Kenosis, Christmas and Christians



Whenever we reflect on Christ and who He is, we knowingly or unknowingly engage in what is formally known as Christology. Fr. Dumitru Staniloae wrote wonderfully on Christology in the third volume of his dogmatic theology series entitled “The Experience of God.” In chapter four of this volume “The Person of Jesus Christ as God and Savior”, just three sentences of Staniloae’s writing make it clear how closely our salvation is tied to a proper understanding of Christology. He writes:

“Christ would not save us were He to manifest Himself as purely divine through the divine nature’s attributes and actions toward us, and as purely human through his human nature’s attributes and actions. In both cases He would not raise His human nature to cooperation for its salvation and ours. Moreover, in both cases He would remain, as God, inaccessible to us, and then the two natures in His Person would remain unknown and ineffective.”

This brief passage succinctly captures what lies behind the mystery of the Incarnation of Christ. As perfect God and perfect Man, our salvation is possible. In contrast, errors in Christology lead to a break between the deep union of theosis (deification) which come to us through Christ’s Incarnation. Thus, focusing on the intersection between Christ’s two Natures united in One Person leads us to consider some critical truths which are the focus of this essay; namely, the kenosis of Christ, His sinlessness, His connection to His Mother, and the implications of these three concepts. By meditating upon who Christ is, we can come closer to seeing what He has done in becoming Man for our salvation.

The second chapter of the Letter to the Philippians arguably contains the most distilled passage on the doctrine of kenosis, or self-emptying, of Christ. In verses five through eleven St. Paul writes:

“Have this mind among yourselves, which was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

In many ways, a more vivid means to see His self-emptying is seen through reading of His life in the Holy Gospels. When we see Him hungry, weeping, wounded, and dying, we tremble to consider how real His humanity is. How can God suffer through all of this? And yet the Byzantine tradition considers the moment of His Passion to be the most apt place to bestow upon Him the title of “the King of Glory”. Kenosis becomes the ability to see the glory of Christ most clearly, because it is precisely at the time of emptying and losing His life that our salvation and union with Him is accomplished.

In the context of Christ’s self-emptying, we understand that He maintains His divinity at every moment. A key way to reinforce that His divinity is present in the midst of Christ’s suffering as man is to meditate upon the key Christological affirmation that Christ remained sinless even during that suffering. The Epistle to the Hebrews makes the importance of Christ’s sinlessness clear when the author states:

“Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sinning. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” Hebrews 4:14-16

Christ’s complete self-offering is seen through His sinlessness both in terms of what His priestly offering is qualitatively, and through our understanding that He has been through all forms as temptation and yet is without sin. In terms of the perfection of His offering, no aspect of Christ’s personality was withheld from the beautiful union between the human and the divine, and as such His High priestly ministry is not focused merely on His dying on the cross and rising from the grave. Instead, His offering is made perfect because He is the spotless Lamb of God, as 1 Peter 1:19 makes clear. The fullness of human nature is purified because He lived a perfectly pure life that was fully human. Thus, holding to Christ as sinless is not merely a point of dogma, but is critical to bringing about completeness to our salvation.

In addition to speaking to the quality of His offering, the sinlessness of Christ is important for our salvation through our own perspective as we look to Him for salvation. The weight of our weaknesses and failures could lead us to despair, but it is made crystal clear that Christ’s sinless life is a beacon of hope that we have a high priest who truly sympathizes with us, living His human existence in a blameless manner. In contrast, Docetism represents a Christological misunderstanding whereby Christ only appeared to be man. Were this to be true, His life on earth would not be so deeply intertwined with our temptations and sufferings. He would be perfect because He was God and not truly man. If He were perfect as God but not truly human, this sinlessness would have no bearings on our own struggles because we are humans. The Christological formulations of the Orthodox faith embrace Christ’s true divinity and true human sinlessness so that we can have hope that we can conquer our sin through our union to Christ. The Orthodox view of Christ’s sinlessness therefore makes secure our salvation in terms of what is offered, and what we experience as imperfect people. As Staniloae says, our human nature is raised, His sinlessness shows that He is not inaccessible, but is instead close to our very hearts.

