"Today the concept of truth is viewed with suspicion, because truth is identified with violence. Over history there have, unfortunately, been episodes when people sought to defend the truth with violence. But they are two contrasting realities. Truth cannot be imposed with means other than itself! Truth can only come with its own light. Yet, we need truth. ... Without truth we are blind in the world, we have no path to follow. The great gift of Christ was that He enabled us to see the face of God".Pope Benedict xvi, February 24th, 2012
The Church is ecumenical, catholic, God-human, ageless, and it is therefore a blasphemy—an unpardonable blasphemy against Christ and against the Holy Ghost—to turn the Church into a national institution, to narrow her down to petty, transient, time-bound aspirations and ways of doing things. Her purpose is beyond nationality, ecumenical, all-embracing: to unite all men in Christ, all without exception to nation or race or social strata. - St Justin Popovitch
"Our Lady of the Sign" by Father Alex Echeandia of Pachacamac Monastery 2015
People throughout history have made life-changing decisions, and some have even changed the course of history; but none have been so costly in their accomplishment, so profoundly enriching in their effects nor so cosmic in their importance than the life-changing decisions of our Lord Jesus Christ and of his blessed Mother Mary.
The first in importance, though not in time, was expressed in the Garden, at the very beginning of Christ's Passion. He said, in St Luke's version, ", “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” In these words he expressed the orientation of his whole life up to the very last drop of his blood. By being obedient unto death, he opened the way, through death and resurrection, for all humankind to share in the very life of the Blessed Trinity and for the whole of the cosmos to be utterly transformed into "a new heaven and a new earth" by resurrection.
The other decision of cosmic importance is the reply of the Virgin Mary to Gabriel who had told her that she would be mother of the Messias by the power of the Holy Spirit. "And Mary said, 'Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.' And the angel departed from her."
At her consent, Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, the divine Nature was united to our human nature, the Creator became one with his creation in Jesus Christ, all this began within the womb of Mary, as yet with little impact outside.
By the synergy between the action of the Holy Spirit and the humble obedience of Mary, the foetus grew in her womb; the Holy Spirit enabled it to happen, and Mary, through the obedience of faith, really became the Mother of God. The same can be said for us, because, to be a Christian is to have Jesus Christ in our heart, to live centred on him whom we meet in so many ways, and to manifest him in our lives to the world. We cannot live a Christian life without him and unless, through the Spirit, he uses us as his instruments.
From this perspective we can see that the Immaculate Conception was an Old Testament grace, but it was a grace of a different order, not the product of the union between the divine and the human in Christ. New Testament grace began in the womb of Mary at the Annunciation, and it grew and strengthened unto she was able to become Mother of all the disciples at the foot of the Cross.
The icon that heads this post shows Mary the Christ Bearer. She is Mother of all the Christ Bearers who are all those who live in Christ and Christ in them, all those who share the eucharistic cup, who identify with Christ in his suffering and already share in the new heaven and a new earth by becoming one with Christ's body.
Mary is our model of a disciple of Christ and does not just see with her eyes, hear with her ears or participate in events in an external way: she ponders them in her heart and experiences everything with the knowledge given by faith.
Just as Mary could not have fulfilled her vocation as Mother of God without the Holy Spirit and the synergy with that Spirit that is the fruit of humble obedience, we too cannot fulfil our vocation as sons of God without the same Spirit and a life of humble obedience. Let us ask Our Lady for the grace to live as sons of God in 2017
Homily of His Holiness Pope Francis
Saint Peter’s Basilica
Saturday, 31 December 2016
“When the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal 4:4-5).
These words of Saint Paul are powerful. In a brief and concise way, they introduce God’s plan for us: he wants us to live as his sons and daughters. The whole of salvation history echoes in these words. He who was not subject to the law chose, out of love, to set aside every privilege and to appear in the most unexpected place in order to free us who were under the law. What is so surprising is that God accomplishes this through the smallness and vulnerability of a newborn child. He decides personally to draw near to us and in his flesh to embrace our flesh, in his weakness to embrace our weakness, in his littleness to envelop our littleness. In Christ, God did not put on a human mask; instead he became man and shared completely in our human condition. Far from remaining an idea or an abstract essence, he wanted to be close to all those who felt lost, demeaned, hurt, discouraged, inconsolable and frightened. Close to all those who in their bodies carry the burden of separation and loneliness, so that sin, shame, hurt, despair and exclusion would not have the final word in the lives of his sons and daughters.
The manger invites us to make this divine “logic” our own. It is not a logic centred on privilege, exemptions or favours but one of encounter and closeness. The manger invites us to break with the logic of exceptions for some and exclusion for others. God himself comes to shatter the chains of privilege that always cause exclusion, in order to introduce the caress of compassion that brings inclusion, that makes the dignity of each person shine forth, the dignity for which he or she was created. A child in swaddling clothes shows us the power of God who approaches us as a gift, an offering, a leaven and opportunity for creating a culture of encounter.
We cannot allow ourselves to be naïve. We know that we are tempted in various ways to adopt the logic of privilege that separates, excludes and closes us off, while separating, excluding and closing off the dreams and lives of so many of our brothers and sisters.
Today, before the little Child of Bethlehem, we should acknowledge that we need the Lord to enlighten us, because all too often we end up being narrow-minded or prisoners of all-or-nothing attitude that would force others to conform to our own ideas. We need this light, which helps us learn from our mistakes and failed attempts in order to improve and surpass ourselves; this light born of the humble and courageous awareness of those who find the strength, time and time again, to rise up and start anew.
As another year draws to an end, let us pause before the manger and express our gratitude to God for all the signs of his generosity in our life and our history, seen in countless ways through the witness of those people who quietly took a risk. A gratitude that is no sterile nostalgia or empty recollection of an idealized and disembodied past, but a living memory, one that helps to generate personal and communal creativity because we know that God is with us.
Let us pause before the manger to contemplate how God has been present throughout this year and to remind ourselves that every age, every moment is the bearer of graces and blessings. The manger challenges us not to give up on anything or anyone. To look upon the manger means to find the strength to take our place in history without complaining or being resentful, without closing in on ourselves or seeking a means of escape, looking for shortcuts in our own interest. Looking at the manger means recognizing that the times ahead call for bold and hope-filled initiatives, as well as the renunciation of vain self-promotion and endless concern with appearances.
Looking at the manger means seeing how God gets involved by involving us, making us part of his work, inviting us to welcome the future courageously and decisively.
Looking at the manger, we see Joseph and Mary, their young faces full of hopes and aspirations, full of questions. Young faces that look to the future conscious of the difficult task of helping the God-Child to grow. We cannot speak of the future without reflecting on these young faces and accepting the responsibility we have for our young; more than a responsibility, the right word would be debt, yes, the debt we owe them. To speak of a year’s end is to feel the need to reflect on how concerned we are about the place of young people in our society.
We have created a culture that idolizes youth and seeks to make it eternal. Yet at the same time, paradoxically, we have condemned our young people to have no place in society, because we have slowly pushed them to the margins of public life, forcing them to migrate or to beg for jobs that no longer exist or fail to promise them a future. We have preferred speculation over dignified and genuine work that can allow young people to take active part in the life of society. We expect and demand that they be a leaven for the future, but we discriminate against them and “condemn” them to knock on doors that for the most part remain closed.
