The Hidden Mystery is Now Revealed

“Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery which was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed and through the prophetic writings is made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith— to the only wise God be glory for evermore through Jesus Christ! Amen.”  (Romans 16:25-27)

“To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make all men see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose which he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and confidence of access through our faith in him.” (Ephesians 3:8-12)  [emphases not in original texts]

In the Pauline corpus of writings, there are numerous references to Christ being God’s mystery hidden from all eternity and which God now reveals in  Jesus.  The mystery is a revelation about the nature of God – God is Trinity.  The mystery is a revelation about God’s own abilities to limit Himself and to enter into His creation in the incarnation.  They mystery is about what a human is – capable of being united to divinity, capable of sharing the divine life.    All of this we celebrate in the Feast of the Annunciation.  One of the hymns from the prefeast of the Annunciation proclaims:

THE MYSTERY HIDDEN FROM ALL ETERNITY,                                

UNKNOWN EVEN BY THE ANGELS,                                          

IS NOW ENTRUSTED TO THE ARCHANGEL GABRIEL.                           

HE WILL COME TO YOU, PRECIOUS VESSEL;                               

HE WILL SALUTE YOU, CRYING IN JOY:                                   

REJOICE, PURE DOVE!  REJOICE, ALL HOLY ONE!                    

MAKE READY BY YOUR WORD TO CONCEIVE THE WORD OF GOD!  

 

The time comes for God to reveal the mystery: His plan for humankind is theosis.  It was always God’s plan to share the divine life with humanity.  It is given to the Archangel Gabriel to announce this plan of salvation of God entering into His own creation: God becomes that which is “not God”!  The Archangel comes from the throne of heaven to a backwater village, to an impoverished, young maiden.  The Archangel must have been amazed himself to the surroundings he could see when talking to the Virgin.  The incarnation defied belief, but then the very life God the Son embraced was poverty in the boondocks of Palestine.  Yet this is the very place where God begins the salvation of the world.

“… I became a minister according to the divine office which was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now made manifest to his saints. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. Him we proclaim, warning every man and teaching every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man mature in Christ. For this I toil, striving with all the energy which he mightily inspires within me.   For I want you to know how greatly I strive for you, and for those at Laodicea, and for all who have not seen my face, that their hearts may be encouraged as they are knit together in love, to have all the riches of assured understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, of Christ, in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” (Colossians 1:25-2:3)

“For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” (Ephesians 1:9)

 

Christ Transfigured

“It is elaborated in the hymnography and icons for the feast of the Transfiguration, which emphasize the transfigured, or deified, state of Christ’s humanity. St. Gregory of Nazianzus believes that the light that shines in Christ’s face, body and garments represents  nothing less than his divinity, while St. John of Damascus refers to the ‘splendor of the divine nature’ and to the ‘timeless glory of God the Son’ in his homily on the Transfiguration. Icons of the Transfiguration depict the transfigured Christ standing on Mt. Tabor in a shining garment.” (Mariamna Fortounatto and Mary B. Cunningham in The Cambridge Companion to Orthodox Christian Theology, p 141)

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.  For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.  And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.  For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,  and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.”  (Colossians 1:15-20)

 

Christ the Physician

As he entered Capernaum, a centurion came forward to him,    beseeching him and saying, “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, in terrible distress.” And he said to him, “I will come and heal him.” But the centurion answered him, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” When Jesus heard him, he marveled, and said to those who followed him, “Truly, I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.”  And to the centurion Jesus said, “Go; be it done for you as you have believed.” And the servant was healed at that very moment.   (Matthew 8:5-13)

“The Lord’s reaction must have surprised those who witnessed the scene. He declares that He has not found such great faith in Israel; those chosen to be the children of the kingdom would be cast out and replaced by others. Finally, He tells the centurion to go his way and that his servant is healed. St.Ambrose sees the healing by the Lord’s word alone as proof of His equality with the Father: ‘…as the Father spoke the Son made, so, too, the Father works and the Son speaks’. And St.Basil the Great emphasizes that it was the Savior’s word and not His presence that healed the sick man.

