The Jordan River: Giving Birth to Christ

Thoughts about the Feast of Theophany from St. Ephrem the Syrian:

Ephrem’s second standpoint shows a more specific concern to associate Christ’s baptism with Christian baptism. In a remarkable hymn on Christ in the river Jordan and in the womb of Mary Ephrem links these two aspects: Christ’s baptism in ‘the womb’ of the Jordan looks back in time to His conception in Mary’s womb. Both wombs, Mary’s and the Jordan’s, by bearing Christ the Light, are clothed with light from His presence within them; Mary’s womb thus becomes the source of her own baptism, the Jordan’s womb becomes the fountainhead of Christian baptism:

The river in which Christ was baptized

conceived Him again symbolically;

the moist womb of the water

conceived Him in purity,

bore him in chastity,

made Him go up in glory.

In the pure womb of the river

you should recognize Mary, the daughter of humanity,

who conceived having known no man,

who gave birth without intercourse,

who brought up, through a gift,

The Lord of that gift.

 

As the Daystar in the river,

the Bright One in the tomb,

He shone forth on the mountain top

and gave brightness too in the womb;

He dazzled as He went up from the river,

gave illumination at His ascent.

The brightness which Moses put on

was wrapped on him from without.

whereas the river in which Christ was baptized

was clothed in light from within;

so too did Mary’s body, in which he resided,

gleam from within.

(Sebastian Brock, The Luminous Eye: The Spiritual World Vision of Saint Ephrem the Syrian, pp. 91-92)

Christmas Blessings Received

Come, then, let us observe the Feast.  Come, and we shall commemorate the solemn festival.  It is a strange manner of celebrating a festival, but truly wondrous is the whole chronicle of the Nativity.

For this day –

The ancient slavery is ended,

The devil confounded,

The demons take to flight,

The power of death is broken,

Paradise is unlocked,

The curse is taken away,

Sin is removed from us,

Error driven out,

Truth has been brought back,

The speech of kindliness diffused, and spreads on every side,

A heavenly way of life has been implanted on the earth,

Angels communicate with men without fear,

And men now hold speech with angels.

Why is this?  Because God is now on earth, and man in heaven; on every side all things commingle.  He has come on earth, while being whole in heaven; and while complete in heaven, He is without diminution on earth.  Though He was God, He became human; not denying Himself to be God.  Though being the impassable Word, He became flesh; that He might dwell amongst us, He became Flesh.”   (St. John Chrysostom, THE SUNDAY SERMONS OF THE GREAT FATHERS Vol 1, p 115)

The birth of Christ inaugurates the salvation of the world.  Writing in the 4th Century, St. John Chrysostom enumerates the many blessings we have received by the Nativity in the flesh of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ.  Heaven and earth are united together, divinity and humanity are reunited, Creator and creation have their communion restored.  St Tikhon of Zadonsk writing in the 18th Century further reflecting on what the incarnate God means for has has the Lord Jesus asking us a series of questions about our spiritual search and sojourn:

“Do you seek wisdom?  I am God’s Wisdom.

Do you seek friendship?  Who is a greater or more loving friend than I, who laid down my life for you?

Are you looking for help? Who can offer greater help than I?

Do you need a physician?  Who can cure, other than I, the source of healing?

Are you looking for joy? Who will make you happy if not I?

Looking for peace?  I am the peace of the soul.

Looking for life?  I am the Resurrection and the Life.

Looking for light?  I am the Light of the world.

Looking for truth?  I am the Truth.

Are you searching for the true way?  I am the Way.

Why don’t you want to come to me?  You dare not approach? Who is more approachable than I?

You are afraid to ask?  Whom have I ever refused who has asked in faith?

Your sins prevent you? I died for sinners.

You are distressed by the great number of your sins?  My mercy is greater than all of them.”

Pro-Life Means More than Anti-Abortion

On the Sunday after the Nativity, we continue reading the Nativity narrative, but a portion which is not part of the American spirit of Christmas: Matthew 2:13-23.  This is part of the Nativity story we don’t have in our Christmas cards or carols and prefer to ignore because we like a sentimental winter story rather than one which exposes the reality of the world.  This Gospel brings to the forefront a very worldly reaction to the Gospel: Herod decides to murder babies to protect his own interests. We see in the Gospel lesson why the Fathers often described self-preservation as a sin which leads to much evil.  In this case Herod justifies the murder of babies by his concern for self-preservation.  In the modern world, we justify letting refugee babies die to preserve our comfort and  standard of living.

