Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Pre-Festal Days of Christmas in the Christian East - Guest Article by Prof. Kyle Washut

NLM is very pleased to offer this article by Prof. Kyle Washut of Wyoming Catholic College. Prof. Washut is a Ukrainian Byzantine Catholic, and a specialist in the comparative study of the Eastern and Western liturgical traditions.

Churches in the Byzantine tradition have been getting ready for Christmas for a long time now. Our forty-day fast to prepare for the glorious feast began on November 15th, but its full intensity only sets in after December 11th. For all that our ascetical preparation exceeds our Western counterparts, however, our liturgical preparation, is nowhere near as obvious. There are occasional references made during Matins or Vespers to the coming of Christmas on certain key feasts: the Presentation of the Theotokos, St. Andrew, St. Nicholas and St. Anne’s Conception of the Theotokos; yet there is no variation to the cycle of the lectionary, or to the liturgical color worn by the clerics. Only the last two Sundays before Christmas are specifically linked to preparing for the feast, commemorating the ancestors of Christ while looking forward to His coming in the flesh. While there may be various para-liturgical observances that either specifically complement the preparation for Christmas, or that are appropriate for any fasting season, these are optional and vary greatly according to local custom.

Beginning on Dec. 20th, however, we formally enter into the “pre-festive” days, and now every night there are specific meditations at Vespers that look toward Christmas. In the troparion for these days, the Church turns our gaze in some ways forward to Christ, and at the same time, asks us to remember why Christ was born: “Bethlehem make ready, Ephratha prepare yourself. Eden has been opened for all…Christ was born to raise up the likeness that was fallen.” In her songs for these days, the Church especially draws us to consider the relation between Adam’s fall and Christ’s birth. In the Vespers aposticha (dismissal hymns), the Church employs the prophet Habakkuk to explain the link between Adam and Christmas, and offers us a guide in how to prepare ourselves for the coming feast.

“I heard the sound of you in the Garden, and I was afraid, so I hid myself.” These are Adam’s first post-fall words to God. Habakkuk the prophet took up the words of Adam and made them his own in a different context (Hab. 3). Like Adam, Habakkuk heard God coming. For Adam the sound was God walking in the garden; but for Habakkuk God is “coming from Teman, the Holy One from Mount Paran”, and the Church opens with this verse in her aposticha. Immediately following, the Church takes up Habakkuk’s and Adam’s response to this approach, “O Lord, I heard your voice and I was afraid; I knew your deeds and I was terrified.”

The language of Habakuk’s prayer in chapter 3 is similar to what Moses employs to describe the covenant from Mount Sinai, (Deut. 33, 2). In the context of Deuteronomy and its description of the Exodus covenant, however, the people of Israel are described as following in the Lord’s steps, freed from Egypt, joined to God. Habakuk uses almost identical language to describe God coming from Mount Paran, but with one major difference: in Habakuk, Israel is suffering, awaiting redemption. “O Lord how long shall I cry for help and you will not hear? Plead against tyranny, and no deliverance be granted me?” (chap. 1, 1). A little later the prophet declares, “I will take my stand to watch...and look forth to see what the Lord will say to me” (chap. 2, 1). Thus, Habakuk’s prayer is a prayer for the coming redemption, cast in the language of Exodus; the coming redemption will be like when God manifested His power at Mount Paran.

The Church identifies this expected redemption for which Habakuk waits as the Incarnation. By placing the verse from Habakuk’s prayer in the context of the pre-Christmas vespers, the Church makes his prayer her own, and by extension the words of Adam become the words of the whole Church: our life is full of sin and we hear the sound of the Lord’s approach and tremble. We both hope for His coming, and fear His approach; we yearn for the possibility of redemption, and yet are terrified when that glorious help comes near. Thus Adam’s answer to God, through the mediation of Habakkuk, becomes the Church’s prayer for the coming of Christ in the flesh. As sinners we are by that very fact distant from the mystery of Christmas. In repentance we are called to enter into the yearning and waiting for the fruits of the Incarnation, identifying ourselves with those who awaited it in time. And in the Christmas liturgy, the historic event is made present anew to us who have re-prepared for it.

