Whence Stefan? (Or, How They Get Here)

Sitemeter has once again rescued an important question submitted to Google that lead an unsuspecting soul to The Voice of Stefan, and as before, I feel that it is my bounden duty to attempt to provide some answer to their inquiry. Thoughtful in Tracy (CA, USA) asks:

who created stefan and valdimir [sic]?

Needless to say, I am heartened that our Californian friend is pondering the Big Questions of Life: who are we, where do we come from, what is our purpose, etc. These are the common questions of our humanity, which are all too often ignored by our contemporaries who have given themselves over to mindless hedonism. But of course, as Socrates (allegedly) said, the unexamined life is not worth living, and on that account our truth-seeking friend stands head and shoulders over his or her peers.

Fortunately for Thoughtful, the Christian tradition offers an unambiguous answer to this honest etiological inquiry. The Nicene Creed confesses:

I believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all ages;; Light of Light, true God of true God; begotten, not made; of one essence with Father, through whom all things were made [….]. And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of life, who proceeds from the Father; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified [….].

It is, then, the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit Who created Stefan, Vladimir, Thoughtful in Tracy (CA, US), all human beings, and indeed all things, both seen and unseen. St John of Damascus, in his Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith (II.2), further elaborates on this point:

Since, then, God, Who is good and more than good, did not find satisfaction in self-contemplation, but in His exceeding goodness wished certain things to come into existence which would enjoy His benefits and share in His goodness, He brought all things out of nothing into being and created them, both what is invisible and what is visible. Yea, even man, who is a compound of the visible and the invisible. And it is by thought that He creates, and thought is the basis of the work, the Word filling it and the Spirit perfecting it.

So, there we have it. I sincerely hope that the above helps to set the restless mind and soul of our truth-seeker at peace!

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On Blurbing (Or, “This Is the Best Book To Appear since the Invention of Writing”)

Controversy has recently arisen in theoblogging circles regarding Scot McKnight’s blurb for N. T. Wright’s forthcoming Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision (Downers Grove: IVP, 2009), in which book the Bishop of Durham undertakes a response to critics of his approach to Pauline studies (notably John Piper). Justin Taylor of Between Two Worlds suggests that McKnight’s blurb unfairly misrepresents the “neo-Calvinists” (who are among the more outspoken critics of the so-called “New Perspective on Paul”), and that he ends up turning the reasons for their vehement opposition into a straw man only to indulge in accusation and name-calling. (As a side note, allow me to plainly state here what I merely hinted at there: there is more than a dash of humor in the fact that a complaint about the perceived exaggerations of a book blurb should have appeared precisely in a venue that itself routinely publicizes blurbs characterized by some of the more grossly exaggerated praise that I have had the displeasure to read.)

Nor is this the only blurb-related incident of recent times. Chrys Caragounis, who seems to have a penchant for hysterical reactions when other scholars dare to advance criticisms of his work, saw fit to write a 3-page rejoinder to a single line of a blurb provided by Rodney Decker for the American edition of his book, The Development of Greek and the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006). In the measly line in question, Decker simply states that Caragounis’ thesis is “controversial” and that many (himself included) “may be skeptical” of the claim that Modern Greek is essential to understanding the language of the New Testament, before going on to say that he is “glad to see this work made available in an affordable (sic) edition so that its proposals may be more readily evaluated.”

So blurbs, it seems, are serious business.

In light of this discussion, I thought that a helpful way to examine the nature and character of book blurbs would be to consider some of those printed with Bob Dylan’s memoir, Chronicles: Volume One (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004). Dylan’s songwriting needs no introduction, of course, and I imagine that all of us have been exposed to one or more of his songs at one point or another. A few words regarding his memoir, however, might be in order, as it is probably the case that not very many of my readers have perused that peculiar volume.

