The Annunciation (2018)

St. Photius, Patriarch of Constantinople  gave a sermon in the late 9th Century on the Feast of the Annunciation which celebrates the events described in Luke 1:24-38.  He reveals in his words the theological and cosmic importance of the Feast.

“Gay is today’s festival, and splendid is the joy it conveys to the ends of the earth. The joy it yields banishes the cures of the world, inaugurates the raising of him who fell long ago, and pledges salvation to all of us. An angel converses with a virgin, and the whispering of the serpent is made idle, and the impact of his plot is averted. An angel converses with a virgin and Eve’s deceit fails, and convicted nature, seen to rise about condemnation, as it had been before condemnation is enriched with the possession of paradise as its portion. He speaks to the Virgin, and Adam receives a pledge of liberty, and the serpent, instigator of evil, is deprived of his tyranny over our kind, and is dispossessed of his authority, and learns now that he had armed himself in vain against Creation. His devices against us weaken, as an incorporeal being brings the message of the invincible trophy against sin: for Christ’s cross and willing suffering are death and sin swallowed up in victory, and such also is His suffering through the Incarnation.

The angel is now bearing the good tidings of the Incarnation, in which tidings we are rejoicing today, and whose festival we are celebrating. An angel is being sent to the Virgin, and human nature is renewed; for, having quaffed the tidings like a remedy of salvation, it spits out all the poison of the serpent, and is cleansed from the spots of its disease. An angel is being sent to the Virgin, and the bond of sin is being torn up, and the penalty for the disobedience is abolished, and the universal recall is pledged in advance. Today the tidings of joy have arrived, since the archangel is exchanging words with the virgin maiden, the commander of the invisible host is conversing with Mary, espoused to Joseph but designated and preserved for Jesus. (The Homilies of Photius Patriarch of Constantinople, p. 112-113)

An historical note about March 25 and the Annunciation:

…the origin of the solemnity on the fifth Saturday of Great Lent is linked to a shift in the feast of Annunciation. We know that, in the spirit of Canon 51 of the Council of Laodicea (c. 365), it was not appropriate to celebrate feasts during Great Lent, and such celebrations consequently had to be shifted to the following Saturday or Sunday. It was only the Council in Trullo (692) that decided to celebrate Annunciation on the very day (March 25).”   (Archimandrite Job Getcha, The Typikon Decoded, p. 200)

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God’s Kingdom Springs Forth from the Theotokos

“My Lady Mary–

What knowledge bedecks you, what chastity crowns you!

Just as sin once brought the Kingdom of Death to power,

So your grace makes the Kingdom of Justice spring forth.

Just as the Sunrise dispels the shadows of the dawn,

So too the light of faith in your Son dispels the darkness of sin.

Blessed is he who seeks after your love,

Whose footsteps tread the threshold of your house at break of day;

Such a man will be satisfied with your blessings, filled to abundance.

(Enzira Sebhat, Harp of Glory: An alphabetical Hymn of Praise for the Ever-Blessed Virgin Mary from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, p. 52)

Nothing is as Sacred as a Human Being

“There is nothing as sacred as a human being, whose nature God Himself has shared.”  (St. Nicholas Cabasilas)

“The glory of God is a living human being.” (St. Irenaeus of Lyons)

Christmas focuses on the incarnation of our God.  And the incarnation is the most amazing act of God – for God sees in humanity something so sacred that God desires to be united to humanity.  The Holy God wishes to share in human nature because God sees in humanity something lovely and holy and blessed.  God chooses to share in human nature.  This is the mystery of the God of love which results in the incarnation – results in the Nativity of Christ.

St. John Chrysostom describes it this way in a homily:

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.

As Chrysostom envisions Christmas, Christ Himself as Creator fashions the body in the Virgin’s womb that He Himself will take for Himself.  God is able to see in humanity something so holy that God wishes to be united to the holiness of humanity.  God chooses to share His natural holiness with the humans created in God’s image and likeness.

Chrysostom goes on:

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)

The mystery and the amazement continues.  For God chooses to unite Himself to humanity while human nature is still subject to the power of sin and death.  God doesn’t choose perfect and sinless human nature before the Fall, but accepts human nature as it is in the world.  God enters into the human condition and does not create a special humanity and a special world free of sin, temptation, violence, evil, suffering, sorrow or death.  God enters into the world that we experience with all of its suffering and sorrow and accepts our human nature.  God enters into our lives and embraces the same life that we all share.  God is not distant and transcendent, but near you where you are .

Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.  (Hebrews 2:14-18)

There is nothing as sacred as a human being.  Even an imperfect human, a sinner, a flawed person, one beset with temptation.  For God every human being is sacred – no matter who I am, no matter what I think about myself, or what others think about me.  In God’s eyes, I am still sacred, holy.  I am to be what God is.  “Be holy for I am holy, ” says the Lord (1 Peter 1:16).  This is why God became incarnate.  God became human because God sees humans as having a holiness to which God wishes to unit Himself.  God did not avoid the fallen, sinful world, but entered into and shared our life in this world.

Old Testament Images of Christ’s Birth

PREPARE, O BETHLEHEM, FOR EDEN HAS BEEN OPENED TO ALL!   ADORN YOURSELF, O EPHRATHA, FOR THE TREE OF LIFE BLOSSOMS FORTH FROM THE VIRGIN IN THE CAVE!  HER WOMB IS A SPIRITUAL PARADISE PLANTED WITH THE DIVINE FRUIT: IF WE EAT OF IT, WE SHALL LIVE FOREVER AND NOT DIE LIKE ADAM.  CHRIST COMES TO RESTORE THE IMAGE WHICH HE MADE IN THE BEGINNING!

In the five days before Christmas, one finds in Orthodox hymns for the pre-Feast of the Nativity of Christ.  These pre-Festal hymns shed light on the Feast and our understanding of who Jesus is and how He is our salvation.   There were three hymns that caught my attention with beautiful imagery.   Above, the hymn parallels the creation of the first Adam in Paradise with the birth of New Adam, Jesus,  from the Virgin Mary.  The Paradise which God planted for Adam is superseded by the Theotokos who is a spiritual Paradise.  If Paradise is some heavenly place, Mary becomes a spiritual heaven – the place where God abides on earth.   The Tree of Life which was in the middle of the original Paradise now is able to blossom forth from the Virgin.  Christ is the Divine Fruit planted in her womb, and Christ is the Tree of Life.  We can eat of this Tree of Life in Holy Communion.  The Tree of Life is no longer closed to us but is now able to give us eternal life.  Adam and Eve had lost access to the Tree of Life by their rebellious sin.  Christ again offers to us the fruit of the Tree of Life – namely Himself.  No longer will we be denied access to immortality – we are restored to the fullness of humanity that God intended for us from the beginning.

IN YOUR WOMB, ALL-BLAMELESS THEOTOKOS,
WE BEHOLD THE RICH THRESHING-FLOOR OF WHICH SOLOMON SANG.  YOU BEAR THE EAR OF GRAIN THAT GREW WITHOUT BEING SOWN;  YOUR CHILD IS THE ETERNAL WORD:
IN A WONDERFUL MANNER YOU WILL GIVE BIRTH TO HIM IN THE CAVE OF BETHLEHEM, HE WILL LOVINGLY FEED EVERY CREATURE WITH THE KNOWLEDGE OF GOD, FREEING THE HUMAN RACE FROM DEADLY HUNGER.

The above hymn keeps to a theme of food – from harvesting the grain to being fed.  First there is mention of the threshing-floor.  Threshing is the process of taking a plant and separating the edible grain from the inedible straw and husk.  The threshing floor is the place where this separating process takes place.  More interestingly, the threshing floor became a rich symbol of a place where God meets His people.  Our encounter with God turns out to be a threshing process – perhaps God’s own separating the wheat from the chaff, but also the required effort on our part to take God’s revelation to us and to discover what we need to get from it for our own nutrition.  The scriptures for example always require interpretation – this is a threshing process because God’s full message is sometimes hidden in the text.  We have to separate the edible grain (what we can understand and digest) from the inedible husk (the written word which contains the grain).  It is the grain which gives us life.

In 2 Samuel 24, King David purchases the threshing-floor as the very location to build the temple.  It is on this exact place – the threshing floor – where Solomon actually built it according to 2 Chronicles 3:1.   The Theotokos is compared in the hymn to this threshing-floor, or in her womb divinity is enclosed in humanity, but also that incarnation is revealed to the world.  Christ becomes the food of the world who gives eternal life to all who eat His flesh and drink His blood.  Christ is the spiritual food which if we eat we will not hunger again.  Christmas is the Feast in which God feeds His people with the manna of heaven.

