Monday, December 30, 2019

What is a true Christian?

When we look around the church on a Sunday can we say that we are all Christians? We have all been baptized in the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit; we believe that Jesus was resurrected from the dead and all recite the Creed; we make the sign of the cross, we have icons; we pray, we attend church regularly and even always come on time (far from reality); and even if we all received Holy Communion (which is also far from reality) can we say we are a Christian?

Saint Paul says, “Examine yourselves, whether you be in the faith (2Cor 13:5).” We all probably think we have faith or we would not be coming to church regularly, but what kind of faith do we have? Saint James says “Show me faith without works (Jas 2:18).” When we hear the reading of the Gospel, can we say that we live what is being taught to us by Jesus? We take Holy Communion, but is it a mystical experience where we feel the real presence of God and are renewed by it?

To know if we are truly Christians we need to examine our life and our relationship with God. The works that are good in the eyes of God are those that come from our heart out of love. When we have faith we have a love of God that is greater than any other love. Because of this love we choose to do His will and receive His grace to help us. This grace is given when we are humble, says Apostle James (Jas 4;6).

Saint Tikhon says,
Correct your heart and will and you shall be good, you shall be a true Christian, you shall be a new creature. For all good or evil is from the will and from the heart. When the heart and the will are good, then the whole person is good.
Our examination thus begins with the examination of our heart. We need to make a deep examination to penetrate the scales that surround our heart. Do we know what is hidden there? Do we recognize our self-will, wrath, envy, greediness...? This examination requires great humility. Most of the bad tendencies we have are suppressed in our subconscious mind. We tend to think we are a Christian, very spiritual and faithful. But, beware, we may suffer from vainglory.

How can we expose our lack of faith that keeps us from following all that is taught in the Gospel and leaves us with a luke warm relationship with God? This effort involves our willingness to acknowledge and struggle with sin. 
Saint Tikhon says,
It is not possible to correct yourself rightly if you do not recognize the evil hidden in your heart and the calamities that proceed from it. This struggle is the mark of a true Christian.... 
The struggle against every sin is an unfailing necessity for all Christians who wish to be true Christians and to receive eternal salvation in Jesus Christ.
Saint Paul says, do not let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in its lusts (Rom 6:12).

This is demanded by the vows we made at Baptism. At that time we vowed (or our sponsor on our behalf did if we were infants) to labor for the Lord in faith and truth. There is no salvation for those who do not keep these vows. “A true Christian is one who wages incessant war against sin.” He is one who labors in truth and faith. 

Saint Tikhon lists these causes of sin:

1. The corruption of human nature. We have inherited the tendency for sin from our ancestors all the way back to Adam.
2. The devil leads man to sin. Saint Peter says, “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walks about, seeking whom he may devour. Oppose him with firm faith (1Pet. 5:8-9).” Paul says, “Put on the whole armor of God, so you are able to stand against the wile’s of the devil. For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against powers, against the rulers of darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places (Eph 6:10-12).” 

3. The seductions of the world also lead to sin. Jesus says, “Woe to the world because of offenses! For offenses must come, but woe to that man by whom the offense comes! (Mat 18:7).“ 

4. A cause of sin is often bad upbringing of children. 

5. Habits strongly attracts a man toward sin. 

Saint Tikhon says, “A Christian wishing to be saved must unfailingly struggle against these things.” The worst of all are the habits that we become accustomed to so sin becomes second nature. Often, we are not even aware of our poor condition.

Saint Tikhon gives us these suggestions to help us in our struggle against sin:

1. Listen and heed the Word of God. Saint Paul: All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work. 

2. God is present in every place and with us wherever we may be. Our sins cannot be hidden from God. Even though we are unwilling to confess in front of a priest because of our pride or shame God knows everything with His holy eyes. 

3. Remember death, the judgement of Christ, hell, and the Kingdom of Heaven. 

4. Avoid occasions that lead to sin. Avoid gatherings or friends that lead to temptations. Paul: For evil communications corrupt good manners (1Cor 15:33)

5. Remember you can die in the very act of sin.  

6. Consider that Christ suffered and died for our sins. He came only for our benefit out of love to show the path to paradise. 

7. Don’t look at what other people are doing, but heed what the word of God teaches. Following the norms of society or our community can be deadly.
8. Our effort and struggle is powerless without the help of God. Prays for His help and participate in the Sacraments.

Are you a true a Christian? If you feel like you are struggling against bad habits, have regular confession with your spiritual father, and experience the joy when you uncover a new one, then you are probably a true a Christian.

Reference: Journey to Heaven by Saint Tikhon of Zadonsk, pp 56-72

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Why did Jesus come?

