Christmas Ghost Story 2020: A Chat with Mom

“Did you say that you couldn’t get the coal stove lit?” My mother’s voice was strong and young and all the more evocative because of it.

I pulled my knees closer to my chest and tucked my ears farther under the edge of my sleeping bag, away from the December cold. After their marriage on the third day of Christmas 1975, my parents had spent a couple of hopeless days up here in this ancient farm house. It was a story that I had heard a thousand times. My dad couldn’t get the old furnace lit. Then, without anything on hand but ice and snow, he couldn’t wash the thick coal dust from his face and arms. They had decided to make the best of it and go tobogganing anyway only to hit a tree on their first run down the hill, splintering the toboggan. Finally, given up amid the frigid temperatures, they walked a mile back to their car at the bottom of the mountain only to find its battery dead because they hadn’t turned off the radio.

Rumor had it that this place was built in the late 1700s as a stagecoach inn along the frontier trail from Binghamton to Albany. As a boy, I had loved hearing my uncles tell stories of the Briarcreek Ghost who haunted this house. Just north of the Catskills, my Grandpa Brown bought these 500 acres on top of a mountain as a place to settle down in his retirement. He had just finished his career with the New Jersey power company that had hired him following WWII. When the war broke out, he had dropped out of highschool, married his sweetheart and joined the Merchant Marines. My mom was the second-to-youngest out of Ralph and Arlene’s five children. A spirited girl, with a name that referenced the elemental life of nature, her father used to tell her, “Don’t be facetious, just be Faye.”

The property had a three-story barn built into the side of the hill with timber-frame construction and stacked-stone foundations so solid that you could drive a modern tractor into all three levels despite its one hundred years. My grandpa had just reroofed this barn, remodeled the beautiful old farmhouse and built a massive new fireplace and chimney before he developed the emphysema and Parkinson’s disease that ended his retirement so early.

Here I was, an old man myself now, back to visit the beautiful folks of this place at Christmas with my own grandkids in tow. I’d been down to the cemetery near the Susquehanna River to pay my respects at the graves of my grandparents, Ralph and Arlene Brown as well as Ralph’s sister, my Great Aunt Ruth. My grandma often made me a bed as a child under this hallway window, looking out over the little front porch roof. It was colder than the bedroom, but I had chosen this childhood overflow bed on this Christmas eve night.

My thoughts blurred as I drifted back toward sleep before I heard my mother’s voice again, still strong but not so young: “Jesse, are you upstairs?” She was laughing, knowing that I must be surprised. I had taken her last remark about the coal stove to be a snatch of dream, but this summons was unmistakably part of a wide-awake world. It came up the stairwell that was beside me in the center of the hallway. I got up slowly and made my way around the banister to the top of the stairs. She could likely hear the steps creak as I descended to check the living room from where I had heard her. Yes, there she sat, in a rocker, smiling at me.

I spoke first. “That’s funny, Mom. You know that the Briarcreek Ghost always chose a rocking chair. Are you and he on familiar terms now?”

“Jesse, it’s good to hear you teasing me again. It’s probably going to set me back, but it’s really good to hear you again. I’m glad you’re not terrified or scandalized. I was pretty sure that you’d be up for a chat when I saw you pick out that old bed under the window.”

“Yes, well, I’m pretty old myself, Mom. You can get away with all kinds of things, now, I guess. What did you mean by saying that this will set you back?”

“Oh, I’m not really sure what I mean. A kind angel tried explaining some things to me years ago about my progress, but I was watching Katie’s twins wrangle some sheep. I told the angel to try explaining it to me another time. But I’ve thought more about it since. Whenever that explanation does happen, I can probably already guess the basic gist of it. Since dying, I’ve had a lot of time to pay attention to things around me. There’s something beyond it all that I need to see. I mean, obviously it’s Jesus, my Creator and Savior, but I only sense Him very obscurely, and I’ve never seen him. I thought I would see him when I died. I thought it would be clear after death. In one sense, it is. The world is much more clear after death, but it’s not any easier to see Jesus. It’s harder, actually, when the world gets so clear and bright. Oddly, I think that I’ve fallen more in love with life in this world after dying than I ever did before, and you know that I always loved a whole lot about life in this world. Anyway, if I have to guess, my eventual progress probably has something to do with dying all the way. I’ve got to lose my life to see what it truly is. Of course I always knew this, but I never actually did it, you know. But I’ve got a sense growing in me that Jesus is waiting, and I get this impression, more and more from everything around me. They are all pointing beyond themselves, asking me to let them go so that, together, we can see Jesus and what we are all about.”

We sat silently together for a few moments before I said, “Yes, that makes sense.”

She added, “Sometimes, I understand Aslan and the moon. Remember that passage from Prince Caspian? ‘All night, Aslan and the Moon gazed upon each other with joyful and unblinking eyes.’”

“Yes, I do. It reminds me of that passage after all the journeys and wars are finished for Gandalf, Elrond, Celeborn and Galadriel. ‘Long after the hobbits were wrapped in sleep they would sit together under the stars, recalling ages that were gone and all their joys and labours in the world…. If any wanderer had chanced to pass, little would he have seen or heard, and it would have seemed to him only that he saw grey figures, carved in stone, memorials of forgotten things now lost in unpeopled lands.”

“Yes, there is so much to be seen and said in that way. I’m learning to love it.”

“Were you talking to Dad a few minutes ago about the coal furnace?”

“Ha! Yes, I was. I don’t travel through time in the same way anymore. It’s all more and more present to me in some ways now. I still move slowly through space, as with a normal body, but much of my life is before me continually now. Of course, I don’t remember all of it, but I’m seeing what I do remember better and better. My first time through life, I saw so very little of it, and I was a pretty perceptive woman.” She paused to smile with me over this. “It’s wonderful to go back and watch Dad now, going through all of his labors on behalf of me and our family. He worked hard, that man, and he was good at seeing certain things that I wasn’t quiet enough to see. I was always doing or loving something, but he was my Steve, the first martyr.”

“Have you seen Dad since he passed away?”

“Yes, he and I were together for a while after he was buried. We were a little like that passage that you described with Celeborn and Galadriel. There was a lot to say, but we said it slowly and with long periods of quiet attention. He had learned a lot since my death, and I think he saw Jesus already—more fully than I do even now.”

“When did you come up here to the farm?”

