Christmas and Baptism

St Gregory of  Sinai says that all who are baptized into Christ share in His life.  He even gives a figurative view of how we who are baptized pass through all of the stages of Christ’s own life.

Everyone baptized into Christ should pass progressively through all the stages of Christ’s own life, for in baptism he receives the power so to progress, and through the commandments he can discover and learn how to accomplish such progression. To Christ’s conception corresponds the foretaste of the gift of the Holy Spirit, to His nativity the actual experience of joyousness,

to His baptism the cleansing force of the fire of the Spirit, to His transfiguration the contemplation of divine light, to His crucifixion the dying to all things, to His burial the indwelling of divine love in the heart, to His resurrection the soul’s life-quickening resurrection, and to His ascension divine ecstasy and I the transport of the intellect into God. He who fails to pass consciously through these stages is still callow in body and spirit, even though he may be regarded by all as mature and accomplished in the practice of virtue.  (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Location 42076-42085)

As we prepare ourselves for the celebration of the Nativity of our Savior, we can think about all the events surrounding the birth of Christ and what they might mean for how I live today.  How do I live the Nativity of Christ in my daily life?  How do I change my festal celebration from commemorating some ancient historical event into how I live, think, and act – Christ in me?  Not only do I have to keep Christ in Christmas or Christmas in Christ – perhaps more importantly I have to live so that Christ is in me.  I have to turn the events of the Gospel into my daily life.  Then indeed my entire life will be a life of prayer, and I will pray without ceasing.

Sentience is given to us not just so we feel sentimental about the events surrounding Christ’s birth and/or how we celebrate it, but so that we might perceive and experience that God is with, and within us, and in God we live, move and have our being.

Refashioning Corrupted Adam

Orthodox liturgical hymnography gives us a full picture of the theological meaning of the Christmas Feast: the incarnation of God means the salvation of humanity.

The background picture is this: sin separates us from God. Christ who is God the Son has come and overcome sin and all its consequences so that humanity is no longer separated from God. This is the Good News. God has decided to bring an end to the enmity between humans and God.  All that separates humanity from divinity is taken away in the incarnation,  and then Christ in His death, resurrection and ascension completely reunites earth to heaven, humanity to God, creation to Creator.  Salvation is made possible because God has decided to enter into the human condition and to become human in order to unite humanity to God.  Vassilios Papavassiliou quoting various Orthodox hymns tells us exactly what Orthodoxy understands from the Christmas Feast:

“The New Adam

The Creator has come, raising up mankind from the earth, making His royal image new again! (Matins of the Forefeast, December 20, third hymn of the Praises)

AT THE HEART OF THE FEAST of the Nativity is the proclamation that Christ has come to restore Adam to Paradise:

Christ comes voluntarily to serve; the Creator now receives the image of impoverished Adam, enriching him with divinity, and granting him a strange restoration and regeneration, for He is compassionate. (Triode of Compline of the Forefeast, December 20, first ode)

Come, let us rejoice in the Lord, as we tell of the present mystery. The middle wall of partition has been destroyed; the flaming sword turns back, the cherubim withdraw from the tree of life; and I partake of the delight of Paradise, from which I was cast out through disobedience. For the express Image of the Father, the Imprint of His eternity, takes the form of a servant, and without change He comes forth from a Mother who did not know wedlock. For what He was, He has remained: true God; and what He was not, He has taken upon Himself, becoming man through love for mankind. To Him let us cry: O God, who was born of a Virgin, have mercy on us. (Vespers of the Nativity, first hymn of the Stichera)

When He saw that the one in His image and likeness had fallen through transgression, Jesus bowed the heavens and came down and made His dwelling in a virgin womb without change, thereby refashioning corrupted Adam, who cried out: Glory to Your epiphany, my Redeemer and my God! (Fourth hymn of the Lity of the Nativity)

Man fell from the divine and better life. Though made in the Image of God, through transgression he became subject to decay. Him the wise Creator now refashions, for He has been glorified. (First ode of the Canon of the Nativity)

(Meditations for Advent: Preparing for Christ’s Birth, Kindle Loc. 765-81)

The Genesis account of Adam and Eve tell us more about Christ than they do about the origins of the human race.  We come to understand Adam and Eve in the event of the Nativity of Christ – the incarnation in the flesh of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ.  Rather than trying to discover the scientific beginnings of humanity in Genesis, we should be reading it to understand who Jesus Christ is and how He is our salvation.  If we read Genesis as if it is science, we miss the truth that it contains about Christ.  It is what Jesus made so abundantly clear:  “You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote of me” (John 5:39-46).  Moses was credited with writing Genesis.  Jesus said Moses wrote about Jesus, not a secular history of mankind.  The Genesis account of the creation of Adam is given so that we might understand who Jesus is.

