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A devotional on the Nativity of Christ

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#1 Paul Cowan

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Posted 22 December 2010 - 01:50 AM

I was asked to write a devotional On the Nativity of Christ for my church. I had no idea what to write since I don't typically read devotionals. SO, what would any good Monachos member do? I went to our Patristics pages and "stole" text from several differnet church fathers on their thoughts about the Nativity. I hope you find this pleasing. There is NO original content here. It is all from the Patristics pages. It started out at 7 pages, but I got it down to 3 pages without losing too much of the overall meaning of what I hoped I would say if I could say it myself.

The Nativity of Christ has long been counted as one of the Twelve Great Feasts. It is one of the greatest, most joyful and wondrous events in the history of the world. The angel said to the shepherds, “Behold, I bring you good tiding of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, Who is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you: you shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. Then suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly hosts, glorifying God and saying: Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” Those who heard these things were astonished at what the shepherds told them concerning the Child. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen” (Luke 2:10-20).

During the time of Advent we prepare ourselves for Christ at His Nativity. We do this of course through our fasting and prayer and attendance at services. Hopefully we have also given alms to the best of our ability. Then there is also our participation in the life-giving sacraments of Confession and the Eucharist. We strive to deepen our lives in Christ so that we may be enabled to meet him worthily on the day of the feast itself.

To participate in the feast of the Nativity and in the preparatory season of Advent which precedes it, means in reality to have communion with Christ’s grace as He manifests this providentially at this particular time. It means that we are being remade in the image of Christ’s pre-eternal purpose, which at the time of the Nativity refers specifically to our original calling in paradise.

About this St. Athanasius of Alexandria writes,
‘The Word became flesh in order to make man receptive to his Divinity. He became poor in order that we, through His poverty, might become rich. He descended that He might raise us up. He was tempted that we might conquer. He accepted the worst, to give us the best.’

A Hymn of the Nativity
How is He contained in a womb, whom nothing can contain? And how can He who is in the bosom of the Father be held in the arms of His Mother? This is according to His good pleasure, as he knows and wishes. For being without flesh, of His own will has He been made flesh; and He Who is, for our sakes has become that which He was not. Without departing from His one nature He has shared in our substance. Desiring to fill the world on high with citizens, Christ has undergone a twofold birth.

‘Make ready, O Bethlehem: let the manger be prepared, let the cave show its welcome. The truth has come; the shadow has passed away…’

The herald of the pending miracle begins. It is the eve of the Nativity as these words are sung. The transformation of the world, the birth of God, is but hours away, and it is through such words that the faithful are called into attentiveness and anticipation. ‘Make ready, O Bethlehem!’ We can see the radiant lights of the feast just beyond the horizon, we can taste the sweetness of the miracle that took place beneath a star; and through the words sung around and within us in the church, the great eve of the birth of God is made a reality in our present experience. We make ready, and we wait.

Yet, despite our songs, there was no crèche in Bethlehem. The night may have been holy, but it was not silent. Soldiers hunted a mysterious “newborn king” while travelers packed into overcrowded hostelries to appease the census mandates of a new taxation. This will have been a loud night indeed. And in the stable; a squalor, a filth, a stench. Nowhere, here, the serene harmony of our usual vision of the child’s birth. Nor was this but a child. The whole setting of the mystery speaks to us of something different, something abnormal. Something impossible.

All the noise of the surroundings, the terrible paradox of the Virgin ‘divinely pure’ stationed in the muddy squalor of the stable, shocks us to consider the full reality of the present moment. One is brought into the substance of human nature who is beyond substance, beyond nature. Magi draw near to Him who cannot be approached. Shepherds gaze upon Him at whom none may look and live. God, who before time fashioned all things, cries and breathes the breath which at first He gave to man, now as an infant child.

This night was not silent, and the shepherds did not merely sing. These gathered at the feet of one most pure (herself a miracle) to behold the human birth of Purity Himself. The shepherds came to the Mother of God to set eye upon the coming of God to man.

This notion of the coming together of God and man is at the heart of the present mystery, and is often hailed in the liturgical texts of the Church. As the shepherds approached the newborn Son, and as later the wise men from the East, so, says the church, do I:

A mystery strange and most glorious do I behold the cavern, heaven; the Virgin, the cherubic throne; the manger, the receptacle wherein lies Christ our God, whom nothing may contain. Him, therefore, do we magnify, praising Him in song.

