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.

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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.

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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.

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”).

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

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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”.

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“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.

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“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).

St Peter of Damascus: Because of your hope God will act lovingly towards you

FOR a righteous man will fall seven times, and rise again: but the ungodly shall be without strength in troubles.

Proverbs 24:16 (LXX).

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IT is always possible to make a new start by means of repentance. ‘You fell,’ it is written, ‘now arise’ (cf. Prov. 24:16).

And if you fall again, then rise again, without despairing at all of your salvation, no matter what happens. So long as you do not surrender yourself willingly to the enemy, your patient endurance, combined with self-reproach, will suffice for your salvation. ‘For at one time we ourselves went astray in our folly and disobedience’, says St Paul. ‘… Yet He saved us, not because of any good things we had done, but in His mercy’ (Titus 3:3, 5).

So do not despair in any way, ignoring God’s help, for He can do whatever He wishes. On the contrary, place your hope in Him and He will do one of these things: either through trials and temptations, or in some other way which He alone knows. He will bring about your restoration; or He will accept your patient endurance and humility in the place of works; or because of your hope He will act lovingly towards you in some other way of which you are not aware, and so will save your shackled soul.

St Peter of Damascus (12th century), in his ‘Treasury of Divine Knowledge’, in the Philokalia.

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Whillan Beck, Boot, Cumbria. © Peter Trimming, Geograph. Licensed for reuse. Click for original.

“Dry up the running streams of my evils, O pure lady, by the rains of thy intercessions.” Whillan Beck, Boot, Cumbria. © Peter Trimming, Geograph. Licensed for reuse. Click for original.

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MOST holy Theotokos, save us.

O VIRGIN, who hast such beauty, in whom God’s light shineth, make me bright, make me beautiful in all manner of good things, that I might cry out: Praise the Lord and exalt him to all the ages.

Gate of light, open unto me the shining gate of repentance, revealing to me every straight path of righteousness which leadeth unto the doors of the divine will.

Most holy, pure lady, thou didst bear beyond telling the holy Word who sanctifieth the faithful; beseech him, that he make my lowly soul all holy now, for it is stained with evil.

A clear running river, a spring of incorruption, came forth from thee, holy lady; therefore I cry to thee: dry up the running streams of my evils, O pure lady, by the rains of thy intercessions.

At Matins on Wednesdays of the Plagal of the First Tone. Source.

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Holy God, holy strong, holy immortal, have mercy upon us.

Joseph, tell the good news

ON the Sunday after Christmas, we make commemoration of Joseph the Betrothed, David the King, and James the Brother of the Lord.

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OUR Saviour from on high hath visited us, Daystar from the morning lands, and we dwellers in darkness and shadow have found the truth; for the Lord was born of the Virgin.

O JOSEPH, tell the good news of these wonders to David, the ancestor of God: thou hast seen a virgin with child, thou hast worshipped with magi, thou hast given glory with shepherds, thou hast dealt through an angel. Intercede with Christ God, that our souls be saved.

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An icon of St Joseph carrying Jesus, with his son St James, and his wife St Mary the Virgin, escaping to Egypt shortly after the birth of Jesus.

An icon of St Joseph carrying Jesus, with his son St James, and his wife St Mary the Virgin, escaping to Egypt shortly after the birth of Jesus.

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CHRIST the King, whom the shepherds acclaimed in Bethelehem, and the star revealed, in servant’s form: all ye his works, praise him and exalt him to all the ages.

Christ the born child, whom the magi worshipped with gifts, and the hosts of angels sang as God: all ye his works, praise him and exalt him to all the ages.

Christ the incarnate, whom the powers of heaven glorified, and the Many-eyed ceaselessly hymn: all ye his works, praise him and exalt him to all the ages.

Christ the incarnate, whom David the ancestor of God foretold, and James preached to the peoples: all ye his works, praise him and exalt him to all the ages.

CHRIST the King, whom the Virgin Mary bore for us, and after the birth remained pure virgin: all ye his works, praise him and exalt him to all the ages.

From Vespers and Matins on December 30. Source.

Let all Creation dance now, and skip for joy

THEN the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” So the Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, Cursed are you above all the livestock and all the wild animals! You will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life. And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” To the woman he said, “I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.”

Genesis 3:13-16.

