Dear Parish Faithful,
The Epistle reading for the Feast of our Lord’s Nativity is short, but powerful and profound in all of its revealed implications:
But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So through God you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son then an heir. (GAL. 4:4-7)
This is a key text in how the Apostle Paul also affirms the Incarnation of the Son of God as a human being. This is Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah of Israel and the Savior of the world. If God “sent forth his Son” it means that the Son already existed, or as we say in our theology, the Son “pre-existed” His earthly existence as a human being as the eternal Son of the eternal Father. The Son did not come into existence as a new person when He was “born of a woman;” rather the eternal Person of the Son now assumed our human nature and began to live as Jesus of Nazareth, “born under the law.” Being “born of a woman” affirms his true humanity, that Jesus is one of us. Being “born under the law” affirms his unique role within the messianic role that Israel was destined to have among the nations.
One of the most well-known and theologically-rich hymns that we sing is found in the Vespers of the Nativity. Actually, this hymn combines a keen sense of how God acts within history together with yet another glorification of the Incarnation:
When Augustus ruled alone upon the earth, the many kingdoms of men came to an end, and when Thou wast made man of the pure virgin, the many gods of idolatry were destroyed.
The cities of the world passed under one single rule, and the nations came to believe in one sovereign Godhead.
The peoples were enrolled by the decree of Caesar, and we the faithful were enrolled in the Name of the Godhead,
when Thou, our God, wast made man.
Great is Thy mercy, O Lord! Glory to Thee!
This magnificent hymn is clearly expanding upon the Gospel of St. Luke’s account of the historical conditions under which Christ entered the world:
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. (LK. 2:1-2)
Caesar Augustus was the first Roman emperor (27 B.C. – 14 A.D.), and he inaugurated the “glory days of Rome” during the early years of Christ’s life. In fact, it is said that he inaugurated the pax romana, the Roman peace that supposedly made for a more stable and less militant world. Everything from Roman roads to Roman administration served the Empire and the peaceful world that the Empire protected and prolonged. For this Augustus was even called “Lord” and “Savior.” This was, of course, a political conceit because it was Rome’s military might that ruled the world of the Mediterranean and ruthlessly suppressed any sign of dissidence. Roman taxation and Roman garrisons throughout the Empire were oppressive rather than liberating. This was especially true in Israel, where the Roman presence was a cause of great anguish, for how could the People of God be ruled by Caesar and not the Lord who expressed His will for the destiny of Israel by the revelation of the Law?
It was into this world that the Son of God was incarnate. He was a King, but a King who did not rule by coercion supported by militant means. For His Kingdom was that of God, and through His teaching the virtues implanted in the minds and hearts of human beings were meant to first inwardly transform lives so that peace could radiate outwardly from the inward source of a repentant heart oriented toward God. St. Luke was being polemical, if you like, by revealing to us the “real” Lord and Savior in the nativity of Jesus of Nazareth. That particular point in time – an event that has led us to calculate time differently – was the “fullness of time” when God acted on our behalf and for our salvation. Our hearts should not be directed to Augustus, or to whatever political power may rule with endless promises of prosperity and peace: “Put not your trust in princes, in sons of men in whom there is no salvation.” The evangelist is directing our hearts toward the mystery revealed in Bethlehem, when both the cosmos and the world – represented by angels and humble shepherds – joined together in praising and worshiping the newborn child wrapped in swaddling clothes. There is not a great deal of room left here for sentimentality and warm feelings. St. Luke is revealing a particular historical theology that reveals that God acts within human history to redeem us from the horrors of sin and death. For the Child will eventually His life up on the Cross for our salvation.
As we approach the festal date of December 25, I hope that our attention and our hearts can focus on the mystery of the Incarnation. If we plan appropriately, we can be sure that before all else we are committed to be in church in order to worship Christ, the Son of God who entered the world “when the time had fully come.” The forty-day Advent Fast culminates in the Feast of the Lord’s advent into the world in the flesh. As Israel was prepared by God to receive its Messiah, we have been prepared within the Church to again actualize this Mystery hidden before the ages but now revealed to us within the Church. The festal Liturgy on the morning of December 25 needs to take precedent over all of our other warm family traditions that are meant to further fill our homes with the radiant presence of Christ. How can we properly celebrate Christmas without first being in church to worship the newborn Christ and receive the Eucharist? I certainly anticipate a church filled with joyful worshipers. For those who will be out-of-town with family, I further hope that you were able to find an Orthodox church close enough so that you too may worship Christ away from home. Our humble witness to the world is that we place Christ at the very heart of our lives – as families and as a parish family.