CHRIST, WHO IS THE INFINITE WISDOM OF GOD,
HAS WONDROUSLY BUILT A HOUSE FOR HIMSELF FROM THE VIRGIN; SHE COMES INTO THE CAVE AND MANGER OF DUMB BEASTS: THERE SHE WILL GIVE BIRTH IN THE FLESH TO HIM
IN A MANNER BEYOND ALL UNDERSTANDING.

Proverbs 9:1 states that Wisdom built a house to abide in (Proverbs 9:1).  Christ is God’s Wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:24).  According to the Prophet Baruch (3:37), a prophecy we read at Christmas, Wisdom walks on earth.   The “house” which Christ/ Holy Wisdom built is Mary, the Virgin Mother.  God becomes incarnate in her, and takes up his abode on earth.  He dwells in her bringing about the salvation of the world.

The Old Testament is full of images about the incarnation – prophecies of many different kinds, some predicting the coming of God in the flesh, and some foreshadowing the events.

Through the Prayers of the Theotokos

“‘She is the leaven of our new creation, the root of the true vine whose branches we have become, by virtue of the germination proper to baptism. She is the point of arrival of the reconciliation of God with men, on which occasion the angels sang: “Glory to God in the highest heaven; peace on earth and good will toward men” (Lk 2:14).

For this reason the recollection of the Virgin wakes up our souls, making them consider how, by his intervention, we have been called from such a great irreconcilable enmity, from a situation of war, so to speak, to such a great peace, to divine familiarity, to a marvelous association.’ (Severus of Antioch)

This role of Mary continues even in the time of the Church, seeing that she intercedes before God on our behalf. Our author is certainly convinced of this, since he exhorts his audience to take advantage of her intercession:

‘We implore her who is the birthgiver of God and pray her to intercede for us, she who is honored by all the saints.'” 

(Luigi Gambero, Mary and the Fathers of the Church, p. 315)

Mary: A Spiritual Heaven

Theologically, Christmas is a Feast of the Incarnation of God, something which is easily lost in all the cookies, parties, gifts, decorations, piles of wrapping paper which have come to dominate the celebration of the Nativity of Christ.  For those Christian who take time to find that place of holy silence (“Silent Night, Holy Night!”) there is still the ability to be awed and overjoyed by the mystery of God entering into the human condition.

Toward the beginning of the Nativity Fast, we Orthodox celebrate another theological Feast: the Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple on November 21.  It is another day for us to contemplate the mystery of God incarnate by focusing on the human side of the equation: God became human so that the human can become God.  The incarnation as God chose to do it, required a human mother from whom God received His human nature.  God does not miraculously manufacture a completely novel, virginal and sinless human nature for Himself in the incarnation – to protect Himself from being tainted by sin and the fallen world.   No doubt God could have done that.  Instead, God enters into the human condition as all humans do – through conception in a mother’s womb, growing through gestation and then being born into the world.  He receives human nature from his mother including  genes and flesh – all that makes us human.   Christ has a fully human nature including a body made up of cells and organs which formed in the womb.  Jesus, who is fully God, becomes fully human.  As St. John says it: “the Word became flesh...”

God dwells in the Virgin‘s womb, and this mystery is the inspiration for many feasts, poems, icons and hymns in the Orthodox Church.  God who dwells in heaven also dwells in the Virgin’s womb.  Her womb becomes heaven, for heaven is the place where God dwells.

One of the hymns from the Entry of the Theotokos states it even more intriguingly:

Heaven and earth rejoice, beholding the spiritual heaven, the only Virgin without blemish…

If heaven is the place where God naturally dwells, the Virgin becomes “the spiritual heaven.”  She is not the “natural” heaven which is distinguished from the rest of creation in Genesis.   God makes use of a human to create a spiritual reality.  In fact it is not possible without her.   A human, a human body, becomes a “spiritual” heaven.  This is a most wonderful turning of a phrase.  And it reflects that reality of the incarnation and of theosis:  God becomes human so that the human can become God.  We might think “heaven” is a spiritual place, but God creates an additional spiritual heaven in order to dwell on earth with us humans.

