The winter is past, the rain is over and gone

At Vespers for the Feast of St Ephrem the Syrian (January 28). Source.

WHEN thou hadst beheld, as in a mirror (2 Cor 3:18), the beautiful things of Paradise, and delighted abundantly in its unspoiled meadows, thou madest the knowledge of God to blossom in the world; and when we partake of it, through the spiritual disposition of our souls, we bloom again in spirit.

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Fuchsia 'Deep Purple' glistening with raindrops. © Jonathan Billinger, Geograph. Licensed for reuse. Click for original.

Fuchsia ‘Deep Purple’ glistening with raindrops. © Jonathan Billinger, Geograph. Licensed for reuse. Click for original.

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Song of Songs 2:10-13.

MY beloved spake, and said unto me, Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away. For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land; The fig tree putteth forth her green figs, and the vines with the tender grape give a good smell. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.

**

Frédéric Chopin, Prelude No. 5 (“Raindrop”).
Played by Hélène Grimaud.

The Virgin Mary, the vine, and the cluster of grapes

Theotokion.
Feast of the Removal of the Relics of St John Chrysostom (January 27). Source.

O THEOTOKOS, thou art the true vine which put forth the fruit of life. We beg thee: O Lady, with the Hierarch and with all the saints, entreat that our souls may find mercy.

*

A cluster of grapes at Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire. © Rob Farrow, Geograph. Licensed for reuse. Click for original.

A cluster of grapes at Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire. © Rob Farrow, Geograph. Licensed for reuse. Click for original.

*

THIS is not a reference to John 15:1-8, where Jesus calls himself the true vine. It is a reference to Num 13:1-25, and the fruitful vines of the land of Canaan. When the Israelites were ready to enter the promised land of Canaan, God told them to send scouts ahead to see whether the land was wholesome or not. A cluster of grapes was cut from the vines growing there as proof of the unusual fertility of the land (Num 13:1-25).

The LORD said to Moses, “Send some men to explore the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelites. From each ancestral tribe send one of its leaders.” … When they reached the Valley of Eshcol, they cut off a branch bearing a single cluster of grapes.

Numbers 13:1, 23

So it is that in the Akathist Hymn, Mary is the true, the genuine vine (as opposed to the vines of Canaan), and Jesus is the cluster of grapes cut from it.

WE sing your praises, crying, ‘Hail! chariot of the spiritual Sun; true Vine that has produced the ripe Cluster of grapes, from which there flows a wine making glad the souls of the faithful, as they give you glory.

Christ is the first fruits of our life to come in the Kingdom of heaven, which is our promised land. From Mary, we gather Christ as proof of God’s love, his great mercy on our souls, and of the blessedness which awaits us across Jordan. From these grapes was trodden out upon the Cross the wine of the Eucharist, “making glad the souls of the faithful”, which we taste in an anticipation of the unending wedding supper of the Lamb (Rev 19:7-9, Lk 22:15-18).

The scouts reported that the fortified cities of the Canaanite people looked strong and alarming. That might, I suppose, be taken to remind us that there is work to be done in battling against the passions and little idols which we want to be cleared from our souls. But we do not need to be in doubt, because this is God’s purpose for each of us and he will see it done.

WHEN you cross the Jordan into Canaan, drive out all the inhabitants of the land before you. Destroy all their carved images and their cast idols, and demolish all their high places. Take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have given you the land to possess.

Numbers 33:51-53.

Ask, St John Chrysostom, and it will be given you

I AM the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. … If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.

John 15:7-8.

**

THRICE-blessed saint, most holy father, good shepherd, and disciple of the chief shepherd Christ (cf. 1 Pet 5:4), who laid down his life for the sheep: do thou thyself, O John Chrysostom, worthy of all praise, ask by thine entreaties that our souls be granted the great mercy.

Source.

Sown in dishonour, raised in glory

The splendour of the heavenly bodies.
1 Corinthians 15:40-45.

THE splendour of the heavenly bodies is one kind, and the splendour of the earthly bodies is another. The sun has one kind of splendour, the moon another and the stars another; and star differs from star in splendour.

So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. So it is written: “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit.

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A small field near St Mary's on the Isles of Scilly. © Bob Embleton, Geograph. Licensed for reuse. Click for original photo.

“Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” A small field near St Mary’s on the Isles of Scilly. © Bob Embleton, Geograph. Licensed for reuse. Click for original photo.

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“O Lady more splendid than the brilliance of sunbeams.”
At Vespers for January 15. Source.

REJOICE, lamp filled with light, Lady more splendid than the brilliance of sunbeams. Rejoice O Lady undefiled, who hast loosed the ancient curse (Gen 3:13-19; Dt 11:26-28), hope of the hopeless, the recalling of our race. Rejoice most splendid palace of the King of All, most trusty* mountain, from which the Redeemer came forth. Rejoice, God the Word’s divine and delightful lamp (Ex 38:16 LXX). Rejoice, lampstand all light. Rejoice, fiery throne (Dan 7:9).

* My text has τὸ Ὄρος τὸ πιστότατον, ‘most trusty mountain’. But I wonder whether this should be πιότατον, ‘most fertile’, a key phrase for the Virgin. See the notes below.

Cross-Theotokion.

WHEN the unblemished Ewe-Lamb saw her own Lamb willingly dragged as mortal man to sacrifice, she would lament saying: Thou wouldst quickly make me childless, who bore thee as my child, O Christ. What is this which thou hast done, Redeemer of all? Yet I raise my hymn, and I give glory, to thy supreme goodness beyond spiritual sight (ὑπὲρ νοῦν) and beyond reason (ὑπὲρ λόγον), O lover of mankind.

REJOICE, star shining like the sun (cf. Rev 12:1-2). Rejoice, unblemished Lady, cause of everything good. Rejoice, thou who didst contain the uncontainable God, who budded forth with the grain* of incorruption (Jn 12:23-24, 1 Cor 15:35-45). Rejoice divine chariot, gate filled with light. Rejoice, Maiden who hast destroyed the curse of our forebears, who yet liveth to be the provider of blessings.

* στάχυς, an ear of wheat. As it happens, it was also the Greek name of the largest star in the constellation Virgo, Spica virginis (Latin for “the virgin’s ear of grain”).

**

Frédéric Chopin, Nocturne in F Major.
Played by Valentina Lisitsa.

**

Notes

“God the Word’s divine and delightful lamp”.

IN these prayers, we are presented with the supreme glory and splendour of the Theotokos in heaven. After her natural death, she was taken to heaven and anticipated our deification and our resurrection, as the one from whom God began his refashioning of the whole creation. Now she outshines the sun and the stars as a lamp brighter than all of them. Even so, while Mary is the lamp and lampstand, her living flame, the light with which she shines, is always her son Jesus, who is God the Word, Light from Light.

The metaphor of the light and the lampstand, like many other titles for the Virgin, comes from the vessels of the Temple in Jerusalem, where God was present with his people. The golden lampstand (Menorah), decorated with blossoming almond buds and flowers (Ex 25:31-40), was one of the central features of the sanctuary. Because light was regarded as essentially gentle, the lampstand is referred to by Zechariah in a prophecy of the peaceful restoration of God’s people (Zech 4:1-6): “‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty”.

*

“Fertile mountain.”

The reference to Mary as a “most trusty mountain” (τὸ Ὄρος τὸ πιστότατον) is a bit unusual, so I wonder if it should be τὸ Ὄρος τὸ πιότατον, most fertile mountain, instead, commonly related to the Mother of God in the liturgy. You can see why I might think so from this, my own translation of the Greek text of Ps 67:16-20 LXX (Ps 68:15-19 Heb), which speaks of Sion, the hill in Jerusalem chosen for the Temple:

O MOUNTAIN of God, fertile mountain, O curdled mountain, fertile mountain! Why do you suppose, O curdled mountains, that this is the mount which God was pleased to dwell in? Indeed the Lord will make his tabernacle there for ever. The chariot of God is ten thousand fold, thousands are flourishing. The Lord among them was in Sinai, in his holy place. You went up on high, you took captivity captive; you accepted their gifts in order to pitch your tabernacle among men even though they were faithless. Blessed is the Lord our God, blessed is the Lord day after day. The God of our salvation will prosper us.

*

“The grain of incorruption.”

