The Orthodox Pages


9th Dec 2010



























































































































In just over a couple of week’s time the whole world will be celebrating Christmas. In many countries of the world, the celebration of Christmas on December 25th is a high point of the year. From November onwards, it is impossible to forget that Christmas is coming. Everywhere we look - in the streets and shops - we see Christmas lights and decorations, Christmas trees decorated with lights and ornaments, images of father Christmas or Santa Claus, reindeers and many other things associated with our modern idea of Christmas. In the large shops you can also hear Christmas carols and traditional Christmas songs being played in the background. By mid-December, most homes will also be decorated with Christmas trees, coloured lights and other decorations around the rooms. These days, many more people also decorate garden trees or house walls with coloured electric lights, and Santa climbing up the wall, a habit which has long been popular in USA and which we have jealously copied.
For the majority of people Christmas is a time for giving and receiving presents. Children especially look forward to receiving presents from their parents and demand that these presents cannot be cheap or practical like clothing or a pair of shoes, gosh no, these are things they expect their parents to provide anyway, children want the latest mobiles and electrical gadgets, a computer, or whatever new technology is available on the market. And they demand these things without thinking if parents can actually afford them. Christmas should be a day of great joy and celebration but for many parents Christmas can be a time of sorrow and stress. After buying new brand named clothes for their children which are not the presents but part of the duty they have to clothe their children, then the Christmas shopping to feed the family over the holidays, they just don't have the extra money to buy the expensive presents demanded by their children, but they don’t want their children to feel that they have less than their friends so very often Christmas is a time when they borrow money just to please the needs and demands of modern day children.
Christmas, has become a commercial holiday. The shops are staying open later and later so that they can take our money. For them it is a time to cash in on the seasonal madness that has taken oven everyone. We has been brainwashed with a western commercial idea of what Christmas is. Commercials on the television continually tell us that we need to buy their products and we can buy them at a discount of 50% off or buy one and get one free. Much of our brainwashing comes from the Christmas films that we see over the Christmas season which have nothing to do with the Christmas story but are centred on children’s letter to Santa Claus and what they want to receive from him. Film makers have dreamed up a fantasy character which keeps growing every year with various stories of Santa, his wife, his children, his elves, reindeers and now we have Santa’s brother and I’m sure that soon we’ll have Santa’s sister.
More children believe in Santa Claus than in Jesus. The real meaning of Christmas has been completely forgotten and it has become a non-religious holiday celebrated not only by Christians but also Muslims, Jews, Buddhist and Hindus. Christmas Day has become a day just for opening presents, for family to get together for the Christmas Turkey lunch, to have a few drinks and then watch television or play card games. All these things have got nothing to do with Christmas? Of course we should celebrate Christmas, we should give presents, but we shouldn’t demand or expect to receive them. Christmas is a very special day of celebration, but we should celebrate it understanding why it is a special day and not for the commercial holiday that it has become.
Christmas is not just a remembrance of a historical event or the annual celebration of Jesus’ Birthday: it is much much more. For humanity to celebrate this event for 2000 years means that Jesus was a very special and extraordinary person with a very special mission and message for each and everyone of us. Why was he special and what is this message? We are told this by the angels who appeared to the simple shepherds who were watching their flock. He told 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.” The key words in this message are Saviour and Christ the Lord. A saviour is born. But for a saviour to be born it means that we are in need of being saved. Christ the Lord means the Messiah who is God. God has become a man. But again why did God become man?
The answers to these questions will not be found in the Nativity story but in the first Book of the Old Testament - in Genesis. Here we are told how God created the heavens and the earth and all the universe and how he created life on earth and then how he created man whom he created above everything else and made him in his image and likeness. If we do not understand the story of Adam and Eve then we cannot understand Christmas or any other religious event in the Church’s cycle. Everything we believe in has its roots in the story of the first man. We have spoken of Adam and his fall from grace many times so I’m sure you all know the story and the consequences of the fall. In short, God created man as an immortal being, but he lost immortality when he disobeyed God’s commandment. This was man’s rebellion against God and as a result he could no longer live in paradise with God. His separation from God and his expulsion from paradise resulted in him losing immortality. He could only live the immortal life as long as he was with God, but now distant from God his body changed and was in a state of death. In other words his body began to age and this eventually brought about his bodily death. But man was not created to live and die but to live eternally with God. This is man’s ultimate destiny and God promised man that he would save him and return him to his intended state of immortality. The Old Testament is the Book that tells us of this promise and Christmas, or rather the Birth of Jesus Christ is the fulfilment of this promise. It is the event which put into motion man’s return to paradise, his original and intended habitat.

