Thursday, January 10, 2019

'One Baptism for the remission of sins...'

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

We continue to celebrate the Feast of Theophany, as we are now in that period known as the Afterfeast following the actual date of the Feast last Sunday, January 6

In addition, on today, January 10, we commemorate one of the truly great Church Fathers, St. Gregory of Nyssa (+395), younger brother of St. Basil the Great. Though not the skilled ecclesiastical diplomat that St. Basil was, St. Gregory was even more brilliant in his theological writings and has left some enduring masterpieces to this day.

His Great Catechism is considered the most comprehensive theological treatise of the 4th c. which was a time that other enduring classics  were being produced by St. Athanasius the Great (On the Incarnation); St. Basil the Great (On the Holy Spirit); and St. Gregory the Theologian (Five Theological Orations). In the meditation below, I have included a characteristic passage of St. Gregory of Nyssa's as he draws out the moral/ethical/spiritual implications of having been "baptized into Christ."

I have also provided a link to a summary of St. Gregory's life that will offer some of the details of his life and service to the Church.


  'One Baptism for the remission of sins...'

'I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins.'
(Nicene Creed)

In His Nativity and in His Baptism, Christ is "manifested," or "revealed," to the world as the Light of the world in order to dispel the darkness of ignorance and spiritual blindness which are the direct result of sin. 

This Feast of Theophany is also referred to as the "Feast of Lights." It was in the 4th c. that we began to celebrate our Lord's Nativity (and the adoration of the Magi) as a separate and unique event on 25 December, while 6 January remained as the Feast of Theophany on which Christ's Baptism was commemorated. 

Why did the Feast of 6 January retain the title of Theophany/Epiphany instead of 25 December, when the manifestation of the eternal Light was first revealed in His Nativity in the flesh? St. John Chrysostom writes: "...because it was not when He was born that He became manifest to all, but when He was baptized; for up to this day He was unknown to the majority."

But not only was the Lord Jesus revealed to the world as He began His public ministry with His Baptism in the Jordan at the hands of St. John the Baptist. The Holy Trinity was manifested, for the "voice of the Father" bore witness to His beloved Son, and the Spirit, "in the form of a dove," descended and rested upon the Son. According to St. Irenaeus of Lyons, the Son and Spirit are "the two hands of God." The trinitarian nature of God was manifested when Christ came to the Jordan to be baptized.

Yet, if baptism is for the "remission of sins," then why is Christ baptized, for He is without sin (I PET. 2:22; HEB. 4:15)? The liturgical texts repeatedly ask and answer this question for us in the following manner: "Though as God He needs no cleansing, yet for the sake of fallen man He is cleansed in the Jordan;" "As a man He is cleansed that I may be made clean." Christ is representative of all humanity. He is baptized for our sake. It is we who are cleansed and regenerated when He descends into the waters of the Jordan.

For with Christ, and in Christ, our human nature - the human nature He assumed in all of its fullness in the Incarnation - descends into the cleansing and purifying waters of the Jordan (anticipating sacramental Baptism), so that the very same human nature may ascend out of the waters renewed, restored and recreated. 

As the New and Last Adam He "sums up" all of us in Himself - for this reason He became man. The Spirit descends and rests upon Christ, so that our humanity may be anointed in Him. St. Athanasios the Great writes: " ... when He is anointed ... we it is who in Him are anointed ... when He is baptized, we it is who in Him are baptized." Every baptism is an "extension," a participation, in the one, unique Baptism of Christ; just as every Eucharist is an "extension," a participation in the one, unique Mystical Supper. 

St. Cyril of Jerusalem explains this sacramental participation in Christ's Baptism as follows:

O what a strange and inconceivable thing it is! We did not really die, we were not really buried; we were not crucified and raised again; our imitation of Christ was but in a figure, while our salvation is truth.
Christ actually was crucified and buried, and truly rose again; and all these things have been transmitted to us, that we might by imitation participate in his sufferings, and so gain salvation in truth.