For whom did He come? He came for each of us, for our salvation! Think about all He did only for our benefit. We must remember He was born of a Virgin, took human flesh becoming fully human. He was a child and was raised on His mother’s milk. Even though He was from before time, He came in total humility, wrapped in swaddling clothes, born in a smelly stable. As John says, “And the Word was made flesh (Jn 1:14).” Then, when still a small child, He fled from the terror of Herod who wanted to kill Him. Remember when he began teaching how He went from place to place, helping others to awaken to their salvation, without giving concern about His own worldly desires. He was blasphemed, cursed and mocked. He was tortured, suffered, and even betrayed by one of His disciples. Finally, He was led to his death to be hung on a Cross between two lawless evil doers. Why did He do all this? He did it only for our benefit, our salvation. Remember these things.

Many of us have ignored Him and have lived a life for our pleasure. Remember his Blood he shed, all His suffering, all He did without regard for Himself. Think about His extreme humility. All He asks is that we be uplifted by His example and accept His love. All we need to do is to humble ourselves and repent.

Saint Tikhon writes,
Christ the son of God shows us His coming into the world for his sake in the Gospel. He presents in him His willing self-emptying, His willing poverty, His willing and deep humility, His labors, pains, tribulations, sorrows, sufferings and death, and even a death on the Cross. And He says to us, “I took all this on myself and endured it for your sake and for your salvation. But you neglect your salvation, and take no thought that you should repent and cease from your sins, to make use of My Blood and live.” 
Why do we languish in our sinful way of life and make no effort to change when God Himself has come out of love for us to show us the path to be saved? Why do we not understand that He came to help us, not punish us? If we do not heed his word there will be a judgement and we will not find eternal joy, but will be eternally separated from the source of love. We need to awaken to the Truth.

Saint Tikhon says,
Set your salvation on nothing else but on Christ Jesus alone, the Savior of the world. If you truly believe that He suffered and died for you and is your Savior, then love Him as your Savior, and lay and confirm all your hope in Him alone.
His Church was created when He sent the Holy Spirit to empower His disciples. He gave them instruction and guidance on how to nurture our fallen souls so all of us could be united with Him. They created what can be thought of as a spiritual hospital, with Sacraments, beautiful liturgies that lift us to heaven, with guidelines for ascesis like fasting and rules for daily prayer. When we awake we will rush to the Church ahead of time seeking to be renewed and nourished by His Body and Blood in the sacrament. We will make time for daily prayer and read daily Scripture and the writings of the Church Fathers,

Remember how He came, how He selflessly gave Himself for our benefit. Make a renewed effort to follow Him and prepare yourself to be worthy of His grace.

Reference: Journey to Heaven, by Saint Tikhon of Zadonsk, pp 41-44

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Awakening the heart to God (6) - Actions Needed

Often we think about changing our way of life so we can come closer to God. We even wonder if we will be prepared for the judgment that will come at death. We say we believe in God, but the cares of the world overwhelm us. We do nothing to change our way of life. Mostly, God feels distant, yet there is still a lingering thought that something must be done to change the current situation, but the magnitude of the perceived change discourages us. Unfortunately, these good thoughts we have never leads to substantive changes in our lives. Why?

We procrastinate, thinking we will do something later on. The result is that we remain rooted in our old habits. We know we should go to church more often, that we should be prepared to receive Holy Communion when we go and we should be there when the service begins. We are aware that we should go to confession, that we should pray daily, that we should fast, and that we should read Scripture or the writings of the Fathers, but, we say, “Later.” This we must never do if we desire to be united with God! We need to fight against this ailment called procrastination.

Saint Theophan recommends that we recognize the senselessness and the danger of procrastination. We need to keep in mind our ultimate destination. We may die tomorrow and God may not know us, just like with the virgins who did not have enough oil. The door to the banquet may be closed and if we try to enter He will say, “I do not know you.” (Mt 25: 1-13)

The thoughts we have about our spiritual condition must be taken seriously and not allowed to remain only thoughts. We must give these thoughts about our salvation top priority and act on them.

We must not be impeded by laziness or indecisiveness. We need to remind ourselves how actions in even the simple matters of daily life can be destructive. We must be ready to act with energy and decisiveness on these thoughts regarding our spiritual well being. Any procrastination is jeopardizing our eternal life in His kingdom.

In addition to procrastination we have many habits that imprison our will to respond to a wake-up call from the Spirit. Our heart is hardened by many layers that cover it.  Saint Theophan identifies the first layer as “self-deception, insensitivity and carelessness.” We become blind to our sinfulness, he says. 

