During the last week of Advent the “O” Antiphons taken from Old Testament prophecies prepare us for the imminent arrival of the promised Messiah. Emmanuel has come to redeem his people Israel. Now the appointed time has come. We wait no longer for God to be incarnate.
LOVE CAME DOWN AT CHRISTMAS
Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, Love Divine; Love was born at Christmas,
Star and Angels gave the sign.
Worship we the Godhead,
Love Incarnate, Love Divine; Worship we our Jesus:
But wherewith for sacred sign?
Love shall be our token,
Love be yours and love be mine, Love to God and all men,
Love for plea and gift and sign. - C. Rossetti
Sons of men,
do you truly speak of justice?
Dwellers on the earth,
do you truly judge with fairness?
We confess with unshakable faith
that God, who was made man
and who was given birth by a Virgin.
Before all time he was begotten
of an immeasurable Father;
now we adore him who became incarnate in a Virgin's womb.
He is the creator of all,
himself remaining invisible and distinct from creation.
So we are able to say:
in you, Lord, is clemency; glory be to you. O holy God,
you have deigned to be born, a tiny child, from a Virgin.
O God, holy and strong,
you have willed to rest in the arms of Mary.
O God, holy and immortal,
you have come to rescue Adam from hell.
O immaculate Virgin, Mother of God, full of grace,
Emmanuel, whom you have carried,
is the fruit of your womb.
In your maternal bosom you have nourished all men.
You are above all praise and all glory.
Hail, Mother of God, joy of the angels.
The fullness of your grace
goes beyond what the prophets foretold.
The Lord is with you,
you have given birth
to the Saviour of the world.
- fragment from an ancient eucharistic liturgy.
The little town of Bethelehem is the focal point for us as it was for the shepherds and the angels for adoring the Infant Christ. One of those great Cappadocian Fathers, Gregory of Nanzianus gives us much to reflect upon.
Christ is born: let us glorify him. Christ comes down from heaven: let us go out to meet him. Christ descends to earth: let us be raised on high. Let all the world sing to the Lord: let the heavens rejoice and let the earth be glad, for his sake who was f'irst in heaven and then on earth. Christ is here in the flesh: let us exult with fear and joy - with fear, because of our sins; with joy, because of the hope that he brings us.
Once more the darkness is dispersed; once more the light is created. Let the people that sat in the darkness of ignorance now look upon the light of knowledge. The things of old have passed away; behold, all things are made new. He who has no mother in heaven is now born without a father on earth. The laws of nature are overthrown, for the upper world must be filled with citizens. He who is without flesh becomes incarnate; the Word puts on a body; the invisible makes itself seen; the intangible can be touched; the timeless has a beginning; the Son of God becomes the Son of Man, Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today and for ever.
Light from light, the Word of the Father comes to his own image in the human race. For the sake of my flesh he takes flesh; for' the sake of my soul he is united to a rational soul, purifying like by like. In every way he becomes human, except for sin. O strange conjunction! The self-existent comes into being; the uncreated is created. He shares in the poverty of my flesh that I may share in the riches of his Godhead.
This is the solemnity we are celebrating today: the arrival of' God among us, so that we might go to God - or more precisely, return to God. So that stripping off our old humanity we might put on the new; for as in Adam we were dead, so in Christ we become alive: we are born with him, and we rise again with him.
A miracle, not of creation, but of re-creation. For this is the feast of my being made whole, my returning to the condition God designed for me, to the original Adam. So let us revere the nativity which releases us from the chains of evil. Let us honour this tiny Bethlehem which restores us to paradise. Let us reverence this crib because from it we, who were deprived of self-understanding, are fed by the divine understanding, the Word of God himself.
One of the loveliest poets of the Caroline era, Richard Crashaw who had helped John Cosin to beautify Peterhouse College Chapel in Cambgridge in the 1630's expressed his sentiments about Bethelehem in his poem on this subject.
Come, we shepherds, whose blest sight
Hath met Love's noon in nature's night;
Come, lift we up our loftier song,
And wake the sun that lies too long.
Gloomy night embraced the place
Where the noble Infant lay:
The Babe looked up and showed His face;
In spite of darkness, it was day : -
It was Thy Day, Sweet! and did rise
Not from the east, but from Thine eyes.
We saw Thee in Thy balmy nest,
Young dawn of our eternal day;
We saw Thine eyes break from their east,
And chase the trembling shades away;
We saw Thee, (and we bless the sight),
We saw Thee by Thine own sweet light.
Welcome, all wonders in one sight!
Eternity shut in a span!
Summer in winter! Day in night!
Heaven in earth! and God in man
Great Little One, whose all-embracing birth,
Lifts earth to heaven, stoops heaven to earth.
On that holiest of all nights, what were the thoughts of Theotokos? She had been told by the archangel Gabriel, that the son she conceived would be the Son of God? As she wrapped and held him in her arms for that very first time, would she had thought not much different from any other mother holding her first born - overcome with the mystery and wonder of it all? I daresay she would have done what we do as mothers, rock and sing to her child a gentle lullaby and lull him to sleep. Mary no doubt would have experienced all that delight of motherhood, without reflecting on what lay ahead. The Christ-child would have been her world.
From Matins for The Synaxis of the Mother of God, the Orthodox Church echoes this.
The mystic vine bore the untrodden bunch of grapes,
bearing it in her arms like a branch, and said:
You are my fruit, you are my life. From you, my God, I have come to know that I am what I was.
For now that I see my virginity's seal undamaged, I proclaim you to be the immutable Word, become embodied. I knew no seed: but I know you to be corruption's destroyer.
For though you came out of me, I remain pure;
you have left my womb
as you found it.
So all creation with me rejoices, and to me it calls out: Hail, favoured one!
There are twelve days of Christmass but even if we multiplied these by a thousand we would never, never comprehend the depth of this feast of Christmass. What we need to understand is that the event of Christmass changed the condition of mankind and therefore history. So over the cradle always hovered the cross. Cratch and cross are inseparable.
John Austin an early 17thC. poet captures this in this poem.
THE LOVE OF CHRIST
Come, let's adore the King of Love,
And King of Sufferings too;
For Love it was that brought Him down,
And set Him here in woe.
Love drew Him from His Paradise,
Where flowers that fade not grow;
And planted Him in our poor dust,
Among us weeds below.
Here for a time this heavenly Plant
Fairly grew up and thrived;
Diffused its sweetness all about,
And all in sweetness lived.
But envious frosts and furious storms
So long, so fiercely chide;
This tender Flower at last bowed down,
And hung its head and died.
O narrow thoughts, and narrower speech,
Here your defects confess;
The Life of Christ, the Death of God,
How faintly you express!
Help, O thou Blessed Virgin Root,
Whence this fair Flower did spring,
Help us to raise both heart and voice,
And with more spirit sing.
So as we ponder on the birth of Christ at Christmass let us always be conscious that the shadow of the Cross is there. So it is with our lives. We cannot experience the fulness of Christ in our own lives without the Cross. That love of the Cross we must always live out in our lives, day by day, hour by hour, yea, minute by minute.