A Complete History of Christmas & Its Significance | Bible History

The Incarnation of the Lord Jesus Christ as seen through the single lens of the Nativity at Bethlehem  marks a turning point in the history of the human race. When we ponder this event, we must strive to comprehend the majesty of what truly transpired here: nothing less than that God became Man. Furthermore, in the moment of the Nativity, God became not a human in the full splendor of adult maturity, but rather something far humbler and thus something far more astonishing: just a mere little babe. In this regard, the wisdom of the Church Fathers helps us to reflect on the glorious profundity of what transpired in Bethlehem on that most sacred night of the Lord’s birth.

A dramatic ontological chasm exists between the divine and the human, separating God from man. In this regard, the theology of the Church Fathers makes certain assumptions about God, on the one hand, and about human beings, on the other.  To them, God is, by definition, the Supreme First Principle of the Universe. God thus has certain qualities. First, He is eternal, meaning that God has always existed forever unto ages of ages before the world’s beginning: for if something were older than God, then God would be junior to it, and on account of this other thing’s priority of antiquity—its “existing first”—this “something” would have a claim to be God over Him. Second, God is omnipotent, meaning that He is all-powerful and almighty: for if something were more powerful than God, then this “something” would be supreme over Him, and so would be God instead. Third, God is omniscient, for if God is all-powerful, then He must be all-knowing too. Fourth, God is immaterial, meaning that God is neither constituted by physical matter, nor subject to its constraints: for God is beyond the material world, and if, to the contrary, He were contained within it, then the thing containing Him would be greater than Him, and thus would be God itself. Fifth, God is immutable, meaning that God is always the same, always consistent, and so never changes: for God is perfect, and what is supremely perfect does not change, since such change in God would entail deterioration from a state of perfection to a new, altered state of imperfection in relation to what came before. Finally, God is impassible, meaning that God does not suffer and is never subject to domination by external forces: for if something were to dominate God, then this mightier “thing” would be greater than Him, and thus would be God itself. The Trisagion, one of the great hymns of the ancient Church, suggests all these ideas in a few short yet profound lines: “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us!” In fact, some of the Church Fathers even argued that human words cannot even be used to describe God, because God is so different from humans. Such epitomizes the lofty conception of God in Christian tradition. As we reflect on the Nativity, we must keep it in mind.

Because if all these qualities are essential attributes of God, surely they are not natural qualities of man. After all: human beings are neither eternal; nor are they omnipotent; nor omniscient; nor immaterial; nor immutable; nor impassible. Hence the great gulf, the infinite, immeasurable gap, which divides God from Humanity. And if these divine qualities do not pertain to a mature human being in the peak of his mental and physical fitness, how much more so do they fail to pertain to a newborn child? Yet God Himself was just such a babe at the hour of His Nativity in Bethlehem.

Hence the deep paradox, the sublime mystery, the grand solemnity of the Lord’s Incarnation epitomized in the moment of His birth on that most sacred night so long ago. The Church Fathers help us to appreciate the paradox of the Nativity. For they call attention to the disparity between God’s natural divine attributes, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, those human attributes He assumed as the Incarnate Babe held in Mary’s arms on that first Christmas night. How was that Baby “eternal”? For He had been born into life from Mary mere hours before. How was that Baby “almighty”? For He was dependent on the care of His Mother for all things, and, when Herod’s lieutenants came to persecute him, that vulnerable Child, the Lord of Angelic Hosts, fled before mere human hunters. How was that Baby “all-knowing”? For He was a newborn child incapable even of the simplest speech. How was that Baby “immaterial”? For His Mother held His little body to her bosom, so containing the Uncontainable in her arms, while feeding His tiny mouth with her milk so that His solid flesh might grow. How was that Baby “impassible”? For He suffered pangs of hunger, thirst, and discomfort just like any other child, and His cries rent the night air to betray that He, the Maker of All, was Himself in need of nourishment from what He Himself had created. Alluding to the mystery of it all, Ephrem exclaims: “Today a child was born, and He was called ‘wonder.’ For it is a wonder that God reveals Himself as an infant.” 