Dylan’s strengths as a lyricist are his undoing as a prose writer. In fact, it would not be unfair to characterize this book as a tedious 293-page lyric about Dylan’s formative years as a singer/songwriter. The text overflows with unnecessary, obscure, and therefore pretentious images, and only very seldom does one come across a well-formed sentence, let alone a well-written paragraph. (It is my distinct impression that the publishers, in order to give an “unplugged” Dylan to the masses, decided to forgo all editorial intervention.) Take, for instance, the following quote, in which Dylan discusses the music of fellow Greenwich Village performer Ricky Nelson:

“[T]hat type of music was on its way out. It had no chance of meaning anything. There’d be no future for that stuff in the future. It was all a mistake.”

This, of course, means nothing at all. There is much more of the same throughout, but I will not inflict it upon you now as we must press on to consider our subject, and the above surely provides more than sufficient background for what follows.

In spite of the obvious deficiencies of Dylan’s grating prose, the 13 pages of blurbs (!) that precede his memoir heap unfettered praise on his writing style. Robert McCrum of The Observer (London) makes the incredible affirmation that the book is “laid out in easy to read prose”; Jeff Barker of The Oregonian (Portland) speaks of the “impressive . . . quality of Dylan’s prose”; Tom Moon of The Philadelphia Inquirer labels it “stunningly clear writing” and has the audacity to suggest that the book is “unlike [Dylan’s] lyrics”; Gregory McNamee of Reuters announces that here we have “literature of the highest order”; Richard Harrington of The Washington Post calls Dylan “a masterful essayist”; and Luc Sante of The New York Review of Books opines that “Chronicles . . . is so fluid in its prose . . . that Dylan looks like a natural at the book game.” The observation by Bonnie Greer of The Observer (London) that “the writing goes right through you” resonates with me, but I suspect for entirely different reasons than she would expect.

The blurbs also predictably abound in literary comparisons: Dylan is variously likened to Henry Miller, Kurt Vonnegut, Jack Kerouac, Marcel Proust, Elmore Leonard, William Faulkner, Raymond Chandler, and W. B. Yeats. The most astonishing literary assessment, however, comes from Stu Levitan of the Capital Times (Madison, WI), who unflinchingly states that Bob Dylan is “the greatest and most important Western writer since Shakespeare.”

Let us pause here for a moment. Go ahead, let that sink in.

Stumped by Levitan’s incredible statement, and afraid that perhaps I had missed something in my literary formation, I decided it to probe his claim by turning to the Oxford Companion to English Literature (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2000). Now Bob Dylan certainly appears there, and he is given an entry with four lines which dutifully informs us that “[his] lyrics have been highly praised by poets and some scholars.” Then I looked up James Joyce, another potential claimant to the title of “greatest and most important Western writer since Shakespeare” that I chose at random. Joyce is mercifully also listed, and is given seventy-four lines to Dylan’s four—which is to say that Joyce is given well over 1,700% more space in this reference work than Dylan. Well, it seems that the editor of the Oxford Companion to English Literature might have missed something too1.

Now of the things which we have spoken, this is the sum: it is the nature of blurbs to be given to exaggeration of various kinds because, by and large, blurbing is an exercise in truthiness. Blurbs toe party lines, deride straw man opponents, and hyperbolize the merits of any given book beyond recognition. For this reason a good many of them are useless, and if considered at all, should be taken with an enormous grain of salt. In some cases, they should be altogether disregarded. (But let us give honor where honor is due: Dr Decker should be thanked for writing an honest, balanced, and actually helpful blurb for Dr Caragounis’ book.)

Allow me to give the final word of this tirade to the greatest and most important satirists in Western literature since Jonathan Swift, the brilliant co-authors of Right Behind: A Parody of Last Days Goofiness (Moscow, ID: Canon, 2001), Mr (now Dr) Sock and Nathan Wilson. I reproduce below the blurbs they masterfully crafted for their hilarious book, for as the once controversial Bishop Pike once wrote in a blurb, “Throughout history satire has been an effective device for stabbing people awake”—and Right Behind offers us blurb satire at its best. Enjoy!

