The Meaning of Christmas

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Nativity Icon

In the dystopian film, Children of Men directed by Alfonso Cuarón, a world is imagined in the future where no more children are born, and, as the decades pass, humanity is plunged into despair. As people reach old age and pass away with no births to take their place, it seems that humanity will soon disappear. As the reality of this situation hits, most countries descend into anarchy. One day, however, a woman finds herself pregnant, and people from different political groups want to try to use the situation to their advantage. An army is fighting against a rebel group in a refugee camp, and the pregnant woman has just given birth. She walks outside with this newborn child, and the combatants in the battle stop fighting when they see this child in her arms. Many kneel on the ground, and everyone spies a glimmer of hope at the birth of this miraculous baby. Yet as soon as the woman and child move to safety, the two sides start fighting again.

As I saw this unfold, I thought that this is exactly what happens at Christmas time: People might stop for a moment to reflect on the birth of Christ; they may be filled with peaceful thoughts for a little while; politicians might make some nice comments about peace and unity; but as soon as Christmas is past, the warm and touching thoughts are forgotten. 

This is the quality of peace we find in the world. It's fleeting and it's superficial if it even exists at all.

In the Church, however, we find true peace. Today I'd like to explore how we do that. In this season of the Prince of Peace, I'd like to use the icon of the Nativity to explain that. We find in the world today many places where peace just does not exist. Whether it's Ukraine, Palestine, Syria, Yemen, Haiti, Sri Lanka, Iran, Peru — all of these countries are facing situations with no peace.

Moreover, worldwide there is inflation, rising food and oil prices, political divisions, and even in the home, in the workplace, in our schools and in our own very hearts, we lack peace. People seek peace by external means, by political change, by protests, by treaties, by even fighting wars to try and gain peace, or changing laws that govern people's external behaviour. There may be some good aspects to these, but the issue is that they don't go deep enough. 

In Orthodoxy, we try to get to the root of the problem. The Orthodox approach to peace is found in the Icon of the Nativity.

Nativity Icon

This icon is quite unusual in that it contains animals, it contains the earth (prominently displayed as a cave), it displays angels, and it displays people. So, its subjects represent the entire created order, and they are all in harmony around Christ. When Christ is at the centre, all is at peace. The whole cosmos is as it should be, and one day it will be like this again and order will be restored. Now the main place where Christ wants to be in the centre is in our hearts. In Orthodoxy, we seek peace then from the inside out. St. Isaac the Syrian said: “Be at peace with your soul, then heaven and earth will be at peace with you.” 

So how do we attain this peace? We notice a curious detail in the icon. The Christ child in his swaddling clothes looks like Christ in the tomb. This is intentional. It's done to firstly remind us that Christ was born in order to die and save humanity. But it also shows us another important truth: that peace only comes and Jesus is only Lord of our hearts when there has been a certain death within us. To find peace, something in us must die. Our old selves, our judgments, our pride, our lust, our anger, our hatred, our selfishness, our greed, our gluttony, our unhealthy attachments to material things. All of these things clog up our hearts and prevent the peace child Christ himself from being enthroned. This is a battle we fight every day, we wrestle with the disordered forces of our very souls, which have become ill. 

The fathers of the ancient church understood the soul to have three parts (or powers). I'd like to delve into this a little bit as we look to how we find peace, and though there's some variance in how they understood this, they largely agree on certain points, and these are the parts of the soul that we seek to master. Those who did the Foundations course this year will recognise some of these details.

Firstly, we have the excitable part of our soul, and this is the part of us that feels strong emotions and gets fired up. We also have a desiring part, the part of us that wants and craves satisfaction. Then there is the intellectual part, the part of us that reasons and thinks. When these are not working well, we lose our peace. If our excitable part is ill, we show anger, irritation and impatience to other people, even hatred. When our desiring part is ill, we lust after people and we covet things, and we show greed and gluttony and all manner of addictions. When our intellectual part is ill, we are filled with pride and judgement  and ignorance. But we find peace when these negative tendencies die and these parts of us are working as they should. When with our excitable parts, our anger is directed towards our sins and towards the enemy of our salvation. Instead, we show love towards other people. A desiring part is healed when we chase after God and want him above all else. It's not that other desires are bad, it's that we have God as our first love. Our intellectual part is healed when we use our reason with humility to make rational and wise choices for ourselves. 

The Icon of the Nativity represents then, not only the created order — the whole cosmos — but we can also understand it to be the human heart. We see the forces of the soul represented by symbols represented in the icon. The animals represent the excitable part of our nature. Anger is often shown symbolically as an uncontrolled stallion or bull for example. In the icon, however, the animals are quiet in the presence of Christ. The earth represents our desiring part because we often crave after earthly things. But here the earth is not mastering Christ or swallowing him up: it's serving him. The angels represent the intellectual part, where with our intellects, we try to lift ourselves up with inflated notions of our importance and abstract ideas. But here the angels are close to the ground, denoting humility. So the icon not only shows the cosmos, but also a healthy human soul ordered around Christ. When these forces have been mastered and directed Godward, then we fully function as we were intended.