The centurion is a striking figure. He enters the narrative as a man already possessed of a deep faith in Jesus’ power to heal, even by a word. He asks nothing for himself but only for his servant, his social and military inferior. His status notwithstanding, he feels profoundly his own unworthiness.” (Archbishop Dmitri, The Miracles of Christ, pg. 15)

Jesus Christ the Incarnate God

 “And this is eternal life,

that they may know you,

the only true God,

and Jesus Christ

whom you have sent.”  

(John 17:3)

“The pre-existent son regarded equality with God not as excusing him from the task of (redemptive) suffering and death, but actually as uniquely qualifying him for that vocation…the death of Jesus is understood as the appropriate revelation, in action, of the love of God himself…The real humiliation of the incarnation and the cross is that one who was himself God, and who never during the whole process stopped being God, could embrace such a vocation. The real theological emphasis of the hymn, therefore, is not simply a new view of Jesus. It is a new understanding of God. Against the age-old attempts of human beings to make God in their own (arrogant, self-glorifying) image, Calvary reveals the truth about what it meant to be God. Underneath this is the conclusion, all-important in present christological debate: incarnation and even crucifixion are to be seen as appropriate vehicles for the dynamic self-revelation of God.”  (N.T. Wright, The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology, pgs.83-84)

The Fathers of the 1st Ecumenical Council

The Sunday after the Feast of the Ascension is also the Sunday before the Feast of Pentecost.  In the Orthodox Church today, this Sunday commemorates the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council.  The connection to the entire post-Paschal season is that the Sundays after Pascha all explore both the meaning of the Resurrection of Christ and our personal experience of Christ’s death and resurrection through our own baptisms.  In baptism, we are buried with Christ – immersed under the water –  and raised with Him to the new life as we come up out of the baptismal waters.  In baptism we participate in Christ.  The baptismal font is as the tomb of Christ, but for us it becomes the watery grave for our sins, for the old corrupt flesh, and for our Adamic nature.   We are raised to a new life, born again in Christ.

The importance of our baptism is made clear in the person of Jesus Christ.  For Christ being fully God and fully man, he it is who heals each of us, taking away all that separates us from God, and destroying death so that we might be united to God again.  It is who Jesus is – one person of the Holy Trinity – which makes our salvation possible.  Thus we rejoice in knowing who Jesus is for He is our salvation because of who He is.  The Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council defined what is it that Christians believe about Jesus Christ as one of the Persons of the Holy Trinity and as being fully God and fully human.

“It was with a spirit of reverential fear that the Fathers were then compelled to defend the divinity of the Son at the council of Nicaea in Ad 325. They sought to remind Christians that Christ’s coming into the world was a true manifestation of the eternal God and that his Incarnation opened the way to the fullness of salvation and deification: ‘[God] was made man’ said St. Athanasius, following St Irenaeus, ‘that we might be made God’. But such insistence on the eternal unity of the Father and the Son risked compromising or minimizing the uniqueness, or irreducible specificity, of each of the divine persons. The Cappadocian Fathers worked in the course of the fourth century to formulate a theological language and to establish the meaning of precise terms that would permit Christians on one hand to distinguish the unity of the Three in essence, or shared substance, and, on the other, to express the mystery of each of the three persons by using the philosophical term ‘hypostasis’. This term settled the Trinitarian debate more conclusively than did the term ‘person’, which had been introduced by Tertullian in the early third century, by emphasizing the unfathomable depth of personal being of each member of the Trinity.” (Boris Bobrinskoy in The Cambridge Companion to Orthodox Christian Theology edited by Mary B.Cunningham and Elizabeth Theokritoff, pgs.50-51)

Which Christ do we believe in?

