St. Gregory of Nyssa on the Forefathers

As we Orthodox get near to the Feast of the Nativity in the Flesh of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ, we are reminded about all of those faithful men and women who came before Christ – both looking for the promise’s fulfillment and witnessing to the coming of the Messiah.  We commemorate the forefathers and ancestors of Christ on the two respective Sundays before the Feast of Christmas.

The Church Fathers saw in these predecessors of Jesus not just saints, prophets, and martyrs, but models of virtuous living.  St. Gregory of Nyssa for example describes the virtues he saw in the various people found in the Scriptures – the people we remember on the Sundays before the Nativity.  In the foreward to the English Translation of Gregory of Nyssa: The Life of Moses, Fr. John Meyendorff writes:

Each Old Testament worthy became for Gregory the model of a virtue. Thus he says: “Scripture teaches us that Noah was righteous, Abraham faithful, Moses meek, Daniel wise, Joseph chaste, Job blameless, and David great-souled.” In his panegyric on Meletius, Gregory declares that he possessed the gentleness of David, the understanding of Solomon, the goodness of Moses, the scrupulousness of Samuel, the chastity of Joseph, the wisdom of Daniel, and the zeal of Elijah.

Abraham is described in Against Eunomius in terms very similar to those applied to Moses. Abraham surpassed his countrymen in their own wisdom, the philosophy of the Chaldaeans. The migration of Abraham was no mere spatial journey: He stretched his human capacity in order to attain to God. Making each new discovery a stepping stone to another, he ever “strained ahead for what was still to come” (Phil. 313, the text verse of The Life of Moses). He left all sense and perception behind and arrived by faith at the knowledge that God is greater and more sublime than any token by which he may be known. (p. 20)

For us, in the Sundays before Christmas we evoke the names of Christ’s ancestors and forefathers so that we can remember the virtues they modeled in order to imitate their holiness.

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Created in God’s Image for the Sake of Virtue

For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit; he who thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for any one to make others fall by what he eats; it is right not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that makes your brother stumble.    (Romans 14:17-21)

In the Church, we are in the season of the Nativity Fast.  In our culture, we are in the midst of the Christmas holiday rush.   St. John Chrysostom offers us some thoughts about being Christian in a secular world – what important things do we need to remember to remain faithful to Christ?  Can fasting help us be more Christ-like?  Does eating make us more godly?

“So let us not grow tired until we reach the end; this, after all, was why we were made, not to eat and drink and wear clothes, but to avoid evil and choose virtue by adopting the divine value system. For proof, in fact, that we were not made for eating and drinking but for other far greater and better things, listen to God himself explaining the reason why he made the human being: at the time of its creation he spoke this way, “Let us make the human being in our image and likeness” [Genesis 1:26]. 

Now, we become like God not by eating and drinking and wearing clothes – but by practising righteousness, giving evidence of lovingkindness, being good and kind, showing mercy to the neighbor, pursuing every virtue;

eating and drinking we have in common with the nature of brute beast, and in that regard we are no better than they. But what is the basis of our superiority?

Being made in God’s image and likeness.”   

(Old Testament Homilies, pp. 13-14)

The Incarnation: Light Overcomes Darkness

“The union of Christ’s full divinity and humanity is the touchstone of the Orthodox understanding of salvation. The Church fathers widely exploit this biblical teaching of the incarnation as sharing and participation in the very life of God. According to Athanasius, if the problem was the guilt of sin, forgiveness could have been granted from heaven upon repentance of transgressions. But the problem was the power of corruption and death that ruled the world and held humanity captive. The incarnation was necessary not only for the forgiveness of sins, but also for the rescue of humanity from the corruptive powers of darkness. This rescue was shown decisively by the resurrection of Christ. To use the language of the Gospel of John, the incarnation is an invasion of light and life into the realm of darkness and death.

The incarnation provides the basis for the redemption from sin as a universal power, and liberation of life from the forces of evil. It is life confronting and overcoming death. The victory is decisively achieved through Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection, viewed as one movement of the Son’s return to the Father, which John’s Gospel calls the ‘hour of glory’ (John 12:23-24; 17:1-5).”

