Theologically, Christmas is a Feast of the Incarnation of God, something which is easily lost in all the cookies, parties, gifts, decorations, piles of wrapping paper which have come to dominate the celebration of the Nativity of Christ. For those Christian who take time to find that place of holy silence (“Silent Night, Holy Night!”) there is still the ability to be awed and overjoyed by the mystery of God entering into the human condition.
Toward the beginning of the Nativity Fast, we Orthodox celebrate another theological Feast: the Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple on November 21. It is another day for us to contemplate the mystery of God incarnate by focusing on the human side of the equation: God became human so that the human can become God. The incarnation as God chose to do it, required a human mother from whom God received His human nature. God does not miraculously manufacture a completely novel, virginal and sinless human nature for Himself in the incarnation – to protect Himself from being tainted by sin and the fallen world. No doubt God could have done that. Instead, God enters into the human condition as all humans do – through conception in a mother’s womb, growing through gestation and then being born into the world. He receives human nature from his mother including genes and flesh – all that makes us human. Christ has a fully human nature including a body made up of cells and organs which formed in the womb. Jesus, who is fully God, becomes fully human. As St. John says it: “the Word became flesh...”
God dwells in the Virgin‘s womb, and this mystery is the inspiration for many feasts, poems, icons and hymns in the Orthodox Church. God who dwells in heaven also dwells in the Virgin’s womb. Her womb becomes heaven, for heaven is the place where God dwells.
One of the hymns from the Entry of the Theotokos states it even more intriguingly:
Heaven and earth rejoice, beholding the spiritual heaven, the only Virgin without blemish…
If heaven is the place where God naturally dwells, the Virgin becomes “the spiritual heaven.” She is not the “natural” heaven which is distinguished from the rest of creation in Genesis. God makes use of a human to create a spiritual reality. In fact it is not possible without her. A human, a human body, becomes a “spiritual” heaven. This is a most wonderful turning of a phrase. And it reflects that reality of the incarnation and of theosis: God becomes human so that the human can become God. We might think “heaven” is a spiritual place, but God creates an additional spiritual heaven in order to dwell on earth with us humans.
In another hymn from the Entry of the Theotokos, Anna (Mary’s mother) tells Mary:
Go into the place which none may enter: Learn its mysteries and prepare yourself to become the pleasing and beautiful dwelling-place of Jesus
Again, the wonderful turn of a phrase – Mary is told to go into the place where none can enter – the Holy of Holies of the Jerusalem Temple. But there is a mystery here, for if none can enter, then Mary can’t enter and if Mary can enter than it isn’t the place that none can enter. Lines are being crossed and blurred – which is exactly what happens in the incarnation of God the Word.
Mary is told to go into the place where God dwells in order to prepare herself for God dwelling in her. (see also The Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple 2017) The mutual indwelling of Mary (and thus humanity) in God and God in Mary (and thus in humanity) is realized in the Feast of Christmas. This is the very concept of salvation in Orthodoxy.