07 January 2010

'A Pretty Babe All Burning Bright'—The Nativity of the Lord Jesus Christ

Today, 25 December on the Church’s calendar, we celebrated the Nativity of our Lord, God, and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Concerning the Incarnation of Christ, St Maximus the Confessor teaches:

For not as God in His essence and as coessential with God the Father was the only-begotten Son given to us; only inasmuch as by virtue of God’s providential dispensation He became man by nature and, for our sakes made coessential with us, He was given to us who have need of such grace. [1]

Archimandrite Justin (Popović) writes, ‘Therefore Nativity, the day of the birth of the God-man, the Lord Jesus Christ, is the greatest and most important day in the history of all the worlds in which man moves and lives.’ [2] And Metropolitan Hierotheos observes, ‘All the other feasts of the Lord—Epiphany, the Transfiguration, the Passion, the Cross, the Resurrection and the Ascension of Christ—follow from the Nativity.’ [3] Here is the account of our Lord’s Nativity in the Prologue:

‘And when the fullness of time was come, God sent His only-begotten Son’ (Gal. 4:4), to save the human race. And when the ninth month had come after the archangel Gabriel appeared to the most holy Virgin in Nazareth, saying: ‘Hail, thou that art highly favoured . . . thou shalt conceive and bear a son’—at that time a decree went forth from Caesar Augustus that all the inhabitants of the Roman Empire be taxed. In accordance with this decree, everyone had to go to his own town and there be inscribed. Therefore righteous Joseph came with the most holy Virgin to Bethlehem, the city of David, for they were both of the royal House of David. But, there being a great many people in that small city for the census, Joseph and Mary could not find a lodging in any house, and found shelter in a cave which the shepherds used as a sheepfold. In this cave the most holy Virgin gave birth to the Saviour of the world, the Lord Jesus Christ. Bearing Him without pain, as He was conceived without sin of the Holy Spirit and not of man, she herself wrapped Him in swaddling bands, worshipped Him as God and laid Him in a manger. Then righteous Joseph drew near and worshipped Him as the divine Fruit of a virgin womb. Then the shepherds came in from the fields, directed by an angel of God, and worshipped Him as Messiah and Saviour. The shepherds had heard a multitude of angels singing: ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill among men’ (Luke 2:14). At that time there also came wise men from the East, led by a wonderful star, bearing their gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh, and worshipped Him as King of kings, offering Him their gifts (Matt. 2:11). Thus He came into the world Whose coming had been foretold by the prophets and Who was born in the way that they had prophesied: of the most holy Virgin, in the city of Bethlehem, of the lineage of David according to the flesh, at the time when there was no longer in Jerusalem a king of the tribe of Judah, but Herod the stranger was on the throne. After many types and prefigurings, messengers and heralds, prophets and righteous men, wise men and kings, finally He appeared, the Lord of the world and King of kings, to perform the work of the salvation of mankind that could not be performed by His servants. May His be eternal glory and praise! Amen. [4]

The last troparion of the Second Ode of the second Canon of the Feast, written by St John of Damascus in iambic verse, beautifully summarises the wonder of Christ’s Incarnation:

He who rules the heights of heaven, in His compassion,
Has become such as we are, born of a Maiden who has not known man.
The Word who before was wholly outside matter, in these last times
Has assumed the material substance of the flesh
That so He might draw unto Himself fallen Adam, the first-formed man. [5]

Similarly, in his homily on the Nativity, the Venerable Bede tells us, ‘Hence, dearly beloved brothers, we who today recall in yearly devotion the human nativity of our Redeemer, must always embrace the divine nature as well as his human nature with a love that is not yearly, but continual . . . .’ [6] Furthermore, referring to the Epistle from today’s Liturgy—Gal. 4:4-7: ‘. . . God sent forth His Son . . . that we might receive the adoption of sons’—Archbishop Andrei of Novo-Diveevo exhorts us in his homily for the feast:

Let this Holy Day become the Holy Day of the consecration of our heart, of the acceptance of adoption, in order to perform for us this spiritual endeavor: the beginning of that which Christ gives. ‘Prepare, O Bethlehem . . . Christ shall be born to raise the image that fell of old.’ [7]

But of course, this consecration of our heart entails an interior reenacting of the Nativity, as St Maximus the Confessor teaches, ‘The divine Logos, who once for all was born in the flesh, always in His compassion desires to be born in spirit in those who desire Him. He becomes an infant and moulds Himself in them through the virtues.’ [8]

A couple of points about the calendar date of this Feast: first, all Anglophile Orthodox will of course recall that on this date, that is, specifically on the Old Calendar, the Glastonbury Thorn of St Joseph of Arimathea has traditionally bloomed. As Tennyson writes, at Glastonbury Abbey, Somerset:

. . . the winter thorn
Blossoms at Christmas, mindful of our Lord. [9]

