The Orthodox Pages




15th December 2011























































































































In a few days from now Christians and Non Christians throughout the world will be celebrating Christmas. For some it is a religious holiday, for others a commercial holiday, for some it is a day for receiving, for others a day of giving, for some it is a day of great joy for others a day of sorrow and stress. Christmas is many things to different people and a time when sentiments of love and peace are high on the agenda. But people rarely understand the true meaning of Christmas and partly to blame could be the very word Christmas. The word is a compound derived from Christ and mass, in other words Christ and liturgy which could just as easily be referring to an ordinary Sunday liturgy. The name of Christmas makes no reference to the birth of Christ. The common Greek word Χριστούγεννα does better because it means "The birth of Christ". Translated into English this would be Christbirth. It might sound strange if we were to ask a child what he would like for Christbirth, but no stranger than if we translated the word Christmas into Greek which would give us Χριστουλειτουργία (τι δώρο θέλεις για την Χριστουλειτουργία).

I'm playing with words but there is a valid reason for this; the name of a feast defines what we are celebrating and if the name doesn't teach this then people and especially the young can only associate with the customs and not the true meaning. If we were to ask a hundred children what are we celebrating at Christmas I'm sure the majority will answer that we are celebrating Christ's birthday. But some will say Christmas is about visiting families, giving and receiving presents, celebrating, and having fun and a few others will say that Christmas is about Santa Claus and his reindeers coming to town from the North Pole to give presents to children. Christmas is a Christian holiday but we see many people from other religions also celebrating Christmas and decorating their houses with Christmas lights. The reason is because Christmas has lost its religious significance and has become a holiday signifying a time to get together with family and friends and eating Turkey dinners. I don't want to go to the commercial side of Christmas which is another story altogether but I like to mention one of the answers I read on the internet concerning what people think about Christmas. The person said if you take away the Christ out of Christmas you are left with M&S. I think this just goes to prove that the name of how we know a feast is important and it should help us understand the true meaning of the event.

Christmas says nothing other than a mass for Christ, the Greek Χριστούγεννα refers to Christ's birth but still this is not enough because we are not actually celebrating Christ's birthday. Christmas or Χριστούγεννα is not the celebration of Christ's birthday party. The correct definition for this wondrous event is "The Nativity according to the flesh of our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ" or even more correct is "The Nativity according to our flesh of our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ." Now instead of just telling us that it is Christ's birthday the full title tells us that the feast has to do with God condescending and taking upon himself human flesh and becoming as one of us. If we look carefully at the title we will also see why God would do such a thing, why he would lower himself from the God who created the whole world to become one of his creations. He did it because he is our Saviour: he did it to save mankind. The feast of Christmas is therefore not so much a celebration of Christ's birthday but the celebration of our salvation. This is what the angel told the shepherds "For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord."

A saviour is born not to save the Israelites from the tyranny of the Romans, but a saviour for all mankind to save us from the consequences of Adam's fall, to save us from eternal separation from God by bringing down the wall of separation created by Adam's sin and reuniting God with man as was originally intended. Through Christ's birth we celebrate our own rebirth; our return to paradise and our return to God. Man is no more destined to live eternity in Hades, he now has a reason for living, he can rejoice because his salvation is no longer just a hope, but a reality.

Today I want us to hear part of the Nativity story as told us by St. Luke and look at some of the hidden meanings that usually escape people's eyes. We will pick up the story after Jesus' birth in Bethlehem and go straight to the shepherds.    

"And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by 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. And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us. And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them." (Luke 2: 8-20)

Many people say that Jesus' birth couldn't have been in December because in winter Shepherds keep their sheep in the fold or stables. April is usually the time when sheep are kept in the open and watched over because that is when sheep are in labour. I think we all know that the actual date of Christ's birth has been lost to us, but the date doesn't really matter. What is important is that Christ was born and that we celebrate this very special and wonderful event. Originally the Church celebrated Christ's birth on the 6th January together with the feast of Theophany and in the 4th century separated the two feasts placing Christ's birth exactly nine months after the feast of the Annunciation although it has also been suggested that the date was chosen to replace the pagan festival of the sun. The argument with the shepherds doesn't necessarily hold true. If the shepherds were citizens of Bethlehem then they would probably have led their flock to the stables in winter, but if the shepherds were Bedouin who lived in tents then their flock was kept in the open all year round. Also people in the west, who think of all these arguments, should keep in mind that winters in England might be extremely cold at night but winters in our area of the world are usually quite mild and sheep could be left out all night. And one more thing, shepherds do not only keep watch on the flock during the lambing season, but keep watch all year round from thieves and wild animals. 

