Mary, The Virgin Earth

The Good News of the birth of Jesus Christ has been proclaimed to the world for 2000 years.  That message is as new and refreshing today as it was when first proclaimed.  Tertullian writing in the 2nd Century gives us a look at not only how long ago the Good News was received with joy but also how early in Christian history the depth of the message was recognized, for the Gospel is salvation for the world.  Christmas is not about sentimentality but about divinity and what it means to be human.

First of all, we need to show the reason why the Son of God had to be born of a Virgin. The initiator of a new birth had to be born in a new way, and Isaiah had predicted that the Lord would give a sign of this. What is that sign? ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive in her womb and bear a Son’ (Is. 7:14). Therefore the Virgin conceived and bore Emmanuel, God-with-us.

And this is the new birth: that man is born in God when God is born in man, having assumed the flesh of the old seed, but without using this seed, and to purify the flesh after having eliminated all its ancient stains. But, as it happened, this whole new manner of birth was prefigured in the ancient wise design that depended upon a virgin. When man was created by God’s action, the earth was still virgin, not yet pressed down by man’s toil, not having been sown. We know that, from this virgin earth, God created man as a living soul.

If, then, the first Adam was introduced in this way, all the more reason that the second Adam, as the apostle said, had to come forth from a virgin earth, that is, from a body not yet violated by generation, by God’s action, so that he might become the spirit who gives life. However, lest my introduction of Adam’s name appear meaningless, why did the apostle call Christ ‘Adam’ (cf. 1 Cor. 15:45), if his humanity did not have an earthly origin? But here, too, reason comes to our aid: through a contrary operation, God recovered his image and likeness, which had been stolen by the devil.

For just as the death-creating word of the devil had penetrated Eve, who was still a virgin, analogously the life-building Word of God had to enter into a Virgin, so that he who had fallen into perdition because of a woman might be led back to salvation by means of the same sex. Eve believed the serpent; Mary believed Gabriel. The fault that Eve introduced by believing, Mary, by believing, erased.”  

(quoted in Mary and the Fathers of the Church, p 67)

Christ is born!    Glorify Him!

The Infant Christ

Christ is born!  Glorify Him!

The sign by which the shepherds will recognize the Saviour is that they will find “the infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger.” No sign of power accompanies the birth of Jesus Christ. On the contrary, God become man will make Himself known first of all by His poverty, His humility, His weakness. As a small child wrapped in swaddling clothes, He is at the mercy of those who press around Him. He depends on them. He cannot resist anyone. He is unable to exercise His will, nor can He defend Himself. As He appears in His birth, so will He appear in His passion, and that is how He wants me to be.

(A Monk of the Eastern Church, Jesus: A Dialogue with the Savior, p. 93-94)

This year a verse from the Christmas narrative has stood out in my heart and mind. The angel tells Joseph not to be afraid but to know about his wife Mary that

she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21)

I don’t know what Joseph made of that statement, for I wonder how many of us think deliverance from sin is the most important thing that God or the Messiah can do for us. Joseph had a lot to worry about – a pregnant wife, the Roman government, poverty, survival, homelessness, being an immigrant, fleeing persecution, paying taxes and escaping death. He was responsible for a young wife and a newborn baby whom God claimed as His own yet had entrusted to Joseph’s care. And Joseph had no army to protect him, no money, no place to lay his head. So, I’m not sure that the forgiveness of sins was the most impressing issue on his mind.

The angel doesn’t promise that God will save Joseph or God’s people from terror or tyrants, from the power of one’s enemies, or from pain, disaster or death. And while the angels in heaven were singing God’s praise at the birth of Jesus, on earth, forces were plotting to kill him. While our Christmas spirit tends to sentimentalize the story, the narrative of the Nativity involves evil plots and life-threatening risks.

And we realize one of the most profound mysteries of the birth of Jesus – God enters the world as a child and puts Himself at the mercy of the world. God entrusts himself to the care of a young girl and an old carpenter, penniless and powerless. God trusts them. God comes into the world with no power, money or influence as a defenseless child and allows the world to show God the mercy we always are asking from God for ourselves. That certainly is the mystery and meaning of the Christmas story. We are given opportunity to do unto God as we would have God do for us.

But, you might protest, yes, “they” rejected Christ and threatened him and wanted to kill him, but when did we have opportunity to show how we would treat Christ?

