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,

baptism-rus

 

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)

The Holy Innocents

Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, was in a furious rage, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they were no more.”  (Matthew 2:16-18)

As we continue the days of Christmas and our celebration of the Nativity of Christ in the Orthodox Church, we encounter the horrible story of King Herod slaying the innocent children because he feared among them might be a king who would take his throne from him.

We remember this in the Church because the Church remains realistic – the world is what it is.  The world is not paradise or heaven, yet God endeavors to break into the world as it is, to reunite us to Him, to reunite all of creation with our Creator.  In the Orthodox Church we encounter these hymns about the slaughter of the Innocent Children.

Today the evil king searches for the hidden treasure;

He kills the blameless innocents.

Rachel weeps for the beloved of her breast

And will not be comforted

Seeing their bitter slaughter and untimely death.

May she behold them playing in the bosom of Abraham,

And be consoled in her lamentations.

The ultimate wish of the hymn is that Rachel will see all of these innocent Jewish children in Abraham’s bosom, numbered among the righteous of God.  The expression of this hymn, which reflects Orthodox theology and dogma, is important.  These children were all Jewish, unbaptized, never having believed in Christ, never having heard the Gospel, never having kept Torah or Orthodox Tradition.  Yet all are saved and given life in heaven.  God’s mercy and salvation extends to the innocent whomever they may be.

The mothers of the Holy Innocents weep.
The mothers of the Holy Innocents weep.

The lawless king searches for the King of the Ages

Who has entered time.

He is not able to discover or destroy Him,

And so harvests a multitude of blameless infants.

Innocents are made martyrs,

Citizens of the King on High,

Whose dominion shall be forever,

And the raging madness of Herod shall be destroyed.

God is merciful even when humans are not.  God accepts the lives of innocents who die, and blesses them, granting them eternal life in heaven.  It is why we Orthodox invoke the memory of the Holy Innocents when we proclaim our pro-life position.  We believe all the victims of abortion are holy innocents, martyrs whom the Lord embraces even if the world did not.

 

He Who Holds Creation in His Hand

Looking at one of the liturgical hymns from the Feast of the Nativity of Christ, we see themes that are obvious throughout the Christmas cycle of services.  The hymns from the Orthodox services for the Nativity are heavily theological focusing on the lessons the Ecumenical Councils derived from the Scriptures and God’s revelation in Jesus Christ.

The hymns teach a Trinitarian God, one person of the Trinity – God the Word – became incarnate as Jesus on earth,  this incarnation restores the proper relationship between God and humanity, between heaven and earth, between material creation and the spiritual life, in fact it restores all proper relationships in God’s creation with the Creator and between humanity and the rest of creation.

Today, He who holds the whole creation in His hand is born of a Virgin.

[In most of the Orthodox Feasts of Christ we encounter hymns that keep the events of Christ’s life in the present: “TODAY, the Eternal One, the Creator does …..”  Liturgically, we enter into the event being celebrated, today, and that event is made present in our lives, today.  When the Eternal One enters time, time is transfigured and no longer truly has a past and a future.  It is the eternal now, always accessible to believers.  Jesus is the 2nd Person of the Holy Trinity who became incarnate in time in our world.   This is the central mystery of faith: God brings creation (that which is “not God” into  existence and then God enters into and becomes “not God” simultaneously lifting creation (that which is “not God”) into union with God or making us God.  “God became human so that humans might become God,” as St. Irenaeus said.  The incarnation of God means the theosis of humans.  It is God who blurs the lines between divinity and humanity, yet the Three Persons of the Trinity are not changed by this, nor is anything added to the Trinity.  Each of us retains our human personhood, and we do not disappear into divinity.  Rather, divine love transforms our relationship with our Creator, making all things new.]

He whose essence none can touch is bound in swaddling-clothes as a mortal man.

God, who in the beginning fashioned the heavens, lies in a manger.

[The hymn repeats the central truth and mystery in several ways.  God has become incarnate as a little child – this is the mystery and revelation of Christmas.]

He who rained manna on His people in the wilderness is fed on milk from his mother’s breast.

[Orthodoxy believes the many manifestations of God in the Old Testament were actually encounters with the pre-Incarnate Christ.  It is the pre-Incarnate Christ who appeared anthropomorphically to the Israelites.  Christ who performed the miracles of the Old Covenant history now enters into history as a babe born of the Virgin.]

The Bridegroom of the Church summons the wise men;

The Son of the virgin accepts their gifts.

[Christ as God not only interacted with the Israelites in their history, as co-Creator of the universe, Christ has been interacting with all people on earth.  God’s Word has been known in one form or another by all people.  This knowledge of God’s Word was often in shadows or known only darkly, but that knowledge even is made clear for those who find Christ.  The hymn acknowledges that it is Christ Himself, One of the Holy Trinity, who summoned the Magi to seek Him and worship Him.  As God, Christ summons the Magi.  As the incarnate God, still a baby, He accepts the gifts offered in homage to Him.]

