Friday Dec 23, 2005

The True Meaning of Christmas

For if the works of the Word's divinity had not taken place through the body, man would not have been deified. And again, if the properties of the flesh had not been attributed to the Word, man would not have been throughly delivered from them... Yet the Word having now become human and making his own what pertains to the flesh, these things no longer touch the body, because of the Word who has come in it, but they are destroyed by him, and henceforth human beings no longer remain sinners and dead according to their own sufferings, but having risen according to the Word's power, they abide ever immortal and incorruptible. Whence also, whereas the flesh is born from the God-bearer Mary, he himself is said to be born, who furnished to others an origin of being, in order that he might transfer our origin to himself, and that we may no longer, as mere earth, return to earth, but as being knit into the Word from heaven, may be carried to heaven by himself. Therefore, he has similarly transferred to himself the other sufferings of the body also... so that we, no longer being merely human, but as the Word's own, may participate in eternal life... the flesh being no longer earthly, but being henceforth made word through God's Word who for our sake "became flesh."

-- St. Athanasius the Great, Orations Against the Arians 3.33

Wednesday Aug 10, 2005

Orthodoxy and Islam

This isn't a full book review of Archbishop Anastasios (Yannoulatos) of Albania's book Facing the World, which was a kind gift from the translator, the Monk Pavlos Gottfried, but simply (and quickly!) a passage from one of the chapters I especially enjoyed, on the Orthodox dialogue with Islam:

Throughout the theology of the eastern Church we encounter the certainty that the Holy Spirit works in ways that transcend human thought and imagination, ways that cannot, as a consequence, be contained within any theological paradigm, description, or speculation. Everything that is noble and truly good is an act of the Holy Spirit, and the fruits of the Spirit are the preeminent building blocks for harmonious coexistence: "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control" (Gal 5:22). This assurance from the apostle Paul leads us to the conclusion that wherever these fruits are found, evidence of the activity of the Holy Spirit can be discerned. Moreover, there appears to be a great deal of such evidence in the lives of many Muslims.

In the end, our relationships and the dialogue we have with every human being are defined by our obligation to love in a way that includes everything and everyone, for this is the central core of Christianity: "God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him" (1 Jn 4:16). People who belong to another creed never lose their basic identity, their spiritual citizenship, so to speak. Even if they themselves choose to ignore it, they do not cease to be children of God, created in God's image, and consequently our brothers and sisters.

pp. 125-126

Amen, Amen. Eis polla, eti Despota!!

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Sunday May 08, 2005

Seeing and Believing: The Thomas Incident

There is much more to St. Thomas Sunday and today's gospel reading (St. John 20:19-31) than meets the eye.

Read all about it in this lovely article by the saintly Archbishop Demetrios of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.

Monday May 02, 2005

Kali Anastasi! (a.k.a. "Happy Easter, Part II")

Well, finally! Five weeks after Western Easter, and not coincidentally, the Sunday following the Jewish Passover, we celebrate Holy Pascha. And there is no better way to celebrate than to read the The Paschal Homily of our father among the saints, St. John Chrysostom ("the Golden Mouth"), here presented courtesy of monachos.net:

If any man be devout and loveth God,
Let him enjoy this fair and radiant triumphal feast!
If any man be a wise servant,
Let him rejoicing enter into the joy of his Lord.

If any have laboured long in fasting,
Let him now receive his recompense.
If any have wrought from the first hour,
Let him today receive his just reward.
If any have come at the third hour,
Let him with thankfulness keep the feast.
If any have arrived at the sixth hour,
Let him have no misgivings;
Because he shall in nowise be deprived therefore.
If any have delayed until the ninth hour,
Let him draw near, fearing nothing.
And if any have tarried even until the eleventh hour,
Let him, also, be not alarmed at his tardiness.

For the Lord, who is jealous of his honour,
Will accept the last even as the first.
He giveth rest unto him who cometh at the eleventh hour,
Even as unto him who hath wrought from the first hour.
And He showeth mercy upon the last,
And careth for the first;
And to the one He giveth,
And upon the other He bestoweth gifts.
And He both accepteth the deeds,
And welcometh the intention,
And honoureth the acts and praises the offering.

