Nativity Encyclical 2013

On December 17, eight days before the Feast of Christmas, the Church sings:

The Prophet Daniel hath gathered us together in spirit today, O ye faithful; and for both rich and poor, for strangers and for native sons, he setteth out a sumptuous table of virtues . . . May the Lord, Who hath brought us to this season of the year, count us worthy to reach the supreme and venerable day of the Birth of Christ; Who, by their prayers, doth grant us the forgiveness of our sins and great mercy.1

We then hear:

Come, let us all faithfully celebrate the Nativity of Christ; and as we spiritually offer our hymn as the star, let us with the shepherds cry out hymns of glory like the Magi: The salvation of mortals is come from a virginal womb, to recall mortals.2

Here is the usual Orthodox Catholic liturgical practice of not suddenly springing some observance on the Church unexpectedly, but rather, by announcing well in advance of a particular festal observance, building the Church’s expectations up, over time.

The December 17 observance of the Prophet Daniel and the Children in the Fiery Furnace puts us in mind of the awesome coming in human flesh of the second Person of the Trinity, the Pre-eternal Son, the Wisdom and Peace and Power of the Father.

As the Prophet Daniel and his youthful companions – virgins all – were preserved from the flames of the fiery furnace in Babylon, so is the virginity of the Mother of our Lord preserved.3

The Church found an arresting pattern of signs throughout the Old Testament – signs pointing to the coming of the Messiah, Whose birth in the Cave in Bethlehem is deeply felt as the fulfillment of ages of keen and eager messianic expectation.

The Sunday before the Feast of the Lord’s Nativity can fall anywhere from December 18 to December 24, the very eve of the Feast. On that Sunday, the Church reverberates with recurring themes – bright, amazing truths which penetrate the worship and the worshipper deeply.

This day is always remembering the Lord’s Mother: she is a living palace of our King, since He Whom all the Heavens cannot contain hath been contained in thee.4

In that same sticheron5 the incarnation6 of God (Who is spirit7) is described as Past all understanding8 and the abrupt and total change of the circumstances of the Pre-Eternal Word of God (Christ) is emphasized: For He hath been made poor and hath taken flesh that He might deify and make rich me, who was rendered poor by a surfeit of exceeding bitter food.9

The poverty and the human flesh assumed by Christ, the Word of the Father, the Pre-eternal Son, had a rational – an agenda – and that purpose was to deify the worshipping Christian, to make rich me who was impoverished by a surfeit (excess) of bitter food – the forbidden food in Eden, eaten by Adam and Eve in an act of disobedience – in a breach of love. The contrasts are clear: God Who is Spirit, Who is Divine, hath taken flesh – assumes a material body of human flesh; God Who possesses all that exists and is wealthier than the wealthiest of the wealthy is made poor; and He chooses to become poor because He desires that I be rich, even though I lost my wealth through my own fault – by my choosing to turn away from God’s commandment10, an act that signaled my failure to love my Creator. The agenda of the Incarnation of the Word, the Logos, of the Father, is startlingly held to include nothing less than the sharing of God’s own life, a factor boldly described by the Greek Fathers as θεωσις (Theosis).

We should pause at this, and deepen our awareness of the meaning of this claim. The fine catechism written some years ago by the American theologian Clark Carlton11 devotes a chapter to Theosis, from which we quote:

“The Orthodox doctrine of salvation is often misunderstood by Protestants and Roman Catholics alike. One of the primary stumbling blocks is the notion that salvation is ultimately a matter of Theosis, or ‘deification.’ St. Athanasius wrote that God became man that man might become divine. This disturbs many people, who see in Orthodoxy a revival of the pagan confusion between God and man. Because the words, ‘deification’ and ‘divinization’ are so easily misunderstood in our culture, I prefer to use the Greek word, Theosis. Of course, Theosis means deification, but by using a Greek word that most people are not familiar with, it gives one the opportunity of explaining the concept without starting, as it were, in a ‘conceptual hole,’ In other words, if you tell someone that the Orthodox Church teaches the doctrine of Theosis, that person will ask what Theosis is. If, on the other hand, you say that Orthodoxy teaches deification, the person will immediately assume certain things and may not stay around for a clarification.”12

Dr. Carlton goes on to distinguish the authentic Orthodox understanding of Theosis from Mormon ideas about God and man13 and notes a point of contact with Protestant theologian Karl Barth.14 Above all, Dr. Carlton places the term Theosis in the context of the Oecumenical Synod of Chalcedon15 and concludes that “Man is not naturally divine. He is a creature and will always remain a creature. Just as Christ’s human nature did not become mixed or confused with His divine nature, so we, in the resurrection, will not become mixed or confused with God. In Christ, the human and divine natures remain distinct, and they shall remain so for all of eternity. Thus, there is an irreducible gulf between the nature of God and the nature of man. The fact that this gulf is irreducible, however, does not mean that it is irreconcilable. St. Paul affirms that God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself (2 Corinthians 5:19). The definition of Chalcedon not only affirms that there is no confusion between Christ’s divine and human natures, it also affirms that they are united without separation or division. Therefore, it is as incorrect to separate Christ’s divine and human natures as it is to mix them together.”

