Glory to God for All Things

Christmas Throughout the Ages

I’ll have to ask for forgiveness at the outset on this post – mostly because of its speculative nature – something I generally prefer not to engage in – at least not for others to read.

The Incarnation of Christ is significant in the course of our salvation – but we all too easily look at the story from a mere moral or soteriological point of view and fail to stop and think what has actually happened. St. John says it quite clearly in the prologue of his gospel (vs. 14), “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”

There are several places on which to place the emphasis in that short sentence, but the fact that God has actually become flesh, has united Himself with our material world, is not the least significant of those.

St. Paul will spend ample time in the 8th chapter of Romans speaking about the ultimate end of matter, what St. Maximus the Confessor would later call the “marriage of heaven and earth.”

We experience this on a regular basis when we receive Christ’s Body and Blood. Bread and Wine are not mere bread and wine. Something else has taken place and we receive the Body and Blood of God.

In all of the sacraments or mysteries of the Church, something quite ordinary (as we think) and material is changed and becomes united with Heaven and we receive Heavenly things (or better yet, are united with God). Thus the Baptismal waters become the “waters of Jordan” and are themselves embued with the Holy Spirit. We come out of the waters no longer the same.

My speculation (the above is not speculation, but dogma), is to think about the union of Heaven and Earth, but to think about it in the course of our daily lives – to think about it as a matter of course.

One of the gifts I received for Christmas was a CD of a Russian choral group singing music somewhat of the Church, somewhat of more folk origin (though it is largely modern in its composition). The group is called, “Svetilen,” and is a delight to listen to (I think I first heard them on Ancient Faith Radio.) Part of what they do is an attempt to recover the experience of an older great culture (Holy Russia), but, I would say, it is also an attempt to convey heaven in music. For if ever there was a Holy Russia, it was only because there was, for some and in some places, a union of Heaven and Earth to some degree.

I think about this today because I wonder what it is we want to do in our music, in our art, and especially when we do these as part of the expression of the gospel in Church.

It certainly cannot be enough to try and capture a bygone era, or evoke feelings of something past. A great icon, a truly great icon, is indeed a window into heaven. This is both a function of the iconographer, the icon, and the viewer of the icon. It requires all three. But what I am describing is, in fact, a normative view for the Christian life.

We should never yield to the temptation to simply relegate sacraments to Churchly rites that take place, “holy things” we go to Church to get and go home the better for it. They are surely that, perhaps, but must be much more. The whole of a service should be much more.

I can recall speaking with some Russian Church singers several years ago after a performance in Knoxville. They had just sung some of the most sublime and difficult music of the Orthodox Church, but had rendered it in a fashion that was beyond description. I was discussing this with a couple of the singers (there were only about 5 or 6 in the group), and was told, “We must be very careful of our relationships with one another. If we are not in love and kindness with each other, the singing will be a disaster.” Thus the music is more than mere notes mixing, it is also the sound of heaven, human beings transformed by God into the sound of heaven as they sing in love and forgiveness.

Art, too, should carry this element and more. Indeed, my speculative question today has to do with the whole of our activity. What does it look like to live in union with heaven? How does it sound? What else should it mean? The Word has become flesh, but flesh must also be united with the Word and be changed from glory to glory into the image of Christ. This is Christmas throughout the ages.

19 Responses to “Christmas Throughout the Ages”

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  1. Steve says:

    “Bread and Wine are not mere bread and wine.”

    This is Truth.

  2. NW Neil says:

    Father bless,

    “We come out of the waters no longer the same.” As a catechumen soon to be baptized (right after Theophany) this is my great hope and expectation. I hunger for union with God by receiving the Body and Blood.

  3. Anonymous says:

    NW Neil, I was a catechumen who was Baptized as an adult, and my personal experience was that I did, in fact, come out of the waters no longer the same. I was a new creation in Christ. I wish many blessings for you on your Baptism and Chrismation.

  4. I certainly don’t know what it looks like to live in union with Heaven, but perhaps that’s what Prince Vladimir’s envoys saw when they walked into Hagia Sophia, since they later reported to Vladimir, “We didn’t know whether we were in heaven or on earth.” I imagine it was a combination of the architecture, the icons, and the music that made them feel that way. Sometimes I get a tiny taste of that when I’m in my own (St. John Orthodox) church in Memphis. Especially now, as our iconographers are finishing up more of their work. Thank for your thoughts.

  5. Carolina says:

    “The Word has become flesh, but flesh must also be united with the Word and be changed from glory to glory into the image of Christ. This is Christmas throughout the ages.”

    Wow!!!!!!!!!

  6. Karen says:

    “We must be very careful of our relationships with one another. If we are not in love and kindness with each other, the singing will be a disaster.”

    That about says it all, doesn’t it?

  7. Dn Charles says:

    Father another thoughtful piece. Often we get hardened about modern efforts to unite heaven and earth. For example we often do the Liturgy of Peace (Chris Kypros) which very beautiful music for the divine liturgy. It lifts you to heaven but on the other hand it puts the emphasis on the choir. When the choir is singing this version of music there are more of them and they sing with gusto. To your point I guess.
    Thanks as usual.

