St Nicholas MA II

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st nicholas orthodox church
126 morris street southbridge, ma 01550
508 764-6226

Glory to that Voice that became a body,
and to the lofty Word that became flesh.
Ears even heard Him, eyes saw Him,
hands even touched Him, the mouth ate Him.
Limbs and senses gave thanks to
the One Who came and revived all that is made of flesh

Mary bore a mute Babe
though in Him were hidden all our tongues.
Joseph carried Him, yet hidden in Him was
a silent nature older than everything.
As again He dwelt in His mother's womb,
in His womb dwells all creation.
Mute He was as a babe, yet He gave to all creation all His commands.

Indeed the thirty years that He was on earth,
who was guiding all creation?
Who was receiving all offerings?
the praise of those on high and of those below?
He was entirely in the depths and entirely in the heights;
He was entirely in all and entirely in each one.

While His body in the womb was being formed,
His power was constructing all the members.
While the fetus of the Son was being formed in the womb,
He Himself was forming babes in the womb.

Weak as was His body in the womb,
His power in the womb was not correspondingly weak.
Nor again is it [true] that as weak as this body was on the cross,
so weak would be His power on the cross.

Thus although all of Him was dwelling in the womb,
His hidden will was supervising all.

For He saw that all of Him was hanging on the cross
but His power made all creation tremble.
For [His power] darkened the sun and shook the earth;
graves were torn open, and the dead emerged.

See, indeed, that He was entirely on the cross,
while yet He remained entirely everywhere,
In the same way He had been entirely in the womb,
while yet He remained entirely everywhere.

While indeed He was on the cross, He revived the dead;
just so, while He was a babe, He was forming babes.
While He was dead, He was opening graves;
while He was in the womb, He was opening wombs.

Come and hear, my friends, about the hidden Son
Who was revealed in His body, yet hidden was His power.

From the Fourth Hymn on the Nativity of St. Ephrem of Syria

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.

This is the night of the Sweet One; let us be on it neither bitter nor harsh.
On this night of the Humble One, let us be neither proud nor haughty.
On this day of forgiveness let us not avenge offenses.
On this day of rejoicings let us not share sorrows.
On this sweet day let us not be vehement.
On this calm day let us not be quick-tempered.
On this day on which God came into the presence of sinners,
let not the just man exalt himself in his mind over the sinner.
On this day on which the Lord of all came among servants,
let the lords also bow down to their servants lovingly.
On this day when the Rich One was made poor for our sake,
let the rich man also make the poor man a sharer at his table.
On this day a gift came out to us without our asking for it;
let us then give alms to those who cry out and beg from us.
This is the day when the high gate opened to us for our prayers;
let us also open the gates to the seekers who have stayed but sought forgiveness
This Lord of natures today was transformed contrary to His nature;
Today the Deity imprinted itself on humanity, so that humanity might also be cut into the seal of Deity.

From St. Ephrem of Syria’s First Hymn on the Nativity of the Lord

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 the 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.


Today He Who holds the whole creation in His hand is born of a Virgin.
He Whose essence none can touch is bound in swaddling-clothes as a mortal man.
God, Who in the beginning fashioned the heavens, lies in a manger.
He who rained manna on His people in the wilderness is fed on milk from His mother’s breast.
The Bridegroom of the Church summons the wise men; the Son of the Virgin accepts their gifts.
We worship Your birth, O Christ.
We worship Your birth, O Christ.
We worship Your birth, O Christ.
Show us also Your Holy Theophany!

In the days just before Christmas the melodies and hymns of the Orthodox Church parallel those of Great and Holy Week. This is no coincidence. We are reminded that the babe in the manager is none other than God incarnate. There is a direct connection between this and the hymns we sing in commemoration of the Lord’s passion and crucifixion on Holy Friday. In both cases—in the days before Christmas and the days before Pascha—we recall the awesome mystery of God as Man and Man as God in the Person of Jesus Christ, the Eternal Son and Word of God Incarnate.

The divine paradox of all powerful weakness, unlimited limitation, infinite finiteness, shocks our minds from every attempt to label and box this mystery into easily defined categories of philosophical thought. When we try, we are confronted by the impossible words: “He Who holds the whole creation in His hand is born of a Virgin”/ “He who hung the earth upon the waters is hung on the tree”. Our narrow human logic is rebuffed by images like these. We can only stop and wonder.

Likewise, the hymnody of Christmas prepares us for the “reason for the season”, meaning, the reason why Christ came among us. His birth in the hiddenness of the manger—concealed in a cave—prefigures His passion and death, made brutally public for all the world to see. The benign witness of the animals at the crib and the glorious star in the heavens prefigure the day the sun went black and the earth quaked in agony at His death.

Indeed, we cannot separate His birth in the manger from His passion on the cross. The one led inextricably to the other. This is prefigured by the wicked King Herod’s attempt to kill Him as an infant.

The great joy and comfort we feel at Christmas is tenuous as the readings for the Sunday after Christmas make clear (the slaughter of the Holy Innocents and the Flight into Egypt). The world, we learn, is happy to celebrate the birth of a baby, but it is terrified to contemplate the implications of this particular baby—who, though weak and helpless, is also the Redeemer and Judge of the world.

The Infant Lord, conceived in the womb of the Virgin by the power of the Holy Spirit and born from her for our salvation will not be contained by the sentimental images we so often have of the manger. The gentleness and sweetness last but for a moment before the great drama begins and “peace on earth” is turned into a war with the dark powers (human and inhuman) that threaten to swallow Him up. Of course, they cannot succeed. The Light that shines forth from Bethlehem is none other than the Unfading Light that we will sing of on Pascha. The battle begins, but it is already won.

The wisdom of the Church in pairing the words and melodies for the Christmas services with those of Holy Week and Pascha is grounded in the irreducible fact that we cannot have one without the other. Without a birth there could be no death, and without a death there could be no resurrection. He was born to die and to rise again for the salvation of all. This is the gift that never grows old. It is priceless and God alone could have given it.

Today He Who holds the whole creation in His hand is born of a Virgin
Today He who hung the earth upon the waters is hung on the tree,
He Whose essence none can touch is bound in swaddling-clothes as a mortal man.
The King of the angels is decked with a crown of thorns.
God, Who in the beginning fashioned the heavens, lies in a manger.
He who wraps the heavens in clouds is wrapped in the purple of mockery.
He who rained manna on His people in the wilderness is fed on milk from His mother’s breast.
He who freed Adam in the Jordan is slapped on the face.
The Bridegroom of the Church summons the wise men; the Son of the Virgin accepts their gifts.
The Bridegroom of the Church is affixed to the Cross with nails; The Son of the virgin is pierced by a spear.
We worship Your birth, O Christ.
We worship Your passion, O Christ.
We worship Your birth, O Christ.
We worship Your passion, O Christ.
We worship Your birth, O Christ.
We worship Your passion, O Christ.
Show us also Your Holy Theophany!
Show us also Your glorious resurrection!

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