The Orthodox Pages


16th Dec 2010























































































































































Last week we saw the Old Testament prophecies foretelling the coming of the Messiah Jesus Christ. Today as we approach nearer to the feast of the Nativity I thought it would be appropriate to look at the fulfilment of these prophecies. Although there is much to say on the subject, most things have already been said before and it is not an easy task finding fresh and new approaches that could remain within the traditional teaching of the Church yet at the same time help us to understand the meaning of Christmas from a different angle. I searched the internet to see if I could borrow some ideas. I typed in the “meaning of Christmas” and I had hundreds of different websites to choose from which claimed to give the true meaning of Christmas. I was so disappointed and couldn’t believe what the western world actually means by the true meaning of Christmas. In general they all gave an explanation to the meanings of the Christmas figures and décor like Santa, the tree, the star, the candle, the wreath, the holly, the candy cane, the angel, the gift and the bell. Granted these all symbolize something, but they are not the true meaning of Christmas. It would seem that the commercial demon has done his task by blinding people of the truth. The theological meaning has completely been covered from people’s eyes and even the literal Nativity story as found in the New Testament has been replaced by the symbolic meanings of the Christmas decorations.
If we want to give a synopsis of the true meaning of Christmas this can be said it just a few words. Christmas is the day we celebrate the birth of Jesus our Saviour because on this day salvation is seen not only as a promise that God made to Israel in the Old Testament prophecies but as a reality in bodily form. Christ’s birth brings hope for our rebirth and our return to paradise and our return to God. Man now has a reason for living, he can rejoice because his salvation is no longer a promise, it is no longer just a hope, but a reality. This is a short explanation of what the feast of Christmas means for mankind but there is much more we can add to this. There is first of all the historical and literal meaning, then the theological meaning, the eschatological meaning and the moral and spiritual meaning where the events and characters of the Nativity story correspond to elements in our own lives. Today then we will see the meaning of Christmas by combining the various ways we can interpret the event and especially through the theological and spiritual meanings we receive. The spiritual sense of Christmas is important for Christians because as mentioned last week Christ is continually being born every day in the Church, but he also comes to each of us separately and is continually being born over and over again in our hearts. The central figures in the Nativity story are the New-Born Baby Jesus, Mary his Mother, Joseph the foster father, the shepherds, the angels, the Wise Men and the Star. To the extended story can also be added Herod the king and the innocent children.

Let’s then see what each person represents and what symbolic teaches we can receive from them that would be beneficial for our own lives. Let’s begin with the central character the baby Jesus. We saw last week the prophecy concerning the lowly birth which was a sign for the Jews to recognize the Messiah. The lowly birth has much to teach us about God, but also of how we can approach God. The angel told the shepherds the sign by which they would be able to recognize the Saviour: he would be wrapped in swaddling bands and lying in a manger. The manger is a trough or box in stables where horses and cattle take their feed. The stable in this Nativity story is according to tradition a cave. The very birth of Christ in a cave, wrapped in strands of cloth and lying in a manger immediately tell us that God is humble; he has no regard for earthly riches and teaches us that we also should not regard earthly wealth. This is God incarnate, the God that created the whole universe, the earth and all living creatures. Even the fact that God condescended to be born as one of his creatures is an act of extreme humility but to cap this with being born in extremely humble conditions is beyond the logical reasoning of anyone in the their right mind. We would expect God to be born in the greatest of kings’ palaces wrapped in royal garments and laying in a golden bed fit for the King of kings. In comparison to the cave even a simple human dwelling place would seem like a great luxury. As God he could have chosen to be born wherever he wanted, even in a palace, but of his own free will he chose the humble conditions for a reason: he wanted to show us that humility is a virtue that we should strive for, it is not a weakness as Satan and the world have us believe, but a God-like quality. 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.

