Thursday, December 30, 2010

Rejoice, Theophany is Approaching

We now approach the day of Theophany, the day in which the divinity of Jesus is revealed to us through His baptism by John in the Jordan River. On this day we know Him as the Son of God who came for our salvation. Although one could argue that His birth should be seen as Theophany, up to this time Jesus was not known by many. As John the Baptist says at this event, "Amidst you stands Him Whom you know not of" (John 1:26). Therefore, we call the day He was baptized Theophany because He became known to many at this time.

We can also see that this was the beginning of His work to create the path for our salvation with Baptism being the first step. Later He would establish the Church with its clergy where those who were joined with Him in baptism could continue to benefit from the grace filled sacraments.

Prior to this time there was a Jewish baptism which cleansed the body from impurities such as touching the bones of the dead, eating unclean foods, or being with lepers, but it did not remove sins. In Scripture it says, "Let one wash his body in pure water--and he will unclean until evening, and then he will be clean." (Lev 15:5, 22:4) This Jewish practice was a preparation of what was to come. The baptism that was established by Christ was much more as it was for the forgiveness of sins though the Holy Sprit and they were more than forgiven, they were absolved through grace. John the Baptist baptized those who repented of their sins but did not grant forgiveness through grace. Sins were not absolved through his baptism. John says, "I baptize you with water...That one however will baptize you with the Holy Sprit and with fire." (Mat 3:11)

Jesus came to be baptized by John not because he needed to be forgiven His sins, being sinless, nor to receive the Holy Spirit, being one with the Sprit already, but to show us the path we are to take to be relieved of our sinfulness and to receive the Holy Spirit to abide within us. John's baptism in water was also a preparation so Christ would be known and so we could receive this sacrament. Because John was known as a prophet, his baptism of Christ had great meaning to the people so they would believe that Jesus was the Son of God.

On this day, as John baptized Jesus in the Jordan River, the Holy Spirit visibly descended in the form of a dove. St. John Chrysostom tells us that this descent as a dove was like a pointer. He says, "Did you see, that the Holy Spirit did not descend as in a first time then coming down upon Him, but in order to point out that preached by His inspiration--as though by a finger, it pointed Him out to all."

We rejoice at this Theophany for Jesus showed us the way for our renewal to begin. He was announced as the Son of God for all to see, submitting to John's baptism with humility.

Jesus says,
"Except you be converted and becomes children, you shall not enter into the Heavenly Kingdom." (Mat 18:3)

Reference: On the Day of Christ's Baptism by John Chrysostom

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Save the Children

On this day we remember the slaying of 14,000 innocent infants by Herod as he sought desperately to destroy the Christ child. As is described by Saint Romanos it was a horrible event. 
For they pursued the mothers and , when they caught up with them, they snached the children from their arms.  With bared swords, the soldiers met the mothers carrying the children in their arms.  So that each one cried, 'Kill them, but the bosom of Apraham will receive them like faithful Abel.' Thus the lawless one shed the innocent blood of balmeless children.... With daggers they were slain mercilessly.  Some were transfixed and breathed their last horribly; others were cut in two.  Still others had their heads cut off as they suckled and drew milk from the reasts of their mothers.  Then as a result of this, the cherished heads of the babes hung from their breasts, and the nipples were still held within their mouths by their delicate teeth.  Then the distress of the women who were nurshing the infants redoubled and became intolerable as they were physically torn from their two year old infants.
What is the spiritual lesson from this event?  Do we also have blood on our hands of innocent children?  Have we properly led children in the way of Christ? Have we damaged their souls by our own conduct?  Each time we have caused another to sin we have killed spiritually.  So, beware and reflect on your own actions.  The tyrant Herod is lurking in all of us and we may be blind to it.  Each time we misled a child by not attending Church we show them that its OK not to respect our time of worship.  Each day we do not offer prayers to our Lord we show them how unimportant daily prayer is for us.  

A friend fo mine told me this story.
One sunday, our youngest one noticed that Daddy was still sleeping when it was time to go to Church.  I had prepared the kids for church and we were ready to leave.  Out son then said, "I can't wait until I get as old as daddy.  Then I wont have to go to Church."  My husband heard this and immediately jumped out of bed and hurriedly readied himself of Church.  He never slept in again on a Sunday.
We can think of many such similar events that mislead our children spiritually. In such cases we too are as guilty as Herod.

Our Lord says to us,
Offenses will come: but woe unto him, through whom they come! It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about their neck, and he cast into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones." (Lk 17: 1-2)
We have a responsibility to lead our children in spiritual life.  We need to show them through our example how to  honor our God.  We need to show though our own life the way to act according to his plan for us.  Each time we are not able to do this in the presence of children we may also become killers of souls of infants. 

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Saint Simeon the Myrrh-Gusher was the founder of the Athonite Monastery of Simonopetra in the 13th century.  This monastery is dedicated to the Nativity. Saint Symeon had spent many years living as a hermit in a cave.  As the feast of the Nativity neared he exited the cave and saw an bright light that appeared like a star that stood about a rock outside his cave.  He had this same vision for several nights.  On the eve of the nativity he again say this star but this time he heard a divine voice say, "Here , you must lay the foundation of your ceonobium for the salvation of souls... I desire you to be my helper. Heed well and doubt not, lest you should suffer evil"  He heard these words three times.  He was in ecstasy and felt himself to be in Bethlehem beside the shepherds. Like the shepherds at the Nativity of Jesus Christ he was comforted by angels and was rejoicing.  It was only three days later that, like the wisemen of the Nativity, miraculously three wealthy men came to visit him. They became monks and they established the new monastery at this place.

