Till the fourth century portraits of Christ were rare. The earliest iconographic representations seem to have been of the apostles, especially of Peter and Paul, though Christ was shown in scenes from the Gospels. Towards the end of the third century there appeared a kind of collective portrait of Christ seated among the apostles, an image based on a common classical form depicting the teacher and his disciples, or a group of learned men gathered round their leader.
There is little doubt that Christians followed contemporary practice in having funerary portraits painted of distinguished church members. These portraits showed the bust of the person, facing forward, often enclosed within a medallion. There may have been some reserve on the part of the church leaders towards these images in the early centuries, for fear of idolatry. But when the pagan ancestor cult was declared illegal at the beginning of the fifth century such portraits of saints survived to become portable icons
The ceremonies of the Great Water-Blessing took hundreds of years to develop. The primary prayer for the blessing of water is from Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem (+641). The form of the rite was developed between the 14th to 16th centuries. In most parishes the form is shortened to be celebrated immediately after the Prayer behind the Ambo (i.e., the one said by the priest in the center of the church), and is mainly the Prayer of Sophronius.
Our current liturgical books allow for two blessings: the blessing of water on the Eve as a symbol of the former practice of baptizing converts and the blessing of water on the feast as a celebration of Christ’s baptism in the Jordan, thus manifesting to humankind that He IS God in human form.
The three-fold blessing of water, as we currently practice it, was found first in the Book of Services of Metropolitan Peter Mohyla (1646). This three-fold blessing involves the use of a three-branch candle, the priest’s breath and then the priest’s hand. The rite of water blessing is then concluded with the plunging of the hand cross into the water three times. This rite is not uniform throughout the Eastern Churches. The symbolism of the three-fold blessing, each which is performed three times, is, of course symbolic of the power of the Holy Trinity being called down to bless the water.
Remember, water is a symbol of life
It is critical, I believe, to once again reiterate Athanasius’ understanding that the redeemed person may become a son/daughter of God only by participation, which implies that far from being mechanical or automatic, the sonship of the redeemed is contingent and mutable: “From this it clearly appears that men can lose their sonship which they have by participation.
Although Athanasius is one of the key Fathers in the development of the Eastern spiritual idea of Theosis or deification, his thought is complex and, because of this fact, we need to step-back and take another look at this whole idea.
The Bible offers a sufficient number of passages about human participation in God for it to be taken as the important image of salvation. But perhaps it does not speak about it as much as the Eastern Fathers of the Church who presented cardinal texts for a foundation of Theosis. The two tests are 2 Peter 1:4 and Psalm 82:6 which Jesus cites in John 10:34-36a:
Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires (Peter)
I said, ‘You are gods; you are all sons of the Most High (Psalm)
Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your Law, “I have said you are gods’?” If he called them gods, to whom the word of God came – and the Scripture cannot be broken – what about the one whom the Father set apart as he very own and sent into the world? (John)
The passage in 2 Peter accentuates one of the leading motifs in the Eastern Church’s understanding of salvation, namely release from the corruption and mortality caused by the evil desires of the world. Eastern theology does not focus so much on guilt as on mortality as the main problem of humanity. In addition, in the East, the concept of sin is viewed as something human beings do and choose for themselves rather than something “hereditary” as a result of the first human beings’ sin in the distant past. Cyril of Alexandria comments on this passage from Peter to note that we are all called to participate in divinity, not just a few “saints”. Although Christ alone is God by nature, all people are called to become God by participation. In such participation we become likenesses of Christ and perfect images of God the Father.
The Eastern Church finds this doctrine of deification (Theosis) not only in the explicit texts just mentioned but elsewhere in the Bible, beginning with the Old Testament. To begin this quest, read Exodus 34:30 where Moses’ face is described as shining or Exodus 7:1 which reveals that Aaron became a god to Pharaoh. Also reread Matthew 17:4, another classic text.
The New Testament does not often use the term ‘mediator’. One also looks for it in vain in the Apostolic Fathers and the Apologists. Jesus Christ does not stand between God and his people, nor is he God’s representative, as an angel could be, but he is himself ‘the author of eternal salvation’ (Hebrews 5:9). We do not wish to diminish the value of Christ’s mediation, quite the contrary. We realize, however, that such a doctrine differs from ancient teaching in two respects:
1. In the philosophical systems it was God who, because of his absolute transcendence, needed a mediator to communicate with the world. By contrast in Scripture such communication is made possible only by virtue of God’s condescension. Jesus stands explicitly on the side of God. It is God himself who performs the work of salvation through the man Jesus Christ, his Son.