"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."

The angel wasn't sent to the highpriests or priests, to the scribes or Pharisees: they were not spiritually prepared to accept the good news of man's salvation. They were barred through their self righteousness and pride. The shepherds on the other hand were poor, simple and honest men similar in character to the Patriarchs of old like Isaac and Jacob who were also shepherds living in tents. The Patriarchs Moses and David were also shepherds watching over their flocks when they received the calling to lead the people of God. The message of the Israelites freedom from the hands of Egypt was given to Moses while he kept watch of his sheep and now pious and honest shepherds again are chosen to convey the message of a comparably far greatest freedom. Note that the Shepherds kept watch and were not sleeping when the angel appeared to them. They were wide awake and could not be deluded into thinking that what they saw and heard was like a dream.

The angel appeared and the glory of God shone round about them. The glory of the Lord is the divine light and is a sign of the presence of God or a heavenly being. It not only surrounded the angel but also the shepherds and gave light to the night darkness. This sudden appearance and light brought fear upon the shepherds, but their fear was not a fear of cowardice but fear at the acknowledgement of the superior presence.   

"And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people."

The angel sensing their fear calms and reassures them that they have nothing to fear and that his message to them is of the greatest joy. This message the good tidings which in Greek is "Ευαγγελίζομαι" is the word Gospel in English derived from the Old English "god-spell" meaning "good news" or "glad tidings". The reason for the great joy is of course the birth of Christ the Saviour of the world, but this good news has much deeper meanings. What makes this good news super joyous and places it above all other glad tidings is that in Christ God is revealed to man and at the same time man himself is revealed to man. What does this mean? At no other time in man's history until Christ was born and ascended into heaven did man know of his own nobility. Never did man imagine until that time when God took upon himself human flesh what glory man's flesh and nature could attain. Until that time when the fullness of the Godhead dwelt bodily in Christ man had not understood that it was possible for him to become a partaker of the divine nature and be united with God. From the time of Jesus' birth man went into a new beginning, Christ showed what man can become and determined permanently man's high worthiness and heavenly calling. This is the good tidings of great joy the angel pronounced to the shepherds: a message so great that it was not only for the shepherds but for all mankind. The Israelites may have been the chosen people of God but the glad tidings of joy is not limited to them alone for the angel said it was for all people.

"For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord."

For unto you is born again is not restricted only to the shepherds or Israel but to all mankind. He is born to you men and not to us the angels. Christ didn't take on the angelic nature, but human nature. St. Paul says: "For verily he took not on him the nature of angels; but he took on him the seed of Abraham." (Hebrews 2:16) The fact that Christ took upon himself the nature of man makes man superior to the angels. Paul says: "What is man, that thou art mindful of him? or the son of man that thou visitest him? Thou madest him a little lower than the angels; thou crownedst him with glory and honour, and didst set him over the works of thy hands." (Hebrews 2: 6-7) Angels are indeed powerful beings but man will be raised higher than the angels and will sit on the right hand of God and as God partook of human nature, man is called to partake of Divine nature. The angels too partake of the divine nature, but their purpose is different from man's for as Paul again says: "Are they not all ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation?" (Hebrews 1:14)

Unto us then and not to the angels is born a Saviour in the city of David. The city of David is Bethlehem, it is where David was born and where the prophecies foretold would also be the birthplace of the Messiah and the rightful king of Israel. The prophet Micah prophesied: “And thou, Bethlehem, house of Ephratha, art few in number, to be reckoned among the thousands of Juda, yet out of thee shall one come forth to me, to be a ruler of Israel, and his goings forth were from the beginning even from eternity.” (Micah 5:2)   This is a very important prophecy because it mentions that Christ existed before his birth: “his goings forth were from the beginning even from eternity. The angel also testifies to Christ's divinity by saying that the Saviour born in the city of David is Christ the Lord. Christ is not Jesus' name it is an epithet which had a very special meaning and relationship with the Jewish people because it meant the Messiah the one anointed of the Lord. But the angel not only tells us that the Messiah has been born but that he is also Lord, he is also God.

"And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger."

