“This gets more to the heart of things,” said Father. “What does each of us do? Only we can answer that for ourselves. Doesn’t Christ say, ‘Where your treasure is, there also is your heart’? If you remain passive or a spectator, you never experience the inspiration and challenge of liturgy. You remain locked within yourself. You rate the liturgy like a TV show and grade it on the basis of how it entertains–without it ever entering your mind that the purpose of liturgy is not entertainment.”
Father’s voice grew passionate. “Liturgy truly is ‘work’ in the sense that it requires us to move outside ourselves, to prepare, study, attend, sing, and listen together in faith and love. When liturgy is celebrated correctly and with care by everyone involved, its beauty and majesty does nourish and inspire us. These become the very vehicles that enable us to meet the mystery of God, giving us the strength to live life well and deal creatively with its problems. Only then does this ‘work’ bring us to Christ. Let’s face it: Liturgy is also about energy and belief, life and death. It’s not about comfort, amusement, entertainment, and distraction. Christian liturgy is about dying, leaving behind the old self and becoming a new person, so that we may life more fully, more abundantly.”
The Feast of the Meeting of the Lord Jesus in the Temple is based upon the events recorded in Luke 2:22-40 when Mary and Joseph, fulfilling the Torah command and thus righteousness, bring the 40 day old infant Jesus to the Jerusalem temple. Biblical scholar Richard Hays says both ancient Jewish and Christian sources saw the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70AD as being theologically significant.
“Once the Temple has been destroyed and the holy of holies no longer stands in a building made with hands, the community must seek to discern how the God of all the earth will be made known in the world. In this situation, Matthew emphatically locates the divine presence in the figure of Jesus himself, who promises (in a saying that anticipates the resurrection and the ending of the Gospel) to be forever present wherever his followers gather and invoke his name.
In short, in Matthew 18:20 Jesus now declares himself, for the first time, to be the Emmanuel promised in the narrator’s opening fulfillment citation in 1:23. ‘My words will not pass away.’ Precisely because Jesus is Emmanuel, in his subsequent discourse on the end of the age (Matthew 24) he can offer the further remarkable assurance that his words will outlast all creation: ‘Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away‘ (24:35). If we ask ourselves who might legitimately say such a thing, once again there can be only one answer: we find ourselves face-to-face with the God of the Old Testament. Isaiah gives definitive expression to this theological truth: The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever. (Isa 40:7-8) (Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness, Kindle Loc 1197-1209)
Christ in the temple is God in the temple. The temple was a sign of God’s incarnation and Christ is that incarnation in the temple. The Christian understanding of Jesus as the incarnate God is the Christian reading of the Scriptures of Israel. It is not the Christians reading “into” the text but recognizing the claims of the text in Jesus Christ.
“Needless to say, it is a value that applies to our entire being; for our soul and body belong to our person, which they express and manifest each in their own way. Thus, since the body is a dimension of the person, it too possesses specific characteristics, a unique character, and likewise a value that is absolute. This is the basis for the respect we owe to our own body as well as to that of every other person. It also confers on the body a spiritual dimension and value, which means that it can no longer be seen as a purely physical substance nor be separated from the man or woman whose body it is. By the same token, the body shares in the spiritual development of the person as a whole.
In the eyes of the Fathers, then, the body is an integral part of the person, participating in its spiritual value from the moment of conception and beyond its life on earth. This, together with the fact that the soul and body are inseparable elements of the human composite, is the basis for asserting that it is possible for a person to reacquire– albeit according to another mode of existence–the same body that had been provisionally separated from the soul by death. It also justifies Christianity’s rejection of abortion, as well as the doctrine of metempsychosis or reincarnation. Indeed, abortion is considered by the Fathers to be an attack on the life of an actual person since, as seen, they consider the person to be inseparably present from the moment of conception–we humans not being able to exist as such other than as persons.” (Jean-Claude Larchet, THEOLOGY OF THE BODY, pp 23-24)
Each year I gather related posts into a PDF for the Nativity, Great Lent, Holy Week and Pascha and other themes. You can find a list of all the PDFs I’ve created since 2008 related to scripture, feasts or other Orthodox topics at Fr. Ted’s PDFs.
