I had meant to do a review of this recently published book before the Nativity Fast started, but didn’t get to it. But I have just finished reading it – although it is certainly worth another reading and a slow, prayerful pondering – and want to say something about it, for it is a book that I cannot recommend highly enough.
For those who haven’t heard of him, Archimandrite Vassilios Papavassiliou is a priest of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Thyateira and Great Britain and has recently emerged as a popular but very worthwhile Orthodox author. I have been wanting to do a review of his Journey to the Kingdom: An Insider’s Look at the Liturgy and Beliefs of the Eastern Orthodox Church, and will try and do that before long although Father Deacon Aaron also has a short reference to it here. There is also Meditations For Great Lent. Reflections on the Triodion which I’ll come back to again.* I’m not sure if it’s because he’s British rather than American, or because he’s Greek but living in Britain, or because he’s a “cradle” Orthodox who is obviously used to interacting with the non-Orthodox world, but his books strike me as refreshingly free from the sort of triumphalistic self-absorption that sometimes characterizes some contemporary popular Orthodox writing. They are accessible to a wide readership, but they contain a theological depth that really gets to the heart of the matter.
Advent, as Father Vassilios points out in the introduction, is not a word that is often used in historically Orthodox countries and the Orthodox Nativity Fast differs from the western Advent not only in the details of its celebration, but also in its dominant symbolism. Instead of being focused on the First and Second comings of the Lord, the Orthodox Advent focuses primarily on the Mystery of His Incarnation. It is a forty day fast that precedes the celebration of the Nativity, just as Great Lent is a fast that precedes Pascha – indeed it is sometimes referred to as a “Lent,” just as the Nativity has been referred to as a “Winter Pascha,” – for the meaning of the Incarnation is inseparable from that of the Crucifixion and Resurrection as we see in many of the liturgical texts.
Father Vassilios explores the Mystery of the Incarnation of Christ in the four major sections of this book, which help to elucidate the depth of the Church’s faith in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ.
The first section is entitled “Prepare, O Bethlehem” and focuses on the underlying themes of the feasts in this period, as well as in the two Sundays before the Nativity. By looking at the feasts of the Entrance of the Mother of God into the Temple, Saint Andrew and the Conception of the Mother of God by the barren Anna, and the imagery associated with the Ancestors of Christ and the Saints of the Old Testament, the book shows how the longing for the Saviour that is found in the Old Testament finds its fulfillment in the New. It helps us to identify ourselves with this longing as the Church’s hymnography helps us to encounter something of the depths of its meaning as we too are brought to the Forefeast of Christmas and are confronted with the astounding truth that the God of all has come to us as a child and can only be encountered with the childlike qualities of wonder, joy, faith and humility. And it is the learning of such attitudes that is surely the point of the repentance that is at the heart of our fasting.
The second section is entitled “Search the Scriptures” and is a reflection on the Scriptural imagery found in the hymnography for Advent, and especially in the Katavasias. This section could do with an extended discussion on its own, and I may come back to it again, but it helps to illuminate the author’s statement in the introduction that “Advent is one great Bible study that sheds light on the meaning of the Old Testament as a preparation for the New.” The hymns for this season are full of references and allusions to Old Testament theophanies, prophecies and types of the birth of Christ. This section provides enough background information for us to understand these references and provides an entry into the Orthodox approach to understanding Scripture.
The third section is entitled “The Icon of the Nativity” and illustrates how the Church’s theology is passed on not only through her hymnography, but also through her iconography. As in the hymnography, the icon of the Nativity makes a clear link between Christ’s birth and His burial. It also illuminates the Scriptural basis for the oxen and donkeys found in Nativity plays – far from being about sentimentality, the presence of the animals in the icon (which was taken up by later western imagery) comes from the prophet Isaiah (1:3) and challenge us as to whether we truly recognize Christ’s presence. “Heathens [the Magi] and animals are seen worshiping the one true God. It is a humbling image. Are we Christians worse than heathens and animals? Will we deny God while they accept Him?” Finally, the discussion of the star in the icon provides a link to the icon of the Transfiguration, showing that this was no ordinary star, but a manifestation of the Holy Spirit.
The fourth and final section is entitled “The Incarnation” and – using again the liturgical texts and their understanding of Scripture – it opens up some of the depths of the Church’s faith and what it means to confess that Jesus Christ is truly God and truly human. At the heart of the Nativity is the understanding of Jesus Christ as the New Adam who has come to restore Adam to paradise, restoring the Image of God in us that had become tarnished by sin. This reminds us of the purpose of the fast: “A simple choice has been laid before us: to die to Adam— that is to sin, passion, and self— and live to Christ; or to go on living as though the Incarnation never happened.” The Incarnation does not remove us from the reality of the world. Christ is the true Light who has come into the world, but no sooner have we celebrated the coming of this Light, than we are plunged into darkness with King Herod’s killing of the children.
Many think of Christmas as something sweet and sentimental. But this grim event in the midst of the Nativity narrative reminds us that there is nothing sentimental about it. Instead we are shown the harsh reality of evil, of the kind of violent world that Christ enters as a newborn baby. In becoming one of us, in taking on human existence in everything but sin, He subjects Himself to human tragedy, to suffering and death. Already, from the moment of His birth, we see Christ offering Himself to the reality of our own pain and mortality, with no power, no authority, no means of defense. Yet in spite of this, the Light of the world was not extinguished by the darkness.
As I said before, this is a book that needs to be read slowly and prayerfully. I would see its strength as threefold. Firstly, it provides an entry into the way the Church reads Scripture. Secondly, and through this, it leads us ever-deeper into the Mystery of the Incarnation of Christ which we can only really grasp in a liturgical context (once again, I am reminded of Father Cyprian Kern’s statement that “the Church choir is the school of theology”). And thirdly, and related to these, it focuses us on what really matters. As he did in his book on the Liturgy, Father Vassilios has produced a book that, by focusing on Advent, introduces people to the fundamental faith of the Church.