Monthly Archives: December 2011

The Icon of the Nativity

[This is an article I wrote for Queen of All Hearts magazine way back in 1992.]

“Today the Virgin gives birth to the One who surpasses all created essences, and the earth offers a cave to the Inaccessible One.  Angels sing his glory together with the shepherds; the wise men journey with the star.  For to us in born an infant Child: God eternal.”  In this hymn from the Byzantine Liturgy of the Nativity of Christ, the basic theological truths concerning the Incarnation of the Son of God are contained: the Virgin Birth, the humanity (“infant child”) and divinity (“God eternal”) of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Several historical elements described in the Gospels are also there: the angels, the shepherds, the magi.  All of this is communicated in the icon of the Nativity—not with words, as in the hymn, but in images which speak even more profoundly than words.

The icon is a proclamation of the Gospel in color and form.  The grace of the various mysteries of our salvation is communicated to us as we contemplate the visual representation of the word of God revealed through Scripture and Tradition.  So much is an icon meant to announce the message of the Gospel, that an icon is traditionally said to be written, not painted, by the iconographer. In the icon of the Nativity there are treasures for the study of theology and the practice of prayer, if we will seek to understand its symbols and to surrender to the attractive power of its silent proclamation.

As we have already implied, the presentation of the figures and events depicted in icons is primarily theological and symbolic, not only historical.  Still less is it sentimental, as Christmas art often tends to be.  The transcendent always permeates the historical, lifting it into the sphere of divine realities.  Thus an icon can speak a deeper truth, which proceeds from faith, than can a journalistic report of the same event.  Since God has taken flesh, entering into our time and space, all things carry the potential for a divine transfiguration.  Thus the birth of a child in a humble cave is shown to be an event which is felt by the ends of the universe, and which forever transforms human life and history.

The central image of the icon is the divine Incarnation, the kenosis or “self-emptying” of God (see Phil. 2:7).  Therefore we have Jesus lying in a manger in swaddling clothes.  His Mother is near Him, for God the Son was “born of a woman” (Gal. 4:4).  In the cave are an ox and ass, fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy: “An ox knows its owner, and an ass it’s master’s manger” (Is. 1:3).  The cave is dark, a symbol of this world, whose people have dwelled in darkness until Christ, the great Light, has shone upon them (see Mt. 4:16).  From Heaven a light comes down into the cave to direct our attention to Him who is the Light of the world.  The light itself symbolizes the descent of God into our world.

When you see something in an icon that strikes you as unusual, you can be sure that there is more than meets the eye, that a mystery is about to be revealed.  One might expect that Mary would be holding her newborn Son, or at least looking at Him!  But her face is turned away from Him.  What we have here is a theological statement based on an Old Testament belief: man cannot see God and live, so overwhelming is his glory (see Ex. 33:20; Is. 6:5).  Now we know, of course, that Mary did look at Jesus, that she held Him, nursed Him, etc., as any good mother would do for her child.  But the icon uses images and symbols to speak more profound truths.  The icon is here saying: Jesus is God.

This central image is surrounded by the figures from the Gospels: the magi and the shepherds who come to worship the newborn King and Savior, and the angels who both announce the good news to the shepherds and sing the glory of God.  It is not unusual for an icon to depict several events at once, in order to present more fully the mystery.  Sometimes we can even find the same person more than once in a particular icon.

In the lower right corner of the Nativity icon, Jesus is depicted again, this time being bathed by Hebrew midwives.  This image is meant to communicate the truth that Jesus is fully man as well as fully God.  The washing of the infant Jesus immediately after birth shows that He truly came into the world through the womb of the Virgin Mary. Although Mary’s virginity was miraculously preserved, this icon tells us that the Lord embraced fully our human condition.  He entered the world in a most humble fashion, not merely appearing human but being truly so.

