Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Book Review: Meditations for Advent: Preparing for Christ’s Birth

Meditations for Advent: Preparing for Christ’s Birth is Fr. Vassilios Papavasiliou’s new book, being the second in his Meditations series (the first being Meditations for Great lent: Reflections on the Triodion). While it is true that Orthodoxy lays greater emphasis on Easter and the Resurrection, Christmas is the Feast which gives birth to all other feasts and celebrations of the ecclesiastical year. Thus its immense importance cannot be overlooked. Therefore, this book facilitates a deeper understanding of the period of Advent.
True to the ‘Orthodox way’ of examining a certain topic, Fr. Vassilios examines and analyses the period of Advent by using the Old and New Testaments, texts from the Church Fathers and many passages from a number of services. These three sources allow for a better understanding of this period.

In the beginning the author explains the differences between Western and Eastern Advent, in its meaning, character and time of celebration. In the first part of the book Fr. Vassilios explains the spiritual preparation needed in order to fully understand this ecclesiastical period, giving a true Christian comprehension of Advent. The hymns of this period play a key role in this book, as the author explains, “The Church invited us to prepare for Christmas through prayer and worship and the hymns of the season” (p. 20). What strikes the reader is the fact that most biblical references used during this period in the hymns of the Orthodox Church come from the Old Testament, emphasising the fact that the Birth of Christ is the fulfilment of the prophecies. This first part ends with the interesting idea that we should all become like children, and that only “when we become like children will we be able to truly rejoice in the wonder of Christmas” (p. 59).
The second part of the book gives us the Scriptural sources relating to Christmas. Importantly, the author focuses on the Katavasias, hymns sung during Matins, which change according to the festivity. He provides profound insights to both the Old and the New Testaments in regards to the birth of Christ, which hold a central position in the services of Advent. His elaborate exegesis of the Katavasias is beneficial, in showing that the hymns of the Church are cleverly placed, which derive from both Scripture and Tradition.
The third chapter analyses a number of images in the Icon of the Nativity. Icons, being central in the worship and theology of the Orthodox Church, are crucial in explaining the complexities of our faith. Fr. Vassilios provides an interesting comparison between the Manger and the Grave, explaining that “The Church makes a comparison between the virgin womb and the virgin tomb, between the cave which Christ is born and the grave from which He rises again” (p. 104). However, the biggest discovery for the reader is to be found in the exegesis of the Star of Bethlehem. Here, the author gives a very significant passage from St John Chrysostom who explains why the Star of Bethlehem was not actually a star, “but some invisible power in the form of a star” (p. 114). St John gives four reasons why he follows this belief, which are given in this book. The final part of the book talks about the Incarnation, and Christ as the New Adam and the Light which shines in darkness.
This is a great book to read in order to understand the Christian symbolism we find in the period of Advent. It should be read not only by Orthodox, despite the many Orthodox sources, but by all Christians who wish to understand the true meaning of Christmas, leaving aside the secularist attitudes and traditions of our modern way of life[1]

[1] Salapatas, Dimitris, “Book Review: Meditations for Advent: preparing for Christ’s Birth”, Orthodox Herald, July-August-September 2013, Issue 298-300, p. 28

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