Great is the mystery of godliness, God was manifest in the flesh (I Tim. 3:16)
The New Adam comes forth from virgin earth. Woman, the source of the curse, bears the dew of blessing. The true Noah has appeared, Who shall comfort us concerning our work and toil of our hands, because of the ground which the Lord hath cursed (Gen. 5:29). Melchizedek, without father, without mother, without descent (Heb. 7:3), comes to inherit the eternal Kingdom and Priesthood. The long night of fear and universal expectation finally passes, and the morning light penetrates the darkness of the Old Testament Sanctuary, opened not daily, but eternally to the East. The Heavenly Manna is poured forth from the vessel which contained it. The rod of Jesse blossoms forth in place of the fading rod of Aaron. Christ is born.
Come, meek shepherds, and kiss the Lamb and Shepherd—the Lamb, tended by the shepherd, and the Shepherd, Who is able to gather into one peaceful fold the lambs with the wolves, and the calves with the lions. Come, wise men, and bow down before the mystery of the ancient Child; learn from the unspeaking Word, taste of the angelic bread at the table of the speechless animals and see that the Lord is good. Choirs of heavenly hosts who have praised the Lord since the creation of the stars, double and triple your doxology before your Sun, Who has risen for us. Christ is born.
Christ is born in Bethlehem: is this the reason for all the present joy and all the glory to God in the highest? Glory to God: He is also born for us, unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given (Is. 9:6). Amid the celebration of His birth, the Church suffers pains of birth, until Christ be formed in us (cf. Gal. 4:19). Let us not disdain the joyful sorrow of our Mother: let us take at least a few traits from the image of the birth of Jesus and let us place them in our hearts.
Bethlehem was the ancestral home of the forefathers of Jesus: however, Joseph and Mary did not have even a poor hut, a piece of inherited land or a permanent residence. Providence, by the hand of Caesar, led them to this place from which, it was determined, would come a ruler of Israel (cf., Matt. 2:6). The foreigners in the land of the forefathers, the newcomers to their own homeland gave a homeland to the Son, of Whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named (Eph. 3:15)—Christians! As long as we live in the world as satiated citizens and enjoy it as its masters, Christ cannot be formed in us. The world continually tries to stamp on our souls its passing images; satiated desires give birth to other desires which imperceptibly grow into giants and build Babylon. Blessed shall he be who shall seize and dash the infants of this Babylon against the rock of faith and alienate himself from the city which exists here in order to see the one that is coming! If Abraham, at the command of God, had not departed from his land and his people, he would not have received the glorious testament, the promise, and the inheritance. If suffering Israel had not decided to endure the difficulties of a dangerous and unknown journey, Jehovah would not have strengthened it and prepared in it a dwelling-place for Himself. If the intuitive mother had not sent the innocent Jacob away from the vengeful Esau, he would not have come to the fearful place, the heavenly gates. Only the homeless strangers find Bethel and Bethlehem—the house of God and the house of the living Bread. Only the voluntary exiles of earth will be received as citizens of heaven. Whoever desires to be a dwelling place of the Son of God, must have his homeland only in God, and with all his ties to his earthly homeland, however natural and proper they may be, he must not compare it to the heavenly.
By taking nothing from this world for his birth, Jesus evidently wished to show that He had no personal possessions. The Carpenter received His name from His father; His mother, having carried Him in Her womb, could offer no other virtue for this service other than, by Her own admission, the sense of Her own unworthiness: For He hath regarded the low estate of His handmaiden (Luke 1:48). He concealed His immeasurable eternity until the day of His birth. A manger became the throne for the King of kings, His robes—swaddling clothes, the first servants of the Kingdom—the shepherds of the flock. The power and wisdom of God were concealed in the infirmities of an infant. But who can measure the distance from the height of His Divine Essence to the depth of His belittlement? The finite mind is not able to comprehend His operations, neither His ascent higher than the heavens, nor His descent to the lowliness of fallen nature. Seeing such humility, what must a heart feel which desires to be formed after the image of Christ? Strength of mind, greatness of spirit, celebrity of deeds, privilege of rank! I am not deceived by you and do not envy those who are proud of you. There is no greater wisdom than to reject wisdom for the sake of Christ; there is no greater glory than to share dishonor with Jesus; there is no greater wealth than the poverty of Jesus. There is no other entrance to perfection and blessedness than through the infancy of Christ; there is no better adornment for the soul, in which He must dwell, than to see itself deprived of all adornment, like His manger. The current of Grace, like the flow of a river, steams into the vales; the cedars on the mountains observe the thunder and lightning. God creates out of nothing: as long as we want and think about being something, God does not begin His work in us. Humility and self-denial are the foundation of His dwelling in us: whoever delves into this more deeply is established higher and more secure.
