Old, Calendar Christmas

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The old priest was feeling his age as he turned to face the congregation and read the Gospel for the Christmas service.  He was weary, should have retired years ago, but had little incentive to do so.  His life had been the church, and he didn’t want to be left alone in his senescence.  His wife had passed away a few years ago.  He himself had survived cancer and chemo.  Now every day he felt the effects of the disease and the treatment and his many years – fatigue, his constant companion.

4147855595_428ae2921d_mAs he pronounced the Peace before reading the Gospel he felt exhausted; he had no sermon prepared.  He doubted that it mattered.  They wouldn’t want a long sermon anyway as they wanted to get back to the warmth of their homes on this cold winter day to celebrate Christmas with their families.    Each person present had his or her own expectation about what they should get out of the Christmas service, each their own interpretation of the feast, each their own need this Christmas.  Christmas was so personalized with its message determined by each person, dictated by their own sentiment, or piety, or need.  Besides, they all had heard the Nativity narrative so many times, he knew better than to imagine they were paying attention to him.

He had tried every year to find a Christmas message that pleased them.  He had heard every year what some wanted or expected from him on this holiday and what they didn’t like about his homily.   He wished just once he could please them all.  Maybe too big a miracle to hope for.  Besides at this point in his life he had said everything he had to say on the Feast, nothing new came to mind.

25293764221_02cccd892c_mHis eyes seemed blurry as he opened the newly donated Gospel book for the first time – a gift to the parish for the Nativity that year.  The gold cover was so pure, the colored lights from the Christmas tree in the nave danced on it.

It crossed his mind that each person present would hear what they wanted from the Gospel lesson.

“The reading is from the Gospel according to . . .”

The pages were exquisitely colored, magnificently adorned with illustrations and illuminated with stunning calligraphy.

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He couldn’t seem to find the page. He blinked to try to clear away the haze on his dry eyes.  As he looked, behold, what was written in front of him said “the Gospel according to Peanuts”.  He turned the page only to see “the Gospel according to Jean Shepherd”,  and a few pages later according to Valentine Davies, and then according to Dr Seuss.   As he quickly flipped the pages he saw a Christmas story about Frosty, another about Rudolph, the Grinch, Scrooge, Snoopy and Santa.   He could not believe his eyes!

6489769137_7f7c3496ac_mThe words of the text staring at him read: “’Twas the Night Before Christmas…”

The congregants were looking expectantly at the priest.  It was after the all the advent of their favorite holiday.

He was rapidly flipping pages until he had came to the back cover of the Gospel.  He stopped.

There, stuck between the back matter and the cover was a flattened ball of paper – as if someone had written a bad idea, crumpled it up and stuck it in the back of the book, where it became crushed.

Some of the congregants were embarrassed for the old priest, others were feeling impatient, wondering what the problem was.  Some thought the old man had lost his place again in the book, a few sniggered thinking he finally had lost his mind.

39062359321_8715e2ecc5_m He clumsily unfolded the wadded paper.  It was badly tattered, and the script was faded almost to the point of being illegible.  When he flattened the time-worn paper, his eyes cleared and he recognized the hand and the words.  The mystery was revealed.

Everyone was startled when for the first time, they heard the angel so clearly say:

“Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. “

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The Buzz

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The bee is an insect that was admired in antiquity by numerous philosophers and saints.  Bees were cited for various reasons and virtues as examples for good people to emulate.  I’ve enjoying photographing bees, those great pollinators of flowers.

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Bees are essential in agriculture and important for food production.  In one way or another, bees are involved in most of the meals we eat.  They are an insect for which we should give thanks to God, and for which we should pray.

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“Like a bee that secretly fashions its comb in the hive, so also grace secretly forms in hearts its own love.  It changes to sweetness what is bitter, what is rough into that which is smooth.”  (Pseudo-Macarius, FIFTY SPIRITUAL HOMILIES & THE GREAT LETTER, p 132)

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“Like a bee one should extract from each of the virtues what is most profitable. In this way, by taking a small amount from all of them, one builds up from the practice of the virtues a great honeycomb overflowing with the soul-delighting honey of wisdom.”   (St Gregory of Sinai,  THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Location 41544-41546)

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You can find a prayer for bees and links to other posts I have made about bees at The Blessing of Bees and at How Sweet It Is To Be.