JESUS replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.

John 12:23-24.

AS a mother, Mary watched Jesus fall to earth like a grain of wheat, and die in dishonour, mocked and scourged. One can only imagine how this tore at her. Yet God remained for her a lover of mankind, she gave him glory, remaining by the cross when others had fled (Mk 14:50-52), willingly to be identified with him when the others were not (Mk 14:66-72), and present with them in Jerusalem when the holy Spirit descended at Pentecost (Acts 1:14) — the Jewish feast of the spring harvest, the moment when all the early grain would begin to be gathered (cf. Lk 10:2).

Burst into song, shout for joy, be glad O Church of Christ

“Sing, O barren woman.”
Isaiah 55:1-3.

“SING, O barren woman, you who never bore a child; burst into song, shout for joy, you who were never in labour; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband,” says the Lord. “Enlarge the place of your tent, stretch your tent curtains wide, do not hold back; lengthen your cords, strengthen your stakes. For you will spread out to the right and to the left; your descendants will dispossess nations and settle in their desolate cities.

This passage is quoted by St Paul, Gal 4:21-31, in his proof from Scripture that Gentiles are children of Abraham through baptism and the Spirit.

*

“Children were born to thee by water and Spirit.”
At Matins on January 14. Source.

HE granteth power unto our rulers, and lifteth up the heads of his valiant ones, he is brought forth from a virgin, yet the Lord came to baptism; therefore let us cry out, ye faithful: There is none holy as our God, and there is none righteous besides thee, O Lord.*

* This refrain comes from the Song of Hannah (1 Kgs[1 Sam]2:1-10 LXX), which is the song of a barren woman who has been granted a child by God. It is one of the models for the Song of the Virgin Mary, the ‘Magnificat’.

BE glad O Church of Christ, who before wast barren, and today hath marvellously brought forth children by water and Spirit (Jn 3:3-5): for sons were born to thee, crying out in faith: There is none holy as our God, and there is none righteous except thou, O Lord.

IN a loud voice, the Forerunner crieth out in the wilderness: Make ready the ways of Christ, and finish* the straight paths of God, crying out in faith: There is none holy as our God, and there is none righteous except thou, O Lord.

*ἀπεργάσασθε is not the word used in the Septuagint or the Gospels, which is ποιεῖτε. It strengthens the idea of finishing a job, rounding it off, bringing it to completion. Compare Jesus’s words when he returns from fasting for forty days: “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mk 1:15).

*

“Make disciples of all nations.”
Matthew 28:18-20.

THEN Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

*

The Song of the Virgin Mary.

MY soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.

Greater in honour than the cherubim, and beyond compare more glorious than the seraphim, without corruption thou gavest birth to God the Word. Truly the Theotokos, we magnify thee.

For he hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden. Refrain.
For behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty hath magnified me, and holy is his Name.
And his mercy is on them that fear him throughout all generations.
He hath shewed strength with his arm, he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he hath sent empty away.
He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel, as he promised to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed for ever.

The king is here, the president of the games

THEREFORE, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.

Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

Hebrews 12:1-2.

**

WE who stand as mystical images of the Cherubim,
and sing unto the Life-Giving Trinity the thrice-holy hymn,
let us now lay aside all earthly cares
that we may receive the King of all,
attended beyond our sight by angel hosts.
Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.

**

At Vespers for January 13. Source.

HOLY Fathers, who study day and night in the law of the Lord (Ps 1:2), ye were made worthy to be planted together with the tree of life, and your fruit hath blossomed with the laurels of contest. Having boldness towards God (Acts 4:29-31; Eph 3:12), the President of these games, ask also favour for us, and the great mercy.

TODAY creation is lightened, today all things are gladdened, things in heaven with things in earth (Col 1:20; Eph 1:10; Phil 2:10; Ps 112[113]:5-8). Angels and men mingle together, for where there is the presence (παρουσία) of the King, there his hosts are near at hand. Let us run now to the Jordan, let us all see John, how he baptised the head that is not made by hand, and is without sin. So let us cry out with one voice, swelling the Apostolic song: ‘The grace of God, which is saving health for all men is made visible, shining out (cf. Ps 67:2) upon the faithful and granting unto them the great mercy’.

