Journey to Bethlehem, Part 2

What shall we offer Thee, O Christ, Who for our sakes hast appeared on earth as man? Every creature made by Thee offers Thee thank. The angels offer a hymn; the heavens a star; the wisemen gifts; the shepherds, their wonder; the earth, its cave; the wilderness, a manger.  And we offer Thee a virgin mother.  O pre-eternal God, have mercy on us!

In my last post, we began our “Journey to Bethlehem” through Rublev’s stunning Icon of the Nativity.  We encountered St. Joseph, tempted by the devil, as well as the nursemaids giving our Lord His first bath; and we learned of the critical meeting of the divine and the human in Jesus’ birth.

According to the hymn I have shared above, the angels offer a hymn, the heavens a star, the shepherds—their wonder.  What hymn do the angels offer?  The very hymn sung still today in the Orthodox Churches as the “Small Doxology” in the Matins (morning prayers) services, and known in many Western Christian Churches as “the Gloria”:  “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men, with whom he is pleased.”  We introduce this angelic hymn with a theological praise: “Glory to Thee, who hast shown us the light!”

The angels, glowing with the light of Christ, “the glory of the Lord,” also greeted the wondering shepherds.  According to the Scriptures, these Jewish shepherds went and found the announced Savior, born as a child, and told all what they had seen and heard from the angels.  Not surprisingly, “All who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them.”  What was the wonder?  Quite surely the very same wonder uttered by Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist, “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another” (Luke 7:20)?  More on the answer to that question when we speak about the ox and the ass who gaze into the manger.

RozdestvoHristovo_RublevBlagSoborMKWhile the shepherds were among the believing Jews, the “three” Magi, or wise men (not numbered in the Scriptures, but know traditionally in the Church as Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar) represent the offering of salvation to the “rest of the world,” known Biblically as “the Gentiles.”  The promise of salvation was not given strictly to the chosen Jews, which can be seen clearly even in God’s words to the Patriarch Abraham: “…I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; and by you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:2-3, LXX). How shall Abraham “be a blessing,” and how is it that through him “all the families of the earth shall be blessed?”  Because Abraham is the forefather of King David, who is the forefather of Jesus Christ.  In Jesus Christ, this promise is fulfilled, and for this reason the star appears, the Angels rejoice, and the shepherds wonder!

These gentile astronomers offered prophetic gifts to the Infant King: gold foretelling His royalty; frankincense (a fragrant incense), His divinity; and myrrh (a fragrant ointment/oil especially used to prepare corpses for burial) foreshadowing His death.  Equally as beautiful as their gifts and their representation of the salvation of the gentiles is what they learned from this experience.  Consider this Orthodox Hymn of the feast. 

Thy Nativity O Christ our God, has shown to the world the light of wisdom / for by it those who worshiped the stars, were taught by a star to adore Thee, the Sun of Righteousness / and to know Thee, the Orient from on High, O Lord, Glory to Thee!

The magi (not magicians or kings, but astronomers) who “worshiped the stars” were “taught by a star” to adore Jesus Christ.

The Lord of Creation and King of Glory uses all that He has created to point each and every one of us, in our own unique way, to know Him, Emmanuel, God with us.

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Fr. John Parker

Fr John Parker is the pastor of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in Mt Pleasant, South Carolina, and the Chair of the Department of Evangelization of the Orthodox Church in America. He graduated the College of William and Mary (1993) with a major in Spanish and a minor in German. He earned his MDiv at Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry in Ambridge, PA. After being received into the Orthodox Church, he earned an MTh at St Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary, where is also currently enrolled in the Doctor of Ministry program. He has been a frequent writer for Charleston, SC's Post and Courier. He and Matushka Jeanette celebrated 20 years of marriage in April 2014, and have two sons nearing High School graduation.


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