Back in November, I read a wonderful homily by St. Gregory the Theologian that I have returned to often throughout Nativity this year. Oration 38 (read the full text here) was written in 380-81 and is often subtitled “On the Theophany, or Birthday of Christ,” leaving Orthodox Christians everywhere to wonder: which is it, St. Gregory? Christmas or Theophany?
And hidden in this simple question, at least for us modern readers, is a complexity that is entirely the point.
“Now is the feast of the Theophany,” St. Gregory writes. Lest he alleviate our confusion, however, he continues: “… or the Nativity. for it is called both, two appellations given to one deed. . . . The name for the appearance [of Christ in the world] is ‘Theophany,’ and for the birth, ‘Nativity.’”
While the sermon was most likely intended for Christmas  (not Theophany) his comment speaks to some of the fluidity and variation that surrounded Christian feasts in the fourth century, particularly those that had to do with Christ’s birth and baptism. This was an era when the liturgical calendar was beginning to blossom forth–when Christian communities started exercising freedoms granted under Constantine by “putting on Christ” in new and more visible ways, not merely in their souls and bodies, but also in their calendars and civic rhythms. And sometimes this was a messy, uneven process.
But the variation St. Gregory hints at reveals not just a historical truth but a theological one: to some extent, it is irrelevant which specific event of Christ’s life we celebrate on any given feast day. Behind the temporal particularities of the Savior’s life is the overarching message of salvation, unwound from the scroll of linear time through the Cross and Resurrection.
And so, already in the beginning of his sermon, St. Gregory reminds us exactly where this Christmas journey is heading: Christ “enter[ed] time for our sake, in order that the One who has given being, also grant [us our] well-being. Or rather, so that He might lead us, who had drifted through well-being on account of wickedness, back to that state through the incarnation.”
This is not about the birth of some cute baby who just happened to be God-clothed-in-flesh. It’s not about flashy lights and gifts and cookies. Like many of us, St. Gregory lamented the lavish practices that attended pagan holidays in his own culture this time of year. In fact his words on this subject are an almost prophetic description of Christmas today, overrun as it is by consumerism, a kind of neo-paganism:
Let us not crown our fore-courts, nor assemble the choruses, nor decorate the streets, nor let us feast the eye, nor charm the hearing, nor make effeminate our smelling, nor prostitute the taste, nor gratify the touch. These are ready paths to evil–entrances of sin–let us not be softened by apparel, delicate and extravagant clothing, the highest beauty of which is inutility, nor by the translucency of stones, nor the brilliance of gold, nor the artifice of colors deceiving natural beauty, and invented in opposition to the image of God; nor let us be softened by revelries and drunkenness. . . Let us not honor the bouquet of wines, the trickeries of cooks, the great cost of perfumes. . . . Let one not be eager to conquer each other in self-indulgence. For to me self-indulgence is everything in excess and beyond need; and these things take place when others are hungering and lacking, who are from the same clay and the same mixture. (St. Gregory the Theologian, Oration 38)
Mic drop. I’ll let that sink in a moment, as it should.
Yet just as St. Gregory’s homily isn’t about the warm-and-fuzzy version of Christmas, neither is it about the Incarnation as a theological abstraction. This is about our salvation, and the whole story of that salvation. Christ’s birth is important because it recalls the whole gathered reality of God’s saving love manifested to the world.
Above all, what we are celebrating in Christ’s birth is this:
“The Coming of God to Man, that we might go forth, or rather (for this is the more proper expression) that we might go back to God—that putting off the old man, we might put on the New; and that as we died in Adam, so we might live in Christ, being born with Christ and crucified with Him and buried with Him and rising with Him. For I must undergo the beautiful conversion, and as the painful succeeded the more blissful, so must the more blissful come out of the painful. For where sin abounded Grace did much more abound; and if a taste condemned us, how much more does the Passion of Christ justify us?” (St. Gregory the Theologian, Oration 38)
St. Gregory has been fooling us all along–this wasn’t a sermon about Christmas but about the Cross! It’s the kind of homily that should maybe come with a spoiler alert–for the poor soul who shows up for Christmas but hasn’t heard the rest of the story yet.
But there is no spoiler alert in the life of faith–not just because they weren’t a thing back in December 380 (when St. Gregory was likely preaching this sermon) but because to gain salvation, to understand the full weight of Christ’s birth, we can’t start from the beginning.
T.S. Eliot proclaimed it beautifully in his poem, “Little Gidding”:
What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make and end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.
This Christmas, let us start from the end of Christmas–let us start from restoration and resurrection. As St. Gregory put it, “let us keep the Feast, not after the manner of a heathen festival, but after a godly sort; not after the way of the world, but in a fashion above the world; not as our own but as belonging to Him Who is ours, or rather as our Master’s; not as of weakness, but as of healing; not as of creation, but of re-creation.”
 Literally means the manifestation of God. Alternately referred to as the Feast of Lights, Theophany was and remains a liturgical celebration in the Christian East that commemorates God’s “shining forth” into the world, chiefly through Christ’s baptism. It’s celebrated on January 6, parallel to the West’s commemoration of Epiphany.
 Elsewhere in the sermon, St. Gregory says: “A little later on you will see Jesus submitting to be purified in the River Jordan for my Purification, or rather, sanctifying the waters by His Purification.” This was likely referring to the impending celebration of Theophany on January 6.