Who does not long passionately to know and experience this eternal life?
It was this life that appeared incarnate when Christ was born in Bethlehem. Eternal life was revealed and seen and touched, after it had been concealed in the Father. But what is the value of this eternal life it is simply appeared once in Bethlehem two thousand years ago, and we look to it as a merely historical event? We must correct this view, for eternal life is above history, and it is impossible that eternal life should enter our world and remain contained in a historical event. Rather, the world cannot contain it! So, it is important that we approach the nativity not as an event in history, but as a revelation, and unveiling of eternal life, divinely personified and incarnate.
What, then, is the larger meaning of the birth of Christ?
Let us consider life as we find it in nature and ask ourselves if life can be found in isolation. That is, can life be found without some person, or other entity, whether it be a particular plant or animal with distinguishing features that mark it as belonging to a particular family within a particular species within a particular kingdom?
So it is with eternal life. It cannot be found isolated from a person. Eternal life can only appear in a person, complete, definable, with particular attributes and characteristics. Nevertheless, eternal life, being without beginning or end, can only be perfectly found in God. This is why the appearance of eternal life in the resurrection of Christ from the dead perfectly satisfied our conviction that it was in him, and that it had begun with the divine appearance, or the appearance of God in person or hypostasis, when he was born in Bethlehem.
This is what is meant by the birth of Christ. It is immeasurably deeper than the historical event, for it was an event that extended into the very depths of God. It was essential that this should take place in order for eternal life to take shape in human consciousness, being actually seen and touched and witnessed. The apostle Paul expresses it thus: “God appeared in the flesh” (1 Timothy 3:16.) That is, the eternal life that was with and in God appeared in the flesh; that is in a person.
What was God’s aim in revealing eternal life incarnate in a person? It is clear that from the very beginning, from the first creation, God wanted man to live with him eternally, as a creation under him enjoying all the glory of God. So the birth of Christ has a clear and specific aim, and that is the granting of eternal life to man. Now as we have clearly shown, life cannot exist without a person, and so the gift of God’s eternal life to man had to take place in his blessed Person, for eternal life cannot dwell in anyone without God.
This is what the apostle Paul sensed in the depths of being when he felt eternal life pulsing through his whole being, his limbs, his spirit and his mind. But he did not sense that it was simply a power; he was aware of another Person, the Perso of the Son of God Himself living in him. “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20.) Saint Paul here speaks not simply of new ideas, or a mental renewal, or a change in his way of life. He is speaking of Christ’s taking possession of his whole life.
Eternal life, then, can never be received apart from Christ. In order for man to share in eternal life with God, it was essential that the eternal life that was God’s be incarnate and that Christ be born a perfect person, so that He might give us, through his union with us, the eternal life that is in God.
How does God give us Eternal Life?
In all simplicity, it is clear from the experience of mankind from the resurrection of Christ until the present time that we receive eternal life when the Lord Jesus enters us personally by the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit is the spirit of the Father and Son, and he is the greatest gift with which God has blessed mankind. By the entry of the Holy Spirit into us, we immediately receive the Person of Jesus Christ, the Person of the Son, and with him all the blessings of sonship in the fullness of eternal life. In its spiritual dimension, therefore, the birth of Christ is the appearance of eternal life and with it the inheritance of our new sonship to God, revealed and defined in the Person of the Son of God.
The prophet Isaiah says, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government will be upon his shoulder, and his name will be called, ‘Wonderful, Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.’ Of the increase of his government and of peace, there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and for ever more” (Isaiah 9:6,7.)
Now how is Christ born for us in Bethlehem? We do not say, “How was he born?”, but “How is he born for us?” The details of how he was born are to be found in the gospel records, which rely on man’s ability to accept the facts of history. But how is Christ born of us. This is the birth that concerns us, each one individually, for he is born in the heart of each of us to grant us all his blessings according to the degree to which he takes possession of us. This is the work of faith, and faith here is more than a mere acceptance of the truth of certain facts.
The birth of Christ, as we have said, took place with an essential divine aim in view. This was the manifestation of eternal life, and eternal life is life and not a theory. Life is not believed in intellectually, it is rather taken or, more precisely, granted. But we have already said that eternal life does not exist and is not revealed apart from a person. On the contrary, it was made manifest and revealed in a person, and eternal life is the very life of Jesus Christ, that was touched and seen and studies by his close disciples. One of those disciples exhorts us that we with him should see and witness and touch with our hands the same eternal life, so that we should have fullness of life, joy, light, and love. It is therefore essential, if we are to acquire eternal life, that we acquire the person who bears it in him, the Person of Jesus Christ the Son of God. The revelation of eternal life is the revelation of Jesus himself, born in Bethlehem.
In order that we comprehend the birth of Jesus Christ, we must comprehend eternal life itself, and acquire it, and live it personified in the Lord Jesus, who bears it in himself.
Who can acquire the ability to make his own the nativity that took place once in Bethlehem with all its blessings and power? Only he who has attained to the realm of that eternal life that was revealed in the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem, and has opened his heart to receive that life, responding to the exhortation of the Apostle in his letter, “so that you may have fellowship with us; and our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:3.)
