Advent and The Entrance of the Theotokos

“There is a strange silence about the Nativity in the first few days of Advent. While we begin to prepare for Christmas through fasting on November 15, the coming Nativity is first announced in the Church’s worship on November 21 (the Entry of the Mother of God) with the Katavasias of Christmas, chanted during the Matins service: Christ is born, give glory. Christ comes from heaven, go to meet Him. Christ is on earth, be exalted. Sing to the Lord, all the earth, and sing hymns in gladness, O people, for He has been glorified.”  

(Vassilios Papavassiliou, Meditations for Advent: Preparing for Christ’s Birth, Kindle Loc. 172-76)

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The Nativity of Jesus Christ our Lord (2016)

My Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We experience the Kingdom of God in and through:

Our Body – physically, materially

Our Heart not just our ears

Our Mind not just with our eyes.

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

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

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

Christ is born!  Glorify Him!

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

 

A Brief History of the Feast of the Nativity

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

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

The Incarnation is No Illusion

“Believe that for our sins this only begotten Son of God came down to earth from heaven, assumed this humanity with feelings like ours, and was born of holy Virgin and of Holy Spirit, since the incarnation took place, not through an illusion or mirage, but in reality. He did not only pass through the Virgin, as through a channel, but actually took flesh from her, actually ate as we do, actually drank as do, and was actually nourished with milk. For if the incarnation was an illusion, salvation is also an illusion.” (St. Cyril of Jerusalem in St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly: Vol.56, Num.2,2012, p 152)

Mary: the Mother of our Regeneration

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“This relationship of the believer to God is thus more than that of being created, or that of obeying the Law, but that of a son to the Father. Incorporated by Christ by baptism, regenerated in the Virgin, believers share in the sonship of the Son of God, ‘for it was for this that the Word of God was made human, and the Son of God, the Son of Man, that the human being, having been taken into the Word, and receiving adoption, might become a son of God’ [St. Irenaeus of Lyons].  Becoming ‘sons of God’ in this manner, believers can themselves be called ‘gods’” ‘God stood in the congregation of gods, he judges in the midst of these gods’ (Ps. 81:1) [this text] speaks of the Father and the Son and those who have received the adoption, for they are the church.’” (John Behr, Irenaeus of Lyon, p 177)

Beginning the Nativity Fast

8062388600_ec433942c7_nNovember 15, 40 days before the Feast of the Nativity of Christ, we Orthodox begin the Nativity Fast.  We find in the Book of Tobit the following wisdom about charity, which is an essential part of any fast, and is much in the spirit of the Christmas season.

“Revere the Lord all your days, my son, and refuse to sin or to transgress his commandments. Live uprightly all the days of your life, and do not walk in the ways of wrongdoing; for those who act in accordance with truth will prosper in all their activities. To all those who practice righteousness give alms from your possessions, and do not let your eye begrudge the gift when you make it. Do not turn your face away from anyone who is poor, and the face of God will not be turned away from you. If you have many possessions, make your gift from them in proportion; if few, do not be afraid to give according to the little you have. So you will be laying up a good treasure for yourself against the day of necessity. For almsgiving delivers from death and keeps you from going into the Darkness. Indeed, almsgiving, for all who practice it, is an excellent offering in the presence of the Most High.” (Tobit 4:5-11)

 

The Nativity Fast and Charity

“Again we find a similar passage in Leviticus: And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field to its very border, nor shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the stranger: I am the Lord your God.”   (Lev. 23:22).

What is striking about these passages is that, first, they are not mere suggestions, but commandments; second, the poor, the stranger, the widow and the fatherless were to receive help, not based on their character or how they may use what they receive, but because of their condition. In fact, by leaving the gleanings after harvest, the worker would not necessarily see who took what remained, making it difficult for any value judgement to be cast upon the person.  […]

Fasting and the giving of alms are closely tied together, as mentioned earlier. During periods of fasting, we should make time for good works, for almsgiving. The Lord, speaking through Isaiah, told the Israelites: Is this not the fast that I choose, to undo the thongs of the yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked to cover him, and not hide yourself from your own flesh? (Isa. 58:6-7)  When the two, almsgiving and fasting, are done together, the Lord promises that your light shall ‘break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily,’ and ‘the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard’ (Isa. 58:8). It is then that the Lord promises that He will hear our cry.” (David Beck, For They Shall See God, pp 88-90)

 

Being Transformed by Christmas

“We have seen how the Holy Fathers regard the Transfiguration of Christ as an example of seeing the true nature of Christ. They taught that the real transfiguration occurred with the eyes of the disciples. When our eyes are opened, when we see through them and not with them, the world is transformed. We begin seeing ourselves, others, and nature as we are supposed to see them: icons of the transcendent God. We were not created to experience life as an endless series of days, filled with monotony and boredom. Through the Incarnation, Christ has restored meaning and beauty to the fallen world. And while we may not always experience life as meaningful or beautiful, we must remind ourselves and, with faith, believe that there is more to our lives than what meets the eye; there is more to our world than what we see when our hearts are impure and divided. God’s creation, both nature and man, are icons of the transcendent God. Through sin these icons may lose their luster, but they are icons nonetheless. Our priestly calling is not only to recognize this truth but to fulfill it: to be transformed and to transform the world around us.” (David Beck, For They Shall See God, pp 39-40)

St. Ephrem: God Descends to Humanity

St. Ephrem the Syrian (4th Century) wrote beautiful poetry about Christ and salvation. He portrays the love of God for humanity in the Christmas story, where God takes the initiative and in Jesus Christ enters into the human condition in order to lift humanity up to heaven.  Sebastian Brock says of this Syrian Saint:

“Ephrem is making two basic points: since humanity cannot cross the ontological chasm and so approach God, God has to cross it in the opposite direction first; only thus can communication be established: God has to descend to humanity’s lowly level, and address that humanity in its own terms and language. And secondly, the whole aim of this divine descent into human language is to draw humanity up to God.” (Sebastian Brock, The Luminous Eye, pg.62)

The Human Mind is Greater than the Heavens

“How much greater is the human mind than the heavens!

It is the image of God, knows God and alone of everything on earth can, if it wishes, become God, exulting man’s humble body at the same time.

How much more excellent are man’s senses than the earth!  For through them, not only is man able to comprehend the earth’s dimensions and various properties, but his knowledge extends even to the heavenly bodies.

He has observed their movements and learnt all the different types of conjunctions and separations of the stars, some of them momentous, and thus has laid the foundation of scientific knowledge.

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Even the things between the heavens and the earth are of less value than what lies on the boundary between man’s mind and his senses, for although they serve the same purpose in our analogy, in context, they are as different as can be.

God adorned human nature in this way because he was going to clothe Himself in it.”

(St. Gregory Palamas, d. 1359AD, THE HOMILIES, pp 206-207)