Charity and Fasting at Christmas

A brother asked an old man: “There were two brethren, and one of them led a life of silent contemplation in his cell, and used to fast six days at a time, and to devote himself to great labor, and his companion used to minister to the sick; which of them will receive the greater reward for his service?”

The old man said, ” If he who fasted were to raise himself up upon the works which are profitable, he would not find himself equal before God with him that visited the sick.”

(adapted from The Paradise or Garden of the Holy Fathers Vol 2, Kindle Loc 1651-55)

Tertullian: What We Christians Believe

From the earliest days Christianity had very distinct beliefs which it was able to articulate.  Christianity accepted that God chose to reveal the divine nature in Jesus Christ.  Prior to Christ, the true nature of God was a mystery.  But in Christ God reveals not only human nature but also the nature of God as Trinity.  Tertullian in the last 2nd Century composed a list of Christian beliefs to help clarify who the Christians are.

“We … believe that there is one only God, but … this one and only God has also a Son, his Word, who proceeded from himself, by whom all things were made, and without whom nothing was made. We believe that he was sent by the Father into the Virgin, and was born of her – being both man and God, the Son of Man and the Son of God – and was called by the name of Jesus Christ. We believe that he suffered, died, and was buried, according to the Scriptures, and, after he had been raised again by the Father and taken back to heaven, he is sitting at the right hand of the Father, and will come to judge the living and the dead. He also sent from heaven from the Father, according to his promise, the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, the sanctifier of the faith of those who believe in the Father, and in the Son, and in the Holy Spirit. (Against Praxeas 2) ”  (Geza Vermes,  Christian Beginnings, Kindle Loc. 3662-68)

It is easy to see in his writings the basic tenets that would be adopted by the Church in the 4th Century as the statement of faith for all Christians.  The Church worked to show that it’s faith was already well known from its earliest days.  A belief in the birth of Christ – Christmas – is traceable back to the First Century, to the Gospel writers.

You Have Seen Abraham?

This year (2019), Sunday, December 15 is dedicated to the Sunday of the Forefathers – commemorating all of the Holy Fathers and Mothers of the Old Testament beginning with Abraham and Sarah.  In the early Church Abraham and Sarah are two people who saw the pre-Incarnate Christ as described in Genesis 18.

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And the LORD appeared to him [Abraham] by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men stood in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them, and bowed himself to the earth, and said, “My lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant.  (Genesis 18:1-3)

Your father Abraham rejoiced that he was to see my day; he saw it and was glad.” The Jews then said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.”  (John 8:56-58)

In the earliest Church Tradition, it is the pre-incarnate Christ who appears to Abraham as Lord.  Christ appears with two angels.  In the narrative there is an interesting dynamic that the text switches back and forth, sometimes with the three men speaking in one voice, the Lord’s and sometimes in the plural ‘they’.   Likewise Abraham speaks to the three as if they are one – speaks in the singular addressing the Lord.  Vassilios Papavassiliou notes the comments of some early church fathers on the appearance of the three men to Abraham:

St. Justin is referring to the three men who appeared to Abraham at the Oak of Mamre (Gen. 18). Many consider these three men (commonly understood as angels) to be a type of the Trinity (a patristic exegesis that has been popularized by St. Andrei Rublev’s famous icon of the Trinity). However, in the earliest patristic commentaries and hymns of the Church, they are described as the Preincarnate Christ accompanied by two angels. This is clearly the exegesis of the first ode of the Canon of the Sunday before the Nativity: “Of old the sacred Abraham received One of the three persons of the Godhead.” This may be what our Lord was referring to when He said, “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad” (John 8:56).   (Meditations for Advent: Preparing for Christ’s Birth, Kindle Loc. 504-9)

As Papavassiliou remarks, the older Tradition is that Abraham encounters the pre-incarnate Christ with two angels.  By the time of St Andrei Rublev (d. 1430AD) Orthodox reinterpreted the story more as an appearance of the Holy Trinity with the three angels each symbolizing one of the persons of the Trinity.  In any case, we see in the Genesis account the high esteem in which the Lord holds Abraham.