(Theodore G. Stylianopoulos, Encouraged by the Scriptures, p. 8)

Chrysostom on Charity at Christmas

Today, I stand before you to make a just, useful, and suitable intercession. I come from no one else; only the beggars who live in our city elected me for this purpose, not with words, votes, and the resolve of a common council, but rather with their pitiful and most bitter spectacles. In other words, just as I was passing through the marketplace and the narrow lanes, hastening to your assembly, I saw in the middle of the streets many outcasts, some with severed hands, others with gouged-out eyes, others filled with festering ulcers and incurable wounds, especially exposing those body parts that, because of their stored-up rottenness, they should be concealing. I thought it the worst inhumanity not to appeal to your love on their behalf, especially now that the season forces us to return to this topic.

…but during the season of winter, the battle against them is mighty from all quarters, and the siege is twice as great–the famine that devours the viscera from within and the frost that freezes and deadens the flesh from without.

Therefore, they need more nourishment, a heavier garment, a shelter, a bed, shoes, and many other things. And, indeed, what is altogether grievous, they cannot find work easily, since the season of year does not allow it. Therefore, their need of the bare necessities is much greater, and besides, work passes them by, because no one hires the wretched, or summons them to service. (St. John Chrysostom, The Fathers of the Church, p. 131 & 132)

Keeping Christmas: Being Bad or Good

Sermon notes 12/3/2017 – preparing for Christmas

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Focus on one idea from the Gospel lesson:  Luke 18:18-27
Jesus tells the rich ruler: “You still lack one thing. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” But when the rich man heard this, he became very sorrowful, for he was very rich

While we tend to assume that the rich man became sorrowful because he was being asked to give up his wealth, but his grief arises immediately after Jesus tells the rich man to follow Him.

All of us who are at the Liturgy have received the invitation from Christ to follow Him.  This is for us the very meaning of Christmas, it is time for us to follow Christ.  And just like with the rich man, it is possible that the thought of following Him might cause us grief because we too might not want to have to give anything up.  Jesus said we cannot serve God and mammon/money, yet many American Christians think that we can.  We want prosperity in this world – at no spiritual cost – AND we want the Kingdom of God in the afterlife.  We imagine we can pursue all that this world has to offer now, and then, only much later in life should we think about the Kingdom of God, because we will in any case still inherit the Kingdom no matter how we lived on earth.  But the rich man in today’s Gospel realized he had to choose between the two and he wasn’t willing to make that sacrifice.

We can think about St. Paul’s comments in Ephesians 5:1-21 to get a sense of what St. Paul thought following Christ meant.

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

St. Paul uses the phrase “to walk” several times in this passage.  To follow Christ is to walk with Him.  We are to walk in love, walk in light and walk in wisdom.  We are to imitate Christ who taught us:  “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  (John 13:34-35)

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Christmas means to imitate Christ.

But fornication and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is fitting among saints. Let there be no filthiness, nor silly talk, nor levity, which are not fitting; but instead let there be thanksgiving. Be sure of this, that no fornicator or impure man, or one who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.

According to historians, there were pagans in the First Century who really admired the Jews and the Christians for their morality, especially their sexual morality.  There was plenty of sexual freedom in the Roman Empire, especially for those who had money.   They could have whatever sex they could afford.  And yet, some were attracted to the restraint and purity of Jews and Christians.  Sexual freedom and license did not give the philosophers the ideal human.    Some Hellenic Philosophers called for sexual restraint as a way to a more spiritual life.  These folk were attracted to Christianity.   Sexual license did not lead to human fulfillment.   People admired the Christians because their morality was stricter than societal norms.  People didn’t say: “Look at those Christians, they sin more than we do, let’s join them.”  Rather, they looked at the Christians and noted their self restraint and willingness to sacrifice and deny the self, and they were attracted to the self denial and self giving.  They saw the Christians who were willing to die for the faith, to die in order to preserve their moral purity.  AND Christianity grew.

Kristin LIn Sigrid Undset’s wonderful trilogy, Kristin Lavransdatter (for which she won the Nobel Prize), the young Kristin leads a sheltered Christian lifestyle in rural 14th Century Norway.  As a teenager she wants to break tradition and choose her own path in life.  She is sent to a convent where, wanting to justify her own (mis-)behavior, she ceases to see the Gospel as establishing a norm of behavior and instead begins to compare herself to the sinners living around her.  She is able to justify more and more of her own misbehavior by comparing herself to others (“I’m not as bad as some…”) while ceasing to compare herself to Christ, the Virgin or the Saints.  As her standard of comparison falls, so does her own morality.   She feels ever more justified in judging others while justifying herself, losing completely any foundation for moral thinking.

Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”  (John 8:12)

St. Paul teaches us to follow Christ, means to follow a standard in moral behavior, especially sexual behavior.

Let no one deceive you with empty words, for it is because of these things that the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not associate with them, for once you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord; walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to learn what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is a shame even to speak of the things that they do in secret; but when anything is exposed by the light it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light.

St. Paul teaches that being a Christian means not only seeing the Light, but becoming the Light.  Jesus said to His disciples: “You are the light of the world…”  (Matthew 5:14).

St. Paul doesn’t say, “once you were in darkness…”  but rather “once you were darkness“.  Being a Christian means moving away from darkness in any and all of its forms, and moving into the Light and all its manifestations.  To follow Christ is not merely to see the Light, but to participate in it, to become the light.

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To follow Christ is a transformation from darkness to light, to live the morally pure life.

Therefore it is said, “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.” Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil.

Christ is going to give us light – we can receive it from Him.  First we have to awaken.  It is not the Light which awakens us, but rather once we spiritually and morally wake up, only then can we receive the Light.

The days are evil – St. Paul writes this in the 1st Century.  Believers have always felt this way about the world we are trying to navigate through.  Evil times are not something new.  The world is not becoming evil, evil has been with us since the beginning of Christianity.  But we are not to despair because of this, but rather are to make “the most of the time“!

Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart, always and for everything giving thanks in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father.

Folly is a sin.   We need to be mindful of that.

Drunkenness may be socially acceptable and popular entertainment, it may be the most common way to deal with stress or to celebrate success.  It is not approved behavior for the Christian.

Christmas means walking with Christ, which means walking in the Light, being the Light, instead of cursing the darkness.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”   (John 1:5)

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And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.  (John 3:19)

I have come as light into the world, that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness.  (John 12:46)

The Incarnation, Christmas, The Nativity

Through the years as I was blogging, I sometimes gathered all the posts related to a particular theme from a given year into a PDF.  If you are interested in finding quotes from the Fathers or other Orthodox authors related to the Nativity of Christ, Christmas or the incarnation, you might want to glance through the PDFs listed below.  These are posts I used either during the Nativity Fast (Advent) period or following the Feast of the Nativity itself.

Twelve Quotes for Christmas

2010 Christmas Blogs

2011 Christmas Blogs

2012 Christmas Blogs

2013 Christmas Blogs

2014 Christmas Blogs

2015 Christmas Blogs

2016 Christmas Blogs

Mary: A Spiritual Heaven

Theologically, Christmas is a Feast of the Incarnation of God, something which is easily lost in all the cookies, parties, gifts, decorations, piles of wrapping paper which have come to dominate the celebration of the Nativity of Christ.  For those Christian who take time to find that place of holy silence (“Silent Night, Holy Night!”) there is still the ability to be awed and overjoyed by the mystery of God entering into the human condition.

Toward the beginning of the Nativity Fast, we Orthodox celebrate another theological Feast: the Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple on November 21.  It is another day for us to contemplate the mystery of God incarnate by focusing on the human side of the equation: God became human so that the human can become God.  The incarnation as God chose to do it, required a human mother from whom God received His human nature.  God does not miraculously manufacture a completely novel, virginal and sinless human nature for Himself in the incarnation – to protect Himself from being tainted by sin and the fallen world.   No doubt God could have done that.  Instead, God enters into the human condition as all humans do – through conception in a mother’s womb, growing through gestation and then being born into the world.  He receives human nature from his mother including  genes and flesh – all that makes us human.   Christ has a fully human nature including a body made up of cells and organs which formed in the womb.  Jesus, who is fully God, becomes fully human.  As St. John says it: “the Word became flesh...”

God dwells in the Virgin‘s womb, and this mystery is the inspiration for many feasts, poems, icons and hymns in the Orthodox Church.  God who dwells in heaven also dwells in the Virgin’s womb.  Her womb becomes heaven, for heaven is the place where God dwells.