We are asked to be something other than the innkeeper in Bethlehem who told the young couple: there is no room here. There was no room for life, for the future. Each of us is asked to take some responsibility, however small, for helping our young people to find, here in their land, in their own country, real possibilities for building a future. Let us not be deprived of the strength of their hands, their minds, and their ability to prophesy the dreams of their ancestors (cf. Jl 2:28). If we wish to secure a future worthy of them, we should do so by staking it on true inclusion: one that provides work that is worthy, free, creative, participatory and solidary (cf. Address at the Conferral of the Charlemagne Prize, 6 May 2016).
Looking at the manger challenges us to help our young people not to become disillusioned by our own immaturity, and to spur them on so that they can be capable of dreaming and fighting for their dreams, capable of growing and becoming fathers and mothers of our people.
As we come to the end of this year, we do well to contemplate the God-Child! Doing so invites us to return to the sources and roots of our faith. In Jesus, faith becomes hope; it becomes a leaven and a blessing. “With a tenderness which never disappoints, but is always capable of restoring our joy, Christ makes it possible for us to lift up our heads and to start anew” (Evangelii Gaudium, 3)
HOMILY OF POPE FRANCIS
1 January 2017 “Mary treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart! (Lk 2:19). In these words, Luke describes the attitude with which Mary took in all that they had experienced in those days. Far from trying to understand or master the situation, Mary is the woman who can treasure, that is to say, protect and guard in her heart, the passage of God in the life of his people. Deep within, she had learned to listen to the heartbeat of her Son, and that in turn taught her, throughout her life, to discover God’s heartbeat in history. She learned how to be a mother, and in that learning process she gave Jesus the beautiful experience of knowing what it is to be a Son. In Mary, the eternal Word not only became flesh, but also learned to recognize the maternal tenderness of God. With Mary, the God-Child learned to listen to the yearnings, the troubles, the joys and the hopes of the people of the promise. With Mary, he discovered himself a Son of God’s faithful people. In the Gospels, Mary appears as a woman of few words, with no great speeches or deeds, but with an attentive gaze capable of guarding the life and mission of her Son, and for this reason, of everything that he loves. She was able to watch over the beginnings of the first Christian community, and in this way she learned to be the mother of a multitude. She drew near to the most diverse situations in order to sow hope. She accompanied the crosses borne in the silence of her children’s hearts. How many devotions, shrines and chapels in the most far-off places, how many pictures in our homes, remind us of this great truth. Mary gave us a mother’s warmth, the warmth that shelters us amid troubles, the maternal warmth that keeps anything or anyone from extinguishing in the heart of the Church the revolution of tenderness inaugurated by her Son. Where there is a mother, there is tenderness. By her motherhood, Mary shows us that humility and tenderness are not virtues of the weak but of the strong. She teaches us that we do not have to mistreat others in order to feel important (cf. Evangelii Gaudium, 288). God’s holy people has always acknowledged and hailed her as the Holy Mother of God. To celebrate Mary as Mother of God and our mother at the beginning of the new year means recalling a certainty that will accompany our days: we are a people with a Mother; we are not orphans. Mothers are the strongest antidote to our individualistic and egotistic tendencies, to our lack of openness and our indifference. A society without mothers would not only be a cold society, but a society that has lost its heart, lost the “feel of home”. A society without mothers would be a merciless society, one that has room only for calculation and speculation. Because mothers, even at the worst times, are capable of testifying to tenderness, unconditional self-sacrifice and the strength of hope. I have learned much from those mothers whose children are in prison, or lying in hospital beds, or in bondage to drugs, yet, come cold or heat, rain or draught, never stop fighting for what is best for them. Or those mothers who in refugee camps, or even the midst of war, unfailingly embrace and support their children’s sufferings. Mothers who literally give their lives so that none of their children will perish. Where there is a mother, there is unity, there is belonging, belonging as children. To begin the year by recalling God’s goodness in the maternal face of Mary, in the maternal face of the Church, in the faces of our own mothers, protects us from the corrosive disease of being “spiritual orphans”. It is the sense of being orphaned that the soul experiences when it feels motherless and lacking the tenderness of God, when the sense of belonging to a family, a people, a land, to our God, grows dim. This sense of being orphaned lodges in a narcissistic heart capable of looking only to itself and its own interests. It grows when what we forget that life is a gift we have received – and owe to others – a gift we are called to share in this common home. It was such a self-centred orphanhood that led Cain to ask: “Am I my brother's keeper?” (Gen 4:9). It was as if to say: he doesn’t belong to me; I do not recognize him. This attitude of spiritual orphanhood is a cancer that silently eats away at and debases the soul. We become all the more debased, inasmuch as nobody belongs to us and we belong to no one. I debase the earth because it does not belong to me; I debase others because they do not belong to me; I debase God because I do not belong to him, and in the end we debase our very selves, since we forget who we are and the divine “family name” we bear. The loss of the ties that bind us, so typical of our fragmented and divided culture, increases this sense of orphanhood and, as a result, of great emptiness and loneliness. The lack of physical (and not virtual) contact is cauterizing our hearts (cf. Laudato Si’, 49) and making us lose the capacity for tenderness and wonder, for pity and compassion. Spiritual orphanhood makes us forget what it means to be children, grandchildren, parents, grandparents, friends and believers. It makes us forget the importance of playing, of singing, of a smile, of rest, of gratitude. Celebrating the feast of the Holy Mother of God makes us smile once more as we realize that we are a people, that we belong, that only within a community, within a family, can we as persons find the “climate”, the “warmth” that enables us to grow in humanity, and not merely as objects meant to “consume and be consumed”. To celebrate the feast of the Holy Mother of God reminds us that we are not interchangeable items of merchandise or information processors. We are children, we are family, we are God’s People. Celebrating the Holy Mother of God leads us to create and care for common places that can give us a sense of belonging, of being rooted, of feeling at home in our cities, in communities that unite and support us (cf. Laudato Si’, 151). Jesus, at the moment of his ultimate self-sacrifice, on the cross, sought to keep nothing for himself, and in handing over his life, he also handed over to us his Mother. He told Mary: Here is your son; here are your children. We too want to receive her into our homes, our families, our communities and nations. We want to meet her maternal gaze. The gaze that frees us from being orphans; the gaze that reminds us that we are brothers and sisters, that I belong to you, that you belong to me, that we are of the same flesh. The gaze that teaches us that we have to learn how to care for life in the same way and with the same tenderness that she did: by sowing hope, by sowing a sense of belonging and of fraternity.
Celebrating the Holy Mother of God reminds us that we have a Mother. We are not orphans. We have a Mother. Together let us all confess this truth. I invite you to acclaim it three times, standing [all stand], like the faithful of Ephesus: Holy Mother of God, Holy Mother of God, Holy Mother of God.
