Title: Advent Retreat
Subject: Preparation for the Feast of the Nativity
Age: 16 + years
Liturgical Time: Advent
Doctrinal Content: Old and New Testament passages, such as Isaiah, Psalm 13, Romans, the first two Chapters of Matthew, and the Gospel of Luke.
Direct Aim: Using Holy Scripture and traditions of the Orthodox Church, we will examine elements of the narrative related to the Feast of the Nativity using Old Testament and New Testament verses.
Indirect Aim: We come to understand that Christ's birth was made necessary because of the fall. The Prophet Isaiah gave us the prophecy of light 700 years prior to Christ's birth. Through this and further scriptural passages, we will come to familiarize ourselves a little better with the purpose of Christ's birth.
Materials for the Lesson Plan
Note taking is recommended for students.
Icon of the Feast of the Nativity
Several are provided within the text.
Romans Chapter 7
Matthew Chapters 1 and 2
Begin with a prayer and welcome the students. Offer humble thoughts as we approach the celebration of the Nativity of the Lord.
The purpose of this retreat is to examine elements of the narrative related to the birth of our Savior Jesus Christ and to lift up points for consideration that I believe can be applied to our life of faith. This will be achieved by reviewing major elements surrounding the Nativity of our Lord, and in that process stop from time to time to consider points for reflection and implementation. While we speak of the narrative surrounding Jesus' birth, we will be sprinkling in ideas of how to apply the narrative to our spiritual life and formation.
For us and because of our limited scope, remarks will be confined to some brief observations that come to us from Holy Scripture and the traditions of our Holy Orthodox Church. Specifically, where in Scripture do we learn of the birth of the Messiah? We learn of the birth in Old Testament prophesies, the birth narratives of St. Matthew and St. Luke, the cosmic narrative of St. John, and in fragments contained within the Epistles. The basic message of Holy Scripture concerning the birth of Jesus Christ from the Old Testament is that a Messiah will come to deliver His people. In the New Testament, it is this anticipated event that has come to pass in the child of Mary: Jesus, who is the Christ, God's only begotten son. Note: This is not meant to be an exhaustive reflection but a cursory and simple review of the meaning of God's incarnation.
The Fall and its Consequences
Before we speak of Christ's birth, we need to go back and review the reason for it; the fall. The fall is and results in humanity's separation and alienation from God. This is a tragedy of both personal and cosmic proportions. For each of us, the fall ultimately means a loss of intimacy between each of us and our Creator, you and I between our fellow human beings, and between you and Creation. Think of these realities in terms of a relationship that has been broken, such as divorce. For the universe, the fall led to an imbalance or a distortion of God's creation. Think here in terms of disease or a hurricane.
Of course this is not God's intent, nor His desire. Even humanity questions a reality and existence that is fallen. Again, fallen meaning "broken and distorted;" more on this in a moment. At first we can consider the almost countless questions contained in the psalms and how they express the feeling that arises in man that something is amiss, something is wrong. In fact this reality is readily found in the questions of Psalm 13.
13:1 How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? 2 How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? 3 Consider and answer me, O Lord my God; light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death, 4 lest my enemy say, "I have prevailed over him," lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken. 5 But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. 6 I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me."
See how the psalmist questions his state of affairs. Also notice throughout the expectation, if not the assurance, of God's deliverance! Right before reading this psalm I mentioned the fall and the word distortion in the same sentence. It would be helpful to pause here and examine the true consequences of the fall, and the importance of recognizing the fall as a personal event!
It may not seem immediately apparent but the fall is directly connected to the birth (nativity) of our Lord. Without being too dramatic we must recognize that to fully comprehend the value and necessity of the birth of Christ, we must first understand the fall and its consequences in our own life.
Let me try and explain what I mean by using a common experience of people in the Church. In the past few years many people have come to me stating that they are indeed interested in seeking a deeper spiritual life, a fuller spiritual life, and what I think they mean is that they really want a closer relationship with God. I also think what they are after in this relationship is something pretty practical. In other words when it comes to the question of spirituality, what people want is a relationship with God that somehow changes them, and this change is what makes their life better. We could even say that what they want is a spiritual life that makes them better, inside.
Now it is important to ask ourselves, better in what sense? Better in terms of morality? Maybe that is true on the surface, but such a goal doesn't get people very far. That is to say, it is hard to sustain such a limited direction in life, a direction ultimately aimed only at moral improvement. It is in a phrase too dry and not full of life. No, I don't think that when people speak to me about improving their spirituality that all they want is to just be better on the outside, better morally speaking. No, I think this desire for greater spirituality comes from something deeper.
