Incarnation and Eucharist

I have observed an interesting phenomenon the past few years — the hymn, ‘Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence’, has been used as a Christmas carol. This is of note because the hymn itself is, in fact, a versified translation of a portion of the Divine Liturgy of St James, the traditional eucharistic liturgy of the Church of Jerusalem.

First the hymn as we know it:

1 Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
and with fear and trembling stand;
ponder nothing earthly minded,
for with blessing in His hand
Christ our God to earth descendeth,
our full homage to demand.

2 King of kings, yet born of Mary,
as of old on earth He stood,
Lord of lords, in human vesture –
in the body and the blood.
He will give to all the faithful
His own self for heavenly food.

3 Rank on rank the host of heaven
spreads its vanguard on the way,
as the Light of light descendeth
from the realms of endless day,
that the pow’rs of hell may vanish
as the darkness clears away.

4 At His feet the six-winged seraph,
cherubim, with sleepless eye,
veil their faces to the Presence,
as with ceaseless voice they cry,
“Alleluia, alleluia!
Alleluia, Lord most high!”

This is very clearly eucharistic — ‘Lord of lords, in human vesture / in the body and the blood. / He will give to all the faithful / His own self for heavenly food.’

Nonetheless, perhaps it is fitting for the season of the Nativity. Immediately after this hymn in the Divine Liturgy of St James, the priest is about to bring in the ‘holy gifts’ and pray over them this prayer:

O God, our God, who sent forth the heavenly bread, the food of the whole world, our Lord Jesus Christ, to be a Saviour, and Redeemer, and Benefactor, blessing and sanctifying us, do You Yourself bless this offering, and graciously receive it to Your altar above the skies

Thus, this divine liturgy makes explicit the connection between the physical bread on the table here present, and the coming of Jesus Christ as the heavenly bread in history. We normally associate the Eucharist with Christ’s death and resurrection (as well we should) and with the recapitulation of those glorious and life-giving events in symbols and rituals that are more than symbols and rituals.

Yet this hymn and the ensuing prayer break through our own historicised, symbolised view of the Eucharist. The kairos — the acceptable time — ruptures the chronos — the sequential time — and salvation history collapses into a single moment. Holy, eternal time is not restricted to linear movement — this is a point that, a bit East of Jerusalem, St Ephrem the Syrian will make (approximately contemporary with this liturgy).

Here in the Eucharist, we encounter not only ‘a perpetual memory of that his precious death … in remembrance of his death and passion’ (BCP) but, as ‘partakers of his most blessed Body and Blood’ (BCP again) we find ourselves meeting God as Jesus, and the Incarnation breaks through. The God-Man strides from Christmas to Easter to the communion table at your local church, all coalescing in the same moment.

Consider: God is truly transcendent. Utterly. He is holy because He is wholly other. There is an ontological divide between creature and creator. And then He rends the heavens and comes down (Is. 64:1) — not just once, at Bethlehem, but, somehow, every time and every place the Eucharist is celebrated. Somehow, mystically, He is incarnated and present unto us in the bread and wine.

In the Eucharist, space and time collapse, heaven and earth meet, and the cosmic power of Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection are made real to us in the elements of bread and wine.

Let all mortal flesh keep silence and in fear and trembling stand.

The Third Day of Christmas: A Sermon of Gregory of Nazianzus

For the Third Day of this Twelve-day Feast, I bring to you a sermon attributed to St Gregory of Nazianzus (aka ‘the Theologian’, c. 330-390). The more common Nativity sermon you will find in Orthodox books and floating around the internet is that of St John Chrysostom (347-407). I think this one is also well worth reading, and will mix things up a bit. Merry Christmas!

Christ is born, glorify Him. Christ from heaven, go out to meet Him. Christ on earth, be exalted. Sing to the Lord all the whole earth; and that I may join both in one word, let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad, for Him who is of heaven and then of earth. Christ in the flesh, rejoice with trembling and with joy; with trembling because of your sins, with joy because of your hope.

