December 2010

As another Christmas gift, during this period of preparation for Christmas, I would like to offer some verses (troparia) from the Canon of Christmas, a beautiful set of hymns sung during Orthros. These hymns are small poetical gems through which we get glances of the depth of the mystery of the Incarnation.

Christ is born! Glorify Him!

Ode 1


Christ is born: glorify Him! Christ has come down from heaven: receive Him! Christ is now on earth; exalt Him! O earth, sing to the Lord! O nations, praise Him in joy, for He has been glorified!

Man fell from the divine life of grace. though made in the image and likeness of God, he became completely subject to corruption and decay through sin. but now the wise Creator re-creates man again, for He has been glorified.

When He saw man perishing, whom He ahd made with His own hands, the Creator bowed the heavens and came down. He took man’s nature from the pure Virgin and He truly became a man, for He has been glorified.

Ode 3

To the Son, born of the Father before all ages and without any change, to Christ our god who in these times was pleased to be incarnate of the Virgin Mary, let us lift up our voices an dsay, “Holy are You, O Lord: You have lifted us up from our fallen state!”

Though formed from dust, Adam shared in the breath of life from God; yet through the beguilement of a woman, he slipped and fell into corruption. but now, seeing Christ born of a woman, he cries aloud: “For my sake, You have become like me! Holy are You, O Lord!”

O Christ, You became a creature made of the clay from the earth; by sharing in our human nature, You made us share in Your divine nature. You became a mortal man, but You are still God. Holy are You, O Lord: You have lifted us up from our fallen state!”

People talk about the “meaning” of Christmas as love or peace or family or presents. How many of us think of the meaning of Christmas as “re-creation”, that by becoming a human being God is renewing human nature, He is making us over again by making Himself in our image and likeness. Unless we appreciate the tranformation brought about by the Incarnation, then we have missed the entire point of Christmas. As Orthodox Christians we need to reclaim the “true meaning of Christmas”!


As a Christmas Gift, I would like to give you the first part of St. Gregory’s Oration 38 (translated by Fr. George D. Dragas). This section is an exhortation to the proper celebration of the Feast. The second part is a theological discussion of the Incarnation, with refuations of the pagans and heretics. If you would like to read the whole text, please go to

God becomes man

I. Let us Celebrate Christmas.

Christ is born; glorify Him. Christ from heaven; go out to meet Him. Christ on earth; be exalted. Sing unto the Lord all the earth (Ps. 96:1,11); and (to join both in one word) Let the heavens rejoice; and let the earth be glad for Him Who is of heaven and then of earth. Christ in the flesh; rejoice with trembling and with joy; with trembling because of your sins, with joy because of your hope. Christ of a Virgin; O you Women live as Virgins, that you may be Mothers of Christ. Who does not worship Him Who is from the beginning? Who does not glorify Him Who is the Last?

II. Why we celebrate Christmas. 
Again the darkness is past; again Light is made; again Egypt is punished with darkness; again Israel is enlightened by a pillar (Ex. 14:20). Let the people that sat in the darkness of ignorance see the Great Light of full knowledge (Is. 9:6). The old things are passed away, behold all things have become new (I Cor. 5:17). The letter gives way; the Spirit comes to the front. The shadows flee away; the Truth comes in upon them. Melchisedec is summoned to appear (Heb. 7:3).  He that was without Mother becomes without Father (without Mother of His former state, without Father of His second). The laws of nature are overcome; the world above must be completed. Christ commands it, let us not set ourselves against Him. O clap your hands together all you people (Ps. 47:1), because a Child is born to us, and a Son is given to us, Whose Government is upon His shoulder (for He took it up through the Cross), and His Name is called “The Angel of the Great Counsel of the Father” (Is. 9:6). Let John cry, “Prepare the way of the Lord” (Mat. 3:3): I too will cry out the power of this Day. He Who is not carnal is Incarnate; the Son of God becomes the Son of Man, Jesus Christ the Same yesterday, and to-day, and for ever (Heb. 13:8). Let the Jews be offended, let the Greeks deride (I Cor. 1:23); let heretics talk till their tongues ache. Then shall they believe, when they see Him ascending up into heaven; and if not then, yet when they see Him coming out of heaven and sitting as Judge.

