Tag Archives: Christmas

Christmas is the Real Birthday of Each of Us

 

Children who are born on a day close to Christmas may fear or feel that their birthday celebration is lost in this day, but there is a deep way in which it cannot be a loss because Christmas is the real birthday of each of us and to approach Bethlehem is to approach the moment of our own birth.

This is because God in accepting human life revealed all human life joined to eternity, your birth and my birth are shown too, by the birth at Christmas, to be endlessly beginning in God. Life is divine and human because of the Godmanhood of Jesus. There is no death, all things are eternal. Egocentricity lets go of its boundaries and is born in personhood.

A child approaches Christmas with a joy and sense of wonder which are already an intuition of this. For those older, for us, there is a journey perhaps back and inward to that beginning which is our own Bethlehem, past all of the routine and tiredness and memory of things done poorly, of failures, of gain and of loss, roads taken and untaken and of the shadow of death, of having come to terms with life as it is, past all that to a beginning.

… my soul hurrying
Could not speak for tears,
When she saw her own Child,
Lost so many years.
Down she knelt, up she ran
To the Babe restored:
“O my Joy,” she sighed to it,
She wept, “O my Lord!”

This going back and inward, this meditation, aims on an individual level to imitate what God has accomplished at Christmas on a cosmic level.

The happiness that I wish you at this Christmas is then profound and new it does not arise from our perhaps pious Christian practice over the years, good though that is in its way, nor even from those childhood memories which are themselves close to the beginning but only an intuition of it. As Eric Rohmer expressed it “it is a living joy a joy of today. The birth we celebrate is not only that of Jesus but our birth as well, each of us is asked to believe in a fresh joy for tonight, we must pledge ourselves in a new hope.”

Then we see that the star above is the Christmas star, and all things that live are in its light. The holiness of the real is always there, totally accessible, intimate and immediate…

We see at this place where time and eternity meet, this beginning place, that it is indeed a beginning for us today whatever our age, the beginning of a way of life and an adventure in joining moment to moment on the way into that holiness which is life as adventure, life as becoming and becoming as divine.

The Christmas message of His Grace Bishop Seraphim (Sigrist)

The Radical Hope of Christmas

Christians are the people of hope.
This is especially the case during the season of advent and the following celebration of Christmas. Hope is a peculiar thing in this world; without God the violence and death of the world would be all that most humans would have to look forward to. Yet, we find in this season a great joy and a hope for a kingdom of peace and life. The most striking poems of hope come from the Prophets, those lone voices speaking out at the edges of civilization, declaring that another world is possible.

The people who walked in darkness
Have seen a great light;
Those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death,
Upon them a light has shined.
For You have broken the yoke of their burden
And the staff across their shoulder,
The rod of his oppressor,
As in the day of Midian.
For every warrior’s boot used in battle,
And the garments rolled in blood,
Will be used for burning as fuel for fire.
For unto us a Child is born,
Unto us a Son is given;
And the government will be upon His shoulder.
And His name will be called
Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father,
Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of His government and peace
There will be no end

These are the words of the Prophet Isaiah who announced this Kingdom of Peace from of old. The words of the prophets are full of life, of the Holy Spirit. They speak hope to a world “rolled in blood.”

There shall come forth a Rod from the stem of Jesse,
And a Branch shall grow out of his roots.
The Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon Him,
But with righteousness He shall judge the poor,
And decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
“The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb,
The leopard shall lie down with the young goat,
The calf and the young lion and the lamb together;
And a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze;
Their young ones shall lie down together;
And the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play by the cobra’s hole,
And the weaned child shall put his hand in the viper’s den.
They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain,
For the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord
As the waters cover the sea.
And in that day there shall be a Root of Jesse,
Who shall stand as a banner to the people;
For the Gentiles shall seek Him,
And will assemble the outcasts of Israel

The prophets spoke of a world without killing, without enmity, without exploitation. A world where the violent are converted to the way of a peaceful child. A world where the outcasts of Israel, and even those gentile foreigners, are brought together. Where race and nationality no longer divide. These things would all be brought about by the Messiah. The Christ. The King. This King would raise a new banner for the nations. A banner of peace. A banner of hope. When this Christ comes, the order of the nations will be overturned. The Kingdom of God turns the way of the world on its head.

And many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; and He will teach us of His ways, and we will walk in His paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. And He shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

In these ancient words we hear their hope and expectation, foretelling of a great wonder. Mary herself continues this tradition, writing the oldest advent hymn in history, the Magnificat. In this hymn she references the prophets of old and continues their prophetic message, singing

My soul magnifies the Lord,
And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.
For He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant;
For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed.
For He who is mighty has done great things for me,
And holy is His name.
And His mercy is on those who fear Him
From generation to generation.
He has shown strength with His arm;
He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has put down the mighty from their thrones,
And exalted the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
And the rich He has sent away empty.
He has helped His servant Israel,
In remembrance of His mercy,
As He spoke to our fathers,
To Abraham and to his seed forever.

