A Holy Man’s Christmas Card

nativity-icon-5Paraskevi, who out of sheer humility does not wish to reveal her full name, was among the first spiritual children of Elder Sophrony, during the time of her studies in England. She sent us a copy of two handwritten scripts by the blessed Elder.

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A good wish card which the blessed Elder sent during Christmas 1967, when Paraskevi was going through some difficult times because of the illness of a close relative.

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 The outside of the card

The Christmas wish card (handwritten):

Archimandrite Sophrony

The Old Rectroy,Tolleshent Knight

by Maldon, Essex

Christmass 1967,

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Dear beloved in Christ, Sister Paraskevi.

May the Lord’s grace and peace be abundant in you. Let me first wish you Merry Christmas and a blessed New Year!

Paraskevi, has it ever happened to do something according to my blessing and it turned out harmful? Or has it happened that you did something according to your mind and not according to my humble advice that it was successful and in accordance with God’s providence? Therefore, now you must listen to me, the old fool, and do as I give you the blessing to do. The only beneficial way for you and your relatives is to finish your studies and work at the same time, as my monks do from morning till the evening. Get rid of any worry for X and your family.

The unworthy Arch. Sophrony.

You have the love of all who are at out monastery.

***

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Handwritten inscription by the Elder on the 15th August 1975, when he sent her his book, St Silouan the Athonite

On the book St Silouan the Athonite (handwritten):

To my beloved in Christ sister Paraskevi with warm wishes and love

Arch. Sophrony

15th August 1975

Printed in Caps:

Hailing from various countries

And retreating to the Mountain,

Among the holy fathers of Mount Athos,

Escaping the unnatural

And safeguarding the natural

Rising to that which is beyond nature

Again, by hand of Elder Sophrony:

From the Holy Spirit gashes out love, and without it no one is able to know God ‘as He must be known’.

E.S. p. 443

(Note: E.S. refer to Elder Silouan, not yet recognized as a Saint at the time)

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We Are All One

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In a few hours, I’m flying to Thessaloniki, from where I’ll get the bus to Ouranopolis, the port to Mount Athos. I’ll be away until January 4th, so have a blessed Feast of the Nativity and a happy New Year.

This has been a tough year, in ways that I cannot even begin to express, and I’m only now starting to feel the effects. Tiredness, hopelessness and fear, sadness to the point of despair – all of these have haunted me relentlessly during the last twelve months. To say that 2016 has not been my favourite year would be too kind, even for my standards. To say that 2016 has been even remotely a good year would be beyond insincerity and would approach hypocrisy.

We have achieved many things for the Monastery, and for that I must thank you. I have tried to let you know, to the best of my ability, how much I appreciate your support. All my hard work, all my best intentions, all my sacrifice would amount to nothing without you and your hard work, your best intentions, your sacrifice. Together, we have done incredible things this year, and I trust that, by the grace of God, we shall do even more in 2017. For all of this, I thank you. You are in my prayer always, where ever life takes me.

That being said, the Monastery exists in this world and cannot ignore the world. Monasteries are doors between this fallen world and the Kingdom, calling our fallen nature to its true prototype, encouraging us on the way, guiding us step by step, as we fight to let go of our fallenness and we learn to see ourselves through the eyes of God. This is why monasteries exist, this is their purpose.

And this is where I’ve fallen mostly in 2016. Although I’ve kept far from the political fights that consumed the world, I have allowed their noise to disturb me, I have allowed them to distract me from the things that truly matter. I have kept silence over the outpouring of hatred that drowned the world over the Council, Brexit or the US elections, but I have not succeeded to hold on to the silence in my heart.

As a monastic, I have no responsibility to get involved in these fights. Monastics are dead to the world, and to get involved is a failure towards one’s calling. When people accused the Abbas of the Desert for refusing to get involved and judge various people or causes, they sent their accusers to the cemetery and told them to ask the dead buried there to judge them. As a monastic, my responsibility is to stand among you, silent and dressed in my black vestment, as a reminder that our true Calling, our true Identity and our true Home are somewhere else.

As the world rages consumed with passion for one cause or the other, a monk’s calling is to silently remind those who have the eyes to see that we are all mortal and that the real fight, the real cause, the real passion should be for something entirely different: the salvation of our souls. All else is dust.

It is my responsibility, therefore, to tell you all that no one won in 2016. There are no winners. We have all lost. We have all allowed hatred and doubt and fear to enter our hearts. We have all judged, we have all looked at Christ’s image, our brother, and saw in him the enemy. We have all built walls: some have built walls against those who are different from them, others have built walls against those who build walls. There is no difference between walls: regardless of what motivates them, they are all expressions of a void in our hearts. That empty void where Love should have been.

I’m going to Mount Athos for two weeks with this in mind. I’m not looking for rest, physical or emotional. I’m going to regain my perspective of the world and myself. I need to taste silence to be reminded of the things that matter. I need to touch holiness so I may redirect my steps toward it. I need to see sparkles of the Kingdom, so I may turn my back to this empty noise and start walking towards Life again.

I leave behind 2016 with a void in my heart. I pray, I pray with all my strength that Love Incarnate will return once more and fill it. I pray for me, I pray for you – the same prayer, for we are all One. We are ALL One.

Source: Mull Monastery blog

* Kindly excuse any technical issues; we are migrating the blog back to WordPress

See also The Womb and The Tomb in The Nativity Icon

Nativity Paintings from Around the World

Carpe Diem and Christmas

The Ass and the Ox in the Nativity Icon 

Christ’s Nativity: Living a Kairos Life in a Chronos World

Arabic Christmas Carol

Sing Ye Carols!

 

Censers of Flesh and Bones

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I behold a strange, most glorious mystery: heaven- the cave, the cherubic throne-the Virgin, the manger-the place where Christ lay. The uncontained God whom we magnify in song”.

In a manger of love our Jesus was born, and in a cave he chose to visit our humanity.

By his descending, the Lord experienced all our weaknesses except for the sin. He did not chose the scepters or the sofas of the rich in order to preach the salvation, but the womb of a Virgin. He put us on so that we could put Him on. He dwelt in a cave so we may become citizens of Heavens. Jesus came looking for the humanity that was wounded with Adam and strayed with Eve. His incarnation reminds us of dispensation. It is the stamp of the divine love that looks for censed souls, like Mary’s, that spread  Creator’s scent worldwide. This is the case of Virgin Mary, the censor that spread the light of God for the mankind.

Let us put ourselves, just once, and see how this girl fulfilled the will of God, and how She became an example for us in all our troubles, even 2000 years after the coming of our Lord.

Mary was not one of those earthly “mighties”. But She was a mighty in Her prayer. She was not of a high class, but a girl of a humble love Who obeyed God’s order. She did not complain thinking about Her reputation, and She was not ashamed of getting pregnant of the Holy Spirit. Mary, the Galilaean, did not complain of the distress that happened in those days, which  looks like the distress that takes place nowadays. On the Contrary, She was armored with God. She was not ashamed of Her Son’s Cross, but She accompanied Him to the Golgotha, and She cried, just like us, over the tyranny of the falsehood.

Mary is one of many, who see the nails of falsehood being beaten in truth’s body just like those nails which were beaten in Jesus’s hands. But Mary did not deny Her God the way how some of us do today seeing how darkness overwhelming the light. She did not ask: where is God? Cannot He watch the sorrow of my heart? But, She said: God is the strength of my heart. Surely, Mary is a human, just like us. And surely, we may cry just like Her. But the strength and the uniqueness of this Virgin is the fact that She did not let the sorrow to overcome the hope. She was not afraid of putting her hope in God. And we are called upon to behave the same way in these difficult days in which we pass as humans, community, country and the whole East.

