The Feast of the Dormition (2018)

the Virgin’s pivotal role as the second Eve in the healing transformation of human nature damaged by the sins of the first Eve was already recognized by such Church fathers as St. Irenaeus as early as the second century. This recognition combined with the sifting of a very long oral tradition resulted by the late sixth to early seventh centuries in the establishment and celebration of the solemn Feast of her Dormition throughout the Christian Roman empire. With the addition of this feast to the Church calendar, later Church fathers began to offer rhetorical homage to Mary as the Theotokos in the form of sermons in honor of the Feast of her Dormition. Her death, after all, represented the completion of her mission as the second Eve. By grace, she experienced a reciprocal transformation, the deification of her humanity (and by extension, all human nature) as she offered her humanity to the divine presence within her womb.

In effect, her life and death represent the fullest flowering of the hope of all Christians: union with God in theosis. In contrast to the good thief, the second Eve, in the entirety of her life and death, is the confirmation of the very real possibility of an ever-expanding relationship between creature and Creator that transcends any conceivable earthly human hope, which can begin in this life well before the eleventh hour.

(Daniel B. Hinshaw, Touch and the Healing of the World, p. 126)

Christ: The Light Before the Sun

The Feast of  the Transfiguration of our Lord gives us a clear understanding of who Jesus is – one Person of the Holy Trinity and the incarnate God.  Consider the words of one of the festal hymns:

Christ, the Light that shone  before the sun, was on earth in the flesh.  In a manner fitting His divine majesty, He fulfilled His fearful dispensation before His crucifixion!  Today upon Mount Tabor He has mystically made known the image of the Trinity.  For taking apart the expressly chosen disciples, Peter, James and John, He led them up into the mountain alone.  Briefly, He concealed the flesh He had assumed, and was transfigured before them, manifesting the original beauty, though short of full perfection.  For He spared them as He assured them, lest seeing, they die.  Yest they saw as far as they could bear it.  He likewise called before Him the chief prophets Moses and Elijah, who testified to His divinity:  That He is indeed the true brightness of the essence of the Father, the Ruler of the living and the dead. (Vespers Hymn)

Christ is the Light of the world (John 8:12, 9:5) and He shone before there ever was a sun.  When we read in Genesis that God says in the beginning, “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3), and we also read that the sun did not yet exist, we are to understand this light in Genesis is not sunlight, but represents something – or rather, Someone – else.  The Word of God is the Light of the world.  Christ is the Light that existed and who brought all things into being.  He is also the One who is the image (icon) of the Father, and in whose image we each are made.  He, the Light of the world, became flesh, and yet in the Transfiguration, He concealed that flesh to show the disciples His glory and the original glory of humanity.  The three disciples were able to see what was within their own power to see of divinity.  They were able to see, however imperfectly what humans were created to be and able to experience the unity of God and humanity.

He who once spoke through symbols to Moses on Mount Sinai saying: “I am He Who is!”, was transfigured today upon Mount Tabor before the disciples.  In His own person He showed them the nature of mankind arrayed in the original beauty of the image.  Calling Moses and Elijah to be witnesses of this surpassing grace, He made them sharers in His joy, foretelling His death on the cross and His saving resurrection.   (Vespers Hymn)

It is the Word of God, Jesus Christ, who spoke to Moses but was still concealed from Moses, who is revealed at the Transfiguration.  Christ makes it possible for us to see God and to understand what our roll is in the world.  We come to realize God really does love the people of the world and created us to share in the divine life.