Although today’s talk in centred on the Nativity of man’s Saviour, it is not about the meaning of this event but, rather on the promises God made to man through the Old Testament prophecies. The prophecies themselves are the greatest proof that the Book of the Old Testament is God inspired. The prophecies concerning the Nativity are also proof that they were not adulterated. The greatest evidence that the prophecies are genuine is that they were in the hands of the Jews who crucified Jesus. Is it possible for the Jews who crucified him because they did not accept him as the expected Messiah to have adulterated the prophecies found in the Old Testament to be in favour of Jesus as the Messiah? Of course not, and this gives us the certainty and the sure foundation that the prophecies are genuine and have not been tampered with, at least not is the Septuagint version.
The prophecies speak of Christ as the expected Messiah. He is the only person who exists throughout all the centuries as expected and come and again expected to come again. He is the only person who not only has a history but also has a prehistory. He has up to date a history of two thousand years, but he has a prehistory from the creation of the world because he is the only person that was expected to come. Not Plato, Aristotle or Napoleon had a prehistory; they only have a history from the time they were born and after. Christ existed before he was born as the expected through the prophecies. Let’s then look at these prophecies.
The first prophecy is given to us by God himself immediately after the fall. God said to the serpent “I will put enmity between thee and between the woman, and between thy seed and between her seed: he shall watch thy head, and thou shalt watch his heel” (Gen. 3:15) The Church calls this verse the Proto-evangelion or the First Good News because it is the first mention of someone who will be born to destroy the power of the devil. Let’s then analyse this verse and see what it is actually saying. It is clear that here is mentioned the seed of a woman who will watch or bruise the head of the serpent, in other words the devil and the devil will watch or bruise the heal of this seed. What escapes people’s eyes when they read it is that it speaks of the seed of a woman and not of a man. How can a person be born with only the seed of a woman, without the seed of a man? This is clearly a reference to a saviour who will be born of a virgin who will conceive without coming together with a man. This seed of a woman, this saviour will trample under foot the head of Satan. The bruising of Satan’s head means that Christ will completely crush Satan and destroy his power whereas the heel that Satan will bruise is a reference to Christ’s crucifixion. The heel means that the bruising that Christ will receive from Satan will be minimal; Satan will only manage to have Christ’s human nature nailed to the Cross. This then is the first of the prophecies concerning the coming of a Saviour which was given to man more that five thousand years before the actual event. Through the first woman Eve came the fall and only through the seed of another woman will come the correction.

As we move on from Adam to his descendants, the prophecy of this seed will grow and unfold. Let’s now come to Abraham. God said to Abraham: “Get thee out of thy country and from thy kindred and from thy father’s house, and come into the land that I will shew thee. And I will make thee into a great nation, and I will bless thee and magnify thy name, and thou shalt be a blessing. And I will bless them that bless thee and curse them that curse thee, and in thee shall all the tribes of the earth be blessed. Later God says to Abraham “I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of heaven, and as the sand which is by the sea shore; and thy seed shall inherit the cities of their enemies. And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.” (Gen 22: 17-18) Here is mentioned the blessing of the Gentiles by a descendant of Abraham and that his descendants will be many as the stars of heaven. This descendant of Abraham is Christ who will come from the line of Abraham’s son Isaac because in Genesis is says “for in Isaac shall thy seed be called for thee” (Gen 21:12) St. Paul interpreting this passage says “Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He said not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ.” (Gal. 3:16) Thus in this prophecy is determined Abraham’s great family from which shall descent the Saviour from his Son Isaac and not from his other son Ishmael. Abraham’s descendants according to the flesh are the Israelites and according to the spirit are both the Jews and Christians. Therefore the prophecy concerning the coming of the Saviour is supplemented with new details: we are given the family from which he will descent and the multitude of the descendants this family will have.
