The Orthodox Pages



13th December 2007













































































































































































ver the past few weeks we looked at the progress and history of the Jewish nation as the chosen people of God through the Old Testament. But we began our journey with the New Testament and first saw the Genealogy of Christ which took us right back to the beginning with the creation of the first man Adam and his wife Eve. Everything began with this first couple who were created in the image and likeness of God, with logic and freewill and also immortality as long as they lived according to the will of God. In fact everything we talk about in the Church, everything that has to do with religion and Christianity always finds its way back to the story of Adam and Eve. Everything we suffer today: cold, hunger, illnesses, pain, ageing bodies and death, has its root in that first sin of Adam which distorted the image of God in man and as a consequence resulted in man losing the immortality of his body, but he also died a spiritual death because his soul, even though still immortal, was not in communion with the source of life, was not in communion with God and therefore in darkness not capable of experiencing the divine light for which he was originally created for. Our talk today is not going to be on Adam who we have talked about before on several occasions, but to see the fulfilment of that promise God made to mankind after the fall. The promise that would raise him up again, not only to the place where Adam was before the fall, but to a height that Adam should have reached if he had not fallen, a spiritual level which the fathers call Theosis meaning deification becoming one with God, becoming a god through the grace of God.
Our journey took us to the great patriarchs of the Old Testament and we saw the promise God made with Abraham and then his seed after him, with Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, David and eventually we finished last week with the prophets and saw through their prophecies God’s promise to send the Messiah who would renew mankind and open the way for man’s salvation. The Jewish nation with whom God had made his covenant waited in anticipation of this Messiah and had at their disposal all the law and the prophets to help them recognize him when the time came. So why then didn’t they recognize him? Well this is not actually correct, they did recognize him or at least a great many who were sincerely searching the scriptures and lived with the expectation of the Messiah recognized him when he came. Let’s not forget that the first followers of Christ were Jews and even those Jews the Scribes, the Pharisees and the High priests who rejected him and sought to kill him, also recognized him but had their reasons for not accepting him. They had taken advantage of their positions and made the priesthood not as Moses wrote in the law but for their own wealth and glory among men. They knew that the Messiah would judge them for their hypocritical dealings, but they were not ready to give it all up even for the Messiah. Jesus himself tells us that they recognized him in the parable of the man who plated a vineyard. He told the Jews that “A certain man planted a vineyard, and let it forth to husbandmen, and went into a far country for a long time. And at the season he sent a servant to the husbandmen, that they should give him of the fruit of the vineyard: but the husbandmen beat him, and sent him away empty. And again he sent another servant: and they beat him also, and entreated him shamefully, and sent him away empty. And again he sent a third: and they wounded him also, and cast him out. Then said the lord of the vineyard, What shall I do? I will send my beloved son: it may be they will reverence him when they see him. But when the husbandmen saw him, they reasoned among themselves, saying, This is the heir: come, let us kill him, that the inheritance may be ours. So they cast him out of the vineyard, and killed him. What therefore shall the lord of the vineyard do unto them? He shall come and destroy these husbandmen, and shall give the vineyard to others. And when they heard it, they said, God forbid.” (Luke 20: 9-16) When Jesus says in the parable that they said “This is the heir: come, let us kill him, that the inheritance may be ours” he shows that they recognized him, but they think by killing him they would not have to give an account of themselves and at the same time it would guarantee their power over the Jewish synagogue.