Again, the darkness is past; again Light is made; again Egypt is punished with darkness; again Israel is enlightened by a pillar. The people who sat in the darkness of ignorance, let them see the great Light full of knowledge. Old things have passed away, behold all things have become new. The letter gives way, the Spirit comes to the front. The shadows flee away, the truth comes in on them. Melchizedek is concluded. He who was without Mother becomes without Father (without mother of His former state, without father of His second). The laws of nature are upset; the world above must be filled. Christ commands it, let us not set ourselves against Him. O clap your hands together all you people, because unto us a Child is born, and a Son given unto us, whose government is upon His shoulder (for with the cross it is raised up), and His name is called The Angel of the Great Counsel of the Father. Let John cry, prepare the way of the Lord; I too will cry the power of this Day. He who is not carnal is Incarnate; the Son of God becomes the Son of Man, Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and today, and forever. Let the Jews be offended, let the Greeks deride; let heretics talk until their tongues ache. Then shall they believe, when they see Him ascending into heaven; and if not then, yet when they see Him coming out of heaven and sitting as Judge.

This is our present Festival; it is this which we are celebrating today, the Coming of God to Man, that we might go forth, or rather (for this is the more proper expression) that we might go back to God – that putting off of the old man, we might put on the new; and that as we died in Adam, so we might live in Christ, being born with Christ and crucified with Him and buried with Him and rising with Him. For I must undergo the beautiful conversion, and as the painful succeeded the more blissful, so must the more blissful come out of the painful. For where sin abounded grace did much more abound; and if a taste condemned us, how much more does the passion of Christ justify us? Therefore let us keep the Feast, not after the manner of a heathen festival, but after a godly sort; not after the way of the world, but in a fashion above the world; not as our own, but as belonging to Him who is ours, or rather as our master’s; not as of weakness, but as of healing; not as of creation, but of re-creation. (Taken from www.ancient-future.net)

The First Day of Christmas

Merry Christmas, all! Here is the image that has graced the centre of our Advent wreath the past two years, Sir Edward Burne-Jones’ Nativity (1875). May the beauty of the Pre-Raphaelites’ art bring you joy as you recall the birth of our Saviour all those years ago.

‘Nativity’, Edward Burne-Jones, 1875

Christmas with Pope Leo

Merry Christmas, one and all! Here are some bits from St. Leo the Great himself, translated by yours truly. Originally published in PRINT, the magazine of Little Trinity Anglican Church, Toronto.

Sermon 26, Christmas 450

Latin ed. Chavasse, CCSL 138, pp. 125f.

Indeed, on all days and at all times, dearly beloved, the birth of our Lord and Saviour from his Mother the Virgin comes before the souls of the faithful while meditating upon divine things, and the mind, raised up to confessing its creator, whether it is turned to the groan of supplication, or in the exultation of praise, or in the giving of sacrifice[—while all this transpires—]nothing more frequently and nothing more faithfully attaches to the spiritual insight than this: God, the Son of God, begotten from the co-eternal Father, was indeed also born from a human birth. But no day brings this nativity to be worshipped in heaven and on earth to us more than today, and with a new light also shining in the elements, it brings total clarity of the miraculous mystery in to our senses. For not only in memory but also in a certain way into view the conversation of the Angel Gabriel with amazed Mary returns, as does the conception from the Holy Spirit as wondrously promised as believed, the Author of the world is brought forth in a virginal womb, and he who established all natures, is made the son of her whom he created. Today the Word of God appeared garbed in flesh, and that which had never been visible to human eyes began even to be tangible to hands. Today the shepherds learned from angelic voices that the Saviour was born in the substance of our flesh and spirit, and today the form of evangelisation was prearranged amongst the superintendents of the Lord’s flocks, so that we also may say with the host of the heavenly army: Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men of goodwill (Luke 2:14).

 Tome of Leo (Ep. 28, June 13, 449)

Latin ed. Schwartz, ACO 2.2.1 pp. 26f.

