A Drop of Thanksgiving in a Sea of Glory

Blessed be the Child Who today delights Bethlehem.
Blessed be the Newborn Who today made humanity young again.
Blessed be the Fruit Who bowed Himself down for our hunger.
Blessed be the Gracious One Who suddenly enriched all of our poverty and filled our need.
Blessed be He Whose mercy inclined HIm to heal our sickness.

Thanks to the Fountainhead sent for our salvation.
Thanks to the One Who violated the sabbath in its fulfillment.
Thanks to the One Who rebuked leprosy and it remained not.
Fever also saw Him and departed.
Thanks to the Compassionate One Who bore our pain.
Glory to Your coming that restored mankind to life.

Glory to that One Who came to us by His Firstborn.
Glory to that Silent One Who spoke by means of His voice.
Glory to that Sublime One Who was seen by means of His Dawn.
Glory to the Spiritual One Who was well-pleased
that His Child should become a body so that through Him His power might be felt
and the bodies of His kindred might live again.

Glory to that Hidden One Whose Child was revealed.
Glory to that Living One Whose Son became a mortal.
Glory to that Great One Whose Son descended and became small.
Glory to that One Power Who fashioned Him,
the Image of His greatness and Form for His hiddenness.
With the eye and the mind—with both of them we saw Him.

Blessed is He Whom freedom crucified, when He permitted it.
Blessed is He Whom also the wood bore, when He allowed it.
Blessed is He Whom even the grave enclosed, when He set limits to Himself.
Blessed is He Whose will brought Him
to the womb and to birth and to the bosom and to growth.
Blessed is He Whose changes revived our humanity.

Blessed is He Who made our body a Tabernacle for His hiddenness.
Blessed is He Who with our tongue interpreted His secrets.
Let us give thanks to that Voice Whose praise on our lyre
and Whose power on our kithara are sung.
The peoples came together to listen to His melodies.

Glory to the Son of the Gracious One, rejected by the sons of the Evil One.
Glory to the Son of the Just One, crucified by the sons of the Wicked One.
Glory to the One who released us and was bound in place of us all.
Glory to that One who pledged Himself to pay the debt.
Glory to the Beautiful One Who portrayed us in His similitudes.
Glory to that Serene One Who looked not at our blemishes.

Glory to the One Who never before could be measured by us;
our heart is too small for Him and our intellect too weak.
He dazzles our smallness by the wealth of His forms.
Glory to the All-knowing Who cast Himself down,
and asks to hear and to learn what He already knew
to reveal by His questions the treasure of His benefits.

Blessed is the One Whom our mouth is not sufficient to thank,
Whose gift is too great for those gifted with speech.
Nor are the senses sufficient to give thanks for His grace.
For however much we thank Him, it is too little,
and because it is of no use for us to be silent and unnerved,
let our weaknesses return a song of thanksgiving.

Gracious One Who does not demand more than our strength,
how much was your servant judged by principal and interest—
he who did not give what was sufficient and withheld what he owed?
Sea of glory without needs,
receive in Your graciousness a drop of thanksgiving,
for by Your gift You have moistened my tongue to praise You.

Excerpts from St Ephrem the Syrian, Third Hymn On the Nativity

Such tiny hands

Such tiny hands to have made the world,
And wondrous untroubled sleep
For the Judge of the living and dead.
Such tiny feet to stride the cosmos,
And drowsy slow-blinking eyes
For the One who sees all in our hearts.
So pierced a heart in so loving a mother
That knows their coming piercing:
Such tiny hands, such tiny feet.

Struck with wonder

Before Thy birth, O Lord, the angelic hosts looked with trembling on this mystery and were struck with wonder: for Thou who hast adorned the vault of heaven with stars hast been well pleased to be born as a babe; and Thou who holdest all the ends of the earth in the hollow of Thy hand art laid in a manger of dumb beasts. For by such a dispensation has Thy compassion been made known, O Christ, and Thy great mercy: glory to Thee.

