The Birth of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ in the Flesh is celebrated for 8 days, and on the Sunday after the Nativity, the Church celebrates in particular the memory of the Holy Righteous Ones: David the King, Joseph the Betrothed and James, the Brother of the Lord. The Orthodox Church draws our attention on this Sunday after the Nativity of Our Lord, as it does for all important feasts, to the lesser characters who are involved in the meaning of the feast. This happens twice during the eight-day Nativity celebration: The day after the Nativity when we gather to commemorate the Holy Birthgiver-of-God, and on this Sunday following the feast.
David was the second king of Israel who became famous as a youth for slaying the great Philistine soldier named Goliath. Many of the Psalms are expressly attributed to his authorship and to various incidents of his life. He has an intimate connection to with the Birth of Christ because it is the fulfillment of a promise God made to David as a result of his piety: That a dynasty would be created through him when establishing His eternal Kingdom (3 Kings 11:36). In this respect, David was no longer merely a king and ruler, but also was perceived as a prophet even in the time of Christ (Acts 2:30). Many psalms refer to the suffering, the persecution and the triumphant deliverance of the Anointed One, the Messiah or the Christ. In this the Church followed the teaching of the Old Testament Prophets. The Messiah was to be the great king as was David, the ancestor of the Messiah. The Church Fathers even regarded incidents in the life of David as foreshadowing the life of Christ. Bethlehem is the birthplace of both. Both Mary and Joseph were of the House of David. Our Lord was born in Bethlehem because the most Holy Virgin and Joseph the Betrothed had to return to the city of David, Bethlehem, for the census of Caesar Augustus.
Joseph, betrothed but never married to the Most-Pure Birthgiver-of-God, was a carpenter, a working man of modest means. Despite his humble work and means, Joseph came from David’s royal lineage. Luke and Matthew both illustrate his descent from King David. Indeed the angel who first tells Joseph about Jesus greets him as “son of David,” a royal title used also for Jesus Christ. In contrast with other traditions, the Orthodox Church has often taught that Joseph was married and had children (four sons and two daughters) with another wife prior to his betrothal to the Virgin Mary. In contrast to the Latin Church, the Orthodox Church considers the brothers and sisters of the Lord mentioned in the sacred scriptures not to be mere cousins, but the children of Joseph from his first marriage, and accordingly, half-brothers and sisters of our Lord.
Though he had embraced a life of abstinence, St. Joseph agreed to take care of the young maiden, the Virgin Mary. When Mary was discovered with child after they had been betrothed, he planned to end the betrothal according to the Law, but was concerned for her suffering and safety. He decided to proceed quietly and not expose her to shame nor cruelty. When the angel came to Joseph in a dream and told him that the Child Mary was carrying was conceived by the Holy Spirit. Joseph immediately and without question took Mary as his wife. When the angel came again to tell him that his family was in danger, he immediately left everything he owned, all his family and friends, and fled to a foreign country with his young wife and the Baby. However, it was not just any foreign country, but Egypt, the country from which the Israelites were enslaved until their deliverance by God through Moses. Imagine the irony of this: The Holy Family is safer in the place where the Israelites were slaves than they were among their own people! They waited in Egypt until the angel told him it was safe to return. And even then, Joseph did not return to his native town of Bethlehem, but to Nazareth in Galilee where it would be safer for his family. He was a man of great restraint and chastity for he cared for Mary as his wife, yet, according to Church teaching, never had relations with her. Since the ancient writings do not mention Joseph in Jesus’ adult life, it must be assumed that he died before Jesus entered public ministry.
The commemoration of James, the Brother of the Lord, on this Sunday seems a bit odd initially. The Orthodox Church believes him to be one of these aforementioned children of the Righteous Joseph the Betrothed from his other wife. At an early age James became a Nazorite, a pre-Christian ascetical sect whose members vowed to remain virgins, abstain from wine and meat, and not to cut their hair. When our Lord began His public ministry, James became an immediate follower and apostle to his half-brother. After Pentecost, he was chosen first bishop in the Church at Jerusalem and he, not Peter nor Paul, presided over the Council of the Apostles at Jerusalem (Acts 15). After serving 30 years as bishop of Jerusalem, the Jewish teachers shoved him off the temple roof and he was stoned to death in about 63 AD. He is the author of the First Catholic Epistle in the New Testament written between the years 60 and 62 A.D.
The Apostolic Reading prescribed for this Sunday was chosen because it ends with the words, “I saw none of the other apostles except James the Brother of the Lord.” (Galatians 1:19) In a way, this commemoration is very touching. When thinking about Christmas being a family time, we often consider this to be a modern development which came more from the influence of Charles Dickens, Currier and Ives and Frank Capra than from the Church. Yet, based on the inclusion of St. James on this Sunday’s commemoration, it is unmistakable that the Church is emphasizing the awesomeness of God’s Divine Plan by stressing the importance of familial love in that plan: The lineage of David, the paternal love of his earthly father Joseph and his half-brother James.
V. Rev. Dennis Kristof