Next in line is Jacob. Jacob is in Egypt as is about to die. Genesis tells us that “Jacob called his sons and said unto them, Gather yourselves together, that I may tell you that which shall befall you in the last days.” (Gen. 49:1) In the last days means some time in the future so this is certainly a prophecy. Jacob blesses his sons and when he gets to Judah he says to him: “A ruler shall not fail from Judah, nor a ruler from his thighs, until there come the things stored up for him; and he is the expectation of the nations. (Gen. 49:10) Here Jacob prophesies that from the tribe of Judah will come forth the Kings of the Jews who will continual to reign until someone comes, meaning the Saviour, in whom all people shall put their hopes in because he is the expectation of the nations. It is noteworthy that when Jacob said these things the Jews were strangers in Egypt, without possessing any lands not even in Egypt. They didn’t even have a royal line because the royal line of Judah appeared to them after about a thousand years. Not even the high Sanhedrin of seventy judges existed because this came about in the time of Moses after five hundred years. These were still a very long way off and Jacob had no clues to guess the future flourishing of his son’s tribes. In his humble condition Jacob was on his deathbed waiting to die when he blessed his sons and told them that they would become great land owners and that from the tribe of Judah would come the kings who would rule Israel and that from this tribe will come the Messiah, Christ, the expectation of the nations. What is of primary importance is the fact that Jacob not only foretells the dynasty of the kings which will last for a thousand years, but also the downfall of this glory and that the Jews will be without a king. Then will come the Messiah, the expectation of the nations. The tribe of Judah ruled about 1000 BC in the time of David the King until the Idumean ruler Herod who was only the ruler of Galilee and not of all Israel thus when Pilate said to the Jews “Shall I crucify your king?” they replied: “We have no king but Caesar.”
With this prophecy by Jacob there is now added more details for the expected Messiah. It is determined he will descent from the tribe of Judah and we are given the approximate time of his arrival, when there will be no more a king from the tribe of Judah. Slowly we see the prophecies concerning the Messiah slowly unfolding and revealing the person.
In Deuteronomy Moses writes: “The Lord said unto me… I will raise them up a prophet of their brethren, like unto thee, and will put My words in his mouth; and he shall speak unto them as I shall command him. And what man soever will not hearken unto whatsoever words that prophet shall speak in My name, I will take vengeance upon him.” (Deut. 18:18-19) Who is this prophet that the Lord will raise and who will be like the prophet Moses and in whom God shall put his words into his mouth? No other prophet of the Old Testament was like Moses. Moses was a lawgiver, a miracle worker and the mediator between God and the Israelites. Moses led Israel from Egypt to the Promised Land. Moses spoke with God face to face. No other person had the same attributes except Christ. Christ was a lawgiver, a miracle worker, a guide and mediator between God and man. Christ is a lawgiver and in the New Testament he gave his laws which were superior to the Old Testament Laws. He is a miracle worker because he performed countless miracles in his life as did Moses in his time. Christ is the leader and guide of the new people of God who leads the new Israel, in other words Christians, from the bondage of sin to the Promised Land that is the heavenly Jerusalem. Christ is the true mediator between God and man because he redeemed sin in his flesh. According to the Jews the prophet of whom Moses is writing of can be no other than the Messiah because from the text it appears that this prophet will be superior to Moses. The Jews considered no other person superior to Moses except the Messiah. That is why the Lord said to the Jews: “For had ye believed Moses, ye would have believed me; for he wrote of me.” (John 5:46)
So with this prophecy we now have even more details of the expected Messiah: He will be like Moses, a lawgiver, a wonder worker, a guide and mediator. The law that he shall give will be different from the law of the Old Testament. Later the prophet Jeremiah will add to this by saying: “Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah: not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers… I will surely give My laws into their mind, and write them on their hearts; and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to Me a people. (Jeremiah 38:31-33)
We have already seen that the Saviour of the world will descent from the royal line of Judah, the royal line of David. The prophet Isaiah writing a long time after David and Solomon says the following concerning the Messiah: “And there shall come forth a rod out of the root of Jesse (Jesse was the father of King David) and a blossom shall come up out of His root: and the spirit of God shall rest upon Him… He shall judge the cause of the lowly, and shall reprove the lowly of the earth; and He shall smite the earth with the word of His mouth; and with the breath of His lips shall He destroy the ungodly… And in that day there shall be a root of Jesse, and He that shall arise to reign over the Gentiles, in Him shall the Gentiles hope.” (Isaiah 11: 1-10) Thus here it is clearly confirmed that the Messiah in whom the Gentiles will place their hope will be a blossom of the seed of Jesse, in other words from the house of David.
