"A cave becomes a palace for the King of all,
the throne of fire is replaced by a manger,
where the Virgin Mary lays Him as a babe,
for He comes to restore the first-created man,
as He is well pleased so to do."from an Orthodox hymn for Nativity
"A cave becomes a palace for the King of all..."Our priest spoke about this part of the hymn today after the morning Christmas Eve Hours service.
"Why do we repeat this line?" He asked us.
To get us to pay attention, he went on to say. Like all good poetry, the services, hymns, and prayers of the Church are structured with repetition to get us to pay attention--calling our minds, wandering and distracted though they are, back to the Mysteries of the Church.
"God was born in a hole in the ground," our priest went onto say, marveling at this mystery of the season; the wonder, really, of the incarnation.
What does it mean for God to come in the flesh? For one, that a simple cave becomes a palace, a place of beauty.
"Beauty," our priest noted, "is what God has created." Sizing himself up, he went on to say that as a man, he is nothing. And yet, insignificant as he, as we all are: common, pieces of flesh, even we can become dwelling places for God.
"We eat and drink Christ's Body and Blood in order to share in His life and in order to share our life with Him.
"Our use of the things of this world with regard to others can become communion if we treat those things in the same way. If the things in our life are a means of sharing--both our own lives and in the lives of others--then they can become communion.
"A gift, given and received as an act of sharing, and not simply an act of consumption, can quickly rise to the level of communion. There are gifts I have been given through the years whose value comes not from the market but from the giver and the "life" of the giver that is carried by the object. Such things in our lives bring remembrance and communion with every use" writes Fr. Stephen Freeman in in his Glory to God for All Things Blog.
The Incarnation makes it possible for us to commune with God: to find Him and meet Him in even the most common materials in which He might be carried, including-- especially-- that of human flesh.
"...That Jonah was without joy at the prospect of Nineveh is well recorded. Less famous is his disinclination for any intercourse with unbelievers, whom he, out of habit, identified as the unwashed. From birth, he had been protected from most embarrassments: body odor, poorly cooked food, substandard grammar. And so the Lord, in His compassion, undertook to deliver Jonah from his own sin--not fastidiousness as such, only Jonah's insistence upon it. "His time in the fish's belly was like death. At the very least it smelled like death to Jonah. In retrospect, the experience, fully imagined, might still provoke a necessary sense of how the body, unadorned by ointments, oils, or silk is little more than meat, mere meat for fishes. And if, in that confusion of digesting debris, Jonah chose to distinguish himself from other meat, he would have to come up with other criteria, and pretty soon. "Consider any brute swimmer driving with all his energies against the tide; notice how ineffectual (and potentially comic) the effort appears from the chalk white cliffs above. Gross facts aside, the monster was Jonah's deliverance, a more than sufficient transportation to a more likely perspective, from which Jonah was then fully willing to embrace anybody..."wrote Orthodox poet Scott Cairns in his essay "Jonah's Imprisonment"
To be "fully willing to embrace anybody" seems the truest response to the Incarnation. If beauty is in what God has created, then truly anywhere, anything, anyone may become a palace of beauty, a temple of God.
I watched an episode of the animated TV show, The Cat in the Hat, last night with my children. The kids in the show were talking to two snails (named Lewis and Clark) about their shells.
"We carry our homes with us wherever we go," one of the snails said to the children.
The cat, going on to explain the phenomenon of a snail shell in whimsy, says,"A snail has no house, no tent and no baggage. It's easier that way when searching for cabbage.He has a neat way to stay dry, safe and well.It's swirly and pretty and we call it a shell."This flesh, this skin I'm in, is no more than a "piece of meat" or a flimsy shell that will eventually wither and become ash. And yet, it can also become a home, a habitation, an "earthen vessel" for Christ.
"Abide in Me, and I in you..." Christ speaks in St. John's Gospel 15:4.
Even as we strive to prepare a habitation for Christ in ourselves, so does He become our home. Like the snail, so do we carry our Home with us wherever we go, bearing the Light and Life of Christ to all the world. "Joy to the World! The Lord is comeLet earth receive her king!Let every heart prepare Him room And heaven and nature sing."May all of earth truly receive her king. May He transform earthen vessels into palaces of beauty.May we become "fully willing to embrace anybody" with the Life He gives.