Friday, November 15, 2013

Meditations on The Winter Pascha

Many years ago I received a copy of a book by Father Thomas Hopko titled The Winter Pascha. It is a beautiful book of short meditations on the meaning of the Nativity (or birth) of Jesus Christ as revealed to us through the hymns and writings of the Orthodox Church. There are forty of these meditations and I like to (try to) read one for each of the forty days of the Advent fast, which begins on November 15.

I thought it might be nice to share a bit of what strikes me as I read (although I realize that my own thoughts are not even close to being as edifying as Fr. Hopko's). My original plan was to post one reflection a day, and even though I had a small head-start, reality has hit and I have become aware that I most likely won't be able to keep up. So I will post what I have so far and will try to continue to work through the book, but I'm not promising completion.  (Incidentally, I recently had the chance to hear Fr. Hopko speak, and in that talk he happened to warn against writing just for the sake of writing. I think that is what I was trying to do here so that's another reason that I've decided to step back and do my best to only write what I feel called to share, rather than just writing to finish a series for the sake of completion.)

The Winter Pascha chapter 1

Fr. Tom begins by pointing out that the services and the preparation for Christmas in the Orthodox Church mirror what takes place during the celebration of Pascha (a word which we Orthodox typically use to refer to Easter. The word pascha means passover). We have a forty day fast, there are special hymns, readings and services which take place and the celebration of the feast continues after the actual day of the Nativity, all of which happen during the Lent and Pascha seasons. This patterning of the Nativity hymns and services after the Paschal ones truly magnifies the effect of entering into the celebration of the feast. The meaning is deeper and richer thus.

Those observations are indeed important, but what always brings me to a standstill, no matter how many times I read this book are the following words:

"The Lord's birth and baptism are directly connected to His dying and rising. He was born in order to die."

"Jesus lay as an infant in the cavern in the reign of Caesar Augustus that He might lay in the tomb under Pontius Pilate. He was hounded by Herod that He might be caught by Caiaphas. He was buried in baptism that He might descend into death through the Cross. He was worshiped by wise men that the whole of creation might adore Him in His triumph over death." 

I know, in my head, that Jesus was born to save us from the consequences of our sins. I know that. and I sometimes take it for granted. But when I stop and think about that fact that "he was born in order to die", I am blown away by the magnitude of what He has done for us.

Mankind is born in order to live, to grown in the likeness of the image of God so that we may be with Him for eternity. We were created for life. The consequence of sin is that we must die. We were not created for that. It us unnatural and painful. The soul was not meant to be separated from the body in such a way, but after the fall there was no choice but to pay the price: death.

But! Because we were created by the God of Love, or rather the God who is Love, He did not leave us to suffer. He came to give back to us the life which He so much wanted us to have. He came on purpose to die so that we might live. He became human so that we humans might become divine.*

I end (as Fr. Hopko also does) with words from the verses** sung during Matins on Christmas Eve:

Today He who holds the whole creation in His hand is born of a virgin.
He whose essence none can touch is bound in swaddling-clothes as a mortal man.
God who in the beginning fashioned the heavens lies in a manger.
He who rained manna on His people in the wilderness is fed on milk from His mother's breast.
The Bridegroom of the Church summons the wise men.
The Son of the Virgin accepts their gifts.
We worship Thy Nativity, O Christ!
We worship Thy Nativity, O Christ!
We worship Thy Nativity, O Christ!
Show us also Thy glorious Theophany! 

 *This sentence is not an original thought from me, but unfortunately I can't remember who said it, so I'm afraid I can't give credit where it's due.

**This hymn is another point in which the Nativity Feast mirrors the celebration of Pascha. You can find the words which are sung on Great and Holy Friday here.

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