Transfiguring the Material World – Christmas Through 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.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.





8 responses to “Transfiguring the Material World – Christmas Through the Ages”

  1. fatherstephen Avatar

    The painting is Mikhail Nesterov’s portrait of Pavel Florensky and Sergey Bulgakov, entitled, “Philosophers.” Both pushed the envelope in Orthodoxy theology. Bulgakov at one point had to recant certain doctrines or be condemned for heresy. Florensky died as a martyr in Stalin’s camps.

    From those whom I know who at least knew Bulgakov, they speak of a man of incredible genius, whatever his flaws. Florensky is highly speculative himself, but possesses remarkable insights at many points.

    The picture is from Olga’s Gallery, a remarkable online gallery of art.

  2. Jonathan Avatar

    Father bless,

    I personally forgive you for the speculative nature of this post. Indeed, I find it a very important thing about which to speculate, as long as the speculation is done with seriousness, honesty and humility before God. This idea that some people perpetuate that it’s a sign of true faith to never speculate about God is absolute rubbish.

    This idea of having, of living a life “united with Christ” has been coming back to me again and again, especially in discussions I’ve been having lately. Personally, I see it in two lights. For one, it’s a frightening idea, because my life as I know it would have to change beyond my ability to immediately comprehend.

    In the Psalms, when David asks God, “keep me as the apple of your eye,” it is my understanding that David is saying to God, “Keep me so close that, if I could look into your eyes, I would see nothing else reflected but my face.” This is a scary notion to me as a fallen man because there is so much that I hold onto—be it out of sinful habit, or sentimentality, or simply convention. And, if I seek to be in the presence of the Holy and Living God in the manner sought by David, so much of that which I hold onto (not all of it, necessarily, but I imagine the great majority of it) would have to do nothing less than crumble. It would have to be the ultimate experience of “stepping out of my comfort zone.”

    But, on the other hand…

    To give myself over to One who is Love itself, is caring, compassionate, and Who made me and has the desire to give me a hope and a future…to be as close to Him as I could possibly be, even to unite my life with His Life so that I might be healed, saved, and that He may be glorified in everything I say and do…to seek that I might be One with God…I can think of nothing else I could ever want more.

    I think it a very worthy question to ask, what it means in a greater sense for us as individual people and as the Body of Christ to live lives on Earth united with Heaven. If the personal implications I note above (and, surely, there are innumerable more in reality) are so great and far-reaching, how much more would it change life for the Body at large?

    God, have mercy on me and help me that I may want this every day and every waking moment of my life.

  3. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Tough question, but aren’t all the good ones. One can look at the 1st Chapter of Romans and see that it would involve loving the Creator more than the created thing–a life opposite of what Paul describes in that chapter.

    I think, however, that it will be difficult to come up with a percise answer simply because each of us is unique. My essence imprinted on the core of my being will shine quite differently than that of someone else were I ever to allow God’s love to so transform me instead of stubbornly persisting in sin.

    That being said, I think of often of the paralyzed man whose friends brought him to Jesus for healing. Jesus healed the paralyzed man and forgave him his sins because of the faith of the four who brought him. Their faith in Jesus was lived out for the benefit of their friend.

    The sacraments are moments of theophany in which the Holy Spirit reveals the loving union between the Creator and His Creation–a union that will only be fully realized in the fullness of time. In the meantime Father, as you quoted Fr. Thomas Hopko, we live in the Tribulation. It is up to us to bear one another’s burdens as Christ did on the Cross, for it was from the Cross that Jesus said, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do”

  4. November In My Soul Avatar

    Father Bless,

    I do not know what it looks like to live in union with heaven, or how it sounds. These are the things to which we must aspire. Given my sinfulness these moments are exceedingly fleeting and transitory, but I look forward to the day when this is no longer so.

  5. Steven CC Avatar
    Steven CC

    This is a very important issue. And I think the anecdote about the musical group is a great image.

    I’m reminded of two important bits of Orthodox wisdom. First, icons are not just pieces of art. Of course, they are examples of our physically rooted sacramental life. But more than that, icons are things not to be create idly. An icongrapher should pray and fast as he writes his work, as every brushstroke is a sort of prayer. As the icon cannot be viewed independently from the Church, neither can its creation.

    Second, and more importantly, theology is not an academic discipline. One does not become a theologian simply by receiving a degree from a university. A theologian is one who prays truly, and one who prays truly is a theologian, as Evagrius said.

    I don’t think it’s possible to see a good thing and not see some sort of connection with Heaven. We are called not only to receive the Sacraments but to live Sacramental lives.

    A very Joyous Christmas season to you and your readers, Father, and a Blessed New Year as well!

  6. David_Bryan Avatar

    “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.”

    What a wonderful affirmation of a deeper current within the very fabric of what music is–more than acoustics and intervals, harmonies and syncopations–a resonance between the spirits of the singers must also be in place.

    Thank you for this.

  7. Douglas Ian Avatar

    A wonderful post, Fr Stephen, and a worthy meditation for Christmas. Thank you.

    Christ is born!

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