In another hymn from the Entry of the Theotokos, Anna (Mary’s mother) tells Mary:

Go into the place which none may enter: Learn its mysteries and prepare yourself to become the pleasing and beautiful dwelling-place of Jesus

Again, the wonderful turn of a phrase – Mary is told to go into the place where none can enter – the Holy of Holies of the Jerusalem Temple.  But there is a mystery here, for if none can enter, then Mary can’t enter and if Mary can enter than it isn’t the place that none can enter. Lines are being crossed and blurred – which is exactly what happens in the incarnation of God the Word.

Mary is told to go into the place where God dwells in order to prepare herself for God dwelling in her. (see also The Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple  2017)    The mutual indwelling of Mary (and thus humanity) in God and God in Mary (and thus in humanity) is realized in the Feast of Christmas.  This is the very concept of salvation in Orthodoxy.

The Theotokos: Image of Every Christian

St. Justin the Martyr writing in the 2nd Century shows how early in Church history Christians were contemplating the Virgin Mary and her role in salvation.

The Son of God became human by the virgin, in order that the disobedience which proceeded from the serpent might receive its destruction in the same manner in which it derived its origin. For Eve, who was a virgin and undefiled, having conceived the word of the serpent, brought forth disobedience and death. But the Virgin Mary received faith and joy when the angel Gabriel announced the good tidings to her, ‘the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God‘; and she replied, ‘Let it be to me according to your word‘ [Luke 1:35, 38].”  ( A Patristic Treasury: Early Church Wisdom for Today, Kindle Loc. 877-81)

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Christians right into the 21st Century have continued to reflect on Mary’s significance to each Christian today.  Lutheran Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber says:

“Images of  Mary remind us of  God’s favor. Mary is what it looks like to believe that we already are who God says we are.”   ( Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People, Kindle Location 1042-1043)

The Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple (2017)

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Meditation on the Feast of the Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple.  So much of the imagery of the Feast and of the hymnology involves a mutual and mysterious indwelling between creation and Creator.  Humanity enters into the full presence of God, as God prepares to enter into humanity.

The Virgin Mary, who is to be the dwelling place of God, enters into the Temple, the place where God dwells.  There is a mystery of co-indwelling, God in God’s creation and God’s creation in God.

The Virgin comes to dwell in the temple to prepare herself for God to dwell in her.

The Theotokos enters the Temple to be in God’s presence, yet  God enters the Theotokos and becomes present in her.

In God we live, move and have our being.

In the world we find God’s Temple.

The Ark is in the Temple.

The Tablets/ God’s Word is in the Ark.

The Virgin is the Ark.

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God the Word is in the Theotokos

The Virgin is in the Temple

The Temple is in the world.

God is in the world.

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)

The Intercessions of the Theotokos

“The Mother of God, who is also the Mother of all humankind, pleads at the tribunal for universal mercy, not for the forgiveness of sins (which is impossible, for sins must be completely expiated and suffered through) but for mercifulness to sinners. The existence of hell is surrounded not by the cold of an egotistical indifference but by the radiant cloud of the caring love of saved humankind, that is, of the Church which abides for ages of ages in its sobornost as one, holy, and universal. In the Church, the one humankind is not divided into two and is not reconciled with the severing of its parts – hell – but sorrows over this part.”  (Sergius Bulgakov, The Bride of the Lamb, pp. 193-194)

According to Fr. Sergius, the Theotokos intercedes for us all – pleads that God will be merciful to all of us.  She does not ask God to forgive sins, but rather that the God of justice will show as much mercy, leniency and compassion as is possible to everyone who lived on earth.  She does not ask God completely to lay aside judgment, but rather to behave according to His nature – God is love.  If it is necessary that God corrects us or punishes us, may God do it in His love and His mercy, not to destroy us but to bring us to holiness.

Fr. Sergius’ imagery is most interesting, for he doesn’t envision the saints in heaven being self-satisfied as they leer down on sinners in hell.  The saints aren’t rejoicing in the punishment of sinners but rather the saints of God surround hell with their prayers and love.  Saints do not rejoice that any of humanity is punished in hell.  Saints do not rejoice that humanity can be divided between those in heaven and those in hell, but rather those in heaven continue to extend love to their fellow humans by joining the Theotokos in beseeching God: “Lord have mercy. Lord have mercy. Lord have mercy!