Posts Tagged ‘Christmas’

The Fire of Christmas

December 18, 2011

As a child of the South, accustomed to the tones and the tales of my region, I was well aware of the”fires of hell”. Roadside signs proclaimed the eternal destiny of those who were not saved. I have discovered in later years, that many adult Christians remain committed to the most literal possible version of the fires of hell and will argue as though heaven itself depended on the burning flesh of the wretched souls in torment.

This does not sound like the beginning of a Christmas-themed posting. It is the time of year that we sing of “Peace on Earth, good-will towards men,” and if at all possible we forget those men who, according to some, will never celebrate Christmas as they themselves become an eternal yule log to the comfort of so many.

Strangely, the Orthodox Church, on the Sunday prior to Christmas, celebrates the Forefathers of Christ, remembering the righteous figures of the Old Testament whose work prefigured Christ’s coming into the world. The chiefest of all those figures, whose icon adorns the central place of Orthodox veneration on that Sunday, is the icon of the Three Young Men, those who were tortured in the furnace of Babylon and refused to worship the false image of the wicked king.

The story of the Three Young Men is recounted in the book of Daniel, and in an expanded form in the Greek (LXX) edition of Daniel. There, we are told that though the young men refused the King’s order and were tossed into a furnace heated seven times hotter than is wont:

The Angel of the Lord went down into the furnace to join [them], and shook off the fiery flame of the furnace. He made the inside of the furnace to be as though a dew-laden breeze were blowing through it, so that the fire did not touch them at all, or cause them pain, or trouble them.

Here stands the wonder of Christmas, given to us in the typological imagery of the Old Testament! A Nativity hymn in the Church declares: “The children of the Old Covenant who walked in the fire, yet were not burnt, prefigured the womb of the Maiden, which remained sealed when she gave birth in fashion past nature.” Like the fire that Moses saw present in the burning bush, the fire burns but does not consume. It is the Divine Energy of God, according to a number of fathers. “Our God is a consuming fire,” (Deuteronomy 4:24). He is also a fire that burns and yet does not consume.

Christ Himself says, “I came to send fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” (Luk 12:49 NKJ) Christmas is also the kindling of that fire. At His coming, all things approach their judgment. Wise men find their redemption, a wicked king finds his downfall. Angels find their voices and raise them in a manner that exceeds any praise ever offered. Israel becomes the God-trodden land and the Land of Promise becomes the Land of Fulfillment.

This same fire is the fire which alights upon the heads of the Apostles at Pentecost and fills them with the Spirit. It is the transforming fire of God’s grace which burns up our dross and refines the works of righteousness.

O Holy Night, the light is brightly shining!


January 1, 2011

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Psalm 111:10). This fear descends on us from on High. It is a spiritual feeling, firstly of God and then of us ourselves. We live in a state of awe by virtue of the presence of the Living God together with awareness of our own impurity. This fear places us before the Face of God to be judged by Him. We have fallen so low that our distress over ourselves turns into profound suffering, more painful than the torments of seeing ourselves in the darkness of ignorance, in the paralysis of non-feeling, in slavery to the passions. The dread is our awakening from the age-old sleep in sin. It brings us the light of perception – on the one hand, of our fatal condition and, on the other, of the holiness of God. It is an astonishing phenomenon – without its naturally purificative action the way to perfect love of God will not be opened to us. It is not only ‘the beginning of wisdom’ but of love, too. It will also alarm our soul with a revelation of ourselves, as we are, and bind us to God in longing to be with Him.

From We Shall See Him As He Is by the Elder Sophrony.

I remember the intense joy of waking up on Christmas morning as a child. The anticipation of the surprise to come was overwhelming. My father could be quite creative when my older brother and I were very young. I recall that my brother had once asked for a “stalk of Bananas,” something we had only seen in books. That my father actually found one and had it under the tree was beyond belief that Christmas Day. Every house in the neighborhood had a share in that surplus!