Actually, all of creation participates and is sanctified by the manifestation of God's Son in the flesh: "At Thine appearing in the body, the earth was sanctified, the waters blessed, the heavens enlightened."

We die to sin in Baptism and are raised to new life - for this reason the baptismal font is both tomb and womb as St. Cyril of Jerusalem tells us. Our pre- and post-baptismal lives must manifest some real change, according to St. Gregory of Nyssa. 

In fact, I would like to append a few paragraphs from some of St. Gregory's writings about Baptism in order to allow him to describe the meaning of that need for change. St Gregory wrote at a time (4th c.) when he could presuppose adult baptism as the norm, but we can apply his teaching to our own consciousness of being Christians as we grow up in the Faith following "infant baptism":

When discussing baptism and spiritual birth, we have to consider what happens to our life following baptism. This is a point which many of those who approach the grace of baptism neglect; they delude themselves by being born in appearance only and not in reality. For through birth from above, our life is supposed to undergo a change. But if we continue in our present sinful state then there is really no change in us. Indeed, I do not see how a man who continues to be the same can be considered to have become different when there is no noticeable change in him.
Now the physically born child certainly shares his parents' nature. If you have been born of God and have become His child, then let your way of life testify to the presence of God within you. Make it clear who your Father is! For the very attributes by which we recognize God are the very marks by which a child of His must reveal His relationship with God. "God is goodness and there is no unrighteousness in Him." "The Lord is gracious to all ... He loves His enemies." "He is merciful and forgives transgressions." These and many other characteristics revealed by the Scripture are what make a Godly life.

If you are like this and you embody the Spirit of God, then you have genuinely become a child of God, but if you persist in displaying evil, then it is useless to prattle to yourself and to others about your birth from above. You are still merely a son of man, not a son of that Most High God! You love lies and vanity, and you are still immersed in the corruptible things of this world. Don't you know in what way a man becomes a child of God? Why in no other way than by becoming holy!

St. Gregory challenges us to remain ever-vigilant to our own baptism when we "put on Christ" and when we committed ourselves to a "mode of existence" that reveals Christ to the world.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Let Us Receive 'The Blessing of the Jordan'

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

"For the grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all men ... awaiting our blessed hope, the appearance of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ ..."  (Titus 2:11-13)

On January 6, we celebrate the Feast of Theophany. To use its full title, we celebrateTHE THEOPHANY OF OUR LORD AND SAVIOR JESUS CHRIST, a title that we usually summarize as "Theophany" (sometimes "Epiphany"). 
This year the feast was on a Sunday. The church was filled for the Feast, so we can then truly say that our communal celebration was festal. Serving the Great Blessing of Water outdoors added to the beauty of the day, as the sun was shining and the birds were chirping as we blessed the waters as a sign of the cosmic redemption of matter in and through Christ. As the Russian philosopher, Nicholas Berdyaev wrote: "The grass grows and the flowers bloom within the Church." 
Truly, our festal celebration was an excellent beginning to the New Year.  The Theophany commemorated on January 6, is actually the original date on which the Lord's Nativity was observed, together with the Visitation of the Magi, and the Baptism of Christ.  This nexus of events are distinct "theophanies," or "manifestations of God" to the world, each of which reveals the presence of Christ as a light illuminating the world, as well as being the long-awaited Messiah and Savior.
In fact, Theophany is sometimes called "The Feast of Lights." It was in the 4th c. that our current Christmas day of December 25 was established slowly throughout the Christian world.  The Nativity of Christ was a more hidden theophany; while the Baptism was more open in nature.

From the appointed Epistle reading of the Feast, TIT. 2:11-14, 3:4-7, we learn of the two "appearances" (the Gk. word is epiphania) of Christ: basically His Incarnation as Jesus of Nazareth, and His Parousia, or Second Coming, as the Lord of Glory.  Thus, the first appearance was in the past; while the second will be in the future. The first appearance was in humility; the second will be in glory. We live in the present, between these two appearances. We commemorate the one, and await the other. And our mode of life should reflect the fact that we have been baptized "into Christ."  