Right Behind is at least as horrible as the original.” –St. Augustine
“If I weren’t dead, I’d be rolling in the aisles.” –John Calvin
“Mr. Sock is the most profound prophecy genius on the contemporary scene.” –Flavius Josephus
“The Left Behind series almost made me regret martyrdom. Right Behind renewed my hope.” –Polycarp

_______________________________

Note:

1 It bears noting that Bob Dylan appears to have had a prescient sense of his competition for the title of “greatest and most important Western writer since Shakespeare,” as witnesses this preemptive strike against Joyce: “The bookshelves were full of books and I noticed the novel Ulysses. Goddard Lieberson, president of Columbia Records, had given me this as a gift, a first-edition copy of the book and I couldn’t make hide nor hair of it. James Joyce seemed like the most arrogant man who ever lived, had both his eyes wide open and great faculty of speech, but what he say, I knew not what. I wanted to ask [Archibald] MacLeish to explain James Joyce to me, to make sense of something that seemed so out of control, and I knew that he would have, but I didn’t” (pages 129-130).

Gossiping the Gospel

I have long been an unabashed and unstinting admirer of biblical scholar and author extraordinaire D. A. Carson, and I have spent the past few days reviewing several of his works in my bookshelves, most of which were regrettably unavailable to me for many years on account of their being placed in storage while I lived in Puerto Rico. In his Showing the Spirit: A Theological Exposition of 1 Corinthians 12-14 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1987), I came across the following bit which I now share with you. Discussing the remarkable growth of the Charismatic wing of Evangelicalism not only in North America but especially abroad, Carson writes:

“[It will not] do to question how many of the converts are Christians at all, for that is a factor that has to be faced by all movements where rapid growth takes place. My own experiences of ministering in charismatic circles do not encourage me to think that there is a higher proportion of spurious conversions in charismatic groups than in other groups in the same society. But the reasons for their more rapid growth are complex. The growth is not because they have been endued with the Spirit and very few others have been, as charismatics seem to think. I suspect it is more connected with the fact that charismatics are, in general, quicker to talk about their experiences with God, their faith, the way God has worked in their lives. Effective evangelism depends on many people gossiping the Gospel.” (page 182, emphasis mine)

This last line, which is vintage Carson, led me to ponder the content of my gossip and small talk, which subject has occupied my thoughts on more than one occasion. I am simply amazed at the logorrheic shallowness of much of my (and, if my experience is any indicator, perhaps also others’) speech, and especially at how much of my time and energy such vapid discourse claims. With that in mind, consider these words of Our Lord:

“I tell you this: every thoughtless word you speak you will have to account for on the day of judgement. For out of your own mouth you will be acquitted; out of your own mouth you will be condemned.” (St Matthew 12:36-37, REB).

The broader context of these logia is Jesus’ indictment of the Pharisees, who have thoughtlessly blasphemed the Holy Spirit by ascribing his exorcism and healing of a blind and mute man to Beelzebul (cf. 12:22ff.). The point that Jesus drives home here is that one’s words spoken thoughtlessly betray one’s true character. The Pharisees, of course, were quite aware of the propositional content of their deliberate accusation (one, I venture, perhaps not untinged by gleeful sarcasm), but carelessly failed to take into account the ultimate implications of their words. In this they revealed their true character, which Our Lord compares, among other things, to a bad tree only capable of bad fruit (cf. verses 33-35). In a similar way, we all too often give very little thought to the gossip and idle talk (reeking, as is nearly always the case, with mordant sarcasm and cheap humor) to which we commit enormous amounts of time and energy, and much less ponder the ultimate (eternal!) implications of these seemingly trivial activities. In this we too betray our true character, and thereby sign our sentence of condemnation. For this we will be held accountable.

But wouldn’t it be wonderful if we left all such nonsense behind, and committed all of that time and energy to gossiping the Gospel, instead?

Eschatology Week: The Two Witnesses, Redux

Surely it comes to no surprise to you, my gentle snowflakes, that Eschatology Week at The Voice of Stefan carries on in spite jarring chronological gaps and every indication that the subject has been, at last, exhausted. Just as the millennial turn in every imaginable calendar fans the flames of apocalyptic speculation, so the dawn of a New Year redirects our attention to end-times contemplationparticularly in view of the prophetic events that unfolded yesterday.

