Nothing is as Sacred as a Human Being

“There is nothing as sacred as a human being, whose nature God Himself has shared.”  (St. Nicholas Cabasilas)

“The glory of God is a living human being.” (St. Irenaeus of Lyons)

Christmas focuses on the incarnation of our God.  And the incarnation is the most amazing act of God – for God sees in humanity something so sacred that God desires to be united to humanity.  The Holy God wishes to share in human nature because God sees in humanity something lovely and holy and blessed.  God chooses to share in human nature.  This is the mystery of the God of love which results in the incarnation – results in the Nativity of Christ.

St. John Chrysostom describes it this way in a homily:

And in what manner was the almighty with her, Who in a little while came forth from her? He was as the craftsman, who coming on some suitable material, fashions to himself a beautiful vessel; so Christ, finding the holy body and soul of the Virgin, builds for Himself a living temple, and as He had willed, formed there a man from the Virgin; and, putting Him on, this day came forth; unashamed of the loveliness of our nature. For it was to Him no lowering to put on what he Himself had made. Let that handiwork be forever glorified, which became the cloak of its own Creator. For as in the first creation of flesh, man could not be made before the clay had come into His hand, so neither could this corruptible body be glorified, until it had first become the garment of its Maker.

As Chrysostom envisions Christmas, Christ Himself as Creator fashions the body in the Virgin’s womb that He Himself will take for Himself.  God is able to see in humanity something so holy that God wishes to be united to the holiness of humanity.  God chooses to share His natural holiness with the humans created in God’s image and likeness.

Chrysostom goes on:

What shall I say! And how shall I describe this Birth to you? For this wonder fills me with astonishment. The Ancient of days has become an infant. He Who sits upon the sublime and heavenly Throne, now lies in a manger. And He Who cannot be touched, Who is simple, without complexity, and incorporeal, now lies subject to the hands of men. He Who has broken the bonds of sinners, is now bound by an infant’s bands. But He has decreed that ignominy shall become honor, infamy be clothed with glory, and total humiliation the measure of His Goodness.

For this He assumed my body, that I may become capable of His Word; taking my flesh, He gives me His spirit; and so He bestowing and I receiving, He prepares for me the treasure of Life. He takes my flesh, to sanctify me; He gives me His Spirit that He may save me.”   (St. John Chrysostom)

The mystery and the amazement continues.  For God chooses to unite Himself to humanity while human nature is still subject to the power of sin and death.  God doesn’t choose perfect and sinless human nature before the Fall, but accepts human nature as it is in the world.  God enters into the human condition and does not create a special humanity and a special world free of sin, temptation, violence, evil, suffering, sorrow or death.  God enters into the world that we experience with all of its suffering and sorrow and accepts our human nature.  God enters into our lives and embraces the same life that we all share.  God is not distant and transcendent, but near you where you are .

Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.  (Hebrews 2:14-18)

There is nothing as sacred as a human being.  Even an imperfect human, a sinner, a flawed person, one beset with temptation.  For God every human being is sacred – no matter who I am, no matter what I think about myself, or what others think about me.  In God’s eyes, I am still sacred, holy.  I am to be what God is.  “Be holy for I am holy, ” says the Lord (1 Peter 1:16).  This is why God became incarnate.  God became human because God sees humans as having a holiness to which God wishes to unit Himself.  God did not avoid the fallen, sinful world, but entered into and shared our life in this world.

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The Eucharist and Christmas

“In his worldly obedience he emptied himself, and his emptying is the only example for our path.  God who became a child, God who fled into Egypt to escape Herod,

God who sought friends and disciples in this world, God who wept from the depths of his spirit over Lazarus, who denounced the pharisees, who spoke of the fate of Jerusalem, who drove out demons, healed the sick, raised the dead, who finally, and most importantly gave his flesh and blood as food for the world, lifted up his body on the cross between the two thieves – when and at what moment did his example teach us about inner walls that separate us from the world?  He was in the world with all his Godmanhood, not with some secondary properties.  He did not keep himself, he gave himself without stint.  ‘This is my body, which is broken for you‘ – shed to the end.  