One of the hymns from the Entry of the Theotokos states it even more intriguingly:

Heaven and earth rejoice, beholding the spiritual heaven, the only Virgin without blemish…

If heaven is the place where God naturally dwells, the Virgin becomes “the spiritual heaven.”  She is not the “natural” heaven which is distinguished from the rest of creation in Genesis.   God makes use of a human to create a spiritual reality.  In fact it is not possible without her.   A human, a human body, becomes a “spiritual” heaven.  This is a most wonderful turning of a phrase.  And it reflects that reality of the incarnation and of theosis:  God becomes human so that the human can become God.  We might think “heaven” is a spiritual place, but God creates an additional spiritual heaven in order to dwell on earth with us humans.

In another hymn from the Entry of the Theotokos, Anna (Mary’s mother) tells Mary:

Go into the place which none may enter: Learn its mysteries and prepare yourself to become the pleasing and beautiful dwelling-place of Jesus

Again, the wonderful turn of a phrase – Mary is told to go into the place where none can enter – the Holy of Holies of the Jerusalem Temple.  But there is a mystery here, for if none can enter, then Mary can’t enter and if Mary can enter than it isn’t the place that none can enter. Lines are being crossed and blurred – which is exactly what happens in the incarnation of God the Word.

Mary is told to go into the place where God dwells in order to prepare herself for God dwelling in her. (see also The Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple  2017)    The mutual indwelling of Mary (and thus humanity) in God and God in Mary (and thus in humanity) is realized in the Feast of Christmas.  This is the very concept of salvation in Orthodoxy.

Theophany: Better Than Christmas

Americans love Christmas.  For American Christians, Christmas is the biggest holiday of the year.  And yet, in the ancient Eastern Christian tradition, Christmas is surpassed as a Feast by Theophany.  Here is a hymn from the prefeast of Theophany (for January 2), which certainly touts Christmas as a great feast, but one which is surpassed by the events of Christ’s baptism.

The Feast which Passed is radiant,

But the one to come is brighter still!

There the angel proclaimed glad tidings,

But here, the Forerunner prepares the Savior’s Way!

There blood was spilled, as Bethlehem was made barren,

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But here the life-giving water gives birth to many children.

There the star revealed You to the magi,

But here the Father proclaims You to the universe.

Incarnate Lord, coming to be made manifest, glory to You!

The Feast of the Circumcision of Christ

In Luke 2:20-21, we learn of the circumcision of the baby Jesus.  The story confirms His humanity, which is essential since we in the Church say Jesus is our Lord, God and Savior!  It is God in the flesh who humbly submits to circumcision.  God became incarnate in order to humble Himself.  Luke reports the event, quite simply:

“At that time, the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.  And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.”

 

The circumcision of Jesus, would be unremarkable, and routinely Jewish, except for the claim that Jesus is God incarnate.  God does not ask His people to do anything that God is not willing to do Himself.  The Torah commanded circumcision for male children, even God in the flesh endures the ritual for our salvation.  God humbly submits Himself to being human.

Bishop Nikolai Velimirovic comments:

“On the eighth day after His birth, the divine Child was taken to the Temple and duly circumcised according to the Jewish Law that had been observed from the time of Abraham. At this time He was given the name Jesus, the name announced to the most holy Virgin by the Archangel Gabriel (Luke 1:31). The Baptism of the New Covenant was prefigured in the Circumcision of the Old Covenant. The Lord’s Circumcision shows that He took true human flesh upon Himself, not its semblance as heretics later taught of Him. The Lord was truly circumcised, desiring thus to fulfill all the Law, which He Himself had given through our forefathers and the prophets. Fulfilling all the ordinances of the Law, He superseded them by Baptism in His Church, for, as the Apostledeclares: ‘In Christ Jesus neither circumcision avail any thing, nor uncircumcision, but a new creature’ (Gal. 6:15). (The Prologue from Ochrid, p 15)

The Nativity and The Resurrection

All of the Orthodox Feasts are in one way or another connected to the Resurrection of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ.  St. Ephrem the Syrian writing in the 4th Century says:

“Two utterances that were different, have I heard from him, even this Isaiah.  For he said that a virgin should conceive and bring forth (Isaiah 7:14); and he said again that the earth should bring forth (Isaiah 45:8).

But lo! the Virgin has brought Him forth, and Sheol the barren has brought Him forth; two wombs that contrary to nature, have been changed by Him; the Virgin and Sheol both of them.

The Virgin in her bringing forth He made glad; but Sheol He grieved and made sad in His Resurrection.”

(Hymns and Homilies of St. Ephraim the Syrian, Kindle Loc. 1898-1901)