St. Isaac on the Nativity

“This Christmas night, peace was bestowed upon the whole world; so let no one threaten. This is the night of the Most Gentle One; let no one be cruel. This is the night of the Most Humble One; let no one be proud. Now is the day of joy; let us not revenge. Now is the day of goodwill; let us not be mean. In this day of peace let us not be conquered by anger. Today the Beautiful One impoverished Himself for our sake; so you rich ones, invite the poor to your table. Today we received a gift for which we did not ask; so let us give alms to those who implore us and beg. This present day’s fast opens the heavenly door to our prayers. Let us open our door to those who ask our forgiveness. Now the Divine Being took upon Himself the seal of humanity, in order for humanity to be decorated by the seal of Divinity.” – St. Isaac the Syrian

Prayer in Aramaic, the language of Christ

“H.E. Mor Malki Murad, Patriarchal Vicar of Jerusalem & Holy Land, Syriac Orthodox Church [the Jacobites], chanting a psalm in his monastery. St. Mark’s Monastery is the first church of Christianity, the site of the Upper Room where Our Lord celebrated the Last Supper, where He appeared to the Apostles on Pascha, where Saint Thomas declared Him his Lord and his God, where the Holy Spirit descended on Pentecost and where the First Council of Jerusalem was held.” – note by Mar +CASSIAN

Charity Tourism

Rod Dreher, over at CrunchyCon has a new post about Charity Tourism. In the post, he tells a story he heard recently from a friend:

True story: a guy here in a Texas suburb wants to teach his children something about poverty in America, and about their own blessedness. He somehow finds a needy family at Christmastime, and decides that he and his children are going to shower them with gifts. The guy gets his friends and their children involved. They descend upon the house trailer of an impoverished family, bearing gifts. All 30 — 30! — of the beneficent visitors pile into the trailer to watch the scraggly urchins open their gifts. And the guy leaves satisfied that his children now know the True Meaning of Christmas.

Rod goes on to tell how “nauseated” both he and his friend were by this man’s actions, and I agree with them entirely. His actions were degrading to this family. He treated them as if they were animals, not people, and certainly nowhere near equals with himself. He embarrassed the parents of this family in front of their children. And, in the end, I did not teach the “True Meaning of Christmas” at all. His children did not learn how to give to others unselfishly, as he intended, but learned how to impress others and feel good about yourself. Most importantly, in the end, he made no real difference. Any benefit the “poor” family derived from these gifts is temporary. They’re going to be without money again tomorrow and in a similar situation next Christmas.

The same should be added about this new popular trend among upper-class suburbanites of “volunteer vacations” or “charity vacations,” such as the ones offered at Volunteer Visions. Such practices degrade the poor of the world to a level slightly above animals. They are treated like something to gawk at, a monkey in the zoo. And, as in the example above, there is no real permanent effect.

I have been reading a book about the life of Blessed Father Cosmas, Apostle to Zaire, which I picked up at the Monastery last weekend. He once wrote about missionary work that “what’s important is that the giving be true and total, without holding back, with a disposition to self-sacrifice and self-denial, and with the aim of leaving our bones among the natives.” That is, in order to be effective, in order to leave a real and permanent mark, your charity must be a real sacrifice, not a paltry portion of your abundance, and it must be given with only love in mind, only the wish to uplift the individual/s it is given to, not for your own glory or ease of conscience. In addition, some one single donation is worthless. There must be dedication, often lifelong (or even longer) dedication. In short, there must be love.

I have heard another story, I believe it was about Saint Herman of Alaska, in which a young monk goes to the wise older man and asks him how missionary work can best be accomplished among the Alaskan Native peoples. The wiser, older man replies, “Love them.” The end of the story is obvious to anyone who knows the history of the Eskimos; they are Orthodox Christians because of that love. Without love, nothing is accomplished, no matter how much work is put in.

Does God have a physical body?

A cogent answer by one of the Church Fathers to the Mormon belief that God possesses a physical body.