God Became Human so That We Humans Can Become Divine

Christ shares our experience, in order that we might share his; he came under Law, to set free those under Law, and the result is sonship – not of Abraham but of God himself. He who is Son of God was born of a woman in order that those who are born of woman might become sons of God. As proof that his work was effective, we find that the Spirit of Jesus himself. This time, certainly, we must interpret Paul’s statement in terms of the incarnation: Christ became what we are, in order that we might become what he is. But once again, it is not a straightforward exchange. Christ does not cease to be Son of God, and we receive the Spirit of the Son…

The basis of this reconciliation is the fact that the one who knew no sin was made sin on our behalf, in order that we might become the righteousness of God in him. As Paul is dealing here with reconciliation, it is natural that he should write in terms of ‘sin’ and ‘righteousness’. In some unfathomable way Christ is identified with what is opposed to God, in order that man should be reconciled to him…

It is because the second Adam took the form of the first Adam that men can be conformed to his likeness in a new creation; it is because of his obedience and his dikaioma (righteousness), that the dikaioma is fulfilled in us. Christ became what we are – adam – in order that we might share in what he is – namely the true image of God.

The idea of man’s conformity to the image of the second Adam is found widely in the Pauline epistles. Sometimes it is expressed directly in terms of being transformed into Christ’s image. In 2 Cor. 3.18, we find that we are changed into his image, through various stages of glory – and a few verses later, in 4.4, we are told that Christ himself is the image of God. In Col. 3.10 we are urged to put on the new man which is being renewed according to the image of the one who created him; we know from 1.15 that Christ himself is the image of God. In these passages, the ideas of a new Adam and a new creation are important. We may classify them as expansions of the second half of our original statements they describe what we become – in Christ. But since they refer to Christ as the image of God – a phrase which echoes Gen. 1.26f, the idea of Christs ‘manhood’ is fundamental.

(Morna D. Hooker, From Adam to Christ, p. 16, 17, 19)

Humans: Created to Unite Everything in the Universe

Within reality there are five divisions. The first is between uncreated nature and the created nature that acquires existence through coming into being. Second, the created nature that receives its existence from God is divided into the intelligible and the sensible. Third, within sensible or visible nature there is a division between heaven and earth. Fourth, earth is divided into paradise and the world. Fifth, man is divided into male and female.

Now man is, as it were, a workshop that contains everything in an all-inclusive way; and by virtue of his nature he acts as mediator, endowed with full power to link and unify the extreme points at the five different levels of division, because in the various aspects of his nature he is himself related to all these extremes. It is thus his vocation to make manifest in his person the great mystery of the divine intention–to show how the divided extremes in created things may be reconciled in harmony, the near with the far, the lower with the higher, so that through gradual ascent all are eventually brought into union with God.

That is why man was introduced last of all into the creation, as a natural bond of unity, mediating between all divided things because related to all through the different aspects of his own self, drawing them all to unity within himself, and so uniting them all to God their cause, in whom there is no division.

Through dispassion he transcends the division between male and female. Through the holiness of his life he unites heaven and earth, integrating the visible creation. Then, through his equality with the angels in spiritual knowledge, he unifies the intelligible and the sensible, making all created things into one single creation. Finally, in addition to all this, through love he unites created nature with the uncreated, rendering them one through the state of grace that he has attained. With the fullness of his being he coinheres fully in the fullness of God, becoming everything that God himself is, save for identity of essence.

(St. Maximus the Confessor, from The Time of the Spirit, p. 27)

Ascending to God

In this way we live in God. We remove our life from this visible world to that world which is not seen by exchanging, not the place, but the very life itself and its mode. It was not we ourselves who were moved towards God, nor did we ascend to him; but it was He who came and descended to us. It was not we who sought, but we were the object of His seeking. The sheep did not seek for the shepherd, nor did the lost coin search for the master of the house; He it was who came to the earth and retrieved His own image, and He came to the place where the sheep was straying and lifted it up and stopped it from straying.

He did not remove us from here but He made us heavenly while yet remaining on earth and imparted to us the heavenly life without leading us up to heaven, but by bending heaven to us and bringing it down. As the prophet says, “He bowed the heavens also, and came down” (Ps. 18:10).

