Commemorated on December 25
Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world, was born of the Most
Holy Virgin Mary in the city of Bethlehem during the reign of the
emperor Augustus (Octavian). Caesar Augustus decreed that a universal
census be made throughout his Empire, which then also included
Palestinian Israel. The Jews were accustomed to be counted in the city
from where their family came. The Most Holy Virgin and the Righteous
Joseph, since they were descended from the house and lineage of King
David, had to go to Bethlehem to be counted and taxed.
Bethlehem they found no room at any of the city’s inns. Thus, the
God-Man, the Savior of the world, was born in a cave that was used as a
“I behold a strange and most glorious mystery,” the
Church sings with awe, “Heaven, a Cave; the Virgin the Throne of the
Cherubim; the Manger a room, in which Christ, the God Whom nothing can
contain is laid.” (Irmos of the 9th Ode of the Nativity Canon).
given birth to the divine Infant without travail, the Most Holy Virgin
“wrapped Him in swaddling clothes, and laid Him in a manger” (Luke 2:7).
In the stillness of midnight (Wisdom of Solomon 18:14-15), the
proclamation of the birth of the Savior of the world was heard by three
shepherds watching their flocks by night.
An angel of the Lord
(Saint Cyprian says this was Gabriel) came before them and said: “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
Savior, Who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11). The humble shepherds
were the first to offer worship to Him Who condescended to assume the
form of a humble servant for the salvation of mankind. Besides the glad
tidings to the Bethlehem shepherds, the Nativity of Christ was revealed
to the Magi by a wondrous star. Saint John Chrysostom and Saint
Theophylactus, commenting on Saint Matthew’s Gospel, say that this was
no ordinary star. Rather, it was “a divine and angelic power that
appeared in the form of a star.” Saint Demetrius of Rostov says it was a
“manifestation of divine energy” (Narrative of the Adoration of the
Magi). Entering the house where the Infant lay, the Magi “fell down, and worshiped Him: and when they had opened their treasures, they
presented Him gifts: gold, and frankincense, and myrrh” (Mt. 2:11).
present Feast, commemorating the Nativity in the flesh of our Lord
Jesus Christ, was established by the Church. Its origin goes back to the
time of the Apostles. In the Apostolic Constitutions (Section 3, 13) it
says, “Brethren, observe the feast days; and first of all the Birth of
Christ, which you are to celebrate on the twenty-fifth day of the ninth
month.” In another place it also says, “Celebrate the day of the
Nativity of Christ, on which unseen grace is given man by the birth of
the Word of God from the Virgin Mary for the salvation of the world.”
the second century Saint Clement of Alexandria also indicates that the
day of the Nativity of Christ is December 25. In the third century
Saint Hippolytus of Rome mentions the Feast of the Nativity of Christ,
and appoints the Gospel readings for this day from the opening chapters
of Saint Matthew.
In 302, during the persecution of Christians by
Maximian, 20,000 Christians of Nicomedia (December 28) were burned in
church on the very Feast of the Nativity of Christ. In that same
century, after the persecution when the Church had received freedom of
religion and had become the official religion in the Roman Empire, we
find the Feast of the Nativity of Christ observed throughout the entire
Church. There is evidence of this in the works of Saint Ephraim the
Syrian, Saint Basil the Great, Saint Gregory the Theologian, Saint
Gregory of Nyssa, Saint Ambrose of Milan, Saint John Chrysostom and
other Fathers of the Church of the fourth century.
Chrysostom, in a sermon which he gave in the year 385, points out that
the Feast of the Nativity of Christ is ancient, and indeed very ancient.
In this same century, at the Cave of Bethlehem, made famous by the
Birth of Jesus Christ, the empress Saint Helen built a church, which her
mighty son Constantine adorned after her death. In the Codex of the
emperor Theodosius from 438, and of the emperor Justinian in 535, the
universal celebration of the day of the Nativity of Christ was decreed
by law. Thus, Nicephorus Callistus, a writer of the fourteenth century,
says in his History that in the sixth century, the emperor Justinian
established the celebration of the Nativity of Christ throughout all the
Patriarch Anatolius of Constantinople in the fifth
century, Sophronius and Andrew of Jerusalem in the seventh, Saints John
of Damascus, Cosmas of Maium and Patriarch Germanus of Constantinople in
the eighth, the Nun Cassiane in the ninth, and others whose names are
unknown, wrote many sacred hymns for the Feast of the Nativity of
Christ, which are still sung by the Church on this radiant festival.
the first three centuries, in the Churches of Jerusalem, Antioch,
Alexandria and Cyprus, the Nativity of Christ was combined together with
the Feast of His Baptism on January 6, and called “Theophany”
(“Manifestation of God”). This was because of a belief that Christ was
baptized on anniversary of His birth, which may be inferred from Saint
John Chrysostom’s sermon on the Nativity of Christ: “it is not the day
on which Christ was born which is called Theophany, but rather that day
on which He was baptized.”
In support of such a view, it is
possible to cite the words of the Evangelist Luke who says that “Jesus
began to be about thirty years of age” (Luke 3:23) when He was baptized.
The joint celebration of the Nativity of Christ and His Theophany
continued to the end of the fourth century in certain Eastern Churches,
and until the fifth or sixth century in others.
The present order
of services preserves the memory of the ancient joint celebration of
the Feasts of the Nativity of Christ and Theophany. On the eve of both
Feasts, there is a similar tradition that one should fast until the
stars appear. The order of divine services on the eve of both feastdays
and the feastdays themselves is the same.
The Nativity of Christ
has long been counted as one of the Twelve Great Feasts. It is one of
the greatest, most joyful and wondrous events in the history of the
world. The angel said to the shepherds, “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 Savior, Who is Christ the Lord. And
this shall be a sign unto you: you shall find the babe wrapped in
swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. Then suddenly there was with the
angel a multitude of the heavenly hosts, glorifying God and saying:
Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”
Those who heard these things were astonished at what the shepherds told
them concerning the Child. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and
praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen” (Luke
Thus the Nativity of Christ, a most profound and
extraordinary event, was accompanied by the wondrous tidings proclaimed
to the shepherds and to the Magi. This is a cause of universal rejoicing
for all mankind, “for the Savior is Born!”
Concurring with the
witness of the Gospel, the Fathers of the Church, in their God-inspired
writings, describe the Feast of the Nativity of Christ as most profound,
and joyous, serving as the basis and foundation for all the other
Christ is Born! Glorify Him!
See also: Discourse on the Nativity of Christ by Saint Gregory Thaumatourgos, Bishop of Neocaesarea.
TROPARION - TONE 4
Your Nativity, O Christ our God, / Has shone to the world the Light of
wisdom! / For by it, those who worshipped the stars, / Were taught by a
Star to adore You, / The Sun of Righteousness, / And to know You, the
Orient from on High. / O Lord, glory to You!
Today the Virgin gives birth to the Transcendent One, / And the earth
offers a cave to the Unapproachable One! / Angels with shepherds glorify
Him! / The wise men journey with a star! / Since for our sake the
Eternal God was born as a Little Child!
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