08 December 2009

'Prepare Thyself'—The Entry of the Theotokos & Advent

Today, 25 November on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the Apodosis of the Feast of the Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple (see last year’s post here). Now, I don’t normally venture much into the realm of offering my own thoughts on spiritual matters, but I was struck by something I heard during the Vigil for the Feast last week. The second Apostichon in Tone 5 from Great Vespers (The Festal Menaion, trans. Mother Mary & Archim. Kallistos [Ware] [South Canaan, PA: St Tikhon’s Seminary, 1998], p. 171) reads:

Ann, truly blessed by God’s grace, led with gladness into the temple of the Lord the pure and ever-Virgin, who is full of grace, and she called the young girls to go before her, lamps in hand. ‘Go, Child’, she said, ‘to Him who gave thee unto me; be unto Him an offering and a sweet smelling incense. Go into the place which none may enter: learn its mysteries and prepare thyself to become the pleasing and beautiful dwelling-place of Jesus, who grants the world great mercy.’

This last line in particular—‘prepare thyself to become the pleasing and beautiful dwelling-place of Jesus’—strikes me as an appropriate thing to apply to ourselves as part of our inward observance of the Advent season. Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos) of Nafpaktos notes (The Feasts of the Lord: An Introduction to the Twelve Feasts & Orthodox Christology, trans. Esther Williams [Levadia, Greece: Birth of the Theotokos Monastery, 2003], pp. 36-7):

According to the holy Fathers (St Gregory of Nyssa, St Maximos the Confessor, St Symeon the New Theologian, St Niketas Stethatos, etc.), what happened physically in the Panagia happens spiritually in everyone whose soul is living in virginity, that is to say, is purified of passions. Christ, who was once born in the flesh, always wants to be born in the spirit in those who wish it, and so He becomes an infant, forming Himself in them through the virtues.

. . . This conception and birth is acquired through following God’s commandments, mainly through the return of the nous to the heart and the unceasing prayer of a single word. Then the person becomes a temple of the Holy Spirit.

Another thought that occurred to me is that much of this preparation must involve listening to God’s Word (at least partly in the sense described in this post). As the first verse at the Alleluia in Tone 8 after the Epistle in the Liturgy for the Feast says, ‘Hearken, O daughter, and consider, and incline thine ear (Ps. 44:11)’ (Menaion, p. 197). Then of course there follows the reading from Luke 10:38-42, 11:27-28, where is emphasised the virtue of St Mary of Bethany ‘which also sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard His word (Lk 10:39)’ (Menaion, p. 129). It seems to me, of course, that this is greatly assisted by, if it does not require, the observation of Advent in the spirit that I have suggested here—i.e., lessening our activity and turning off our televisions, even postponing the Marthan hospitality (in the form of premature ‘Christmas parties’) that Bl Theophylact calls ‘a great virtue which ought not to be scorned’ because ‘it is even greater to give heed to spiritual words’ like St Mary (The Explanation by Blessed Theophylact, Archbishop of Ochrid and Bulgaria of the Holy Gospel According to St Luke, Vol. III of Bl Theophylact’s Explanation of the New Testament, trans. Fr Christopher Stade [House Springs, MO: Chrysostom, 1997], p. 121). As Bl Jerome says (The Orthodox New Testament, Vol. 1: The Holy Gospels, trans. Holy Apostles Convent [Buena Vista, CO: Holy Apostles Convent, 1999], p. 333, n. 222):

Be then like Mary; prefer the food of the soul to that of the body. Leave it to thy sister to run to and from and to seek how she may fitly welcome Christ. But do thou, having once and for all cast away the burden of the world, sit at the Lord’s feet and say, ‘I have found Him Whom my soul loves: I held Him, and did not let Him go’ [Song 3:4].

It is interesting to note that this theme of the coming of Christ into the individual soul as a parallel to Advent is not unknown to the West, where it is particularly associated with those strict observers of St Benedict’s Rule, the early Cistercians. Here, for example, is an insightful passage from the Second Sermon for Advent of Guerric of Igny (The Cistercian World: Monastic Writings of the Twelfth Century, trans. Pauline Matarasso [London: Penguin, 1993], pp. 133-2):

It may now happen, therefore, that the Lord will come to you before his actual advent; he may visit you in person before he arrives for all the world to see. . . . And whether to reward desert or ardent striving, this coming of the Lord to the individual soul is frequent in this middle time between his first and final comings, conforming us to the first and preparing us for the last. Assuredly he comes to us now to ensure that his first coming will not have been in vain, and to avoid having to meet us at the last in wrath. In this middle advent he is intent on reforming our spirit of pride and patterning us anew on the humility he showed forth at his first coming, so that one day he may also transfigure our lowly body into the likeness of his glorious body which he will reveal when he comes again. This personal visitation, which imparts to us the grace of the first advent and holds promise of the glory of the last, should be the object of our heart’s desire, the goal of all our striving. And because God loves mercy and truth, he, the Lord, will give grace and glory, bestowing grace on us through his mercy and through truth restoring glory.

Moreover, just as the spiritual advent falls in time midway between the two corporeal comings, so too in essence it partakes equally in each, poised like a mediator between the two. The first coming was hidden and humble; the last will be manifest and marvelous this one indeed is hidden, but also wonderful. We call it hidden, not because the one who is visited is unaware, but because the Lord comes secretly. . . . Unseen and unperceived he comes and goes, he who alone, while present, is the light of the soul and mind, the light by which, invisible, he is seen and, inconceivable, perceived.


St. Matthew the Apostle Orthodox Church said...

And don't forget Isaac Watts' reference to this theme:

Joy to the world! the Lord is come;
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare him room,
And heaven and nature sing...

Glory to God for perceptive protestants!

aaronandbrighid said...

Yes, Father, I suppose there are a few of them!