Apart from Isaiah who speaks of the line of David is also the prophet Nathan, a contemporary of David. After David tells Nathan of his desire to build a great temple, Nathan approves the king’s decision without first consulting God, but God warns Nathan that not David but his son Solomon will build the temple. He then tells Nathan that the throne of David and Solomon will be eternal saying: “And his house shall be made sure, and his kingdom before me for ever; and his throne shall be set established for ever.” (2Kings 7:16) Given the fact that both David and Solomon are mortals and will die and also the fact that in Jacob’s prophecy the kings of Judah will come to an end, we ask “who is he that will establish the throne of David for ever if not the Messiah.”
The prophet Isaiah gives as many more details of the expected Messiah from his birth until his Passion and crucifixion. As Isaiah’s prophecies are so many that we would need a separate talk just on Isaiah, we will limit ourselves only to the prophecies concerning the Nativity. Isaiah says the following: “Therefore the Lord Himself shall give you a sign: behold, the virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and shall call His name Emmanuel. (Isaiah 7:14) Here in no clearer terms we are told that the birth of the Messiah will be from a virgin. That which we saw with the first prophecy “the seed of a woman” is now verified and made clear, “behold, the virgin shall be with child.”
Isaiah also gives us details of Christ’s humble birth in a stable and the manger that will be used as his baby cot: “The ox knoweth his owner and the ass his master’s crib but Israel doth not know me and the people hath not regarded me” [Isaiah 1:3]. The ox and the ass, known for their unintelligence and stupidity, recognized their creator through plain instinct, but the people of Israel, gifted with free will, logic and intelligence far above any animal, who as God’s chosen people were blessed with all the prophecies and signs to help them recognize the Messiah, when he would come, actually failed to recognize him because they did not understand this prophecy concerning the lowly birth, they were waiting for him to be born in glory as a king in a palace. How could they even conceive that the person who they saw as their deliverer from the tyranny of the Romans would begin his life in a stable and be placed in a manger where the animals took their feed?
Isaiah even gives us where Christ will live: “O land of Zabulon, land of Nephthalim, and the rest inhabiting the sea coast and the land beyond Jordon, Galilee of the Gentiles. O people walking in darkness, behold a great light: ye that dwell in the region and shadow of death, a light shall shine upon you.” (Isaiah 9: 1-2) Nazareth where Jesus grew up is in the land belonging to the tribe of Zabulon and together with the land of Nephthalim which stretched along the eastern side of the Jordon and all the area beyond was called the Galilee of the Gentiles because the majority of the inhabitants were idol worshippers. Capernaum where Christ dwelt after leaving Nazareth and where he first started preaching in public is also within the same area. St, Matthew mentions Isaiah’s prophecy saying: “And leaving Nazareth, he came and dwelt in Capernaum, which is upon the sea coast, in the borders of Zabulon and Nephthalim: That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Esaias the prophet, saying, The land of Zabulon, and the land of Nephthalim, by the way of the sea, beyond Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles; The people which sat in darkness saw great light; and to them which sat in the region and shadow of death light is sprung up. From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” The great light is of course Christ who, living in the midst of this people who were spiritually dead and in great darkness, gave hope of salvation even to the gentiles.
The Prophet mentions many more noteworthy characteristics concerning the Messiah, he says: “For unto us a Child was born, and unto us a Son was given, Whose sovereignty was upon His shoulder: and His name is called Messenger of Great Counsel, Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Potentate, Prince of Peace, Father of the Age to Come.” (Isaiah 9:6) These epithets or descriptions especially the “Mighty God, Prince of peace and Father of the age to come” cannot be assigned to just any common mortal. The only person worthy or such names can only be the Messiah, the Son of God.
The prophet Jeremiah, not prophesying on the actual event of the birth of the Messiah, but of an event that immediately followed as a consequence of the birth – the slaughter of the innocent children that Herod had put to death says: “In Ramah was there a voice heard, of lamentation, and weeping and mourning; Rachel would not cease weeping for her children, because they are no more.” (Jerem. 38:15) In the New Testament Matthew mentions this prophecy concerning the slaughter of the innocent saying: “Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremy the prophet, saying, In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.” (Matth. 2: 17-18). Rama means a high place and was a hill on the outskirts of Bethlehem. The prophecy mentions Rachel weeping for her children and presents her as a mother representing all the mothers who wept and mourned for their children because Bethlehem was given to Benjamin, the youngest son of Israel and Rachael was his mother who was also buried on that high place in Bethlehem.