As an adult he continued by his word and action teaching us that humility and poverty of this world lead to perfection. By his words - Turn the other cheek; sell what thou has, give to the needy and come and follow me, and by his actions when as Lord and Master he washed the disciple’s feet, and suffered the Passion in silence. Throughout the Gospels we see that Christ leads a life of poverty and humility and we are told to follow in his footsteps. To follow Christ means to become like Christ and we cannot do this if our main concern in life is our bank balance. Poverty and humility as virtues that lead to Christ are also the reason why the angel appeared to the simple shepherds with the message of salvation. The shepherds are peasants: simple, unsophisticated, hard-working, honest people whose only care is providing for their families. They have no grand ideas of wealth, no desire for worldly knowledge, no desire for fame and worldly recognition: they are content living their lives in the outdoors under God’s heaven looking after their flock. It is their simplicity that makes them worthy of the angel’s message; it is their poor but honest way of life that makes them worthy to see and hear the choir of angels glorifying God with their hymns. They went to Bethlehem not to verify what the angel told them, not to gain knowledge, not to give presents to the New-born king and Saviour, but to offer themselves, to offer their heart and fall on their knees in wonder at this strange mystery that God had become man.

Under our layers of modern sophistication and education, we are told to search in our hearts to find the simple peasant soul that we once were. This is what Christ meant when he said: “Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 18:2) Little children are simple without worldly knowledge or understanding of wealth and power. This is what the shepherds were and this is what we are told to become so that we too will be worthy to hear the angels singing the glory of God. In the silence of the night the shepherds kept watch over their flock of sheep and we in the rush and noise of our busy lives are told to enter into the silence and darkness of our souls and there keep watch over the flock of our desires, the herd of our worldly passions and instincts, to round them up as the straying sheep and enclosed them within the fold so we will then be free to hear the message of the angel and allow Christ to be born in our hearts. Then like the shepherds the glory of the Lord will shine round about us. The angel told the shepherds “unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord” it was not in general to all mankind but “unto you” and unto us if we become like the simple shepherds. They didn’t need to travel a long way from their fields to the stable to meet Christ; it is he who came an infinite distance from heaven to earth to meet them and he will take that journey again for each of us if we show even a little desire to meet him.
How do the shepherds compare to the magi, the wise men from the east. The shepherds as already seen are simple unsophisticated men in whom the angel brings the glad tidings in direct communion. The wise men are cultivated and of great worldly learning, which hinders them from direct communion and instead have to make a long journey guided by the star [of which was the object of their study and adoration], so as to learn of the same mystery that was revealed to the shepherds. In this, we also see that the Church accepts human science provided this science bring those who serve it to the worship of the One True God, the Holy Trinity. When we compare the simple shepherds to the wise men, we see that the poor and simple, having no worldly learning or substance to hold them back, can more freely accept Christ, whereas the rich and learned, having their minds filled with worldly matters and loving great possessions which they cannot bear to part with, have made for themselves obstacles on the road leading to Christ. Christ Himself testifies to this when a young man asked how he might find eternal Life. Jesus said unto him, “If thou wilt be ‘perfect’, go sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and come and follow me. But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had many possessions. Then said Jesus unto his disciples, verily I say unto you, that a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven. And again I say unto you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God” [St Matthew 19:21]. For those who are wealthy and would like to take some comfort that they might have a chance of being saved, Christ did not say that rich men cannot be saved, for when asked, “Who then can be saved”? He replied that, “With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible” [St. Matthew 19:76]. So there is hope even for the wealthy.
In spite of this comparison the wise men have certain similarities with the shepherds. They too were keeping watch over their flock – the stars of heaven. As they were watching they too were given a heavenly message – the star that appeared in the sky which was so different from anything they had seen before. As educated men, well learned in astrology, which they probably used in their religious practices, their wisdom and knowledge of the stars and planets immediately told them that this was no ordinary physical star. For them it was a heavenly message just like the angel’s message to the shepherds. For them the appearance of this star meant that someone very special for mankind had been born, a very special King of the Jews who was a divine person. Like the shepherds they decide to seek out this divine person and set out on a long if not dangerous journey. The purpose of the journey was not curiosity or to gain more worldly knowledge. In their own land they were rich, powerful and important people, and some say they were themselves Kings while others say they were High Priests, but they did not set out on some stately visit from one king to another, the sole purpose for their journey was, like the shepherds, to come and worship. They were indeed wise because they did not pride themselves in their knowledge or rank in society, but recognized that someone more wise and powerful than themselves had been born and they had the humility to seek him out and bow their knees to a baby.