Between Catholic and Orthodox Christians, there is consensus that the Incarnation brings God and Man together not just in terms Jesus Himself. Rather, the Incarnation extends to those whom He has saved. This is seen perhaps the most clearly in the participation and union that His Mother had with Him, though this also extends to all Christians. At the foot of the Cross, Our Lord spoke to His Mother and said of St. John the Theologian, “Woman, behold your Son”, and to St. John Christ says, “Behold your Mother” (John 19:26-27). While the words of the Prophet Simeon were fulfilled as a sword pierced her heart (Luke 2:35), the death and resurrection of Christ showed not only His importance in bringing out salvation, but we can also see His Mother’s role as Mother of Christ’s mystical Body, the Church.

From the Council of Ephesus’ embracing the term Theotokos to state that the Mary is truly the God-bearer, to the Second Council of Nicea stating that icons of Our Lord and the Saints can be venerated precisely because of the Incarnation, the Church’s teachings on Christ can be seen to extend to those whom He has saved. After all, those non-Catholic Christians who deny the veneration of icons would not deny venerating Christ. But perhaps that is the whole shortcoming of their thinking, in that there is an implicit individualism separating us from Christ such that He deserves veneration but the saints do not. In Byzantine spirituality, our journey of theosis is so all-pervasive that the light of Christ shines through Mary and all of the saints, because the union is complete. This incarnational union began at the Annunciation when God became man in the Virgin Mary’s womb, and thus the Mother of God occupies a special place in highlighting that when we see her suffering at the Cross and glorified in heaven, we do not become idolaters. Instead, we profess the totality of the Incarnation and the fact that Christ’s union with us extends to our lives.

The Scriptures make it clear that we participate in the salvation of not only ourselves but of others (e.g., 1 Timothy 4:16). They also make it clear that the One Mediator between God and Man is Christ (1 Timothy 2:5). When St. Paul says that he fills up on what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ (Colossians 1:24), we realize that St. Paul is either contradicting himself, or that the reductionist viewpoint that only Christ is involved in our salvation comes up short. As Staniloae says, Christ’s human nature participates in our salvation. In sharing the same nature, and receiving the divine nature through grace, Mary and all of the faithful participate in our salvation. This is why when the Byzantine Tradition prays we hear words such as the following, which come from the Troparion of the feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos: ‘O Theotokos, in giving birth you preserved virginity; and in your falling asleep you did not forsake the world. You are the Mother of Life and have been transferred to life, and through your prayers you deliver our souls from death.”

We do not shrink away from saying that the Mother of God delivers our soul from death, just as the Apostle Paul speaks of filling up on what is lacking in the suffering of Christ. In both cases, the salvific work of Christ is lived out in those united to Him, and that brings salvation through the saints to the world. Through theosis, the divine union with the human comes to the humans who partake of the divine nature, and that divine nature shines through humans like St. Paul and the Virgin Mary in a beautiful mirror image of human nature shining through the fully divine nature in Christ. Therefore, to hold to the incarnation and salvation of Christ we must see the fundamental connection between His kenosis, sinlessness, and the holiness and union that we see between Christ and His Mother. As we grow to see our union of Christ, may we like St. Paul see that our own life is called to kenosis, sinlessness, and theosis so that we may share salvation with all people. Glory to Jesus Christ!

Arianism: from Arius to Today

The earliest conciliar debate on Christology stemmed from the teachings of the Alexandrian priest Arius. In defending the exalted nature of the divinity of God, he taught that it was impossible for the Man Christ Jesus to be truly the uncreated God. While Christ’s essence could be said to be quite similar in essence (homoiousios) to that of the invisible God, Arius would not agree that Christ as Son of God and God the Father had the same essence (homoousios). Like subsequent controversies, it can be argued that Arius was coming at Christology from a good motivation of defending the holiness of God, but he had neglected to appreciate the Incarnation as the mystery that it is. Others might defend the divinity of Christ to the exclusion of fully embracing His humanity, but ultimately the challenge of Arianism was to believe that one born of a Virgin could not also be the eternal God. He failed to see that the immortal God could become Man and die as a mortal man. By examining the debate over Arianism and seeing its ripples down to the present day, we will see the importance of the Incarnation not merely for theological accuracy and rigor, but in order to appreciate our salvation which is achieved through theosis.

