Advent Reflections from a Young Married Man: The Apple Tree

“In the coming weeks, I will post seventeen short Advent reflections on the Song of Songs from a young man learning to be a lover and a husband, who at the same time struggles to plant his worth as the beloved Bride of Christ.  My guiding question:

How does the birth of God’s Son transform the broken projects of struggling lovers into aspirations for soul mating.

Click here to read the general introduction:

2A: Song of Songs 2.1-7                          The Apple Tree

1. I am a rose of Sharon,
a lily of the valleys.
2. As a lily among brambles,
so is my love among maidens.
3. As an apple tree among the trees
of the wood,
so is my beloved among
young men.
With great delight I sat in his
shadow,
and his fruit was sweet
my taste.
4. He brought me to the banqueting
house,
and his intention toward me was
love.
5. Sustain me with raisins,
refresh me with apples;
for I am faint with love.
6. O that his left hand were under
my head,
and that his right hand
embraced me!
7. I adjure you, O daughters of
Jerusalem,
by the gazelles or the wild
does:
do not stir up or awaken love
until it is ready! The tree of life my soul hath seen…its fruit doth make my soul to thrive…it keeps my dying faith alive.

The Advent season is among other things a reminder that we are loved.

We are lilies of the valley even if the scorching winds of life have punctured our petals.  Many struggle to feel their loveliness.  But some of those that I know have learned that the nectar of our petals have power.  Though they often feel horrid, they know how to transform the winds of doubt into positive spirit energy.  They also know how to do so without succumbing to the sick obsession  for constant self-improvement.

In unadulterated moments of spirit reception, they have felt the ecstatic voice of the beloved drawing them into sweet fellowship.  Yet, most days fill themselves with ordinary things, and it often feels as if the left hand of God were far from their weary head and his right hand withholding embrace. Even if they don’t admit it, most know they are worthy of the divine embrace, but too often secret bitterness disguises itself as busyness and the like.  They find ways not to admit how bitter they can become with God.  They can refuse to taste the sweet juice of grace and to feel the shade of mercy.

To be skilled at love is to first know how to be loved.  Can we learn to be loved? Can we learn to cozy into the embrace of a divine Saviour?  Can our thirsty souls, as Isaiah puts it, come to the water! You who have no money, come, receive grain, and eat; Come without paying and without cost, drink wine and milk!

The sand blown storms of life hold within them the power to wilt our souls.  But we have this divine rooted steadiness that waits ever for us to open our hands and receive love.  And out of the ordinariness of boring life comes a reminder of our loveliness—too soft to hear if we are not listening–, which makes my soul in haste to be with Jesus Christ the apple tree.

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Introduction

We all long for a rich Christmas.  When I was 19 I can remember praying for the “Best Christmas Ever.”  Even in our less sentimental moments, we know there is something magical about a quiet Christmas Eve.  But the holidays race past us.  When that holy night comes, we wonder if we will ever get to the Story.  We get caught up in between the rush from church to shopping, from eating to wrapping.  This little devotional wants to help, by offering the Nativity story bit by bit, on the nine-day approach up to the big night.

This is a paraphrase, a contemplative paraphrase.  I’m not sure if that’s ever been done; is there anything new?  A paraphrase is a translation from the original language that tries to capture meaning and make it readable, versus getting things word for word.  It is contemplative because of the ways I have translated a few words and because what I had in mind in the process.  For those of you interested, I sentenced diagramed each verse in the original Greek.  Then I translated the meaning of the sentences as readable as possible. To slow things down, I kept the original names of the characters (so Mary is Mariam, Zechariah is Zachariah, and Jesus…well I kept him Jesus; you don’t mess with Jesus).  I also had the long Christian tradition of contemplative spirituality in mind.  You should see that come through.

This devotional is meant to be read – not for information about the Nativity – but for its power to locate you within the story.  Contemplative reading helps you discover the God’s work in your life and in the life of your community.

So how do you do this? Start with five – or so – minutes of silence.  Let your spirit calm like a glass full of muddy water.  When the silt of worry and anxiety falls some, read the texts slowly.  Notice the words or phrases that stick out at you.  Underline them.  Write them down.  Then reflect on what you have gone through today.  How do they match-up? Carry these words with you into the situations you have yet to face.   And in this instance, pray that the message of the Nativity sheds light on God’s work in your life and community this Christmas.

Day one (December 16) is a read through the whole of the text, a dress rehearsal. I also put in some reflections by the Church Fathers. They should offer some interesting insights into the texts.  For those of you who are up to it, include their thoughts in your reflections.  For those of you who want to stick with the bible, you can skip over them.  That’s why I put them after the note-taking section.

One last word about the church Fathers and Mothers:  these men and women were the first to walk the Christian road.  They lived before Christianity became popular.  They struggled through their own Christmas seasons and lived between the close of the New Testament and about 400 AD. It is amazing that we still have their words with us.

But they were not all Spiritual Masters.  And they lived in a different time.  I have left out some of the more difficult material, like their thoughts on women, gentiles, and Jews.  We have come to a new place in our day.  But we must not judge them for their limitations.  We should learn from them and try and move beyond their shortcomings.  They were not as interested as we are in the historical aspects of the texts.  This is not to say that they had history wrong.  They were, after all, living 1700 years closer to the Nativity than we are.  They were more interested in the deeper meaning of the texts and in Jesus’ nature as a god-man. Again, we can learn a lot from them while trusting in our discoveries since.  When it all comes out in the wash, I’m not sure we will be too far from their rusty conclusions.

We only have three commentaries on Luke left from the early days.   I included excerpts from them here.   One of those commentaries has only been translated into English once, and that was a hundred years ago.  I have made subtle changes to the text, like putting in dashes to help you read it. But other than changing some punctuation and updating “thou’s” to “you’s”, I have left the text alone.  It actually has inspired me to work through the fathers in their original language.

For the commentaries, I used:

  • Ambrose, Commentary on the Gospel according to Saint Luke. Translated by Íde M. Ní Riain, 2001.
  • Origen, Homilies on Luke.  Translated by Joseph T. Lienhard, 1996.
  • Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary Upon the Gospel According to St. Luke,  1859.

Well, you should be set for the journey.  I hope this little tool helps you slow down this Christmas and inspires you to listen to God just a little more.  We all have a long way to go, during the holidays, to keep our eyes fixed on the author and perfecter of our faith, the baby swaddled in a feeding-trough.

Advent 2011

Keith M. Jagger

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Luke’s Nativity: December 27

Every year, his family went up to Jerusalem for the festival of Passover.  When he was twelve, they went up to the festival as usual. And on the final day when they were leaving, Jesus remained in Jerusalem.  His family didn’t know it.

They got out to about a days journey.  They were under the impression that he was playing among the others.  Then they went looking for him among the cousins and friends.   When they didn’t find him, they traced their steps back all the way to Jerusalem searching for him.

After three days, they found him in the temple, sitting amidst the teachers.  He was listening to them and asking them questions.  And all who heard him were really impressed over his understanding and answers.

And seeing him there, his mother was astonished and said to him, “Child! What in the world do you think you are doing to us?  Look at me! Your father and I have taken great pains to search for you.”

And Jesus said to them, “What reason did you have to search for me?  Didn’t you know that I had to be around my father’s people? Well, they did not quite get what he was saying to them.

Then they left that place and came to Nazareth. And he was obedient to them.  And his mother collected up everything in her heart. Jesus grew before God and his community in wisdom and favor and grace.

:: Notes ::

 

 

 

::

“It was when he was twelve, so we read, that the Lord first began to teach; and twelve as you know, was the number of those who would bring the Good News and preach the Faith.  There is another significant point: it was at the end of three days that the Child was found in the Temple ­– this Child who could forget His parents according to the body, since though incarnate, He was filled with the wisdom and grace of God.  This was a sign that three days after his triumphant Passion He would be raised to life, so that He might present Himself – to the eyes of our faith – on His heavenly throne surrounded by divine honors. And this is He whom men believed to be dead.

“In Christ there is dual sonship: one affiliates Him to His heavenly Father, the other to His Mother.  The one by his Father is totally divine, whereas that by his Mother subjects Him to the weariness and labor that is our lot.  Anything in His actions that surpasses nature, age and that which in general is common to mankind, must not be attributed to His human but to his Divine powers.

“In another passage His Mother presses Him to perform a miracle.  But in this His mother is checked for expecting Him to act as a human. But remember that here He is a child of twelve years, and that in the other case He is a grown man with his disciples. You see how the Mother has learnt more about her Son, so much so that she asks Him, in His maturity, to perform a miracle – she who was so astounded by His display in childhood of wondrous powers.”

Ambrose, Commentary on the Gospel According to St. Luke: Book 2.

 

“His mother certainly knew that He was not the child of Joseph, but she speaks so to avoid the suspicions of the Jews. And upon her saying, that “Thy father and I have sought Thee sorrowing,” the Saviour answers.