As years have gone by, waking up has taken on many different and more profound meanings – and increasing difficulty. The sleep that a child tosses aside so easily in anticipation of the joy that awaits him is a very light blanket indeed compared to the heaviness of delusion in which we so easily rest in later years.

Orthodox theology rests, finally, in the utter certainty of the knowledge of God. We do not simply speak about God – we knowHim. Anything less than such a knowledge would be an emptiness and speculation. No dogma is secure if it rests merely on bald assertion.

It is for this same reason that perhaps the most important spiritual discipline in the Orthodox life is to be freed from delusion. If you read the Philokalia, or, better yet, Branchaninov’s The Arena, you will hear the repeated chorus of warnings against spiritual delusion. It matters because there is such a thing as being awake and not being deluded.

None of us lives free from all delusion – none other than perhaps the greatest saints. But the process of awakening is itself the beginning of the spiritual life. It is the fear of God in the sense used by Fr. Sophrony and in the Scriptures that marks that awakening. Indeed, it begins with believing that there actually is a God, which strangely, is far less common than you would think.

The entrance of Christ into the world on that first Christmas morning was also an awakening. Mary was awake and understood what it meant to be the handmaiden of the Lord. Joseph, that good man, was awake and understood what it meant to act in obedience. The wise men were awake and found the Daystar from on High. The Shepherds were awake and heard the night sing.

But Herod slept, and doubtless dreamed. The soldiers who kept his orders slept with the peace that comes from a mission accomplished. The better part of the whole world slept, though there were some, like watchful children, who knew that joy was coming. The lightest footfall will arouse such sleepers.

Awake, O Sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light.

Between Christmas And…

December 29, 2010

The Feast of Christmas has, for many, come and gone. The eagerness of children for the day of their presents has now passed and, with it, some of their anxieties. Far from marking Christmas as “Twelve Days” (as the old English Christmas carol notes) many parts of the culture hurry forward, eager to put Christmas in the past. In my childhood, it was generally held within the surrounding Protestant culture that a Christmas Tree had to be removed before New Year’s Day, or the result would be “bad luck.” This eagerness to be rid of the feast is somewhat comically celebrated in the Elvis Costello/Paddy Maloney song, “The St. Stephen’s Day Murders”:

I knew of two sisters whose name it was Christmas
And one was named Dawn of course, the other one was named Eve
I wonder if they grew up hating the season
Of the good will that lasts till the Feast of St. Stephen

For that is the time to eat, drink and be merry
‘Til the beer is all spilled and the whiskey is flowed
And the whole family tree you neglected to bury
Are feeding their faces until they explode

There’ll be laughter and tears over Tia Marias
Mixed up with that drink made from girders
And it’s all we’ve got left as they draw their last breath
And it’s nice for the kids as you finally get rid of them
In the St Stephen’s Day Murders

The next great feast on the Church’s calendar is Theophany, the celebration of Christ’s Baptism in the Jordan. For a large portion of modern culture – the feast will pass without notice. Having left Christmas, the world moves back to its comfortable position of “ordinary time.”

The Christian year, in our modern experience, is filled with such stretches of ordinary time – the time between the feasts. It is not uncommon to hear theologians and clergy compare our lives to those of the “Church-in-waiting.”  It is pointed out that we live “in-between” Christ’s first and second coming, and therefore live in an in-between period. The conclusion of such sermons is to speak about various strategies of waiting. The conclusion also carries an inherent sense of the absence of God.

Such conclusions fit well in a secularized world and appeal to the modern sense of God’s absence. The heart of the secular world is not a belief that there is no God, but rather the sense that God is somewhere else. Our world is a “no-man’s land,” in which all things work according to “natural laws,” independent of God. I have previously written about this in articles on the “two-storey universe.”

Living “in-between” adds a twist to the two-storey experience: it is rooted in our modern understanding of history and time. It is easy, almost obvious, to think of ourselves as living between major events in the Christian story. Two-thousand years have passed since the resurrection of Christ. Christians continue to wait for His second-coming. How do we not perceive ourselves as living in-between?