We are called upon nowadays to be united, and to follow the example of Virgin Mary and all the disciples. Their unity was mixed with an undoubted hope in God Who had victory over death. They buried fear because of their unity and love. And we are called upon, as much as possible, to bury our afflictions by keeping the unity of souls and hearts regardless of the geographical distances. Antioch is those hearts that are tied to Jesus. Before these bounds egoism, races, cracks and disputed melt out in order to make Jesus shine on the front.

We, as the Christians of the East, are called upon to contemplate in Jesus Who did not incarnate in days better than ours. Because of His love we put on His name first in Antioch, and with the power of His Cross our ancestors lived on this land. We are on it and we come from it. We were born from its womb and we will be buried in it. We are staying here, and we will carry our cross following the example of our Lord. And to those who abduct our people and bishops we say: We are a part of this East. In it we live together with our brothers from all religions. We won’t spare an effort to remain in this land defending our history and existence.

We pray today for the peace in Syria, and for stability in Lebanon. We pray for the suffering East, for the bleeding Palestine. We pray for the homeless, for the displaced, for the lost, for the abducted and for the martyr. We pray to Virgin Mary to send peace to the souls, because it is the seed of peace on earth. We pray to protect all Her abducted children, amongst them the two bishops of Aleppo Youhanna Ibraheem and Boulos Yazigi. We pray to Her to be with our people everywhere bestowing humanity the mercy of the Child of peace and the father of mercies.

Oh Jesus, Who descended to us as a Child. Come and fill us with the abundance of your mercy, keep our children and parents. Come and stay in the cave of our souls and trim our thoughts with Your holy light. Oh Jesus, whose presence filled us with peace, bless our life. Calm with the power of Your silence every disorder, fear and turbulence. Teach us to chant together: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men”.

 
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Appropriately, the most soul moving Christmas messages this year have been issued from the parts of our planet where Christians are most prosecuted!

 

 

Waiting For God

Amidst wars, violence, refugee crises, terrorism, upheavals and worldwide Christian persecution, Christmas 2015 is so similar in so many respects to the very first Christmas and to the dark, hostile, unfriendly world Christ was born!

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“This has been such a tough year – not only for so many of us, but for the world as a whole. Like never before, I long for Christ to come and turn this dust we are made of into Divine Flesh once again. The Nativity Fast never felt so difficult for me, I went through it with such a heavy heart. Everywhere you look, you see war and terror, bombings, torture, extremism of all sorts.

Now, Christmas is almost here. Christ will descend again upon the world, and the world will once again open up to His presence. Deep down, the earth changes. Deep down, we all change. I have never longed for Him as I do now. I have never felt as thirsty for His presence as I am now. The world itself never felt so dry and empty and lost without Him.”(*)

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For detailed data on how Christians clearly represent the most persecuted people on earth in the 21st century, go to 2015 World Watch List, Overview

And we are not talking here of a bit of ridicule or silly marginalisation. We are talking about men, women and children being singled out because of their Christian faith or identity and put to an unimaginably cruel death. Or being driven out of home, away from livelihood, deprived of identity and dignity. Or, for women and girls, being forced into sexual slavery and subjected to rape-at-will. … http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/opinion/thunderer/article4649135.ece

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(*) For Father Seraphim’s moving blog entry in full, go to http://www.mullmonastery.com/monastery-blog/waiting-for-christ/

 

 

 

Christ(mas) Healing of Chronos, Kairos, and Aeon

An Orthodox Theology of Time – II / V

 

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The Persistence of Memory – Salvador Dali

Nature of Time: What is time? What is its relation to God’s mode of being? Time as understood in its relation to the Church as a receptacle of the eternal Kingdom of God.

 

“What is time? Who can explain this easily and briefly? Who can comprehend this even in thought so as to articulate the answer in words?

Yet what do we speak of, in our familiar everyday conversation, more than of time?

We surely know what we mean when we speak of it.

We also know what is meant when we hear someone else taking about it.

What then is time? Provided that no one asks me, I know.

If I want to explain it to an inquirer, I do not know”

 

(Augustine’s Confessions,11.14.17, p. 230)

Some Fathers, including Sts. Basil the Great and Maximus the Confessor, spoke of three modes of being (i.e. time (chronos), age or creaturely eternity (aeon) and the everlasting or uncreated eternity (aidios, aidiotes) and sometimes … proaionios or the pre-eternal which is ateleutetos or without an end)), not just the two of time and eternity.

 

…First, everlastingness or everexistingness (aidiotes)  is the mode of being only of God, who is utterly beyond the distinction between time and creaturely eternity, being and non-being, since He is the pre-eternal (proaionios) God who is “endless” in the sense of being beyond duration. Everlastingness is essentially a negative or apophatic category emphasizing God’s unknowableness.

 

God is indefinable as the ho pro aionon Theos (Slavonic: prevechnyi Bog) which can be translated as ‘the pre-eternal God’ or ‘God before the ages.’ As the Kontakion of Christmas puts it:

 

Today the Virgin gives birth to him who is above all being [ton huperousion], and the earth offers the cave to him whom no one can approach; Angels with Shepherds give glory, while Magi journey with a star, for to us there has been born a little child, God before the ages [ho pro aionon Theos].

 

Second, we have creaturely eternity/age (aion–aionios), which is the creaturely mode of being of the supra-cosmic or spiritual creation of God—angels. [Human beings too. Both Angels and humans are eternal, because although they were created in Time, they do not have an end]. This mode of being is not one that excludes change but it is not bound by the distinctions of our present time’s version of change. The past is not utterly past but it is contained in the present as is the future and the future in the past and the past in the future so that eternity is a sort of perichoretic version of time. This, I would argue, is what Schmemann was getting at when he wrote that points in time can be gathered together and encountered simultaneously:

“In an instant, not only are all such breaths of happiness remembered but they are present and alive—that Holy Saturday in Paris when I was a young man—and many such ‘breaks.’ It seems to me that eternity might be not the stopping of time, but precisely its resurrection and gathering.”

 

Moreover, there is in the Kingdom of God, which is an eternal Kingdom not of this world, an enduring quality of being where one forever praises God from one moment to the next—a sort of sempiternal or eternal duration—without in any way being trapped in growing old or being trapped in the inexperience of youth. In such eternal duration, the goodness of God is always desired and always held in its fullness at the same time as that goodness continually increases our capacity and desire for it although we never possess this goodness in its fullness.

 

 

Time in physical creation, as we now experience it under the weight of sin, is understood as a reality with a strict division between past, present and future where the person in time, who has turned his back on God’s grace in Jesus Christ, is prevented from being present to more than one division at once. Thus when I err under the weight of sin I cannot be present to here and there at once since I am bound to here.

 

… Christ heals our time (chronos), and indeed the time of the invisible creation (aeon), by making it His time of opportunity for our salvation in Him (kairos).

 

Time, as Christ’s time, becomes a means to our perfection in Him rather than the ultimate expression of our rejection of God’s grace. Through Him in His Body the Church we come to partake in the mode of being of the invisible creation, creaturely eternity, but this eternity or time of the invisible creation becomes wedded with our sensible time, remade for an embodied being like man, through participating in the everlasting life of God. Time is, therefore, remade and renewed in the Church as the Kingdom of God and we have a foretaste of this renewal in the liturgy.