Given the winds of eschatological fulfillment, I was pleased to learn that my earlier post in which I irrefutably established the identity of the Two Witnesses of Revelation, chapter 11, verses 3 through 12, caught the attention of the anonymous titan of prophetic study who, alas, came so close to the mark but sadly missed it. (You might recall, of course, that our estimable colleague came to the regrettably mistaken conclusion that the Two Witnesses are John Lennon and Paul McCartneya remarkably close guess, given that, as we saw earlier, these are actually to be identified with Simon and Garfunkel.) Well, a couple of weeks ago, a fine gentleman writing under the assumed name of “Jacob” left a comment on my earlier post alerting me to the fact that, in the ultimate display of altruism, he has now made available his painstaking research on this subject in the form of an e-book, which may be accessed at the following address:

http://thegoodguise.wordpress.com

I encourage one and all to acquaint themselves thoroughly with this breathtaking study, which can only broaden your hermeneutical horizons and enrich your understanding of North American popular eschatology.

No, seriously, I mean it.

While Jacob’s conclusion is, to say the least, hermeneutically impossible, the way he arrives at it is methodologically indistinguishable from that which undergirds much of North American popular eschatological thought (or, as I often call it, “sci-fi eschatology”). This sort of “futuristic historicism” is not exclusive to Jacob, or even the likes of Jack Van Impe: only peruse the popular titles by such Dallas Seminary luminaries Charles Ryrie (The Final Countdown), John Walvoord (Armaggedon, Oil and Terror), and Charles Dyer (The Rise of Babylon). No one, then, can mockingly single out Jacob for his conclusions without calling into question the hermeneutically dubious eschatology of a majority of North American Evangelicals, and beyond them, of many other North Americans who for reasons which elude me embrace one or more of the tenets of “sci-fi eschatology.”

One further thing that piqued my interest. Jacob states the following in the epilogue to his book:

I was raised Lutheran but now have no affiliation with any denomination. I now commune directly with Jesus Christ.

Which is to say that he, and therefore also his eschatology, is independent from any community of faith, and therefore (just like many in the academy!) stands outside the “hermeneutical circle.” In this connection, would all do well to take constantly keep in mind what our good friend Jim West wrote only a little earlier today:

Bible instruction belongs in the community of faith [….]. In the community of faith there are controls. Outside of it, there are none. And that is precisely the sort of situation where dilettantism is spawned and hatched.

Neufeld on the Orthodox Study Bible

Henry Neufeld of Participatory Bible Study recently received a review copy of the complete Orthodox Study Bible, and has published a couple of posts thus far in which he addresses two troubling aspects of that volume:

Isaiah 64 in the Orthodox Study Bible
Inane Comments in the Orthodox Study Bible

In the first post, Henry calls our attention to the awkward English often found in the OSB text by drawing specific examples from Isaiah 64. As he rightly notes there, “[i]t would seem like a few minutes checking with ordinary speakers of English would suggest some alternative” to any number of less than smooth renderings in the OSB, but it is one of the many failures of that project that it did not subject its translation drafts to very many levels of stylistic review and correction. (The contrast at this point with other translation projects is striking; more about this later.)

In the second post, Henry picks up on a lamentable flaw already criticized over a decade ago by Archimandrite Ephrem Lash in his review of the NT edition, and which regretfully also occurs in the complete OSB. Father Ephrem writes:

” [….] The notes to the New Testament are on the whole straightforward and some readers will find them a help in understanding many of the words and ideas in the text. Most of them though are dull and many of them jejune in the extreme. As a friend put it to me, they remind one of the notes to some school editions of Shakespeare. ‘King Lear plans to divide his kingdom between his daughters’, or ‘Hamlet wonders if it would be a good idea to commit suicide.’ In this book we find similar notes all too often, such as that on Luke 16:11: ‘True riches signify spiritual treasures’, or that on Luke 16:25 ‘This conversation is not between God and the rich man, but between Abraham and the rich man.’ The level is that of a not very bright Sunday School class. Critical questions are avoided by simply not being discussed at all. This is unsatisfactory, since many readers will be seeking help on just these questions. What should have been provided is an article setting out clearly how an Orthodox reader of the Bible should approach these problems. The solution adopted here is a further instance of what I call the attitude of the double-headed Byzantine ostrich.

