(This is Neil.) The Very Reverend John Breck’s most recent “Life in Christ” column is about the eternal God being born as a little child. In a very concise manner, he makes at least three important points:
1. God’s great “work on our behalf” enables our own response, which always occurs in the context of gratitude. Whenever we offer anything up to God in thanksgiving, we realize that it is “first given to us by God.”
2. “Every aspect of creation is involved”: God offers the gift of life to all, and the “entire cosmos” returns his praise.
3. Christ’s birth is a “celebration of paradox.” After all, a mere fulfillment of expectations or already recognized desires would not produce “ineffable joy and exultation.”
Father Breck begins in a conventional way, noting the reduction of Christmas into the consumer’s “Getmas” and Thanksgiving into some sort of “Turkey Day.” But:
This might not be a totally bad thing, though, if it leads us to reflect again at this time of year 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 divine Life.
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….” (from Vespers stichira)
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.
“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!”(Irmos, 9th Ode of Matins)
No traditional creche 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!