My beloved spiritual children in Christ Our Only True God and Our Only True Savior,
CHRIST IS IN OUR MIDST! HE WAS, IS, AND EVER SHALL BE. Ο ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ ΕΝ ΤΩ ΜΕΣΩ ΗΜΩΝ! ΚΑΙ ΗΝ ΚΑΙ ΕΣΤΙ ΚΑΙ ΕΣΤΑΙ.
THE NATIVITY FAST CONTINUES (Part II)
A journey is, by its nature, an act of movement, of transportation, of growth. What is left behind, newness is perceived and embraced, growth of understanding takes place. And even if the journey comes to a close in the same physical location from which it began, that place is transformed for us by the journey through which we have re-approached it. The aid shelter on a street corner in London is no different after a journey to the Middle East; but after witnessing there first-hand the struggles and torments of poverty, of suffering, of sorrow, the meaning and importance of that small shelter is indeed different for me.
Here the importance of the fast. As the Nativity approaches, that great feast of cosmic significance and eternal, abounding joy for which heaven and earth together rejoice, the fast calls me to consider: Do I rejoice? Why do I rejoice? The hymnography of the Church makes it clear that this is a feast for the whole world, for all creation; and the fast calls me to take my place in that creation, to realize that, despite all my infinite unworthiness, Christmas is a miracle for my soul too.
"Make ready, O Bethlehem: let the manger be prepared, let the cave show its welcome. The truth has come, the shadow has passed away; born of a Virgin, God has appeared to men, formed as we are and making godlike the garment He has put on. Therefore Adam is renewed with Eve, and they call out: "Thy good pleasure has appeared on earth to save our kind."
Adam and Eve, all of mankind, are renewed and made alive in the Incarnation of God in Christ, Who 'appeared on earth to save our kind." Fallen flesh, so long bound to death, so long yearning is for growth and maturation into the fullness of life, is sewn into the garment of Christ and at last made alive. There is a pleasing old saying, with perhaps more than a touch of truth to it, that mankind drew its first full breath at the infant Christ's first cry.
We are called, then, to approach this Great Mystery as God's condescension into our own lives, personally and collectively. The Canon of Orthros (Matins) for the Holy Nativity lays it out clearly: 'He establishes a path for us, whereby we mount up to heaven.' The Divine Nativity is not only about God's coming down to us, but about our rising up to Him, just as sinful humanity was lifted up into the Person of Christ in the Incarnation itself.
We are called to arise, then, during the fast that is the journey into this Feast. 'O blessed lord who seest all, raise us up for above sin, and establish Thy singers firm and unshaken upon the foundation of the faith'. The faithful take up this call through the abandonment of those things which bind, rather than free, in order that a focus on God as 'all in all' might become ever more real and central to daily life.
Meals are lessened and regimented, that a constant, lingering hunger may remind us of the great need we each have for spiritual food that goes beyond our daily bread. The number of Church services is gradually increased, that we may know whence comes that true food. Sweets and drink are set aside, that we might never feel content with the trivial and temporal joys of this world. Parties and social engagements are reduced, that we might realize that all is not so well with us as we often take it to be. Anything which holds the slightest power over us, whether cigarettes or television, internet, travel or recreation, is minimized or -- better -- cast whole aside, that we might bring ourselves to be possessed and governed only by God.
The fast is an ascetic time, designed by the Church to strip away common stumbling blocks into sin, to provide us with the means of self-perception that we lack in our typical indulgence, and to begin to grow the seeds of virtue. All these are necessary if we are ever to know even partially, or appreciate even menially, the 'depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God'. We must take up the task of our own purification, gifted by God and achieved only through His grace, that we might approach Him on Christmas Day as did the Magi and the shepherds in Bethlehem.
"Come, O Ye faithful, inspired by God let us arise and behold the Divine condescension from on high that is made manifest to us in Bethlehem. Cleansing our minds, let us offer through our lives virtues instead of myrrh, preparing with faith our entry into the feast of the Nativity, storing up treasure in our souls and crying: Glory in the highest to God in Trinity, Whose good pleasure is now revealed to men, that in His love for mankind He may set Adam free from the ancestral curse."
True Joy in the Mystery of the Nativity
The Church journeys toward the Birth of Christ God, steered by the ship that is the Nativity fast. She does so with the knowledge that unless she struggles up the mountain that is desperately too steep for her to climb, she will never know the breadth of the gift that is the mountain's leveling by the hand of God. Resurrection unto life is the ultimate gift of the Incarnation, but unless a man understands that he is dead, he will never know the meaning of resurrection.
The feast is a holy and blessed tool that brings us closer to such self awareness. It reveals to us who we are, perhaps more importantly who we are not, and makes us more consciously aware of that for which we stand in need. Then and only then, with eyes opened -- even only partially -- by the ascetic endeavor, we will truly know the Life-Giving Light of the Nativity of Christ. We will hear with awe the proclamation of the hymn at vespers, taking the mystery presented therein as united directly to us:
"Come, let us greatly rejoice in the Lord as we tell of this present mystery. The middle wall of partition has been destroyed; the flaming sword turns back, the cherubim withdrew from the tree of life, and I partake of the delight of Paradise from which I was cast out through disobedience. For the express Image of the Father, the Imprint of His eternity, take the form of a servant, and without undergoing change He comes forth from a Mother who knew not wedlock. For what He was, He has remained, True God: and what He was not, He has taken upon Himself, becoming man through love for mankind. Unto Him let us cry aloud: God born of a Virgin, have mercy upon us! (Sticheron of Vespers of the Nativity).
We will never fully comprehend this ineffable mystery; some knowledge is properly God's alone. But by His grace through the ascetic effort, we will come to understand -- perhaps most of us, only to be the slightest degree -- how this mystery is our own mystery, how His life is our own life, and how the salvation of Christmas day is, indeed, our own salvation. And with this realization, joy: joy far greater than a mere entrance into the temple on Christmas Day could ever bring us. This is the joy of the age-old journey of man, our own journey, come to its fulfillment in the awe-inspiring mystery of God Himself become a man. With this joy in our hearts, we shall embrace the hymnographer's words as our own:
"Today the Virgin comes to the cave to give birth ineffably to the Pre-Eternal Logos/Word. Hearing this, be of good cheer, O inhabited earth, and with the Angels and the shepherds glorify Him Whose will it was to be made manifest a young Child, the Pre-Eternal God" (Kontakion Hymn of the Forefeast).
"Glory Be To GOD For All Things!" - Saint John Chrysostomos
With sincere agape in His Holy Diakonia,
The sinner and unworthy servant of God