III. The Meaning of Christmas. 
Of these on a future occasion; for the present the Festival is the Theophany or Birthday, for it is called both, two titles being given to the one thing. For God was manifested to man by birth. On the one hand Being, and eternally Being, of the Eternal Being, above cause and word, for there was no word before The Word; and on the other hand for our sakes also Becoming, that He Who gives us our being might also give us our Well-being, or rather might restore us by His Incarnation, when we had by wickedness fallen from well-being. The name Theophany is given to it in reference to the Manifestation, and that of Birthday in respect of His Birth.

IV. Let us Celebrate Christmas In A Godly Manner.
This is our present Festival; it is this which we are celebrating today, the Coming of God to Man, that we might go forth (Eph. 4:22,24), or rather (for this is the more proper expression) that we might go back to God – that putting off the old man, we might put on the New; and that as we died in Adam, so we might live in Christ (I Cor. 15:22), being born with Christ and crucified with Him and buried with Him and rising with Him (Col. 2:11). For I must undergo the beautiful conversion, and as the painful succeeded the more blissful, so the more blissful must come out of the painful. For where sin abounded Grace did much more abound (Rom. 5:20); and if a taste condemned us, how much more does the Passion of Christ justify us? Therefore let us keep the Feast, not after the manner of a heathen festival, but after a godly sort; not after the way of the world, but in a fashion above the world; not as our own, but as belonging to Him Who is ours, or rather as our Master’s; not as of weakness, but as of healing; not as of creation, but of re-creation.

V. Let Us Not Celebrate Christmas In A Pagan Manner. 
And how shall this be? Let us not adorn our porches, nor arrange dances, nor decorate the streets; let us not feast the eye, nor enchant the ear with music, nor stimulate the nostrils with perfume, nor prostitute the taste, nor indulge the touch, those roads that are so prone to evil and entrances for sin; let us not be effeminate in clothing soft and flowing, whose beauty consists in its uselessness, nor with the glittering of gems or the sheen of gold (Rom. 13:13), or the tricks of color, belying the beauty of nature, and invented to obscure the image of God; Not in rioting and drunkenness, with which are mingled, I know well, in fornication and wantonness, since the lessons which evil teachers give are evil; or rather the harvests of worthless seeds are worthless. Let us not set up high beds of luxury, making shrines for the belly of what belongs to debauchery. Let us not toast with fragrant wines, the specialties of cooks, the great expense of perfumes. Let not sea and land bring us as a gift their precious refuse, for it is thus that I have learnt to estimate luxury; and let us not strive to outdo each other in intemperance (for to my mind every superfluity is intemperance, and all which is beyond absolute need),-and this while others are hungry and in want, who are made of the same clay and in the same manner.

VI. What is The Difference Between Pagan And Christian Celebrations. 
Let us leave all these to the Pagan Greeks and to the pomp and festivals of the Pagan Greeks, who call by the name of gods beings who rejoice in the stench of sacrifices, and who consistently worship with their belly; evil inventors and worshippers of evil demons. But we, the Object of whose adoration is the Word, if we must in some way have luxury, let us seek it in word, and in the Divine Law, and in histories; especially such as are the origin of this Feast; that our luxury may be akin to and not far removed from Him Who has called us together. Or do you desire (for to-day I am your entertainer) that I should set before you, my good Guests, the story of these things as abundantly and as nobly as I can, that you may know how a foreigner can feed the natives of the land, and villager people of the town, and one who cares not for luxury those who delight in it, and one who is poor and homeless those who are eminent for wealth?

St. Gregory’s strictures on celebration might be considered somewhat strict, but I think his point is well taken. How can we celebrate with luxuries and gold, when there are people who have nothing to eat and no place to live? He condemns the intemperance of the celebration; a truly temperate celebration would include using the money saved to help those in need.

I heard from my high school sons today that when a fellow student was greeted with “Merry Christmas”, his response was, “I don’t celebrate Christmas, I celebrate Yule.”

Granted, he was making a “statement”; he is not a Christian, but a practitioner of Wicca. Nonetheless, I baffles me why people react this way. It is as if the person giving the greeting was doing it with some malicious intent: “I hate you, so I am going to wish you a Merry Christmas!”