And the King will answer, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’ (Matthew 25:40)

Christ comes to us every year at Christmas in the guise of brother or sister, friend or foe, neighbor or stranger. We are given opportunity to see in each person in our household, or neighborhood, or family, or in the parish the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters and to how our love for them. When you do, Christ will be born again in you, and you will become like God.

I wish you all of the joys of the Christmas season. Thank you for all your prayers and for the work you do to make St. Paul’s the parish community to which God calls us.

 “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?    (Matthew 2:2)

The Ancestors of Christ the Lord

On the Sunday before the Nativity of Christ, we read the Gospel of the genealogy of Christ found in Matthew 1:1-25.

St. Gregory Palamas comments:

“Although the Virgin, of whom Christ was born according to the flesh, came from Adam’s flesh and seed, yet, because of this flesh had been cleansed in many different ways by the Holy Spirit from the start, she was descended from those who had been chosen from every generation for their excellence. Noah, too, “a just man and perfect in his generation,” as the Scriptures say of him, was found worthy of this election.

Observe also that the Holy Spirit makes it clear to such as have understanding that the whole of divinely inspired Scripture was written because of the Virgin Mother of God. It relates in detail the entire line of her ancestry, which begins with Adam, then Zerubbabel, those in between them and their ancestors, and goes up to the time of the Virgin Mother of God. By contrast, Scripture does not touch upon some races at all, and in the case of others, it makes a start at tracing their descent, then soon abandons them, leaving them in the depths of oblivion.  Above all, it commemorates those of the Mother of God’s forebears who, in their own lives and the deeds wrought by them, prefigured Christ, who was to be born of the Virgin.

See how Noah clearly foreshadows Him Who was later to be born of the Virgin, for Whose sake the election was made. For Noah was shown to be the saviour, not of all the race of men in general, but of his own household, all of whom were saved through him. In the same way, Christ too, is the Saviour of the race of men, not of all men in general, but of all His own household, that is of His Church; not, however, of the disobedient. Furthermore, the name Noah can be translated to mean “rest” (cf. Genesis 5:29). But who is true “rest” except the Virgin’s Son, Who says, “Come unto Me through repentance, all ye that labour and are heavy laden with sins, and I will give you rest” (cf. St. Matthew 11:28), bestowing freedom, ease and eternal life upon you.

(The Homilies, pp. 471-472)

Christ is God in the Flesh

“That is why when we have a new Adam who never grows old, “Who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth” (I Pet. 2:22), and whom we now possess as Father and forefather, Father of the age to come and prince of eternal life. He has taken away our sins and removed aging from our midst. This is Christ Jesus the Son of God, clothed in the flesh taken from the Virgin for our sake, the forefeast of whose birth we have begun to celebrate today, as we keep the commemoration of the Fathers who lived before and under the law, who shone forth on account of their virtue and godliness. Theirs were the prophecies and to them were the promises given, and from among them Christ was descended according to the flesh.

He was born as we are, but of a Virgin that He might recreate us from what is our own, and, through holy baptism, renew us and make us once more capable of containing the grace of the divine Spirit, clothing in righteousness and true holiness the man created after God in Himself. He accomplished this righteousness and holiness in His own person, putting the evil one finally to shame, in spite of all sorts of attacks, rightly obeying his Father to the end and showing that obedience to Him procures resurrection and true life.”

(St. Gregory Palamas, The Homilies, p. 448-449)

Christmas for Christians: Eat, Drink & Be Merry?

It is undoubtedly true that there has always existed a temptation, even among Christians, to make food and clothing something much more than a simple response to the need to eat and be covered.

In modern society, the public is bombarded with advertising designed to create an obsession with elaborate clothing and fancy foods. The average Christian accepts almost without question the standards (our “high standard of living”) with which such advertising indoctrinates him. (The advertising industry excuses itself by claiming that it merely reflects the demands of society.) Many Christians see no conflict between their excessive anxiety about food and clothing and their Christian principles.

Some point out defensively that only the cults require simplicity and modesty, a radical change of lifestyle in response to their faith. (While it is true that many cults do demand denial or sacrifice of certain things, it is because, for them, those things are evil in themselves. In the Christian faith, it is the use to which things may be put that makes them evil.)

