Christ is Born…. Glorify Him!
Question: How are the Old and New Testament related? This time of year is the best time to ask this question. As we prepare to celebrate the Nativity in the Flesh, the best thing we can ask is what relationship between the two parts of the Bible. For we Orthodox, the Old and New Testaments are inexorably linked. The Old Testament is the foretelling of the New. It holds up a mirror to Christ and to all the individual features of his life. What do I mean? Shall we look at the details?
- Virgin Birth: Isaiah 7, 14 and Ezekiel 44, 27 – 44:4
- Birth in Bethlehem: Micah 4 – 5
- The Adoration of the Magi: Numbers 24, 15 – 17
- Christ the Prince of Peace: Isaiah 6, 6 – 7.
These details of the Nativity show how God prepared the world through His prophets. The Old Testament provides us Christ in shadow and in smoke. The word that the Church uses for this relationship is foreshadow. The arrival of the Messiah was an event for which God had to prepare the world. Christmas is two days away, are you spiritually prepared?
Question: What is an apostolic father? Today, this is a fitting question. It is the feastday of St. Ignatius of Antioch, the God-bearer. St Ignatius was the second bishop of Antioch after St. Peter. Back to the original question, Ignatius is an apostolic father; because he was a disciple of an apostle of Christ. In St. Ignatius’ case, he was a disciple of St John the Evangelist, the beloved disciple of Christ. His writings allow us to see the development of theology in the first part of the second century. Ignatius was sentenced to death in the arena at Rome about 108 AD. On his way to his death from Antioch, Ignatius wrote several letters to various Churches along the route. These epistles give a serious glimpse into the early theology of the nascent Christian Church. Some of the most interesting topics which Ignatius discussed were the three distinct pastoral offices: bishop, presbyter and deacon, the concept of divine economy (God’s plan of salvation), the idea of Christ as the God/Man, the theology of the Episcopos (Bishop) and the role of Rome in the early Christian community.
Ignatius is known as the “God-bearer” which features his theological concept of being in Christ. This is the idea that centres us on Bethlehem. Each of us are called to welcome Christ to be born in our hearts as He was in the manger. Ignatius prays for the Church:
I pray that there may be a union based on the flesh and
the spirit of Jesus Christ, who is everlasting life, a union
of faith and love, to which nothing is to be preferred, but
especially a union with Jesus and the Father.
(Epistle to the Magnesians)
Here we see Christians are united to Christ. They allow Christ to be born into their hearts and their community through the Eucharist, in communion with their Bishop. All Christians are called to be Christ-bearers as was St. Ignatius. This is our calling. This is the destination of our journey to Bethlehem.
Question: I have heard other “church leaders” say that virgin birth is just a myth, is this true? The only thing true about this statement is that it has been said. For us Orthodox Christians one of the sad things about modern Christianity is that we have stopped using the word Heresy. It is quite “vogue” to point fingers at historical beliefs of the Church and to say, “Oh those were unsophisticated ideas for simple people.” If one takes the time to read the theological opinions and treatises of the Fathers and Mothers of the Church, you cannot use the word “unsophisticated” about them in any way. The post-modern concepts that ridicule the teachings as “unscientific” and folk tales only cast shadows on the expounders of such ideas.
The theology of Virgin Birth took hundreds of years to be developed and formed in the life of our Church. The theology of Christ as Fully God and Fully man had an impact on the understanding of Mary of Nazareth. Today, in the Gospel reading of the Genealogy of Christ, Matthew 1, 1 – 25. We are confronted by the humanity of Christ and His entire human lineage. But, what about “virgin birth” how could that happen? There is the greatest question of all. It could happen, because God willed to happen! This is the Mystery of Incarnation. God willed to be contained in His creation, born of His creature contained in the womb of a young Virgin. To continue this Mystery, God further willed that she would bear a child by the Holy Spirit, the pre-eternal God. The unbelievable is real. The Theotokos bears the God/Man, while retaining her virginity. For us Orthodox (and Roman Catholics), Mary remains a Virgin before, during and after Christ’s birth. How can this be? By faith, we thus believe in God’s promise and fulfilment in Christ Jesus. Mary is the “panagia” forever holy. Perpetually Virgin, pure and a willing participant in the greatest miracle in the history of the world. Miracles are not explained they are believed. Our icons of the Theotokos testify to this reality. The stars on the maphorion (veil) of the Theotokos show us three stars. One on her Forehead and one each on her shoulders. A Virgin: before, during and after the Nativity of our Lord.