“I’ve walked to a few places since I was buried, including a few trips that took many months. Most of the time, I’m slipping in and out of different times as I walk, but that makes less and less difference. I’m seeing the same beauties triumph more and more amid the sufferings. It’s a delight to see it all. Oh, but to answer your question… I hope you won’t mind. I caught a ride with you and Elizabeth.”

“Ha! That’s good to know. Hope you enjoyed the ride. It will be nice to have you with us all tomorrow.”

“Yes, I’m looking forward to it. Celebrating Christ’s birth with all these beautiful families.”

“You know that passage in Lewis about Aslan and the moon? I think the moon was his mother.”

“Wow, mom. Have you been studying your C. S. Lewis since you died? Yes, at his resurrection after his death on the stone table, Aslan walks out from the brightness of the sun. And Lewis was certainly familiar with the long tradition—inspired in part by John’s language in Revelation 12—of Mary as the one who reflects the life-giving Light of God. That passage about Christ and his mother gazing all night ‘upon each other with joyful and unblinking eyes,’ comes in a book where Casipian marries a star’s daughter and where scholars have identified the entire book as Lewis expounding the life of the sun. What a beautiful image for this Christmas Eve, to reflect on Christ and his mother enjoying each other in eternity.”

“Yes, Jesse. I’m progressing, I suppose. There are things I’m coming to love and see now that I would have laughed at during my own life. You were way ahead of me, but I see that you still enjoy pointing it out.”

“Ha! Well, thanks for waking me up tonight to say hello and to let me know how right I am. With all this flattery, I’m sure to be blinded to the Christ child now. No Christmas for me. You know, Mom, I can’t help thinking of Elder Lua as we sit here chatting together. All those years as missionaries, and all we could do was shake our heads at him. I guess maybe his stories weren’t so crazy after all.”

“Yes, I’ve remembered him as well, often, since I died. Dad and I loved to tell the stories of our Presbyterian elder who would often sit up at night, smoking and chatting with his long-dead father who had been a shaman during his life. This pagan father loved to visit his Christian son around Chinese New Year. I guess we always took him seriously enough, but it was, well, mostly just a story. What did we know? That crazy, generous, strange man. Yes, who knows what he understood that we could not.”

“Wow, it’s good to be with you again, Mom.”

“Jesse, you know that poem by Charles Williams that ends with this stanza?”

But my soul hurrying
Could not speak for tears,
When she saw her own Child,
Lost so many years.
Down she knelt, up she ran
To the Babe restored
“O my Joy,” she sighed to it,
She wept, “O my Lord!”

“I’ll be praying for us both to learn better to say yes with Mary.”

“Yes, I’ve listened for a voice telling me from the cross, ‘Son, behold your mother.’ But that is only a help along the way as we listen, finally, for the cry of the babe that our soul bears with Mary. I’ll be praying with you, Mom. Thank you for your prayers. Merry Christmas.”

We didn’t say any more, but we sat quietly, each glad in the other’s gaze. I eventually nodded off to sleep in my chair. When I awoke in the cold darkness, her rocking chair was empty, and I made my way back up to my bed beneath the hallway window. It would be Christmas morning soon, and I would need my rest.

P.S. Today is my parents’ anniversary, two years after my mother’s passing. It is also the Feast of Saint Stephen (or the day after on the Western calendar). This story is just that, a story by a child who loves his parents and misses his mother.

P.P.S. I also realized later that I probably got some of the “pictures” behind this story (without knowing it) from Wendell Berry:

“I imagine the dead waking, dazed, into a shadowless light in which they know themselves altogether for the first time. It is a light that is merciless until they can accept its mercy; by it they are at once condemned and redeemed. It is Hell until it is Heaven. Seeing themselves in that light, if they are willing, they see how far they have failed the only justice of loving one another; it punishes them by their own judgment. And yet, in suffering that light’s awful clarity, in seeing themselves in it, they see its forgiveness and its beauty, and are consoled. In it they are loved completely, even as they have been, and so are changed into what they could not have been but what, if they could have imagined it, they would have wished to be.” —Wendell Berry (A World Lost)

“I know by now that the love of ghosts is not expectant, and I am coming to that. This Virgie of mine, this newfound ‘Virge,’ is the last care of my life, and I know the ignorance I must cherish him in. I must care for him as I care for a wildflower or a singing bird, no terms, no expectations, as finally I care for Port William and the ones who have been here with me.” —Wendell Berry (Hannah Coulter)

Mary is our Abraham

Dante called Mary “Virgin Mother, Daughter of thy Son”. Dante’s description of Mary, “Daughter of thy Son”, challenges any assumption that the address to Mary by Jesus from the cross is simply an example of a son’s solicitude for his mother’s welfare.

…In spite of the current presumption that Christianity is important for no other reason than that Christians are pro-family people, it must be admitted that none of the Gospels portray Jesus as family-friendly. In Mark, when he is told that his mother and brothers are “outside asking for [him]”, Jesus responds, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3.34-35).

Nor should we forget that in Luke 14.26 Jesus says that “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” In our desire to make Jesus “normal”, a man who liked children, we are tempted to forget that Jesus never married or had children. That he welcomed the children to come to him as manifestations of the Kingdom may be for no other reason than that children do not have children.

I do not call attention to Jesus’s anti-family remarks to denigrate his address to Mary from the cross. Indeed, I think we can only appreciate his commending Mary to the beloved disciple, as well as his charge to the disciple to regard Mary as his mother, when we recognise that Mary is not just another mother. Rather, Mary is the firstborn of the new creation. Without Mary’s response “Here am I” to Gabriel, our salvation would not be. Raniero Cantalamessa quite rightly, therefore, entitled his book on Mary Mary: Mirror of the Church (Liturgical Press, 1992).

Cantalamessa, moreover, makes the fascinating observation that in the New Testament Jesus is often designated as or assumed to be the new Adam, the new Moses, or the new David, but he is never called the new Abraham. Cantalamessa suggests that the reason Jesus is not associated with Abraham is very simple — Mary is our Abraham.

Just as Abraham did not resist God’s call to leave his father’s country to go to a new land, so Mary did not resist God’s declaration that she would bear a child through the power of the Holy Spirit. Abraham’s faith foreshadows Mary’s “Here am I,” because, just as we are Abraham’s children through faith, so we become children of the new age, inaugurated in Christ through Mary’s faithfulness.

