Synaxis of the Theotokos

Synaxis of the Theotokos

Among the services of our Church there is a Small Vespers assigned for the Sunday cycle. This would be served on Saturday evening, before the Great Vespers, and in monasteries the evening meal would take place between these two. Today it is rare for this to be practiced. Some of the most beautiful hymns for the Incarnation of our Lord and for the Theotokos are found at the “Lord I call” Dogmatic (otherwise known as Theotokion) of Small Vespers. As today is the Synaxis of the Theotokos for her glorification, an English translation of these hymns are being offered here.

Tone 1

Today, O Brethren, is the vigil of the Virgin, let creation leap for joy, let the nature of man exult in song; for the holy Theotokos, the undefiled treasury of virginity hath called us together. She is the reason-endowed paradise of the second Adam, the workshop of the union of the two natures, the festival of the saving reconciliation. She is the chamber in which the Word truly espoused flesh, the light cloud who bore within her body Him Who is over the Cherubim. O Christ God through her prayers do Thou save our souls.

Tone 2

O most great mystery! I behold wonders! I proclaim that which is divine: Emmanuel hath opened the gates of nature as man, and as God He hath not broken the keys of virginity. But as He entered by hearing, so He came forth from the womb in like manner. As was His Incarnation, so was His conception. He entered dispassionately and issued forth ineffably, according to the prophet who said: This gate shall remain shut, no man shall enter through it, save only the Lord God of Israel, Who hath great mercy.

Tone 3

O marvel, most great! A Virgin gives birth and the Offspring is God before the ages; the birth which was foreshadowed and accomplished beyond nature. O awesome mystery! Being contemplated, it remaineth ineffable, and being perceived it is incomprehensible. Blessed art thou, O most pure Maiden, daughter of the earthly Adam, and revealed as the Mother of God the Most High. Do thou entreat Him that our souls be saved.

Tone 4

Thou hast conceived without seed, and given birth inexpressibly, to Him Who putteth down the mighty from their thrones and exalteth the humble. Christ hath raised up the horn of His faithful, who glorify His Cross and burial, and His glorious resurrection. Therefore with never-silent songs we bless thee, O Theotokos the Mediatress of so many good things, as she who doth ever pray that our souls be saved.

Tone 5

Let us honor the precious Maiden who is worthy of God, and exceedingly more honorable than the Cherubim. For the Creator of all, desiring to become man, inexpressibly dwelt within her. O astonishing occurrences, and most glorious mysteries! Who would not marvel at hearing such; that God became man and there was no alteration in Him. He passed through the gate of virginity and no lessening was left therein, as the prophet said: No man shall ever pass through her, save only the God of Israel Who hath great mercy.

Tone 6

It is truly meet to bless thee O Theotokos, for The Creator of all entered thy most pure womb and became flesh, and neither was there a change in nature, nor was the dispensation illusory. But He received flesh from thee, with a reason-endowed soul in a union according to The Person, therefore we piously make a distinction in the two manifest natures. Him do thou pray, O pure and most holy one, to send down upon us peace and great mercy.

Tone 7

Truly awesome and ineffable is the mystery which hath come to pass in thee, O undefiled One. For the Word Who is the cause of all, beyond cause and recounting, wast incarnate by the Holy Spirit receiving flesh from thee, and His nature underwent no change. For in coming together both natures were self-existing, while single according to Person, He proceeded forth twofold in nature. Fully God and fully man, perfect in both, and each expressing their characteristic energies. For while suffering on the Cross in the flesh, He remained beyond suffering in Divinity. As man He died, again as God He hath shown Himself to be alive on the third day, laying low the might of death and delivering mankind from corruption. As the Deliverer and Saviour of our race, do thou pray Him, O Mother of God, to send down His pity upon us and great mercy.

Tone 8

How can we not call thee blessed, O Theotokos? How can we exalt in song the inaccessible mystery of thy childbearing, O most-blessed One? For the Creator of the ages and Fashioner of our nature, in pitying His own image lowered Himself through an incomprehensible self-emptying. While being incorporeally in the bosom of the Father, He dwelt within thy womb O pure One. Without change He became flesh from thee, O unwedded One, remaining God Whom He was by nature. Therefore we worship Him as perfect God and perfect man, One in twofold form, for nature was truly dual in Him. Let us all proclaim twofold natures with their own characteristics, and according to both substances we honor two energies and wills. For being of one essence with God the Father, He acts and wills of His own authority as God, and being one essence with us, He acts and wills of His own authority as man. Him do thou pray, O all-blessed One, to save our souls.