In his Epistle to Titus, the Apostle Paul refers to this baptism as "the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit"(3:5).  The purpose of this baptism was "so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life" (3:7).  
The appearance/epiphany of the grace of God and the grace that we receive in Baptism is "training us to renounce irreligion and worldly passions, and to live sober, upright, and godly lives in this world" (2:12).  Baptism essentially allows us - by the grace of God - to transcend our biological mode of existence; so that we are now open-ended beings capable of transformation by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.  Although subject to our biological condition, we are not enslaved to it, with "no exit" in sight. That is a potential gift unique to human beings.

At the Third Royal Hour for Theophany, we heard a beautiful passage from the Prophet Isaiah, who anticipated the transforming power of Baptism and the mode of life that would accompany it:
Thus says the Lord: "Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before My eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless; plead for the widow. Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord:  though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool."
The Baptism of the Lord is directly related to our own personal baptism. This was prophetically delivered to Israel; anticipated by John's baptism in the River Jordan for the "remission of sins;" and now actualized in the Church each and every time that a person - infant, child, adolescent, adult - "puts on Christ" in the sanctified waters of the baptismal font. If, as the Apostle Paul declares, we have "put on Christ," then we need to manifest a Christ-like life to the world to the extent that we are able. The Feast of Theophany brings that to life for us as we now, as then, receive the "blessing of the Jordan."

When we "bless" the waters, we are basically acknowledging the initial "very good" with which God blessed the created world "in the beginning" (GEN. 1:31). We do not disparage the created world, but rather rejoice in it. We are definitely not dualists! 
However, that initial state of pristine purity was lost through the subsequent presence of sin within the world, to such an extent "that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now" (ROM. 8:22). 
Therefore, the entire cosmos has been awaiting the redemption that only the Son of God could bestow through His Incarnation, Death and Resurrection. In this way, "the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God" (ROM. 8:21). 
By blessing the material world — probably best exemplified through the blessing of that most primal and foundational of all earthly elements, water — we anticipate that eschatological liberation here and now within the grace-filled life of the Church. To summarize this ecclesial recognition of the goodness and sanctification of the world around us, we can turn to the explanation offered by Archbishop Kallistos Ware, from the Festal Mention:

The fall of the angelic orders, and after it the fall of man, involved the whole universe. All God's creation was thereby warped and disfigured: to use the symbolism of the liturgical texts, the waters were made a "lair of dragons.' 
Christ came on earth to redeem not only man, but - through man - the entire material creation. When He entered the water, besides effecting by anticipation or rebirth in the font, he likewise effected the cleansing of the waters, their transfiguration into an organ of healing and grace. 

Further, in discussing our traditions of taking some of the blessed water home with us, Archbishop Kallistos writes the following:

...Orthodox are encouraged to drink from the water that has been blessed at Epiphany and to sprinkle themselves with it; they take it also to their homes, and keep it there to use from time to time. In all this they are not guilty of superstition. If they act so, it is because they are convinced that in virtue of Christ's Incarnation, of His Baptism and Transfiguration, all material things can be made holy and 'spirit bearing." (The Festal Menaion, p. 58-59.

The Leavetaking of Theophany is not until January 14. That means that we will continue to celebrate the Feast next Sunday at the Liturgy.  
During this time of the Afterfeast, a good practice is to incorporate the troparion of the Feast into our daily prayer life: both in our personal prayer and as a family. Before blessing our family meals together, we could sing or chant the troparion of the feast, so that we are doing at home, what would be done in church - extend the celebration of the Feast and thus be more attentive to the liturgical rhythms of the Church calendar. 

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Resolutions or Repentance?

