Praying the Annunciation

21625561492_25870118e8

An archangel was sent from heaven to say to the Theotokos: Rejoice! And seeing you, O LORD, taking bodily form, he was amazed and with his bodiless voice he stood crying to her such things as these:

Rejoice, for through you joy shall shine forth!

Rejoice, for through you the curse shall cease!

Rejoice, recalling of fallen Adam!

Rejoice, redemption of the tears of Eve!

31637013692_6d61b27773

Rejoice, height hard to climb for the thoughts of men!

Rejoice, depth hard to scan even for the eyes of angels!

Rejoice, for you are the throne of the King!

Rejoice, for you hold him who holds all!

Rejoice, star causing the sun to shine!

8270219835_6592e553c1

Rejoice, womb of the divine incarnation!

Rejoice, for through you the creation is made new!  

(Akathist to the Theotokos, Prayer Book – In Accordance with the Tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church, Kindle Loc 2509-2517)

The Annunciation (2019)

Two thoughts about the Annunciation from the Patristic era.  First, Origen (d 254) taught that “Mary’s holy confession in Luke 1:38 (“I am a handmaid of the Lord”) should be taken to mean “I am a tablet on which to be written.” (Elizabeth A. Clark, Reading Renunciation, p. 59).  Mary as Scripture is a beautiful image not only of her but of how Scriptures are an incarnation of the Word, and Mary is the living Scriptures on whom the word is written: “ … written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Corinthians 3:3).   Not only does she keep God’s word written in the Law with all her heart (see Deuteronomy 30:10; 2 Kings 23:3; 2 Chronicles 34:31), her heart becomes the Scriptures on which God’s Word is written which enables the Word to become flesh (John 1:14

St Ambrose of Milan (d 397) commenting on Luke 1:41 writes:

And it came to pass that, when Elizabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the infant leaped in her womb.

Note the distinctness of each of these words, and their particular significance. Elizabeth was the first to hear her voice; but John was the first to be aware of the divine favor. She heard in the natural manner; he leaped for joy because of the Mystery. She sees Mary’s coming, he the Coming of the Lord. (The Sunday Sermons of the Great Fathers, p. 412)

I Worship the Creator Who Became Matter

“But now when God is seen in the flesh conversing with men, I make an image of the God whom I see. I do not worship matter; I worship the Creator of matter who became matter for my sake, who willed to take his abode in matter; who worked out my salvation through  matter. Never will I cease honoring the matter that wrought my salvation.”

(St. John of Damascus from Eugen J. Pentiuc’s The Old Testament in Eastern Orthodox Tradition, p. 263).

 

Prophecy of Example and of Word

St. John Chrysostom says the Old Testament was preparing us for the New, God providing prophecy not only in words but also by example.  All God’s words and deeds were preparing the world for the greater thing God planned to do – the incarnation of the Word in which God reunited earth to heaven.  Prophecy and promise were done so that people would not find the great work of God to be unbelievable.  God’s actions were done so people would be ready when God made Himself visible in the incarnation.

“Now, since we are delivered from the controversies with the Jews, I shall demonstrate this to you from the New Covenant, so that you will see the agreement of the two covenants. Did you see the prophecy that was made with words? Learn the prophecy that was made with examples; although even this is not yet totally clear, I wonder, what is prophecy by example, and I wonder what is prophecy by word? Shortly, I will make this clear, too. The prophecy that is made by example is the practical prophecy, and the other prophecy is the theoretical prophecy. In other words, the most prudent He persuaded with words, and the most unconscious He informed by showing them examples.

Because, in other words, something big was going to happen: God was about to take upon Himself human flesh. Because the earth was going to become heaven and our nature was going to be elevated toward the nobility of the angels. Because the word surpassed the hope and expectation of the future goods that were to come. So he would not confuse the people with the new and paradoxical event of the Incarnation, those who then would have seen it all at once, and those who were going to hear it, for this reason, He iconically depicted it beforehand with examples and words, and, in this way, He accustomed our hearing and vision.”

(The Fathers of the Church: St. John Chrysostom on Repentance & Almsgiving, p. 80)

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)

David the Righteous One

In the weeks before the Feast of the Nativity of Christ, quite a few Old Testament prophets and saints are commemorated in the Orthodox Church calendar.  Some have their individual feast days and some are commemorated among the forefathers and ancestors of Christ on the Sundays before Christmas.  On the Sunday after the Nativity one of our commemorations in the Orthodox Church calendar is of King David the Righteous One.

David exclaims, “Create in me a clean heart, O God.” A David who achieved so much, who won so many victories, who slew Goliath, strangled a lion barehanded, received great favor from the Holy Spirit, yet imploringly cries out: “Have mercy upon me, O God, according to Thy loving  kindness, according to the multitude of Thy tender mercies, blot out my transgressions.” One could imagine what the great king was thinking; I was a simple farmer and you made me a king, and when I became a king you appointed me to be a prophet. You made me victorious in war, victorious against Goliath. Not according to my own physical strength, but through the power of faith, which You also gave unto me. You vested me with royal garb and appointed me to a royal throne. You gave me wealth. That which sin hath destroyed, You O God, through Your Grace, gave back to us. “Then will I teach transgressors Thy ways, and ungodly men shall turn to Thee.” You ranked me so high that You gave me the ability and vision to know and prophesy Your only begotten Son. I have been taught that You have a Son begotten of woman, with the same authority as you have. I told of the good news of His crucifixion, His death and descent from the heavens and of His glorious resurrection. I spoke of His trial, of man’s salvation. I foretold of the apostles’ calling.