Saint Simeon taught his bothers to have the greatest respect for the feast days of the Church. His teaching applies to us to this day.

Saint Symeon the Myrrh-gusher said as he drew near to the end of his life,,
Be diligent and attentive to keep the feasts in a spiritual manner and not a worldly holiday, lest you should busy yourself with gossiping, chattering, laughing, and joking.
It is important for us to keep in mind that we need to make an extra effort to help lift those of our family above this commercial din that surrounds many of the feast days.  We need  to make a special effort to approach them with a spiritual orientation and not one based on commercial or social activities of this world. We are fast approaching the Feast of Epiphany.  See if you can make this a spiritual experience for those you love.

He also gave us the reason,  
This is because the sacred feasts are enlightenment and sanctification of the soul that is borne from silence, prayer and the reading of holy books.  In the services of the church, chant with reverence, devotion, and piety, and not with voice wanting in discipline and rhythm. 
Simonopetra Monastery on Athos
The Feasts of the Lord are for the enlightenment and sanctification of the soul.  we need to remember to approach them with an inner attitude of reverence and to attend the services associated with them.  It is so unfortunate today to see our Churches almost empty on feast days that fall during the week. Clearly worldly cars have over taken many.  Lets not forget that our worship on these special days are for out spiritual benefit and important to our attaining union with God and life eternal in His Kingdom.

Reference: The Great Synaxaristes of the Orthodox Church - December, trans. Holy Apostles Convent

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Fullness of Faith

Today we celebrate the first martyr of the Church, Saint Stephen the Deacon.  He did no more than to proclaim the truth of the Incarnation and was stoned to death! As he was near death, with stones destroying his body, he had the faith to say, "Lord, Lay not this sin to their charge."  In his last breath he was asking forgiveness for there acts in defiance of the truth of the Incarnation of God and all he accomplished for the salvation of mankind. Held true to His faith with love for both God and others.

This is a reminder about the nature of the faith we are asked to have. It's a faith we firmly hold in its total truth but with love.  In many of the interviews done during the Christmas season, where people were asked if they thought the Christian nature of the season was being overtaken by the commercialism, many respond with statements like, "Yes, I think this season has been overtaken but, we all have our beliefs and all have to be accommodated."  Do you see the weakness in such a statement. It you believe in the significance of the Incarnation such a statement was not one of love. It distorts the truth of the reality of the Incarnation. The Truth is made relative and insignificant to the detriment of the salvation of others.  If Saint Stephen had held such a view he would never have spoken the truth of the Incarnation that led to his stoning.  If we have faith we need to hold it firmly.  Otherwise, it is not a faith that leads us or others to salvation.  It is luke warm and useless. Let's affirm our belief in the Incarnation and all it implies.  Let's affirm our faith and proclaim it like Stephen had the courage to do.  Let's also forgive those who have desecrated Christmas with relativity and commercialism.  But let's not soften our faith to fit with the times.

Here is the end of the speech given by St. Stephen that led to his death by stoning.

The Most High does not dwell in temples made with hands, as the prophet says: 
          Heaven is My throne,
          And earth is My footstool.
          What house will you build for Me? 
              says the LORD,
          Or what is the place of My rest?

            Has My hand not made all these things? 
“You stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears! You always resist the Holy Spirit; as your fathers did, sodo you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who foretold the coming of the Just One, of whom you now have become the betrayers and murderers, who have received the law by the direction of angels and have not kept it.”
When they heard these things they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed at him with their teeth. But he, being full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and said, “Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” 
Then they cried out with a loud voice, stopped their ears, and ran at him with one accord; and they cast himout of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul. And they stoned Stephen as he was calling on God and saying, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep. (Acts 7:48-60)

Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Nativity of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ.

By Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich
'And when the fullness of time was come, God sent His only-begotten Son' (Gal. 4:4), to save the human race. And when the ninth month had come after the archangel Gabriel appeared to the most holy Virgin in Nazareth, saying: 'Hail) thou that art highly favoured... thou shalt conceive and bear a son' - at that time a decree went forth from Caesar Augustus that all the inhabitants of the Roman Empire be taxed. In accordance with this decree, everyone had to go to his own town and there be inscribed. Therefore righteous Joseph came with the most holy Virgin to Bethlehem, the city of David, for they were both of the royal House of David. But, there being a great many people in that small city for the census, Joseph and Mary could not find a lodging in any house, and found shelter in a cave which the shepherds used as a sheepfold. In this cave the most holy Virgin gave birth to the Saviour of the world, the Lord Jesus Christ. Bearing Him without pain, as He was conceived without sin of the Holy Spirit and not of man, she herself wrapped Him in swaddling bands, worshipped Him as God and laid Him in a manger. Then righteous Joseph drew near and worshipped Him as the divine Fruit of a virgin womb. Then the shepherds came in from the fields, directed by an angel of God, and worshipped Him as Messiah and Saviour. The shepherds had heard a multitude of angels singing: 'Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill among men' (Luke 2:14). At that time there also came wise men from the East, led by a wonderful star, bearing their gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh, and worshipped Him as King of kings, offering Him their gifts (Matt. 2:11). Thus He came into the world Whose coming had been foretold by the prophets and Who was born in the way that they had prophesied: of the most holy Virgin, in the city of Bethlehem, of the lineage of David according to the flesh, at the time when there was no longer in Jerusalem a king of the tribe of Judah, but Herod the stranger was on the throne. After many types and prefigurings, messengers and heralds, prophets and righteous men, wise men and kings, finally He appeared, the Lord of the world and King of kings, to perform the work of the salvation of mankind that could not be performed by His servants. May His be eternal glory and praise! Amen.

