When the Fullness of Time had Come

“But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law,  in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.”    (Galatians 4:4-5)

One of the beauties of Orthodox hymnography and theological reflection is the sense of time or perhaps better one might say sense of timelessness.  Beginning with the Feast of Christmas, the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ, Orthodox greet each other with the words “Christ IS born!”  The greeting is not past tense, but represents an eternal truth into which we enter.  For the birth of Christ, or more theologically said – the nativity according to the flesh of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ – is the time of the incarnation.  God has entered into time and transforms it into something capable of bearing divinity.

The truth we proclaim at Christmas is not merely a past historical event (Christ WAS born) but rather is the union of God with humanity, God becoming what we are, which was His plan from all eternity.  Christ is born is a truth that does not change with time – the Word of God has become flesh and dwells among us.  The incarnation is not a truth of the past, but a theological truth  which is still vibrant and active in the world.  Salvation like creation is an on-going process, not a one time past event.   Time cannot change what God has done and is doing to unite His creation to Himself.   [Note:  this is also why reading Genesis 1-3 merely as history or science, theologically undervalues the richness of the Scriptures.   As Jesus noted in John 5:17, the Father is working and so the Son is still working too.  Creation is an act  to be celebrated like the birth of Christ:  “Christ IS born” is theologically correct.  Genesis 1-3 introduces us to the dynamic of God’s creation – not a one time event but an on-going reality through which we experience our Creator daily.]

Consider one of the Pre-Feast Hymns of the Nativity (taken from Vespers of December 20):

LET US CELEBRATE, O PEOPLE,

THE PREFEAST OF CHRIST’S NATIVITY!

LET US RAISE OUR MINDS ON HIGH,

IN SPIRIT GOING UP TO BETHLEHEM.

WITH THE EYES OF OUR SOUL, LET US BEHOLD THE VIRGIN

AS SHE HASTENS TO THE CAVE TO GIVE BIRTH TO THE LORD

AND GOD OF ALL.

WHEN JOSEPH FIRST SAW THE MIGHTY WONDER,

HE THOUGHT THAT HE SAW ONLY A HUMAN CHILD WRAPPED IN SWADDLING CLOTHES,

BUT FROM ALL THAT CAME TO PASS HE DISCOVERED THE CHILD

TO BE THE TRUE GOD//

WHO GRANTS THE WORLD GREAT MERCY.

The hymn invites us to the event of Christ’s birth.  We are not asked to remember something that happened 2000 years ago, but rather to enter into the event itself and see the details of the even unfold.  While we will see some human events as they happened historically, we will be lifted up to realize the eternal truth contained in these historical events.  We are to be like Joseph in the hymn who at first sees only the human birth of a child, but then who comes to realize that this child is the incarnate God.   Our celebration of Christmas is not supposed to be just remembering the human events – or having nice warm fuzzies over something we’ve made into nostalgia.   Rather the events are to lift us up to heaven, to the eternal realities they represent, and to the divine dynamics at continuous work in God’s creation.  This is one way that iconography is far superior to a crèche in representing the birth in the flesh of the Son of God.

These same ideas are repeated and reinforced in the next hymn taken from the same Vesper verses:

LET US CELEBRATE, O PEOPLE,

THE PREFEAST OF CHRIST’S NATIVITY;

LET US RAISE OUR MINDS ON HIGH

IN SPIRIT GOING UP TO BETHLEHEM.

LET US BEHOLD THE GREAT MYSTERY IN THE CAVERN,

FOR EDEN IS OPENED ONCE AGAIN,

WHEN GOD COMES FORTH FROM A PURE VIRGIN,

REMAINING THE SAME PERFECT GOD, AND PERFECT MAN.

THEREFORE, LET US CRY ALOUD TO HIM,

HOLY GOD, FATHER WITHOUT BEGINNING,

HOLY MIGHTY, INCARNATE SON,

HOLY IMMORTAL, THE SPIRIT AND COMFORTER,//

HOLY TRINITY, GLORY TO YOU!

Note how we are to raise our minds on high – we are to be heavenly directed not historically directed to the past in contemplating the Christmas story.  This is not an archeological quest in search of the historical Jesus, but a journey of faith we are to make with open eyes to understand the fullness of the event as revealed to us in the Scriptures and through the witness of the disciples.  Historically, yes a human baby was born, but that historical fact shrouds an eternal truth which is also revealed in the Nativity story and in the life of Christ.

Christmas leads us not to an ornament laden tree with colorfully wrapped gifts underneath nor even to historical Bethlehem in the time of Herod the King.   Rather Christmas is a spiritual sojourn in which we “go up” to the heavenly or spiritual reality that is present on earth.  Christmas opens to us the gates leading to the Paradise of Eden.  The fullness of time becomes transfigured into an experience of the timelessness of God.   So if Christmas leads you no further than your Christmas tree, or even to events of 2000 years ago, you’ve got a much more exciting spiritual sojourn ahead.   Look up to God to see where He is leading you.

2 thoughts on “When the Fullness of Time had Come

  1. When examining the icon of the Nativity (The Birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way) I was struck by the demeanor of Joseph and wondered what his reaction was. Soulful, disheartened, awed – all came to mind. I am glad to read in your post, ” We are to be like Joseph in the hymn who at first sees only the human birth of a child, but then who comes to realize that this child is the incarnate God. Our celebration of Christmas is not supposed to be just remembering the human event.” It makes some sense of the icon and his part in it.

  2. Pingback: Gratifying the Flesh 122211 « Mennonite Preacher

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