Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Nativity of Christ

Preceding the Nativity of Jesus Christ, there was a general expectation of the Saviour. The Jews expected His coming on the basis of prophecies, and all the prophecies relating to the coming of the Son of God had been fulfilled. For example, the Patriarch Jacob had foretold that the Saviour would come when the scepter would depart from Judah (Gen 49:10). The prophet Daniel had foretold that the Kingdom of the Messiah would begin at the seventieth week (490 years) after the issuance of a command concerning the restoration of Jerusalem, during the era of a powerful pagan kingdom, which would be as strong as iron (Dan 9:24-27). And, indeed, at the end of Daniel's seventy weeks, Judæa fell under the dominion of the mighty Roman Empire, while the scepter passed from Judah to Herod, an Idumæan by birth.

The pagans also, in misery from unbelief and a general dissipation of morals, expected a Deliverer with impatience. Men, having fallen away from God, began to deify earthly good things, wealth and worldly glory. The Son of God rejected these worthless idols as the fruit of sin and human passions and was pleased to come into the world under the most modest conditions.

Two Evangelists describe the events of the Nativity: Apostles Matthew (of the twelve) and Luke (of the seventy disciples). Since the Evangelist Matthew wrote his Gospel for the Hebrews, he set himself the aim of proving that the Messiah descended from the forefathers Abraham and King David, as had been foretold by the prophets. Therefore, the Evangelist Matthew begins his narrative of the Nativity of Christ with a genealogy (Matt. 1:1-17).

Knowing that Jesus was not the son of Joseph, the Evangelist does not say that Joseph begat Jesus, but says that Jacob begat Joseph, the husband of Mary, from whom was born Jesus, Who is called Christ. But why, then, does he adduce Joseph's genealogy and not Mary's? The Hebrews did not have the custom of reckoning genealogies according to the female line, but their Law commanded a man to take a wife without fail from the tribe to which he belonged. Therefore, the Evangelist, not deviating from custom, adduces Joseph's genealogy, to show that Mary, Joseph's wife, and consequently also Jesus, descend from the same tribe of Judah and clan of David.

The most holy Virgin, informed by the Archangel Gabriel that she had been chosen to become the mother of the Messiah, set out for a meeting with Elizabeth, being only the espoused bride of Joseph. Almost three months had already passed since the good tidings of the angel. Joseph, who had not been initiated into this mystery, noticed her condition; her outward appearance gave him cause to consider unfaithfulness. He could have publicly denounced her and subjected her to the severe punishment established by the Law of Moses, but, in accordance with his goodness, he did not want to resort to such a drastic measure. After long vacillations, he decided to put his bride away secretly, without making any publicity, having delivered to her a bill of divorcement.

But an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and declared that the bride espoused to him would give birth from the Holy Spirit; therefore he advised Joseph, 'fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife.' And he was further instructed to name the Son born of her Jesus (Ieshua), that is, Saviour, since He would save His people from their sins. Joseph recognized this dream as inspiration from on high and obeyed it, taking Mary as his wife, but knew her not, that is, he lived with her not as a husband with a wife, but as a brother with a sister (or, judging from the enormous difference in years, rather as a father with a daughter). In narrating this, the Evangelist adds for himself: Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel (Isaiah 7:14). The name "Emmanuel" means "God with us." Here, Isaiah is not calling the One born of the Virgin Emmanuel: he is saying that men will call him such. Thus, this is not the proper name of the One born of the Virgin, but only a prophetic indication that God will be in His person.

The holy Evangelist Luke notes that the time of the Nativity of Christ coincided with a census of the inhabitants of the Roman Empire. This census was carried out in accordance with the command of Cæsar Augustus, that is, the Roman emperor Octavian, who had received the title Augustus ("sacred") from the Roman Senate. The edict on the census came out in the 746th year from the founding of Rome, but in Judæa the census began approximately in the 750th year, during the final years of the reign of Herod, who was surnamed the Great.