From The Prologue From Ochrid by Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich
©1985 Lazarica Press, Birmingham UK

More on the Nativity

Friday, December 24, 2010

St. Ephriam the Syrian on the Nativity

On the Night of Nativity

St. Ephraim the Syrian

Pure is the present night, in which the Pure One appeared, Who came to purify us! Let our hearing be pure, and the sight of our eyes chaste, and the feeling of the heart holy, and the speech of the mouth sincere!
The present night is the night of reconciliation; therefore, let no one be wroth against his brother and offend him!
This night gave peace to the whole world, and so, let no one threaten. This is the night of the Most Meek One; let no one be cruel!
This is the night of the Humble One; let no one be proud!
Now is the day of joy; let us not take revenge for offences! Now is the day of good will; let us not be harsh. On this day of tranquility, let us not become agitated by anger!
Today God came unto sinners; let not the righteous exalt himself over sinners!
Today the Most Rich One became poor for our sake; let the rich man invite the poor to his table!
Today we received a gift which we did not ask for; let us bestow alms to those who cry out to us and beg!
The present day has opened the door of heaven to our prayers; let us also open our door to those who ask of us forgiveness!
Today the Godhead placed upon Himself the seal of humanity, and humanity has been adorned with the seal of the Godhead!
From Children of the Church Vol I, Is I

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Christmas Hymns in the Orthodox Church

by Alexander A. Bogolepov

The hymns for the Feast of the Nativity are full of the original joyful excitement at the thought of God's appearance on earth. The Christmas canon begins with a joyous declaration, gradually swelling in volume, of the Saviour's birth:
"Christ is born! Glorify Him!
Christ descends from the heavens, welcome Him!
Christ is now on earth, O be jubilant!
Sing to the Lord, the whole earth,
And sing praises to Him with joy, O ye people,
For He has been exalted!"
In her Christmas hymns, as in her other hymnody, the Orthodox Church does not limit her vision to earthly happenings alone. In these hymns she contemplates the events of Christ's life on earth from a dual perspective.

Beyond the birth of a child in the poverty of a squalid cave, beyond the laying of the infant in a manger instead of a child's crib, beyond His poor mother's anxiety and alarm over His fate, supermundane events emerge -- events which are outside this world's natural order:
"Today doth Bethlehem receive Him
Who sitteth with the Father for ever"
This was not the first birth of the One "who lay in a manger." First He was begotten of His Father "before all ages" as God; moreover He was begotten of the Father alone, without His Mother.

In Bethlehem He was born as men are born, but in contrast to all the sons of earth He was born of His Mother alone, without an earthly father. Having proclaimed "Christ is born!" in the 1st Song of the Christmas canon, the Church next calls upon the faithful to praise
"...the Son who was born of the Father
Before all ages, and in this latter day Was made incarnate of the Virgin
Without seed; Christ our God".
In the last Song of the Christmas canon the feeling of the human mind's powerlessness to comprehend this union of Divine majesty and human insignificance, this glorious mystery, is expressed even more brilliantly and eloquently.

A dark cave had replaced the resplendent heavens; the earthly Virgin had taken the place of the Cherubim as the "throne" of the Lord of Glory; a little manger had become the receptacle of the omnipresent God Who could never be contained in space:
"I behold a strange but very glorious mystery:  Heaven -- the cave;
The throne of the Cherubim -- the Virgin.
The manger -- the receptacle in which Christ our God,
Whom nothing can contain, is lying".
But nowhere does the attitude of reverence before this incomprehensible union of things heavenly and earthly find a more forceful expression than in the Kontakion for Christmas written by the greatest Greek hymn-writer, St. Romanos Melodus. Every word in it is full of meaning and one brilliant image follows another:
"Today the Virgin brings forth the Supersubstantial One
And the earth offers a cave to the Unapproachable One".
Mary gave birth but remained a virgin, and gave existence to the One who is above all that exists in the world. And in the cave the earth provided a sanctuary for the One whom, as a general rule, men may not even approach.

