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Cave of Birth ~ Cave of Death

For the past couple of weeks we have been comparing the hymns before Christmas with another set of hymns which inspired them, those of Holy Week. Let’s continue that exploration with the canon of Holy Saturday, ode 1, verse 2.

Beholding Thee upon the throne on high and in the grave below,

the things of heaven and the things beneath the earth trembled at Thy death;

for in a manner past understanding wast Thou,

the very Source of Life,

seen dead.

A sense of amazement and wonder pervades this hymn: He who is at once in Heaven upon the throne as God and in the grave with His body as man causes both angels and demons to tremble by His death and descent to the grave. Now let’s look at the corresponding Nativity hymn:

All things in heaven and on earth were amazed at Thy power,

beholding Thee upon Thy throne on high and in the manger below!

In ways beyond understanding Thou hast come to us, Savior,

appearing in two natures:

God and man.

We see that the hymn has borrowed liberally from the Holy Saturday text: the sense of amazement is still here, and once again it is due to Christ’s “coming down” to us. But there is a significant difference, for in the Nativity hymn this descent is not to the grave, but rather to the manger. And this highlights a very significant theological point, namely, that Christ’s descent - His humbling or lowering Himself for our salvation - is not limited to His death. The whole incarnation and economy is one movement, one descent, from His throne in Heaven as God down to us in the incarnation and birth, going down even to suffering and death on the Cross and, finally, the descent into Hades.

This one movement is the focus of an even earlier hymn, one quoted by St Paul in his letter to the Philippians when he writes of "Christ Jesus, who...made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” The manger and the grave are not simply the beginning and the end of our Lord’s earthly story. Rather, they are two expressions of the one Mystery which is always and only the Paschal mystery of Christ’s self-offering and self-emptying love.

This correlation between manger and grave - cave of birth and cave of death - is explored even more fully later in the canon of Christmas Eve where at least six of the hymns draw explicitly from the canon of Holy Saturday but replace references to the tomb of Christ with references to His manger. Let’s look at one of the Holy Saturday hymns:

Hell was wounded in heart when it received Him whose side was pierced by a spear,

and it groans, consumed by divine fire,

unto the salvation of us who sing:

"Blessed art Thou, O God, our Redeemer!”

It is clear that, although the hymn does not explicitly refer to the grave, we are in fact contemplating Christ’s burial and, through it, the descent into Hades, where Hell is wounded.

Now let’s look at the Christmas counterpart to this hymn:

The enemy and deceiver was wounded, beholding God

laid in a poor and narrow manger as a babe:

he was cast down by the hand of God for our salvation, who sing:

“Blessed art Thou, O God, our Redeemer!”

Here, instead of Hell/Hades as in the Holy Saturday canon, the enemy and deceiver was wounded. But here he is wounded and cast down beholding God laid in a poor and narrow manger as a babe. Christ, by His infinite and divine humility, overcame the evil one; and this humility was expressed in the manger as well as the tomb, in the cave of birth as well as the cave of death.

So often the hymns of the Nativity, like those of Holy Week, call us to “behold”, to “see”, and to “look upon” the One in the manger. What we must see as we prepare for the feast of our Lord’s birth is that we are being invited to behold here, in the manger, the Crucified One, the Lord of Glory, whose glory is manifest precisely in His infinite humility. We are being invited to see, as always, the one mystery of Christ, the Paschal mystery, revealed in the manger and the tomb, in the cave and in the Cross.

With love in Christ,

Fr John

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