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Theotokos - A Retreat for Advent
© Fr. Mark Toups, 2008. Expressed written permission required for duplication.
(Each week of Advent will become available as they begin, starting on Sunday, Dec. 1st)
Welcome to the Theotokos.
Theotokos (pronounced thê-o-toe-kaus) is an ancient title for the Virgin Mary. Especially revered in the Eastern Orthodox Church, its ancient translation means "God-bearer" or "the one who gives birth to God." Theotokos is a compound of two Greek words - theo (God) and tokos (childbirth). This ancient title for the Mother of God echoes aged praise for Mary, for deep in the Greek Divine Liturgy we pray, "It is truly fitting to call you blessed, the Theotokos, ever-blessed and wholly pure Mother of our God."
The title Theotokos is almost as old as the reality it reveres. Early Desert Fathers used the title Theotokos as early as the third century, just 200 years after the death of Christ. As the early Church developed, so too did its theology, and there were essential questions that needed clarification as Christians grew in number.
In 431 Pope Celestine I gathered all Church leaders in Ephesus, the birthplace of Saint Paul's great letter to the Ephesians. At this very important meeting, known as an Ecumenical Council, the Church dogmatically defined Mary as the Mother of God. It was there at the Council of Ephesus that we read from St. Cyril of Alexandria, "the holy Virgin should be called Theotokos ... For if our Lord Jesus Christ is God, how is the holy Virgin who gave Him birth, not Theotokos?"
The title Theotokos is one that invites us into the ancient heart of the early Church.
The title Theotokos is one that invites us into the hallowed heart of a woman from Nazareth named Mary.
The title Theotokos is one that invites us into the authentic heart of what Christmas is really about.
Advent is a time to prepare. The Latin translation of the word Advent means "to come." We are waiting for Him, for Christ, for the Messiah to come.
In the second Advent Preface for the Eucharistic Prayer we pray, "In His love Christ has filled us with joy as we prepare to celebrate His birth, so that when He comes He may find us watching in prayer, our hearts filled with wonder and praise."
Listen to the profound invitation, "we prepare to celebrate His birth, so that when He comes He may find us watching in prayer." His birth. When He comes. Christmas is about a person, a real person, and His name is Jesus.
We find ourselves in the midst of the secular Christmas season. An array of decorations lines our streets, accentuates our favorite department stores, and fills our living rooms. There are parties to attend, presents to buy, and holiday gatherings to prepare for. In many ways our culture is gearing up for the big day - December 25th.
However, Christmas isn't about a day - it's about a person. Christmas is about Christ. We prepare for Him. We prepare for the one who will show us the face of God. We prepare for Isaiah's promised Bridegroom who will wed humanity to God forever. We prepare for Isaiah's suffering servant who will eventually free us from our sins. We do prepare, but we prepare for a person.
There is no better way to prepare for a person than to prepare with a person. Thus, we spend time this Advent preparing for Jesus with the woman who spent the very first Advent preparing for Jesus. We spend this Advent with Mary, the Theotokos.
Over the next four weeks you'll get to know the Theotokos. You'll spend time with her, hear her voice, and experience her heart. As she conceives God in her womb, you'll be with her. As she has that anxious conversation with Joseph, you'll be with her. As she journeys 90 miles to Bethlehem, fully pregnant, tired, and with contractions looming, you'll be with her.
Welcome to Advent, for we will prepare.
Welcome to Mary, for she will teach you about her Son.
Welcome to Theotokos, an Advent retreat.
How to Use this Resource
Theotokos is a resource that you can use to go on retreat in the midst of your busy life. People go on retreat all the time, and people go on lots of different retreats. Some retreats are at monasteries, others are at retreat centers, and still others are at churches. Regardless of how or where, retreat is essentially a time in a person's life where they commit to being present to God - to pray, to listen, and to receive.
But, you're busy, and you can't get away, right? That's okay. This retreat is designed for you. While you may not be able to get away for several days the mere fact that you're reading this right now is a sign that you're hungry for more. If you want to reconnect with God and want some help in doing so, this "retreat" is just for you.
The first thing you'll need is commitment. In John 15:16 we read, "It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you." Jesus has called you on retreat. So, when you commit to praying every day, you commit to a person, Jesus.
Find a place - a room, a church, a park, wherever. Find a place where you can focus on God without distractions.
Next, you'll need time. Ask Jesus to show you how to find the time. You are busy, and perhaps in order to find 20-30 minutes each day you may need to sacrifice doing some of your favorite things.
Finally, if you miss a day, forgive yourself and don't skip ahead. Follow the days in order, even if you miss a day. The meditations build on each other sequentially.
Each day's reflection will end with "FOR YOUR PRAYER." In this section you will be given a brief Scripture passage to pray with. Read the passage once. Get familiar with the text, the words, etc. Slowly read the passage a second time. Pay attention to how you feel as you read. Pay attention to which words "strike" you.
Next, use your imagination to pray with the passage. In his book, Meditation and Contemplation, Rev. Tim Gallagher, O.M.V. writes, "In this manner of praying, Saint Ignatius tells us, we imaginatively see the persons in the Bible passage, we hear the words they speak, and we observe the actions they accomplish in the event." So, jump in the Scripture passage. Be in the scene. Be with Mary. Be with Joseph. Once the "scene" comes to its natural conclusion, continue with A.R.R.R.
A.R.R.R. stands for: Acknowledge, Relate, Receive, Respond.
You have sat with God's Word. You have entered into the scene. Now, once you feel God is saying something to you, acknowledge what stirs within you. Pay attention to your thoughts, feelings, and desires. These are really, really important.
Once you've acknowledged what's going on inside your heart, relate that to God. Don't just think about your thoughts, feelings, and desires. Don't just think about God. Don't just think about how God might react. Relate to God. Tell Him how you feel. Tell Him what you think. Tell Him what you want. Share all your thoughts, feelings, and desires with God. Share everything with Him.
Once you've shared everything with God, receive. Listen to what He's telling you. It could be a subtle voice you hear. It could be a memory that pops up. Maybe He invites you to re-read the Scripture passage. Perhaps you feel something in your body. Perhaps he invites you into a still, restful, silence. Trust that God is listening to you and receive what He wants to share with you.
Now respond however you want. It could be more conversation. It could be a resolution. It could be tears or laughter. Respond to what you're receiving.
Finally, journal. Keep a record this Advent of what your prayer was like. It doesn't have to be earth shattering, it could be a sentence or two about what God told you or how that day's reflection struck you. Regardless of how you do it - journal.