 Or perhaps he [Eutyches] thought that the Lord Jesus Christ is not of our nature, since the angel sent to Blessed Mary said, ‘The Holy Spirit will come over you, and the power of the Most High will shadow you and, on account of that the holy one who will be born, will be called the Son of God,’ (Luke 1:35) with the result that, since he had been conceived of the virgin by the divine working, the flesh of the one conceived was not from the nature of the one conceiving? But that begetting—singularly marvellous and marvellously singular—is not to be so understood that through the newness of the creation the characteristics of the humanity are removed.

The Holy Spirit gave fertility to the Virgin, but the truth of his body was taken from her body, and while the Wisdom of God was building itself a home, ‘the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us,’ (John 1:14) that is to say, in that flesh which he took from a human being and which he quickened with the spirit of rational life.

Therefore, as the characteristics of each nature are preserved and come together into one person, humility is taken up by majesty, infirmity by strength, mortality by eternity, and an inviolable nature is united with a passible one for the restoration owed to our condition, so that, since it was fitting for our cure, ‘the one and the same mediator of God and human beings, the human being Christ Jesus’ (1 Timothy 2:5) both could die from the one aspect and could not die from the other. Thus, true God was born in the whole and perfect nature of a true human being, entire in his own characteristics, entire in ours.

 Sermon 70:3, April 2, 443

Latin ed. Chavasse, CCSL 138, pp. 428f.

 For it seemed illogical and irrational to accept with the mind that the inviolate Virgin begat the Creator of all natures in the substance of a true human being, that the Son of God, equal to the Father, who filled everything and contained all things, permitted himself to be seized by the hands of raging men, to be condemned by a trial of hostile men, and, after dishonours from shameful men, to be affixed to a cross. But in all these things at the same time are the lowliness of humanity and the loftiness of Divinity, nor does the plan of mercy hide away the majesty of the merciful one, since it came from the ineffable power that while true man is in inviolable God, and true God is in passible flesh, glory would be bestowed upon human through injury, incorruption through humiliation, life through death. For unless the Word were made flesh (cf. John 1:14), and so sturdy a unity existed between the two natures, that the brief time of death itself could not break the assumed [nature] from the assuming one, mortality would never have been strong enough to return to eternity. But unique aid was present to us in Christ, so that the condition of death would not remain in the passible nature, which the impassible nature had received, and through that which could not die, that which was dead could be raised up.

 Leonine Sacramentary (Attributed to but not by Leo)

Latin ed. Feltoe, p. 159

 O God, Who both marvellously established the dignity of human substance and more marvellously reformed it, make it, we beseech Thee through Jesus Christ Thy Son, that we become sharers in the Divinity of Him Who judged it worthy to become a participant in our humanity. Through Jesus Christ our Lord Who liveth and reigneth with Thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.

Saint of the Week: St. Joseph the Carpenter

Given that it is Christmastide, I felt that looking at a member of the Holy Family was only appropriate.

According to tradition, Joseph was a widower with children from his first marriage at the time of his betrothal to Mary.  This handy detail allows Jesus to have brothers and sisters and for his mother to remain a perpetual virgin.*  Whether we believe this tradition or not, it is most likely that St. Joseph was older than the BVM.  That’s how things were — girls got married as soon as possible and were pretty much pregnant as earlier as biologically able.  Unfortunately.

Joseph lived in Nazareth at the time of his betrothal to the BVM, and nearby was another village (the name of which escapes me) that had been trashed in a riot.  This provided steady work for people in the carpentry business.  Stuff needed to get built.  It is entirely likely that he was doing work there; at this stage in history, most people who laboured with their hands were essentially day-labourers.  Show up at the site or the market and get hired, then paid at the end of the day (like that parable Jesus tells about the guys who work in the vineyards).  I imagine St. Joseph to have been one of these.

So here’s Joseph, our hard-working contractor, putting in many hours a day, preparing his household for the arrival of his wife.

Who, it turns out, is already pregnant.  Joseph, being a righteous man, decided to put her away quietly.  It is the ‘quietly’ part that is due to his righteousness, not the putting away.  By doing things quietly, he could reduce shame (a big deal in societies more ‘Eastern’ than ours) and possibly even save her life.