He tells us that first we need to discipline the body by restricting our pleasures and indulgences. We need to fast, make time for prayer and participate in the Liturgies and the sacraments. Saint Theophan says the “physical ascetic labors weaken these bonds and eliminate their effects.”

Next are the cares and scattered thoughts that consume our inner energy. We need to make time to work on ourselves. This means creating periods in our day when we protect ourselves from all our worldly cares. We need to be able to quiet our mind from all its thoughts. The discipline of the Jesus prayer can help us in this regard. 

We need to create regular periods of true solitude so we can begin to open to a higher mind. It is in solitude that we will be able to see our sinful habits and then able to root out the causes of our habits. It is these habits that keep us chained to our current way of life. To move forward we need to uncover our prejudices that are etched in our brain and identify the patterns of action, our habits, that they cause. Once we can understand what is taking place deep within ourselves, we can begin what is called, "spiritual struggle." We will begin to recognize when the heart feels the movement of spirit, but becomes blocked by our habits limiting our ability to make changes in our life. With awareness we can begun to change.

Thought Processes
There are certain thoughts that we have to reject. Saint Theophan points out a few such as, “Contenting yourself with saying:
“I am a Christian.” 
 “After all, we are not the worst.” 
“We are not that bad.” 
“So, there is badness in me—am I the only one.”
I can add a few: 
I am not a sinner, I haven’t stolen anything, I haven’t killed any one, I am a good person.
I go to church, I pay my dues.
I volunteer at Meals on Wheels or ...
I am a good parent and provide for their needs.
 These are all good, but more is necessary. It’s an intimate relationship with God that is needed.

We need to stop making excuses and attack our passions of the body, our prejudices, our bad habits, our bad thoughts. We need through ascesis and solitude to open ourselves up and expose our blindness to our sinful nature. Saint a Theophan says, “Take away one false support after another for your blindness. Little by little you will cease making excuses in sins...”

Hard Heart
Our ailment is a hard heart that is insensitive to our sinfulness. We can soften our hardened heart by pursuing each insight we gain about our sinful condition. To keep us motivated, we must remember that our fate is death. St Theophan says, 
Convince yourself that the angel of death has already been sent; he is coming and draws near. Or imagine yourself to be a person who stands with a sword drawn over their head, ready to cut it off. 
Imagine that the judge is waiting to take up you case, that your life in heaven is on the line. Saint Theophan says to do this until you are “filled with fear and trembling.” Then you will be able to turn toward God whom you know to be all merciful, to surrender to Him, seek His help, to ask for divine grace to be sent to help, and begin to make the needed changes in your life.

You can go one step further. “Ascend in thought upon Golgotha and crucify yourself.” Ask yourself, will you be the one crucified next to Christ who mocks him, or will you be the one who seeks forgiveness and asked to be raised with Him to paradise. Saint Theophan says, “choose one or the other: either crucify Him, then perish eternally—or crucify yourself, and inherit eternal life.” Remember always, that it is your sin that separates you from God.

One who has not given proper attention to their spiritual life and lives unaware of their sinful ways, has a weak will, and is insensitive to thoughts that are meant to awaken us. It is necessary to develop inner motivation to create the desire to move toward what is good in the eyes of God and away from everything against them. Saint Theophan says, 
We need to recognize kind of thoughts “on the side of good that leads to salvation is loftiness, usefulness, ease of fulfillment and the removal of obstacles, the consolation being prepared and mainly—necessary. On the other side is everything contrary to the forgoing.”
Here is what Saint Theophan says we need to tell our soul:
1. You must choose one or the other: either perish eternally should you remain as you are, or if you do not want that, then repent and turn to the Lord and His Commandments... 
2. Just begin, just push forward. The Lord is near, and all manner of His aid is prepared for you. 
3. You will throw off that yoke and those fetters, and emerge into freedom of a child of God. 
4. Why do you torment yourself like some kind of enemy? You know no peace either day or night. All around you is confusion and anxiety... 
5. Everything around you is alive and everything calls you to life. God is not the God of the dead, but of the living. Go drink of the spring of living water.
Always keep in mind the blessing that awaits you when you choose to change you life. There is an easier way of living and you are very capable of making the needed changes. God is continually calling you to do so. Think about all those who you can be like and associate with here and in heaven. Remember all these good things that you can be, and your weak will can become stronger desiring what is truly good for you.

Unwillingness to Struggle
Awakened to your sinfulness and separation from God and His salvific grace, commit yourself to labor over yourself. Make this an unending commitment, to never relax in seeking ways to become more like Christ. 