 

“Battlefield Graves”

Photos by John Bobosh

The Normandy invasion of WWII has long captured my mortal imagination.  I’ve thought about the many lives lost on that longest of days.  Those coming ashore, whatever dreams they had for life, realized the nightmare of war.  Up and down that coast, dreams were shattered, sunk beneath the waves, ripped from the limbs of those who held them, slowly bled from those who succumbed more slowly from the ravages of war.  When my son visited Normandy this year and sent me some photos from there, it revived in me a poem I once penned about D-Day.

Field of dreams

Dying

One by one

Would have soared.

Now, beneath the turf lying

Silent.

Never to see the light of day.

No longer embodied

By the dreamer

It can’t be freed

Of the earth settling above.

A massive monument built

To remember what we cannot know

Is  lost.

What might have been

Imagined.

You can’t take it with you,

It remains interred.

Buried

In the heart

Of the earth.

We ponder

A dream

Sunday of the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council

On the 7th Sunday of Pascha we commemorate the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council.  [2018 Sermon notes]

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Note:  it is the Sunday of the Holy Fathers, not of the decisions of the Fathers or the decisions of the Council.  The focus is on the people involved in the Council .       Christ did not come to reveal dogma, but to unite all of us humans to God.  The Fathers of the Council wrestled with finding a vocabulary with which to express this truth, but what is even more important is they were writing about what they experienced in Christ.

Love – the main teaching of Christ is about people.     Our goal as Christians is to be united to Christ, not just follow some rubrics or rules or regulations.

Tone 4 Troparion (Ascension)
You ascended in glory, O Christ our God, granting joy to Your Disciples by the promise of the Holy Spirit. Through the blessing, they were assured, that You are the Son of God, the Redeemer of the world!

Christ’s brings joy to His disciples by the promise of the Holy Spirit.  The disciples benefit from the blessing.  Christ is oriented toward those who love Him, toward those who follow Him, to the people of God, the Church.  His focus is not doctrine or buildings but people, the people He wishes to unite to the Holy Trinity – to us!

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Tone 8 Troparion (Fathers)
You are most glorious, O Christ our God! You have established the Holy Fathers as lights on the earth. Through them You have guided us to the true Faith. O greatly compassionate One, glory to You!

Christ establishes the Holy Fathers as lights on the earth – not their doctrines.  It is the Fathers that guide us to the true faith, not their decisions.  Very people focused.

In the Epistle, St. Paul is worried about “the flock” – the people of God – and he warns the leadership about impending problems that require them to deal with and protect the people, the Body of believers.  He is warning them about the destructive false teachings, but his concern is the believers themselves.

Acts 20:16-18, 28-36
Paul said to them: “You know, from the first day that I came to Asia, in what manner I always lived among you, Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves. Therefore watch, and remember that for three years I did not cease to warn everyone night and day with tears. So now, brethren, I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified.

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Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock – pay attention to people.  The elders are overseers and shepherds of the flock – the people.  We are not to make rubrics or rules more important than the flock.  Doesn’t mean that rubrics or doctrines are unimportant, but that the focus has to be the membership, the people.  The troubles that will arise are also from the members!  We need to pay attention to the members.

Finally, we have the Gospel lesson in which it is clear that Jesus is also concerned about His followers, His disciples, about all of us in the Church.

Gospel: John 17:1-13
Jesus spoke these words, lifted up His eyes to heaven, and said: “Father, the hour has come. Glorify Your Son, that Your Son also may glorify You, as You have given Him authority over all flesh, that He should give eternal life to as many as You have given Him. And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent. I have glorified You on the earth. I have finished the work which You have given Me to do. And now, O Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was. I have manifested Your name to the men whom You have given Me out of the world. They were Yours, You gave them to Me, and they have kept Your word. Now they have known that all things which You have given Me are from You. For I have given to them the words which You have given Me; and they have received them, and have known surely that I came forth from You; and they have believed that You sent Me.