And one 17th-c. booklet on ‘The History of that Holy Disciple Joseph of Arimathea’ in the Abbey Library tells us that ‘at Glastenbury in Somersetshire . . . is still growing that noted White-Thorn, which buds every Christmas-Day in the Morning, blossoms at Noon, and fades at Night, on the Place where he pitched his Staff in the Ground.’ [10]

But another point worth noting is a Slavic term relating to Christmas. In a note at the beginning of his short story, ‘The Night Before Christmas’, Nikolai Gogol writes:

Among us [that is, Ukrainians], to go caroling [koliadovat] means to sing songs called koliadki under the windows on Christmas Eve. The master or mistress of the house, or anyone staying at home, always drops into the carolers’ sack some sausage or bread or a copper coin, whatever bounty they have. They say there used to be an idol named Koliada who was thought to be a god, and that is where the koliadki came from. Who knows? It’s not for us simple people to discuss it. Last year Father Osip forbade going caroling around the farmsteads, saying folk were pleasing Satan by it. However, to tell the truth, there’s not a word in the koliadki about Koliada. They often sing of the nativity of Christ; and in the end they wish health to the master, the mistress, the children, and the whole household. (The Beekeeper’s note.) [11]

But, noting a similar term—and similar customs—in Bulgaria, Thomas Butler doesn’t even mention a god ‘Koliada’, but offers another suggestion:

The festival of koleda (Christmas) seems to trace its origins to a pagan Roman ritual (calendae). Koledni or koledarski pesni (‘Christmas songs’) are sung by groups of village boys who go from house to house on Christmas Eve (bŭdni večer). They have a leader (tsar or vodač) who knows a large repertory of songs or refrains, many of which are designed for individual members of the household (child, wife, husband, grown son, marriageable daughter). The following song seems to be an amalgam of both pre-Christian and Christian elements, with the young God representing both the New Year and Christ.

‘The Christening of the Young God’

The Mother of God labored
From Ignatius’s Day to Christmas [Koleda]
To give birth to the young God.
Everyone came by
To have a look at the young God.
They invited Saint John
To baptize the young God.
Saint John murmured:
—But how can I baptize,
Baptize the young God?
I am the chaff—he is the fire.
The young God murmured back:
—Come here, come here, Saint John,
And fulfill God’s law.—
Saint John brightened up,
Then he rolled up his white sleeves
And tucked his silk skirts,
His silk skirts inside his belt
And he made three candles.
He took the candles in his left hand
And in his right—the young God.
The young God glows with beauty
Saint John with joy;
His hands turned to silver
His skirts to gold
His beard became golden as well.
We sing to you, we praise God.
May God grant you much health!
May the health in this house be abundant
As geraniums on the mountainside—
In this house, in this company.
O Christmas, my Christmas! [12]

H.J. Rose notes that in the Empire, Kalends gift-giving at least was not abolished until Leo I in 458. [13]

Next, I have just a few online recommendations for the Nativity:

St John Chrysostom’s Homily.

St Leo the Great’s Homilies.

St Theodore the Studite’s Catechesis.

Bishop Theophilos of Campania on the Incarnation.

Another beautiful Serbian video.

Article on Father Christmas & the Christmas Spirit.

Article on the date of Christmas.

Obviously, more than one of these is from John Sanidopoulos’s blog, Mystagogy, which consistently features fascinating posts.

In conclusion, I offer another great lyric from the golden age of English poetry: Robert Southwell’s, ‘The Burning Babe’.

As I in hoary winter’s night stood shivering in the snow,
Surprised I was with sudden heat which made my heart to glow;
And lifting up a fearful eye to view what fire was near,
A pretty Babe all burning bright did in the air appear.
Who scorchèd with exceeding heat such floods of tears did shed,
As though His floods should quench his flames with what His tears were fed;
Alas, quoth He, but newly born in fiery heats of fry,
Yet none approach to warm their hearts or feel my fire but I.
My faultless breast the furnace is, the fuel wounding thorns,
Love is the fire, and sighs the smoke, the ashes shame and scorns;
The fuel Justice layeth on, and Mercy blows the coals;
The metal in this furnace wrought are men’s defilèd souls;
For which, as now on fire I am, to work them to their good,
So will I melt into a bath, to wash them in my blood:
With this He vanished out of sight, and swiftly shrunk away,
And straight I callèd unto mind that it was Christmas day. [14]

[1] The Philokalia, Vol. 2, trans. G.E.H. Palmer et al. (London: Faber, 1990), pp. 156-7.

[2] Archimandrite Justin (Popović), ‘Perfect God & Perfect Man: A Nativity Epistle’, trans. Rev. Todor Mika & Rev. Stevan Scott, Man & the God-Man (Alhambra, CA: Sebastian, 2009), p. 10.

[3] Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos) of Nafpaktos, The Feasts of the Lord: An Introduction to the Twelve Feasts & Orthodox Christology, trans. Esther Williams (Levadia, Gr.: Birth of the Theotokos Monastery, 2003), p. 39.

[4] St Nicholas (Velimirović), The Prologue from Ochrid, Vol. 4, trans. Mother Maria (Birmingham: Lazarica, 1986), pp. 369-70.