In the sacrament of the eucharist, Christ gave himself, his God-man’s body, to the world, or rather, he united the world with himself in the communion with his God-man’s body.  He made it into Godmanhood.”  (St. Maria of Parish, Mother Maria Skobtsova: Essential Writings, p. 78)

 

Christmas Changes Us

Now when the magi had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, “Arise, take the young Child and His mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I bring you word; for Herod will seek the young Child to destroy Him.” When he arose, he took the young Child and His mother by night and departed for Egypt, and was there until the death of Herod, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, “Out of Egypt I called My Son.” Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, was exceedingly angry; and he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying: “A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”

Now when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, “Arise, take the young Child and His mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the young Child’s life are dead.” Then he arose, took the young Child and His mother, and came into the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea instead of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And being warned by God in a dream, he turned aside into the region of Galilee. And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, “He shall be called a Nazarene.”  (Matthew 2:13-23)

In the long history of Christian interpretation of the Scriptures, the Church has been blessed by the many meanings which have been derived from the texts.  From the earliest days of Christianity (and in ancient Jewish interpretations of the Scriptures as well), commentators noted how the texts can guide and influence our behavior..  Inspiration is thus not only found in the authors of the texts, but also is in those who read the texts.  For example, year after year, we read the Christmas narrative in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, but we don’t exhaust the meaning of the texts.  Obviously, insight into the literal meaning may be more limited because that has been explored for 2000 years – that stone has been turned over countless times.  But the text also is capable of giving us insight into our lives today, and to give us further revelation about God’s purposes in unfolding history.  So we know the magi leave the newborn Christ and return to their own country by a route different than the one that brought them to Jerusalem.  This literal reading of the text, provides us insight into our own spiritual sojourn to Christ at the Nativity.

“The Magi, divinely warned in a dream, return to their country by another road. They must avoid Herod. In the spiritual sense, he whom God has led to the crib can certainly go back home, to his own country, to his house; but it will be by another road. That is to say, the motives, the attitudes, the manner of existing, the means used, can no longer be the same. When one has gone to Bethlehem, a radical change takes place.”  (Jesus: A Dialogue with the Savior by a Monk of the Eastern Church, pp. 8-9)

Old Testament Images of Christ’s Birth

PREPARE, O BETHLEHEM, FOR EDEN HAS BEEN OPENED TO ALL!   ADORN YOURSELF, O EPHRATHA, FOR THE TREE OF LIFE BLOSSOMS FORTH FROM THE VIRGIN IN THE CAVE!  HER WOMB IS A SPIRITUAL PARADISE PLANTED WITH THE DIVINE FRUIT: IF WE EAT OF IT, WE SHALL LIVE FOREVER AND NOT DIE LIKE ADAM.  CHRIST COMES TO RESTORE THE IMAGE WHICH HE MADE IN THE BEGINNING!

In the five days before Christmas, one finds in Orthodox hymns for the pre-Feast of the Nativity of Christ.  These pre-Festal hymns shed light on the Feast and our understanding of who Jesus is and how He is our salvation.   There were three hymns that caught my attention with beautiful imagery.   Above, the hymn parallels the creation of the first Adam in Paradise with the birth of New Adam, Jesus,  from the Virgin Mary.  The Paradise which God planted for Adam is superseded by the Theotokos who is a spiritual Paradise.  If Paradise is some heavenly place, Mary becomes a spiritual heaven – the place where God abides on earth.   The Tree of Life which was in the middle of the original Paradise now is able to blossom forth from the Virgin.  Christ is the Divine Fruit planted in her womb, and Christ is the Tree of Life.  We can eat of this Tree of Life in Holy Communion.  The Tree of Life is no longer closed to us but is now able to give us eternal life.  Adam and Eve had lost access to the Tree of Life by their rebellious sin.  Christ again offers to us the fruit of the Tree of Life – namely Himself.  No longer will we be denied access to immortality – we are restored to the fullness of humanity that God intended for us from the beginning.

IN YOUR WOMB, ALL-BLAMELESS THEOTOKOS,
WE BEHOLD THE RICH THRESHING-FLOOR OF WHICH SOLOMON SANG.  YOU BEAR THE EAR OF GRAIN THAT GREW WITHOUT BEING SOWN;  YOUR CHILD IS THE ETERNAL WORD:
IN A WONDERFUL MANNER YOU WILL GIVE BIRTH TO HIM IN THE CAVE OF BETHLEHEM, HE WILL LOVINGLY FEED EVERY CREATURE WITH THE KNOWLEDGE OF GOD, FREEING THE HUMAN RACE FROM DEADLY HUNGER.

The above hymn keeps to a theme of food – from harvesting the grain to being fed.  First there is mention of the threshing-floor.  Threshing is the process of taking a plant and separating the edible grain from the inedible straw and husk.  The threshing floor is the place where this separating process takes place.  More interestingly, the threshing floor became a rich symbol of a place where God meets His people.  Our encounter with God turns out to be a threshing process – perhaps God’s own separating the wheat from the chaff, but also the required effort on our part to take God’s revelation to us and to discover what we need to get from it for our own nutrition.  The scriptures for example always require interpretation – this is a threshing process because God’s full message is sometimes hidden in the text.  We have to separate the edible grain (what we can understand and digest) from the inedible husk (the written word which contains the grain).  It is the grain which gives us life.

