Volume 1, Nativity Special Issue

December 23, 2010

Volume 1, Special Issue of Wonder

Theme: Our Incarnate God


Icon and Nativity, God Revealing Himself

By Deacon Dustin Lyon

“I was in Anguish and you Listened to me”

By Fr. Steven Voytovich

Incarnate Love

By Fr. John Breck

“Wise Man Seeks Lasting Relationship With Divine Creator; Will Follow Law”

By Mr. Jason Ketz

More information about the authors and contributors can be found here.

A special audio slideshow explaining the Nativity Icon can be found here.

Icon and Nativity, God Revealing Himself

December 23, 2010

By Dn. Dustin Lyon

Soon we will celebrate the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Many in our society see this as a season of “peace and goodwill towards men.” Others, who are a bit more religious, see this season as the birth of a savior and sing Christmas hymns such as “Away in a Manger” or “What Child Is This,” which emphasize the child-like quality of our Savior.   Despite all this, the Church puts in front of us an icon that constantly humbles me because it’s not an icon of a birth, but of a death.

The icon of the Nativity reveals the incarnation of Christ, to be sure, but it reveals a deeper insight into the incarnation.  This icon doesn’t just show us a baby who will one day preach, teach, and die, but rather this icon shows us that the baby born of Mary is already the crucified messiah.  For example, we often see that the baby Jesus is placed in a manger, but how many of us stop to realize that a manger is a feeding trough?  If this event took place today, perhaps the baby Jesus would be placed in a salad bar indicating that we must eat the bread of life to live – an obvious connection to the Eucharist.  Some icons depict Jesus not in a manger, but on an altar to be sacrificed.  This immediately draws our minds to the passion.

Icon of the Nativity of Christ

Whether the iconographer places Jesus in a manger or on an altar, Christ is always depicted in a cave.  Poetically this isn’t just a cave, but rather the empty tomb in which he lay after his crucifixion.  Jesus is depicted lying here wrapped in swaddling clothes, clothes that now become his burial shroud.

During Pascha we are presented with the icon of the empty tomb, from which Christ is resurrected.  If we consider empty and virgin to be parallel terms as well as resurrection and birth, then it is clear that the Nativity celebrates not just the birth of a child from a virgin womb, but the resurrection of Christ from the empty tomb.  Interestingly, both the virgin womb and the empty tomb are related to a man named Joseph – one Joseph being the husband of Mary and the other Joseph being the man from Arimathea.

This icon reorients our view of the Incarnation; because of it we don’t see the birth of Jesus as just a historical narrative, but rather, we see the Incarnation from the very start as a confession about the exalted and risen Lord.  In other words, the Incarnation we celebrate on Christmas is an interpretation; it is an understanding that Christ reveals the Father through the passion on the cross.  But this orientation isn’t just the perspective of the Nativity icon; it’s the perspective of all icons and is inherent even in the way an icon is made.

These past two summers I’ve been blessed to be able to take the iconography workshops offered at St. Vladimir’s Seminary.  The time spent in these workshops has been some of the most rewarding and personally enriching time spent here at seminary.  I can honestly say that I don’t think I’ve prayed as sincerely and humbly as I did while writing my icons.  What made these experiences such rewarding ones was the way in which the face of Christ was revealed through each step of the painting process.  It was as if the icon board was giving birth again to Christ.  In this way, I experienced the Incarnation of Christ firsthand.

Icon of Christ by the hand of the author

After prepping the board by sanding and applying gesso (a white primer), we carefully applied an outline drawing of Christ to our boards.  In this class everyone’s first icon is that of Christ, and this is planned very specifically.  There are several schools of thought behind what a person’s first icon should be, and my instructor fell into the school that believed one should first paint Christ because every icon, not matter what the subject matter is, always reveals Christ.  The martyrs incarnate Christ by imitating his death.  The evangelists, apostles, theologians, and church fathers incarnate Christ through their words.  When these people get depicted in an icon, we see Christ through the saints’ life or words.  By having my first icon be of Christ, the point is driven home that I am always to see Christ in every icon I paint.