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

According to the civil calendar, we begin the year of our Lord (Anno Domini) 2019, on January 1. The year of 2019 is based upon the calculations of a medieval monk who, in attempting to ascertain the exact date of the birth of Christ, missed the year 0 by only a few years. According to contemporary scholars, Jesus was actually born between what we consider to be 6 – 4 B. C. These were the last years of Herod the Great, for according to the Gospel of St. Matthew, Jesus was born toward the very end of Herod’s long reign (37 – 4 B.C.). Christians therefore divide the linear stretch of historical time between the era before the Incarnation; and the era after the Incarnation and the advent of the Son of God into our space-time world. 

In other words, the years before the Incarnation are treated as something of a “countdown” to the time-altering event of the Incarnation; and the years since are counted forward as we move toward the end of history and the coming Kingdom of God. By entering the world, Christ has transformed the meaning and goal of historical time.

Recently, there has been a scholarly shift away from this openly Christian approach to history, as the more traditional designations of B.C. and A.D. have been replaced by the more neutral and “ecumenically sensitive” designations of B.C.E. (Before the Common Era), and C.E. (Common Era). Understanding and interpreting history from a decidedly Christian perspective, I would still argue in favor of the more traditional B.C. and A.D.

Although an issue of more than passing interest, that discussion may appear somewhat academic in comparison to the pressing issues of our daily lives as they continue to unfold now in 2019. We will  exchange our conventional greetings of “Happy New Year” probably more than once in the next few days. 

Under closer inspection, there remains something vague about that expression, and perhaps that is for the better. Do we wish for the other person – as well as for ourselves – that nothing will go (terribly) wrong in the unknown future of the new year? More positively, do we wish that all of our desires and wishes for our lives will be fulfilled in this new year? Or, are we wishing a successful year of the perpetual pursuit of “happiness” (whatever that means) for ourselves and for our friends? At that point we just may be reaching beyond the restrictive boundaries of reality. As Tevye the Dairyman once said: “The more man plans, the harder God laughs.” 

Perhaps the more realistic approach would be to give and receive our “Happy New Year” greetings as neighborly acknowledgement that we are “all in this together,” and that we need to mutually encourage and support one another.

We also approach the New Year as a time to commit ourselves to those annual “resolutions” that we realize will make our lives more wholesome, safe, sound, or even sane - if only we can sustain them. A resolution is to dig deep inside and find the resolve necessary to break through those (bad) habits or patterns of living that undermine either our effectiveness in daily life; jeopardize our relationships with our loved ones, our friends and our neighbors; or seriously threaten to make us less human than we can and should be. 

We know that we should eat less, swear less, lust less, get angry less, surf the computer less, play on our iPhones less, watch TV less and so on. We further know that we need more patience, more self-discipline, more graceful language, more attention to the needs of others, more “quality time” with our families and friends, more forgiving, more loving and so on. We know, therefore, that we need to change, and we intuitively realize how difficult this is. Bad habits are hard to break. Therefore, we need this annual opportunity of a new beginning and our New Year resolutions to give us a “fighting chance” to actually change. 

We may joke about how quickly we break our resolutions, but beneath the surface of that joking (which covers up our disappointments and rationalizations) we are acknowledging, once again, the struggle of moving beyond and replacing our vices with virtues. May God grant everyone the resolve to maintain these resolutions with care and consistency.

And yet I believe that we can profoundly deepen our experience of the above. For, as a “holiday” is a more-or-less secular and watered-down version of a “holy day;” so a resolution is a more-or-less secular and watered-down version of personal repentance. To repent (Gk. metanoia) is to have a “change of mind,” together with a corresponding change in the manner of our living and a re-direction of our lives toward God. The New Year’s resolution of our secularized culture may be a persistent reminder — or the remainder of — a lost Christian worldview that realized the importance of repentance. “There is something rotten in Denmark,” and an entire industry of self-help and self-reliance therapies — totally divorced from a theistic context — is an open acknowledgement of that reality regardless of how distant it may now be from its religious expression. As members of the Body of Christ living within the grace-filled atmosphere of the Church, we can, in turn, incorporate our resolutions within the ongoing process of repentance, which is nothing less than our vocation as human beings: “God requires us to go on repenting until our last breath” (St. Isaias of Sketis). Or, as St. Isaac of Syria teaches: “This life has been given you for repentance. Do not waste it on other things.”

Summarizing and synthesizing the Church’s traditional teaching about repentance, Archbishop Kallistos Ware has formulated a wonderfully open-ended expression of repentance that is both helpful and hopeful:

Correctly understood, repentance is not negative but positive. It means not self-pity or remorse but conversion, the re-centering of our whole life upon the Trinity. It is to look not backward with regret but forward with hope – not downwards at our own shortcomings but upward at God’s love. It is to see, not what we have failed to be, but what by divine grace we can now become; and it is to act upon what we see. In this sense, repentance is not just a single act, an initial step, but a continuing state, an attitude of heart and will that needs to be ceaselessly renewed up to the end of life.  (The Orthodox Way, p. 113-114)

Hard not to be inspired by such an expressive passage! In the Service of Prayer for the (Civil) New Year, we incorporate into the litanies of the service some of the following special petitions . Thus, in the language of the Church, these petitions served as an ecclesial form of the resolutions we make to break through some of our dehumanizing behavior; as well as a plea to God to strengthen our better inclinations:

That He will drive away from us all soul-corrupting passions and corrupting habits, and that He will plant in our hearts His divine fear, unto the fulfillment of His statutes, let us pray to the Lord.

That He will renew a right spirit within us, and strengthen us in the Orthodox Faith, and cause us to make haste in the performance of good deeds and the Fulfillment of all His statutes, let us pray to the Lord.

That He will bless the beginning and continuance of this year with the grace of His of His love for mankind, and will grant unto us peaceful times, favorable weather and a sinless life in health and abundance, let us pray to the Lord.

If you resolve to seek and to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind … and your neighbor as yourself” (MATT. 22:37-38), then I believe that this new year may not be perpetually “happy,” but that it will truly blessed.

Monday, December 31, 2018

Nativity Afterfeast and the Week (and Year) Ahead

Dear Parish Faithful,

Afterfeast of the Nativity - This is a somewhat complicated period in terms of how it is approached liturgically.

On the one hand, we have the longest fast-free period in the entire liturgical year, from December 25 - January 4 inclusive. This fast-free period is reflective of the joy that surrounds the Nativity of Christ. That means that the entire week ahead of us is fast-free up to and including Friday.

However, January 5 is "strict fast day" in preparation for Theophany on January 6 (a Sunday this year). So, we have the "twelve days of Christmas" from December 25 - January 5, though the last of these days is a fast day because of the subsequent Theophany.

However, because January 1 is eight days after Nativity, we celebrate the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ on that day. Jesus submits Himself to the Law and is circumcised in the flesh as a male child of Israel; as well as being given his divinely-directed Name of Jesus on the eighth day. Yet, since this feast takes us to the "next step" in the developing life of Christ, we no longer sing the festal Nativity hymns past December 31.

Therefore, though the Christmas season extends up to Theophany, it is no longer the focus of the Church's liturgy/hymnography once we come to the Circumcision. Hence, today is the last day that we sing the Troparion, "Thy Nativity of Christ ..." As I said, a bit complicated...

Here is a link to a good, short summary of the meaning of the Feast of the Circumcision...

On January 1, we also commemorate St. Basil the Great, truly one of the "greatest" of the Church Fathers. Here is a link to a rather lengthy summary of his extraordinary life - all packed into forty-nine years!

How will we, as a parish, celebrate these two feasts on January 1 (together with the civil New Year)? According to the following schedule:

This evening - Great Vespers at 6:00 p.m.
Tuesday - Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great at 9:30 a.m.

I hope to see many of you at one or both of these services. If the civil New Year is a big celebration for you, then begin with God!

Friday, December 28, 2018

Christmas and Martyrdom

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,


The Gospel reading for the Great Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord is Matthew 2:1-12.  This passage proclaims the Good News that the Savior was born in Bethlehem according to the biblical prophecies.