Buddy Jesus

In the movie Talladega Nights, there is a scene in which the family is saying grace before they eat their fast food take home meal.  Will Farrel’s character offers the prayer to “Baby Jesus” and the “Christmas Jesus” which prompts an argument about which Jesus they pray to.  You can view the scene at  Grace to Baby Jesus (WARNING: the language and behavior of all at the table is offensive and crude, which has become the hallmark of American modern media comedy; you may find it lacking humor, propriety or grace).  I refer to the scene not because I think it brilliant, but  only because it highlights in an awful way a tendency in American society toward such extreme individualism even in one’s Christian faith, that everybody invents their own Jesus.  Jesus becomes nothing more than a personal idol – one can totally ignore Jesus as presented in the Gospel and tradition,  embracing instead the idol of Jesus that one makes for oneself, the Jesus that fits into one’s own unexamined lifestyle: a favorite Jesus, a preferred Jesus, a cuddly Jesus, or a Ninja Jesus.   The human creation of Jesus into an idol or into whatever someone wants to think about Jesus was the subject of debate for the first several hundred years of Christianity and is what prompted the need for a Creed and for the Ecumenical Councils to distinguish between the Jesus as revealed in the teachings of the Apostles (and the Scriptures and the Dogma of Christianity) and the many idols (heresies) which were constantly being created to conform Jesus to personal beliefs. 

Christ Pantocrator

“As we have seen, the Christ with whom we are concerned is the Scriptural Christ:  the Christ who appears in Gospels as the crucified and exalted Lord, understood and presented through the medium of the Scriptures—the Law, the Psalms and the Prophets.  It is this Christ who is the subject of our faith, not the Christ of historical reconstruction, individual mystical experience or metaphysical explanations.”   (Behr, J, Louth, A, Conomos, D Abba:  The Tradition of Orthodoxy in the West pg 176)

See also The Appearance of Jesus Christ: redux

Theophany as the Birth of Christ

Theophany Icon

In the ancient Church, many Christian communities placed little emphasis on the nativity of Christ in Bethlehem, focusing their liturgical attention on the baptism of Christ, the Feast of Theophany.  This no doubt resulted from the fact that in the Gospel according to both St. Mark and St. John, the ministry of Jesus Christ and thus the Gospel begins with Christ’s baptism, not with His birth.  In all the Gospels the call to repentance and the heralding of the Kingdom begins with St. John the Baptist’s proclaiming his message in the wilderness.  Only after His baptism, does Jesus proclaim His message of the Kingdom.

“The role of the Forerunner in the Incarnation and in the redemption of the world can also be clarified from another angle:  John is not only the Forerunner but also the Baptist.  Although the Nativity of Christ is truly the birth of God and the Most Pure One  is truly the Mother of God, God’s becoming man is not yet fully accomplished in the Nativity.  It is fully accomplished in the Lord’s Baptism, which is accompanied by the descent of the Holy Spirit upon His human essence; and this is Christ’s Pentecost.  After the latter, He becomes truly Christos, the Christ, the one anointed by the Holy Spirit.  Just as in humankind fleshly birth is distinguished from that by water and by the spirit, so, for the fullness of divine kenosis and in-humanization, not only the Nativity but also the Baptism of Christ had to occur.  In this light, Christ’s Baptism must be viewed as completing the Nativity, and thus it needs a spiritual “birthgiver”, or Baptist.  The Baptism is a necessary aspect of the Incarnation.  Since the Lord could not baptize Himself without violating the fullness of His in-humanization, He needed the Baptist for this fullness of His Incarnation, just as He needed the Mother for His Nativity.”    (Bulgakov, Sergius, The Friend of the Bridegroom:  On the Orthodox Veneration of the Forerunner, pg 12)

We can find a similar explanation in the Patristic period in the writings of St. John Chrysostom.  St John Chrysostom answered the question “why the baptism of Jesus, and not his birth, is called his epiphany, ie manifestation.  [St] John’s answer is that his true nature was not revealed to mankind when he was born, but when the Holy Spirit descended on him at his baptism (cf John 1:26 and 1:33-34).”    (Kelly, JND Golden Mouth:  The Story of John Chrysostom–Ascetic, Preacher, Bishop, pg 68)