Indeed a wonder. For how was this possible? How was this little Child the eternal, omnipotent, omniscient, immaterial, immutable, impassible Lord of the Universe? The Church Fathers answer this question by reminding us of this Child’s identity: in short, that this Child was God, because what transpired here was a wondrous union between God and Man in which God was still God, even if now He became flesh. The Child was truly an infant, yes. But in the end, we must remember the Child’s identity. For who was He? None other than the One Eternal God, He Who had existed forever, yet Who had descended from on high to assume all the properties of human experience. So, even if as a human child the Christ Child, like all children, was meek, simple, fragile, small, and vulnerable…at the same time He remained God the divine Word, albeit God the divine Word in a new state, that is, God the divine Word in the flesh. Therefore, this Child was the Holy, Mighty, and Immortal Master of the Cosmos, and He retained all the divine properties naturally belonging to Him as God: yet now these divine properties coexisted alongside the human properties—the meekness, mildness, simplicity, fragility of a babe—which He had taken on to Himself in His incarnation, His wondrous condescension to the human condition. Cyril of Alexandria, preaching on the Nativity, states the idea thus: “Christ is the true Son, that is, He is the Son of God the Father by nature, even when He had become flesh: for He continued, as I have said, to be that which He had ever been, though He took upon Him that which He had not been.” The Christ Child was indeed a baby born into the world through a natural birth from His mother…yet at the same time the identity of that Baby did not begin there, for He was the God Who had existed forever, and He retained His identity as True God even after assuming flesh. 

This is the significance and the deep paradox of the Nativity. The Lord’s birth at Bethlehem epitomizes the fact that God became Man, and that, in doing so, He eschewed no part of human experience, down to time on earth as a tiny little baby. The Fathers of the Church help us to reflect on the reasons for God’s loving abasement, that free act of divine condescension to the human condition which resulted in the birth of the Incarnate Lord inside a humble stable at Bethlehem. In order to save humanity, the Fathers of the Church teach that God needed to assume all features of regular human life: because, by assuming each of these features, the God-Man Jesus Christ purified every single one of them through their intimate contact with His own radiant, salvific divinity. As Gregory Nazianzen once phrased the idea: “”What has not been assumed has not been healed; it is what is united to his divinity that is saved.” Yet in order to achieve the full cleansing of humanity, the Son of God needed to live a full human life…this meant living all parts of human life and all parts of human experience, including those first hours as a babe, just as all humans do. Hence the Nativity at Bethlehem, where the Virgin Mary gave birth to the Child Who was God, nursing the Lord of the Universe at her breast, holding His tiny body in her arms as He slept. By dwelling as a Child, God purified and sanctified all parts of human experience, down even to that moment when each of us—every single human alive—first comes forth from the womb.

This Child saved us, and Christians profess that He is God. And so today they continue to reverence the Baby Jesus alongside those Wise Men who were the very first to adore Him at Bethlehem so long ago. In this regard, one of the most popular themes in ancient Christian iconography—the same art that the Church Fathers saw in their liturgical spaces as they worshipped and prayed—was the image of the Magi before the Christ Child. This scene appears very often in the art preserved to us from antiquity. The fondness of ancient Christians for depicting the Magi reminds us of what they believed long ago, and what we believe today, the reality of what transpired at Bethlehem on the first Christmas night long ago. In that rustic stable, three Kings of the East fell prostrate in reverence before the Child of a common mother, a Babe born within the humble town of Bethlehem…yet the Child Whom these three great Kings of the Earth worshipped was, indeed, the Earth’s very Creator. And like the Wise Men who brought precious gifts to the newborn Jesus, the wisdom of the Early Church reminds us to approach the Christ Child—Eternal God, Newborn Babe—with gifts of prayer offered forth from our own hearts, laying our faith and our love at His feet just as the Magi themselves once laid before Him their gifts of frankincense, gold, and myrrh.