Christmas for us Christians is not just one day of the year which we can put away with our decorations, or throw out with all the wrapping paper, or take down with the tree.  In the Church we continue to celebrate the Feast for a week which remembering the entire Gospel lesson, including the slaughter of the Holy Innocents.

Christmas is God’s Word to the world.  In the Christmas narrative God sends word via the angels to Mary, Joseph and the shepherds.  Persian Magi receive a divine message through the movement of the strangest star they have ever seen.

Christmas is God’s message to us.  It is not merely a human wish for good cheer nor just human hope for the world and for each other.  Christmas is God’s word, God’s plan, God’s hope for the world.

Christmas is God, not just some people, telling us about peace, joy and good will.  The angels proclaim it, not humans.  And certainly when we read the Gospel, and not just some sentimental version of it, we see God’s message of peace and good will brought about a negative reaction in the world.  King Herod is out killing children because of the Gospel.

Christmas is God’s Word coming into the world, it is not fake news, nor does it have a media spin to it.  It was not created by Internet trolls.

In the Epistle (Gal 1:11-12) St Paul points this out clearly:  the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through the revelation of Jesus Christ.

Paul openly claims the Gospel comes to us by revelation from God.  St. Peter says:

First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.   (2 Peter 1:20-21)

Christmas is God’s message to us, not a human message.  God actively takes part in the world, to be with us and to heal us, to speak to us, to reveal Himself and His will to us.

If Humans were composing Good News about a savior, we would no doubt follow a more Hollywood plan – a superhero with supernatural powers, armed to the hilt with weapons of mass destruction, who wreaks vengeance and death on his enemies.

However, it is God who composed the Gospel, and God’s Gospel is one of humility, God in Christ sacrificing Himself for the good of humanity.  God’s message is one of reconciliation not rage and revenge.  God’s message is one of forgiveness for wrongdoing, not payback time.  Or as we find in Hebrews 1:1-3 –

In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high … 

Christmas is God speaking to us through His Son, Jesus Christ, who comes as a baby into the world.  Christmas is a divine message, God speaking to us and to the  world about what God wants us to know about God’s plan.

It is a plan not created by military planners, nor by terrorists, nor by a government, nor by Hollywood, nor by American billionaires.  All of them would create a savior in their image and likeness.

The Orthodox Church today as it has for 2000 years is still preaching this same message.  Our purpose for coming here each Sunday is to listen to the Gospel so that we can share the Good News with others.

On this Sunday after Christmas, we are still celebrating Christmas in the Church, still proclaiming that Christ is born.  We are still celebrating life, though in the Gospel we hear about how in the world King Herod is already issuing a decree that children must die, that he sees some children as unwanted in the world.  This is his response to the Gospel.

For us on the other hand, Christmas is God’s message.  We hear it as a feast of life, of God the giver of life.

Christmas, we Americans often think is for children.  Let us as Christians give Christmas to all children of the world.  Let us be the bearers of life for the world.  Let us lend our support to those children in need, those children who anyone in the world declares to be unwanted and undesirable.  There are many Herods in the world who want to get rid of somebody else’s children.  Men and women who see someone else’s children as a threat to their lifestyle.  We should not be those kinds of people.   We are to be with God, pro-life and giving our full support to those children whom God has called into being.  Christmas is a pro-life message, and as Christians we should be working for the lives of the children of the world, especially those who some have declared as unwanted, just like Herod declared Jesus unwanted, and the children around Bethlehem as undesirable, as threats to his way of life.  We have a responsibility to protect life and to give aid and support to the children that others want to kill.

Christmas is about our salvation, but the Gospel is clear there are evil men and women in the world who are willing to kill even children because they don’t like them.  We on the other hand are those who hear the birth of Christ as Good news, as life-giving news, and we are to be like Joseph protecting the lives of the children that are unwanted and who cannot protect themselves.  We are not only to protect but to nurture the children whom some ruler or nation wants to kill.