God restrained Abraham’s blow that would have sacrificed Isaac, but the Father does not hold back from the sacrifice of Mary’s son. Jesus’s command that Mary should “behold your son” is to ask Mary to see that the one born of her body was born to be sacrificed so that we might live.

As Gregory of Nyssa put it: “If one examines this mystery, one will prefer to say not that his death was a consequence of his birth, but that the birth was undertaken so that he could die.” When God tested Abraham by commanding the sacrifice of Isaac, Abraham’s “Here I am” (Genesis 22.1) did not result in Isaac’s death. Mary’s “Here am I,” however, could not save her son from being the one born to die on a cross.

In the 11th chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews, we are reminded that “by faith” did our foremothers and fathers live. Yet Mary, true daughter of Israel, was tested as no one in Israel had ever been tested.

Jesus’s “behold your son” asked Mary to witness the immolation of the Son, to enter the darkness that is the cross, yet to hold fast to the promises she had received from the Spirit that this is the one who will scatter the proud, bring down the powerful from their thrones, fill the hungry with good things, and fulfil the promises made to Abraham and his descendants. Her son, the Messiah, will do all this from the cross.

Jesus charges Mary to regard as her own, her true family, the “disciple whom he loved”. Drawing disciples into the Church, Mary shares her faith, making possible our faith. At this moment, at the foot of the cross, we are drawn into the mystery of salvation through the beginning of the Church. Mary, the new Eve, becomes for us the firstborn of a new reality, of a new family, that only God could create.

Augustine observed that the God who created us without us refuses to save us without us. Mary is the first great representative of that “us”. Accordingly Mary, the Jew, in a singular fashion becomes for us the forerunner of our faith, making it impossible for Christians to forget that without God’s promises to Israel our faith is in vain.

When Christians repress the role of Mary in our salvation, we are tempted to forget that God remains faithful to his promises to his people, the Jews. Our Saviour was born of Mary, making us, like the Jews, a bodily people who live by faith in the One who asks us to behold his crucified body.

Jesus, therefore, commands the disciple, his beloved disciple, not to regard Mary as Jesus’s mother, but rather to recognise that Mary is “your mother”. Mary’s peculiar role in our salvation does not mean that she is separate from the Church. Rather, Mary’s role in our salvation is singular because, beginning with the beloved disciple, she is made a member of the Church.

Mary is one of us, which means the distance between her and us is that constituted by both her and our distance between Trinity and us, that is, between creatures and Creator. In Augustine’s words, “Holy is Mary, blessed is Mary, but the Church is more important than the Virgin Mary. Why is this so? Because Mary is part of the Church, a holy and excellent member, above all others, but, nevertheless, a member of the whole body. And if she is a member of the whole body, doubtlessly the body is more important than a member of the body.”

So may we never forget that we, the Church, comprise Mary’s home. A home, moreover, that promises not safety, but rather the ongoing challenge of being a people called from the nations to be God’s people. We are a people constituted by faith in the One who refused to triumph through the violence that the world believes to be the only means possible to achieve some limited good, to ensure that we will be remembered.

The refusal to use violence in the name of the good does not mean this people can forget those singled out in Mary’s song of triumph — that is, the poor and powerless. Rather, it means that such a people, Mary-like, must live by hope — a hope that patiently waits with Mary at the foot of her son’s cross.

If this is not the second person of the Trinity, the One alone who has the power to forgive our sins, then this Mary-shaped patience in a world constituted by injustice and violence would be the ultimate folly. That is why it is so important that we not forget that these words from the cross are the words of the Son of God.

The work that the Son does on the cross through the Spirit makes us the remembered, God’s memory, so that the world may know that there is an alternative to a world constituted by the fear of death. We confess that too often we forget we are God’s remembered. And that is why we pray “Hail, Mary, full of grace, pray for us.”

Cross-Shattered Christ: Meditations on the Last Seven Words by Stanley Hauerwas.
Ethiopian Crucifixion Icon (with Mary and John). Twelve-panel folding icon or chain manuscript, c. 1900. African Art Museum of the SMA Fathers at Tenafly, New Jersey.

Our Nativity with Christ and Paul’s Expectant World

In Romans 8:22, Paul describes the world giving birth to a new creation: “For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.” This birth involves all of us because, a few verses earlier, we learned that “the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God” (8:19, ESV here and above). As we prepare for the birth of Christ, there is much to learn from this image of a world waiting with the eagerness of an expectant mother for a renewed humanity and suffering in the pains of childbirth for the revelation of a new cosmos.

Paul understood Christ to be the first human (consider the clear logic of 1 Corinthians 15:44-50, for example), and therefore Mary gives birth to the second Adam who will finally make possible the creation of the first Adam. Christ as the eternal Son of God is the original form upon which the first Adam was modeled, and Christ incarnate also becomes the firstfruits of a humanity for which the first Adam was always intended but to which he and all of his children had never attained.

Therefore, as Mary carried Christ, she carried all of us in our potential as fully realized humans. Moreover, containing Christ, Mary contained the whole of the new creation that Christ would bring about. Many ancient nativity hymns speak of Mary’s womb as paradise restored. Here is one example:

Prepare, O Bethlehem, For Eden has been opened to all. Adorn yourself, O Ephratha, For the Tree of Life blossoms forth from the virgin in the cave. Her womb is a spiritual paradise planted with the Fruit Divine; If we eat of it, we shall live forever and not die like Adam. Christ is coming to restore the image which He made in the beginning.

Creation is ongoing and incomplete apart from Christ. Cut off from the Tree of Life, we are estranged from the Voice of God that is continually creating the world. God’s primary work is speaking as His Logos is coeternal with Him. However, God’s secondary work is shaping, and what we experience within the fallen world is a resistance on our own part to God’s shaping of the world. It is not possible to resist the Logos of God, but God allows us—the material called into existence—to defy the shaping work of His hands to some degree. In fact, our current cosmos, in its entire history, is a result of our rebellion against the image of the Logos that God longs to give to us. We will eventually delight to express this image in its fullness, but our opposition has resulted in a long and difficult labor, one in which the entire world must struggle to give birth to a new creation.

