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 The Paradise which God planted for Adam is superseded by the Theotokos who is a spiritual Paradise.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.