Posts Tagged ‘Jesus Christ’

Uncreated Star of Bethlehem

Five years ago I alluded to this, but I’ve just seen concise discussion of it from no less than the Father of the Church St. John Chrysostom, and from certain Old Testament prophecies ‘in its Light.’

It also makes me think of how some non-Orthodox “got saved” by God….  The Apolytikion (a hymn) given on this page brings home the point.  The Magi are commemorated as Saints on Dec. 25.  (Recall that Orthodoxy commemorates the Magi’s Adoration of the Incarnate YHWH not on Jan. 6 but at Christmas; our Great Feast of Theophany [Epiphany] focuses on His Baptism in the Jordan by St. John the Forerunner [Baptist].)  OrthodoxWiki mentions the memory of their eventual baptism by St. Thomas the Apostle to the Indo-Iranians, and service to The Church as Bishops.

What about the mentions of an angel?  Readers of this blog may recall our discussions of the uncreated Logos-Angel from many Old Testament theophanies … highlighted in the writings of Greek-American theologian Fr. John S. Romanides (†2001) … so this need not be a problem, especially because Orthodoxy reminds us that the Divine Hypostatic Logos is not circumscribed by His Incarnation, ie, not ‘completely contained’ in or limited by His Human Body.  Could He appear as Infant and “Angel” at the same time?  Unusual perhaps, but I don’t see why not, although I must confess I haven’t seen this explicitly discussed anywhere yet.

One Web source I read said Western European pagans, even before Christianization, appreciated this, as it were their ‘cameo’ appearance at the very beginning of Christianity’s New Testament.  Similarly, I can say that even as a blond Western Catholic child here in the States, I was fascinated by and appreciated my family’s small wood-and-hay(?) Nativity set featuring non-Mediterranean-looking “kings”: a blond, an African, and an East Asian!*  I also read that extracanonical accounts ‘internationalizing’ them are quite old indeed.  Well, they do “represent the Gentiles,” and foreshadow many more of our ancestors’ conversions to the Faith….  For some reason I thought of the “White” one as some aged King of England — I didn’t know then that that title and State didn’t exist during Christ’s life on Earth!

I couldn’t leave this off without a plug for Bethlehem, Pennsylvania’s “Christmas Star” (or another picture of it).  One night during college, around 1985-86, I was driving around town lost (though sober)** and someone told me I almost knocked it down or something!  It sits atop Wyandotte Hill/South Mountain, one of Penna.’s many long, skinny, relatively-low,*** ridge-like mountains, that divides the Lehigh Valley from the main Philadelphia area, as well as from my undergraduate school campus just south of Bethlehem.

And, twelve “kings”?  Catholic priest / sociologist / novelist Andrew Greeley’s Russian (Orthodox) lay student / artist / mystic / beauty / love interest in his 1997 Christmas / spiritual classic Star Bright! (available here) alludes to a 12-magi tradition, without many details except to say something I haven’t encountered personally in Orthodoxy yet, that “We Russians know there were 12 kings” (or words to that effect).  But an English translation of the apocryphal Syriac Revelation of the Magi has recently come out, and it names twelve.  Furthermore, if one Amazon reviewer reports correctly, if you have any Western European ancestry, you may have one or more Magi in your family tree.  How’s that for Gentile foreshadowing?!  Other reviews lead me to doctrinal caution about the Revelation [Apocalypse??] of the Magi, but also hint (seemingly unknowingly) at o/Orthodox Uncreated Energies Theology perhaps.  But some of the kings named by the Armenian reviewer have names or associations I might have encountered a long time ago while tracing my Norman Irish ancestors (Hibernicized McCoogs) into traditional medieval West European royal and noble genealogies … the kind today’s experts say are dubious, but were part of our cultures for most of the last thousand years if not longer … and geneticists now say we might all share in some way.  (Something like some Assyrian kings back there too, being Semites, traditionally then Kin of God!)  (This is another review I saw of it, from a Catholic perspective.)

PS: Many Years to Fr. Greeley!  Glad to see he’s doing better some!  Thank God!

(*–The one with the wind-up music box playing “Silent Night.”)