This language of the womb (both Mary’s and the world’s) is the language of creation for Paul. When God shapes humanity in Genesis 2, the same Hebrew verb (yatsar) is used as when the scriptures talk about God shaping each of us within our mothers’ wombs (Psalm 139:13–16 and Isaiah 44:24). Likewise, God’s Spirit hovering over the “welter and waste” in Genesis evokes a mother bird spreading herself over the eggs in her nest. The same verb used for the hovering of the Spirit in Genesis 1:2 is used in Deuteronomy 32:11 where we read that God cares for Israel “like an eagle who rouses his nest, over his fledglings he hovers” (Robert Alter’s translation throughout this paragraph).

Clearly, we have two related images with the work of the potter and the labor of a woman giving birth. Jean Hani, in his book Divine Craftsmanship shares wonderful insights into God as a potter (33-37):

The author of Ecclesiasticus pauses a moment to watch the potter at work and gives us a graphic portrait of him: “So doth the potter sitting at his work, turning the wheel about with his feet, who is always carefully set to his work, and maketh all his work by number. He fashioneth the clay with his arm, and boweth down his strength before his feet.” (Eccles. 38:32-33)

This care, this skill, this freedom of the human artist before his work, perfectly evokes the attitude of the Divine Artist vis-à-vis His creature: “All men are from the ground, and out of earth, from whence Adam was created. As the potter’s clay is in his hand, to fashion and order it all: all his ways are according to his ordering.” (Eccles. 33:10, 13-14)

Saint Irenaeus …presents this gloss of Ecclesiasticus (Contra haer. IV, 39, 2): “If then, thou art God’s workmanship, await the hand of thy Maker which creates everything in due time; in due time as far as thou art concerned, whose creation is being carried out.”

In the Letter of Barnabas 6.9 (AD 70 to 132) we read that “the human being is earth that suffers.” Citing this passage, John Behr expounds on our “suffering as we are molded by the hands of God, as clay in the hands of the potter, into his image, a process that continues throughout our lives, culminating in our death and resurrection, at which point one can even say that we are created” (The Wheel, 2008, “From Adam to Christ”).

Scott Cairns writes about the annunciation and nativity in a poem that is bookended by these images of formation and birth:

Deep within the clay, and O my people
very deep within the wholly earthen
compound of our kind arrives of one clear,
star-illumined evening a spark igniting
once again the ember of our lately
banked noetic fire. She burns but she
is not consumed. The dew falls gently,
suffusing the pure fleece. Her human flesh
adorns its Lord, and lo, the wall comes down.
And—do you feel the pulse?—we all become
the kindled kindred of a King whose birth
thereafter bears to all a bright nativity.

This poem (composed for Gordon College students during a stay in Orvieto, Italy) opens with the work of God upon our collective clay and ends with the truth that, as Mary gives birth to Christ, she gives new birth to us all.

This world and Mary are both expectant, and we all wait to be born again in a birth that now can only come through death. “Journey of the Magi” by T. S. Eliot contemplates how “this Birth was / Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.” This is why the traditional nativity icons always depict the baby and his mother deep within a cave. It is a cave like that in which Christ’s dead body must be laid after his crucifixion. For the same reason, his swaddling clothes as a baby are the same in all the old icons as those bands that will wrap his body for burial. Christ, joins us in the womb of his mother and in the belly of the earth, both in his birth and in his death. God is with all who are just “earth that suffers” so that we, and the whole cosmos with us, can be remade and born again.

Traditional Nativity Icon (Elizabeth Zelasko at elizabethzelasko.com)

The Cosmic Christmas of John’s Apocalypse

Christmas is a time to draw close together in the dark and to enjoy the lighting of candles as we remember the birth of a baby to parents who were far from their own home. Somewhat in tension with this, I’ve often told my family with a smirk that chapter 12 of John’s Revelation is my favorite version of the Christmas story. I do love returning to it although the scope of John’s account is cosmic and does not fit well within the domestic scene that we associate with Christmas.

Part of our problem these days is that we’ve wandered far away from any capacity to recognize this world as our home. We don’t associate “cosmic” and “cosy” as G. K. Chesterton says that we should (in his beautiful chapter entitled “The Ethics of Elfland” from his book Orthodoxy). Chesterton insists that it is perfectly reasonable of him to say: “I like this cosy little cosmos, with its decent number of stars and as neat a provision of live stock as I wish to see.”

With this turn of phrase, Chesterton almost turns the cosmos into a cow shed filled with sheep and a weary donkey. Similar ideas show up in a very different form within “The Starlight Night” by Gerard Manley Hopkins. His ecstatic recounting of a vision into the starry heavens explodes at first with multiple images but calls forth, in the end, “Prayer, patience, alms, vows.” More quieted, he concludes that the heavens “are indeed the barn; withindoors house / The shocks. This piece-bright paling shuts the spouse / Christ home, Christ and his mother and all his hallows.” The firmament is like a barn wall filled with knot holes that let out points of light from the bright domestic gathering inside—the warm fellowship of “Christ and his mother and all his hallows.” There is a sense that, even in the glory of God’s eternal throne room, Christ and his mother still inhabit a place filled with livestock and the grain from a great harvest.

This idea of a cosmic home is difficult for modern people to appreciate, but it is the right setting for the baby who is born in John’s Apocalypse. “A great sign was seen in the heaven, a woman arrayed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars” (Young’s Literal Translation, used throughout with some adaptations of archaic language). In John’s vision of this woman giving birth, a great red dragon waits just before her in the sky to devour her child as soon as he appears. He has seven heads, ten horns and seven crowns, and his tail lashes stars from the sky as he waits for the child to appear. At the moment of his birth, however, the baby is caught away to God and to His throne.

As her child is carried to safety, the woman flees and hides in “a place made ready from God” while Michael and his angels do battle with the dragon. We now learn that the dragon is “the old serpent, who is called Devil and the Adversary, who is leading astray the whole world.” Michael casts this dragon to the earth along with all of the dragon’s rebellious angels. The heavens are told to rejoice at this removal of the dragon from their midst, while the earth and the sea are told to beware at his wrath as he has been thrown down among them. More angry than ever, the dragon is said to have “pursued the woman who did bring forth the male.” Happily, “there were given to the woman two wings of the great eagle, that she may fly to the wilderness, to her place, where she is nourished a time, and times, and half a time, from the face of the serpent.”

The dragon then attempts to drown the woman in a flood of water that he pours forth out of his mouth, but the land helps the woman and swallows up the torrent of water. Denied his victim for the second time, the dragon “went away to make war with the rest of her seed, those keeping the commands of God, and having the testimony of Jesus Christ.”

