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On the Birth of Christ - Commentary on the Nativity Gospels


by Archbishop Averky

    Only two of the Evangelists tell us about the birth of Christ and the events surrounding it: St. Matthew and St. Luke. St. Matthew informs us concerning the revelation of the mystery of the Incarnation to the righteous Joseph, the adoration of the wise men, the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt and the slaughter of the Bethlehem infants. St. Luke describes in greater detail the circumstances in which Christ the Saviour was born in Bethlehem and the adoration of the shepherds.

The Revelation of the Mystery of the Incarnation to the Righteous Joseph (Matt. 1:18-25)

 St. Matthew relates that soon after the betrothal of the Most Holy Virgin Mary to the aged Joseph, "before they came together," that is, before the final conclusion of an actual marriage between them, it became clear to Joseph that Mary was found to be with child. Being a righteous man, that is on the one hand just and on the other merciful, Joseph did not wish to reveal before everyone her supposed sin, so as not to subject her to the shameful and cruel death accorded by the law of Moses (Deut. 22:23-2&). Instead, he decided to secretly release her from the betrothal without making known the reason for it. While he was thinking about this, an angel of the Lord appeared t o him and explained that He Who was to be born was "of the Holy Spirit," and not the fruit of sin, as he mistakenly assumed. "And she shall bring forth a Son," continued the angel, "and thou shalt call His name JESUS: for He shall save His people from their sins."

       In Hebrew the name "Jesus" is "Yeshua" and means "Saviour", In order that Joseph not doubt the veracity of his words, the angel quoted the ancient prophecy of Isaiah which testifies that this great miracle or a seedless conception and the birth from a virgin of the Saviour of the world, was foreordained in the pre-eternal counsel of God: "A virgin shall conceive, and bear a son" (Is. 7:l4). This is not to say that the prophecy was not fulfilled if the prophet said that "He shall be called Emmanuel," and He Who was born of the Virgin was called Jesus. The name "Emmanuel" is not a proper name, but only symbolic. "Emmanuel" means "God is with us." Thus, when this miraculous birth of the Child from the Virgin took place, the people would say: "God is with us," for in Him God came down to earth and began to live among men. This was merely a prophetic indication of Christ's divinity, an indication that this miraculously conceived Infant would be not an ordinary man, but God. Convinced by the angel's words, Joseph "took unto him his wife," that is, he renounced his intention to put her away from himself and left her to live in his home as a wife.

     "And knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son." "Till", "until,"-this does not mean that after the birth of Jesus he "knew" her and began to live with her as a wife. St. John Chrysostom rightly observes that it is incorrect to assume that such a righteous man as Joseph would decide to "know'' the holy Virgin after she had so miraculously become a mother, In this case the word "till." can in no way be understood in the same way as it is interpreted by Protestants and other sectarians-who have no veneration for the Mother of God. These latter choose to believe that until the birth of Christ, Joseph did not know the Holy Virgin, but afterwards he did know her. St. John Chrysostom states on the contrary, that Joseph never knew her. In the Holy Scripture this word is used for example, in the verse concerning the end of the Flood: a raven "went forth to and fro, till the waters were dried up from off t h e earth" (Gen. 8:6), but ever afterwards it did not return. Or, for example, the words of the Lord: "Lo, I am with you always, even till the end of the world" (Matt. 28:20); this, of course, does not mean, as the Blessed Theophilactus rightly observes, that after the end of the world Christ will no longer be with us.     No! then all the more will He be with us.

    Here Christ is called the "firstborn" likewise not because after Him the Holy Virgin had more children, but only because He was the first to be born and also the only one.

In the Old Testament God commands that every first-born male child is to be dedicated to Him, regardless of whether or not there shall be other children. If in the Gospel there is made mention of "the brothers of Jesus Christ" (Matt. 12:46; John 2:12; and others), this in no way means that He had brothers after the flesh. Tradition testifies that most likely these were the children of Joseph-the-Betrothed, from his first marriage.

