Now, Mary’s virginity and her giving birth escaped the notice of the prince of this world, as did the Lord’s death—those three secrets crying to be told, but wrought in God’s silence. How, then, were they revealed to the ages? A star shone in heaven brighter than all the stars. Its light was indescribable and its novelty caused amazement. The rest of the stars, along with the sun and the moon, formed a ring around it; yet it outshone them all, and there was bewilderment whence this unique novelty had arisen. As a result all magic lost its power and all witchcraft ceased. Ignorance was done away with, and the ancient kingdom [of evil] was utterly destroyed, for God was revealing himself as a man, to bring newness of eternal life. What God had prepared was now beginning. Hence everything was in confusion as the destruction of death was being taken in hand.
~ St. Ignatius, To the Ephesians 19.1-3
St. Ignatius of Antioch (d. circa 110 A.D.) gives, perhaps, a bit more dramatic picture of the Nativity of Christ—Christmas—than what we find in the Gospels of the New Testament. There, we actually only find two accounts, one in Matthew and one in Luke. Neither of them are without their own excitement, but I’ve always liked St. Ignatius’s focus since I first encountered it. It is a bit more overtly theological and highlights some interesting points relevant to the praxis of the spiritual life as well.
He begins with grouping together three aspects of the Gospel story: “Mary’s virginity and her giving birth” and “the Lord’s death,” which “escaped the notice of the prince of this world.” Christianity is often thought of as a religion rooted in revelation, and so it is. Here, St. Ignatius focuses first on what was withheld: “three secrets crying to be told, but wrought in God’s silence.” Why hold out?—to deceive the great deceiver, “the prince of this world.”
The Gospel story is full of unlikely events and circumstances. Here we see God in a different light. While St. Matthew and St. Luke emphasize how “Mary’s virginity and her giving birth” and “the Lord’s death” were the fulfillment of prophecy, St. Ignatius emphasizes how cryptic that prophecy was. Indeed, even in the four Gospels of the New Testament, again and again Jesus criticizes his disciples for failing to understand how he would have to suffer and die. They only really seem to get how it had all been foretold after Christ stands before them risen from the dead.
St. Ignatius sees in the birth of Christ a greater fulfillment of the dream of Joseph, one of the forefathers of the people of Israel, from whom Christ was born of the Virgin Mary. Joseph was one of twelve brothers, the favorite of their father and the least favorite among them. On top of all that, he has these dreams that predict that one day he will receive great honor and his brothers and father and mother [or father’s wife, I should say] would all come and venerate him. And it never occurs to Joseph that his brothers and father would not appreciate these dreams as much as him. “Then he dreamed still another dream and told it to his brothers, and said, ‘Look, I have dreamed another dream. And this time, the sun, the moon, and the eleven stars bowed down to me'” (Genesis 37:9). Similarly, St. Ignatius describes the star that marked the birth of Christ in this way: “A star shone in heaven brighter than all the stars. Its light was indescribable and its novelty caused amazement. The rest of the stars, along with the sun and the moon, formed a ring around it; yet it outshone them all, and there was bewilderment whence this unique novelty had arisen.”
The parallel is more striking when one examines the life of Joseph. He is an innocent man and the favorite of his father, who is betrayed by his brothers, lives a life of servitude only to be falsely accused of committing a crime, is locked in the dungeon, only to eventually be freed and to rise up out of prison and ascend to the right hand of the Pharaoh of Egypt and save all the people of the land from famine. Jesus is the Son of God, “who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, yet made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant” (Philippians 2:6-7), who was betrayed by one of his twelve disciples, deserted by all of them, falsely accused of committing a crime, after being crucified descended into Hades only to rise up after three days and be exalted, ascending to the right hand of the Father and saving the whole world. Joseph is a messianic figure in the Old Testament; Jesus is the Messiah (Christ) himself.
What practical import does all of this have?
First of all, for those of us who see salvation as being “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4), there is something to learn about the divine nature: God knows the value of silence. We should too. Sometimes we may have all the answers (God certainly does), but wisdom dictates that there is a time for everything. Many fights—even wars, as my priest says—have been started because someone could not keep silence. “See how great a forest a little fire kindles!” writes St. James, “And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity” (James 3:5-6). Yet Jesus blesses the peacemakers, saying that “they shall be called sons of God” (Matthew 5:9).
Second, careful listening pays off. When I first noticed the parallels between Jesus and Joseph, I thought to myself, “How didn’t I see this before?” People, like myself, who can be quick with the tongue often tend to be slow with the ears. If only I could consistently achieve the opposite! Well, one day—even one word—at a time, I suppose.
Third, the Gospel, as the word implies, is good news. In fact, it is sort of the best news. Indeed, there is no hyperbole when it comes to the greatness of this mystery:
As a result all magic lost its power and all witchcraft ceased. Ignorance was done away with, and the ancient kingdom [of evil] was utterly destroyed, for God was revealing himself as a man, to bring newness of eternal life. What God had prepared was now beginning. Hence everything was in confusion as the destruction of death was being taken in hand.
No words can ever fully capture the greatness of such a thing. The best many of our hymns can do is dwell on the paradoxes: a virgin gives birth; God who is without beginning is born; the Giver of life nurses—all for our salvation. Listening more carefully to those ancient hymns helps teach us the silence that reverence demands as well as giving us the vocabulary to sing fitting praise.
Christ is born!
Let us glorify him!