The Feast of the Annunciation (2017)

St Nikolai Velimirovic reminds us that Jesus was not adopted by God only when Jesus dies on the cross.  Jesus did not become God’s Son only at age 30 when He began His public ministry.  Jesus is God’s Son at the Annunciation to the Theotokos.  He was already beginning then His ministry of salvation.  St. Nikolai writes:

“Lastly, there is an important reason on the general, human level for the Lord Jesus’ going to Egypt, and not to some other country. He did not begin His earthly  mission only at the age of thirty, when He opened His divine lips and began to teach. He began His mission at his conception. At His conception by the Holy Spirit, He already had a follower. This was the holy Mother of God. Was not Joseph converted to Christ before His birth? Did not His birth open heaven to the shepherds and fill the astrologers from the East with truth, prayer, and immortality? Did not Herod, together with the hardened leaders and scribes of Jerusalem, fall away from Him and stand against Him while He still lay in the manger? As soon as He was conceived, He became the cornerstone of the palace of salvation, and a stumbling-block to others. As soon as He was conceived, the world around him began to be divided into sheep and goats. Above all, Mary and Joseph were for a short time divided in their view of Him. While Mary knew Him to be the fruit of the Holy Spirit, Joseph thought Him the fruit of sin. This division lasted only a short time.

But the division made at His birth between, on the one hand, the shepherds and eastern astrologers, and Herod and the wise men of Jerusalem on the other, never came to an end. He came to sow, and at the same time to winnow. And He began his work from His conception in human flesh, right through to His death and glorious Resurrection, and from His Resurrection to this day, and from this day to the Last Judgement. He did not come into the world just to be a thinker. He lept into the drama of human life, as into the darkness of Egypt, to be light and leader, thinker and actor, sacrifice and victor. Indeed, He began His work in the world at that moment when His messenger, the great Archangel Gabriel, came down to Nazareth and announced His coming.”   (Homilies, pp. 53-54)  

The Gospel Lesson of the Annunciation:

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

And Mary said to the angel, “How shall this be, since I have no husband?” And the angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. And behold, your kinswoman Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For with God nothing will be impossible.” And Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her. (Luke 1:26-38)

Human Nature Transfigured Through the Theotokos

When we think about salvation, redemption, atonement, Christianity says all of this activity of God happens in this world, within our history, in and through us human beings.  God’s plan for salvation may come from all eternity and heaven, but it is realized only in time on earth.   The hymns of Great Lent dealing with redemption remind us how our salvation is worked out through the Virgin Theotokos.

Human nature was counted worthy of God’s revelation
through you, Virgin full of divine grace,
for you are the only mediator between God and man,
rightly glorified by us all as the Mother of God!

In choosing the Virgin Mary for the incarnation, God shows His love for the world He created. God shows creation, particularly humans are worthy not only of God’s revelation but of union with God.  Mary is the very sign that God sees in her person as well as in her humanity the creation worth saving and capable of being in union with the Creator.  God sees in Mary exactly what God created humans and the world for: to share in the love and life of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Adam’s nature was made divine, Virgin,
when God took flesh without change in your womb!
And we who were deceived of old by the hope of becoming gods
have been set free from the ancient condemnation.

Both of the above hymns are taken from the Canon for the 2nd Sunday of Great Lent.  God is united to humanity in the womb of the Virgin – Adam’s human nature is made divine in the union with God.  Eve was tricked by the Serpent into thinking she could become like God by disobeying God.  In Christ the hope of our being god-like becomes a reality for in Christ God submits Himself to taking on human nature.  Christ, the incarnate God, conforms humanity to God’s will that we would become divine.

A pain causing lesson: we don’t become divine by asserting our will against God but only by submitting our will to God’s will.

Sunday of Orthodoxy: The Doctrinal Significance of Icons

The first Sunday in Great Lent also commemorates the acceptance by the Church of icons as theologically essential for proclaiming the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ.  There was a very long dispute about the use of icons that lasted more than a century, but eventually the Church declared icons were Orthodox and should be in churches and venerated by the faithful.

Metropolitan Kallistos Ware writes:

“The doctrinal significance of icons. Here we come to the real heart of the Iconoclast  [those who rejected the use of icons] dispute. Granted that icons are not idols; granted that they are useful for instruction; but are they not only permissible but necessary? Is it essential to have icons? The Iconodules [those who accepted icons as Orthodox] held that it is, because icons safeguard a full and proper doctrine of the Incarnation. Iconoclasts and Iconodules agreed that God cannot be represented in His eternal nature: ‘no one has seen God at any time’ (John i, 18). But, the Iconodules continued, the Incarnation has made a representational religious art possible: God can be depicted because He became human and took flesh. Material images, argued John of Damascus, can be made of Him who took a material body:

Of old God the incorporeal and uncircumscribed was not depicted at all. But now that God has appeared in the flesh and lived among humans, I make an image of the God who can be seen. I do not worship matter but I worship the Creator of matter, who for my sake became material and deigned to dwell in matter, who for my sake effected my salvation. I will not cease from worshiping the matter through which my salvation has been effected.