From antiquity, Mary has been called "Theotokos", or "God-Bearer" (Mother of God). The word in Greek is "Theotokos". The term was used as part of the popular piety of the early first millennium church. It is used throughout the Eastern Church's Liturgy, both Orthodox and Catholic. It lies at the heart of the Latin Rite's deep Marian piety and devotion. This title was a response to early threats to 'orthodoxy', the preservation of authentic Christian teaching. A pronouncement of an early Church Council, The Council of Ephesus in 431 A.D., insisted "If anyone does not confess that God is truly Emmanuel, and that on this account the holy virgin is the "Theotokos" (for according to the flesh she gave birth to the word of God become flesh by birth) let him be anathema." (The Council of Ephesus, 431 AD)
The Council's insistence on the use of the title reflected an effort to preserve the teaching of the Church that Jesus was both Divine and human, that the two natures were united in His One Person. Not only was that teaching under an assault then, it is under an assault now, and failing to "get it right" has extraordinary implications. The reason that the early Church Council pronounced this doctrine was "Christological", meaning that it had to do with Jesus Christ. One of the threats was from an interpretation of the teachings of a Bishop of Constantinople named Nestorius. Some of his followers insisted on calling Mary only the "Mother of 'the Christ'". The Council insisted on the use of the title (in the Greek) "Theotokos," ("Mother of God" or "God-bearer") to reaffirm the central truth of what occurred in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ.
RUSSIAN ICON: The Iverskaya Mother of God - 1896
Rejection of the truth revealed in this beautiful title of Mary has led to a diminution in the understanding and role of Mary, impeding some Christians from grasping a deeper truth concerning the meaning of Mary's life - her Fiat, her "Yes" to God's Will. It is a privation, leading to a reduced understanding of the call to every Christian to live our lives for God as Mary did. It has undermined our mission to bring the world to the new world, recreated in her Son, the Church which is His Body on earth and a seed of the Kingdom which is to come. The Church, of which we are members through baptism, continues His redemptive mission until he returns.
When we fail to receive the gift of Mary as Mother we can also miss the call of every Christian to bear Jesus for the world as she did. It is time to re-examine the deeper implications of the treasure that is found in the life example and message of the little Virgin of Nazareth. This wonderful title, Mary, the Mother of God, "Theotokos", reveals a profound truth not only about Mary, but about each one of us. We are now invited into the very relationship that she had with her Son. We can become "God-bearers" and bring Him to all those whom we encounter in our few short days under the sun.
CHRISTMAS MASS IN ALEPPO
I hope that protecting Christians in the Middle East will be a higher
priority for President Putin than it has been for my government and that of the United States.
This post shall continue to grow as the days pass. The Julian Calendar that most Orthodox use in liturgical matters is thirteen days behind our calendar; and, therefore, Orthodox December 25th is on our January 7th. This has allowed me on occasion, to celebrate Christmas twice!
I shall publish in this post the greetings of other patriarchs as they are available. If you have suggestions for anything else suitable for publications, please make your suggestions in the comments.
The Services of Christmas in the Orthodox Church by Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann
The Nativity Cycle
As Orthodox Christians, we begin the celebration of the Nativity of Christ — on December 25 — with a time of preparation. Forty days before the feast of the birth of Our Lord we enter the period of the Christmas Fast: to purify both soul and body to enter properly into and partake of the great spiritual reality of Christ’s Coming. This fasting season does not constitute the intense liturgical season that is characteristic of Great Lent; rather, Christmas Lent is more of an "ascetical" rather than "liturgical" nature. Nevertheless, the Christmas fasting season is reflected in the life of the Church in a number of liturgical notes that announce the coming feast.
Within the forty days preparation the theme of the approaching Nativity is introduced in the services and liturgical commemorations, little by little. If the beginning of the fast on November 15 is not liturgically marked by any hymn, five days later, on the eve of the Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple, we hear the first announcement from the nine hirmoi of the Christmas Canon: "Christ is born, glorify Him!"
With these words something changes in our life, in the very air we breathe, in the entire mood of the Church’s life. It is as if we perceive far, far away, the first light of the greatest possible joy — the coming of God into His world! Thus the Church announces the coming of Christ, the Incarnation of God, His entrance into the world for its salvation. Then, on the two Sundays preceding Christmas, the Church commemorates the Forefathers and the Fathers: the prophets and the saints of the Old Testament who prepared that coming, who made history itself into the expectation, the waiting for, the salvation and reconciliation of mankind with God. Finally, on December 20th, the church begins the Forefeast of the Nativity, whose liturgical structure is similar to the Holy Week preceding Pascha — for the birth of the Son of God as child is the beginning of the saving ministry which will lead Him, for the sake of our salvation, to the ultimate sacrifice of the Cross.
The liturgical services of December 24th, the Eve of the Nativity, are:
3.The Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great.
Coming at the end of the Forefeast, and indeed of the entire Advent, the Hours summarize all the themes of the feast and make them into a last and solemn announcement. In the special psalms, hymns and biblical readings prescribed for each hour, the joy and power of Christ’s Coming are proclaimed. It is one last meditation on the cosmical meaning of the Nativity, on the decisive and radical change it performed in the entire creation.
Vespers, which usually follows the Hours, inaugurates the celebration of the feast itself, for, as we know, the liturgical day begins in the evening. The tone of this celebration is given by the five stichera on "Lord, I call...." What they really are is an explosion of joy for the gift of Christ’s Incarnation, which is now fulfilled! Eight biblical readings show that Christ is the fulfillment of all prophecies, that His Kingdom is the Kingdom "of all ages," that all human history finds its meaning in it, and the entire cosmos its center.
The Liturgy of St. Basil which follows Vespers was in the past the baptismal liturgy at which catechumens were baptized, chrismated and integrated into the Church, the Body of Christ. The double joy of the feast, for the newly-baptized and other members of the Church, is reflected in the prokeimenon of the day:
The Lord said to me: Thou art My son, this day have I begotten Thee. Ask of Me, and I shall give Thee the nations for Thine inheritance, and the ends of the earth as Thy possession.
Then, at the end of the Liturgy, the celebrant, taking a lighted candle to the very centre of the Church, and surrounded by the entire congregation, intones the troparion and kontakion of the Feast:
Thy Nativity, O Christ our God,Has shone to the world the light of wisdom.For by it, those who worshipped the starsWere taught by a star to adore Thee,The Sun of Righteousness,And to know Thee, the Orient from on high.O Lord, glory to Thee!
The Vigil and the Liturgy
Since Vespers of the feast already have been celebrated, the Vigil begins with Great Compline and the joyful proclamation from Isaiah "God is with us!" The order of Matins is that of a great feast. Now, for the first time, the full Canon "Christ is born…," one of the most beautiful canons in Orthodox worship, is sung while the faithful venerate the icon of Christ’s Nativity. The Praises follow, summarizing the joy and themes of the entire feast:
Make glad, O you righteous! Greatly rejoice, O heavens! Dance for joy, O mountains; for Christ is born! The Virgin has become like the cherubic throne. She carries at her bosom God the Word, made flesh. Shepherds glorify the newborn child. Wise men offer the master gifts. Angels praise Him and sing: O Lord, past understanding, glory to Thee!
Concluding the celebration of the Nativity of Christ is the Liturgy of the day itself with its festal antiphons proclaiming:
…The Lord will send Thee the scepter of power from Zion: "Rule in the midst of Thine enemies." With Thee is dominion on the day of Thy birth, in the radiance of holiness.
