StNicholasSouthbridgeII

Go to content

Main menu

Meditations

 
 

To access other pages simply hover your mouse over "Meditations" and move  it to the right or to the left.

The Prayer of St. Ephrem is, perhaps, the quintessential Lenten prayer. When you think of it, it should be the quintessential prayer for each and every day of our life. For, in just a few sentences, it expresses the heart of what it means to be a Christian.

" O, Lord and Master of my life! Do not give me a spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power and idle talk. But give, rather, a spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to Your servant. Yes, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own transgressions and not to judge my brother, for You are holy to the ages of ages. Amen"



"O, Lord and Master of my life..."


We immediately call to mind that our lives are not our own but that we belong to God. Contrary to the philosophical, political, psychological and ethical theories centered on the needs, rights and desires of the "sovereign self" that one can find in just about any bookstore today, we are not autonomous beings and we are most certainly not the "captain of (our) souls--the master of (our) own destinies". We are always dependent creatures--never independent. Deprived of oxygen not a single one of us can live for more than a couple of minutes, no matter how great our intellect, will, or physical courage. Our 'creatureliness' makes us by nature to be dependent on others, and most especially, to be dependent on God. It is when we finally accept this that we can turn to Him as "Lord and Master" and hope to acquire the treasures necessary for eternal life.

" Do not give me a spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power, and idle talk...."

The Greek form of the prayer (the original--or, at least the oldest version we have) implores that God should not give us a spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power, and idle talk. Some of the later versions ask Him to "take from" us those vices. The original version is more striking because it, (like the famous lines in the Lord's Prayer which ask, "lead us not into temptation"), reminds us that God has made us free and will give us over to our inclinations if we will not repent. Think of Pharaoh, whose heart was hardened against Moses and the people of Israel; he was not a good man whom the Lord led astray, but a vain and prideful man whom the Lord "gave over" to his wickedness until he went down in defeat and humiliation.

In St. Ephrem's prayer we are asking specifically not to be handed over to some very common sins. Let's look at them more closely.

Sloth is the state of spiritual laziness, the ennui or boredom and lack of purpose that seems to have become a hallmark of modern life. We are constantly seeking to be entertained, stimulated, distracted. These are symptoms of sloth, the condition in which a person does not take responsibility for his or her own state of consciousness (and conscience!).

Despair is the state of futility or hopelessness; it is the "I give up" mentality that whines that we are not in control of our own thoughts, desires, and habits. Note that this is very different from the false sense of "being in control" that our society so values. It is an inner, rather than outward, state. Despair allows us to make the excuses we use when we fall into sin, the "I can't help myself. It's just the way I am" mentality (spoken outwardly or inwardly) that says we are beyond change and, thus, beyond all hope. Don't be mistaken, this is no small sin; it is one of the very greatest because it blocks the way to repentance. A despairing person may feel remorse by she or he cannot summon up the energy to repent.

Lust of Power is the desire to "be in charge", the "control freak" in us that demands that we "are the captain of (our ) own ship, the master of (our) own destiny"--and not only our own, but everyone else's too! We often think that this sin is requires a position of great power--an important job as a corporate executive, a political leader, or something of the kind. But lust of power can and often is practiced by the parent who tries to micro manage his or her children's lives, the spouse who must always make the plans and give the commands, the small time manager who cannot leave others to make the simplest decisions. We clergy are very often guilty of this one!

Idle talk is not just gossip, though it is certainly that, too. It is all the wasted, silly, meaningless words we utter in the course of a day--the "conversations" that do more to hide our true selves than to reveal them (though we often have reason not to want our 'true selves' to be revealed!). How many office conversations have to do with sexual relationships (0ur own or someone elses) that in themselves are ungodly and demeaning to both partners? How many mean spirited digs do we get in about co-workers under the pretense of 'discussing' a project or job at hand? How often do we murder the reputations of our fellow parishioners by gossipping about their habits, faults, and human short-comings? The psalmist urges us to 'set a guard' over our lips, but how difficult it is to do!

Now, for the positives, "but give, rather, a spirit of chastity, humility, and patience to Your servant". Just as God will give the wicked over to their desires He will also give those who truly desire to be good over to goodness--though it will come with effort. Both evil and good require work. Our goals and desires are not accomplished without effort. Even despair is a habit of the heart and soul that must be cultivated. One cannot have it without screening out the beauty and goodness of God's creation.

