|14 - Sunday Before Christmas, Dec 21, 2014|
Hebrews 11:9-10, 17-23, 32-40
St Gregory Palamas, in his homily on the Theotokos’ Entrance into the temple, describes how she devoted her time in the Holy of Holies. St Gregory himself was visited numerous times by the Theotokos, and the detail with which he describes her days in the Holy of Holies leaves one to believe that he is not speculating but speaking from what the Theotokos herself told him.
Through the “true activity” of stillness, says St Gregory, the Most Holy Theotokos attained to the highest knowledge of the natural principles of the soul, the mind, the body, and of man’s capacity for God. It is she who invented that art of prayer that the Church knows as hesychia, or the “prayer of the heart” (cf. Homily (§§52&53), the science of descending with the mind into the heart under the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the Church, and resting there in stillness until the LORD Himself should come. In the stillness of the heart, the things below are forgotten in contrast to the life of the world below where God is forgotten. The soul attains to the vision of God in contemplation – i.e., the mind is wholly occupied with God and not with the wisdom of its own opinions however lofty and sublime those may seem to be – which, says St Gregory is the only proof of a soul in good health; for, it is through such contemplation that man is made divine even as St Peter says: “that you may become partakers of the divine nature.” (II Pt 1:4)
The Theotokos, then, is the model and the teacher, even the foundation of Christian worship as is confirmed in the Church’s liturgical texts: e.g., She is the “ever-flowing, life-receiving foundation” of the Church (Matins, Ode IX, for Dec 20) She it is who teaches us the art of Christian prayer, the worship of God in Spirit and in Truth, so as to prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ Himself in the personal reality of His Holy Spirit.
So, having entered into the Forefeast of Christ’s Most Blessed Nativity let’s call on St Gregory to guide us this morning, through the prayers of the Holy Virgin Theotokos, to a contemplation that would lead us into the joy of the approaching Feast.
With all the movies that like to open at this time of the year – “in a theater near you!” – what strikes me is this: how much we dwell on images of movies that have no existence except in the imagination compared to how much we dwell on images of the Gospel of the Church, which are really real? There maybe “nothing wrong” with that; but, what is the fruit of dwelling on these disincarnate images that have no existence except in our imagination compared to the fruit of dwelling on the incarnate images of the Gospel that are really real?
Of the Theotokos, St Gregory says: “It was not an angel that was to overshadow her, nor an archangel, not even the cherubim and seraphim, but the Power of the Highest in His very Person (Lk 1:35). What is more, the Power of the Highest did not converse with her through a whirlwind and cloud [Job], nor through darkness and fire [Moses], nor through a gentle breeze [Elijah], but it directly overshadowed her womb without any kind of disguise. There was nothing between the one overshadowing and the one overshadowed [like a cloud, gentle breeze or fire], not air either earthly or heavenly, nor anything perceptible or beyond our perception. This was union, not overshadowing. But, as anything that naturally overshadows something else naturally imprints its own form and shape upon it, it was not merely a union which came about in the Virgin’s womb, but the formation of something. And what took shape from both, from the Power of the Most High and from this Most Holy Lady’s Virginal womb, was the Word of God made flesh” – viz., the God-Man, the New Adam, so that the Theotokos becomes truly the New Eve, the Mother of All the Living. At this point, St Gregory begins to tremble and he pulls back: “O,” he cries, “to what mysterious depths have we descended in our sermon!” (§45)
At the Annunciation, the Church seems to focus on the wonder of who it is that is conceived in the Blessed Virgin’s womb. “Hearken, O pure Virgin Maid,” says the Archangel Gabriel to the Theotokos. “Make ready to receive God: for through thee, the Incomprehensible One comes to dwell with mortal men.” (Festal Menaion 456) On Christmas, the Church seems to focus on the inexpressible wonder of God becoming flesh: “God, having become man, is seen in the flesh.” (Matins, Ode V, Dec 20) “From the substance of Adam a young child, a Son, is born and given to the faithful. He is the Mighty God and holds in His dominion the creation.” (FM 276) St Paul says, “When the time had fully come, God sent forth His Son to become born of woman…” (Gal 4:4). I do not see this at all as evidence that St Paul was ignorant of the Virgin birth, as some believe – for he most surely was not ignorant of Isaiah’s prophecy (that a Virgin, parthenos, would conceive and bring forth a son, Immanuel – Isa 7:14 LXX). Rather, I hear St Paul expressing the wonder that catches earth and even heaven by surprise: that God is born of a woman just like us! Not even the Theotokos could comprehend how she would conceive in her womb the “Incomprehensible One”. “Thou dost appear to speak the truth,” she says to the Archangel. As though to say, I do not know how this can be, but it is from God. Therefore, “let it be done to me according to thy word. May God dwell in me.” (FM 457)
The Church’s sacred texts are so understated – I think so as not to impose on us in any way, leaving us completely free to receive or to reject this Gospel – that the only way we can enter into the wonder they express is by entering into the stillness of the Theotokos. And then, there are no words. “The most eloquent orators are rendered mute as fish.” “Let all mortal flesh keep silence.” One can only prostrate in worship with the angels, the shepherds, the wise men, indeed all of creation.