There is a lesson to be learnt from the wise men. Many educated people believe they are wise and that religion is only for the simple and uneducated and many people in high standing would rather die than bend their knee in worship to God. A truly wise man, like the three wise men recognizes that he is not wise because only God is wise. Only fools think they are wise. The same can be said for saints: they truly believe that they are sinners but sinners actually think they are saints. The wise men set out on a pilgrimage to find God and they found him. If we are wise then we also should seek to find God. Christ said seek and you shall find. But how do we know that the purpose of the wise men’s journey was to seek out and find God to worship him? The very presents they took with them denote that they were coming for this very purpose. 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.
While remaining on the subject of gifts I want to sidetrack a little to explain the meaning of the Christmas gifts we give and receive. The wise men brought gifts to Jesus as a sign of their respect and recognition that he was God, but have you ever wondered why we give presents to each other on Christmas day? The usual explanation is that associated with St. Nicholas from whom the name Santa Claus derived. A certain man who was once rich and whom Nicholas had saved from a great sin had three daughters. Now in poverty and in desperation he planned to sell their bodies so they would have money for food. The saint, learning of the man’s poverty and of his wicked intention, secretly visited him one night and threw a sack of gold through the window. With the money the man arranged an honourable marriage for his eldest daughter. St Nicholas also provided gold for the other daughters, thereby saving the family from falling into spiritual destruction. St. Nicholas became famous for his generous gifts to the poor and because his feast day is in December his name became associated with giving presents at Christmas. An almost identical story is found in the life story of St. Basil and that is why in Greece and Cyprus gifts are given on his feast day of January 1st. These are feasible accounts of how the custom of giving presents began but I prefer a more spiritual and theological explanation. We give presents to people when they celebrate their birthday and Christmas is the day we celebrate Jesus’ birthday so according to the custom we should be giving presents only to Jesus. Why then do we receive presents as if it were our birthday? Well in reality it is our birthday as well. When we were baptized we became partaker of Christ. One of the hymns we sing during baptism which we also sing on Christmas day is “As many of you as have been baptised into Christ have put on Christ.” Thus in everyone we see the image of Christ and give them presents at Christmas as though it was their birthday. We give a present to a friend but in reality we are giving the present to Christ because our friend is in the image of Christ. I threw that in just to show that it’s not wrong to give and receive presents on Christmas day as long as we understand why we do it.
Let’s now return to the wise men. We have all read or heard of the wise men’s story many times, but many don’t look close enough to see what is actually being said. The wise men started of on their journey to find a God but how did they know where to go? In the Gospel of Matthew it says that they came from the east to Jerusalem saying: “where is he that is born the King of the Jews for we have seen his star in the east and are come to worship him.” If they saw the star in the east how did they know to come to Jerusalem? Well firstly the star is not a like any other star known to man, that is why the wise men saw in its appearance the confirmation that a divine person had come into the world. Many astronomers will tell us that it was a comet, it was a nova or some other astronomical event and will even tell us that according to their astronomical charts the year of Christ birth must be wrong because they can account for an astronomical event a few years before and a few years after, but not for the year that Christ is said to have been born. The truth is they will never be able to discover what this star was because it was not a star in the usual sense as we will see from its behaviour. The wise men came to Jerusalem because the star guided them: it went before them showing them the road; it 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. Now this is a very strange star. It appears, it disappears, it 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.
To finish with the wise men you might like to know that tradition has given us their names. They are known as Sts. Balthasar, Gasper and Melchior. Tradition also says that they were of different age groups and this fact is specified to show that God reveals himself to men without regard to their age or worldly experience. The wise men also represent the church among the heathen showing that Christ came to save all nations that will accept Him and not only the chosen people of Israel just as the shepherds represent the first men and women among the Jews who came to believe in Christ.