Wherefore, enter ye all into the joy of your Lord;
Receive your reward,
Both the first, and likewise the second.
You rich and poor together, hold high festival!
You sober and you heedless, honour the day!
Rejoice today, both you who have fasted
And you who have disregarded the fast.
The table is full-laden; feast ye all sumptuously.
The calf is fatted; let no one go hungry away.
Enjoy ye all the feast of faith:
Receive ye all the riches of loving-kindness.

Let no one bewail his poverty,
For the universal Kingdom has been revealed.
Let no one weep for his iniquities,
For pardon has shown forth from the grave.
Let no one fear death,
For the Saviour's death has set us free.
He that was held prisoner of it has annihilated it.

By descending into Hell, He made Hell captive.
He embittered it when it tasted of His flesh.
And Isaiah, foretelling this, did cry:
"Hell," said he, "was embittered
When it encountered Thee in the lower regions."

It was embittered, for it was abolished.
It was embittered, for it was mocked.
It was embittered, for it was slain.
It was embittered, for it was overthrown.
It was embittered, for it was fettered in chains.
It took a body, and met God face to face.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen.

O Death, where is thy sting?
O Hell, where is thy victory?

Christ is risen, and thou art overthrown!
Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen!
Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is risen, and life reigns!
Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave.
For Christ, being risen from the dead,
Is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

To Him be glory and dominion
Unto ages of ages.

Amen.

Wednesday Apr 27, 2005

Sunday of Orthodoxy at St. George Cathedral

Yes, I know the Sunday of Orthodoxy was well over a month ago -- but the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese's Orthodox Observer only comes out once a month. Here's a screenshot of their recent article on the celebration of the Sunday of Orthodoxy in Worcester, led by Archbishop Demetrios (a living saint, IMHO) and the hierarchs of SCOBA.

And an interesting article from the Orthodox Christian News Service, A Tale of Two Cities -- 2005 Update, which compares Orthodox life in Worcester and Pittsburgh, where I grew up.

The Orthodox bishops in Pittsburgh are good men, every one of them. The latest addition is Bishop Thomas Joseph, a friend and classmate from St. Vladimir's Seminary. And the people of Pittsburgh -- well, there are none better. I have every hope that things will look up from here.

Thursday Apr 21, 2005

The Life of St. Mary of Egypt

This past Sunday, the fifth Sunday of Great Lent, we celebrated the memory of St. Mary of Egypt (fixed feast April 1), honoring her as the very image of penitence. If you haven't read her life, it's well worth your time; it was composed by St Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem, and uniquely, is read liturgically as part of the Great Penitential Canon of St. Andrew of Crete at Matins on the fifth Thursday of Lent.

Troparion - Tone 8

The image of God was truly preserved in you, O mother,
For you took up the Cross and followed Christ.
By so doing, you taught us to disregard the flesh, for it passes away;
But to care instead for the soul, since it is immortal.
Therefore your spirit, O holy Mother Mary, rejoices with the Angels.

Kontakion - Tone 3

Having been a sinful woman,
You became through repentance a Bride of Christ.
Having attained angelic life,
You defeated demons with the weapon of the Cross;
Therefore, O most glorious Mary you are a Bride of the Kingdom!

Monday Apr 04, 2005

The History of Our Salvation:


Reading the Old Testament During Lent and Holy Week

O almighty Master, who hast made all creation and by thine inexpressible providence and great goodness hast brought us to these all-revered days, for the purification of soul and body, for the controlling of passions and for hope of resurrection, who, during the forty days didst give into the hands of thy servant Moses the tablets of the Law in characters divinely traced by thee: Enable us also, O good One, to fight the good fight, to complete the course of the fast, to preserve inviolate the faith, to crush under foot the heads of invisible serpents, to be accounted victors over sin; and, uncondemned, to attain unto and worship the holy resurrection. For blessed and glorified is thine all-honorable and majestic name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages.

-- Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, The Liturgikon: The Book of Divine Services for the Priest and Deacon (Englewood, New Jersey: Antakya Press, 1989), pp. 370-371.

From the first Presanctified Liturgy of the Lenten season, the Old Testament is offered to us for instruction and inspiration, and revealed to us as our guide through the forty days-those forty days which we keep in memory of Moses' sojourn on Mount Sinai, during which God gave into the hands of His servant the tablets of the Law in characters which He Himself divinely traced. This is, of course, a reference from the Book of Exodus. The second Old Testament citation in this prayer hearkens from the earliest chapters of the Book of Genesis, in which God curses the serpent who has just led Adam and Eve into temptation:

On your belly you shall go, and you shall eat dust all the days of your life. And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel.