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Then the men set out from there, and they looked toward Sodom; and Abraham went with them to set them on their way. The LORD said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by him? No, for I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice; so that the LORD may bring to Abraham what he has promised him.”  .  . .  Abraham still stood before the LORD.  (Genesis 18:16-22)

God says He will not hide from Abraham what He is about to do.  While this comment is connected immediately with the city of Sodom,  it is also why Christ can speak about Abraham rejoicing in seeing Christ.  Abraham is able to stand before the Lord  – before the pre-incarnate Christ.  Papavassiliou continues:

That the Son of God, and not the Father, is the one who is manifest throughout the Old Testament is well expressed in the oldest synodal statement on Old Testament Christology—that of the Synod of Antioch in ad 268/9: The Son was not just a spectator nor was he merely present, but . . . came down and appeared to Abraham “at the oak of Mamre,” [as] one of the three, with whom the patriarch conversed as Lord and Judge. . . . This is who, fulfilling the Father’s will, appears to and converses with the patriarchs . . . sometimes as an Angel, at other times as Lord, and at other times being testified to as God. Truly it is impious to suppose that one can call the God of all an angel; however the Angel of the Father is the Son, he is Lord and God, for it is written: “His name will be called the Angel of Great Counsel”. . . . And concerning Jacob: “‘the Angel of God’,” [Jacob] says, “spoke to me in a dream, saying . . . “I am the God who appeared to you at the ‘Place-of-God’, where you anointed the pillar and made a vow to Me”. . . . “So Jacob called the name of that place ‘The Form of God’; ‘For I saw God face to face, and my soul was saved’

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. . . But we are also taught these things by Moses: “Then the Angel appeared to him in a flame of fire from the midst of the bush”. . . . This is who, speaking the truth, says: “Not that anyone has seen the Father, except He who is from the Father; He has seen the Father.” And in the same Gospel: “You have neither heard His voice at any time, nor seen His form,” and: “No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him.” The Apostle says of Him: “He is the image of the invisible God”. . . . The Son however, being with the Father, is indeed God and Lord of all things made, yet he was sent by the Father from the heavens, and was made flesh, becoming man.   (Vassilios Papavassiliou, Meditations for Advent: Preparing for Christ’s Birth, Kindle Loc. 519-33}

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In commemorating the Forefathers of Christ we are reminding ourselves that Christ did appear to the Holy Mothers and Fathers in the Old Testament.  They were all indeed looking for Christ.  As we prepare for the Nativity Feast, we honor those who were looking for Christ and those who saw Him even if only from afar or as a shadow of what was to come.

Charity vs Coveting

“In all things I have shown you that by so toiling one must help the weak, remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.'”   (Acts 20:35)

As we move through the Nativity Fast, or as it is better known in America, the Christmas shopping season, it is good to remind ourselves of our Christian faith, for in fact the season is supposed to be preparation for our Christian celebration of the birth of our Lord, God and Savior.  As advertisements bombard us with images of what we should want, request, desire, feel we can’t live without, or get in order to be one up on our neighbor, we can remind ourselves that coveting and greed are sins that don’t lead us to God.  St Gregory Palamas writing in the 14th Century reminds us:

You shall not covet anything belonging to your neighbor’ (cf. Exod 20:17), neither his land, nor his money, nor his glory, nor anything that is his. For covetousness, conceived in the soul, produces sin; and sin, when committed, results in death (cf. Jas. 1:15). Refrain, then, from coveting what belongs to others and, so far as you can, avoid filching things out of greediness. Rather you should give from what you possess to whoever asks of you, and you should, as much as you can, be charitable to whoever is in need of charity, and you should not refuse whoever wants to borrow from you (cf. Matt. 5:42).

Should you find some lost article, you should keep it for its owner, even though he is hostilely disposed towards you; for in this way you will change him and will overcome evil with good, as Christ commands (cf. Rom. 12:21). If you observe these things with all your strength and live in accordance with them, you will store up in your soul the treasures of holiness, you will please God, you will be rewarded by God and by those who are godly, and you will inherit eternal blessings. May we all receive such blessings through the grace and compassion of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ, to whom with His unoriginate Father and the all-holy, bountiful and life-quickening Spirit are due all glory, honor and worship, now and ever and through all the ages. Amen.     (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Location 46520-46535)

Give to every one who begs from you; and of him who takes away your goods do not ask them again. And as you wish that men would do to you, do so to them. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.  (Luke 6:30-36)

 

Prophecy of Example and of Word

St. John Chrysostom says the Old Testament was preparing us for the New, God providing prophecy not only in words but also by example.  All God’s words and deeds were preparing the world for the greater thing God planned to do – the incarnation of the Word in which God reunited earth to heaven.  Prophecy and promise were done so that people would not find the great work of God to be unbelievable.  God’s actions were done so people would be ready when God made Himself visible in the incarnation.