In the early Church, a certain simplicity in all aspects of life was generally accepted by all Christians. It was only after the establishment of the Church as the state religion and the entry of whole populations into the Church that expectations and standards were lowered, and it became fairly common (and acceptable?) for Christians to indulge themselves in luxury and high living. The ideals taught by Christ and the Apostles, however, always remained in the Church’s conscience and manifested themselves in two notable ways: monasticism and the Great Fast (Lent).

In both, the call to the simple life is of primary importance. In monasticism, men and women bore witness to the fact that it was possible, quite literally, to follow the teachings of Christ, no matter what society approved of. In Lent, all Christians were called back to the simple life, simple food and clothing, elimination of entertainments, and increased concentration on their relationship with God.

(Bishop Dimitri, The Kingdom of God: The Sermon on the Mount, pp. 93-95)

The Incarnation: So We Can See Christ

For humility is the raiment of the Godhead. The Word Who became man clothed Himself in it, and therewith He spoke to us in our body. Every man who has been clothed with it has truly been made like unto Him Who came down from His own exaltedness, and hid the splendor of His majesty, and concealed His glory with humility, lest creation should be utterly consumed by the contemplation of Him. Creation could not look upon Him unless He took a part of it to Himself, and thus conversed with it, and neither could it hear the words of His mouth face to face.

The splendour of His glory appeared on Mount Sinai; and the mountain smoked and quaked in fear of the revelation that was in it, so that even the beasts that approached the lower parts of it died. The sons of Israel made ready and prepared themselves, keeping themselves chaste for three days according to the command of Moses that they might be made worthy of hearing the voice of God, and of vision of His revelation. And when the time was come, they could not receive the vision of His light and the fierceness of the voice of His thunders. But now, when He has poured out His grace upon the world through His own coming, He has descended not in an earthquake, not in a fire, not in a terrible and mighty sound, but ‘as the rain upon a fleece, and rain-drops that fall upon the earth’ softly, and He was seen conversing with us after another fashion.

This came to pass when, as though in a treasury, He concealed His majesty with the veil of His flesh, and among us spoke with us in that [body] which His own bidding wrought for Him out of the womb of the Virgin, even Mary the Theotokos. All this He did so that on beholding Him Who was of our race conversing with us, we should not be smitten with terror by the vision of Him.

Wherefore every man has put on Christ when he is clothed with the raiment wherein the Creator was seen through the body that He put on.

(St. Isaac the Syrian, The Ascetical Homilies of Isaac the Syrian, pp. 381-382)

Christmas Lent

The American road to Christmas winds through mountains of parties, friends and family, festal foods and drink, baking and buying, social gatherings and gift exchanges (and also giving to charity – more money is given in America to charity in December than in any other month – 1/3 of the annual charity given in America occurs in December).  On the other hand, the Orthodox Church 1000 years before America was even conceived had carved a path through the desert to Christmas.  The pre-Christmas season was meant to be quiet, prayerful, ascetical, preparatory, anticipatory and devoted to alms giving (these two ways at least have charitable giving in common!).

Living in America, we really have to stop and intentionally choose the Orthodox way to Christmas.  For the hubbub of the season will certainly capture our attention with all its sparkling lights and joyful music, while the quietness of Orthodoxy will be lost beneath the mounds of gifts, food  and seasonal dress.  Fr. John Behr comments on the Nativity Fast which is the Orthodox road to Christmas and preparation for the Feast: 

Lent is an intense period provided for us to focus again on what should be the content of every moment of our life – our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. He is the beginning, the middle, and the end of Lent because he is the Alpha and the Omega of all creation – the first word and the last word of life itself – who, again, for the joy set before him accepted the Cross so that we might live, so that we might taste this joy as we also begin living, not for ourselves, but for God and others.

The transforming power offered to us in Lent doesn’t originate here below in the human realm where we muddle along with our eyes on the ground or closed in slothfulness or sleep. Lent is our chance to look up, to wake up, for our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. As the first Christians said: Maranatha! Our Lord is coming!  (The Cross Stands While the World Turns, p. 32)

The Feast we are preparing to celebrate is the birth of a man who was born in a cave because his family was too poor to afford other accommodations.  His family was forced to flee even their inadequate lodgings because of the threat of persecution and to become refugees in a foreign land.   So, St Photius the Great, writing in the 9th Century reminds us what Lent consists of – 

Fasting is acceptable to God when abstention from food is accompanied by refraining from sins, from envy, from hatred, from calumny, from vainglory, from wordiness, from other evils. He who is fasting the true fast that is agreeable to God ought to shun all these things with all his strength and zeal, and remain impregnable and unshakeable against all the attacks of the Evil one that are planned from that quarter. (The Homilies of Photius Patriarch of Constantinople, p. 227)

Theotokos Enrollment for the Roman Taxes

The Lenten practices of self-denial, humility, hunger, sojourning and feeling like exiles bring us much closer to the Holy Family and their condition at the first Christmas than do all of our parties and abundance.

