The season has changed, we have entered into the Nativity Fast; the spiritual atmosphere has become different. What is taking place is not just outward. Of course, we see the colors in Church change; we temporarily abstain from certain foods; and we already hear the joyous news that “Christ is born!” However, these outward changes are simply a natural expression of the change which is taking place within us.
By the Holy Spirit, we—as One Body—are entering into the longing of the ancient Prophets. Not only our bodies, but also our souls are entering into a fast, we have been translated into that great yearning to be united and filled with God which the Prophets of old experienced. Historically and in truth, Christ is already born! Yet we must enter, by the grace of God, into that same inner experience which our Fathers in the Faith experienced before the time of Christ.
The Nativity Fast prepares us to receive Christ, and reveals within us a strong, deep-seated and unquenchable yearning, which rises up out of the deepest parts of our soul from some inner depth which we did not even know existed within us. A mighty longing and thirsting for God has gripped our whole being; this is an irrevocable longing, something innate within every human heart; it is part of the image of God in which we have been made, which always teaches us without words that we came from God, that we belong to God, and that we must ever seek God and be ever-filled with God.
We have entered a season of preparation; but what is it that we are preparing for? We are not just preparing to hear of Good Tidings of great joy. We are not just preparing to experience that strong and serene gladness of the soul which cheers every human heart with its warmth during the Christmas season. We are preparing—with all the Old Testament Saints—to receive Christ into our selves.
No ancient prophet fully understood how it was that God would effect mankind’s salvation. The Lord only gave shadows and prophecies and signs, intimating that “a Virgin shall give birth to Emmanuel!”
This prophecy is at the heart of the Kursk-Root Icon, which is based upon the ancient style of icons of the Mother of God known as “The Sign,” which specifically refers to this prophecy. She is shown with the Christ Child inside her and is lifting up her hands in intercession.
It is no coincidence that this Icon of the Sign meets us today during the Nativity Fast, as we prepare for the grace of the spiritual Feast of Christ’s incomprehensible Incarnation. The very first hymns which were sung in honor of this Icon last night ask the Mother of God to “reveal the sign of her mercy unto us!”
What is this sign? Isaiah’s prophecy says: “Ask for thyself a sign of the Lord thy God, in the depth or in the height. And Ahaz said: I will not ask, neither will I tempt the Lord. And He said: Hear ye now, O house of David; is it a little thing for you to contend with men? And how do ye contend against the Lord? Therefore the Lord Himself shall give you a sign: Behold! A Virgin shall conceive in the womb, and shall bring forth a Son, and thou shalt call His name Emmanuel!”
Of course we know the mystery which is being spoken of here; it speaks of the Virgin birth of God. However, more than that, it speaks of the birth of God within our barren souls. In the Canon for the Forefeast of Nativity we hear the words: “O human nature, devoid of all the virtues, rejoice and dance! For Christ cometh to be born in the flesh of the Virgin, that He might show thee to be right fruitful in good works!”
We will not only hear these words on the eve of Nativity, but we will enter within their reality. But now we pray to the Mother of God in the words of the Canon for this present Feast: “O all-blessed Mistress, sever our evil passions at the root, implanting in us good habits, setting out a garden of virtues in us, and vouchsafing us to be partakers of the life of Paradise!” To pray like this and to suffer our own bareness of soul is the true path to theology, and the only path which allows us to enter, through labor and sorrow, into the joyous life of God, that we might know Him by experience. No book and no degree can bequeath this, but only the living experience of the Church.
Now we may experience the emptiness, the dryness, the darkness and bareness of our souls. Now we may see and feel that great chasm and abyss of spiritual death which we have formed between ourselves and God through our fall into sin. Now we may see that great gulf fixed between us and heaven, and ourselves languishing in dark hades, without comfort or hope.
But a ray of light shines forth to us today, a sign of God’s mercy; with our whole heart and mind we hear it: “A Virgin shall give birth!” Not just Mary, but each and every one of us will give birth to Christ. A barren womb shall give birth! But not only that, our barren souls shall also give birth to Christ, even if it seems impossible.
Not just one who has not known a man shall give birth, but also we who have not yet known the grace of the God-Man in full—we too shall give birth. We do not dare ask God for signs; yet He Himself has already prepared for us the greatest sign: “A Virgin shall give birth!” “Rejoice thou barren that bearest not! Leap forth with joy, for many are the children of the desolate than of her that hath a husband!”
So it is with the Mother of God; and so it is with our barren souls. St. Symeon the New Theologian says that—while there is indefinitely one unique Theotokos, who is much more exalted than all the angels and saints, yet—we, through her mediation, are called to become theotokoi: God-bearers, ones who give birth to God.
Of course our intentions are impure. Of course we have warring thoughts. Of course we have sinful passions. Of course we have failings and sins. But God is greater than all of these.
No set of rules, no one commandment, not even the most prophetic word of consolation was enough to heal the most deep wound of fallen human nature. Therefore, the Lord took it upon Himself to become a Man, and to fill our nature with His Godhead!
The unspeakable longing which we sense growing within our soul during this season of preparation is that irrevocable natural longing which is a part of us forever, that which has come forth from God and is going back to Him. Let us seek to cast away everything which hinders us from fully laying hold of this longing. If we turn to it, and if we take it in the hands of our hearts, and turn it consciously towards God with our feeble words and small cries of prayer, then it will become a mighty arrow which we can hurl straight into the heart of our most compassionate and tender-hearted God—
Wounding, as it were, His maternal heart, moving the Dispassionate and Unmovable God Who transcends all things to suffer with us and to incline Himself to us in His great mercy. Such was the activity accomplished by the Mother of God in behalf of all mankind during all those years when she was in the Most Holy Place of the Temple. She sought to penetrate the impenetrable heavens and to cast herself straight into the heart of God Most High.
Undoubtedly, He was moved, and affected by her prayers and cries; and all of us, her kin, have been uplifted into that same heart of God by her most powerful mediation, intercession and prayer. Let us therefore cast away everything which hinders us from entering upon this, her mighty heavenward intercession, and let us seek to join to it our own small prayers and longing for God.
And even if we feel our feeble souls to be as little birds with broken wings and no strength or maturity to fly freely into heaven—feeling this and seeing this poverty of ours, we will be met by God Who ever-condescends to us in our poverty and weakness: our Most Merciful Savior, Jesus Christ, Who has become, is ever-becoming, and will become fully incarnate within us, His Body, the Church, the Fulness of Him Who filleth all in all; unto His great glory and worship, together with the Father and the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen!