Melkite Greek Catholic Church
 
THE SUNDAY OF THE FOREFATHERS intensifies our countdown to the feast of Christ’s Nativity. During the Nativity Fast, we celebrate the memorials of several Old Testament prophets – Obadiah (Nov. 19), Nahum (Dec. 1), Habbakuk (Dec. 2), Zepheniah (Dec. 3), Haggai (Dec. 16) and Daniel (Dec. 17). Today we reflect on how the entire Old Testament period has been a preparation for Christ and how it reveals Him as the long-awaited Messiah.

It is appropriate, as we prepare for Christmas, to reflect on what the Scriptures tell us preceded the Incarnation. The following timeline and reading guide may be helpful in doing so. All the dates older than 1000 bc are approximate.

Before Time

The Word was with God before anything material came to be (John 1:1-4). It is through this eternal Word that our material creation came into being.

The Pre-History of the Israelites

Before 4000 bc – The creation of our universe ● the human race falls away from communion with God ● life on earth as we know it begins. Genesis actually contains two creation stories. The first (Genesis 1:1 – 2:3) is a version of an older Babylonian myth, re-edited to teach that creation is by the will of the only true God, not the result of warring gods and demons. It is cast in the form of a single week to promote the character of the Sabbath as a day of rest. Its narrative (creation begins with a burst of light, followed by the creation of the planets, etc.) harmonizes with the modern Big Bang theory and subsequent discoveries

Before 3000 bc – Godlessness prevails and increases, illustrated by Cain and Abel, Lamech, Noah and the Great Flood (Genesis 4-9). According to Jewish tradition, God makes a new covenant with Noah after the flood. Man is committed to observe the seven Noahide Laws prohibiting idolatry, blasphemy, and the eating of meat with its blood (i.e. while the animal is still alive). They are also enjoined to establish courts of law.

Before 2100 bc – The rise of Middle Eastern peoples ● the Tower of Babel (Genesis 10, 11). Jewish tradition sees the tower as an act of arrogance aimed at world domination by a particular people which God rejects.

Before 1991 bc – Abraham and his sons, Isaac and Jacob (Genesis 12-36): God calls the Mesopotamian Abram, renames him and promises that his offspring will be as numerous as the stars and that they will inherit the land of Canaan. He establishes circumcision as the sign of that covenant.

Israel in Egypt

1900-1806 bc – Joseph and his brothers, the descendants of Abraham in Egypt (Genesis 37-50): Sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, Joseph becomes the most powerful person in Pharaoh’s court when he favorably interprets the sovereign’s dream, averting a famine in Egypt. He is then able to rescue his father and brothers and thus insure the Israelites’ survival.

1800-1446 bc – The Israelites prosper, then are enslaved (Exodus 1, 2).

1450-1400 bc – The call of Moses ● the exodus from Egypt ● beginnings of Judaism: the Ten Commandments, the establishment of the priesthood, and erection of the tabernacle (Exodus 2-40, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy). This is the formative experience of Israel, celebrated each year at the Passover: their liberation from slavery in Egypt and passage through the Red Sea to freedom in the Land promised by God to Abraham and his descendants.

The Promised Land

1400-1375 bc – Joshua leads the Israelites to conquer parts of the “Promised Land” 
(Joshua).

1375-1050 bc – Israelite tribes settle in the Promised Land. Governed by tribal elders, or Judges, they extend their control of the area at the expense of the Philistines (Judges, Ruth, 1 Samuel 1-7).

The United Kingdom

1050-931 bc – The Israelites form a united kingdom under Saul, David and Solomon. This is the Golden Age of the Israelite nation. Saul was chosen by God and anointed by the prophet Samuel to be the first king. In 1007, during a losing battle with the Philistines, Saul fell on his sword to avoid capture.

Through the prophet Samuel, God chooses the righteous (although flawed) David to succeed Saul. God makes a covenant with him that his throne would be established forever. David would be the ancestor of the Messiah, promised to come from the house of David. The third king, Solomon, was renowned for his wisdom and power. He is considered author of the earliest Biblical Wisdom Literature. Solomon built the temple in Jerusalem, but ultimately turned to the idolatry of his foreign wives (1 Sam 8-31; 1 Kings 1-11; Chronicles).

