Monday, February 2, 2015

On them a light has shone

Forty days after Christmas, forty days after the birth of Jesus Christ, He was brought by His parents to the Temple. As a first-born He must be ‘bought back’ from God, because every first-born of man or beast belonged to God. In the case of an animal, it must be offered in sacrifice.

In the case of a human being, well, even before the Law of Moses, Abraham had to sacrifice his first-born, Isaac. But God had stepped into the picture at the last moment and provided a substitute, a ram caught by its horns in a thicket. Never too soon, but never too late, ‘on the mountain He provides.’

When Moses, after receiving the Ten Words from God, written on stone tablets by His very finger, when Moses authored ‘the laws’—the law of Moses—applying those Ten to the earthly adjudication of his people, he remembered the story of Abraham and Isaac.

From the Ten Words, he took ‘You shall not kill (a human being) and, though blood sacrifice was nevertheless not revoked, he provided in his law animal sacrifices of greater or lesser cost for the ransoming of the first-born. Perhaps he was appalled, though they were servants of his enemy Pharaoh, by the death of the first-born of the Egyptians.

The Old Testament is so crowded with conflicting motives. It’s difficult for us sometimes to sort them out—which are unalterable decrees of God, and which are social expedients enlisted by the tribes to keep them separate, and together. It was probably just as difficult for those early Hebrews as well.

The fortieth day after birth-giving, for the Theotokos, the ‘Mother of God’ (though at the time she was simply Mariam wife of Joseph, of Nazareth), was also the time for her purification. Purification from what? The uncleanness of having given birth to a child.

Everything concerned with reproduction of the race was ‘unclean’ and made people unclean by participation. Even an involuntary ejaculation of male seed, like female menstruation and ejection of the unfertilized egg, made one unclean. The word itself brings to mind what it literally means, ‘dirty,’ but this is an unfortunate result of translation.

Unclean meant different things depending on the circumstances. It could mean ‘too holy to touch’ as well as ‘polluted’ or ‘spoiled and unfit for use.’ In every case it conferred a kind of untouchability, or exclusion from normal daily life, especially worship.

Though we Christians are supposed to be free of such notions, they continue to form our conscious and unconscious judgments. Despite the correction of Church fathers, for example, some Orthodox women still abstain from the Holy Mysteries during their monthly periods. And just as the ancient Hebrews, we still cling to social prohibitions whose presence in the laws of Moses were specific to the pre-Messianic era.

Christ’s first coming has ended them, but only for those willing and courageous enough to live by faith and, putting on Christ, to live as the New Adam.

The stories we find in the Holy Gospel distributed between the evangelists Matthew and Luke give us what scanty knowledge we have of the birth, infancy, and boyhood of the Christ. Accustomed as we are to the ikon of the Nativity, and forgetting that Orthodox ikons, though historical, often mix elements anachronistically, we tend to think in pictures and forget about thinking things through.

The traditional Christmas crèche does the same for Catholics and Protestants. Francis of Assisi invented this imagery probably basing his imagination on Orthodox ikons. The three wise men, magi, or kings are always present at the manger, along with shepherds and angels.

Our hymnology follows the same imagery in poetic song. Immediately after the feast of Nativity we commemorate the slaughter of the Innocents, those boys two years old and under that King Herod ordered to be rounded up and killed, ‘guilty of the stars, guilty of the womb,’ hundreds of innocents immolated that one truly guilty might rule (just a little longer).

We forget somehow, or even when we read the gospels at home, fail to notice, and ask, ‘How was it that Christ was circumcised on the eighth day, and ransomed in the Temple on the fortieth?’ In our imagery, He has already escaped with His parents to Egypt, and we leave ourselves defenseless if anyone should ask us about history, ‘Did this really happen?’

Unlike other religions, Christianity, at least Orthodoxy, claims to be historical. Jesus really lived in 1st century Palestine. Paul really journeyed the Mediterranean world and wrote his letters.

History really happened, though not always as we remember it, but the One whose story history really is, though He be unrecognized by some as its Lord and King, is with us, as He told the first disciples, ‘to the end of time,’ and the proof of this is, as the prophet sang, ‘The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them a light has shone’ (Isaiah 9:2).

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