 

 

Theophany (2011)

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened,  and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form, as a dove, and a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”   (Luke 3:21-22)

The baptism of Christ is celebrated in the Church as a true Theophany: God revealing clearly that God is Trinitarian: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.   Further, in blessing the nature of waters, the Church asks that the blessed waters open the eyes of our hearts and minds to God’s full revelation which we find in Jesus Christ, the Son of God incarnate.  As one of the hymns from the Third Royal Hour of Theophany proclaims:

Today the Trinity, our God without division,  has made itself manifest to us.  For the Father in a loud voice bore clear witness to His Son; The Spirit in the form of a dove came down from the sky; while the Son bent His immaculate head before the Forerunner.  By receiving baptism He delivered us from bondage, in His love for mankind!

Terenece Fretheim explains the biblical notion of a theophany:

This means that theophanies also enable a new level of being, of becoming in at least some respects what one was not heretofore.  Perhaps this is why new children and new names are such common subjects of theophanies; they reflect new status and newly shaped relationships, a becoming of people and world. … God’s gift of names means a new level of knowing for God as well. …    

Why would it not have been enough for God just to speak words as God commonly does throughout the whole OT period (eg, Gen 12:1-3; Ex 17:5; Judg 7:2)?  Why is it necessary for God to appear to speak some of them?  Those who say that the word is the only important thing about the theophany really collapse the distinction between theophany and other divine speech.  …as in 1Kings 11:9-10, for example, “And the Lord was angry with Solomon, because his heart had turned away from the Lord, the God of Israel, who had appeared to him twice [3:5 and 9:2], and had commanded him concerning this thing.”   Why bother with the underlying phrase at all, unless God’s appearance carried with it special import. …  When Moses’ reports to the Elders of Israel, it is deemed important to say not only that God has spoken, but that God appeared. …  The biblical understanding of the Word has both oral and visible components.  … The Word of God is not simply spoken, it is in some sense made visible or enacted; it takes on flesh and blood, both literally and symbolically. …  These phenomena affirm that the Word of God is not intended solely for minds or spirits but the whole person. …  Transcendence, because it is made clear that the source of the word is not “of their own minds” (Jer 23:16) but is outside of oneself; God appears in order to speak.  Immanence, because the God who speaks, speaks from within the world, directly, “face to face”. … That God has appeared, and not just that he has spoken, is considered significant for Israel’s memory, and hence for Israel’s faith and understanding of God.”    (Fretheim, Terence E The Suffering of God:  An Old Testament Perspective, pgs 84-87)

Christmas: A Poetic Treasury of Theology

Some of the hymns from the Forefeast of Christmas give insight into the theological depth of the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord.  They also reveal the mastery of Scripture which the ancient hymn writers had.  Here are two examples taken from the Canon of Compline for the Forefeast, December 22.  

The Magi

1]    St. Matthew mentions the Magi (Matt 2), wise men from the East who studied the stars and were brought through their search for wisdom to Bethlehem to the Christ Child.   There is a truth being proclaimed that whether one studies astrology or astronomy, if one is seeking wisdom, one’s studies will lead to the knowledge of the Creator.  As Psalms 19:1 says,

“The heavens are telling the glory of God;

and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.”

It wasn’t the stars that brought the Magi to Christ, but rather  Christ who is God’s Wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:24), guiding the universe,  whose hand and message was made visible through the movement of the stars.

The Wisdom of God summons the Magi,

Initiating them as the first fruits of the Gentiles.

He who lies in the manger of dumb beasts

Feeds them with the mystical food of the knowledge of God.

They hasten to the crib as to a banquet, journeying with gifts,

Led by the light of the star.

