And the Word became Flesh
Sermon preached on Sunday, March 5, 2017 by Andrea Popa at St. Mary Church in Cambridge as part of Antiochian Women's Month
It is my pleasure to speak to you today as we start off our annual Women’s Month sermons at St Mary. Over the next four weeks, my fellow homilists and I will spend time reflecting with you on “The Iconography of the Great Feasts,” in particular the feasts of the Nativity/Theophany, Transfiguration, Pascha, and Pentecost.
It is fitting that we start our study today – on the Sunday of Orthodoxy – the day on which we consider the role of icons in our liturgical tradition and worship.
As a child, nativity scenes – crèches – were always a meaningful part of our family’s preparation for Christmas. While my parents and brothers would set up our tree, untangle the lights, and hang up ornaments, I would carefully unwrap the ceramic nativity scene that my grandmother had hand-painted and fired. As the oldest child, I often got the job of arranging each character on our mantle – the shepherds with their sheep, the three wisemen with their one camel, the stable animals, the angel, and lastly Mary, Joseph, and the infant Jesus.
As I’ve grown up, I have collected a few different crèche sets that reflect the nativity story from other cultural perspectives – I have a nativity scene from Peru that depicts the Holy Family as New World native peasants and another nativity in black ebony from the years my parents spent in Africa. I know that the historical Jesus was very likely born with dark hair and olive-tone skin and that my Peruvian and Mozambican Holy Families are no more accurate than a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Jesus. Yet, I appreciate the artistic interpretation of my crèches, as they say something to me about God being made incarnate – that by his birth he entered into our world, and became like us.
In Orthodox tradition, we consider icons to be more than just artistic representations, but a way to encounter with the saint or scene being depicted. We prayerfully write our icons to convey theological truths and teachings.
While the use of icons as visual gospel have been part of the church since the earliest days, Christians have not always agreed about whether images of Jesus Christ himself should be depicted in icons. Looking to history, we know that Byzantine Emperor Leo III and his son Constantine V condemned the use of images of Christ, as they believed icons to be idolatrous and that the divine nature could not be depicted in visual form. The Byzantine Iconoclasm lasted for much of the 8th and 9th centuries and was characterized by fierce disagreement in the Christian church – between the iconoclasts, who supported the destruction of religious images that they considered blasphemous, and iconophiles, who revered and venerated visual depictions of Christ.
The writings of St. John of Damascus and other church fathers contributed to the church finding consensus on this divisive matter. The fathers contended that since God was made incarnate in human form, then Christ could be depicted in material form. This is the main theological affirmation that we celebrate today, on the Sunday of Orthodoxy.
Our own Teva Regule, in her recently published article “Iconic Encounter: Seeing and Being Seen by God’s Word,” explains that the power and purpose of the icon is two-fold, “… icons of Christ affirm Christ’s humanity. However, because Christ is also divine, icons of Christ are more profound; they function as a window to the divine. They show forth Christ as one person (i.e. hyostasis) with two natures – human and divine.”
In his study “Behold the Beauty of the Lord,” the renowned author Henri Nouwen talks about growing to know an icon “by heart.” He explains that “Gazing is probably the best word to touch the core of Eastern spirituality. Whereas St. Benedict, who set the tone for the spirituality of the West, calls us first of all to listen, the Byzantine fathers focus on gazing…” He continues by saying that icons, “… are created for the sole purpose of offering access, through the gate of the visible, to the mystery of the invisible. Icons are painted to lead us into the inner room of prayer and bring us close to the heart of God.”
Let’s shift our gaze towards today’s icon: The Icon of the Nativity. No icon better embodies the core truth of what we are talking about today as this, the icon in which Christ is born to us in flesh, and became human.
When we first look at the Icon of the Nativity, there is a lot going on. For me, it doesn’t have the intimacy and warmth that I see immediately reflected from a Sweet Kissing icon.