St. Gregory Palamas (14th Century) uses an interesting example from the Scriptures that dismantles the “in-between” model that is so common in our modern world. His example comes in a sermon on the Cross (Homily XI). He begins with the assertion that the Cross, though manifest in history at Christ’s Crucifixion, has always been God’s means of salvation – at all times and places.

His example is quite illumining:

Although the man of the sin, the son of lawlessness (cf. 2 Thess. 2:3), by which I mean the Antichrist, has not yet come, the theologian whom Christ loved says, “Even now, beloved, there is antichrist” (cf. 1 John2:18). In the same way, the Cross existed in the time of our ancestors, even before it was accomplished. The great Paul teaches us absolutely clearly that Antichrist is among us, even though he has not yet come, saying, “His mystery doth already work in you” (cf. 2 Thess. 2:7). In exactly the same way Christ’s Cross was among our forefathers before it came into being, because its mystery was working in them. (Quotation from The Homilies).

St. Gregory goes on within this homily to illustrate (generally with typological interpretation) how the Cross was present in the lives of the Patriarchs and other righteous “friends of God” within the Old Testament period.

His sense of time recognizes a reality of history, “even though he has not yet come,” but transcends that limitation in recognizing that “his mystery doth already work in you.” And of the Cross “[it] was among our forefathers before it came into being, because its mystery was working in them.” This understanding of time and history places these categories in a subsidiary position – they are not the frozen, solid stuff of an empty, empirical world. They are a place in which we live – but also a place that is permeated by things that have not even “come into existence.”

St. Gregory’s treatment of these things is rooted in the classical Orthodox understanding of the relation between earth and heaven; past, present and future; and the mystery of the Kingdom of God at work in the world. His universe is distinctly “one-storey.” This understanding also undergirds the Orthodox understanding of eschatology (the study of the “last things”). St. John Chrysostom, in his eucharistic prayer, gives thanks for the Second Coming of Christ in the past tense – not that he is saying that the Second Coming has already occurred in history – but that the Eucharistic celebration stands within the Kingdom of God, such that the Second Coming can be described in the past tense. The Eucharist is the “Marriage Feast of the Lamb,” the “Banquet at the End of the Age.”

To speak of ourselves as living “in-between” is to place history in the primary position, relegating the Kingdom of God to a lower status. It is the essence of secularism. The Kingdom of God is not denied – it is simply placed beyond our reach (as we are placed beyond its reach). The Kingdom, like God Himself, is reduced to an idea.

Living “in-between” is part of the loneliness and alienation of the modern Christian. Things are merely things, time is inexorable and impenetrable. There is an anxiety that accompanies all of this that is marked by doubt, argument and opinion. Faith is directed towards things past or things that have not yet happened.

This stands in sharp contrast to St. Paul’s statement in Hebrews: “Faith is the substance (hypostasis) of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (11:1). The relationship of faith with things “hoped for and not seen” is more than a trust that they will be, more than a longing for what is not. Faith is the very substance of such things.

In earlier postings on faith, I have noted that faith is more than an intellectual or volitional exercise. It is an actual participation (koinonia) with the object (or subject) of faith. To describe faith as the substance of things is to grant a kind of existence to them. And so in Hebrews 11, St. Paul describes the faith of our forefathers (Old Testament) and the impact that the substance of faith had in their lives and world. St. Gregory’s homily echoes this very same phenomenon (indeed he quotes extensively from this chapter in Hebrews).

By faith, we do not live in-between. By faith, we live in a one-storey universe in which the realities of God’s Kingdom may permeate our existence. We are not alone nor need we be alienated. The anxiety that haunts our every step is produced by a false perception – a delusion.

Of course, this is an easy thing to assert, but a difficult thing to live: it is the great struggle of our times. But without this struggle, faith will remain alien to us and we will remain lost “in-between” the worlds, trapped within those things that “are passing away.” Christ has given us something greater.

