Last week we noted that the hymnographers who composed some of the hymns of the forefeast of Nativity deliberately modeled them on the hymns of Holy Week, in several instances borrowing directly from those hymns of the Passion but setting them in the context of the birth of our Lord. This week let’s continue our examination by looking at another example, a hymn from Holy Friday and its corresponding hymn from the canon for the forefeast of Nativity sung on December 23 (ode 9, verse 4). Here is the Holy Friday hymn:
Like a pack of dogs they surrounded Thee, O King,
smiting Thee on the cheek with their hands.
They questioned Thee and bore false witness against Thee,
yet by enduring all things Thou hast saved all.
We can see clearly that the setting is the suffering and beating of Christ by the Roman soldiers, who surround our Lord like a pack of dogs ready to devour their prey.
Turning to the hymn for the forefeast of Christmas, we might expect that the writer of the corresponding hymn of the forefeast would, in contrast to the soldiers as a pack of dogs, refer to the animals in the manger surrounding Christ. Instead, however, the hymn writer elevates our minds beyond the plane of the visible.
The angels surround the manger as the throne of the cherubim;
they behold the cavern as heaven.
They sing to the Master enthroned in the cave:
Glory to God in the highest!
In a beautiful contrast with the Holy Week hymn, instead of our Lord being surrounded by the soldiers who are like “dogs” we see Him surrounded by angels. He who sits upon the cherubim in Heaven is now seen “enthroned in the cave”. And here we have another important theme of the feast of the Nativity: the union of Heaven and earth in Christ’s incarnation.
In the Old Testament Scriptures the angels are regularly depicted as worshipping God on His heavenly throne. In Isaiah 6, for example, Isaiah has a vision in which he is allowed to see the angels worshipping God crying “Holy! Holy! Holy!” And the Psalms are shot through with references to the angels worshipping God on His throne in Heaven.
So when we turn to the New Testament and to the stories of our Lord’s birth and we find angels there, this is of more than just passing interest. It has profound theological implications that the hymn writers are quick to pick up on: for it means that the God who is worshipped by the angels on His heavenly throne is now worshipped on earth. As the verse says, “they behold the cavern [where the infant Christ lays] as heaven. They sing to the Master enthroned in the cave.”
Once again, then, we see how, particularly in the great feasts of the Church which commemorate our Lord’s economy of salvation, the hymns provide a theologically rich and spiritually profound mediation on these events. In the present hymn specifically, we are invited to see beyond the words of Scripture and the external events of our Lord’s birth and to perceive the spiritual reality contained within: that this child in the manger is no mere child and this is not simply a miraculous birth. This is, in fact, the birth in the flesh of the eternal Son of God. He who is worshipped on the throne of heaven by the angels is now worshipped in the cave. There is a sort of spiritual mingling so that the cave, and thus the earth, become heavenly. And we who celebrate the feast are called to see this and to join in this union. In other words, we who are earthborn creatures are invited to join the heavenly creatures - the angels - in their worship and adoration and thus to become ourselves heavenly.
This mystical awareness and insight into the inner spiritual reality of the feast is very similar to what happens when we come to Church, especially for the Divine Liturgy. We sing the angels song: “Holy! Holy! Holy!” We make the entrance with the Gospel and with the gifts in the awareness that we are accompanied by the angels. We sing: “Let us who mystically represent the Cherubim, and who sing the thrice-holy hymn to the life-creating Trinity, now lay aside all earthly cares. That we may receive the King of All, Who comes invisibly upborne by the angelic hosts. Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!” And we do all of this, not simply in imitation of the angels, as if we are trying to imitate “down here” what they are doing “up there”. Rather we believe and affirm that mystically and truly “up there” is “down here”. We do not merely imitate; we participate. In Holy Communion we receive “the King of All, Who comes invisibly upborne by the angelic hosts.”
This reality is at the heart of the feast of the Nativity: Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace. Peace because earth has become and is becoming heaven, the dwelling place of God.
With love in Christ,