After applying an outline drawing, my next step was to apply the gold leaf.  Having never worked with gold leaf before in my life, I did so very carefully and attentively.  Finally, I was ready to paint!

The first task in writing an icon is to paint the sold background colors.  For example, the red that Christ wears is painted a solid red.  The blue cloak is painted a solid blue.  His hair is painted a solid brown, and his skin is painted a dark green.  After I had done this, I was able to start painting the highlights and shadows.  Wow, what a difference they make! The image before me came more and more alive with each paint stroke I laid down.

The more alive the icon became, the more it hit me: I’m not painting Christ; rather, it was Christ who was revealing himself to me through this process.  Learning to paint an icon can be a frustrating process, but it can also be a very rewarding one.  I couldn’t have done it alone.  I needed the guidance and patience of my instructor, and the grace of God.  Seeing Christ reveal His image through this process made me realize that I wasn’t painting a picture of a man who lived 2,000 years ago.  I was painting the living God, who reveals Himself through the Incarnation for the life of the world, even in our time, and even to a simple student such as myself.

"Sweet-Kissing" Icon by the hand of the author

“I was in anguish and you listened to me”

December 23, 2010

by Fr. Steven Voytovich

The Beatitudes in Matthew 25 represent our final exam.  We never know when we might be responding to our Lord Himself when we see those who are sick, suffering, or otherwise in need.  Inherent in each response, though unspoken, is an attending posture toward the person who is in need, captured in the title of this piece.   This posture includes total attention, listening deeply, and relating to what is being shared through our own experiences of struggle.  If you look closely in the Gospel stories of Jesus meeting those who were sick and suffering, His attending posture is evident in his responses even though not always identified specifically. The following is a life example that has remained meaningful to me through many years.

J was a co-worker while I was in high school and college.  J grew up in a financially sound household where love was expressed by the purchase and giving of gifts.  In celebrating her college graduation, J’s parents gave her the gift of a cruise somewhere in Europe.  During that cruise, J glimpsed suffering that was at once foreign and devastating.  She was so overwhelmed by what she saw that she eventually attempted to take her life.  When I met her she had gotten out of the hospital, and was taking medication for depression.  Her desire was to get better and break the roller coaster cycle of re-hospitalization that she saw her fellow patients go through.

I grew up in a household where expressions of love were not regularly shared openly.  J’s journey to the brink of end-of-life spoke to me as a teenager grappling with questions of the meaning of life and my purpose in being alive.   I heard her desire to move forward in some respects as a call for help.  For many months I would visit her at her parents’ home, or at coffee shops, and as two young people we shared our life stories, our hopes, dreams, struggles, questions of faith, and attempts to grapple with each day’s steps on life’s journey.  I can say for myself that it was so meaningful to be listened to a deep level, and I would venture to say that J would agree.

Over time, the little employee work group J and I were part of grew to be close-knit.  We planned activities as a group, supported each other during difficult times.  J’s desire to be free of the roller coaster ride was slowly being realized.  Both J and I would probably say that our parents cared for us in ways they were able to.  What I gained from our sharing was an understanding, perhaps for the first-time outside my immediate family, was what it meant to care for someone, and what it “felt like” to be cared for by listening at such a deep level.

Ironically, though my parents suspected otherwise, our relationship never moved to a romantic level.  Each of us at one point or another perhaps imagined taking such a step, but never at the same time.   In my reflection, I would say this relationship had a deeply spiritual and healing nature.  Through our journey both of us were transformed.  I am thankful to God for bringing J and I together at such a critical time in both our lives.

J wound up marrying another of our little work group’s co-workers, and they have two lovely children.  I eventually found my way to becoming a caregiver in institutional and parish settings.   We continue to share a bond from these precious years, and my care-giving today continues to be influenced by this formative experience.  Throughout my life I celebrate the relational experiences not only of being able to listen to those I am called to minister to at a deep level, but likewise of being listened to at such a deep level to as being so intensely meaningful.  Especially in our age of web technology and “tweets,” such relational exchanges are rare and worthy of being treasured.

