Meditations For Advent & Christmas
by V. Rev. Fr. Thomas Hopk
Come and See
The Christmas-Epiphany season in the Orthodox Church begins with a forty-day fasting period which starts on the feast of "the holy and all-praised apostle Philip." (The feast of the apostle Philip is celebrated on November 14. The Orthodox Church does not traditionally use the term Advent for the Christmas fast. The word, however, is a perfectly good one, belonging to the common tradition of the Church in the West. It simply means "Coming.") For this reason, Christmas lent is sometimes called "the fast of Philip." Although the coincidence of the feast of the apostle Philip and the beginning of the Christmas fast is accidental, humanly speaking, the eyes of faith may see in it a certain providence of God.
According to St John's gospel, Philip is one of the first of the apostles to be called by Jesus. On the day after the calling of Andrew and another of St John the Baptist's disciples, who, since he is not named, is probably the apostle John himself, Philip is called by the Lord. Like Andrew who went and called his brother Simon Peter, Philip goes and calls his friend Nathanael. The story is told in the gospel in this way:
The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. And He found Philip and said to him, "Follow me." Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael, and said to him, "We have found Him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph." Nathanael said to him, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Philip said to him, "Come and see." Jesus saw Nathanael coming to Him, and said of him, "Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!" Nathanael said to Him, "How do You know me?" Jesus answered him, "Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you." Nathanael answered Him, "Rabbi, You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!" Jesus answered him, "Because I said to you, I saw you under the fig tree, do you believe? You shall see greater things than these." And He said to him, "Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man." (Jn 1:43-51)
The story is typical of St John's gospel. The people first encounter the man "Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph." They meet Him as a man, the one "of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote." Then they go further. What they come to see is that this man is not merely the promised prophet and teacher; He is the Anointed, the Christ, the Messiah, the King of Israel. He is the Son of God. Indeed, He is God Himself in human form.
The pattern in St John's gospel is always the same. We see it in the narratives of the paralytic at the pool, the Samaritan woman at the well, the boy born blind, the encounter of Martha and Mary with Jesus at the tomb of Lazarus. The sequence of events is identical. It is a necessary sequence, not only historically, but spiritually and mystically.
We must first come to see Jesus the man. We must come to know Him as a concrete human being, a Jew, a rabbi, a prophet. We must meet Him as Mary's child, the carpenter's son, the Nazarene. Then, in this encounter, when our eyes are open and our hearts are pure, we can come to see "greater things." We can come to know Him not simply as a teacher, but the Teacher; not simply as a prophet, but the Prophet. We can come to know Him not merely as a son of man, but as the Son of man foretold by the prophet Daniel (see Daniel 7:13-14).
We can come to see Him not simply as a son of God, but as the Son of God, begotten of the Father before all ages (Heb 1; Jn 1:17-18). We can come to recognize Him as God's Word in human flesh, as God's Image in human form (see J 1:1-18; Phil 2:6-11; Col 1:15-20; Heb 1:1-3). And finally, we can come to see Him as God Himself; not the Father but the Father's Son, divine with the Father's own divinity, sent into the world for its salvation (See Jn 1:1, 20:18; Phil 2:6; Heb 1:8. This is developed theologically and stated formally in the Nicene Creed).
The first step on the way of the Winter Pascha is the encounter with the man Jesus. We are invited with Philip and the disciples, to "come and see." If we want to come and want to see, we will. Like the first disciples, we will see "greater things" than we ever expected. We will see "heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man." We will see Jesus as our Master, and will cry to Him: "Rabbi, You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!" And we will come to know Him for who and what He really is. But first we must come. For if we do not come, we will never see.
The Prelude of God's Good Will
During the first days of the Christmas fast, the Church celebrates the feast of the entrance of the child Mary into the Jerusalem temple. Called in the Church "The Entrance of the Most Holy Theotokos into the Temple," this festival, which is not among the biblically recorded events, is one of the twelve major feasts of the Orthodox Church year. (The feast is celebrated on November 21, with an octave, i.e. an eight day celebration. The word Theotokos means literally "the one who gives birth to God." It is a title for Mary which was confirmed by the Third Ecumenical Council in Ephesus in 433 and was repeated by later councils. It affirms tile Orthodox dogma that the One born of Mary as a man is the same One who is born of the Father in a divine manner before all ages: the Son of God and the Son of Mary, one and the same Son.) Its purpose is not so much to commemorate an historical happening as to celebrate a dogmatic mystery of the Christian faith, namely, that every human being is made to be a living temple of God.
The festal event is that the three-year-old Mary, in fulfillment of a promise made at her conception by her parents, Joachim and Anna, is offered by them to God in the temple at Jerusalem. The young child is hymned with lines taken from Psalm 45, mystically interpreted as prophetic of her vocation to be the mother of the Messiah.
Hear, 0 daughter, consider, and incline your ear; forget your people and your father's house; and the king will desire your beauty. Since he is your lord, bow to him; the people of Tyre will sue your favor with gifts, the richest of the people with all kinds of wealth. The princess is decked in her chamber with gold-woven robes; in many-colored robes she is led to the king, with her virgin companions, her escort, in her train. With joy and gladness they are led along as they enter the palace of the king. Instead of your fathers shall be your sons; you will make them princes in all the earth. I will cause your name to be celebrated in all generations; therefore the peoples will praise you for ever and ever. (Ps 45:10-17)
The spiritual story tells how, coming into the temple, the child Mary is led into the Holy of Holies by the priest Zachariah, the father of John the Baptist, there to be nourished by angels in preparation for her virginal conception of the Son of God. In entering the Holy Place she brings to an end the "shadow" of the earthly, physical temple of God in order to commence the "reality" of the human, spiritual temple of His dwelling, which she herself is, and which, through her, all human beings become in Christ and the Holy Spirit in the Church.