May the newborn Christ who lay in a manger for our salvation inspire us to help Him and all such children who are unwanted by the world.  Pro-life cannot be reduce to “anti-abortion”.  Pro-life means giving our support to children in general, but especially to those children victimized by the Herods of the world.  We are to protect all these children, for as our Lord Jesus told us:

 ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’   (Matthew 25:40)

Who is the King of Glory – Jesus or Caesar?

When Augustus ruled alone upon the earth,
the many kingdoms of men came to an end,

and when You were made man of the pure Virgin,
the many gods of idolatry were destroyed.
The cities of the world passed under one single rule,
and the nations came to believe in one sovereign Godhead.

Virgin Mary being enrolled for taxation

The peoples were enrolled by the decree of Caesar,
and we the faithful were enrolled in the name of the Godhead,
When You, our God, were made man.
Great is Your mercy, O Lord, glory to You! 

(hymn from Vespers of the Nativity)

The events surrounding the birth of Jesus Christ as described in the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Luke purposefully mirror images we know from historical evidence describing the celebration of the birth of the sons of Roman Emperors.  The Gospel writers want to be be clear that Jesus is not only the King of the Jews but more truly the King of kings and Lord of lords.  Caesars may rule THE Empire, but Christ rules the entire cosmos.  Sts Luke and Matthew set Christ from the time of His birth on a collusion course with the claims of the Roman Emperors.

“Ethelbert Stauffer in his work, Christ and the Caesars (SCM Press, 1955)…pays close attention to the evidence of the imperial coinage (which was regularly used as a propaganda medium) in this regard. The imperial coinage is full of the characteristic motifs of Advent and Epiphany, celebrating the blessings which the manifestation of each successive divine emperor was to bring to a waiting world. Among the adulatory formulas with which the emperor was acclaimed, he mentions, as going back probably to the first century, ‘Hail, Victory, Lord of the earth, Invincible, Power, Glory, Honor, Peace, Security, Holy, Blessed, Great, Unequalled, Thou Alone, Worthy art Thou, Worthy is he to inherit the Kingdom, Come come, do not delay, come again’ (p. 155).

Indeed, one has only to read Psalm 72 (**see below) in Latin, in the official language of the empire, to see that it is largely the same formal language which is used alike in the Forum for the advent of the emperor and in the catacombs for the celebration of the Epiphany of Christ (p. 251). Here there could be no compromise. Who was worthy to ascend the throne of the universe and direct the course of history? Caesar, or Jesus?”   (F. F. Bruce, The Defense of the Gospel in the New Testament, p. 65)

**Psalm 72:1-17

Give the king thy justice, O God, and thy righteousness to the royal son!

May he judge thy people with righteousness, and thy poor with justice! Let the mountains bear prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness! May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor! May he live while the sun endures, and as long as the moon, throughout all generations! May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass, like showers that water the earth! In his days may righteousness flourish, and peace abound, till the moon be no more! May he have dominion from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth!

May his foes bow down before him, and his enemies lick the dust! May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute, may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts! May all kings fall down before him, all nations serve him! For he delivers the needy when he calls, the poor and him who has no helper. He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy. From oppression and violence he redeems their life; and precious is their blood in his sight. Long may he live, may gold of Sheba be given to him! May prayer be made for him continually, and blessings invoked for him all the day! May there be abundance of grain in the land; on the tops of the mountains may it wave; may its fruit be like Lebanon; and may men blossom forth from the cities like the grass of the field!

May his name endure for ever, his fame continue as long as the sun! May men bless themselves by him, all nations call him blessed!

Christmas Lent

The American road to Christmas winds through mountains of parties, friends and family, festal foods and drink, baking and buying, social gatherings and gift exchanges (and also giving to charity – more money is given in America to charity in December than in any other month – 1/3 of the annual charity given in America occurs in December).  On the other hand, the Orthodox Church 1000 years before America was even conceived had carved a path through the desert to Christmas.  The pre-Christmas season was meant to be quiet, prayerful, ascetical, preparatory, anticipatory and devoted to alms giving (these two ways at least have charitable giving in common!).

