The Mystery of the Manger
One of the ways that we can prepare for the upcoming feast of our Lord’s Nativity is through pondering the hymns of the feast. When we look at these hymns, particularly those of the forefeast (the days leading up to the Nativity), we discover something very interesting: the hymnographers who composed these hymns took their inspiration from the hymns of Holy Week, the services of our Lord’s Passion. In fact, in many instances they modeled their compositions directly on those of Holy Week. An example of this is the canon on Dec. 22, the acrostic of which is “I SING THE GREAT SONG OF HOLY THURSDAY”. Thus we see that the inspiration for this canon for the 3rd day before Nativity comes from Holy Thursday.
Let’s look at the original, the canon of Holy Thursday, starting with verse 2 from the first ode of the canon.
We see here that the hymn focuses on the Last/Mystical Supper of Christ with His disciples. The Supper is Christ’s initiation - as the incarnate Wisdom of God - of the disciples into the mystery of His passion by means of the “table that nourishes the soul” and the “cup of immortality.” Now let’s turn to the corresponding verse in the canon of the forefeast for Dec. 22.
We can see immediately that we are still focusing on an initiation by Christ, the Wisdom of God. We can also see that this initiation is described as a sort of meal, even though the terms “table” and “cup” have been replaced with the related terms “feeds” and “food”. But now let’s note how the remainder of this Holy Week text has been used in the context of the Nativity.
First of all, we see that the initiates are no longer the “friends” of Christ, the disciples, in the upper room of the Mystical Supper. The initiates are now the “Magi” as the “first fruits of the peoples” (“peoples” being another for the Gentles, the nations, those who would come to Christ from outside the Jewish people).
Secondly, in the canon of Holy Thursday, Christ has brought the disciples to the table in the upper room; but in the canon the forefeast He has summoned the Magi to “the manger.” Now, what is a manger? It is a crib or a box to contain food for animals. But here, in a beautiful and spiritually rich interpretation, it is the incarnate Wisdom of God who lies in the manger, not as food for the “dumb beasts”, but as mystical food for the Magi: specifically, “the mystical food of the knowledge of God.” Thus we see that, as the Mystical Supper of the disciples “nourishes the soul”, the crib/manger is, for the Magi, a “banquet”.
We can see, then, clear examples in these hymns of how the Holy Week text has influenced that of the forefeast of Nativity. First, there are obvious eucharistic overtones from Holy Thursday in the Nativity text. But instead of the disciples, as in the Holy Week hymn, it is the Magi as firstfruits of the nations who are initiated into the mystery of Christ. They are brought to the manger (a food-box) where Christ lays before them as a banquet of the knowledge of God. Thus the eucharist, which is normally associated with the death of Christ, is here associated with His birth.
And this leads to a second observation: the salvation which Christ accomplishes is not limited to the “work” of His death (or even the resurrection) but includes His nativity, and indeed His whole incarnate life in the flesh.
As we prepare for the great and holy feast of our Lord’s birth, we must recognize that we, too, have been summoned like the Magi. And we have been called not simply to be spectators at the manger but initiates into the Mystery. For:
The One who offered Himself on the Cross is the One who lowered Himself to the manger. He it is Who gives Himself as food to the faithful.
May we, like the Magi, seek him during this Nativity fast so that we may find Him in the great and holy feast of His birth.
With love in Christ,
“Give me a word!”
This is the month which brings all manner of joy; it is the freedom of the bondsmen, the pride of the free, the crown of the gates, the soothing of the body, that also in its love put purple upon us as upon kings.
This is the month that brings all manner of victories; it frees the spirit; it subdues the body; it brings forth life among mortals; it caused, in its love, Godhead, to dwell in Manhood.
In this day the Lord exchanged glory for shame, as being humble; because Adam changed the truth for unrighteousness as being a rebel: the Good One had mercy on him, justified and set right them that had turned aside.
Let every man chase away his weariness, since that Majesty was not wearied with being in the womb nine months for us, and in being thirty years in Sodom among the madmen.
Because the Good One saw that the race of man was poor and humbled, He made feasts as a treasure-house, and opened them to the slothful, that the feast might stir up the slothful one to rise and be rich.
Lo! The First-born has opened unto us His feast as a treasure-house. This one day in the whole year alone opens that treasure-house: come, let us make gain, let us grow rich from it, ere they shut it up.
-St Ephraim the Syrian