Saint Theophan says, 
No one can be master over your inner life besides yourself. Enter there and break yourself; startle, instruct, carry on the work with yourself before the face of God; persuade and convince yourself. This is why we say that conversion, reasoning with one’s own self is the only way in.
Reason About Salvation 
When you reason with yourself, reason about salvation. Reorient your way of thinking to desire the good, to be united with your loving God, and about your commitment to follow His truth. Saint Theophan gives us some guidelines for doing this:
1. When you reason with yourself, do not intellectualize, posing various questions, but having clarified a subject to yourself, take it to heart from the perspective that you feel will be most impressive, and contemplate it thus. 
2. Do not run quickly from one thought to another... Bring every thought into feeling and do not let go until it penetrates the heart. 
3. Do not leave a thought naked in a reasoned form, as it were, but robe it in some sort of image and then carry it into the head as a constant reminder. 
4. Fall to the ground and make prostrations—many, many—and beat your breast. 
5. For prayer, just as for contemplation, make short cries and repeat them often: “Have mercy on thy creation, O Master! God be merciful to me a sinner! O Lord, save me! O Lord, hasten to my aid!

God Provides the Means
God will listen to those who are persistent and force themselves to beat at the door until it is opened. You are seeking His mercy by His grace. Saint Theophan says the following:
1. God’s Grace has chosen the churches of God and church rubrics for His activity. You too should go to church, and patiently, attentively and reverently listen to the services; for the church and it’s structure, the order of services, the singing and reading—all of this can have an effect... 
2. Grace has worked through the Word of God. You too should take it and read it... 
3. The hearts of other sinners have been softened by discussions with pious people. You, too, go and have a discussion... 
4. The prayers of the poor are powerful. You, too, go and multiply your alms: wipe out tears of the unfortunate, shelter if you can the destitute...
These actions prepare you to receive the gift of awakening of your heart to God. Be patient. When the grace-filled awakening comes, then you will see significant changes in your way of life. Saint Theophan says, “Labor is expectancy and the hope of Faith. Grace will come and arrange everything.” When it comes this will be only the beginning of the work of a sinner.

Reference:Path to Salvation by Saint Theophan the Recluse, pp 124 - 153

Awakening Our Heart to God (5)

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Awakening our Heart to God (5) - The Word

“An additional method for realization [awakening] must be applied to everything. That methods is preaching the Word.” - Saint Theophan
Without an understanding of the Word of God we will not appreciate or know our ultimate goal. Our aim will still seem uncertain. Saint Theophan uses the example of Paul. He was enlightened by a direct intervention by God on the way to Damascus. After this happened Jesus told him to go and find Ananias for instruction. As Paul says, “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God (Rom. 10:17).”

Saint Theophan:
It is essential to proclaim the story of the universal, divine way of salvation, to tell of well-known persons and places to which one who has been aroused should turn for interpretation, so he will not waste that arousal or stray off course from it, wasting time and energy fruitlessly. Catechistic teaching must be heard unceasingly, and indeed, is heard in Church.  
It is essential that clergy continually proclaim the salvific ways without assuming general knowledge. The Word of God when preached penetrates the soul inwardly and nourishes it so a spiritual life can be born,

Saint Theophan:
Sound, or the audible component of the Word, strikes the hearing, and a thought occupies the soul. The invisible energy concealed inside this thought touches the soul, which, if it is attentive, after the Word has safely passed the rough barriers of body and soul, becomes aroused, and, by exerting effort, it bursts the bonds that hold it.
A key element is to connect our current struggles, our pleasure seeking, to the final end, death, and the judgement that will take place. While doing this, reminding them about the loving nature of God and what He seeks is our love and a life of repentance.

The message needs to be kept simple and sincere. It should not be embellished with images as then it will remain in the imagination. When surrounded with concepts and arguments it remains in the intellect. The aim is for it to penetrate the heart of the soul.

Saint Theophan:
One could say that all unfruitful preaching is on account of the intellectualizing that fills it. Just explain the truth is a simple way, say what it is, and the spirit will be overcome.
This a message from Saint Paul. 
For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power,† (1 Corinthians 2:2-4, OSB)
The key is to tell the Truth directly, simply, and do not clutter it with intellectual concepts or speculations about probabilities. Yes, death will come. Yes, there will be judgement. Yes, God is loving and awaiting your repentance. Saint Theophan says, “Just explain the truth in a simple way; say what it is, and the spirit will be overcome.” It is the Truth that overcomes vain thoughts and nourishes the soul. Explan simply how everything began, how it will end, and why.

