holds the whole creation in the hollow of His hand today is born of the Virgin; Older than ancient Adam, He lies in His mother's arms;" and so on.
Passages such as these are intended to make the members of the Church realize, in some small measure, how strange and amazing a thing it is that God should become man. As the worshipper stands in spirit beside the crib, it is not enough for him to see, lying in the straw, "gentle Jesus, meek and mild;" he must see more than this. He must behold the only begotten Son of God..."
Metropolitan Kallistos' words indicate a challenge facing Christians that extends to our relationship with all of creation. As we are to see in the Child Jesus the face of the Incarnate Lord, we are to recognize in all men the image of this same God. Likewise, we are to experience the Church not merely as a human organization, but as both a divine and human reality, the Body of Christ. Furthermore, the world must be appreciated not as an end in itself, but as a reflection of the Creator, a means of divine knowledge. "God is with us," the faithful sing at Christmas. In Christ, God has taken up His abode among men. He has united Himself to creation. He has filled that which is earthly with His divinity. This is the meaning of Christmas. For this, man glorifies Christ throughout the ages. Because of this, the Nativity/Theophany season remains one of the great lights on the Christian calendar.