” [….] In general, what Orthodox readers need is to be helped to enter into the spiritual teaching of the Gospel, which is about theology, in the true sense, about the great mystery of the coming of God incarnate into human history, about the response of the sinner to the loving invitation of Christ. They will hardly be helped to any of this by being told that Luke 24:13-35 is ‘a delightful account of a resurrection appearance of Christ’, which sounds more like a description of the visit of the Bishop to the parish sale of work.”

It is no doubt true that the quality of the notes has improved when compared to those found in the New Testament edition, and that patristic quotations appear more readily in them (though, as the much-missed Felix Culpa has pointed out, these are largely useless, since no bibliographical reference whatever is given for citations). So, again, the annotation system in the complete OSB is demonstrably better than that of the OSB-NT, but that is an embarrassing standard for comparison: surely it doesn’t take much effort to outdo the latter! It is much to be regretted that when held to other standards, many of the notes in the new OSB remain “jejune in the extreme.”

In any event, I look forward to Henry’s future observations on the OSB as he continues to work his way through lectionary texts using that volume.

Doubly Awarded (or, How to Start a Truly Auspicious New Year)

Yesterday the Church celebrated with great joy the radiant feast of the Theophany, which brings to a close the festal season of the Nativity and Manifestation of Christ our God. Of course, I never mean to go on a blogging hiatus during the festivities, but it invariably happens that the frequent services of the season and its many scheduled merrymaking obligations manage to consume all of my writing time, which inevitably results in what we might call the “January slump.” Perhaps next year it will actually occur to me to announce a break for the festal season, say, during the first two weeks of January!

Yet in spite of the holiday inactivity at The Voice of Stefan, two gentlemen of undoubtedly exquisite taste in blogs have independently seen fit to bestow upon Yours Truly the Superior Scribbler Meme Award!


I thank Messrs Aaron Taylor and Tony Allen, whose blogs I always read with great delight, for their kind mention. (Also, I wish to thank Mr Christopher Orr for mentioning this blog in connection with the award.) Of course, all memes awards come with rules that must be posted and followed lest great cosmic evils befall the transgressor, so here they are:

  • Each Superior Scribbler must in turn pass The Award on to 5 of their most-deserving Bloggy Friends.
  • Each Superior Scribbler must name and link to the blog from whose author he or she has received The Award.
  • Each Superior Scribbler must display The Award on his or her blog, and link to this post, which explains The Award.
  • Each Blogger who wins The Superior Scribbler Award must visit the above post and add his or her name to the “Mr. Linky List.” That way, we’ll be able to keep up-to-date on everyone who receives this Prestigious Honor!
  • Each Superior Scribbler must post these rules on his or her blog.

Since it is now my solemn duty to spread the Super-Scribbling love, without further ado, here are my picks:

  • Voices from Russia, by Vara Drezhlo, who alone among the throngs of the unenlightened has her head screwed on straight;
  • Roger Pearse, who unfailingly posts exceedingly helpful materials and information on ancient Christian sources;
  • Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth, by Nick Norelli, the master of book reviews and quintessential biblioblogger;
  • The Guild of Biblical Minimalists, in which learned society I am honored to serve as Michiganian Liaison; and
  • ἐν Ἐφέσῳ, by Mike Aubrey, a kindred spirit who might just geek out over Biblical Greek too much for his own good!

Do visit them all! Of course, I intend to live upto my newly-acquired reputation as a “Super Scribbler,” and will start to post in short order several pieces (including book reviews) on which I’ve been working at odd times over the past weeks of festal feverishness. Stay tuned!