On the second day of the feast, the Synaxis of the Theotokos is celebrated. Combining the hymns of the Nativity with those celebrating the Mother of God, the Church points to Mary as the one through whom the Incarnation was made possible. His humanity — concretely and historically — is the humanity He received from Mary. His Body is, first of all, her body; His life is her life. This feast, the assembly in honour of the Theotokos, is probably the most ancient feast of Mary in the Christian tradition, the very beginning of her veneration by the Church.
Six days of post-feast bring the Christmas season to a close on December 31. At the services of all these days, the Church repeats the hymns and songs glorifying Christ’s Incarnation, reminding us that the source and the foundation of our salvation is only to be found in the One Who, as God before the ages, came into this world and for our sake was "born as a little Child."
The Rev. Alexander Schmemann in the book The Services of Christmas: The Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, David Anderson and John Erickson, Dept of Religious Education, Orthodox Church in America, Syosset, New York, 1981.
“THE DIVINE CHILD”– A SERMON BY FR. ALEXANDER SCHMEMANN
DECEMBER 15, 2014 Hope Bethany ’15 Theology Undergraduate Fellow, Center for Liturgy
Fr. Alexander Schmemann was an orthodox priest whose liturgical vision of truly integrating liturgy and life (and history, and theology, and everything else!) is one that we remember and try to cultivate on Oblation. He passed away on December 13, 1983. This weekend, in honor of his memory, the St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary linked to a post from 2011 where they shared this sermon of his. Yesterday was Gaudete Sunday, and although Notre Dame students are in the midst of finals, we hope that this sermon serves as a reminder of the joy of Christmas. We look forward to the coming of Christmas and preparing our hearts for Christ, with this sermon on what it means that our Savior came to the world as a little child. May we trust in the mercy and love of the Christ child as we draw closer to Christmas. And may the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.
“The eternal God was born as a little child.” One of the main hymns of Christmas ends with these words, identifying the child born in a Bethlehem cave as “the eternal God.” This hymn was composed in the sixth century by the famous Byzantine hymnographer Roman the Melodist:
Today the Virgin gives birth to the Transcendent One,And the earth offers a cave to the Unapproachable One!Angels, with shepherds, glorify him!The wise men journey with the star!Since for our sake the eternal God was born as a little child!
(Kontakion of Christmas)
The Child as God, God as Child…Why does joyful excitement build over the Christmas season as people, even those of lukewarm faith and unbelievers, behold that unique, incomparable sight of the young mother holding the child in her arms, and around them the “wise men from the East,” the shepherds fresh from night-watch in their fields, the animals, the open sky, the star? Why are we so certain, and discover again and again, that on this sorrowful planet of ours there is nothing more beautiful and joyful than this sight, which the passage of centuries has proven incapable of uprooting from our memory? We return to this sight whenever we have nowhere else to go, whenever we have been tormented by life and are in search of something that might deliver us…
It is the words “child” and “God” which give us the most striking revelation about the Christmas mystery. In a certain profound way, this is a mystery directed toward the child who continues to secretly live within every adult, to the child who continues to hear what the adult no longer hears, and who responds with a joy which the adult, in his mundane, grown-up, tired and cynical world, is no longer capable of feeling. Yes, Christmas is a feast for children, not just because of the tree that we decorate and light, but in the much deeper sense that children alone are unsurprised that when God comes to us on earth, he comes as a child.
This image of God as child continues to shine on us through icons and through innumerable works of art, revealing that what is most essential and joyful in Christianity is found precisely here, in this eternal childhood of God. Adults, even the most sympathetic to “religious themes,” desire and expect religion to give explanations and analysis; they want it to be intelligent and serious. Its opponents are just as serious, and in the end, just as boring, as they confront religion with a hail of “rational” bullets. In our society, nothing better conveys our contempt than to say “it’s childish.” In other words, it’s not for adults, for the intelligent and serious. So children grow up and become equally serious and boring. Yet Christ said “become like children” (Mt 18:3). What does this mean? What are adults missing, or better, what has been choked, drowned or deafened by a thick layer of adulthood? Above all, is it not that capacity, so characteristic of children, to wonder, to rejoice and, most importantly, to be whole both in joy and sorrow? Adulthood chokes as well the ability to trust, to let go and give one’s self completely to love and to believe with all one’s being. And finally, children take seriously what adults are no longer capable of accepting: dreams, that which breaks through our everyday experience and our cynical mistrust, that deep mystery of the world and everything within it revealed to saints, children, and poets.
Thus, only when we break through to the child living hidden within us, can we inherit as our own the joyful mystery of God coming to us as a child. The child has neither authority nor power, yet the very absence of authority reveals him to be a king; his defenselessness and vulnerability are precisely the source of his profound power. The child in that distant Bethlehem cave has no desire that we fear him; He enters our hearts not by frightening us, by proving his power and authority, but by love alone. He is given to us as a child, and only as children can we in turn love him and give ourselves to him. The world is ruled by authority and power, by fear and domination. The child God liberates us from that. All He desires from us is our love, freely given and joyful; all He desires is that we give him our heart. And we give it to a defenseless, endlessly trusting child.
Through the feast of Christmas, the Church reveals to us a joyful mystery: the mystery of freely given love imposing itself on no one. A love capable of seeing, recognizing and loving God in the Divine Child, and becoming the gift of a new life.
Excerpt from Celebration of Faith, Vol. 2: The Church Year by Fr. Alexander Schmemann, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1994.
The Most High knew that Adam had wanted to become a god,
so He sent His Son who put him on in order to grant him his desire.”
(St Ephrem the Syrian, The Luminous Eye, pp 85, 102)
Patriarchal Proclamation of Christmas 2016.
Prot. No. 1297
B A R T H O L O M E W
By God’s Mercy Archbishop of Constantinople-New Rome and Ecumenical Patriarch
to the Plenitude of the Church
Grace, Mercy and Peace from the Savior Christ Born in Bethlehem
“Christ’s incarnation is my own re-creation”
Beloved brothers and sisters, dear children in the Lord,
We praise and glorify the God in Trinity, who deemed us worthy once again this year to reach the great feast of the Nativity in the flesh of the Son and Word of God the Father in “little Bethlehem.”
The holy Church is celebrating with fullness of joy, for Christ “assumed flesh” through His incarnation and rendered the Church “an adornment for the world.” Indeed, the entire human race, and even “all of creation,” rejoices over this divine blessing. “All of creation is today filled with joy because Christ is born of a Virgin.”
In contrast to the “unmoved mover” of the ancient Greeks, our God is the communion of love and lovingly moves in time toward humankind and the world. “In this is love, not that we loved God but that He loved us.” (1 John 4.10)
The pre-eternal Word of the Father, who granted “being” to humankind, now grants us “well being” through His incarnation. “This is the reason behind the feast; this is why we celebrate today: namely, God’s descent to us so that we might ascend—or return—to God . . . in order that, by laying aside the old man, we may assume the new man; and in order that, by dying to Adam, we might therefore live in Christ; in order that we might be with Christ, be crucified with Him, be buried with Him, and arise with Him.” The way of deification through grace is henceforth open to everyone coming into the world. All of us are “capable of containing God.” “There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free man, neither male nor female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3.28)
Unfortunately, the Gospel of Christmas is once again proclaimed to a world where the racket of weapons is heard, where unprovoked violence against individuals and peoples is enacted, and where inequality and social justice prevail. It is unbearable to witness the state of countless children, victims of military conflict, irregular situations, manifold exploitations, persecutions and discriminations, as well as hunger, poverty and painful dispossession.