[Chronos, Kairos and Eternity, or, Agape. Because Eternity is Hypostatical Agape in God]

 

Source: Excerpts from Gallaher, Brandon ‘s Orthodox Theology of Time at https://www.academia.edu/3561108/Chalice_of_Eternity_An_Orthodox_Theology_of_Time_St_Vladimirs_Theological_Quarterly_57.1_2013_pp.5-35

To Be Continued …

For Part I go to https://orthodoxcityhermit.com/2015/12/18/chalice-of-eternity/

For Part III go to https://orthodoxcityhermit.com/2015/12/18/4497/

A Kairos Life in a Chronos World

Christ’s Nativity in Eastern Byzantine Iconography and  Western Sacred Paintings

Living a Kairos Life in a Chronos World: The Three Main Differences 

The traditional Orthodox icon of the Nativity is one that many of us have venerated since our early childhood in the Orthodox Church. Yet for many of us, born and raised in the Western world, this icon may at times seem strange and different from the depiction of the Nativity as seen in the secular press, books, television, websites and other forms of media communication. Hopefully this short article will contribute to a greater appreciation of the Orthodox teaching of the meaning and significance of the feast of the Nativity as witnessed by the icon of the holy day.

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The first major difference between the Orthodox icon and the Western art depiction of the Nativity is that the main event, the birth in the flesh of Our Lord, is not depicted in the setting of a stable but in a cave immersed in a mountain. The “cave of Bethlehem”, is mentioned as early as the second century in the writings of St. Justin and by the fourth century, the site had become the place of a beautiful basilica in Bethlehem which was and is still today an important pilgrimage site for Christians. The cave itself in the icon is always depicted in dark colours or in black to indicate that the world that had plunged into the darkness of sin, through man’s fall, would soon be illuminated by the Nativity of Christ – “the light of the world” .

Adoration of the Shepherds by Charles Lebrun, 1689

The new-born infant Christ is found always in the centre of the icon and cave, and as such is the true enlightener of mankind, through Whom a new era begins in the history of mankind. This same cave, also foreshadows the cave of “life giving tomb” that is found in the icon of the Resurrection. Christ thus begins and ends His earthly mission in a cave.

The cave in the icon of the Nativity is situated in a mountain, symbolic of the wilderness, which gives a place of refuge to the Son of Justice and Truth in fulfilment of the Old Testament pre-figuration. The Prophet Habakkuk states in a prayer: “God comes from Teman, the Holy One from Mount Paran. Covered are the heavens with His glory, and with His praise the earth is filled” (Hab. 3:3).

Christ, the fulfilment of this and other prophesies found in the Old Testament, is represented with His Virgin Mother – the Theotokos on a mountain, which emphasises their mutual unity. True manhood and the human nature in Christ is received from His Mother, the Ever-Virgin, and thus she figures prominently in the central scene of the icon.

The Mother of God is depicted always in a reclining position on a childbed with a tranquil and peaceful expression on Her face, and showing an absence of the usual suffering of child bearing. She is usually turned away from Christ, looking at the outside world, contemplating whether mankind will accept or reject the great mystery in which she plays such an important role. She as such has completed her unique role in God’s mysterious plan as the Birth-giver of God.

The Eve of the Old Testament was the mother of all living beings; in the New Eve, the Theotokos, we now have the Mother of all those that are redeemed. Thus she is the best example of the thanksgiving offering that mankind could make to the Creator, and serves us as an example of perfect obedience to the will of the Father.

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Christ is depicted in a manger or fodder bin, wrapped up in swaddling clothes. The manger symbolizes the altar upon which the supreme gift is brought to mankind, the infant Christ who is to redeem mankind. The swaddling clothes in which He is wrapped points to the winding sheet of another cave, the sepulchre, as depicted in the icon of the Descent of Christ from the Cross and His subsequent burial in the tomb.

The Gospels do not mention any attendants at the birth of Christ; however, the icon of the Nativity shows an ox and an ass either on the right or left side of Christ. These domestic animals are symbolic of faithfulness and devotion, as well as innocence in their relation to the Master. These animals are not important for their physical bulk, but their importance lies in the acceptance of their new Master. Thus it is not only the human world that accepts Christ but also the animal world that participates in the feast of re-creation.

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The second major difference between the Orthodox icon of the Nativity and Western art is the role and place of Joseph in the events. Western art always places Joseph in the centre of the event, close to Mary, a scene that as such depicts the “holy family”. The Orthodox icon of the Nativity does indeed include the figure of Joseph (lower right or left hand corner); however, he is far removed from the centre of the main event and finds himself in fact off the mountain or at the bottom of it. Joseph is depicted as an elderly man, sitting in a contemplative or meditating position, turned away from the main event of the icon. In our Orthodox tradition, Joseph is considered the guardian of Christ and His Mother, thus he is pictured as an aged man compared to the youthfulness of the Mother of God. In his pensive stature, Joseph seems confronted or plagued by doubts about the puzzling mystery of God’s incarnation from a Virgin. The pose of Joseph indicates that the true fatherhood of Christ is through the Virgin and the paternity of the Holy Spirit. This thus corresponds to the Nicene Creed’s verse: “Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and was made man”.

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Often Orthodox icons show Joseph confronted by an elderly shepherd or satan like figure, always depicted in dark colours. This figure is the tempter, tempting Joseph into not accepting the miraculous birth of the Saviour from the Virgin (as recorded in the Protoevangelium). This same objection has been raised throughout the history of the Church during the last two thousand years, in different forms and ways, by those who do not accept this miracle. These arguments, which ultimately did not cause Joseph to stumble, have constantly returned to trouble the Church, and are the basis of many heresies regarding Who Christ was and is. 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 reason, the Incarnation of God. Thus Joseph is not the “father” of Christ while his struggle with the meaning of the virgin birth is symbolic of the struggle of all of mankind in accepting the “miracle of miracles”.

Between the two bottom scenes, the icon depicts a tree that runs up and points to Jesus Christ. This is the tree of the prophecy of Jesse, who was the father of King David in the Old Testament. This clearly marks the noble ancestry of Jesus who was born of “the tree of Jesse”.

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The third difference between the Orthodox icon of the Nativity and Western art is that the icon depicts as a composite image six difference scenes of the Nativity narrative surrounding the Infant Christ-child and His Mother. Western art usually depicts these scenes separately or in smaller groupings of two or three. Here are the six scenes:

  • At the top of the icon, on both sides of the mountain, are found two groupings of angels who often are looking downwards, sometimes to the side or upwards. They serve a two-fold role. First, they are the messengers of the spiritual world bringing glad tidings to mankind and secondly, they are the true adorers of Christ’s birth, the “marvel of marvels”. The angelic hosts as such unite heaven and earth and together glorify the “new born King”. The angel of the Lord, found on the top extreme right-hand side of the icon, is depicted looking down upon an amazed shepherd, announcing to him the good news of great joy.
  • A single shepherd or sometimes several are found on the right-hand middle side of the icon. These are the first of the Israelite people – the Jewish people, to accept and worship the Lord. These shepherds are simple, unsophisticated and ordinary citizens who hear the divine message in the course of their labours and fully accept the Virgin birth. In fact the shepherds are akin to the simple fishermen that Christ will call in the Gospels “to follow Him”.
  • On the opposite side, the left-hand side of the icon are found three figures of the Magi or wise men. They are depicted following the star, shining above the cave, and bringing their royal gifts to a Babe in a poor cave. The wise men represent the humanity that has not been exposed to the Old Testament – often referred to as the Gentiles. Yet they have a mission to find the “King of Kings” and have travelled far for this event. Their search reaches an end, “following the star of Bethlehem”, and they accept of the Son of Righteousness without hesitation. The three wise men are usually depicted in three different age brackets. The one of the extreme left is very young, the middle one is middle-aged and the one on the right is an elderly person. Thus all ages of humanity are called to accept Christ. The wise men were the first fruits of the Gentile world to venerate and worship Christ. In so doing they show that the ultimate sense of human knowledge is in the contemplation and worship of a Living God, “born unto us as a young Child”.
  • Below, on the left-hand side, is the scene of Joseph and the tempter (already discussed earlier).
  • On the lower right-hand side is depicted an important bathing scene. The origin of this scene is not Scriptural or apocryphal. The first mention of the bathing of Christ was made in the travelogue of a late seventh century pilgrim to Palestine, a certain bishop Arnulf. He relates that close to the Nativity cave in Bethlehem, he was shown a stone water basin which was believed to be the one in which the Divine Child had been washed after birth. Early art depictions of the bathing scene are found from as early as the fifth century. This bathing scene illustrates that Christ was truly a human being and had the fullness of human nature while at the same time he also had a divine nature and was the second person of the Trinity. Every young child has to be bathed, washed and cleaned, upon entrance into this world and Jesus was no different. This scene also serves as an argument against those heretics that did not want to acknowledge Christ’s full humanity and placed only emphasis on his divinity (At the IV Ecumenical Council this heresy, know as Monophysitism, was defeated). Thus the two bottom scenes complement each other, showing both the theological teaching of Christ’s full divinity (the pondering of Joseph of the miracle birth-incarnation of God, the second person of the Trinity – Jesus Christ) and His full humanity (the important bathing scene). Christ as such is truly GODMAN – in Ukrainian Bohocholovik, a term coined at the IV Ecumenical Council in 451.
  • The scene at the top center of the icon depicts the three divine rays of the triune God. In so showing this, the icon depicts that the Trinity – Father, the pre-eternal Son and Holy Spirit are at the heart of the event. The Incarnation is not only about the birth of the Son, but also involves the other two members of the Trinity because all three are of one and the same essence (the Greek word for this is “Homoousios”). In another way the rays are referred to also as the divine star of Bethlehem that shone and provided the direction for all the players of the Incarnation event. The divine light thus provides a canopy for the infant birth of the Saviour and lightens the universe for the proper understanding of the truth – that God became man so that man can become potentially God-like.

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The icon of the Nativity thereby harmonizes six separate scenes of the festal narrative. Their depiction produces a balanced and well organized theology of the Nativity feast. This icon, except for the bottom part, is truly a pictorial illustration of the KONTAKION (liturgical hymn) of the feast written by St. Romanos the Melodist which proclaims:

“Today the Virgin gives birth to Him Who is above

all being and the earth offers a cave to Him whom

no man can approach. Angels with shepherds give

glory and Magi journey with a star. For unto us

is born a young Child, the pre-eternal God.”

In conclusion, the icon of the Nativity, with its richness and theological content, relates the various scenes of the Incarnation narrative, overcoming both time and space limitations. Just as in the Orthodox liturgy we overcome linear time and space, so also the Nativity icon, as an integral part of the festal cycle, overcomes these limitations. In turn, the various scenes in the icon form an integrated and holistic unity to be contemplated and venerated in the ever present.

Jesus Christ as the Lord of Creation, entered the life of His creation and the life of human history as a newborn babe. He submits himself to the physical conditions and laws that govern the human race yet in his humbleness he continues to be the Saviour and the second person of the Trinity. (1)

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The very fact that in a single icon different scenes of the Nativity narrative coexist, although their historic, real time differs, such as Christ in the manger and at the same time in the stone water basin, or the Magi following the star, shining above the cave, and simultaneously offering their royal gifts to a Babe in a poor cave highlights the fact that time and space limitations are transcended when the Saviour and Lord of Creation enters the life of His creation and the life of human history, kairos in other words supplants chronos. (2)  And this is the real, mystical meaning of the kontakion “Today the Virgin gives birth to Him …” because the faithful may indeed literally participate in the Mystery of Incarnation in the liturgical “Now” and that very moment, in Church, Christ may be born in their hearts. (3)

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(*) Kairos Vs. Chronos: … When Jesus came, it was a fulfillment of promises past, a cosmic collision of the sacred and secular. It was an intersection of the holy will of God and the stubborn ways of man. It was a perfect moment.  John the Baptist said in Mark 1:15 that “time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand.” This godly kairos pierced its way into creation at just the right time, slicing through chronos with a cry of a baby in a manger. The cross was another kairos moment. Romans 5:6 says, “For while we were still helpless, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly.” Kairos moments then—and now—allow us to get a glimpse of the “other side.” We peek around the corner at eternity. We actually glimpse how God works. (3)

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(1)  http://www.uocc.ca/en-ca/about/education/nativity-icon.asp The Orthodox Icon of the Nativity of Our Lord And Saviour Jesus Christ, Dr. Roman Yereniuk, Associate Professor, St. Andrew’s College in Winnipeg.

(2) From “Living a Kairos Life in a Chronos World” http://www.thehighcalling.org/articles/essay/living-kairos-life-chronos-world

(3) Sophia Drekou’s insights and selection of icons and paintings at http://sophia-siglitiki.blogspot.gr/2013/12/blog-post_1453.html proved very stimulating.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Womb and the Tomb

 

Icon of the Nativity compared with the Icon of the Resurrection

Left: Christ in the manger; Right: the Empty Tomb

No description of the Nativity Icon would be complete without mention of Jesus’ appearance in the manger.

It should be never forgotten that Jesus came to us in order to die – this was known by Him, at least, from the very beginning. Therefore, in Iconography, the manger in the Nativity Icon deliberately resembles a stone coffin, the swaddling clothes resemble a burial shroud, and the cave itself can even be said to prefigure Christ’s tomb.

With the side-by-side comparison shown above of the Icon of the Nativity with the Icon showing the Myrrh-bearing women discovering Jesus’ empty tomb, no more words are necessary. (1)

The Passion of Nativity

… Let us look more closely at the child in the relief.  “His tight swaddling clothes are evocative of burial wrappings.  In the byzantine tradition, there is an intentional connection between the swaddling clothes of the infant in a Nativity icon and the burial clothes of the Epitaphios (epi– upon; taphos- grave or tomb) icon which is venerated and anointed during Great Friday Vespers.  Also on Great Friday, the “soma” icon on the crucifix is taken down from the cross and shrouded in identical wrappings before it is processed and reposed in the sanctuary.”

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“…Note, as well, that the “manger” is a cave, a small hollow in a rock formation that mirrors Jesus’ tomb in the gospels.  In many icons, Jesus’ cradle is a stone box.  Who would lay a child in a coffin? What macabre motive would make an artist paint a baby as a mummy and give him a tomb as his nursery?  Indeed, the motive is not macabre, but joyful and eschatologically triumphant: we only understand the significance of the incarnation if we hold it in tension with Jesus’ saving death; we may not separate the two.  This also reminds us that the liturgical year commemorates events in the life of Jesus but it never parses the paschal mystery.”

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Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem 

The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is one of the oldest continuously operating churches in the world, and the oldest in the Holy Land (founded in 325)

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A virgin womb, conceiving thee, revealed thee;
a virgin tomb, receiving thee, concealed thee.

We glorify her from whom thou didst receive a beginning in time,
and we honour him that ministered to the end of thine earthly life for our sakes,
asking that through their prayers, O merciful Saviour,
we might be deemed worthy of thy Kingdom of the Heavens.