O’Collins’ Christology lays out the topic of Arianism with a Scriptural and historical perspective that puts the debates about Christ into context. He notes that Athanasius, in writing against the Arians, provides a snapshot of the key texts in the Bible which were used to question whether the Son of God was truly God, as Orthodox teachers such as Athanasius held. O’Collins then goes on to discuss some of the pivotal references to Scripture that the Orthodox used to counter the passages found in Contra Arianos, both in Athanasius’ day and later as new Christological controversies emerged. First, let us consider the key passages used to support Arius and his followers’ claims. From the Old Testament, we have Christ foreshadowed as the Wisdom of God who says of Himself in Proverbs 8:22, ‘the Lord created/begot/possessed me at the beginning of his work’. The Hebrew is clearly somewhat ambiguous (hence the multiple English words placed as potential ways to translate ‘begot’) but if Christ is truly the Wisdom of Proverbs, and if begetting includes an act of creation, Christ would be created.

Further, the New Testament references appealed to by the Arians seemed to place Christ in the light of being created. Acts 2:36 states God “has made Jesus…both Lord and Christ”, implying that Jesus became something that He was not, when He was made Lord and Christ by God’s act. Hebrews 1:4 points out that Christ has “become so much better than the Angels”, again hearkening to words of change and growth. Colossians 1:15 echoes the idea of Christ as created by calling Him the “firstborn over all creation”. The word firstborn was used to advocate that His existence as begotten made Him not eternal, but created. The Church would ultimately convene at Nicea in 325 and at the council profess that Christ is “begotten, not made, one in essence [homoousios] with the Father”. But we have also seen that the Scriptures cited above might seem to cast doubt on this. How did the Orthodox teachers combat those Scriptures? O’Collins argues that it is largely through the full context of Scriptures not quoted by Arians.

One chief aspect of the Scriptures that points to Christ as uncreated deals with the clause in the Symbol of Faith that comes just after the famous homoousios profession, in that we state it is Christ “through whom all things were made”. The Creed codifies this from a dogmatic perspective, but the Scriptures are the foundation of the Creed and they testify to this creative aspect of Christ in passages such as 1 Corinthians 8:6 which says that all things exist through Christ, and it is through Him that we live. Of His humility which would be pointed out by Arians in passages such as John 14:28 which says that ‘The Father is greater than I’, the Orthodox teachers would point out that this was speaking of His human nature. To support their position, they would refer to Philippians 2:9-11, which says that He humbled Himself despite not considering it robbery to be equal with God. His subordination was willing, because he took the form of a bondservant. And even more importantly, Athanasius and his followers would ask the Arians to explain how it is that Christ was made equal to God multiple times in Scripture, particularly with the Gospel of John when Christ says things such as ‘I and the Father are one’ in John 10:30.

Taken together, the Orthodox position against the Arian view would see the Father and the Son as ultimately one, but that in becoming Man Christ humbled Himself in an act of self-emptying, which is the word kenosis in Greek. The Arians were stressing the passages of Scripture that spoke of kenosis in becoming Man and suffering, to the exclusion of the passages which upheld His unchanging divinity. Athanasius and his successors in the Orthodox faith embraced all of the Scriptures in professing Christ to be truly God and Man. Synthesizing these references and arguments together, we can return to the Symbol of Faith and see how eloquent it is when it speaks of Christ in His being as “One Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God the only-begotten, born of the Father before all ages. Light from light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, one in essence with the Father; through whom all things were made”.
Once the Creed was completed at the First Ecumenical Council of Constantinople in 381, this did not eliminate controversies over whether Christ is truly God (not to mention all of the other controversies). Arians persisted in parts of the world as a formal sect out of communion with the Orthodox Catholic Church, but of course we can turn from history to consider Arianism as it exists in the world today. First, we can consider those sects not linked through succession from Arians, but they would agree with the tenet that Christ was created and is not God, being one of the Holy Trinity, glorified with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Key examples of this include Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Scientists, Islam, and more. It is true that particularly with the groups above which call themselves Christians, there will be much of the same Scriptural argumentation about Christ subordinating Himself to the Father, and the like. To counter them we can follow the lead of Fathers such as Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria. But are there other ways in which Arianism still exists outside the bounds of formal doctrinal disagreements? Is there such a thing as ‘functional Arianism’? I would argue that this is indeed the case.

