There is a real sense in the hymns of Christmas that, as the Talking Heads say, “time isn’t holding up”; it’s not behaving as we think it should in its usual linear way. It is not unlike Holy Week in that regard. On Great and Holy Friday, for example, we sing, “Today he who hung the earth upon the waters is hung upon the tree.....” Today? You mean 2,000 years ago, right? A long time ago in a galaxy far, faraway? No, the hymns insist: today!
Likewise at Christmas we sing, “Today the Virgin gives birth to the Transcendent One....” There is, of course, the notion that this is just a poetic device, or, worse, play-acting, as if we are reenacting the Nativity, a sort of liturgical Christmas pageant minus the sheep and donkey costumes. These theories, however, miss completely the real significance of this intentional and unabashed use of the present tense.
But it is not just the use of “Today” with its ability to move us seemingly back in time, it is also the way the hymns connect events from the life of Christ to those prior. Have you ever noticed, for example, that a number of the hymns continually refer in same breath to the Nativity and to Eden, Paradise, Adam, etc.? The Troparion of the Prefeast is a good example:
Prepare, O Bethlehem,
for Eden has been opened to all!
Adorn yourself, O Ephratha,
for the tree of life blossoms forth from the Virgin in the cave!
Her womb is a spiritual paradise planted with the Divine Fruit:
If we eat of it, we shall live forever and not die like Adam.
Christ comes to restore the image which He made in the beginning!
Not only, then, is time not holding up in that we keep singing of past events as present (“Today!”), but the hymns also consistently conjoin the events of Christ’s birth 2,000 years ago with the creation of the world, the making of man, etc. It is almost as if the hymns were telling us that in the events of Christ’s birth, life, death, resurrection, etc., time contracts and is gathered together in some way.
When Christ the eternal Son of God enters into the world of our flesh and blood and he takes our created, time-bound human nature and make sit his own, something profound happens to time. It is not eradicated or destroyed, but it becomes capable of bearing eternity. Just as Christ assumes our flesh and blood and makes it his own, deified, flesh and blood, time, when it is conjoined to Divine eternity, takes on characteristics not proper to its own nature without being destroyed. And as this time, with its before and after, contracts into the eternity of Christ in the events of his birth, life, death, and resurrection, it comes forth changed, open to eternity. Christ makes every chronological moment of time a doorway into the eternity of God, which is not an eternity of time stretching out forever, but rather the eternal now - the bliss, joy and blessedness - of the ever-present God. Now is when Christ is. This moment - Today! - is the birth, the baptism, the death, the resurrection, and the ascension of the one whose entry into time opens time upward, and makes of each moment a passage, an exodus, into the Divine eternity.
This contraction of time into eternity happens especially in the Divine Liturgy. We begin the Liturgy with the exclamation, “Blessed is the Kingdom....!” We realize the Kingdom in the Liturgy, not as a place or thing somewhere else or at some other time, but here and now. And this is why the hymns of Christmas call us to come to Bethlehem, to the cave of Mystery that we see in the festal icon. To enter into the Liturgy is to be at the cave in Bethlehem because Christ has summoned us, like the Magi and the shepherds, there - here and now! - to enter into the Mystery of salvation.
With love in Christ,