But as we are approaching Christmas, let’s take the coming of the Messiah from the beginning because Christmas is the fulfilment of that expectation which God promised mankind after the fall of Adam and continually thereafter to his chosen people. The fulfilment of this promise is found in the books of the New Testament and especially the first four books which we call the Gospels. The Greek word Ευαγγέλιον means a good message a joyous message. The English word Gospel means the same. It comes from an old English word godspell, the god coming from the word good and spell meaning speech thus giving us good speech or good message. Christ used this word to describe his own preaching “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor” (Luke 4: 18) and “this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world” (Matth. 24: 14) But the apostles also called their preaching the good message because they knew that there never was and never shall be for the human race a more joyous and saving message than the one that presents the incarnate God upon earth for the salvation of mankind. Truly the writings of the Evangelists portray the history of the Incarnation of the Saviour Jesus Christ, his divine teaching, his miracles, his holy life, his sacrifice on the cross, his glorious resurrection, his ascension and all of these things are manifestations of the immensity of God’s love for mankind and presuppositions for man’s salvation. Everything therefore that has to do with the Saviour Christ and our salvation is called the Good Message or Good News whether we received this Good news directly from the mouth of the Lord and his Apostles or through Sacred Scripture and Tradition.
Before we enter the Gospels we should say something about the Four Evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Matthew wrote the first of the Gospels. He was one of the Twelve Apostles and was also known by the name Levi. His name is mentioned in the list of the Apostles found in the first three Gospels. In Mark and Luke he is just called Matthew but in his own book he calls himself Matthew the Publican, in other words the tax collector. Matthew lived in Capernaum which was in Herod’s jurisdiction so Matthew must have been employed by Herod and not the Romans to collect the taxes from Capernaum and the surrounding area. We have seen who these publicans were before during our talk on the preparation for lent last year. They were hated and held in contempt as being the lowest of all men. It would seem that Mark and Luke, out of respect for Matthew tried to hide the fact that Matthew was a tax collector before becoming an apostle. Matthew writing of his calling to the apostolic dignity says “And as Jesus passed forth from thence, he saw a man, named Matthew, sitting at the receipt of custom: and he saith unto him, Follow me. And he arose, and followed him.” (Matth. 9:9) The other Evangelists, describing the same event again try to hide Matthew’s Christian name and call him Levi, the name he was known as before his calling. It was not unusual for the Jews to have two or even three names. But some of the Apostles were given new names by Christ like Simon who was later called Peter. The name Matthew must have been given to Levi after his calling because it means Θεόδωρος, Granted by God and probably refers to him being granted by God to the apostolic rank.
In the Gospels we also read of the great feast Matthew made at his house in honour of Christ. Among those invited were other tax collectors and sinners. “When the Pharisees saw it, they said unto his disciples, Why eateth your Master with publicans and sinners? But when Jesus heard that, he said unto them, They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick.” (Matth. 9:10-12) After the Resurrection of the Lord, Matthew is mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles which shows that he remained in Jerusalem, like all the Apostles till after the death of the first martyr Stephen. We don’t have a lot more information on Matthew but tradition says that he lived a very ascetical life eating only fruit and vegetables. After preaching in Palestine, he probably went and preached to the Parthians and then to the Ethiopians where he received a martyr’s death. The authenticity of his book has never been in question and Christian writers from the first centuries often quoted him. When did Matthew write the Gospel? It is the oldest of the Four Gospels and many have the opinion that it was written before he left Palestine around the year 42AD while others place the writing of the Gospel around the year 62AD. Whichever date is correct, it was definitely written before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD, an event of the utmost importance and something that Matthew, being of Jewish descent, would have mentioned.