This message needs to be heard in many ways. Not only in the churches, but in reading the fathers and enlightening books, in all our church activities, in our homes, in our use of icons, in church, all places of our activities, in our work place. Also to engage is discussions among believers discussing popular sayings. Surround our world with the Word. Seek to make the Word unceasing in our daily lives.

The clergy needs to speak out the truth simply in all situations.
Saint Theophan:
The fulfillment of this is the responsibility of those who serve at the altars. That is why they are the most necessary and powerful weapons for the conversion of sinners in the hands of divine Providence. It is necessary for them to acknowledge this and speak out, not just in churches, but also in homes, using every opportunity both to describe the divine world, and to expose the seduction of our soul by the illusions of the mind and body.

Reference: Path to Salvation by Saint Theophan the Recluse, pp 119-123.

Awakening Our Heart to God (4)     Awakening Our Heart to God (6)

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Awakening Our Heart to a God (4) - Internal Perceptions

Most of us live a worldly life with a spirit that is locked up in our heart by all our desires, resentments and cares of daily life. In reality this spirit is free, but we have covered it up, bound it, with all our cares. All we need to do is remove the obstacles that block our awareness of its powers. It appears to be asleep, because our worldly cares make it appear this way. It is by God’s Grace that we are awakened revealing to us this condition. Saint Theophan points out that this can happen as the result of grace working either directly on it or indirectly. When divine grace through direct action reveals our true condition, it arouses dissatisfaction with one’s current way of life and leads to a desire to change.

Saint Theophan puts this aroused dissatisfaction this way:
The person is not satisfied by anything around him; not by his accomplishments or possessions, even if he has incalculable wealth; and he walks around as if heart broken. Because he finds no consolation in visible things, he turns to the invisible, and receives it with a readiness to acquire it for himself sincerely and to give himself over to it.
Psychologists have termed this condition as a mid-life crisis or it is also misdiagnosed as depression. Commonly, when we reach our forties, we develop a feeling that something is missing, all our successes have not led us to an inner happiness or satisfaction. If we respond by following this awakening spirit we will return to the Church, begin to seek a deeper understanding of the Gospel and the Orthodox way of life, discover a deeper meaning in life and a peace and joy we did not know existed. If we ignore it, we may begin a new path of worldly seeking and the spirit within remains asleep.

Saint Theophan outlines some of the indirect ways grace works on us. The first he describes is self-indulgence. By this he means that through our worldly way of life we have become dependent on the physical and mental aspects of our way of life, all the attachments we have to what makes up our current life. Everything that we think nourishes us is embodied in this worldly life.  We are dead to the nourishment of the Holy Spirit. To think of changing our way of life becomes unthinkable. We can’t conceive of an alternative that would be better. We are stuck in our own self-made patterns. This self-indulgence is very strong and are the bonds constraining the spirit. 

What divine grace does, which may seem cruel, is to destroy one of these indulgences that supports our current way of living. This could be an illness, accident that limits us, loss of job, loss of family or friends, or financial loss. Saint a Theophan describes some of the ways this can happen depending on how we have created this false foundation of our life:
He who is enslaved by pleasing the flesh shall fall ill, and, by weakening the flesh, shall give the spirit freedom and power to come to its senses and become sober. He who is preoccupied with his own attractiveness and strength shall be deprived of this attractiveness and kept in a state of exhaustion. He who finds refuge in his own power and strength shall be subject to slavery and humiliation. He who relies greatly on wealth shall have it taken away from him. He who shows off great learnedness shall be put to shame. He who relies on personal connections shall have them cut off. He who counts on the permanence of the order established around him shall have it destroyed by the death of people he knows or the loss of essential material possessions.
When this happens there is the opportunity for a positive change in one’s life. When we feel weak, humbled, we are apt to turn towards God for help. When we are struck with something that takes something important to us give thanks to God and seek His help. Look for new opportunities to serve Him, new spiritual practices, renewed participation in the sacramental life. Open you heart when something unthinkable happens and allow grace to awaken our spirit.

There are other bonds that constrain our spirit. These are the structures of society such as its rules, laws, principles and ideas. We often feel helpless in going against the waves of our culture. We have been raised to fit in with the norms of society. We often forget we have free will and can choose even in a world with strong societal constraints. Saint Theophan  tells us that these forces are not physical but reside in our imagination. He says, 
“one has only to dispel this imaginative power of the world, and the opportunity for abstaining from its charms becomes more likely.”
This can be overcome by contemplating divine creation or the Church. Time in silence, surrounded by the beauty of a traditional Orthodox Church, we can be moved by grace, find peace of mind, and suddenly choosing to commit to service of God. Or, one may go into a natural area, a walk along a natural lake or creek, a desolate seashore, or a mature wooded area and be uplifted by the beauty of God’s creation untouched by human hands. This experience may cause an opening for divine grace to work on opening the heart and freeing the spirit within. Both of these I find personally very powerful. I am humbled every time I enter into a traditional Orthodox Church. I feel God’s presence and my hardened heart is opened. I regularly take a short walk along a creek lined with mature trees, all is untouched by human hands. God’s handiwork, it’s beauty, it’s complexity also opens my heart to a God who is in all places and all things.