As we prepare to celebrate the Nativity Feast, let us take a moment to reflect on the word Incarnation.  Emmanuel, God with us; God takes on flesh, the eternal God is represented in human form. In his book On the Incarnation, St. Athanasius states the following regarding why we have been made in God’s likeness:  “Simply in order that through this gift of God-likeness in themselves they may be able to perceive the Image Absolute, that is the Word Himself, and through Him to apprehend the Father; which knowledge of their Maker is for mankind the only really happy and blessed life.” (p. 38)  Our experience of God’s likeness leads up ultimately back to God that we proclaim on the Nativity Feast as “Abba Father.” Gal.   Jesus calls upon “Abba Father” in Mark 14:36, in a moment of anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane.

This mystery of being created in God’s image offers us all the opportunity to intensely experience God’s presence with us personally in a similar way.  In addition, as we interact with one another in our daily lives, each fashioned in God’s image and likeness, we are called to participate in sharing this gift with others in our lives.  As we do so and are open to God’s presence, we can experience transformation and healing in the midst of moments of struggle and anguish, bringing us closer to God.   This is a significant gift of the Incarnation.   Let us commit ourselves to sharing this gift, especially during this most holy season, and all the seasons of our lives in Christ.

Incarnate Love

December 23, 2010

By Fr. John Breck

In this season of Christ’s Nativity, the title of Vigen Guroian’s fine collection of essays on ethical issues [Incarnate Love, University of Notre Dame Press, first ed. 1988] comes back to me with special poignancy. For the past several years I’ve spent a couple of weeks each spring in Romania, visiting theological faculties, monasteries and parish churches. I just returned from my first fall visit, with most of the ten days spent in Transylvania. More than any previous trip, that brief tour made me aware of the material deprivation so many Romanian people still face in this post-Communist era. It also made clear the depths of love and commitment with which many more privileged Romanians, together with a significant number of Americans and other foreigners, are attempting to meet the needs of the poor, the sick and the marginalized.

Poverty conditions in parts of Eastern Europe, as in the developing countries of Africa, are at times beyond the comprehension of most Americans. One evening the family who was hosting my wife and me drove me into downtown Cluj. There, in a small religious bookstore, I met a woman in her mid-seventies who earns her meager living translating articles and books for a local Orthodox publisher. Her income does not allow her the luxury of buying the heart medication she needs, although it is relatively inexpensive. Often she does not have enough to eat, simply because she has no money at all. The concept of “disposable income,” or even of a bank account, is incomprehensible to her. Yet she is a person of culture and quiet dignity (she apologized that her French was not as good as it used to be, then in that language she conversed fluently about her situation, but also about French and Romanian literature). She has a son on this side of the ocean, a computer programmer who used to send her money on occasion. His live-in girl friend, though, has forbidden him from doing so any longer, and the mother now receives nothing from him. If she doesn’t starve to death, it’s only because a few friends offer her what they can out of their own limited means. And hers is hardly an isolated case.

Other situations also tug at heart and conscience. During the Ceausescu era, government policy outlawed contraception as well as abortion – not for moral reasons, but to increase the population for political and military purposes. Now the country is rife with abandoned and abused children (every month an average of six children are abandoned in the single city of Cluj).

Small but significant efforts are underway, nevertheless, to address this well-publicized and still critical situation. Craig and Victoria Goodwin, for example, working in conjunction with the Orthodox Christian Mission Center in Florida (www.ocmc.org) have bought and renovated a large house in a poor section of Cluj. With teams of volunteer workers, they care for some half-dozen orphans less than two years of age. Under the eves they have two rooms set aside for pregnant women who are looking for the support necessary to allow them to bring their child to term rather than resort to an abortion. The home is spotless, very well equipped, and the atmosphere is warm, loving, and compassionate.