And on Holy Saturday itself-the final day of Holy Week and the very eve of Pascha-at Lauds and again at the Vesperal Liturgy, it is "The Great" Moses himself, the central figure of the Old Testament, who reveals to us the meaning of this great day, as we sing in the doxastikon:

Moses the great mystically prefigured this present day, saying: "And God blessed the seventh day." For this is the blessed Sabbath, this is the day of rest, on which the only-begotten Son of God rested from all His works. Suffering death in accordance with the plan of salvation, He kept the Sabbath in the flesh; and returning once again to what He was, through His Resurrection He has granted us eternal life, For He alone is good and loves mankind.

-- Mother Mary and Archimandrite Kallistos Ware, translators, The Lenten Triodion (London, England: Faber and Faber, 1978), pp. 652-653, 656.

It is no accident that the central figure of the Old Testament, Moses, and the central events of the Old Testament, the exodus from Egypt, the giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai, and the Israelites' forty year pilgrimage in the desert, frame for us our forty day pilgrimage to Pascha.

Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia describes Great Lent as "an annual return to our Biblical roots. It is, more specifically, a return to our roots in the Old Testament; for during Lent, to a far greater degree than at any other time of the year, the Scriptural readings are taken from the Old Testament rather than the New." (Ibid., p. 38.)

Alexander Schmemann, of thrice-blessed memory, goes even further:

One can say that the forty days of Lent are, in a way, the return of the Church into the spiritual situation of the Old Testament-the time before Christ, the time of repentance and expectation, the time of the "history of salvation" moving toward its fulfillment in Christ. This return is necessary because even though we belong to the time after Christ, and know Him and have been "baptized into Him," we constantly fall away from the new life received from Him, and this means lapse again into the "old" time. The Church, on the one hand, is already "at home" for she is the "grace of Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit"; yet, on the other hand, she is also "on her way" as the pilgrimage-long and difficult-toward the fulfillment of all things in God, the return of Christ and the end of all time.

Great Lent is the season when this second aspect of the Church, of her life as expectation and journey, is being actualized. It is here, therefore, that the Old Testament acquires its whole significance: as the book not only of the prophecies which have been fulfilled, but of man and the entire creation "on their way" to the Kingdom of God

-- Schmemann, Alexander, Great Lent (Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1974), pp. 38-39.

And so as we go on our way to the great feast of Pascha, the Old Testament is our book, our guide, and our constant companion.

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Statement of the Antiochian Archdiocese on the Passing to Eternal Life of Pope John Paul II

We join in mourning the loss of Pope John Paul II, the great leader of the Roman Catholic Church. At the same time we rejoice in his ministry, and the legacy of compassion that he leaves to the world. We bring to mind the teaching of St. Ignatius of Antioch in his exhortation to Polycarp, the Bishop of Smyrna on the role of the bishop:

Lift up all men, as the Lord lifts you; put up with all in love, as you actually do. Be diligent in unceasing prayers; ask for more understanding than you have; watch with a sleepless spirit. Speak to each individual after the example of God; bear the sickness of all, as a perfect athlete. Where the labor is greatest, the gain is great.

(Ignatius to Polycarp 1:2-3)

It seems clear that Pope John Paul II, in his episcopacy, was true to this teaching. He touched many people of all races and religions by his example of caring, love, and compassion. He also served as a strong example of what it means to suffer and die with grace. He has “fought the good fight.” (2 Timothy 4:7)

His Eminence Metropolitan PHILIP had met Pope John Paul II on two occasions and was impressed by his faithfulness, and holiness. Surely his soul is resting in peace and his memory is eternal.

And on the topic of Lenten reading...

I highly recommend these daily "Dynamis" sermons from David Patton, based upon the Orthodox Church lectionary and delivered to your email inbox one day in advance. Dynamis is a project of the Education Committee of St. George Orthodox Christian Cathedral in Wichita, Kansas.

For more information, visit the Dynamis page on Yahoo groups or the Dynamis home page. To subscribe, click here.

Sunday Mar 27, 2005

Happy Easter, Part I

A joyous Easter to my brethren and sistern who celebrate the feast today, on March 27.