One example of Arianism comes to us from semantic sloppiness. For example, many times I have heard Christians who may say that they believe in the Trinity but then say that the Father is God, the Son is the Son of God, and the Spirit is something or some One completely unknown to them. Calling the Father God is not the problem, it is when the divinity of Christ and the Holy Spirit is somewhat secondary to the divinity of the Father. How can this be dealt with? Byzantine spirituality is one key way to unsettle any notion of unintentional Arianism. Our prayers so often say things such as “May Christ, Our true God…”, or “O, Christ God, bless the food”. I even once had Roman Catholics try to ‘correct’ a blog post because I wrote “Christ God” in the context of a sentence. The principle of lex orandi, lex credendi (the law of praying is the law of believing) shines out in the light of the way that we continually emphasize Christ as God in Byzantine prayers.

Perhaps even more challenging to us is a form of Arianism that comes to us from the heart. We may sing the Symbol of Faith with gusto but there are many times that we look at the world and despair, as though nothing can be done to change the way things are. If we saw the world with eyes of faith, that would not be the case. But if we see Christ as only a man as functional Arians do, there is a sense in which we have lost the meaning of who God is. If God is not both divine and human in my own life, what hope for change is there? Again, to see Christ as God with our hearts, we need the prayer of the heart. The Jesus Prayer is one central aspect to finding our way and not losing hope. By continually invoking Him as Lord and Son of God, Jesus Christ will have mercy on us and on the whole world. This element of ‘Arianism’ is subtle and while not a formal heresy, may be the most important aspect of understanding who Christ is. We may profess what is true with our lips but if our hearts are not in harmony with our words, the beauty of Truth will not fully permeate our being. By meditating on the Arian controversy, we see the magnificence of God and His love for us as he became Man. By praying as Orthodox Christians, that glory of divinity can enter our lives. Glory to Jesus Christ!

Work Cited
O’Collins SJ, Gerald. Christology: A Biblical, Historical and Systematic Study of Jesus. Oxford University Press, 2009 pp 165-168.

St. Acacius and Love


On July 7th, one Saint commemorated in the Byzantine Christian Calendar is St. Acacius, who is mentioned in the Ladder of Divine Ascent.

The OCA website has a short but beautiful summary of his life, here is the link:


In our world there is a focus on offending others, which can be beneficial from one perspective. We do not want to hurt our neighbors, after all! But I would ask-do we hurt ourselves when we continuously find reasons for offense? Have we missed forgiveness in this sensitivity to offense? Does it make us unable to love when we are wounded? If so, we may have missed an even deeper opportunity to love than in the world where no one offends another (assuming such world would even be possible).

With St. Acacius, we may have an example to consider. We may find his life shocking. He was mistreated by his spiritual father to the point of death without complaining. He was  miraculously raised from the dead to continue to show respect to the same monk who mistreated him, saying that he could not be silent if he was called upon. And so his dead body spoke to continue a life of love, despite no love shown to him.

This led to a beautiful remorse and repentance by his spiritual father, and his life of love brought a reconciliation to all of the hurts that Acacius endured.

The persistent love and obedience in the face of such offense is scandalous. We could consider him quite masochistic for enduring this. But I think that scandal is the exact place where we see his love, which was not contingent on his surroundings. As the love of God is present even as we turn away from Him, St. Acacius continued to love regardless of how he was treated.

May we seek to revel in this love! May God grant it to us when minuscule trials come our way. So often we speak out and react to the smallest things, and yet St. Acacius’ obedient silence in life and his obedient words in death can still our worries and heal not only our own wounds, but the wounds of those who have hurt us. That may be the deepest therapeutic, far above any feelings of justice that come from retribution.


I pray that deep love of St. Acacius fill our hearts to love no matter what we face. It is, I would argue, the surest way to be kept safe from the spirit of retaliation and frustration that seems ubiquitous in our world today.


Glory to Jesus Christ!



St. Porphyrios and the Nightingale-II

Glory to Jesus Christ!

(Or, if you’re on the older calendar)

Christ is Risen!

It has been 3 months since I posted on here. Some of that can be attributed to busyness but as I look back on the postings on here, the most recent one speaks volumes to me and I had promised to let it simmer.

St. Porphyrios and his meditation on the nightingale spoke to me very deeply.

I think of our world and our words, and we can say so many things to create clouds and fogs which can hide our true hearts from ourselves, our neighbor, and Our Lord. Thinking of the simple prayer of song that emanates from a tiny bird, I hold in contrast my own life and I see so much waste. So many jokes thrown out to not look vulnerable. So much posturing to demonstrate my knowledge when I am actually feeling doubt. So much pride cast under the guise of seeking sympathy. So much strength (conversely) shown when I am wanting to admit weakness. And as those shares/words/comments/posts/likes/emojis are racked up, my real sense of life in this world is obscured. I forget who it was who opened up to me, and I forget the people to whom I am honest.