Breakup of the United Kingdom

931-860 bc – The kingdom is divided in two: north and south (Israel and Judah). Unity and monotheism give way to squabbling and pagan influences (1 Kings 12-17; 2 Chronicles).

860-722 bc – Prophets Elijah, Elisha, Joel, Amos, Hosea and Isaiah insist on a return to monotheism and justice among the people (1 Kings 17-22; 2 Kings 1-17; Joel; Amos; Hosea and Isaiah).

722 bc – Northern Kingdom (Israel) defeated. The victorious Assyrians settle foreigners in the land. The intermingling of Israelites and pagans gives rise to the Samaritans (2 Kings 17-24).

700-590 bc – Prophets Naoum, Zepheniah, Jeremiah, Habbakuk, and Ezekiel warn the Southern Kingdom (Judah) that they too have forsaken God and face destruction.

The Babylonian Captivity

588-586 bc – The Babylonians attack Jerusalem, conquer it and deport the Jewish elite to Babylon. Jeremiah and Ezekiel prophesy a return.

537 bc – The Persians defeat the Babylonians and allow the Jews to return to their country and rebuild Jerusalem (Ezra 1-6). Many Jews remain in Babylon and prosper there (Esther).

535-430 bc – Judah is restored, rediscovered temple scrolls become the basis of the Hebrew Scriptures, and Jewish life is revived (Ezra, Nehemiah) under nominal Persian rule.

Greek and Roman Rule

333 bc – Alexander the Great defeats the 
Persians and extends Greek rule throughout the Middle East. Jews establish an important colony in Alexandria, Egypt.

250 bc –Jews in Alexandria translate the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek. Other books written in Aramaic, Greek and Hebrew are included (Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, Sirach, Baruch and parts of Daniel) in what is called the Septuagint (lxx).

175-164 bc –Jews in the Holy Land are suppressed by the Greek ruler of Syria, Antiochus Epiphanes, who defiles the temple and tries to abolish the Jewish religion. The Jews, led by the Maccabees, revolt and recover Jewish independence, which lasts until 63 bc. The books of Maccabees, written later in Hebrew and Greek, are added to the Septuagint.

63 bc – The Romans seize control of Syria. The Jewish kingdom becomes the Roman province of Palestine. The events of the New Testament take place under their rule.
 
THE LITURGICAL PREPARATION for the feast of Christ’s Nativity begins today with the Sunday of the Forefathers, which commemorates all those whose lives set the stage for the coming of the Messiah. Next week we observe the Sunday of the Ancestors of Christ, when we hear St Matthew’s genealogy of those who were Christ’s physical ancestors.

The Sunday of the Forefathers intensifies the countdown to the feast of Christ’s Nativity. During the Nativity Fast we celebrate the memorials of several Old Testament prophets – Obadiah (Nov. 19), Nahum (Dec. 1), Habbakuk (Dec. 2), Zepheniah (Dec. 3), Haggai (Dec. 16), and Daniel (Dec. 17). Today we reflect on how the entire Old Testament period has been a preparation for Christ and how we are called to be ready for His ultimate triumph.

Prophecies of the Messiah

It is appropriate today to reflect on what the Scriptures tells us preceded the Incarnation. The following timeline and reading guide may be helpful in doing so. All the dates older that 1000 BC are approximate. The liturgical preparation for the feast of Christ’s Nativity begins today with the Sunday of the Forefathers, which commemorates all those whose lives set the stage for the coming of the Messiah. Next week we observe the Sunday of the Ancestors of Christ, when we hear St Matthew’s genealogy of those who were Christ’s physical ancestors. The Sunday of the Forefathers intensifies the countdown to the feast of Christ’s Nativity. During the Nativity Fast we celebrate the memorials of several Old Testament prophets – Obadiah (Nov. 19), Nahum (Dec. 1), Habbakuk (Dec. 2), Zepheniah (Dec. 3), Haggai (Dec. 16), and Daniel (Dec. 17). Today we reflect on how the entire Old Testament period has been a preparation for Christ and how we are called to be ready for His ultimate triumph. Prophecies of the Messiah It is appropriate today to reflect on what the Scriptures tells us preceded the Incarnation. The following timeline and reading guide may be helpful in doing so. All the dates older that 1000 BC are approximate.

