Archive for December 25th, 2006

Transfiguring the Material World – Christmas Through the Ages

December 25, 2006


I’ll have to ask for forgiveness at the outset on this post – mostly because of its speculative nature – something I generally prefer not to engage in – at least not for others to read.

The Incarnation of Christ is significant in the course of our salvation – but we all too easily look at the story from a mere moral or soteriological point of view and fail to stop and think what has actually happened. St. John says it quite clearly in the prologue of his gospel (vs. 14), “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”

There are several places on which to place the emphasis in that short sentence, but the fact that God has actually become flesh, has united Himself with our material world, is not the least significant of those.

St. Paul will spend ample time in the 8th chapter of Romans speaking about the ultimate end of matter, what St. Maximus the Confessor would later call the “marriage of heaven and earth.”

We experience this on a regular basis when we receive Christ’s Body and Blood. Bread and Wine are not mere bread and wine. Something else has taken place and we receive the Body and Blood of God.

In all of the sacraments or mysteries of the Church, something quite ordinary (as we think) and material is changed and becomes united with Heaven and we receive Heavenly things (or better yet, are united with God). Thus the Baptismal waters become the “waters of Jordan” and are themselves embued with the Holy Spirit. We come out of the waters no longer the same.

My speculation (the above is not speculation, but dogma), is to think about the union of Heaven and Earth, but to think about it in the course of our daily lives – to think about it as a matter of course.

One of the gifts I received for Christmas was a CD of a Russian choral group singing music somewhat of the Church, somewhat of more folk origin (though it is largely modern in its composition). The group is called, “Svetilen,” and is a delight to listen to (I think I first heard them on Ancient Faith Radio.) Part of what they do is an attempt to recover the experience of an older great culture (Holy Russia), but, I would say, it is also an attempt to convey heaven in music. For if ever there was a Holy Russia, it was only because there was, for some and in some places, a union of Heaven and Earth to some degree.

I think about this today because I wonder what it is we want to do in our music, in our art, and especially when we do these as part of the expression of the gospel in Church.

It certainly cannot be enough to try and capture a bygone era, or evoke feelings of something past. A great icon, a truly great icon, is indeed a window into heaven. This is both a function of the iconographer, the icon, and the viewer of the icon. It requires all three. But what I am describing is, in fact, a normative view for the Christian life.

We should never yield to the temptation to simply relegate sacraments to Churchly rites that take place, “holy things” we go to Church to get and go home the better for it. They are surely that, perhaps, but must be much more. The whole of a service should be much more.

I can recall speaking with some Russian Church singers several years ago after a performance in Knoxville. They had just sung some of the most sublime and difficult music of the Orthodox Church, but had rendered it in a fashion that was beyond description. I was discussing this with a couple of the singers (there were only about 5 or 6 in the group), and was told, “We must be very careful of our relationships with one another. If we are not in love and kindness with each other, the singing will be a disaster.” Thus the music is more than mere notes mixing, it is also the sound of heaven, human beings transformed by God into the sound of heaven as they sing in love and forgiveness.

Art, too, should carry this element and more. Indeed, my speculative question today has to do with the whole of our activity. What does it look like to live in union with heaven? How does it sound? What else should it mean? The Word has become flesh, but flesh must also be united with the Word and be changed from glory to glory into the image of Christ. This is Christmas throughout the ages.