Next, the second part of this kontakion gives us two pictures of events which unfolded simultaneously and harmoniously on earth and in heaven. In heaven the angels glorify God in unison with the shepherds on earth, and the Wise Men move across the earth according to the direction taken by the heavenly star. The meaning of all this is that the Child whose life on earth was as yet only a few hours old is at the same time God, who existed before time itself and yet was born now for our salvation:
"For our sakes, God, Who is before all the ages, is born a little Child".
What does the coming to earth of the Son of God really mean? Above all it means that people are illumined, that spiritual light is bestowed upon them. This idea is continually being put forward in the Christmas hymnody of the Orthodox Church. The Troparion for the Christmas Feast explains the basic meaning of the Feast, there is this direct statement:
"Thy Nativity, O Christ our God,
Has illumined the world like the Light of Wisdom"
God enlightens each of us in the way that is most accessible and understandable to the particular person. And when He wished to enlighten the Wise Men, whose custom it was to observe the stars and their movements, He sent them an unusual star which guided them to the Christ.
"... They who worshipped the stars were through a star,
Taught to worship Thee, the Sun of Righteousness,
And to know Thee, the Day-Spring from on high".
The star of Bethlehem gave the Wise Men an opportunity to see the rise of the Sun of Righteousness. But the light of Christ's righteousness is not an earthly light. Its motion was not from out of the earth towards the firmament of heaven, but from above downwards. Shining high above the earth, it descended thereon from the heights of heaven and illumined the world with Divine light.

It was the Day-Spring from on high. And all who have sat in spiritual darkness and waited for the true light have, like the Wise Men, come to know this extraordinary Day-Spring of the Sun of Righteousness.
"Our Saviour hath visited us from on high...
And we who were plunged in darkness and shadows
Have found the truth,
For the Lord hath been born of the Virgin".
The Church addresses this prayer of praise and thanksgiving to the Infant born in Bethlehem:
"Glory and praise to the One born on earth Who hath divinized earthly human nature."
The gifts of grace in the Holy Mysteries which strengthen enfeebled humanity, cure men, and regenerate them to a Godlike life, were imparted by Christ in the final, culminating days of His earthly mission and are linked to His death on the cross and Resurrection. But these last things were prepared for by Christ's entire earthly life from Bethlehem to Golgotha.

The Coming of Christ was the beginning of the salvation of mankind. And the Orthodox Church sings of Christ's Nativity as the morning of men's salvation, as the dawn after a long and anxious night -- the dawn with which the new, shining day in the life of the human race has already started.

The triumphal hymn of the Feast of Christmas is the "Gloria" sung by the angels to the Shepherds, to herald the coming of the Messiah.
"Glory in the Highest to God, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men"
It is just as characteristic of Christmas as the hymn "Christ is Risen from the dead" is of Pascha (Easter).

According to the text of the second chapter of St. Luke's Gospel the "good tidings" proclaimed by the angels was not a repetition from the heavens of things that were well-known before. The innumerable heavenly host which appeared suddenly in the wake of the Angel who had stood before the shepherds of Bethlehem confirmed his "tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people." (Luke2:10).

They also sang of the new, marvelous act of God's goodwill, His sending the Savior to this earth. This was the meaning of their good news: "Glory to God in the Highest; salvation had come to a sinful earth with the birth of the Christ Child, the loving-kindness of God had descended upon men."

The extraordinary and wondrous Birth from a Pure Virgin is one of the fundamental themes of Christmas hymnody; at the same time the Mother of God, whom the Orthodox Church venerates with such pious devotion, is given in this hymnody a special place of honor. A number of examples from sacred history are used in these hymns in order to glorify Her perpetual virginity, Her conception by the Holy Spirit and Her "supermundane act of giving birth to God." The most important of these are the prophet Jonah's sojourn in the belly of the sea-monster and the Babylonian fiery furnace." The fiery furnace of Babylon did not burn the young men, who were covered with its flames, likewise:
"The fire of the Godhead scorched not the Virgin,
When He entered into Her womb".
Despite the birth Mary was preserved a virgin like the Burning Bush on Mt. Sinai which could not be consumed but remained green in the flames. The Church sings praises to Mary alike for Her virginity and Her touching maternal love. Her tenderness as a mother toward Her wondrous Infant Child, whom as Her son She held in Her arms at Her breast, but before whom She bowed in worship as before "the Son of the Highest," is expressed in the following lullaby which Church hymnody assigns to the lips of the Lady Most Pure, calling upon us men "to magnify Her without ceasing":
"O my child, child of sweetness,
How is it that I hold Thee, Almighty?
And how that I feed Thee,
Who givest bread to all men?
How is it that I swaddle Thee,
Who with the clouds encompasseth the whole earth"
She who "knew not a man" and yet gave birth to the Incorporeal God is for the Orthodox Church at once mother and virgin.
"Magnify, O my soul, the Virgin Most Pure,
The God-Bearer, who is more honorable
And more glorious than the heavenly hosts".
The best and holiest of earthly creatures, exalted above the angels, the God-Bearer is the pride of this earth, a fitting gift from mankind to the Creator and Savior:
"What shall we present unto Thee, O Christ,
For Thy coming to earth for us men?
Each of Thy creatures brings Thee a thank-offering:
The angels -- singing; the heavens -- a star;
The Wise Men -- treasures; the shepherds devotion;
The earth -- a cave; the desert -- a manger;
But we offer Thee the Virgin-Mother. O Eternal God, have mercy upon us"
In rendering "maternal-virginal glory" to Mary Full-of-Grace the Church venerates Mary because, through Her unspotted purity, She was made worthy to bring the Savior into this world and Herself became the door of salvation and deliverance from the curse of sin which had weighed upon men:
"Magnify, O my soul, Her who hath delivered us from the curse".
Paradise is now once again opened to us. If sin entered the world through Eve, it is also through the New Eve (the Mother of our God) that victory over sin has come into the world.

The Church likewise summons us:
"Let us glorify in song the true God-Bearer
Through who sinners have been reconciled with God".
The Mother of God represents the point at which the Godhead came into direct contact with Old Testament humanity. She is in this respect the living symbol of all the triumphant joy of Christmas, which is the celebration of God's reestablished union with men. God, who had driven our forefathers out of Paradise, had set them far apart from Himself. Now, with the birth of Christ, He has again come to men, just as He once came to them in Paradise. It has become possible again for men to be in communion with God. The barrier between, Heaven and earth has fallen and so we sing along with Adam and Eve:
"The wall of partition is destroyed,
The flaming sword is dropped,
The Cherubim withdraw from the Tree of Life,
And I partake of the fruits of Paradise,
Whence, for my disobedience, I was driven forth"
The underlying feeling of the Christmas Feast is one of peace. This is a result of the reconciliation and new unity between heaven and earth:
"Heaven and earth now are united through Christ's Birth!
Now is God come down to earth
And man arisen to the heaven".
This unity is the source of general exultation -- a note which resounds vigorously in the Christmas hymnody:
"Today Christ is born in Bethlehem of the Virgin.
Today He who is without a beginning begins,
And the Word is made flesh.
The powers of Heaven rejoice,
The earth and her people are jubilant;
The Wise Men bring gifts to the Lord,
The shepherds marvel at the One who is born;
And we sing without ceasing:
"Glory to God in the Highest, And on earth peace, (God's) good will toward men"
There is one solitary note, however, which breaks into these hymns of general rejoicing like a forewarning of future lamentations. The Wise Men -- according to the Christmas Eve stichera -- came to worship the Incarnate God and devotedly offered Him their gifts -- gold, because He is the King of ages; frankincense, because He is the God of all men; but then they also brought Him myrrh, with which the Jews were accustomed to anoint their dead, because He was to "lie three days in death."

The heart of the Mother of God must have been seized by a premonition of that which awaited the innocent Child who was sleeping peacefully in the manger. This minor note of sadness is drowned, however, in the general chorus of exultation. Heaven and earth rejoice together and this does not mean simply that the angels' singing harmonizes with that of the shepherds.

The Church does not even view so-called "inanimate nature" as indifferent to the higher world. The Creator has willed the existence of a special link between them. At an earlier time man's sinfulness had brought general disorder into nature, but now all nature leaps for joy, rejoicing at the overcoming of this sin:
"Today the whole creation rejoices and is jubilant,
For Christ is born of the Virgin"
In the Christmas hymnody the Star is not merely the voice which made known to the world the Savior's appearance. It is also a sign, a symbol of this appearance, just as the Cross is the symbol of victory over the forces of darkness. Then, too, the Star is a symbol of Christ Himself, "the Star which rose from Jacob".

For more than 20 centuries Christ has been shining down upon mankind as a guiding star, not as a myth or mirage, but as the living God, who has been on earth and spoken with men. There have been many subsequent attempts to obscure the pure silver light of the Star of Bethlehem in human consciousness. But the centuries of the Christian era have not passed by in vain. And if the Christmas hymns continue to resound each year in churches scattered all over the world and to be sung as they were sung many hundreds of years ago by the grandfathers and forbears of the present generation, this means that the light shed by the Christmas Star is deeply rooted in human hearts and shines on in them undimmed.

From Orthodox Hymns of Christmas, Holy Week and Easter,
published by the Russian Orthodox Theological Fund Inc

More on the Nativity

Wednesday, December 22, 2010


by St John of Kronstadt on the Nativity of Christ

"Great is the mystery of piety: God is manifested in the flesh." (I Tim. 3, 16)
It is on this day that, throughout the entire inhabited world, the Holy Church brings to our remembrance and observes that most majestic and sublime of mysteries: the Incarnation of God the Word from a Most-pure virgin through an outpouring of, and an overshadowing by, God's Holy Spirit. Wondrous, inexpressible, and awesome is this mystery, both for the exalted and all-contemplating celestial minds of those who dwell in the heavens: the ranks of the angels, – and for the minds of men, enlightened by the Holy Spirit. Imagine: the unoriginate God from Whom everything received the commencement of its existence: the Angels, and the human race, and the entire world, both visible and invisible, – takes a beginning in His humanity. He Whom the heavens cannot contain – is contained in a virginal womb. God – becomes an infant, and is borne upon the arms of a Mother. He Who nourishes every breath – is nourished by paps.

The science of astronomy has learned and affirms that, in the order of creation, our earth is but a barely-noticeable point; that millions of worlds around our own fill up the vastnesses of space. And, lo! this single point, this barely-noticeable globe of God's creation, being inhabited by men, – has been accounted worthy of the inexpressible honour of bearing upon itself God-in-the-Flesh, the God-Man, Who did deign to dwell amongst men, to teach erring mankind the knowledge of God, to work innumerable miracles of good, to preach repentance and complete forgiveness of sins; to suffer and to die as an holy Sacrifice for the sins of the world, to be resurrected through the power of Divinity from amongst the dead, – having vanquished death, which is natural to all men, – and to make a gift of resurrection to the entire human race.