Let’s now move on to Joseph the Betrothed. In the Gospels Joseph comes across as being the “strong silent type.” He doesn’t say much, but he does a lot by just being there and by being himself, Joseph the righteous, the charitable, the worker and provider, the foster father, the protector, the obedient, the reliable, the available. Joseph represents the majority of us and how we interpret events with human logic. He was confused and troubled by the virginal conception; his logic told him that the innocent girl he had betrothed was not so innocent after all. For her to be with child meant that she had been unfaithful with another man because he certainly hadn’t touched her. He jumped to the only conclusion his logic allowed. But although his thoughts were rational and in line with most men, his actions show that he was charitable. The normal reaction would have been to accuse Mary and even give her a few slaps and then walk out in disgust, but because he was a just person and charitable he didn’t say a word to anyone, not even to Mary to accuse her of his suspected infidelity; he didn’t rush to defend his wounded manhood: he gave himself time to think of want he would do.

This is an important lesson for each of us, because in our lives we often encounter difficult situations involving people we love or know and we should not rush to the first conclusion that comes to our head. Even in the most difficult situations we should give ourselves time to cool down and think before putting into action what our hot-tempered madness tells us to do. As parents we worry for our children and one of the worst fears of parents with teenage daughters is that one day they will come home saying that they are pregnant. I have three daughters and although I hope I never see such a day my logic tells me that they are growing up and in a few years will start to date boys, so there is a real possibility of such a thing happening. The possibility is even more real for me because as a Priest I hear confessions at a senior school and often hear confessions from teenage girls who have had abortions. What then would I do if one of my girls came home with the news that she was pregnant? Naturally, internally I would be mad and disappointed, but I hope I will also be able to remain externally calm like Joseph. There would be no point in abusing her either verbally of physically, the deed has been done: what is needful is not to accuse and blame or to disown, but how to deal with the situation in the best way possible.
Joseph’s logical reasoning is also seen as a temptation and Satan would have done his best by continually bombarding him with the thought that a virginal conception is out of the question because it is opposed by the laws of nature. Joseph was a pious man who trusted in God and he would certainly have prayed to God to help him find a solution to the predicament he was facing. God indeed helped Joseph by revealing to him the truth surrounding the unexpected pregnancy and in that way helped Joseph not only to overcome the temptation, but also to devote and offer himself as the foster parent. Here again is another important lesson for us; we should ask and trust God to help us overcome similar temptations, and to always remember that nothing is impossible with God.
While still remaining on the Nativity story I want to refresh your minds about something I have said before because it has to do with human logical reasoning which jumps to conclusions by only evaluating what appears on the surface, but not taking into account what actually is. When western minds read the Nativity story and the part that says: “When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost” they automatically assume that because it says “before they came together” then it is logical that they must have come together afterwards. There are three reasons for their assumption, one because the translation they read is not 100% correct, two because they interpret with modern or western thoughts and do not understand that each language has its own ways of expressions that cannot be conveyed in another language without loosing the true meaning and three because they are ignorant of Jewish Law and the customs that prevailed 2000 years ago.
Matthew mentions Mary as espoused, in other words as a fiancé, and a little further down as wife. According to the ancient Jewish Law, the betrothal was the preparation period before the wedding similar to as it is today. The wedding took place when the man received the woman into his house. But the betrothal was a binding relationship with obligations between the betrothed. If for example the man died before the wedding, the woman was considered a widow. After the betrothal and before the wedding, the man was the legal husband and the bond could only be loosed if the man gave the woman a written release and monetary compensation.
The verse in question have been grossly misunderstood and even mistranslated by western minds. When it says “before they came together”: naturally one would assume that it means that they came together afterwards, but this is a total misunderstanding of what is said in the original Greek. In the Greek it is πρίν ἤ συνελθεῖν αὐτούς. It is not in the past tense as translated in English, but rather in the infinitive case and should therefore read “before they were to come together”. But even this does not refer to the coming together of the flesh, but to the fact that Mary had not yet moved into Joseph’s house. So in fact it is saying “before Mary went to live together with Joseph”. It cannot mean the marital relationship because the wedding had not yet taken place and Joseph had not received his fiancé into his own home. The verse continues with “she was found with child”. Who found her with child? This can only mean that it came to Joseph’s knowledge that Mary was pregnant. The verse also tells us that Mary was not pregnant before she was betrothed to Joseph and then cunningly took Joseph as her betrothed to cover up some dishonourable action. She conceived by some miraculous way that surpasses our understanding by the Holy Ghost.