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I pray for them. I do not pray for the world but for those whom You have given Me, for they are Yours. And all Mine are Yours, and Yours are Mine, and I am glorified in them. Now I am no longer in the world, but these are in the world, and I come to You. Holy Father, keep through Your name those whom You have given Me, that they may be one as We are. While I was with them in the world, I kept them in Your name. Those whom You gave Me I have kept; and none of them is lost except the son of perdition, that the Scripture might be fulfilled. But now I come to You, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have My joy fulfilled in themselves.

Christ’s concern is that we might know God.  For Him, knowing God means experiencing eternal life.  Any concern about right doctrine is a concern about our really experiencing God as God reveals Himself to us.  It is ultimately a concern about us, that we might fully experience what God is offering to us.  And Christ wished that we might experience the oneness, the unity, the love that is shared by the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  The concern about Church unity and Church doctrine is focused on us, our salvation, our experience of the blessed Trinity.  It is all about God’s love for us.

Imaging Washington, D.C.

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I took a few days off to visit my son in Washington, D.C.  (Above – the Washington Monument as seen from the National Museum of  African American History.)

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Sometimes we get the impression that the only thing going on in D.C. is political scandals and divisive polarity.  But as seen above, in art, everyone can get along – political opponents as well as the living and the dead!

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But D.C. is also home to many people, and has interesting neighborhoods which offer many amenities not available in my hometown.

39031520052_7bb867241e It has fantastic museums and restaurants.  (Above, “Drift” by Matthias Pilessnig at the Renwick.  OK, maybe too hard to imagine, but I liked it the first time I saw it several years ago.)  (Below, the ceiling at the White House Visitor’s Center, which is rich in history, but doesn’t get the attention it deserves).

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Of note on this visit, we went to the National Museum of  African American History.  Honestly, I think every American should visit this museum.  Especially for those who feel America is the greatest country on earth.  That greatness – specifically the vast wealth of our nation – was originally built upon the blood of the slaves – the nation would not have attained its power and wealth without the evil of slavery.  There is an inestimable debt owed all those slaves who died to make America great.  They planted the seeds but never got to eat the fruit of America’s greatness or prosperity. The Orthodox Church claims to be built on the blood of the martyrs – America was built on the blood of the slaves (I’m not taking anything away from the patriots who fought a war for Independence –  but they too benefited from the institution of slavery.)

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The building looked to me like the bows of ships, slave ships to be exact, but the gold color of the building made me realize the cargo was gold – but only to the slave masters and their families.  The slaves were not given their share of the wealth for they were not even valued as human beings.

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The museum portrays the true “Paradox of Liberty” – while the leaders of the colonies were declaring freedom and independence for themselves, they were enslaving an entire people, and didn’t want to see the inconsistency in their thinking.  They were happy for the chance to become wealthy while enslaving others to maintain their lifestyles.  For me, the museum was emotionally painful – to note the human willingness to sacrifice others because of greed.  A sinful and shameful way of life by people claiming to be Christian.  We cannot be a Christian nation as long as the shadow of slavery and racism darkens our hearts.  Christ told us to “Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand” (Matthew 3:2).  We would be a Christian nation if we did that.  Below, a cross from a slave’s grave.  Christ said we have to take up the cross in order to follow Him.

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A little political (or photographic) trickery for those who embrace their end of  the country’s political polarity.  Note in the first photo below the Christmas tree is the right of the Capitol dome:

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But wait, now it is to the left of the Capitol dome:

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And now it has disappeared:

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My prayer is that we believers will stop looking at the faith through polarity of the political right and left and instead will view politics through the eyes of Christ.  We are to pray for our political leaders (1 Timothy 2:2), but we also remember Jesus is Lord, not Caesar.

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You can view all of my photos from this year’s visit to D.C. at Washington, D.C. 2017.  (Above, a hall in the Smithsonian Castle).  There are a couple of older collections of photos at Washington DC 2015  , Washington 2013, Washington 2012 , Washington 2010 and Washington 2008.   It helps in visiting D.C. to have a son who is a long time resident and a Smithsonian docent.