St. Paul says, “But now we do not yet see all things put under him. But we see Jesus…” (Heb. 2:8-9). It is the presence of Christ in the Holy Spirit that is made manifest in our feasts – but this is the same Christ who is made manifest in our hearts and who promised to “abide with us.” We do not see Jesus “in-between” but rather as the “author and finisher of our faith” (Heb. 12:2). He is Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. Indeed, He is the Feast of feasts.

Christmas Time

December 24, 2010

The feast of the Nativity of Our Lord, God and Savior, Jesus Christ, draws near and the anxiety of the world increases. There are those who worry that the feast is surrounded by too much commercialism. Others fear that religion will once again invade their safely guarded secular spaces. These are only the most vocalized anxieties – busyness consumes our lives. I think of the words from the Dr. Seuss character, the Grinch, “I must stop Christmas from coming!”

Many Christians see Christmas as something bound in history – it is the birth of Christ into this world – and is marked like other historical events. Some care is given to the exact year (some say 4 B.C., some other dates). Others will concern themselves with calculating what it was that the Wisemen say (star, comet, etc.?). All in all, modern Christians, bound by the historical model, find themselves on the defensive. For they are celebrating a historical event and find it assaulted by all the weapons wielded by those who wage war on Christian history. They must stop Christmas from coming.

But Christmas belongs to another category of event. It is certainly historical: Christ was born into this world. But the fact of His birth into the world does not properly or completely describe His birth into this world. For the birth of Christ cannot be placed into the general category of “births.” I was born into this world, on an unremarkable day in November of 1953. My death will also be an unremarkable day. But the birth of Christ into this world is the entrance of the Alpha and the Omega, the entrance of God into the midst of the human race. Though it came by a birth, it made birth into a wholly different category.

We can describe His birth in “biological” terms – He was born of a virgin – and in His birth no damage was done to her. His birth did not cause harm to the Virgin. He was born and she remained a virgin.

But we can also describe His birth in terms of time. What does it mean that the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End, were born in time? Just as the Virgin endured no damage from the birth of Christ, so time and space endured no damage from the entrance of the timeless One – and yet the timeless One has entered into our history – and history cannot remain the same.

The consequence of Christ’s entrance into history is described by St. Paul:

Having made known unto us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure which he hath purposed in himself: That in the dispensation of the fulness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him (Ephesians 1:9-10).

What has occurred in the birth of Christ, is more than historical event. It is an entrance of the very End (and Beginning) of all things into that which we know as space and time. As such, space and time have been altered. The Nativity of Christ belongs to that category of event into which “all things are being gathered together in one in Christ….”

There is an inexorable character to this entrance of Christ into history. History, having admitted the entrance of One who transcends both space and time, is no longer defined by space and time. History is defined by the timeless One who has entered.

Despite all the work of Grinches, Christmas cannot be stopped. No matter how the world may improperly commercialize the event or Churches fail to properly acknowledge it, Christmas is a timeless event, an entrance into our world of the Alpha and Omega. As such, it is inexorable. There is nothing we can do to prevent its entrance and nothing we can do to change its reality. Christ has entered into our world, with the purpose of gathering all things into Himself. That purpose cannot be changed or altered.

A timeless event cannot be celebrated in the same fashion as a merely historical event. As timeless, it cannot be confined to history, even though it has a historical aspect. Thus Christmas is as present now as it was 2,000 years ago. King Herod perceived the birth of the Christ-Child as a threat to his kingdom. That Child remains a threat to every kingdom – for “the kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our Lord and His Christ.”

“Peace on earth, good will towards men,” is not a slogan nor a measure of the success of the season. It is a description of the reality that entered the world in the person of Christ. He is Peace on earth. His very presence is God’s good will towards men. The world is being gathered together in one – into God’s peace and goodwill. It is not always a gathering that is greeted with joy – and this is condemnation – “that Light has come into the world and men preferred darkness to the Light.”

“Christmas time” is more than a season of the year – it is God’s work of redeeming all time – of making the time of this world into the timelessness of the age to come.