Here is where our need to understand the fall comes in. What happened in the fall? Basically and point blank, our humanity was deformed, broken, and disfigured. The biggest indicator of this is that we hurt others and even the ones we love, we commonly and maybe too simply call this sin. Now hopefully you realize that your ability to love "needs" work. Hopefully you have realized that you are a sinner.
To put it another way by grasping the fact that you are broken as a human being, and that you don't "work right," that something is wrong with you and you know it, deep down, you know something is amiss. You come to understand the deep reality of the fall. When this happens, really happens, you realize the need for a Savior.
Read about the struggle Paul has in Romans, Chapter 7.
But Christ's birth is not some external event that "happens" to man. In other words the rescue plan of God that begins with His incarnation or taking on flesh, does not mean our fallen humanity will be left unchanged. Rather, the birth of Christ signals a radical plan or change in the make-up of our humanity. It signals an ontological change, a shift from the old man to the new and the putting on of this new man, all those baptized in Christ have put on Christ. Through Christ, God has and is redeeming human nature, altering it, changing its course, purifying it and renewing it.
Back to the Old Testament, we find that God communicated this plan through prophecy of what was to come; His plan to rescue and redeem humanity from the reality of the fall.
We will consider only a couple of prophecies from Isaiah, the sometimes called "prophecies of light and of names" from the ninth chapter of the Book of Isaiah.
The first is Isaiah 9:2: Here we have Isaiah speaking about Jesus approximately 700 years before his birth. "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined."
The second is Isaiah 9:6: "For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government will be upon his shoulder, and his name will be called ‘Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.'"
Subsequently we should note then the fulfillment of these prophecies was found by some to have come to pass in the birth and person of Jesus Christ. We can lift up two places of note in the New Testament:
John 8:12: Here Jesus is speaking about himself. "Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.'"
Luke 2:29-32: Here we have the words of the Prophet Simeon uttered by him upon seeing and then holding the baby Jesus in the Temple. "Lord now let thy servant depart in peace, according to your word, for mine eyes have seen your salvation which thou hast prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for the glory of your people Israel."
Let us again pause and consider another valuable spiritual lesson that comes out of considering these texts of the Old Testament. Besides the alienation we spoke about that arises as the result of the fall and the flawed character of our humanity, for our purposes today I want to note two more spiritual aids to our walk.
The first I will call the value and reality of Holy Waiting. If you consider that the prophecy of Isaiah came some 700 odd years before the birth of Christ and the period of time people spent anticipating and looking for deliverance, you will get a sense of what I mean by Holy Waiting. Such a thing of waiting upon the Lord was and still is very beneficial to our spiritual development. In a sense that is what the Church does when it implements a fast period before the celebration of a feast, much like the one we enter each year on November 15, Advent. Advent mirrors that Biblical reality of waiting, of spiritual vigilance, and attention, of searching for the Messiah. Advent becomes our own wilderness that helps foster in us an eagerness and desire to see and experience the Lord's deliverance, His salvation. In a sense we have to learn to look!
The second is the spiritual ideal and need of something I would like to call, Holy Trust. This is learning to trust God and His faithfulness and to learn that He fulfills His promises and seeks our return and restoration.
Gospel of Matthew
We shall now turn our attention to the Gospel of Matthew and the narrative contained in it about Jesus' birth.
Read aloud through the first chapter of Matthew.
In chapter 1, we find at least the Genealogy of Jesus traced back to Abraham. We also find Joseph's inquiry regarding what is happening. Within this chapter I want to lift up only one thing for reflection and that is the first person listed in the genealogy of Jesus; Abraham. We know that Abraham is the father of the covenant, the initiator of the promise of deliverance, and a model of faith between God and His people. In looking at the birth of Christ this is helpful for us because we are invited to enter this covenant and this story of faith. So we need to ask ourselves, "Are we people of the covenant? Are we people of faith?" Do we accept these things and live them out in our lives? Do we see ourselves as part of God's covenant; meaning do we understand the promise of deliverance? The first thing to understand is namely, that He will redeem and change our humanity. Secondly, do we enter into this promise or covenant by accepting this promise? This is our part, what we call faith.
Continue reading aloud the second Chapter of Matthew.
Chapter 2 prompts more detailed comments on some of the verses.