“Here then first He makes more open mention of Him Who is truly His Father, and lays bare His own divinity: for when the holy Virgin said, “Child, why have You done this unto us?” Then at once – showing Himself to transcend the measure of human things, and teaching her that she had been made the handmaid of the revelation in giving birth to his flesh, but that He by nature and in truth was God, and the Son of the Father That is in heaven, – He says, ‘Did you not know that I must be at My Father’s?’ Here let the Valentinians – when they hear that the temple was God’s, and that Christ was now at His own, who long before was also so described in the law, and represented as in shadows and types – feel shame in affirming, that neither the Maker of the world, nor the God of the law, nor the God of the temple, was the Father of Christ.

St. Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke: Sermon 5.

 

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Luke’s Nativity: December 26

And when the eighth day arrived and it was time to make the “in God’s people cut” on his body, they named the boy Jesus.  Even before he was placed in the womb, the angel gave him that name.

So when that day of cleansing arrived, the day prescribed by the law of Moses, they led him up to Jerusalem and set him before the Lord.  They were following the Lord’s law closely: “Every firstborn that makes it through his mother will be called holy to the Lord.  Therefore give a sacrifice of two turtle doves or two young doves.

And behold, in Jerusalem there was a man called Symeon.  This man was righteous and authentic with God. He was abandoned in spirit, hoping for light to shine on Israel again.  And the Holy Spirit was upon him. The Holy Spirit had been revealing something to him: that he would not see death before he saw the Messiah of the Lord.

This particular day he came into the temple filled with the Spirit. The parents and the baby Jesus were led into the temple.  They did for him what was customary of the law.  And Symeon scooped up Jesus in his bent arms. And he praised God saying,

“Now, Ruler, I am at peace. Let your servant depart as you said.  For my eyes got a glimpse of your salvation.  You set this light up in a public place so all the people could see him.  Your salvation is a revelation for the gentiles and for the glory of your people, Israel.”

His father and mother were amazed at what was being said about their child.  Then Symeon turned to bless them saying to his mother Mariam, “Be warned.  He exists for the downfall and for the uplifting of many in Israel.  He exists as a sign of opposition. And now this: before you and by the sword, he will meet his destined end.   His death will shed light on the careful reasoning of many hearts.

Then in the temple, they came upon another voice. Anna was a prophetess from the tribe of Aser. She was a daughter of Phanouel.  And she was getting way-up there in her age. She had lived with a husband for seven years.  She had saved herself for him. Then – a sad story – she became a widow, and she lived the single life for eighty-four years. During that time she never left the temple.  She filled her life with fasting and prayers.  And she would worship night and day.

And just as Symeon finished talking, she crowded the family and thanked God deeply. She spoke about him to all who were praying for Jerusalem’s independence from Rome.

And when they completed everything proscribed by the law, they went back to Galilee into their city of Nazareth.  And the child got taller and stronger.  And, being filled with wisdom, the grace of God was upon him.

 

::Notes::

 

 

 

::

“Not only angels and prophets; shepherds and kinsfolk, but old men and just bear their witness to the birth of the Lord. Every age in life and both sexes, marvels and miracles, affirm our faith.  A Virgin conceives, a barren woman gives birth; Elizabeth prophecies, the Magi adore; the child in the womb leaps for joy, a widow gives thanks.  And a just man waits.  Truly he was just, for he was not waiting in expectation of his own profit, but rather that of the people.  For his own part, all he wanted was to be delivered from the bonds of this wretched body – but first to see the promised Messiah.  For he knew that ‘blessed are the eyes that see’…

“He longs to be set free so that he can be with Christ. ‘For to die and be with Christ is the better thing.’ But if you want to be set free you must come to the Temple.  You must come to Jerusalem.  You must await the Lord’s Anointed; you must receive in your hands the Word of God, and embrace Him – so to speak – with the arms of your faith.  Then you will be set free and never see death, for you will have seen Life…

“Neither Scripture nor History mentions that Mary departed this life by way of Martyrdom.  But a material sword goes through the body, not through the soul.  By this we are shown the wisdom of Mary and her understanding of the heavenly mystery.  For the ‘word of God is living and active; more piercing than any two-edged sword and reaching even to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow.  It sounds the secret thoughts of mind and heart.’  (Heb 4.12). To the Son, everything in our mind is naked and open, and there is no secret that our conscience can hold back from Him.”

Ambrose, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke: Book 2.