2.This salvation could become effective only by means of a complete taking on by God of the human condition. The axiom ‘What is not assumed cannot be saved,’ which underlines the development in Irenaeus, is already found explicitly in Origen: ‘The whole man would not have been saved unless he had taken upon him the whole man.’ The union between the human and the divine is a ‘mixture’, a ‘blending’, but of a special type: indeed, the two natures remain unconfused. Christ is the only one to bring about the encounter of the divine transcendence with the hu-man finite, without sacri-ficing the one or ignoring the other. Jesus belongs au-thentically to the two orders of existence, that of God and that of man. ‘God and man have become one.’ The mystery of mediation is therefore the mystery of union, realized by the Son who is ‘one’ with the Father.
The Church struggled for years to come to a clearer understanding of the mystery of God’s Incarnation. In most ways His incarnation is beyond human comprehension. All we can say is that Jesus is truly God and truly man.
You have revealed Yourself to the world today, and Your light,
O Lord, has shined upon us. We recognize
You and exclaim to You: “You have come and revealed Yourself,
O Inaccessible Light.”
Today we celebrate, as a community, the second greatest feast in our church year. It was the first immoveable feast (i.e., a feast that occurs on the same day each year) developed by the Church. The feasts of Easter and Pentecost, because they are directly connected to Jewish feasts, are known as moveable feasts. Some believe that Theophany was developed to replace the Jewish Festival of Lights. In the early Church it celebrated all of the various events wherein God manifested Himself through the Person of Jesus Christ. It included Jesus’ Nativity, the homage of the Wise Men, His Baptism, the miracle at the wedding in Cana of Galilee and the multiplication of the loaves and fishes. The name Theophany must be understood in the plural sense for it means a feast of Theophanies.
This feast was first celebrated at the end of the second or at the start of the third century. St. Clement of Alexandria (+215) mentions it in his works. The Apostolic Constitutions, a work of the fourth century, also speaks of this feast. In the third century, Hyppolitus of Rome and Gregory of Neocaesarea mention it. In the fourth century Gregory of Nyssa and John Chrysostom preached about it.
The biblical story of the Baptism of Jesus is recorded in all four Gospels and became the most important of God’s manifestations because this event inaugurated the great ministry of Jesus. It was after His baptism and the murder of John that Jesus began proclaiming the message originally preached by John: Repent, for the Kingdom of God IS at hand.
God’s real presence in creation and, especially, in humankind, was made known through the baptism of Jesus. We see from history that God constantly tried to make Himself known. His total manifestation was, we believe, made through the Person of Jesus, the Christ. Let us celebrate that God IS with us.
Vibrant Christians do not see Christmas as some past event of history but, rather, as something that is actually happening today. Our Church declares the reality of the Lord’s birth in the present tense as we do all of the major holy days of the Church. We declare this day: Christ IS Born! Glorify Him! What can we understand by this religious custom?
Since it is our understanding that there is no time in the spiritual dimension – for God all things are present – we declare that in some mysterious manner God is being born into our world right now. How do we understand this?
Think about it. At this very moment God is keeping all things, us included, in existence. Life is something that always exists. There is no real beginning or end to life since life is God and we share in this life. This being the case, all things are present to God in the universe and His birth, while it took place in the past in our world, is really happening at this present moment in the spiritual realm. To God all is present. There is neither past nor future. There is only the present moment. This is one reason why the spiritual fathers, and some modern-day authors like Eckert Tolle, exhort us to live in the present moment since the present moment is the only thing that is truly real. In fact Tolle wrote a powerful book called The Power of Now. In this book he teaches people how to live in the present moment.
living in the present moment. All of our anxieties, sorrows, disappointments and painful feelings come into existence when we live either in the past or the future. The fact of the matter is that the things of the past and the future are not real and cannot be controlled or changed. All we have is the present moment – the NOW.
How would your life be different if you really believed that Christ was being born RIGHT NOW? Would you be like Mary, Joseph, the shepherds or the Wise Men? Or would you be like Herod?
Once we are able to translate such major feasts as Christmas into the present moment, life changes. Right at this very moment God is coming into our world to help us discover the meaning and purpose of life. Right now He is calling us to come and adore Him! Right now the angels are exhorting us to Glorify Him!
While it may not necessarily be easy for some to live in the present moment, it is truly something we all do well to attempt to accomplish!
The greatest and most profound mystery of the Christian faith is the Incarnation of the Son of God. The eternal God becomes man and does not cease to be God. In the first centuries, the Eastern Fathers accepted the mystery of the Incarnation with profound faith and great piety. Enraptured by this mystery, they had nothing but words of wonder for the most wonderful love of God, the sacrifice, humility and poverty of the Messiah.
As we read the Eastern Fathers of the Church we see that they first directed their attention to the greatness of the mystery. Basil the Great teaches us how to receive the mystery of the Incarnation: “The actual, first nativity of Christ must be venerated in silence”. He suggested that we should not even permit our minds to investigate this mystery since there is no way that our human minds can conceive of how God could become man. Gregory the Theologian, Athanasius the Great, Ephrem the Syrian and others all stress how the Incarnation is absolutely beyond human comprehension.