One of the essential features of the birth of Jesus was the purity of His Mother, not violated either by sight or by thought. She had to have a betrothed, but merely in order to have someone who would be a protector and witness of Her virtue, and so that Her holy virginity would not seem to be disgraced by marriage. At the same time She was, as the Church confesses with one mind, a Virgin before birth, during birth, and after birth. Look at Her example, a soul striving for union with God, and see in the mirror of Her perfection your duty. The Lord is a jealous God. When He says to man with a voice of fatherly kindness: Son, give Me thy heart, His righteous jealousy is commanding, in a spiritual as well as a moral sense: Do not commit adultery. He Who gave us a heart is not satisfied with a larger or smaller portion of it: it must all belong to the Master of everything. He does not consider any kind of love to be worthy of Himself which is not based on love of Him. Every enjoyment which we passionately seek for ourselves, every thought directed toward creation, every distraction, is a departure from Him. Only strict vigilance over oneself can lead to blessed union with Him and maintain it: Keep your heart with all vigilance; for from it flow the springs of life (Prov. 4:23). The heavenly Bridegroom is betrothed only to wise and chaste virgins, not those sleeping near His bridal chamber. The virgin soul directed only towards God conceives the spiritual life and gives birth to the blessedness of pure contemplation. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God; and where?—in their very heart. A pure soul, just like pure water, receives the living images of the sun and sky.
We will not keep our gaze fixed on those characteristics of the image of the birth of Jesus which might frighten those who wish to imprint them on their own souls, due to their difficulty in imitating. But let us take one more glance at those characteristics in which His Divine glory shone through His humiliation and through which Grace is revealed in our spiritual birth.
At the birth of Christ the Angels proclaim glory to God and peace on earth: at our birth they proclaim the glory of Grace and the peace of man with God. Joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth (Luke 15:7). Shepherds and wise men come to Christ with piety, in spite of the poverty and obscurity which seemingly separate Him from the whole world. So also he who is united with Christ is united, in Him, with all those who believe in Him, by an indissoluble as well as incomprehensible union. That Spirit which forms from them one community, or rather one body, sometimes unexpectedly, but always in a timely manner, brings them closer to each other, in order for them to mutually edify and learn, comfort and receive comfort, and confess the mercy and glory of God. They offer gifts to Christ: gold, as to a King; incense, as to God; myrrh, as to a deceased of mortals. But did He not promise us that for those who seek the Kingdom of God, all things shall be added (Matt. 6:33)? Does He not want to make us kings and priests unto God and His Father (Rev. 1:6)? Is not our spiritual birth linked with that life-giving death, after which our life will be hidden with Him in God (cf. Col 3:3)?
O God, Who has given us Thy Son! What does Thou not give us thereby? Grant us only that we may give birth to the Spirit of Christ within ourselves and that we may live His life. Then let Herod and all Jerusalem be troubled with us as they were with Him. Let the prince of this age rage and let all the world take up arms: Thou shalt nourish us and with an Angel of Thy counsel Thou shalt lead us to Thy holy mountain. Amen.
Translated from "The Writings of Philaret, Metropolitan of Moscow and Kolomensk" (in Russian), Vol. 1, pp. 16-20. In Orthodox Life vol. 50, no. 6, Nov-Dec 2000, pp. 2-5