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Moving Beyond the Familiar Christmas Story

December 24, 2013

nativityIs there anything more familiar in Christianity than the Christmas story? The child in the manger, the shepherds watching their flocks, wise men from the East, and angels singing, “Glory to God in the Highest!” There is something that warms the heart in the familiar. It is safe. It shelters. It is sort of like home. Certainly, there is a place for this aspect of the Christmas experience. The gentleness of the Mother and Child, the simplicity of the shepherds, the piety of the wise men, and the radiance of the angels soften our souls in the midst of the harsh winter of this life. And yet, where we grow as human beings, where change and transformation take place, is not in the familiar, but in the startlingly new, in the strangeness that alters our perspective about ourselves and about our world. Mothers can see this as their children explore the world. Psychologists have written much on this topic. But most importantly, this is something that the Nativity of Christ should do for us all.

For the Church fathers, what happened in Bethlehem of old was “the only new thing under the sun” (Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, book 3, chapter 1, PG 94.984bc). Looking upon the events recounted by the holy evangelists, the response of the Christian that brings forth change is given in the hymnology of the Church: “I behold a strange, most glorious mystery! Heaven-the cave! The cherubic throne-the Virgin! The manger-the place where Christ lay, the uncontainable God, Whom we magnify in song!” (Ninth Ode of the Canon for the Nativity of the Savior). Everything is much more than the familiar. It is a mystery that is glorious and strange, blinding and unfamiliar, radiant and new. Nothing is precisely as it seems, but incomparably more profound, infinitely more holy, and indescribably more divine than anything the human mind can grasp. God becomes man. For our sakes, the pre-eternal God is born a young child. All the rules of logic, all the rules of the creation, all the rules for all things human melt before the fire of divinity that burns, but does not consume, that is majestic, yet humble, and that is our salvation.

The Christmas story is not meant to just warm our hearts. It is meant to enflame us with divine love, to cause us to embrace the humility of Christ and become humble ourselves, to embrace the impossibility of the union of heaven and earth and to become earthly angels and heavenly men and women. It should fill us with boldness in an inhospitable world, spontaneity to look and see where the young child is laid, and a readiness to follow the star of Christ’s truth wherever it may lead us. All of this is possible if we but humble our hearts and seek to worship Christ, praying that He gives us new eyes to behold, not just the familiar story, but the strange and glorious mystery of God becoming a child, so that we who are in so many ways still children might become gods by grace, coheirs in Christ’s heavenly kingdom. A strange, most glorious mystery, indeed!

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