Matthew addresses himself chiefly to the Jewish Christians as can be clearly seen by the content of the Gospel. His purpose is to prove that Jesus Christ is the expected Messiah who descended from their race. He proves this by firstly showing them Christ’s genealogy going back to David the King and then back to Abraham who is considered the father of the Jewish nation. He then proceeds to show that Christ is the Messiah that is mentioned by the Prophets. He compares and puts side by side the verses from the prophets which make mention of the various episodes in Christ’s life and repeatedly says: “that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet.” In a masterly way he connects and ties together the Old Testament with the New and in spite of the fact that Matthew directs himself to the Jews, he doesn’t restrict God’s grace only within the tight boundaries of the Jewish nation and Jewish understanding, but ends the Gospel with “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost:” (Matth. 28: 19) thereby accepting the universality of the Christian faith. There is an important testimony from Papius the bishop of Hierapolis who died in 140AD and was a disciple of St. John the Evangelist. He says that Matthew wrote the Gospel in Aramaic the spoken Hebrew dialect of that time. The Greek text we have today doesn’t seem to come from a translation from the Aramaic and therefore the opinion prevails that after Matthew wrote the Gospel first in Aramaic for the Jews, he then wrote it again for the Greek speaking Jews and the Christians from the gentiles.
The Second Evangelist is Mark. Of Mark we know that he was the son of a widow called Maria and lived in Jerusalem in the house which gave host to Jesus and where he ate the Mystical (Last) Supper. Fifty days after the Resurrection the descent of the Holy Spirit as tongues of fire also took place in this house. Later the same house was used for meetings of the first Christians. The Gospels don’t mention him directly, but it is traditionally believed that he is the man bearing a pitcher of water mentioned in the Gospels according to Mark and Luke. When Jesus was to eat the Passover with his disciples, he sent two of them to prepare and said to them “Go ye into the city, and there shall meet you a man bearing a pitcher of water: follow him. And wheresoever he shall go in, say ye to the goodman of the house, The Master saith, Where is the guestchamber, where I shall eat the passover with my disciples? And he will shew you a large upper room furnished and prepared: there make ready for us.” (Mark 14: 13-15). Another place which is only mentioned by Mark and is believed he was talking of himself is during the arrest of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. He mentions that everyone forsook him, and fled. “And there followed him a certain young man, having a linen cloth cast about his naked body; and the young men laid hold on him: And he left the linen cloth, and fled from them naked.” (Mark 14: 51-52)

Mark was the Nephew of the Apostle Barnabas and was also known by the name John. He wasn’t one of the Twelve Apostles neither was he one of the wider circle of the 70 Apostles. He hadn’t heard the preaching of Christ directly, but heard of him through his devout mother and Uncle Barnabas and came to believe in him and dedicated himself to the work of the Gospel. In the beginning he accompanied the Apostles Paul and Barnabas during their first apostolic journey and later on we find him again in Rome with Paul. But he was also a companion of the Apostle Peter and he appears to be a very important co-worker of his that it is said that he was called Peter’s interpreter. The Tradition of the Church and the bishop of Hierapolis Papius who we mentioned earlier accept that Mark interpreted everything Peter did and whatever Peter remembered and told him of what Jesus did and said, Mark wrote it down exactly. So within the pages of the Gospel, Mark conveys the preaching of Peter who was the most important and closest of Christ’s disciples. According to tradition, Mark founded the Church of Alexandria where he was also martyred. His relics were transferred to Venice in the year 828AD. Like Matthew’s, the authenticity of Mark’s Gospel has never been in question. It was well known in the ancient Church that Mark accompanied Peter and was so loyal to him that Peter calls him his Son. (1 Peter 5: 13) Those who have studied Peter and his preaching are in agreement that it is Peter that is speaking through the Gospel according to St. Mark. The Gospel was written before 70AD probably between the years 65 – 70AD. The purpose of the Gospel was to teach that Jesus Christ was the Son of God and Saviour of mankind, but Mark doesn’t refer to the Prophets like Matthew. He wrote the Gospel in Greek and addressed it mainly to the gentiles who had no knowledge of the prophets and their writings and would have been pointless to mention them.