Not even yet, however, does our contemplation this morning touch the pith of the miracle of Christmas. It is visceral and we may begin to feel it, if you will, in the cave of our own gut when we remember that in the miracle of Christmas (which begins at the Annunciation, or rather, even at the Birth of the Theotokos!) God no longer dwells among men in a temple of rock, stone and wood, but in the Living, personal Temple of a woman, in the flesh. He is incarnate and in the flesh He becomes hidden for all to see in the Cave of Bethlehem, on the Cross and in the Cave of His Paschal Tomb that open beyond the flesh, beyond history, onto the human heart. He who was the Son of the Father before all ages becomes in these last days the Son of a woman, just like us, and she, who is just like us, becomes His Mother. In the flesh as man, as the Son of the Virgin Mother, the Son of God dwells among us in His inexpressibly tender love for His Mother and her inexpressibly tender love for her Son! This is the heart of the Christian Faith, the very essence of the miracle of Christmas. God is With Us, not as an impersonal, immaterial “Force” or Energy, but as the human child of a human mother who becomes the most Blessed, Most Pure, Most Holy Virgin Theotokos.
The inexpressible visceral wonder of Christmas is set forth – again in a manner so understated – in the genealogy of Christ. Without saying it, St Matthew, shouts it: in the womb of the Virgin, God Himself receives a human ancestry! God is “born of a woman” and becomes the flesh and blood kin of Abraham and, according to St Luke, even of Adam so that He comprehends not only in His divinity but now also in His humanity the whole nature of man all the way back to the beginning in Adam. In the womb of the Virgin Theotokos, the ancestry of Adam opens onto God! The Old Covenant of Abraham opens onto Heaven, as the prophets foretold, in the heart of man created anew in the mystery of Christ through the Faith of Abraham to become the New Covenant written not with words engraved on tablets of stone but in the Body and Blood of God the Word made flesh born of the Virgin, crucified on the Cross, buried in the Cave of the Tomb, and risen in the flesh out onto the Garden of Eden in the Kingdom of Heaven!In the womb of the Theotokos, the genealogy of Adam is transfigured. In the womb of the Theotokos, it takes, if you will, a sharp, sudden turnupward into the Light of Heaven! In the womb of the Theotokos, her Son, the Son of God, Jesus Christ the God-Man, opens the heart onto God and God becomes one with us to abide in us as in a Living Temple, covering us with His Glory as He covered the temple of old, transfiguring us, renewing us, even deifying us all the way down to the viscera of our heart where we originate and now where we end in God Himself.
O holy Father Gregory, pray to God for us! O Most Holy Theotokos, save us! Intercede for us. Deign to teach even us this blessed divine stillness, that we may find the path that leads into the cave of our heart and behold the Christ whom you bore, that we may draw near to Him in faith and in love and worship Him – ah, no! even to partake of Him as our food and drink to become one with Him so that He alone is our Life – that we may fall down in love and joy and worship Him together with the shepherds, the wise men, and all the saints in the wonder of Christmas! Beloved faithful, let this wonder, this love, this joy of Christmas, this Gospel of the Church be the image, or rather the Holy Icon that we direct the inner activity of our mind to dwell on and our souls to rest in!
Amen! O Most Holy Theotokos, save us! Glory to Jesus Christ!