No nativity scene is complete without St Joseph, yet in the icon he, like Mary, is not quite where one would expect him to be—again, for the sake of revealing a divine mystery.  We find him in the lower left corner of the icon, looking a bit sad or perplexed, and there is a bent old man talking to him.  That old man is the devil, reminding St Joseph that there is his wife and her baby, that he had no relations with her, and there’s only one way that babies come into the world!  We know from the Gospel of Matthew that St Joseph did struggle with the fact that his betrothed became pregnant without him.  He was later enlightened by an angel, but what the icon is symbolically revealing is: Jesus was conceived and born of a Virgin.

If St Joseph is wondering how it all came to pass, then we know that he is not the natural father of the Child.  God alone is the Father of the Son of Mary.  On another level, St Joseph here represents all of us.  As Leonid Ouspensky writes, “In the person of Joseph the icon discloses not only his personal drama, but the drama of all mankind—the difficulty of accepting that which is ‘beyond words or reason’—the Incarnation of God” (from The Meaning of Icons).

So, as we contemplate the icon of the Nativity, we may bring to God our own struggles and wonderings, as well as our reverence, faith, and love.  With the shepherds we hasten to see what the angels have announced; with the magi we bow in adoration, offering the gift of our hearts.  With all of creation we stand in awe before the mystery of the divinity and humanity of Christ, and of the Virgin Birth.

Another element, not directly communicated by the icon but brought to light by the prayer and practice of the Byzantine Churches, is the relation of the Incarnation to the Eucharist.  Christ has come into the world not only as its Light, but also as the Bread from Heaven.  The Nativity icon is traditionally placed in the sanctuary over the table at which the bread and wine are ritually prepared for the celebration of the Divine Liturgy.  Jesus “takes flesh” anew, as it were, by transforming the bread and wine into his own Body and Blood, which He received from the Virgin Mary.

The helpless little Child in the manger reminds us, in this Eucharistic context, of the Lamb of God, who went forth to sacrifice meekly and without opening his mouth (see Is. 53:7).  The main host is called the “Lamb,” and prophecies of Isaiah are prayed as it is cut and prepared.  As the golden “asteriskos” is placed over the bread on the diskos (paten), the priest says: “And the star came and stood over the place where the Child was.” Thus the kenosis of God manifested in his Incarnation is linked with that of his sacrificial death on the Cross.

As you meditate this Christmas season on the mystery of God becoming man, allow the icon to guide your mind and heart to a prayerful contemplation of Emmanuel and the Virgin Mother.  Never think that you can exhaust the riches of this mystery.  This little Child “is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation… all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:15-17).  Glory to God in the highest!

The Double Gift

[Here is another excerpt from my book, A Place Prepared by God, concerning Mary and the nativity of Our Lord.]

Mary is at the heart of the mystery of our salvation because she is the one who gave us our Savior as man.  This is obvious and incontestable: if the mission of the Son of God was to offer Himself as a sacrifice for our sins, He had to be a man to make this offering.  Theoretically, God could have saved us in some other way.  But since Christianity isn’t a theoretical religion, we must deal with what God actually did decide to do, the way He in fact chose to save us.  In this concrete, actual design and act of God, the Mother is indispensable.

We usually think of Mary’s birth-giving as her gift to the world of its Savior, and this of course is true.  That is what we are accustomed to celebrate at Christmas. But there is another aspect that we perhaps do not reflect upon sufficiently: she is also giving the Father’s Son back to Him as man.  Adrienne von Speyr explains:

“[Mary’s] Son is the one who comes from the Father and returns to him.  She was appointed to her motherhood only in order to be able to give the Father this Son as incarnate.  But she gives him to God thus: she leaves him his will, which is to give himself completely to the world.  Thus she gives him, at Christmas, both to the world and to the Father.  She gives him to the world created by God that it may be redeemed, and she gives him to the Father that he may redeem the world.  She fulfills a double mission in a single act: she gives the one Son to God and to the world—to the world that cries out for redemption and to God who longs for its return.  She stands at the focal point of the double longing, God’s and the world’s, for redemption.”