The third Evangelist in line is Luke. He is the only Evangelist that was not of Jewish descent. He was a Syrian from Antioch or according to some a Greek from Philippi of Macedonia. In Paul’s Epistle to the Colossians he mentions that Luke was a doctor by profession enlightened in the Greek medical arts but tradition also recognizes him as an accomplished artist and it is said that he painted an Icon of Christ and Icons of the Mother of God. It is said that the Mother of God, on seeing her Icon as the Hodegitria said: “My blessing will remain always with this Icon” and for another Icon said: “From henceforth all generations shall call me blessed” and the words, “With this image is my grace and power”. Luke was one the Seventy Apostles and was sent with others to preach the kingdom of God while Christ was still himself preaching in the world. After the Resurrection Luke mentions the story where Christ appeared and talked with two apostles on their way to Emmaus. He names the one as Cleopas, but doesn’t mention the name of the other because the other was himself.

After this we see him accompany Paul on his second journey and remained with him until the death of the Great Apostle to the Gentiles when all his other co-workers whether voluntary or involuntary abandoned him. He most certainly must have offered his services as a doctor to Paul who was his teacher and spiritual enlightener. Luke was an inseparable companion and co-worker of Paul and wrote down in a diary every movement, action and suffering that Paul encountered. Tradition says that he then preached the Gospel in France, Dalmatian, Italy, Macedonia, Achaia and then in Alexandria and Africa. There is also the source that says he went the Thebes where he received a martyr’s death hanging from an olive tree. Luke is credited with also writing the Acts of the Apostles. Firstly because they are both addressed to a certain Theophilus, and also because the same words and phrases are encountered in both the Gospel and the Acts and in general have the same style and language which makes it clear that the writer is one and the same in both books. Also these two books stress the same meanings and teachings found in the letters of St. Paul. This proves that the writer of the Gospel and the Acts was none other that Paul’s companion Luke the Physician. Luke’s Gospel was written before the destruction of Jerusalem and also before the death of his teacher Paul in 64AD. Many date it between 56-60AD. The rich material found in Luke’s Gospel comes mainly from Paul’s preaching. Paul preached and Luke wrote and St. John Chrysostom who interpreted the Epistles of St. Paul says that when St. Paul said in the Letter to the Corinthians “the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received,”(1 Cor. 15:1) he was referring to the Gospel written by St. Luke. But Luke didn’t only write what he heard from Paul. He carefully investigated all the facts concerning Christ and came into contact with other disciples and relatives of St. John the Baptist and of Christ, especially the Mother of God. He is the only Evangelist who writes about the birth of St. John, the Annunciation, the angels and shepherds at the Nativity of Christ, the details of Christ Circumcision, his  Presentation at the temple 40 days after his birth, and the appearance of the 12 year old Christ in the temple and is the only Evangelist, apart from Mark, who writes about the Ascension. Most of this information he must have received directly from the Mother of God. Luke probably wrote the Gospel in Rome but some say that he wrote it in Achaia. We have already seen that he addressed the Gospel to someone who he calls “most excellent Theophilus” but that doesn’t mean that it was for his personal use. Theophilus must have been an important person among the Christian Gentiles and it was sent to him with the knowledge that he would make it available to other Christian gentiles to strengthen their faith. That Luke’s Gospel is directed to the Gentiles is clearly seen in a great many verses. Where the other Evangelists use Hebrew words, Luke uses Greek e.g instead of Golgotha he says “Place of a skull” instead of Rabbi he says “Master” instead of Amen he says “Truly”. He sparingly quotes from the Prophets and doesn’t use expressions that might offend the Gentiles. He keeps silent on the words of the Saviour used by the other Evangelist where he said “don’t go into the Gentiles” and “Do not even the Gentiles do the same” Instead of writing “Ye shall be hated by all the Nations” he writes “Ye shall be hated by all.” He doesn’t end Christ’s genealogy with Abraham as did Matthew who wanted to show that Jesus Christ was the expected Messiah who descended from their Hebrew race, but goes back as far as Adam to show that Christ is not only for the glory of Israel but for all nations. He writes about the Good Samaritan and the conduct of the grateful Samaritan leper and in general does not confine the Messiah within the tight boundaries of the Jews. He writes of a Saviour for everyone as Paul the Apostle of the Gentiles taught him.