The star guides the Magi and they, in turn, bring their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the newborn Child in acknowledgment that He is unique and a true King, testified to by cosmic signs that even the Gentile Magi can properly interpret.  Joyous as this is, there is already a hint of the ultimate destiny of Christ in that myrrh is used in the burial customs of the Jews.

On the Second Day of the Nativity, we complete the reading of the second chapter of Saint Matthew’s Gospel—2:13-23, which immediately introduces us to the tragic reality of the massacre of the innocent boys in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or younger.  The previous joy of the Savior’s Nativity is replaced by the wailing and lamentation of the mothers of these innocent children, in fulfillment of the prophecy of Jeremiah:

“A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more” [Jeremiah 2:18].

The shadow of the Cross lay across the infancy narratives in this Gospel, for in the immediate post-Nativity period, these male children become the first of many martyrs who must die because Christ has entered the world, as many of the powerful of this world—following the dark example of King Herod—will not receive Him; they will actually despise Him and turn against His followers.  Thus, the suffering of innocent children is somehow taken up by God as an offering in a sinful world that fluctuates between light and darkness.  

And we must acknowledge that the suffering of innocent children continues to the present time - a suffering directly caused by human wickedness. We now understand that the cave of the Nativity anticipated the tomb of Christ’s burial, and that the swaddling clothes anticipated the grave clothes with which Christ would eventually be bound following His death on the Cross.

On the Third Day of the Nativity - and on the Sunday After Nativity - we commemorate the Protomartyr Stephen, the first to die for his faith in Christ in the post-Resurrection community of the newborn Church.  St. Stephen's lengthy speech to his fellow Jews, in which he upbraided them for their lack of faith; and in which he proclaimed Jesus as the Risen and Ascended Christ is recorded in ACTS 7.  His brutal martyrdom by stoning followed as his testimony resulted in a furious and deadly rejection of his convicting words. In fact, "they gnashed their teeth against him" (ACTS 7:54).

Martyrdom has always been a distinct and powerful witness to Christ.  Actually, “from the beginning” the Incarnation and Martyrdom are inextricably joined together in a world torn by the tension between darkness and light.  To our great joy, we know "that the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it" (JN. 1:5).  

The kontakion for the Feast of Saint Stephen captures the movement between the joy of Christ’s birth and the sobering reality of what Christ’s coming meant for some:

Yesterday the Master assumed our flesh and became our guest; Today His servant is stoned to death and departs in the flesh: The glorious first martyr Stephen!

There is no greater witness to Christ than that of the martyrs—flesh and blood men, women and children who gave their lives for the Lord in the sure hope and assurance that eternal life awaited them in the Kingdom of God. 

If we exchange a “Merry Christmas” with others, we always need to be mindful of the commitment we are making to the newborn Christ.  As we temporarily indulge in the days of the Feast, we realize that the Christian life is ultimately a commitment to discipline and restraint, even the “crucifixion” of the flesh with all of its desires, in order to “witness” to Christ as disciples who believe that His advent in the flesh, culminating in His death and resurrection, has prepared a place for us in His eternal Kingdom where there is “life everlasting.”

Monday, December 24, 2018

Inexhaustible Spiritual Riches from the Nativity of Christ

Dear Parish Faithful,

Today is Christmas Eve and we are in our final preparation for the Feast of the Lord's Nativity. There are a multitude of themes that come readily to mind during this feast of inexhaustible spiritual riches - for the Incarnation opens up our minds and hearts to the inexhaustible mercy and love of God - "Since for our sake the eternal God was born a little child!"

So, I have a few somewhat random passages, each of which touches on a particular theme; and each of which contributes something meaningful to our own understanding and experience of the birth of Christ.

