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The Nativity in the Life of the Virgin

Updated: Feb 27, 2023

As we wish you a most blessed Christmas, the Pappas Patristic Institute offers you the following reflections on the Nativity of Christ from the Life of the Virgin Mary by the poet John Geometres. John Geometres (ca. 935 - ca. 1000) was one of the most highly accomplished writers of the Byzantine period and the poet laureate of his day. Among his most important writings, the Life of the Virgin Mary is arguably the single most significant witness to Marian doctrine and devotion ever produced in the Byzantine world. The following excerpts touch on the birth of the Virgin's son, the Lord Jesus Christ, whose nativity we celebrate annually on December 25.

It was on account of Joseph that the Virgin went to be enrolled for the census, and when this is understood on the level of contemplation, we see that it was in this same moment that the Word of God departed for our sakes from the conditions that were proper to him, descended from the heavens, and humbled himself to life in the body, and ultimately to the cross and the tomb. Joseph was thus a figure of the incarnate Word, and became the minister of a great mystery, moving as he did from his proper place to a foreign land, for he too descended from a higher place into a lowly one; and just as the Word descended from the intelligible Jerusalem, so too did Joseph descend from the sensible Judea to faraway Nazareth. After this, the decree of law, or rather the word of the prophet, compelled him to return again to the higher Bethlehem.


What happened at the birth of God in the flesh? The dividing walls were removed and enmity was brought to an end (cf. Eph 2:14). All things were overtaken by an unearthly peace and an intimate intermingling; and not only did God become man but heaven was also mingled with the earth; and angels drew near to the shepherds, and the shepherds were illumined by the angels, who proclaimed to them that the great and first shepherd had been born in a cave like a lamb; and the earth was taught a heavenly doxology, for heaven was delighted by the peace and goodwill on earth (Lk 10:14). This strange sight and sound created great fear in the shepherds, but their fear quickly became the cause of an even greater joy, for the angel not only expressly dispelled their fear, but also increased their joy. Fear not, he said to them, for behold, I bring you good news, not of great fear but of great joy, which is not only for the people of Israel but for all people (Lk 2:10). And the cause of this joy is the young and truly new child, which is clear from his titles themselves, for unto you, he says, is born a savior, Christ the Lord. Now of these three titles, the first designates his activity, the third his authority, and the one in the middle his nature or rather his natures, for this is what Christ is by nature, that is, God and man. And the signs of this are the time and the place, namely, today and in the city of David (Lk 2:10-11). These events astonished the shepherds and caused them to leave their flocks and make their way to Bethlehem, seeking in the night their savior who is light.


When the ray of the star had come closer and grown brighter, and like a finger pointed to the place where the child was born, it ceased guiding the Magi and their journey came to an end. And they rejoiced with great joy (Mt 2:10), because they had completed their arduous labors and travels, and because of the miracle concerning the star — or rather because they had been counted worthy of so many miracles and wonders, and because they themselves would now become the heralds of great wonders both to those in the surrounding regions and to all the earth. But what was even greater than all these things was the discovery of something beyond their expectations, which they did not learn from the others who reached the cave before them but indeed from the very child himself. What do I mean by this? As soon as they beheld him, they were suffused with the grace, pleasure, and light that came forth from him, and this filled them with great joy. And not only this, but the presence and sight of his mother transcended all grace and dignity, and her manner was beyond human understanding, since nothing of the weariness of childbirth could be observed in her, but instead she was even more radiant after the birth, because she too was filled with the light of the child.

All these things, as well as being the the first to behold these wonders, made the Magi rejoice exceedingly, filling them with divine pleasure and delight. Thus, they did not only worship him as king and God, but in confirmation of these titles they also offered him gifts. Of these, the gold was obvious, for he is king, while the frankincense and the myrrh (Mt 2:11) indicate that he became mortal for our sake, inasmuch as he became man, so that through him I might become God and immortal. And they were moved by the Holy Spirit to offer these gifts, so that, just as with all the other things, they might also become examples for our own spiritual offerings: our purified mind or way of life as gold; our contemplation as frankincense; and, not least, the mortification of our passions, that is, our bodily members, as myrrh, which Scripture defines as impassibility and the kingdom of heaven (cf. Col 3:5). To be sure, they also venerated the Mother of the Word, who likewise received gifts from them. These, and things still more magnificent than these, were given to you, O Virgin, by the mighty one, your son, and thus from the very beginning, and through all things, he made you blessed, causing all these divine events to concur, just as in the end he will make you more blessed, something which he has assured through the things that took place on this day.


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