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.
In the weeks immediately prior to the feast of Christmas I began sharing in this article the Names of Christ that evoked the greatest response from the Fathers of the Church. In the last issue I shared the name: Savior. In this issue I would share the name: Light-Wisdom.
Christ forever opened ‘the gates of light to those who were the sons of darkness and of night and had devoted themselves to becoming the sons of light and of the day.’ For the Greek Fathers the misery of the sinner consists in ‘ignorance’. On this bases we better understand the great importance they attached to the revelatory function of the Word become flesh. The tradition retained the full run of scriptural names: Truth, Wisdom, Master, the Word, the Light.
You will note that I have consistently stressed the fact that Christ is truly the Father’s revelation to us about the meaning and purpose of life. It is critical I think that we see Christ as God’s revelation about how we should live as human beings. This is also one of the reasons why the Church has stressed the fact that Jesus is truly God and truly and completely human at the same time.
There can be no greater difference than the one which exists between the Creator and the created. And yet, the mystery of Jesus Christ appears as the perfect union of the two, and this is why he is essentially the Unifier.
The need for a ‘mediator’ was seen even in Greek philosophy. How could two antithetical realities – the material and the spiritual – be reconciled? A serious problem. If God must remain transcendent, indifferent to everything under him, then the transition from the divine to the human cannot be conceived of without some intermediary. It is along such philosophical lines that a carefully developed doctrine of the Word-Mediator, the instrument of God, is found in Philo. A similar notion could not be applied to Christ.
In this article I have been sharing thoughts about Father Athanasius on the Deifying Work of the Redeemer. We have already seen that many did not understand what he proposed. It was not until John of Damascus that the distinction was explicated between the Son’s adoption of our human nature considered as a whole at the Annunciation and the adoption of individual persons or hypostases through baptism and the cooperation of faith. One author believe that the most recent historical research has revealed that the negative critique of Athanasius’ work to be a shortsighted “reduction” of the patristic doctrine of divinization to the acquisition of incorruptibility only.
You will recall that some who critiqued Athanasius’ work deduced that our human divinization was just limited to the acquisition of incorruptibility. The Greek Fathers refused to say that the our redemption is only limited to a “physical” redemption. Rather, our redemption includes every aspect of out human person.
One author maintains that Athanasius’ theory of deification is not a Greek speculation, but the decisive element in the salvific work of Christ, which, through his true humanity, is very different from a mechanical restoration. Divinization is not limited to a restoration of some sort of original nature but, rather, is the purpose of this earthly existence. We are put here on earth to spiritually grow – to discover who we are as God’s creatures and to learn how to live as He created us to live. It appears that Athanasius understood that the redeemed person may become a son of God only by participation, which implies that far from be-ing 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, and what one can lose one cannot be by nature”.
Hopefully this is beginning to make more sense. While we are called to be children of God, we can preclude our experience of this by how we live. The most interesting aspect of this is that God wills that we come to experience our union with Him and we are given all sorts of opportunities to come to a deep understanding of this. It may take more than one lifetime – remember life after physical death is dynamic, ever changing and growing. We don’t understand, however, what it will be like.
God’s goal for His creation is that it will ever move in the direction of being in union with Him. The challenges and opportunities of life are designed to help us move in that direction. How we respond to these challenges and opportunities, however, is subject to our free will. Regardless of how we respond, however, God will not discontinue the opportunities to spiritually grow. If we remember that this earthly exixtance is given to us to “learn” how to be spiritual beings, then we look at life in a different manner.
In the last issue of this article, I began sharing with you the “conditions” of the world into which Christ as born. These conditions and crowding meant that contagious disease was rampant. Life expectancy was low, about thirty years for those who survived the high mortality rates of infancy and childhood.
The urban working population could be sustained only by continuing migration from rural areas. Roman agricultural policy virtually compelled migration to cities. Small peasant farms that had provided basic sustenance to the families that had lived on them for centuries were being combined into large estates that now produced grains and other agricultural products for export. Many of the rural class, now without their own land, moved to cities to find work. Most did so out of desperation, not because they desired city life.
When I read this I realize how very much like our modern society the time of Christ was. There are no longer “small” farmers. People have been driven into the urban areas and, at first, entered into manufacturing for a living. Now, however, with the off-shoring of manufacturing jobs, we are in economic trouble.