Why is it so difficult for people to accept the happiness contained in wishing the other person the joy of whatever holiday they are celebrating. Naturally, you would not wish someone a “Merry Christmas” if you know that they do not celebrate it; but if you do not know the person or what particular holiday he/she celebrates, why not wish them a sincere greeting of the holiday that means something to you? I wish someone a “Merry Christmas”, not in order to convert them to Christianity, or even to make a theological statement about the Feast; I am wishing them the same joy and happiness that I experience in celebrating the birth of Christ. If a Jewish person wished me a “Happy Hanukah”, I would accept it in the same spirit. Otherwise we are stuck with the colorless and meaningless “Happy Holidays”. Is there really someone out there who celebrates the generic feast of “holidays”?

The exchanging of greetings at times of celebration is probably the closest we get in our fallen society to love. The joy expressed in a greeting knows no social, economic, or academic classes. It is simply the gift of joy given from one person to another. When it is accepted and returned in the spirit with which it was offered, a sacred moment occurs which links two human beings, who may not even know each other, in a common bond of celebration and joy. I saw this today as we said good-bye to the guests at our St. Basil’s Soup Kitchen. After having enjoyed a warm meal and good company, the guests were returning to their sometimes lonely, sometimes difficult lives. But, as we wished each one a “Merry Christmas”, their faces immediately lit up. Their Christmases may not be particularly merry in reality, but for one moment there was a shared joy between us.

I remember a story from many years ago, told to me by a friend of mine who was a rabbi. When he was in college, he belonged to a choral group. It was the custom of this group to go carolling at Christmas time in a local nursing home. Being the only Jewish person in the group, he felt awkward and uncomfortable singing about the birth of Jesus. He even thought about not singing. Then he looked around at the faces of the old and sick people they were singing for. Their little offering of carols brightened their day, brought them some joy, and made them forget their suffering even for a brief moment. This sharing of joy transcended any theological divisions,and he felt more comfortable with the songs.

When we reject the joyful greetings of our fellow human beings, no matter what feast they may celebrate, we simply show ourselves as self-centered and incapable of love, incapable of accepting the love that is being offered to us by another person. This self-centeredness tends to be a characteristic of ours throughout the rest of the year. Maybe we could begin to correct it by sharing in the joy that is offered to us with a sincere heart.

Tree of Jesse

This Sunday’s Gospel reading, from the first chapter of Matthew, has always been one of my absolute favorites. First of all, I love reading the Hebrew names (that’s the philologist in me!). I also like to see St. Matthew organizing world history so that it nicely leads up to the birth of Christ in regular 14 generational units.

But, above all, I like to see the family that our Lord was born into. St. Matthew is establishing our Lord’s legal claim to be the descendant of David, and therefore had a rightful claim to the throne of Israel. But it is also a simple statement of the wonder, and truth, of the Incarnation.

If you look at the pedigree of the Greek heroes, they are always from the best stock, usually descended from gods, and are the most handsome, the strongest, the wisest, the founders of cities and the bringers of civilization. Only the best ancestors for the great heroes. If a person were to invent the lineage of the Messiah, he would certainly emphasize the virtue and stength of character, how all of his ancestors were pious and kept the Law of God strictly. Instead, we find adulters and murderers (David himself, Manasseh), idolators (Solomon, Manasseh, Amos), and generally immoral men. There were also good and holy men as well (David again, Hezekiah, Josiah). Pretty much like everyone else’s families! When God became a human being, he entered into a normal human family with normal human ancestors.

The most interesting aspect of this Gospel, however, are the five women mentioned in the geneology. The last, of course, is the Theotokos. But, besides her, three of the women are women of questionable virtue and the fourth is a foreigner.

The first is Tamar, the mother of Judah’s sons Perez and Zerah. Her story is told in Genesis 38. She was married to Judah’s son Er who died young because of his evil. She was then given to Judah’s son Onan for him to raise up children for his brother. He refused and died. Judah was afraid to give her his last son Shelah, so he sent her back to her father’s house as a widow. Later on, when she heard that Judah was coming, she disguised herself as a prostitute and sat by the road. Judah made a rendevouz and gave his ring and staff as a pledge that he would send the payment later. Tamar became pregnant from the encounter and was accused to Judah of immoral actions as a widow. Judah ordered her burned, but she sent him the ring and the staff as a sign of the one who got her pregnant. Judah relented and saw that she was in the right, since he had not given her his last son as he should have.