In 2 Samuel 24, King David purchases the threshing-floor as the very location to build the temple.  It is on this exact place – the threshing floor – where Solomon actually built it according to 2 Chronicles 3:1.   The Theotokos is compared in the hymn to this threshing-floor, or in her womb divinity is enclosed in humanity, but also that incarnation is revealed to the world.  Christ becomes the food of the world who gives eternal life to all who eat His flesh and drink His blood.  Christ is the spiritual food which if we eat we will not hunger again.  Christmas is the Feast in which God feeds His people with the manna of heaven.

CHRIST, WHO IS THE INFINITE WISDOM OF GOD,
HAS WONDROUSLY BUILT A HOUSE FOR HIMSELF FROM THE VIRGIN; SHE COMES INTO THE CAVE AND MANGER OF DUMB BEASTS: THERE SHE WILL GIVE BIRTH IN THE FLESH TO HIM
IN A MANNER BEYOND ALL UNDERSTANDING.

Proverbs 9:1 states that Wisdom built a house to abide in (Proverbs 9:1).  Christ is God’s Wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:24).  According to the Prophet Baruch (3:37), a prophecy we read at Christmas, Wisdom walks on earth.   The “house” which Christ/ Holy Wisdom built is Mary, the Virgin Mother.  God becomes incarnate in her, and takes up his abode on earth.  He dwells in her bringing about the salvation of the world.

The Old Testament is full of images about the incarnation – prophecies of many different kinds, some predicting the coming of God in the flesh, and some foreshadowing the events.

Strange Birth

“I was a stranger and you welcomed me …”   (Matthew 25:35)

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Seeing this strange birth, let us become strangers to the world and set our minds on things in heaven; for God descended to earth as lowly man to raise to heaven those who cry to him: Alleluia!  (Akathist to the Theotokos, Prayer Book – In Accordance with the Tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church, Kindle Loc 2444-2446)

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He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not. He came to his own home, and his own people received him not. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.  (John 1:10-14)

Christmas is Trinitarian

Of course, the Son of God did not consign Himself to a material body or mingle human deeds with divine ones on a whim. He did this, together with the miracles that He performed in the body, in order to obey the will of God. But the fact that He could organize and work divine purposes through a human body in a pure and marvelous manner shows that he created Himself as a man with a material body, and thus created all matter with the capacity for being filled and used to manifest His divine Person.

And He raised men through grace to become sons of His heavenly Father through the fact that He Himself was the only begotten Son of the heavenly Father. If there were no Triune God–a God who was the Father, Son and Holy Spirit–He could not have done this. The raising of man from the prison of his nature is possible thanks to the fact that God exists in Trinity. (Dumitru Staniloae, The Holy Trinity, pp. 112-113)

 

Christmas 2017

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth among people of good will.” (Luke 2:13-14)

The angelic proclamation on the day of Christ’s birth stirs in our hearts hope for the world: peace on earth!   It is something we Orthodox pray for at each Divine Liturgy, Vespers or Matins.   We constantly petition God to fulfill the hope which the angels heralded as possible with the nativity of the Messiah.

Despite our God-given hope and despite our prayers, we witnessed a great deal of violence in 2017 in the world.  Church communities were not spared from this scourge of terrorism during the year.  This reminds us to pay attention to the entire story of Christ’s birth – part of the Gospel Christmas story is Herod murdering the innocent children!  We like to ignore that part of the nativity narrative as it doesn’t fit our image of a sentimental season: a merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.  The birth of Jesus caused Rachel to weep inconsolably over the loss of her children (Matthew 2:17-18)!   Rather than choosing to ignore part of the Gospel, we can appreciate the truthfulness of the narrative because we live in that same world where we know such grief.

We need only look at the Church calendar in the days after the Nativity to be reminded of Christian suffering:

December 27  St. Stephen the First Christian martyr

December 28 – The Massacre of the Christians celebrating Christmas at Nicomedia  in 302AD

December 29- The Massacre of the Holy Innocent Children by King Herod

Jesus Himself was quite realistic about this when He taught:

“I have said this to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”  (John 16:33)

Hope springs eternal.  Christ Jesus is our peace (Ephesians 2:14).  God came into the world because God loves us.   God too has suffered the violence of the very world He created for us; the world which God so loves.  He has not abandoned us to the violence of the world, but is here with us even in our darkest moments.   God wishes for us abundant life in this world, but many in the world still reject God.  Christmas makes sense not because the world is a utopian paradise, but exactly because there are serious and violent problems in this fallen world.  The sentimental American Christmas preference only makes sense if we ignore the world as it really is.  Orthodoxy takes history seriously and thus values the entire Gospel of the Nativity.  We need God’s love and we need hope to bring light to the darkness.  We need Christ to be with us through all the trials and tribulations the world throws at us.