Living in America, we really have to stop and intentionally choose the Orthodox way to Christmas.  For the hubbub of the season will certainly capture our attention with all its sparkling lights and joyful music, while the quietness of Orthodoxy will be lost beneath the mounds of gifts, food  and seasonal dress.  Fr. John Behr comments on the Nativity Fast which is the Orthodox road to Christmas and preparation for the Feast: 

Lent is an intense period provided for us to focus again on what should be the content of every moment of our life – our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. He is the beginning, the middle, and the end of Lent because he is the Alpha and the Omega of all creation – the first word and the last word of life itself – who, again, for the joy set before him accepted the Cross so that we might live, so that we might taste this joy as we also begin living, not for ourselves, but for God and others.

The transforming power offered to us in Lent doesn’t originate here below in the human realm where we muddle along with our eyes on the ground or closed in slothfulness or sleep. Lent is our chance to look up, to wake up, for our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. As the first Christians said: Maranatha! Our Lord is coming!  (The Cross Stands While the World Turns, p. 32)

The Feast we are preparing to celebrate is the birth of a man who was born in a cave because his family was too poor to afford other accommodations.  His family was forced to flee even their inadequate lodgings because of the threat of persecution and to become refugees in a foreign land.   So, St Photius the Great, writing in the 9th Century reminds us what Lent consists of – 

Fasting is acceptable to God when abstention from food is accompanied by refraining from sins, from envy, from hatred, from calumny, from vainglory, from wordiness, from other evils. He who is fasting the true fast that is agreeable to God ought to shun all these things with all his strength and zeal, and remain impregnable and unshakeable against all the attacks of the Evil one that are planned from that quarter. (The Homilies of Photius Patriarch of Constantinople, p. 227)

Theotokos Enrollment for the Roman Taxes

The Lenten practices of self-denial, humility, hunger, sojourning and feeling like exiles bring us much closer to the Holy Family and their condition at the first Christmas than do all of our parties and abundance.

Making Excuses to God

 
Then the Lord Jesus told this parable:   “A certain man gave a great supper and invited many, and sent his servant at supper time to say to those who were invited, ‘Come, for all things are now ready.’ But they all with one accord began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a piece of ground, and I must go and see it. I ask you to have me excused.’

And another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to test them. I ask you to have me excused.’ Still another said, ‘I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.’ So that servant came and reported these things to his master.

Then the master of the house, being angry, said to his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in here the poor and the maimed and the lame and the blind.’ And the servant said, ‘Master, it is done as you commanded, and still there is room.’ Then the master said to the servant, ‘Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled. ’For I say to you that none of those men who were invited shall taste my supper.’”  (Luke 14:16-24)

Archbishop Dimitri comments on the parable:

The first said unto him, I have bought a piece of ground, and I must needs go and see it: I pray thee have me excused. And another said, I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I go to prove them: I pray thee have me excused. And another said, I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come (vv. 18-20).

All three rather contemptuously disregard the generosity of the host, who cares for them and values their friendship. Their responses might be paraphrased, “Oh, I had intended to go, but something more important to me has come up.” The three excuses are meant to typify human concerns and priorities that, important as they may be in daily life, are nothing in relation to God’s love and care. The invitation and the response illustrate man’s neglect of what is of infinitely greater value to him – salvation and life eternal with God – than his earthly, perishable concerns. The Jews had been prepared for this final invitation by the events of their own history and by God’s speaking to them through the prophets, but since it did not offer improvement in their material concerns, they rejected it.  (The Parables, p. 128)

Posts on the Nativity of Christ

Each year since 2008 I’ve posted on my Blog posts related to the Nativity of Christ, Christmas and the Nativity Fast during this season.   At the end of each season I collect all the posts from that year related to the Nativity of Christ into a PDF, so anyone can read all the quotes I posted from any one year in one document.  Below are links to the quotes I posted each year related to the Feast of the Nativity or the Christmas season.

Twelve Quotes for Christmas

2010 Christmas Blogs

2011 Christmas Blogs

2012 Christmas Blogs

2013 Christmas Blogs

2014 Christmas Blogs

2015 Christmas Blogs

2016 Christmas Blogs

2017 Christmas Blogs

You can find PDF’s for all the blog posts I collected into one document at Fr. Ted’s PDFs.  This include the posts for each year for Lent or Pascha but also blog series that I composed on a theme.