The next prophet to give us details of the Messiah is the prophet Michaias or as his name is known in the KJV Micah. He writes of the town in which the Messiah will be born: “And thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou art very few in number among the thousand of Judah, yet out of thee shall come forth unto Me He that is to be ruler in Israel; and His goings forth have been from the beginning, even from everlasting.” (Micah 5:1) The interpretation for this passage is given to us in the New Testament from the Great Council of the Jews. When Herod heard that the Magi from the east had come searching for the newborn king of the Jews, he and all Jerusalem were troubled and he gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, and demanded of them where Christ should be born. “And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet, And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.” (Matt. 2: 5-6) Thus according to this great council of the Jews the little town of Bethlehem is to be the birthplace of the Messiah.
There is also an important prophecy from Daniel that gives us the approximate period in which the Messiah would come, but it would take too long to give all the details. In short King Nebuchadnezzar had a dream which he couldn’t remember and Daniel told him the dream and its interpretation. The interpretation concerns four great kingdoms or dynasties that will come after Nebuchadnezzar. These are probably the Medes and Persian Empire, the Greek or Macedonian Empire and the Roman Empire After these God will set up a kingdom that will grind to powder all other kingdoms, and it shall stand for ever. This kingdom that will come is the coming of the Messiah who kingdom shall be for all eternity.
Let’s now do a recap of the prophecies concerning the Nativity of Christ the long expected Messiah. He will be born from the seed of a woman, in other words a virgin who has known no man, he will stem from the line of Abraham from his son Isaac and not from his other son Ishmael. From Isaac’s two sons Esau and Jacob the ancestor of the Messiah is not the firstborn Esau, but the second born Jacob. Of the twelve sons of Jacob the ancestor is not Benjamin of whom Jacob had a special love for neither Joseph the glorious governor of Egypt, but Judah who had many shortcomings. It was he who suggested to his brothers to sell Joseph into Egypt and yet we see that of all the brothers he is chosen as the ancestor of the Messiah. This is a great confirmation that the prophecy concerning his line was not by Jacob’s preference or desire, but through Divine inspiration. If it was left up to Jacob to decide he would have chosen one of the two sons he loved most – Joseph or Benjamin. We are then given many other details concerning the Messiah by various other writers – he will be like Moses a lawgiver, a miracle worker, a guide and mediator, he will be from the house of David, he will be Mighty God and the Father of the age to come and he will be born in the little town of Bethlehem. We have not mentioned the many prophecies that concern his passion and crucifixion or the return of the nations and the disloyalty of the Jews.
If only one man prophesied the time and place of the coming of the Messiah as it is revealed to us in Holy Scripture and then everything he said was fulfilled, we would say that that man was indeed a powerful and incredible prophet. But in the Old Testament we see that the prophecy concerning Christ is not given to us by one man but by a series of men from the beginning until near the time of the fulfilment. For 5000 years a nation had been waiting and anticipating the Messiah. The prophecies came slowly but surely, one after the other, each speaking about the same person, each adding new details to fill in the puzzle so that when the time finally came he could be easily recognized and there would be little room for doubts as to who he was.
In just a few days we will be celebrating the coming of the Messiah, the birth of the Saviour of mankind and as I said in the beginning of this talk, is not just a remembrance of a historical event or an annual celebration of Jesus’ Birthday. The Church teaches us that we should live the events of two thousand years ago as though they are actually taking place today. That is why all her hymnology is written in the present and not in the past tense: Today the Virgin comes to the cave, Today the Virgin gives birth, Today Christ is born. All the events are referred to as taking place now, because for the Church the historical remembrance is of little importance. Many like the Jehovah’s Witnesses accuse the Church and say that Jesus was not born on 25th December so we shouldn’t celebrate it on that date. They don’t understand that for us it doesn’t matter if Christ was born on the 25th December, the 25th April or the 25th August. What is important is that Christ was born and is continually being born every day in the Church. If we place a date to a certain historical event, it is purely for liturgical and festive reasons so that the Church as one body can celebrate the holy and great feast. The feasts of the Church are not just festive where we are given the opportunity to be joyful for an event but are stations of divine grace, they are days in which God gives his grace bountifully to men. That is why the fathers express this experience as “Today”; they say “Today those above co-celebrate with those below, today the angels rejoice.” These are not just expressions of speech; it is a reality that on these great feasts of the Lord there is a special grace, a special joy and a special blessing upon the body of the Church.
With this understanding we await with anticipation the coming of the Lord. The prophecies we heard today are just as valid for us today as they were for the Jews all those thousands of years before the historical event of the Lord’s birth. We should see in them the signs given to us by God to recognize his incarnation and then seeing the fulfilment of these prophecies to rejoice with the angels and all mankind that salvation has come into the world.