The angel gives the shepherds a sign by which they were to recognize the Lord. It's very unlikely that many infants were born in Bethlehem on that very same night and if there were its even more unlikely that they would be lying in a manger. Swaddling the infant with bandage-like strips was a practice that began 4000 years before Christ and continued even in the West until the 17th century. After an infant was born, the umbilical cord was cut and tied, and then the baby was washed, rubbed with salt and oil, and wrapped with strips of cloth. These strips kept the newborn child warm and also ensured that the child's limbs would grow straight. The fact that Jesus was wrapped with swaddling bands was therefore nothing out of the ordinary; it was the common practice. What was unusual was that Jesus was born in a cave which served as a stable for dumb animals and that he was lying in a manger where the animals took their feed. This is not the kind of birth the Jews expected of the Messiah. He was the king of Israel and would have been expected to be born in a palace and wrapped with royal garments surrounded by the most important people of Israel. This sign given by the angel must surely have tested the shepherd's faith because it came into conflict with what they imagined of the Messiah. Was it possible for the Christ, the King and Saviour of Israel to be been born in conditions of extreme poverty and humility? Yet it was his humility that distinguished him among the people as the true Messiah. 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.

"And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God"

The emphasis on suddenly doesn't mean that when the first angel appeared it wasn't as sudden. The extraordinary in this case is the multitude of the heavenly army all appearing at once. I use the word army instead of host because host is an archaic word for army but it can mean just a great number. The Greek is στρατιάς meaning army. It is possible that the first angel was an Archangel and the army of angels who now appeared are those angels under his command. Armies usually preach war, but in this case the heavenly army has appeared to preach peace. This is what they hymned: "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men."

Each year as Christmas approaches and people slowly get into the Christmas spirit, we are continually reminded of this message sung by the choir of angels at the birth of Christ and which was heard by the shepherds while they watched their flock during that glorious night. Emphasis now is placed not so much on Glory to God but on peace on earth and goodwill towards men. Throughout the year thoughts of peace and goodwill rarely enter our minds and now suddenly these sentiments of love begin to rise up in our thoughts and people begin to talk about peace. The Hymn of the angels as is most widely known is from the King James translation of the New Testament, but is the original Greek actually giving us the same message as the KJB? What do we actually understand in this hymn? As we read it in the KJB, Christ's birth brought peace on earth and love among men. It follows that for 2000 years there should have been peace among all nations, but history testifies to just the opposite. Humanity has been suffering from wars, revolutions, hatred, mistrust, vengeance, and killings. Only in the past century we had two Great World Wars and more than a hundred other different wars, revolutions and uprisings throughout the world which killed a staggering 160 million people. The Second World War alone killed more than 50 million. With just eleven years into the new century about 30 ongoing conflicts have continued from the previous century and many more has arisen especially in the Muslim world. Yet we still hear great nations speaking of peace while at the same time huge stocks of the most dreadful weapons are piled up to be used to kill and annihilate human life.

There is definitely no peace on earth and goodwill towards men. Christ's birth did not bring peace on earth and goodwill towards men at least not in the sense we commonly understand peace and goodwill. Did the angels get it wrong or did we not understand the true meaning of their hymn? Were the angels then simply praying and hoping for peace? Were they saying Glory to God in the highest and please God let there be peace on earth and goodwill towards men? I'm sure the angels pray for us and their hymn is a form of prayer but it is also a statement of fact: Christ's birth has brought peace on earth and goodwill towards men but not in the way the world has interpreted this statement. Translations other than the KJV have come closer to its true meaning. The New International Version reads "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favour rests" and the English Revised Version reads "Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men in whom he is well pleased." Both these translations are fairly correct, but they leave the impression that peace is only among those men who have found favour with God. The key words in the hymn are peace and goodwill. They do not refer to earthly peace or earthly goodwill between men, but God's peace and God's goodwill towards men. The angel's hymn is saying: "May Glory be to God in the highest places of heaven from the angels who dwell there and on earth which is scarred with sin and her violent passions let the divine peace now rule for God hast now shown his favour and goodwill towards men through the incarnation of his son."

The peace is the peaceful reconciliation with God which has been bestowed upon us through the Incarnation of the Son of God. The barrier that separated man from God has been destroyed and human nature, contaminated by the wound of sin, receives healing through the Incarnation of God and can once more freely receive the Grace of God. Peace then is not peace between men but God's peace with man: God's reconciliation and reunion with man. This peace is our return to our true homeland in heaven and the gift of eternal life which only the Incarnation of God has made possible. This gift of divine peace is free for all men who willingly accept to be reconciled and be at peace with God. This is the only true peace men can have and when man is reconciled to God this peace enters his heart and soul and not only is he at peace with God but with all men for the divine peace leads to human peace.   