The Hebrews reckoned their genealogies according to tribes and clans. This custom was so strong that, having learned of the command of Augustus, they went to be registered each to the town of his clan. Joseph and the Virgin Mary descended, as is well known, from the clan of David. Therefore, they went to set out for Bethlehem, called the city of David because David was born there. Thus, by God's Providence, the ancient prophesy of the Prophet Micah was fulfilled, that Christ would be born precisely in Bethlehem: But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall come forth unto me that is to be a ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting (Micah 5:2, Matt. 2:6).

According to Roman laws, women were subject to the universal census equally with men. Therefore, Joseph went to Bethlehem not alone, but with the Most Holy Virgin. An unexpected journey to his native Bethlehem, a journey so close to the delivery of the Infant, must have convinced Joseph that Cæsar's decree was providential, directing events for the Son of Mary to be born precisely where the Messiah-Saviour ought to be born.

After an exhausting journey, the elderly Joseph and the Virgin Mary arrived in Bethlehem. There was no room in the inn for the mother of the Saviour of the world, and she, with her companion, was forced to lodge in a cave, where livestock were driven from pasture during bad weather. Here, during a winter night, under the most wretched conditions, the Saviour of the world - Christ - was born.

Having borne a Son, the Most Holy Virgin herself swaddled Him and laid Him in a manger. In these brief words, the Evangelist informs us that the Mother of God gave birth painlessly. The Evangelist's expression, brought forth her firstborn son, causes unbelievers to say that, after Jesus the first-born, the Most Holy Virgin had other children, since the Evangelists mention the "brethren" of Christ (Simon, Joses, Judas and James). However, according to the Law of Moses (Ex. 13:2), every infant of the male sex that openeth the womb was called the first-born, even if he were the last. The so-called "brethren" of Jesus in the Gospels are not His own brothers, but only relatives, the children of the aged Joseph by his first wife, Salome, and also the children of Mary the wife of Cleophas (whom the Evangelist John calls his mother's sister). In any case, they all were much older than Christ and therefore could not in any way be the children of the Virgin Mary.

Jesus Christ was born at night, when everyone in Bethlehem and its environs was sleeping. Only the shepherds, who were watching over the flock entrusted to them, were not sleeping. Unto these modest men, who labored and were heavy laden, an angel appeared with the joyous tidings of the birth of the Saviour of the world. The resplendent light surrounding the angel amidst the nocturnal darkness frightened the shepherds. But the angel at once calmed them, saying: 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. By these words, the angel gave them to understand the true purpose of the Messiah, Who had come not for the Jews alone, but for all people, for joy would be to all people who would accept Him as the Saviour. The angel explained to the shepherds that they would find Christ, the Lord Who had been born, in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

Why did an angel not announce the birth of Christ to the Jewish elders, to the scribes and the Pharisees, calling them also to worship the Divine Infant? Because these blind leaders of the blind had ceased to understand the true meaning of the prophecies concerning the Messiah and, on account of their exclusiveness and haughtiness, they imagined that the Deliverer would appear in the full splendor of a majestic conqueror-king, to subjugate the whole world. The modest preacher of peace and love toward one's enemies was unacceptable to them.

The shepherds did not doubt that the angel had been sent to them from God, and therefore they were counted worthy to hear the triumphant heavenly hymn: Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will among men. The angels glorify God, Who had sent the Saviour to men, for from that time, the peace of the conscience has been restored and the enmity between heaven and earth, which arose as a consequence of sin, has been eliminated.

The angels withdrew, while the shepherds hastily set out for Bethlehem; they found the Infant lying in a manger and were the first to worship Him. They told Mary and Joseph about the event that had brought them to the cradle of Christ; they told the same to others also, and all that heard their story were astonished. But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart, i.e., she remembered all that she had heard. The Evangelist Luke, who describes many events in the life of the Virgin, such as the Annunciation and the details of the birth of Christ (Luke, Ch. 2), evidently wrote from her words. On the eighth day after his birth, the Infant was circumscribed as prescribed by the Law of Moses.
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