(Canticle 1)

A wonderfully playful image, for Christ is the wisdom of God, and thus the infant moves the stars and thus the Magi toward the Eternal God, now a little child.  And the child in the manger – an animal feeding trough – feeds the Magi “with the mystical food of the knowledge of God.”  What delightful poetry.  Star light leads them to a mystical banquet – the knowledge of the Triune God and the Incarnate God!

One could say it was the light of Christ – the Incarnate God lying as a baby in a manger – which attracted and directed them.

2]  In this hymn, the hymnographers makes a wonderful play on images using a story about King David recorded in 2 Samuel 23.   David is at the cave of Adullam, and sees that Israelites enemies have occupied Bethlehem.   “And David said longingly, ‘O that some one would give me water to drink from the well of Bethlehem which is by the gate!’” (2 Samuel 23:15)   The hymnography weaves this into the Nativity hymn:

King David

The new drink for which David thirsted of old

Is flowing from the fountain of the cave in Bethlehem

To satisfy the thirst of all,

To fulfill the yearning of Adam and David

From whose seed Christ is born in the flesh.

(Canticle 4)

This poetic use of Scripture gives us the insight as to how well the ancients knew their Scriptures, and what creative use they made of them.  For they saw hidden in the stories of the Old Testament, connections and insights into the new.

Christmas (2004)

Sermon notes from the Feast of the Nativity of Christ (2004)

In the beginning God said: “Let there be light.”

God speaks (His Word) and the visible (Light) comes into existence.

God’s spoken Word can be seen, allows us to see, makes sight possible.

Even before anything else existed, even before anything was to be seen, God speaks light into existence.    The Light of God existed before there was anything to shine on – to be seen.   Even before anyone else was there to see, God’s light existed, and the ability to see pre-existed before any humans were there to see.

And today as we celebrate Christmas, we celebrate the feast of the Word of God becoming flesh – that is how John in his Gospel describes the birth of Christ.

Again God’s spoken Word, just like in the beginning, at creation,  is made to be seen, is Light.

God’s Word is that which is to be seen, allows us to see, makes sight possible

God’s Word allows us to see and know God, and makes visible that which before was before invisible.   For in Christmas we  begin to see that God is Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Christmas is more than the sentimental story of a baby being born into poverty.

It is symbolically the same story of God saying “Let there be light”

It is in reality the story of the Word becoming visible, incarnate, physical, flesh.

It is God speaking the Word into visible existence, or the visible itself  into existence.

Our God does not put us either into non-existence or into darkness.

God is the giver of life and light, of light and existence, not of darkness or non-existence.

God spoke into the non-existence and said “Let there be light” and the Word became flesh.  God speaks us into being, and overcomes the darkness, and gives us the light which knows no end.

God speaks at the beginning of creation and light comes into existence, but that isn’t enough for God, for not only does He will light into existence, He wills that His Word, His Light become flesh. The spiritual, life itself becomes increasingly incarnate and manifest, light becoming increasingly physical and human. Jesus Christ is the light of evening, the Light of the World, He is both Light and Life, and we see in Him God’s plan, will, and intention. 

God’s Word evolves from Light, to life, to human flesh. And in this we understand, the Light of God is not opposed to being human, but is its intention and destiny: God’s will and plan. God’s Word is not opposed to the flesh, but becomes incarnate – the Word becoming the flesh, and the flesh revealing the Word.

Christ is who and what God intended and intends for each of us to be.

God took on human nature – became enfleshed, incarnate so that humanity could be again united to God.    Light became flesh so that God would always be visible to us. 

The Word becomes flesh so that we might be able to see God not just with the eyes of our hearts but with the eyes of our flesh. So that we can once again see what God spoke from the beginning – the Light He called into being before there was any sun or stars. In Christ we can see that Light once again.

This is why the greeting “Christ is born!” contains such a powerful message.   We are affirming our conviction that God has indeed entered the world, entered the darkness in order to give us light and life.

One small aside – today we also remember the Magi who came to see the newborn Christ child.  These wise men use the physical light (the star) in order to search for and find the Spiritual light, which God spoke into existence on the first day of creation.