The second is Rahab, the wife of Salmon and the mother of Boaz. Her story can be found in Joshua 2; 6:22-25. She was a prostitute in Jericho and saved the Israelite spies when they came to see the vulnerability of the city. She did so because she believed that God had worked wonders for Israel and was giving them the land.

The third is Ruth, a Moabite. The story of her loyalty to and love for her mother-in-law Naomi is told in the Book of Ruth. Although she was a foreigner and a pagan, her love her for mother-in-law, after her husband died, caused her to adopt her mother-in-law’s nation and God.

Where you go, I will go, where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.

Finally there is Bathsheba, the wife of David and the mother of Solomon. Her story can be found in 2 Kings (2 Samuel) 11-12:25. Interestingly, she is not named, but only called the wife of Uriah, in order to emphasize David’s double sin of adultery and murder. David fell in love with Bathsheba;  they had a liason and she became pregnnt. David then had Uriah placed in the front of the battle where he was certainly going to be killed. After Uriah died, David married Bathsheba. However, God was not pleased, and allowed their first child to die.

The character of these women, all ancestors of God-become-man, emphasize the mixture of virtue and vice in God’s family. They also show how God uses the instruments that he has, no matter how unworthy, to bring about his plan for salvation. This fact certainly should give us hope in our own families. Despite our own failings and sins, God can still use us to lead our families to salvation, to a union with God who became part of a very human, fairly dysfunctional family in order to sanctify our own very human, fairly dysfunctional families.


Christmas carols are not always noted for their theological depth. On the whole, they’re not supposed to be. They are light-hearted reflections on the mystery of Christmas meant to be sung in popular settings.

There are, however, some Christmas carols that are deceptive in their simplicity. Underneath the contemplation of the poor baby in the cold, or the shepherds in the field, or the relative value of gold, frankincense and myrrh, sometimes we can find a profound theological reflectio

Alphonsus de Liguori

One of my very favorite carols fits this bill. It is a simple song, originally written in the Neapolitan dialect by a Roman Catholic bishop in the 18th century. Alphonsus de’ Liguori, the founder of the Roman Catholic order of the Redemptorists wrote this beautiful carol while staying at the Convent of the Consolation in southern Italy. The original lyrics were written in the Neapolitan dialect and the song was traditionally accompanied by the zampogna or bagpipe. The carol was rewritten by Pius IX in standard Italian.

The lyrics are simple and direct and yet very profound (translation from

Tu scendi dalle stelle                        You come down from the stars   
O Re del Cielo                                        Oh King of Heavens,
E vieni in una grotta                          And you come in a cave
Al freddo al gelo                                  In the cold, in the frost.
E vieni in una grotta                          And you come in a cave
Al freddo al gelo.                                 In the cold, in the frost.

O  Bambino mio Divino                    Oh my Divine Baby
Io ti vedo qui a tremar,                    I see you trembling here,
O Dio Beato!                                          Oh Blessed God
Ah, quanto ti costò                            Ah, how much it cost you,
L’avermi amato.                                 Your loving me.
Ah, quanto ti costò                            Ah, how much it cost you,
L’avermi amato.                                 Your loving me.

A te che sei del mondo,                    For you, who are of all the world
Il creatore,                                            The creator,
Mancano panni e fuoco,                   No robes and fire,
O mio Signore.                                      Oh my Lord,
Mancano panni e fuoco,                   No robes and fire,
O mio Signore.                                     Oh my Lord.

Caro eletto pargoletto,                     Dear chosen one, little infant,
Quanto questa povertà                    This dire poverty,
Più mi innamora,                                Makes me love you more.
Giacchè ti fece amor                         Since Love made you
Povero ancora.                                   Poor now.
Giacchè ti fece amor                         Since Love made you
Povero ancora.                                   Poor now.