The feast of the entrance of the Theotokos into the temple is called in the main hymn of the feast "the prelude of the good will of God" announced by the angels to the world at the birth of Christ. It is the first celebration of the salvation which comes to the world in Jesus, of which Mary herself is the first and foremost recipient.
Today is the prelude of the good will of God, of the preaching of the salvation of mankind.
The Virgin appears in the temple of God, in anticipation proclaiming Christ to all.
Let us rejoice and sing to her: Rejoice, 0 Fulfillment of the Creator's dispensation.
(Troparion of the feast. The word "dispensation," in Greek oikonomia, means literally the "household plan" of God for the salvation of the world.).
The most pure Temple of the Savior; the precious Chamber and Virgin; the sacred Treasure of the glory of God, is presented today to the house of the Lord. She brings with her the grace of the Spirit, which the angels of God do praise. Truly this woman is the Abode of Heaven! (Kontakion of the feast)
Temples of the Living God
In the Orthodox Church, the Virgin Mary is the image of those who are being saved. If Jesus Christ is the Savior, Mary is, par excellence, the image of the saved. She is, in every aspect of her life, as Father Alexander Schmemann so often said, not the great exception, but rather the great example. From her conception to her dormition, that is, her true and real death, she shows how all people must be when they are sanctified by the Holy Spirit as servants of God and imitators of Christ. (According to Orthodox dogmatic theology, Mary's conception by Joachim and Anna is exactly like our own. There is no need for a special intervention of God to remove the "stain" ('macula' in Latin) of original sin since no " stain" is transmitted in the act of conception. Hence the Orthodox do not have a doctrine or feast of the "immaculate conception." Also, Mary's dormition or "failing asleep" is seen to be a real death, yet one that is fulfilled in her immediate resurrection and glorification, since in her the fulness of Christ's victory over death is fulfilled and celebrated.)
In the festival of the entrance of Mary into the temple, we have seen how Christ's mother is continuously hymned as the "living temple of the holy glory of Christ our God." She is praised as the "living ark which contained the Word which cannot be contained." She is glorified as "the temple that is to hold God," consecrated by the Spirit to be the "dwelling place of the Almighty." She enters the Holy of Holies to become herself the "animated Holy of Holies," the one in whom Christ is formed, thereby making her, and everyone who is one with her in faith, the "abode of heaven."
O Most-holy One, honored far above the heavens, you are both temple and palace, you are dedicated in the temple of God to be prepared as the divine dwelling place of His coming. Let us praise the glorious entrance of the Theotokos in songs, for today she is prophetically offered in the temple as a precious gift, being herself the temple of God. (Matins of the feast).
We are all made to be living temples of God. We are all created to be dwelling places of His glory. We are all fashioned in His image and likeness to be abodes of His presence. The first Christian martyr, the protodeacon Stephen, whose memory is celebrated on the third day of Christmas, was killed for proclaiming this marvel when he bore witness that "the Most High does not dwell in houses made with hands." For this, like Jesus Himself, he was accused of planning the destruction of the earthly temple at Jerusalem (Acts 7:48; 6:14). The apostle Paul proclaims this same doctrine clearly and without equivocation when he writes to the Corinthians and to us that "we are God's fellow workers; you are God's field, God's building" (1 Cor 3:9).
Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you? If any one destroys God's temple, God will destroy Him. For God's temple is holy, and that temple you are (1 Cor 3:16-17).
This same teaching is found in the apostle's letter to the Ephesians (2:18-22) as the confirmation of the words of Jesus recorded in St John's gospel, that "if a man loves Me, he will keep My word, and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him" (Jn 14:23).
Jesus Christ, the Son, Word, and Image of God, is physically and spiritually formed in the body of Mary so that He might be formed in us as well (see Gal 4:19).
This is the meaning of Christmas, which is the meaning of life itself: Christ in us and we in Christ, God with us and we with God.
The Spirit in our hearts so that the Spirit can flow out from us, sanctifying the world around us. This is not mere symbolism, the high-blown language of the liturgy and the scriptures. This is serious business. It is a matter of life and death. For we are either the living vessels of God-"earthen vessels" to be sure, to show, as the apostle again affirms, that "the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us" (2 Cor 4:7) - or we are, to use the apostle's language once more, "vessels of wrath" to be destroyed in our wickedness by God's righteous glory (Rom 9:22).
As we go the way of the Winter Pascha, the choice placed before us is clear. We can follow the "narrow way" that leads to life, or we can go on the "broad way" that leads to destruction (Mt 7:13-14). We can, like Mary, cleave to the Lord and become His dwelling place in the Spirit. Or, we can through immorality and sin choose the death of the nothingness which we are, unless the Lord Himself lives within us. "But he who is united to the Lord becomes one spirit with Him" (1 Cor 6:17).
Let the heavens above greatly rejoice And let the clouds pour down gladness today at the mighty acts of our God, exceedingly marvelous. For behold, the "Gate facing the East" is born according to the promise from a fruitless and barren womb, and is dedicated to God as His dwelling, led this day into the temple as an offering most pure. Let David greatly rejoice, striking his harp: "Virgins," he said, "shall be led with the queen" into the tabernacle of God, His place of propitiation, there to be raised to become the dwelling place of Him who was begotten of the Father without change before all ages for the salvation of the world. (Vespers of the feast. The title "Gate facing the East" is ascribed by the liturgy to Mary because the Glory of the Lord entered through this gate of the Jerusalem temple, which then was forever sealed so that no mere mortal could pass there, thus symbolizing the unique birth of the Son of God from His ever-virgin mother. See Ezek 43:1-5, 44:1-4.)