It’s Christmas time. God is with us.

The God Who Became Small

December 19, 2010

An annual December posting:

Whom have we, Lord, like you
The Great One who became small, the Wakeful who slept,
The Pure One who was baptized, the Living One who died,
The King who abased himself to ensure honor for all.
Blessed is your honor!

St. Ephrem the Syrian


We draw near to the Feast of our Lord’s Nativity, and I cannot fathom the smallness of God. Things in my life loom so large and every instinct says to overcome the size of a threat by meeting it with a larger threat. But the weakness of God, stronger than death, meets our human life/death by becoming a child – the smallest of us all – man at his weakest – utterly dependent.

And His teaching will never turn away from that reality for a moment. Our greeting of His mission among us is marked by misunderstanding, betrayal, denial and murder. But He greets us with forgiveness, love, and the sacrifice of self.

This way of His is more than a rescue mission mounted to straighten out what we had made crooked. His coming among us is not only action  but also revelation. He does not become unlike Himself in order to make us like Him. The weakness, the smallness, the forgiveness – all that we see in His incarnation – is a revelation of the Truth of God. He became the image of Himself, that we might become the image we were created to be.

It seems strange to speak of God as humble, and yet this is what is revealed in Scripture. Cultural references to God are full of power and mankind’s own claim to wisdom that somehow the all-powerful God has not straightened things out yet. On this basis some will even come to reject the very existence of God. The power of God is nothing like our power. Though He created all that is, He did so out of nothing. This bears no resemblance to anything we think of when we “create.” And He who created is also He who sustains, and yet in His humility we cannot directly see His sustenance, unless He has given us eyes to see.

The all-powerful reveals Himself in His weakness, and not, I suspect, because it was a “backdoor” plan. Rather I believe the all-powerful revealed Himself most fully, most completely on the Cross because this is indeed what the power of God looks like. I do not know how to fathom the reality that the power that can only be seen in the Cross of Christ, is the same power that created the universe, but I believe it is so.

We never know fullness, until we empty ourselves into His emptiness. We never know love until we are drowned in the waters of His mercy that do not kill but make alive. We cannot see the great until we see Him very small. He who enters the womb of a Virgin will also enter the waters of Jordan, and will also enter infinitessimally small spaces of hades’ yawning gape. And there we shall see greatness indeed, He who is everywhere present and fillest all things.

What’s In The Cave

December 27, 2009

It is traditionally understood that Christ’s nativity was in a cave (not in a stable). The cave served as a stable – not unusual for the area of Bethlehem. However, the traditional icon of Christ’s nativity reveals the cave in an unmistakeable manner. The cave of Bethlehem resembles the cave of Hades into which Christ descends at His death. It also resembles the space framed by the rocks in most icons of Christ’s baptism. The same space can be seen on most icons of the crucifixion (beneath the cross and framing a skull). This iconographic similarity is not accidental. The cave of Bethlehem is meant to resemble the cave of Hades (just as the child in swaddling clothes resembles a body wrapped for burial). It resembles the cave of Hades for the same reason that the space framed by the rocks at Christ’s theophany resembles the cave of Hades. They are pointing to one and the same thing: Christ Incarnation is God’s descent into our world where sin and death reign. The incarnation of the Word is immediately a challenge to the darkness of death and hell.

St. John makes this clear in the prologue of his gospel. He speaks of Christ as the “Light of the world,” and within the same breath brings that Light into conflict with the darkness: “the Light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.”

The story of Christ’s nativity is certainly marked by elements that have become popular in our greeting-card world. Angels sing to shepherds. Wisemen journey from afar. The ox and ass know their master.

But in typical fashion, greeting cards leave Christmas with pleasant thoughts. After all, the cultural Christmas looks no further than the presents beneath the tree.

The Church, however, sees the cave of Bethlehem for what it is: the darkness. No sooner is the Child born than His life is in danger. The wicked king Herod seeks to kill Him and, failing in his first plot, turns his wrath on every child under the age of two in the area. Tradition holds that the number of the innocents slaughtered by Herod’s men approached 14,000. Such is the darkness.

