The Feast of the Nativity according to the flesh of Our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ+
Ceasar Augustus, the first Roman Emperor (30 BC-AD 14), having made all the peoples of the known world subject to his sole authority, decided, in the height of his power, to take a census of the vast population of the Empire, and he thereby became the unwitting instrument of the realization of God’s plan.1 For in bringing together and establishing peace and harmony among the many peoples of the immense Empire, with their diverse customs and languages, he prepared them for the revelation of the One God in three Persons, and thus opened the way for the universal proclamation of the Gospel, in accordance with the divine promise: I shall give thee the nations for thine inheritance (Ps. 2:8). Thus this first census prophetically foretold the enrolment of the elect in the Book of Life (cf. Phil. 4:3; Rev. 21:27).
The imperial decree reached Palestine when Quirinius was Governor of Syria, and occasioned the fulfilment of the prophecy that the Messiah should be born of the lineage of Judah at Bethlehem, the native city of King David (Mic. 5:2). For Joseph, who was then with Mary at Nazareth in Galilee, had to be enrolled at Bethlehem, the town of his forefathers, even though the pregnancy was well advanced of her whom all took to be his wife.
On their arrival they found the place crowded with people from all over the country, who like themselves had come for the census. Unable to find lodging at the inn, they had to shelter for the night outside the town in a cave that was used as a cattle shed. Since Mary felt that the time had come for her to be delivered of her child, Joseph settled her as best he could in the straw, close by the ox and ass which they found there, and he went out in haste to look for a midwife.2 On his way, he noticed that the whole of nature had suddenly become utterly still as though seized with astonishment: the birds hung motionless in mid-air, men and beasts stopped in their tracks, and the waters ceased flowing. The continuous movement that leads everything from birth to death and imprisons it in vanity (cf. Pss. 38: 6-7; 102:15. Eccles. 1) was suspended, for at that moment the Eternal entered within the heart of time. The pre-eternal God became a newborn child. Time and history now took on a new dimension.
The universal hush did not last, and everything appeared to resume its normal course. Joseph found a midwife who was coming down the mountain. He told her, on the way to the cave, of her who was about to give birth. But on reaching the cave they were prevented from entering by a thick cloud which covered it like that on Mount Sinai when God revealed Himself to Moses (Exod. 19:16). The woman fell to the ground and cried out: ‘My soul has been magnified this day, for my eyes have seen a wonder: a Saviour has been born in Israel!’ The cloud lifted and gave place to a dazzling light which, decreasing little by little, allowed them entrance at last. They were in excess of mind to behold the All Holy Lady sitting beside the manger where she had placed the Child which she had wrapped in swaddling clothes. Joseph already knew from the Angel that the Blessed Virgin had conceived the Saviour by the operation of the Holy Spirit, and as he contemplated the little Child lying in the straw, he silently adored the Messiah, awaited and foretold by his fathers for so many generations. Indeed what could be more amazing that this sight, and how could words express it?
The Almighty God and Creator of all things became a lowly, weak creature, a little homeless sojourner, yet without ceasing to be divine and uncircumscribed. The Word of God took upon Himself the heaviness of flesh and, clothing Himself in our humanity, made of it a royal robe. He who is seated in impassibility upon His heavenly throne, attended by myriads of the heavenly host who glorify Him without cease, accepted to be contained in an obscure, narrow cave, rejected and despised by all. He who is of divine nature humbled himself, emptied himself, taking the form of a servant and being born in the likeness of men. (Phil. 2:7). He who cannot be touched accepted to be wrapped in swaddling bands in order to release us from our sins and to cover with divine glory those who were disgraced. God’s only Son, He who is in the bosom of the Father from all eternity, became Son of man and son of the Virgin without ceasing to be God, in order to become the first-born among many brethren (Rom. 8:29), so granting to men the dignity of adoptive sons of God (John 1:12; Luke 6:35; Gal. 4:4-7). He is laid in a crib and gazed upon by the ox and the ass, whereby the prophecies are fulfilled: In the midst of two animals thou shalt be known (Hab 3:2 LXX) and, The ox knows his Creator and the ass his Master’s crib (Is. 1:3 LXX). He who gives food to all flesh by His providence is laid in the manger of these animals without reason, which symbolize the Jews and the Gentiles, in order to heal mankind of its madness, and to reconcile those whom hatred had kept apart (Eph. 2:16) by offering himself for the sustenance of all as the true Bread of Life (John 6:51). Moreover, in this sence, say the holy Fathers, an image of the Church is presented to our contemplation: the crib represents the chalice containing Him who became flesh on this day and gives Himself as food for the life of the world: the Virgin is at once His throne and the altar of sacrifice; the cave, a temple; the Angels, Joseph and the shepherds serve as deacons and acolytes; and the Lord Himself ministers as High Priest in this divine Liturgy.
A countrywoman called Salome who chanced to pass that way learned from the midwife of the wonder that had taken place, but she did not show the same faith. She thought it past belief that a virgin should give birth and, not only that, but remain a virgin after bringing forth her child. With an incredulity rather like that of the Apostle Thomas (John 20:25), she dared to extend a shameless hand to the body of the All Holy Lady. Her hand was immediately struck as if with palsy and she cried out: “Woe is me for my impiety and unbelief! I have provoked the living God! Look, my hand has been shrivelled up as though by fire and is dropping off!’ Falling to her knees, she implored the Lord to take pity on her, at which an Angel appeared and allowed her to take the Divine Infant in her arms. With sincere faith full of the fear of God, she exclaimed: ‘I bow down before Him, for a great King has been born in Israel!’ She was healed immediately, but the Angel counselled her to keep all these wonders to herself until the Lord should make Himself known in Israel.