Before Time – The Word was with God before anything material came to be (John 1:1-4). It is through this eternal Word that our material creation comes into being.

The Pre-History of the Israelitesbefore 4000 BC – The creation of our universe, the human race falls away from communion with God, life on earth as we know it begins (Genesis 1-3). Genesis actually contains two creation stories. The first (Genesis 1:1-2:3) is a version of an older Babylonian myth re-edited to teach that creation is by the will of the only true God, not the result of warring gods and demons. It is cast in the form of a single week to promote the character of the Sabbath as a day of rest. Its narrative (creation begins with a burst of light followed by the creation of the planets, etc.) harmonizes with the modern Big Bang theory and subsequent discoveries.

Genesis, continues with the story of the creation and the fall of Adam and Eve. This tragic story concludes with these words addressed to the serpent: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, between your offspring and hers; he will strike at your head while you strike at his heel” (Genesis 3:15). Many Fathers saw this as the first heralding of the Messiah’s victory over sin and death (the “proto-gospel”). Satan’s seeming defeat of Christ on the cross is but a striking of His heel while Christ’s striking at his head is His ultimate defeat of Satan. It would take countless generations – from the beginning of humanity, through the years of both Old and New Testaments and the subsequent history of this age – for this event to be fulfilled.

Before 3000 BC – Sin prevails and increases, illustrated by Cain and Abel and Lamech, Noah and the Great Flood, (Genesis 4-9). According to Jewish tradition, God makes a new covenant with Noah after the flood. Man is committed to observe the seven Noahide Laws prohibiting idolatry, murder, theft, sexual immorality, blasphemy, and the eating of meat with its blood (i.e. while the animal is still alive). They are also enjoined to establish courts of law.

The Prophets Read in the Church

At the time of the Hebrew kingdoms (the six or seven hundred years before Christ) prophets were periodically calling the people to trust in God despite the troubles of their nation. Despite conflicts with the Philistines or the Assyrians, and even in the midst of defeat and exile by the Babylonians and occupation by the Romans, the prophets encouraged the people to trust in God who would provide a deliverer.

After the death and resurrection of Christ the apostles, inspired by the Holy Spirit came to see these prophecies fulfilled in a decisive way by Jesus Christ, who delivers all mankind – not just the Jewish people – from its ultimate enemies, sin and death, not just foreign oppressors. Around the Old Testament prophecies of a deliverer the apostles built their preaching of the true Messiah (Anointed One) of God, Christ Jesus the Savior. What we call the Old Testament was the Bible for the early Church as well as for Judaism and its prophecies shaped the presentation of the incarnation in the New Testament. As the following quotations show, the apostles considered these prophecies as clearly pointing to the coming of Christ:

His Conception (Isaiah 7:14, cited in Matthew 1:23) - “A virgin shall conceive and bear a son.”

The Place of His Birth (Micah 5:2, cited in Matthew 2:6) - “Bethlehem…out of you shall come a ruler…”

The Flight into Egypt (Hosea 11:1, cited in Matthew 2:15) - “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

The Slaughter of the Infants (Jeremiah 31:15, cited in Matthew 2:18) - “A voice was heard in Ramah…”

His home in Nazareth (possibly Judges 13:5, cited in Matthew 2:23) - “He shall be called a Nazarene.” Other prophecies were frequently cited as pointing to Jesus as the Messiah:

• Numbers 24:17 - “a star shall come forth out of Jacob…”

• Isaiah 11:1 - “There shall come forth a shoot from the root of Jesse…”

• Isaiah 60:5-6 “…they shall bring gold and frankincense”

While there are no verbatim quotations of prophecies in Luke’s infancy narratives, there are allusions to Old Testament scriptures throughout. In Luke 1:17, for example, John the Baptist is described by the angel as going “before him in the spirit and power of Elijah.” This alludes to Malachi 4:5-6: “Behold I am sending to you Elijah the Thesbite before the great and notable day of the Lord comes.”