Theotokion on the Praises for the Feast of St. Joseph of Arimathea
Appendix to the July Menaion, Holy Transfiguration Monastery

 

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Church Of The Nativity Bethlehem Stable

All the eschatological themes of the Advent season converge in the Nativity tableau and are carried forward into Christmas.  This should not surprise us.  The birth of Christ and his salvific death form the cosmic fulcrum upon which the beam of human history rests, with creation and eschaton at each end.  In a nativity icon this is super concentrated.  Incarnation and eschaton are so ingeniously and inextricably intertwined that we might not even read “passion” in what is written in the icon unless we understand the symbolic significance of the iconographic elements.  The best known example of this is the gifts of the wise men: while gold and frankincense represent Jesus’ kingship and priesthood, respectively, myrrh, used for embalming, is a symbol of his death.

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When I look at a Nativity icon and I see a child embraced by death, and embracing death, I have at least an inkling of what Rilke was, perhaps, trying to convey in the first Duino Elegy:

“For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we are still just able to endure, and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.” (2)

 

(1) Posted on by 

(2) Posted at https://memoriadei.wordpress.com/2010/12/17/the-ox-the-ass-and-the-passion-of-the-nativity/

The Ass and the Ox

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Nativity of the Lord” Andrei Rublev 1405, Cathedral of the Annunciation, Moscow

As of today, I thought I might begin to concentrate on certain details of the Nativity iconography and explore their symbolism and theological significance in order to prepare my cave (a hermit as I am 😊) to receive the Word in the flesh.  My starting point will be a symbolic (and typological) analysis of the ox and the ass figures in the nativity iconography.

Generally speaking, the presence of any animals in the Nativity icon is in addition to any symbolic meaning a theological statement of restoration. It reminds us, I think, that all creation worships God ( the stars and the sun and even the dumb animals). That which was brought about by Adam’s transgression meant that the dominion he was given in Genesis over the birds of the air, the fish of the sea and the animals on the land was corrupted, made incomplete and he started eating that which was originally meant for companionship. When the Word who becomes flesh  is born, He who made Heaven and Earth and all that is in it,  it is only fitting that representatives of His creation are there to worship and adore the mystery of the Incarnation.

 
Revelation 5:13                
And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” 
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Specifically now to the ox and the ass. “These two manger animals are ubiquitous in Nativity images.  They peer over the new-born Christ child in wonderment, usually with their muzzles close to the child, as if to warm him with their breath.  Their significance should be plain: The ass carries Jesus into Egypt, away from the murderous Herod who, like Pharoah, orders the slaughter of infants.  (The flight into Egypt in Matthew’s gospel is the first of many Jesus/Moses parallels.)  Later, the ass will carry him into the holy city of Jerusalem to the acclaim of the crowd: “Hossana!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” The ass who greets the Lord at his birth is the same ass who bears him into Egypt and carries him to his death at Jerusalem where he is hailed as “king of Israel” but crucified as a common criminal.  The red ox stands as a stark and basic  symbol of Hebrew cultic sacrifice.” (1)

There is no ass or ox in the Biblical narratives of the birth of Christ.  Yet, besides the Christ Child himself, the ass and the ox are the most ancient and stable elements in the iconography of the nativity.  In fact the earliest example of a nativity known to us contains only the swaddled Christ in the manger flanked by the ox at his head and the ass at his feet.  David Clayton, on the New Liturgical Movement blog, has written a detailed piece on the subject, and I will go through the basics while adding a few more aspects he does not mention.

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Nativity scene on a 4th century sarcophagus from Italy

When reading comments on the nativity (for example in Ouspensky’s “The Meaning of Icons”) one finds that the inclusion of this detail is a reference to the prophecy of Isaiah:

The ox knows his owner, and the ass his master’s crib: but Israel has not known me, and my people have not understood.

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Some apocryphal texts have the ass and the ox worshiping the Christ child, such as the gospel of pseudo-Matthew:

Therefore, the animals, the ox and the ass, with him in their midst incessantly adored him. Then was fulfilled that which was said by Habakkuk the prophet, saying, “Between two animals you are made manifest.”

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The Nativity – Icon in the Monastery of St. Catherine
[Many thanks to Bill M. for the link and drawing attention to the look on the ox’s face 😊 The icons of St Catherine’s, being isolated and in dry desert conditions meant that their icons have survived remarkably well, making it is a treasure of pre-Iconoclast iconography] (2)

nativity9.jpgFreiburg, Couvent des Cordeliers / Franziskanerkloster, MS 9, fol. 11r. 

What though is the relationship between the ox and the ass, why are these animals paired together so?  We will often read that traditionally, the ox is seen as Israel, and the ass is seen as the Gentiles.  This comes from a very important distinction about the two animals.  The ox is a “clean” animal, and the ass is an “unclean” animal according to dietary proscription in the Old Testament.

Mixing the clean and the unclean is related very tightly to the mixing of Jews and Gentiles.  The clearest example of this is in St-Peter’s vision of the clean and unclean meats placed together, which signify the entry of Gentiles into the body of the Church.  Indeed there is a Mosaic law which I have never seen quoted in relation to the Nativity Icon, but which seems to hold one of the keys to the ass and the ox:

Thou shall not plow with an ox and an ass yoked together.

What is proscribed, the yoking of the clean and unclean, the bringing together of the “inside” and “outside” can only be accomplished without sin by the Christ, the incarnation of the Logos.  In fact, even St-Paul following this tradition, uses the same imagery to warn Christians not to be “yoked” with unbelievers.

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This brings out another meaning, which is related to the incarnation and its relation to universality of the Church.  The ass is a beast of burden, a “mindless” strength which was created to “carry” .  In this respect, the ass is a symbol of corporality itself.  One should not be surprised that the symbol of the unclean and “outer” is analogical to fallen corporal existence and sensuality. This can be seen so strongly in the hesychastic tradition in its relationship between the heart and the senses.  The “outer” part, corporality, the senses, the Gentile, are related to the garments of skin, which we have discussed before, and this periphery can be seen as protecting but also carrying what is precious, like the shell of the ark…

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Icon of the Nativity carved in linden by Jonathan Pageau

It therefore follows naturally that stories such as the talking ass of Balaam are seen as prefigurations of the incarnation in sources as early as St-Irenaeus, or that it is so important for Christ be found riding an ass (even in later Rabbinical Judaism, the ass and colt of Zecharia’s prophesy are seen as representing the Gentiles) .  These Old Testament images, like the joining of the ass and the ox in the icon of the Nativity, are symbolic of the joining of extremes, the union of the spiritual and corporal, the clean and unclean, the inside and outside and ultimately the uncreated and created in the person of our Lord Jesus Christ. (3)

 

 

 

Sing Ye Carols!

 Carol Singers William Gunning Kind

 

Sing Ye Carols: An Interview with Hierodeacon Herman by  • November 24, 2015 

Hierodeacon Herman (Majkrzak), Chapel Music Director and Lecturer in Liturgical Music at Saint Vladimir’s Seminary, has started a small ministry during this Nativity fast – a series of Facebook posts highlighting lesser-known hymns and carols from the Western tradition. You can enjoy his posts here: Fr. Herman’s Choral Advent Calendar. We thought this a good opportunity to ask him to share some thoughts on Western hymns and carols, and what role they can play in Orthodoxy.

A painting depicting traditional Christmas carolers in Greece

A. Gould: Father Herman, to begin please tell us about your Facebook page, “Fr Herman’s Choral Advent Calendar.”

Hdn Herman: Andrew, thanks for hosting me at Orthodox Arts Journal. I think many of your readers would be interested in checking out what I’m calling my “choral Advent calendar.” I’ve based the name for the page on the delightful old German Advent calendars where each day leading up to Christmas you open a little door that reveals a holy image or a scripture verse or the like. My page is the same idea, but each day it’s a link to a piece of choral music.  And with each day’s post, I include a description or commentary, and the text of the piece. My hope is that people will take this fast as an opportunity to listen to music attentively ­– i.e., will learn something about a piece before listening, and will listen to it with their undivided attention, while not doing anything else, and while reading along with the text.