Божић, Божић, благи дан!

Today is the Second Day of Christmas, on which the Church celebrates with great joy the Synaxis of the Mother of God. As the Great Horologion notes, “This Assembly (Gk. σύναξις), which is our gathering to sing the glory of the Mother of God, takes place fittingly particularly for her as the one who gave birth beyond nature to the Son and Word of God, and became the instrument of the salvation of humanity.”

Last year, as a festal treat, I posted a video featuring my favorite Serbian Божична песма (Christmas song), Анђели певају (The Angels Sing). This year I offer instead a video featuring the quintessential Serbian Christmas song, Божић, Божић (Christmas, Christmas), likewise performed by the wonderful group Stupovi. I note with great delight that the first verse is given entirely to Divna Ljubojević, a modern-day standard bearer of traditional Church singing in Serbia. (Of course, equally delightful is that the first verse of Анђели певају, my favorite Christmas song, was given to Jelena Pudar, of my favorite Serbian pop group, Neverne bebe!) Anyway, here is the song for your enjoyment; and please, be sure to revist last year’s post to enjoy also my favorite song, without which Christmas is not Christmas. Срећан Божић! Merry Christmas!

Божић, Божић

Божић, Божић, благи дан,
Благог Христа рођендан,
Божић, Божић, светли дан,
Сав светлошћу обасјан.

Дјева Христа родила,
Пеленама повила,
У пећини Христос спи,
Света Дјева над Њим бди.

Слама лепо мирише,
Богомајка уздише,
Утом звезда засија,
Пећина се загрија.

Анђели се спустише,
Пастирима јавише:
Весел’те се сви ноћас,
Роди нам се Христос Спас!

Кад то чули пастири,
Срце им се умири,
Па кликнуше сви у глас:
Нек’ се слави Христос Спас!

Нек’ мир свуда царује,
Нек’ се срце радује,
Нек’ се свако поправља
И Господа прославља.

Па, гле и ми Србчићи,
К’о сребрни звончићи,
Богомајку хвалимо,
Христа Бога славимо.

Божић, Божић, благи дан,
Благог Христа рођендан,
Божић, Божић, светли дан,
Сав светлошћу обасјан.

Fr Ephrem Lash: On the "Star of Bethlehem"


THE STAR OF BETHLEHEM

Every year around Christmas reports appear in the papers or on television which claim to give an astronomical explanation of the Star of Bethlehem. They are all nonsense. St John Chrysostom in his homily on the story explains clearly why the Star could not have been a natural phenomenon, but that it was an angelic appearance, like the Pillar of Cloud in the Old Testament. The true source for the Star is in the Old Testament, in Numbers 24:17, where the Seer Balaam, who came from a town on the banks of the Euphrates, utters his great prophecy, ‘I will point to him, but not now; I bless him, but he does not come near. A Star shall dawn from Jacob, a Man shall arise out of Israel’. This is what we read in the Greek Septuagint, which is the Orthodox text. The Hebrew has, ‘a sceptre shall arise out of Israel’. St Justin, in his Dialogue with Trypho 106, cites the verse, though instead of ‘man’ he has the word ‘ruler’, which is the word used in Matthew 2:6 in the citation of Micheas. Origen links the Magi with the prophecy of Balaam, adding that the prophecy of Balaam had no doubt been preserved in the east. Eusebios does the same. St Gregory of Nyssa also links the Magi with the prophecy of Balaam. The real Star of Bethlehem is Christ himself, as St Amphilochios explains in a Christmas sermon. Saint Romanos takes this up in his Kontakion for the Nativity, Ikos 5 (the Magi are speaking):

For Balaam laid before us precisely
The meaning of the words he spoke in prophecy,
When he said that a star would dawn,
A star that quenches all prophecies and auguries;
A star which resolves the parables of the wise,
And their sayings and their riddles,
A star far more brilliant than the star
Which has appeared, for he is the Maker of all the stars,
Of whom it was written of old, From Jacob there dawns
A little Child, God before the ages.