These allusions, and others throughout the Gospels, reflect the early Church’s belief that the entire Old Testament leads us to see Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God.

Our Preparation Continues

From December 20 to 24 we observe a five-day “holy week” during which Christ’s birth seems ever closer. As we sing during those days, “Today the Virgin is on her way to the cave where she will give birth.”

This fore-feast of the Nativity culminates on December 24, the Paramony of the feast. Usually translated as vigil or eve, paramony actually refers to the uninterrupted nature of the Church’s prayer on this day. During the day the lengthier Great Hours or Royal Hours are chanted, followed by the Typika and a more elaborate than usual Great Vespers, to which is attached the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil.

A special service of Great Compline with a Litia for the feast ends the day. Sometimes this leads directly into the Orthros and Divine Liturgy of December 25. In some countries of Eastern Europe it culminates with a Holy Supper prior to the Liturgy. The same cycle of uninterrupted prayer is also prescribed for the Feast of the Theophany on January 5.

Let us offer up a hymn to the fathers who shone forth before the Law and under the Law, and who, by their upright will, were pleasing to the Lord and Master Who shone forth from the Virgin, for they now delight in the unfading light.

Canon of the Forefathers, Ode 1
 
BEGINNING STUDENTS OF JOURNALISM or other disciplines involving research are taught the importance of the “Five Ws” in compiling information. Fact-finders must be able to answer the following questions on any subject they are investigating: Who (was involved)? What (happened)? When (did it take place)? Where (did it take place)? And Why (did that happen)?

In reflecting on the incarnation of the Word of God, we focus on the last question: why did Christ become man? Our answer is that the reason He assumed our human nature – His incarnation – is to change us by making us partakers of the divine nature (theosis). As the Church Fathers never ceased to repeat: God became human so that man might be deified.

But the answer to that question brings us to ask another one: how do we become deified? The Scriptures give us a two-part answer: our deification results initially from being united to Christ at baptism. We maintain this gift of our deification by “putting on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 13:14) in the way we conduct our lives.

We Have Put on Christ in Baptism

The hymn sung repeatedly at baptisms – drawn from St Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians – affirms the teaching that we “put on” Christ at our baptism. As the Incarnation began with a concrete, physical act, the conception of the Lord Jesus, so our deification begins with the concrete, physical act of baptism. In this mystery, the earthly humanity of a believer is joined to the divinized humanity of Christ. The believer is organically united to Christ, immersed in Him, just as he is immersed into the water. The believer has clothed himself with Christ, a spiritual reality symbolized by the baptismal garment.

St Paul frequently reminds his readers how their likeness to God has been restored in baptism through the image of “putting-off” and “putting-on.” He tells the Ephesians, “you put on the new man which was created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:24). He tells the Colossians, “you have put off the old man with his deeds, and have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him” (Colossians 3:10). Their divinization is a restoration of their likeness to God which was lost in Eden.

According to the epistle, that “putting-on Christ” also connects us to the eternal God in a new way. As St Paul says, “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Galatians 3:26, 27). A person renewed in baptism is, in fact, no longer simply related to God as creature to Creator; the baptized is now an adopted son of God. Because of our baptism it is realistic to call God “Father.”

We Must Put on Christ in Our Actions

In baptism we ontologically put on Christ. We are connected to Him on the level of our deepest nature. We must also put on Christ psychologically, on the level of our actions and perceptions. In other words, we must strive to think and act like Him. To do that, we must study the actions of Christ and begin to know His mind.

Again, we must turn to St Paul, who gives us an entry into the mind of Christ, particularly in regard to the Incarnation. “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, But made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:5-11).

The why of the Incarnation, according to the Apostle Paul is our deification. The how of the Incarnation is what has been called the kenosis (self-emptying) of Christ: His voluntary putting aside of divine glory and putting on “the form of a bondservant” (our humanity). As man He further humbled Himself by submitting to all the circumstances of time, place and state of life which we find described in the Gospels. He put on the condition of a village carpenter who became an itinerant preacher, challenging the religious status quo of the Jewish establishment supported by Rome. Little wonder that His path led to the death of the cross.

