by Fr John Breck
Thanksgiving is over and we are moving toward what one of our wise and dedicated priests refers to as “Getmas.” He is as frustrated and dismayed at what exuberant commercialism and American popular religion have done to Christmas as I am, with the relentless efforts to transform our national feast of Thanksgiving into “Turkey Day.” These campaigns are insidious and they’ve been highly effective: God – the true God who reveals Himself in Scripture and in the lives of those who strive to know Him – has been all but eliminated from our collective civil conscience.
This might not be a totally bad thing, though, if it leads us to reflect again in the fall season on our response to God’s wonderful if incomprehensible gift of Life, bestowed on us through the “coming in the flesh” of His eternal Son. In fact, there may be no better way to experience genuine gratitude, and respond to it with thanksgiving, than by focusing mind and heart on the Incarnation. Jesus’ Conception and Nativity enabled Him to share fully in our humble, broken and sinful nature, our earthly existence, with the single purpose of offering to us the possibility to share eternally – in this life and beyond – in His own life, His own glorified existence. This is the Church’s most fundamental conviction, grounded in the experience of multitudes of witnesses, from the Disciples and early Church martyrs down to the present time, where discipleship still often means martyrdom. It is this conviction that gives transcendent meaning and purpose to our daily life, while it preserves us from the temptation to reject the world around us as the world has rejected Christ.
A striking feature of the Nativity feast is the reciprocity between God’s work on our behalf and our reply. Liturgical verses from the feast stress the point that our response to that work is precisely to give thanks, to express our boundless gratitude for the free gift of eternal life. A good example is this verse from the service of Vespers:
What shall we offer Thee, O Christ, who for our sakes hast appeared on earth as man? Every creature made by Thee offers Thee thanks. The angels offer Thee a hymn; the heavens a star; the Magi, gifts; the shepherds their wonder; the earth, its cave, the wilderness, the manger. And we offer Thee a Virgin Mother.
God offers the gift of life to angels as well as to us. Every aspect of creation is involved: the visible and the invisible, things in heaven and things on earth. They are all the objects of God’s gift in Christ. That gift elicits in return a response of thanksgiving that takes the form of other gifts, reciprocal offerings of our own treasures. Chief among those treasures is what we, as bearers of the divine image, offer in return: the Virgin Mother, the God-bearer or Theotokos. Yet like every treasure we possess and can offer up in thanksgiving, she is first given to us by God. We can only offer what He has already bestowed upon us, “Thine own of Thine own….”
The most striking and significant feature of the Nativity feast, though, is its celebration of paradox. Repeatedly, liturgical verses hymn elements of the mystery of Christ’s birth that defy human reason. The Irmos of the 9th ode of Matins declares:
A strange and most wonderful mystery do I see. The cave is heaven; the Virgin, the throne of the cherubim; the manger a room, in which Christ, the God whom nothing can contain, is laid. Him do we praise and magnify!
No traditional crèche scene can capture the wonder expressed in these lines. Here in a cave a newborn child is laid in a manger by his devoted mother. It is a scene repeated countless times throughout history. This time, however, everything is different, changed. For here the cave, a dark hole carved into the earth, is filled with radiant glory. The Virgin appears as a Mother, “more honorable than the cherubim” enthroned upon her. And the humble manger contains the Agent of Creation, the Word of God who called all things into being, and whom no created thing can contain.
The ultimate expression of the Nativity mystery, the unfathomable paradox of God’s appearance in the flesh, is found in the Kontakion of the feast:
Today the Virgin gives birth to the Transcendent One, and the earth offers a cave to the Unapproachable One. Angels, with shepherds, glorify Him. The wise men journey with the star. Since for our sake the eternal God was born as a little child!
Today the birth occurs. Today, in our immediate experience, in our own time and space, a virgin becomes a mother and gives birth to God. Today the earth offers to its Creator a simple cave, while angels, shepherds and wise men offer their praise and adoration. Today the entire cosmos enters into the celebration with ineffable joy and exultation. Because for our sake, for ourselves and our loved ones, for every person who has ever longed for eternal life in the joy, peace and beauty of the heavenly Kingdom – for us all, and for our salvation, the eternal God is born as a little child.