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Background Notes

Training for life’s athletics contest.

ONE of the chief metaphors for the Christian life used in the New Testament is an athletic metaphor, taken from 1st century Greco-Roman sports. These were a common sight. Although not part of Jewish culture, cities such as Sepphoris (Zippori) about five miles from Nazareth, and Tiberias, the capital of Galilee, were to a significant degree Hellenistic in culture and governed under Roman law, and they had sports arenas and open air theatres. Sports included various forms of running, jumping, throwing, and wrestling.

In Heb 12:1-2, the “cloud of witnesses” is a reference to a sports crowd. The image is of the saints of former ages cheering us on, while we (having shed the excess bodyweight of the passions, and clothed ourselves in something better than a ragged garment of skins) run for the line, our eyes fixed on Jesus and the joys of victory. The lesson drawn for us by St Paul is that Christianity, like athletics, requires years of hard training to maintain ideal weight and achieve competitive levels of skill and fitness, but that the rewards make it all worthwhile. The athletic metaphor occurs also in 1 Cor 9:24-27, Gal 2:2, Gal 5:7, and 2 Tim 4:7.

The President of the Games.

The reference to God as the President of the Games of life is a nice touch. In 12 BC the Olympic Games, held in Greece and dedicated to the god Zeus, and teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, were rescued by ‘generous’ – out of the public purse, naturally – benefactions from none other than King Herod the Great, who became a lifetime President. We can see God as President of the Games not in the sense of being an umpire with beetling brows, but in the sense of being the generous sponsor who saved human life from spiritual bankruptcy and useless decay, supplying at incalculable personal cost (cf. 2 Cor 8:9) a games in which we can still strive for the  laurel crown that never fades (1 Cor 9:25).

The visit of the Emperor.

THE word παρουσία (parousía) is often translated as ‘presence’, but it also has a technical meaning, someone’s personal, bodily presence (cf. ‘put in an appearance’), typically in a court of law to resolve a dispute. In particular, it was used of the arrival and subsequent visit of a Roman Emperor in person at a city of his Empire, commemorated on coins and statues with the Latin word Adventus and the Greek Epiphaneia. The Baptism of Christ is portrayed here as the heavenly Emperor personally visiting his people, surrounded by his impressive army. The liturgy’s emphasis on God being visible and physically present is central to the metaphor of an Imperial visit.

Strength and grace are given invisibly by Christ’s baptism in the Jordan

STRENGTH against enemies, O Word, didst thou give by thy Baptism unto us who out of heartfelt love (πόθος) revere thy saving governance (οίκονομία), which willingly thou didst bring to completion, delivering mortals from the curse which had spread from Eden; for that we sing: Blessed is he who is made visible, our God glory be to thee.

They that once had garments of skins because of Adam, putting them on in the fall, today are putting them off in the running waters of the Jordan, in the Baptism of the Lord; speaking divine things with angels, unto him let us cry out: Blessed is he who is made visible, our God glory be to thee.

Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the holy Spirit
both now and for ever, and to the ages of ages.

LET us, O ye faithful, raise our hymn to the greatness of God’s beneficence towards us; for upon our transgression, he became man and carried out our thorough cleansing in the Jordan, who alone is clean and without stain, sanctifying me and the waters, and breaking the heads of the dragons in the water. Let us therefore draw water with gladness, brethren; for to those who draw it trustingly, the grace of the Spirit is given invisibly from Christ, who is God and the Saviour of our souls.

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Apolytikion.

WHEN thou wast baptized in the Jordan, O Lord,
the worship of the Trinity was made manifest;
for the voice of the Begetter was bearing witness
before thee, naming thee beloved Son,
and the Spirit in the form of a dove
was confirming the certainty of the spoken word*.
O Christ God, who appeared and lighted the world,
glory be to thee.

In the video, after the singing of the hymn above, Archimandrite Timotheos Kilifis gives a short summary of the feast. He explains that the baptismal “Feast of Lights” is also called Theophany (showing God) and Epiphany (showing forth) because it is the manifestation of the light of the Blessed Trinity, the Father from heaven, the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, and the Son in the form of a servant, who is baptized by John the Baptist.

At Vespers for January 12. Source.