When St Paul says that we should “let this mind be in you” as it was in Christ, He is echoing the Lord Jesus, who proposed humility as the hallmark of the Christian. After the Lord had washed His disciples’ feet, He told them, “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you” {John 13:14, 15). The Lord was not proposing that His disciples be characterized by actual foot-washing, but by humble service to one another.

As the Word of God exchanged His heavenly glory for the manger in a Bethlehem cave, His followers must learn to exchange their views of their own self-importance for the “form of a bondservant.” In this way, the humility of Christ rather than human “wisdom” will direct our actions.

In addition to humility, the mind of Christ according to the Scriptures is characterized chiefly by dependence on God and compassion toward others. Developing a mindset of humility, dependence and compassion is contrary to the way of thinking most people learn from the society and culture that surrounds us. It requires continual attention and effort to maintain our focus on the mind of Christ. “Therefore, gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and be holy in all your conduct … as He who called you is holy” (1 Peter 1:13, 15).

St Athanasios on the Incarnation

“What, then, was God to do? What else could He possibly do, being God, but renew His Image in mankind, so that through it we might once more come to know Him? And how could this be done save by the coming of the very Image Himself, our Savior Jesus Christ? We could not have done it, for we are only made after the Image; nor could angels have done it, for they are not the images of God. The Word of God came in His own Person, because it was He alone, the Image of the Father,

Who could recreate man made after the Image. “The Word perceived that corruption could not be got rid of otherwise than through death; yet He Himself, as the Word, being immortal and the Father’s Son, could not die. For this reason, therefore, He assumed a body capable of death, … By surrendering to death the body which He had taken, as an offering and sacrifice free from every stain, He abolished death for His human brethren ... Naturally also, through this union of the immortal Son of God with our human nature, all men were clothed with incorruption in the promise of the resurrection. For the solidarity of mankind is such that, by the Word’s indwelling in a single human body, the corruption which goes with death has lost its power over all” (On the Incarnation 34, 35).
 
WITH THE FIRST SCENT of cooler weather in the air, merchants begin marketing potential Christmas gifts. As the holiday nears, the shopping frenzy intensifies with music, parties and decorations all telling us “Hurry up and buy something.” Our Church, on the other hand, tells us that it’s time for renewed fasting and almsgiving. Gift-giving as we know it became popular in the 1860s and grew as mechanical and, later, electrical goods came on the market and Santa began appearing in ads and in stores. For most Americans, handmade goods such as pastries, canned preserves or hand-carved toys were the most common gifts until World War II. With the return to prosperity after the war, people set their sights on more expensive gifts. Today the average American is expected to spend between $700 and $800 on Christmas gifts this year.

Anti-Consumerist Protests

Even as the marketing and the spending grew voices were heard denouncing the Christmas shopping experience as an exercise in wasteful consumerism. Environmentalists deplored the focus on acquiring more and more useless “toys.” Christians lamented the practice as fostering materialism rather than celebrating Christ’s birth. While many people complain about the financial and emotional stresses of Christmas shopping, some people do something about it. Some parents have decided to give only one store-bought toy per child and to focus on shared activities instead. Well-planned Christmas outings with the family provide memories that will last a lifetime, long after plastic toys are forgotten. Others have revived the tradition of homemade gifts. They report that making a gift for and with your child provides an unforgettable and rewarding experience for both parent and offspring. Internet sites are filled with more suggestions for frugal and creative gift ideas than ever.

Our Secret Weapon: the Nativity Fast

Eastern Christians seeking to escape the commerce-driven “spirit of Christmas” have a formidable ally in the Nativity Fast. While the length of the fast varies in the different Churches, the spirit behind it is the same. We best prepare for a Christian festival by intensifying our practice of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. We seek to deepen within ourselves the spirit of repentance which these practices foster. We are, as it were, heeding the message of St John the Baptist – “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” – as we anticipate the coming feast as a manifestation of that kingdom. At first our prayer life during the Nativity Fast does not revolve around the Nativity itself. While some churches serve akathists or a pre-Nativity paraclisis service, the focus of prayer in Byzantine Churches during much of this Fast is simply to deepen our relationship with the living Lord, the basic prayer life of Christians at any time. Our fasting seasons are fundamentally “excuses” giving us a reason to observe a fuller Christian life than we might live otherwise. In the same way our fasting and almsgiving are not focused on Christmas as much as they are the basic practices of believers at any time. We intensify them at this time because a heart focused on the ways of Christ in the best preparation for celebrating His coming into the world.