 

The Time and Circumstances Surrounding the Birth of Christ (Luke 2:1-20) 

The holy Evangelist Luke gives the most detailed account concerning the events associated with the Birth of Christ and the time that it took place. He refers the Birth of Christ to the census of all the inhabitants of the Roman Empire. This census was conducted according to a decree of "Caesar Augustus,'' that is, the Roman Emberor Octavian upon whom the Roman senate had conferred the title "Augustus,,' ("sacred,'). Unfortunately, the exact date of this census has not been preserved, but the time of the reign of Octavian Augustus, a well-known historical figure, gives us the possibility, at least to approximate, and with the help of other facts mentioned below, to calculate within a few years the year of Christ's birth.

    It is customary we reckon dates "from the birth of Christ," a practice begun in the sixth century by the Roman monk Dionysius, called "the Lesser,', who based his calculation on the supposition that the Lord Jesus Christ was born in the 754th year after the founding of Rome. This calculation, as was later shown by careful investigation, proved to be erroneous; Dionysius miscalculated by at least five years, indicating the year of Christ's birth later, than it was in actuality. This Dionysian era, at first assigned for use by the Church, from the 10th century became widespread in Christian countries and accepted in civil dating systems, even though all chronologers today regard it as incorrect. The actual year of Christ' s birth may be calculated more accurately on the basis of the following facts given in the Gospels:

1)      The time of the reign of Herod the Great. From Matthew 2:1-18 and Luke 1:5, it is perfectly clear that Christ was born during the reign of this Herod. Herod ruled from 714 until 750 (years from the founding of Rome). He died in 750, eight days before the Passover, soon after a lunar eclipse. But because, according to the calculation of astronomers, this eclipse occurred the night of the 13th-14thof March, 750, and the Jewish Passover that year fell on the 12th of April, it follows that Herod died in the beginning of April, 750 years from the foundation of Rome, that is, at least A years earlier than our era.

2)      The national census, recorded in Luke 2:1-5, begun by an edicts of Augustus in 716, was begun for the Jews in the last years of Herod's reign. It was suspended upon Herod's death, then continued and was completed when Syria was ruled by : Cyrenius, a s recorded in Luke 2:2. The result of this census in Palestine was a popular uprising. Herod condemned its instigator to be burned March 12,750. It is evident that this census must have begun shortly before this time.

3)      The reign of Tiberius Caesar, in the 15th year of which, according to the testimony of the Evangelist Luke (3:1), St. John the Baptist began to preach and the Lord Jesus Christ was 30 years old (Luke 3:23). Two years prior to his death in January, 765, Augustus accepted Tiberius as a co-ruler. It follows that the 15th year of Tiberius' reign began in January, 779. According to the Evangelist Luke, the Lord Jesus was at that time "thirty years of age;" consequently, He was born in 749.

4)      Astronomical calculations show that the year of Christ's death on the Cross (which occurred according to the Gospel, in that year when the Jewish Passover began in the evening on Friday) could only have been in 783. At this time the Lord Jesus Christ was in His 34th year from birth; it therefore follows that He was born in the year 749 from the foundation of Rome...

 

     Due to insufficiency of facts in the four Evangelists, one cannot determine precisely the day of Christ's Birth. The Eastern Church first celebrated this feast on the same day as Theophany under the general name, "Epiphany"--"The Appearance of God in the world"--on the 6th of January. In the Western Church from ancient times Christ's Nativity was celebrated on December 25. From the end of the 4th century the Eastern Church also began to Celebrate this feast on December 25. This day was chosen for the celebration of Christ' s Nativity for the following reasons:

     It has been surmised that Zacharlas was a high priest and that at the time the angel appeared to him, he was behind the curtain in the Holy of Holies where the high priest entered only once a year, on the day of purification. According to our calendar, this day falls on September 23, considered to be the day of the conception of the Forerunner. In the sixth month after this was the Annunciation to the Most Holy Virgin Mary, which began to be celebrated on the 25th day of March. And in nine months' time, that is, on December 25, the Lord Jesus Christ was born.

