The mysteries of the Christian faith ought to make us humble worshippers of God. We will never fully grasp the Incarnation or the Holy Trinity – but these mysteries should lead us to adoration. I love the great carols and hymns about Jesus’ birth that make their way into the church’s music every year around this time. Familiar songs like O Come O Come Emmanuel, and Joy to the World help us align our hearts with the season of joy and expectation.
The Incarnation of Jesus has been hymned since the days of the apostles. There are a number of biblical scholars who believe we have the content of some of these ancient hymns in places like 1 Timothy 3:16; and Philippians 2:6-11. Ever since Christ came, Christians have been singing about the wonderful mystery! Here are seven glorious lines (with some brief commentary) from the Nativity hymns of St. Ephrem of Syria, written in the 4th century.
1. Hymn 3
Thy day reconciled Heaven and earth, because therein the Highest came down to the lowest. Thy day was able to reconcile the Just One, who was wrathful toward our sins; Thy day forgave thousands of sins, for in it bowels of mercy shone forth upon the guilty!
Ephrem noted that the advent of the Word was about reconciling sinful humanity with the just and holy God. The day of Jesus’ Incarnation put God’s mercy on display.
2. Hymn 3
Though Most High, yet He sucked the milk of Mary, and of His goodness all creatures suck! He is the Breast of Life, and the Breath of Life; the dead suck from His life and revive. Without the breath of the air no man lives, without the Might of the Son no man subsists. On his living breath that quickens all, depend the spirits that are above and that are beneath. When He sucked the milk of Mary, he was suckling all with life. While he was lying on His Mother’s bosom, in His bosom were all creatures lying. He was silent as a Babe, and yet He was making His creatures execute all his commands!
3. Hymn 8
The belly of Your mother changed the order of things, O Thou that orderest all! The rich went in, He came out poor: the High One went in, He came out lowly. Brightness went into her and clothed Himself, and came forth a despised form. The Mighty went in, and clad Himself with fear from the Belly. He that giveth food to all went in and gat hunger. He that giveth all to drink went in, and gat thirst. Naked and bare came forth from her the Clother of all.
4. Hymn 10
David Thy father sung in a psalm of Thee before Thou hadst come, that to Thee should be given the gold of Sheba. This psalm that he sung of Thee, lo! It, whilst Thou are yet a child, in reality heaps before thee myrrh and gold. And the hundred and fifty Psalms that he wrote, in Thee were seasoned, because all the sayings of prophecy stood in need of Thy sweetness, for without Thy salt all manner of wisdom were tasteless.
Here Ephrem tied Psalm 72:15 with the gift of the Magi (Matt. 2:1-12), and notes that the entire Psalter is “salted with Jesus.” The blessed Incarnation hasn’t just been hymned since Jesus’ birth, but since long before it!
5. Hymn 14
And as He began at birth, He went on and fulfilled in dead. His birth received worship; his death paid the debt. As He came to his birth, the Magi worshipped him; again He came to His passion, and the thief sought refuge in Him. Between His birth and death, midway He set the world: in birth and death He gave it life.
The Word was not just made flesh for us, he also lived and died for us, paying the debt our sins had incurred. His whole life is for you.
6. Hymn 16
The Bosom of Mary amazes me, that is sufficed for Thee, Lord, and embraced Thee. All creation were too small, to conceal Thy Majesty; Heaven and earth too narrow, to be in the likeness of wings, to cover Thy Godhead. Too small for Thee was the bosom of earth; great enough for Thee was the bosom of Mary. He dwelt in the bosom and healed in her bosom.
The God who cannot be contained by the cosmos contained himself in the womb of the Virgin!
7. Hymn 18
Blessed art thou, Bethlehem, that in thee was the Beginning, for Him the Son who from everlasting is in the Father! It is hard to comprehend, that before time He is, who in thee made Himself subject to time. Blessed thine ears, for in thee first was heard the cry of the Lamb of God who exulted in thee! Narrow though thy manger, He spread Himself on all sides, and was worshipped of every creature!
The LORD who dwells outside of time, in the Incarnation subjected himself to time!