The Fast Intensifies

As the feast draws nearer our liturgical prayer revolves around the time before the coming of Christ. Several Old Testament prophets are remembered individually, enabling us to focus on their role in preparing for the coming of the Messiah. On the two Sundays before the Nativity a general commemoration of the Israelites who came before Christ and a memorial of the actual ancestors of Christ are observed. During the fore-feast of the Nativity, the five days before the actual celebration, our liturgical hymns direct our attention to the mystery of the incarnation. Unfortunately the Nativity Fast competes for our attention with the secular season of shopping, Christmas parties and gift exchanges. People seeking to observe the season as Eastern Christians might do well to view the question in light of the adage, “Enjoy the roses, but beware the thorns.” Employ the positive aspects of this season in our culture while avoiding the ones which endanger our Eastern Christian spiritual life. “Enjoy the Roses” might include singing Christmas carols or watching faith-based films instead of our usual entertainment. Religious Christmas cards and decorations are still acceptable in our society and provide us with a chance to enter into the season in the spirit of the Nativity Fast. Perhaps most importantly, our secular society provides us with many opportunities for sharing with the needy during this season. Participating in such programs enables us to practice almsgiving in solidarity with our neighbors of other faiths. “Beware the Thorns” takes us to the matter of Christmas parties. In some places these gatherings more resemble New Year’s Eve or a tailgate party than a Christmas celebration. Eastern Christians would do well to completely avoid participating in this kind of activity. If pressured to take part, especially in the workplace, an Eastern Christian may take the opportunity to explain that this is a fasting season for us and that it would be inappropriate for you to participate. Let them feel guilty for asking! You may decide to attend a Christmas party which avoids excesses, particularly in the workplace, while still maintaining the fast. We can usually enjoy the conviviality while avoiding those foods from which we are fasting. In any case Eastern Christian church groups should be expected to delay their own Christmas parties to the week after Christmas, when the fast is over and the Church is still celebrating Christ’s Nativity. Most parishes have a children’s Christmas celebration which includes gift-giving. As a rule it is St Nicholas rather than Santa who presides at these events in Eastern churches. Still, there are few if any Eastern Christian parishes in the West whose children need to receive gifts from the church. The best gift a parish could give its children might be teaching them to give instead of receive. Children might be asked to give a gift to St Nicholas instead of expecting to receive one. The toys and games our children no longer enjoy can be re-gifted to the disadvantaged in hospitals, shelters or parishes in poorer neighborhoods. In this way we teach our children to be “Santa’s Helpers” rather than the victims of materialism disguised as the Christmas spirit.
Let us offer up a hymn to the fathers who shone forth before the Law and under the Law, and who, by their upright will, were pleasing to the Lord and Master Who shone forth from the Virgin, for they now delight in the unfading light. Let us honor the first Adam who was honored by the hand of the Creator, and who is the forefather of us all and who rests with all the elect in the mansions of heaven. The Lord and God of all accepted the gifts of Abel, who offered them with a most noble soul; and when he was slain by his brother’s murderous hand, He received his soul into light as that of a divine martyr. Let us hearken to the divine sayings which declare the appearance of Christ; for, lo! He is born in a cave, of a Maiden who knew not man; for the star which appeared to the astrologers proclaims His awesome nativity.
Canon of the Forefathers, Ode 1
 
CHAPTER THREE OF ST PAUL’S EPISTLE to the Colossians begins with this enigmatic statement: “For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). The questions it raises are obvious: when did we die and how is our life hidden with Christ?