Not a single one of the visible worlds, save the earth, has been deemed worthy of this greatest of all honours: for it was only upon the earth that Jesus Christ, the only-begotten of the heavenly Father, had a Virgin-Mother, and He alone was Her Son by way of humanity. Why was the earth given such preference? Why was it only on earth that God appeared in the flesh? – This is a great Divine mystery, a mystery of immeasurable loving-kindness and of God's condescension to perishing mankind.
Thus, God did appear in the flesh: rejoice and be exceeding glad, O earth; rejoice and celebrate, ye earth-born. The Creator Himself did come to you, in order to create you anew; to restore you, who were corrupted by transgressions. To you did He come: the almighty Physician Himself, – powerful to treat all the inveterate afflictions of sin, – in order that He might heal all the passions of the soul and all the infirmities of the body, – all of the which He truly did do, as we know from the Gospel and from the history of the Church.

Thus, greet Him joyfully – with pure minds and hearts, with bodies chaste and restrained by fasting and abstinence, which the Holy Church has thoughtfully instituted prior to this great feast in order to prepare us worthily to meet the heavenly Tsar', Who comes to us in order to abide in us.

He came to us with the mercy and good will of His heavenly Father, – and from us He demands mercy toward our neighbours; He is the righteous Tsar' – and He demands of us all righteousness; for He, too, as a man, fulfilled all righteousness (Matt. 3,15), showing us an example and providing us with grace and the strength to carry it out. He Himself did suffer for us, having borne the cross; and He taught us to deny ourselves, – or our sins and our passions, – and to follow after Him, doing what is holy out of reverence for God (2 Cor. 7, 1).

He came to heal our souls, ailing from sin, and commanded all to repent; let us ever, then, be earnestly contrite, correcting ourselves and striving toward holiness and perfection. The holy Angels, at the Nativity of the God-man, did declare peace unto the world; and unto men – the good will of the Heavenly Father. Let us then, ourselves, have within us a peaceful conscience, and let us be at peace with everyone, if possible. Be at peace and be holy with all, sayeth the apostle, – for without this shall none see the Lord. (comp. Heb. 12, 14).

Translated into English by G. Spruksts, from the Russian text of "Taina miloserdiya: slovo na dyen' Rozhdestva Khristova" ["The Mystery Of Loving-kindness: A Sermon For the Day Of Christ's Nativity"] by St. Ioann [John] (Sergiev) of Kronstadt. English-language translation copyright (c) 1999 by The St. Stefan Of Perm' Guild, The Russian Cultural Heritage Society, and the Translator. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Journey to Bethlehem

When Joseph and Mary departed to Bethlehem to register for the payment of their taxes, Mary was about to give birth to The Son of God.  Can you imagine this adventure.  The Son of God making such a journey?
The Hymn by Saint Ephraim proclaims:
Blessed art thou, bethlehem, that the towns envy thee––and the fortified cities!
This journey was not a easy one.  An average trip in those days would involve only about 15 miles per day.  

There is an icon of their trip in the Monastery of Chora in Constantinople (Istanbul).  In it we see Joseph with a slight stoop and a gate of an elderly man.  He was generally thought to be about 80 years of age at this time.  His eyes are turned toward Mary who has her head turned towards him.  One of Joseph's sons is leading with his mantle flowing and carrying a bundle of provisions for the trip.
In the Hymn from the ninth hour on the eve of the Nativity we hear the following dialogue,
"O virgin, when Joseph went up to Bethlehem sounded by sorrow, thou didst cry to him: 'Why art thou downcast and troubled, seeing me great with child? Why art thou wholly ignorant of the fearful mystery that comes to pass in me?  Henceforth, cast every fear aside and understand this strange marvel: for in my womb God now descends upon the earth for mercy's sake, and He has taken flesh.  thou shalt see Him according to His good pleasure, when He is born; and fill with joy thou shalt worship Him as Thy Creator, Whom the angels praise without ceasing in song and glorify with the father and the Holy Spirit.'"
For this three day journey, they would have carried with them only a few necessities common with a poor family of this time.  The surroundings of His birth was total poverty.  But this is part of His message and inconsistent with His divine nature.  Earthly splendor would not have been fitting for He who came to save the common man from sin and call every person to be renewed and become reunited with God.

In this next icon from the Monastery of Chora we see depicted the scene of registration for their taxes  In it we see Quirinius, the governor of Syria, with a fully armed military guard.  there is a scribe holding an unfurled scroll which has a record of the names.  Mary is see standing tall in a graceful poise with he head bowed with humility toward the officers.  She draws he maphorion modestly around her shoulder.  Joseph is shown with his four sons assisting her.

So, what kind of place did God arrange for this miraculous birth? There was no room for them to stay and they had to find a cave shared with animals, hardly a clean place for the birth of a child. It was in fact the lowest place for a birth yet fitting as a place for the Lord of All to be born.

The Apolytikion of the forefeast is as follows,
"Mary once, with aged Joseph, went to be taxed in Bethlehem, for they were of the linage of David; and she bore in her womb the Fruit that had not been sown.  The time of the birth was at hand and there was no room in the inn; but the cave proved a fair palace for the Queen. Christ is born, that He may raise again the image that before was fallen."