Chastity is very far from being a matter of sexual purity alone. It is certainly that--the purity of refraining from sexual relationships outside of marriage and the unselfish and loving enjoyment of them within a Christian marriage is an essential. But, all too often, our understanding of chastity stops with sex, which is profoundly sad. True chastity is a way of being, it is the 'purity of heart' that Jesus spoke of in His sermon on the mount. To be chaste means to approach all things with a 'clean heart' and a 'right spirit' (Psalm 51). It excludes gluttony, sexual lust and perversion, deceit, gossip, and all the other vices. The spirit of chastity is truly beautiful because it refuses to allow anything twisted or sinful to reside within us. It doesn't deny that those things exist; it simply does not make excuses for them--in ourselves.

Humility is another Christian virtue that is greatly misunderstood. Americans do not hold it in high regard because we often interpret it to mean one must "act like a doormat" and allow herself or himself to be "stepped on". True humility means to have a proper sense of our mortality, our limitedness, our status as creatures. Humus in Latin refers to the earth we walk on, the elements from which we are taken and to which we will one day return. It is the profound recognition that we are not self-sufficient and that our hopes rest not in our own accomplishments and strengths but in the love and mercy of God.

Patience is another virtue that is often honored in the breach by modern Americans. We are a people who want things to happen "yesterday". We don't like to wait for anything; our whole culture is geared toward action. We create "labor saving devices" so that we can find other things to do! But Jesus tell us, "in patience you posses your souls" (Luke 21:19). Indeed, we cannot even begin to make spiritual progress until we admit that we are in it for the long haul, meaning for the rest of our lives. There are no quick fixes in the spiritual path, no easy "enlightenment". Orthodoxy rejects the idea that a simple declaration of faith in Jesus is enough to save us (for, again, as the Scripture teaches, even the devils believe--but to no good end). To be a follower of Jesus is to patiently carry our cross to the end. This means that we accept the fact that our life will be one of constant struggle with many set backs. The only way to make it through is to plod ahead, patiently, day after day knowing that we are never left alone in our struggles. The Lord is with us along with the entire company of saints and our guardian angels. And we are given the great grace of sacramental confession and absolution when we fall. All that is required of us is repentance and patience that, with God's help, we will be triumphant in the end. The greatest danger is giving up (the spirit of sloth and despair).

Love is perhaps the least understood of the virtues. The word is so misused that we have almost forgotten its true meaning. We say we love our car, our house, our various possessions. We confuse mere sexual attraction and fornication with loving another leaving the greatest of the virtues dispossessed of its beauty and depth. Christian love always involves a relationship that requires giving up something of oneself for the sake of another. It is profoundly sacrificial and absolutely never concerned with self satisfaction. Clearly, this eliminates the vast majority of situations that modern people associate with "love". Our contemporary understanding of the term usually involves first and foremost self fulfillment and self satisfaction; love, in this case, is about what one gets not what gives. This is the absolute opposite of what is meant by love in the New Testament. When St. John declares, "God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son" (Jn 3:16), he is declaring what God gave to us in Christ; he is setting the stage for the great mystery of the Divine Self-sacrifice for the sake of our salvation.

Love requires a response--either positive or negative; we can embrace the One who loves us or spurn Him but cannot remain indifferent because the Divine Lover will not go unanswered. Likewise, those who claim to love God must also love their neighbor (which the gospels have shown to mean everyone). Those who don't (or at least aren't trying to) are liars. This commandment is even more powerful when it comes to those who are closest to us. In America today over half of all marriages fail. People who declared that their love was so deep that they wanted to be united for the rest of their lives often abandon each other within a couple of years. Why? Obviously because they understood marriage in terms of what they could get, not what they could give but for what they could get. For when the guaranteed day arrives when they realize that their partner is incapable of giving them everything they desire, they abandon the relationship, (though it is questionable whether any real "relationship" ever existed in the first place). Marriage, as anyone who has been in one for a long time knows, is far more about giving--and forgiving-- than with taking.

Yes, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own faults and not to judge my brother. For You are holy unto the ages of ages. Amen.

The final lines of St. Ephrem's prayer take us back to Jesus'steaching about fault-finding, where are told to "remove the plank from (our) own eye" (Matthew 7:5-7) before we go about taking the "speck" from an other's. Orthodox spirituality is very serious about the need for each person to acknowledge his or her own sins. In the prayer before communion we speak of ourselves as "first among sinners" and this is not hyperbole. We are called to believe it! Why? Because we can only be responsible for repenting of our own sins. We can only work out our own salvation and no one else's (Philippians 2:12-18). Our broken nature, however, makes us want to concentrate on "improving" others--our spouse, our children, our students, our fellow workers, the people in our parish and so on. It is so easy to see their shortcomings and so hard to acknowledge our own!