(**–If you can read and comprehend this without getting a headache, you’re a better driver than I was!)

(***–Compared to, say, the Adirondacks, or the Rockies.)

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…or one of the importances, anyway, appears in the Kontakion (a kind of hymn) of the Great Feast of the Ascension commemorated last Thursday:

When Thou fulfilledst Thy Dispensation for our sake, uniting things on earth with the Heavens, Thou ascendedst in Glory, O Christ Our God, but departing not hence, remaining inseparable from us, and crying unto them that love Thee: “I am with you, and no one shall be against you!” *

Translations into English may vary, including breaking-off the participial phrases into separate sentences or subordinate clauses.  (Sorry, I’m an English major whom they let study Greek! 😉 )  But Patristics often calls Christ’s Incarnation His “Dispensation;” thus His Ascension into Heaven “fulfilled the Incarnation,” or completed it.  How?  “Uniting things on earth with the Heavens.”  Orthodox Christology maintains that in His Incarnation, Christ united the created with the Uncreated “without confusion, change, division, or separation” of either human nature or Divine (IV Ecumenical Synod, Chalcedon).  This is made even clearer in His Ascension: the humanity that He raised from the dead at Pascha, He enthroned in heaven with the Father and the Holy Spirit at His bodily Ascension forty days later.  This may even be suggested by the idea that in the Gospel and Epistles of the Holy Apostle and Evangelist John the Theologian, “He is the vine and we are the branches” (see John 15), bringing us also upward to Heaven after Him at His Ascension, if we wish it with our lives, ie, if we truly are branches of Him, drawing His Uncreated Energy into ourselves by every means possible and manifesting it in our lives by His Graciousness.

Then, the Lord’s Ascension isn’t merely a neat trick, a grand finale, a big farewell, a UFO, or a metaphor, but the final act in His work on earth for our salvation, which work on earth was not complete until then.

(*–Adapted from the Jordanville Prayerbook.)

The main meaning of the Greek verb baptizo, from which the English word baptism is ultimately derived (as Mr. Portokalos advised us!), is to dip, as in water.

Christianity as such didn’t invent the practice of dipping converts in water.  The Old Testament Church sometimes baptized proselytes, and so did some other Near Eastern religions.  But dipping quickly became a hallmark of Christianity.  The Lord was baptized by the Holy Prophet, Forerunner, and Baptist, John, and very early, Christians commemorated this on a yearly basis, along with the Lord’s other “manifestations,” on the Great Feast of the Theophany, January 6.  The Gospel According to St. John the Theologian 3:22, 4:1-2 indicates that the Lord Himself and/or His disciples baptized followers very early.  Water imagery is frequent in the Gospels.  And of course, the Lord commanded his Apostles to ‘make students [disciples] of all nations, dipping them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,’ which they did, as the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles attest.

However, I haven’t made a study of it, but I have never seen a depiction, East or West, of the Lord’s Baptism by John, in which He seemed completely immersed in the waters of the Jordan River by John.  (That might be hard to draw or paint.)  Usually what seems to be going on is that the Lord, or both He and John, are standing in the river, partially immersed, with John pouring water over the Lord’s head.  Today Orthodox Judaism requires total immersion for some mikvah bath-taking, including for conversion to the faith.  Something similar is reflected in Orthodox Christian theology, East and, originally, West, from very early on, including in the canonical Epistles.  The most profound o/Orthodox theology around Christian Baptism is actually uniting the convert to Christ’s Death, Burial, and Resurrection from the Dead, as the Holy Apostle Paul is well-known to point out (see Romans 6).  The early Fathers of the Church discuss how triple-immersion Baptism mimics burial in the ground and resurrection from the dead – done three times, once for each day the Lord spent in the tomb; or for His (1) Death, (2) Burial, and (3) Resurrection from the Dead; and of course for (1) the Father, (2) the Son, and (3) the Holy Spirit, as He commanded.  In fact some Christian sects baptized by single-immersion, and this was condemned by Ecumenical Councils as “baptism only into His Death,” as if not also into His Burial and Resurrection from the Dead.  Thus, even now, the unbaptized enter Orthodox Christianity by triple immersion.

