Conversatio Divina

Part 23 of 23

To Enlighten the World

The Feast of the Nativity, or Christmas

Jamie Cain

Christ is born; glorify Him! Christ comes from heaven; come to welcome Him! Christ is on earth; lift up your hearts! Sing to the Lord, O earth! Be exalted and sing with hearty gladness, O ye people, sing His praise for He is glorified! 

Make merry, O Bethlehem! Thou art the King of Judah’s princes. Christ, the Shepherd of Israel, who rides on the shoulders of the cherubim, has come forth from thee for all to see. He has raised us from death to life, and reigns over all. (Canon of the Nativity of Our Lord)

01.  Introduction

The Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord is the best-known of the church’s Great Feasts. It is also the best-known—and best-loved—outside the church, though it goes by its later name: Christmas.I will use the terms interchangeably, except in specific references to the ancient celebration of the feast, where “Nativity” seems more appropriate. Modern Christmas, especially in the West, has been so transformed and commercialized that it would be unrecognizable to most Christians before the eighteenth century, but take a closer look, and some of the traditions have not completely lost their ancient and sacred roots.

The birth dates of saints, and even of our Lord, were not always marked in the early church. Steady persecutions made the dates of their martyrdom—when saints bore final witness to their Lord—more pertinent for the formation of the church. And formation is the primary purpose of the feasts, and of all the church’s traditions. We tend to think of traditions as ways of remembering, but earlier Christians knew them as ways of knowing. “Prior to the Enlightenment . . . the point of a tradition was not remembering the past but entering the past—or rather, entering transcendent realities that were manifested in the past but were also sacramentally manifested in the present through the tradition. Simply put, a tradition is the past. The past made mystically, bloodlessly present.”Joshua Gibbs, “An Explanation (and Defense) of the Christmas Tree,” Circe Institute: Cultivating Wisdom & Virtue, December 16, 2020, accessed November 27, 2023,

No essay in this series is meant to be exhaustive. There are many treatments of the Feasts that include different and more information. And Christmas and its traditions have been written about perhaps more than any other feast, so consider this essay’s exploration of the Feast of the Nativity more as a way of finding the door and entering the great and mysterious reality of God becoming man. The historical events commemorated at Christmas are well-known, so I’ll briefly summarize them. Then, I’ll consider a couple of key themes (light, humility, and the new creation) that arise early in the church’s consideration of Christmas. Finally, I’ll connect three early traditions (candles, alms or gift-giving, and greening) that continue to have some connection with modern Christmas celebration.So many Christmas traditions exist that it would be impossible to survey them all in this space! For more about the history and celebration of the Feast of the Nativity, the Oxford Handbook of Christmas is indispensable.

02.  History

Though Christmas (out of all the Church’s holy days) has captured the modern western imagination, the Church was first concerned to appropriately commemorate Jesus’ death. He had given the basic form of remembrance in the Last Supper, preserved in the Eucharist, and every Sunday’s gathering included such a remembrance. They recognized a need to reenact the events of Jesus’ Passion in type and form. Such an observance would situate Jesus in history and invite His followers to join Him in the way. This is the reason for Holy Week and Easter.

Apparently a similar desire arose with regard to Jesus’ birth, as even the progression of Gospels might suggest. Luke’s Gospel was likely the third Gospel written. Matthew focuses on the place of Jesus’ birth, but Mark begins his account with Jesus’ launch into ministry. Luke writes down what was probably already very familiar to believers. We can easily imagine Mary being asked to tell her story many, many times.

Although the birth dates of saints seemed less important to the early church, not least because they expected the end of things to come sooner rather than later, St. Luke took pains to put Jesus in a historical context for his readers. Even now, in our more secular age, the story and language of St. Luke and St. Matthew remains familiar. Joseph and Mary were engaged, and Mary became pregnant. Joseph, with the encouragement of God in his dreams, marries her anyway. When Mary is near to her time for delivery, the couple goes to Bethlehem for a Roman census “when Quirinius was governor of Syria” (Luke 2:2). The next sequence of events are among the most familiar Scripture passages in western culture. (It helps that many have heard Linus’s speech in the still-popular A Charlie Brown Christmas. In answer to Charlie Brown’s question, “Can anyone tell me what Christmas is really all about?” Linus recites Luke 2:8–14 from the King James Version.)

While the events are both clear and familiar, the specific date of Jesus’ birth did not survive.For a full treatment of the two major schools of thought, see Paul F. Bradshaw’s “The Dating of Christmas: The Early Church” in Timothy Larsen, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Christmas (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020). As with Easter, the church has disagreed with itself and with others over the centuries about the correct date to celebrate Jesus’ birth. What is clear is that the early church began observing Jesus’ Nativity along with His baptism on January 6 (Epiphany). The Western church began observing the feast on December 25, with the earliest official record of that celebration in 336. Despite this disagreement about date, all churches preserve the focus of the earliest Christians on both the fact and great mystery of Jesus’ incarnation.

