The Hymn E-parthenos
“Today, the virgin bears Him who is transcendent,
And the earth presents the cave to Him who is beyond reach.
Angels, along with shepherds glorify Him.
The Magi make their way to Him by a star.
For a new child has been born for us, the God before all ages”
On the feast of the Nativity to help us not miss this extraordinary event and to help us feel some of the spiritual wonder of the incarnation we sing the hymn E-parthanous.
Following the reading of Acts we pause to sing this hymn. It has no cymbals because this event was not announced in spectacular fashion it was quiet. The tune is soft and simple because it is the time to be in amazement before the birth of the Lord. Jubilation will follow but now is the moment we are in awe.
The hymn is a proclamation of the birth of Christ so it starts with “today”, in this moment we must bear witness to Our Lord on earth. “Today, the Virgin bears Him who is transcendent”. Hear these words for God is everywhere and in all things yet on this day He is being born a baby. How can the entire ocean fit inside one cup? Yet something more amasing has just happened. To look upon God would cause you to die yet He is in the womb and St Mary is blessed and made worthy.
“The earth presents the cave to Him who is beyond reach”. This is a hugely important scene and I love the wording because it intensifies the mystery. Man failed to acknowledge this moment and instead left a pregnant woman to deliver out in the cold, but the rest of creation reacted, with the earth offering the cave and a star declaring His presence all of nature is bowing to the creator. He is “beyond reach” we have no way of approaching God our selves. He has chosen to come to us; therefore He is in absolute control. Do not think that because Christ is born without announcement and in a cave that it was out of His control and was forced to be born in a manger. For this is the birth that may not be recognised by many now but will come to completely change all the earth and every person on the planet will know this event in great detail. This is exactly how God wanted it to be for all mankind to watch. If you think about it, if God was to be born in a wealthy home or a publically accepted righteous home it would contradict His message and mission. People would not believe that He came for all, they would say only the already righteous can be saved or only those of a certain education or race or social standard can be saved. He literally came in at the lowest point possible meaning no one can challenge His dedication for every living soul on the planet. Can you imagine a heavily pregnant woman in labour coming to anyone’s door and not being helped? No hotel would ever just leave someone in that state regardless of the room situation. They must have been looked upon as not even human to be rejected that way. So Christ starts His life on earth only equal to whatever animals sleep in the cave.
There is more we can say about the cave, it is not somewhere you can be by accident; it is the last place on earth you would intentionally plan to give birth in. It is the result of being rejected and in desperation. You cannot just turn up to church and think you are before the manger and the newborn Christ. It is a place you have to find, seek it out in your heart consciously you must choose to not stay at the inn (comfort and warmth of the luxuries of this world with nice food lots of sleep and entertainment) instead you must look into the dark and cold (quietly studying the scriptures and praying the psalms alone, following the Kiahk praises) for if you are caught up in this world you will never think to stop and look for the cave to find the Lord and the blessing of the feast will slip right past you.
“Angels and Shepherds glorify Him”. This is an interesting combination for a choir. The highest spiritual beings created for worshiping God makes sense. But I would not have put them with simple uneducated people with little social interaction and untrained singing voices. But actually they are the perfect combination for two reasons. Firstly if the highest spiritual beings and the lowest earthly beings can praise God than we all definitely will be somewhere in between and as a result also worthy to sing praises to our Lord. It means we also have got to be worthy of approaching the manger with a song in our hearts as well. But also there is a hidden reality that is manifest here. The reason Shepherds are worthy to sing along side angels is because God made them for that exact same purpose. So the initial sentence I used to describe angels (highest spiritual beings) is in reality just as applicable if not more to the Shepherds as well.
The Magi arrive led by the star. I have always been very impressed with the Magi. For they can truly be called wise men. They were not wise in there own eyes; they did not have an ambition to show off there intelligence but instead looked at the facts without bias and agenda. They studied the stars and all of nature and concluded for themselves this star would be hugely significant. We do not know how much they knew about the Old Testament and Jewish tradition but they did not need to, to appreciate the importance of this night. They represent the wisdom of this world how we search and debate and puzzle over life’s greatest mysteries. For them approaching the cave and seeing the living God has shattered all debate. The living God is here alive and has a plan and intention for all of us. Our intellectual journey our searching for God and meaning in our life has to also take us before the manger. We cannot claim that God has made it to difficult and has not given us enough information, for He made Himself flesh and walked among us teaching and living in perfect example. The problem is that often it is not what we were hoping to see. If you are going to search for God using all your intellect and knowledge at some stage along the journey you will come across the manger. Will you accept this scene? The Magi did not even hesitate, there hearts had led them to this point and they were not about to question that for a second. What they witnessed was an appalling scene (Although it is believed they arrived much later after the birth they would have understood the circumstances of the birth). A young girl on the floor in the mud surrounded by the filth and stench of the animals she had no sanitation, no experienced midwife delivering a child into the muddy floor. It was appalling conditions and extremely undignified. You can imagine the state of this floor if St. Mary preferred to put her newborn baby in the trough (remember the trough the prodigal son ate from it would have been the same) the animals ate from. Yet they fully accepted the scene, they saw the new born Lord and that is all they saw for there hearts were truly searching for God, they did not see anything else. When we arrive the choice we make will depend entirely on what we see. If we see the Lord and only the Lord it is irresistible, if however we arrive still concerned about our lives and our world we will notice the horrific conditions, the smell and struggle and wonder why should we have to fast and pray and give our money to the poor. Why does it have to be such a struggle, it’s all to tiring and not exciting enough I am not interested and we walk away.
You can see that if you heart and mind have not been prepared the whole event can easily fly by without you noticing it. So the hymn requires us to pause and meditate on its massive and eternal significance. Because this child is God and He is on a mission to save us. This is the final line of this short hymn, but what it says will change everything and will set our hearts in motion for full on praise of God. For all of this is for us. The whole mystery is saturated in love. The full wonder of the Nativity of God, lies in the pure and greatest mystery of Christian reality: the love that orders the cosmos, the love that creates and fashions, the love the theologian calls God Himself, comes directly, fully, gently yet forcefully into the world.
So now we have stopped to witness and tried to feel a flavour of this wonder we can say just those words out loud and to God. In the hymn Pijenmici – “The Virginal birth and spiritual contractions are a marvellous wonder according to prophetic sayings”. This leads us to full on glorification of God with the angels as we witnessed in the hymn Apenchois and the joyful Agios.
I hope you can appreciate that there is a lot more that can be said and felt on this feast and that to grasp as much as possible we do require a forty-day fasting period. On the feast during these hymns if you do not know them, listen to the melody while contemplating that the Lord is born before all of us and prepare you heart so that He may elevate you through His birth to be more like Him and less like this world. For ultimately the Nativity is not simply God becoming man, its not His teaching and example, its not a deliverance from sin. Yes those things a very true but the message is one of love, of the highest order and directed purely at us.