And in this sense of futility, I return to the nightingale. His song in solitude seems futile but it is anything but futile. Even if no human hears him, he knows his song and it is his true voice. This is my goal in my walk in this life. There have been so many words that are said for so many untrue reasons. It makes it so clear that if I would but focus on my own song that has come from my Creator, that even if I were to have no one hear me I would be so much more fulfilled than a world of provocations.


Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a Sinner.

St. Porphyrios, a Nightingale, and Me

My heart has been very moved by a passage from Wounded by Love, the Life and Wisdom of Saint Porphyrios. It speaks to so much of my own life and the world around me that for this post I would like to invite you in to hear his wonderful story of one lone nightingale. Please let it sink deep into your heart, I know that I am trying to do the same. Holy Father Porphyrios, pray to God for us!

One morning I was walking alone in the virgin forest. Everything, freshened by the morning dew, was shining in the sunlight. I found myself in a gorge. I walked through it and sat on a rock. Cold water was running peacefully beside me and I was saying the prayer. Complete peace. Nothing could be heard. After a while the silence was broken by a sweet, intoxicating voice singing and praising the Creator. I looked. I couldn’t discern anything. Eventually, on a branch opposite me I saw a tiny bird. It was a nightingale. I listened as the nightingale trilled unstintingly, its throat puffed out to bursting in sustained song. The microscopic little bird was stretching back its wings in order to find power to emit those sweetest of tones, and puffing out its throat to produce that exquisite voice. If only I had a cup of water to give it to drink and quench its thirst!

Tears came to my eyes – the same tears of grace that flowed so effortlessly and that I had acquired from Old Dimas. It was the second time I had experienced them.

I cannot convey to you the things I felt, the things I experienced. I have, however, revealed to you the mystery. And I thought, ‘Why does this tiny nightingale produce these songs? Why does it trill like that? Why is it singing that exquisite thought? Why, why, why…why is it bursting its throat? Why, why, for what reason? Is it waiting for someone to praise it? Certainly not. No one there will do that.’ So I philosophized to myself. This sensitivity I acquired after the experience with Old Dimas. Previously I didn’t have it. What did that nightingale not tell me! And how much did I say to it in silence: ‘Little nightingale, who told you that I would pass by here? No one comes here. It’s such an out-of-the-way place. How marvelously you unceasingly carry on your duty, your prayer to God! How much you tell me, and how much you teach me, little nightingale! My God, how I am moved. With your warbling, dear nightingale, you show me how to hymn God, you teach me a thousand things beyond number…’

My poor health does not allow me to narrate all this to you as I feel it. A whole book could be written about it. I loved that nightingale very much. I loved it and it inspired me. I thought, ‘Why it and not me? Why does it hide from the world and not me?’ And the thought entered into my mind that I must leave, I must lose myself, I must cease to exist. I said to myself, ‘Why? Did it have an audience? Did it know I was there and could hear it? Who heard it as it was bursting its throat in song? Why did it go to such a hidden location? But what about of all these little nightingales in the middle of the thick forest, in the ravines, night and day, at sunset and sunrise? Who heard their throat-bursting song? Why did they go to such secret places? Why did they puff out their throats to bursting?’ The purpose was worship, to sing to their Creator, to worship God. That’s how I explained it.

I regarded all of them as angels of God, little birds that glorified God the Creator of all and no one heard them. Yes, believe me, they hid themselves so that no one would hear them. They weren’t interested in being heard; but there in solitude, in peace, in the wilderness, in silence, they longed to be heard, but by whom? None other than by the Maker of everything, the Creator of all, by Him who gave them life and breath and voice. You will ask, ‘Did they have consciousness? What am I to say?’ I don’t know if they did it consciously or not. I don’t know. These, after all, are birds. It may be, as Holy Scripture says, that today they live and tomorrow exist no more. We mustn’t think differently from what Holy Scripture says. God may present to us that all these were angels of God. We don’t know about these things. At all events they hid themselves that no one would hear their doxology.