And every year we are summoned to that humble birth – in a manger, in a cave, where we still can find God’s peace.  God’s peace is not like the world’s peace, and is not dependent on it.  As our Lord said:   Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid (John 14:27).  The world is much the same as it was 2000 years ago when Mary gave birth to God’s Son.  The Gospel lesson of Christmas is proclaimed every year to renew in us faith, hope and love so that we are not overcome by the world’s sorrows, but rather we overcome the world through Jesus Christ our Lord.  From that cave, light dawned to the world.  We live in the light of Christmas.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it (John 1:5).

Christ is born!  Glorify Him!

On the Birth of the Christ

“What shall I say to you; what shall I tell you? I behold a Mother who has brought forth; I see a Child come to this light by birth. The manner of His conception I cannot comprehend. Nature here rested, while the Will of God labored. O ineffable grace! The Only Begotten, Who is before all ages, Who cannot be touched or be perceived, Who is simple, without body, has now put on my body, that is visible and liable to corruption. For what reason? That coming amongst us he may teach us, and teaching, lead us by the hand to the things that men cannot see. For since men believe that the eyes are more trustworthy than the ears, they doubt of that which they do not see, and so He has deigned to show Himself in bodily presence, that He may remove all doubt.

And he was born from a Virgin, who knew not His purpose neither had she labored with Him to bring it to pass, nor contributed to that which He had done, but was the simple instrument of His hidden Power. That alone she knew which she had learned by her question to Gabriel: how shall this be done, because I know not a man? Then said he; do you wish to hear his words? The Holy Spirit shall come upon thee, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee.

And in what manner was the almighty with her, Who in a little while came forth from her? He was as the craftsman, who coming on some suitable material, fashions to himself a beautiful vessel; so Christ, finding the holy body and soul of the Virgin, builds for Himself a living temple, and as He had willed, formed there a man from the Virgin; and, putting Him on, this day came forth; unashamed of the loveliness of our nature. For it was to Him no lowering to put on what he Himself had made. Let that handiwork be forever glorified, which became the cloak of its own Creator. For as in the first creation of flesh, man could not be made before the clay had come into His hand, so neither could this corruptible body be glorified, until it had first become the garment of its Maker.

What shall I say! And how shall I describe this Birth to you? For this wonder fills me with astonishment. The Ancient of days has become an infant. He Who sits upon the sublime and heavenly Throne, now lies in a manger. And He Who cannot be touched, Who is simple, without complexity, and incorporeal, now lies subject to the hands of men. He Who has broken the bonds of sinners, is now bound by an infant’s bands. But He has decreed that ignominy shall become honor, infamy be clothed with glory, and total humiliation the measure of His Goodness.

For this He assumed my body, that I may become capable of His Word; taking my flesh, He gives me His spirit; and so He bestowing and I receiving, He prepares for me the treasure of Life. He takes my flesh, to sanctify me; He gives me His Spirit that He may save me.”

(St. John Chrysostom, “Nativity Homily,” The Sunday Sermons of the Great Fathers, pp. 112-113)

The Ancestors of Christ

the son of Enos, the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God.  (Luke 3:38)

To Seth also a son was born, and he called his name Enosh. At that time men began to call upon the name of the LORD.  (Genesis 4:26)

When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them Man when they were created. When Adam had lived a hundred and thirty years, he became the father of a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth.  (Genesis 5:1-3)

St Gregory Palamas comments:

“Note where this choice began. The excellent Seth was chosen from among Adam’s children, because by his well-ordered conduct, his control over his senses and his glorious virtue he showed himself to be a living heaven and so came to be one of the elect, from whom the Virgin would spring forth, that truly heavenly and divinely appropriate chariot of the supracelestial God, and through whom He would call men back to eternal sonship. Therefore all Seth’s stock were called sons of God (cf. Gen. 6:2), because it was from this race that the Son of God was to become the Son of man.

That is why the name Seth can be interpreted to mean “resurrection”, or rather “a rising up from”, which really refers to the Lord, Who promises and gives eternal life to those who believe in Him.”   (“On the Sunday of the Fathers,The Homilies, pp. 469-470)

The Incarnation: A Second Communion

Creation of Adam

St. John of Damascus writes:

“Formerly, in a unified show of his own graciousness, God established humanity: he breathed the breath of life into the one newly formed of the earth, gave him a share in a better existence, honored him with his own image and likeness, and make him a citizen of Eden, a tablemate of angels. But since we darkened and destroyed the likeness of the divine image by the filth of passions, he who is compassionate has shared with us a second communion, more secure and still more wonderful than the first.

For he remains in the exalted height of his own divinity, but takes on a share of what is less, divinely forming humanity in himself; he mingles the archetype with its image, and reveals in it today his own proper beauty. (“Oration on the Transfiguration,” Light on the Mountain, p. 210)