The last of the four Gospels is that according to St. John the Theologian, the disciple whom Jesus loved and who leaned on his breast at supper. John was the son of Zebedee and Salome, a daughter of St Joseph the Betrothed. Christ then is John’s uncle for Salome was his step sister. John was at first a disciple of St. John the Baptist. Jesus found him and his brother James by the Sea of Galilee mending their fishing nets and called then to follow him and he would make them fishers of men. Among the 12 disciples, John, James and Peter held a special position and made up the triad of elite disciples closest to Jesus. We see them as witnesses at the raising of Jairus’s daughter, at the Transfiguration of the Lord on Mount Thabor and again during the Lord’s Prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. During the Last Supper, John sat next to the Lord, and laid his head upon His breast. Only John and Peter followed after the Lord when he was bound and led to the court of the High Priests Annas and Caiphas. And only he was present during the interrogations of his Master and followed him through all his sufferings, himself also suffering in his heart at the cruelty shown to his beloved teacher. He then follows Christ on the way to Golgotha and is the only one of the disciples who is present at the Crucifixion. As he stood at the foot of the Cross, Christ bestows upon him the greatest honour by asking him to undertake the protection of the Mother of God. He heard Christ say: “Woman, behold Thy son.” Then the Lord said to him, “Behold thy Mother” (John 19:26-27). From that moment John took the Mother of God into his own home and she was like a mother to him and he like a son. This event is proof that the Virgin didn’t have other children because they would have taken the responsibility of looking after their mother and Christ would not have needed to make arrangements for her. Of all the disciples John was the most appropriate to take on this responsibility because the Virgin was by law his grandmother. Straight away after the Resurrection, John was of the first to hear of it and run ahead of Peter to the sepulchre and later had repeated opportunities to see the risen Christ.
John began his apostolic preaching at Jerusalem and with Peter are the first to be arrested. Before being released they are commanded by the High Priests not to speak or teach in the name of Jesus. They answered “Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4: 19-20) John remains in Jerusalem until the Dormition of the Mother of God. After this John went off with his disciple Prochorus to preach the Gospel in Asia Minor and lived and worked mainly in Ephesus. By his preaching and miracles he brought many of the pagans to the Christian faith. This vexed the leaders of the Pagans and had him bound and sent to Rome to the Emperor Domitian who at that time persecuted the Christians. He was tortured and flogged before the Emperor, but when he was unharmed by the strong poison he was given to drink and the boiling oil into which he was put, the Emperor was afraid and thinking he was immortal, sent him into exile on the island of Patmos. On the island, John brought many to Christianity by his words and miracles. He cast out many devils from the pagan temples and healed a great multitude of the sick. John with his disciple Prochorus then withdrew to a cave where he wrote the Book of Revelation known also as the “Apocalypse”.

After the death of the Emperor Domitian, John returns to Ephesus and continues his work of instructing Christians. In Ephesus he writes his Gospel and his 3 Epistles and died there at the age of 104. Traditions says that when it was time for the departure of the Apostle John, he went out beyond the city limits of Ephesus with the families of his disciples. He told them to prepare for him a cross-shaped grave, in which he lay, telling his disciples that they should cover him over with the soil. The disciples tearfully kissed their beloved teacher, but not wanting to be disobedient, they fulfilled his bidding. They covered the face of the saint with a cloth and filled in the grave. Learning of this, other disciples of St John came to the place of his burial. When they opened the grave, they found it empty. Each year from the grave of the holy Apostle John on May 8 came forth a fine dust, which believers gathered up and were healed of sicknesses by it.
John wrote the Gospel sometime between the years 85- 95AD. He was aware of the three other Gospels already written by the other Evangelist so what was the purpose of writing another Gospel. Two main reasons are given. The first is given to us by John himself towards the end of the Gospel “these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.” (John 20:31) The second reason was to supplement the narration of the other three synoptic Gospels, As a disciple who was close enough to be with Christ at all times, he heard and saw a great many more things than the other Evangelist. His teaching concentrated more on the Divine nature and the Holy Spirit something not found in the synoptic Gospels and his friends and other Bishops and Priests of Asia Minor pressured him to write about the things they only heard from him. It would have been impossible to mention everything the Lord said or did so he left out events covered by the others or supplemented where he felt was necessary. This gave him room to concentrate his Gospel on a higher spiritual level and write of the Divinity of Christ, which he did from the very first chapter, and on the Holy Spirit.