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LET Jerusalem be glad, and keep the feast, all ye who love Sion. Today the age long bond of Adam’s sentence is broken, Paradise is opened to us, and the serpent confounded. For she whom he once trod down now is seen to have become the mother of the Creator. O the depth of riches, and the wisdom, and the knowledge of God! She who let death come into all flesh, the tool of sin, has become the first fruits of salvation for the whole world, through the Theotokos. For from her has been born an infant child who is God beyond perfection. Through this child-bearing, he gives his seal to virginity. Through swaddling bands, he looses the bands of sin. And through childhood, he heals Eve’s sorrowful birth-pangs. So let all Creation dance now, and skip for joy; for Christ came to call her back, and save our souls.

At Vespers for December 28. Source.

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COME, Desire of Nations, come,
Fix in us thy humble home;
Rise, the woman’s conquering Seed,
Bruise in us the Serpent’s head.
Adam’s likeness now efface,
Stamp thine image in its place:
Second Adam from above,
Re-instate us in thy love.

Charles Wesley, “Hark! the herald angels sing”.

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Andante for Clarinet and Orchestra
Alice Mary Smith (1839 – 1884)

Let earth and heaven combine

Ave Maria by Franz Schubert
Transcribed for piano solo by Franz Liszt
Played by Valentina Lisitsa

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BELOW is a poem on the Nativity by Charles Wesley. I have added some lines from the Salutations to the Mother of God.

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EVERY angelic being was amazed at the great work of your incarnation.
For they saw the One who is Unapproachable as God, as a mortal approachable by all, living his life among us, while hearing from us all:

Alleluia!

HAIL, Bride without bridegroom!

Hail, for things in heaven exult with earth,
Hail, for things on earth rejoice with heaven.

LET earth and heaven combine
Angels and men agree,
To praise in songs divine
The’ incarnate Deity;
Our God contracted to a span
Incomprehensibly made man.

Hail, you through whom creation is renewed.
Hail, you through whom the Creator becomes a babe.

2 He laid his glory by,
He wrapp’d him in our clay;
Unmark’d by human eye,
The latent Godhead lay;
Infant of days he here became,
And bore the mild Immanuel’s Name.

An icon of Jesus and his mother Mary

“Infant of days he here became,
And bore the mild Immanuel’s Name.”

Hail, height hard to climb for human thoughts,
Hail, depth hard to scan even for angels’ eyes.

3 Unsearchable the love
That hath the Saviour brought;
The grace is far above
Or man or angel’s thought;
Suffice for us that God, we know,
Our God, is manifest below.

Hail, heavenly ladder by which God came down,
Hail, bridge, leading those from earth to heaven.

4 He deigns in flesh to’ appear,
Widest extremes to join;
To bring our vileness near,
And make us all divine:
And we the life of God shall know;
For God is manifest below.

Hail, key of Christ’s kingdom,
Hail, hope of eternal blessings.

5 Made perfect first in love,
And sanctified by grace,
We shall from earth remove,
And see his glorious face:
Then shall his love be fully show’d,
And man shall then be lost in God.

Hail, for through you transgression has been abolished,
Hail, for through you Paradise has been opened.

HAIL, Bride without bridegroom!

The stars shined in their watches, and rejoiced

THE stars shined in their watches, and rejoiced: when he calleth them, they say, Here we be; and so with cheerfulness they shewed light unto him that made them.

This is our God, and there shall none other be accounted of in comparison of him.

He hath found out all the way of knowledge, and hath given it unto Jacob his servant, and to Israel his beloved.

Afterward did he shew himself upon earth, and conversed with men.

Baruch 3:34-37.

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An icon of the Theotokos, "She who ripens the grain", commissioned by Elder Ambrose of Optina in 1890

An icon of the Theotokos, “She who ripens the grain”, commissioned by Elder Ambrose of Optina in 1890

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THIS is our God, and there shall none other be accounted of in comparison of him, the Prophet cried to him in the Spirit: for he hath found out all the way of knowledge, and afterward he shall make himself like unto mortals, clothed in  flesh; for the God-child is eager to be born from a virgin, for my sake making himself approachable, who in his own nature is unapproachable.

THY womb, all unblemished Theotokos, is perceived to be like a heap of grain (cf. Job 5:26), bearing ineffably, beyond mind and reason, the ear of corn that no man sowed; thou didst bring forth from thy womb in the cave of Bethlehem him who comes to nourish all creation in grace with divine knowledge, and to rescue the human race from that famine which slayeth the soul.

SHE is the young heifer bearing the fatted calf in her womb, and she cometh unto the holy cave, (wonderful to tell,) to give him birth, to swaddle him as a mortal, and lay him up in a cradle as an infant. Already creation is celebrating the feast, joyously magnifying him who worketh such wonders.

At Vespers for December 21. Source.