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. (From Vespers, Lord I Call…)
Many Orthodox hymns for feasts take us to the event being commemorated. However, they take us to the event “spiritually”, meaning they want us to see the theological import of the feast even more than the historical events. Just as icons of any feast are not a ‘photograph’ of the event but combine various biblical texts and ideas with the theological meaning of the events, so the hymns of the feasts direct our attention to the ‘big picture’ – the feast’s theological meaning.
Part of the Nativity narrative is Mary’s husband, Joseph, who has to make sense of the news that his betrothed is pregnant with a child that is not his. [Keep in mind, at that time pregnancy was a male planting his seed in the women’s womb, the woman really is just the field in which the seed is sown, so pregnancy is not the sperm fertilizing the egg as the woman doesn’t contribute that much to the pregnancy. Thus, the idea of a virgin birth almost makes no sense in that worldview -without the male seed there can be no pregnancy. God tells Joseph that Mary’s child will save his people from their sins. Joseph has to process this because he is thinking Mary’s pregnancy is a result of sin, he has to contemplate how this ‘illegitimate’ child conceived in sin can possibly take away the sins of others. Joseph has a lot to think about.] Though God comforts and encourages Joseph, he still has to grow in understanding and acceptance as to what is happening. The above hymn credits Joseph with coming to faith in the incarnation of God. Patristic writers made various efforts to portray Mary and Joseph as being faithful despite encountering the incomprehensible idea of the incarnation of God in their son. For example, St Basil the Great focuses on the Scripture calling Joseph a righteous man and so Basil wants to encourage his flock that everything Joseph did or thought was righteous and not some doubt about Mary’s holiness. Joseph contemplated divorce from Mary but only because he did not want publicly to embarrass her. For Basil, Joseph being righteous means he would have been truthful and would expose Mary’s sin if he actually thought she had sinned. Basil says:
Before they came together, she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 1:18). It was Joseph who discovered both of these things, that she had conceived and what caused her to conceive, that it was of the Holy Spirit. And so, fearing to be called the husband of such a woman, he resolved to divorce her quietly (Matthew 1:19). For he did not have the stomach to publicize what had happened to her. But being a righteous man, he obtained a revelation of the mysteries. For as he considered these things, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying: do not fear to take Mary as your wife (Matthew 1:20). Do not think that he was trying to conceal some sin of hers in the face of absurd conjectures. For he was called a righteous man, and he who is righteous does not conceal transgressions through silence. Do not fear to take Mary as your wife. This shows that neither was he vexed at her nor did he feel loathing for her; rather, it indicates that he feared to take her because she was filled with the Holy Spirit. For that which has been born in her is of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 1:20). And here it is clear that the Lord’s frame did not come into existence as does the ordinary nature of the flesh. For what she was pregnant with was immediately perfect in the flesh, not formed through incremental stages of construction, as is clear from the words themselves. For it did not say: ‘that which has been created,’ but that which has been born. So then, since the flesh was formed from holiness, it was worthy of being united to the divinity of the Only Begotten. (ON FASTING AND FEASTS, pp 32-33)
[Basil’s comments that what was conceived in Mary’s womb was ‘perfect in the flesh’ seems to imply that from the moment of conception Jesus was a perfectly formed human and did not have to grow into one. The ancients had a different understanding of conception than the modern one as they thought that the seed from the father implanted in the woman was a tiny human which only needed to grow in the womb. The mother nourishes the fetus through her blood, but doesn’t contribute to the fetus’s makeup. Part of the miracle of the incarnation for the ancients was that there is no human (male) seed involved – God enters Mary’s womb directly and begins to grow as a human without any contribution of a male (and although they didn’t have this understanding, there would have been no male DNA). God creates from nothing the body that would grow into Jesus just as God created Adam in the beginning. Or, as some fathers saw it, Jesus enters Mary’s womb and creates for Himself His body/house/shelter since he didn’t have a body which ‘normally’ would have come from the father through his father’s seed. Thus they see Jesus as the new Adam.]