"Merry Orthodox Christmas"
in the West celebrate Christmas on December 25, Orthodox Christians keep the
Feast of Christ's Nativity on January 7. Here the Patriarch of Jerusalem, the
spiritual leader of Orthodox Christians in the Holy Land, the 141st bishop of
Jerusalem in a succession that stretches back unbroken, by tradition, to James,
the Brother of Jesus, reflects on the meaning of Christmas in the land where
Jesus was born.
Christians from the Holy Land as well as pilgrims from the world over gather in
the Feast of the Nativity of Jesus Christ. Here, in one of the oldest church
buildings in the world in continuous use, the faithful come to celebrate their
belief that God entered human history in the person of Jesus. For Christians,
hope has a face: the face of the infant Jesus. Because, Christians say, in the
face of this person we see the very face of God.
For Orthodox Christians, the life of faith is not built simply on principles for living a good
life, though such principles are certainly important. For us, the life of faith
is grounded first and foremost in this historical event, in which God took on
our human life in all its fullness so that we, in our turn, might be drawn into
the fullness of God's own divine life.
The first church
to be built on the traditional site of the birth of Christ in Bethlehem was begun by the Empress Helena,
the mother of the Emperor Constantine the Great, in the year 327. Beneath the
church is the grotto of the Nativity. Here for 1700 years the faithful have
venerated the place of Jesus' birth. In the year 565, the Emperor Justinian I,
who also built the great church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, rebuilt the
Church of the Nativity, and over the centuries there have been many alterations
and repairs to the building. When the Persians invaded the Holy
Land in the early 7th century, the Church of the Nativity was one
of the few Christian holy sites not to be destroyed. It remains a unique
architectural masterpiece of the early Christian era.
Here, in this
ancient and holy place, Orthodox Christians will gather to welcome the birth of
their Savior today. One of the most famous features of the church is the low
door at its entrance, through which everyone, from princes and presidents to
shopkeepers and students, must enter bent over in adoration and humility.
Patriarchate of Jerusalem has been a constant witness to this truth of faith
and of history for 2000 years. We endeavor to ensure that the holy sites of
this Holy Land remain places of pilgrimage and
religious observance for all people of good will, for we understand the power
of place and of history to make God real for us. We understand that God
transcends all material things and all human constructs; but we also understand
that the presence and knowledge of God are mediated to us by holy places. We
all know of those "thin" places where heaven and earth seem to touch,
and time and eternity meet. The grotto of the Nativity is just such a place.
There has been a
Christian presence in the Holy Land since the
time of Jesus and the apostles, and in this region we have come to know
something of the power of place and history both for good and for ill. But for
us Orthodox in the Holy Land, whatever the
political or economic circumstances in which we find ourselves, Christmas is a
yearly reminder that hope has a face, the face of a newborn child who is
greeted by shepherds and worshipped by Wise Men.
At Christmas we
Orthodox sing, "Today the Virgin gives birth to the Transcendent One...for
our sake the eternal God was born as a little Child!" These words describe
a wonderful paradox. For not only does a Virgin give birth - itself a sign to
us of an inexpressible example of divine-human co-operation - but "the
eternal God is born as a little Child." While a Western mind may stop to
ask how such a thing might be possible, the Orthodox mind allows itself to be
embraced by mystery. For what better hope could there be than God himself
breaking into human history.
Our sacred history
lies at the heart of our identity as Christians in the Holy
Land. We live in the places where that sacred history unfolded,
and here Jews and Muslims, as well as Christians, are living witnesses to it in
all its complexity. But at the heart of that complexity remains the person of
Jesus, who is the face of hope.
Hope is not
optimism. Hope does not turn its eyes away from the truth of life in all its
beauty and in all its danger. In the face of the life of the world as it is,
hope insists that there is a different way for the human family to live
altogether, a way that was originally intended for us, and a way in which we
could walk again if we were but willing to do so. The birth of this Child has
made that hope a genuine possibility for the human family, and it is the
responsibility of faithful people to be co-creators with God of a new future
for creation that ensures the well-being of all the unique creatures of God.
For Christians in the Holy Land, the life of faith is not a decoration to an
existence of other accomplishments. The life of faith is a journey into union
with the One who is our Life and our Hope, our Light and our true Wisdom. January
7 in Bethlehem we shall gather once again to
proclaim this Hope to all the world: "Make ready, O Bethlehem, for paradise is opened!".
Beatitude Patriarch Theophilos III, 141st Patriarch of Jerusalem, January 6, 2010.
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