So it is also for the monks there on the Holy Mountain; their life is unknown. You live with your elder and you love him. Prostrations and ascetic struggles are all part of daily life, but you don’t remember them, nor does anyone ask about you, ‘Who is he?’ You live in Christ; you belong to Christ. You live with everything and you live God, in whom all things live and move – in whom and through whom…you enter into the uncreated Church and live there unknown. And although you devote yourself in prayer to your fellow men, you remain unknown to all men, and perhaps they will never know you.

From Offering to the Great Entrance and Back Again


Fr. Ephrem Lash gave a riveting lecture on the Divine Liturgy entitled “Translating The Liturgy: Was there a Great Entrance at the Last Supper?” (1) In it, he points out vividly that aspects of our liturgical life of offering bread and wine to become the Body and Blood of Christ grew organically from a background that began with the Last Supper, and he shows that this does not mean that each component of the Divine Liturgy today was present even in an embryonic sense at the Last Supper. If we consider the Byzantine liturgy, the Great Entrance is a momentous occasion, so much so that Patriarch Eutychius called for the Cherubic hymn to be sung to counterbalance any notion that the bread and wine carried in the procession were already consecrated before the Anaphora (2). And despite the fact that the Last Supper brought the Eucharist to the world for the first time, it would be anachronistic to believe that there was a Great Entrance at the Last Supper, as the rhetorical question in the lecture title drives home so poignantly. Despite not being as ancient as the Eucharist itself, we will consider the development of the Great Entrance to understand the benefits and potential pitfalls of this practice.

As the liturgy developed in the first centuries of the Church, we read that “[t]he people, both in East and west, brought the bread and wine for the Eucharist.” (3) In the East “they handed in their offerings on the way to the Church, either at a table near the door, or in a small room specially provided near the entrance.” (4) Our understanding of the Eucharist as an offering from our own lives to bring the life of Christ to the Church and the world was clearly connected to this action of the faithful providing the bread and the wine, and to a partial extent this continues to this day with the faithful who prepare Prosphora in Byzantine parishes. As practical considerations brought more specialization to the Church, the place where the bread and wine were kept for the Anaphora changed. First, there was a transition from a table or small room to the Skeuphylakion, a separate building that stored the gifts of bread and wine which would be selected by deacons for the liturgy. Despite having its own building, the liturgy in Constantinople during the time of St. John Chrysostom did not have a Great Entrance as we know it. Wybrew states that “it is reasonably clear that in Chrysostom’s time the gifts were brought in by the deacons from wherever they had been left by the people and that this transfer was effected in a simple manner…accompanied by neither chant nor ceremonial.” (5) Thus, the transfer of the gifts from the Skeuphylakion to the altar began without ceremony, despite the current hymns and rubrics for the Great Entrance.

By 392, however, Theodore of Mopsuestia recounts at length about the awe and wonder of the same basic practice of bringing the gifts to the altar (6). Meditating upon the reality of the offering of Christ, the symbolism of His suffering, death, anointing and burial became integrally part of the Great Entrance. The ceremonialism that was not present in the early 300s emerges later in the century, and became so profound that Patriarchs chided those who held that the bread and wine were already consecrated, the Cherubic hymn was instituted, and the rite of Prothesis at the side altar came to replace the Skeuphylakion (7), which would have its own solemnity and symbolism to provide a context that would make sense of how we treat the gifts as special even prior to their consecration. Taken together, the progression away from simple actions in the earliest centuries of Church History reached a pinnacle of contrast where a rite before the procession was instituted providing symbolism pointing to Christ’s birth, the rite of procession at the Great Entrance was established to consider the suffering, death and Burial of Christ as well as the angelic powers worshipping the life-creating Trinity, ultimately leading to His Resurrection from the dead at the Anaphora and vivifying His people through reception of His Body and Blood at the Holy Eucharist.