We worship Your birth, O Christ.

Show us also Your Holy Theophany.

[In the Church, as important as the Nativity of Christ is for the salvation of the world, it is also part of the great mystery of God revealed in and through Jesus Christ.  The Trinitarian nature of God becomes manifest at Christ’s baptism.  The Theophany is the full revelation of Christmas.]

Christmas: Becoming Truly Human

When we did the Vespers of Christmas on Friday evening (December 23), the very first hymn from the “Lord I call upon You…” verses really caught my ear as it seemed to capture so many of the theological lessons of the Feast of the Nativity.

Come, let us greatly rejoice in the Lord,
as we sing of this present mystery:
the wall that divided God from man has been destroyed;

[In Ephesians 2:13-16, St. Paul refers to the “dividing wall”: “Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called the uncircumcision by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.   But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ.  For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end.” (Emphasis is mine and not in the text)  

2nd Temple

 For St. Paul, we Gentiles especially were separated from God – we did not have the Law and we fell under the power the demons whom we spiritually served.  But Jesus Christ ended that separation and we in Christ have been made part of God’s people.  Certainly if one studies the layout of Herod’s Jerusalem temple, we get the visible, physical sense that there was a wall (several!) separating the Gentiles from God.  St. Paul says, and the hymn certainly picks up this theme, that any “wall” which had separated us from God is abolished.  Whatever wall had been built to divide Gentiles from Jews or humanity from God is destroyed by Jesus Christ.  In its place, we have been built into a living temple.   So new construction took place – the dividing wall was demolished and now we are built as the walls of the temple – nothing separates us from God for God abides in us His temple.  In St. Paul’s day, he would have known of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem.  Christ Himself replaces that demolished temple.  Christmas celebrates the removal of all walls and divisions between God and humanity!   We have access to God, to God’s Kingdom, to heaven where God abides. (Sadly, at times in Orthodox thinking the “dividing wall” gets rebuilt and seems to be preferred – iconostases and doors and curtains are built some say to make us feel our exile from God.  Laity are separated from clergy by such walls.  We recreate walls separating Orthodox from Jews and non-Orthodox Christians.  Men and women are separated, as are monks from the rest of the laity.  We would do well to consider what our Nativity hymns tell us about the complete elimination of such walls.)   Almost all of our Feasts of Christ and the Theotokos have in one form or another a theme of the dividing wall being torn down  – heaven is opened to us, the Holy of Holies is opened to us, Paradise is opened to us.  God is united to humanity, heaven and earth are joined together.  If theosis is true, there are no walls separating us from God, nor would any baptized Christian be separated from any other.]

the flaming sword withdraws from Eden’s gate;
the Cherubim withdraw from the Tree of Life;

[In Genesis 3:24, as a result of the sinful disobedience of Adam and Eve, God expels them from Paradise and creates the dividing which prevents our immediate return to Paradise.  “God drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life.”   According to our theology, in Christ the gate to Eden is opened to us again – the Cherubim no longer prevent us from accessing the Tree of Life.  Christ’s cross is the Tree of Life and all baptized believers have complete access to Paradise and eternal life.  No walls of any kind separate us from God, the Holy of Holies , Paradise or Heaven.  Neither should we rebuild what God destroyed!]

and I, who had been cast out through my disobedience,
now feast on the delights of Paradise:
for today the Father’s perfect Image,
marked with the stamp of His eternity,
has taken the form of a servant.

[Christmas is the “today” on which “I” and every “Adam” and every Christian experiences the Paradise which had been denied us because of sin.  The Law just ended up building a bigger wall between humanity and God, since humans proved incapable of keeping the Law.  It is the Word of God becoming incarnate, taking on human flesh, in Jesus Christ which unites us to Heaven.  It is not our doing – we can’t attain Heaven by perfectly keeping Torah or Tradition.  It is not a matter of our trying harder – pray more, fast stricter, repent more deeply, attend more and longer services.  It is Christ in His person who heals and saves us.  We are gifted with salvation – we put on Christ in baptism and thus receive union with God.  We continue to experience that salvation in and through the sacramental and liturgical life which inspires us to the moral life.  Nothing separates us from God, there is no more exile.]

Without undergoing change He is born from an unwedded mother;
He was true God, and He remains the same,
but through His love for mankind,
He has become what He never was: true man.
Come, O faithful, let us cry to Him:
“O God, born of the Virgin, have mercy on us!”

[As the early Christians said it, “God became human so that humans might become God.”  The first part of this is the Nativity of Christ!  The incarnation makes theosis possible.  The Theotokos is the true sign of this salvation.  God became that which is “not God” – God became human to lift humanity up to union with divinity.  This is what God has wished and worked for throughout history since the time of the sin of Eve and Adam.]

The Nativity of Jesus Christ our Lord (2016)

My Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

The Kingdom of God is revealed in the birth of Jesus Christ.  That is what is at the heart of the Christmas story, and is the focus of the Church’s celebration of Christmas.