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Most of the pieces I’m posting are from the repertoire of Western choral music, especially carols and hymns, the subject of this interview. I do occasionally post Orthodox liturgical music as well, and in any case the posts are following the Orthodox liturgical calendar throughout the fast. For those on the Old Calendar, I’ll be refreshing each post thirteen days later, so you can follow and be sync liturgically with your parish.

You don’t need to have a Facebook account to access the posts, but for those who aren’t on Facebook, I also have an email list – write the OAJ editor if you’d like to be added, and tell him whether you want the new calendar or the old calendar posts.

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A Gould: A lot of people, including Christians, tend to be fed up with Christmas music. It’s everywhere, in stores, in offices, and on the radio, and so much of it is cheap and just helps in the commercialization and secularization of this important Christian holy day. It can be easy to become cynical or jaded. You must have some thoughts on this, given how much you think about carols.

Hdn. Herman: Absolutely, Andrew. I think we should really make an effort not to be cynical about Christmas. The world has tried to spoil Christmas in so many ways, but we shouldn’t let that effort triumph in our own lives, in our own hearts.

I prefer to look at the presence of carols in stores and malls as one of the last vestiges of Christianity in the public space here in America, and I think we should value this and build on it. Yes, the carols are sometimes cheap and often annoying, but it’s not all “Jingle Bell Rock”! I’m always delighted when I go into a department store in 2015 and hear songs about Christ’s virgin birth! Even if, as is usually the case, I don’t like the musical arrangements, I’m still so happy to hear them. Some Christians complain when they start hearing carols and seeing Christmas decorations long before Christmas. Okay, maybe this is not ideal, but, you know, really I’d prefer to go into a store on November 1st and hear a song about Our Savior – or even Rudolph! – than a song about licentiousness, which is what we’re treated to the rest of the year.

Young adults today will probably be the last generation to have grown up somewhat familiar with a basic repertoire of a dozen or so famous carols: “The first Nowell,” “Hark, the herald-angels sing,” “Silent night,” “O come, all ye faithful,” “O come, O come, Emmanuel,” and the like. For many people, memories of early childhood Christmases are some of the purest and happiest of their lives, even if mixed with avarice or bitterness surrounding gifts, and those memories are bound up with carols like these. This means that for the next fifty years or so, these carols will have the potential to connect to a very special part of people’s lives. Our task as Orthodox Christians in a society increasingly post-Christian, but still having these vestiges of Christian memory, is to elevate these carols, to help them be a window through which people can experience something beautiful, something peaceful, and have even just a glimmer of joy and gratitude. This is especially our job if we are musicians. We should organize concerts with carols, and go caroling in our neighborhoods or at local hospitals and nursing homes. Let’s not let the devil have Christmas. It doesn’t belong to him.

christmas-caroling

A. Gould: You grew up as an Episcopalian, and you were an organist and singer in the Anglo-Catholic tradition before your conversion to Orthodoxy. How has your experience with Western liturgical music influenced your vocation as an Orthodox choir director?

Hdn Herman: Well, Andrew, when I think back to the time in my life, to early adolescence (not long before you and I first met), when I was moved to make a resolute commitment of my life to our Savior, Christ Jesus, it seems to me that it was liturgical music that the Lord used to open that door in my heart. Discovering the traditional canon of Western, and particularly English, church music inspired me to learn about and immerse myself in the more traditional forms of Western liturgy that that music was meant to accompany. So, for example, I will never forget the summer Sunday in 1991 or ’92 when for the first time I attended a solemn mass in the full Anglo-Catholic tradition. It’s a cliché, but it really was a life-changing experience to discover a much older, more full stream of liturgical tradition, largely unscathed by the banal impoverishments that the liturgical reform of the 60s had brought about in Western Christianity. I was twelve or thirteen, and I had discovered the joy of my life: traditional liturgical worship. It was traditional music that led me to take traditional liturgy seriously, and liturgy in turn inspired me to dip into theology in my early high school years. I read C.S. Lewis, Peter Kreeft, and other contemporary apologists, but then went further with Thomas Aquinas and collections of Patristic homilies. I even read a ten volume set of Anglican dogmatic theology by F.J. Hall. This all may seem far afield of your question, Andrew, but it’s not, really, because without this theological self-education I would probably never have become Orthodox. In my early college years I realized that I needed to have complete integrity and unanimity between these three great loves of my life: music, liturgy, and theology. I could not have one without the other two, and it is only in the Orthodox Church where they constitute an integral whole. I take my work as an Orthodox choir director seriously because I see what an irrevocable effect good church music had on me in middle school, and I think Orthodox church music has even greater potential to direct the lives of our young people today on the path of righteousness and salvation.

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A. Gould: It is often the experience of one who converts, that at first he feels it is a complete rupture – that nothing from his old ways are compatible with Orthodoxy. But over time, we mature, and come to understand that much of what we had known in the Western Church is highly sympathetic to Orthodoxy. And we start to see that the Western and Eastern traditions are not necessarily isolated alternatives, but rather are two related sisters in the Church’s history. Each has historically depended upon the other for inspiration, and they need to do so still, if liturgical art is to remain fresh and creative. This has been my experience since my conversion, and I wonder if yours has also followed this pattern?

Hdn Herman: I think you’ve put this very well, Andrew. This is a common path for converts, and I would even say it is a necessary path, first intentionally to distinguish yourself, to set yourself apart from what the service of reception of converts calls your “former delusion,” but then, perhaps years later, to go back and reacquaint yourself with these roots, viewing them with new, Orthodox eyes.

Yes, people who convert to Orthodoxy, especially from other Christian communities, should wholeheartedly immerse themselves in and be formed by the Orthodox tradition, not just in its dogmatic and moral teachings, but in its Eastern liturgical piety, its traditions of chant, iconography, and architecture, its ascetic disciplines, its monastic ethos. (And as an aside, to really do this well, I think you need to develop some measure of affection for and familiarity with one of the cultures from which Orthodoxy came to this country and to your parish. In my case that meant the culture and faith of Russia.) This is so important, because this is the path to making Orthodoxy your own: you are completely uprooted from your previous confession, and then you’re deeply planted in the soil of the Church. And I’d say that the new convert should not be too concerned with distinguishing between what is essential and what is incidental in Eastern Orthodox practice. (And to be clear, by incidental, I don’t mean insignificant.) Such distinctions are important, and will come with time and education, but new converts are not capable of making such distinctions, really, and if they try, they may become confused and perhaps be led astray.

But later, having undergone that clear separation and having internalized the ways of one’s new home, having laid a firm foundation for one’s new identity as an Orthodox Christian, one is then able to look at traditional Western Christianity with clearer vision and with more sympathetic eyes, and one sees that there is so much there that is beautiful and true and worthy of our close attention and admiration. You’re still aware of the problems, certainly, but you no longer fixate on them. And, yes, as you say, the more you learn about Church history, the more you see that, despite the Schism, despite the dogmatic divergences, East and West have never been two isolated, watertight compartments within Christianity. It is one common culture, with its roots in the Roman Empire. There are different emphases, of course, but the family resemblances are often quite charming.

Christmas carolers, Ukraine

A. Gould: Regarding Western hymns and carols, how would you characterize their strengths and weaknesses as a liturgical art? What do they do really well, and what do they offer us that may be lacking in the Eastern choral traditions?

Hdn Herman: That’s a huge question, Andrew. I’ll come at it from a few different angles.