“Now, since we are delivered from the controversies with the Jews, I shall demonstrate this to you from the New Covenant, so that you will see the agreement of the two covenants. Did you see the prophecy that was made with words? Learn the prophecy that was made with examples; although even this is not yet totally clear, I wonder, what is prophecy by example, and I wonder what is prophecy by word? Shortly, I will make this clear, too. The prophecy that is made by example is the practical prophecy, and the other prophecy is the theoretical prophecy. In other words, the most prudent He persuaded with words, and the most unconscious He informed by showing them examples.

Because, in other words, something big was going to happen: God was about to take upon Himself human flesh. Because the earth was going to become heaven and our nature was going to be elevated toward the nobility of the angels. Because the word surpassed the hope and expectation of the future goods that were to come. So he would not confuse the people with the new and paradoxical event of the Incarnation, those who then would have seen it all at once, and those who were going to hear it, for this reason, He iconically depicted it beforehand with examples and words, and, in this way, He accustomed our hearing and vision.”

(The Fathers of the Church: St. John Chrysostom on Repentance & Almsgiving, p. 80)

The Son and the Sons of God

But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying out, “Abba, Father!” Therefore you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ.  (Galatians 4:4-7)

When St. Paul wrote his epistles, he refers to Jesus as God’s son, and also refers to us Christians as “sons.”  For our modern sensitivities and for the sake of political correctness, we might prefer to refer to Jesus as God’s child and to believers as God’s children so that women and daughters do not feel left out of the Church by the patriarchal language Paul uses.   Yet the differences in our modern understanding and that of St. Paul about sons and daughters can also help us better understand the exact point Paul is trying to make.

St Paul is not making a point that women/daughters are less valued that males/sons, for it is this same St Paul who stresses in this same letter that in Christ “there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).   And our Lord Jesus Himself said,  “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Matthew 22:30).  Angels have no gender, and Christ seems to imply that in heaven, in the resurrection, gender no longer matters – an ideal which monasticism tried to live out in its celibacy, its desire to live the angelic life in the flesh, and in the stories of the women saints who strove to live as men.

What St Paul is doing with his emphasis on sonship is to take the assumed values of his time to show that the rights and privileges of the son are being extended to all believers.  Sons, in the world that he knew, “sons” had special rights and privileges when it came to inheritance, that daughters did not have.  He is saying the values of the Kingdom of God are different from the values of the world, because in the Kingdom, all those who believe are adopted with the same rights as a son has – all will receive their full inheritance in the Kingdom.

So though our cultural understanding of inheritance is different than his, and we think of sons and daughters both having rights of inheritance, in Paul’s world this was not the case.   He knows what the rights and privileges of a son are in his world and he is making the clear connect that Jesus is the first-born son of the Father with all the rights and privileges that comes with that position, and we each and all, male and female, have been adopted by God with the full rights of sons of the Father.

In the ancient world, there were clear differences regarding inheritance for sons, daughters and slaves.  St. Paul’s exact point is that within that understanding of inheritance, we are being adopted as sons with all the rights of inheritance of sons.  We are not being adopted either as daughters or as slaves with the diminished rights they would have had in Paul’s world.

We can call to mind the parable Jesus tells of the Prodigal Son  (Luke 15:11-32) who wishes to return to his father’s house with nothing more than the status of a servant.  The Prodigal  knows he is not a son. He has not behaved like a son but disowned his father by claiming his inheritance before his father had died.   However in the parable, his father welcomes him as a son (my son who was dead is alive!).  The father treats the prodigal as a son, not a captured runaway slave.  And this is made even more notable by the reaction of the older brother who wants nothing to do with his prodigal brother.  The father claims the prodigal as a son, but the elder brother rejects him as a brother, though recognizing his brother is the son of his father [“this son of yours” (Luke 15:30)].  What the elder brother is not willing to accept is that his brother has any filial right of inheritance left.  Note the Prodigal son demanded his inheritance as if the father was dead, but the father welcomes the son back as if the son had been dead!  The Father shows how a son is treated and welcomed.  This is what it is to be called God’s sons, even if adopted.  This is Paul’s point in saying we are adopted as sons (and not as daughters of his day, who had few rights of inheritance).  I think St Paul is trying to make this point clearly, he is not commenting on whether treating daughters and sons differently is proper or correct, he is noting clearly that all believers have the same rights as the sons of his culture had.