Last April, we had the opportunity in Lesbos to witness with our own eyes—together with His Holiness Pope Francis of Rome and His Beatitude Archbishop Ieronymos of Athens and All Greece—the tragic circumstances of refugees and immigrants, and especially the acute problems of the suffering children, innocents and defenseless victims of military violence, as well as the racial and religious discrimination and injustice, all of which are constantly increasing.
The feast of God’s Word, who became an infant—the child Jesus, whose disappearance is pursued by worldly authority, according to the Evangelist Matthew (Matt 2.13)—is a reminder and invitation for us to care for children, to protect these vulnerable victims and to respect the sacredness of childhood.
Of course, children and sensitive souls are also threatened in economically developed and politically stable countries of the world, whether by the immense crisis of marriage and family, or by diverse interventions as well as the use of physical or spiritual force. A child’s soul is altered by the influential consumption of electronic media, especially television and the internet, and by the radical transformation of communication. Unbridled economics transfigures them from a young age into consumers, while the pursuit of pleasure rapidly vanishes their innocence.
In light of these dangers, the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church addressed children and young people “with particular love and affection” (Prov. 8) by including the following in its Encyclical:
Amid the medley of mutually contradictory definitions of childhood, our most holy Church presents the words of our Lord: “Unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 18.3) and “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it (Luke 18.17), as well as what our Savior says about those who “prevent” (Luke 18.16) children from approaching Him and about those who “scandalize” them (Matt 18.6).
The mystery of Christmas is crystallized in the words of the festive Kontakion: “For us, a new child was born, God before all ages.” The divine Word as child and the child as God is revealed to the world with “the pure heart” and simplicity of a child. Children comprehend truths, which “wise and prudent” people are unable to approach. As Elytis observes in his poem From one’s neighbor: “You can build Jerusalem out of children alone!”
Beloved brothers and sisters in the Lord,
We appeal to all of you to respect the identity and sacredness of childhood. In light of the global refugee crisis that especially affects the rights of children; in light of the plague of child mortality, hunger and child labor, child abuse and psychological violence, as well as the dangers of altering children’s souls through their uncontrolled exposure to the influence of contemporary electronic means of communication and their subjection to consumerism, we declare 2017 as the Year of Protection of the Sacredness of Childhood, inviting everyone to recognize and respect the rights and integrity of children.
As underlined in another significant document of the Holy and Great Council, the Church of Christ does not look to “judging and condemning the world” with its word (John 3.17; 12.47), “but rather to offer to the world the guidance of the Gospel of the Kingdom of God, namely, the hope and assurance that evil, no matter its form, does not have the last word in history and must not be allowed to dictate its course.”
Therefore, we venerate our Savior with humility and compunction, for He has visited us from on high; we praise with divine song the immensity of the sacred Incarnation; we kneel down before the All-Holy Theotokos, who holds the child Jesus; and we address from the sleepless Phanar the festive greeting to all children of the Church of Constantinople, both near and afar: “Christ is born; glorify Him. Christ has come from heaven; come out to meet Him,” together with our paternal wishes and patriarchal prayer.
“Be strong in the grace of Christ Jesus.” (2 Tim. 2.1) Let us all strive together with faith and sincere love in the good struggle of new life in the Church, adhering to all that the Lord has commanded. For He is with us “all the days of our life, to the end of the ages.” (Matt 28.20)
BARTHOLOMEW of Constantinople
Fervent supplicant of all before God
Patriarch Daniel, in Christmas sermon: Birth of Christ – God’s programme for life of the world
The birth of Christ represents God’s programme for the life of the world, for salvation or its release from sin and death and its leading to the eternal life of the Kingdom of Heaven, said the Patriarch of the Romanian Orthodox Church, His Beatitude Daniel, in his Christmas sermon.
“From an orthodox theological-spiritual perspective, when we are speaking of God’s programme for the life of the world, we are actually speaking of God’s plan to create the world, its salvation or its release from sin and death and its leading to the eternal life of the Kingdom of Heaven. God’s unbridled love for people, manifested in the plan to create the world and in the plan to incarnate the eternal Son of God, is in fact God’s programme for the life of the world. The purpose of Incarnating the Son of God from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and His Birth as a human in Bethlehem is humanity’s salvation from sin and death, meaning the gaining of eternal life,” the Patriarch said.
Through and in Jesus Christ the recapitulation and union of the entire creation is achieved, the Patriarch shows.
“Through his Birth from a Virgin, He unites the realms of Heaven and Earth. Through his salvation of the crook [e.n. — Zacchaeus], Christ accomplishes the union between Heaven and Earth. Through His Ascension to Heaven, Christ blesses human nature. Through recapitulating all the created powers and all realms, Christ unites the spiritual beings with the earthly beings. Through His seating as Human at the side of God, Christ unites creation with non-creation,” Patriarch Daniel says.
The Patriarch also called for the “raising of the country’s children with love for God and for their kin”.
“Let’s help the youths of our country discover the beauties of faith and of Christian love, so that they may be hard-working and generous. Let’s use the gift of liberty to fortify the faith and to accomplish more good deeds, to become more merciful, more generous, as we are urged by Jesus Christ the Saviour: ‘Be merciful, just as your Father in Heaven is merciful!”, said the Orthodox Hierarch.
On the occasion of the holidays of Christmas, New Year and the Epiphany, Patriarch Daniel addressed “to all wishes of health and salvation, peace and joy, happiness and much help from god in all good deeds, as well as the traditional greeting: Happy New Year!'”.
