S a i n t Gregory the Theologian’s H o m i l y 38 was on the feast of Christmas. His opening words are: “Christ is born, glorify him.” These became the opening words of Ode 1 of the Canon of Christmas, and, moreover, have become the words with which we greet each other on Christmas.
In Gregory’s time, Christmas was called the “Feast of Light.” In his second paragraph, St. Gregory proclaims, “Again the darkness is past; again Light is made …. The people that sat in the darkness of ignorance, let it see the Great Light of full knowledge.” Christmas comes on the shortest day of the year (at least in the Northern hemisphere), and the days begin to be longer, so that the natural rhythms of nature witness to the spiritual Light of Christmas. In the Christmas troparion, we sing, “Your birth, O Christ our God, has shed upon the world the light of knowledge.”
In the time of St. Gregory, the Feast of Light was a double feast of the coming of God into the world, the revelation of the Son of God taking on human nature at Christmas, and the revelation of the Trinity at Theophany (January 6) at the baptism of Jesus, when the Father’s voice was heard, “This is my beloved Son,” and the Spirit came upon Jesus in the form of a dove, for he brings God’s peace.
“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 5:1)” From Christmas Day, December 25 to the Vigil of Theophany there are twelve days. The feast of Light, then, is a twelve day feast, which we still remember in the “twelve days of Christmas.” The American secular culture, however, has inverted the celebration, so that most people now think that the twelve days are from December 13th to the 25th, before the day of Christ’s birth.
There is nothing special about the twelve days before Christmas, indeed, in the Church tradition they are days of fasting, but it is important for business to make us happy and buy more gifts. Christmas is a feast of Light that is not completed until the revelation of Theophany. The gospels of St. Matthew and St. Luke begin with the birth of Christ, but the gospel of St. Mark with the baptism of Jesus, the Theophany.
The Gospel of St. John, though, begins with light, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it …. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world …. And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth. (John 1:5,9, 14)” St. Gregory continues in his homily, “Christ from heaven, go out to meet him.,” also a part of Ode 1 at Matins.
This is his challenge to his flock and, indeed, to all of us at all times. Christmas is not worth celebrating unless we make the effort to meet him. Christmas and the twelve days subsequent until Theophany are a time to know and understand Christ and his message better, to “follow the light.” And what this light tells us is that by baptism, we clothe ourselves in Christ, that we humble ourselves before him, as did the shepherds and the Magi, for those who humble themselves will be exalted.
So St. Gregory continues, “Christ on earth; be exalted.” Christmas is also the feast of peace. “For a child is born to us, a son is given to us; upon his shoulder dominion rests. They name him Wonder Counselor, God Hero, Father Forever, Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9:5)” This is explicitly proclaimed in the readings of the Christmas Vigil. The fourth readings paints a glorious vision of how the child will bring about peace as he lies in the manger for beasts in the cave of Bethlehem, “Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat; the calf and the young lion shall browse together, with a little child to guide them.
The cow and the bear shall graze, together their young shall lie down; the lion shall eat hay like the ox. (Isaiah 11:6-7)” This is a message from God, who sends the angels to announce Christ’s birth: ““Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests. (Luke 2:14)” Every Christmas is a time of hope for peace, but there is still war and hatreds in our hearts. Every time we come to church for the celebration of the Divine Liturgy, we pray for peace. In the opening litany, the deacon prays for three kinds of peace, for peace in our church, “In peace let us pray to the Lord;” for peace in the world, freedom from wars, “For peace in the whole world,” and especially for spiritual peace in faith in our Lord, “For peace from on high and for the salvation of our souls.” This is the peace promised by our Lord, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you.
Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid. (John 14:27)” Individually, we may not be able to change the whole world, but we can begin my making peace a priority in our own lives, with those whom we love and with those who are our neighbor. The most important reality, however, is that we do not make peace a celebration of only one day. In Christmas, God comes to be with us, and when he was glorified after his resurrection, he said, “I am with you always. (Matthew 28:20)” Christmas, then, is not simply a pretty, sentimental feast, but the transformation of our lives for all our days.