I am at the 6th annual Winter retreat at St George Orthodox Church in Pharr Texas. Of course, most of the people here have celebrated Nativity, but Matushka Elizabeth always takes care of me with no fuss.
As part of the presentation by Fr Evangelos Pepps, he sang in the Byzantine tone "Joseph was amazed", the following Sessional Hymn, and as is always the case when I here such exalted theology, I was moved to personalize it, and thought these feelings were worthy to share. After all, what good is theology if it is not lived, or does not inspire us and help us to change?
He whom nothing can contain, * how is He held within a womb? * And while in His Father's arms *, how in His mother's pure embrace? Such is His will and good pleasure, and as He knoweth. * For being without flesh, * He took flesh willingly; * for us, He Who Is * became what He was not. * Without forsaking His own nature, * He hath partaken of what we are. * For Christ is born now, twofold in nature, * to fill Heaven with mankind. (Sessional Hymn, Dec 25, matins, sessional hymn after the Polyeleos)
The theology in this one hymn is immense! It references dozens of Scriptures and some of the most important dogmas regarding our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. It is important to know these dogmas, and along with this, we must feel them deeply as they resonate in our heart.
Perhaps as an edifying exercise I will attempt sometime to reference all the important dogmas and scriptures that are related to this hymn, but I am on a slow modem, with little time because of the retreat. I at least wanted to bring forth two points.
1. Our hymnology always has a sense of wonder – and this is unsophisticated and shallow as we see so often in this season, but theologically intricate and unspeakably beautiful. If you want to understand the incarnation, we Orthodox do not hide this dogma – it is present in all of our services, especially matins on ANY day, and especially on the Nativity and major feasts! It is all there, if we stand, and incline our heads, and listen! It may take years of listening, but it does sink in. Those who have stood in many vigils know what I mean.
2. "He Who Is * became what He was not". There are deep theological implications to this part of the hymn, but more than any other part, it gives me great hope concerning the purpose of my life and the "lively hope" I have for the fulfillment of this purpose.
I feel these words as a solemn promise to me (and you, and all mankind).
There are many things that I am not. One can even say that if we are not in Christ, we are "not" – there is no meaningful existence outside of Christ (and becoming like Him), since everything else is temporary and shallow. I feel my fallen humanity deeply, but I also feel deeply the promise that our Lord has made because of His incarnation. He took on our humanity, which was marred by sin, and changed it – fundamentally, and made us capable of attaining perfection. He also taught us the path to perfection, because one needs ability and knowledge to accomplish anything, whether secular or sacred.
Therefore, when I heard these words, in a flash, "whether as a thought in my brain, I know not, or whether in my soul, I know not – God knows" – I reformed these words like this:
Because He Who Is became what He was not,
I who am not, and have not, can become like He Who is.
This is the core meaning of the Incarnation of the Son of God, and we can never state it too many times, or in too many different ways. Glory be to God.