Question: Do I know what the Church is? This might at first appear to be a foolish questions to ask, but I do not ask it lightly. Most of us adults in the Church are too embarrassed to admit we don’t understand. What don’t we understand? We don’t know what the Church is! Perhaps, the most basic question we should ask is: “Do we have a personal relationship with Christ?” Ours is a personal God who came to earth, being born in a manger, so that each of us could enjoy a personal relationship with Him. After His crucifixion and resurrection, He sent His Holy Spirit to empower us; so that we could truly live. With our Baptism, we become new creatures in Christ, free of sin. With our Chrismation, we are given, as a free gift, His Spirit to allow us to grow in Him. By partaking in Holy Communion, we become united to Christ. The added dimension is that we are also united to everyone who participates in His Body and His Blood. The Church is actualised when we, as the faithful, come together and become the Body of Christ.
Through God’s Holy Spirit, we are no longer lonely individuals. We become personally united with Christ and through Him with each other. The Church transcends time and space. It has a cosmic dimension that connects us withHim and all Christians. This bond is not limited by physical death, time or place. The Church is Christ and all who are joined with him. This miracle is a mystery of faith. As St. Paul explains in his Letter to the Hebrews: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen” (Hebrews 11, 1). We cannot see the Church, yet it is! It is for us the ultimate reality; the Kingdom of God on earth and a foretaste of heaven. This is as personal a relationship that we could ever experience. Once again, St. Paul says it best, “ I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.
Northern lights – the Aurora Borealis, this phenomenon has longed amazed us. As we look into the northern skies, we Orthodox should remember that we have our own northern luminaries. Today is a great day to reflect on our own stars from the North. Today, Orthodoxy commemorates the first North American to be canonised a Saint. St Herman (Germanos) of Alaska was one of the trailblazers of the faith, who came to these shore not to find treasure, but to bring a treasure, the Holy Orthodox faith. Yesterday, the Church commemorated a spiritual descendant of St. Herman, a martyr for the faith, St. Peter the Aleut. In these two days, we look at labour and its fruit. St. Herman was the labourer and St. Peter the fruit of the labour. How can we Orthodox faithful in America not rejoice today? No matter what our own backgrounds, how can we not express admiration and ask for the blessing of St. Herman? As the Enlightener of the Aleuts, Herman worked to save souls and to bring Christ to the Native peoples of Russian Alaska. The light by which he enlightened is brighter today because of the seeds St. Herman planted. Orthodoxy is no longer a strange faith from a foreign land, but part of the fabric of life on this continent. As we see in the news, a raging blizzard is blowing across the Midwest. We hear of travel delays, snow and ice paralysing the country, but think how it was in the early nineteenth century in the small hut of St. Herman. He had the warmth of God’s Holy Spirit and the brightness within his heart to warm his hut. He has become an adornment in the northern sky. Even though the Aurora Borealis is a natural occurrence; perhaps, it is God’s way of focusing our spiritual eyes on the great northern lights of Orthodoxy.
All these icons look alike! How many time have we Orthodox heard this comment about icons. The reality is that there are subtle differences, often with great theological meaning. Today, is one of these times. The saint who we commemorate today is St Spyridon of Thymithous. Look closely, what is different about this icon? We see the familiar icon of a hierarch of the Church with his ecclesial vestments and carrying the Gospel book. Not much different from many icons we see in the Church. But, when we look closely we notice a strange hat on the figure. Most icons of the hierarchs are bare headed, what is the meaning of this strange triangular hat. By reading a bit, we discover that St. Spyridon had been a shepherd and was elected bishop because of his great piety. What did Spyridon do then? According to the Prologue of Ohrid, he continued to live simply and care for his livestock. He also shepherded his spiritual flock the people of his diocese. He was devoted to being a shepherd of souls. As we know, St. Spyridon was present at the first Ecumenical Council. A country bishop from a backwater diocese, really an unsophisticated, uneducated delegate. As his story tells us, the Holy Spirit enlightened Spyridon to expound the true theology of Christ, fully man and fully God. While he preached the truth, Arian one of the most erudite scholars in the Empire was put to shame. A shepherd and a bishop; perhaps our modern hierarchs can remember that they are at their hearts – simple shepherds.
“Can you tell me the differences between the Roman Catholic Church and our Church?’ I cannot tell you how often I have been asked this question! Well, today is a big part of that answer. Today, we commemorate The Conception of the Theotokos by Saints Anna and Joachim. Last night, I wrote about this holy couple’s great desire to have God intercede in their lives, listen to their prayers and bless them with a child. Not unlike Sara and Abraham and other Old Testament couples, Joachim and Anna were advanced in age, perhaps too advanced. But, God did heard their prayers and allowed them to conceive. This is the first important point that must be noted, the Virgin Mary was conceived in the normal biological manner; the product of the loving union between a husband and wife. God’s blessing and the intervention of His Holy Spirit enabled this to happen. This is one of the reasons Joachim and Anna are the image of married bliss for Orthodox couples.