The next line is also misunderstood. “Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a publick example, was minded to put her away privily.” How can the previous line say that Mary was betrothed and now Joseph is called her husband? Did a marriage take place from the one line to the next? No, here it confirms that even though Joseph was betrothed to Mary; in the sight of the law he was already considered her husband as she was considered his wife. What does it mean when it says Joseph was minded to put her away privily? Was he thinking of killing her and burying her body in secret? Again the answer is no. Joseph was a just and righteous man who observed the Law of Moses. How could he continue to have Mary as his wife who had clearly violated the marital trust? How could he not comply with the law which clearly states to dismiss a woman found with child by another man? How could he make a public example of her? He had two choices according to the law: the first was to bring her up before the council who if they found her guilty would officially have her dismissed from the bonds of the betrothal or act according to the law found in Leviticus which says that those found guilty of adultery should be put to death by stoning. Joseph being a just man doesn’t only refer to his faith in the law, but also to his kind, compassionate, merciful and meek character. Seeing that his conscience didn’t allow him to shame Mary publicly or to put her to death he decided that the best way to resolve the problem was to secretly send her away. This would have been a completely private arrangement between the two of them and Joseph would have given her a written release from the betrothal without mentioning the reason for the separation.
The angel tells Joseph “fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife:” here “fear” means don’t doubt or hesitate or don’t come up against God by thinking that Mary is an adulteress. “Take her unto thee” which again does not mean to take her in the marital sense, but to take her into his home with the sole purpose of protecting her. The angel then tells Joseph that Mary shall bring forth a son and that he is to name the child Jesus. He doesn’t say that she shall bring forth a son for you, because Joseph is not the father, but by taking Mary into his home, he has according to the law the rights of a father. Therefore the angel, acknowledging this right, tells him to call his name Jesus. According to Jewish Tradition the father is the only one who chooses the name of the newborn child. By giving Joseph the lawful rights of a father, the angel is also telling him not to think that just because the child is not his that he has not the duty to comply with the divine economy and raise the child as if it were his own.
Another passage in the Nativity story that people find hard to understand is the prophecy of Isaiah mentioned by Matthew “Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.” Here again we have a language problem. Matthew wrote his Gospel for the Christians of Jewish descent. Thus he often resorts to the Prophets to show them that in the person of Jesus Christ the Prophesies concerning the Messiah are being fulfilled. Now, if before we were told that the child would be named Jesus, why are we now told that they shall call his name Emmanuel? The name given to the child by God and his parents is indeed Jesus. The “they” in “they shall call his name” does not refer to his parents, but to us the people who will recognize him as Emmanuel, which as St. Matthew tells us means “God with us”. Thus in a language that we understand today Isaiah’s prophecy would read: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and the people shall recognized him as God among us.” Or simply “The child that is to be born will be recognized as God in the flesh.”
Possible the most misunderstood and controversial of all the Nativity passages is the one that says: Joseph “took unto him his wife: And knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name JESUS.” The troublesome words are “until” and “firstborn son” At first glance the passage seems to suggest that after the birth of Jesus, Joseph knew Mary intimately and even had other children with her. But what is it actually saying? “And knew her not” means that even though Joseph took her into his house and was legally recognized as his wife, they continued to live as betrothed and had no sexual contact. The word “until” doesn’t necessarily mean that after the birth they came together. Matthew’s attention is completely devoted to the birth of Jesus and not on whether Mary remained a virgin or not. He is giving us details up to the birth and not after. Probably he was only given information up to the birth and thus he leaves the after for each individual to come to his own conclusion. But in scripture we come across the word “until” many times and in many cases it does not mean a change in the circumstances after its insertion. For example we have the account in Genesis where Noah sent out from the ark a raven. “And he sent forth a raven, and it went forth and returned not “until” the water was dried from the earth.” (Septuagint, Gen. 8:7) The passage seems to be saying that the raven returned when the earth dried up. And indeed the water eventually dried up from the earth, but the raven didn’t return. Another example of the use of “until” is the passage from the Psalms and from the Gospels “The LORD said unto my Lord, Sit thou on my right hand, till I make thine enemies thy footstool?” Are we supposed to interpret this as meaning that Christ is to sit on the right hand of the Father only “until” the submission of his enemies? Will not Christ sit on the right hand even after this and forever and ever? So, as with these examples, the use of the word “until” in the passage “And knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son:” does not necessarily denote a change, but as Joseph did not know Mary in the marital sense before the birth, he did not know her even afterwards. Matthew was concerned with the miraculous birth and not whether after this great event in the history of mankind, the Virgin had other children.
