The Cave And Christmas
Merry Christmas, everybody. Yesterday morning we had Sunday liturgy. One of the lovely things about the Orthodox liturgy on the Sunday before Christmas is how the readings focus on the genealogy of Jesus. As our priest said in his homily, it’s interesting to observe how God used the messy, even scandalous, lives of people who were Jesus Christ’s ancestors to prepare the way for Him. It tells us something about the nature of God. One is reminded of the well-known phrase, “God writes straight with crooked lines.”
If you’ve ever been to an Orthodox liturgy, you know that the entire thing is sung and chanted, and that there is lots of incense, signs of the Cross, bowing, Psalms, and other ancient prayers. Standing there on Sunday morning, I thought about how God swaddles us in the liturgy. It is complex, but that complexity somehow brings about a feeling of warmth, protection, and nearness to God. Everything in the Orthodox liturgy and inside an Orthodox Church is pregnant with meaning. For 11 Christmases now I have heard that liturgy. After communion, I thought about what a marvelous and extremely unlikely thing it is that God used an obscure Near Eastern tribe to make Himself manifest to the world, most of all in the birth of the Messiah, and how the stories of the Hebrew people, in the Bible, is the story of all believers in that Messiah.
This morning, Father preached about the traditional Orthodox icon of the Nativity (see above), which depicts the Virgin and the Christ Child in a cave. The Baby is swaddled in wrapping meant to call to mind the funeral shroud He will one day wear when He is returned to the cave that will be His tomb — and the site of his resurrection. This icon depicting the birth of the Messiah also calls to mind His death. Father said that in both cases, we see that God brings forth new life from deep in the Earth.
When the liturgy continued, it occurred to me that the iconostasis — the screen between the altar and the rest of the church — is a kind of cave too. When the “royal doors” — the passageway at the center of the altar, through which only the priest in vestments may pass — open, it’s as if the Messiah comes forth from the cave in the form of the Eucharist, bringing us new life.
One of the gifts I gave to my wife was a collection of Hymns of St. Symeon the New Theologian, a Byzantine monk who lived from the years 949 to 1021. His 20th hymn begins like this:
For my sake You were seen on earth, born of a virgin,
You Who are invisible before the ages,
and You became flesh, and You were manifested as a human being,
You Who are wrapped in unapproachable light.
Everyone supposed that You were limited,
You Who cannot be contained by anything,
all speech is not able to tell of You,
and a mind that is compelled tries to grasp with yearning,
yet is not able to seize You when it is humbled by fear,
and again, burning within, it searches for You.
The saint continues in the hymn, saying that we find Him in the Holy Eucharist. He Who fills the entire universe came to us as a baby in Palestine, and comes to us today in bread and wine. Miracle of miracles!
Today we celebrated not the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, which is customary, but rather the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great. Here is an excerpt from the communion prayers:
Together with these blessed powers, loving Master we sinners also cry out and say: Truly You are holy and most holy, and there are no bounds to the majesty of Your holiness. You are holy in all Your works, for with righteousness and true judgment You have ordered all things for us. For having made man by taking dust from the earth, and having honored him with Your own image, O God, You placed him in a garden of delight, promising him eternal life and the enjoyment of everlasting blessings in the observance of Your commandments. But when he disobeyed You, the true God who had created him, and was led astray by the deception of the serpent becoming subject to death through his own transgressions, You, O God, in Your righteous judgment, expelled him from paradise into this world, returning him to the earth from which he was taken, yet providing for him the salvation of regeneration in Your Christ. For You did not forever reject Your creature whom You made, O Good One, nor did You forget the work of Your hands, but because of Your tender compassion, You visited him in various ways: You sent forth prophets; You performed mighty works by Your saints who in every generation have pleased You. You spoke to us by the mouth of Your servants the prophets, announcing to us the salvation which was to come; You gave us the law to help us; You appointed angels as guardians. And when the fullness of time had come, You spoke to us through Your Son Himself, through whom You created the ages. He, being the splendor of Your glory and the image of Your being, upholding all things by the word of His power, thought it not robbery to be equal with You, God and Father. But, being God before all ages, He appeared on earth and lived with humankind. Becoming incarnate from a holy Virgin, He emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, conforming to the body of our lowliness, that He might change us in the likeness of the image of His glory. For, since through man sin came into the world and through sin death, it pleased Your only begotten Son, who is in Your bosom, God and Father, born of a woman, the holy Theotokos [“God-bearer”] and ever virgin Mary; born under the law, to condemn sin in His flesh, so that those who died in Adam may be brought to life in Him, Your Christ. He lived in this world, and gave us precepts of salvation. Releasing us from the delusions of idolatry, He guided us to the sure knowledge of You, the true God and Father. He acquired us for Himself, as His chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation. Having cleansed us by water and sanctified us with the Holy Spirit, He gave Himself as ransom to death in which we were held captive, sold under sin. Descending into Hades through the cross, that He might fill all things with Himself, He loosed the bonds of death. He rose on the third day, having opened a path for all flesh to the resurrection from the dead, since it was not possible that the Author of life would be dominated by corruption. So He became the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep, the first born of the dead, that He might be Himself the first in all things. Ascending into heaven, He sat at the right hand of Your majesty on high and He will come to render to each according to His works. As memorials of His saving passion, He has left us these gifts which we have set forth before You according to His commands.
This is our story, we Christians. This is the story that tells us who we are — and Whose we are. Happy are those that are called to His supper.