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Taking a Closer Look

We’ve asked five Canadian theologians to help us look more closely at some of the key figures in the Christmas story.

Do You See?

Praying with The Virgin of the Sign

By Tim Perry

MY FAVOURITE ICON of Mary is “The Virgin of the Sign,” or the Platytera, and it is one I find myself praying with often at this time of year. Its first name is taken from Isaiah 7:14 “This shall be a sign unto you: the virgin shall conceive and bear a son. . .” The second, meaning “wider,” expresses the mystery of the Incarnation: the womb of the Virgin is now home to that which cannot be contained, namely, God the Son.

Mary is the central figure, standing with her hands raised in the orans position of prayer. The Christ figure enclosed within her is not a baby, but appears as an older boy or man, his right hand raised in blessing while his left often holds a scroll. Clearly, this is not a realistic depiction, but a deeply theological one. But what is it meant to convey?

Christ is, in his incarnate person, the salvation of the world. He both brings and is the blessing of God for the human race. He comes to teach God’s truth (the scroll). His depiction as an older man reminds us that he is older than the ages; from the instant of his incarnation in the womb of his mother, he is God made flesh. Because she carries no mere human fetus, but he who holds the stars in place, Mary's womb is now platytera ton ouranon: “more spacious than the heavens.”

Which turns us to Mary herself. In this icon, she is far from the troubled teenager whom Luke describes; still less a pawn in the male machinations around her as in Matthew. She is serene; her gaze untroubled. Her prayerful pose suggests she is taking part in public worship (not just private devotion). Sometimes her gaze is directed past the viewer, to some unknown distant point. Most often, however, she (along with Jesus) looks directly at the viewer with an air of expectation. She seems to ask the viewer, “Do you see?”

What are we meant to see? I think we are to see, first of all, a narrative of descent and ascent.

By descent, I mean that God comes to us in the frailty of human nature. The Virgin of the Sign reminds us that God is a God who stoops. Enclosed within the Virgin’s womb, God the Son takes on all that it means to be human because he really is her Son. He looks at us with her eyes. And yet, the One descended to us in this way remains the One who holds the stars in place. “Mild, he lays his glory by,” we sing. And he does.

By ascent, I mean that God ennobles human nature by taking it up into himself. Many Christians locate themes of ascent, unsurprisingly and properly, with Easter or Ascension. But they are here, too. It is the presence of God within her that ennobles Mary, that raises her from a terrified teenager to a Byzantine Empress. And such is the destiny of all who believe. All human nature has been redeemed for all human nature has been assumed by God the Son.

The Virgin of the Sign thus invites us into the mystery of the Incarnation so wonderfully expressed by St. Athanasius: “He became what we are so that he might make us what he is. . .." (On the Incarnation 54.3).

Further and more radically, the Virgin of the Sign suggests that there is no god except the God who comes to us in the Virgin, and that the route to him is somehow through her. “Do you see?”

If you wish to find God, she says to us with her beckoning gaze, here is God. Neither remote nor uninvolved in the human condition, the only God there is has taken human nature and redeemed it. Mary, ennobled and exalted by the gracious descent of God the Son, is the sign of his saving work. A Jewish peasant girl has become platytera ton ouranon for no other reason than the gracious initiative of God. And it is in this grace that God makes himself known. “Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see! Hail the Incarnate Deity.”

If you would come to this God, Mary finally says, you must come to him through me. Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox readers, and some Anglicans, will find this uncontroversial enough. Others will pause. But, in effect, Mary is merely repeating what she has just said, except in reverse. Some take the view that somebody had to be Jesus' mother—but Mary is not simply an historical accident. In grace, she is the second Eve whose “Be it unto me according to thy word” stands in contrast to the disobedience of our ancient parents. Mary thus reminds us that our encounter with the Lord is never solitary or direct. It is always mediated in and through that community of which she is the first and pre-eminent member: the Church.

As I pray with this icon, I remember that the Creator is not far, for his transcendence is such that it can hide itself in humanity. As a human being, Jesus discloses both God’s glory and humanity’s destiny. I remember that there is no god “behind” the God I meet in the Gospel, who draws me into deeper fellowship with him as I enter deeper into the fellowship of God’s people.

I see through a mirror dimly. The Virgin of the Sign kindles in me the hope that one day, I will see face to face.

The Rev’d Dr. Tim Perry is rector of Church of the Epiphany in Sudbury, Ont. and author of Mary for Evangelicals.

St Joseph

By Ranall Ingalls

JOSEPH HAS long been loved as the foster-father of our Lord and the faithful spouse of his mother. This devotion began first in the East in the first millennium, and spread gradually westward. There it gained momentum in the Middle Ages with that growing realization of the importance of our Lord’s humanity that has often been traced in the lives, writings and piety of people like St Bernard of Clairvaux and St Francis of Assisi, as well as in art, architecture, music, and both private and public prayer.