Before thy birth, O Lord, the angelic hosts looked with trembling on this mystery and were struck with wonder: for Thou who hast adorned the vault of heaven with stars hast been well pleased to be born as a babe; and Thou who holdest all the ends of the earth in the hollow of Thy hand art laid in a manger of dumb beasts. For by such a dispensation has thy compassion been made known, O Christ, and The great mercy: glory to Thee. (Sticheron of the Third Hour, Eve of the Nativity)

Christ is born, and love is held out to all the world
Christ is born, and the Trinity makes manifest the extent of His compassion
Christ is born, and life is joined to Life, will to Will, man to God.
Christ is born- let us glorify Him!

We do not tremble when we think of Christmas; we are not always struck with the wonder of the Nativity. Instead, we buy gifts and plan parties, catching a glimpse of the joy of the Feast, but without a heart immersed in its wonder. Thus the fast becomes that which we must ‘get through’ in order to reach that joyful day. When we arrive there, however, if this has been our attitude, we are caught askance by the hymns the church feeds into our hearts. We find ourselves joined to a celebration of triumphal release from bondage, but we little understand what that bondage means. We sing songs of joy for deliverance, but we do not truly comprehend how we are enslaved. We find ourselves suddenly transported to the mountaintop, but without having climbed there from the valley far below, the scene we see is only another beautiful picture casually set before our eyes, and not the vision for which we have worked and struggled and longed with all our being. We may feel joy, perhaps even Christmas joy; but we will know, deep inside, that our joy is not like that which is exalted in the hymn:

Make glad, O ye righteous, O ye heavens! Ye mountains, dance for joy! Christ is born; and like the cherubim the Virgin makes a throne, carrying at her bosom God the Word made flesh. Shepherds, glorify the newborn Child! Magi, offer the Master gifts! Angels, sing praises, saying: ‘O Lord past understanding, glory to Thee!’ (First Sticheron of the Praises, Nativity Matins)

We are called, then, to approach this great mystery as God’s condescension into our own lives, personally and collectively. The Canon of Matins for the Nativity lays it out clearly: ‘He establishes a path for us, whereby we may mount up to heaven’. The nativity is not only about God’s coming down to us, but about our rising up to Him, just as sinful humanity was lifted up into the person of Christ in the Incarnation itself.

We are called to arise, then, during the fast that is the journey into this Feast. ‘O blessed Lord who seest all, raise us up far above sin, and establish Thy singers firm and unshaken upon the foundation of the faith’. The faithful take up this call through the abandonment of those things which bind, rather than free, in order that a focus on God as ‘all in all’ might become ever more real and central to daily life.

We must take up the task of our own purification, gifted by God and achieved only through His grace, that we might approach Him on Christmas Day as did the Magi and the shepherds of Bethlehem:

Come, O ye faithful, inspired by God let us arise and behold the divine condescension from on high that is made manifest to us in Bethlehem. 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. (Sticheron of the Sixth Hour, Christmas Eve)

We will never fully comprehend this ineffable mystery; some knowledge is properly God’s alone. But by His grace through the ascetic effort, we will come to understand-perhaps, most of us, only to the slightest degree-how this mystery is our mystery, how His life is our life, and how the salvation on Christmas Day is, indeed our own salvation. And with this realization, joy; joy far greater than a mere entrance into the temple on Christmas Day could ever bring us. This is the joy of the age-old journey of man, our own journey, come to its fulfillment in the awe-inspiring mystery of God Himself become man. With this joy in our hearts, we shall embrace the hymnographer’s words as our own:

Today the Virgin comes to the cave to give birth ineffably to the pre-eternal Word. Hearing this, be of good cheer, O inhabited earth, and with the angels and the shepherds glorify Him whose will it was to be made manifest a young Child, the pre-eternal God. (Kontakion of the Fore Feast)
St. Irenaeus, a father of the Church in the 3rd century, speaks of the Incarnation as “the necessary means to bring about salvation that we human beings would never have attained by our own power. The Word of God became human in order that we might become God though God’s graceful, divine life. He comes to restore the likeness of God in us.”

