Today is the first Sunday of the month when we share guest posts from people living and teaching the Contemplative and/or Celtic Christian way around the world. One of the beautiful things about the internet is that people doing amazing things in isolated parts of the world can learn from one another and grow together. We hope this article inspires you to dive a little deeper into what it means to follow in the footsteps of our ancestors while looking forward to what kind of world we will leave for our grandchildren.
Jesse Hake works as a curriculum developer for Classical Academic Press in Harrisburg, PA. Before that, he served for seven years at Logos Academy in York, PA as academic dean and principal. He and his wife, Elizabeth, have three children, Nessa, Tobias and Tabitha. Jesse has taught college courses in history, philosophy, and ethics as well as upper-school history, literature, and rhetoric. He grew up in Taiwan as the oldest of nine children. He has a BA from Geneva College in history as well as an MLitt in history from the University of St Andrews in Scotland. You can find his work at Copious Flowers.
My godmother recently described her experience in church as being held within the womb. She had organized an opportunity for about twenty students from the university where she teaches literature to hear Dr. Hans Boersma read the icons at Christ the Saviour Church near where I live and where my godfather is the priest. (Somewhat unusually, I’m blessed with godparents from different parishes who are not married to each other.) My godfather also shared briefly and pointed out that the red borders surrounding each icon are the arteries carrying Christ’s blood throughout his body, the church. These icons at Christ the Saviour Church are frescos covering every square inch of the walls and ceilings inside, so the impression is certainly like being within a body—within the womb of our mother who is the church.
In our church, one ancient hymn, the Troparion for the Forefeast of Nativity, points us to an image of Mary’s womb that is all encompassing:
“Prepare O Bethlehem, for Eden has been opened to all! Adorn yourself O Ephratha, for the tree of life blossoms forth from the Virgin in the cave! Her womb is a spiritual paradise planted with the Divine Fruit: For if we eat of it, we shall live forever and not die like Adam. Christ comes to restore the image which He made in the beginning.”
In this hymn, Mary’s womb is paralleled with both the cave in which she traditionally gave birth and with the garden of Eden that has been opened to all with the presence of God as her child. With Christ’s indwelling, Mary’s womb becomes a spiritual paradise and the source of a renewed creation. The cave in which Mary lies is a macrocosm of Mary’s own womb, suggesting the womb of our mother earth. Several old Jewish stories (from the exile period onward) describe how the mountain garden where Adam and Eve walked with God sank into the earth so that the only remaining access was through the Cave of the Patriarchs (or the Cave of Machpelah). These myths say that the fragrance from Eden’s fruit trees filled this cave with sweet scents and that all the descendants of Adam up through Joseph were laid to rest here just outside the buried gates of this lost garden.
Of course the imagery of a mother’s womb is widespread in scripture. In John’s gospel, Nicodemus famously asks Christ, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Scripture is also filled with cosmic imagery of pregnancy and birth. Paul says in his Letter to the Romans, “We know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now.” This language recalls the familiar image of God’s Spirit hovering over the “welter and waste” of the primordial waters in the opening verses of Genesis. I’m using some of the wording from Robert Alter’s translation. Alter, like many other scholars, points out that this “hovering” by “God’s breath-wind-spirit (ruaḥ) elsewhere describes an eagle fluttering over its young and so might have a connotation of parturition or nurture.”
Another biblical image that links Mary with a cosmic birth is in the Apocalypse of John with his vision of a woman clothed in the sun, shod with the moon, and crowned with twelve stars. She is seated in the heavenly temple where readers would have expected the Ark of the Covenant to appear next in the narrative, and she gives birth to a child who is immediately pursued by a waiting dragon. In this mother, we have a figure that clearly represents the mother of the human race in Eve, the people of God, and Mary (as the new Eve). Her child is the great hope and fulfilment of all her seed.
Christ’s birth is not only at the center of all creation, but all of creation is a carrying to term and a giving birth in which Christ participates continually. We see this in Paul’s statement that “the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now” as well as in the Genesis account of God’s Spirit hovering over the world as a mother bird over her nest. Creation is ongoing at all times, and our task is to learn to participate in it, to cooperate with God’s creative work even though we cannot see it clearly and must face suffering and death in the process. This cosmic saga of all creation history as an ongoing pregnancy and birth is spoken of by several early church authors as well. Maximus scholar Jordan Wood describes it this way (in a post shared 14 November 2020 on Eclectic Orthodoxy):
“Christ both activates and overcomes the conditions and consequences of every sin of every rational being in his Passion (judgment) and thereby secures the deification of all creation in principle (providence), which deification is implicit in all the logoi of this world. This false world bears within its own principles the seeds of its destruction, which is also its true salvation, true creation of the true world and ‘Adam.’ Christ is God’s act of creation. Christ is thus bearer and destroyer of the false world we illicitly ‘create.’ Christ thus suffers that we might be free, even though we are fools. He does so because there is no limits to his erotic love for us and thus no limits to his kenosis, to his degree of self-abasement that he might destroy all and so save all from their own delusions, which they attempt to incarnate through their own persons. The true Incarnation makes possible and obliterates all false incarnations. So yes, ‘Adam’ fell from the very start; but no, he wasn’t really the true Adam. We are caught in between these two, in a ‘world’ whose dark depths do still indeed bear the logoi of God’s true world, for Christ lies there ‘as if in a womb’ (Ambiguum 6), awaiting his birth in all.”
In another comment online (from 30 November 2021), Jordan Wood states this in even more direct (although somewhat technical) terms:
“The Word’s nativity is the nativity of the cosmos, since in the former he himself becomes the principle of being born in a particular time and space—that is, the principle of finitude itself—even as he remains divine. (For every principle qua principle, if it’s to be actual, must be enhypostasized.) Therefore his act of creation is, in his own person, wholly interpenetrated by his act of being created, so that all of creation is crossed by this point in time even as this point in time occurs within all of creation. The womb of the world is the womb of the Theotokos.”
To learn more regarding this theology, watch for Jordan Wood’s book releasing in October 2022 from the University of Notre Dame Press called The Whole Mystery of Christ: Creation as Incarnation in Maximus the Confessor.
For my part, as I seek to know this in my own life, I can only turn back to what I shared at the start about my godmother saying that her own experience of being within the church is like being held within a womb. Of course, all the world is a place of new creation, a place for the creator to be known. However, I daily forget this about my place, and I come from people that have long forgotten where they dwell. I need prayer and sacraments, times set aside for me and a place to stand and attend. This allows me to hear the blood coursing through the warm world surrounding me as well as the cries of anguish. I’m restored to my own labors as both a child and a mother myself, called to feed upon my God and, in turn, to offer life to those around me.
Because God is our innermost life, the cosmic womb and our own hearts are one and the same place. Maximus is quoted in the Philokalia with this reminder:
“Jesus the Christ who was born in the flesh once for all of us, desires to be born again in the spirit of those who desire Him. In each of us, he again becomes a child in the womb of our soul and forms himself from the virtues. He reveals as much of Himself as He knows each of us can accept. Let us contemplate the mystery of the incarnation and in simplicity praise Him who became man for us.”
Angelius Silesius (a few centuries later, 1624-1677) says much the same:
“If you could turn your heart into a cow-stall, Christ would be born again on earth!”
May we learn in simplicity to contemplate and praise Christ’s incarnation that we might see God in every moment and facet of creation.
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