Bamberg Apocalypse, Folio 31

John’s next vision features a beast coming out of the sea to worship the dragon and to receive authority from the dragon before spreading terrible lies throughout the earth and initiating a massive apostasy from God. It is tempting to follow the story through to the end, as we meet our beast again in chapter 17. With seven heads and ten horns, this is clearly our same red dragon but this time carrying “a woman arrayed with purple and scarlet-colour, and gilded with gold, and precious stone, and pearls, having a golden cup in her hand full of abominations and uncleanness of her whoredom.” John “saw the woman drunken from the blood of the saints and from the blood of the witnesses of Jesus,” and he “wondered, having seen her, with great wonder.” It is a vivid and terrible story.

In chapter 19, another woman appears briefly as “we rejoice and exult, and give the glory to Him, because” we have finally arrived at “the marriage of the Lamb and his wife who has made herself ready.” Our delight is brief, however. The dragon still rampages and is confronted again in chapter 20 when John sees “a messenger coming down out of the heaven, having the key of the abyss, and a great chain over his hand.” This angel “laid hold on the dragon, the old serpent, who is Devil and Adversary, and did bind him a thousand years, and he cast him to the abyss, and did shut him up, and put a seal upon him, that he may not lead astray the nations any more, till the thousand years may be finished; and after these it behoveth him to be loosed a little time.”

As the tumult truly subsides, in chapter 21, John finally hears: “Come, I will show you the bride of the Lamb—the wife.” Then, says John, the angel “carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed to me the great city, the holy Jerusalem, coming down out of the heaven from God, having the glory of God, and her light like a stone most precious.”

With all these visions of John’s—each one rising up after another in a fearsome march toward the glorious end—we get the sense that they unfold a longer story while at the same time, perhaps, circling back on themselves and retelling parts of the same story more than once. Amid this swirling sequence of visions, it is not wise to grow too confident. However, this image of a mother with a child followed by images of the harlot and the bride may all hold together. If so, we can connect the righteous lady with the radiant Jerusalem that descends from heaven in the end and have this bride contrasted with the harlot who is named for the great earthly power of Babylon.

While a grand concept of the mother in Revelation 12 as a collective figure standing for “all the people of God” makes sense, it does not need to conflict with a more intimate association directly with Mary. In the Gospel of Luke, early Christians all realized that Luke was parallelling the story of Mary’s pregnancy in the first two chapters very closely with the ark of the Old Covenant in 2 Samuel 6. Luke is a careful scholar of the Old Testament as an educated Greek proselyte to the Jewish faith, and he is clearly portraying Mary as the ark of the New Covenant carrying the Word of God inscribed in flesh (instead of the stone tablets of the law from the Old Testament ark), the body of Jesus Christ as the bread from heaven (instead of the urn filled with manna from the wilderness), and the actual and eternal High Priest (instead of the rod of Aaron that budded to prove and defend the true high priest of the Old Covenant).

As we move from John’s vision in chapter 11 to the new scene in 12, the woman giving birth is directly juxtaposed with the ark of the New Covenant. The last verse of chapter 11 declares “and opened was the sanctuary of God in the heaven, and there was seen the ark of His covenant in His sanctuary,” which gives way in the next verse (at the start of chapter 12) where “a great sign was seen in the heaven, a woman arrayed with the sun.”

It makes sense to see this woman giving birth as Mary, the ark of the New Covenant who carries the bread of life. This does not conflict with her as also the chief representative of all God’s people, as the church and as the faithful bride who descends from heaven in the last vision. God’s people are described repeatedly as the intended bride of God within the Old Testament, and we have the image of the church as the bride of Christ prominent within the rest of the New Testament. Mary should also bring to mind that other great mother of the human race, Eve. Although a daughter of Eve, Mary completes the work left undone by Eve and gives birth to the child who will finally destroy the serpent of old and allow a new creation to take place. (See the fantasy novel Lilith by George MacDonald for a moving account of all these women in one story.)

Bamberg Apocalypse

As mentioned near the start, trying to read chapter 12 as a cosmic Christmas story, we might feel that the baby plays too small a part in the account. He is simply carried up to heaven in the same moment that he appears. The woman flees alone into the wilderness and Michael comes forth with his angelic army to wage war. The child is nowhere to be found. What about the life, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ?

Several considerations tumble out together in response. First, there may be more of an overlap than we realize between the angels singing in the gospel account of Christ’s birth and angels waging war in this apocalyptic version of the story. Our prayers and songs of praise are described as great outpourings of judgement upon God’s enemies throughout John’s Revelation, and there may be little difference between an angelic choir and an angelic army from a devil’s perspective. As for the disappearing baby, where was Christ when every mother in Bethlehem had her baby slaughtered? Was he not kept safe by God in the far-off land of Egypt? From the perspective of eternity in heaven, Christ’s life on earth was a brief interlude amid the course of His endless reign as Son of God and then, as the firstfruits of the human race, the King seated upon the throne of David that will never fall. Moreover, as our King, Christ clearly puts a high value on the sufferings of his earthly people. He told His disciples that they would do greater things than he did because he is going to the Father while they would remain behind (John 14:12). Inspired by Christ, Paul also says that “in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Colossians 1:24, ESV).

Christ appears a few times in the rest of Revelation as a mighty warrior and judge, but his primary presence is as a lamb, offered up as spiritual food for God’s people. This image of the child-like priest and king—humble as a lamb and feeding his people with himself as the bread of life—is an image that shows up in the primary Christian icon associated with this Revelation 12 passage. In this icon, the mighty Angel Michael fills the center of the image, riding a red winged war horse while destroying Satan amid a glow of fiery colors. Far from the turmoil, Christ sits as a young child at an altar in heaven, ministering our heavenly food with quiet humility. It is true that the altar holds His cross and His body broken for us. Christ is fully present with us in our sufferings, and our sufferings are only made true when united to His own earthly life and death. However, Christ is alive and He is undisturbed by our sufferings. He has already overcome them and another mighty one does battle with an enemy whose defeat is already assured.