St. Ephraim the Syrian

To begin, here is a portion of St. Ephraim's Hymn I On the Nativity. St. Ephraim was the precursor of St. Romanos the Melode from the Syrian tradition, who wrote a type of poetic theology in a series of beautiful hymns based on his knowledge of the Scriptures. These hymns were usually sung in church but today we at least have the texts which have come down to us. Toward the end of this hymn, St. Ephraim draws out the moral and ethical imperatives that flow from the doctrine of the Incarnation:

Serene is the night in which shines forth the Serene One Who
came to give us serenity.
Do not allow anything that might disturb it to enter upon our
Let the path of the ear be cleared; let the sight of the eye be
let the contemplation of the heart be sanctified; let the speech of the
mouth be purified.

This is the night of reconciliation; let us be neither wrathful nor
gloomy on it.
On this all-peaceful night let us be neither menacing nor boisterous.
This is the night of the Sweet One; let us be on it neither bitter nor
On this night of the Humble One, let us be neither proud nor
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 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 Lord of natures today was transformed contrary to His
it is not too difficult for us also to overthrow our evil will.
Bound is the body by its nature for it cannot grow larger or smaller;
but powerful is the will for it may grow to all sizes.
Today the Deity imprinted itself on humanity,
so that humanity might also be cut into the seal of Deity.

Ephraim the Syrian Hymns, p. 73-74.

St. John Chrysostom

St. John Chrysostom implores us not to "pry" into the mystery of the virginal conception of the Son of God in the womb of the Virgin Mary. To do so is to try and analyze or rationalize a mystery both unanalyzable and trans-rational:

Do not speculate beyond the text. Do not require of it something more than which it simply says. Do not ask, "But precisely how was it that the Spirit accomplished this in a virgin?" For even when nature is at work, it is impossible fully to explain the manner of the formation of the person. How then, when the Spirit is accomplishing miracles, shall we be able to express their causes? ...

Shame on those who attempt to pry into the miracle of generation from on high! For this birth can by no means be explained, yet it has witnesses beyond number and has been proclaimed from ancient times as a real birth handled by human hands. ... For neither Gabriel not Matthew was able to say anything more, but only that the generation was from the Spirit But how from the Spirit? In what manner? Neither Gabriel nor Matthew has explained, nor is it possible.

... So how could the infinite One reside in a womb? How could he that contains all be carried as yet unborn by a woman? How could the Virgin bear and continue to be a Virgin? Explain to me how the Spirit designed the temple of his body.
The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 4.3.

Archbishop Kallistos Ware

When Jesus Christ was born, a new person did not come into existence. But a divine Person was born in the flesh. Archbishop Kallistos Ware explains this great mystery with theological clarity:

When a child is born from two human parents in the usual fashion, a new person begins to exist. But the person of the incarnate Christ is none other than the second person of the Holy Trinity. At Christ's birth, therefore, no new person came into existence, but the pre-existent person of the Son of God now began to live according to a human as well as a divine mode of being. So the Virgin Birth reflects Christ's eternal pre-existence.

Because the person of the incarnate Christ is the same as the person of the Logos, the Virgin Mary may rightly be given the title Theotokos, "God-bearer." She is mother, not of a human son joined to the divine Son, but of a human son who is the only-begotten Son of God. The son of Mary is the same person as the divine Son of God; and so, by virtue of the Incarnation, Mary is in truth "Mother of God".
The Orthodox Way, p. 76-77.

Brendan Byrne

And, to close, I would like to turn to a very insightful passage from a contemporary biblical scholar, Brendan Byrne, who reflects deeply on the implications of the genealogy of Christ that introduces the Gospel According to St. Matthew, and which we heard yesterday on the Sunday Before the Nativity. 

That genealogy is decidedly not a list of saintly figures from the Old Testament, but at times something of a "motley crew" of some real great sinners, mixed in with some righteous figures. The point that Brendan Byrne makes is that this mixture of the "good" and the "bad" may also describe our own personal genealogy! But that does not mean that God can not providentially work us through this on a personal level:

The One believers own as Son of God and Savior did not just drop out of the sky, so to speak, without a mixed history - good and bad - that lies behind every human life. There are skeletons in his family closet just as there are in ours. Nor was this line "pure" in an ethnic sense or exempt from sexual scandal and exploitation. But it is through just such a human history that the thread of salvation runs. The invitation is there to trace in our own "ancestry," whether it be our family story or our individual life story, a similar working of grace and redemption, all to be woven into the wider pattern of salvation brought by Jesus.