This is such a beautiful carol! I am always especially moved by the endings of the two refrains. “How much did it cost you to have loved me?” Love always has a price; that price is your whole self. And God, to show his incomprehensible love for us, became a human being and, in taking our full human nature, also took on the pain of death. Such a price! These simple and beautiful words put us directly into the presence of the pure love of God. He has given us the gift of himself and that gift cost him his life. How much do we spend on a gift for God?

Nativity Icon

We see this same truth expressed in the Icon of the Nativity. The truth is not expressed explicitly, but impresses itself on our hearts as we stand before the icon. The image has a strong vertical and a strong horizontal axis. These axes form a cross upon which the whole icon is based. And the bars cross directly over the child in the manger. This is not simply a representation of a poor human family; this is the proclamation that the suffering of the child in the cold cave is an anticipation of what he will suffer on the cross out of love for us.

The second refrain is similar: “How much does this poverty make me love you because love made you poor now.” God’s emptying of himself, as St. Paul tells us in the Epistle to the Philippians (2:6: who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.), is, again, the cost of love; God’s love for us is so expensive, that there is nothing left for comforts or wealth in this world. He has reduced himself to become a little baby shivering in the cold for love of us. If such profound love does not inspire a greater love in us day after day, how cold and mercenary have we become?

The carol also makes it clear that the little child that we are contemplating is, in fact, God himself. No superficial warm and fuzzies here! The sentiment is echoed at the end of the Kontakion for the Preparation for the Nativity: who is willing to be gazed upon as a young child who before the ages is God. The profoundest theology is always expressed in the simplest phrases!

Christmas time in our society seems to bring with it a lot of depression and down feelings. Perhaps it is from an unsuccessful attempt to recreate the innocent joy we all experienced as children on Christmas morning, getting up at the crack of dawn to see the presents Santa Claus brought. I still remember carefully averting my eyes if I needed to go to the bathroom during the night, since there was a clear view of the living from the hallway leading to the bathroom. The last thing I wanted to do was to ruin that pure surprise of seeing the presents. Now as adults, we can no longer experience that pure joy; maturity, society, our own skepticism have tarnished the experience for us.

I think, however, that there is another source for this depression. If you look around, if you listen to the “Christmas Songs” piped over radio and department store loudspeakers, you notice the unreality of the Christmas that is being presented. There should be “peace on earth”, we should all be “holly jolly” and “mistletoing”. War can cease, as long as we want it; people miraculously find their way home for the holidays. Even snowmen manage not to melt for the season.

We as human beings simply cannot exist in such an atmosphere of shallow yet pervasive happiness. Like a plant that has no roots, it quickly withers and dies; nothing is left but emptiness. Even though society has effectively removed Christ from Christmas, and even our own faithful seem to think that parties on Christmas Eve are the way to worship the new-born King, instead of the Divine Liturgy and Holy Communion, yet we still have to schlog through the “Happy Holidays” without any protest. Society does not allow us to doubt and struggle and come to faith, because the mystery has been removed from Christmas. All that remains is vapid happiness.

The true celebration of Christmas, however, leaves a lot of room for what we might call “the darkness”. When we approach Christmas not as “for the children”, or “all about hope and joy”, but see it for the profound mystery that it really is–God emptying himself to take on our human nature–“willing to be gazed on as a young child, the God from before the ages” (Kontakion for the Preparation of the Nativity), we are confronted with something that our meager human minds cannot really comprehend. And so we struggle and wrestle with the mystery; we believe and we doubt, and in the struggle between the two our faith becomes stronger.

The Nativity of our Lord

Look at the icon of the Nativity. The mystery of God becoming man stands at the center; the little child and his mother immediately attract our attention. The two are surrounded by the actors in the story: the angels, the shepherds and the magi. But down in the corner, sometimes the right, sometimes the left, depending on the tradition–that is where we are. There we see the righteous Joseph huddled, deep in thought, struggling with everything he has seen and experienced. Unlike Mary, Joseph has been an outsider to the events (which is why he is placed at the outskirts of the icon), and has to come to some understanding and faith. But before him stands a figure in black–Satan; he engages Joseph in conversation, trying to turn his faith into disbelief. The most beautiful aspect of the icon is the face of the Theotokos–she does not look at her new-born son; nor does she look at the worshipper before the icon. Rather, she looks toward Joseph, praying that his faith will not wane, that he will be victorious in his struggle with doubt.