For us Orthodox, however, this is only the Second Sunday of Lent, on which we celebrate the memory of St. Gregory Palamas. Easter, for us, falls this year on May 1 -- five weeks away.

For more information on how the Church calendar works, check out this article on Dating Pascha in the Orthodox Church by Dr. Lewis J. Patsavos, Professor of Canon Law at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, or this article on The Date of Pascha by Fr. Nabil Hanna. You can also read Dr. Patsavos's article on The Calendar of the Orthodox Church, which is broader in scope.

Catholic and Protestant friends, party on!

Orthodox friends, back to the mujadara...

Wednesday Mar 23, 2005

More from Fr. Maximos

Fr. Maximos tells Markides: "We lost the knowledge of God at the moment when we transformed the Ecclesia [Church] from experience into theology, from a living reality into moralistic principles, good values, and high ideals. When that happened," Fr. Maximos said humorously, "we became like tin cans with nothing inside." (p. 55)

Perhaps this explains my discomfort with the "Christian Right", and my concern that they are often neither one nor the other.

Fr. Maximos continued: "Learn how to accept sorrows as divine gifts, including personal failures. Through experiences of grief human beings have the opportunity to place the stone of their heart into a grinder and turn it into dust. They must go through these sorrows of the heart. Through grief they may come out victorious. Life itself is a form of askesis [ascetical effort]. People just don't recognize it and lose heart."

"What does not kill me gives me strength," [Markides] muttered, quoting the well-known aphorism.

"Right," Fr. Maximos replied and nodded. [Markides] was almost certain that he had never heard of Nietzche. (p. 60)

I'm almost certain neither of them have ever heard of Conan the Barbarian. :)

And Fr. Maximos tells a story of his own spiritual father, the Elder Paisios: "One day old Paisios was visited in his remote hermitage by a group of five obnoxious young men, full of pride and arrogance. He patiently spent several hours showing them extra attention. But a theology teacher who was present became irritable and impatient. 'How could you tolerate them?' he asked him. And the elder replied, 'Have you ever wondered how God could tolerate you?'"

Now there's something to noodle on this Lent...

Sunday Mar 13, 2005

The Sunday of Forgiveness

Each year, as the Orthodox Church stands at the very threshold of Great Lent, we hear these words from Jesus's Sermon on the Mount:

If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

-- Matthew 6:14-21

The Sunday of Forgiveness takes its name from the first verse in this passage. And therefore, at the conclusion of Vespers on this day, the Church prescribes a unique ritual: everyone in the church, from the oldest priest to the youngest child, bows down before everyone else -- one at a time -- and asks forgiveness of the other. "Forgive me," implores the one; "God forgives," responds the other, embracing and exchanging two or three kisses of peace -- and then they reverse parts, so that everyone has both asked forgiveness of, and forgiven everyone else, everyone has bowed down in front of everyone else, everyone has embraced everyone else. And all the while, the hymns (canon) of Pascha are being quietly chanted in the background. So does the Orthodox Church enter the season of Great Lent.

So the obvious question is, what if I haven't done anything (bad) to the other person? What am I asking their forgiveness for? And why are they asking forgiveness of me?

This is a close cousin to the other obvious question, why do I need to go to confession if I don't have anything to confess?

It turns out these questions share a common answer.

Think back to last week's lesson. Recall that the last judgment itself is based on six simple questions:

1. Did we give food to the hungry?
2. Did we give drink to the thirsty?
3. Did we take in the stranger?
4. Did we clothe the naked?
5. Did we visit the sick?
6. Did we come to the prisoner?

And note that all of these questions regard, not what evil things we did, but what good things we failed to do. If we examine our lives and our hearts, which the disciplines of Lent allow and encourage us to do, not many of us stand guiltless in this regard.

And then look again at last week's reading, and recognize that "inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me", and "inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me." (Matthew 25:40, 45) What we do, or fail to do, for each other, we do or fail to do for God Himself. We sin against God in sinning against each other.

And the converse is equally true. Because we share one common human nature, and in the Church, as we form together the Body of Christ (as St. Paul writes in Romans 12:5, "we, being many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another"), what we do, or fail to do, for God, we do or fail to do for each other. We sin against each other in sinning against God. The victimless crime where "no one got hurt", the private sin in which "no harm was done", is simply a fantasy, an illusion. I could be alone on a desert island and sin there in my solitude -- and I would be sinning against all of you, and in need not only of God's forgiveness, but of yours. And the converse holds true, which is why we offer forgiveness on this day even to those we are meeting for the first time.