(St Nicholas Cabasilias, The Life in Christ, p. 50)

The Incarnation of God is Our Salvation

“It is important to note that, in accordance with Irenaeus’s general understanding of the human person, the focus of Christ’s work is located in the flesh: it is in the flesh that Christ suffered, and through it that he reconciled the flesh which was in bondage, bringing it into union with God. Nevertheless, the work of redemption is solely the work of God, the incarnate Son, throughout:

‘The Lord has redeemed us through his own blood, giving his soul for our soul, his flesh for our flesh, and has poured out the Spirit of the Father for the union and communion of God and men, bringing God down to men through the Spirit, and lifting man up to God through his incarnation, and by his granting to us incorruptibility, firmly and truly, through communion with him.’  (AH 5.1.1)

Again, it is God, who in man, by himself becoming man, accomplishes the economy.

‘…That the manner of Christ’s incarnation preserved the manner of Adam’s formation is due both to the fact that Adam was a type of Christ and to the need for Christ’s flesh to be that of Adam, if he is to recapitulate all in himself, so becoming the head of all those whose ‘head’ had been Adam.'”

(John Behr, Asceticism and Anthropology in Irenaeus and Clement, p. 62 & 63)

The Eucharist and Christmas

“In his worldly obedience he emptied himself, and his emptying is the only example for our path.  God who became a child, God who fled into Egypt to escape Herod,

God who sought friends and disciples in this world, God who wept from the depths of his spirit over Lazarus, who denounced the pharisees, who spoke of the fate of Jerusalem, who drove out demons, healed the sick, raised the dead, who finally, and most importantly gave his flesh and blood as food for the world, lifted up his body on the cross between the two thieves – when and at what moment did his example teach us about inner walls that separate us from the world?  He was in the world with all his Godmanhood, not with some secondary properties.  He did not keep himself, he gave himself without stint.  ‘This is my body, which is broken for you‘ – shed to the end.  

In the sacrament of the eucharist, Christ gave himself, his God-man’s body, to the world, or rather, he united the world with himself in the communion with his God-man’s body.  He made it into Godmanhood.”  (St. Maria of Parish, Mother Maria Skobtsova: Essential Writings, p. 78)

 

Christmas 2017

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth among people of good will.” (Luke 2:13-14)

The angelic proclamation on the day of Christ’s birth stirs in our hearts hope for the world: peace on earth!   It is something we Orthodox pray for at each Divine Liturgy, Vespers or Matins.   We constantly petition God to fulfill the hope which the angels heralded as possible with the nativity of the Messiah.

Despite our God-given hope and despite our prayers, we witnessed a great deal of violence in 2017 in the world.  Church communities were not spared from this scourge of terrorism during the year.  This reminds us to pay attention to the entire story of Christ’s birth – part of the Gospel Christmas story is Herod murdering the innocent children!  We like to ignore that part of the nativity narrative as it doesn’t fit our image of a sentimental season: a merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.  The birth of Jesus caused Rachel to weep inconsolably over the loss of her children (Matthew 2:17-18)!   Rather than choosing to ignore part of the Gospel, we can appreciate the truthfulness of the narrative because we live in that same world where we know such grief.

We need only look at the Church calendar in the days after the Nativity to be reminded of Christian suffering:

December 27  St. Stephen the First Christian martyr

December 28 – The Massacre of the Christians celebrating Christmas at Nicomedia  in 302AD

December 29- The Massacre of the Holy Innocent Children by King Herod

Jesus Himself was quite realistic about this when He taught:

“I have said this to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”  (John 16:33)

Hope springs eternal.  Christ Jesus is our peace (Ephesians 2:14).  God came into the world because God loves us.   God too has suffered the violence of the very world He created for us; the world which God so loves.  He has not abandoned us to the violence of the world, but is here with us even in our darkest moments.   God wishes for us abundant life in this world, but many in the world still reject God.  Christmas makes sense not because the world is a utopian paradise, but exactly because there are serious and violent problems in this fallen world.  The sentimental American Christmas preference only makes sense if we ignore the world as it really is.  Orthodoxy takes history seriously and thus values the entire Gospel of the Nativity.  We need God’s love and we need hope to bring light to the darkness.  We need Christ to be with us through all the trials and tribulations the world throws at us.