St John Chrysostom’s words are:

For if we learn what the star was, and of what kind, whether it was one of the common stars, or strange and quite unlike the others, and whether it was a natural star or a star in appearance only, we shall easily know all the other things too. From where will these things be clear? From the texts themselves. Thus, that this star was not an ordinary one, or rather not a star at all, in my opinion, but some invisible power transformed into this appearance, is in the first place evident from its course. For not one of the stars moves like this, but whether you take the sun, or the moon, or all the other stars, we see them going from east to west; but this one was carried from north to south – for Palestine lies south of Persia. Next, one can also see this from the time. For it does not appear at night, but at midday, while the sun is shining; and no a star can do this, not even the moon. For when the sun appears the moon immediately disappears. But this star overcame even the beams of the sun by its own splendour, appearing brighter than them. Thirdly, from its appearing, and disappearing. For on their journey to Palestine it appeared leading them, but after they reached Jerusalem, it hid itself. But when they had left Herod and were about to leave, it shows itself; all of which is nothing like the motion of a star, but of some highly rational power. It did not even have a direction of its own, but when they moved, it moved; when they stopped, it stopped, like the pillar of the cloud for the Israelites. Fourthly, one can see this clearly, from its way of indicating. For it did not remain high up to point out the place – for they couldn’t have found it from that – but it came down and did so. For you realise that such a small space, about the size of a hut, or rather of the body of a little child, could not possibly be marked out by a star. For because of its immense height, it could not accurately indicate so confined a spot, and reveal it to those who wished to see it. And this any one may see from the moon, which is far larger than the stars, yet seems equally near every one that lives on the whole wide earth. How then, tell me, did the star point out a spot so confined, just the space of a manger and a hut, unless it left that height and came down, and stood over the very head of the young child? And this is what the evangelist was hinting at when he said, ‘The star went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was.’ Do you see then, by what a large number of proofs this star is shown not to be one of the many, nor to have shown itself according to the order of the visible creation?

Homily 6 on Matthew [PG 57:64]

Glory, O Lord, to Thy holy Nativity!

On this, the 25th day of December, we celebrate the Nativity according to the flesh1 of Our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ.

Χριστὸς γεννάται! Δοξάσατε!
Christ is born! Give ye glory!

The Nativity of Christ

Мир Божији, Христос се роди! Ваистину се роди!
Peace from God, Christ is born! Truly He is born!

“The incomprehensible and inexplicable Nativity of Christ took place according to the chronology of the Eastern Church in the year 5508 from the creation of the world, when Herod the Great was reigning in Judea. He was from Ascalon on his mother’s side and from Idumea on his father’s, and altogether a stranger to the race of Jacob, receiving his kingdom from the Emperors of Rome. He ruled over the Jewish people for 33 years. The former royal tribe of Judah had been deprived of its rights and stripped of all rule and authority. It was in these circumstances for the Jews that the expected Messiah was born, and the prophecy spoken 1807 years earlier by the Patriarch Jacob was unerringly fulfilled: ‘There will not lack a ruler from Judah, nor a leader from his loins until he for whom it is intended comes, and he is the expectation of nations’ (Gen. 49:10).

“Our Saviour was born in Bethlehem, a city of Judea, to which Joseph had gone up from Nazareth in Galilee, taking with him Mary, his espoused, who was with child, that they too might be enrolled, according to the decree that had been issued in those days from the then ruling emperor Augustus Caesar, among his subjects. When the time for the birth came, and because, and because, owing to the great numbers of people who had arrived, there was not sufficient room in the public inn, the Virgin’s condition made it necessary for her to enter a cave near Bethlehem and into a stable used for animals, where she gave birth and wrapped the babe in swaddling clothes when it was born, and laid him in a manger (Lk. 2:1.7). From this there arose the tradition that when he was born Christ was laid between two animals, an ox and an donkey. As the words of the Prophets appear also to justify: ‘In the midst of two animals you will be known’ (Hab. 3:2) and ‘The ox knows its owner and the donkey its lord’s manger’ (Is. 1:3); even though these animals are understood tropologically by the interpreters for those who believed from among the Jews and the nations, or according to another more natural understanding.