Little Angela, about 18 months old now, looked up at me with her dark eyes and timid smile. She is part Gypsy and so has little if any chance of being adopted in her native country. Those eyes followed me as I left the house, and we peered at each other through the window. If I could have put her in my pocket and brought her back with me, I would have. But there’s a moratorium on foreign adoptions, although, as always, there are ways around it. A couple in the States fell in love with Angela some time ago and are working hard to make her their own – and may God fulfill their desire! Meanwhile, the Goodwins are devoting themselves to her and to the others, with tender affection and extraordinary self-sacrifice (although they would not see it that way). I finally left the house and returned to our friend’s apartment. For hours that night I lay awake, marveling at little Angela’s gaze, but also at the work the Goodwins are doing. A handful of kids, that’s all. But it’s a gift of life to each of them.

Some thirty years ago I was hunched, terrified, in the back seat of an old French DS, tearing down the autoroute at 180 km. per hour. The driver was a hotshot young businessman, who nevertheless lived his Catholic faith with seriousness and a certain sense of joy. We just learned that today he is in Romania, working with orphans.

A close friend in France, who many years ago became a nun in the Romanian archdiocese, is making plans with others to create an orphanage in Moldova. Once it’s completed, they will be welcoming several hundred children and providing them with everything from medical care and education to a quality of “family” love most of them otherwise would never know.

And so it goes. Simple people like ourselves, with no other agenda than to “be Christ” to the poor, the abandoned, the “rejects” of contemporary society. And just as many stories, of course, could be told of people in this country who work to improve living conditions, education, and medical care for those in poverty, and who do so with “incarnate love.” That is love which has taken flesh. It is love like the love of Jesus, who spoke a word or touched a wound, and brought healing.

In this Christmas time, we can only give thanks to God for the gift of that love, as Jesus Himself incarnated it, and as it becomes incarnate through the lives of all those who make of their existence something of a reverse tithe. They live on ten percent of their resources and offer the rest to the less privileged. May God bless their efforts and strengthen their dedication. May He allow them to touch others with the same healing power He conveyed to Peter’s mother-in-law, to the woman with the issue of blood, and to Jairus’s deceased daughter. And may He touch our own hearts as well, that we might share in those good works, that we might in our own lives and activity give flesh to that love that knows no bounds.

This article was originally published as a “Life in Christ” article on oca.org in December 2003.

“Wise Man Seeks Lasting Relationship with Divine Creator; Will Follow Law”

December 23, 2010

By Jason Ketz

“My little children, with whom I am again in travail until Christ be formed in you!” (Gal 4:19)

As we draw near to the annual celebration of our Lord’s Nativity according to the flesh, I find myself contemplating the incarnation in different ways.  Certainly the incarnation of the Crucified One is a divine mystery which we understand in terms of our theological definitions.  But how did the Apostle Paul understand our Incarnate Lord that he was able to say this to the Galatians?  As it happened, Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection was unexpected, all the more so as we apply doctrinal definitions backward into the New Testament writings.  And the Holy Spirit has a clear and active role in a person’s ability to confess Jesus as Lord, but how does any human arrive at this point?  The disciples had extensive preparation, and were still amazed, so how was Paul able to understand on any level his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:3-20) such that he could proclaim Jesus as the Son of God even before his sojourn in the desert (cf. Gal 1:16-2:2)?  Are there visible antecedents to the ‘fullness of time’ (cf. Eph 1:10) in which we now stand, and how did they extend from God’s chosen people Israel to the Gentiles, such that we can all agree that “The Lord is One” (Deut 6:4; Mk 12:29)?

Following the lead of Jesus himself (Lk 24:25-33, 44-49), Christians of every generation have searched the scriptures as Paul did, to understand Christ.  On a parallel line, I would like to very briefly consider the development of humanity such that we are able to accept the incarnation.  The following is an overview of a subtle but crucial shift in Jewish theology which occurred perhaps two hundred years before the Crucifixion, and which is essentially devoid of messianic expectations, but addresses a central issue of humanity’s desire to know God.  This seems to be a major instance of preparation of humanity for the reception of the gospel.  Interestingly enough, the author of the work even bears the name Jesus!