Far from being a disposable instrument in the divine plan, Mary is shown here not only to have a personal and actively cooperating role in the very life of “the true light” who “was coming into the world” (Jn. 1:9), but also to be the human source of the double gift of the Incarnate Savior to God and to the world.  She is indeed the “place” prepared by God for this very thing, the “stage,” as it were, for this divine drama.  God glorifies her for giving Him his Son incarnate, and we glorify her for giving us the Son of God in a way that makes his saving sacrifice possible.

What must it have been like, that profound moment of Mary’s giving birth to the Son of God in the flesh?  We can’t even begin to know the fullness of it, but we can still enrich our meditations by trying to go deeper.  She must have gone into an ecstasy of love and divine communion, not knowing whether she was in Heaven or still on Earth.  She was totally and mystically enraptured in the glory, power, joy, light, and immaculate holiness of God. Something utterly unprecedented was happening: God was entering the world as a human being, and He was coming forth from Mary’s own body!  Her experience is beyond all words and concepts, beyond anything hitherto known in mystical communion and love, the utter surrender to the torrential divine love that bore fruit in the God-man Jesus by the consent and personal oblation of Mary and the power of the Holy Spirit.  The fullness of time had come (see Gal. 4:4), the fulfillment of the ancient prophecies, the realization of the eternal dream of God, who loved the world so much that He sent his only Son as man to redeem us.  Henceforth this Jewish maiden is no longer merely Mary of Nazareth, but the holy and pure God-bearer, whom all ages would call blessed.

“Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Lk 2:19).  Her insertion into such transcendent and incomprehensible mysteries is more than anyone, even the holiest of saints, can easily or quickly grasp.  What Mary experienced in her virginal conceiving and birth-giving by the power of the Most High provided endless material for contemplation in love, gratitude, and wonder.  St. Luke more than once characterizes her this way, and so we get at least of hint of the depths of the contemplative Heart of Mary.

The evangelist tells us that Mary pondered these mysteries in her heart right after the shepherds made known to her and to St. Joseph what happened to them while they were keeping their midnight watch.  Mary and Joseph marveled at what was told them.  Then came the time for more quiet contemplation, after the shepherds had departed, praising and glorifying God.  That is when Mary perhaps thought about angels.  They appeared to shepherds, having come from Heaven to announce the birth of her child!  An angel had appeared to Mary as well, announcing the conception and prophesying the glories of the Divine King to be born.  She was caught up in the life of Heaven, so that she could see, as it were, angels ascending and descending upon the Son of Man, glorifying God because of Him, and mixing in the affairs of men.

There was no turning back now; she would never lead a “normal” life, even though outwardly the raising of her Child would be relatively uneventful.  Once she said “yes” to God, her mission was given to her, and it would eventually take her to the Cross and to the Upper Room, and ultimately to a throne next to her Son’s, where she would be forever glorified as the Queen Mother of the King of Glory in the heavenly Paradise.  But for now, she looked into the tiny eyes of God the Newborn, and as she held Him close she smiled, with boundless love and awe, as He instinctively sought her breast.  Has any woman ever had more profound mysteries to ponder in her heart?

Mary the God-Bearer

[As Christmas draws near, I will present a couple posts on Mary as the “Birth-giver of God,” excerpted from my book, A Place Prepared by God, this first one being mainly an explanation of her dogmatic title, Theotokos.]

We now come to the moment the whole world had been waiting for since the fall of Adam and Eve, however obscurely: the manifestation of the Savior, the Son of God, as man, born of the Virgin Mary.  We all know the “Christmas story”—though perhaps with insufficient depth—so I needn’t reiterate the details of it here.  But there are certain elements of this mystery that can yield greater understanding, especially regarding the role of the Mother of God.

“Mother of God.”  The meaning of these words is where we shall begin.  That expression is a rather loose translation of the Greek Theotokos, which literally means, “she who gave birth to God.”  Some people object to the use of this designation for Mary, evidently due to a misunderstanding of (or perhaps an unwillingness to understand) the mystery.  But one can hardly be a Christian and reject this name (Theotokos), for as St. John of Damascus said in the eighth century: “This name contains the whole mystery of the Incarnation.”