Translated by Agerpres Romanian Patriarch Daniel: Irenical letter on the Feast of the Nativity of the Lord Published by Andrei Pau 23.12.2016 Bucharest, Nativity of the Lord 2016
Irenical letter on the Feast of the Nativity of the Lord Published by Andrei Pau 23.12.2016
Bucharest, Nativity of the Lord 2016 “ For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16)
Your Holiness / Beatitude, The purpose of the Incarnation of the Son of God by the Holy Spirit from the Virgin Mary and of His birth as a man in Bethlehem is the salvation of mankind from sin and death, i.e. attaining everlasting life. The New Testament shows that the Mystery of the Incarnation expresses a special bond between the Son of God and creation, since the Incarnation of the Son of God was the very purpose of the creation of the world (cf. Ephesians 1:4; 2 Timothy 1:9), because all were made in Him and through Him and for Him (cf. Colossians 1:16). Kenosis or humbleness of the eternal Son of God, Who was made man, aims at raising or exalting the human being to the celestial glory of the Most Holy Trinity. His love is not only compassionate, but He assumes to Himself our lives mixed with death in order to make all human beings of all times partakers of His eternal life. In today’s world, permeated by a profound spiritual and moral crisis, individualism and insensitivity to the suffering of others undermines love within family and society, diminishes solidarity with those in need and produce more alienation between people. Now, when Christ the Lord comes mysteriously to us, through the poor and the alone ones, the sick and the afflicted, through widows and orphans, through our Christian brothers forced to leave their homeland because of armed conflicts, let us go out to meet Him by charity, through fraternal help and solidarity. On the occasion of the Holy Feasts of the Nativity of the Lord, the New Year 2017 and the Theophany, we address to you our wishes of good health, peace and joy, along with the traditional greeting: Many years to come! With great esteem and brotherly embrace in Christ our Lord, † DANIEL Patriarch of the Romanian Orthodox Church His birth as a man in Bethlehem is the salvation of mankind from sin and death, i.e. attaining everlasting life. The New Testament shows that the Mystery of the Incarnation expresses a special bond between the Son of God and creation, since the Incarnation of the Son of God was the very purpose of the creation of the world (cf. Ephesians 1:4; 2 Timothy 1:9), because all were made in Him and through Him and for Him (cf. Colossians 1:16). Kenosis or humbleness of the eternal Son of God, Who was made man, aims at raising or exalting the human being to the celestial glory of the Most Holy Trinity. His love is not only compassionate, but He assumes to Himself our lives mixed with death in order to make all human beings of all times partakers of His eternal life. In today’s world, permeated by a profound spiritual and moral crisis, individualism and insensitivity to the suffering of others undermines love within family and society, diminishes solidarity with those in need and produce more alienation between people. Now, when Christ the Lord comes mysteriously to us, through the poor and the alone ones, the sick and the afflicted, through widows and orphans, through our Christian brothers forced to leave their homeland because of armed conflicts, let us go out to meet Him by charity, through fraternal help and solidarity. On the occasion of the Holy Feasts of the Nativity of the Lord, the New Year 2017 and the Theophany, we address to you our wishes of good health, peace and joy, along with the traditional greeting: Many years to come! With great esteem and brotherly embrace in Christ our Lord, † DANIEL Patriarch of the Romanian Orthodox Church
Patriarch Theodoros of Alexandria pleads for mercy and love for fellow people in his Christmas message
ENCYCLICAL LETTER OF THE NATIVITY OF CHRIST BY HIS BEATITUDE THE POPE AND PATRIARCH OF ALEXANDRIA AND ALL AFRICA
My dear brothers and sisters,
Our path to salvation has always been either a path of convergence to the will of our Creator or a path of deviation from it due to the predomination of our own will. Our vacillation between the divine and our own will, has sealed and will continue to seal – often tragically – our path to our natural destination, which is none other than to become partakers of God by Grace.
Being in the paradise of communion with our Creator, we have forgotten the benevolence of Creation and raised the banner of rebellion, in breach of the contract we made with God. Yet God, with paternal affection and love, has not abandoned us in the tragedy of our fall. Condescending to our weakness, He revealed His will and, through Moses, offered us indicators or a just and fraternal living.
And when the fullness of time had come, God gave us a gift greater even than the gift of Creation. He gave us the gift of Adoption. He sent His Only Begotten Son to lighten our path of return to the embrace of the Father. This time God’s contract with the people was summarized in one single commandment: love one another. Sincere love was proclaimed as an attitude and way of life. A way of life measured by our readiness to recognize in the face of others, not simply our fellow human beings, but our brothers and sisters.
Yet today we forget God’s will. We want to decide whether to accept or reject the gift of a new life. We want to regulate the end of our earthly life. We want to give new meaning to the God-given institution of family. We want to govern creation not as rational stewards, but as nothing but ruthless exploiters. We want either to suppress faith in God, or to transform it into a means of enforcing misanthropic ideologies.
And, since we have marginalised God and have removed conventional borders through technology, fear has come to erect new walls. We feel fear, because there are people around us who are determined to trample on the lives of others, in order to impose their own will misanthropically. We feel like the Alexandrian poet who desperately confesses: “Without reflection, without mercy, without shame, they built strong walls and high, and compassed me about”.
The world that was deeply wounded by the absurdity of the two world wars, now face a threat which is not at all conventional, but rather excessively disproportionate. The image of God in us has become so tarnished, as we have succumbed to our own will, making the prospect of likeness to God to seem hopelessly distant.
Yet, Christ, who is born tonight, said to us: “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age”. Christ who loves mankind pledged to remain beside us. What do we owe Christ in return? What we owe Him is our conscience’s peaceful revolution with the banner of love’s commandment, the mandate we signed with God. This peaceful revolution is required to reverse the pendulum of history from our own will to the will of God.
Do we have the extenuating circumstance of ignorance or of misunderstanding the divine will? No! Because the truth was expressed in the Gospels and it was summarized in one single word: mercy. Our Lord told us to feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, clothe the naked, host those in need, soothe the pain of the sick, visit those in prison. In other words, share, love, partake of the pain of others. Show concern for the rights of others, and do not tolerate the hypocrisy of the many.
My dear brothers and sisters,
The Elder Joseph the Hesychast, said: “God does not want to save us on His own will… He always helps, He is always beside us, but He also wants us to work, to do what we can”. God respects our freedom, but always looks forward us to stretching out our hand. He looks for us to cooperate, to do whatever we can, so that we can achieve what our Lord, who is born today, promised us: the return to full communion with God.
Many years! THEODOROS II †Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria and All Africa
Orthodox Church of America
To the Honorable Clergy, Venerable Monastics, and Pious Faithful of the Orthodox Church in America,
My Beloved Brethren and Blessed Children in the Lord,
Christ is born! Glorify Him! In recent years, we have been increasingly invited to immerse ourselves in a multitude of “universes” as an alternative to our everyday lives. Most recently, yet another installment of the “Star Wars” universe was released, and surely there will be more to come, along with an endless array of similar cinematic worlds and virtual realities in the realms of sports, entertainment, the internet and in the media. While promising an escape from the mundane, such things often leave us still trapped in our own world of earthly passions and desires.
Today, as we celebrate the Great Feast of the Nativity in the Flesh of Our Lord, God and Savior, Jesus Christ, we are invited to immerse ourselves, not into the world of escape, but into that “strange and glorious mystery” by which we are transfigured and transformed, embracing the Kingdom of heaven while allowing the Lord to embrace us. We are offered the possibility of encountering, not dazzling “heroes” of the three-dimensional, high definition sort, but rather the simple beauty of the birth of the child Jesus.
In appearance, aside from its extreme austerity, there is nothing externally noteworthy to behold: a woman gives birth in a cave and lays her child in a manger. But it is precisely through these simple realities that a great mystery—the pre-eternal God embracing our human nature in its fullness—is revealed to the universe. “He Who adorned the heavens with stars has been well-pleased to be born as a babe, and He Who holds all the ends of the earth in the hollow of His hands is laid in a manger of dumb beasts.”
This mystery becomes meaningful to us through the liturgical and sacramental life of the Church and through our small efforts to live with Christian kindness. This is far more than being virtuous. As Father Alexander Schmemann wrote, “A kind person is kind because he or she accepts people as they are, covers them with kindness. Kindness is beautiful, the most beautiful thing on this earth. Virtuous people are activists, obsessed with the desire to impose their principles and goodness and easily condemning, destroying, hating…. In this world there is a lot of virtue, and so little kindness.”
