“If he was not flesh … and if he was not God” — More Reflections on the Nativity of Christ Jesus

St. Ephrem the Syrian

From the very beginning of the Church’s life, her experience has faced challenges. Perhaps the facet of her life that was most dangerously challenged was her experience of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; and Jesus as Son of God and Son of Man. As a result of these challenges, the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation were hammered out over the course of the opening centuries of her history.

St. Ephrem the Syrian (c.306–373) was a saint who defended the wonderful Mystery of the union of divinity and humanity in the person, Jesus of Nazareth. In his “Sermon on the Transfiguration of our Lord and God and Savior, Jesus Christ,” proclaims in elegantly poetic terms the Mystery of the Union of Divinity and humanity in Jesus of Nazareth – the Incarnation. It makes wonderful Christmas reading. I recommend visiting the website of “The Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople New Rome, Diocese of Thyateira and Great Britain.” Look at paragraph 15 of the sermon found at this link. It makes the profundity of the saint’s consideration of the Incarnation richer if you copy and paste the paragraph and separate each statement. You will end up with a list of 34 couplets regarding Jesus’ divinity and humanity. You won’t be disappointed… It is magnificent…

May your ongoing celebration of the 12 days of Christmas be blessed,

Fr. Thomas

“And All Jerusalem with Him”

I commend to you a blog post by a good friend of mine, Nathan Oates. It can be found here. It is this post that served as the inspiration for this “Gleaning” of bits and pieces from the edges of the field of Christmas. I recommend that you read it before you proceed further. It will help set the context for my meanderings.

Matthew 2.1-8

[1] Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying,
[2] “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him.”
[3] When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him;
[4] and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.
[5] They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it is written by the prophet:
[6] `And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who will govern my people Israel.'”
[7] Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star appeared;
[8] and he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.”

There are several key words in this portion of the Nativity narrative:

  • Troubled
  • Worship
  • Diligently
  • Found him
  • I may too come

Indeed, it is ironic and deeply tragic, as Nathan notes in his blog post, that in our own life we prefer to pay homage to (worship) our oppressors (the passions of pride, self-love, and vainglory) which we hate and would be free of, instead of paying homage to (worshipping) the very one Who can, in fact free us, because of the cost of that freedom. As the overused bumper sticker says, “Freedom is not free.” The people hated and desired to be free of “Herod the Wicked” (and therefore the Romans) but they also feared his retribution. They feared THAT more than they desired to pay the price of opposing their oppressor. Once again, a tragic bondage.

The unique “troubled-ness” that is the fruit of bondage.

The people of Herod’s time were people of freedom as well as bondage. They HAD a covenant relationship of freedom with God ! ! The character of their bondage was not forced on them. They chose to receive it. It is not that we don’t know our bondage or even that we have and do choose it. Rather, it is that we have become numbed or dulled (drugged / anesthetized) by fear of the punishment that our chosen oppressor will be meet out upon us. As Chrysostom says in the same homily,

“From the same feeling which caused them before also to turn away from God when pouring His benefits on them [the Exodus], and to be mindful of the flesh-pots of Egypt, while in the enjoyment of great freedom.”

When will we reach our “bottom,” when it will become worth it to pay the price that our freedom requires?! That cannot be predicted. It is different for all of us. Chrysostom says a couple of sentences later in the same homily, “…none of these things thoroughly awakens them, so great was their dullness, and with this their envy also.”

What time is it? Is it time for your deliverance? Does your Redeemer draw near? Is the darkness the context for the light?

What IS clear is that we MUST be looking for our deliverance – seeking “diligently” – in the form of not only the “bottom” we must reach but for the Savior Who is present is that “cave.” The Christmas manger [crèche] is, among other things, the address of the bottom we must reach in order to truly receive for the first time or once again the costly freedom of new life in Christ Jesus. (It is worth nothing, parenthetically that among the meanings of crèche, is a place of protection and care.) There we must  “find him” and “come” to meet Him and worship Him, paying the price of a truly bended knee beginning in the very cave of our bondage and our freedom. The shepherds and the Magi and Herod and the people – the whole universe that groans in travail [bondage] – is exhorted and provoked to meet Christ Jesus at and in the cave. This cave, the crèche, is both a place of great darkness and even greater light. This cave is the address of our salvation.

The Holy Tradition does, proclaim this underlying theme of the clash of darkness and light, of bondage and freedom, in its Nativity hymnography. It does not let us get away with reducing Christmas to sentimental dribble which is just the spirit of delusion in another wrapper …

Kontakion for the Eve of the Nativity

“On this day the Virgin cometh to a cave to give birth to God the Word ineffable, Who was before all the ages. Dance for joy, O earth, on hearing the gladsome tidings; with the Angels and the shepherds now glorify Him Who is willing to be gazed on as a young Child Who before the ages is God.”

“O Little Town of Bethlehem” vs. 3-4

How silently, how silently
The wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven.
No ear may hear His coming,
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him still,
The dear Christ enters in.

O holy Child of Bethlehem
Descend to us, we pray
Cast out our sin and enter in
Be born to us today
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell
O come to us, abide with us
Our Lord Emmanuel

“It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” vs. 3-5

Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife
And hear the angels sing.

And ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow,
Look now! for glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing.
O rest beside the weary road,
And hear the angels sing!

