"Peace on earth?" Fat chance. And if the birth of Jesus was about putting an end to armed conflict, then it wasn't such a great success. "Being surrounded by family and friends?" Heck, most of us look forward to a vacation where we can get away from our relatives. And we won't even discuss Santa, Rudolph, or - worse still - snow and sleigh bells.
So what is it about? Well, as it turns out, the ancient Christian tradition has some much needed light to shed on the event. And when you consider what this tradition really says about Christmas, it's actually breathtaking... and totally different than the dumbed down and distorted perspectives that most Christians have dancing in their heads.
Prepared to be challenged? Then read on! Just know that this is not "light reading" or fluff...
And I've tossed in a bit of the ancient tradition's Christmas music for your enjoyment too, some in Byzantine chant and some in Slavic melodies, sung in English and other languages.
The ancient liturgical texts of the Christian East unambiguously affirm that the one born in Bethlehem is a divine person, and "older than ancient Adam." Yet he is also fully human, "not merely in appearance, but in reality." So he is divine and uncreated, yet he has or takes on human flesh, a human mind and a human soul. The ancient hymns put these words into the mouth of Jesus: "I who fashioned Adam's form, now willingly put it on."
And because he is divine, yet adopts a human nature, he is just one person, one single identity: "The person of your divinity and of your flesh was one."
What does this all mean? For the first time in all history, the Uncreated, the Absolute being entered into the created and mortal flesh of humanity, transmitting to that flesh a life-creating power it had not known since the dawn of time. And since man is the microcosm and mediator of creation, whatever happens to his flesh, his organism, is transmitted to all of creation:
"Hearken O heaven and give ear O earth. Let the foundations be shaken and let trembling lay hold of the nethermost parts of the world, for our God and Creator has clothed himself in created flesh."
This is why the ancient texts refer to the human body of Jesus as "the double-natured seed giving life in the furrows of the earth."
Why Did God Become Man?
Nine hundred years ago, a so-called theologian in Canterbury named Anselm wrote a small book with that title. Called Cur Deus Homo? in Latin, Anselm's answer to this question would forever distort Western perceptions of Christmas, help reduce Western Christianity to juridical moralism and sever the bond between humanity and the cosmos. Good thing he was totally wrong!
The answer to our question is simple. "I have come openly," says Christ in the ancient hymns, "to restore and to glorify with myself the fallen nature of mortal man." The "restore" part relates to the idea of salvation. It's the negative part, the recovery from the undesirable condition of mortality.
But the "glorify" part is a whole other story and equates to a concept that was erased from Western Christianity a millennium ago, the concept of "deification" (theosis in Greek). This means that by joining the human organism to its uncreated prototype through the birth of Jesus Christ, God not only repaired the damage of the fall, but also opened up the possibility for each person to unite him or herself with the divine.
We're not talking about some sort of fruitcake, pseudo-mystical experience here, not about something produced by emotional frenzy or drugs or whatever. You see, the ancient tradition maintained that you could have direct, intimate contact with God even here, now in this lifetime. Yet if you examine Western theology closely, you'll notice it denies that is even possible. Disagree? Got news for you - it's an open and shut case and easy to prove. However, no time to do it here.
The Day the Universe Changed
The ancient texts go on to explain in detail, if in metaphorical language, how the birth of Christ has in itself opened the path to the true life of deification for every person:
"Come, let us greatly rejoice in the Lord, as we sing of this present mystery. The middle wall of partition has been destroyed. The flaming sword turns back. The Cherubim withdraw from the Tree of Life. And I partake of the delights of paradise from which I had been cast out through disobedience. For the express image of the Father, the imprint of his eternity, takes on the form of a servant..."
And this miraculous rebirth extends to all of creation so that, in a real and physical sense (and everything in the ancient tradition is very "physical"), all of creation - rocks and trees, mountains and streams, the birds of the air and the fish of the sea - all of it "becomes" divine, filled with divine energy (a technical term in the ancient tradition) and supremely important. If you're looking for a "green-friendly" theology, look no further.
It's Not About Salvation
As you may have noticed above, the birth of Jesus isn't just about salvation, but about something much greater. And this fact, which the ancient Christian mystics and their modern successors have verified through their own spiritual experience, led them to a startling conclusion...
...God did not become man just to "save us from our sins". God would have become man even if the fall had never happened and we didn't need help to escape our mortality. In the words of the great mystic and theologian, St. Maximos the Confessor:
"This is the great hidden mystery. This is the purpose for which all things were created. It was with a view to this (God becoming man) that God brought forth all beings."
In the words of the 14th century writer, Gregory Palamas, who successfully defended the ancient tradition from the the dualistic, body-hating tendencies (1) inherent in the emerging Western theology of his time: "Hence the original creation of the human being, which was formed in the image of God, was for the sake of Christ, so that the human being should be able one day to make room for its archetype."
What's the Big Deal?
Well, if you know anything at all about the conventional view of Christianity, you don't need to read this part, because the foregoing has just blown the doors off your world. I guess what it comes down to is this. Here we have the original, ancient version of Christianity, which claims:
- Jesus Christ is a divine person
- By taking on a human body and soul, he transmitted divine, vivifying power to all humanity and through humanity to all of creation
- So on the original Christmas day, the whole universe actually experienced a dramatic change
- By joining the divine and human organisms together, human beings were given the possibility of "becoming god"
- Joining the two natures together was the purpose for which everything was created
It blows the mind....
Wishing you and yours a most blessed Christmas!
~ Dr. Symeon Rodger