Then we find peace. This is what the saints found. They found this peace. They are people whose souls work as they were created to work and all creation is at peace with them. This is why we hear of the saints doing things like disappearing and reappearing in other places, walking on water, or even wild animals being at peace with them. So in the church we see that the true path to peace is an inward path. It's a path where we examine ourselves; and if we are to condemn anyone, we condemn ourselves. 

In the world we find the opposite process: rather than a search within, it's a search without; the world looks outward to condemn others. This is counterproductive because if we're looking outward all the time, we cannot begin to work on ourselves and master these three forces. 

To help guard against this I'd like to share some final thoughts from St Silouan the Athonite, a 20th century saint. Reading his life and works this year, I was struck to read that, for him, all of what Orthodoxy has to offer — the prayers, the tradition, the scriptures, the teachings, the theology, the buildings, the icons and all else — boils down to two things: humility and love of enemies. If you have these two things, you have it all. But if you do not have these two things, then all the rest will not help you. 

On the topic of peace, this is what he has to say: “The soul cannot know peace unless she prays for her enemies. The soul that has learned of God's grace to pray feels love and compassion for every created thing, and in particular for mankind, for whom the Lord suffered on the cross, and his soul was heavy for every one of us. If you think evil of people, it means you have an evil spirit in you whispering evil thoughts about others. The Lord wants us to love our fellow man. If you reflect that the Lord loves him, you have a sign of the Lord's love for you. If you consider how greatly the Lord loves his creature and you yourself have compassion on all creation and love your enemies, counting yourself the vilest of all, it is a sign of the abundant grace of the Holy Spirit in you.” 

He even found the word enemies to be problematic. His biographer and disciple, St Sophrony of Essex writes: “to say enemy implies rejection. By such rejection, man falls from the plenitude of God, and is no longer in God.” 

So, how can we cultivate this love of enemies? I'd like you to think of someone that you have not gotten along with this year. [It’s okay to pause here. I’ll wait.] 

(You might need more thinking time if there's more than one, or a group of people that you don't like in society or somewhere around the world.)

Think of the usual things that you think about this person, or these people. Might be things like: 

  • They're so wrong or so evil, or I wish they weren't here; or,
  • Why don't they change their ways; or
  • If only they would stop, we would be fine. We would be okay; or
  • If only they didn't exist, I would be happy. 

These prideful and condemning thoughts take away our peace and lead us to become, in the words of St. Silouan: “a torment to ourselves and to others.” 

Instead, what we need to do is to try to cultivate humble thoughts. 

This is a collection of suggested thoughts from different saints. (Let's try thinking these little sweethearts.)

  • They will be saved and I alone will be condemned. 
  • At any point, they may repent and become holier and closer to God than me. 
  • God loves them so much he suffered and died for their salvation. 
  • They are better than I. 
  • I will pray for them with my whole heart. 
  • I wish I could take their sins on myself, and I mourn their sins as if I committed them. 

To anyone who finds these a little bit extreme: this is nothing other than what God has done for every single one of us. Rather than condemning us for our sins, he sends His Son, who willingly takes on our sins and our punishment for us. 

This is hard. No wonder we don't have peace in the world. It's far easier to be affronted by others' sins: to judge and condemn, to feel self-righteous, to compare ourselves to others. Not one of us wants to humble ourselves, let alone before people that we classify as enemies. It's far easier to let the ill parts of our soul hold sway over us, dragging us this way and that. But this is also the path to anxiety and to torment.

The epistle today says, “God has sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts.” So, we have the capacity. We do have the capacity by God's grace to show this humble love that manifests itself most fully in a love of enemies. 

If we're to find peace this Christmas, then we are to live as the Prince of Peace, or at least try to by God's Grace. So to conclude then, Ebenezer Scrooge, in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, after he repents of his ways says, “I will honour Christmas in my heart and try to keep it all the year.” Let's try to do this, but not in superficial ways — not by wishful thinking, having nice feelings towards others, warm fuzzy thoughts of goodwill that are forgotten the next instant — as the warring combatants did in Children of Men. But in truly striving to find peace within ourselves. 

Inner peace is something that's often mentioned today that focuses so much on wellness and wellbeing. We're not talking about sitting in the lotus position amid lavender scented candles. We are talking about the concrete and practical steps that the church gives us to overcome the passions within us by God's Grace. That is the ascetic life of the church. This is why we've been looking at the spiritual disciplines in these last months: Confession, Almsgiving, Fasting, Eucharist, Scripture, the Saints, all undergirded by Prayer. These help us find liberation in our souls. They help us to die to the old and live to the new. They help us regain the harmony of all our spiritual powers: the excitable, the desiring, and the intellectual.

So we see in the this icon the state of our hearts when Christ is firmly established. We find peace with all the created order, and we find true inner peace. Let's make this our resolution for 2023 to be people of peace, firstly within ourselves, so that we may bring the peace of Christ to others as well. May it be so for all of us:

Christ is Born!

In the Name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit. Amen.

— Subdeacon Timothy Grace, Sermon for the Nativity, 25 December 2022.