This title for Our Lady was officially declared at the Ecumenical (i.e., representing the whole Christian Church) Council of Ephesus in 431, but this declaration was merely the confirmation of a tradition already long held.  This Council, however, was not primarily concerned with how properly to address Our Lady.  It was convened to resolve a Christological controversy: was Jesus Christ two persons or one?  Did the Divine Person of the Word, the Son of God, somehow become united to a human person known as Jesus in the womb of the Virgin?  Or did the Divine Person simply assume humanity to himself in and through Mary, thereby being one Divine Person with two natures, divine and human?  The latter was declared the true Christian revelation, and hence became the reason why we call Mary the Mother of God.

In The World’s First Love, Archbishop Sheen explains it as follows: “Any objection to calling [Mary] the ‘Mother of God’ is fundamentally an objection to the Deity of Christ… [The Incarnation] implies a twofold generation of the Divine Word: one eternal in the bosom of the Father, the other temporal in the womb of Mary.  Mary therefore did not bear a ‘mere man’ but the ‘true God.’  No new person came into the world when Mary opened the portals of the flesh, but the Eternal Son of God was made man.  All that came into being was a new nature, or a human nature to a Person Who existed from all eternity.  It was the Word, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, Who became flesh and dwelt amongst us.  Theanthropos, or God-Man, and Theotokos, or Mother of God, go together and fall together.”

That is how “Mother of God” is to be understood: Mary is the mother of a Divine Person who had become man in her womb—the place prepared by God for the ineffable mystery of the Incarnation.  No one says that “Mother of God” means Mother of the Holy Trinity or Mother of the Father or Mother of the Holy Spirit.  She is—quite obviously from the testimony of Scripture as well as the Christian Tradition—Mother of God the Son Incarnate, and anyone who wishes to understand can very easily do so, for there are clear and solid grounds for it.  This ought to give us reason not only to be satisfied with theological orthodoxy, but also to rejoice!  Christianity is supposed to be a religion of joy, not of endless wrangling and animosities.  When the Church resolves a dispute, let us hold it resolved and freely enter, through faith and prayerful contemplation, into the depths of the mystery that has been clarified for us.  Mary is the Mother of God!  Be happy for her and for yourself as well, for your heavenly Mother is glorified in what God has done for you in and through her.

O Mother of God, Virgin who have borne the Savior, you have overthrown the ancient curse of Eve.  For you have become the Mother of Him in whom the Father was well pleased, and have carried at your bosom God the incarnate Word… Rejoice, Living City of God the King, in which Christ has dwelled, bringing to pass our salvation.  With Gabriel we sing your praises; with the shepherds we glorify you, crying: O Mother of God, intercede for our salvation with Him who took flesh from you! (from Christmas Matins in the Byzantine Divine Office).

Mystery of Faith

[The following is an excerpt from Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Mysterium Fidei, this section being on the reality of the true presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist, with reference to some of the Fathers of the Church.]

…To avoid misunderstanding this sacramental presence which surpasses the laws of nature and constitutes the greatest miracle of its kind we must listen with docility to the voice of the teaching and praying Church. This voice, which constantly echoes the voice of Christ, assures us that the way Christ is made present in this Sacrament is none other than by the change of the whole substance of the bread into His Body, and of the whole substance of the wine into His Blood, and that this unique and truly wonderful change the Catholic Church rightly calls transubstantiation. As a result of transubstantiation, the species of bread and wine undoubtedly take on a new meaning and a new finality, for they no longer remain ordinary bread and ordinary wine, but become the sign of something sacred, the sign of a spiritual food. However, the reason they take on this new significance and this new finality is simply because they contain a new “reality” which we may justly term ontological. Not that there lies under those species what was already there before, but something quite different; and that not only because of the faith of the Church, but in objective reality, since after the change of the substance or nature of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, nothing remains of the bread and wine but the appearances under which Christ, whole and entire, in His physical “reality” is bodily present, although not in the same way that bodies are present in a given place.

