In the rubrics of the early Latin Mass, the faithful were instructed to bow their heads at the three lines of the “Incarnatus,” the portion of the Nicene Creed which, in our English translation reads “who, for us men and our salvation, came down from heaven/ And was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary/And was made man.” Then, as the creed continued, the faithful were no longer to bow, because the emphasis of this phrase was not to be on his crucifixion and resurrection, but on the incarnation, the taking on of our flesh, the entrance of God in human form in our own world. This is what we will celebrate this December. There are times when we recall his triumph over death and his being taken into heaven in sight of his followers, but now the focus is on the miracle of his birth. The early Church fathers, in their sermons on this miracle, called their people to remember the extraordinary nature of this event: “Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad; our joy is in the one who belongs to heaven and who now belongs to the earth. Christ has come in human flesh. We rejoice with trembling and with joy; with trembling because of our sins, with joy because of our hope. How could we not worship Him who existed from the very beginning? How could we not glorify Him who will go on existing at the very end?
God was made manifest to humanity by birth. On the one hand he was the eternal Being, the uncreated one who existed before anything else was; and on the other hand for our sakes also he allowed himself to become created, so that He Who gives us our being might also give us our Well-being, or rather might restore us by His Incarnation, when in our waywardness we had fallen from wellbeing.
St. John Chrysostom wrote “For this he took on a body the same as ours, that we might become capable of bearing his Word. Taking on our flesh, he gives us his Spirit; and so he bestowing and we receiving, he prepares for us the treasure of Life. He takes our flesh, to make us holy; he gives us his Spirit, so that he may save us.
In folklore, the miracle of God’s trading Heaven’s glories for a stable was sufficient for even animals to have the power of speech, an event recalled in The Carol of the Animals:
Jesus, our Brother, strong and good,
Was humbly born in a stable rude,
And the friendly beasts around Him stood,
Jesus, our Brother, strong and good.
“I,” said the donkey, shaggy and brown,
“I carried His mother uphill and down,
I carried His mother to Bethlehem town;
I,” said the donkey, shaggy and brown.
“I,” said the cow, all white and red,
“I gave Him my manger for His bed,
I gave Him hay to pillow His head;
I,” said the cow, all white and red.
“I,” said the sheep with curly horn,
“I gave Him my wool for His blanket warm,
He wore my coat on Christmas morn;
I,” said the sheep with curly horn.
“I,” said the dove, from the rafters high,
“I cooed Him to sleep that He should not cry,
We cooed Him to sleep, my mate and I;
I,” said the dove, from the rafters high.
Thus all the beasts, by some good spell,
In the stable dark were glad to tell
Of the gifts they gave Emmanuel,
The gifts they gave Emmanuel.
And just a century or so ago, Thomas Hardy recalled the animals’ power to keep Christ in Christmas, with his poem, “The Oxen”:
Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
“Now they are all on their knees,”
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.
We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.
So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
“Come; see the oxen kneel
“In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,”
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.
So here we are today, the the sure and certain hope that it is so, into the second millennia of Christians who celebrate the miracle of the Incarnation. And once again, let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad; with the animals who gave up their manger, let us make room for him; with the Wise Men from the east, let us bring gifts to his feet; with Shepherds glorify Him; with Angels join in chorus; with Archangels sing hymns.
From the power of this wondrous birth we too have received the gift of special speech, and so we too, with the angels and the shepherds and the animals, and all the company of heaven, sing “Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth peace, good will to men.