Saint Theophan says,
Nature and Church completely wrench the human spirit from the bonds of the world. In this capacity they dispel, dissipate, and oust the charms of the world of vanity with its many illusions.
When we awaken to the constraints of society, grace will bring new strength to go against the current, to desire to live a God-pleasing life without any concern what old friends may think of you. They are some of the bonds that need to be broken if you are to become a true child of God. When a path is found that is not based on norms of a modern society, then there will be experienced true joy.

In addition there are other ways such as an encounter with a spiritual person who is not bound by such societal forces. There are many ways we can encounter our loving God who is constantly seeking to awaken our spirit so we can be perfected. We are the prize of His creation made in His image and likeness. He wants us to see that our purpose in this worldly life is to be perfected and to become united with His will. This is necessary if we are going to deserve eternal life in His Kingdom. This is why He sent His Son to show us the way through His suffering in Crucifixion and then His glorious Resurrection, Ascension into heaven, and sending the Holy Spirit to heal us all in His Church.

This is why catechistic teaching is so important and helps nurture all the approaches to an awakening of a sleepy soul. We all need to proclaim the universal Truth of the Gospel and it’s message of divine salvation. This needs to be done in a simple way without philosophizing.  Saint Theophan says, 
“depict the truth as it is, not cluttering it with intellectual concepts and especially speculation about probabilities... Just explain the truth in a simple way; say what it is, and the spirit will be overcome.”
References: Path to Salvation by Saint Theophan the Recluse, pp 111-118. 

Awakening Our Heart to God (3)     Awakening our Heart to God (5)

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Christmas Is What We Make It - Understanding the icon of the Incarnation (Nativity)

Awake! God is becoming man. He wants to show us the path to paradise.

When I look around me the signs of this season to not point to such a great event. The images that I found with a google search are mainly about Santa Clause, reindeer, Elves, presents, decorated trees, office parties... Seems like the season is all about this world’s pleasures. Where is Christ? What kind of Christmas will WE make?

To tell the truth, it seems like most us us are asleep spiritually. We enjoy Christmas time with all its celebrations. But in the midst of these God is distant from us, we are unaware of our sinfulness, we rarely pray, only attend church periodically out of duty, and only periodically participate in the sacrament when we do come, and many have never been to confession. Maybe the secular Christmas celebration fits us. Are we are making Christmas fit what we believe?

We all need to be awakened to the Truth!

What is Christmas all about? Are we celebrating the birth of a baby boy? No! We are celebrating the beginning of the way to our salvation. God becomes man, a human being who is also God! Christmas is about the Incarnation of our Lord, Savior, our Creator. God becomes man to show us our true potential created in His image and likeness. After His birth He lives with humility, heals, teaches and then is unjustly and voluntarily killed by Crucifixion, suffers, is  beaten, humiliated, and hung naked nailed to the Cross. His life and death was to show us our path to paradise. After His death He is resurrected, defeating death with His death. He then Ascends into Heaven and is seated at right hand of God. After teaching His disciples the mysteries sends the Holy Spirit empowering them to establish ecclesias, gatherings of believers, communities where they can grow spiritually. This all begins with the event we call Christmas. We are celebrating our very entrance into the pathway of our salvation.

The festival approacheth, the most to be revered, the most awesome, and which we might justly term the centre of all festivals,—that of the birth and manifestation of Christ in the flesh.
Saint John Chrysostom 

Let’s not be lulled to sleep with all the secular attachments that merchants have created to stimulate our shopping habits and desires. Our secular values have stripped the true meaning from all aspects of the activirties of this season.

How was Christmas celebrated traditionally?
It began with a fast, an inner period of reflection, preparing ourselves to become more worthy to receive the King. It was only after the Christmas Day that we celebrated, exchanged gifts, visited friends and relatives. This is the 12 days of Christmas which are fast free and set aside for celebration of this great event. Before this awesome day we are preparing to receive God as man and then, after His birth, to glorify His coming for our salvation. The celebration ends with another important celebration, Epiphany, the baptism of Christ and the beginning of His ministry.