  1.  For an introduction to what follows in this paragraph, see G.L. Prestige, God in Patristic Thought (London: SPCK:, 1964), especially 1-24. Also, Mark Sheridan, Language for God in Patristic Tradition: Wrestling with Biblical Anthropomorphism (Downer’s Grove: IVP Academic, 2015), 27-44.
  2.  This attribute of God was one of the central themes at stake in the Arian Crisis, in which the heretic Arius argued that the Son could not be God because “there was a time when He [the Son] was not” (i.e. there was a time when the Son did not exist, meaning the Son is not eternal). The argument that ensued between Arius and his opponents over the divinity of the Son shows that all sides in the debate assumed that to be truly God is also to be truly eternal. This was not up for debate. The question under dispute was simply whether the Son was indeed eternal, and thus fully God. For Arius’ use of this idea, see the fragments from his corpus translated in Rowan Williams, Arius: Heresy and Tradition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 100-103, especially sections i, ii, and iii of the “A” version of Arius’ Thalia on page 100; the Creed of Nicaea of 325 translated in the same volume on page 278 also contains the text of the council’s condemnation of Arius’ position on the matter. For another statement on God’s eternity, see Augustine of Hippo, Expositions of the Psalms 101.2.10.
  3.  God’s omnipotence is discussed, for example, in Augustine of Hippo, City of God 5.10.
  4.  A thorough theoretical discussion of the principle of God’s immateriality/incorporeality can be found in Origen, On First Principles 1.1.2-1.1.7. See the translation by John Behr (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017). See also the famous discussion of this principle at Augustine, Confessions 7.1; also see 7.5. 
  5.  For this idea in the patristic corpus, see, for example, Justin Martyr, First Apology 13; Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies 2.34.2; Origen of Alexandria, Against Celsus 4.14; Athanasius of Alexandria, Four Discourses Against the Arians 1.39; Gregory Nazianzen, Catechetical Lectures 4.4-5; Second Theological Oration 28.9; Augustine of Hippo, Expositions of the Psalms 101.2.10.
  6.  Prestige, God in Patristic Thought, 6-9. For a full discussion, see Paul Gavrilyuk, The Suffering of the Impassible God: The Dialectics of Patristic Thought (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).
  7.  In Greek, the prayer is γιος Θεός, γιος σχυρός, γιος θάνατος, λέησον μς and in Latin “Sanctus Deus, Sanctus Fortis, Sanctus Immortalis, miserere nobis.” For patristic discussion of the prayer, see John of Damascus, Exposition of the Orthodox Faith 3.10.
  8.  It is important to remember that for the Church Fathers, the truth of the Incarnation was not confined to the Nativity itself.  Fr. John Behr (“Discussing ‘On the Incarnation,’” Lecture presented at the Orthodox School of Theology at Trinity College in Toronto on December, 22, 2017), in his study of Athanasius’ “On the Incarnation,” which was the first extensive treatment of this theological concept, has pointed out that for Athanasius, the focus of the Incarnation was not on the Nativity, as many theologians after him would focus on, but on the scandal of the crucifixion. 
  9.  Examples are virtually countless. See, for instance, Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on Luke, Sermon 2; , Ephrem, Hymn 3 on the Nativity; Augustine of Hippo, Sermon 90; and so many others.
  10.  Ephrem, Hymn 1 on the Nativity, line 9.
  11.  The classic patristic discussion of this “union” that occurs in the person of the Incarnate Christ is Cyril of Alexandria, On the Unity of Christ. See the translation by John McGuckin (Crestwood: Saint Vladimir Seminary Press, 2015). 
  12.  What follows in this paragraph is basically a summary of Cyril’s doctrine of the “hypostatic union.” For scholarly presentations of this idea, see John McGuckin, Saint Cyril of Alexandria and the Christological Controversy (Crestwood: Saint Vladimir’s Seminar Press, 2004), 212-216; and Christopher Beeley, The Unity of Christ: Continuity and Conflict in Patristic Tradition (New Haven: Yale University Press), 259-260.
  13.  Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on Luke, Sermon 2.
  14.  In historical context, this idea often arose within patristic discussions concerned with Christological argumentation against the heretic Apollinaris of Laodicea. See, for example, Gregory Nazianzen, Poem 1.1.10 (De incarnatione, adversus Apollinarium) translated by Peter Gilbert in On God and Man: The Theological Poetry of St. Gregory of Nazianzus (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001), 81-83; also, most famously, Gregory Nazianzen’s Letter 101 and Letter 102, translated by Lionel Wickham in On God and Christ: The Five Theological Orations and Two Letters to Cledonius (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002).
  15.  Gregory Nazianzen, Epistle 101. For discussion, see Christopher Beeley, Gregory of Nazianzus on the Trinity and the Knowledge of God: In Your Light We Shall See Light (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 116-128.