But the gospel makes it abundantly clear that if we do not learn to point the finger at ourselves we, like the Pharisee in the parable of the Tax Collector and the Pharisee, will find ourselves locked out of the Kingdom. Our attitude towards the faults of others must always be to look within ourselves. It doesn't mean that we excuse evil, but we look for the first (and ultimately the only place) where can actually do something about it. And, if we practice the habit of self examination, we will generally discover that what we hate in others can be found in ourselves. Do we call someone else neglectful? Where are we being neglectful ourselves? Do we call someone else manipulative? How are we attempting to manipulate others and so on.

The very last reminder in the prayer is of God's holiness. He is the only truly "good" one and, just as we began the prayer by acknowledging Him as "Lord and Master" we end it by proclaiming that He alone is set apart (the true meaning of 'holiness') from sin. The Christian confession that Jesus is God, the eternal and only-begotten Son, reminds us that there is only One good enough and strong enough to save us from the multitude of sins that we commit both "willingly and unwillingly". The only hope we have for moving from the sinful spiritual states described in the first part of the prayer to the righteous state of the latter part is through uniting ourselves to Christ and His Church, remembering that the Church is the 'school-house of salvation" according to the Fathers. Our lessons are life long and we will not master them completely in this world. Our "homework" each and every day of our life is to keep trying.




THE GREAT BLESSING OF WATER


The Old Testament Readings from Isaiah and the Prayer of Blessing over the water today are full of images of joyful deliverance. We are reminded of Moses leading the people of Israel through the Red Sea; we are told of deserts blooming, of bitter waters being made sweet. In the Jordan, the 'heads of serpents'-- meaning the devil and his legions--are crushed by Christ in His baptism   ( a baptism which He does not need, but one which He accepts on behalf of us all, so that our baptisms may be effective).
Water today is sanctified, filled with light and life and the whole creation--even the very moon and stars rejoice with us in its transformation!

Why such joy and delight in this blessing? Because we know that water, like the other elements of creation, also bears a curse.

When removed, cut off from its original state and placed in the broken, fallen state of this order water, the source of all life can become source of death and immense destruction. The terrible images of the Indonesian tsunami and the destruction of the city of New Orleans over the past couple of years are more convincing than any number of words can be.

Our ancient forbears knew this well; the Psalmist spoke of the terrors of the deep, of the waters going up over our heads. The pagans worshipped the natural forces out of fear of them. Today's 'New Ager's' fool themselves when they pretend that those pre Christian cultures were composed of gentle earth loving peoples; the people of those days lived in terror of the universe which surrounded them because it could swallow them up at any moment.  

We Orthodox Christians have never been afraid to point out that the consequences of the original sin, the first Fall, were cosmic--involving the entire created order. Everything went awry when the angelic powers rebelled and when our first forebears disobeyed in that proverbial garden.
The Blessing of Water reminds us that in spite of the disorder of this, the broken, sin filled universe is not the last word. God is in control. God has responded. God will set things right. And nothing, NO ONE is lost to Him.
The Divine response to the ruination of the Universe was for "the Only Begotten God, who is in the bosom of the Father" (see John 1:18) to come into the world for loves sake (Jn 3:16) for its salvation.

Water, the sign of life, cleansing, and deliverance (recall the images of Noah and the flood, the escape from Egypt, and finally of baptism itself) stands as a paradox: the cleansing flood of Noah was the death of a world; Israel's escape was the death of Pharaoh's army, and even baptism is a reminder of Christ's burial as well as of His resurrection.

We rejoice as the water is blessed because it anticipates the Kingdom that is coming and is even now mystically among us for in that day all things will return to their intended state and there will be only rejoicing in the seas and on land and in the heavens above.

"Today the Sun that never sets has dawned and the world is made radiant with the light of the Lord. Today the Moon with its radiant beams sheds light on the world. Today the stars formed of light make the inhabited world lovely with the brightness of their splendor Today the clouds rain down from heaven the shower of justice for mankind
Today the streams of Jordan are changed into healing by the presence of the Lord. Today all creation is watered by mystical streams. Today the failings of mankind are being washed away by the waters of Jordan. Today Paradise is opened for mortals and the Sun of justice shines down on us. Today the bitter water as once for Moses’ people is changed to sweetness by the presence of the Lord".
From the Great Blessing of Water






NATIVITY MEDITATIONS 2014

“What mysteries beyond mind and speech! God in His compassion is born on earth, putting on the form of a servant that He may snatch from servitude to the enemy those who with fervent love cry out: Blessed art Thou, O Savior, who loves humankind” (Matins of the Pre-feast of the Nativity of the Lord)

Why did God become a man? Why did He take on the weakness of our human nature? What was the true purpose of the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity?
The answer to those questions reveals the fundamental mystery of our salvation; the “mystery of mysteries” which we ponder as we prepare for the celebration of our Lord’s birth in the flesh.
Over and over again the answer is given: because He loves us, because it is His will to save us from our oppressor, from the malice of the enemy who has enslaved us to fear, to sin, to death.
The surpassingly beautiful hymns of the Christmas services proclaim over and over again the mystery of Love Incarnate.

