Orthodox songs are absent in popular American life, so we may be less familiar with the words and meanings. Leading up to the Nativity, several hymns repeat each service, bringing to us the theology of the Church and helping us understand the fullness of the Incarnation.
No service of the Christmas season is more full of wonder and theology than the Royal Hours preceding the celebration of the Nativity of Christ.
Hymns explaining the mystery of God becoming Man through the womb of a Virgin are scattered among litanies, Psalms, and Readings of Scripture. Yet throughout this service a strange phrase is repeated:
“God will come out of Teman. “
For example, we pray: “Come, O you faithful; being divinely led, let us behold the divine condescension from on high that is made manifest to us in Bethlehem. And having purified our minds, let us offer a virtuous life instead of myrrh, faithfully preparing ourselves for entry into the feast of the Nativity, crying out from the treasury of our souls: 'Glory in the highest to God in Trinity, for Whose sake good will has appeared among men, delivering Adam from the ancestral curse, for He loves mankind.'"
Then repeat: ”God will come out of Teman.”
Four times we will hear a hymn and then refrain this odd proclamation.
What could it mean?
The hymn writer is following in the footsteps of the New Testament in their use of the Old. He assumes we know the Old Testament, and by using a leading phrase, it will trigger our mind to fill out the rest.
Marketers and pop musicians do the same today. If I said: “Like a good neighbor…” You would finish with the name of a well-known insurance company. How about this one: “The best part of waking up is….” I am sure a coffee brand came into your head. And if you indulged a little too much at Christmas dinner, you might think of “Plop, plop, fizz, fizz, O What ….”
The New Testament when quoting the Old often uses fragments of a passage suggesting the whole. When the Gospel writers quote Christ from the cross, He cries out the first few words of a Psalm. It is more likely He prayed the whole Psalm, but the writer could mentally trigger the whole Psalm for the reader by repeating this first line.
The writer of our Nativity services is doing the same. Unfortunately, if you are like me, “God will come of Teman” triggers nothing. So I am sent on a research project through a Bible concordance.
The phrase comes out of the Prophet Habakkuk, in his last chapter that is used as one of the Biblical Odes in the Church.
Habakkuk lived 600 years before the birth of Christ, during the reign of the evil Judean King Manasseh. His prophesy foretells the destruction of Jerusalem at the hand of the Babylonians, and in this last chapter Habakkuk sends up a prayer of hope in the face of destruction—restoration when the world is at its darkest.
That image of hope alone characterizes the wonder of Christmas. God has mysteriously entered a broken world to bring humanity back to Himself.
There is more than a generic image of the Incarnation here. There are phrases and lines in this ancient prayer that prophesy the specifics of Christ’s coming.
The place of Teman was the area south of Jerusalem all the way into the Southern desert. And from the South of Jerusalem, Bethlehem to be exact, Christ was born.
And it is not only this phrase that is significant to Christians. The Fathers illumine other places in this passage where Habakkuk prophesies the Incarnation.
- “You shall be known between the two living creatures (vs. 2).” The Fathers point to the places where Christ reveals Himself between two, such as the two thieves on the cross, Moses and Elijah during the transfiguration, or perhaps between the living creatures surrounding the manger at His birth.
- “You will be revealed when the time comes (v.2).” This is the fullness of time that St. Paul speaks of in Galatians 4:4.
- “God will come from Teman, the Holy One from the Mount of Shaded Leafy Trees (vs. 3)” Teman as mentioned above is a reference to Bethlehem, and this dark shaded mountain, the Fathers see as an image of the mysterious birthgiving of Christ from the Virgin Mary. See also Daniel’s vision of the “uncut mountain” (Dan. 2:34-35).
The whole passage is worth reading prayerfully because it presents God entering into the life of Man to save Him from the destruction of sin and death.
Throughout the Church year, the Fathers slip in phrases and themes from the Old Testament, assuming we catch their reference. They are not trying to be obscure or obtuse, but are loading truth into a small package so our hearts can open this gift to the fullness of God’s truth.