Whether divine peace or human peace, as Christians we do not wait for Christmas to come round each year to remember peace. We must pray and preserve this gift within us because it is eternal life. It is for this very reason that the Church in her daily petitions always begins with praying to God in peace and for heavenly peace.  “In peace let us pray unto the Lord.” Without peace in our souls we cannot pray, without calmness of the thoughts we cannot begin to ask God for the things that are beneficial for our salvation. Man's sin brought into the world confusion and turmoil and this turmoil doesn’t allow our thoughts to remain in prayer, but as soon as we start praying our minds begin to fill with other things that we should do or say. Only inner peace can help us keep our mind and soul on prayer and only Christ can give us this inner peace. With inner calmness we then ask of God “For the Peace from on high and the salvation of our souls." This peace from on high, the divine peace is the salvation of our souls. It is the peace mentioned in the angel's hymn, it is God's reconciliation with us and our entry into the kingdom of God. Christ's incarnation has indeed brought peace on earth and has revealed God's great love, compassion, mercy and goodwill towards humankind.  

"And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us."

In the Greek there are two extra words in this passage "the men" so that it reads: "as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the men, that is the shepherds said one to another." A small detail which Luke could have easily missed out because the shepherds goes without saying that they are men, but is it used in opposition to angels and also to show that after the angels had gone away the men were left on their own and it was their decision to now go to Bethlehem and seek out the new-born child. Another small difference from the Greek is "Let us now go even unto Bethlehem" The Greek says "διέλθωμεν δη έως Βηθλεέμ" meaning "Let us now pass through to Bethlehem." or "Let us now pass through the valley that separates us from the city." And yet another difference from the Greek is "and see the thing which is come to pass". In Greek is it "και ίδωμεν το ρήμα τούτο το γεγονός" "and see the word or saying of this happening or "and examine the word told as by the angel concerning the Saviour born to us this day." From what the shepherds say it can be deduced that they had no reservations about what had come to pass: they do not speak as though they are going to Bethlehem to verify if the angel had told them the truth; they believe and speak with certainty "let us go and see the thing which is come to pass" not to verify but to learn more of him whom the angel spoke of; not to verify, but to offer themselves, to offer their heart and fall on their knees in wonder at this strange mystery that God had become man.

"And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger."

Their joy and excitement at what had happened made them impatient to see their Saviour. They wasted no time and rushed to seek out the long awaited Messiah and after asking around they found Mary, Joseph and the babe lying as the angel told them in a manger. The conditions of poverty and insignificance in which they found the Messiah did not scandalize them; they themselves were poor and unimportant and knew very well through their pious experiences the value of communion with God under these conditions.

"And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds."

When they had seen that everything was in accordance with what the angel had revealed to them they made known to Mary and Joseph of their vision of angels and the hymn they heard. This would have been of great support to the mother and guardian far greater than if they had been visited by the higher classes of Bethlehem. It is also possible that Mary and Joseph told the shepherds of all the miraculous visions and announcements they had experienced concerning the child. The passage could also mean that after they left they made it known to whoever they met of the wondrous thing that had come to pass.

The shepherds were simple and honest men and nobody would have suspected them of making up such a fantastic story. Their words were received as true by all who heard them and as such they marvelled at the news that the Messiah was born and lying in a manger and not in a palace and they marvelled that the angels would announce the message of this great event to simple shepherds and not to the high-priests.       

"But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart."

Everyone marvelled at the news but Mary was not in the least surprised; she already had her fair share of visions and had experienced the mysterious and miraculous birth without the pains that accompany natural childbirth. Mary kept what she had heard from the shepherds deep in her heart comparing them to all the things she had previously been told of the child. Mary had much to ponder and compare: The annunciation from the archangel Gabriel, the miraculous and virginal conception, Elizabeth's reception of her, Joseph's understanding of her pregnancy, the birth itself and now the Shepherds' story of angelic visions. Each of these events Mary pondered in her heart and each helped to make clearer to her of the mystery God had made possible through her.

But if Mary pondered them in her heart then how did the Evangelist Luke know about such personal details to write about them? The source can only be the Mother of God herself. Luke must have asked her to reveal the sequence of events that lead to the birth of Jesus and the Mother of God revealed to him just those things that were needed, keeping to herself the mysterious happenings that actually took place at the conception and birth.     

"And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them."

The shepherds return to their flock with thanksgiving, glorifying and praising God for having found them worthy to have seen and heard such wonderful things as was told them by the angels and by Mary and Joseph: Glorifying God and singing like the angels "Glory to God in the highest by the angels and glory to God on earth by all men because God has reconciled himself to man and has shown his great mercy and goodwill towards men through the incarnation of his son. Amen."