David thunders, “For behold, Thou lovest truth; Thou has manifested to me the secret and hidden things of Thy wisdom.” The prophet testifies of the Lord’s descent upon the earth: “He shall come down as rain upon a fleece; and as drops falling upon the earth.” (71:8). And truly, when the Son of God descended, He did not arrive via earth-shaking thunderous clamor, He did not bear a pure divine form, He came as a man. Had He come in a pure divine form, neither could the mountains, nor the Sun endure the same. Its light would have been blown out, the earth – destroyed, and all those who dwelleth upon it perished. He came quietly without fanfare. Even his birth was humble, in a Virgin‘s womb with shepherds and adoring animals as witnesses.

 (George Dimopoulos, Patristic Orthodox Sermons on the Psalms, p. 37-38)

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!

The Christmas Intrusion

The birth of Christ was a rude intrusion into the lives of so many:

Mary and Joseph have to deal with an unexpected pregnancy, and then the threats to the life of the baby whom God claims is His Son.

Mary being enrolled for taxation

The Shepherds are startled by the appearance of angels.

The Magi see signs in the heavens, a mysterious star that behaves nothing like any star they have ever studied and leads them on a months long journey to Jerusalem where they find their own lives threatened.

Herod and all Jerusalem are upset by the appearance of the Persian Magi seeking the newborn king which threatens the legitimacy of Herod’s reign.

The young families around Bethlehem who find themselves being attacked by Herod’s troops who murder the young baby boys.

And then there is us, who come out at the end of December because we too have heard the good news of the birth of Christ.  God intruding in all our lives through the birth of His Son, interrupting all the other things we might want to do this evening and this week with our families and friends, in our homes or at work.

Christ coming into our lives truly means we too at times will be troubled or afraid by the Gospel, by confession, by a sermon or the Liturgy or by receiving Holy Communion.

Though the angels proclaimed joy to the world, the response of so many at the birth of Christ was fear and upset and uncertainty and grief.

Magi appear before Herod

When we are troubled, then we need to find Christ who is meek and humble in our lives and only then do we find rest for our souls.

In the Scriptures, it is not the Jewish rabbis, who spend their life studying Torah who recognize the birth of Christ but rather it is the foreign astrologers and the uneducated shepherds.

It is not the people of God who recognize the Christ, but in the Gospel itself, it is the demons who recognize Jesus as Lord.

The Gospel of the Nativity of Christ is full of unsettling surprises which unexpectedly change peoples lives, including ours.  Yet, the fact is that God comes to abide in us so that we can live in Him.

We are to live in God

Think in God

Feel in God

Act in God

Be virtuous in God

Be immortal in God

Be eternal in God

Only in God is a human a real and full and perfect human.

In Christ we see humanity united to God.  We see what a human is to be in God’s eyes.  Only in Christ can we ourselves become fully human.

Christ is born!

The Incarnation: Recreating Humans

Christ is born!

Glorify Him!

“The story of Job serves to renew hope within us. Even though God’s image in man has been spoiled by the sin of Adam and Eve, by the sin of Cain, and by the sins of each one of us, Job allows us to hope for the coming of One—just and suffering, patient and triumphant—who will resist with courage and perseverance the assaults of the Evil One and will triumph over him, thereby restoring in mankind the divine presence which had been lost through sin and reestablishing in us the divine image in the fullness of its beauty. To do this, God sends among us the very Model according to which He had originally created us.

Just as a faded print can be restored by reapplying the original stamp so the Son of God, who reflects the glory of God the Father (Heb. 1:3), can enter human nature by clothing Himself with it as with a garment, and thereby can create a new Adam, a perfect Man, a radiant Image of God. This occurs by what theologians call the Incarnation. This decisive event took place on the day of the Annunciation, when Gabriel, the messenger of God, visited a young virgin of Nazareth in Galilee called Mary.”

(The Living God: Vol. 1, p. 19)

When we read the Scriptures with the Church we realize how much of the Old Testament speaks of Christ.  Job prefigures Christ – as Job remains faithful to God despite his suffering Job defeats Satan.  Job shows what a true human is like.  When Christ comes to earth we realize how the story of Job helps us recognize God’s faithful and suffering servant.  The Book of Job thus prepares us for the Nativity story of Christ, in which we see evil acting against the Christ, but Christ remains faithful to God even to the point of death on the cross.  Christmas is not mostly a sentimental tale, but rather in all its details reveals to us God’s battle with the forces of evil and the price God is willing to pay for the salvation of the world.