[5] The Festal Menaion, trans. Mother Mary & Archim. Kallistos (Ware) (South Canaan, PA: STS, 1998), p. 272.

[6] St Bede the Venerable, Homilies on the Gospels, Book 1: Advent to Lent, trans. Lawrence T. Martin & David Hurst, OSB (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1991), p. 82.

[7] Archbishop Andrei of Novo-Diveevo, The One Thing Needful (Liberty, TN: St John of Kronstadt, 1991), p. 14.

[8] Philokalia 2, pp. 165-6.

[9] Jerome H. Buckley, ed., Poems of Tennyson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1958), p. 390.

[10] F. Vere Hodge, Glastonbury Gleanings (Norwich: The Canterbury, 1991), p. 5.

[11] Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky, trans. & annot., The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol (NY: Pantheon, 1998), p. 19.

[12] Thomas Butler, Monumenta Bulgarica: A Bilingual Anthology of Bulgarian Texts from the 9th to the 19th Centuries (Ann Arbor, MI: Michigan Slavic, 2004), pp. 476, 479.

[13] H.J. Rose, Ancient Greek & Roman Religion, Two Volumes in One: Vol. 2 (NY: Barnes & Noble, 1995), p. 148.

[14] H.C. Beeching, ed., A Book of Christmas Verse, illust. Walter C. Crane (NY: Bonanza,1986), pp. 27-8.


Isaac said...

Another great post, Aaron.


protov said...

In Romanian is "colinda". The verb "a colinda". The people who go caroling are called colindatori. The folklore of the "colinde" is extremely archaic and varied.

aaronandbrighid said...

Isaac> Glorify Him! Thank you for your kind words.

Protov> Interesting! So what do you think? Do you think these words derive from calendae?

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Χριστός γεννάτε!

Happy Nativity, Aaron!

C.N.I. said...

Linguistically in Romanian only the form "corinda" encountered in Transylvania, can be derived from "calendae". Although possible, strictly linguistically, I'm still not sure that that's exactly the case.
But indeed, Romania has a very rich and archaic (pre-Christian/pagan) repertoire of "corinde".
The only one that became internationally known is the one that serves as the base/starting point for Bela Bartok's "Cantata Profana".

protov said...

This is the consensus of the majority of philologists. I am not so sure. The annoying fact is that as in the case of many etymologies the supposed origin (in this case kalendae) has a different meaning than the derivatives.

aaronandbrighid said...

Kevin> δοξάσατε! Thank you, my friend!

CNI> I have cd of some of these called 'Noel en Maramures' that I enjoy occasionally.

I'm a little confused though, as you and Protov seem to be saying different things in your last comments. I read 'only the form "corinda" can be derived from "calendae"' as basically a negative response to my question, but I can't figure out whether Protov's 'This is the consensus' is a positive response to me, or an affirmation of what you have said.


C.N.I. said...

I was strictly discussing the situation in Romanian, where, indeed, only "corinda" can be proven to be inhereted from Latin, because of the rotacisation of intervocalic "L".
The other form, "colinda" is clearly a Slavic borrowing (< koleda).
Yet, both forms are probably etymological twins, if we accept their derivation from Lat. "calendae".
"Calenade" of course, entered the Slavic languages in the Balkans, via the Romance speaking populations there, as it is also the case of "Rusalii/Rusaljia" (Pentecost) and a few other words, as well.

aaronandbrighid said...

Yes, I thought perhaps because Romanian was a Romance language, it might have received 'colinda' straight from the source, and 'koleda' could have been a Slavic borrowing from Romanian. I didn't know about the rotacisation rule you mention. I take it that Romanian consistently rotacises intervocalic 'L's from Latin words, so the presence of an L in 'colinda' proves it came (later) from the Slavs?

C.N.I. said...

Yes. It either came later straight from the Slavs, or is just the inherited word, but contaminated by the Slavic form, as that would have been very easy, given the geographical proximity of these peoples plus the congruity in meaning and probably etymology between the two forms.
Yes, Romanian always rotacises intervocalic "l" in Latin words: coelum>cer(u) (ski, heaven); kalendarium>carindari (calendar);
Even the form "corinda" shows some Slavic contamination, since, normally "a" wouldn't have passed into "o" . That is only explainable by the influence that "colinda" had on an unattested "cArinda", from which the present hybrd form "corinda".

aaronandbrighid said...

Great! Thanks for this.

protov said...

My comment about the consensus was addressed to your question.
There is another theory that derives colinda from a slavic colo=wheel. In Romanian the verb "a ocoli, ocolire" means to go around. "Ocol" is a circular fence.
There is a dance called kolo in the southern slavic area (Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia)but it has little to do with Christmas.
In Romanian "a colinda" has a more general sense, to wander, or "a umbla de colo colo" = to walk from there to there.
I would incline towards the "slavic" origin (I believe it is even older than the supposed date of the arrival of the slavs in the Balkans. New research tend to suggest an older, even much older date).

aaronandbrighid said...

Protov> Helpful information. Thank you!