Migration top cities destroyed the extended family and village relationships that marked traditional rural communities. Newcomers to cities, even if they arrived with their family, were severed from the familiarity and common concern of village life. They were, in an important sense, alone and on their own. Moreover, cities were populated by many ethnic and linguistic groups, in contrast to the homogeneity of village life. Ethnic estrangement and conflict were frequent.
Thus life was difficult for most of those who lived in cities. Earning enough money to pay for food and shelter was always an issue. Disease and death were constant threats. Community was no longer something that one was born into, but was either absent or newly formed.
Paul’s purpose as apostle was to create and nurture urban communities of Christ-followers – especially from among Gentiles in particular. That was his commission: to go to Gentiles, not Jews. Preaching to the Jews was Peter’s commission.
And yet when Paul arrived in a newc city, he consistently went to a synagogue to tell people about Jesus. Why? Was he trying to convert Jews, in spite of his commission to go to the Gentiles, a vocation and restriction that he and other early Christian leaders had apparently agreed upon?
Almost certainly, the explanation is that synagogues in major cities were likely to have a number of Gentiles who were strongly attracted to Judaism, but not willing or ready to fully convert.
Paul, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit realized also that Christ’s message was for all. He therefore began to preach not only to Jews but to Gentiles. He saw in Jesus the Jesus message something that pertained to all humanity
A person once poured water into a bowl. He stirred the water and said to his friends, “Look at the water.” It was disturbed and they saw nothing but murky waves. After the water was calm, he said to them again, “Look how still the water is now.” As they looked into the water, they saw their own faces in it as in a mirror. Then he said to them, “It is the same for those who live among men. Disturbances prevent them from seeing their faults. But when a person is still in the presence of God, then he sees his failing.”
Along the same line, Diadochus of Photice says that we have to keep the surface calm so that we can see deep into the soul. He writes: When the sea is calm the eyes of the fisherman can penetrate to the point where he can distinguish different movements in the dept of the water, so that hardly any of the creatures who move through the pathways of the sea escape him, but when the sea is agitated by the wind, she hides in her dark restlessness what she shows in the smile of a clear day.”
“If a man cannot be alone, he doesn’t know who he is,” said Thomas Merton. “Be still and know that I am God,” says the Lord. Be still! Stop your rushing about, all tensed-up, acting as if everything depends on you; acting as if you are God. Stop! “Be still and know that I am God. “In stillness as we practice the Presence, we discover who God is and who we are.
One author said, “Language has created the word loneliness to express the pain of being alone – and the word solitude to express the glory of being alone with God.
Here is how one Christian turns loneliness into solitude. Each morning let the first words you say be, “Jesus is with me. I claim His Presence.” In the middle of the morning, stop wherever you are and whatever you are doing, close your eyes for a moment and say, “Jesus is with me. I claim His presence.” At noon repeat it and sometime during the afternoon when your energies are depleted, repeat it again. Finally, the last thing you do before falling asleep, look up at the darkness and say, “Jesus is with me. I claim His presence.”
Learning to practice the Presence of God is extremely important if we are to spiritually grow as children of God. Why not give it a try and see what happens?
From the start Greeks and Latins had each approached the Christian Mystery in their own way. For example, when reflecting on the Crucifixion, Latins thought primarily of Christ the Victim, while Greeks thought of Christ the Victor; Latins talked more of redemption, Greeks of deification; and so on. Like the schools of Antioch and Alexandria within the east, these two distinctive approaches were not in themselves contradictory; each served to supplement the other, and each had its place in the fullness of Catholic tradition. But after the two sides became strangers to one another – with no political and little cultural unity, with no common language – each side began to follow its own approach in isolation and push the differences to extremes, forgetting the value in the other point of view.
It was obvious that there were different doctrinal approaches in east and west. As pointed out, two points of doctrine where the two sides no longer supplemented one another, but entered into direct conflict, were the claims of Rome as the head of the Church and the Filioque. While these factors were sufficient in themselves to place a serious strain upon the unity of Christendom, two further points of difficulty caused the separation to be damaging to unity.
