LITURGICAL COMMEMORATIONS IN PREPARATIONS FOR THE NATIVITY
In the Church’s book of commemorations (The Menaion), during the month of December a number of days are dedicated to the memory of the prophets of the Old Testament: on the 1st, Nahum; on the 2nd, Habakkuk; on the 3rd, Zephaniah; on the 16th, Haggai; on the 17th, Daniel; etc. Also in the service of the Hours of the Nativity and in the Vigil, several prophecies are read. The Church sees fit to remind us that those things which took place two thousand years ago, when God Himself entered into human history, taking flesh and walking among men, all the events that brought about man’s salvation, were prophesied and prefigured in the Old Testament. God had chosen a people, a nation, to prepare the way for mankind’s redemption. This nation was to stand ready for the turning point in history — that is, her people were to be well-prepared to receive God, their King and Deliverer, into their midst. Israel was to have as its chief mission the preparation of a worthy human being from whom God could take flesh, become incarnate. Of course Christians venerate Mary, the Theotokos, as that unique individual. She stands at the threshold of human history as the very flower of Old Testament piety. She is the one who said "amen" to God’s will in her life, bringing forth the promised Messiah.
At this point, let us review some of the prophesies that are read in the Church’s services immediately preceding and during the Nativity Festival.
First, from the Prophet Micah: "These things the Lord doth say: And thou, Bethlehem, art a little one among the thousands of Judah: out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be the Ruler in Israel: and his going forth is from the beginning, from the days of eternity … And he shall stand, and feed in the strength of the Lord, in the height of the name of the Lord his God: and they shall be converted, for now shall he be magnified even to the ends of the earth" (Micah 5:2-4; read at the 1st Hour and at the Vesperal Liturgy of St. Basil on Nativity Eve). We see that many years before the birth of Christ, the prophet Micah had foretold that the place of His birth would be Bethlehem; that He was uncreated, indeed God Himself Who had existed from all eternity; and that His message would be to all people, that a new Israel stretching from one end of the earth to the other would take the place of the old one and magnify and praise His Name. (This prophecy was that which was quoted by "the chief priests and scribes" unto Herod when asked where the Christ was to be born (Matthew 2:1-12; Gospel reading for the Nativity Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom).
The prophet Jeremiah, foreseeing the future, says that God "was seen upon earth, and conversed with men." He exhorts Israel in the person of Jacob to return and walk in the way of his brightness; he foresees the rejection of God by His own chosen people: "Give not thy honour to another, nor thy dignity to a strange nation." (See Baruch, 3:36-4:4; read at the 3rd Hour and at the Vesperal Liturgy of St. Basil on Nativity Eve) He foretold exactly what the Gospel of St. John tells us much later: "He came unto his own, and his own received him not." (John 1:11)
David the Psalmist, sings in Psalm 71/72 of the Christ that was to come: "in him shall all the tribes of the earth be blessed; all nations shall magnify him. Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, who alone doth wonderful things. And blessed be the name of his majesty forever; and the whole earth shall be filled with his majesty." (vv. 17,18) The days of preparation shall be over, and the fulfillment of all the prophecies will be a reality. God’s chosen people will be all the people of the earth who believe in Him.
In the prophecy of Isaiah we read: "Therefore the Lord Himself shall give you a sign. Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel": God with us (Isaiah 7:14; read at the 6th Hour and at the Vesperal Liturgy on Nativity Eve). God, it is foretold, will enter time and human history, being born of a mother as are all men, but his conception will be of the Holy Spirit. He who believes in an all-powerful God, Who created the heavens and the earth, can surely believe in His being able to alter the course of nature. The virgin birth is proof that He who was born of the Virgin Mary was no ordinary man, not even a great prophet and teacher. Rather, He is God’s only begotten, divine Son, the Second Person of the Trinity, Who had existed before all ages. The virgin birth is an essential doctrine of Christianity and without it the entire edifice crumbles.
Going further into the Prophecy of Isaiah we read: "For a child is born unto us, and a son is given to us, and the government shall be upon his shoulders; and his name shall be called, Wonderful Counselor, God the mighty, the Father of the world to come, the Prince of Peace. His empire shall be multiplied, and there shall be no end of peace; He shall sit upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom; to establish it and strengthen it with judgment and with justice, from henceforth and for ever: the zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this" (Isaiah 9:6-7; read at the 9th Hour, at the Vesperal Liturgy and at Great Compline on Nativity Eve. Many beautiful musical renditions of "God is with us …" exist to accompany the chanting of these particular verses during Great Compline). God in His goodness, will do all these things so that man might know the meaning of his existence, what his true purpose is, so that he might have the gates which man himself had close, opened once again to him.
And so Isaiah foretells and we sing each year on the Eve of the Nativity: "God is with us, understand ye nations and submit yourselves, for God is with us." He is with us now in a much more intimate way than He ever was before: He tasted of our humanity, in order that we might partake of His divinity. Mankind will be re-created through direct and intimate contact with God, the Author of Creation and the Life of all.
A portion of Israel did recognize the new King, even though many people, in their vanity, as might be the case with us today, did not want their new King to come in such humble circumstances. But His way is God’s way; the path of meekness and humility. He is the God that would touch men’s hearts and move them to faith rather than conquer and force them to come to Him.
Just as the Nativity/Theophany season is preceded by prophecies foretelling the advent of the Messiah, it ends, at the beginning of February, with a well known prophetic utterance acknowledging that indeed the Deliverer has come. Figured prominently in the Church’s liturgical celebration for the feast of the Meeting of the Lord in the Temple (February 2nd), is the remembrance of St. Simeon receiving the new born Christ child into his arms and his realization that the Babe was the Savior that had been promised of old. Simeon then recited that most beautiful, divinely inspired hymn that we sing at the end of every Vesper service, which declared the end of the Old Dispensation and heralded the coming of the New. His job was finished: "Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy word, for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation, which Thou hast prepared before the face of all people: a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of Thy people Israel." At this time of year especially, it becomes so apparent that these inspired words belong to us. We, as members of the New Israel, can say with all certitude along with the righteous Simeon, that in the Person of Christ, "we have seen God’s salvation which He has prepared before the face of all people."
From The Dawn
Publication of the Diocese of the South
Orthodox Church in America