03.  Celebrating the Feast

It’s perhaps the central mystery of the Christian faith, that God becomes man to rescue and restore His creation. The readings, hymns, and prayers of the Nativity celebration revolve around proclaiming and rejoicing in this mystery. 

Welcoming the Light. December and January are dark months in the Northern Hemisphere, so a reminder and celebration of light makes sense. The Feast of the Nativity reminds the church that just as God spoke light into existence at the dawn of the world, so His Word became the light of the world in the Incarnation. “The Creator of all comes to enlighten the world,” Gregory the Wonder-Worker preached in the third century. Candles have long been a part of Nativity/Epiphany celebrations. They were so prominently featured, in fact, that Nativity/Epiphany was sometimes called the Feast of the Holy Lights.

The Eastern troparion (a type of Byzantine hymn) of the Nativity celebrates the light:

Your Nativity, O Christ our God,
Has shone to the world the Light of wisdom!
For by it, those who worshipped the stars,
Were taught by a Star to adore You,
The Sun of Righteousness,
And to know You, the Orient from on High.
O Lord, glory to You!

This verbal celebration of God’s manifested light explains a core link between Nativity and Epiphany. (An epiphany is a “manifestation.”) Though Jesus was born in relative obscurity, He would not remain obscure. The prologue of St. John’s Gospel likened Jesus’ life to an invincible light: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). This light would illuminate more than the tiny stable where the Holy Family stayed, or even the “little town of Bethlehem” that became their temporary home. In time, it would spread to the nation and then light the whole world (v 9). But Christmas allows us to pay attention to a key fact: God would robe the light of the world in human flesh—in fact, He would clothe it in the flesh and cloths of an infant—until the glory of heaven would be revealed to all (verse 14).

The lesser lights that appear in the Christmas story—the star that guided the Magi, the heavenly host that filled the Bethlehem sky—point to the “Sun of Righteousness” (a reference to Malachi 4:2 and Revelation 22:5). The hope of Christmas is not a temporary truce with darkness, but its ultimate defeat, and that hope provides light not only for the world but for the soul.

Giving in Humility. Gift-giving (or perhaps gift-receiving) has become the centerpiece of Christmas. Santa Claus and his bagful of gifts for good girls and boys is a Victorian creation, popularized by Clement Clark Moore’s poem, “Twas the Night Before Christmas.”Originally published as “A Visit from St. Nicholas” in the Troy Sentinel, December 23, 1823. It was first attributed in print to Clement Clark Moore in 1837. Prior to that, gift-giving, especially to children, was more common on December 6, the Feast of St. Nicholas. The tradition arose in part because of the gifts the Magi brought to the Child.

But the older tradition recognizes the fundamental gift as God’s giving himself in the incarnation. The incarnation of the Word was a miraculous offering, a radical display of God’s care for his impoverished people. The incarnation is foundational to Christian spirituality because Jesus enacts the humility to which all his followers are called. “For early Christians,” writes Robert Webber, “the incarnation was . . . a living reality indispensable to their spirituality.”Robert E. Webber, Worship Old and New (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 218. It’s a call to humility, the recognition of our own poverty of spirit (cf. Matthew 5:2). Mary says as much in her Magnificat, praising the God who “has looked on the humble estate of his servant” (Luke 1:38, ESV).All Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Beyond her own joy, she sees the incarnation as a warning to “the proud in the thoughts of their hearts” and a promise of “good things” filling those who were hungry.

St Paul explains this incarnational exchange in similar material terms: “Though he [Christ] was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9). St. Gregory of Nazianzus explains it a bit: “He who gives riches becomes poor, for he assumes the poverty of my flesh, that I may assume the richness of his Godhead.” In other words, in the Incarnation, God willingly impoverishes himself to identify with the poor in spirit. It’s this gift that ought to both astonish us and shape our own response to the Nativity.

And Jesus became poor in more than spiritual terms. Joseph and Mary were plainly poor in economic terms. Their gift at the Temple was two doves or pigeons, which meant they couldn’t afford the customary lamb. (See Leviticus 12.) Seen in this light, the Magi give gifts with not only a profoundly spiritual meaning, but with very practical implications. They gave valuable gifts—gold, frankincense, and myrrh—to a profoundly poor family. The gifts did not become museum pieces in a poor home, but practical help for a family with needs.