Theologically, Orthodox Baptism unites you to the Lord’s Death, Burial, and Resurrection from the Dead – the Mystery of our Salvation.  In this way, you are united energetically – in His Energies, but not His imparticipable Essence – to Him, becoming a member of His Body, His Orthodox Church, just like His hands and feet, eyes and ears, mouth and nose, as St. Paul says repeatedly.  God’s All-Holy Spirit, of course, is “everywhere present, filling all things,” as Orthodox pray constantly in the prayer “O Heavenly King.”  But especially in Christ’s Body, whether during His three years on Earth, now in Heaven, or in His Body on Earth the Orthodox Church since Pentecost.  So it is as a member of Christ’s Body that you have the Holy Spirit dwelling in you too after Baptism and the sealing with the Holy Spirit, Chrismation (“confirmation”), immediately after Baptism.  Thus is Adam and Eve’s sin, the Ancestral Sin, removed from you – through your “death,” “resurrection from the dead,” union with Christ Himself “who knew no sin,” and filling with His Divine Spirit.

Somehow much of this has been lost in Western Christian tradition, where baptism became associated only formalistically with water, washing, joining the church, and salvation, as exemplified by the old Catholic Encyclopedia article.  By which I mean that they may sometimes still say the words in the homily or in spiritual journals or theological essays, but as someone who studied for both Latin and Protestant ministries, I can say they lack the resonance that they have in an Orthodox Church that baptizes by immersion.  As the CE points out, non-immersion Baptism was (and still is, in Orthodoxy) always considered permissible in unusual circumstances – unavailability of sufficient water, illness or decrepitude, disability, maybe even a perceived need for secrecy in situations of persecution.  But according to this source (scroll to bottom), baptism by pouring became the usual method in the West just on the eve of the Protestant Reformation.  I am unable to find out why it did so even in the case of infants – the most common candidates for baptism – who should be pretty easy to dip!  But I have a theory: In what might be called ‘standing immersion,’ as with depictions of the Lord, water was poured over the candidate’s head – in o/Orthodox Christianity, perhaps evoking His Burial at least by completely covering the body with some water, even after the fashion of throwing dirt on the grave.  Now if the association of Baptism with Christ’s Burial and Resurrection from the Dead was essentially lost in the West, you were left with pouring water over the head without standing in water, a theology mostly of (merely) washing (ie, “washing away Original Sin”), and from there, the degradation of the rite and its associations in faith and practice, until you reach a point where a slightly-revived Immersion practice (post-Vatican II) is feared by some Latins as threatening the theology of the sacrament!  You even have the obsession of some Western schools of theology – Latin and Protestant, for and against – with the question of ‘how little is required to have a “valid baptism”?’, leading to exhaustive, contrived discussions of sprinkling, smudging, use of sand, baptism by a nonbeliever, even baptizing in utero, and all the other s/Scholastic excesses that never had any significant place in actual Western Christian life.  I don’t have specific historical information regarding how the association with Christ’s Burial and Resurrection from the Dead were essentially lost, except to cite the general erosion of o/Orthodox t/Theology in the West, especially after the final real loss of Communion by the West with the rest of the Church dated at AD 1054.  (Celt that I am, I’m developing a renewed appreciation for just how “dark” the “Dark Ages,” a Western phenomenon,* really became – tragically.  Why would God allow that?)

Under Western influence, some Orthodox dioceses (and apparently most Byzantine-Rite Eastern Catholics) temporarily adopted Baptism by Pouring as their main method in the 16-1800s, but I believe most if not all Orthodox now normally use some form of Immersion again.  There is some discussion about how to receive converts to Orthodoxy who have been previously baptized by various methods in Heterodox Christianity, and it has varied somewhat historically from time to time, from place to place, and from Heterodox church to Heterodox church, but I believe the most common method, at least in the United States now, is by Chrismation – as I was received into the Greek Archdiocese of America in 2002 – not seeing an absolute need for a fresh Orthodox Baptism given the situation here.  (It’s actually more complex than that, and I don’t have a firm grip on it myself, but this is the decision of our Bishops and Synods, whose responsibility it is.  Greek Orthodox Metropolitan ISAIAH of Denver, who I am under the impression is quite the theologian, discusses this pastorally in a couple letters to his clergy in 2000 here and here.  The Archdiocese also advises me that it’s technically on a case-by-case basis.)