“Divine Matthew describes the Baptism in Jordan in this way: Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to Jordan unto John, to be baptized of him. But John forbad Him, saying: “I have need to be baptized of Thee, and comest Thou to me?” John recognizes Christ, but does not know of His plan of salvation.
There now unfolds a scene unique in human history: God competing in humility with man! John was baptizing sinners to repentance. However, the Sinless One, who had nothing of which to repent, came up to him and demanded baptism of him. John, stronger in spiritual power than all the sinful men around him, suddenly recognized in Christ One mightier than himself.” (St. Nikolai Velimirovic, Homilies, p. 78)
“Formerly, in a unified show of his own graciousness, God established humanity: he breathed the breath of life into the one newly formed of the earth, gave him a share in a better existence, honored him with his own image and likeness, and make him a citizen of Eden, a tablemate of angels. But since we darkened and destroyed the likeness of the divine image by the filth of passions, he who is compassionate has shared with us a second communion, more secure and still more wonderful than the first.
For he remains in the exalted height of his own divinity, but takes on a share of what is less, divinely forming humanity in himself; he mingles the archetype with its image, and reveals in it today his own proper beauty. (“Oration on the Transfiguration,” Light on the Mountain, p. 210)
“The union of Christ’s full divinity and humanity is the touchstone of the Orthodox understanding of salvation. The Church fathers widely exploit this biblical teaching of the incarnation as sharing and participation in the very life of God. According to Athanasius, if the problem was the guilt of sin, forgiveness could have been granted from heaven upon repentance of transgressions. But the problem was the power of corruption and death that ruled the world and held humanity captive. The incarnation was necessary not only for the forgiveness of sins, but also for the rescue of humanity from the corruptive powers of darkness. This rescue was shown decisively by the resurrection of Christ. To use the language of the Gospel of John, the incarnation is an invasion of light and life into the realm of darkness and death.
The incarnation provides the basis for the redemption from sin as a universal power, and liberation of life from the forces of evil. It is life confronting and overcoming death. The victory is decisively achieved through Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection, viewed as one movement of the Son’s return to the Father, which John’s Gospel calls the ‘hour of glory’ (John 12:23-24; 17:1-5).”
While whatever one Patriarchate does always has some implication for all Orthodox, so far no other Patriarch has claimed that they will follow suit and also ordain women deacons. Although the action of the Alexandrian Patriarch seems controversial to some, he did not do anything forbidden by the Orthodox canons and as the liturgical theology professors note in their letter he is only restoring something that used to exist in Orthodoxy. Orthodox Patriarchs are not known for being innovative nor for acting unilaterally on such issues. So one would think he probably sounded out this idea with at least some other Orthodox bishops before doing it. When it comes to liturgical practices, the Patriarchs are conservative and tend to preserve the current received tradition and rarely try to revive something that disappeared in the past. The Patriarch’s decision to ordain the deaconesses is reminiscent of how the office of deacon came into existence at the time of the apostles. There was a need and the Church creatively met the need by creating a new office:
Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists murmured against the Hebrews because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the body of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brethren, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” And what they said pleased the whole multitude, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands upon them. And the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith. (Acts 6:1-7)
The Church created a new office to meet its current need. It needs to be noted that it is the ordination of deacons that leads to the first martyrdom in the Church. St. Stephen one of the first deacons is the proto-martyr of the Church. Creating a new ministry in the Church created a new category of saint, the martyr. Orthodoxy claims the Church is founded on the blood of the martyrs. It was not the apostles who were martyred first, but a deacon. The Church was glorified by creating the new ministry in the Church.
Time will show us whether this action is being guided by the Holy Spirit and will bring benefit to the Orthodox Church throughout the world and will bear glorious spiritual fruit for the Church. The restoration of the women diaconate has been discussed on and off in Orthodox for the last 100 years. The Russian Church was discussing the issue in 1917 before the communist revolution took control of Russia and forced the Church to stop talking about issues that would make the Church more engaging in society. The Greek Church had a few women deacons at the beginning of the 20th Century ordained by St. Nektarios. More recently the discussion has been taken up by the St. Phoebe Center for the Deaconess. I think such discussion is healthy for the Church. This is a discussion about restoring an office that once was part of the Orthodox Church. It is not about creating something that never existed in the Church. This is not following societal trends, but rather making the Church, the Body of Christ whole. St. Paul said if one member of the Body suffers, we all suffer. If we the Church have lost a vital ministry, we all are suffering that loss, and healing the Body and restoring the ministry would be a good thing. St. Paul writes:
On the contrary, the parts of the body which seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those parts of the body which we think less honorable we invest with the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior part, that there may be no discord in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.
Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, then healers, helpers, administrators, speakers in various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? But earnestly desire the higher gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way. (1 Corinthians 12:22-31)
We all need to pray for the Church that God will provide for us the ministries that we need to witness to the world today. God has appointed us to carry the Gospel to the world, and we need all the members of the Body to be working and working together.
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” (Matthew 9:37-38)
Through the years as I was blogging, I sometimes gathered all the posts related to a particular theme from a given year into a PDF. If you are interested in finding quotes from the Fathers or other Orthodox authors related to the Nativity of Christ, Christmas or the incarnation, you might want to glance through the PDFs listed below. These are posts I used either during the Nativity Fast (Advent) period or following the Feast of the Nativity itself.
One of the multitude said to Jesus, “Teacher, bid my brother divide the inheritance with me.” But Jesus said to him, “Man, who made me a judge or divider over you?” And he said to them, “Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” (Luke 12:13-15)
Wisdom is as an essential element of our Scriptures and Tradition as is any set of rules or rubrics that have been offered to the faithful. And yet, Wisdom is often given a secondary place in the pedagogy of the Church as many in leadership roles prefer to lay down the law of God rather than to wrestle with Wisdom. In the early Church they relied on the Book of Proverbs as a manual for instructing catechumens, to prepare them for baptism and living the life in Christ. To this day the Orthodox continue to read Proverbs during Great Lent as a source for wisdom in living in a fallen world.
Besides the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament, there also emerged in the early centuries of the Church’s history the Wisdom of the desert fathers and mothers – not lives of the saints but wise sayings designed to make us think about how to live the Gospel. This wisdom literature is related to the parables that Jesus taught in which He did not give law, but rather offered instruction for all believers to ponder. The parables like the wisdom sayings often have a hidden, deeper meaning to them.
The following story from the desert fathers gives us a sense in which wisdom was understood to be different from the Law. Law involves a more black and white thinking while wisdom considers how and when to apply the law or when it is correct to vary it. For example, a stop sign is the law. But that stop sign can never tell the driver when to go – to take that action requires wisdom. In this story a monk wants to know what to do with an inheritance he has received. Perhaps he was trying to avoid deciding himself what to do so he wouldn’t make the wrong choice. He wants the monastery abbot to decide for him – not to give him a word, but give him a rule. Abba Poemen wants the monk to learn to live the Gospel himself. Poemen offers an answer to the monk in terms of wisdom: he tells the monk what to do by not telling him what to do.
A brother asked Abba Poemen: “A legacy has been left to me; what shall I do with it?” The elder said to him: “Go away and come in three days then I will tell you.” He came as he had directed him and the elder said to him: “What am I to say to you, brother? If I say to you: ‘Give it to a church,’ they will have banquets there; if I say: ‘Give it to your relative,’ there is no reward for you; but if I tell you: ‘Give it to the poor,’ you will have no worries. Do whatever you like; this is not my business.” (Give me a Word, p. 233)
Poemen shows the monk he has actually considered his request about the inheritance. Giving the money to the church is a good thing, but he realizes it will cause the church community to celebrate and waste some of the money by benefiting no one but themselves. He could simply give the money away to relatives and be free of it himself, a noble thing, but of no spiritual benefit to the monk. Or, the monk could give the money to the poor and not worry about it any more, though humanly speaking people might fear the poor wouldn’t use the money wisely. Any of the actions could be proper for a monk because the monk is freeing himself from the cares of wealth. Each possibility could be good and each has a downside. Poemen is telling the monk to free himself of the inheritance, but refuses to give the monk a rule about it. The monk is going to have to decide for himself how to fulfill the Gospel commands. There may not be just one right answer, only one choice pleasing to God. Poemen, however, refuses to burden himself with the inheritance!