Matthew 2.1: The Wise men and their star. Wise men (remember that it is from Luke that we learn about the shepherds) Now these wise men come from such a great distance whereas those that have Christ in their midst, the Jews and everyone else, ignore or miss Him. Magi, idolaters and pagans come to worship the true God! Now while we can say that their pilgrimage is a literary and literal anticipation of the Church, and the membership of the Gentiles into the covenant, I believe there still exists a serious warning for us today in this verse. Consider this incredible fact, many of those who had waited for deliverance missed the Messiah. Can the same happen to those of us today in the Church? Can we miss so great a salvation as Jesus Christ? Yes. Reasons for their missing are general but staying focused may help us clear away these difficulties. We must be focused.
Matthew 2.2: The Magi come find the king, and they come to worship Him. The Magi are astronomers, perhaps followers of Balaam? In Numbers 24.17, a Persian who prophesied of a star that would rise, "a star shall arise out of Jacob."
Matthew 2.4: Knowledge of Christ's birth comes to those to whom God chooses to reveal it.
Matthew 2.11: Think of the incredible scene. Persian kings come to worship a pauper child in a cave manger because Mary and Joseph had no home! They bring to Him:
- Gold: for a king; you pay tribute to a God whom you are subject to;
- Frankincense: we burn incense before God;
- Myrrh: symbolizing suffering and death, it is used to preserve a corpse.
The backdrop to these gifts is the Old Testament prophecy of Numbers 24.9, which reveals kingship in the lion, death in the resting, divinity in the blessing given. Let's spend a little time here speaking about their gifts and their spiritual significance:
Gold symbolizes a King. In this gift of the wise men, we see the reality of stewardship, the spiritual necessity of seeing all things as God's. I say spiritual necessity because stewardship is necessary for our spiritual health.
Frankincense, symbolizing God: Who is our God? Is Jesus really your God?
Myrrh symbolizes suffering and death, which are integral to the Christian life, death to self, the world, etc. This is necessary! Why does a priest wear black?
Further comments about the star that led these Magi: we learn that they are led by a star, yet the Church cautions against understanding this as some type of star that you and I might see in the night sky. Rather, this star is better understood as a divine and angelic power that appeared to the magi as a star, something that would have been familiar to them since they were astrologers. While we see that the star signifies the place of His birth, it also is a foreshadowing of the light Jesus will bring upon the world.
Now let's expound upon the concept of light in a little bit of greater detail. Earlier we mentioned the prophecy of light from Isaiah. However, we can also look at this idea of light in a very practical way. We know that without light nothing lives. If the sun stopped shining, life on earth would cease. We can also note that without light you can't see. In a basic sense light means life and sight.
It is no mistake that the Church placed the celebration of the Nativity of Christ in the winter near the winter solstice. As winter wears on, the days grow shorter and around the time of Christmas the opposite occurs. This natural phenomenon is paired with the spiritual phenomenon. Christ becomes that which enlivens and activates the soul, its light. We are aware that as we draw away from Christ, the light of our soul diminishes, and as we move towards Him, this light grows. But greater still we must come to understand this reality as St. Paul did when he stated, "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and delivered himself up for me." (Galatians 2.20)
Turning now to the concept of sight, we see that knowing Christ helps us to know where to walk, literally and figuratively. John 14.6 says, "I am the way, the truth, and the life." The following are typologies found in the Old Testament.Matthew 2.6: Old Testament prophecies are fulfilled. Notice however the movement, Christ comes out of Bethlehem. Christ is our Shepherd. One great critique of Jewish leaders is their devouring and poor shepherding of the people. Here is prophesied a true shepherd, see John 10.11. Remember the function of good shepherd: He lays down His life for the sheep (Parable of Good Shepherd, John's Gospel). Who does He shepherd, Israel, those who see God, whatever their race or background.
Matthew 2.12: Like Joseph, a dream guides the wise men.
Matthew 2.13: Joseph is warned in a dream (Joseph OT typology: Exodus 12.31-42).
Matthew 2.15: Old Testament fulfillment, prophecy fulfillment, Hosea 11.1
Matthew 2.16: As God used Moses to trick Pharaoh, so too, God uses the Magi to trick Herod, for both were murderers of children.
Gospel of Luke
In the first Chapter of Luke, we hear Mary's dialogue and encounter with the Archangel in verses 26-38.
Luke 1.27: A virgin, as foretold by Isaiah;
Luke 1.28: A woman full of grace! A woman blessed beyond any other.