A Hymn by Saint John of Damascus From the canon of the forefeast, Ode six.
"How shall a small cave receive thee, for Whom the world cannot find a room. O thou Whom none can comprehend! O Thou, Who with the Father are without beginning, how shalt thou appear as a small child?
This humble beginning is a clear message for all of us.  We too must become humble if we are to follow Him.

Saint Gregory Palamas says,
The way to be exaulted and to resemble Him is not arrogance but humility.  Because of this, men are easily set right, as they recognize humility as the road by which they are recalled...
He who defines all things and is limited by none is contained in a small, makeshift manger. He who holds the universe and grasps it in the hollow of his hand, is wrapped in narrow swaddling bands and fastened into ordinary clothes. He who possess the riches fo inehaustable treasures submits Himself voluntarily to such great poverty that He does not even havre aplace at the inn; and so He enters into a cave at the time of His birth, who was brought forth by God tielessly and impassibly and without beginning.  And––how great a wonder!__ not only does He who shares the nature of the Father on high put on our fallen nature through His birth, nor is He subject merely to the utter poverty of being born in a wretched cave, but right fromt he very start, while still in the womb, He accepts the final condemnation of our nature.
From His first days on earth Jesus showed us that the path to union with God was based on humility and detachment from earthly pleasures.

Monday, December 20, 2010

St. Peter Chrysologus on the Reason for the Incarnation of God

The Word was made Incarnate to restore the nature of mankind.
He has made you in his image that you might in your person make the invisible Creator present on earth; he has made you his legate, so that the vast empire of the world might have the Lordʼs representative. Then in his mercy God assumed what he made in you; he wanted now to be truly manifest in man, just as he had wished to be revealed in man as in an image. Now he would be in reality what he had submitted to be in symbol. And so Christ is born that by his birth he might restore our nature. He became a child, was fed, and grew that he might inaugurate the one perfect age to remain for ever as he created it. He supports man that man might no longer fall. And the creature he had formed of earth he now makes heavenly; and what he had endowed with a human soul he now vivifies to become a heavenly spirit. In this way he fully raised man to God, and left in him neither sin, nor death, nor travail, nor pain, nor anything earthly, with the grace of our Lord Christ Jesus, who lives and reigns with the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit, now and for ever, for all the ages of eternity. 
Rejoice!  The Lord has Come.

Reference: The Sacrament of Christʼs Incarnation by St. Peter Chrysologus

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Why Peace and Good Will?

Why is it that at the birth of Jesus Christ the three wise men bring gifts from a distant land guided by a super-natural star and we see the shepherds glorifying Him surrounded by the radiance of the angles.  The angels teach them a heavenly song of praise - “ Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace...” (Luke 2:14)  The angels told the shepherds, "I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people" (Luke 2:10). So what is the reason and meaning of this joy and what is this peace that is spoken of? 
Now He who dwells on high and reigns over the celestial heights has the earth as His throne, and is glorified on earth as much as there by His saints and His angels alike.
Saint Gregory Palamas tell us the following,
Listen to the Gospel song to the end and you will understand. "Peace, it says, "good will toward men" (Luke 2:14)  For God, who was angry with the human race and subjected it to terrible curses, has come in the flesh, granting His peace and reconciling them to the heavenly Father. Behold, says the hymn, He has not been born for us angels, though now that we see Him on earth we extol Him as we do in heaven, but for you men, that is to say, for your sake and in accordance with your nature a savior is born, Christ the Lord, in the city of David.
Why is peace linked with good will?
Saint Gregory says,
Good will refers to that which is in and of itself well-pleasing, the original and perfect will of God. It was not the original and perfect will of God that He granted benefits, and not even perfect ones, to certain men or to on nation only. That is why, just as God called many people His sons, but there is only one in whom He was well pleased, so He gave His peace on many occasions, but only once accompanied by His good pleasure, which He grants, perfect and unchanging, through the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ to every race and to as many as desire it.
It is our responsibility to develop this same peace within ourselves though our participation in His Church.  This is the benefit He gave to us through the Incarnation.  It is is ours to "preserve within ourselves."

Friday, December 17, 2010

Nativity as Renewal of Mankind

God, having formed man with His own hands in His own image He in his love allowed man free will to follow his own initiative.  Because of the deceit of the devil man was not strong enough to withstand his temptations and separated himself from God.  God then through the incarnation set about to recreate man anew.

Saint Gregory Palamas puts it this way,
So now God not only forms human nature anew by His own hand in a mysterious way, but also keeps it near Him.  Not only does He assume this nature and rase it up from the fall, but He inexpressibly clothes Himself in it an unites Himself inseparable with it and born as both God and man: from a woman, in the first instance, that He might take upon Himself the same nature which He formed in our forefathers; and from a woman who was a virgin, in the second, so that He might make man anew.
The Incarnation is an integral part of God's plan for mankind.  With free will so man could mature in His likeness to love God with his whole heart and mind just as God loved man, mankind was lost, separated from God and unable on His own power to reunite himself with God.  Through the Incarnation God renewed mankind.