The Wisdom of Jesus Ben Sira[1] seems at first glance to be a restatement of traditional Jewish wisdom found in Proverbs, Job or Ecclesiastes.  And this Wisdom literature of the Old Testament has two general characteristics which a reader would do well to remember.  First, the underlying themes of the texts are very old.  Second (and related to their age), they are not especially Jewish in origin, but a collection of well-known proverbs from around the ancient Near East which are laced with Jewish themes to make them acceptable.[2] So when Ben Sira begins to reiterate these to a new audience, one wonders if he is simply trying to demonstrate compatibility between Judaism and the Hellenism of the day.[3] This would seem to hold true with his treatment of “Wisdom” as both a human virtue and as the personified primary creation of God, which Philo will two hundred years later combine with Platonism and call God’s logos.  Ben Sirach’s highest identity of divine Wisdom is a hymn she sings of herself:

“I came forth from the mouth of the Most High,

and covered the earth like a mist.

I dwelt in high places,

and my throne was in the pillar of cloud.

Alone I have made the circuit of the vault of heaven

and have walked in the depths of the abyss.

In the waves of the sea, in the whole earth

and in every people and nation

I have gotten a possession” (24:3-6).

A Christian scholar might jump to see Trinitarian theology in the making, but Ben Sira is not even considering a messiah (whether Davidic, priestly or otherwise), let alone the hypostases of the Godhead in his treatise.  Rather, he makes a contribution which is equally profound.  In his expectedly secular treatise on wisdom, he proclaims that following the Law (Torah) is the first and most important act of wisdom (19:20; 15:1).  This is a complete transformation of the ancient wisdom texts (cf Prov 4:7).  In Proverbs, generically divine Wisdom is made to look Jewish, but Ben Sira sees Jewish Wisdom as having been bestowed on all of humanity!  The wisdom within created man then seeks out wisdom as his bride (15:2; 24:19-22), and comes to know God through his primary work, eternal Wisdom (1:4), who in her fullness sought out Israel as her dwelling place in humanity (24:8-12).  The Law which has been revealed fully to the people of Israel is the same law which governs all of creation (24:23-29).

For Ben Sira, and later for Philo, this becomes the promise of the covenant between God and his people.  Israel is still first-born, but this covenant is somehow open to all of humanity.  Man’s divine vocation is to bring oneself into communion with the Lord by recognizing the Lord’s image and likeness within oneself and by pursuing it outside oneself (6:18-31).   Wisdom is immortal, thus as much as wisdom is expressed within the human, the person too can attain (a non-bodily) immortality.  As such, this might be loosely described as incarnational theology[4] before the Incarnation!

The Law which Ben Sira and Philo both envision was one of relationships.  Each sage will uphold the classic practices of Jewish Law,[5] but Ben Sira prioritizes social relationships throughout his work.  One’s standing with his family, his wife, his neighbor, and the impoverished are particularly important places in which God’s law can be realized, i.e., through which wisdom can be expressed and the Lord can be encountered.  Philo’s view is less social, but equally participatory in creation: through Philosophy.[6]

Ben Sira’s theology is also remarkably doxological.  He sees this pursuit of re-union (or communion) with the Lord to be a function and display of glory, and the ultimate form of worship offered by the crown jewel of creation: man.  An idea with which Ben Sira only flirts (17:1-24; cf his hymns of creation [42:15-43:33], and the ancestors [44:1-50:24]) but which Philo develops remarkably is that this man is a microcosm of all of creation, and as the only bearer of the seal of the logos of God, the only true citizen of the created cosmos.[7] It is this uniqueness of humanity which allows us to return to our place of departure.

