“And hidden from the ruler of this age was the virginity of Mary and the one born from her, and likewise the death of the Lord. Three famed mysteries which God worked in silence. How then was he made manifest to the ages? A star in heaven shining beyond all of the stars and its light was ineffable. And its great newness brought about wonderment. The remaining stars with the sun and moon became a chorus for that star. And it exceeded, with its light, them all. And there was confusion: from whence did this great newness and strangeness come to them? By this, all magistry was destroyed and every evil chain disappeared. Ignorance was taken away. The ancient kingdom is destroyed utterly. God appeared humanized in order to bring about the great newness of unending life. And that which had been planned by God was given a beginning. Therefore they all were troubled because the destruction of death was being prepared.” – St. Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Ephesians XIX
St. Ignatius of Antioch’s feast is celebrated on December 20th and so falls each year during the advent preparation for the Nativity of Christ. In the quote above from his Epistle to the Ephesians, St. Ignatius speaks concerning the birth of Christ making clear reference to the events of his birth as recorded in the Gospels. Writing as he does at the turn of the second century AD, the Hieromartyr here also gives important witness to elements of the apostolic teaching which interpret these events in a way sometimes lost in the now-familiar retelling of the Christmas story.
The first element is that of mystery or secret. St. Ignatius speaks of three mysteries kept in silence, two of which pertain to Christ’s Nativity. These two are the conception within the womb of the virgin and the identity of Christ as the second person of the Holy Trinity. The third is Christ’s death. St. Ignatius treats these as mysteries and secrets not primarily from humanity. In fact, St. Ignatius will be clear elsewhere that these mysteries were prophesied in the Hebrew Scriptures. Rather, as seen in this quotation, they are secrets kept from the rulers of this present age and in order to maintain that secret, all of the heavenly host. That Jesus’ identity as the Christ and his mission are secrets is a recurring theme throughout the Gospels as Christ repeatedly charges those whom he heals or from whom he casts out demons to tell no one. At key moments, he allows only the inner circle of the disciples to accompany him. This theme of the messianic secret is particularly pronounced in St. Mark’s Gospel (cf. Mark 1:43-45; 4:11; 8:29-30). The birth of Christ is the beginning of the execution of a plan, as St. Ignatius points out. St. Paul reminds us that if the rulers of this age had known this plan, they would not have played along (1 Cor 2:8).
St. Ignatius then speaks about how the first part of this mystery, Christ’s virgin birth and divine identity were revealed to the ages (literally the aions). He speaks of the star which appeared in the heavens as seen by the Magi who were led by it to Christ (Matt 2:2). He also speaks of the sun, moon, and stars as becoming a chorus for that star in language parallel to that of St. Luke regarding the angel who speaks to the shepherd and the great multitude of the heavenly host (Luke 2:13-14). The language here used of the sun, moon, and stars as the heavenly host is language used in scripture to describe angelic beings to whom the governance of these created elements is given, both fallen and unfallen (1 Cor 15:40-41).
The Torah, however, identifies the spirits behind the sun, moon, and stars to a particular set of rebellious spiritual beings. Israel is to worship Yahweh alone, not the sun, moon, and stars, because the heavenly host are those spirits to which Yahweh assigned the nations of the Gentiles (Deut 4:19). This was done as a punishment at the Tower of Babel (Gen 11) as further described in Deuteronomy 32:8). In worshipping these created beings who are not the true God, the nations had become enslaved to them and corrupted by the sin of their shared rebellion. This is why St. Ignatius can speak of the end of magistry and the destruction of chains. The magi were the first from the nations to be called back from worshipping the stars to the worship of the true God in coming to worship the newborn Christ. They are the first fruits of the nations. It is for this reason that these spirits quake and tremble in confusion. Their end is beginning.
A gospel (evangelion) is the report of a victory in war. St. Ignatius understands that not only do the birth narratives of Christ form the beginning of two of the Gospels, but that Christ’s birth itself was the beginning of the execution of a battle plan. The ruler of this world, the Devil, ruled an ancient kingdom throug the power of death. Spirits who had joined in his rebellion had enslaved the nations of the world through idolatry and wickedness. On the day of the Nativity, the mystery hidden from everlasting and unknown of the angels was revealed through the Theotokos to those who dwell upon the earth.
Christmas is the beginning of an insurgency. Yahweh, the God of Israel, has come in person to the heart of a hostile world, ruled over by hostile powers. This birth is discovered by the enemies of God only after the fact, through the star, and when discovered, leads to an immediate attempt to slay him before the unknown plan can go forward (Matt 2:16; Rev 12:4). In twelve days, an open declaration of war will be made when the new Joshua crosses the Jordan to enter the land at Theophany and Christ reveals himself publicly to both hostile and their hostages. The final battle will come when aChrist invades the palace of the Devil’s kingdom itself in Hades before rising from the dead and destroying the power of death in order to reclaim the nations.
St. Ignatius reminds us that the Nativity is the first shot fired. Yahweh has come to visit his people and though he is an infant in a feeding trough in a cave, he has come as a conquering king. He has not only entered in his creation in some sort of abstract and philosophical sense to bring enlightenment. He has invaded it to take vengeance upon his enemies, the enemies of humankind. He is born to destroy those who have taken us captive and to set us free. He is born to crush the one who wields the power of death and grant us unending life.