Baptism as Death and Resurrection

Many Christians, particularly in the Eastern Churches can answer the first question. We died with Christ in baptism. The passage from the Epistle to the Romans read at every baptism in Byzantine churches includes the following teaching, “Do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3,4). Baptism is our personal union with the death and resurrection of Christ through which the ultimate power of Death was destroyed. At our baptism this burial is graphically represented when we are “buried” (immersed) in the baptismal water. Our resurrection is represented when we are raised up out of the water. What cannot be depicted, of course, is the effect of our baptism: our life in Christ, hidden in God. The life of the risen Christ is indescribable, but images help us to appreciate what it might mean. In his Catechetical Sermon on the Resurrection St John Chrysostom gives us a glimpse into some aspects of this hidden life. “All of you, enjoy this feast of faith: Receive all the riches of His loving-kindness. Let no one bewail his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed. Let no one weep for his iniquities, for pardon has shown forth from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free… O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen, and you are overthrown. Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigns. Christ is risen, and not one of the dead remains in the grave. For Christ, being risen from the dead, has become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.”  St John Chrysostom mentions three aspects of resurrection life we have received:
  1. Forgiveness of sins – “Let no one weep for his iniquities, for pardon has shown forth from the grave.” When we are baptized our sins are forgiven. Future sins can be forgiven in the Church to which Christ entrusted this gift.
  2. Freedom from death – “Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free.” The heart of Death is the rupture of communion with God. Death of the body cannot break that unity for those who are living their baptism.
  3. All that is His is ours – “Let no one bewail his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed.” Our “wealth’ as heirs of the kingdom includes communion with God, expressed here and now in the Eucharist, the general gifts of the Spirit (wisdom, understanding, knowledge, counsel, fortitude, piety, fear of the Lord) and the particular gifts which enable ministry. Living in the kingdom of God includes enjoying a relationship with the Theotokos, all the heavenly hosts and all the saints as well as all believers, living or dead (the communion of saints).
These blessings are hidden from the world, but “When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory” (v. 4).

Consequences of This Hidden Life

St Paul insists that receiving the gift of life in Christ has consequences. “Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth… Therefore put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. Because of these things the wrath of God is coming upon the sons of disobedience, in which you yourselves once walked when you lived in them. “But now you yourselves are to put off all these: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth. Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old man with his deeds, and have put on the new man…” (vv. 2, 5-10). Elsewhere St Paul had explained why Christians must put away things of the earth. “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap. For he who sows to his flesh will of the flesh reap corruption, but he who sows to the Spirit will of the Spirit reap everlasting life” (Galatians 6:7, 8). Things of the earth, like our mortal bodies, die and decay no matter how much we pamper them. Lust, envy, wrath, filthy language and the rest of St Paul’s list in Colossians are simply ways we pamper our decaying flesh. By cherishing the “wealth of the kingdom” mentioned above – sowing “to the Spirit” – we enjoy in this world a measure of the life to come.

Putting off the Old Man

From time to time Christians have misinterpreted St Paul’s teaching on putting off the old man. People like the Amish, for example, thought to express their detachment from the world by adopting a particular form of dress or hair style, or by living apart from others in closed communities because they are Christians. As early as the second century, however, most believers have known the distinction between living in the world but not of the world. An unknown “disciple of the apostles” wrote the following description of the Christians for a certain Diognetus somewhere in the Roman Empire. “For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. “They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonored, and yet in their very dishonor are glorified… To sum up all in one word— what the soul is in the body, Christians are in the world… God has assigned them this illustrious position, which it is unlawful for them to forsake.” While monastics would later separate themselves from the world, they would do so because they had a particular vocation, not simply because they were Christians.
 
“WHAT HAS BEEN IS WHAT SHALL BE, and what has been done is what will be done. There is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9-10) – according to the third century BC author of Ecclesiastes. Modern observers of our society, on the other hand, point to the advances wrought by technology to show how much our world is changing. “The latest new thing is here!” proclaim the admen and consumers line up to be among the first to acquire it. Advances in science and technology have contributed to what S.A. Rachinsky has called the “superstition of Progress:” a superstition (vain belief) because, while our external environment has indeed changed, human nature has not changed. We remain focused on satisfying our passions for wealth, power, and esteem – often with little or no interest in the concerns of others. Sooner or later, the environment, money, property, friends or family – everything will be used somehow to help us achieve our goals. Many people are more than happy to spend their life seeking after the things of the world; for others this kind of life leaves a bitter taste and does not satisfy. Either way, life spent in the pursuit of material or emotional rewards still leads where it always has: to death. Our life ends in the oblivion of the tomb, whether our passions have been satisfied or not.