Obviously, the incarnation of our Crucified Lord would change everything, revealing the glory of the flesh, and a more complete model of theosis than either Ben Sira’s or Philo’s theology would permit, seeing as they did the eternal Wisdom-Logos existing in a different realm, only through likeness entering into creation, chiefly through the human rational intellect.  The self-emptying love displayed through Jesus’ willing death on the cross shows that it is no longer outside and above this created order that God is to be met, but entirely within it.  We no longer must travel contemplatively or ecstatically through these realms of divine order,[8] but only just far enough outside the comfortable and seemingly self-fulfilling universe of our own self, to see in another human being the divine seal of God’s glory; a complementary microcosm of all of the Lord’s creation.  And at that very moment, we can accept Jesus’ particular incarnation while recognizing the very sublime idea that through our very reception of this good news, the Christ can and must be formed within each of us.

So while we join the Magi on the pilgrimage to Bethlehem, let us not fail to marvel in the glory of creation which our Creator wills to save.  And let each of us willingly participate in the saving process, so that the labor of the Apostle ends in a glorious birth, both in a small town in Judea and in the Bethlehem of our souls.

[1] Also known as Sirach or Ecclesiasticus, this is one of the books which did not make the final cut for either the Jewish or Protestant Canons.  As such, most bibles, including the Oxford Annotated RSV (1977) with which I am working, place this text among the Apocrypha.

[2] The texts function fine in, and are an accepted part of the Jewish scriptures, but the point is that they predate them.  Consider the pantheon in Job, or the partitioned structure of Proverbs, in which Jewish theology has been overlaid on Egyptian moral maxims (esp Book III) and then accredited to King Solomon.

[3] At this point, I must generally refer to two scholars to whose work I am indebted: John J Collins, Jewish Wisdom in the Hellenistic Age (Louisville: WJK, 1997); and Leo Perdue, Wisdom Literature: A Theological History (Louisville: WJK, 2007).

[4] “a religion in which man’s approach to God is through the physical world rather than by escape from it.” Maurice Wiles, “Christianity without Incarnation” in The Myth of God Incarnate. John Hick, ed.  (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976).

[5] Typically summarized in Second Temple literature by Sabbath observance, circumcision and dietary laws.

[6] Philo, On the Creation of the Cosmos, David T Runia, tr. (Leiden: Brill, 2001), §77.

[7] Philo, On the Creation §3, 82, 143.

[8] Philo, On the Creation, §69-71.  This theology has a place in Orthodoxy, as seen in Maximus the Confessor’s Ambiguum 41 and other works of mystical theology.  But this only functions in tandem with the very real and participatory experience of the Eucharist.

Volume 1 Nativity Special, Authors and Contributors

December 23, 2010

Deacon Dustin Lyon is currently a third year seminarian and attached to Three Hierarchs Chapel at St. Vladimir’s Seminary, where he is also the student sacristan. He holds a MA in Art History and Archaeology from the University of Missouri.

Archpriest Steven Voytovich is the Director of the Department of Institutional Chaplaincies for the Orthodox Church in America. He holds M.A., M.Div., and D.Min degrees from St. Vladimir’s Seminary. He works in institutional settings training hospital and institutional chaplains. He is attached to Holy Trinity Orthodox Church in New Britain, Connecticut.

Archpriest John Breck is on the faculty of St. Sergius Institute in Paris, France. He holds an M.Div from Yale University and a Theological Doctorate from Ruprecht-Karl University in Germany. He writes a column for the website of the Orthodox Church in America entitled “Life in Christ” from which this article was taken.

Jason Ketz is a second year M.Div student at St Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary.  He holds a B.S. in Microbiology, and worked as the Quality Manager at a printing company for several years in his home town of Minneapolis, before answering a long-standing call to theological studies and, God-willing, pastoral ministry.  He and his wife Elizabeth are currently balancing his studies, her career, and the constant demands of raising two wonderful young children.  His home parish is St. Mary’s Cathedral in Minneapolis.

Volume 1 Number 6

December 12, 2010

Volume 1 Number 6 of Wonder

Theme: Asceticism and Discipleship


The Ascetical Life

by Fr. Robert Arida

The Church is our Mother

by Mr. William Kopcha

Remember Your Leaders

by Mr. Andrew Boyd

Asceticism and the Military Environment

By. Fr. Sean Levine

More information about these authors and contributors may be found here.