Tag Archives: Orthodox

St. John of the Cross On the Incarnation

Because today is the feast day of St. John of Cross, and we’ve been meditating on the mystery of the Incarnation, I thought we might look at what he had to say on the subject.  In the Eighth Ballad, he wrote:

Then he summoned an archangel;
Saint Gabriel came,
And He sent him to a maiden,
Mary was her name,

Whose consent and acquiescence
Gave the mystery its birth;
It was the Trinity that clothed
With flesh the Living Word.

Though the three had worked the wonder
It was wrought in but this one,
And the incarnated Word
Was left in Mary’s womb.

And He who had a father only
Now possessed a mother,
Though not of man was He conceived
But unlike any other.

And deep within her body
His life of flesh began:
For this reason He is called
The Son of God and Man.

The poem properly focusses on the figure of Mary, by whose acquiescence the mystery of the Incarnation begins.  In many ways, Mary operates as the lynchpin of the season of Advent.  Our Orthodox brothers and sisters call her the Theotokos, or God-Bearer. 

During this season of Advent, we might properly reflect on what it means to be pregnant with God.  I suggest that we consider that, not only as it pertains to the Holy Mother, but also as it pertains to each one of us.  What does it mean for you and I to bring God into the world, a world which is sometimes hostile and often indifferent to Christ?  And while we’re doing so, as with any expectant parent, we might properly wonder just what this event will cost.  How do we carry Jesus into the places where, as with Bethlehem so long ago, there’s just no room for Him?

Part of the mystery of the Incarnation, part of the wonder of belonging to the Body of Christ we call the Church, lies in the recognition that Christ must live within us.  Somehow, through the enigma of God coming to live among us, our very DNA has changed.  St. Paul recognized this, writing:  “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.”  Gal.  2:20.   Paul reminds us that following Christ does not so much hinge on an intellectual assent to a certain doctrine  as it does on surrendering to Christ’s indwelling within us and allowing Jesus to re-make us.

Our Advent hope lies in recognizing that God’s entry into the world is not an event that took place a couple of thousand years ago, and which made things a bit more bearable.  Rather, the very fabric of time and space have changed.  God has and will re-create all things (including you and me) through this Son of God and Man.

Have a good and holy Advent,

James R. Dennis, O.P. 

© 2011 James R. Dennis

The Last Prophet

Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.

On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father.  But his mother said, ‘No; he is to be called John.’  They said to her, ‘None of your relatives has this name.’Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him.He asked for a writing-tablet and wrote, ‘His name is John.’ And all of them were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God.  Fear came over all their neighbours, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea.  All who heard them pondered them and said, ‘What then will this child become?’ For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.  Luke 1:57-68.

In today’s Gospel reading in the Daily Office, we find the story of the birth and naming of John the Baptist.  This bit of Scripture provides us with a wonderful Advent reflection on  John, who our Orthodox brothers and sisters call The Forerunner.  It’s a remarkable story.

As you’ll remember, John’s father (Zechariah) was a priest.  The angel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah, explaining that his wife Elizabeth would bear a son named John, a son who would turn the people of Israel’s hearts to the Lord.  When Zechariah expressed his disbelief, he was struck dumb. 

For months, Zechariah remains dumb-struck in this God-imposed silence.  (Sometimes, it seems, even God wants priests to remain silent.)  We shouldn’t judge Zechariah too harshly, though, because nothing that was happening was….well, natural. I sometimes think Zechariah was struck dumb mostly because he continued to cling to his hopelessness, even when his better angels told him there was good cause to trust God and hope for a better world.

Although tradition dictated that the child would bear a family name, Zechariah insistently scribbled on a writing-tablet:  “His name is John.”  Scripture teaches that Zechariah’s speech returned immediately, and he proclaimed that God’s redemption of his people was at hand.

The story provides several important Advent messages.  First, Elizabeth (who was elderly and barren) will produce a child, just as a world which had become stale and ordinary and barren of meaning will produce something completely new.  Zechariah, speechless through his disobedience, recovers all that he has lost by listening to the Lord.  (He recovers his speech at his son’s circumcision, a rite which operated as a sign of the covenantal relationship between the people of Israel and the God who chose them.)   Within the loving covenant God calls us into, life springs up in the desert, and all we’ve lost will be recovered.

The story serves as an extended metaphor for what’s going on in the Incarnation.  God is breaking into this broken, handicapped, barren world.  He is re-defining what is “natural”; in other words, re-making all of creation.  This isn’t just an ocasional miracle in a world that otherwise remains the same.  With apologies to the advertising industry, “This changes everything.”

The birth of John, often referred to as the last of the Old Testament prophets, signals that God is redeeming and reclaiming all of creation.  It teaches that we cannot rely on the old rules or our old expectations anymore.  Thus, during this time of year when the days are shorter and the darkness seems to dominate time itself, we light an Advent candle.  We know things are about to change.

Shabbat shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2011 James R. Dennis