Luke 1.29: A set of questions from Mary result in a dialogue; we can consider as a background the dialogue that had occurred between Eve and Satan. This time, however, the new Eve, Mary, engages the one speaking with her and questions them seeking to find out the origin of the message. The dialogue is so important. Now in the conversation between Mary and the angel we have a motive, Mary has a reason for her questions, and that is discovery, she is almost testing. This as an important part of the narrative because I am not sure we are in dialogue anymore with much of anything and we desperately need to re-engage.
And so, are we actively questioning the messages we receive? Are we looking to find out where they originate from like Mary did? Are they from God or not? Another way to look at this is to view this idea of dialogue through the concept of a story. Recall a common greeting, "What's your story?" It was a way of saying "hi" but it also hinted at something deeper, it is a question that probes the deeper realities that live under the surface of who we are.
What is your story? We don't usually examine our story. The narrative of Christ's birth, however, shows a young maiden who knew who she was and what was important. So questioning the story was something she did. This should lead each of us to ask: Am I able to question and examine my story? The stories we live with and lift up are so important and so we must examine them and dialogue with them. Unfortunately, we are so often trapped by our unquestioned and unexamined stories; stories of sinfulness, worthlessness, godliness, and worldliness trap us.
We need a counterpart against this, or better yet, someone we can enter into dialogue with, someone who will perhaps question us and lead us to discover a new story, maybe this story. Here we should consider two things: The story of Job (recount it in synopsis form), and Spiritual father.
Luke 1.42-43: Elizabeth's proclamation is astounding. Here is God's mother! This realization leads us to another question: what is Mary's role? How do we understand such a thing? We realize that God did not need Mary to enter into this world, but God did choose this path. In other words, God chose to involve creation, better yet, His creatures. This reflection upon the reality of Mary's role should firmly implant in us the realization of our role in the narrative of Jesus' birth. We should ask ourselves whether we are involved in our own salvation and in the birth of Jesus Christ. We do have a place. We, like Mary, can say yes or no to God! If we say yes, we can allow Him to become impregnated in our soul. We can allow Him to grow inside of us, to mature and to take shape and form. And...once fully formed in us, like Mary we can give birth to Him in the world!
Luke 1.32: Son of God; Son of David (Messianic title)
Luke 1.46-55: Mary's song.
In Luke Chapter 2, we learn of the birth of Jesus, that Christ is born!
Luke 2.5: Joseph the betrothed, our title to this day in the Church;
Luke 2.7: Manger and swaddling cloths. God is born! Here we I want to reflect upon the fact that we as human beings live within a continuous series of cycles. Within these cycles there is a linear sense of time that we develop, yesterday is the past, today is the present, and tomorrow is the future. Yet we also recognize that within the cycle of time and even within the linear reality of time, some things have an eternal dimension to them. Christ's nativity is one of these things. God is born, this happened in time and we learn to celebrate it within time, but this is also an eternal truth and reality that transcends the bonds of time. This is the difference between Chronos (chronological time) and Kairos (God's time).
We can say that if we allow it to, this event can cap or color all our understanding of time and of the reality of the universe that stands outside of time. It will then place our chronology and our kairos into a new context: The Savior is Born! The historical reality of Christ's birth then melds with our current reality, and both of them stretch into eternity. We seem to say as much in the hymn of Christmas:
"Today, the Virgin bears Him who is transcendent, and the earth presents the cave to Him who is beyond reach. Angels, along with shepherds glorify Him. The Magi make their way to Him by a star. For a new child has been born for us, the God before all ages."
The historical reality of Christ's birth conditions our present understanding of life; His birth becomes a present reality for us! And even more, this wonderful reality stretches into eternity and colors the entire universe. The question is, do we allow this eternal truth, revealed in the historical reality of Mary giving birth to the Christ child, to live within us moment by moment, day by day and forever?
Luke 2.8-20: This passage shares the experience of the shepherds with angels. Luke speaks of the simple shepherds in the fields who are visited by an angel proclaiming the Savior's birth.
Chapter 3 of Luke's Gospels is the Genealogy of Jesus, descending from Adam.
Gospel of John
The first chapter of John is an Eternal genealogy. Read the Gospel of John at home, and as you read it, ask yourself if you see this story as part of the eternal plan.
Additional Spiritual Directives
Advent is also a time for charity, prayer, and fasting. Christ is Born, Glorify Him!
End with a prayer.
Prepared by Fr. Evan Armatas