Making Excuses to God

 
Then the Lord Jesus told this parable:   “A certain man gave a great supper and invited many, and sent his servant at supper time to say to those who were invited, ‘Come, for all things are now ready.’ But they all with one accord began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a piece of ground, and I must go and see it. I ask you to have me excused.’

And another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to test them. I ask you to have me excused.’ Still another said, ‘I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.’ So that servant came and reported these things to his master.

Then the master of the house, being angry, said to his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in here the poor and the maimed and the lame and the blind.’ And the servant said, ‘Master, it is done as you commanded, and still there is room.’ Then the master said to the servant, ‘Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled. ’For I say to you that none of those men who were invited shall taste my supper.’”  (Luke 14:16-24)

Archbishop Dimitri comments on the parable:

The first said unto him, I have bought a piece of ground, and I must needs go and see it: I pray thee have me excused. And another said, I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I go to prove them: I pray thee have me excused. And another said, I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come (vv. 18-20).

All three rather contemptuously disregard the generosity of the host, who cares for them and values their friendship. Their responses might be paraphrased, “Oh, I had intended to go, but something more important to me has come up.” The three excuses are meant to typify human concerns and priorities that, important as they may be in daily life, are nothing in relation to God’s love and care. The invitation and the response illustrate man’s neglect of what is of infinitely greater value to him – salvation and life eternal with God – than his earthly, perishable concerns. The Jews had been prepared for this final invitation by the events of their own history and by God’s speaking to them through the prophets, but since it did not offer improvement in their material concerns, they rejected it.  (The Parables, p. 128)

The Light of the Bethlehem Star is the Light God Spoke at the Beginning of Creation

The Sunday of the Forefathers of Christ

It sounds like a paradox that we should read from the Old Testament in order to discover in it the Face of Christ, and in a sense it is. But paradox is of the essence of the Christian mystery: the Increate, breaking into the creative act; the Infinite, giving number and measure to a finite world; the Timeless, yielding to the rhythm of days; the Divine, entering the family of men.

The Book of Revelation teaches us that Christ shall be the Last. This demands that we recognize him as the First, for He is the eternal Word by whom all things were made “in the beginning.” And it is no mere coincidence that these three words are read in the first verse of Genesis, and in the first verse of the Gospel according to St. John. We reckon by years before Christ, B.C., and years of the Lord, A.D.; the years under the Law, and the years of grace; the Old Testament, and the New Testament.

But the Incarnation is more than a serviceable time-divider. The light of the star which rose over Bethlehem is the same light that did shine through darkness on the first day of creation, unto the first man on earth, the fathers of the Old Law and the Gentiles, “every man coming into the world.”

We have no right to curtail the total perspective of God’s revelation. We have been taught to behold the image of Christ in the luminous pages of the Gospel, but we are not therefore to neglect or to despise the rays which have guided the Forefathers and sustained their hope. It is always His Face we should recognize, glowing amidst the shadows of the remotest past, and His voice we should hear in the reading of the sacred page, in Moses or in the prophets, as well as, in the Gospels or in the apostolic writings.

…and only under the intimate motion of the Spirit who first inspired Scripture, can we expect to discern the Face of our Christ shining amidst the shadows of the past, as it has secretly shone for the Forefathers. (Georges A. Barrois, The Face of Christ in the Old Testament, pp. 13-14, 44)

Posts on the Nativity of Christ

Each year since 2008 I’ve posted on my Blog posts related to the Nativity of Christ, Christmas and the Nativity Fast during this season.   At the end of each season I collect all the posts from that year related to the Nativity of Christ into a PDF, so anyone can read all the quotes I posted from any one year in one document.  Below are links to the quotes I posted each year related to the Feast of the Nativity or the Christmas season.

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

2017 Christmas Blogs

You can find PDF’s for all the blog posts I collected into one document at Fr. Ted’s PDFs.  This include the posts for each year for Lent or Pascha but also blog series that I composed on a theme.