Not surprisingly, the early church considered almsgiving, remembering the poor, central to Christian practice. The church’s first days are marked by caring for those who have need, and Paul’s collection mentioned in several of his letters is an offering for the poor and suffering in the church at Jerusalem. St. Nicholas is remembered not for gifts to “good boys and girls” but his gifts of alms to a destitute merchant whose daughters were in danger of being sold into prostitution. According to tradition, St. Nicholas threw a sack of gold through the merchant’s window, in keeping with Jesus’ command in Matthew 6:3–4 to give to the needy “in secret.”

Giving alms, remembering the poor, is a way of being shaped by Jesus’ incarnation. The practice invites us to purge ourselves of pride in self, possessions, and accomplishments. We can identify with the poor as Christ did: “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:6–7).

Signs of a New Creation. Another fairly early practice of the church was the use of greenery in Christian celebration. The practice may have been “redeemed” from the Romans, for whom greenery was a symbol of life, especially during the death of winter. Medieval churches continued or expanded the practice, attaching additional Christological significance to the holly’s thorns and red berries. Holly is called christdorn, “Christ-thorn,” in German. Not surprisingly, Martin Luther encouraged the use of evergreen in Christian churches and homes. The evergreens served as symbols of God’s unchanging nature as well as the everlasting life that Christians receive through Jesus Christ.

But the use of greenery may have a far deeper meaning when viewed in light of the Incarnation’s promise. When the Eastern church begins its celebration of Nativity with a five-day “forefeast” they offer this prayer:

O Bethlehem, prepare, Eden is opened unto all.
And be ready, Ephrata, for the Tree of life
has in the grotto blossomed forth from the Virgin.
Indeed her womb is shown to be spiritually
a Paradise, in which is found the God-planted Tree.
And if we eat from it we shall live,
and shall not die, as did Adam of old.
Christ is born, so that He might raise up
the formerly fallen image. (Apolytikion of the Forefeast of the Nativity)

This prayer reminds Christians of our past: the Fall and the subsequent exile from the garden. But the great hope of the Incarnation is that God has planted a new garden paradise in Bethlehem. There God will again offer life from the branch of Jesse, a new Tree of life.

This kind of image is in keeping with some of Scripture’s images. In addition to the Old Testament imagery of Jesus as a “shoot from the stump of Jesse” (Isaiah 11:1), Jesus describes himself in St. John’s Gospel as “the true vine” (John 15:1–5). The metaphor explains how disciples of Jesus might live fruitful lives; they must remain united to the vine, “abiding” in it. Separation from the vine means death and unfruitfulness.

The greenery decorating churches and homes at Christmas powerfully symbolizes the new and enduring life we now receive in Christ. This is made possible by the Incarnation, as St. Cyril of Jerusalem notes in a fourth century homily: “Let us believe in Jesus Christ,” he says, “as having come in the flesh and been made Man, because we could not receive Him otherwise. For since we could not look upon or enjoy Him as He was, He became what we are, that so we might be permitted to enjoy Him.”

04.  Conclusion

The purpose of Christ’s Incarnation—”that He might raise up the formerly fallen image” of humankind—is also clear in the Forefeast prayer. The Incarnation is not merely an exercise of divine power, a selfish grab for glory in the eyes of men. God’s purpose is redemptive. As St. Cyril says, “Christ became what we are, that so we might be permitted to enjoy Him.”

The Nativity is a miracle; in some ways it is the miracle of Christianity. The Nativity is an apocalypse, an unveiling of the God of Light to a world grown dark. The Nativity is a gift, God offering himself to his own creation in their very form. And it is a promise of eternal communion with God, one that springs like a beautiful tree from the “seed of the woman.” If we will allow our celebrations to be formed by the truth, and to form us in turn, Christmas can become more than a holiday. It will form the foundation of an incarnational spirituality that will transform not only our lives but our communities around us.

05.  Practices to Consider

  • Bring more light into your holiday celebrations. Consider making an Advent wreath part of your family’s celebration of the Christmas season. The center white candle, the Christ candle, should be lit on Christmas Eve. Consider waiting (as some Eastern churches do) for the first star to appear before you light it.
  • Reorient your ideas about gift-giving and -receiving. Look for an opportunity with others—your family, your small group—to give alms, especially to give something that is not merely money. Chapter 8, “Outward Simplicity: Longer Strides,” in Richard Foster’s Freedom of SimplicityRichard Foster’s Freedom of Simplicity(New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1981). identifies several “gifts” you may not have considered. For additional fuel for a radical reorientation, consider reading Bill McKibben’s Hundred Dollar Holiday (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998).
  • Go green. Expand the green in your holiday experiences. Find some holly of your own (you may only have to visit your hedges!) and create a visual reminder of the painful cost and poignant reality of eternal life with God.


Louis Cretey, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Part 7 of 23


Jamie Cain
September 22, 2021