Let me begin by clarifying that Western carols are not, technically, liturgical. Though often sung in Church, their origin is not found in prescribed liturgical texts or chant books, but rather they arise out of the spontaneous devotion of Christian people. And such extra-liturgical or, perhaps, paraliturgical singing exists within Orthodox cultures as well: one thinks especially of the famous Russian and Ukrainian Christmas carols, transplanted and sung to this day with such great fervor by Yup’ik Orthodox in Alaska, of the Arabic carol for Lazarus Saturday, “Rejoice, O Bethany,” or of the many carols from Greece or Serbia, including 20th-century compositions by St Nektarios of Aegina or St Nikolai of Zhicha. So I’d want to rephrase your question and make it less about East and West and more about liturgical and non-liturgical.

Put in that light, I think it’s really important for us to nurture extra-liturgical expressions of our Faith, and singing together about Christ and his Incarnation is one of the best ways of doing this I can think of. People who sing together about joyful things become joyful themselves. You and I did this for hours on end when we were teenagers, and I think this should be a regular part of the lives of all Orthodox children, youths, and grown-ups. Singing hymns and carols together is much better than making playlists of rock music on Spotify or playing video games! The one draws us into the embrace of a centuries-old Christian culture, the other conforms us to the world.

Koledari Christmas Carolers, Bulgaria

So, what extra-liturgical music should Orthodox be singing? For English-speaking Orthodox, the answer is obvious: we have a tradition ready to go, we just have to make it our own! And I think it’s wonderful when we as Orthodox say, “Everything, anywhere, that is good and true and beautiful belongs to Christ and belongs to His Church, and so we will preserve it and pass it on because it is, in fact, ours.” We are the custodians of all that is good in Western Christian culture, because we are Orthodox Christians who speak a Western language and who live in the West. That’s a serious responsibility, when you think about it, and unfortunately Western Christians, with some notable exceptions, are not taking their patrimony seriously! Isn’t it ironic that we as Orthodox might pick up and treasure the Western carol tradition just as so many Western Christian denominations are turning away from their own traditional music and embracing contemporary musical forms that are shallow by comparison?

Christmas carolers, Romania

To return to your question, I probably wouldn’t say that there’s anything lacking in the Eastern choral traditions for the context in which they originate. The liturgical hymnography and chanting of, say, Slavic or Romanian or Arabic lands is complemented by a culture of pious folk singing that brings the Faith into the home. These Eastern carols are often much simpler melodies than the liturgical chants of the Church, they are composed in meters and verses that are easy to learn and remember, and so have immediate popular appeal – and yet they are also suitable for more elaborate arrangements and for performance at a very high and nuanced artistic level.

 

All the same things can be said of Western carols. And for English-speaking Orthodox, English carols and hymns, whether for Christmas or other seasons of the Church year, give us the unique opportunity of hearing our faith sung in poems originally written in English, hearing our faith expressed in poetic and musical forms native to our culture and our language. This is something immensely valuable. This is something that really helps us make the Faith our own as English-speakers, and it’s something that helps us elevate our Anglo-American culture so that it partakes of the Spirit of the Church and the life of Christ. The same can certainly be said about, say, French- or German-speaking Orthodox and those respective carol traditions, but I’m speaking from my own experience and vantage point as an English-speaker.

A troupe of self-described 'Hipster Carolers' in New York City.

A. Gould: Can you give an example of a carol that expresses good theology in a uniquely Western way – a carol that is wholly sympathetic to Orthodoxy, but that could never have been written in the East?

Hdn Herman: Well, I’d hesitate to say what “could never have been written in the East.” Eastern hymnography encompasses a huge variety of themes and expressions, and of course the hymnography contained in the received texts of our service books is only a fraction of the hymnography composed in the Eastern Church.

But one can readily find Western hymns and carols that express perfectly Orthodox theology, and that do so in poetic forms more familiar to the Western ear. An example that comes to mind is the majestic hymn, Of the Father’s Heart Begottena translation of the fourth century Latin hymn, Corde Natus Ex Parentis, by Aurelius Prudentius Clemens. With this and so many other early Latin hymns, not only is its content Orthodox, but so is its author, since Prudentius lived centuries before the Schism. The text has a simple, regular meter and rhyme scheme; the melody is solemn, yet lyrical and joyful – though a liturgical hymn, it demonstrates many carol-like qualities.

The text expounds the mystery of the Incarnation, beginning with the eternal begetting of the Son by the Father, moving on to the Creation of the world, and the foretelling by “seer and sybil” of Christ’s advent to bring salvation from the curse of sin and death, and arriving at the Incarnation itself, the birth of the eternal Son from his Virgin Mother. It moves forward into the future (in a verse unfortunately omitted in the linked recording), to sing of Christ’s Second Coming as Judge of creation, and concludes in an explosion of glorious praises by angels and men and all creation, singing with joy around God’s throne.

Of course, these are all themes we can find in Eastern hymnography, but perhaps what makes this hymn distinctly Western is its sweeping survey of the entire economy of salvation within one, long hymn. The focus is the Incarnation – this is a Christmas hymn – but it places that mystery in the context of the whole history of creation and beyond; indeed in its first verse it sings of Christ as the beginning and the end:

He is Alpha: from that Fountain,
All that is and hath been flows;
He is Omega, of all things
Yet to come the mystic Close,

thus, in just four pithy lines, drawing together the vast expanse of time and eternity. It does so with an allusion to the Book of Revelation (the Alpha and the Omega), which itself is uncommon in Eastern hymnography, since that book is not part of the lectionary of the Eastern Rite.

Christmas carolers, Ukraine

A. Gould: The English-language translations of Orthodox hymnography currently available are disappointing with regard to poetic language, and the tones to which they are usually sung are disappointing with regard to melody. Most of our hymnography, as sung in American churches, compares negatively to the elegance of great English hymns. Do you think that, over time, with better translation and better musical settings, it will be possible to sing Orthodox hymnography with this kind of poetic refinement and fitting melody?

Hdn Herman: Good questions. You’re asking both about the chant melodies used for our stichera, troparia, and other hymns, and also about the English translation of these texts. There’s not much I have to say about the melodies themselves. When sung beautifully, and in their most authentic forms, they are beautiful, and I don’t think inventing a new body of chant melodies ex nihilo would ever gain much traction. Whether working with Byzantine chant or one of the Slavic chant families, our job as choir directors and singers is to sing stichera sensitively and reverently. The temptation in Russian chant, certainly, is to make a caricature out of these sacred melodies, in each musical phrase racing through the recitation, and then dragging out the ending as if somehow to compensate for how fast one had just been singing. Often the hymn is not pointed well to begin with, with phrases that are too long to be sung meaningfully, or divided at the wrong part of the sentence, or with emphases put on unimportant words, where they could with slight adjustment be used to bring out more substantive words. If there is an area of Western church music that could inspire us to sing Russian chant more sensitively, it would be Anglican Chant, with its flexible, recitation-based melodies used by English cathedral choirs for the singing of Psalms. But one cannot simply imitate the style of Anglican Chant when singing Kievan Chant – the result could be quite comical. This is a difficult subject to articulate.

Malankara Orthodox Christmas Carolers in Abu Dhabi, U.A.E.

Regarding English translations, this is a can of worms, but impossible to avoid. The English language culturally is not in good shape at the beginning of the third millennium, alas. I’m reminded of a letter written by poet W.H. Auden to his parish priest (Auden was an Episcopalian) probably in the early 70s:

Our Church [i.e., the Anglican Church] has had the singular good-fortune of having its Prayer-Book composed and its Bible translated at exactly the right time, i.e., late enough for the language to be intelligible to any English-speaking person in this century (any child of six can be told what ‘the quick and the dead’ means) and early enough, i.e., when people still had an instinctive feeling for the formal and the ceremonious which is essential in liturgical language.

