In the 4th century Anno Domini, Saint John Chrysostom, an outstanding Church Father known for his thoughtful preaching as having a “golden mouth”, wrote regarding the Holy Nativity Feast: “With the nativity of Christ, all feasts flow as various streams flow from a fountain.” According to the Orthodox doctrine, the cross and the resurrection are the focus of the New Testament’s soteriological and eschatological message. However, an interpretation of the canon establishing the Christian Orthodox liturgical calendar may lead to the conclusion that the Church has traditionally envisioned the incarnation as the theological basis of all that followed liturgically throughout the year, namely that “all feasts flow as various streams flow” from the incarnation cradle towards the Holy Pascha, “the holiday of all holidays”.
The Feast of Incarnation, as historically celebrated by the Church, came as a fruit of the faith of the believers in Jesus Christ. “Christ is born”, preached another gifted Church Father, Gregory of Nazianzus in a sermon on December 25, 380 A.D., “run with the star, and bear the gifts with the magi…with shepherds glorify Him; with angels join in chorus; with angels sing hymns.” (Oration XXXVIII)
In the “Hymns of the Nativity” Ephrem the Syrian wrote: “In December, when the nights are long, rose unto us the day, in December that causes the travails of the earth to cease, in it were the travails of virginity…the whole creation became for him as one mouth and cried out concerning him. The magi cry out with their gifts; the barren cry out with their children; the star of light, lo! It cries out in the air. “Behold the son of the king!”
The miraculous act of Incarnation is a profound and ineffable mystery, however imaginary and symbolically it may be explained using an analogy of light of the Holy Spirit who penetrating through the eyes of Mary did not blind her. On the contrary, that light being the power and grace of the Holy Spirit made her capable to see much more clearly and even to radiate that inspiring light bestowed upon her by the power of the Holy Spirit. The same thing did not happen with Eve who being made blind spiritually by the deceiving darkness of Satan remained casting darkness around and throughout generations of mankind.
The nativity of the Son of God is the beginning of the cross, though it is celebrated by us as a feast of glory. It contains in its essential reality the source of our salvation. For the body of the infant, Jesus, the Church already sees the dead body taken down from the cross by Joseph and Nicodemus. The ultimate glory is at the end. It passes through the furnaces of suffering on the cross and the bright light of the resurrection. In order to have Easter or better said Pascha, it was necessary to have first Christmas. In order to be resurrected, Christ had to be born.
“Mutatis mutandis”, we also need to be born in the flesh, to become children of God, to grow up bodily and spiritually, to suffer and to be crucified in this world not as Jesus did, but in our ordinary way, and thus to receive that transfigured body which may make us suitable to enter in that eternal and irreversible condition in which we shall be resurrected in the age to come.
With this hope of the “Winter Pascha” we begin the celebrations of the illumined day of the final victory. The revelation of the fact that a little child born in humility by the Virgin Mary is the eternal Son of God, is a glad riding and a focus for joy and glorification in all the universe: “Today the Virgin come to the cave/ Where she will give birth to the Eternal Word/ Hear the glad tidings and rejoice, o, universe!/ With the angels and shepherds glorify Him who reveals Himself:/ The eternal God, a little child!” (Kontakion, Tone 3)
It was so that in the winter season, in the white garments of purity, the Church comes to celebrate the Nativity in the flesh of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ. And thus, Saint John Chrysostom further exhorts: “I even now caution and request you to purify yourselves beforehand and then approach the sacred mysteries. Let no one say to me: I am ashamed; my soul is full of sins and bears a heavy burden. The space of those five days before Christmas is sufficient to cleanse a multitude of sins, if you will be sober of heart, will pray, and be vigilant.”
In this way, the white snow of nature might become but a reflection of the inner garment of grace which is actually illuminating in us. In this way, the feast of Christmas might become for us the true celebration of the world’s salvation through the Son of God, who for our sake and our salvation came down from heaven and became man. And so, we might become ourselves divine by grace, not nature, children of God the Father by the indwelling in us of the Holy Spirit in Christ Jesus.
And thus, for the Christian Orthodox while the “Winter Pascha” has been celebrated, he is already making the spiritual preparations for that holy pilgrimage towards the spring Easter or rather, the Holy Pascha, “the holiday of all holidays”.