‘As He spoke our fathers.’ What did God speak to our fathers? He spoke of casting down the mighty from their thrones, of sending the rich away, of lifting up the lowly, and of filling the poor and the hungry with good things. This is a prophecy of hope. There are so many in this world today who are oppressed by the mighty, who are poor and starving, who live daily in fear of death from violent men. The way of the world is a way of death. And yet Mary, in the tradition of the Prophets, found a “great light” to hope in. This light would destroy the Kingdoms of this world and their way of death.
And then was born, a child. And it was proclaimed by heaven itself,

“Glory to God in the highest, and on Earth peace, goodwill among all people.”

This is the proclamation of the Kingdom for which the ancient tradition of hope had waited. Peace on Earth. Good will among all people. And this peace did not come through overthrowing the kings of this world with violence, as many zealots had hoped. It did not come on a fiery chariot. It did not come with a sword. It came in a manger, as a little child. The little child that Isaiah foretold, leading the lion and lamb. The most helpless, weak, meek, and poor child the world had seen. Born as a political refugee under a violent Herod. Born to a poor, teenage, unwed mother. Born to the care of the elderly Joseph, a working man. This King wore only a crown of suffering. He overthrew death by dying rather than by killing. He conquered the violent and dark world, not with more violence as so many from Alexander to Napolean have tried to do, but with simple words, with love, with peace. Just as the prophets foretold, he exalted the poor and lowly. Christ Jesus began his ministry with the words of Isaiah, echoing his prophecies,

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring glad tidings to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free.

This day as I sit, filled with joy of the Nativity services, of the birth of our Lord, of family and of love I think of all those who do not have homes or family or peace. Those who now are clinging for their life in the face of violence, poverty, hunger, and captivity. And I hope for the Christ who has come and will come again to set us all free. I think of the words of the Christmas poem Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote many years ago in the face of the darkness of the American Civil War, where brother killed brother,

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
and wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.

With these words I remember that Christ was not born once long ago, but that he is indeed born in us whenever we imitate him, in meekness, in poverty, in righteousness, in peacemaking. And I remember that even after the Christmas season is over, we remain in advent, in the season of hope. An advent that will last until Christ’s Kingdom comes, on Earth as it is in heaven. Until that time we will continue to proclaim the words of hope, as we do every liturgy, “Glory to God in the highest, and on Earth peace, good will among all people.”

Rescued by Christmas

by Jim Forest

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.

(Nativity Vespers)

In a culture in which a sense of the presence of God is increasingly rare, many people see Christ as a long-dead, myth-shrouded teacher who lives on only in fading memory. There are scholars busily at work trying to find out which words attributed to Jesus in the New Testament were actually said by him. Yet even skeptics celebrate Christmas, at least in a limited way. The problem of miracles doesn’t intrude, for what could be more usual than birth? If Jesus lived, 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 is more and more lost to us but at least some of the joy of Christmas remains. Perhaps in the end this feast will lead us back to faith in all its richness. We will be rescued by Christmas.

The traditional icon of the Nativity, ancient though it is, takes note of our “modern” problem. There on the lower right we find a despondent Joseph listening to a figure who represents what we might call “the voice of unenlightened reason.” As icons are so deeply silent, we are free to wonder about Joseph’s morose condition. One explanation is that he cannot quite believe what he has experienced. 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, in a cave in which animals are kept in cold weather. 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 still belief comes hard. The labor of giving birth is arduous, as we see in Mary’s reclining figure — 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 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 — the color of life, the color of blood. Orthodox Christians call her the Theotokos: 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 birth occurs 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. It no longer looks like a cave. In the fourth century, at the Emperor Constantine’s order, it was made 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 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 she does not know her child’s future, only that it is clear from the circumstances of his birth that his way of ruling is in absolute contrast to 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, as does 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 angels who are 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 iconographer 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, the simple people summoned by angels to respond to Christ’s birth. 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. Not the wise men but the shepherds 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 one of them, 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 first moment, he is something like a refugee, as indeed he soon will be in the very strict sense of the word, in Egypt with Mary and Joseph, at a safe distance from the murderous Herod. Later in life he will say to his followers, revealing the criteria of salvation, “I was homeless and you took me in.” 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 be 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 God we Christians of the modern world were expecting either. 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.

Jim Forest is secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. This is an extract from his book, Praying With Icons (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1997). The Ladder of the Beatitudes is due to be published in January.