Athanasius exclaimed this in one of his Christmas sermons: “Who will not speak out, who will not wonder at the Lord’s coming? In heaven he is a freeman, on earth he is a hireling; above he is rich, below he is poor. In heaven he is on a divine Throne, on earth he is in a cave; in heaven he is in the unfathomable bosom of the Father, on earth he is in the small soulless shelter and manger. Who will not express wonder at the great things above and the small swaddling clothes below! He who loosens is bound; he who nourishes is nourished”.
When you think about what we celebrate on this feast, that God became a human person, you have to be amazed. Only God, who we describe as all powerful, could accomplish such a task – the infinite, became finite.
Of course this immediate question comes to mind: Why did God choose to become man? Perhaps the simplest answer to this question is: Because He loved mankind, His creation, so much that He wanted to personally demonstrate to mankind how to live in order to become all that God envisioned when He created humanity. God reveled to us creatures how to live in order to experience the fullness of life.The fullness of life is truly experienced when we come to know ourselves as children of God and the living temples of His Spirit.
Today the Virgin gives birth to Perfect Essence and the earth offers a cave to the Inaccessible. The Angels sing His glory with the shepherds; the wise men journey with the star, for there is born for us an Infant Child, God Eternal.
In a sermon on December 20, 386 or 388, St. JohnChrysostom announced to his faithful that, for the first time, the Church in Antioch would celebrate the feast of theNativity of our Lord on the 25th of December, independent of the feast of the Theophany. He added that this feast can, without mistake, be called the mother of all the feasts for from it Theophany, Easter, Ascension and Pentecost have their origin and foundation. If Christ had not been born in the flesh, neither could he have been baptized, crucified, raised from the dead or taken into heaven. From Christ’s Nativity all the other feasts flow like different streams from the same source.
Truly Christ’s Nativity is the most significant event in the history of the human race. This event inaugurated theChristian Era and became the point of reference from which we date the events of world history.
For the first three centuries, Christians did not have a separate feast of the Nativity of Christ. At that time the only feast known, besides Easter, was the Theophany. It was celebrated on the 6th of January. This feast, since itcelebrated God’s “manifestation” of Himself to mankind, included the Nativity of Jesus, the adoration of the Three Kings, Christ’s baptism, and any other event in the life of Jesus which manifested God’s presence in the world in the Person of Jesus (e.g., the multiplication of the loaves).
St. Clement of Alexandria says that during his time, some regarded the 20th of May as the day of Christ’s birth, others celebrated it on the 6th or 10th of January, butaccording to him it occurred on the 18th of November. St. Cyprian, in the third-fourth century, alluded to the day of the birth of Christ as being the 28th of March.
The fixing of the date of Christmas influenced the fixing of the dates of the other feasts dependent upon it, such as the Circumcision, the Presentation, the Annunciation and the Nativity of John the Baptizer. The Eastern Church slowly followed the example of the Western Church with regards to the separation of the feasts. It seems that Chrysostom is the person who greatly influenced the Eastern Church’s celebration of the Nativity of our Lord as a separate feast.
In truth we don’t know the date of the Lord’s birth!
З Різдвом Христовим (Z Rizdvom Khrystovym)
Щасливого Різдва Христового (Shchaslyvoho rizdva Hrystovoho)
Vesele Božične Praznike
ميلاد مجيد (Miilaad Majiid)
My dearest Brothers and Sisters,
A great portion of the Christian world rejoices with us today as we celebrate the profound mystery of God becoming man in the Person known to us as Jesus, the Christ. We celebrate this “manifestation” of God because we believe that through His Incarnation He truly revealed to us that
- we are made in His image and likeness;
- we are loved by Him beyond all measure; and
- we are immortal since we are the temples of His Holy Spirit.
The Nativity of our Lord is only one of several “theophanies,” that is God manifestations, that we celebrate. Because of the very profound nature of these winter feasts, we must do all within our power to celebrate them in a real spiritual manner. This, I know, is difficult in a society that has so destroyed the spiritual content of Christmas through the rampant commercialization of the day and the secularization of this time of the year. The spiritual nature of this day can be diminished if we don’t intentionally make an effort to reclaim the day as sacred.
It is my hope and prayer, if you are reading this Bulletin, that you will make every effort to pause amidst your celebration and focus your mind and heart on the true meaning of this day. Today is a day, more than any others, upon which we should truly offer a prayer of deep gratitude to God for the gift of life.
It is my priestly prayer that God will be profoundly present to you as you celebrate His Incarnation. May you embrace the mystery of this manifestation, knowing and feeling the love that this feast heralds and, knowing this, may you, with gratitude, thank God and share love with others. May this holy season be one of spiritual growth for you and yours as you reflect upon the meaning of this sacred feast.
As a fellow traveler in life, your brother, your pastor and your friend, I extend to you my love and wishes for a very merry and truly blessed Christmas.