St. Joseph’s reaction to the pregnancy of the BVM was probably like this hymn from Christmas Eve sung by the Orthodox:

Joseph said to the virgin:
What has happened to you, O Mary?
I am troubled; what can I say to you?
Doubt clouds my mind; depart from me!
What has happened to you, O Mary?
Instead of honour, you bring me shame.
Instead of joy, you fill me with grief.
Men who praised me will blame me.
I cannot bear condemnation from every side.
I received you, a pure virgin in the sight of the Lord.
What is this that I now see?

Joseph received his response from an angel in a dream who told him that the child from from the Most High.

What follows is what makes St. Joseph of Nazareth really stand out for me.

He decided to face the shame and not divorce Mary and raise this child on his own.

Now, much is made of the BVM given that she is one of the few (if not the only) biblical persons who receives a message from on high and says, “Let it be unto me according to your will.”  However, to believe that Jesus is something special takes a lot less faith when you are the person who conceives virginally.  But when you are the dude betrothed to the woman, to accept in faith the words of the angels requires larger faith.

I’m not saying Joseph had larger faith than the Theotokos.  I’m just saying it takes a lot more trust to accept that the child is from God if you aren’t the person carrying the child in your womb.  That’s all.

St. Joseph’s faith was not blind faith; he had a dream to go on.  Dreams are kind of a big deal in the ancient world, and I think there’s more to them than Freud has led us to believe.  But that’s a discussion for another time.  Nevertheless, I think this saint is an example of how great our faith can be.  We need to trust God and act accordingly.  This is the great example of Joseph of Nazareth.

The next and last we hear of Joseph in the biblical record is when Jesus is “lost” at the Temple.  Tradition tells us that he died during our Saviour’s youth.  I see no reason to question, given that he is never again mentioned in the Gospels.

Let us pray to the Lord of Hosts for faith like that of Joseph the Carpenter of Nazareth.  May we know Him well enough to trust Him so deeply.

*The needlessness of this doctrine and the fact that it makes Joseph into some sort of strange creature the like of which I know not are an obstacle for me swallowing the bitter pill of Orthodoxy, one reason why I have yet to sail up the Aegean to Byzantium.

Merry Christmas!

Given that he’s this week’s saint, here are some thoughts from Pope St. Leo the Great, Sermon 21, On the Nativity of the Lord I (the trans. will be that of Canon W. Bright, S. Leo the Great on the Incarnation):

Accordingly, God, the Word of God, the Son of God, Who ‘in the beginning was with God, by Whom all things were made, and without Whom was nothing made,’ in order to deliver man from eternal death, became Man; in such wise humbling Himself to assume our lowliness without lessening His own Majesty, that, remaining what He was, and putting on what He was not, He united the true ‘form of a servant’ to that form in which He was equal to God the Father, and combined both natures in a league so close, that the lower was not consumed by receiving glory, nor the higher lessened by assuming lowliness.  Accordingly, while the distinctness of both substances is preserved, and both meet in one Person, lowliness is assumed by majesty, weakness by strength, mortality by eternity; and in order to discharge the debt of our condition, the inviolable nature is united to the passible, and very God and very Man are combined in our one Lord:  so that, as the appropriate remedy for our ills, one and the same ‘Mediator between God and men’ might from one element be able to die, and from the other to rise again. –Sermon 21, On the Nativity of the Lord I (PL)

Gaudete!

First Page of 'Gaudete' in Swedish Manuscript

This past Sunday is called ‘Gaudete’ Sunday — Rejoice! Sunday, in other words.  This, I believe, comes from the Epistle reading that also doubled as Introit at the Tridentine Mass we attended on Sunday.  It is from Philippians 4:4-7 and begins:

gaudete in Domino semper iterum dico gaudete

Or, in English:

Rejoice in the Lord always: again I say, rejoice!