(*–Remember that only in the West did the true Empire of the Romans fall in the middle of the first Christian millennium.  It lived on in the East for another 1,000 years, with civilization, urbanity, literacy, science, etc.  Constantinople was the world’s largest city outside China!)

(UPDATED 4 August 2008, clarifying about the Son and Spirit proceeding eternally [ie, Their “existence”] only from the Father, ie, no Filioque in the true experience of God’s Glory.)

From Prophet of Roman Orthodoxy: The Theology of John Romanides, by Andrew J. Sopko, Dewdney, BC, Canada: Synaxis, 1998, pages 41-42:

Lest glorification/divinization be equated with a mystical ecstasy, it will suffice to say here that the true experience always contains a revelation of the Holy Trinity in uncreated glory. In the realization that there is no similarity between the uncreated and the created, the following are apprehended:

  • The co-inherence of the three divine persons;
  • The existence of two divine persons [ie, the Son and the Holy Spirit] from one divine person [ie, the Father only];
  • A common essence is shared by the persons;
  • The essence is incommunicable, while the energies are communicable;
  • Although the energies are communicable, they are not understandable;
  • Not only the divine essence, but the energy have no similarity with anything. And, if the revelation has occurred after the Incarnation,
  • Christ is the natural source of divinization.

is the name of this entirely Orthodox icon.

If she kind of looks to you like Jesus’ twin sister if he would’ve had one, you’re not far off! The “IC” and “XC” at the top are abbreviations for Iesous Christos, Jesus Christ in Greek, meant to leave no doubt as to the iconographer’s intentions. But why feminine, why the wings, and what does any of this have to do with “Stillness”?

There’s alot of theology packed into this particular icon. Some like it because it strikes them as feminist (even though it predates modern feminism by centuries!), especially when they learn about the tie-in with Sophia, Greek for Wisdom, ie, the Wisdom of God, which as St. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 1:24, is none other than Christ. The word Sophia is feminine in Greek, a tradition entirely supported by Proverbs 9:1-3, where Wisdom is said to have prepared her feast for people. For that matter, “He Hagia Hesychia,” the inscription in the bottom of the frame of this version of the icon, is also feminine; it means “Holy Stillness” (sometimes “Silence”).

This Christ-figure is also an Angel, hence the wings. Several times in the Old Testament, an Angel appears to a Prophet or Patriarch. Except that sometimes the Angel says “I AM the Lord/YHWH” (Christ is YHWH), or is identified as the Lord (Genesis 18), rather than “the Lord says.” Now, since nothing created directly reveals the Uncreated, ie God, that means at those times it wasn’t really a created angel, but GOD Godself! When the Word of God is heard, that’s the Pre-Incarnate Logos, the personal “Word of God”…one of whose Messianic titles in the Septuagint* Greek version of Isaiah 9:6 is “Angel of Great Counsel [sic].” Hence the figure in this icon is also sometimes referred to in theology as the Logos Angel. (This is also a good time to bring in the fact that the Hebrew word for the glorious appearance of God in His Uncreated Energies, Shekina, is also feminine.)

(*-The Septuagint Greek Old Testament is about a thousand years older than the Masoretic Text Hebrew on which most Christian Old Testaments used in the West today are based.)

“Stillness” comes in, in this way. The form of spiritual practice incorporating the Jesus Prayer I’ve mentioned before is called Hesychasm, from the Greek Hesychia. Whether one uses the Jesus Prayer or some other short prayer, and whether one is in the Old Testament, the New Testament, or later on in Orthodoxy, its goal is purification/self-discipline, Stillness of soul, to experience the appearance of God in Glory, W/wisdom, the revelation of God, etc….all embodied, as discussed above, by this feminine, winged Christ-figure.

God doesn’t necessarily appear in this way ever, but the icon is evocative (as well as provocative!). And since it’s based on the Incarnate Jesus Christ, it’s not at all blasphemous.