“The holy sayings of the Prophets have been fulfilled in the city of Bethlehem within a cave. The whole creation is made rich: let it rejoice and be of good cheer. The Master of all has come to live with His servants, and from the bondage of the enemy He delivers us who were made subject to corruption. In swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, He is made manifest a young Child, the pre-eternal God.”

Not only does He come for the sake of lost humanity, but, “the whole creation is made rich”! The very cave in which He is born is sanctified; the lowly beasts are witnesses to the unfathomable compassion of the Lord of All the Worlds!
Orthodoxy has never forgotten the words of St. Paul in Romans chapter eight  where we are told that the whole creation has waited expectantly for the revelation of the Son of God, for the healing of the whole universe, which had been subjected to futility and suffering on account of the rebellion, first of the angels and, through temptation, humankind.
What beauty! What a sublime and lovely revelation of God’s mercy and compassion! He comes for the sake of all—no one, no thing, is excluded!

“Let the creation now cast off all things old, beholding You the Creator made a child. For through Your birth You shape all things afresh, making them new once more and leading them back again to their first beauty.”
Here are echoes of the hymns which we sing in Great Lent, reminding us of the “rustling leaves of Paradise” which we lost through disobedience. Now they are spiritually restored to us, now the whole creation is put back on the road to salvation—to it’s original beauty.
“Behold, the Most Holy Word comes unto His own in a holy Body …. By a strange birth He makes His own the world that was estranged. To Him let us sing in praise, who became poor for us.”
What is the purpose for His coming? Why did God become a man?
To put an end to alienation and estrangement, to reconcile, to heal, to redeem, to undo the curse of separation.
“Let the kings of the whole earth sing rejoicing, and let the companies of the nations be exceedingly joyful. Mountains, hills and hollows, rivers and seas, and the whole creation magnify the Lord who now is born!”

The world is no longer separated into hostile ethnic groups, no longer subject to the caprice of fallen nature, because we recognize the “new creation” which is being established mysteriously in our midst—the Church! The wise men from Persia and the Chosen nation, Israel, come together to witness the birth of the Savior. The stars bear witness, the earth offers a cave, the lowly beasts offer their warmth, the human race offers our flesh through the Virgin mother. The old divisions are overcome! Who can fully comprehend this mystery?

“What shall we offer Thee, O Christ, who for our sakes has appeared on earth as man? Every creature made by Thee offers Thee thanks. The angels offer Thee a hymn; the heavens a star; the Magi, gifts; the shepherds, their wonder; the earth, its cave; the wilderness, the manger: and we offer Thee a Virgin Mother, O pre-eternal God, have mercy on us!”

Look as hard as you will in the hymns that proclaim the Lord’s birth, look as hard as you will in the Scriptures that record His coming among us and you will find no other message than that of liberation from darkness and perversion. You will discover no other reality than the joyful response of God’s creation to His infinite Love and Mercy. There is no wrath, no anger, no talk of judgment (except for the judgment laid against the enemy who corrupted us--and against those, like Herod, who consciously and knowingly reject Christ and attempt to destroy Him). There is only the gospel (good news) message of restored communion between God and His creation.

“Heaven and earth are united today, for Christ is born! Today God has come upon earth, and man has gone up to heaven. Today for man’s sake is seen in the flesh He Who by nature is invisible. Therefore let us also give glory and cry aloud to Him: Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, which Thy coming has bestowed upon us, O Savior, glory to Thee!”

How beautiful this mystery! How infinitely gracious, our God! Who can possibly tell of all His mighty works? Who can fathom the depths of His compassion and love? How precious the Name of the one by Whom we are saved: Jesus, our Emmanuel (God-with-us)!




SINGING THE MYSTERY OF SALVATION: AN ORTHODOX CHRISTMAS MEDITATION


Bethlehem has opened Eden.  Come, let us see! We have found joy in a secret place. Come, let us seize Paradise hidden in the cave! There the Unwatered Root has appeared,  blossoming with  forgiveness. There is found the Undug Well,  from which David longed to drink of old. There the Virgin has borne a child,  quenching Adam’s and David’s thirst. Let us hurry to this place, where the eternal God was born as a little Child!


Orthodox Christianity expresses its deepest theology in prayer—specifically in liturgical prayer. What we believe we proclaim in our worship and when we do so we tend to sing it! The Feast of the Nativity in the Flesh of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ, or, more simply, Christmas is especially filled with sung theology in our tradition. The hymn quoted above and all the others in this article are sung as fixed parts of the various services of Christmas in the Orthodox tradition.