The Conception of the Theotokos is a source of another divergence in theology between Orthodoxy and Catholicism. We, Orthodox, do not believe in the “Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary.” We must be very careful here! We (Orthodox) DO believe that Our Lord Jesus Christ was Immaculately Conceived. Christ being Fully God and Full Man was born without sin. God can not have sin. But this was not the case for his mother, the Theotokos. The Orthodox Church teaches that Mary was born with sin, just as all of humanity. Furthermore, the Church believes that Mary lived a life of purity and she found favour with God because of her righteousness. She was cleansed of her sin by the Spirit of God at the Annunciation, so that she could carry the Christ Child within her body.
Turning to the Roman Catholic understanding, it started to divert from the Orthodox very early. The Western Church began to develop the teaching of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin. Their teaching states that God, fore-knowing, that Mary would bear the Christ; provided that she was born without sin. This teaching was a pious belief until 1854, when Pope Pius lX declared the teaching – dogma of the Catholic Church. This decree was then ratified by Vatican I in 1870. So we can see this is a relatively new doctrine. This is a rather simplistic explanation. There are other deeper theological implications, but nonetheless, the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary is a major area of theological disagreement between the two Churches.
Today is one of those days of preparation that the Church provides us to get ready for a holiday. Tomorrow, we commemorate the Conception of the Theotokos. Today, we get ready. We have an opportunity to pause and consider the importance of the coming event. Where should we look for a better understanding of the feast? Like many feasts of the Church this occurrence is not documented “in the Bible,” yet it is a significant happening in salvation history. Where does one go to learn about this festival? Where do you start? I decided to ask this question out loud; so that we could learn from each other. We know that the hymns of the Church describe the theology of a feast. What do they say? The Troparion sung at the Vespers for tomorrow speaks of the “bonds of barrenness being loosed” and of the “prayers” of Joachim and Anna asking for “birth beyond hope.” What do these clues tell us? If we read closely, we see that this couple was without children and beyond the hope of having children, they prayed for God to change their life.
In an earlier post, we stated that many of our hymnographers got inspiration from the other writings, from the Christian Apocrypha. The book, the Protevagelium of James, (The Infancy Gospel of James) tells us the story of the birth of the Virgin Mary. We read in the first part of this book about the “prayer of St. Anna.” In her garden, Anna turns to God in her prayer. She describes her barren womb as contrasted to the fruitfulness of the natural creation. Anna begs Our Lord to bless her and allow to “bring forth fruit in her season.” An angel of the Lord appears to St. Anna and informs her that God has heard her prayer. He tells her that she would conceive and give birth to a child. In gratitude, Anna pledges to dedicate her child as a gift to God, since it would be a gift from God. Not only are these ancient sources inspiration for hymnographers; but also for iconographers (as we can see above). The child, which the angel announces is conceived as every child is, as a blessing from God; but this child is a blessing for all of humanity.
** Continued from Nov. 26 Post…
Let’s consider the words: “Thine own of thine Own.” What does this mean? With these words, we acknowledge that all is God’s. He has give us the bounty, but there is an even more basic dimension. God has given man wheat, water, salt and yeast. He has given us sugar and grapes. These are the raw materials for the bread and the wine, but it is not complete. We have to add something, something only we can, our effort. We must take God’s gifts and add our human effort to create bread and wine. We must work with the raw materials plus our effort. But, now they are just plain bread and plain wine. What is the missing ingredient? …PRAYER.
As we include this essential ingredient, we also add our intention to dedicating this effort and these gifts to God. This is symbolised by the Seal which we stamp on the bread. With this dedication and our prayers we bring the offering to the Church. Then God begins to interact with man, just as he did with His Incarnation. He takes our offering and adds His Blessing. Before, it can come to the altar as an offering; it must become more than the self centred gift of one person or one family. In the Service of the Oblation (the Proskomidi) our offering is expanded to include the entire cosmic reality of God’s world, this is what is on the Paten which will be brought to the Altar with the Chalice in the Great Entrance and offered to God. “Thine own of Thine Own,” but what is the rest of it? For all, that is all of God’s creation and on behalf of all, each and every one of us. This is the ultimate Thanksgiving, this is the connection we have with all of God’s created world, the entire Christian family, both living and departed and the with the Cosmos. Ultimately, these gifts are not only blessed, they are consecrated by God’s Holy Spirit; which is send down upon ‘us and upon these Gifts here presented’ in an Universal Thanksgiving for Salvation of the world by Christ Jesus. AMEN