The same darkness marks the world to our day. The Light still shines and the darkness does not overcome it – but it is in darkness that the Light shines. The cave is the world – make no mistake.

Those who are baptized into Christ are baptized into His death according to St. Paul. It is also true that those who are baptized into Christ “receive the Light of Christ.” But to participate in the Light of Christ in this world is to be light in the midst of darkness.

But the great joy of Christmas is that the child born in the cave is indeed the Light of the world – and though we find ourselves in darkness – the darkness cannot overcome the Light. The revelation of Christ at Christmas is the same as the revelation of Christ at Pascha. Every revelation of Christ is victory over sin and death.

What’s in the cave? God Himself.

Christmas in General

December 23, 2009

“Peace on earth! Good will towards men!” is a common greeting to be found on cards during this season of the Nativity. These are, of course, the words sung by the angels the night Christ was born in Bethlehem (Luke 2:14). It is also a phrase which admits of several interpretations.

The possibility of various meanings is very likely the reason for its popularity on greeting cards. Who could be opposed to peace on earth and good will towards men (especially if the “men” is translated in a more “gender-friendly” way)? The difficulty with Christmas, for many, is that it introduces what is characteristically known as the “scandal of particularity.” The scandal, or “stumbling-block,” is the specific claim made by Christians that the child born in Bethlehem is the incarnate Son of God, the One through whom salvation alone may be found. Everyone likes peace. Most people like Jesus. Not everyone likes Christ, the Son of the Eternal God, the God made flesh.

And so the feast of Christmas becomes the great Gnostic Temptation for modern culture. Modernity wants to admit that Jesus was an important figure in history but does not want to grant that He is the Lord of history. Modernity wants to advance the cause of peace but does not want to admit that Christ alone is the Prince of Peace.

The Christian faith rightly and properly rejects gnosticism as a heresy. It is not peace and good will nor even love that Christianity properly confesses. These words, when stated without a context, have no meaning whatsoever. They become symbols of the banal and empty quality of modern life. Peace as the absence of conflict has no positive content. Good will without a reference becomes nothing more than a smile. Love without the brutal sacrifice of self-emptying is nothing more than sentiment.

Sentimentality is the content of modern idolatry. We worship feelings and those things which produce the feelings we worship. It is for this reason that entertainment and its purveyors are the “icons” of the modern world. Those whom the world holds in esteem are pictures without content – feelings without reason. And so the indiscretions of our icons (whether golf legends or the idols of our matinees) face the unrelenting judgment of the media whenever they stray from the pre-defined content of their image. Our sentiments must not be offended.

Sentimentality requires generality. Those things which we perceive in a “general” manner, lack content. Things in general have no specificity nor particularity. Their general character allows us to project our own wishes and dreams upon them without contradiction. Modernity prefers a general God for the same reason. A general God has little or nt content – little or nothing than can offer contradiction or offense to the culture god of sentimentality.

The incarnate Son of God is full of contradiction and offense. The claim to be the Incarnation of the only true God stands as a stumbling-block for the demands of sentimentality. Peace on earth and good-will towards men receive a very specific content in the incarnation of Christ. The angels sing because Christ is born. Without His birth, there is no peace nor good-will. His birth proclaims the beginnings of God’s peace on earth, the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God. His birth proclaims good-will – God’s good will towards men (the only good-will that matters).

The contradictions inherent between Christ the God-Man and the empty sentiments of peace on earth, good will towards men, form the content of modern culture wars between “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Holidays.” A Christmas which does not offend is not a Christmas that can save. My sin is offended by the love of God. Without such offense there can never be repentance. My sin is an offense against Christmas itself – though the true Christmas has taken my offense into itself and forgiven me everything: a forgiveness that can only have meaning if the child of Bethlehem is none other than God.

Better than “Merry Christmas” is the traditional Orthodox greeting: Christ is born! Glorify Him!