Forefeast of the Nativity: The Vulnerable God 

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The Orthodox hymns in the days before the Feast of the Nativity draw our attention to the theological truth that the baby born in Mary in Bethlehem is God incarnate!  Here, for example, are two “Lord I Call…” verses from Vespers:

THE PROPHET CRIED IN THE SPIRIT: THIS IS OUR GOD. THERE SHALL BE NO OTHER LIKE HIM. HE HAS CREATED THE WAY OF ALL KNOWLEDGE, MAKING HIMSELF IN THE LAST DAYS LIKE UNTO MEN, FOR HE COMES TO BE BORN OF THE PURE MAIDEN OF GOD, WRAPPING HIMSELF IN HUMAN FLESH. BEHOLD, THE UNAPPROACHABLE ONE APPROACHES ME!

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TRIUMPH, O ZION! MAKE GLAD, JERUSALEM, CITY OF CHRIST OUR GOD! RECEIVE THE CREATOR CONTAINED WITHIN A CAVE AND A MANGER. OPEN THE GATES TO ME; I WILL ENTER TO SEE A CHILD WRAPPED IN SWADDLING CLOTHES WHO UPHOLDS THE CREATION IN THE PALM OF HIS HAND, WHOSE PRAISES THE ANGELS SING WITH UNCEASING VOICE: THE LORD AND GIVER OF LIFE WHO SAVES THE HUMAN RACE.

First, note, that the hymns make the Nativity event personal – Christ approaches ‘me’ in His birth into this world. Heaven is being opened to ‘me’ and it is ‘I” who both sees and understands the incarnation. God comes into the world to unite ‘me’ to Himself. The hymns open the door that allows each of us personally to participate in the birth of our Savior.

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In modern times there is a great deal of emphasis placed on the human, sentimental images of a child born into poverty and laid in a manger. The Church’s hymns tend not to be so sentimental and are much more awe-struck by and focused on the fact that the Nativity is not merely the story of another poor child born in some rural and remote backwoods place. Rather, what is marveled at, is that this is how God enters into creation to save us. God humbles Himself and instead of coming into the world as a mighty and wealthy king and victorious warrior in all His glory, God comes into our lives in a most humble manner as a helpless baby submitting Himself to human care and allowing Himself to be threatened by the many hostile forces and powers that seem to rule the world. Metropolitan Kallistos Ware comments:

“In an unfallen world the Incarnation of Christ would indeed have sufficed as the perfect expression of God’s outgoing love. But in a fallen world and sinful world his love had to reach out yet further. Because of the tragic presence of sin and evil, the work of man’s restoration was to prove infinitely costly. A sacrificial act of healing was required, a sacrifice such as only a suffering and crucified God could offer.

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The Incarnation, it was said, is an act of identification and sharing. God saves us by identifying himself with us, by knowing our human experience from the inside. The Cross signifies, in the most dark and uncompromising manner, that this act of sharing is carried to the utmost limits. God Incarnate enters into all our experience. Jesus Christ our companion shares not only in the fullness of human life but also in the fullness of human death. ‘Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows‘ (Isaiah 53:4) – all our griefs, all our sorrows. ‘The unassumed is unhealed’: but Christ our healer has assumed into himself everything, even death.”  (THE ORTHODOX WAY, p 104)