Kontakion for the Nativity
Today the Virgin giveth birth to Him Who is transcendent in essence, and the earth offereth a cave to the unapproachable. Angels with shepherds give glory; with a star the Magi do journey; for our sake a young Child is born, Who is pre-eternal God. (Prayer Book, Holy Trinity Monastery, Jordanville, N. Y. p. 160)
In speaking or writing about the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ in the flesh there are several points upon which the Gospel together with commentators and the hymnology of the Church has focused. They are the humility of Christ, the result of the incarnation which is the deification of man, and then the virgin birth. The first two have especially been given particular attention
But of the actual event itself, that moment of Christ’s birth, is almost completely passed over. The Gospels themselves say very little about it. St. Matthew says nothing. He speaks of events leading up to the Nativity and what followed, while he says nothing of the Nativity itself. It appears that his prime purpose is to confirm that Jesus is the Christ, the Savior of the world; St. Matthew declares Him as the One Who was foretold by the prophets, and he establishes the virgin birth.
St. Mark begins his gospel by proclaiming Jesus to be the Son of God, then immediately goes on to speak of St. John the Baptist and Forerunner of our Lord, and so he completely passes over this event. St. Luke is the only evangelist who directly says something about the Nativity, in one sentence he says: “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”. (Luke 2:7) He rather concentrates of the humility of Christ, Who in His life according to the flesh willingly subjected Himself to the Law and His parents. And he speaks of the revelations of the Christ in the prophecies contemporary to this time, that is, the prophecies of Saints Zachariah and Symeon the God-receiver.
Finally, St. John the Theologian, writes of the consequence of the incarnation which is the deification of man. For “The Word made flesh and dwelt among us and we beheld his glory, glory as of the only-begotten of the Father” (John 1:18), and, “As many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:12-13) It is also this gift of deification that is spoken of by the Holy Apostle Peter when he writes that we are: “partakers of the divine nature”. (IIPeter 1:4)
But here we shall relate the events surrounding the actual Nativity itself. In attempting this we shall combine with the Gospels the other historical information found in the early Christian literature which modern scholars have termed as The Protevangelium of James and The Gospel of Psuedo-Matthew.
The Evening of the Nativity
And so, the decree of Caesar Augustus was sent out for the enrollment of his subjects. Thus it was that Joseph and Mary journeyed to Bethlehem. Although by the purpose of man this was for the enrollment, yet by the providence of God it was for the birth of the Christ, our God. But what happened on that night that Christ was born?
According to the Protevagelium of St. James when they neared Bethlehem Joseph saw Mary sorrowful and then he saw her laughing. When he questioned her about this she said, “I see two peoples with my eyes; the one weeping and lamenting, and the other rejoicing and exulting.” (The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 8, W.M. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, p. 365) Shortly afterwards, Mary asked to be taken down from the donkey she rode for she was soon to give birth and he found a cave and leaving her there went to look for a midwife.
In the Gospel called “Pseudo-Matthew” after the above words spoken by Mary it is said that Joseph gave her a slight reprimand saying:
Sit still on thy beast, and do not speak superfluous words. Then there appeared before them a beautiful boy, clothed in white raiment, who said to Joseph: Why dost thou say that these words which Mary spoke about the two peoples were superfluous? For she saw the peoples of the Jews weeping, because they have departed from their God; and the people of the Gentiles rejoicing, because they have now been added and made near to the Lord, according to that which he promised to our fathers were the Jews who forsook God and the Gentiles who received salvation according to the promise of God to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob: for the time is at hand when in the seed of Abraham all nations shall be blessed. (Ibid. p. 374)
In continuing, Pseudo-Matthew speaks of the above mentioned young boy. But now he is called an angel who commands the animal to stop and Mary to go into a cave. It was a cave where the light of the sun had never reached but from the moment that Mary entered it shone as bright as if it were midday.
And in going to look for the midwives Joseph testifies that there was an unusual, awesome stillness:
And I Joseph was walking, and was not walking; and I looked up into the sky, and saw the sky astonished; and I looked up to the pole of the heavens, and saw it standing, and the birds of the air keeping still. And I looked down upon the earth, and saw a trough lying, and work-people reclining: and their hands were in the trough. And those that were eating did not eat, and those that were rising did not carry it up, and those that were conveying anything to their mouths did not convey it; but the faces of all were looking upwards. And I saw the sheep walking, and the sheep stood still; and the shepherd raised his hand to strike them, and his hand remained up. And I looked upon the current of the river, and I saw the mouths of the kids resting on the water and not drinking, and all things in a moment were driven from their course. (Ibid. p. 374)
As he returned to the place of the cave with the midwives a luminous cloud was seen overshadowing the cave. As the cloud disappeared a great light shone in the cave. Joseph entered and found Mary with the Divine Infant to Whom she had given birth. Joseph the Betrothed then said to our Lady the Birth-Giver of God:
I have brought thee two midwives—Zelomi and Salome; and they are standing outside before the entrance of the cave, not daring to come in hither, because of the exceeding brightness. And when the blessed Mary heard this, she smiled; and Joseph said to her: Do not smile; but prudently allow them to visit thee in case thou shouldest require from them for thy cure. Then she ordered them to enter. (Ibid.p. 374)
Mary allowed one of them, Zelomi, to examine her. And Zelomi cried out:
Lord, Lord Almighty have mercy on us! It has never been heard or thought of, that anyone should have her breasts full of milk, and that the birth of a son should show his mother to be a virgin. But there has been no spilling of blood in his birth, no pain in bringing him forth. A virgin has conceived, a virgin has brought forth, and a virgin she remains. (Ibid. p. 374-5)
As St. Luke continues to relate in his Gospel that evening
There were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, 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. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us. And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. (2:8-16)
Moreover, a great star, larger than any that had been seen since the beginning of the world, shone over the cave from the evening till the morning. And the prophets who were in Jerusalem said that this star pointed out the birth of Christ, who should restore the promise not only to Israel, but to all nations. (The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 8, p. 375)
So we conclude, as we began, with the kontakion for the feast of the Nativity:
Today the Virgin giveth birth to Him Who is transcendent in essence, and the earth offereth a cave to the unapproachable. Angels with shepherds give glory; with a star the Magi do journey; for our sake a young Child is born, Who is pre-eternal God.