Thy Nativity, O Christ our God, hath shined upon the world the light of knowledge; for thereby, they that worshipped the stars were taught by a star to worship Thee, the Sun of Righteousness, and to know Thee, the Dayspring from on High. O Lord, glory be to Thee. (Troparion of Nativity, Tone 4)
Today the Virgin giveth birth to Him Who is above all being, and the earth offereth a cave to Him Whom no man can approach. Angels with shepherds give glory, and Magi journey with a star. For our sake is born a Young Child, the Pre-eternal God! (Kontakion of the Nativity, Tone 3)

Today the Virgin cometh to the cave to give birth in an ineffable manner to the Word before the ages. Rejoice, therefore, O universe, when thou hearest, and glorify with the angels and shepherds him who shall appear by his own will as a new babe, being God before the ages. (Kontakion for the Preparation of the Nativity of Christ, Tone 3)

Christ is born, glorify Him. Christ is from heaven, go to meet Him. Christ is on earth, be ye lifted up. Sing to the Lord, all the earth. Sing out with gladness, all ye people. For he is glorified. (First ode of the Christmas Canon)

Christ is Born! Glorify Him!

Compiled from sources from www.monachos.net


#2 Olga



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Posted 22 December 2010 - 03:04 AM

Lovely work, Paul, in compiling this.

I would add that one of my favourite hymns of this season is the irmos of Ode 9 of the Matins canon of the Nativity:

Magnify, O my soul, her who is greater in honour and more glorious than the hosts on high. A strange and wonderful mystery I see: the Cave is heaven, the Virgin the Cherubic throne, the Manger the place in which Christ, the God whom nothing can contain, is laid. Him we praise and magnify.

The Greek chant for this is particularly beautiful.

#3 Paul Cowan

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Posted 22 December 2010 - 03:26 AM

Thank you Olga,

Actually, I believe that is one that got chopped. The example I was given as a guide to write by was 2 large paragraphs. I was embarassed to submit 3 full pages, let alone 7 pages. I had to chop a ton out that I thought was important for people to read, but then it became a novelette and no longer a devotional. They ended up making it a two part e-mail over two weeks. I doubt they will come back to me anytime soon for another one. :)


Thanks also to Fr. Ireneus for his papers I also "borrowed" from the site. I suppose I should have given complete credit to each and every father I borrowed from. But I really wanted those who read it to come here and see for themselves.

#4 Olga



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Posted 22 December 2010 - 03:30 AM

Oh, how well do I know the difficulty of condensing documents for brevity! :-) in the end, something of meaning has to give.

#5 Jim McQuiggin

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Posted 22 December 2010 - 02:02 PM

Thank you for the work you've done here. Like Olga, I know what you've done to sort through the vast amount of material here and condense to something digestible. You've set a high standard for others (like me) to do something similar.

#6 Anna Stickles

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Posted 03 December 2012 - 06:46 PM

I found this thread and thought that it provides a nice place to collect a few more quotes on the Nativity.

excerpts from Bl. Augustine sermon 184

“The wise and prudent, however, while they aim at the heights of God do not put their trust in lowly things, but pass them by, and hence they fail to reach the heights. Vain and worthless, puffed up and elated, they have halted as it were in the windswept plain between heaven and earth.”

…He took upon Himself what he was not and remained what He was, ..He came to us in the form of a man and yet did not depart from His Father, He preserved His divine nature, while he appeared to us in our human nature; and finally that power derived from no earthly source was bestowed upon an infant’s body. The whole world is His work as He remains in the bosom of His Father; the miraculous childbearing of a Virgin is His work when He comes to us.

…Let men and women alike rejoice for Christ the Man was born and he was born of a woman; thus each sex was honored. Now let the honor accorded to the first man before his condemnation pass over to this second man. A woman brought death upon us, now a woman has brought forth life. ...

He who lay in a manger a wordless child yet the Word of God.; Him whom the heavens do not contain the bosom of one woman bore. She ruled our King, she carried Him in whom we exist; she fed our Bread. O manifest weakness and marvelous humility in which all divinity lay hid. By His power he ruled the mother to whom his infancy was subject, and he nourished with truth her whose breast suckled Him. May He who did not despise our lowly beginnings, perfect His work in us, and may He who wished on account of us to become the Son of Man, make us sons of God."

CUA press Fathers of the Church series vol 38

#7 Rdr Andreas

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Posted 03 December 2012 - 10:07 PM

Great work, Paul - thank you very much.

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