Habakuk says that he has heard the report of the Lord’s coming, he has heard tell what the Lord sounds like when he walks in the garden, and he is in fear. And yet, he prays that the Lord will renew this awesome work in the midst of the years, and in wrath, to remember his mercy (chap. 3, 2). One can very much imagine Adam feeling the same way as he hears the glory of the Lord approaching him, and he trembles with fear, hoping against hope that in wrath God may remember mercy. As Habakkuk notes (3, 4-15), at the Lord’s coming in previous times, His glory covered the heavens, the earth echoed with his praise, and His brightness was like lightning flashing from his fingers. Before the Lord comes, there is pestilence and plague, the nations were shaken and the mountains were scattered and the hills brought low. The tents of his enemies were filled with affliction; his enemies trembled. It was as if He was angry with the rivers and the sea as he rode over them, stirring them to such a storm as if a giant chariot were spinning and splashing the waters. The depths of the sea and earth cried out, and the sun and moon stood still. And in all this sound of fury and destruction, the Lord “went forth for the salvation of thy people.” He crushed the head of the serpent and laid bare the nakedness of iniquity, and destroyed those who were at war with his people.

This then is the sound of Exodus, the sound of the Lord coming in the garden. He comes in wrath and mercy, in fury and for salvation. To crush the serpents head and expose the nakedness of Adam’s sin, but also to save him. And at all this Habakuk writes, “I hear and my body trembles, my lips quiver at the sound.”

Immediately after bringing all of this to mind, however, the Church offers various meditations to make clear
exactly what this terrible and yet hopeful sound is. On the twentieth of December she sings, “Behold the time of salvation is drawing near....God is to be born in the flesh to save the human race.” On the 21st, “The sayings of the prophets are being fulfilled because Christ is born of the pure virgin.” On the 22nd, “Christ is coming to crush the wicked One, to enlighten those who are in darkness...behold the virgin is coming to give birth to Christ.” All of Habakuk’s imagery of the power and glory of God is hidden in the little child born in a cave. In the words of the prophet, though his brightness was like light,“Here he has veiled his power” (3, 4).

Yet all of the powerful destruction that Habakkuk so vividly describes, although veiled, is still present in this mystery. For this reason, the Church commemorates a great martyr every day of the days of preparation for Christmas: Ignatius of Antioch, Julia, Anastasis, the ten Martyrs of Crete and Eugenia. All point to the wrath and fury of wickedness, that burns and churns the waters, but, as we pray at the Vespers for Ignatius, the martyrdom does not have its explanation in the fury of sin, but in the power of God: “There is no fire in me desiring to be fed, but there is within me a water that lives and speaks saying inwardly, Come to the Father! Therefore inflamed by the divine Spirit, you chose the beasts to separate you quickly from the world and to send you to the beloved.”
The Martyrdom of St. Ignatius of Antioch

The blood of the martyrs is the flip side of the veiled Incarnation; it is the power and majesty pouring forth, witnessing to the lightning, glory and fire hidden in the babe in the cave. The fury against sin, the exposure of the nakedness of evil, the crushing of wickedness is united to the bringing of salvation both in the bloodshed of the martyrs and in the tiny babe in the cave of Bethlehem.

Thus, the sound that Adam heard in the garden, that caused him to tremble, was the sound of God coming in the flesh to be born an infant. God will confirm this in His words to Adam: Childbirth, toil and work are the punishment of the fall, but through these, eventually, the seed of the woman will crush the head of the serpent, and bring salvation and the tree of life. Therefore, we too, must make the words of Adam our own. We must acknowledge the nakedness of our own guilt, laid bare in the light of the martyrs, and we must tremble as the glory of the Lord approaches us. And we must hide in the garden, not to avoid the coming of the Lord, but so that we may worthily respond to his awesome coming. How do we do this? There is a new garden now; as prayed in the troparion for the day , “The Tree of Life has blossomed forth form the Virgin in the cave. Her womb has become a spiritual paradise wherein the divine fruit was planted, and if we eat of it we shall live and not die like Adam.” We must turn to the Theotokos, and entrust ourselves to her protection. We must place ourselves under her care, as Adam hid himself in the garden. In so doing we are also fulfilling the command in the first strophe of the aposticha: “Magi, come with gifts! Hasten, oh Shepherds.” As the Magi and the Shepherds must go to the the Virgin in order to meet their God, so do we turn to her, in fear and trembling, but also, as the prophet Habakuk says, with joy. Though darkness stand around, “I will rejoice in the Lord, I joy in the God of my salvation. God the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like hinds’ feet, he makes me tread upon high places” (chap. 3, 19). It is indeed a time for joy, for the Lord is coming for a much overdue walk with mankind. But this time, when He again calls me, I will not stay cowering in fear, but instead rejoice as I tread the high places of the garden.

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