Stichera, Tone Eight, Third Hour of the Royal Hours, Eve of the Nativity

In Eastern Orthodox churches throughout the world, on Christmas Eve are read and chanted the Royal Hours. These are short services held at the first, third, sixth, and ninth hours, regular monastic hours of prayer in western tradition as well, where they’re known as prime, terce, sext, and nones, as is well known. Some parishes (like my own this morning) will have all these services in one block, sequentially, which takes just about two hours. Numerous of the psalms are read in full, and fairly lenthy readings are made from both the Old and New Testaments, interspersed with numerous prayers and that particular kind of exegetical hymnography that the Eastern Orthodox tradition excels in. The Old Testament readings are all read as Prophecies of Christ, of course, with most being quoted from in the New Testament in one writing or another in that regard. Here is a summary of the Biblical readings (the Psalm numbering is of course according to the Septuagint, the Bible of the Orthodox Church):

First Hour: Psalm 5, Psalm 44, Psalm 45, Micah 5.2-4, Hebrews 1.1-12, Matthew 1.18-25
Third Hour: Psalm 66, Psalm 86, Psalm 50, Baruch 3.35-4.4, Galatians 3.23-29, Luke 2.1-20
Sixth Hour: Psalm 71, Psalm 131, Psalm 90, Isaiah 7.10-16; 8.1-4, 9-10, Hebrews 1.10-2.3, Matthew 2.1-12
Ninth Hour: Psalm 109, Psalm 110, Psalm 85, Isaiah 9.6-7, Hebrews 2.11-18, Matthew 2.13-23

It’s a very rich selection of materials, particularly within the context of the chanted and read hymns. A presentation by Archimandrite Ephrem Lash of all the Royal Hours in English is available online.

The Light that knows no evening

Isaiah, as he watched by night, beheld the light that knows no evening, the light of Thy Theophany, O Christ, that came to pass from tender love for us; and he cried aloud: ‘Behold, a Virgin shall conceive and shall bear the incarnate Word, and all those born on earth shall rejoice exceedingly.’

O Creator, Thou makest new those born on earth by Thyself becoming clay. A manger and swaddling clothes and a cave are the marks of Thy lowliness. The Betrothed of Thy Mother is thought by men to be Thy father according to the flesh, and so he takes the place of the Father who begat Thee by His counsel.

The Kings, first fruits of the Gentiles, bring Thee gifts at Thy birth in a cave in Bethlehem, from a Mother who suffered no pangs of travail: by myrrh they point to Thy death, by gold to Thy royal power, by frankincense to the preeminence of Thy divinity.

Coming forth in the flesh, O Word coeternal with the Father, from a Mother who suffered no pangs of birth, Thou hast made Thy dwelling in the cave, using the manger as Thy throne. Through Thy fearful dispensation Thou dost amaze the Magi and the shepherds, and Thou fillest the angels with awe as they cry, ‘Glory to Thy dominion.’

Canticle Five, Compline, Forefeast of the Nativity

Stranger from on high

Thou dost bear the form of Adam, yet Thou art all-perfect, being in the form of God. Of Thine own will Thou art held in human hands, who in Thy might upholdest all things with Thine hand. To Thee the pure and undefiled Virgin spake aloud: ‘How shall I wrap Thee in swaddling clothes like a child, how shall I give Thee suck who givest nourishment to all the world? How shall I not wonder in amazement at Thy poverty beyond understanding! How shall I, who am Thy handmaiden, call Thee my Son? I sing Thy praises and I bless Thee, who dost grant the world great mercy.’

The undefiled Virgin, beholding the pre-eternal God as a child that had taken flesh from her, held Him in her arms and without ceasing she kissed Him. Filled with joy, she said aloud to Him: ‘O Most High God, O King unseen, how is it that I look upon Thee? I cannot understand the mystery of Thy poverty without measure. For the smallest of caves, a strange dwelling for Thee, finds room for Thee within itself. Thou hast been born without destroying my virginity, but Thou hast kept my womb as it was before childbirth; and Thou dost grant the world great mercy.’

The pure Virgin spoke in wonder, as she heard the Magi standing together before the cave, and she said to them: ‘Whom do you seek? For I see that you have come from a far country. Ye have the appearance, but not the thoughts, of Persians; strange has your journey been, and strange your arrival. Ye have come with zeal to worship Him who, journeying as a stranger from on high, has strangely, in ways known to Himself, come to dwell in me, granting the world great mercy.’

Tone Five, Stichera of Vespers for the Forefeast of the Nativity, Slavonic use.

Those Who Burn

Why is their name called seraphim? Because they burn the tablets of Satan. Every day Satan sits with Sammael, Prince of Rome, and with Dubbiel, Prince of Persia, and they write down the sins of Israel on tablets and give them to the seraphim to bring before the Holy One, blessed be He, so that He should destroy Israel from the world. But the seraphim know the secrets of the Holy One, blessed be He, that He does not desire that this nation of Israel should fall. What, then, do the seraphim do? Every day they take the tablets from Satan’s hand and burn them in the blazing fire that stands opposite the high and exalted throne, so that they should not come into the presence of the Holy One, blessed be He, when He sites upon the throne of judgment and judges the whole world in truth.