We begin our proclamation of the great mystery of the Incarnation—the enfleshment of God as a human being—not on December 25, but nine months earlier at the Feast of the Annunciation when the Church sings:

Oh, wonder! God is come among men! He Who cannot be contained is contained in a womb; the Timeless One enters time. Oh, great mystery! His conception is without seed, His emptying past telling! So great is this mystery!!For God empties Himself, takes flesh, and is fashioned as a Creature…

This has tremendous moral and ethical ramifications, as it teaches us that God becomes one of us at the very moment of conception—at the very beginning of our existence and explains the Orthodox Church’s unyielding pro-life stand.

In the Christmas hymn at the beginning of this meditation our understanding of the sacredness of human life is given an added dimension; in it we are told something of the why God became human. He did so to show us the way to a deeper joy than this world can ever provide; He did so to show us the way back to Paradise through the healing grace of forgiveness; He did so to quench our thirst for understanding and hope in the face of what  often appears to be a meaningless and hopeless existence. As an aside, I often think that the best response to ardent atheists like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens isn’t to engage them in a battle of logical statements but to confront the meaninglessness and hopelessness of their universe with the richness and joy of the universe revealed to us in Jesus Christ, God become a man for our salvation.  I see little hope of changing any atheist’s mind, but a clear articulation of the ultimate emptiness of what they believe in (can one actually believe in nothing?) certainly makes the Orthodox affirmation of life, light, and joy much more powerful.

The hymn below speaks of a whole universe filled with joy and light—one in which every creature (recall the cattle in the manger and the sheep in the fields) join with the human race to rejoice in the coming of the One who will deliver us from all sorrow and confusion.  There can be no doubt that all life has a meaning and direction in the mind of God and that He concerns Himself with each and every creature He has made.

Your Kingdom endures forever, O Christ our God. Your rule is from age to age. Made flesh by the Holy Spirit, made man of the ever-virgin Mary, You have filled all creation with joy. The light of Your coming has shone on us; every living creature praises You, the Image of the Father’s glory. Light of Light, the radiance of the Father, the same yesterday, today, and forever, You have shone forth from the Virgin. O God, have mercy on us!

But the celebration of God with us in the infant Christ is not unidirectional. We have a part to play in it, too. We are called to make a response to the offer of salvation. In fact, the whole creation has a role to play—as is made wonderfully clear below.

What shall we offer You, O Christ, Who for our sakes have appeared on earth as a man?
Every creature made by You offers You thanks: the Angels offer a hymn; the heavens, a star;
the Wise Men, gifts; the shepherds, their wonder; the earth, its cave; the wilderness, a manger, and we offer You a virgin Mother


In order for God to become one of us, one of us had to be willing to allow Him in and the one to do so was none other than the Virgin, Mary. This event occurred on the day of the Annunciation when she accepted the Angelic greeting from Gabriel and said, “Be it done to me according to your word!” (Luke 1:38) and in so doing opened the way for God to enter into human existence. What a wonderful affirmation of human freedom and Divine humility! It explains the Orthodox veneration of the Virgin better than a hundred books filled with theological rationalizations. Why do we love and honor her so? Look what she has done for us—expressed so beautifully in these words:

All of creation rejoices in you, O Full of Grace: the assembly of Angels and the race of men.
O sanctified temple and spiritual paradise, the glory of virgins, from whom God was incarnate and became a Child –our God before the ages. He made your body into a throne, and your womb He made more spacious than the heavens. All of creation rejoices in you, O Full of Grace.  Glory to you!

Again, all of this is sung as part of the various Christmas services. All we need do is open our ears and hearts to contemplate the deepest and most beautiful of mysteries—the coming of God in the flesh as one of us.  The hymns sung at Matins on Christmas tell us more specifically about the reason for His coming among us; they answer the question, “Why did God become a man?”

Christ is born, glorify Him! Christ comes from heaven, go to meet Him! Christ is on earth, be exalted! Sing to the Lord, all the earth, and praise Him in gladness, O people, for He has been glorified!

Man was made in the image of God, but he sinned, and lost immortality.  He fell from the divine and better life, enslaved completely by corruption.  Now the wise Creator fashions him again, for He has been glorified.

The Creator shaped man with His own hands, but when He saw us perishing eternally, He bowed the heavens and came down to earth, and clothed Himself completely in our nature, truly incarnate from a pure and holy Virgin, for He has been glorified.

Wisdom, and Word, and Power, Christ our God is the Father’s Son, His Radiance.  He was made man, a mystery concealed from every spirit above or on the earth.  He has won us for Himself, for He has been glorified.