“It is plain, then, that there is a God. But what He is in His essence and nature is absolutely incomprehensible and unknowable. For it is evident that He is incorporeal. For how could that possess body which is infinite, and boundless, and formless, and intangible and invisible, in short, simple and not compound? How could that be immutable which is circumscribed and subject to passion? And how could that be passionless which is composed of elements and is resolved again into them? For combination is the beginning of conflict, and conflict of separation, and separation of dissolution, and dissolution is altogether foreign to God.” – St. John of Damascus.

Icon of the Nativity of the Lord

Found somewhere online:

On the icon of the Nativity of our Lord, the whole Gospel message of the incarnation of our Savior from the Virgin Mary is depicted, along with other details added from the holy Tradition. On many icons of the Nativity, there are a multitude of details, on others less. On the diagram shown here, taken from a drawing for an icon, we can identify at least 8 major elements.

(1) The focus of the icon, of course, is on the birth of our Lord from His most pure virgin mother Mary;A rough drawing of an icon of the Nativity of our Lord She is shown larger than any of the other figures, reclining on a mat, and looking not at her new-born Son, but rather with love and compassion towards her spouse, St Joseph the Betrothed (7), seeing his affliction and bewilderment over this most strange and divine birth;. He is shown in the left bottom corner, conversing with Satan, disguised as an old shepherd. The posture of St Joseph is one of doubt and inner trouble, for he wondered if it might be possible that the conception and birth were not by some secret human union; how blessed he was to serve the Mother of God and her divine Son, in spite of these thoughts and temptations, and to protect her from the evil gossip of the people who could not yet possibly understand so great a mystery. Our Lord is shown in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, “for there was no room for them in the inn.” (cf. Luke 2) The back-drop for the manger is a dark cave (3), which immediately reminds us of the cave in which our Lord was buried 33 years later, wrapped in a shroud. In the cave are an ox and ass, details not mentioned by the Gospels, but which are an invariable feature of every icon of the Nativity; the scene is included to show the fulfillment of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “the ox knows his Owner, and the ass his Master’s crib, but Israel does not know Me, and the people has not regarded Me” (Isaiah 1:3). (2) Above this central composition, in the very center of the icon is the wondrous star coming from heaven, which led the magi (6) to the place where our Savior lay; It reminds us of the heavenly orb we see on icons of the Theophany, or Pentecost, wherever divine intervention is indicated.

The holy angels (4) are seen both glorifying God and bringing the good tidings of the Lord’s birth to the shepherds (5). The fact that Jewish shepherds and heathen magi were among the first to worship our Lord shows us the universality of this great event, meant for the salvation of all mankind.

The final detail of this icon, the scene of the washing of the Lord (8) is an element that has caused some controversy over the ages. In some churches of the holy monasteries of Mount Athos, the scene in the frescoes has been deliberately obliterated and replaced with bushes or shepherds; there was a prevailing opinion that this scene was degrading to Christ, who had no need of washing, being born in a miraculous manner from a pure virgin. But we retain this image on our icons, being part of the holy tradition passed on to us; truly it does not degrade the Lord, but magnifies Him, as is evident in the prayer that is appointed to be read at the time of Baptism for the midwife of a child: (From the Old-rite Potrebnik, 2nd Prayer for the midwife) “O Master, Lord our God…Who didst lie in a manger and didst bless the midwife Salome* who came to believe in an honorable virginity… ” [*according to Tradition, Salome was a daughter of St Joseph by his previous marriage] Who, more effectively than a midwife, could testify to the divine and virginal birth? Therefore we do well to understand the importance of this blessed scene.

Finally, as we look at the icon as one united composition, we can only be filled with joy, not only because of the bright colors and the festive activity depicted thereon, but for the joyous news of our salvation so clearly proclaimed by it. In it, all creation is rejoicing at the birth of our Lord: the heavens (a star and angels); the earth (the mountains, plants and animals}; and especially mankind, represented most perfectly in the figure of the new Eve, the most pure Mother of God.