The nativity is a personal revelation in addition to a historical event.
Historically speaking, the story of the birth of Christ is common knowledge. As an event or historical tale it is generally accepted by all. But the birth of Christ has another purely personal force or dimension which is revealed to each individual in a way or form or depth that differs from one to another according to the stature of each, or rather according to the extent to which the mystery of eternal life and its work in the soul has been revealed to each. For it is God who takes the initiative in revelation. Thus, the birth of Christ will remain a mere historical event, and the details and explanation and interpretation of the narrative will be known to all only in a general way, until man’s eyes are opened and the fact of eternal life is accepted in it. The the whole mystery of the nativity will be revealed in a completely personal way, and along with it the mystery of the person of the divine infant.
We must realize, too that just as the final destiny of every man, his final reality in heaven, is absolutely person and varies from person to person, so, too, is his beginning, or the starting point of his perception of and entry into eternal life in this world. We must therefore know well that as we have said, it is God who takes the initiative in revealing himself as he is, for he always and ever loves and wishes and desires to reveal himself to every man, whatever his condition. It was God who took the initiative in revealing himself Abraham, Jacob, and Moses when each was preoccupied with his own affairs. Abraham was resting in the shade of the oaks of Mamre (Genesis 18:1,) Jacob was seeking a bride (Genesis 28:13,) and Moses was watching sheep (Exodus 3:6.) Likewise, in the story of the nativity, we find that it is God who reveals Christ’s birth to the shepherds, the magi, Simeon and Ana the prophetess. It is always God who takes the initiative in revealing Himself.
The mystery of the nativity, or the mystery of the manifestation of God to mankind, was never accomplished through the investigatory efforts of man. God never stood silently leaving man to discovery the reality of His appearance in the person of Jesus Christ. On the contrary, it has always been God who reveals Himself, and from ancient times, He has been constantly revealing Himself through the words of the prophets, even thousands of years before the actual birth of Jesus Christ. And God treated man with great kindness, revealing himself by degrees in correspondence with the growth and refinement of man’s consciousness and perception through the ages. For just as a child continues to discovery the realities of life as he grows until he reaches manhood and attains the peak of his personal perception, so it is with eternal life with regard to the discovery of the person of God. But the essential difference between the perception of this earthly life and the perception of eternal life, as we have said, is that the first depends on gathering information and making deductions, while the second depends on a gradual revelation in which God is found and which he initiates. This is very clear in the story we read of Amos, the dresser of sycamore trees (Amos 7:14.) Suddenly, God chose him. His eyes were opened with no preparation, and he brought to mankind the message of a new revelation concerning eternal life and the Person of God. There were no preliminaries or training. We find that the same thing happened with Moses as we he was walking behind his flock. He saw a burning bush and received a sudden invitation to meet with God and discover the mystery of salvation in all its depth and breadth. Zachariah the priest had the same experience, and so did Elizabeth, the Virgin Mary, and Joseph, and the shepherds, and the Magi; Peter, when he was mending his nets, the eunuch Candace’s minister, Saul marching along in fury breathing threats of murder against God’s chosen people.
So God’s revelation is always awaiting us, whoever we are and whatever our condition, whether we are sitting in the shade of a tree like Abraham or shepherding flocks like Moses or David.
But how and when does God’s revelation come?
This depends basically on man’s inner readiness and his closeness to that other world, which is eternal life. It is the inner state that prepares one to receive the vision.
An invitation is extended today to grasp new dimensions and attain a new awareness of the truth of the birth of Christ, which is the door that lies open to reveal the eternal life that was manifest in the Person of the Son of God. But it is a narrow door and the way is straight, for the appearance of eternal life and the form in which the Person of God was manifest defy all human logic: a manger! Who could believe that a manger could contain eternal life, the very life of God? Or that a poor weak girl could be holding the One who bore the life of God, with all its implications of the absolute in eternity and immortality beyond the heavens?
But it may be that here we may have stumbled on a precondition for the revelation of eternal life, and the door by which we may enter into the revelation of the Person of God. It seems that in order to enter into eternal life, we must put off all the logical forms of greatness. We must be stripped of every kind of human greatness and the greatness of all human gifts so that we can encounter the greatness of God and His humility in the person of Jesus Christ.
We must be quite ready for a sudden revelation, for the Lord, as the prophet says, appears in His temple suddenly. And Christ Himself says that the bridegroom will appear at midnight in the darkness of the earthly life and will only knock at the door when the day’s labor is over, with the wasting weariness of time and the hunger of the soul.
So, if you seek the Lord, long for that sudden encounter and prepare for it, for His revelation is always present. And if you seek a clear vision, seek earnestly for the hand of God that touches blind eyes and makes them suddenly perceive the invisible.
The late Father Matta El Maskeen (Matthew the Poor) was the spiritual father of Saint Macarius Coptic Orthodox Monastery in Wadi El Natrun, Egypt. This article is reprinted here with Father Matta’s express permission.