Saint Gregory tells us,
If He had been born from seed, He would not have been a new man and, being part of the old stock, and inheriting that fall, He would not have been able to receive the fullness of the incorruptible Godhead in Himself and become an inexhaustible source of hallowing.  And so, not only would He not have been able to cleanse,  with abundance of power, our forefathers defilement caused by sin, but neither would He have been sufficient to sanctify those who came later....
God in His incarnation gave us more than a one time event.  His renewal of Mankind established an eternal spring of healing water by training the Apostles who with the power of the Holy Spirit established the Church as an unending source of His healing power for mankind to be renewed from ages to ages.

Saint Gregory says,
But creation needed a well containing it own spring, that those who drew near it and drank their full might remain undefeated by the attacks of weaknesses and deprivations inherent in the created world.... Building now the new Jerusalem, raising up a temple for Himself with living stones and gathering us into a holy and world wide Church, He sets in its foundation, which is Christ, the ever-flowing fount of grace.

Today we have this "ever-flowing fount of Grace in His presence in His Church.  The incarnation calls all of us to be partakers of this grace through our way of life.  Through our daily prayer, repentance, participation in the Sacraments we are filled with the Holy Spirit  to live the virtuous life He taught us in His life as fully man here on earth. We can think of the Nativity as much more than the birth of a chid in a manger.  It is also the birth of His Church though which we participate to this day to come in unity with Him learning to live the virtuous way of life he showed us to be possible once we were renewed by becoming part of Him in His Church.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

God becomes Man! - The Greatest Day of All Time

Some wisdom from  Archimandrite Justin Popovich:
God is born on earth, and moreover He is born as a man: perfect God and perfect man--the unique God-man. And He has forever remained as the God-man both on earth and in heaven. Indeed, the God-man is the first perfect man on earth. Perfect man? Yes, because only in the God-man is man without sin, without evil, without death, totally filled with God, and thereby with all divine perfections.
Jesus came to earth as the God-man to show us the way of life God has determined for us to be united with Him eternally.  Our aim must be to become like Him is all respects and unite with Him. 
Man is only a true man when he is completely united with God, and in everything and every way completely lives in God, thinks in God, feels in God, acts in God, is virtuous in God, is immortal in God, is eternal in God. Only and solely in God is man a man, a true man, a perfect man, a man in whom all the fullness of the Godhead lives. 

The life of man?--Only and solely as the Divine Life in the God-man does our life become and forever remain sinless, immortal, God-like, holy, perfect, eternal.
Everything that man is, and everything that is of man perfectly lives, works, thinks, feels, is human, immortal, divine, and eternal only and solely in the God-man and through the God-man. Only through the God-man Christ is man divine majesty and the highest value next to God in all worlds. For this reason God became man, and has remained the God-man for all eternity. With the God-man Christ, all that is God's has become man's, human, ours, so that each of us individually and all of us assembled together in the Divine-human body of Christ, the Church, might become god-men, having at tained "to the perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ" (Eph. 4:12-13).
There is no historical event that can compare to this event––God becomes man.
Therefore Christmas, the day of the birth of the God-man, the Lord Jesus Christ, is the greatest and most important day in the history of all the worlds in which man moves and lives. Truly this is "great joy"--truly the only true joy, the only eternal joy of a human being in all worlds.

Reference: CHRIST IS BORN! A Nativity Epistle from Archimandrite Justin Popovich

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

His Mercy Reigns!

The Incarnation was an act of total love by our Creator, Saint John of Kronstadt tells us.

He says,
It was by reason of a supreme, inexpressible mercy toward His creation on the part of the Master, Who could not bear to see the entire race of mankind – which, He, in creating, had endowed with wondrous gifts – enslaved by the devil and thus destined for eternal suffering and torment.
And what was the purpose of this incredible event?  To lift all of mankind to become heavenly beings--to make sinners into saints.
And the Word became flesh! order to make us earthly beings into heavenly ones, in order to make sinners into saints; in order to raise us up from corruption into incorruption, from earth to heaven; from enslavement to sin and the devil – into the glorious freedom of children of God; from death – into immortality, in order to make us sons of God and to seat us together with Him upon the Throne as His royal children. O, boundless compassion of God! O, inexpressible wisdom of God! O, great wonder, astounding not only the human mind, but the angelic [mind] as well!
With this most merciful act of God we must do our part.  Saint John emphasizes how we must demonstrate our faith by choosing to live the way of life that He showed to us. 
What, then, O, brethren, is required of us in order that we might avail ourselves of all the grace brought unto us from on high by the coming to earth of the Son of God? What is necessary, first of all, is faith in the Son of God, in the Gospel as the salvation- bestowing heavenly teaching; a true repentance of sins and the correction of life and ofheart; communion in prayer and in the mysteries [sacraments]; the knowledge and fulfillment of Christʼs commandments. Also necessary are the virtues: Christian humility, alms-giving, continence, purity and chastity, simplicity and goodness of heart. Let us, then, O brothers and sisters, bring these virtues as a gift to the One Who was born for the sake of our salvation – let us bring them in place of the gold, frankincense and myrrh which the Magi brought Him, as to One Who is King, God, and Man, come to die for us. This, from us, shall be the most-pleasing form of sacrifice to God and to the Infant Jesus Christ.
What gift can you bring to celebrate this most joyous event of the Nativity?

Reference:  THE WORD BECAME FLESHA Sermon by St John of Kronstadt on the Nativity of Christ