The Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 1, verses 18-25 relate the extraordinary pregnancy of Mary the Virgin and the extraordinary birth of Jesus the Messiah. In reflecting on this text as well as the overall message found in it, the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church chants the following hymns on the feast of the Nativity.
The first hymn is a most beloved song sung on Christmas Eve. It refers to a cave, rather than a stable. This is because the stable / crèche scene actually comes from medieval Italy, whereas the image of the Christ Child being born in a cave comes down to us from the early Church. The gifts mentioned are the very best that can be offered by each category of giver. And the human race offers its very best — the young girl who was the epitome of a righteous Jew of the Old Covenant: one who said “yes” to the archangel. This “yes” resulted in the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit and a new act of divine creation (see Luke 1:35 and Genesis 1:2).
The words and images of this hymn lend themselves to much meditation and awe:
What shall we offer You, O Christ, Who for our sake has appeared on earth as a human being? Every creature You have made offers you thanks. The angels offer You a song. The heavens offer You their star. The wise men offer You their gifts. The shepherds offer You their wonder. The earth offers You its cave. The wilderness offers You a manger. And we offer You a Virgin Mother. O God-Who-Exists before eternity, glory to You!
The second hymn reflects a meditation on Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 2, verses 1 – 12. It refers to the Wise Men from the East (Babylon / Mesopotamia) who, though they worshipped the stars, and followed the star to the place where the young child lay, nevertheless worshipped the Incarnate God. Note that myrrh was one of the items used to embalm the dead. There is a profound irony in each of the gifts the Three Kings bring to the infant King of Kings:
When the Lord Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judah, Magi coming from the East worshipped God-made-human. They eagerly opened their treasures. They offered Him precious gifts: Refined gold, for the King of the Ages; Frankincense, for the God of All; Myrrh for the One Who is Immortal. Come, all nations and peoples, let us worship the One Who was born in order that the cosmos might be saved!
The Christmas hymnography of the Eastern Orthodox Church reaches back over 1400 years. These hymns have been sung annually ever since the Feast of the Nativity of Christ was established as we know it today. We look forward each Christmas to the rich texts of the scriptures and the hymns which are so expressive of irony, paradox, mystery and depth.
Christ is Born! Glorify Him!
– Fr. George