Nativity Icon
To better understand this most significant event in the history of mankind let’s examine the icon that tells the story of the Incarnation. Not just the birth of Jesus the man, but the Incarnation of God! Looking at the icon it appears as a scene beyond time. The immediate focus is Mary, calling us to better understand her role. The scene is totally different than that portrayed in most western nativity scenes. Let’s explore it. It tells the entire story in one image.

There are eight parts to this icon: the birth place, the star, the mother of God—the Theotokos, Christ, Joseph and the devil, the Angels, shepherds, wise men,  and the midwives.

Let’s look at each of these in detail.

He is wrapped is swaddling cloths which is how a person was normally wrapped after birth. The infant was wrapped in a cloth that was four to five inches wide and five to six yards long. He would be wrapped like this for seven days and then cleansed and rewrapped, a process that lasted fourth days. They believed at that time that this would help the soft bones of the child grow straight. It is also similar to how a person is wrapped for burial after death. This symbolizes the destiny He faces like all of us, so He can show us the way to life beyond death. In HIs Resurrection He will show us how we too can claim victory over death with faith and following Him.
St Ephram the Syrian writes: His swaddling clothes gave a robe of glory to human beings.
Notice how the manger is not a traditional food trough for animals but appears as a tomb. This is intended to remind us that Christ came into the world to die for us and then show us victory over death in the Resurrection. 
The animals are an Ox and a donkey. This comes from a prophesy in the Old Testament in book of Isaiah: “The ox knows his owner, and the donkey his masters crib (Isaiah 1:3). They are show providing warmth to Jesus by their breath.

Birth place:  
The birth of God took place in dark cave shown in the center of the icon. When Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem to pay their taxes they found no room in traditional lodging places. By God’s providence they found shelter in cave. In the area of Bethlehem caves were often used as places to shelter the animals. The cave also is a symbol of the coming of God as a human being to bring light into the darkness of our souls, our ignorance of our sinful condition, and to give light to the way out of darkness to eternal paradise. The fact that it was also a stable, also has important symbolism. You can see the animals looking at the Christ child. Where animals were kept was a smelly place, not a desirable place to stay, let alone give birth to a child, but this place was not chosen by chance because it shows the humility of Christ. He could have chosen to be born in a palace, but He was coming to show us that the way to paradise is based on humility. He is showing us that this needs to be an important value in our lives, to not seek riches or honors, or to be seen as better than others. 
“The Good Shepherd, He who lays down His life for His sheep, came to seek that which had strayed...He humbles Himself, that He may raise up with Himself the soul that was tottering to a fall under a weight of sin....[for] my perfection and return to the first condition of Adam.” Saint Gregory the Theologian, oration 38
The dark background in the cave can be explained by the birth of Christ being like the spiritual light that shines forth in the shadow of death that surrounds all mankind. The black mouth of the cave symbolizes the world filled with sin from the Fall of mankind, and with the the birth of the Savior, the “Son of righteousness,” it is now enlightened with a clear path to return to paradise.

Mary, The Theotokos:  
Notice how she is in the middle and focal point of the icon. Without her there would not be the Incarnation. All that follows would not have happened. She was especially prepared by God to be pure so she could give flesh to the Son of God. She is looking away to show her humility. This was a miraculous birth by a virgin through the work of the Holy Spirit.
“When God became known to us in the flesh, He neither received the passions of human nature, nor did the Virgin Mary suffer pain, nor was the Holy Spirit diminished in any way, nor was the power of the Most High set aside in any manner, and all this was because all was accomplished by the Holy Spirit. Thus the power of the Most High was not abased, and the child was born with no damage whatsoever to the mother’s virginity.” - St. Gregory of Nyssa

The Star:  
In the top center you can see a blue light which represents the star. This is the star that appeared in the East at the time of the Annunciation and led the wise men to Christ for about nine months. This was not a real star but the work of the Holy Spirit to show the way to Christ. It behaved differently than anything scientists have ever observed. It moved, it stopped, it ascended and descended, it changed direction. Some say it was Archangel Gabriel. Notice how it points directly to the Christ Child. Saint John Chrysostom says, “no natural star could have traversed such a course, nor could I have shone so brilliantly at midday; and, furthermore, it stood still over the Child.
In the icon it points directly to the cave. It is a long ray which connects part of a sphere that goes beyond the limits of the icon. This is a representation of the heavenly realm, signifying that the star and this ray are a messenger from the world on high.
 It brings our attention to Christ and indicates His divine nature.

Above Christ we can see a multitude of angels gathered to glorify the Incarnation. They have come also to herald the Good News of the birth of our Savior. This points out how this event is not just the birth of a child, but the Incarnation of God Himself. God has become man. Rejoice!

