Category Archives: Advent

Joachim and Anna, and Love.

In the Orthodox Church we commemorate the Feast of the Conception of the Theotokos on December 9th. Following from the fact that Christ received His human nature from his mother, she is of supreme importance in our salvation history.

Father Thomas Hopko writes in The Winter Pascha: 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.

I had to keep pushing that last sentence to the front of my mind as I tried to think and write a little more about the mystery of our salvation…

The icons of this feast tell the story of Mary’s parents Joachim and Anna, who had been unable to have children until late in life when Anna became pregnant with the child who would become the mother of our Lord. “Iconreader” has an article on the festal icon with links to related articles and discussion about its theology, and why the icon has been so popular in Russia.

From that article on A Reader’s Guide to Orthodox Icons: The icon of the Conception of the Theotokos is very simple. Joachim and Anna tenderly embrace, standing before a bed. Without being explicit, it is boldly confessed that, whilst a miracle granted to a barren couple, the conception of St Mary happened through natural means. This can be compared with Icons of the Annunciation, which could be described as the Conception of Jesus Christ: in those icons Mary is not shown with Joseph; Mary remained a virgin.

And from the Orthodox Church in America , an excerpt from an article on the feast that discusses beliefs about original sin: The Holy Virgin was like everyone else in her mortality, and in being subject to temptation, although she committed no personal sins. She was not a deified creature removed from the rest of humanity. If this were the case, she would not have been truly human, and the nature that Christ took from her would not have been truly human either. If Christ does not truly share our human nature, then the possibility of our salvation is in doubt.

There is so much to think about here! I would like to read these articles more carefully and thoughtfully, to stretch my mind toward the theology of “the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us, through Christ Jesus.” (Ephesians 2:7) Whenever I think about theology as a field of study, it brings to mind these words about theology and prayer from Bishop Kallistos Ware, and they help me refocus on the example of Mary, who said to the angel, “Be it unto me according to your word.”:

Theology, mysticism, spirituality, moral rules, worship, art: these things must not be kept in separate compartments. Doctrine cannot be understood unless it is prayed: a theologian, said Evagrius, is one who knows how to pray, and he who prays in spirit and in truth is by that very act a theologian. And doctrine, if it is to be prayed, must also be lived: theology without action, as St. Maximus puts it, is the theology of demons. The creed belongs only to those who live it. Faith and love, theology and life, are inseparable.

In the Byzantine Liturgy, the Creed is introduced with the words, ‘Let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Trinity, one in essence and undivided.’ This exactly expresses the Orthodox attitude to Tradition. If we do not love one another, we cannot love God; and if we do not love God, we cannot make a true confession of faith and cannot enter into the inner spirit of Tradition, for there is no other way of knowing God than to love Him.

At Christmas, the Truth that ties everything together is (I John 4:19):

We love him, because he first loved us.

Red for the Word made flesh.

When the doorbell rang one evening after dark, dark coming so early this season, Susan and I were both on our guard, because we are two vulnerable women and we weren’t expecting anyone.

I have a peephole in my door, and I peeped, and saw that it was a human shape and not a package on the step, but I had to turn on the porch light to see if it was someone I recognized. It was Linda! Linda is  my friend who took me to the Heirloom Festival recently. She has been gifting me with garden things for four decades, and she’d mentioned last month that her neighbor — they live fifteen miles from here! — had some quinces she would try to bring me. Here she stood at my door with a dozen in the bottom of a shopping bag. I kissed her.

She’d heard about the puny and rock-hard fruits I’d gathered and tried to use, but this will be my last mention of that batch, because these were perfect. For a couple of days I let the good quinces perfume the kitchen, and then I faced the challenge of making use of them for food, when I didn’t have time to peel them. I took time instead to find a recipe for oven-poaching whole quinces with star anise, lemon, honey and cinnamon. As they baked, the whole house filled with an even complex and delicious aroma.

It is worth cooking quinces just to see how the fruit changes to this beautiful orange-pink color. I found it festive in Christmasy way, partly because I had that morning heard a talk that our rector gave the children after Liturgy, about the sequence and meaning of the layers of vestments that he puts on for the services, and he started out telling what the different colors symbolize.

Liturgical churches do not all use the same colors for various seasons or feasts on the calendar, and there are numerous options and meanings. But during Advent in our tradition, the vestments and altar cloths are red, as we are anticipating the birth of the Savior born to a human mother, who gave him human flesh and blood. Red for blood. To remind us of that tenet of our Christology.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was with God in the beginning.  Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.  In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

-The Gospel of John

His mirror, sister, Bride.

Malcolm Guite has given us a rich treasury in the poetry anthology he assembled, Waiting on the Word: A Poem a Day for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. For each poem he writes what he calls a “reflective essay,” and they are wonderfully enlightening for someone like me whose education in poetry is minimal.

I was browsing the paperback last night just before falling asleep, and when I read this poem by Christina Rossetti I got the idea to post it here on its eponymous day — but I lost that thought all together with consciousness. Guite has put it on his blog on the proper day, where you can hear him read it if you like. But to read his thoughts you’ll have to get the book itself.

For the Orthodox, what we call the Nativity Fast does not begin on a certain day of the week approximately four weeks before the Feast of the Nativity of Christ, but always on November 15, making it 40 days long. It’s consistent, but wouldn’t make a tidy title for a poem!

ADVENT SUNDAY

BEHOLD, the Bridegroom cometh: go ye out
With lighted lamps and garlands round about
To meet Him in a rapture with a shout.

It may be at the midnight, black as pitch,
Earth shall cast up her poor, cast up her rich.

It may be at the crowing of the cock
Earth shall upheave her depth, uproot her rock.

For lo, the Bridegroom fetcheth home the Bride:
His Hands are Hands she knows, she knows His Side.

