The Incarnation Begins Our Adoption Process
To prepare for the Nativity, the Orthodox church adds texts to the readings and the prayers of the two Sundays preceding Nativity.
The second Sunday before Nativity is called the Sunday of the Forefathers, and the Sunday before is called the Sunday of the Genealogy on which is read Matthew chapter 1, which begins, "The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham."
Not only are the physical ancestors of Christ commemorated, but also many faithful saints from the Old Testament, including the prophets and women like Deborah, Judith, and Hannah.
These two Sundays emphasize three things about Jesus Christ. First, they emphasize that Our Lord's humanity is not illusory but real, that he has a family tree and is part of the human race. He shares our flesh. He was a flesh and blood babe in the womb of Mary, nourished by her body therein, and after birth as a nursing infant.
Second, he is also the divine Son and fully God. Of this God it is said in our readings: "He was not a ghost, an apparition, a myth, a distant imagined god, or the abstract god of philosophers; such a god does not have a family tree."
Third, he is born into a people and part of their history. The house of Israel, and the house of David. He is preceded by a long line of faithful witnesses, who through prophecy and deeds in Scripture point to Christ. Some texts for this coming Sunday interweave all three strands:
O Bethlehem, rejoice; Ephratha, make thou ready; for in her womb the Ewe-lamb doth bear the Great Shepherd, and lo, she now urgently makes haste to give birth to Him. On beholding Him, the righteous God-bearing Fathers all rejoice, and with the shepherds sing hymns of praise of the Virgin that nursed a child.
Beholding the splendor of thy conception shining out, O Virgin, Abraham the friend of God, the celebrated Isaac, Jacob and all the divinely gathered choir of the Saints rejoice, and they have brought creation to meet thee with words of jubilation. For thou art the cause of joy for all, who didst conceive in thy womb Him that was seen of old in Babylon and past all understanding preserved the Children unburnt, when they were unjustly cast into the furnace. Wherefore, they sing unto Him Who was seen in the hands of the young Maiden, and they praise the Virgin that nursed a child.
It is also known as the Sunday of the Holy Genealogy. We remember ... those in the Old Testament who were related to Christ by blood, and those who spoke of His Birth as a man. In the Divine Liturgy, we shall read of Jesus Christ's lineage from the Gospel of Saint Matthew. In this way, the Church shows us that Christ truly became a man, taking on human nature. ... Our God is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He has flesh and blood, human ancestors-many of whom sinned greatly, but like David, also repented greatly. Yet, all of these righteous ones in every age had been well-pleasing to God because they loved Him. By taking on human nature, the Son of God became like us in all ways, in flesh and blood, in mind and soul, and in heart and will. Since we know that Christ's human nature remained sinless, He is also fully divine, and He shows us the way in which we can avoid sin, and so improve and transform our human nature. (The Synaxarion)
Emmanuel means God With Us. God has a place in our family tree. He took on our doomed mortal flesh to heal, sanctify, redeem, and raise it up at the last day. What began at the Annunciation is announced to the shepherds by the angel, "I bring you good tidings of great joy."
Paul writes of the transformative importance of his birth:
But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. Galatians 4:4-5
God has only one house, one household. This adoption by the King makes us members of the royal family, a royal priesthood, and a holy nation. Israel's history becomes our history.
When we sing Gloria in excelsis Deo on Christmas, we join the choirs of patriarchs, prophets, and holy men and women of the Old Testament, along with the choirs of angels, apostles, and "bright citizens of heaven above." Come, let us go forth and adore him!
Yours for Christ, Creed & Culture,
James M. Kushiner
Executive Director, The Fellowship of St. James
James M. Kushiner is Executive Editor of Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity, and Executive Director of The Fellowship of St. James.