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— the life was made manifest, and we saw it, and testify to it, and proclaim to you the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us— that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship with us; and our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.  (1 John 1:1-3)

The apostles proclaim to us what they saw, heard and touched – the Kingdom of God present in this world in Jesus Christ.  We too can encounter this same Kingdom:

Hear it – in the: carols, hymns, Gospel, mirth and joy of the Feast

See it – in the:  icons, the Church, your brothers and sisters, generous charity of the season, giving and receiving of gifts

Touch it  – in the: body of Christ the church,  body and blood of the Euchartist, all the surroundings of the church and even in nature itself

Taste It –  in the: Holy Communion, bread, wine, the festal meal

Smell it –  in the: incense, pine needles, baking, cooking

Feel it – in the: love of family and friends, the beauty of the Feast

All we do and have at Christmas is a way to rejoice in the Lord, to proclaim His Kingdom and to experience His love for us and our love for one another.

We experience the Kingdom of God in and through:

Our Body – physically, materially

Our Heart not just our ears

Our Mind not just with our eyes.

In the Church, in our liturgical celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, we join those shepherds, who not only heard about the Nativity, but who said:

“Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.”   (Luke 2:15)

We fully experience the incarnate God.  We don’t just hear about Christ, we enter into Him in Baptism, receive Him into our hearts in Communion, and stand together in His presence in the Liturgy.  We enter His Kingdom and He comes and lives in our hearts and our homes.

Christ is born!  Glorify Him!

May you be blessed this Christmas by our Savior.  Have a safe and holy Nativity Feast and a blessed and peaceful New Year.

 

The Nativity of Christ: The Incarnation of God

“All these changes did the Merciful One make,

stripping off glory and putting on a body;

for He had devised a way to reclothe Adam

in that glory which Adam had stripped off.

Christ was wrapped in swaddling clothes,

corresponding to Adam’s leaves,

Christ put on clothes, instead of Adam’s skins;

He was baptized for Adam’s sin,

His body was embalmed for Adam’s death,

He rose and raised up Adam in his glory.

Blessed is He who descended, put Adam on and ascended! (Nativity 23:13)

The Most High knew that Adam had wanted to become a god,

so He sent His Son who put him on in order to grant him his desire.”

(St Ephrem the Syrian, The Luminous Eye, pp 85,  102)

 

 

A Brief History of the Feast of the Nativity

“The Feast of Christmas on 25th December developed in the West at the beginning of the fourth century. The Christian celebration of the birth of the Sun of Righteousness (cf. Malachi 4:2) soon spread from Rome and was well established in the Eastern empire by the late fourth century, although it was not until the sixth century that the Feast was fully accepted in Palestine. This celebration of the Nativity of the Lord owes much to the fact that major theological questions about the divinity of Christ had been resolved at the Council of Nicea in 325, and the liturgical texts strongly emphasize Christ’s divinity.

In the historical event of Christ’s birthday, the Lord’s humanity is quite obvious, but the Feast is not only about a human birth; it is about the human birth of the second Person of the Holy Trinity and the implications of the Incarnation for the salvation of the world. There is constant interplay in the texts between the visible details of the event and the invisible reality of what is taking place as God the Son, the eternal Word, takes flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary and is born at Bethlehem.” (John Baggley, Festal Icons of the Christian Year, p 31)

The Incarnation: To Allow Us to Know Happiness

Christianity from its beginning proclaimed Jesus as the incarnate God.  This claim seemed folly to many in the ancient world.  For some asked incredulously, what would be the purpose of God becoming human?  Or, (excuse the pun), why in the world would God, spiritual and eternal, lower Himself to becoming part of the material world.    For many the purity of God protected Him from contact with the material world, let alone entering into it.   What these critics couldn’t fathom is that in God creating the physical cosmos, God imbued the material creation with spiritual value.  This is how and why God could so love the world as to give His Son to save the world(John 3:16).  Historian Robert Louis Wilken tells us that Origen in the 3rd Century offered the following defense of the incarnation:

“In the first chapter of this book I quoted Origen’s response to Celsus’s taunt, ‘What is the purpose of God’s descent to human beings?’

Origen answered that God had entered our world in the person of Christ to ‘implant in us the happiness that comes … from knowing him. . . .  For the knowledge that brings happiness is ours only in love. Unlike knowledge from a distance, for example, observing an object in the world, the knowledge of God, says Origen, is ‘fellowship with God through Christ.’ . . .

Jesus did not teach, ‘It is blessed to know something about God’; he said that blessedness ‘is possessing God within oneself,’ to be known by God, not only to know God. Happiness is found not in receiving something from God but in enjoying the presence of God, what the psalmists call the ‘face of God’. Love is the one human endowment that moves us to seek the face of God.”  (The Spirit of Early Christian Thought,  pp 292-293)