Icon of Saint Michael Horseman (Russia, 19th c., priv. coll.)
Russian, 18th century

We are invited to seek help before the manger, the tomb and the altar as Michael battles Satan upon our doorstep, but perhaps this cosmic story still does not yet have the familiarity of home. It can help to approach this all from the opposite direction: to consider that the whole fury and majesty of the cosmos is contained within our homes and our hearts. G. K. Chesterton takes this approach when he describes our private life as a greater work than our public life: “For anyone who makes himself responsible for one small baby, as a whole, will soon find that he is wrestling with gigantic angels and demons” (“Turning Inside Out” in Fancies vs. Fads, 1923).

A passage attributed to Saint Macarius the Great places the cosmos within our heart itself:

Within the heart are unfathomable depths. …It is but a small vessel: and yet dragons and lions are there, and there poisonous creatures and all the treasures of wickedness; rough, uneven paths are there, and gaping chasms. There likewise is God, there are the angels, there life and the Kingdom, there light and the Apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasures of grace: all things are there.

The Fifty Spiritual Homilies, 15.32

If you struggle to recognize this vast universe as your private home, try to recognize the vast universe that is at home in you. Within that universe, a child is born for whom angels both ride forth to war and stand to sing. Good news.

an abstraction does not need a Mother

In her very person as a Jewish girl become the mother of the Messiah, Mary binds together, in a living and indissoluble way, the old and the new People of God, Israel and Christianity, synagogue and church. She is, as it were, the connecting link without which the Faith (as is happening today) runs the risk of losing its balance by either forsaking the New Testament for the Old or dispensing with the Old. In her, instead, we can live the unity of sacred Scripture in its entirety.

To use the very formulations of Vatican II, Mary is ‘figure,’ ‘image’ and ‘model’ of the Church. Beholding her the Church is shielded against the aforementioned masculinized model that views her as an instrument for a program of social–political action. In Mary, as figure and archetype, the Church again finds her own visage as Mother and cannot degenerate into the complexity of a party, an organization or a pressure group in the service of human interests, even the noblest. If Mary no longer finds a place in many theologies and ecclesiologies, the reason is obvious: they have reduced faith to an abstraction. And an abstraction does not need a Mother.

From Rapporto Sulla Fede, a series of 1985 interviews given by Pope Benedict XVI to Vittorio Messori.

the Tree of Life blossoms forth from the virgin in the cave

Our homily in church this morning was on Jesus Christ as the tree of life as it is given back to us at Christmas. This idea that Jesus is the tree of life is among the most prominent images from the church’s oldest Nativity hymns and prayers. Here is one example:

Prepare, O Bethlehem, For Eden has been opened to all. Adorn yourself, O Ephratha, For the Tree of Life blossoms forth from the virgin in the cave. Her womb is a spiritual paradise planted with the Fruit Divine; If we eat of it, we shall live forever and not die like Adam. Christ is coming to restore the image which He made in the beginning.

I’m not qualified to teach theology or to accurately represent what our priest shared this morning, but here are a few of the key points as I recall them:

  1. The tree of life in Genesis represents God himself as God was present with Adam and Eve in Eden. God is shown to be the source of all life, with living water flowing in four rivers from the tree of life.
  2. Adam and Eve separate themselves from God when they turned away from the source of life to pursue the fruit of another tree, one from which they had been told not to eat because it would lead to death.
  3. This death was not a punishment by God. It was simply the result of turning away from God as the source of all life. This result was actually the grace of God, placing a limit on how much humans would be able to hurt themselves and each other in their blindness and separation form the source of life. Our priest asked us to imagine a world in which men such as Attila the Hun, Hitler and Stalin all were still alive and able to “do what they do.” By placing a guard of cherubim around the Tree of Life, God was putting a limit on the harm that we could do to each other in our sin. Finally, death was part of God’s gracious plan to give us a way back to him as Jesus Christ would unite himself with us in death itself and thereby “destroy death by death.”
  4. In Jesus Christ, we therefore have the Tree of Life from the Garden restored to us. Our priest told us that we would be coming up to that tree and eating its fruit near the end of our liturgy as we partook of the Eucharist. He told us that we should take this quite literally as the fruit from the tree of life.

If you are interested, you can look over a sampling of other old Nativity hymns that I once collected here. Finally, here are a few traditional images related to this old idea that Mary opens up Eden to us, removing the flaming swords of the cherubim and allowing us to eat from the Tree of Life once again:

tree of life

Above: a traditional “Tree of Life” icon showing all the family of Jesus Christ joined together and offering Jesus to the world as the fruit of the tree of life. Left to right, top to bottom, the smaller figures are Jeremiah, Jacob, Malachi, Aaron, Zephaniah, Moses, Gideon, Abraham, Daniel, Elisha, David and Solomon.

Pacino_di_buonaguida,_albero_della_vita,_00

Above: “Tree of the Cross” a panel form the Galleria dell’Accademia by Pacino di Bonaguida, 1302-1340. At the bottom, you see Adam and Eve being separated from the tree of life in contrast to the tree of life being given back to us as Jesus Christ offers himself as the bread of life from the cross.

of the sign icon

Above: traditional “Our Lady of the Sign” icon (Russian in this case) showing Jesus carried by his mother Mary. This shows the Theotokos (mother of God) during the Annunciation at the moment of saying, “May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). This icon shows Christ a the moment of conception but nonetheless with the face of a wise teacher (and often holding a scroll). His right hand is raised in blessing. This term “of the Sign” is a reference to the prophecy of Isaiah (7:14): “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel [meaning ‘God with us’].”

she will carry to her rambling race that bright and living fire

God’s Mother was born today, the first of the twelve great feasts in the church year. These poor thoughts rattled around in my mind over the last few days, so I set them down. Those familiar with the feasts connected to Mary’s life will see that my words are just clumsy responses to three of the most common images in the church’s hymns about Mary: Moses’s burning bush, Jacob’s heavenly ladder and Ezekiel’s closed gate.

Today a green bud came out upon a once dead branch from deep within the heart of our own tree. Unwitting, song birds and myriad wild creatures chorused, flitted and chattered amid the many wide-reaching boughs of this great tree. Around its heart, tangled branches have rubbed raw their brothers, bruised and sometimes barren. This spray of life from within the thicket will receive sap and sun and all—when, lighted at her core by divine flame, she will carry to her rambling race that bright and living fire.

Today a ladder was set down by the Creator that would extend with her humble prayers and attentive heart to span from earth to heaven—saying yes to God’s desire that He might descend to make a throne upon the earth and a paradise with us.