For lo! the days are hastening on,
By prophet-bards foretold,
When with the ever circling years
Comes round the age of gold;
When peace shall over all the earth
Its ancient splendors fling,
And the whole world send back the song
Which now the angels sing.

Merry Christmas,

Fr. Thomas

Bowl Games and Itching Ears/Eyes

Okay, so I just wanted to find out if Notre Dame and Texas A&M had squeaked into one of the big games.

When I was growing up the bowl games were – Rose Bowl, Cotton Bowl, Orange Bowl, and Sugar Bowl. That was it ! !

Now, I am just disappointed and not a little resigned to the “special interest” takeover of college football. I know, that is not new. That has been happening for years. I get that. But, I guess I was deeply touched and saddened like it was new news when I came across this list… Take a look at this list ‼ ……….

The “Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl”???? I wonder what Bell Helicopter’s interest is in sponsoring that bowl game?

Come on ‼ Enough variations on a theme of how the passions can take over something genuinely fun and make it a “spectacle.” This year I have been saddened by the whole “conference shopping” motivation among colleges among other things. Texas A&M and U.T. will no longer play on Thanksgiving Day. The reason? Finding a better conference in which to get a bid for $$ and fame and…..

In other words, your team, in spite of how bad they did could be in a bowl game. So, why should I post this on the blog. After all, isn’t this a site that is supposed to be about what hinders and fosters the authentic growth and development of our personal and communal transformation in Christ? Well, my impression is that this list is symbolic of deeper things.

For one thing, my distinct impression is that all of this isn’t really about athletic excellence or the nobility of college athletics as a way to instill character and prepare our youth to take their place in the world to help defend the values that make humanity great. It is about something else. I am sure you can figure out what the “something else(s)” are easy enough.

And, secondly, I can’t resist the metaphorical association with the multiplicity of denominations, their method of operation, and the values they instill. There are plenty of associations to be made. I will leave you to come up with them. Hint:  I wonder how many churches a towns needs?

Is there a line over which we can step that makes a thing that was legitimate into something that is illegitimate? When does diversity breed division and alienation? When do motives do awry?

Fr. Thomas

Advent: A Reminder to Live Meaningfully in the “In Between” Time

Advent is about living in the paradox of “already but not yet.” To live an “Advent life” is to accept and celebrate life between the incarnation/death/resurrection of Christ Jesus and the second coming of Christ Jesus. Several passages from the New Testament articulate this paradox and the challenge presented to use to live in the paradox…

John 18

[36] Jesus answered, “My kingship is not of this world; if my kingship were of this world, my servants would fight, that I might not be handed over to the Jews; but my kingship is not from the world.”

Romans 8

[1] There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
[2] For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death.
[3] For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh,
[4] in order that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
[5] For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.
[6] To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.
[7] For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, indeed it cannot;
[8] and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
[9] But you are not in the flesh, you are in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Any one who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.
[10] But if Christ is in you, although your bodies are dead because of sin, your spirits are alive because of righteousness.
[11] If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit which dwells in you.
[12] So then, brethren, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh —
[13] for if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live.
[14] For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.
[15] For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, “Abba! Father!”
[16] it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God,
[17] and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.
[18] I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.
[19] For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God;
[20] for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope;
[21] because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God.
[22] We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now;
[23] and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.
[24] For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees?
[25] But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Ephesians 2

[4] But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us,
[5] even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved),
[6] and raised us up with him, and made us sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus,
[7] that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.

Hebrews 11

[1] Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
[13] These all died in faith, not having received what was promised, but having seen it and greeted it from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.
[14] For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland.
[15] If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return.
[16] But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.

[39] And all these, though well attested by their faith, did not receive what was promised,
[40] since God had foreseen something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.

A practical example of how this challenge represents itself is the intersection between brokenness and wholeness. (I am, here, talking about sinful brokenness – things that corrupt and destroy.) Brokenness reminds us that we live in the “not yet.” Wholeness reminds us that we live in the “already.”  How we respond to brokenness? If we respond out of our brokenness we are allowing ourselves to be driven/pulled back toward a life of deeper “not yet.” If we respond out of our wholeness, we cooperate with being driven/pulled toward a life of deeper “already.”  So, the paradox of living in the midst of the marriage between “already” and “not yet” is the realization that we are moving in a particular direction – toward a deeper enjoyment of the “already” in more and more areas of our life. Do we respond out of our brokenness or out of our wholeness? Which direction are we faced?! That is a crucial question in the midst of the complexity life in the “already” and the “not yet.”

Another whole set of examples can be taken from our struggle to “build and realize” in the first half of our live and the challenge to deal with the need to accept the reality of what will never be built and, in fact, what is falling apart (like our bodies) in the second half of life.

The temptation are great to “solve” Advent, thereby exiting it, instead of living in the midst of it as a paradox – a transformative environment that drives/pulls us forward into a deeper realization of the “already.” First, our brokenness cries out to be satisfied and nourished. Second, we find it almost irresistible to figure out a way to engineer and measure our progress. We have a hard time actively living in the middle of the divine Mystery of “the come and coming Kingdom.”

The invitation is to live in such a way as to receive the revelation of how the Kingdom has already come, living in congruence with it, and how the Kingdom is coming and cooperation in its manifestation. During the season of Advent we are reminded of the need to affirm two realities at the same time – what has already occurred and what is even now occurring and will continue to occur – and let both influence us.

Fr. Thomas