The Apolytikion of the Nativity of our Lord
Why are we talking about stars at Christmas?
In the Orthodox liturgical tradition, the Divine Liturgy of Christmas day commemorates the arrival of the Magi to offer their gifts to the Christ Child. The role of the star in this story helps to reinforce the theme of the Divine Light coming into a world of darkness.
The Greek Text
Ἡ γέννησίς σου Χριστὲ ὁ Θεὸς ἡμῶν,
ἀνέτειλε τῶ κόσμω, τὸ φῶς τὸ τῆς γνώσεως,
ἐν αὐτῇ γὰρ οἱ τοὶς ἄστροις λατρεύοντες,
ὑπὸ ἀστέρος ἐδιδάσκοντο,
τὸν Ἥλιον τῆς δικαιοσύνης,
καὶ σὲ γινώσκειν
ἐξ ὕψους ἀνατολήν,
Κύριε δόξα σοί.
I yennisis sou Christe o Theos imon,
anetile to kosmo to phos to tis gnoseos,
en afti gar i tis astris latrevontes,
ipo asteros edidaskondo,
ton Ilion tis dikeosynis,
ke se yinoskin
ex ipsous anatolin,
Kyrie, doxa si.
The English Translation
Your birth O Christ our God
raised upon the world the light of knowledge
and to those who worshiped the stars
through a star learned
to worship You the sun of righteousness
and came to know You the Orient from on high.
Lord, glory to You.
The Apolytikion sung in English by the Boston Byzantine Choir
(Not) Blinded by the Light
The hymn of Christmas is full of light; not just any light, but the light that casts out the darkness of the world. The poetry of the hymn reinforces this image. The idea itself comes from two New Testament sources.
The light that overcomes the darkness comes from the Prologue to the Gospel according to St. John (John 1:4-5)
In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend (or overcome) it.
What is the light that overcomes the darkness? Naturally, it is the rising sun! This connection becomes clear in the hymn which Zacharias sang at the birth of his son, John the Baptist (Luke 1:76-79).
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways, to give knowledge of salvation to His people by the remission of their sins, through the tender mercy of our God, with which the Dayspring from on high will visit us; to give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.
The Morning Star
This complex of images underlies the poetry of the first part of the hymn. The birth of Christ causes the light of knowledge (to phos to tis gnoseos) to rise up. The verb anatello is the common word for the rising of the sun; it is used transitively (i.e. it conveys the action of a subject to the object) for raising something up. In Matthew 5:45 it is used in connection with the sun: “…so that you become sons of your Father in heaven, because he causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good…”
Like the Light in John 1, the birth of Christ causes the light of knowledge to rise over the world. The image invokes the natural phenomenon of the morning star pointing to the rising of the sun. The birth of Christ becomes the morning star whose rising heralds the coming of the light of knowledge. This knowledge, as we have seen in the hymn of Zacharias, is the knowledge of salvation, which is the revelation of the true God through the God-man Jesus Christ.
Star-Gazers and the Star
The initial image of sun and morning star leads naturally to the star which guided the astrologers from the East to find the newborn Christ Child. It is in the light of knowledge that the Magi, who were ancient astronomers, began their search for the newborn King of the Jews. Although they had worshiped the stars (oi tis astris latrevondes), God sent them a star which shone with light of knowlege (iper asteros edidaskondo). The roles are now reversed: the sun has become the morning star, pointing beyond itself to the greater truth.
How can the star teach? Every Christmas we are subjected to endless speculation about the nature of the star that the Magi followed. Was it a miraculous, moving star? Was it a confluence of planets? Was it some unusual astrological sign that had meaning for the astrologers? In the Orthodox tradition, none of these questions are meaningful. The true nature of the star lies beyond the simple physical phenomenon. We see what the star truly is in the icon of the Nativity. There the star is more than an astronomical event; it is a manifestation of the Holy Spirit Himself.
At the top of the icon is the dark blue semicircle which is the iconic symbol of the Father. From this circle emanates a ray which terminates in the star over the head of the Christ Child. This symbolism shows that the star is one of the Trinity, pointing to the incarnate Word. We see the same arrangement in the icon of the Baptism, where the Spirit is symbolized by a dove.
Ultimately, then, the Magi are led by the Spirit, who always points us to Christ. The Holy Spirit is the true light of knowledge.
Two Things to Learn
The third part of the hymn tells us the two things which the Magi learn through the star, the light of knowledge: to worship you (se proskynin) and to know you (se yinoskin). The order is the opposite of what we expect. Our rational, post-Enlightenment society has been taught that knowledge comes first.The debate about infant Baptism, for example, revolves around the objection that infants are too young to understand what is going on. For the Orthodox, however, worship always comes first, because the mystery always exceeds our intellect. When we are faced, like the Magi, with the pre-eternal God now lying in the food trough of dumb animals, all we can do, like the Magi, is to fall down and worship the mystery. The morning star has led us to the rising of the true Sun of Righteousness (ton ilion tis dikeosyne). The light that heralded the coming of the light of knowledge has now become the sun, and the light of knowledge yields to worship.
From worship follows knowledge. The true Sun is not just light of day, but the rising sun. In this way, the Holy Spirit leads us not only to the Christ Child, but moves immediately to the “other end” of the story, the Resurrection. The rising sun is the image of the risen Christ, and, for this reason, from the beginning, Christians face East when they pray, and especially at the ultimate meeting with the risen Christ, the Divine Liturgy. For the Orthodox, Christmas can never remain the sentimental meditation on a baby in the manger. It points to the entire plan of salvation. The hymn for Christmas takes us to the culmination of that plan through the beautiful image of the morning star leading us to the rising sun.