The Feast of the Nativity, known sometimes in Orthodoxy as “the Winter Pascha,” is one of the great examples in the story of our salvation where the “foolishness of God” defeats the wisdom of man. It is not the story of an underdog defeating the mighty, but a revelation of who God is, and who we are – and what our salvation is all about. Nothing in the story of our salvation is accidental or incidental. All of it proclaims the Gospel.
The story of the Nativity is utterly shrouded in the cloak of weakness. In our own time we understand just how vulnerable is the life of an unborn child – apart from extreme old age, it is the most vulnerable time of our existence. Christ is incarnate as an unborn child in a world where infant mortality would have been astronomical by our modern standards. He becomes the most vulnerable of all human forms. The God of the universe, to use modern scientific terminology, becomes a Zygote.
Nurtured and sustained through the pregnancy – itself fraught with anxiety and questioning – his birth becomes an event which must take second place to the needs of the state. A census was ordered, and his mother and foster father make a journey that is difficult in the best of times (the lay of the land between Nazareth and Bethlehem is a constant negotiation of desert hill country.
The greeting in Bethlehem is less than kind for a babe in the womb. In a crowded village, his mother is forced to take refuge in a barn – indeed, in a cave which is used to house animals. Nothing could be more removed from the modern cocoon of sterility that greets the newborn. Born into our world, his first bed is a manger – a place where animals take their food.
It is not for nothing that the icon of the Nativity is written in such a way that everything mirrors Christ’s later descent into Hades. The cave – everything – shares a common semi-non-existence with the shadow world of Hades. Indeed, He who would become the Bread of the World finds his first resting place in a manger (“manger” comes from the word for “to chew”). Bread of the world, He is born to be eaten.
Greeted by angels, shepherds and wise men, his birth goes largely unnoticed – except by the authorities who seek to kill Him.
I have stood near the cave of St. Jerome in Bethlehem, and seen the recently excavated graves of the Holy Innocents. There are a mass of infant burials, clearly made in haste, with evidence of violence, all dating to the first century. It is not a Biblical myth but a crime scene as gruesome as any that we could imagine. This is the Wisdom of Man.
The Wisdom of Man measures strength and power by the ability to administer brute force. Whether a sword or nuclear weapon – power is defined by physics. Were the power that confronted us measured in the same manner, victory could be as simple as a mathematical equation. But the power of God, the Wisdom of God, that confronted King Herod and all the so-called “rulers” of this world, belonged to a realm that is wholly other.
The “beachhead”, if your will, of the coming of Christ and His kingdom, was the human heart – not territory nor judicial power. As noted by later Orthodox writers – the battleground between God and the devil is the human heart. It is into that human heart that Christ was born in Bethlehem: first into the heart of His mother – who “pondered” all these things. Then into the heart of His foster father, who provided a heart of welcome to a child not of his own fathering. Then into the heart of shepherds and wise men, who were simple and wise enough to hear the voice of angels and to obey the movements of the stars.
Joseph would take this weak Child into Egypt and await God’s direction before returning home. Mary would continue her motherly watch, uniting herself with her child in body and soul. She fed Him at her breast, as He fed her in her heart.
Years later, Pontius Pilate would face this Child/Man, and hear that His kingdom “was not of this world.” He did not believe and committed Him to crucifixion as if this world could destroy the Lord of heaven and earth. But in the most decisive manner the wisdom of man was shown to be foolishness – empty of strength and incapable of giving life.
Anybody can kill. The drive to non-being is a parasite – relying on Being itself to give it pseudo-credibility. The wisdom of man grows out of the barrel of a gun and always has (guns, arrows, swords, sticks and stones). Only God can give life and His gift always appears paradoxically weak in the eyes of the world. He is born in a manger and weeps in the night. He hides in Egypt and lies dead in a tomb. But as kingdoms crumble and the wise men of this world pass into dust, the Babe of Bethlehem reigns as God and continues to be born in the cave and emptiness of human hearts – where the meek and the lowly find rest, and life everlasting.