  8. Anna says:

    NW Neil, many blessings to you as you finish your time as a Catechumen. After your baptism, welcome again to the starting line. May our good God keep you always in His care.

  9. NW Neil says:

    Anonymous and Anna,

    Thank-you both for your declaration of blessings. Our baptism and chrismation will be quite a celebration with my dear wife and seven children (16 yro.- 2yro.) all participating. The starting line imagery is particularly apt as this has been a year of starting again in many ways.

  10. Death Bredon says:

    After listening to a few samples of Svetilen, I have put them at the top of my wish list. Thank you, Father, for sharing them with us!

  11. Carolina says:

    I am finally able to put into words my !!!wow!!! above.

    As I read it, I realized that for the most part when I think of the Word becoming flesh, and see a baby in a manger, I can go and adore and sing and tell people about all this, but have I really wanted to unite with this Word?

  12. Michael Bauman says:

    The Incarnation changed everything, including what it means to be human. Since Jesus Christ took on our nature–and still has it, for us to be fully human we must seek union with Jesus as He achieved union with us.

    The question I have to ask myself is: Do I really want to be human or is it more comfortable to be animalistic and just allow my passions to rule me. I have to ask myself whether or not I’m willing to bear the pain of being human in communion with others through Jesus Christ. Joy comes, but also the knowledge of the suffering of others. That is why one of the gifts was myrrh in anticipation of His death and burial.

    The death of pride, self-will and the thousands of other sins that follow from those is painful too.

    Only the hope of the Resurrection softens the pain I think.

  13. Lizzy L says:

    Thank you, Father. This post gives me a lot to think about.

  14. FrGregACCA says:

    Michael: Yes, indeed. I don’t so much want Jesus to be human like me; I want to be human like Jesus.

    Within myself, I find only a faint echo of what it means to live in union with heaven. Therefore, I must look to Christ and to the Saints to see what that looks like, what it means.

  15. Carolina says:

    Could you tell us please the title of the recording by Svetilen that you liked!
    Thank you.

  16. Carolina,

    The cd was My Soul, Rise Up! I do not see it listed on Itunes. I think it comes from Musica Russica, but they list it as temporarily out of stock.

    Web site (perhaps someone else carries it as well)

    http://www.musicarussica.com/discdet.lasso?-database=musrus_cds&-response=discdet.lasso&-layout=CD_detail&-RecID=35574&-search

    They also have a few videos on youtube. There is one of their songs on my vodpod collection (on the sidebar of the blogsite). Very good singing.

  17. Carolina says:

    Thank you very much. I found one copy of that on Amazon.com so I think I will order it as a present for someone.

    On another subject, as a former Episcopalian, you, to a going to be former Episcopalian, me, whom God has called into the OC after 22 years as a missionary, do you have any suggestions, recomendations, etc as I make this change. I have two cultures to cross: living back in the states and getting to know my new destination.

  18. Carolina,
    Welcome home! If I might offer a word – probably patience. Orthodoxy is very natural and is learned naturally (which means slowly) and oftentimes in ways that are not expected. Professor Serge Verhovskoy, of blessed memory, used to say that “Orthodoxy is the absence of one-sidedness.” Anglicanism pretends to pursue the “Via Media” which is not the same thing as the absence of one-sidedness: it’s often the avoidance of anything worthwhile. The absence of one-sidedness in Orthodoxy is achieved not so much by avoidance as by comprehension – a pursuit of the fullness which is Christ. May God draw you ever deeper into His fullness (St. Paul prays such things frequently for those to whom he writes.).

  19. Carolina says:

    Thank you. Patience! I have learned patience living here. I think. I hope. That will help. The head of the mission society which I represented told us at the time of our departure to keep our mouths shut for 6 months and observe. This advice has come in handy and will come in handy, I am sure.

    Where I have been we don’t talk much about the Via Media so I haven’t thought about it much. But I guess my concept is that is was sort of the straight and narrow. Avoiding extremes. But life is rarely straight and narrow. The path wanders. And getting off the beaten track has benefit, as you seem to say. And as I write this I think of this past Saturday night. I was sitting on a plastic chair in a tiny tin-roofed house way off the beaten track, one small gas lamp and a candle lit the scene, the house was crammed full of people and this group, mission, was celebrating their Christmas dinner. All very poor people. And yet what they all managed to put together was a first class banquet with lots of joy! They had more fun! I said to the priest sitting next to me, “This is the heart and soul of this country.” And he nodded in agreement. I actually felt at the time that you can’t get much better than this. I felt blessed to be included, at the same time realizing I had contributed very little to this feast. I come in every two weeks and lead the singing.

    Not only that, the party started around 6 and they served the last bit of food at 10pm. God had multiplied the loaves and chickens and rice etc.

    I guess this is a long way around of saying that if I had stayed on the highway I would never have tasted this joy.

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