Nativity Bible Study
Session Two: Interpretation through hymnography
Review: What is the Bible? What isn’t it?
- It is NOT the Logos! (St. John 1: 1-18)
- It is not a complete historical account (St. John 21:25)
- It is not self evident (Acts 8:26-35)
- Interpretation is of the Lord, through Christ (Genesis 40: 8; St. Luke 24: 13-32)
Like the Ethiopian Eunuch, we need the Church to interpret the Scriptures for us. The services of the Church are celebratory and poetic interpretations of the events described in Scripture. Historical narratives speak to the head while musical poetry speaks to the heart.
Let’s warm up with some of the hymns from the Matins (Vigil) service of the Nativity.
From the Kathisma. The first is purely descriptive.
Come, ye faithful, let us see * where Christ the Savior hath been born; * let us follow with the kings, * even the Magi from the East, * unto the place where the star doth direct their journey. * For there, the Angels’ hosts * sing praises ceaselessly; * shepherds in the field * offer a fitting song, * while saying, Glory in the highest * to Him this day born within the cave * from the pure Virgin and Theotokos * in Bethlehem of Judea.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.
The second is descriptive, but is told from Mary’s view.
Why, O Mary, marv’lest thou, * amazed at that which is in thee? * Because I have given birth * in time unto the timeless Son, * yet none hath taught me concerning my Child’s conception: * without a man am I, * how shall I bear a Son? * Who hath ever seen * a birth without man’s seed? * But, as is written, where God willeth, * the order of nature is overcome. * Lo, Christ is born now of the pure Virgin * in Bethlehem of Judea.
Both now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.
The third is a theological meditation on the unity of God and man in Christ Jesus.
He Whom nothing can contain, * how is He held within a womb? * And while in His Father’s arms, * how in His Mother’s pure embrace? * Such is His will and good pleasure, and as He knoweth. * For being without flesh, * He took flesh willingly; * for us, He Who Is * became what He was not. * Without forsaking His own nature, * He hath partaken of what we are. * For Christ is born now, twofold in nature, * to fill Heaven with mankind.
And another gem, from Ode 9:
I behold a strange and wonderful mystery: the cave a heaven, the Virgin a cherubic throne, and the manger a noble place in which hath lain Christ the uncontained God. Let us, therefore, praise and magnify Him.
The most concentrated alternation of scripture and hymnographic commentary occurs during the Royal Hours (and the Vesperal Liturgy).
- Psalms: Psalm 5 (a morning psalm in its usual place), Psalm 44 (Messianic Psalm about the wedding; Hebrews 1:8 confirms; also used in vesting prayers and Proskomedia), Psalm 45 (Be still and know; God is with us).
- Prokimen: Psalm 2: 7,8). The Lord said unto Me: Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten Thee. Ask of Me, and I shall give Thee the heathen for Thine inheritance.
- Readings: Micah 5:2–4 (Prophecy of Bethlehem), Hebrews:1:1-13 (St. Paul interprets the OT and explains the divinity of XC). St. Matthew 1:18-25 (Narrative: birth).
- A Hymn: Prepare, O Bethlehem, and let the manger make ready and the cave receive; for truth hath come, and shadow hath passed. And God hath appeared to mankind from the Virgin, taking our likeness and deifying our nature. Wherefore, Adam and Eve are made new, crying, Goodwill hath appeared on earth to save our race.
- Psalms: Psalm 66 (a song of the Resurrection), Psalm 86 (A prophecy on the meaning of the Nativity and the uniting of the nations in the Church), Psalm 50 (usual Psalm).
- Prokimen: Isaiah 9:6. For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given and the government shall be upon His shoulder
- Readings: Baruch 3:35-4:4 (Wisdom appeared on earth and lived among mankind). Galatians 3:23-29 (we are one in Christ). St. Luke 2:1-20 (narrative: shepherds).
- A Hymn: Tell us, O Joseph, how it is that thou dost bring the Virgin whom thou didst receive from the holy places to Bethlehem great with child? And he replieth, saying, I have searched the Prophets, and it was revealed to me by the angel. Therefore, I am convinced that Mary shall give birth in an inexplicable manner to God, whom Magi from the east shall come to worship and to serve with precious gifts. Wherefore, O Thou who wast incarnate for our sakes, glory to Thee.
- Psalms: Psalm 71 (prophesy of the Messiah; includes Magi/Kings), Psalm 131 (Messianic; also points to nations), Psalm 90 (usual Psalm).
- Prokimen: Psalm 109:4,1. From the womb before the morning star I bore Thee. Said the Lord to my Lord: Sit Thou on My right hand, until I make Thine enemies Thy footstool.
- Readings. Isaiah 7:10-16; 8:1-4, 9-10 (Virgin birth; God is with us!). Hebrews 1:10-2:3 (Christ is greater than the angels). St. Matthew 2:1-12 (Narrative: wise men)
- A Hymn: Listen, O heaven, and give ear, O earth. Let the foundations shake, and let trembling fall on all below the earth; for God hath dwelt in a creation of flesh; and He Who made creation with a precious hand is seen in the womb of a created one. O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments, and His ways past finding out.
- Psalms: Psalm 109 (Messianic; see above), Psalm 110 (a hymn of joyous praise), Psalm 85 (usual Psalm)
- Prokimen: Psalm 86:4-5. And of the mother Zion, it shall be said, this and that man is born in her and the Highest Himself hath founded her. His foundations are in the holy mountains.
- Readings: Isaiah 9:6-7 (for unto us a child is born!), Hebrews 2:11-18 (Christ became a man), St. Matthew 2:13-23 (go to Egypt!)
- A Hymn. Verily, Herod was overtaken by astonishment when he saw the piety of the Magi. And having been overridden with wrath, he began to inquire of them about the time. He robbed the mothers of their children and ruthlessly reaped the tender bodies of the babes. And the breasts dried up, and the springs of milk failed. Great then was the calamity. Wherefore, being gathered, O believers, in true worship, let us adore the Nativity of Christ.