Why did He do it? To “win us for Himself” when “He saw us perishing eternally”; to refashion us back into the image He had given us in Paradise; to show us that life does indeed have a meaning and purpose and that His light and love are stronger than the darkness and despair that is so powerful in our world today.

The great, good, and wondrous message of Christmas as we experience it in our Orthodox tradition is that there is still hope—hope for each and every one of us personally and hope for the entire world and all the creatures in it. Everyone and everything counts. We know this, we pray it and we sing it in our celebration of the festival of God’s birth in the manger—for us and for our salvation.




“What mysteries beyond mind and speech! God in His compassion is born on earth, putting on the form of a servant that He may snatch from servitude to the enemy those who with fervent love cry out: Blessed art Thou, O Savior, who loves humankind” (Matins of the Pre-feast of the Nativity of the Lord)

Why did God become a man? Why did He take on the weakness of our human nature? What was the true purpose of the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity?

The answer to those questions reveals the fundamental mystery of our salvation; the “mystery of mysteries” which we ponder as we prepare for the celebration of our Lord’s birth in the flesh.

Over and over again the answer is given: because He loves us, because it is His will to save us from our oppressor, from the malice of the enemy who has enslaved us to fear, to sin, to death.

The surpassingly beautiful hymns of the Christmas services proclaim over and over again the mystery of Love Incarnate.

“The holy sayings of the Prophets have been fulfilled in the city of Bethlehem within a cave. The whole creation is made rich: let it rejoice and be of good cheer. The Master of all has come to live with His servants, and from the bondage of the enemy He delivers us who were made subject to corruption. In swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, He is made manifest a young Child, the pre-eternal God.”

Not only does He come for the sake of lost humanity, but, “the whole creation is made rich”! The very cave in which He is born is sanctified, the lowly beasts are witnesses to the unfathomable compassion of the Lord of All the Worlds!

Orthodoxy has never forgotten the words of St. Paul in Romans chapter eight where we are told that the whole creation has waited expectantly for the revelation of the Son of God, for the healing of the whole universe, which had been subjected to futility and suffering on account of the rebellion, first of the angels and, through temptation, humankind.

What beauty! What a sublime and lovely revelation of God’s mercy and compassion! He comes for the sake of all—no one, no thing, is excluded!

“Let the creation now cast off all things old, beholding You the Creator made a child. For through Your birth You shape all things afresh, making them new once more and leading them back again to their first beauty.”

Here are echoes of the hymns which we sing in Great Lent, reminding us of the “rustling leaves of Paradise” which we lost through disobedience. Now they are spiritually restored to us, now the whole creation is put back on the road to salvation—to it’s original beauty.

“ Behold, the Most Holy Word comes unto His own in a holy Body …. By a strange birth He makes His own the world that was estranged. To Him let us sing in praise, who became poor for us.”

What is the purpose for His coming? Why did God become a man?

To put an end to alienation and estrangement, to reconcile, to heal, to redeem, to undo the curse of separation.

“Let the kings of the whole earth sing rejoicing, and let the companies of the nations be exceedingly joyful. Mountains, hills and hollows, rivers and seas, and the whole creation magnify the Lord who now is born!”

The world is no longer separated into hostile ethnic groups, no longer subject to the caprice of fallen nature, because we recognize the “new creation” which is being established mysteriously in our midst—the Church! The wise men from Persia and the Chosen nation, Israel, come together to witness the birth of the Savior. The stars bear witness, the earth offers a cave, the lowly beasts offer their warmth, the human race offers our flesh through the Virgin mother. The old divisions are overcome! Who can fully comprehend this mystery?

“What shall we offer Thee, O Christ, who for our sakes has appeared on earth as man? Every creature made by Thee offers Thee thanks. The angels offer Thee a hymn; the heavens a star; the Magi, gifts; the shepherds, their wonder; the earth, its cave; the wilderness, the manger: and we offer Thee a Virgin Mother, O pre-eternal God, have mercy on us!”

Look as hard as you will in the hymns that proclaim the Lord’s birth, look as hard as you will in the Scriptures that record His coming among us and you will find no other message than that of liberation from darkness and perversion. You will discover no other reality than the joyful response of God’s creation to His infinite Love and Mercy. There is no wrath, no anger, no talk of judgment (except for the judgment laid against the enemy who corrupted us--and against those, like Herod, who consciously and knowingly reject Christ and attempt to destroy Him). There is only the gospel (good news) message of restored communion between God and His creation.

“Heaven and earth are united today, for Christ is born! Today God has come upon earth, and man has gone up to heaven. Today for man’s sake is seen in the flesh He Who by nature is invisible. Therefore let us also give glory and cry aloud to Him: Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, which Thy coming has bestowed upon us, O Savior, glory to Thee!”