Like pure Rebekah at the appointed place,
Veiled, she unveils her face to meet His Face.

Like great Queen Esther in her triumphing,
She triumphs in the Presence of her King.

His Eyes are as a Dove’s, and she’s Dove-eyed;
He knows His lovely mirror, sister, Bride.

He speaks with Dove-voice of exceeding love,
And she with love-voice of an answering Dove.

Behold, the Bridegroom cometh: go we out
With lamps ablaze and garlands round about
To meet Him in a rapture with a shout.

-Christina Rossetti

A story, and thoughts for Advent.

The greatest pleasure and thrill of Christmas can’t be had without a little waiting, something like children of yore had to do, when their Christmas trees weren’t even ready for viewing until Christmas Day.

Seven years ago Pom Pom hosted a Childlike Christmas (blog) Party, a party to which we were invited to show up via our blogs four times during December. This year she hopes we will join her every day during December, but this time it’s a more general theme: Advent Blogging. Maybe it is the child in me that is once again saying, in spite of the much greater challenge, “Sure! No problem!” I am updating this post from back then as I join in seven-years-later, partly because I wanted to retain a quote from Pom Pom’s 2011 party announcement:

“Yesterday I asked my students, ‘Why the big greed festival over the holidays? Aren’t we fine right now? Don’t we have enough?’ …Here at Pom Pom’s Ponderings, we are going to think about the simple pleasures of the holidays, the childlike wonder that doesn’t involve the ka-ching ka-ching of the cash register….four holiday Wednesdays of posts that attend to the simple childlike thrills of Christmas. ….that babe in a manger and the children He loves and cherishes.”

The babe in the manger is, of course, the One whose Advent we are anticipating, but I feel the topical field to be pretty wide open. I will be writing about whatever I am doing and thinking during this season, knowing that He is the life and breath of me and everything.

The modern world likes to jump into Christmas immediately after Halloween or Thanksgiving, but the more traditional way to celebrate involves some Anticipation and Preparation. Children might think of it as Waiting and Getting Ready. Some of us have been in Advent, which we call the Nativity Fast, since November 15th.

I’m not experienced in helping children to forgo the treats that are pressed upon them in every shop and neighbor’s house at this time of year, but even before I found the Church and its traditions I tried to keep the family thinking ahead to a special Holy Day, and not just because of the presents.

We need some weeks to sing “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel!” and for it to register in our minds that God’s people had to wait many generations and thousands of years for the coming of the Savior. A little bit of suffering in the form of doing without the usual quantity of food, or rich foods (in the Orthodox Church we eat less, and almost vegan, when fasting) can make it more real for us that the world before Christ was suffering under the curse of sin. We feel our own weakness, too, when eating less, and that can soften our hearts.

Why the photo of Holy Trinity Cathedral above? My church and sister churches sponsor Advent retreats every year, usually a day or half a day when we can hear a lecture and attend services together to help us focus on the coming feast in a fruitful way. One year I attended one at Holy Trinity and took the picture.

A children’s book that might contribute to a child’s understanding of time, and the processes that are necessary preliminaries to accomplishing a goal, in particular a few points on the timeline of our salvation history, is The Tale of Three Trees, “a traditional folktale retold by Angela Elwell Hunt with illustrations by Tim Jonke.”

Three small trees stand on a hilltop and dream about what they might do when they are grown. One wants to be a treasure chest, one a sailing ship that carries kings, and one just wants to stay where it is and point to God.

It takes many years for them to get big enough to be cut for lumber and fashioned into items that play a part in the earthly life of our Lord. The first tree is made into a manger — and this first creation of wood that the Christ Child came in contact with establishes the story as one for Christmas.

All the trees feel initial disappointment and humiliation, none more so than the one that is made into a rude cross and used for violent purposes: “She felt ugly and harsh and cruel.” But in the end all of the trees realize the blessedness of being used for the glory of God, and the young reader is reminded of the reason a Baby was born at Bethlehem.

Even our Lord Jesus went through a period of preparation, growing up as a man for 30 years before He began His ministry, but He surely wasn’t idle during that time. As we wait for Christmas we can prepare our hearts by prayer and fasting and acts of love.

Those of us with families are blessed to have many possibilities under what might be the Acts of Love category. (They might even include some noise of cash registers, but I won’t say any more about that at this party.) I know I typically have things like cookie-baking, doll-clothes-sewing, decorating and menu-planning and making up beds on my list.

The truth is, I’m not very good at being child-like before Christmas. I feel so many responsibilities that children don’t have to concern themselves with, and I get pretty busy with all the fun type of preparations, not to mention all of the usual work that doesn’t stop.

Somehow, though, all of that, when combined with participation in the church traditions and services, adds up to make me feel some of the longing and the weakness that are appropriate right now.

It’s hard to juggle everything, including trips to the post office or the extra shopping and chores, with the quietness we long for. Maybe that tale of the trees has a meaning even for me as a grownup, about being used for His purposes, and finding comfort and courage in that, even when things are crazy with hammers and saws, blood and humiliation.

One thing more about children: Their feeling about Christmas, as I have heard, but can’t quite remember, is that it takes forever to get here! For me, it comes on like a bullet train. Will I even be able to notice each day before it is gone, long enough to post something? In any case, as Metropolitan Anthony says,

“…if the time ahead has a meaning that is necessary for us, it is inevitably coming towards us at a sure and regular pace, sometimes more quickly than we could run to meet it.”

Sometimes more quickly? I just got a funny picture in my head of the children running out ahead to meet Christmas, and us adults dragging them back by their sleeves with one hand, while we try to write the last batch of Christmas cards (or today’s blog post) with the other. Here’s an idea: Let’s all stop, and sit by the fire to read another Christmas story!