November - December 2018
Post date: Jan 10, 2019 3:05:58 AM
In the Royal Hours of Christmas, celebrated usually the morning before the feast, one of the hymns we sing says:
He is our God:
There is no other to compare with Him.
Born of a Virgin, He comes to live with mankind.
The only-begotten Son appears as a mortal Man.
He rests in a lowly manger.
The Lord of glory is wrapped in swaddling clothes.
A star leads the wise men to worship Him,
and with them we sing:
Holy Trinity, save our souls!
This hymn is one of the many places in which the Church meditates on the mystery and paradox of the Incarnation. These meditations are often accompanied by exclamations, as we see in another hymn from the Royal Hours:
Listen, heaven! Give ear, O earth!
Let the foundations of the earth be shaken!
Let trembling seize the regions beneath the earth,
for our God and Creator has clothed Himself in created flesh;
He fashioned all creation, yet reveals Himself in the womb of her that He formed.
O the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How incomprehensible are His judgments;
and how unsearchable His ways!
The reason the Church brings these hymns before us is that she knows that the God who reveals Himself in this way is very different from the idea most of us have (often subconsciously) about God. The Incarnation and Crucifixion are the essential ways in which He reveals Himself to us. God’s power is not only made perfect in human weakness as revealed to St. Paul, but it is also perfectly manifested in the perceived weakness of becoming a mortal man and being put to death on a cross. As Christ Himself shows and tells us, His suffering is willingly chosen. St. Luke relates the following episode:
And all they in the synagogue, when they heard these things, were filled with wrath, and rose up, and thrust him out of the city, and led him unto the brow of the hill whereon their city was built, that they might cast him down headlong. But he passing through the midst of them went his way (Lk 4:28-30).
St. Cyril of Alexandria comments on this passage, saying, “He did not refuse to suffer—he had come to do that very thing—but to wait for a suitable time. Now at the beginning of his preaching, it would have been the wrong time to have suffered before he had proclaimed the word of truth.” Christ Himself chooses the time of His passion, and St. Matthew bears witness to this through Jesus’s words at His betrayal:
[D]o you think that I cannot now pray to My Father, and He will provide Me with more than twelve legions of angels? How then could the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must happen thus? (Matt 26:53-54)
Our God displays His power in allowing Himself to be contained in the womb of the Theotokos, in choosing to suffer, in trampling death by death. It is not surprising Jesus had to specifically teach the apostles about the meaning of power as a follower of His.
But Jesus called them to Himself and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” (Matt 20:25-28).
Thus, power, for a Christian, is expressed as the power to control our desire for worldly power. To follow Christ is to resist the temptation to lord it over others, to avoid making our way the yardstick by which other things are measured, to stay away or step away from positions of power when they affect our spiritual lives and prevent us from seeking first the kingdom of heaven. This was never an easy thing to do. If the apostles were tempted by the idea of power in worldly terms, we can be expect to encounter this temptation ourselves.
Should the temptation come, let us look at the icon of the Nativity. There are elements of power in the worship offered to the Child, but the center of the icon has the Lord of the universe wrapped in swaddling clothes. The cave, the manger, and the animals provide the perfect display of the humility of Christ. The worship is offered as it is proper to the divinity, and it is freely given. In this context it does nothing to detract from the humble environment in which Christ was born.
Let us also look upon the icon of Christ on the cross and remember, as we see Jesus, with His eyes closed as though asleep, that we are looking upon the Son of God, as He completed the work that He descended to earth to do. It is not by accident that in the icons of the Crucifixion Christ’s face looks as though He is sleeping. Of course, as the Creator of Life, He is not bound by death, and therefore that depiction is entirely appropriate and accurate. But that iconography also imparts to us a sense of the peace which is present in the very completion of the work of God.
So, as we prepare to receive the Christ Child, let us especially learn from and imitate His humility. Let us use the prayers, hymns, and icons of the Church to guide us, so that we may become humble enough for Him to come and dwell in the manger of our hearts.
With love in Christ,