How beautiful this mystery! How infinitely gracious, our God! Who can possibly tell of all His mighty works? Who can fathom the depths of His compassion and love? How precious the Name of the one by Whom we are saved: Jesus, our Emmanuel (God-with-us)!




“How is he contained in a womb, whom nothing can contain? How held in his Mother’s arms, he who is in the Father’s bosom? This is all as he knows, as he wished and as he was well pleased. For being without flesh, willingly he was made flesh; and He Who Is, for our sake has become what he was not; without departing from his own nature he shared in our matter; wishing to fill the world on high, Christ was born in two natures.” (Christmas Day Matins)

The great mystery of the Orthodox Christian faith is that the incomprehensible, almighty, eternal, and infinite Second Person of the Holy Trinity, God the Son, also partook of the finite, limited, ignorant, and mortal human nature that we all share. It is an article of faith that He became “like us in every way but sin” (Hebrews 4:15). In other word, the infant Jesus really and truly was utterly helpless, in need of the same care as any other baby. Though, as the eternal Son of God He continued to uphold the universe, as the Son of Mary—the “Son of Man”—was completely dependent on others for survival. This is the great paradox of the Christian faith and forms its central theme: He became like us that we might become like Him (St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation of Christ; The Liturgy of St. Basil: “He emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, conforming to the body of our lowliness, that He might change us in the likeness of the image of His glory”).

He became like us, so that we might become like Him!


What an astonishing affirmation of God’s love—and of our potential! Think of it, if He had simply come down from heaven in the full power and might of His divinity, He would have merely shown us what we already know: that He is perfect and we are not. But in choosing to share in the fullness of our nature—from the very moment of conception—He also chose to make our nature perfect, to show us that we can truly be healed of our afflictions, sin, and death because He has taken all these things on and redeemed them. What we could not do because of our weakness, He has done through taking on our weakness. This can only be expressed adequately in the poetry of Scripture and the Church’s hymnody. The rational mind cannot grasp it, which is why our faith is opaque to those who would rely solely on philosophy or science to make sense of the world. To accept the mystery of God-with-Us in the flesh, we must take a leap of faith, in love.

We must take a leap of faith, in love! Love alone can explain (if that word is even adequate) why God would become one of us and faith alone can accept it. There is no logical reason for the gift we receive in the incarnation of Christ. Strict justice would demand the annihilation of our race for its sins (and the condemnation of each one of us, for our constant failure to repent). Love alone can explain God’s compassion and forgiveness—to the point of even lowering Himself to become what we are.

Madeleine L’Engle, an Episcopalian writer and poet, in a poem about the Virgin Mary contemplating the birth of Jesus (alas, I cannot trace the poem anywhere) portrays the Mother of God watching a cockroach run across the door-sill and imagining a love so strong as to be willing to become such a creature! The point of the poem, at least as I took it, was that the willingness of God to condescend to our nature was akin to our willingness to become cockroaches for the sake of their nature! Of course, she was taking poetic license—but the whole, extraordinary point is that God’s leap from His infinite holiness to our finite brokenness is far, far, greater than the leap from being human to becoming a cockroach!
The hymns and carols of Christmas are full of such poetry and wonder. As we enter the season of Advent and contemplate through prayer and fasting the mystery of Christ’s birth, let’s take time to read the Scriptures and hymns appointed for the pre-feasts and festivals of Christmas and Theophany and let them sink deeply into our hearts.

May the Light of Christ which fills this Holy Season, enter each and every home and bring with it the joy that comes from that “wondrous love” which knows no limits or bounds in its compassion for us.

Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus,  who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God,  but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, andcoming in the likeness of men.  And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, 1that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth,  and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:5-11 NKJV)




JESUS IS GOD


Nearly 1600 years ago there arose a great controversy between the Patriarchs of Alexandria and Constantinople over the nature (or natures) of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Nestorius, the Patriarch of the Imperial City (Constantinople) had declared that it was wrong to refer to the Virgin Mary as ‘Theotokos’  (Birth-giver, or, Mother of God).  He stated that Mary was the mother of the man Jesus, but could never be the Mother of God (who has no beginning  and who cannot be limited in any way). He stated that it was foolish, if not sinful, to refer to a mortal woman as the mother of the immortal God.

On the surface Nestorius’ argument seemed quite logical. But Cyril saw more deeply into the implications of his opponent’s point of view If Mary is not the Mother of God but simply the mother of a man, he reasoned,  then why should we worship him? In fact, offering worship to a mere man would make us idolaters!

