Every year I am deeply moved by the hymns of Christ’s Nativity composed by my name day saint, Romanós the Melodist. Somehow in their simplicity of lyric and melody they capture a side of Christmas that escapes the notice of our culture. In the Western world, the famous short hymn Silent Night has a similar effect of reducing everyone who hears it to the level of the simple awe of the shepherds of Bethlehem. Yet, Today the Virgin, maybe because of its poetry and the details so carefully woven together with tender irony, surpasses all other hymns in conveying both what it was like in time, and what it is like in eternity—the Word became man and dwelt among us… full of grace and truth.
Η Παρθένος σήμερον, τον προαιώνιον Λόγον,
εν σπηλαίω έρχεται, αποτεκείν απορρήτως.
Χόρευε, η οικουμένη ακουτισθείσα,
δόξασον, μετά Αγγέλων και των ποιμένων,
βουληθέντα εποφθήναι, Παιδίον νέον,
τον προ αιώνων Θεόν.
Today the Virgin comes to the cave
to ineffably give birth to the Word before all worlds.
Dance, O universe, upon hearing this,
and with the angels and the shepherds glorify Him
who freely willed to become a new Child,
the God before all ages.
Η παρθένος σήμερον, τον υπερούσιον τίκτει
και η γη το σπήλαιον τω απροσίτω προσάγει,
Άγγελοι μετά ποιμένων δοξολογούσι
Μάγοι δε μετά αστέρων οδοιπορούσι,
δι’ ημάς γαρ εγεννήθη Παιδίον νέον
ο προ αιώνων Θεός. [AUDIO]
Today, the Virgin bears the One beyond being,
and the earth offers the cave
to the Unapproachable.
Angels with shepherds glorify Him.
Magi migrate to Him by a star.
For unto us is born a new Child,
the God before all ages.
(Sigh!) The English translations, no matter which ones you look at, don’t really convey the sense of the original, though they come close. Especially the “Dance, O universe” which translates, Χόρευε, η οικουμένη, Chóreve i ikouméni. That’s what it means!
I’ve been thinking about these hymns, and also this prayer which follows, for the last few days…
What shall we offer You, O Christ,
Who for our sakes have appeared on earth as a man?
Every creature made by You offers You thanks:
the Angels offer a hymn; the heavens, a star;
the Wise Men, gifts; the shepherds, their wonder;
the earth, its cave; the wilderness, a manger,
and we offer You a virgin Mother!
O Pre-eternal God, have mercy on us!
And I’ve been thinking about the ikons. We know that we’re the living ikons of the Lord Jesus Christ, made in His image, broken by sin but restored by His saving grace. We know that He says things to us like, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes Me,” and “Whatsoever you do to the least of My brethren, that you do unto Me.” So, the meaning of ikons is far more than just the religious pictures you see in an Orthodox home or church. Abba Anthony (one of the Desert Fathers) says, “Our life and our death is with our neighbor. If we gain our brother we have gained God, but if we scandalise our brother, we have sinned against Christ.”
We know that the Bible is the greatest ikon of all, in that it is the verbal ikon of the Word of God, and that it should be treated with all reverence—venerated, honored, read and obeyed as the Source of everything we can possibly know about God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and about His ikonomía, His “plan of salvation,” as the only divine scripture on earth. Just as we don’t casually throw it around, or use it as a place mat or door stop, but rather always give it the place of honor, kissing it and holding it respectfully and lovingly, for His sake Whose Gospel it contains, so we also treat our fellow man. We don’t treat him casually, or as a means to an end, but respect him as one to whom Christ comes, for whom Christ died, and through whom Christ comes to us.
Back to the prayer quoted above, “What shall we offer You, O Christ,
Who for our sakes have appeared on earth as a man?”
Since Christ is now among us, in us as His living ikons, how can we offer, not only what shall we offer, to Him?
This question posed itself to me, as I was thinking of Christmas gifts. The hymns and prayers of Christmas describe various beings (not just humans, but beings) offering gifts to Christ at His becoming a “new Child.” Hypersomatic beings (angels) offered “hymns.” Outer space (the heavens) offered “a star,” (quite possibly a supernova). The educated (wise men) offered “gifts,” (we know what they were—gold, frankincense, and myrrh). The working class (shepherds) offered “wonder”—what else did they have? The planet earth offered a cave (and as at the beginning, so at the end, in a rich man’s unused tomb). The wilderness offered a manger (so that the animals, too, could get a good look at their Creator). And finally, the human race, in the shape of her own willingness to risk everything she had ever known and every happiness she ever hoped for, a young virgin as His Mother.
Where does that leave us, who have come two thousand years too late?
No, it’s never too late. We can give to each other everything that we would give to Christ personally. He is here with us, after all! Yes, it’s presents at Christmas. The more of ourselves, the better. It’s a smile and a hug in loneliness, a kind word in sorrow. It’s a helping hand to one who needs it, to one who needs what you have but don’t need. “If you have two shirts, give one to the poor. If you have food, share it with those who are hungry” (Luke 3:11 NIV). This is another facet of the theology of ikons. This is why ikons have come into existence—because the invisible, incomprehensible, eternal God has freely willed to become… one of us.
Do we sit out on a country hillside at night, enjoying the canopy of stars, looking for and trying to commune with the God of all? Wait! Perhaps He is there, sitting beside us, looking up at the stars too, that He created, because they are beautiful, and waiting…
for us to notice Him.
Christ is born! Glorify Him!