Virtue is not the goal, but rather a life of humility and a struggle to discern the Lord’s very image in everyone whom we encounter. He “Whom in essence none can touch” is wrapped as a mortal in swaddling clothes that we might become “partakers of His divine nature.” If there is any element of escape here, it is rooted in the turning away from sin and the all-too-deceptive seductiveness of this world.
The grace of the Holy Spirit is not given to us for virtue or heroic asceticism; rather, it is rooted in the humility that transforms us as surely as the Incarnation transforms the universe. “Let the creation now cast off all things old, beholding Thee, the Creator, made a child, for through Thy birth Thou dost shape all things afresh, making them new once more and leading them back again to their first beauty.”
May the joy of this great feast transfigure us now, in the New Year to come, and every day of our lives as we await the fullness of the Kingdom of heaven, yet to be fully revealed, but already fully present in the life of the Body of Christ, the Church.
With love in the New-Born Christ, + Tikhon Archbishop of Washington
Metropolitan of All America and Canada
HIS HOLINESS PATRIARCH JOHN X OF ANTIOCH
With the mercy of God
The Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and all the East
To my brethren the pastors of the holy Antiochian Church.
To my sons wherever they are in this Apostolic See.
"When it was time for thy presence on earth the first enrollment of the world took place. Then it was that thou didst decide to enroll the names of men who believe in thy nativity"
Every winter, the Baby of the cave visits us to wipe away with His simplicity, our distress and difficulties, to touch with His humility our souls, and to illumine our world with His divine peace.
The Lord used the cave to walk into the caves of our souls, to clean them and to crystallize them with His divine love.
On Christmas we are always called to remember that the Lord of the cave has come to join us and to be with us, to build up his home in our souls, and plant His seeds in the heart and in the whole human person.
He has come to overwhelm our souls with the brilliance of His love and with the outflow of his compassion and tenderness.
He came that we may become His church branded with His name in our hearts and minds and in all our being, in our deeds and mercy towards everybody, so as to cling to Him through faith we inherited and received from our ancestors not from anyone else.
He came to lay His seal on our hearts so as to cling and adhere to Him and defend our homeland and get deeply rooted in it; to be rooted in our cities, villages, and mountains, in the first land, the land of the church of Antioch that has spread the word “Christians” to the whole world.
On Christmas we are called as were our ancestors, to be written down for the sake of Christ. This is what the psalmist says and what the church chants on Christmas. The day Christ was born, a census was made and this was by the order of Caesar. From this census the psalmist starts inviting the soul to be written down, branded, sealed and registered in the book of Life with Christ. We are called as he says elsewhere, in order to be written down, and in order to remember that this has been done that we are "written down on the name of Christ’s Divinity".
We as Antiochian Christians don’t count our belonging to Christ as an old fashioned pride, nor do we count it as well, as a superior belonging, or as a literal privilege that has been mentioned throughout the pages of the Holy Gospel. It is in fact further than mere denominational or sectarian belonging that is sectarian and isolated at the same time. We are always called to remember that we have taken the Holy Gospel from the mouths of the Apostles, and that we did not hear it from anyone else.
We are called to know that the hardest circumstances would not take out from our hearts and our ancestors’ a confession other than what we received and preserved. We are written down for the sake of Christ. And we received our baptism 2000 years ago, and so we do not need anyone to convert us to Christianity. For 2000 years, we have been ringing the bells of our love for the neighbor, and have been expressing our open hearts to him, whosoever he might be from all the social spectra and religions. but at the same time, we are called to know that we belong here to this land to the land, we were planted and in which we stick to our faith.
We are in great need of meditating over Christmas. The Divine Baby has come to share with us the hardships of his creatures. He came poor invading the whole world in the tidings of his love. He was displaced like most of our beloved brothers.
On the day of His advent, angels expected good tidings and peace; they chanted as well, and said: “Glory to God in the highest, peace on earth, and joy among people”. Many people read these words and think that the peace of the whole creation is restricted to enjoying security, prosperity and easiness in life.
At the time of temptation, many people would ask and wonder, where is your peace Jesus in the events of our world? The answer will come right away from the Gospel itself. The peace of the whole creation, and the peace of the human spirit are called to blossom and grow in the human souls that accept the words of God; otherwise how shall we understand and be aware of the fact that the birth of Christ has planted peace in the souls and in the earth, whereas Rachel wept and mourned over thousands of children in Bethlehem who were murdered when Jesus was born and became as blossoms to the Christian martyria all over the world?
The peace of Christ is first of all a consolation that cures our hardships; it is not a magical substance that takes away the yoke of suffering and hardships from us.
Our prayer on this blessed day is for peace in Syria, for settlement in Lebanon and for prosperity in the East.
Our prayer on this blessed day is for Palestine, for Iraq, and for every other spot whose people have undergone pain and suffering. For more than 5 years the Christian Antiochian Church has been crucified by means of pain, and suffering that have come out of barbarism, terror, violence and a suffocating stifling economic siege.
For more than 3 years the world has been watching the Golgotha of this East, by that I mean bishops to be abducted, priests to be killed, and many other people to be displaced. But this pain and agony shall be broken off by the dawn of the resurrection, and by the big stone of the empty tomb no matter how long the Golgotha may last.
Many people have spoken about human rights and about many other things. But it seems that the human counterfeit markets are applied to some people and covered to others with respect to interests and criteria.
The two bishops of Aleppo his eminence John Ibrahim and his eminence Paul Yazigi and others among the children of this wounded East, witness how interests are being used and how much man costs.
Unfortunately however, in the international slave market, the cause of the two bishops of Aleppo was and has been a sign of disgrace and shame on the forehead of those who have used “human rights” to destroy societies and countries.
On this Christmas, our hearts are moving to the manger of love, to the Divine Baby of Bethlehem, asking Him to look down upon the earth, from above, on the earth on which He was born. Our prayer is to ask Him to lay down his hand on your hearts brethren and children, at home and abroad (in the Diaspora). We ask Him to anoint your wounds with good gifts and with perfect talents. We ask Him to grant peace to this world and to bestow his truth and mercy over the whole world so as to start chanting with the angels: “Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth and joy among people”.
Damascus, 18 December 2016.
The Divine Liturgy of Christmas: Patriarchate of Antioch
His Beatitude John X meets with the youth of Aleppo
Rescued by Christmas: reflections on the Nativity Icon
What shall we offer you, O Christ, who for our sake has appeared on earth as man? Every creature made by you offers you thanks. The angels offer you a hymn; the heavens a star; the Magi, gifts; the shepherds, their wonder; the earth, its cave; the wilderness, the manger; and we offer you a virgin mother.
— from a prayer for the Orthodox Christmas Vespers Service
Many people see Christ as a long-dead, myth-shrouded teacher who lives on only in fading memory, a man “risen from the dead” only in the sense that his teachings have survived. There are scholars busily at work trying to find out which words attributed to Jesus in the New Testament were actually said by him (not many, it turns out). Yet even skeptics celebrate Christmas with a special holiday meal and the exchange of gifts.
