by Fr. David
Beloved faithful in Christ,
Christ is born! Glorify Him!
These are the words of the traditional Nativity greeting, which I offer in anticipation of the feast, words first given in a homily by St. Gregory the Theologian in 379 AD. Throughout this year’s issues of The Veil, I’ve tried to show the connections between some of our most beloved celebrations and their origins in the worship of the Old Testament and into the New Testament church. In the last few months, we’ve looked at the connections between the feast days and the establishment of the churches connected to them. Christmas is no different.
Much ink has been spilled over the dating of Christmas, and though I won’t go into that here, I will confidently hypothesize the following—the feast of the Nativity did not exist as a separate liturgical celebration until the 4th century because—you may have guessed it—there was no church dedicated to it until the time of Ss. Constantine and Helen. In their very intentional transformation of the Holy Land into a place of pilgrimage for the Christians of the world, they not only established the church of the Holy Resurrection in Jerusalem but built the first church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, over the very grotto in which Jesus Christ was believed to be born.
You’ll notice that in traditional Eastern icons of the Nativity, the “stable” in which the Holy Mother gave birth is depicted as a cave. This cave still exists in Bethlehem, and in 135 AD, the pagan emperor Hadrian tried to cover over its history by making it into a sacred grotto to the Greek God Adonis. But the locals, both Christian and otherwise, preserved the memory of the place, and it was well known, as attested to by Origen (248 AD). When Constantine built the first Church on the site by 339 AD, the need for a separate and unique patronal feast day decisively gave birth to the holiday we now have. Previously, the Nativity was celebrated as part of the Theophany, the feast of Christ’s baptism, as early as the 2nd century. These two “festivals of light” are still connected to this day, making up the twelve days of Christmas. But by 400 AD, Christmas was being celebrated throughout Christendom on Dec. 25th. (Jan. 7th, “Russian” or “Serbian” Christmas, is just Dec. 25th on the Julian Calendar.)
In the centuries following, the Nativity would inspire beautiful liturgical artists and hymnographers such as St. Ambrose of Milan ("Veni redemptor gentium"—Come Redeemer of the Nations.) St. Romanus the Melodist began his song-writing career on Christmas Eve in 518, inspired by a dream of the Virgin he had after falling asleep in Church during the all-night vigil! St. Sophrony of Jerusalem in the 7th century developed the hymns that would give content to the earliest Christmas pageants.
The images of the Nativity and the adoration of the Magi start appearing in art in the 4th century as well, strangely preserved as carvings on sarcophagi in Rome—Christmas coffins were a thing! Those wealthy enough to afford such a send-off for their departed loved ones (or themselves) perhaps hoped that the art would serve as a pleasing offering to Christ the King, an act of adoration like that of the three kings.
The icon of the Nativity (cave and all) starts to make its appearance in the Holy Land by the 6th century, with the Virgin in the center lying-in with the Christ child next to her, wrapped in swaddling clothes. It also has a striking connection to funerals—the pattern of the figures mirrors that of the Burial Shroud (Epitaphios) of Christ from Holy Friday. The early Christians understood the parallels between Christ’s birth in a cave and his Resurrection from a cave-tomb later. His second birth, so to speak, from the Tomb, shows us that the one born in Bethlehem is the true Life-giver. Only much later in the Medieval West would the cave image be replaced by the wooden manger, a more common reference point for those living at the time perhaps, but obscuring much of the symbolism.
Every Christmas, we celebrate the defeat of darkness and death in the birth of the Light that enlightened the nations, the Life that trampled down death, the humble King who was born in a cave and lay in a manger. The great mystery of the Incarnation is inseparable from the mystery of His Death and Resurrection, and our salvation. In closing, I offer you these final words from St. Gregory’s Homily on the Nativity, which captures all these elements:
“This is our present Festival; it is this which we are celebrating today, the Coming of God to Man, that we might go forth, or rather (for this is the more proper expression) that we might go back to God – that putting off of the old man, we might put on the new; and that as we died in Adam, so we might live in Christ, being born with Christ and crucified with Him and buried with Him and rising with Him… Therefore let us keep the Feast, not after the manner of a heathen festival, but after a godly sort; not after the way of the world, but in a fashion above the world; not as our own, but as belonging to Him who is ours, or rather as our master’s; not as of weakness, but as of healing; not as of creation, but of re-creation.”