For a series of blogs that is ostensibly an exercise for the Nativity Fast, there has been very little in terms of actually speaking about Christmas since I began meditating on the writings of St. Ambrose. I would be remiss, therefore, if I didn’t discuss his use of Isaiah 9:6 — a verse strongly associated with Christmas — in the fifth chapter of the first book of his treatise On the Holy Spirit:
This good gift is the grace of the Spirit, which the Lord Jesus shed forth from heaven, after having been fixed to the gibbet of the cross, returning with the triumphal spoils of death deprived of its power, as you find it written: ‘Ascending up on high He led captivity captive, and gave good gifts to men’ (Ps. 67:18). And well does he say ‘gifts,’ for as the Son was given, of Whom it is written: ‘Unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given’ (Isa. 9:6); so, too, is the grace of the Spirit given. But why should I hesitate to say that the Holy Spirit also is given to us, since it is written: ‘The love of God is shed forth in our hearts by the Holy Spirit, Who is given to us’ (Rom. 5:5). And since captive breasts certainly could not receive Him, the Lord Jesus first led captivity captive, that our affections being set free, He might pour forth the gift of divine grace.
Growing up, I despised Christmas. I hated the fights that would inevitably erupt over the trimming of the tree. I hated the disappointment of seeing gifts fall short of their imagined expectation. I hated the emphasis America placed upon a feast that ought to play second fiddle to the Resurrection. Even today it is difficult to stomach the advertising we see associated with Christmas, the horrific behavior of shoppers on Black Friday and the characterization of St. Nicholas as the head of some secret high-tech corporation whose job it is to deliver presents around the world every December 24th.
It is only since I have paid close attention to the hymnody of the Orthodox Church and the writings of the Church Fathers that I have learned to love this great Christian feast. This quote from St. Ambrose is a perfect example of why I am now able to look beyond the ridiculousness exhibited by the culture around me and see the beauty of a Child born unto us, a Son that is given unto us.
Note what St. Ambrose juxtaposes the Nativity with — the Cross and the Holy Spirit. Observe that on Christmas day, while Christians around the world are heralding the Incarnation of Christ, the Orthodox Church sings this during the Ninth Ode of the Christmas Canon:
Herod ascertained the exact time the star appeared; by the guidance of which the wise men with gifts in Bethlehem worshipped Christ; by Whom they were directed to go to their country by another way, abandoning that terrible, ridiculous infanticide.
In case we miss this, the Orthodox Church reads Matthew’s account (2:13-23) of Herod’s horrible crime the Sunday after the Nativity. On those years where Christmas falls on a Sunday (as it does this year) and the Sunday after the Nativity is superseded by the the Circumcision of Christ and St. Basil, the Orthodox Church reads this pericope on the 26th — the day after Christmas.
It is a reminder that though the Nativity is one of the most monumental moments in all of human history, the Incarnation in and of itself does not complete the salvific work of God. The great enemy death still holds sway. The sting of death will not be blunted without crucifixion.
St. Ambrose also reminds us of what it is that God accomplishes by sending His Son to the Cross:
And since captive breasts certainly could not receive Him, the Lord Jesus first led captivity captive, that our affections being set free, He might pour forth the gift of divine grace.
God’s plan for our salvation goes deeper than either the Cross or the Resurrection. There is a reason why we celebrate Ascension and Pentecost every year. The Risen Christ ascends into heaven with our humanity to sit at the right hand of the Father in glory and in perfect communion with the Holy Spirit. Our very nature is then prepared and readied to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit Himself — to become the tabernacle of God.
In our fallen nature — ripped away from God — we are incapable of being the dwelling place of God. Yes, we can have contact with Him — this is shown by the prophets, through whom the Spirit spoke — but we are incapable of crossing the divide that humanity created when we knew a world without God. Renewed in the Risen Christ, however, we are united with the New Adam — the new humanity — that sits at the right hand of God. We are therefore able to fulfill the image and likeness of God within us — we are able to become like Christ and experience the indwelling of the Spirit.
In turn, it is the Spirit that descends upon us and the gifts we set forth. It is because of this descent that we are able to partake of Christ Himself, in the Body and the Blood and thus experience the foretaste of the love of God the Father.
All this is made possible by the Nativity. This is why I have learned to love Christmas, to learn to love crying out:
Unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given!