There Is Something New

God, however, created us for life – a life spent in communion with Him. From the beginning mankind has turned away from that life, seeking fulfillment apart from Him. Death and alienation from God are the result. But He has not allowed this to be the final answer. God has provided us with something truly new in Jesus Christ. Completely one with us in His humanity, He nevertheless did not succumb to an illusory “pursuit of happiness.” He resisted the temptations to prefer material things (“bread”), wealth or spiritual showmanship to His relationship with His Father. While being truly part of our fallen world (“tested in every way as we are, yet without sin” – Hebrews 4:15), Christ was truly something new: “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15) in our midst.

Putting on Christ

Union with Christ enables us to share in this newness. “If anyone is in Christ there is a new creation. Everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new” (2 Corinthians 5:16). We are no longer bound to perpetuate the image of fallen Adam; we can live in the newness of Christ. According to St Paul, we “become new” by means of a two-fold dynamic. We put on Christ organically in baptism and consciously by putting off the old man in the way we live. The rite of baptism emphasizes our organic union with Christ. A catechumen puts off his or her old clothes to be baptized into Christ and puts on the “robe of light,” once united to Him in His burial and resurrection. “All of you who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. Alleluia” we sing, echoing St Paul (cf. Galatians 3:27). The direction we give to our life reflects the conscious putting-off of the old man and putting-on Christ. In his Epistle to the Colossians St Paul shows what ways of the old man we must renounce. He first lists those sinful acts which people without any knowledge of God may commit: “Put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” He goes on to include things which many people, including Christians, assume to be of little import: “But now you yourselves are to put off all these: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth. Do not lie to one another…” Then he gives the reason why such behavior is unacceptable: “…since you have put off the old man with his deeds, and have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him.” We must, as later writers would insist, “be what you have become”: a new person in the image of Christ. St Paul gave similar guidance to newly-converted Christians in the (pagan) Roman city of Ephesus:
“This I say, therefore, and testify in the Lord, that you should no longer walk as the rest of the Gentiles walk, in the futility of their mind, having their understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart; who, being past feeling, have given themselves over to lewdness, to work all uncleanness with greediness. “But you have not so learned Christ, if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught by Him, as the truth is in Jesus: that you put off, concerning your former conduct, the old man which grows corrupt according to the deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and that you put on the new man which was created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:17-24).

New Eyes for the New Creation

Returning to the Epistle to the Colossians, we may be surprised at what follows. St Paul confronts a problem which plagues people on every level. The “old man” puts up a wide range of divisions and barriers between peoples – you are not like us because you are not from our family, clan, village, nation, social class, race, religion, etc. None of this has any part of the new creation “…where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all and in all.” We must look at one another in new ways, not seeing what divides us but what unites us: the transforming presence of God in Christ. In the new creation, we come to view all people as holy icons, seeing God and encountering Him in them. We affirm that God has created mankind in His image and that, despite our sins and weaknesses, there is always something of God in us. As St Clement of Alexandria taught, “When you see your brother, you see God.” In fact, in Christ we look at everything with new eyes. We realize that God is “everywhere present and filling all things,” as we pray at the start of every divine service. Therefore we confess that all creation is of God and that all things are worthy of respect and reverence because they are of God. The material world is not one great consumer-good meant for our pleasure but our fellow-liturgist glorifying God with us, as we pray in the psalms, “Give praise to Him, sun and moon; give praise to Him, all you stars and light” (Psalms 148:2). And so, when we put off the old man with his deeds, we find that the new man in us will be renewed in knowledge after the image of the One who created us. In this we rejoice.
“God is perfect, He is faultless. And so, when Divine love becomes manifest in us in the fullness of Grace, we radiate this love --- not only on the earth, but throughout the entire universe as well. So God is in us, and He is present everywhere. It is God’s all-encompassing love that manifests itself in us. When this happens, we see no difference between people: everyone is good, everyone is our brother, and we consider ourselves to be the worst of men --- servants of every created thing.”
Elder Thaddeus of the Vitovnica Monastery in Serbia (+2003)

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