Monday, December 29, 2008

O Inexpressible Mystery!

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Christ is Born!
Glorify Him!

A word from the Church's theological vocabulary heard as a common refrain over and again during the Feast of our Lord's Nativity is mystery: I behold a strange, most glorious mystery! we chant in the Nativity Canon, to cite but one well-known example. This word "mystery" is thoroughly scriptural and was employed by the Apostle Paul as a way of "summing up" the pre-eternal plan of God as revealed in Christ in the fullness of time, so that all things could be (re)united in Christ:

For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he has set forth in Christ as a plan for the fulness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. (EPH. 1:9-10)

With the Feast of the Nativity it is primarily used to express the greatness of the Incarnation:

Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of our religion: He was manifested in the flesh ... (I TIM. 3:16)

It is very important to bear this in mind, otherwise we may misunderstand the Church's use of the word mystery and equate it with something that is "mystifying," as in confusing, confounding or even incoherent. The Incarnation is not one of the "unsolved mysteries" of the world, that the occasional journalist will take on in one more attempt to finally solve in some satisfactory manner. The mystery of the Incarnation is the ineffable and incomprehensible event of the Son and Word of God becoming flesh. We are in awe of the mystery of the Incarnation, not merely baffled by it. It is a paradox, not a puzzle. It remains a mystery because it can be contemplated and believed in, but not fully explained or rationalized through human thought and words. As many would say today, we cannot quite "wrap our minds" around the Incarnation.

You have borne the Savior, O Virgin Theotokos. You have overthrown Eve's ancient curse. You have become the mother of the Son of God. The Father is well-pleased in Him. You carry at your bosom God, the Word, made flesh. We cannot fathom this mystery. We can only believe, and give glory with you: O Lord, beyond all explanation, glory to Thee! (from the Praises in Matins)

From within the depths of the Church we proclaim this mystery and invite the world to embrace it with joy and thanksgiving. We will therefore resist any and all attempts to subvert this mystery through either sophisticated appeals at rationalization; or crude efforts of mocking denial. By the grace of God the Church knows the unknowable mystery of the Incarnation, because it has been revealed by God and now apprehended by faith. And yet the Logos/Word of God is the source of our logical/reasonable modes of thought and ways of thinking. Thus, we can certainly go a long way in comprehending the incomprehensible mystery of the Incarnation. In his book The Orthodox Way, Archbishop Kallistos Ware offered three reasons behind the meaning and purpose of the Incarnation. His purpose was to defend the virginal conception of the Son of God in the womb of the Virgin Mary, an essential aspect of the Incarnation, the denial of which dissolves the mystery into mere metaphor. Very briefly summarized, he made these points:

1) The Incarnation (and virginal conception) point toward the fact the initiative belongs to God. We do not create our own Savior, rather He is sent to us by God out of God's unbounded love for us.

2) The Incarnation points to the transcendent source of our salvation. Our Savior Jesus Christ is truly human, but not merely human. He is theanthropos - God and man.

3) In the Incarnation a new Person does not come into existence. Rather the divine Person of the Son and Word of God "becomes" flesh. Our Savior is One Person in two natures - the divine and human.

Recently, I received a "genuine" Christmas card. In other words a card that was not only about Christmas but about Christ. (Am I mistaken, or are today's Christmas cards less and less about Christmas and hardly at all about Christ? To me they now seem to be annual communiques between families and friends that reveal aging parents and growing children in one pose or another, but with little less that would reveal the Reason for the Season). Be that as it may, this card revealed a kind of sublime simplicity with its creamy-white background upon which was etched a wonderful example of calligraphy in a dark blue ink. The text was from the great Cappadocian Church Father, St. Gregory of Nyssa who, in his characteristic way, expressed the Church's understanding of the great "mystery of our religion:"

O inexpressible mystery and unheard of paradox; the Invisible is seen; the Intangible is touched; the Eternal Word becomes accessible to our speech; the Timeless steps into time; the Son of God becomes the Son of Man.

What a tremendous blessing, that in a world that is not only so sinful and fallen, but also at times so dreary and dull, we are granted this great mystery to contemplate, assimilate and live by!

Christ is Born! Glorify Him!

Fr. Steven

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