Even the shepherds came to glorify God. They were the first sons of Israel to come to worship the Christ Child. The shepherds watched over flocks of lambs destined for sacrificial services in this area where the birth took place. They are being told of the Incarnation by an angel. They were told: “ Be not afraid; for I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, Who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths elating in a manger” (Lk 2:10-12).The shepherds heard the angels singing: “Glory to God n the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill among men.” (Lk 2:14)
Shepherds are simple people. Their presence indicates that God came for all people and not just those who are privileged. There is one shepherd playing a reed flute showing that music is appropriate for glorifying God.

Wise men or Magi:  
There are also three men on horses. One is a beardless youth, another middle aged and the third an old man They are referred to as Magi or wise men, member of a Persian class of  priestly scholars who were very powerful among the Persians. They were occupied with the study of medicine, philosophy, natural sciences and scientific study of the stars. They believed there was a mystical influence of the stars on earthly things so they were constantly studying the heavens for new signs. They were aware of the prophecies of Daniel, especially the one concerning the time of the coming of Christ. (Dan 9:25,26). They were also familiar with Barlaam’s prophecy about the star shining forth from Jacob (Num 24:17). When this unusual bright star appeared to them they knew it was a sign of a great event. Recognizing its significance they vowed to follow it to the scene of the Incarnation. They followed the star “till it came to rest over where the young Child was (Mat 2:11)” with His mother.  They brought with them gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, as a way of giving thanks to God. In the hymn for the forefeast we find the following :”The kings, first fruits of the nations, bring three gifts, myrrh they point to Thy death, by gold to Thy royal power, by frankincense to the dignity of Thy divinity.” Gold is also know as a symbol of wisdom, frankincense as power of prayer as it is burnt before God and myrrh the mortification of the body.
These men came some time after the actual birth, about two years later. This is a characteristic of icons. They capture what is necessary to tell the whole story.
This scene also tells us by their example that all scientific study is meant to lead us toward the true God.

In the lower left we can seen the midwives preparing the bath water to bathe the new born child. This was done out of tradition as there was no blood in the birth. The bathing does not signify that Christ was unclean and in need of purification. This was done to show His true humanity. The two women are know as Zelomi and Salome. Salome is related to Mary. She is Mary’s mother’s sisters daughter, a first cousin. The duties of a midwife were washing the new born, rubbing it with salt, water and oil, and then wrapping it in swaddling bands.
This scene shows the full humanity of the Incarnate Son of God. Jesus was fully human in all regards except He was without sin. It is also symbolic of baptism which all members of His Church go through for spiritual cleansing of sins and a transformation with the Holy Spirit planted in their heart with Chrismation.

Joseph and the devil: 
In the lower right we have another scene with Joseph, an old man and another with a cane. Joseph is shown with a halo. He was an old man because he was of age when he was appointed to be the protector of Mary so she could live life as a virgin. He was probably 70-80 years old at this time. He is pondering this whole situation because he was not the biological father of the child. He is being tempted by the old man with the cane who is trying to raise doubts in his mind: How is it possible for a virgin to bear a child? This man is Satan, who is saying, “this is against all natural laws you fool!s!” The difficulty Joseph faced is no different from ourselves who have difficulty grasping the reality of the virgin birth and God becoming man while still retaining His divinity. The Incarnation of God goes beyond reason.
The tree you see to the left of Joseph is a symbol of the tree of Jesse. This refers to Isaiah  11:1-2, “But a shoot shall spout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom. The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon Him.” In the flesh, Jesus can trace his ancestry through His mother and adoptive father Joseph, all the way back to Jesse.

Adore the birth by which you were loosed from the chains of your birth (Luke 2:1-5), and honor little Bethlehem, which has led you back to Paradise.... With shepherds glorify Him; with angels join in chorus; with archangels sing hymns. Let this Festival be common to the powers upon earth. - St Gregory the Theologian

“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.”
Saint John of Konstradt

Make this Christmas to be about the Incarnation of God Himself as Jesus Christ.

Apolytikion: (Fourth Tone)
Your birth, O Christ our God, dawned the light of knowledge upon the earth. For by Your birth those who adored stars, were taught by a star, to worship You, the Sun of Justice and to know You, Orient from on High. O Lord, glory to You.

Kontakion: (Third Tone)
Today, the Virgin bears Him who is transcendent, and the earth presents the cave to Him who is beyond reach. Angels, along with shepherds glorify Him. The Magi make their way to Him by a star. For a new child has been born for us, the God before all ages.

Reference: The icon used can be obtained from the Orthodox Monastery Store, made by the nuns of the Paracletos Greek Orthodox Monastery in Abbeville, SC