The Iconoclasts, by repudiating all representations of God, failed to take full account of the Incarnation. They fell, as so many puritans have done, into a kind of dualism. Regarding matter as a defilement, they wanted a religion freed from all contact with what is material; for they thought that what is spiritual must be non-material. But this is to betray the Incarnation, by allowing no place to Christ’s humanity to His body; it is to forget that our body as well as our soul must be saved and transfigured. The Iconoclast controversy is thus closely linked to the disputes about Christ’s person. It was not merely a controversy about religious art, but about the Incarnation, about human salvation, about the salvation of the entire material cosmos.”  (The Orthodox Church, pp. 31-32)  

Give to the Lord What is Yours

“St. Ambrose emphasizes that we must learn from St. Peter to confess our own unworthiness to be in the presence of the Lord. ‘You must also say, ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord,’ so that the Lord may respond to you, ‘Fear not.’ Confess your sins to the Lord, for He forgives. Do not be afraid of giving the Lord what is yours, since He granted to you what is His.’ In becoming man, the Son of God has given to men the power to become the sons of God (John 1:12) and to participate in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4), in the divine life.”

(Archbishop Dmitri, The Miracles of Christ, p 52)

 

Christ God at Theophany

Continuing to contemplate the mystery of Christ’s Baptism and the Theophany of the Holy Trinity.   Below are two hymns from the Vespers of the Feast of Theophany.  The first introduces the sense of coverings or clothing – things that Christ puts on.  As God, Christ clothes Himself with light as with a garment (Psalm 104:2).  At Vespers we sing in the prokeimenon that the Lord clothes Himself with majesty.  Some in Orthodoxy takes this as a reference to the incarnation in which God clothes Himself with a human body.  The human body was originally created for glory, and Adam and Eve were thought to where glorious garments in Paradise before the Fall.  After the fall, they put on “garments of skin” which God gave them (Genesis 3:21).  Christ takes on Himself that garment and transfigures and transforms it back into majesty and glory.  Just by putting on human nature, Christ restores it to majesty – this is the saving power of the incarnation.

In the hymn below, Christ also covers Himself with the water of the Jordan – as God He is invisible and ineffable.  He stands naked in the river, yet the waters cover Him.  The imagery is one of mystery – in Christ, the human body hides God.  The river is covering the body to reveal God!   In the incarnation He allows Himself to be visible.  Since we were created in His image and likeness, we have some sense of Christ in each human being.  In the incarnation we see the type in whose image we are made.  But being God, even incarnate, He is not guilty of sin.   God made Christ to be sin, even though He never commits sin (2 Corinthians 5:21).  Being God, being pure and holy, it is Christ who gives to baptism the power to take away sin and to regenerate every human being.

He who covers Himself with Light as with a garment

Has granted for our sake to become as we are.

Today He is covered by the streams of the Jordan,

Though He has no need to be cleansed by them:

But through the cleansing that He Himself receives

Wonder! He bestows regeneration on us!

He refashions without shattering,

And without fire, He casts anew,

And He saves those who are enlightened in Him,

Christ our God, the Savior of our souls.

I love the imagery of Christ regenerating, refashioning and recreating us – without shattering or fire.  He refashions by balm not burning.  He recreates by degree not destroying.  He edifies by design not demolishing.

Christ does not destroy His creatures but finds a way to renew and refashion us from within, without having to melt us down or destroy us because we are too evil. He renews the goodness innate in our being, which He bestowed on each of us at our conception – His image!   Christ has become incarnate because humans are capable of being redeemed and created anew.  Christ makes all things new, not all new things (Revelation 21:5).  God loves us because He did not create junk.  God has the eyes to see the goodness in us, savable and redeemable, capable of restoration and renewal.   God does not need to annihilate creation or the human body in order to save it.  The hymns of the Orthodox Church often marvel that in the incarnation divinity does not destroy humanity.  The Virgin Mary is not destroyed by having God incarnate in her womb, just as Moses saw a bush being burned yet not consumed.  God is fire, yet one that does not destroy but renews.  God saves the Three Youths in the fiery furnace, an image of hell, where the fire becomes like dew to those whom God loves.   The divine-human fusion of the incarnation and theosis is God’s method of salvation.

The incarnation of God in Christ is recognized and worshiped by all parts of creation, as we see in the hymn below.

Lord, in Your desire to fulfill what you appointed from eternity,

You have received ministers from all the creation at this, Your mystery:

Gabriel from among the angels,

The Virgin from among humans,

The star from the heavens,

and Jordan from the waters;

And in its stream You have washed away the transgression of the world.

O Savior, glory to You!

Angels, humans, heaven and earth are all united in Christ, and each finds the representative to serve Him as is clear in the icons of Theophany.

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)

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.]