He goes on to recall that “St. Peter affirms that we shall be partakers of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4). If, however, there is such a radical difference between God and man, how can this be? The answer is to be found in the distinctions between person, nature, and energy . . . . St. Gregory Palamas explains: Since it has been shown above that those deemed worthy of union with God so as to become one spirit with Him (even as the great Paul has said, He who clings to the Lord is one spirit with Him [1 Corinthians 6: 17] are not united to God in substance, and since all theologians bear witness in their statements to the fact that God is imparticipable in substance and the hypostatic union happens to be predicated of the Word and God-man alone, it follows that those deemed worthy of union with God are united to God in energy and that the spirit whereby he who clings to God and is one with God is called and indeed [is] the uncreated energy of the Spirit and not the substance of God . . . .”16

This may bear some scrutiny: the Person here refers both to the three Persons of the Holy Trinity – Father, Son, Holy Spirit; and also to each human being as a distinct individual Person. Nature, as used here, refers to the human nature shared by all individual human persons, and to the divine nature shared by the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The energy, as used here, refers to that reality which flows out from the Trinity and touches us - it refers to the reality of God that we can perceive. God’s inner nature (sometimes called God’s essence, by the way) is unavailable to knowledge – it cannot be knownby definition. God’s nature is unknowable; but, He is known in His energies that flow out from Him and reach us.

These are some of the commonplace assumptions taken for granted above all by the Greek Fathers of the Church, but which we English-speaking Christians have to stop and think through, and get straight in our own minds, since this is not at all part of our common everyday language, and it demands a level of careful precision in the use of words that is not at all familiar to us in our everyday use of words! But once we get the distinctions being made, things fall into place, and we can make sense of them.

Dr. Carlton notes that St. Gregory Palamas’ carefully worded statement just quoted ensures that we do not make the mistake of thinking that we become God, “because of the gulf between the divine and human natures. On the other hand, man cannot be said to participate in the Persons of the Trinity. What is left, therefore, is participation in God’s energies” – and he again quotes the great hesychast theologian, St. Gregory Palamas, saying (among other things) “those who have pleased God . . . these then are in God . . . and He is in them . . . . Therefore these [who have pleased God] too participate in the divine energy . . . but not in the substance [essence] of God.”17

I have known students of theology who figure this all out by making diagrams - some of them using different colored ballpoints, to keep it all straight. In fact, I am one of them!

Perhaps one of the gifts of Christmas to many of us this year will be a more attentively-tuned ear, as we either attend the services of Christmastide in our Missions, or, in the absence of Clergy, as we read the services in our homes, or in gatherings with other dedicated, faithful Orthodox Catholic Christians. Increasingly, this latter state seems to be a widespread factor in the life of our Portland Diocese, which in turn means that both the burden of responsibility and also the gift of direct contact with the services falls to those of us who constitute the Laity of the Church in our region.

We have touched on only a very few direct quotes from the pre-festal services guiding us to the great mystery of the Incarnation of Christ. But see how much is given even in so few lines of liturgical prayer and worship! If you and I will quite literally “hang on every word” uttered in these remarkable services, whether as a congregation led by Clergy, or as a small group of Laymen, or as an isolated individual – see what a Gift Christmas becomes for us, no matter our circumstances!

+Bishop Sergios
Feast of the Holy Prophet Daniel & the Holy Three Children, Ananias, Azarias and Misael
St. Gregory of Sinai Monastery, 17/30 December 2013

____________________

1 Dec. 17, Feast of St. Daniel & the Holy Three Children Ananias, Azarias & Misael, Vespers, Lord, I have Cried, Glory verse, The December Menaion p. 117, Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Boston, 2005.
2 Dec. 17, Feast of St. Daniel & the Holy Three Children Ananias, Azarias & Misael, Vespers, Lord, I have Cried, Both now & ever verse, The December Menaion p. 117, Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Boston, 2005.
3 Dec. 17, Feast of St. Daniel & the Holy 3 Children, Matins, Ode 3 of the Canon, Theotokion. The December Menaion p. 119, Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Boston, 2005.
4 Sunday before the Nativity of Christ, Vespers, Lord, I have cried, Tone 1, Sticheron 1 of the Forefeast, p. 125, The December Menaion p. 119, Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Boston, 2005. Note that this is the basis of the famous Platytera (Πλατυτερα) ikon of the Virgin Mary, often depicted in the upper range of the Apse in the holy Altar area, Platytera meaning wider, that single word bringing to mind that she is wider than the heavens, which could not themselves contain the Word.
5 The term Sticheron (plural, Stichera) means verse.
6 Literally, the enfleshing of God the Word (o Λογος).
7 St. John, 4:24: Πνευμα ο Θεος.
8 Sunday before the Nativity of Christ, Vespers, Lord, I have cried, Tone 1, Sticheron 1 of the Forefeast, p. 125, The December Menaion p. 119, Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Boston, 2005.
9 See footnote 8.
10 Genesis 3:1-3.
11 The Life: The Orthodox Doctrine of Salvation: An Orthodox Catechism, Regina Orthodox Press, 2000, chapter 9: The Meaning of Theosis, pp. 117-125. This volume forms part of a trilogy collectively titled The Faith. The other two volumes are The Truth: What Every Roman Catholic Should Know About the Orthodox Church, and The Way: What Every Protestant Should Know About the Orthodox Church. All three volumes suffer from the absence of an index, particularly essential given the subjects dealt with. That said, undoubtedly the three volumes should be part of the basic books on the shelf of Orthodox Christians in secular/syncretist North America. Dr. Carlton’s spiritual journey can be accessed at http://orthodoxinfo.com/inquirers/tca_carltonfirstbaptist.aspx.
12 The Life, p. 117-118.
13 The Life, p. 119.
14 Ibid.
15 The 4th Oecumenical Synod, A.D. 451; see Father James Thornton’s excellent The Oecumenical Synods of the Orthodox Church: A Concise History, Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies, 2007, p. 61-76.
16 St. Gregory Palamas, The One Hundred and Fifty Chapters, no. 75; cited in The Life, p. 121.
17 St. Gregory Palamas, The One Hundred and Fifty Chapters, no. 105; cited in The Life, pp. 121-122.

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