In the Orthodox Church, the Sunday before Christmas is dedicated to the ancestors of Christ. The Gospel reading is from Matthew 1:1-25 which contains the genealogy of Christ as St. Matthew provided it, starting with Abraham, with whom God chose to enter into a covenant. Christ is the seed fulfilling that covenant promise. By honoring the ancestors of Christ, the Bible and the Church affirm the belief that Christ indeed fulfills the promises of God to the Israelites. The bloodline also is a testimony that Christ is a real human being, not an angel, but God become man (John 1).
The hymns from the liturgical services for the Ancestors of Christ give us insight into some of the theological emphases the Church places on the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord. Christmas may have a strong sentimental and even secular element to it in American culture, but in the Christian Church it is the feast of the incarnation of God which begins the salvation of humanity by restoring the unity between God and humans.
For example from the Vespers for the Ancestors of Christ we see this hymn which emphasizes the worldwide dimension of the Nativity in the Flesh of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ: Bethlehem is to rejoice at the birth of Christ, as are the mountains, hills and the earth itself.
Behold, the time of our salvation is at hand: Prepare yourself, O cavern, for the Virgin approaches to give birth to her Son. Be glad and rejoice, Bethlehem, land of Judah, for from you our Lord shines forth as the dawn. Give ear, you mountains and hills and all lands round about Judea, for Christ is coming to save mankind, whom He created and whom He loves.
The hymn also tells us what is so important about Christmas: Christ the Savior is also God the Creator of humankind. Christmas is teaching us that God is Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Christmas as well reveals the incarnation of God. Christ is fully human and fully God. The union of divinity and humanity is the definition of salvation for the separation caused by sin has been overcome.
In the Matins of the feast of the Ancestors of Christ, we sing:
The Word of God has come and revived me, for I was deceived by the evil food and my mind had fallen. I became like the irrational beasts, while He who has become a child lies in the manger of animals! Glory to Your power, O Lord!
In the above hymn we encounter a common theme in Orthodox hymns of salvation: Adam, the first human, is not just a historical character of antiquity, but is a type of all humans. Adam is me and I am Adam. Adam’s significance is not in his historical role, but rather that he is a type of us all. We are in him and he is in each of us.
So Adam, and I, both realize that God comes to save us. Adam was deceived and ate the forbidden fruit, literally losing his mind in the process, becoming subject to death, Adam gave us his exalted role in creation land became like all other animals in living a mere physical existence rather than a fully human spiritual existence. And so with astonishment Adam realizes in God becoming a child at Christmas and lying in the manger has become like himself, a creature who has lost his spiritual intelligence. So God now incarnate looks at the irrational animals He created and shares their existence purely in order to save humankind and lift us up from this mere animal existence.
In another hymn from matins, we again encounter the idea of the Word of God who creates the earth and all that is in it now residing with the animals He created. Sin is portrayed as holding humans captive, and God becomes incarnate to burst those bonds. When Mary, the Theotokos, places God’s Son in the manger we find ourselves marveling at God’s Word (Logos = reason) residing with the unreasoning beasts He created. All of this occurs to save humanity from evil, from sin and death.
By Your swaddling bands You loose the bonds of transgressions: by Your great poverty You enrich all, Compassionate One. As You are placed in the manger of unreasoning beasts, You deliver mankind from irrational evil, pre-eternal Word of God!
Mary, Christ’s mother, who bears God in her own womb and gives flesh to Word of God, is no passive instrument in salvation, but fully and consciously chooses to cooperate with God for the salvation of all humankind.
The Holy Prophet Isaiah had described seeing tongs take a burning coal from God’s altar. The hymns apply the imagery to Mary who becomes the tongs, taking the burning coal from God’s altar – the Son of God, and bringing that coal into the world. Christ, the coal from God’s altar, burns up all the causes of sin in order to purify humanity.
She who is the tongs which Isaiah the prophet beheld of old has come, bearing in her womb Christ the divine coal. He burns up all the causes of sin, and illumines the souls of the faithful.
Thus we see in the wonderful imagery of these hymns the depths, riches and richness of the theology of Christmas. Christ who is the Word (Reason) of God becomes human, taking on created nature and is placed in a feeding trough for the unreasoning animals He created! This is the love of God for us and it is our salvation. It is the great mystery of the Orthodox Christian faith.