So far, we have noted how the Syriac tradition takes seriously the Nativity of the Lord as the fulfilment of the prophecies recorded in the Old Testament; and the importance of the concept of “glory” in our Nativity tradition, what it means, and why the Syriac tradition insists on it. Today we look at the natural world, and how it gives us signs of the Incarnation.
Signs of the Incarnation in Nature
How can nature give us signs of the Incarnation? St Ephrem writes in his first Hymn of the Nativity:
Today a child was born, and he was called “wonder,”
for it is a wonder that God reveals Himself as an infant.
The Spirit spoke a parable in the worm, for it reproduces without sexual union;
the type the Holy Spirit fashioned receives its meaning today.
He rose up like a shoot before Him, a shoot from the parched earth;
something spoken secretly occurred openly today. (H.N. 1.9-11)
The key to understanding how this is the word “type,” as when St Ephrem wrote that the Holy Spirit had produced a type when He created the worm, and today the meaning off type had been revealed.
We can take the idea of a type as being the same as a pattern. That pattern is created in the mind of God, we might say. Then, from that type or pattern there come into this world productions, reflections, shadows, or images of the pattern in the mind of God.
It is not just that there are some patterns with God, and some productions, shadows or images of those patterns on earth. No, the thing is that the entirety of the world, everything in it and everything which can be in it, is produced according to the divine patterns. The closer the production is to the pattern, the closer it is to God and holiness. When the production or image is an accurate one, and is as God intended, then it is good. This is what the Creation was when God created it. He looked at it and saw that it was good. There is more on typology in the opening chapters of Genesis, but for now we will return to St Ephrem.
What St Ephrem is saying is that the meaning in creation which exists because it has all been built on patterns in the mind of God, bursts into meaning when we see the design of God revealed. To the extent that we are holy, or at least striving to be holy, to that extent we can see the signs of God’s design reflected nature.
One such reflection, St Ephrem says, is what may be the most humble animal imaginable – the worm. First, you need to know that in ancient Syria, they were aware that some worms are born of a virginal parent. That is, they do not have both father and mother. These worms are called polychaetes, and are mostly marine animals. While most earth worms do reproduce sexually, these worms do not. So, St Ephrem must have been thinking of the Incarnation, and how Our Lord was born of a Virgin by the Holy Spirit, and at some point, made a connection to the humble worm and how it is also born of a “virgin.” Then, he has seen in this, a reflection of the type of the Incarnation of Our Lord into the virgin’s womb. No one would have made that connection before the Incarnation, and after the birth of the Lord, only someone who knew of the virginal conception, and understood the theological way of thinking we call typology, could have made it.
Strange as this sounds to our ears, it is an ancient way of reading and learning from the divine design of creation. And we can use it today. God’s divine book of nature is not closed. There are more animals than polychaetes which reproduce without sex. When I tried to think of other examples in nature, I came up with the way that a seed may wait in the earth, unable to grow, unless it receives rain. And then, I remembered that St Ephrem used this example as well. In verses 16 and 17 of the first Nativity Hymn, he wrote:
The virgin earth gave birth to that Adam, head of the earth;
the Virgin today gave birth to [second] Adam, head of heaven.
The staff of Aaron sprouted, and the dry wood brought forth;
his symbol has been explained today – it is the virgin womb that gave birth.
This is what St Ephrem is saying: the birth of Our Lord from the Blessed Virgin Mary and the creation of Adam from clay – which he calls the “virgin earth” – are both the same model. However, the second of these to occur, the birth of the Lord, is the greater of the two events, because whereas Adam was the head of the earth, the Lord, the second Adam (see Romans 5:14, which says – quite literally, that Adam was the type of the one who was to come – meaning the Lord.)
Of course, in the case of the birth of the Lord, it is an even greater miracle, because the seed was not there before the rain of the Holy Spirit came. The Holy Spirit caused the seed to appear in the nourishing earth which was the womb of Our Lady, and then to grow. We use just this very image in each Maronite Divine Sacrifice, when in the part called the Pre-Anaphora, we chant this hymn:
The Lord reigns clothed in majesty. Alleluia!
Our Lord Jesus said: “I am the Bread of Life.
From the Father I was sent
as Word without flesh to give new life.
Of the Virgin Mary I was born, taking flesh as man;
as good earth receives a seed, her womb received me.”
There is an ancient Semitic way of looking at the divine design of creation. It is found in the Book of Proverbs, for example. In Proverbs 6:6-8, we read: “Go to the ant, you sluggard (lazy person); consider her ways, and be wise: which having no guide, overseer, or ruler, provides her meat in the summer, and gathers her food in the harvest.” By looking at this extremely small creature, and meditating on what it does, we can learn something of value for ourselves.