Some of the hymns from the Forefeast of Christmas give insight into the theological depth of the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord. They also reveal the mastery of Scripture which the ancient hymn writers had. Here are two examples taken from the Canon of Compline for the Forefeast, December 22.
1] St. Matthew mentions the Magi (Matt 2), wise men from the East who studied the stars and were brought through their search for wisdom to Bethlehem to the Christ Child. There is a truth being proclaimed that whether one studies astrology or astronomy, if one is seeking wisdom, one’s studies will lead to the knowledge of the Creator. As Psalms 19:1 says,
“The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.”
It wasn’t the stars that brought the Magi to Christ, but rather Christ who is God’s Wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:24), guiding the universe, whose hand and message was made visible through the movement of the stars.
The Wisdom of God summons the Magi,
Initiating them as the first fruits of the Gentiles.
He who lies in the manger of dumb beasts
Feeds them with the mystical food of the knowledge of God.
They hasten to the crib as to a banquet, journeying with gifts,
Led by the light of the star.
A wonderfully playful image, for Christ is the wisdom of God, and thus the infant moves the stars and thus the Magi toward the Eternal God, now a little child. And the child in the manger – an animal feeding trough – feeds the Magi “with the mystical food of the knowledge of God.” What delightful poetry. Star light leads them to a mystical banquet – the knowledge of the Triune God and the Incarnate God!
One could say it was the light of Christ – the Incarnate God lying as a baby in a manger – which attracted and directed them.
2] In this hymn, the hymnographers makes a wonderful play on images using a story about King David recorded in 2 Samuel 23. David is at the cave of Adullam, and sees that Israelites enemies have occupied Bethlehem. “And David said longingly, ‘O that some one would give me water to drink from the well of Bethlehem which is by the gate!’” (2 Samuel 23:15) The hymnography weaves this into the Nativity hymn:
The new drink for which David thirsted of old
Is flowing from the fountain of the cave in Bethlehem
To satisfy the thirst of all,
To fulfill the yearning of Adam and David
From whose seed Christ is born in the flesh.
This poetic use of Scripture gives us the insight as to how well the ancients knew their Scriptures, and what creative use they made of them. For they saw hidden in the stories of the Old Testament, connections and insights into the new.