Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann was a priest, theologian, and one of the leading spokesmen for Orthodox Christianity in the 20th century. Fr. Alexander served as the Dean of St. Vladimir’s Seminary from 1962 up until his death in 1983. On this day, the 28th anniversary of his repose, we honor his memory by sharing the following sermon of his. May his memory be eternal!
“The eternal God was born as a little child.” One of the main hymns of Christmas ends with these words, identifying the child born in a Bethlehem cave as “the eternal God.” This hymn was composed in the sixth century by the famous Byzantine hymnographer Roman the Melodist:
Today the Virgin gives birth to the Transcendent One,
And the earth offers a cave to the Unapproachable One!
Angels, with shepherds, glorify him!
The wise men journey with the star!
Since for our sake the eternal God was born as a little child!
(Kontakion of Christmas)
The Child as God, God as Child…Why does joyful excitement build over the Christmas season as people, even those of lukewarm faith and unbelievers, behold that unique, incomparable sight of the young mother holding the child in her arms, and around them the “wise men from the East,” the shepherds fresh from night-watch in their fields, the animals, the open sky, the star? Why are we so certain, and discover again and again, that on this sorrowful planet of ours there is nothing more beautiful and joyful than this sight, which the passage of centuries has proven incapable of uprooting from our memory? We return to this sight whenever we have nowhere else to go, whenever we have been tormented by life and are in search of something that might deliver us…
Virgin of Vladimir (detail). Photo credit: The Temple Gallery
It is the words “child” and “God” which give us the most striking revelation about the Christmas mystery. In a certain profound way, this is a mystery directed toward the child who continues to secretly live within every adult, to the child who continues to hear what the adult no longer hears, and who responds with a joy which the adult, in his mundane, grown-up, tired and cynical world, is no longer capable of feeling. Yes, Christmas is a feast for children, not just because of the tree that we decorate and light, but in the much deeper sense that children alone are unsurprised that when God comes to us on earth, he comes as a child.
This image of God as child continues to shine on us through icons and through innumerable works of art, revealing that what is most essential and joyful in Christianity is found precisely here, in this eternal childhood of God. Adults, even the most sympathetic to “religious themes,” desire and expect religion to give explanations and analysis; they want it to be intelligent and serious. Its opponents are just as serious, and in the end, just as boring, as they confront religion with a hail of “rational” bullets. In our society, nothing better conveys our contempt than to say “it’s childish.” In other words, it’s not for adults, for the intelligent and serious. So children grow up and become equally serious and boring. Yet Christ said “become like children” (Mt 18:3). What does this mean? What are adults missing, or better, what has been choked, drowned or deafened by a thick layer of adulthood? Above all, is it not that capacity, so characteristic of children, to wonder, to rejoice and, most importantly, to be whole both in joy and sorrow? Adulthood chokes as well the ability to trust, to let go and give one’s self completely to love and to believe with all one’s being. And finally, children take seriously what adults are no longer capable of accepting: dreams, that which breaks through our everyday experience and our cynical mistrust, that deep mystery of the world and everything within it revealed to saints, children, and poets.
Nativity of Christ (detail). Photo credit: The Temple Gallery.
Thus, only when we break through to the child living hidden within us, can we inherit as our own the joyful mystery of God coming to us as a child. The child has neither authority nor power, yet the very absence of authority reveals him to be a king; his defenselessness and vulnerability are precisely the source of his profound power. The child in that distant Bethlehem cave has no desire that we fear him; He enters our hearts not by frightening us, by proving his power and authority, but by love alone. He is given to us as a child, and only as children can we in turn love him and give ourselves to him. The world is ruled by authority and power, by fear and domination. The child God liberates us from that. All He desires from us is our love, freely given and joyful; all He desires is that we give him our heart. And we give it to a defenseless, endlessly trusting child.
Through the feast of Christmas, the Church reveals to us a joyful mystery: the mystery of freely given love imposing itself on no one. A love capable of seeing, recognizing and loving God in the Divine Child, and becoming the gift of a new life.
Excerpt from Celebration of Faith, Vol. 2: The Church Year by Fr. Alexander Schmemann, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1994.