Having then seen who the Evangelists were, we can now proceed to what they tell us of the Messiah. The New Testament gives us two accounts of the Nativity of Jesus Christ: One in the Gospel of St. Matthew and the other in the Gospel of St. Luke. The two accounts are very different but at the same time supplement each other. Matthew deals more with the law and Prophets while Luke portrays the more personal and humane side of the Nativity which he must have heard directly from the lips of the Mother of God. Matthew says: “When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost. Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a publick example, was minded to put her away privily.” This was his right according to the law and as a righteous person that he was he would have obeyed the law to the letter if the angel had not appeared to him in a dream and explained to him that the child Mary was expecting was not the result of adultery but of the Holy Spirit. Of the same event Luke goes into detail of how the angel appeared to Mary and told her that she would miraculously conceive in her womb the Son of God. “Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man? And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.”(Luke 1: 34-35)

Matthew next takes us immediately to the Prophets to prove that Jesus is the expected Messiah. We saw these prophecies last week so we won’t look at them again today. What we will look at is the star and the wise men that Matthew mentions. The wise men or magi were men from the east probably Persia. They must have been very important people for Herod to have noticed them. Some say they were Kings while others High Priests. They were very educated men and were well learned in astrology which they probably used in their religious practices. They observed a star which was very different from anything else they had seen before and come to the conclusion that it meant the birth of the King of the Jews and decided to come to Jerusalem to worship him. This on it own doesn’t make sense. There was already a king on the throne of Israel but they didn’t think of travelling all the way from Persia to worship him. At the most they would have paid their respects to the king of another nation but not go to all that trouble to worship him. This tells us they recognized the newborn king as being divine, someone completely new for mankind in the same way the star was something new and had never been seen before. Their presents, which were Arabian gifts, also denote that they were coming to worship a God. Incense is what you offer to God and Myrrh, a fragrant oil, was again used as incense or as a perfume and was used to perfume the dead before their burial and gold is the gift for Kings. Tradition says that Mary saved this myrrh for Christ’s burial. 

It says of the star that it appeared in the East so how did the wise men know to come to Jerusalem. It’s very probable that the star guided them until they were outside of Jerusalem and then disappeared. We can deduct that they didn’t see the star whilst in Jerusalem because it tells us that after leaving Herod the star which they saw in the east appeared again and went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. This is a very strange star. It appears, disappears, moves in various directions and can stop whenever it wants to and shine down on what it wants. Its brightness can even be seen in the daytime and is not dimmed by the brightness of the sun. This is definitely not a comet or a nova as some suppose. It is telling the wise men where to go and where to look for the God that has been born a human being. The star is not only a cosmic phenomenon, it is a heavenly messenger, an angel sent by God to proclaim the glad tidings of the incarnation of the Son of God.

The story of the wise men is part of the nativity story, but that doesn’t mean that they saw Jesus on the day he was born or for that matter during the next two or three months. Luke tells us the birth took place in a stable because there was a census for tax reasons and Bethlehem was so full of people there was no more room in the inn. The stable was in fact a cave where animals were kept. Matthew tells us that the wise men came into the house where the young child was with his mother. This is logical. After the census there must have been plenty of room in Bethlehem when everyone returned to their homes and Mary and child moved out of the cave and took loggings in a house. The time of the appearance of the star as told by the wise men to Herod also tells us that the wise men’s visit was some time after the birth. Herod killed all the male children from two years old and under according to this information. If we assume that the star appeared not at the birth of Jesus but at his conception nine months earlier and if Herod allowed an extra year to be on the safe side, then the earliest the wise men came was three months after the birth. If on the other hand the star appeared exactly when Jesus was born, the wise men must have come when Jesus was a year old. Matthew doesn’t tell us much more on the baby Jesus except that from a young age he was persecuted by Herod and had to leave Israel for Egypt and then on returning did not return to Jerusalem where one would expect the King of the Jews to live but to Nazareth in Galilee where Luke tells us Mary lived. It was not the place where the Jews would have expected to find the Messiah because the majority of the inhabitants of Nazareth were Gentiles and idol worshippers.