      There are, however, no facts proving that Zacharias was a high priest. For this reason, it is more probable that the choice of day for celebrating the Birth of Christ had another, symbolic explanation. The ancients considered that Christ, like the second Adam, was conceived of the Holy Virgin at the time of the spring equinox, March 25, when, according to ancient tradition, the first Adam was also created. Christ was born--the Light of the world, the Sun of Righteousness nine months later, at the time of the winter solstice, when the day begins to lengthen and the night to shorten. By contrast, the conception of St. John the Baptist who was six months older than our Lord, is rightfully celebrated on September 23, at the time of the autumnal equinox, when the days begin to grow shorter. In this regard St. Athanasius points to the words of St. John the Baptist (John 3: 30): "He must increase, but I must decrease."

     "All" had to go and register, "every one into his own city." Roman politics always conformed to the customs of its subjects, and Jewish custom required that taxation be conducted by lineage, by family and tribe, for which reason everyone had to go to that town where there had lived the head of this lineage. Because Joseph was of the house of King David, he had to go to Bethlehem--the town of David's birth. Herein is seen God's wondrous providence: according to what was foretold by the prophet Micah(5:2), the Messiah was to be born in this town. Roman law required in subjugated countries, that women as well as men be subject to a head tax. In any case, it is not surprising that the Most Holy Virgin Mary in her condition accompanied the guardian of her virginity, the elderly Joseph, ail the more so since she, knowing undoubtedly the prophecy of the holy Micah, could not help but see in the decree of taxation the action of God's Providence directing her to Bethlehem.

     "And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn." The Evangelist emphasized the fact that the Holy Virgin herself swaddled her newborn Infant; this is to say, the birth was painless.

    Due to the great number of travelers who had arrived earlier, and due to their poverty, the Holy Family was obliged to take lodging in a cave or grotto. Palestine had an abundance of such caves into which shepherds often herded their flocks in foul weather. Here also was born the divine Messiah, placed into a manger instead of a cradle, from His very birth taking upon Himself the cross of abasement and suffering for the redemption of mankind; thus, by His very birth giving us a lesson of humility, this highest of virtues which later He constantly taught to His followers. According to ancient tradition, at the time of the Saviour's birth, there stood by the manger an ox and a donkey, showing that "the ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master's crib; but Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider" (Is. 1:3).

    But it was not abasement alone that accompanied the birth and the entire earthly

life of the Saviour, but also the reflection Of His divine glory. There were shepherds-perhaps those to whom the cave' belonged-who, thanks to the good weather, were spending the night in the fields. An angel of the Lord, shining with Divine glory, appeared and announced to them the "great joy" of the birth in the city of David of the Saviour" Who is Christ the Lord." Here it is important to note the angel's words, that this "great joy" was to be for "all people," that is, that the Messiah came not for the Jews alone, but for swaddling clothes, lying in a manger." And immediately, as though in confirmation of the angel's words, there appeared "a multitude of the heavenly host, that is, a hundredfold of angels, singing divine praise to the newly born God-Child--the Messiah :"Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men!"

    The "peace" brought to earth by the incarnate Son of God, must not be confused with an ordinary external human tranquility and well-being; this is the peace of conscience in the heart of a sinner, redeemed by Christ the Saviour; the peace of a conscience reconciled with God, with people, and with itself.

    And in what measure this peace of God, which is above all understanding (Phil. &:7), dwells in the hearts of those who believe in Christ, so will the outer world become the inheritance of human life. The redemption manifested the full measure of greatness of God's good will, God's love towards men. For this reason the meaning of the angels' hymn is the following: "Worthily do the heavenly spirits praise God. for peace and salvation dwells upon earth, for mankind has been vouchsafed the special favor of God,"

    The shepherds, being evidently righteous, immediately hastened to the place indicated by the angel. They were the first worthy to worship the newborn Infant-Christ. Wherever they went, they told of the joyous appearance of the angel and of the heavenly doxology, and all who heard them were amazed. The Most Holy Virgin Mary, with a feeling of deep humility, remembered all this, "and kept all these things in her heart."

 

(translated from Archbishop Averky's Handbook to the Study of the Sacred Writings of the New Testament, Jordanville, 1974)


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