This feeling has been, alas, as we all know, almost totally lost. (To identify the ceremonious with ‘the undemocratic’ is sheer contemporary cant.) The poor Roman Catholics, obliged to start from scratch, have produced an English Mass which is a cacophonous monstrosity (the German version is quite good, but German has a certain natural sonority): But why should we imitate them?

Well, lucky for us Orthodox, many of our translators did not feel they needed to “start from scratch,” but produced solid English translations that built on the wording and the spirit of Jacobean liturgical English. The difficulty is that neither the Prayer Book nor the Bible gives us models of how to render the florid rhetoric of Byzantine hymnography in English. I think that Metropolitan Kallistos’s translations (though some may disagree with certain word choices here and there, naturally), do the best job of any translation of bringing together the style of traditional liturgical English (admitting of some careful and limited modernization) and the text of Byzantine hymns. I wish he had gone on to complete Mother Mary’s draft of the Octoechos and Pentecostarion!

When we look to the tradition of the English translation of Latin carols and hymns, we see that they are almost always translated metrically, i.e., according to the original Latin meter, so that they can be sung to the same melody, which is composed to fit the text like hand in glove. This is also how the liturgical books prepared by Holy Transfiguration Monastery in Brookline translate Byzantine hymnography, because they intend them to be sung to Byzantine melodies composed for the Greek texts. But a metrical translation is always a paraphrase, and sometimes this can be problematic. In any case, when translating for Russian chant, fidelity to the Greek meter is not required, since Russian chant melodies are by nature expandable and contractible, so as to allow for more or fewer syllables per phrase, as needed.

In general, I would love to see a greater poetic sensitivity in our liturgical translations, but one that is rooted in the tradition of English scriptural and liturgical translation that stretches back to the sixteenth century—this too is part of our patrimony as English-speaking Orthodox! However, there are many who strongly disagree with me, thinking that we should create our own style of liturgical texts using 21st century literary English style as the starting point. I take Auden’s approach here: ours is not the right era for this, because we have lost that “instinctive feeling for the formal and the ceremonious which is essential in liturgical language.” By the way, this principle Auden articulates is nothing new, but was present even in the earliest liturgical translations from Greek to Latin. This has been demonstrated by the linguistic historian Christine Morhmann.

Carolers in Bucharest, Romania, 1929

A. Gould: Is there a way for Orthodox churches to incorporate Western hymnography into their worship? There has always been some paraliturgical music in Orthodox services – hymns that are commonly used in local traditions, but which do not appear in the service books. Why should English-speaking churches not use old English hymns as paraliturgical anthems? Can you give us your thoughts on this question, and maybe some practical suggestions?

Hdn Herman: I’d be very cautious about this, actually. There is not really any open slot in our services for paraliturgical hymns, with the possible exception of the time during the Communion of the clergy at Divine Liturgy. There are those who argue that only the prescribed Communion Psalm should be sung at this time, but given that so many of our people rarely attend Vespers and Matins, I often will sing stichera during Communion, rather than repeating Psalm 148 every Sunday. If paraliturgical hymns are sung during Communion, I believe they should only be hymns by Orthodox hymnographers, either ancient (including pre-Schism Western hymns), or modern.  After the dismissal of a service, as during the veneration of the Cross after Liturgy, I would be comfortable with later Western carols or hymns. I once saw a video of Christmas Liturgy from Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow in which they sang Russian translations of Western Christmas carols during the veneration of the Cross. (I specifically recall hearing “Angels we have heard on high…”) I think this is good.

 

Christmas Vespers at the Cathedral of Christ Our Savior, Moscow, 2013

A parish can also sing carols during coffee hour or parish meals, at Holy Supper on Christmas Eve, or following a class or lecture. And parishioners should organize carol sings in their homes too, as well as in neighborhoods, downtown shopping areas, and nursing homes, hospitals, and prisons. All these possibilities embody the goal of letting our devotion to God flow out of Church and into our daily lives. Families could sing a different carol together each night after dinner during the Nativity fast and up through the end of the festal season.

A project I’ve been thinking about for some time is to compile several dozen of the best Christmas carols (both familiar and less-well-known) for use by Orthodox communities, carefully choosing which versions of each carol to use, to bring out the richest content. So many Protestant hymnals, unfortunately, have meager selections, missing verses, or poor harmonizations, or have altered the words for political reasons… but at present, as a convenient resource, I recommend finding a used copy of the Hymnal 1940 from the Episcopal Church. It’s quite solid, and unlike most Protestant hymnals it includes many hymns from the pre-Schism West – the old Gregorian office hymns, many of which are quite ancient.

A. Gould: Father Herman, you’ve given our readers much to think about. Do you have any closing comments?

Hdn Herman: I do indeed, Andrew! You’ve got me on a roll. Just a few final words about music more generally, as it relates to the life of the spirit and the life of the Church.

Our culture is drowning in music; many people are to some extent addicted to having music playing in the background throughout their day, and much of that music does not edify but draws us away from Christ in subtle or sometimes blatant ways, to say nothing of the resulting absence of silence. With the choral advent calendar, I’m trying to give people an opportunity to be more intentional about their music, and to help folks find music which can warm their hearts and help them draw near to God.

Christmas carolers, Poland

Now, taking the next step, and not just listening to good, Christ-centered music, but singing it: this is really important for Orthodox Christians in America. Our young people especially should be singing much more than they are, both in Church and at home (and hopefully at school too). Parents with any musical ability should make this a regular part of their family time, and children with any musical ability should have the formal study of music, especially piano and singing, as a central part of their education – required, not optional.

Why do I insist on this? Not only because Orthodox Churches across North America are in desperately dire need of proficient singers and choirmasters, but also because this can be such an important element in basic human developing and flourishing. And it’s on this subject that I’ll close, leaving you with a few words by Fr. Seraphim (Rose) of Platina:

The education of youth today, especially in America, is notoriously deficient in developing responsiveness to the best expressions of human art, literature, and music, as a result of which young people are formed haphazardly under the influence of television, rock music, and other manifestations of today’s culture (or rather, anti-culture); and, both as a cause and as a result of this – but most of all because of the absence on the part of parents and teachers of any conscious idea of what Christian Life is and how a young person should be brought up in it – the soul of a person who has survived the years of youth is often an emotional wasteland, and at best reveals deficiencies in the basic attitudes towards life that were once considered normal and indispensable …

Sometimes a spiritual father will deny his child the reading of some spiritual book and give him instead a novel of Dostoevsky or Dickens, or will encourage him to become familiar with certain kinds of classical music, not with any “aesthetic” purpose in mind – for one can be an “expert” in such matters and even be “emotionally well-developed” without the least interest in spiritual struggle, and that is also an unbalanced state – but solely to refine and form his soul and make it better disposed to understand genuine spiritual texts.

The entire article is well worth reading, but can best be summed up by the grace-filled words of St. Paul: “Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Phil. 4:8)

So, thanks, again, Andrew, and may you and all your readers have a very blessed Nativity fast!

A. Gould: Thank you, Father Herman.

Source: Orthodox Arts Journal at http://www.orthodoxartsjournal.org/sing-ye-carols-an-interview-with-hierodeacon-herman/

Fr. Herman’s Choral Advent Calendar Curated daily posts of (mostly Western) choral music and carols for the Nativity Fast, Christmas, and Theophany, each with brief introduction and text. http://www.svots.edu/