 

Keeping Christmas: Being Bad or Good

Sermon notes 12/3/2017 – preparing for Christmas

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Focus on one idea from the Gospel lesson:  Luke 18:18-27
Jesus tells the rich ruler: “You still lack one thing. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” But when the rich man heard this, he became very sorrowful, for he was very rich

While we tend to assume that the rich man became sorrowful because he was being asked to give up his wealth, but his grief arises immediately after Jesus tells the rich man to follow Him.

All of us who are at the Liturgy have received the invitation from Christ to follow Him.  This is for us the very meaning of Christmas, it is time for us to follow Christ.  And just like with the rich man, it is possible that the thought of following Him might cause us grief because we too might not want to have to give anything up.  Jesus said we cannot serve God and mammon/money, yet many American Christians think that we can.  We want prosperity in this world – at no spiritual cost – AND we want the Kingdom of God in the afterlife.  We imagine we can pursue all that this world has to offer now, and then, only much later in life should we think about the Kingdom of God, because we will in any case still inherit the Kingdom no matter how we lived on earth.  But the rich man in today’s Gospel realized he had to choose between the two and he wasn’t willing to make that sacrifice.

We can think about St. Paul’s comments in Ephesians 5:1-21 to get a sense of what St. Paul thought following Christ meant.

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

St. Paul uses the phrase “to walk” several times in this passage.  To follow Christ is to walk with Him.  We are to walk in love, walk in light and walk in wisdom.  We are to imitate Christ who taught us:  “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  (John 13:34-35)

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Christmas means to imitate Christ.

But fornication and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is fitting among saints. Let there be no filthiness, nor silly talk, nor levity, which are not fitting; but instead let there be thanksgiving. Be sure of this, that no fornicator or impure man, or one who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.

According to historians, there were pagans in the First Century who really admired the Jews and the Christians for their morality, especially their sexual morality.  There was plenty of sexual freedom in the Roman Empire, especially for those who had money.   They could have whatever sex they could afford.  And yet, some were attracted to the restraint and purity of Jews and Christians.  Sexual freedom and license did not give the philosophers the ideal human.    Some Hellenic Philosophers called for sexual restraint as a way to a more spiritual life.  These folk were attracted to Christianity.   Sexual license did not lead to human fulfillment.   People admired the Christians because their morality was stricter than societal norms.  People didn’t say: “Look at those Christians, they sin more than we do, let’s join them.”  Rather, they looked at the Christians and noted their self restraint and willingness to sacrifice and deny the self, and they were attracted to the self denial and self giving.  They saw the Christians who were willing to die for the faith, to die in order to preserve their moral purity.  AND Christianity grew.

Kristin LIn Sigrid Undset’s wonderful trilogy, Kristin Lavransdatter (for which she won the Nobel Prize), the young Kristin leads a sheltered Christian lifestyle in rural 14th Century Norway.  As a teenager she wants to break tradition and choose her own path in life.  She is sent to a convent where, wanting to justify her own (mis-)behavior, she ceases to see the Gospel as establishing a norm of behavior and instead begins to compare herself to the sinners living around her.  She is able to justify more and more of her own misbehavior by comparing herself to others (“I’m not as bad as some…”) while ceasing to compare herself to Christ, the Virgin or the Saints.  As her standard of comparison falls, so does her own morality.   She feels ever more justified in judging others while justifying herself, losing completely any foundation for moral thinking.

Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”  (John 8:12)

St. Paul teaches us to follow Christ, means to follow a standard in moral behavior, especially sexual behavior.

Let no one deceive you with empty words, for it is because of these things that the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not associate with them, for once you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord; walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to learn what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is a shame even to speak of the things that they do in secret; but when anything is exposed by the light it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light.

St. Paul teaches that being a Christian means not only seeing the Light, but becoming the Light.  Jesus said to His disciples: “You are the light of the world…”  (Matthew 5:14).

St. Paul doesn’t say, “once you were in darkness…”  but rather “once you were darkness“.  Being a Christian means moving away from darkness in any and all of its forms, and moving into the Light and all its manifestations.  To follow Christ is not merely to see the Light, but to participate in it, to become the light.