Matthew’s account of the Nativity only deals with the before and after but not of the actual birth. Luke on the other hand gives us detailed information even before the conception. He begins with the miraculous events of the conception of St. John the Baptist. Six months into the pregnancy God sends the Archangel Gabriel to Nazareth to a virgin named Mary who was espoused to a man named Joseph of the house of David. The angel recognizing the special role Mary will have for mankind begins by praising her. “Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.” (Luke 1: 28) Mary is not puffed up with flattery, but with humility is bewildered by the angel’s salutation, but the angel then explains to her that she has been chosen to bear in her womb a child that would be called the Son of God. This sounds even stranger to Mary because she knows the only way to have a child is to first come together with a man and as yet she had not slept with Joseph neither had she intent to: the law did not allow engaged couples to come together until after a year. She therefore asked the Angel: “How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?” (Luke 1: 34) Her question shows that she doesn’t disbelief the angel, but is curious as to how she will conceive. The angel explains that this will come about by the power of the Holy Spirit and continues to tell her that her cousin Elisabeth who was old and barren was also expecting and would give birth in three months. Mary does not show any disbelief or surprise at the angel’s words, she does not laugh as Sarah did, but in total humility and obedience to the will of God accepts this great calling and says: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.” (Luke 1: 38)  

It should be noted that Mary was free to accept her election or to reject it, God didn’t force it upon her against her will. Protestants wonder why we give so much praise and veneration to the Mother of God and cannot understand how we owe our salvation to her because she accepted this heroic and greatest of callings to become the instrument through which God would save mankind. We say heroic because she didn’t think of the consequences to herself and how she was going to explain to her betrothed that she was pregnant, who had every right to accuse her of adultery and have her stoned to death. She put her complete trust in God’s will and whatever the consequence of her obedience would surely be also God’s will.

When the angel departed, it says that Mary made haste and went to the city where Elisabeth lived. This she did not out of disbelief but as a confirmation of what the angel told her. On entering the house she called to Elisabeth who when hearing her voice felt her own child leap in her womb. This is very important for those who don’t believe that foetuses are complete persons. John in his mother’s womb was six months old, but he recognized his creator who had only just been conceived in Mary’s womb and leaped with joy, as the prophet that he already was, announcing to his Mother that their Lord and God was in their presence. Elisabeth recognized this leap as something special; it was not the normal movements of a baby like when we say that the baby kicked. Elisabeth then filled with the Holy Ghost does not wait for Mary to tell her the reason for her visit, the Holy Spirit informs her of the recent events and she repeats the salutation of the angel Gabriel: “Blessed art thou among women,” and continues “and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.” (Luke 1: 42) And to show that she recognizes the greatness of what has happened to Mary, and the feeling of her own unworthiness to be in the Lord’s presence says; “And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” and then “ And blessed is she that believed: for there shall be a performance of those things which were told her from the Lord.” (Luke 1: 43, 45) This is more than enough confirmation to reassure Mary that the person she is carrying in her womb is the Son of God. Mary then magnifies the Lord and acknowledges the fact that she understands that from henceforth all generations shall call her blessed because she would give birth to the Messiah, the hope of Israel and promise that God made with Abraham, and to his seed for ever. (Luke 1: 46-55)
Luke continues with the birth of John, his circumcision and Zacharias’ Prophecy concerning his own son and Jesus. He then explains how, when Mary was almost ready to give birth, she and Joseph had to travel to Bethlehem of Judea, about 100 miles from Nazareth, over very rugged roads for tax reasons because everyone had to be censured and taxed according to their tribe. Bethlehem was a small town and there were many descendants of David who had come to register for the census. By the time Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem there was no place for them to stay. There was no room at the inn and needing a place to rest and sleep, Joseph finally finds a cave-like place where they could rest. This place was used by shepherds to protect their sheep in stormy weather. It was here that Mary gave birth to Jesus. The baby was wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in the straw in the manger. (Luke 2: 1-7)  

