Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern United States

God's Gift of Himself

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It is ironic that the feast which celebrates the greatest gift ever given to man, both collectively and individually, is also marked by the theatrical exchange of relatively petty and unneeded things designated as "gifts". There was once a Sunday School class in which the teacher (unwisely) asked each child in turn to tell what they were "getting for Christmas". Each child stated his expected prize, brimming with excitement, until the last child, who dipped his eyes to the floor and said, "Nothing". His family was too poor for leisure gift-giving, and his lack was accentuated by the abundance of his friends. His downcast heart, however, was the greater poverty; for underneath the false and tasteless crust of our materialist "Christmas season" lies a wondrous fact. It is a fact almost too extraordinary to believe: that God gave Himself as a gift to the world.

Christmas is a celebration, not only of our Lord's nativity, but of our Lord Himself. We may call it the Feast of Jesus Christ. For the central fact we rejoice in is God's dwelling among us. St. John in his unique phraseology says that Christ "tabernacled" among us (John 1:14); the tabernacle was the Old Testament tent which represented God's presence among His people. But now, God Himself comes to us—not as a symbolic representation, not as tablets of Law, not even as the voice of a prophet—but in the flesh. How long had the weary world waited (in the words of an old carol), and yonder breaks a new and glorious morning!

So we celebrate the full 33 years of God's coming in the flesh—His Advent. All of the priceless blessings He bestowed on our tired world during His stay were begun by His birth in Bethlehem and were foretold by the angels' praise: "Peace on earth, and goodwill to men." The healings, the teachings, the pardoning of sin, the spiritual enlightenment, the sufferings, the Cross, the Resurrection—all the things written in the Gospels which alone give us redemption and strength and joy and make life worthwhile—were made possible by the humble birth. The person who has truly found His hope in Christ, who cannot imagine living a day without Him, will rejoice in Christmas as much as a farmer dancing in the rain after years of drought. If the ancient Egyptians worshipped the Nile because it was the source of their existence, much more will the Christian rejoice in Christmas, the birth and beginning of his own present and eternal life.

Each soul that finds itself downcast, restless, and discontented during the Christmas season must pause for a few silent moments and lean its thoughts toward this great truth: God gave Himself. What more could He do? What other example could He give us? If God so completely emptied Himself for my sake, how could I ever again be displeased or discontented with my portion in life? The essence of God's being is self-emptying. Self-emptying or self-sacrifice is a divine "attribute" no less than His omnipotence or holiness. On Christmas Day, in other words, God revealed for the first time a side of His nature which man had never known. Who would have thought that the God who we always knew as Creator, Judge, King, Master, and Lawgiver—was also Servant? But He was pleased to reveal on Christmas day, and forevermore, the sacrificial nature of His Being. And since His nature determines ours—for we are made in His image—we discover that the abandonment and forgetting of our own wants and comforts is an essential requisite to a complete and joyful life. We will never be happy, we will never be fulfilled, until we develop this necessary attribute. It has become an inevitable attribute of existence, and of the whole universe, because it is an attribute of God.

How meaningless is life without Christ! The person who makes his way from life to death without the incarnate God within him floats like a ship without direction in stormy waters. A person might be rich and prosperous; but that is only as good as a luxurious ship without direction in stormy waters. Jesus reveals the good things in life; He alone shows the way to joy, and peace, and love, and all such things which men really desire but seek in vain through worldly indulgences. There is really not a spark of genuine happiness elsewhere; and non-believers can only achieve as much happiness as there is in following the teachings of Christ without following Him personally. Satan knows this; and he apparently attempts to suffocate Christmas of all its life through money, through raucous parties, and through sin.

Finally we may return to our original message: the astonishing fact that God came down to us. We may choose one of two paths in life. The first is of the Sunday School boy who sat gloomily because he could not expect to receive a trivial present for Christmas, which unbeknownst to him would do him no good, and which he would throw out one day as rubbish. The other is to thank God for the good things He has given us, to be content and happy with what one has, and to forget self to the point that the needs of others become one's main concern. And in so doing we "put on Christ". At that moment, the world is transformed; dark areas suddenly become light; dry deserts become joyful pastures. The act of expelling the poisonous dissatisfaction that resides within us and allowing the joyful peace of God to be poured into our hearts can be done in a day, or even in an hour, even in a moment of time. It involves the raising of the first heart-bursting prayer to God, in faith and patience, and God begins His good work in us. All of this is contained, and so much more, in the story of Christ's birth to the world.

~~~Sayings of the Fathers~~~

When you see the Child wrapped in swaddling clothes, do not limit your thoughts to His birth in the flesh, but mount up to the contemplation of His godlike glory…You will see Him set upon a throne high and lifted up; you will hear the Seraphim extolling Him in hymns, saying that heaven and earth are full of His glory. Yes! Even upon earth this has come to pass; for the glory of God shone upon the shepherds, and there was a multitude of heavenly hosts telling of Christ's glory.

St Cyril of Alexandria
Commentary on the Gospel of St Luke

Do not think that it is a small thing when you hear about that birth, but rouse up your mind and tremble, being told that God has come upon earth. For this was such a marvelous and unexpected thing that the very angels formed a choir and offered up praise on behalf of the world. The prophets also from the first were amazed at this, that "He was seen upon earth and conversed with men" (Baruch 3:37). Yes, for it is far beyond all thought to hear that the Unspeakable, Unutterable, Incomprehensible—who is equal to the Father—has passed through the Virgin's womb, and has deigned to be born of a woman, and to have Abraham and David for His forefathers.

St John Chrysostom
Commentary on the Gospel of St Matthew

For the birth of Christ is the source of life for all Christian people, and the birthday of the Head is the birthday of the body. Although every individual that is called has his own order, and all the sons of the Church are separated from one another by intervals of time, yet as the entire body of the faithful being born in the font of baptism is crucified with Christ in His passion, raised again in His resurrection, and placed at the Father's right hand in His ascension, so with Him are they born in this nativity. For any believer in whatever part of the world that is re-born in Christ, quits the old paths of his original nature and passes into a new man by being re-born; and no longer is he reckoned of his earthly father's stock but among the seed of the Saviour, Who became the Son of man in order that we might have the power to be the sons of God.

Leo the Great
Sermon on the Feast of the Nativity

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