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To follow Christ is a transformation from darkness to light, to live the morally pure life.

Therefore it is said, “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.” Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil.

Christ is going to give us light – we can receive it from Him.  First we have to awaken.  It is not the Light which awakens us, but rather once we spiritually and morally wake up, only then can we receive the Light.

The days are evil – St. Paul writes this in the 1st Century.  Believers have always felt this way about the world we are trying to navigate through.  Evil times are not something new.  The world is not becoming evil, evil has been with us since the beginning of Christianity.  But we are not to despair because of this, but rather are to make “the most of the time“!

Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart, always and for everything giving thanks in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father.

Folly is a sin.   We need to be mindful of that.

Drunkenness may be socially acceptable and popular entertainment, it may be the most common way to deal with stress or to celebrate success.  It is not approved behavior for the Christian.

Christmas means walking with Christ, which means walking in the Light, being the Light, instead of cursing the darkness.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”   (John 1:5)

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And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.  (John 3:19)

I have come as light into the world, that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness.  (John 12:46)

The Sabbath is a Rest from Sin not from Love

According to Luke 13:10-17, Jesus confronted by a synagogue ruler regarding Sabbath laws, confronts the ruler with what the Sabbath is meant to be.

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Now He was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. And behold, there was a woman who had a spirit of infirmity eighteen years, and was bent over and could in no way raise herself up. But when Jesus saw her, He called her to Him and said to her, “Woman, you are loosed from your infirmity.” And He laid His hands on her, and immediately she was made straight, and glorified God.

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But the ruler of the synagogue answered with indignation, because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath; and he said to the crowd, “There are six days on which men ought to work; therefore come and be healed on them, and not on the Sabbath day.” The Lord then answered him and said, “Hypocrite! Does not each one of you on the Sabbath loose his ox or donkey from the stall, and lead it away to water it? So ought not this woman, being a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has bound – think of it – for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath?” And when He said these things, all His adversaries were put to shame; and all the multitude rejoiced for all the glorious things that were done by Him.

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Jean Danielou notes Jesus taught a very particular understanding of Sabbath rules and rejected common ideas about the Sabbath held by Jewish leaders.

The other element in the Sabbath is the idea of rest (anapausis). Here also we find a primary typology in the Old Testament, consisting in a spiritualization of this idea of rest. In the prophets, and especially in Isaias, we find the statement repeated by the Fathers of the Church, that the true Sabbath, the true anapausis, is not to cease from physical work, but to cease from sinning. “The new moons and the Sabbaths and other festivals I will not abide, your assemblies are wicked…cease to do perversely, learn to do well…” (Is. 1:13-19). And this passage is the more important because, as we shall see presently, the teaching of Christ is its exact extension. This spiritualization of the idea of the Sabbath rest, which does not, obviously, exclude the idea of the actual practice of the Sabbath, is found again in Philo, transformed by its platonic setting, when he sees in the Sabbath the symbol of the soul “that rests in God and gives itself no more to any mortal work.”

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The Jews of the time of Christ, in their exaltation of the Sabbath, thought that God Himself was subject to it. We find such an idea expressed in the Book of Jubilees (II, 16). The word of Christ formally condemns the application to God of the Sabbath rest understood as idleness. In God there is no idleness; but His activity which, as St. Clement of Alexandria says, is identical with His love, is exercised without ceasing. And this is of great importance: the idleness, otium, of the Sabbath appears henceforth as a literal and inferior notion, giving room for seeking its spiritual meaning. The Fathers of the Church used this text to condemn the Sabbath rest by showing that it is not the law of the universe and that Christianity is the reality of which this idleness is the figure. Origen, using the same text of St. John, writes: “He shows by this that God does not cease to order the world on any Sabbath of this world. The true Sabbath, in which God will rest from all His works, will, therefore be the world to come. The working of Christ is seen to be the reality which comes to replace the figurative idleness of the Sabbath.”   (The Bible and the Liturgy, pp. 224 & 227)

 

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.