Third Enoch 26.12

For those who don’t know Hebrew, the above may not make much sense. The Hebrew word seraphim, שׂרפים, is derived from the Hebrew root saraph, שׂרף, to burn, somehow describing the character of these great beings as burning. I found this passage to be a beautiful explanation for the reason they are called seraphim.

It is also unfortunately timely, as there are still many in the world who desire the destruction of Israel, once again including Persia, and even perhaps, in a way, Rome, if we remember that in ancient midrashim Rome was referred to as Edom, and also know that in certain circles today the Palestinians are now also referred to as Edom. That’s kind of an odd connection, of course, but the point is there….

The Book Full of Hints

The Bible is complete. But the sacred history is not yet completed. The Biblical canon itself includes a prophetical Book of Revelation. There is the Kingdom to come, the ultimate consummation, and therefore there are prophecies in the New Testament as well. The whole being of the Church is in a sense prophetical. Yet, the future has a different meaning post Christum natum. The tension between present and future has in the Church of Christ another sense and character than it had under the old dispensation. For Christ is no more in the future only, but also in the past, and therefore in the present also. This eschatological perspective is of basic importance for the right understanding of the Scriptures. All hermeneutical “principles” and “rules” should be re-thought and re-examined in this eschatological perspective. There are two major dangers to be avoided. On the one hand, no strict analogy can be established between the two Testaments, their “covenantal situations” being profoundly different: they are related as “the figure” and “the truth.” It was a traditional idea of patristic exegesis that the Word of God was revealing himself continuously, and in divers manners, throughout the whole of the Old Testament. Yet all these theophanies of old should never be put on the same level or in the same dimension as the incarnation of the Word, lest the crucial event of redemption is dissolved into an allegorical shadow. A “type” is no more than a “shadow” or image. In the New Testament we have the very fact. The New Testament therefore is more than a mere “figure” of the Kingdom to come. It is essentially the realm of accomplishment. On the other hand, it is premature to speak of a “realized eschatology,” simply because the very eschaton is not yet realized: sacred history has not yet been closed. One may prefer the phrase: “the inaugurated eschatology.” It renders accurately the Biblical diagnosis—the crucial point of the revelation is already in the past. “The ultimate” (or “the new”) had already entered history, although the final stage is not yet attained. We are no more in the world of signs only, but already in the world of reality, yet under the sign of the Cross. The Kingdom has been already inaugurated, but not yet fulfilled. The fixed canon of Scripture itself symbolizes an accomplishment. The Bible is closed just because the Word of God has been incarnate. Our ultimate term of reference is now not a book—not only as a record of the past, but also as a prophetical book, full of hints, pointing to the future, to the very end.

Fr Georges Florovsky. Bible, Church, Tradition: An Eastern Orthodox View (Nordland Publishing, 1972), 35–36

Massive Book Sale

Loome Antiquarian Booksellers, which specializes in theological literature, is closing at the end of the year. Their extensive catalogue is currently 75% off, with rare books and manuscripts 25% off. The discount for non-rare books jumps to 90% off on 26 December.

I’ve bought several hard to find titles from Loome in the past, and am sad to see them go.

CLARIFICATION: Loome Theological Booksellers will still be around. Loome Antiquarian Booksellers was an expansion store located in another part of town. It’s still a good sale, fortunately not so foreboding as I’d thought. The sale applies only to Loome Antiquarian stock. Sorry for the scare!

Turtle’s Skull

The shore rang under my heel
After the squall: delicate eyelids
Of shell, the scattered audacities
Limestone confects: those peach-stung
Volutes of supersession, cowrie
And turkey wing, the murex with its
Acrid spirals and the bony rose
Of the lion’s paw. Vacancies, all
Vivid! Where conch gongs trumpeted
Afternoons of disenchantment,
Poinciana-hosannas of departure,

I set the bare-scoured skull
Of the loggerhead seaward
And at daybreak, when the iron
Ladle of the eastern sky oozed its
Apricot-bold fissures of day,
Scathing water poured
From the eyes of the skull.
Black sockets wept the sea.

Eric Ormsby. Originally published in For a Modest God, 1997. Included in Time’s Covenant, 2007.

Angelic Philology

Each one of the Watchers and the holy ones has seventy names corresponding to the seventy languages that are in the world, and all of them are based on the name of the Holy One, blessed be He. Every single name is written with a pen of flame upon the terrible crown that is on the head of the high and exalted King. From each of them sparks and lightnings shoot forth, from each of them rays of splendor stream out, and from each of them lights flash. Pavillions and tents of brilliance surround them, for even the seraphim and the creatures, who are greater than all the celestials, cannot look on them.

3 Enoch 29