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!

 

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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)