Mary looking toward Joseph

The hymns from the Royal Hours of Christmas also express this “permission” to struggle with doubt. In a doxastikon from the First Hour we sing:

Joseph spoke to the Virgin in this way: “What is this that I see happening in you, O Mary? I fail to understand and I am amazed! My mind is struck with dismay. Leave my sight therefore, with all speed! What is this which I see in you, O Mary? Instead of honor, you have brought me shame! Instead of gladness, sorrow! Instead of praise, rebuke! No longer can I bear the reproach of men. I was married to you by the priests in the Temple as one blameless before the Lord. And what is this that I now see?”

You can hear the hurt disbelief in the hymn. In a sense, the Church gives us the same permission to struggle and question, to wrestle with this profound mystery, so far beyond our understanding.

A doxastikon from the Ninth Hour approaches the same struggle of doubt from Mary’s perspective:

O Virgin, when Joseph went up to Bethlehem distressed by sorrow, you said to him: “why are you downcast and troubled at seeing me pregnant? Why do you not know the mystery which has come to pass in my? Cast every fear aside and understand this strange marvel: in my womb, God is coming down to earth for the sake of mercy, and He has taken flesh in me! you shall see Him when he is born! Filled with joy, you shall worship Him as your Creator! The angels ceaselessly praise Him in song and they glorify Him with the Father and the Holy Spirit!”

Even on the way to Bethlehem, Joseph is presented as sorrowful and confused. He is immediately obedient to the command of the angel, but he doesn’t really understand. But, the struggle cannot stay at this stage; if it does, it will only degenerate into rejection. There has to be some action; we have to pray, we have to read, we have to trust. Joseph does not remain unbelieving, but comes out of the other end of the struggle victorious, as we sing in the Doxastikon of the Third Hour:

Joseph, how can you bring to Bethlehem, pregnant with child, the Maiden whom you married in the sanctuary? “I have searched the prophets and have been warned by an angel. I am convinced that mary will give birth to God in a way surpassing all understanding. magi shall come from the East to worship Him with precious gifts!

Unlike polyanna society, the Church leaves us room to struggle with the mystery, to engage our doubt, to learn and to come to a strong and lasting faith. There is nothing superficial in this story; the strains of joy and relief that we hear in this last hymn are true and lasting, because a honest doubt and a prayerful inquiry into this great mystery will lead to a fuller participation in the life of God, who willed to become a baby out of love for us.

It seems that my children, at least some of them, are not capable of keeping Christmas gifts for giving at Christmas! So, in that spirit of wonderful anticipation, I would like to give the brave souls who venture to read my poor daily offerings a Christmas gift of love. Here is a small selection of aphorisms of Mother Gavrilia. Read them slowly and carefully. Sometimes the shortest ones are the most profound! Let the words seep into your heart and retreat there often during the day to think about them, and what they mean in your life. Pick one to implement today! Merry Christmas!

  1. There is nothing cheaper than money.
  2. If you love the whole world, the whole world is beautiful.
  3. Man wants his freedom. Why? So that he may be a slave to his own passions.
  4. When the mind is not distracted by worldly matters and  and remains united to God, then even the “Good Day” that we say becomes a blessing.
  5. Never identify a person with the wrong way in which he is treating you, but see Christ in his heart.
  6. Never ask: “Why has this happened to me?” When you see somebody suffering from gangrene or cancer or blindness, never say: “Why has this happened to him?” Instead, pray God to grant you the vision of the other shore…Then, like the Angels, you will be able to see things as they really are: Everything in god’s plan. EVERYTHING.
  7. If you do not like somebody, think that you see Christ in that person. then, you would not even dare utter a word of criticism.
  8. We must love people and accept them in our hearts as god presents them to us. It has been ordained by the Lord Himself and by the Orthodox Tradition.
  9. What we say remains in eternity.
  10. The voice of God is silence.

Remain a little in silence now to hear that voice!

(taken from The Ascetic of Love by Nun Gavrilia)

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