As many of us as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ” – this is quoted by Paul in Galatians 3:27, the same epistle that he speaks about us as being God’s “sons”.  As many as – all of us, females and males have put on the Son of God in order to receive all the rights and blessings of inheritance of sons as understood by Paul’s culture, and also to be treated every bit as good as the Prodigal son was treated by his loving and merciful father.  We sing those words at every baptism and at every feast which was a traditional baptismal feast (such as Christmas and Pascha).  We sing the same words for males and females because all put on Christ, all put on Christ’s sonship.    If we adopted the language of our modern times and said “children” instead of sons, we might miss the very point Paul is trying to make – we received our sonship from and through Christ the only-begotten son of the Father.  We will be received by God, all of us, male and female and even prodigals, with the full rights of sons.  The values of the Kingdom are not the values of this world.

Again we only have to think about the parable of the workers hired at various hours by the master of the house (Matthew 20:1-13).  In the Kingdom, the last are first and all get the same wages, all inherit the full blessings of God, no matter when in their lives they agreed to serve the master.  This is the Kingdom’s fairness.  This is the master’s hospitality and generosity.  This is what Paul wants to emphasize in his epistle.

“Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.”   (John 14:1-3)

Christ prepares for us, male and female, all things which belong to the children of God.  Our inheritance is the eternal abundance of the Kingdom.  We don’t receive the blessedness of the Kingdom because we are sons (male), nor do we receive the blessings as sons (males).  Rather, whether male or female,  we each and all receive all the blessings the biblical culture sometimes limited to the son.  The Son’s blessings are ours as well.

 

Christmas Blessings Received

Come, then, let us observe the Feast.  Come, and we shall commemorate the solemn festival.  It is a strange manner of celebrating a festival, but truly wondrous is the whole chronicle of the Nativity.

For this day –

The ancient slavery is ended,

The devil confounded,

The demons take to flight,

The power of death is broken,

Paradise is unlocked,

The curse is taken away,

Sin is removed from us,

Error driven out,

Truth has been brought back,

The speech of kindliness diffused, and spreads on every side,

A heavenly way of life has been implanted on the earth,

Angels communicate with men without fear,

And men now hold speech with angels.

Why is this?  Because God is now on earth, and man in heaven; on every side all things commingle.  He has come on earth, while being whole in heaven; and while complete in heaven, He is without diminution on earth.  Though He was God, He became human; not denying Himself to be God.  Though being the impassable Word, He became flesh; that He might dwell amongst us, He became Flesh.”   (St. John Chrysostom, THE SUNDAY SERMONS OF THE GREAT FATHERS Vol 1, p 115)

The birth of Christ inaugurates the salvation of the world.  Writing in the 4th Century, St. John Chrysostom enumerates the many blessings we have received by the Nativity in the flesh of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ.  Heaven and earth are united together, divinity and humanity are reunited, Creator and creation have their communion restored.  St Tikhon of Zadonsk writing in the 18th Century further reflecting on what the incarnate God means for has has the Lord Jesus asking us a series of questions about our spiritual search and sojourn:

“Do you seek wisdom?  I am God’s Wisdom.

Do you seek friendship?  Who is a greater or more loving friend than I, who laid down my life for you?

Are you looking for help? Who can offer greater help than I?

Do you need a physician?  Who can cure, other than I, the source of healing?

Are you looking for joy? Who will make you happy if not I?

Looking for peace?  I am the peace of the soul.

Looking for life?  I am the Resurrection and the Life.

Looking for light?  I am the Light of the world.

Looking for truth?  I am the Truth.

Are you searching for the true way?  I am the Way.

Why don’t you want to come to me?  You dare not approach? Who is more approachable than I?

You are afraid to ask?  Whom have I ever refused who has asked in faith?

Your sins prevent you? I died for sinners.

You are distressed by the great number of your sins?  My mercy is greater than all of them.”