In the last two centuries in the West he has represented – especially in the Roman Catholic Church – engagement with questions about labour and economic justice, and so has been venerated especially as ‘the Carpenter’ (Matthew 13:55). He has also represented Roman Catholic engagement with questions about marriage and family life, associated with devotion to the Holy Family.

From the Scriptures we know that Joseph was betrothed to Mary at the time of our Lord’s conception. We also know that he was bewildered to find her pregnant, and had decided quietly to end the engagement. In obedience to the same angel Gabriel who had appeared to his beloved at the Annunciation (Luke 1:26-39), he chose instead to stand with her in the public humiliation and shame that must have followed when it was known in Nazareth that she was pregnant outside of wedlock (Matthew 1:18-25).

In obedience to another such angelic message, he took Mary and the child Jesus and escaped into exile in Egypt to protect them from the murderous King Herod (Matthew 2:13-23). After this, he is mentioned in the New Testament only in the remarks of people who were astonished at Jesus’ humble origins (Luke 4:22, Matthew 13:55, Mark 6:3).

There is much here to love. There is his honest toil as a Carpenter. There is his witness to the only true sources of wealth: the earth and human labour and skill. May he awake in us love and care for both.

Then there is the way he is a spouse to Mary and a father to our Lord. St Paul in Ephesians insists that to be a husband and father is above all to participate in Christ’s costly love for His Bride (Ephesians 5). This love not only recognizes but enhances and brings to life beauty and goodness in the beloved. This is true of Joseph. He cast in his lot with Mary ‘for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health,’ and embraced the vocation God had given her, even at the cost of isolation and exile.

Finally there is his example of chastity. For Joseph marriage and fatherhood represented not the abandonment of chastity, but the way God called him to embrace and practice it. From him especially we learn that this is a virtue for all Christians, both outside and within marriage. As Josef Pieper says, chastity calls us to the renewal of the human capacity to confront reality “with that selfless detachment which alone makes genuine knowledge possible” (Cardinal Virtues Notre Dame, 1966, p. 161). It is this “selfless detachment” that is most necessary for spiritual vision - the discernment required of parents and the Vision of God which is the end of all those who know they are called ‘to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever,’ whatever their calling.

Dr. Ranall Ingalls is the Rector of St Paul’s, Sackville in New Brunswick.

The Christ Child

By Ross Hebb

THERE IS much anxiety in Christian circles these days on whether to say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays.” Christians feel their world is shifting under their feet and the Christ-centered season they once knew is fast disappearing – and they are right.

But what about the ‘in-house’ perspective? Are there practices within the Christian community that also tend to undermine the Christian distinctiveness of Christmas? Are there traditions that have developed over time which tend to dilute or undermine the unique, Christ-centered message of the season? I think there are. I will mention only two.

First, there is Advent. Not Advent as it was intended to be but as it is actually experienced. In practice, Advent gets squeezed out. Advent is so short, only four Sundays and one of those Sundays is just days before Christmas. Lose a Sunday for Carols and Lessons, another for a Sunday school Christmas pageant and perhaps another Sunday forfeited due to a snowstorm and what is left? Not that these other liturgical practices are bad – far from it, but taken together the result is to reduce Advent from a season to, at best, a Sunday or two. It is the resultant gutting of the major themes of Advent that concerns me. I fear that this seriously weakens our preparation for and appreciation of Christmas.

Advent is about preparing for Christmas – through prayer, Scripture reading and worship. Not only does the truncated Advent leave little time for this but it also reduces the themes of Advent to little more than sound bites. Advent means ‘coming,’ the coming of the Christ in at least two senses: historically, as the babe in the manager and again, at the end of human history, as the Judge of the living and the dead. Advent stresses both comings and holds them in a constructive tension. It is the same Person who comes as the son of Mary and as the Judge at the end of time. Advent employs this tension to raise the issue of who this Person is. Our Lord’s role as son of Mary is not unconnected to or at odds with his role as Judge. These are all aspects of one plan, one mission, one God.

