When the Creator beheld man, whom He had made with His hands, about to perish, He bowed the heavens and came down; and He was endued with man’s nature in very truth, becoming incarnate of a Virgin divinely pure: for He has glorified Himself.
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 travellers 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.
Today a Virgin brings forth the Super-substantial, and the earth offers a cavern to the Unapproachable. Angels, together with the shepherds, sing praises; the wise men journey onward with the star. For, for our sakes, God, who is before all the ages, is born a little child.
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.
In the glory of the Incarnation, the divine and the worldly are suddenly, triumphantly, united and transformed. This filthy cavern is no more a mere stable, but one stands here in all the radiance of heaven itself. The Mother of God, human even as am I, holds in her arms the pre-eternal Son and is in her material person the divine throne of more honour than the cherubim. The wood of the feeding trough, for all its rancour, is here and now the bed which holds in its embrace the God whom all the heavens and the earth cannot contain. Divine things and human are, in this moment, indistinguishable. Do I behold woman, or throne? Cave, or heaven? Man, or God? The earthly has been brought to the divine and the divine has come to the earthly, and in this most awesome mystery we behold a thing ‘strange and most glorious’. I come and I gaze, but I am struck with awe, for I behold the things of Paradise resting in a cavern.
Indeed, it is this mixture of the heavenly and earthly that is the whole point of our chief of mysteries. It is in the union of heaven and earth, of man and God, says the Church, that our salvation takes form. Thus can we cry out to Christ:
O Christ, who has conformed Thyself unto our base, mortal mould, and by that participation in our lowly flesh has imparted unto us a share of the nature divine; who, though Thou didst become earthborn, yet didst remain still God and hast exalted our horn: Holy art Thou, O Lord!
Christ has ‘imparted to us a share of the divine’. We must hear these words a thousand times, receive their wonder anew at each hearing. This feast, this mystery beyond description, is not solely about God becoming man. We are not to be struck with wonder, when gazing into the manger, only in that we behold there the eternally begotten second Person of the holy Trinity—awesome mystery though this truly be. As I approach the cave of the birth on this night, the most terrible, the most wondrous and the most ineffable awe is borne in my heart when I behold in the manger not only God, but me. It is my nature that the Son has taken for Himself in this unspeakable act of love, and I behold today, before mine eyes, this nature imparted the nature of my God. I behold Adam, a mortal, made of clay, made perfect in the grace of Christ.
This is the wonder of the Nativity. God comes to us, gives Himself to us, and not only in deed and action. Our very nature is taken up into His, and to our mortal frame is imparted a portion of the divine life. This life, we eagerly remember, is that which conquers all—the life that conquers evil, sin, darkness, even death itself, as we sing with such fervour in the light of Pascha. That this life has, in the Incarnation, become our life, is the source of all our hope, confidence and joy in the Christian faith. It is the motivation for our struggle, for our labour, and it is the light yoke by which we are set free. Our bonds may now be broken. Our slavery may be overturned. Our long bondage to sin and exile from Paradise may now be ended. It is both telling and fitting that the Israelite lament at captivity, enshrined in the Psalm by which we, at another point in our year, enter into the purifying sorrow of Great Lent, is deliberately brought to mind in the hymnography of the Nativity:
Grief put aside the instruments of song, for the children of Sion sang no more in alien lands. Yea Christ, in that He hath shone forth in Bethlehem, sets us free from every error, and sets free also the musical harmony of Babylon. Wherefore let us sing the song: Let all creation bless the Lord, and magnify Him unto all the ages!
As human and divine meet in the Incarnation, our captivity at last is ended and the people of Sion again find voice for their song. No longer does our nature dwell exiled in an alien land, separated eternally from its Creator by sin, by the wiles of the Evil One, by any power whatever. The deep-set sorrow of hopeless exile is banished when Christ ‘sets us free from every error’ and unites in His person what is fallen in mine and perfect in His. There is no better refrain of awe at this mystery than the words sung at Vespers on the eve of the feast:
O come, let us rejoice in the Lord as we declare this present mystery: The partition wall of disunion has been destroyed, the flaming sword is turned back, the cherubim withdraw from the Tree of Life, and I partake of the food of Paradise, whence I had been expelled because of disobedience. For the immutable Image of the Father, the Image of His eternity, takes the form of a servant, having come forth of a Mother unwedded, yet having suffered no change. For that which He was, He remains, being very God; and that which He was not, He has assumed, becoming true man because of His love for humankind. Unto Him let us cry aloud: O God, who was born of a Virgin, have mercy upon us!