Luke then narrates the story of the shepherds who were keeping watch over their flock during the night. “And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” (Luke 2: 9-14)  What a wonderful vision the shepherds must have had, but what a strange announcement they received. A baby who has just been born is Christ the Lord in other words the Messiah and king of Israel but he is not to be found in the king’s palace at Jerusalem, but in a stable, a cave which served as a stable for dumb animals, he is not clothed with royal garments, but in swaddling bands, and he is not lying in a baby’s crib, but in a manger where the animals took their feed. These were the signs given to the shepherds by which they were to recognize the Saviour: Signs of extreme poverty and humility. Surely God could have arranged for Jesus to be born in the grandest of palaces with all available human luxury at his feet, but instead willed that the birth take place where we would not even expect the poorest of men to be born. This incomprehensible and inconceivable detail that the God of all creation who has the whole world at his feet is now born the poorest of all men is what eventually makes it all believable. Throughout the Gospels we see that Christ leads a life of poverty and humility and we are told to follow in his footsteps. We see that from his very birth, Christ teaches us that humility and poverty lead man to salvation, whereas pride and riches lead man on the road to destruction.
After the Nativity, Luke tells us of Christ’s circumcision on the eighth day and then of his presentation in the temple on the fortieth day. Here Luke mentions a man named Simeon to whom was revealed by the Holy Spirit that he would not die until he had seen the Lord. When he saw the Lord he held him in his arms and said: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.” (Luke 2: 29-32)  Who was this Simeon? Tradition says that he was one of the Seventy scholars who came to Alexandria to translate the Holy Scriptures into Greek known as the Septuagint version of the Old Testament. He was translating the passage from Isaiah which says: “Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel,” and thought that the word “virgin” was inaccurate, and wanted to correct the text to read “woman.” At that moment an angel appeared to him and held back his hand saying, “You shall see these words fulfilled. You shall not die until you behold Christ the Lord born of a pure and spotless Virgin.” From that day, Simeon lived in expectation of the Promised Messiah. On the day of Christ’s presentation, Simeon received a revelation from the Holy Spirit, and came to the Temple. The Holy Spirit then revealed to him that the divine Child held by the All-Pure Virgin Mary was the Promised Messiah, the Saviour of the world and he took him in his arms and said that well known phrase: “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy word…” It is said that he died when he was 360 year old.
According to the Gospels, this is all we know of the Nativity. Luke mentions Christ again at the age of 12 in Jerusalem talking with the elders and nothing more is said of his childhood. Everything is silent until his time to reveal himself to the world at the age of about 30. We on the other hand can say a lot more on the subject, comparing the magi with the shepherds, and giving the symbolic meanings to the cave, the swaddling clothes and other details mentioned in the Nativity. Sadly we have to finish not only for today, but also for the season until after the Christmas and New Year holidays. For those of you who have access to the internet, there is on my website a book called “Discovering the Icon.” In chapter 4 I give an explanation of the Icon of the Nativity with all the symbolic meanings which I think would make a good supplement to today’s talk. Our next talk should be on the 10th January 2008. Before we finish I would like to read you a hymn we sing during vespers for the Christmas festival, which shows how the Church understands the Nativity not as a festival that concerns only mankind but all of God’s creation.

“What shall we offer Thee, O Christ, who for our sakes appeared on earth as man? Every creature made by Thee offers Thee thanks, the angels offer Thee a hymn, the heavens a star, the magi gifts, the shepherds their wonder, the earth its cave, the wilderness the manger, and we offer to Thee a Virgin mother. O pre-eternal God, have mercy upon us.”