On the one hand, we can be grateful to God for this development over the centuries. Hearing the prayers of the Prothesis (if they are audible and intelligible) can provide an excellent context of what is to be celebrated before the liturgy commences. By considering the prayers from this rite that hearken to the birth of Christ, and by seeing the great company of angels and saints surrounding Christ, we are drawn into the mystical realities of heaven, where the praise of God never ceases. In adding particles to the diskos for the faithful departed, our hearts swell with hope and prayers for those we have lost. Tying this together with the same gifts that are then solemnly carried through the nave of the Church and through the Royal doors at the Great Entrance, we are swept into the drama of the Passion, and the words of the Anaphora remind us that after death there is life. And as that life comes to the faithful who partake of it (or are blessed with the words, “Save Your People, O God, and bless Your inheritance”), the reality of Resurrection and life that is beyond the grave is embossed on our souls. In many ways, this experience emphasizes the reality of the life of Christ in the drama of salvation in a way that a liturgy which is not formalized can never do.
On the other hand, the formalization that comes to us through liturgical developments suffers the possibility of missing out on the personal connection to the offering that was seen more clearly in the early practice of the Church. As mentioned above, some parishioners may serve their congregations through preparing prosphora. Nevertheless, the majority of the people do not participate in this reality, and if that is the case there are many faithful who may not connect themselves to that which is offered in the Eucharist. The modern Byzantine rite may point us to Christ, but how do the faithful connect with this reality by seeing themselves in the liturgy?

I would argue that a balanced approach of understanding what Christ did for us and understanding what we do to unite ourselves to Christ and His Church in the liturgy is the key to the most ideal perspective. We must be able to see that we are part of the offering to God, and at the same time we must grasp how Christ offers Himself through our offerings to God. In so doing, we plumb the depths of the mystery of our salvation more clearly than an either/or perspective. Instead, we will see Christ’s priestly ministry and outstretched arms that seek to save us, and at the same time we will appreciate that our own efforts are part of the synergistic movement towards life everlasting. In so doing, we grasp the fullness of salvation and see the drama of its unfolding in our day to day lives. Glory to Jesus Christ!

Works Cited
1. Lash, Fr. Ephrem
2. Wybrew, Hugh. The Orthodox Liturgy, SVS Press 1990, page 82
3. Wybrew, page 20
4. Wybrew, page 20
5. Wybrew, page 52
6. Wybrew, page 53
7. Wybrew pp. 54, 55, 84, 109, 110, 154, 155-7

The Mystical View of the Scriptures in the Akathist to the Theotokos

The richness of the Byzantine liturgical life of prayer has overwhelmed many, particularly those of us who are tasked with leading singing the multitude of services and musical tones that undergird it. The principle of lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi dictates that the prayer life of the Byzantine faithful will also influence perspective and faith in the Scriptures. From a Biblical perspective, there is a deeper foundation beyond the musical complexity of the Byzantine rite that can be a blessing to anyone with ears to hear and eyes to see. This Biblical foundation is so central and yet so often overlooked that at many times one may spend a great deal of time ignorant of its depths and splendor. By reflecting upon some of the Biblical references in the Akathist hymn, I argue that the Bible is deeply foundational to the mystical perspective which pervades Byzantine spirituality.



The Akathist hymn to the Theotokos is attributed to St. Romanos the Melodist, who is said to have composed it in the 6th century. This hymn leads those who pray it through the life of the Mother of God and the prophetic foreshadowing of her life from the Annunciation to the Birth of Christ. Why does this matter in terms of Scriptural interpretation? As we shall see, the mystical viewpoint of the Byzantine Christian Tradition comes to life in this hymn. Parallels between the Old and New Testaments are made in ways that seem shocking to the perspective that literal Biblical fulfillment is the height of good exegesis. Instead, the perspective of Old Testament fulfillment and interpretation is centered upon mystical foreshadowing that is larger than the strict message of a given text. For the purpose of this essay, we will reflect on the sixth Kontakion and Ikos, which are below (online source: .

Kontakion 6 Having become God-bearing heralds, the Magi returned to Babylon. Fulfilling Your prophecy, and having preached You as the Christ to all, they left Herod as a trifler, who knew not how to chant: Alleluia.
Ikos 6 Having shed the light of truth in Egypt, You expelled the darkness of falsehood; and unable to bear Your strength, O Saviour, her idols fell; and they that were set free from them cried to the Theotokos: Rejoice, Uplifting of men. Rejoice, Downfall of demons. Rejoice, you who trampled upon the delusion of error. Rejoice, you who censured the deceit of the idols. Rejoice, Sea which drowned the symbolic Pharaoh. Rejoice, Rock which refreshed those thirsting for life. Rejoice, Pillar of fire, guiding those in darkness. Rejoice, Protection of the world, more spacious than a cloud. Rejoice, Nourishment, successor to manna. Rejoice, Minister of holy joy. Rejoice, Land of promise. Rejoice, you from whom flows milk and honey. Rejoice, O Unwedded Bride.