The problem of miracles doesn’t intrude, for what could be more normal than birth? If Jesus lived, then he was born, and so, with little or no faith in the rest of Christian doctrine, we can celebrate his birth, whatever our degree of faith. Pascha, with its miraculous resurrection from the grave, is more and more lost to us, but at least some of the joy of Christmas remains. Perhaps in the end the Nativity feast will lead us back to faith in all its richness. We will be rescued by Christmas.
The icon of Christ’s Nativity, ancient though it is, takes note of our “modern” problem. There (usually in the lower left hand corner) we find a morose, despondent Joseph listening to a wizened figure who represents what we might call “the voice of unenlightened reason.” What is the old man whispering to Joseph? Something like: “A miracle? Surely you aren’t so foolish as to believe Mary conceived this child without a human father. But if not you, then who was it?” As we read the Gospel passages concerning Joseph, we are repeatedly reminded that he didn’t easily make leaps of faith.
Divine activity intrudes into our lives in such a mundane, physical way. A woman gives birth to a child, as women have been doing since Eve. Joseph has witnessed that birth and there is nothing different about it, unless it be that it occurred in abject circumstances, far from home, in a cave in which animals are kept. Joseph has had his dreams, he has heard angelic voices, he has been reassured in a variety of ways that the child born of Mary is none other than the Awaited One, the Anointed, God’s Son. But belief comes hard. Giving birth is arduous, as we see in Mary’s reclining figure, resting after labor — and so is the labor to believe. Mary has completed this stage of her struggle, but Joseph still grapples with his.
The theme is not only in Joseph’s bewildered face. The rigorous black of the cave of Christ’s birth in the center of the icon represents all human disbelief, all fear, all hopelessness. In the midst of a starless night in the cave of our despair, Christ, “the Sun of Truth,” enters history having been clothed in flesh in Mary’s body. It is just as the Evangelist John said in the beginning of his Gospel: “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.”
The Nativity icon is in sharp contrast to the sentimental imagery we are used to in western Christmas art. In the icon there is no charming Bethlehem bathed in the light of the nativity star but only a rugged mountain with a few plants. The austere mountain suggests a hard, unwelcoming world in which survival is a real battle — the world since our expulsion from Paradise.
The most prominent figure in the icon is Mary, framed by the red blanket she is resting on — red: the color of life, the color of blood. Orthodox Christians call her the Theotokos, a Greek word meaning God-bearer or Mother of God. Her quiet but wholehearted assent to the invitation brought to her by the Archangel Gabriel has led her to Bethlehem, making a cave at the edge of a peasant village the center of the universe. He who was distant has come near, first filling her body, now visible in the flesh.
As is usual in iconography, the main event is moved to the foreground, free of its surroundings. So the cave is placed behind rather than around Mary and her child.
The Gospel records that Christ’s birth occurred in a cave that was being used as a stable. In fact the cave still exists in Bethlehem. Countless pilgrims have prayed there over the centuries. But it no longer looks like the cave it was. In the fourth century, at the Emperor Constantine’s order, the cave was transformed into a chapel. At the same time, above the cave, a basilica was built.
We see in the icon that Christ’s birth is not only for us, but for all creation. The donkey and the ox, both gazing at the newborn child, recall the opening verses of the Prophet Isaiah: ‘An ox knows its owner and a donkey its master’s manger…” They also represent “all creatures great and small,” endangered, punished and exploited by human beings. They too are victims of the Fall. Christ’s Nativity is for them as well as for us.
There is something about the way Mary turns away from her son that makes us aware of a struggle different than Joseph is experiencing. She knows very well her child has no human Father, but is anxious about her child’s future. She can see in the circumstances of his birth that his way of ruling is nothing like the way kings rule. The ruler of all rules from a manger in a stable. His death on the cross will not surprise her. It is implied in his birth.
We see that the Christ child’s body is wrapped “in swaddling clothes.” In icons of Christ’s burial, you will see he is wearing similar bands of cloth. We also see them around Lazarus, in the icon of his raising by Christ. In the Nativity icon, the manger looks much like a coffin. In this way, the icon links birth and death. The poet Rilke says we bear our death within us from the moment of birth. The icon of the Nativity says the same. Our life is one piece and its length of much less importance than its purity and truthfulness.
Some versions of the icon show more details, some less.
Normally in the icon we see several angels worshiping God-become-man. Though we ourselves are rarely aware of the presence of angels, they are deeply enmeshed in our history and we know some of them by name. This momentous event is for them as well as us.
Often the icon includes the three wise men who have come from far off, whose close attention to activity in the heavens made them come on pilgrimage in order to pay homage to a king who belongs not to one people, but to all people; not to one age, but to all ages. They represent the world beyond Judaism.
Then there are the shepherds, simple people who have been summoned by angels.
Throughout history it has in fact been the simple people who have been most uncompromised in their response to the Gospel, who have not buried God in footnotes. It was not the wise men, but the shepherds who were permitted to hear the choir of angels singing God’s praise.
On the bottom right of the icon often there are one or two midwives washing the newborn baby. The detail is based on apocryphal texts concerning Joseph’s arrangements for the birth. Those who know the Old Testament will recall the disobedience of midwives to the Egyptian Pharaoh; thanks to a brave midwife, Moses was not murdered at birth. In the Nativity icon the midwife’s presence has another still more important function, underscoring Christ’s full participation in human nature.
Iconographers may leave out or alter various details, but always there is a ray of divine light that connects heaven with the baby. The partially revealed circle at the very top of the icon symbolizes God the Father, the small circle within the descending ray represents the Holy Spirit, while the child is the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, the Son. At every turn, from iconography to liturgical text to the physical gesture of crossing oneself, the Church has always sought to confess God in the Holy Trinity.
The symbol is also connected with the star that led the magi to the cave.
Orthodoxy often speaks of Christ in terms of light and this, too, is suggested by the ray connecting heaven to the manger. “Our Savior, the dayspring from on high, has visited us, and we who were in shadow and in darkness have found the truth,” the Church sings on Christmas, the Feast of Christ’s Nativity According to the Flesh.
The iconographic portrayal of Christ’s birth is not without radical social implications. Christ’s birth occurred where it did, we are told by Matthew, “because there was no room in the inn.” He who welcomes all is himself unwelcome. From the moment of his birth, he is something like a refugee, as indeed he soon will be in the very strict sense of the word, fleeing to Egypt with Mary and Joseph, as they seek a safe distance from the murderous Herod. Later in life he will say to his followers, revealing one of the criteria of salvation, “I was homeless and you took me in.”
The icon reminds us that we are saved not by our achievements, but by our participation in the mercy of God — God’s hospitality. If we turn our backs on the homeless and those without the necessities of life, we will end up with nothing more than ideas and slogans and find ourselves lost in the icon’s starless cave.
We return at the end to the two figures at the heart of the icon. Mary, fulfilling Eve’s destiny, has given birth to Jesus Christ, a child who is God incarnate, a child in whom each of us finds our true self, a child who is the measure of all things. It is not the Messiah the Jews of those days expected — or the Christ many Christians of the modern world would have preferred. God, whom we often refer to as all-mighty, reveals himself in poverty and vulnerability. Christmas is a revelation of the self-emptying love of God.
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note: This is a chapter from Praying With Icons bu Jim Forest (Orbis Books).