Nestorius said that He believed that Christ consisted of two separate subjects (identities) one of which was human and the other of which was divine. When the Gospels spoke of the human subject (the one who hungered, was afraid of death, wept for his friend Lazarus, etc.), it was the man, Jesus, that they were referring to. When they spoke of the One who raised Lazarus and the son of the widow of Nain from the dead, who walked on water and stilled the raging storm, then it was the Eternal Word of God who was being referred to. For Nestorius the two were united in the “Christ”.

St. Cyril objected to this by saying that there could only be one ‘subject’ in Christ—only one ‘identity’, only one ‘Person’, the Eternal Word and only begotten Son of God. In this case, Mary, as the one in whose womb the Eternal Word of God took flesh, could and must be called the Mother of God. Of course, Cyril did not believe that Mary gave birth to the Son of God from all eternity. She gave birth to Him in the flesh, at a certain time and place in history—in the ‘fullness of time’ as the Scriptures teach (Galatians 4:4-5).

And that is very heart of why Cyril’s teaching matters so much. In the fullness of time God Himself became a man—a human being in the tininess of a young maiden’s womb, carried for nine months, born among animals in a manger, growing in wisdom and strength through the years of childhood and adolescence, preaching the Kingdom of God and doing miracles in His manhood, and suffering a violent death at the hands of His own creatures that He might rise in glory by His own divine power! God, Who is without beginning, Who is infinite and without any kind of limitations, became finite and limited, “emptying himself and taking on the form of a slave” (Philippians 2:7).

The great mystery of the Incarnation, according to St. Cyril, is that we can truly say that God—Personally— united Himself to our broken and limited condition in order to heal our nature and to restore us to communion with Himself.

He left nothing that is natural to us outside His experience. He took on a human body (from the moment of conception); He had a human mind, soul, will, emotions—everything that pertains to being human, while at the same time remaining unchanged in His divine nature. He became what He was not (human) while remaining what He was ( the eternal, almighty, all knowing Word of God).  We confess this every week when we sing:

“Only Begotten Son and immortal Word of God, Who for our salvation willed to be incarnate of the holy Theotokos and ever-Virgin Mary, Who without change became man and was crucified, Who are One of the Holy Trinity, glorified with the Father and the Holy Spirit: O Christ our God, trampling down death by death, save us!”

St. Cyril, as with all truly Orthodox teachers, was wise enough to say that this is a mystery beyond human comprehension. We can believe it, but we cannot fully explain it. In fact, Nestorius’ problem was exactly the same problem that all heretics have—he relied too much on intellectual reasoning alone to try and ‘solve’ the mystery of God. He attempted to put everything into neat, logical, categories, forgetting that the wisdom (logic/reason) of God is foolishness to the world and the foolishness of God undoes the wisdom of the world (see 1 Corinthians 1:21-25).

This directly relates, of course, to the great mystery we celebrate on Christmas—that a weak and tiny baby is at the same time the eternal God. He is not merely ‘veiled in flesh’, He is made flesh. He unites Himself fully and completely with human flesh, and He will never again be separated from it.

We can never speak of Jesus without at the same time speaking of the Eternal Word and Son of God. Jesus is the Eternal Word and Son of the Father. JESUS IS GOD.  And on that our salvation depends.
If Jesus were a man somehow united to the Word of God (as ‘the Christ’—whatever that means), then we are not saved. Unless Jesus IS the Word of God made flesh, then He can do nothing for us. He would be nothing more than another prophet, as the Muslims teach.

St. Cyril, along with all the Orthodox teachers, confessed that the flesh of Christ is life giving because it has been united inseparably with God. The fact that we receive holy communion—believing it to be the “body of our Lord and God and Savior, Jesus Christ”—is a concrete statement of our faith that Christ is one, that He cannot be divided into a ‘human’ side and a ‘divine’ side. They is only One Christ, One Divine Person, who has taken on our human nature so that we might be lifted up from degradation, death, and satanic oppression.

Our faith is not ‘neat’. It does not accommodate itself to human categories of thought. It cannot be explained or contained by philosophical arguments. But neither can love. Love cannot be explained or contained in mathematical equations. It must be experienced. It must be given and received. It is a mystery beyond comprehension, and yet, anyone who has ever experienced it knows that it is real—perhaps the most real of all experiences. And in the end, the deepest and truest expression of God is that of Love. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son…”
St. Cyril knew that. Nestorius just couldn’t get it.

The mystery of Christmas is that Infinite and everlasting Love entered into the world, into our smallness, into our weakness, into our foolishness that we might one day be made great and strong and wise in Him—that we too might Love fully and without limit, even if we will never be able to find words to adequately explain it.


 
Back to content | Back to main menu