The Story of the Nativity of Our Lord
The account of Christ’s birth is well-known from the witness of Holy Scripture:
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be enrolled, each to his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be enrolled with Mary his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to be delivered. And she gave birth to her first-born Son and wrapped Him in a manger because there was no place for them in the inn [Luke 2:1-7].
Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He Who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East, and have come to worship Him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it is written by the prophet: ‘And you, 0 Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will govern My people Israel.” Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star appeared; and he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the Child, and when you have found Him bring me word, that I too may come and worship Him.” When they had heard the king they went their way; and lo, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the Child was. When they saw the star, they Rejoiced exceedingly with great joy; and going into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother, and they fell down and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way [Matt. 2:1-12].
And in that region there were shepherds out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. And the angel said to them, “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, Who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will among men” [Luke 2:8-14].
When the angels went away from them into heaven, the Shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and The Babe lying in a manger. And when they saw it they made known the saying which had been told them concerning this Child, and all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them” [Luke 2:15-20].
Now when [the wise men and shepherds] had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the Child and His mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there till I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy Him.” And he rose and took the Child and His mother by night, and departed to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called My Son.” Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, was in a furious rage, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled because they were no more” [Matt. 2:13-18].
In the earliest days of Christianity, the Feast of the Nativity of Christ was not generally celebrated in the Church. The first mention of the Feast is made by St. Clement of Alexandria (150-215 A.D.), who mentions that certain Egyptians commemorated the birth of Christ on May 20th. The Apostolic Constitutions of the first half of the 4th Century set forth that January 6th should be celebrated as both the Feast of the Nativity and Epiphany. St. Gregory of Nyssa in 380 wrote that the faithful of Cappadocia celebrated the Nativity on Dec. 25th. The Feast was not celebrated in Jerusalem until the 6th Century, while St. John Chrysostom introduced it at Antioch in 386 and at Constantinople between 398-402. In Rome, the Feast of the Nativity of Christ had been celebrated on Dec. 25th ever since 354. December 25th was ultimately chosen by the Church as the date of the Nativity in order to Christianize the pagan Feast of Natalis Invicti or Invincible Sun, which was celebrated on that day. St. Cyprian of Carthage noted that this “anniversary of the invincible” was made actual only in the birth of Jesus–the only Invincible One.
As the hymns of Christmas proclaim, “Our Savior, the Dayspring from the East, has visited us from on high: And we who were in darkness and shadow have found the Truth. For the Lord is born of the Virgin” (Exapostilarion). And as the Prophet, Isaiah foretold many centuries before, and as the Church still proclaims at the Great Compline during the All-Night Vigil for the Nativity of Christ, “Understand all ye nations, and submit yourselves, for God is with us!”