The babe in the manger, Mary’s son, is God come down to us, divinity united with our humanity and born as the one we call Jesus. At Christmas, we celebrate nothing less than the birth of God Almighty amongst us. God the Word, the second Person of the Trinity, assumes our humanity and is born the son of Mary. Who Jesus is makes all the difference. At Christmas, despite what we sometimes hear in sermons, we do not primarily celebrate new life and new beginnings; we do not celebrate the joys of motherhood universally applied; and we do not mark renewed hope for the future. While all these good thoughts are appropriate they are not what Christmas is really about. To remain true to the Faith we must recall that Christmas is not about us but about Him. Not just the old jingle that “Jesus is the Reason for the Season,” but that at Christmas, as always, our Faith is about God, not us. Indeed, what we must recall at Christmas, as always, is that while we celebrate God’s love as a Christian community, that community is only Christian in so far as its focus is on Christ and not itself. After all, the holy day is called Christ’s Mass, indicative that the community gathers to celebrate the birth of Christ, to worship the Christ and to receive from the Christ all those gifts of faith, hope and love which only He can give.

And He is Judge. Our Advent preparations remind us of this reality and seek to rescue us from sentimentality about an idealized family, as if that was what Christmas is about. The mother pregnant outside of wedlock and the child born in a barn clearly point in another direction than an “ideal” family. It is not just the humility but also the unconventionality of our Lord’s humble beginnings that suggests that the world’s expectations are going to be challenged. It is pure humanity joined with full divinity that qualifies Jesus to be the Judge of all – whether we come from, or live in, a conventional family or not.

This brings me to my second concern – the sentiment often suggested that “Christmas is, after all, really for children.” As well-meaning and innocent as this seems, it is incorrect. If Christmas is not for everyone, and I mean absolutely everyone, then why did the Father bother to send His Son, the Word, into the world? Scripture does not support this sentiment – in fact it says the exact opposite. The Father so loved the world – the entire world, everyone, that He sent His only Son to become its Saviour. As St John says in his Gospel, that Light, that Word, shines in the darkness, the darkness of this world, the darkness of our selfishness – and overcomes them all. May that Light enlighten, brighten and ennoble you and all you love this Christmas!

Dr. Ross Hebb is the Rector of St Peter’s Church in Fredericton, New Brunswick.

Some Shepherds

By Barry Parker

THE FAMILIAR Christmas story is often reduced to a well-worn narrative; comfortable, predictable and domesticated.

But have you ever stopped to consider the participants in that first Christmas, that first revelation of Emmanuel—God with us? For instance, what about the Shepherds? (Luke 2:8-20). We are used to seeing young children in oversized bathrobes and skewed towels on their heads playing the shepherds in the proverbial Christmas Pageant. But who were these men?

Some Shepherds (Luke 2:8). That is the sum total of the Bible’s description of these men—“some shepherds.” No names, no titles, no celebrity status—just some unnamed shepherds in a non-descript field minding their own business of keeping livestock. Yet to these men came the first declaration of the greatest event in human history: “There has been born to you a Saviour who is Christ the Lord.”

We need some background because, quite frankly, they were the last people you would expect God to take notice of.

The Shepherds were religious outcasts. According to Jewish religious law, these men were unclean – raising the sheep that would be used for Temple sacrifice, yet unable to participate in the worship of the temple.

The Shepherds were social outcasts. Since they were constantly on the move to find new pasture for their flocks, they were considered with suspicion. They were not permitted to give testimony in a legal proceeding, because their word was not considered trustworthy. Shepherds didn’t have much contact with other people. 

The Shepherds were cultural outcasts. Most of the time, they were “living out in the fields.” They were with the sheep and the goats 24/7. During the day, they led the sheep to grass and water. They kept an eye out for predators. At night, they slept with the sheep to guard against theft and animal attack. Shepherds smelled like sheep. Being a shepherd was lonely, wearisome, boring and sometimes extremely dangerous. They were isolated.

Yet even as outcasts, Shepherds receive a vision from God and the angelic chorus. Once again, we are reminded that God does give visions and spectacles, but only to a few. Most of us can relate to shepherds—the ordinary, the mundane, the misfit, even the outcast.

And consider that if we take the Gospel presentation of the Incarnation seriously, nothing fits!

  • We want an angel—we get a shepherd.

  • We want success—we get failure or drastically lowered expectations.

  • We want entitlement—we get challenge and required commitment.

  • We want easy revelation—we get homework.

  • We want to be on the inside—we end up on the margins.

What are you watching for this Christmastide? How will you know when you hear what you need to hear, see what you need to see?

  • Allow yourself to be awed in this cynical age

  • Allow yourself to see beyond what this world deems qualifying

  • Allow the message to be heard and seen for what it is—supernatural, overwhelming, extraordinary—and not simply for children

Often, Christians complain that the world has taken the Christ out of Christmas. Do we do the same? So, listen. Watch. Stop talking. Stop doing. Pay attention. To receive the gift of life we need to learn to watch and listen. This Christmas, you may be looking for angels—but watch for the Shepherds. They have so much to tell us.

Dr. Barry Parker is Rector of St Paul’s, Bloor St., Toronto.

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