And every year we are summoned to that humble birth – in a manger, in a cave, where we still can find God’s peace.  God’s peace is not like the world’s peace, and is not dependent on it.  As our Lord said:   Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid (John 14:27).  The world is much the same as it was 2000 years ago when Mary gave birth to God’s Son.  The Gospel lesson of Christmas is proclaimed every year to renew in us faith, hope and love so that we are not overcome by the world’s sorrows, but rather we overcome the world through Jesus Christ our Lord.  From that cave, light dawned to the world.  We live in the light of Christmas.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it (John 1:5).

Christ is born!  Glorify Him!

On the Birth of the Christ

“What shall I say to you; what shall I tell you? I behold a Mother who has brought forth; I see a Child come to this light by birth. The manner of His conception I cannot comprehend. Nature here rested, while the Will of God labored. O ineffable grace! The Only Begotten, Who is before all ages, Who cannot be touched or be perceived, Who is simple, without body, has now put on my body, that is visible and liable to corruption. For what reason? That coming amongst us he may teach us, and teaching, lead us by the hand to the things that men cannot see. For since men believe that the eyes are more trustworthy than the ears, they doubt of that which they do not see, and so He has deigned to show Himself in bodily presence, that He may remove all doubt.

And he was born from a Virgin, who knew not His purpose neither had she labored with Him to bring it to pass, nor contributed to that which He had done, but was the simple instrument of His hidden Power. That alone she knew which she had learned by her question to Gabriel: how shall this be done, because I know not a man? Then said he; do you wish to hear his words? The Holy Spirit shall come upon thee, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee.

And in what manner was the almighty with her, Who in a little while came forth from her? He was as the craftsman, who coming on some suitable material, fashions to himself a beautiful vessel; so Christ, finding the holy body and soul of the Virgin, builds for Himself a living temple, and as He had willed, formed there a man from the Virgin; and, putting Him on, this day came forth; unashamed of the loveliness of our nature. For it was to Him no lowering to put on what he Himself had made. Let that handiwork be forever glorified, which became the cloak of its own Creator. For as in the first creation of flesh, man could not be made before the clay had come into His hand, so neither could this corruptible body be glorified, until it had first become the garment of its Maker.

What shall I say! And how shall I describe this Birth to you? For this wonder fills me with astonishment. The Ancient of days has become an infant. He Who sits upon the sublime and heavenly Throne, now lies in a manger. And He Who cannot be touched, Who is simple, without complexity, and incorporeal, now lies subject to the hands of men. He Who has broken the bonds of sinners, is now bound by an infant’s bands. But He has decreed that ignominy shall become honor, infamy be clothed with glory, and total humiliation the measure of His Goodness.

For this He assumed my body, that I may become capable of His Word; taking my flesh, He gives me His spirit; and so He bestowing and I receiving, He prepares for me the treasure of Life. He takes my flesh, to sanctify me; He gives me His Spirit that He may save me.”

(St. John Chrysostom, “Nativity Homily,” The Sunday Sermons of the Great Fathers, pp. 112-113)

The Incarnation: A Second Communion

Creation of Adam

St. John of Damascus writes:

“Formerly, in a unified show of his own graciousness, God established humanity: he breathed the breath of life into the one newly formed of the earth, gave him a share in a better existence, honored him with his own image and likeness, and make him a citizen of Eden, a tablemate of angels. But since we darkened and destroyed the likeness of the divine image by the filth of passions, he who is compassionate has shared with us a second communion, more secure and still more wonderful than the first.

For he remains in the exalted height of his own divinity, but takes on a share of what is less, divinely forming humanity in himself; he mingles the archetype with its image, and reveals in it today his own proper beauty. (“Oration on the Transfiguration,” Light on the Mountain, p. 210)