Introduction. The Eastern Church doesn’t really have the liturgical season of Advent. We do have a fast period as part of our preparation for the Nativity that extends from November 15/28 through December 24/January 6. We only have two, preparatory
Sundays. Our liturgical preparation begins in earnest only on December 20/January 2, with the Forefeast of the Nativity. It is only from December 20 through December 24, that the Eastern Church uses the language of expectation characteristic in the West. For example, at Vespers on December 20 we hear:
O ye people, and raising our thoughts on high let us go in spirit to Bethlehem; and with the eyes of our mind let us gaze upon the Virgin, as she hastens to give birth unto our God, the Lord of all.
To help sketch out how the Orthodox Church envisions what it means to say “Emmanuel” that “God is with us,” I want to look with you at the icons and hymnography of four feasts—the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple and Theophany. Taken together these are meant to fix our hearts on that “great mystery in a cave” that “opened once again … [the] gates, O Eden” and granted “the world great mercy.”
Feast of the Annunciation Liturgically as well as in our icons, the Orthodox Church’s envisioning Emmanuel beings 9 months before Christmas on the Feast of Annunciation when. It is at this moment when, as we hear at Vespers, our salvation is accomplished. And as the hymnography makes clear, it isn’t simply humanity’s salvation or even the Virgin’s salvation that is accomplished but my personal salvation as well:
Behold, our restoration hath now been revealed to us! God unites Himself to me, in a manner past all telling! Delusion is dispelled by the voice of the archangel! For the Virgin receiveth joy, an earthly woman hath become heaven! The world is released from the primal curse! Let creation rejoice and chant aloud: O Lord, our Creator and Redeemer, glory be to Thee!
In His conception, Emmanual is not simply God With Us but God With Me (and You as well). The fact that we were born and live some 20 centuries later doesn’t change the fact that in becoming Man the Son has united Himself to every person and is so doing salvation is accomplished for all even if it is still to be appropriated by each. The reason for this is because what we suffer from Adam forwards is not immorality but a separation from God.
Turning to the icon, we see that humanity’s salvation is not accomplished without our cooperation. Based on the events recorded for us Luke (1:26-38), the angel announces to the Virgin her role in salvation history; respectful of the necessity of her free ascent, he then waits patient for her fait. The hymnography for the feast shows the Virgin to be a full participant in this process. Taking on the role of a prosecuting attorney, she interrogates Gabriel to avoid, as she says, the mistake “My first mother” who in “accepting the serpent’s knowledge, was driven away from divine sustenance.”
The coming of Emmanuel then is not only a monument of divine grace but one which brings into sharp focus human freedom revealing to us both God and ourselves.
Feast of the Nativity. The eucharistic theology of the Annunciation, of communion restored and offered, is also a theology of divine illumination. Just as by His Incarnation the Son has united Himself to each human person, by His birth He illumines not only the human heart but all creation. As sing on Christmas day
Thy Nativity, O Christ our God, * hath shined the light of knowledge upon the world; * for thereby, they that worshipped the stars * were instructed by a star * to worship Thee, the Sun of Righteousness, * and to know Thee, the Dayspring from on high. ** O Lord, glory be to Thee.
Turning to the icon, we discover that salvation embraces not only the human person and human society but the material world. Again, from the hymn on Christmas day:
Today the Virgin giveth birth to Him Who is transcendent in essence; * and the earth offereth a cave to Him Who is unapproachable. * Angels with shepherds give glory; * the Magi journey with a star; ** for our sake a young Child is born, Who is the pre-eternal God.
Hear in the hymnography and see in the icon not only the Christ Child and the Virgin but also the other human, angelic, animal and material actors in salvation. All have their role to play in healing the broken communion between God and humanity.
However, not everything we see under the warmth of the divine light is pleasant. I want to draw your attention particularly to St Joseph. We know from St Luke that he was not only a “just man” but a kind man who did not want to shame Mary by making here “a public example” (Matthew 1:19). For this reason, he struggles with his role in the incarnation; Joseph must think through what recent events mean. This is important because it makes clear that the Son comes not simply to redeem the soul or even the soul and body but all the faculties of the human person.
Reflecting on the salvation of the whole person, leads St Maximus the Confessor in the 7th century to affirm that because sin has damaged our intellect, even understanding the empirical character of creation requires divine grace and illumination to say nothing of the cultivation of the intellectual and moral virtues.
Feast of the Presentation. The highly stylized representation of animals and the natural world in icons, reflect a soteriological vision that extends not only to the human person but to the whole creation—animate and inanimate. All are redeemed, all are illumined, because in His Incarnation the Son has fulfilled the primordial but failed vocation of the First Adam.
As for us, created as we are in the image the God Who is Himself free from any necessity, from any external constraint, the coming of the Son of God requires our free, personal response. What is implicit at the Annunciation is made explicit at the feast of the Presentation.
We are called to make our own, personal ascent to Jesus Christ. We are called, as we hear in the hymnography for the feast, to “receive Him Whom Symeon perceive[s] as our salvation.” Salvation, in other words, is an invitation extended to all and to which we must freely and personally respond.
The personal character of salvation means that not only has Christ fulfilled the Law but, as St Justin Martyr will say in the 2nd century, all human knowledge and virtue as well. God has prepared not only the Jews but also the Gentiles for His incarnation. And both the Jew and the Gentile are called to imitate Symeon and receive Him Who is “the fulfillment of the promise” not only of the Law and Philosophy but also of each human heart.
Feast of Theophany. What the West celebrates as the Baptism of our Lord, the East celebrates as the Feast of the Theophany. As with Nativity, historical events are only one part of a broader theological conversation embodied in the Church’s art and worship. As the Greek Orthodox theologian Christos Yannaras puts it “The ontological content of the eucharist– eucharistic communion as a mode of existence– assumes that the communal reality of life has a cosmological dimension: it presupposes matter and the use of matter, which is to say art, as the creative transformation of matter into a fact of relationship and communion.”
Yannaras’ point here reflects Orthodox soteriology. Salvation is not merely a forensic affirmation of righteousness in Christ but, in the words of the Apostle Peter, a “sharing in the divine nature” (see 1 Peter 1:4) or in Greek theosis and in English deification.
The God in Whose nature we share is of course Himself a community of Three Persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The creative transformation of matter into an event of communion is an extension of what we’ve seen so far. Having transformed human life and all of creation from within, Jesus Christ invites us to do likewise.
The pattern of this transformation is the Holy Trinity. This is why I would like to end my discussion with the icon of Theophany. It is at Theophany, at Christ’s baptism in the Jordan by John (Matthew 3:13) “that the worship of the Holy Trinity is revealed.” In the icon for the feast, we see both the Son and the Holy Spirit the Father’s “finger, crying out and point from heaven, openly declared and proclaimed to all that the one then being baptized by John in the Jordan was His beloved Son, while at the same time manifesting His unity with Him.”
In the theology and iconography of the Orthodox Church to say that God is With Us, is to profess our faith in the Holy Trinity. It is also to remind ourselves of the evangelical mission of the Church to “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15). Last of all, it an affirmation and acceptance of the depth and breadth of human freedom.