 

“So ‘they brought him to place him in the sight of the Lord.’ What scriptural commands were they fulfilling?  This one: ‘As it is written in the law of Moses, every male that opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord,’ and, ‘Three times in the year every male shall appear in the sight of the Lord God.’  Males were offered before the altar of the Lord.  Scripture says, ‘Every male that opens the womb…’ This phrase has a spiritual meaning. For you might say that ‘every male is brought forth from the womb’ but does not open the womb of his mother, in the way that the Lord Jesus did.  In the case of every other woman, it is not the birth of an infant but intercourse with a man that opens the womb.

“But the womb of the Lord’s mother was opened at the time when her offspring was brought forth, because before the birth of Christ a male did not even touch her womb, holy as it was and deserving of all respect.  I dare to say something.  At that moment of which Scripture says, ‘The Spirit of God will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will over-shadow you,’ the seed was planted and the conception took place; without an opening of the womb, a new offspring began to grow.  Hence the Savior himself says, ‘But I am a worm, and not a man.’ A man is normally born from a male and female; but I was not born from a male and a female, according to nature and the ways of men.”

Origen, Homilies on Luke: Sermon 14.

 


 

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Luke’s Nativity: December 25

And after all of this the angels left them and went up into the heavens.  And the herdsmen conferred with one another.  “We should go to Bethlehem and see about this sign,” they said.  According to the Lord, we should find a baby there.”

And they left eagerly and sought out Mariam and Joseph and the baby, who was lying in the manger.  And when they saw them there, they knew how significant this was, about the word given to them by the angels, and about this child.  And when the little family heard the shepherd’s report, they were amazed about it.   And Mary continued to add it all up in her heart. She joined their story up with the many amazing, but hidden, signs they had experienced.

And the shepherds returned to their fields giving glory and praising God for all that they heard and saw.  For all of it was just as the angels had said.

 

::Notes::

 

 

 

::

See how the shepherds hurry!  No-one seeks Christ unless it is with eager haste.  Notice how the shepherds believed the angel.  You, too, my friend, must believe the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit; the angels, the prophets, the Apostles.  Notice too with what precision Scripture speaks and how it weighs each word: ‘They came with haste to see the Word.’ Truly, when they see the Lord in the flesh, they see the Word; that is to say they see the Son.

“Do not think lightly of their example of faith; do not despise the shepherds. The greater their simplicity, the more precious is their faith.  The Lord is not looking for learned academies filled with wise and intellectual circles.  He wants simple people incapable of decking out in flowery language and falsifying what they have heard.  What He desires is simplicity, not pretentiousness.  Do not think that the shepherds’ words are unimportant; do not look down on them.  It is from these very shepherds that Mary gathers faith; it is these very shepherds that bring the people together to pay homage to God; for ‘all that heard wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds’” (Luke 2.18).

St. Ambrose, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke: Book 2.

 

“Therefore, do not look not upon he Who was laid in the manger merely as a babe, but in our poverty see Him Who is as rich as God. And, in the measure of our humanity, see Him Who outshines the inhabitants of heaven, and Who therefore is glorified even by the holy angels. And how noble was the hymn, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth, and among men good will!’ For the angels and archangels, thrones and lordships, and high above them the Seraphim, preserving their settled order, are at peace with God: for never in any way do they transgress His good pleasure but are firmly established in righteousness and holiness.

“But we, wretched beings, by having set up our own desires in opposition to the will of our Lord, had put ourselves into the position of enemies unto Him. But by Christ this has been done away: for He is our peace; for He has united us by Himself unto God the Father, having taken away from the middle the cause of the enmity, even sin, and so justifies us by faith, and makes us holy and without blame, and calls near unto Him those who were afar off: and besides this, He has created the two people into one new man, so making peace, and reconciling both in one body to the Father. For it pleased God the Father to form all things into one new whole in Him, and to bind together things below and things above, and to make those in heaven and those on earth into one flock. Christ therefore has been made both Peace and Goodwill for us; by Him and with Him to God the Father be glory and honor and might with the Holy Spirit, for ever and ever, Amen.”

Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke: Book2

 

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Luke’s Nativity: December 24

And there were shepherds in their fields.  It was the night watch.  They were dwelling there and guarding their sheep. And an angel of the Lord was sent to them.  The glory of the Lord embraced them. And they trembled with a great fear.

So the angel spoke to them:

“Don’t be afraid.  For behold, I bring you news that will send rejoicing through your heart.  And it is for all the people. A sign of salvation has entered the earth, near you, in the city of David. The Lord Messiah has come.

If you go there, you will find the sign for yourself: a baby swaddled and laying in a feeding trough.”