“But while the earth received the Saviour so poorly at his birth, from above heaven celebrated with magnificence his coming to save the world. Some shepherds in the region of Bethlehem, who were keeping a night watch over their sheep, were suddenly surrounded by an extraordinary light and saw before them an Angel bringing them the good tidings of the joyful birth of the Lord. And immediately, after the one Angel, they saw and heard the whole host of the heavenly Powers praising God and saying: ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good-will among men’ (Lk. 2:8-14).”

(From the Great Horologion, trans. Archimandrite Ephrem)

Also, be sure to read the 2008 Nativity Encyclical of His Holiness, Patriarch Pavle of Serbia, together with the entire episcopate of the Serbian Orthodox Church.

Greetings to all on the radiant feast
of the Nativity of Our Lord!

_____________________

Note:

1 This clumsy expression is the usual English translation of the Greek ἡ κατὰ σάρκα γέννησις, which refers, of course, to the Lord’s human birth. It must be remembered that the specification is made necessary in Greek because the Son is also said to be γεννηθέντος (i.e., begotten) of the Father (cf. the Nicene Creed’s τὸν ἐκ τοῦ Πατρὸς γεννηθέντα πρὸ πάντων τῶν αἰώνων).

Saturday à Machen: On the Miracles in the Gospels

This coming Wednesday, December 25/January 7, we will celebrate the Nativity of Our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ. As is well known, the “birth narratives” in the Gospels of St Matthew and St Luke are filled with one miraculous occurrence after another, which admittedly cause a great deal of trouble to many “modern,” “enlightened” readers. Of course, this difficulty is neither new nor peculiar to the modern age, and (as we would expect) Machen had some words to say on the subject. Today I have chosen to post the main thrust of his comments, and in later “Saturdays à Machen” I will expand on their context, which elucidates his argument.

J. Gresham Machen“. . . It may be admitted that miracles conceivably might occur. But have they actually occurred?

This question looms very large in the minds of modern men. The burden of the question seems to rest heavily even upon many who still accept the miracles of the New Testament. The miracles used to be regarded as an aid to faith, it is often said, but now they are a hindrance to faith; faith used to come on account of the miracles, but now it comes in despite of them; men used to believe in Jesus because He wrought miracles, but now we accept the miracles because on other grounds we have come to believe in Him.

A strange confusion underlies this common way of speaking. In one sense, certainly, miracles are a hindrance to faithbut who ever thought the contrary? It may certainly be admitted that if the New Testament narrative had no miracles in it, it would be far easier to believe. The more commonplace a story is, the easier it is to accept it as true. But commonplace narratives have little value. The New Testament without the miracles would be far easier to believe. But the trouble is, it would not be worth believing. Without the miracles the New Testament would contain an account of a holy mannot a perfect man, it is true, for He was led to make lofty claims to which He had no right but a man at least far holier than the rest of men. But of what benefit would such a man, and the death which marked His failure, be to us? The loftier be the example which Jesus set, the greater becomes our sorrow at our failure to attain to it; and the greater our hopelessness under the burden of sin. The sage of Nazareth may satisfy those who have never faced the problem of evil in their own lives; but to talk about an ideal to those who are under the thralldom of sin is a cruel mockery. Yet if Jesus was merely a man like the rest of men, then an ideal is all that we have in Him. Far more is needed by a sinful world. It is small comfort to be told that there was goodness in the world, when what we need is goodness triumphant over sin. But goodness triumphant over sin involves an entrance of the creative power of God, and that creative power of God is manifested by the miracles. Without the miracles, the New Testament might be easier to believe. But the thing that would be believed would be entirely different from that which presents itself to us now. Without the miracles we should have a teacher; with the miracles we have a Savior.”

(J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism [1923; reprint, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999], pages 102-104)