First, let us note that the kontakion provides the context of the rejoicing in the subsequent Ikos. In the midst of the narrative of the Annunciation and Nativity, we reflect in the 6th section upon the Magi departing from Bethlehem in a new direction. Instead of going back towards Herod, they perceive his unbelief and journey to Egypt. The Ikos too then focuses on Egypt and speaks to the Mother of God in the light of her being the Mother, as well as in relation to the people of the Old Testament. While it is true that she sojourned there with the young infant Jesus and His foster father Joseph, the words relating her to Egypt and salvation in general shed light on the Byzantine view of Scripture.

After describing the Theotokos in general terms indicating that she brings light and salvation ultimately through her Son, the Ikos places her into the contexts of the Exodus of Moses and His people from Egypt. This key section of the Ikos proclaims that Mary is a great variety of salvific events and supernatural things from the Exodus account. In sum, she is called the sea that drowned the symbolic Pharaoh (Exodus 14:28), the Rock which brought forth water (Exodus 17:6), the pillar of fire which guides those in darkness (Exodus 13:21), the protection of the world that is symbolized by the cloud (Exodus 13:21), the successor to manna (Exodus 16:4), the minister who brought joy (here the connection is somewhat unclear to Exodus, likely Moses and/or Aaron), and lastly the Promised Land that flowed with milk and honey (Exodus 3:17).

There is so much that can be said about this mystical perspective on the book of Exodus given to us in the Akathist. We are given explicit terms such as “symbolic Pharaoh” and “successor to manna” which look beyond the times of Moses and his people to consider how the Old Testament is fulfilled through Christ and His Mother. At the same time we hear about terms such as the rock and the pillar in unqualified terms as though Christ and His Mother were present in Egypt during the times of Moses; this is less difficult to consider with Christ as the Eternal God, as compared to His Mother. What is this hymn teaching us through its own “lex orandi”? From these titles given to the Mother of God, we see that the nature of Old Testament fulfillment in the New Testament is not linear. We do not look at the Exodus event and attempt to find multiple means of protection and salvation in the Akathist’s rejoicing. In other words, John the Baptist is not the Sea, Mary is not the rock, Joseph is not the pillar, Jesus is not the manna, and heaven is not the Promised Land, in this narrative at least. Instead, we are praying to and focused on one person in all of the imagery, and the Theotokos is seen as the entire bridge from Egypt to the Promised Land for the people of God led by Moses, with all of the distinct aspects of each title that she receives in her Motherhood of Christ and His Body, the Church.

In terms of the first title, she is the one who defends and even destroys the Pharaoh who attacks us. As a rock flowing with water, successor to manna, land flowing with milk and honey, she is the one who nourishes us. As a pillar of fire by night and cloud by day, she is our guide and shelter who takes us through our wanderings and journeys towards the Promised Land. As a minister, she leads and instructs us, as did Moses and Aaron (and their successors). And as Promised Land itself, she is our home.

This vision painted by just one of the Ikoi in the Akathist gives us a sense that as we read the Scriptures, we encounter salvation in a multifaceted sense. We do not look for one to one correspondence between Old and New Testaments, nor do we necessarily need to consider all things typology. Instead, we can be wise and see parallels between Old and New Testaments as we pray. And when we read the stories from the Old Testament which may seem difficult to compare to our life in Christ, we can pause and be silent if we have not been given eyes to see by the liturgical tradition which nourishes us, or through prayer and beseeching the Holy Spirit.
In conclusion, the greatness of the Byzantine Tradition is that its complexity offers the one who prays with it a wealth of inspiration. Taking the Akathist as one example, we can approach the Bible with a mystical eye that sees hidden treasures that are brought forth as we think about how the Old and New Testaments compare to one another. We can see Christ and His Mother in so many aspects of the salvation of Israel, and thus in our own salvation. Space cannot allow us to also consider other aspects where these comparisons are made in the rest of the Akathist hymn, or the ways that the lectionary’s readings for Vespers paints a similar picture between the Old and New Testaments, or the way in which Psalms are chosen for Feasts, Vespers, Matins, the Hours, and the like. In each of these, the point is reinforced: the Bible is applicable to all of our life, and we only need to enter into this wealth of beauty with eyes of faith to grasp it.