And suddenly out of nowhere there was with the angel a multitude of the hosts of heaven.  They were praising God and saying, “Everything is as it should be. Glory in highest with God.  So let peace be found also on earth among humanity.”

::Notes::

::

“The company of the holy prophets before had proclaimed both His birth in the flesh and His assumption of our likeness, as it was to come to pass in due time. And inasmuch as this hope had now reached its fulfillment, the rational powers of heaven bring the glad tidings of His manifestation and appearance in this world, to shepherds first of all at Bethlehem. They were thus the earliest to receive the knowledge of the mystery. And the type answers to the truth: for Christ reveals Himself to the spiritual shepherds, that they may preach Him to the rest, just as the shepherds also then were taught His mystery by the holy angels, and ran to bear the glad tidings to their fellows. Angels therefore are the first to preach Him and declare His glory as God born in the flesh in a wonderful manner of a woman.

“But if some one may object to this; ‘that He Who was now born was still a child, and wrapped in swaddling-clothes, and laid in a manger: how then did the powers above praise Him as God?’ Against such, our argument stands firm. Understand, O man, the depth of the mystery! God was in visible form like unto us: the Lord of all in the likeness of a slave, albeit the glory of lordship is inseparable from Him. Understand that the Only-begotten was made flesh; that He endured to be born of a woman for our sakes, to put away the curse pronounced upon the first woman.”

Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke: Book 2.

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Luke’s Nativity: December 23

The months passed.  On one of these days, a message was delivered from Caesar Augustus.  He was taking a census of the whole world.

It was the first census ever, before the one when Kurenios was ruling Syria.

And everybody packed his or her things.  They would register in the city where their family came from.

And Joseph set off to register too.  He went with his fiancée Mary who was now eight months pregnant.  They set off from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth.  They went to Judea into a city of David called Bethlehem.  They went there because Joseph was from that line and it was where his family line ­came through.  It is where David used to live.

And while they were there, Mary went into labor.  She gave birth to her son, to the firstborn.  She swaddled him and set him in a feeding trough, because there was no place for them in the inn.

 

::Notes::

 

 

 

::

“He does well to name the Governor as this situates the event in history…it looks as though the Evangelist gives the governor’s name just as one would give that of a Consul to mark or date the year of which one is writing.  If the names of the current consuls are inscribed on deeds of purchase, how much more important is it that the date of the world’s Ransom should be clearly indicated!…

“Therefore Christ became a little one, He became a child, so that you might become a perfect man.  He was wrapped in swaddling bands, so that you might be freed from the bonds of death.  He lay in a manger so that you might be raised to the altar.  He dwelt on earth so that you might live among the stars. There was no room for Him in the inn, this was so that you might have many rooms in the heavenly mansions.  ‘He who was rich made himself poor for your sake, so that you might be rich’ (2 Co 8.9).  The Lord’s poverty is my inheritance and His weakness is my strength.  For Himself He preferred poverty and want, so that for others He might have abundant wealth.  It is I who am washed by those tears that He shed as a crying infant, it is my sins that are wiped away by those tears…

“My friend, for your sake He was weak; but in Himself He was powerful.  For your sake He was destitute, in Himself He was all riches.  Do not judge these matters by what you see, but acknowledge that you have been redeemed.  You see Him in swaddling bands; what you do not see is that He is in Heaven.  You hear an infant wailing; what you do not hear is the lowing of an ox that recognizes its Lord and Maker.”

St. Ambrose, Commentary on Luke. Book 2.

 

“Let me begin my discourse to you with that which is written in the book of Psalms, ‘Come let us praise the Lord, and sing unto God our Savior:’ for He is the Head of our feast-day.  And therefore let us tell about His noble ways, and communicate the manner of that beautifully contrived revelation.  It is the way He has saved the world. Having placed on each one of us the yoke of His kingdom, it is justly the object of our admiration.

“The blessed David therefore says in the Psalms, ‘All you people clap your hands;’ and again adds to it, ‘Sing with understanding, God has set a king over all the world.’ For this holy mystery was brought about with a wisdom that is worthy of Christ. If it is true, and it is true, that the Lord – though He is God –appeared to us and took the likeness of a slave, he did it even though he is in the form of God the Father and possesses an incomparable and universal Lordliness. But even so He was God and Lord; for He did not cease to be that which He had been…

“We see Immanuel lying as a babe in the manger, and wrapped in human fashion in swaddling bands, but extolled as God in hymns by the host of the holy angels. For they proclaimed His birth to the shepherds, God the Father having granted to the inhabitants of heaven, as a special privilege, to be the first to preach Him.”

  Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke: Sermon 2.


 

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