Category Archives: Advent

Even though the world has upended itself.

Ever since the King of Glory was born into this world of death, His people have suffered under and among the kingdoms of this world. We talk a lot about how He was weak and helpless, being a baby. But any of us mothers might remember the vulnerability of women in pregnancy, in the very season when one wants to be most in control, so as to nurture and protect.

I think a lot about my children and grandchildren, who are likely to live on after I am gone, and what they might have to endure in this earthly world, where it seems that the rich and powerful, and often the evildoers, are getting stronger; in any case, the relative impotence of the majority is being revealed. I was very glad to see my friend Anna Mussman write about these concerns last spring, in “Why I’m Grateful to be Pregnant During This Pandemic.” It may be that I linked you to her article back then. She safely gave birth to her fourth child after publishing this article, in which she reminds us of reasons for confidence, even in the face of vulnerability:

We can’t say for sure what will happen to our children, our children’s children, or their children, but we can remember that our God’s promises are just as true for them as for us. 

We need not mourn past seasons of prosperity “as those who have no hope” mourn. We know that sometimes suffering is exactly what we humans need to recognize our sin, repent, and receive forgiveness. Besides, suffering does not last forever. Eternity, the answer and fulfillment of all seasons, is yet to come. 

Babies are cute and adorable and fill us with love, but they also remind us that we are vulnerable. Strangely enough that is actually the most comforting thing about them. Their very perfection forces us to realize we will not be able to save and protect them in the way we wish. We mothers cannot guarantee that our babies will be safe and happy in this world. 

That’s how babies drive us to God. Through our babies and the difficult seasons they may bring, we are reminded over and over that our hope is found in the Father who has promised never to leave us, to never forsake us or our children. God’s love is not seasonal. 

That is why even though the world has upended itself and the media is declaring this year a bad one to have a baby, the world and the media do not get the last say. God does.

In his Advent collection Waiting on the Word, Malcolm Guite offers a sonnet of his own for December 22. With its reference to the facts of Christ being despised, cast off, “never on the throne,” under imminent threat of murder even as an infant, it reminded me of Anna’s exhortation. We who are followers of Christ can expect no less than the treatment He got; kingdoms rise and fall, and there haven’t been very many truly good kings in all those millennia.

It doesn’t matter. Christ’s Kingdom is real, and the only lasting one, and it is where “we ourselves are found.” It is even right and proper, given the presence of this Kingdom, that we be cheerful, because He told us to be: “These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.

O REX GENTIUM

O King of our desire whom we despise,
King of the nations never on the throne,
Unfound foundation, cast-off cornerstone,
Rejected joiner, making many one,

You have no form or beauty for our eyes,
A King who comes to give away his crown,
A King within our rags of flesh and bone.

We pierce the flesh that pierces our disguise,
For we ourselves are found in you alone.
Come to us now and find in us your throne,
O King within the child within the clay,

O hidden King who shapes us in the play
Of all creation. Shape us for the day
Your coming Kingdom comes into its own.

Therefore thus says the Lord God, See, I am laying in Zion for a foundation stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation: ‘One who trusts will not panic.’ (Isaiah 28:16)

-Malcolm Guite, in Waiting on the Word

Let us eat of it and live forever.

Many, if not most, Orthodox Christians in the world will celebrate our Lord’s Nativity on January 7, as was the custom for all Orthodox until less than a century ago. Under various pressures to westernize, some began to use the “secular” calendar as had been requested of them since the 16th century. I happen to have been baptized into a “new calendar” diocese, so here I am! When I announce a feast day or a calendar date of a commemoration, saying “We –,” I don’t disregard the vast numbers of my beloved brothers and sisters who are waiting thirteen more days for their holy day. But here I go again:

We have entered the Forefeast of the Nativity of our Lord:

Prepare, O Bethlehem, for Eden has been opened to all!
Adorn yourself, O Ephratha,
for the tree of life blossoms forth from the Virgin in the cave!

Her womb is a spiritual paradise planted with the Divine Fruit:
If we eat of it, we shall live forever and not die like Adam.
Christ comes to restore the image which He made in the beginning!

Set every peak and valley humming.

This Christmas carol with words by Eleanor Farejon came into my life only a few years ago. I can see why it’s not as favored as some that have a fuller theology of the Incarnation, but there is so much that could be said about the significance of God taking on human flesh, I want to make use of all that has been written about this event.

This one is lovely in the way it captures some of the anticipation I feel as I also try to “make my house as fair as I am able.” It’s comforting to have the wisdom of a woman combined with the upbeat melody, a different tone altogether from “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” — but it is in sync with that joy of preparation of the material aspects of our Christmas feast. And after all, we are celebrating the mystery of God becoming material.

As St. John of Damascus said, “I do not worship matter, I worship the God of matter, who became matter for my sake and deigned to inhabit matter, who worked out my salvation through matter.” God entered His creation of seed, stars, birds, and dirt, and because He did, they are made glorious. Now, we give them back to him in celebration.

PEOPLE, LOOK EAST

People, look east. The time is near 
Of the crowning of the year.
Make your house fair as you are able,
Trim the hearth and set the table.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the guest, is on the way.

Furrows, be glad. Though earth is bare,
One more seed is planted there:
Give up your strength the seed to nourish,
That in course the flower may flourish.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the rose, is on the way.

Birds, though you long have ceased to build,
Guard the nest that must be filled.
Even the hour when wings are frozen
God for fledging time has chosen.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the bird, is on the way.

Stars, keep the watch. When night is dim
One more light the bowl shall brim,
Shining beyond the frosty weather,
Bright as sun and moon together.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the star, is on the way.

Angels, announce with shouts of mirth
Christ who brings new life to earth.
Set every peak and valley humming
With the word, the Lord is coming.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the Lord, is on the way.

-Eleanor Farjeon

If I from California look east across the globe, I might come eventually to Ukraine, where these monks are singing carols. I don’t understand the words, but I know well what they are singing about. We are singing all over the earth about the pivotal event of history.

(Get ready to) REJOICE!

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.