The word firstborn again does not denote that he was the first among other brothers and sisters, but that he is the first and only. In Isaiah its say of God “I the Lord the first” does this mean that there are other Lords besides the One God? No, it means I the one and only God. When the Lord struck down the firstborn of the Egyptians, it says that it also struck Pharaoh’s firstborn. This didn’t mean that Pharaoh had other children; he had only that one child.
Lastly let’s say a few words about Mary the Mother of God. The Mother of God holds a special place in the Orthodox Church. She is exalted above all the saints and the heavenly angels and praised with hymns like: ‘More honourable than the cherubim and past compare more glorious than the seraphim, who inviolate didst bear God the Word; Very Mother of God thee we magnify’. In all the Church services, she is called by her full title: Our Most Holy and undefiled, most blessed and glorious Lady, Mother of God and Ever-Virgin Mary. The Church constantly reminds us of her unique relationship with the Son of God, who didst deign to be incarnate, taking of her flesh, thus becoming the Son of the Virgin. The high degree of veneration should not be misunderstood in thinking that the Church regards her as a substitute for Christ, who is our only Saviour. The devotion given to the Mother of God has its root in her unique position amongst men. The more we glorify the Mother of God, the more we glorify the Son of God, for it is because of the Son that we glorify the mother. Her holiness is seen in that she contained in her womb, the divine glory of the Son of God and became a ladder reaching up to heaven, thus uniting heaven and earth, the uncreated with the created. Her womb became the throne of God and the temple of the Godhead. It became more spacious and wider than the heavens, for whereas the great expanse of the heavens cannot contain the Lord; yet he was contained by the Virgin’s womb. She is as we say in Greek “Η Platytera ton Ouranon” “She who is wider than the heavens.”

It was through the Mother of God that the incarnation became possible. God became a man voluntarily to save mankind, but to do this, He needed the free consent of His mother; thus the incarnation was the work of the will of God and the free will of man, a synergy [cooperation] of two wills: God’s and the Virgin’s. Without the one or the other, the salvation of man could not become possible and we would still live in the shadow of death. The Mother of God became the doorway to heaven, which had been shut through the sin of Adam.
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. “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word” (Luke 1: 38) she said to the Angel Gabriel.

In Mary we see a person who had all the virtues we are striving to attain. She had humility, chastity, prudence, obedience, faith and trust in God, heroic unselfishness and love for mankind. For us Mary is not only the Mother of Jesus Christ, but a mother to each of us. She is the archetype of what a Christian should be. Whatever praise we give her it would never be enough to thank her for what she did for us. Let us not think for a moment that just any woman could have taken her place, if that was the case then God could have selected any woman after the fall for the purpose of his incarnation: he needn’t have waited more than 5000 years. Of course Mary was born from a line of ancestors who were prepared by God for this purpose, but only Mary was the right person because she was the only person who managed to live without sin, choosing from her birth to be guided by the Holy Spirit. It was her purity in both body and soul that made her the perfect receptacle to receive the Creator and Saviour of the world. If God was so selective in whom he considered worthy of such an honour then this is telling us that we also must be pure to receive him inside us.
We have seen then what each person in the Christmas story represents and how they identify with ourselves. They teach us that we should strive to be like them, to acquire their virtues because it is these good qualities that make us worthy and receptive vessels for Christ to be born in our hearts. As we saw with the shepherds and the Wise men it doesn’t matter what our standing in life is, God does not regard either earthly riches or earthly knowledge, but only that we break down the barriers that keep us from being with him by leading a virtuous life. Christmas then is not just the celebration of the birth of Jesus, the Nativity story with its main characters teach and guide us like the star of Bethlehem the way that leads to God. The Nativity story means change because it is not a festival of creation but a festival of re-creation. It teaches us that we must change; we must be re-born into Christ. The sole purpose of the incarnation was to renew life, to transfigure the fallen state of creation to the state that it will receive in the new age. This is the true meaning of Christmas and if we were asked to define Christmas with just one word it would be Salvation because everything God does that concerns us and the whole world is for the salvation of mankind.