Through the prayers of His all-pure Mother may our Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on us!

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Preparation for the Nativity: Enter within

Preparation for the Nativity: Enter within

What follows is a sermon given during the Nativity Fast.

Since we are less than a month away from the feast of the Nativity, let us ponder the question of how we might acquire a deeper, more heartfelt understanding and perception of the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ in the flesh? On my first visit to the Holy Mountain I was there for the feast of the Nativity. I asked one father what one might read in order to prepare for this feast. He replied,”Rather than reading something that you think will prepare you for the feast it is more beneficial to go deeper into prayer during the fast. In this way your heart will be more receptive to the meaning of the hymnology of the feast.” This is a natural consequence because the meaning of the feast is a spiritual knowledge and spiritual knowledge is something that we experience in prayer. So let us speak a bit about developing a deeper prayer life which will help to prepare us to more fully comprehend the meaning of the Incarnation—God becoming man. Specifically let us concentrate on this particular question: How do we enter within?

As a starting point we can begin by looking at something St. Theophan the Recluse wrote concerning degrees of prayer:

There are various degrees of prayer. The first degree is bodily prayer, consisting for the most part in reading, in standing, and in making prostrations. In all these there must be patience, labor, and sweat; for the attention runs away, the heart feels nothing and has no desire to pray….

The second degree is prayer of attention: the mind becomes accustomed to collecting itself in the hour of prayer, and prays consciously throughout. The mind is focused upon the written words to the point of speaking them as if they were its own….

The third degree is prayer of feeling: the heart is warmed by concentration so that what hitherto has only been thought now becomes feeling. Where first it was a contrite phrase now it is contrition
itself; and what was once a petition in words is transformed into a sensation of entire necessity.
(p.52)

This quote of St. Theophan is from the book, “The Art of Prayer”. In the introduction to this book Bishop Kallistos writes thus about degrees of prayer thus:

1 Oral or bodily prayer 2 Prayer of the mind 3 Prayer of the heart (or ‘of the mind in the heart’): spiritual prayer.

Summarizing this threefold distinction, St. Theophan observes: “You must pray not only with words but with the mind, and not only with the mind but with the heart, so that the mind understands and sees clearly what is said in the words, and the heart feels what the mind is thinking. All these combined together constitute real prayer, and if any of them are absent your prayer is either not perfect, or it is not prayer at all.”

The first kind of prayer—oral or bodily—is prayer of the lips and the tongue, prayer that consists in reading of reciting certain words, in kneeling, standing, or making prostrations. Clearly such prayer, if it is merely oral and bodily, is not real prayer at all: besides reciting sentences it is also essential for us to concentrate inwardly on the meaning of what we say, to ‘confine our mind within the words of prayer.’ Thus the first degree of prayer develops naturally into the second: all oral prayer, if it is to be worthy of the name ‘prayer’, must be in some measure inward prayer or prayer of the mind.

As prayer grows more interior, the outward oral recitation becomes less important. It is enough for the mind to pray the words inwardly without any movement of the lips; sometimes, indeed, the mind prays without forming any words at all. Yet even those who are advanced in the way of prayer will still pray orally, but their oral prayer is at the same time an inner prayer of the mind.

It is not sufficient, however, merely to reach the second degree of prayer. So long as prayer remains in the head, in the intellect or the brain, it is incomplete or imperfect. It is necessary to descend from the head to the heart. (pp. 21-2)

So this is what it means to “enter within”, and it is this that we should hope for. In other words, we should aspire to develop interior prayer. Since such prayer empties the heart of the things of this world and it makes us receptive to God by making a place for God in our hearts. Then we can acquire a spiritual knowledge of the feast by pondering the hymns of the Church for the Nativity. May these hymns touch our hearts this year in a deeper way than ever before, and if this takes place then each of us in our own little measure can perceive—as the prophet Isaiah says—that we “are taught by the Lord” (Isa. 54:13).

May God grant us to grow in the knowledge of Him and in our Wcomprehension of the great mystery of His dispensation for the salvation of mankind which was wrought through the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ to Him be glory, together with His Father Who is from everlasting and His all-good and life-giving Spirit, both now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.