Lifting the Burden, p. 22.

Closing Thoughts

Just a "taste" of the profound mystery surrounding the Nativity of Christ. In addition to reading this series of wonderful passages, it still remains that the actual worship of Christ through our liturgical tradition offers us the very experience of being united to Christ.

We will celebrate the great Feast of the Nativity in the following manner:

Festal Matins this evening at 7:00 p.m.
Divine Liturgy Tuesday morning at 9:30 a.m.

In our hyper-hectic world, I hope that everyone has something of a vigilant day in which being a Christian is somehow manifested.

Friday, December 21, 2018

'Mankind was my business!'

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

The over-all theme of the Parable of the Great Supper, heard last Sunday at the Liturgy, had to do with how being "busy" can easily lead to excuse-making of a dubious kind because we then justify postponing our relationship with God based upon those very excuses. But as Christ said in the parable, the Master of the Supper was not impressed. 
"Business! Mankind was my business!"

This somehow connects in my mind with a certain literary classic. Over the years I have read A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (and seen more than one film version!). For me, one of the most effective passages in the book, is toward the beginning, when the Ghost of Jacob Marley visits Scrooge on Christmas Eve. By this time, the miserly and miserable character of Scrooge has been masterfully etched in by Dickens. And to this day, the name of Scrooge is synonymous with avarice, greed, and a joyless and meaningless accumulation of profit. Earlier, Scrooge had articulated some of the utilitarian philosophy of the 19th c. when he coldly said in reference to the poor and prisoners, "If they would rather die they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population."

The Ghost of Marley returns to haunt Scrooge, but Marley himself is in great torment and anguish. Imprisoned in chains that he cannot free himself of, Marley is doomed to roam the earth as a restless spirit witnessing human suffering that he cannot alleviate because he ignored that suffering selfishly during his time on earth. Of the chains, Marley says:

"I wear the chain I forged in life. I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it."

With a deep, bitter regret, Marley then confesses:

"My spirit never walked beyond our counting-house - mark me! - in life my spirit never roved beyond the narrow limits of our money-changing hole; and weary journeys lie before me!... Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one's life opportunity misused! Yet such was I! Oh! such was I!"

At this point in this somewhat macabre dialogue between the two, Scrooge begins to grope for some signs of hope and relief as he intuitively realizes that Marley is speaking words of warning to him for his cold-hearted scorn for the rest of humanity. When Scrooge protests the working of an unseen providence, by saying "But you were always a good man of business, Jacob," we then hear what may be the most significant - and well-known - passage in this scene:

"Business!" cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. "Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!"

It held up its chains at arm's length, as if that were the cause of all its unavailing grief, and flung it heavily upon the ground again.

"At this time of the rolling year," the spectre said, "I suffer most. Why did I walk through crowds of fellow beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode! Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me!"

Anticipating the regret of a life not well-lived is a frightening thought. Especially if it comes down to having been too busy!

Good literature is capable of leaving strong indelible images that are much more effective than a well-argued treatise. Dickens' characters were always exaggerated or "larger than life," as we may say. But they then "typify" a great deal about life in the process. 

Besides the necessary business that makes up our lives, and which must be done carefully and responsibly, just what else are we so "busy" with? Does that business also lead us away from charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence? Are we presently scurrying around, making sure that we will have a "Merry Christmas," while also turning our eyes downward so that we too cannot "see" the blessed Star that guides us to the Incarnate Christ? Are we going to somehow be able to "fit" the Church into our "Business?" Both the parable from Sunday and Dickens' classic A Christmas Carol raise the issue of our stewardship of time and the Christian truth that "mankind is our business."