It was not until the middle of the ninth century that the full extent of the disagreement first came properly into the open, but the two differences themselves date back considerably earlier. We have already had occasion to mention the Papacy when speaking of the different political situations in east and west; and we have seen how the centralized and monarchical structure of the western Church was reinforced by the barbarian invasions. Now so long as the Pope claimed an absolute power only in the west, Byzantium raised no objections. The Byzantines did not mind if the western Church was centralized, so long as the Papacy did not interfere in the east. The Pope, however, believed his immediate power of jurisdiction to extend to the east as well as to the west; and as soon as he tried to enforce this claim within the eastern Patriarchates, trouble was bound to arise. The Greeks assigned to the Pope a primacy of honor, but not the universal supremacy which he regarded as his due. The Pope viewed infallibility as his own prerogative; the Greeks held that in matters of the faith the final decision rested not with the Pope alone, but with a Council representing all the bishops of the Church.
In the last issue of this article I began sharing thought about the birth of Icongraphy. Sometimes the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist were depicted but usually in a rather allusive manner. Certain scenes from the Old and New Testaments were found: Jonah and the whale, Daniel in the lion’s den, Noah and the ark, Abraham and Isaac, the raising of Lazarus, and the adoration of the Magi. The latter was shorthand for the whole of the incarnation and redemption, and counterbalanced the representation of Adam and Eve, standing for the state of sin from which we need deliverance. Most orf the scenes depict the salvation of individuals in response to their faith and prayer, and correspond to the prayers made for the dead: in the past God has saved these individuals, may he now save those who have died. Other images are less easy to interpret. There recurs the conventional image of the mother and child. But it is not clear whether this always represents Mary and the child Jesus.
The iconography of the catacombs arose in a liturgical setting, that of prayer for the dead. The frescoes at Dura also relate to the liturgy, this time of baptism. Behind the font, which is placed beneath an arched canopy, are Adam and Eve, and, much larger, the Good Shepherd and his flock. They symbolize original sin and the redemption wrought by Christ. The surviving frescoes include the Samaritan woman at the well, Christ walking on the water, the raising of Lazarus, and the resurrection of Christ, shown by means of the three women at the tomb. The healing of the paralytic is there, and so is David’s victory over Goliath. These all point to the victory over evil and the new life and health which baptism confers.
There are no instances known from the third century of Christian decoration of the eucharistic hall. But the images found in the catacombs and at Dura make it clear that the iconography which was later to play so important a part in the decoration of Christian churches, especially in the Byzantine tradition, had its roots in the Hellenistic art of the third century, adapted to express fundamental Christian themes.
One other aspect of late classical art was to become a great importance in the Eastern Christian tradition, both in private devotion and in corporate worship, and that was portraiture. It is quite probably that Christians began painting portraits of distinguished and venerated members very early on.
An angel of the Lord suddenly appeared
in a dream to Joseph with the command:
Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt.
Stay there until I tell you otherwise.
Herod is searching for the child to destroy him.
The dramatic story of the initial years of Jesus, our Incarnate God, is continued on this weekend after Christmas. From the time of the Maccabees, Egypt had been a customary place of refuge for Jews. An earlier example is Jeroboam’s flight to Egypt. Jesus is presented as re-enacting in his own life the career of Israel; for he is the new Israel!
Israel is the name given to the people of Yahweh – God. It seems that this name was first given to those believers in Yahweh who first left Egypt under Moses. The Holy Family’s departure to Egypt and return sets the stage for Jesus being considered the new Moses who has led humanity on a new Exodus – a departure from captivity to human weakness to the freedom that comes from living like a child of God. It is interesting to note that the departure for and return from Egypt was directed by an angel of God in the form of a dream given to Joseph. Just as the Old Israel had a dream about freedom from captivity, so in Christ the dream is truly fulfilled.
The warning given to Joseph in a dream explains why Jesus, although born in Bethlehem, was reared in Galilee and was known as a Galilean. Luke, which agrees with Matthew both on Bethlehem and Galilee, explains the relation of the two places in a different way: Joseph and Mary were originally residents of Galilee and were only temporary visitors to Bethlehem when Jesus was born. This entire story is heavily influenced by the Old Testament.
The tragic episode of the Innocents is mentioned in no other literature, profane or canonical; this raises serious questions about the historical character of the incident. So the events presented by Matthew possibly represent a symbolic presentation of the royal Messiahship of Jesus and the opposition of secular power to this Messiahship. The opposition finally achieved its purpose in the passion of Christ. This story represents what Christians understood about Christ!