Today, the Architect set upon its hinges the one gate within our rebellious city that stood ready for its Maker’s voice—ready to open only for our God that He might come forth to live with us, sharing our homes and our full humanity.

And here is a favorite passage from Fr. Thomas Hopko of Blessed Memory that summarizes, as succinctly as I’ve found, the entire history of those differences over Mary that developed between the Greeks and Latins:

As Father Alexander Schmemann used to say, ‘Mary is not the great exception.’ You know, exceptionally conceived, exceptionally ending her human life, bypassing original sin, bypassing death. No, no, that is not the teaching at all. It’s just the opposite. She’s the great example. She exemplifies and patterns the Christian life.

The Virgin today accompanies the Child in His first offering to the Father

Select hymns and prayers from the Antiochian Church’s Festal Orthros on the Presentation of Our Lord Jesus Christ (February 2)

From the Kathismata of the Presentation:

Let the ranks of angels be astonished with wonder, and let us raise our voices in praise, as we behold the ineffable condescension, the condescension of God; for He before Whom the powers of heaven tremble is carried today in the arms of the elder, and He alone is the Lover of mankind.

He that is with the Father on the holy throne, came down to earth, was born of the Virgin, became a babe for my sake; and is unbounded in time.

From the Kontakion and Oikos for the Presentation:

Let us hasten to the Theotokos, we who wish to see her Son brought unto Simeon. When the incorporeal powers looked on Him out of heaven, they were astonished, saying: Now do we see strange and wondrous things, incomprehensible and inexpressible. He Who made Adam is carried as a babe; the Uncontainable is held in the arms of the elder; he Who abideth uncircumscribed in the bosom of His Father is willingly circumscribed in the flesh, but not in His Godhead, and he alone is the Love of mankind.”

The Synaxarion:

On February 2 in the Holy Orthodox Church, we celebrate the Meeting (Presentation) of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ in the Temple, wherein the righteous Simeon received Him into his arms.

Verses: The hands of righteous Simeon, as they bear Thee, depict, O my Christ, the bosom of Thy Father. On the second, Simeon received Christ in the Temple.

The Greek word for the feast is “Hypapante” [ee-pah-pan-DEE] which means “Encounter” or “Meeting.” However, this was not just some chance encounter. This feast, which closes the cycle of the Nativity of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ, reminds us that on the fortieth day after the birth of her first-born Son, Mary carried Him to the Temple in accordance with the Mosaic Law to offer Him to the Lord, and to ransom Him by the sacrifice of a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons (Luke 2:22-3). In one of many acts of extreme humility, the divine Word thus lowers Himself and submits to the law in order to fulfill it. This lowering is also Jesus’ first official encounter with His people in the person of Simeon. It is not only an encounter, but also a manifestation. Simeon bears in his arms the One he knows to be the Salvation of the world, “a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of Thy people Israel.” His endearing prayer, as found in the Gospel of Luke, endures in the Orthodox Church to this day. The Church considers this celebration as a Feast of the Theotokos in praise of her role in this Presentation, and her connection in the work of her Son. “Adorn thy chamber, O Zion, and receive Christ the King. Welcome Mary the heavenly gate; for she hath appeared as a cherubic throne; she carrieth the King of glory” (Aposticha of Great Vespers). The Virgin today accompanies the Child in His first offering to the Father; she will also accompany Him even to the realization of His sacrifice for humanity.

Unto the very God be glory and dominion unto the ages. Amen.

Ninth Ode of Canon of Presentation of Christ in Tone Three [with 16 short verses and 4 refrains]:

1. That which came to pass in thee we in no wise comprehend, not the Angels, nor we men, O thous Virgin Mother pure.

8. Thou, O Maiden Mariam, art in truth the mystic tongs, who within thy blessed womb hast conceived the Ember, Christ.

Of old they offered a pair of turtle doves and a pair of pigeons. But instead of them the divine old man and Anna the pure prophetess were offered to Him Who was born of the Virgin, Who was offered in the Temple, Who is the Son of God. Wherefore, they served him magnifying.

Orthodox Positions on Sin within the Life of Mary the Mother of God

This is a topic that I’ve read about over several years now (primarily online, not having come across it much within books), and I have wanted to collect together a few comments from various online sources into one place for myself as a simple reference in conversations (particularly when I am asked about this topic from time to time). As these passages indicate, Orthodox theology leaves a few options open on this topic while also differing from Roman Catholic and Protestant theology on this issue in a few straightforward ways.

Father Thomas Hopko in this podcast on The Dormition of the Theotokos (August 10, 2010):

In other words, as Father Alexander Schmemann used to say, “Mary is not the great exception.” You know, exceptionally conceived, exceptionally ending her human life, bypassing original sin, bypassing death. No, no, that is not the teaching at all. It’s just the opposite. She’s the great example. She exemplifies and patterns the Christian life.

Father Thomas Hopko in this podcast on Lent (April 9, 2013):

And some of their Western Latin teachers don’t say clearly whether or not she really died. And there were some that held that she really died, and there were others who said no. If there was this Immaculate Conception where the ancestral sin and stain was washed away, some people claim that she would not have died.

Now, our Eastern Orthodox and ancient Church says this: No matter how holy you are in this world, you’re going to die. Even if it could be by God’s grace and faith that you never sinned at all, you’re still a mortal, and you’re going to die. We’re all caught in this together, and the whole human race has to be raised and glorified. It can’t be done individually one by one.

It’s so wonderful! First you’re looking at this icon surrounded by flowers, with the Mother of God in it, who’s virtually sinless. I mean, many people even think she was without any, even the smallest sin, although most Church Fathers think she may have had thoughts coming from humanity, but she certainly never broke her communion with God, the Theotokos; she never committed any sin unto death. She was constantly graced by God and prepared to be Christ’s mother. We celebrate her in this grand Akathistos hymn. And then in the very same frame—we have the repentant and saved and deified and radiant Mary of Egypt, who herself becomes full of grace, just like Mary the Theotokos. But, boy, oh boy, if there was ever an opposite to Mary the Mother of God, it was Mary of Egypt!

On March 16, 2005 at 1:12 p.m., Father Thomas Dowd responded to this  post of Patriach Bartholomew on the ‘Immaculate Conception’ from March 8, 2005:

I once heard Fr. Thomas Hopko say that the jury was out in the Orthodox church regarding the sinlessness of Mary, but that most authorities would acknowledge that Mary never committed any sins, mortal or venial. Perhaps I am asking a question that cannot be answered in the Orthodox Church at present.