For this reason the Fathers took special care to warn the faithful that in reflecting on this most august Sacrament, they should not trust to their senses, which reach only the properties of bread and wine, but rather to the words of Christ which have power to transform, change and transmute the bread and wine into His Body and Blood. For, as those same Fathers often said, the power that accomplishes this is that same power by which God Almighty, at the beginning of time, created the world out of nothing.

“We have been instructed in these matters and filled with an unshakable faith,” says St. Cyril of Alexandria, at the end of a sermon on the mysteries of the faith, “that that which seems to be bread, is not bread, though it tastes like it, but the Body of Christ, and that which seems to be wine, is not wine, though it too tastes as such, but the Blood of Christ . . . draw inner strength by receiving this bread as spiritual food and your soul will rejoice.”

St. John Chrysostom emphasizes this point, saying: “It is not the power of man which makes what is put before us the Body and Blood of Christ, but the power of Christ Himself who was crucified for us. The priest standing there in the place of Christ says these words but their power and grace are from God. ‘This is My Body,’ he says, and these words transform what lies before him.”

Cyril, Bishop of Alexandria, is in full agreement with the Bishop of Constantinople when he writes in his commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew: “Christ said indicating (the bread and wine): ‘This is My Body,’ and “This is My Blood,” in order that you might not judge what you see to be a mere figure. The offerings, by the hidden power of God Almighty, are changed into Christ’s Body and Blood, and by receiving these we come to share in the life-giving and sanctifying efficacy of Christ.”

Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, dealing with the Eucharistic change, says: “Let us be assured that this is not what nature formed, but what the blessing consecrated, and that greater efficacy resides in the blessing than in nature, for by the blessing nature is changed.” To confirm the truth of this mystery, he recounts many of the miracles described in the Scriptures, including Christ’s birth of the Virgin Mary, and then turning to the work of creation, concludes thus: “Surely the word of Christ, which could make out of nothing that which did not exist, can change things already in existence into what they were not. For it is no less extraordinary to give things new natures than to change their natures.

However, there is no need to assemble many testimonies. Rather let us recall that firmness of faith with which the Church with one accord opposed Berengarius, who, yielding to the difficulties of human reasoning, was the first who denied the Eucharistic change. More than once she threatened to condemn him unless he retracted. Thus it was that our predecessor, St. Gregory VII, ordered him to pronounce the following oath:

“I believe in my heart and openly profess that the bread and wine which are placed upon the altar are, by the mystery of the sacred prayer and the words of the Redeemer, substantially changed into the true and life-giving flesh and blood of Jesus Christ Our Lord, and that after the Consecration, there is present the true Body of Christ which was born of the Virgin and, offered up for the salvation of the world, hung on the Cross and now sits at the right hand of the Father, and that there is present the true Blood of Christ which flowed from His side. They are present not only by means of a sign and of the efficacy of the Sacrament, but also in the very reality and truth of their nature and substance.”

These words fully accord with the doctrine of the mystery of the Eucharistic change as set forth by the ecumenical councils. The constant teaching of these councils — of the Lateran, of Constance, Florence and Trent — whether stating the teaching of the Church or condemning errors, affords us an admirable example of the unchangingness of the Catholic Faith.

After the Council of Trent, our predecessor, Pius VI, on the occasion of the errors of the Synod of Pistoia, warned parish priests when carrying out their office of teaching, not to neglect to speak of transubstantiation, one of the articles of faith. Similarly our predecessor of happy memory, Pius XII, recalled the bounds which those who undertake to discuss the mystery of transubstantiation might not cross. We ourself also, in fulfillment of our apostolic office, have openly borne solemn witness to the faith of the Church at the National Eucharistic Congress held recently at Pisa.

Moreover the Catholic Church has held on to this faith in the presence in the Eucharist of the Body and Blood of Christ, not only in her teaching but also in her practice, since she has at all times given to this great Sacrament the worship which is known as Latria and which may be given to God alone. As St. Augustine says: “It was in His flesh that Christ walked among us and it is His flesh that He has given us to eat for our salvation. No one, however, eats of this without having first adored it . . . and not only do we not sin in thus adoring it, but we would sin if we did not do so”…