Despite my current immersion in Pope St. Leo (or is it because of it?), I will not quote Tr. 11 for the Advent Ember Days (of which today is one).  For that, you can go here or here (and please do!).  For his Christmas sermon beginning, “Gaudeamus,” go here.  Those who know Latin know where they can go already, I assume.

Instead, I would like to turn everyone’s attention to what the Latin word gaudete always makes me think of:

Refrain:
Gaudete! gaudete!
Christus est natus ex Maria virgine,
gaudete!

1. Tempus adest gratiae, hoc quod optabamus;
carmina laetitiae devote reddamus. Refrain

2. Deus homo factus est, natura mirante;
mundus renovatus est a Christo regnante. Refrain

3. Ezechielis porta clausa per transistur;
unde lux est orta, salus invenitur. Refrain

4. Ergo nostra contio psallat iam in lustro;
Benedicat Domino; salus Regi nostro. Refrain

Sing with me!  This song inevitably makes me happy.  I have been known to dance around the house singing the chorus.  If you have no idea what the tune is, here’s a youtube video (poor-quality image, but the best recording I know):

And if you’re feeling all 39-Articles about a language not understood of the people, here’s what they’re singing:

Rejoice! Rejoice!
Christ is born of the Virgin Mary,
rejoice!

1. The time of grace is here, this which we shall choose;
Let us return songs of happiness faithfully.

2. God is made mad with a wondrous nature;
The world is renewed by Christ who reigns.

3. The closed gate of Ezekiel has been passed through;
whence light arose, salvation is found.

4. Therefore let our speech now sing in purification;
May it bless the Lord; salvation is from our King.

Uneasy with the Mother of Our Lord

St. Mary (a purposefully papist picture)

For those interested in medieval drama, check out my thoughts on the Chester Cycle.

My mother organises a youth musical and drama group associated with her church.  One year, she decided to try and shake things up a little, to move away from Dennis and Nan Allan and songs by Steven Curtis Chapman and Michael W Smith, and to try out something medieval.  So she thought they might enjoy “The Second Shepherds’ Pageant” of Wakefield as found in the Everyman edition Everyman and Medieval Miracle Plays.  At the time, this group included a number of Baptists — a God-fearing people who are also suspicious of all scent of Popery.

As I understand it, they were not chiefly uneasy with the silly plot-line about Mak casting spells on the shepherds and stealing a sheep and then pretending it was his child, but, rather, with the Blessed Virgin.  I am dumbfounded by this fact, for here are the references to the Mother of Our Lord:

“They prophesied by clergy — that in a virgin / should he light and lie, to sloken our sin” (ll. 676-677)

“Hail, maker, as I mean, [born] of a maiden so mild!” (l. 711)

“Farewell, lady, so fair to behold, / with thy child on thy knee.” (ll. 746-747)

The Virgin herself has this one line to the Shepherds:

The Father of heaven, God omnipotent, / That set all on seven, his Son has he sent. / My name could he neven, and light ere he went. / I conceived him full even through might, as he meant; / And now is he born. / He keep you from woe! — / I shall pray him so. / Tell forth as ye go, / And min on this morn.

There is nothing in this play that is not simply what the Bible teaches. Jesus was born of a virgin, the power of God conceived Him in her.  I suppose the Bible says nothing of whether she be fair or no, yet that is but a small matter.

Protestants need to wake up and realise that the unconscious anti-Marian stance is unbiblical and unwarranted.  The Mother of Our Lord belongs in any discussion of the Incarnation, and she ought to have a central role in any retelling — artistic, dramatic, narrative — of the Nativity.  Furthermore, she belongs in a good number of the Gospel stories, from the Wedding at Cana to the Crucifixion, and probably the Empty Tomb as well.  She is a figure in the life of Christ, and one upon whom the favour of the Lord rests.

If we push St. Mary to the fringes of our understanding of the life of God while He was incarnate, then we fail at coming near a complete understanding of that Incarnate Life.  Given that the Incarnation is God’s most powerful revelation of Himself unto us, to fail at understanding Jesus’ life in any way, we are failing to understand God, Who He Is, and What He Does.