On October 8, 2017 at 6:24 a.m., Fr. Stephen Freeman commented in response to his own blog Why the Orthodox Honor Mary from August 1, 2016:

Randall,

The hymns of the Church clearly articulate that Mary did not sin. It is worth noting that there are some who hold this to be true of John the Baptist as well. First, you have to step outside of the “Western” concept of sin, its origin and meaning. First, both Mary and John died – they were mortal. For the Orthodox, sin is death. It is not so much a moral category. Our behaviors that are termed “sins” are the consequence of our mortality, a bad response to corruption and death. But we do not die because we “sin.” We sin because we are dying. Christ willingly submitted Himself to the consequence of humanity’s mortality (“He became sin” in the words of St. Paul, 2 Cor. 5). But there was no “sin” in Christ, no moral failing – only righteousness.

That someone might live in constant union with God in this life is amazing to the Orthodox, but not inconceivable.

Having said all that, it is correct that there are a variety of opinions on the matter of specific moral choices (sins) on the part of the Mother of God. The variety of opinions is possible because there is nothing that hangs on it, no particular dogmatic understanding is affected one way of another. A way to say this is that the Orthodox do not think that Mary “had to be” free from sin (unlike the RC doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, rooted in a false notion of Original Sin – at least that’s what I’ve been given to understand). The larger part of the Orthodox tradition simply believes that Mary was free from sin, as a matter of fact (even if it’s a pious fact).

The understanding is rooted in expressions within some of the Fathers and the liturgical tradition of the Church that always speaks of her as “most pure, most holy.” It holds that in the Annunciation, the Incarnation of Christ is much, much more than a mere borrowing of flesh and inhabiting of her womb. It is a personal union with God, in the same sense that we long for such union. In that moment, she becomes Theotokos – not just “tokos.” It is for this reason that the statement “A sword will pierce your own soul also,” is understood to be ontologically true, and not a mere statement about the grief of a mother.

Mary is in no way “exempted” from venial sins – but she does not break her union with God or with her son – that is – she does not consent to them. She has consented to God alone. Met. Maximos cites Chrysostom’s opinion that Mary was guilty of vanity at the wedding in Cana. I think Chrysostom was wrong and guilty of bad exegesis, failing to understand the mystery within that text. The fathers are not infallible and must not be used as such. It simply says that great preachers get carried away sometimes. Chrysostom, for what it’s worth, is not a dogmatic theologian. He was a great preacher. His work was never part of the dogmatic tradition surrounding the councils. Indeed, I would say of Chrysostom that he is among the most “human” of fathers, clearly showing his own brokenness. He gets himself in trouble with certain excessive actions and statements. He is faithful and he is a giant. But he’s not a great source of theological understanding, except when he is. 🙂

But – don’t trouble yourself in the matter. It is not a dogmatic concern. The truth of it is something that can be known, I think, on the level of the heart and long experience with prayer and the communion of the saints. But it is not a “theologumenon” to be figured out and believed one way or the other. Just let it sit there.

He remains in the very thick of it

From Scott Cairns’ book The End of Suffering:

Well, the story goes that He has descended into the very thick of it.

The story goes that He remains in the very thick of it.

In mystical synergia, He collaborates with His Body, now and ever. In appalling condescension, He remains Emmanuel, God with us. Whereas we had brought only death and brokenness to that mix, He has brought life and wholeness.

…He did not save Himself, but gather gave Himself.

He did not come simply to rid the Jews of the oppressive Romans any more than He came to trump the other oppressive circumstances that His oddly beloved creatures have continued to construct for themselves and others. On the contrary, He came to suffer the results of those cosmic bad choices with us, and by so doing to both show us how we might survive them and to enable our survival—in Himself.

That is to say, He did not come here to undo our choices, but to move through them victoriously, and to show us how we might likewise move. He did not come to eclipse us, or to overrule our persons. On the contrary, He came to endow our persons with the self-same unending life.

“I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, for the sake of His body, which is the church” (Col. 1:24).

…A more likely translation seems to me to be what is yet to be done.

In any case, this does not exactly solve our puzzle. One is very likely still to ask, what is yet to be done?

What is it that Saint Paul and the rest of us are expected to supply?

Could it be ourselves?

The very heart of an efficacious faith, it seems to me now, is bound up precisely in our—watchfully—living into this mystery of what appears to be God’s continuing desire for collaboration between Himself and His creation.

From Adam’s naming of the animals through each successive patriarch, prophet, and holy man or woman, God has shown a predilection for working with His people, as opposed to simply working on them. God is intent, generation after generation on finding one or more of us to suffer the chore with Him. They may or may not always be the best specimens—Moses, Abraham, Lot, David, etc.—but their success is inevitably bound up with their complying with His will, and colluding with it. We find instances of this dynamic collaboration throughout our biblical texts and throughout their surrounding traditions.

One chief instance that comes to mind is illustrated in the Gospel dialogue that accompanies the event we call the Annunciation—that most curious exchange between the Archangel Gabriel and the Theotokos—and I glimpse in that fascinating give-and-take the Holy Mother’s necessary concurrence with the angelic messenger’s announcement. The angel reveals to her the message from on high, and she replies, “Behold the majdservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word” (Lk. 1:38).

The point is, she said yes to God’s messenger. One despairs to think what would have become of us if she had said no.

…What, then, has yet to be done? What—so far as you are concerned—is the nature of this odd-seeming isterimata that gives Saint Paul cause to rejoice even in the midst of suffering?

You’ll probably have to tell me.

I suspect that, just as each of us is unique in the eyes of our God Who loves us, each of us also will find a unique remedy for our separation from Him. Each of us will discover-—and either will bear or will shirk—a unique cross.

What the fathers and mothers of the church have taught me is that inevitably each of us will, in one or in a number of ways, partake of Christ’s suffering, and that these experiences will help us to apprehend all the more how we are both joined to Him and how we are joined to each other.

We may well have occasion to ask—as Christ Himself asked—that the cup be taken away, but we will fare far better if that request is followed by “yet not my will, but Your will be done.” We will fare far better if, like the Theotokos, we answer the call of the messenger, saying, “Behold the servant of the Lord. Let it be done to me according to your word.”