Orthodox America

When Heaven Came to Earth - Some Thoughts on the Feast of Christ's Nativity  

by Archpriest Valery Lukianov

In the yearly cycle of Great Feasts in the Orthodox Church, there is unfolded the sacred history of the Christian faith. Each soul-saving event is celebrated on a certain day in the Church calendar. Within this yearly cycle, these events are also commemorated in the daily and weekly services. Thus, the joyous tidings of the Saviour’s birth, which we recently heard so beautifully expressed in the hymns of the Nativity feast, are echoed throughout the year, edifying and inspiring the attentive worshipper.

      "All the services of the Orthodox Church are so ordered that a true Christian might lead a heavenly, holy life even on earth, in constant service and pleasing of God, in union with God, in company with His angels and all the saints. Tile Divine services are a blessed fount from which the heavenly Grace abundantly pours forth its gifts upon ali those who serve the Lord in fullness of heart--gifts of mercy, peace, consolation, purification, sanctification, enlightenment, healing, renewal, and--what is most precious--the gift of worship, in Divine Liturgy and Holy Communion'' (St. John of Kronstadt, "Thoughts on the Divine Liturgy").

       The Orthodox services indeed contain a treasury of profound truths and sacred prefigurations; they are our richest source of spiritual instruction. This treasure is most clearly manifest in the feast day services, when Orthodox Christians are offered the possibility of receiving great spiritual benefit, for here are joined the sacredness of an event from the past together with its spiritually edifying significance for us in the present. The Divine Liturgy on the feast of Christ's Nativity, and the Vigil service preceding it, each present the Orthodox Christian with a wondrous prefiguration of that sacred occurrence.

      While on the eve of Sundays the vigil service triumphantly announces Christ' s holy Resurrection, on the eve of a feast it foretells the soul-saving event in the life of our Lord Jesus Christ or. His Most Holy Mother, . portraying in its hymns the greatness and sacredness of the event. The vigil's triumphant proclamation is prefaced by the reading  of the Six Psalms, a most compunctionate and prayerful part of the service. These psalms penetrate the very depths of the sinful human soul, awakening in it feelings of contrition. At the same time, they bring to mind Christ's sojourn on earth when He taught the need for repentance in the work of our salvation; He also consoled the sorrowing soul, bestowing upon it the Word of God, peace, and enlightenment in the Mysteries of the Holy Church. For this reason these six psalms are preceded by the thrice-repeated hymn which the angels sang when they appeared to the shepherds:

The Church typicon testifies to the unique importance of the meaning of the Six Psalms, prescribing them to be read "with full attention and fear of God, for they are an invisible converse with God Himself and offer a prayer for our sins."

    A corresponding atmosphere in the church helps to transport our thoughts to the solemn stillness of that Bethlehem night on which Christ was born. On Mt. Athos, at the beginning of the reading of the Six Psalms, all the candles are extinguished, leaving only the tiny flames of the vigil lamps flickering like stars; the monks stand in utmost reverence listening to the reading. The complete silence is an image of that night when the Old Testament people, still under the law, were illumined with the light of Christ's grace. The superior of the monastery himself reads the Six Psalms, or the archbishop if he is present, or even the patriarch.[1]

    We are thereby movingly led to anticipate the most triumphant part of the All-night Vigil, when is proclaimed the great news of Christ's Resurrection, or the glad tidings of the forthcoming feast.

    In a similarly moving way we are prepared for the most important service--the Divine Liturgy, in which the Bloodless Sacrifice is offered up in the Mystery of Christ's Eucharist. This Mystery of mysteries, which is beyond all comprehension--even that of the angels, the Lord's Supper, is anticipated in the preparation of the gifts to be offered--the proskomedia.

    In preparing the Lamb and the particles in honor of the Most Holy Theotokos and the saints, and in the commemoration of the living and the dead, the priest is entirely transported in his thoughts to that moment when Christ was born, thus uniting past and present; the priest looks upon the Table of Oblation as upon the blessed cave in which heaven came to earth, when heaven became a cave and a cave became heaven.

    Placing the star on the diskos, the priest looks at it as upon the star shining down upon the Divine Infant in Bethlehem; he looks at the bread as upon the newborn Infant Christ; i the diskos represents the crib in which was laid the "Young Child"; the veils symbolize His swaddling clothes. The priest reverently bows down before the holy bread just as the shepherds and magi bowed before the newborn God-Child, and he censes before the cave--the table of oblation, the sweet smell of the incense a reminder of the frankincense and myrrh which the magi brought together with gold.

     Orthodox Christians who pray in church during Liturgy on the great and joyful feast of Christ's Nativity, are likewise transported to far-away Bethlehem, to that holy night which, even after almost two thousand years, is kept in remembrance by the praying heart.

     What do we first hear in the glad tidings of this great Feast? the voice of the angel saying, "Fear not, for I bring you tidings of great joy which shall be for all people" (Luke 2:10). And then we contemplate that wondrous union of heaven and earth in the appearance of the multitude of heavenly host, the angels glorifying God in the jubilant Nativity hymn, "Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will among men"

     Further we see how the King of heaven and earth, the Creator and Master of the world, reveals to us meekness--in the extreme poverty of His earthly estate; humility --in the lowliness of the cave; and peace and love--in the quiet radiance that shines forth from Him. Indeed, here is that "Gentle Light," that "holy glory"...

     The Nativity of Christ--is this not the wondrous threshold of the earthly ministry of our Saviour? Is it not the first step in His ascent of Golgotha to take upon Himself the frightful sufferings on the Cross for the redemption of the sins of mankind?

     Is this not the first intimation of the forthcoming, glorious Resurrection from the dead? The Nativity of Christ is the beginning of victory over spiritual death, for through the Saviour's advent upon earth, there are prepared heavenly mansions for all men of "good wilt".

    And thus, O Lord, vouchsafe us to learn from the example of Thy good deeds, which .enrich our souls far more than any human wisdom or earthly prosperity.

    Grant us, O Lord, to nourish within ourselves even a particle of Thine unwaning light, that we might share this grace-filled light with our close ones.

    Glory to Thee, O Lord, our Creator and Protector, Who appears now in the form of a servant, that as King Thou mightest raise us up to eternal blessedness, "for God descended to earth to raise to Heaven us who cry to Him, Alleluia" (Akathist to Jesus Christ, Kontakion 8).

Archpriest Valery Lukianov

(Translated from Radost’ o Gospode; St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1982) 


[1] * This custom of extinguishing the candles during the reading of the Six Psalms is not unique to Mt. Athos. It is, in fact, a practice which should be kept in all Orthodox churches. The dark church is a reminder that before the coming of Christ, the world lay in darkness. It like wise reminds us that our souls are darkened by sin and are in need of the "Light of Christ [that] illumineth all." It is also a reminder of death, for which reason worshippers stand in absolute silence, arms folded upon the breast, and do not stir even to make bows, until the reader has finished.