We have come from afar to venerate the infant Christ — not from the land of the wise men but out of the darkness of our own souls, out of the murk of sinfulness. We have been guided by the miraculous star that has risen within us, obeying its mysterious and powerful call. We have seen from afar the radiant manger and the heavenly glow above it, but we have found the approach to this holy place to be difficult and terrifying; for a long time we did not dare raise our eyes. Would it not be better to return into the darkness, to re-immerse ourselves in the murk of our souls, and from the arduousness of the path, to hide once again in mute numbness? No, it is too late. We cannot hide and we do not desire to close our eyes to that which has flashed before them. For living in darkness, we have seen a great light; and now it draws us on irresistibly.
By Fr. Sergius Bulgakov
And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. Luke 2:7
The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined. Isaiah 9:2
We have come from afar to venerate the infant Christ -— not from the land of the wise men but out of the darkness of our own souls, out of the murk of sinfulness, out of gray meagerness. We have been guided by the miraculous star which is risen in us, obeying its mysterious and powerful call. And we have come to the holy and marvelous manger, above which, like a heavenly guard, hovers the star of Bethlehem on the azure vault of the sky which bends down in veneration. We have seen from afar the radiant manger and the heavenly glow above it, but we have found the approach to this holy place to be difficult and terrifying; for a long time we did not dare raise our eyes, for our souls were afflicted by a heavy deadness and a bitter shame. Would it not be better to return into the darkness, to re-immerse ourselves in the murk of our souls, and from the arduousness of the path, from the difficulty of this approach, to hide once again in mute numbness?
No, it is too late. We cannot hide and we do not desire to close our eyes to that which has flashed before them. Living in darkness and the bosom of death, we have seen a great light; and it draws us on irresistibly. With great difficulty we had opened our eyes in order to see, and now we cannot turn them away. Before us is the Divine Infant, garbed in the enchantment of human infancy: in beauty, purity, and innocence, together with a divine effulgence, unknown to the world. This light enters into our hearts, fills our entire being, gladdens and illuminates us; and we stand before the sacred crib in the radiance of this light.
And in this light we see how divine wisdom shines in the Infant’s eyes, how divine omnipotence is concealed in His tiny hands, and how divine love — sacrificial, pitying, and salvific — is aflame in His heart. He is so high but also so close to us; His human essence contains the holy, eternal Humanity clothed in the old Adam. “The Word was made flesh” (John 1:14). God has become a co-man with us; among us was born the child Emmanuel, “God with us.” Upon us gazes the very Sun of righteousness and reason; and we ourselves look at this Sun. However, we are not blinded and are not burned by it; rather, we are illuminated as we gaze at it; and we love, love, love…entire being dissolves in this light of sacrificial love.
His Mother bends down over the infant, and we, in venerating Him, venerate also His Mother. It is She who gives Him to us for veneration. She does not take Him away. She does not protect Him from our impure, rough, sinful gaze. She is a young Virgin, but also the Mother of Her Infant: She is holy Virgin-Maternity. And She does not stand between Him and us; She does not wish to make Him inaccessible to the wise men, to the shepherds, or even to us in our sins. Her love is measureless, total, but also sacrificial, free of egotism. As for us, we do not know love that is not egotistical. Egotism is inseparable from all human love; its absence is so incomprehensible and unfathomable for us that our minds are dumfounded founded by the Mother of God’s love. Who is She? She is the holiest of the holiest in the sacrificial holiness of Her sacrifice-offering love.
Our hearts are aflame and our eyes open wide to gaze at the humbleness of this royal palace, of this Divine Temple in the manger. When the King of kings came into His world, what greeted Him was this cave for animals and this humble manger instead of a fit place for an infant on this winter night. What greeted Him was not royal splendor but poverty and acute exposure to cold, hunger, and demonic and human malice. To the manger are brought royal gifts; the singing of angels thunders in the heavens.
But Herod is already sharpening his sword; the spirit of wickedness and malice is thrashing about in fear and confusion; the creature is seekinging to kill the Creator; the world wants to destroy what is higher than the world. Vengeful hosts of enemies are gathering from all sides, and becominging more treacherous, more frenzied, more irreconcilable. They desire to take the Bethlehem manger away from humanity and to erase all memory of it. Craftier and more malicious than Herod, they desire to destroy the Infant and His Mother. But how are He and She? He shines before us with His divine smile and blesses us with His infant hand.
Meanwhile, She, in defenseless and sacrificial humility, selflessly gives away Her Infant, the King of the Jews, who remains unknown to the world, except to those who have come to see Him. And in the winter cold of the shelter for animals there bloom the flowers of paradise. Our heart, expanding, itself becomes comes a manger. In our heart as well the infant is born and is laid as in His manger; and we become one with the Most Pure Mother, the humanity in which He is born. All creation venerates the infant Creator. The celestial world sends Him an effulgent star. The angelic world praises Him in the heavens. The human world – the wise men and the shepherds, and we together with them, the humanity of all times and all nations – venerates Him. The animal world, all of nature, glorifies Him. The hymn of praise, initiated by the angels, thunders in the universe.
This hymn is about the magnificence of God and the glory of man. God has made His peace with the world and manifested His goodwill toward it. This divine goodwill toward ward men is Emmanuel, the God-Man. God has become man so that man could become god according to goodwill. In man is born God. “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men” (Luke 2:14)!
From Sergius Bulgakov. Churchly Joy: Orthodox Devotions for the Church Year, trans. Boris Jakim (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans) 2008. Pp. 30-32.
About the Author
- Fr. Sergius Nikolaevich Bulgakov was a priest of the Church of Russia in the early twentieth century. He was noted as an Orthodox theologian, philosopher, and economist. After an early interest in Marxism, he returned to his religious roots in Orthodox Christianity. He wrote extensively, and after being exiled by the new Communist government of Russia, he became part of the community of Russians in Paris, taking part in the founding the of St. Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute in Paris.