Monday, December 8, 2014

More than midway through the fast

And once again, I am re-reading Fr. Thomas Hopko's The Winter Pascha and finding it immensely useful. The book is well-structured for brief daily readings, and highlights both the liturgical worship and the language of the prayers of the Advent period. In particular, Fr. Tom spends a great deal of time highlighting the parallels between Advent and Great Lent, without falling into the trap of type and fulfillment language that obfuscates the real differences between the two joyous fasts.

Of particular interest in this regard is Chapter 28, entitled Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh. Fr. Tom makes a careful note of the difference in Eastern and Western theology regarding the Twelve Days of Christmas at the very beginning of this chapter (the East focusing on the Baptism of Christ, and the West on the Adoration of the Magi), before carefully analyzing the various hymns of Christmas Eve and Christmas focusing on the gifts of the Magi.

I haven't attended the Christmas Eve Vigil in English in years, and so I find this chapter is a wonderful reminder of the beautiful anticipation of Christ's birth the Magi experienced. The troparia from Compline of Christmas Eve include these two beautiful hymns:

The riddles of the soothsayers
And the diviner Balaam are now fulfilled.
For a star has dawned from Jacob,
Leading the Magi, Persian kings bringing gifts,
To the Sun of Glory.

The error of Persia has ceased,
For the stargazers, kings of the East,
Bring gifts to Christ the King of all at His birth:
Gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Bless Him, O Children, and praise Him, O priests,
Exalt Him, O people, throughout the ages.

The second hymn in particular echoes the refrain of the Song of the Three Youths, who figure prominently in the feast of the Fathers of the Old Testament: "Praise the Lord, sing and exalt Him above all the ages!"

The next hymn Fr. Tom refers to is from Matins of Nativity, and continues the theme of the pagans of the East, who symbolize the Gentiles, coming to seek Christ, and also contains further reference to the Old Testament Fathers:

The daughter of Babylon
Once led David's children captive from Zion,
Whom she had taken with the sword.
But now she sends her own children,
The Magi bearing gifts,
To beg the Daughter of David in whom God came to dwell.
Therefore let us raise up the song:
Let the whole creating bless the Lord,
And exalt Him above all forever.

Fr. Tom continues on to discuss the symbolism of the three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Gold is taken by the Church to symbolize Christ's kingship over Israel, as the Son of David. Frankincense is the sign of Christ's divinity, as frankincense is used for worship only, and only God is worthy of worship. Finally, myrrh is the solemn sign of Christ's coming crucifixion and resurrection.

In closing Chapter 28, Fr. Tom highlights the importance of the Magi as signs of the conversion of the Gentiles to the worship of God, by quoting two hymns, the first from compline on the Eve of the feast, and the second from compline on the feast:

The kings, the first fruits of the gentiles,
Bring Thee gifts at Thy birth in Bethlehem
From a mother who knew no travail.
With myrrh they point to Thy death,
With gold, to Thy royal power,
With frankincense to the preeminence of Thy divinity.

When the Lord Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judah,
Magi coming from the East
Worshipped God made man.
And eagerly opening their treasures,
They offered Him precious gifts:
Refined gold, as to the King of the ages;
Frankincense, as to the God of all;
Myrrh they offered to the Immortal One
As one three days dead.
Come all nations let us worship Him
Who was born to save our souls.


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