It takes a little time to consider each scene and for the icon to reveal its composite story. We see angels bowing in worship to the child, while other angels announce his birth. Here we see shepherds listening to the angel’s proclamation, while over there, the Magi follow the star in search of the Christ-child. Events that happened sequentially, are all shown together at once, giving the icon an “out of time” quality as if it is seen from the perspective of our ever-present God.
In one corner we see two midwives preparing to wash the child, depicting that he was born in the usual way and needing the physical care that would be expected for a human child. In another corner we see St. Joseph, set apart from the story. This is important because, although we know Joseph served as the protector and guardian of Jesus, he was not a central figure in the story of the incarnation. We see him hunched over and deep in thought, with the devil speaking thoughts of doubt to him. In this scene Joseph is all of us, for who among us has not questioned whether the virgin birth is literal truth. When we – like Joseph – are distanced and distracted by our own questions, we are sidelined from the story and risk missing the central point that God has come to dwell in our midst.
As we look towards the center of the icon we see the child and Mary, his mother. Some sources note that the manger in which the Christ-child is laid resembles a tomb, while the swaddling cloths in which he is wrapped foreshadow his sacrificial death.
The most prominent figure in the icon, however, is the Theotokos, the bearer of God. While Mary is often depicted in icons holding the Christ-child close to her face and looking toward him, in this icon we see her reclined and looking away from the Christ. Why is she depicted this unusual position? A careful gaze reveals that she is looking away from Christ and towards Joseph and others, perhaps recognizing that this birth – and this child – are not hers alone, but hers to share. By looking away she is inviting us into this moment and this truth.
As with most great stories, we cannot fully appreciate the much-anticipated plot twist unless we look back to where the story begins and look ahead to where it is going. The author of the catechism “The Living God” suggests that the event of the Nativity could not have occurred without the Annunciation. Mary’s “… freely given ‘yes,’ enables her to become the Mother of God. Without this free acceptance, God could not have become incarnate, for God never forces a person’s conscience and always waits for us to respond of our own free will… Every time we say “Our Father” – “Thy will be done on Earth as it is in heaven,” – we respond to God in the same way that Mary did.” (p. 24)
Similarly, the story continues as we look ahead. God reveals to us his incarnate Son through the Nativity, but He later continues to surprise us through the Epiphany. According to our friends at Merriam-Webster, the word Epiphany means “an illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure” usually through an event that is “simple or striking.” Epiphany is that moment of “Eureka!” when the light bulb goes on in our understanding and we see what is right before us with new light. As Father Antony so wisely reminds us each January, there is no elemental change that occurs to the waters during the celebration of Epiphany. The water does not become blessed, but is revealed to be blessed. In similar note, Jesus – who is fully man, is revealed to be fully God, and one with the Holy Spirit.
In the Icon of the Nativity, God reveals to us his essence in human form so that he might – for the first time in human history – truly see Him. In John 1:14, the apostle affirms, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.”
As we enter this Lenten season, I am particularly mindful of the political and social divide that our nation is facing and the unrest that is playing out on around us – on our news stations, our social media feeds, and more importantly, in our communities. If we take time to gaze at the Icon of the Nativity and to consider the profound revelation of the incarnate God in human form, how can we allow this icon to speak to us and how can we seek to, in turn, be God to the world around us?
As we gaze inward and outward over the coming weeks,
let us ponder the doubt of Joseph,
let us consider the selfless invitation of Mary,
let us marvel at the incarnation of the Christ-child in human form, and
let us consider how we might take part in this story.
The message of the Nativity remains the same for us today as it did back in the cave in Bethlehem:
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us,
full of grace and truth.
Christ became man, became like us, so that we could enter into relationship with him, so that we, in turn could be children of God, be like God. So that we too could live in grace and in truth.
My prayer for us during this time is that we the church, we the children of God, continue to marvel at the incarnate love that has been revealed to us, that we walk humbly in the grace and truth that we have observed, and that we might reveal this same grace and truth to others through our lives and through our daily actions.