And so on this day, as a token of what I should be doing every day, from my heart, I ask your forgiveness for everything I have done that I should not have done, and for the much longer list of things I should have done that I failed to do. Whether we know each other or not. Whether or not we've ever met. And from my heart, I share with you God's forgiveness and assure you of my own, in a virtual embrace and kiss of peace. Perhaps the first time this has ever been done by blog. :)

And in our minds and hearts, may we hear the words of the Paschal verses:

This is the day of Resurrection; let us be illumined by the Feast, let us embrace each other! Let us call "brother" even those who hate us, and forgive all by the Resurrection. And so let us cry: "Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!"

Saturday Mar 05, 2005

The Sunday of The Last Judgment

Each year, as the Orthodox Church prepares to enter the season of Great Lent, we hear, from St. Matthew's gospel, Jesus's account of the last judgment:

"When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory. All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats. And He will set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on His right hand, 'Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.'"

"Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, 'Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?' And the King will answer and say to them, 'Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.'"

"Then He will also say to those on the left hand, 'Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels: for I was hungry and you gave Me no food; I was thirsty and you gave Me no drink; I was a stranger and you did not take Me in, naked and you did not clothe Me, sick and in prison and you did not visit Me.'"

"Then they also will answer Him, saying, 'Lord, when did we see You hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to You?' Then He will answer them, saying, 'Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.' And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."

-- Matthew 25:31-46

A sermon on this theme is practically superfluous. I can give a good one in four words:

"No, He's not kidding."

Okay, here's another one:

"Yes, He is serious."

It's that simple because the judgment itself is that simple, based on six simple questions:

1. Did we give food to the hungry?
2. Did we give drink to the thirsty?
3. Did we take in the stranger?
4. Did we clothe the naked?
5. Did we visit the sick?
6. Did we come to the prisoner?

The simplicity of this judgment would be apparent to the rural Palestinians to whom Jesus was speaking. Sheep and goats are separated because, at night, the sheep like to sleep outside in the fresh air; the goats, without the thick coats, prefer the warmth of a cave. Sheep are valuable; goats are not. Sheep are white; goats are black. It is literally a black and white decision.

The one un-simple question is why? Why would such an important (and eternal) thing like the judgment rest on six questions? And why on these six questions in particular?

It is -- simply -- because, as St. John writes in his first epistle, "God is love." (1 John 4:8) And having been created in His image and likeness (Gen. 1:26-27), that love is in us. Moreover, that love has been renewed in us, poured out on us, every day of our lives. And the love of God -- and this is critical -- isn't puppy love. It isn't Valentine's Day love, or Senior Prom love, or staring dreamily into each other's eyes love. The love of God sacrifices that which is dearest to it in favor of the beloved.

It was this love that caused Abraham to bind Isaac, his son, his only son, whom he loved, to an altar of wood, in order (had God not interceded) to offer him up as a burnt offering. (Genesis 22:1-19)

It was this love that held Jesus to the cross. Do you think a few iron nails could have held the Son of God to a piece of wood? He who created both the iron and the wood out of nothing?

"Our God," writes St. Paul in the Epistle to the Hebrews, "is a consuming fire." (Hebrews 12:29) And if "God is love", then this love is a consuming fire. If this love is in us, then we are on fire.

And, on the last day, when God is revealed as "all in all" (1 Cor. 15:28), when the consuming fire of His love is engulfing us, one of two things can happen.

If we are on fire with it ourselves, then we have returned to that from which we were made: we are in paradise; we are in heaven; we are home.

But if, on the other hand, we have allowed that fire within us to go out, if it has been extinguished by disdain and neglect and the passage of time, then... well, what happens when you cast a piece of cold, dead driftwood into a blazing fire? Great for fire; not so good for the driftwood.

It is, in the end, really that simple.

Six simple questions. Four simple words.

"Yes, He is serious."

"No, He's not kidding."

Sunday Feb 06, 2005

Smiting, Yearning, and Leaping

I've been Orthodox (Christian) for going on 24 years now, and if you figure I've said the Prayers Before Holy Communion at least 50 times a year, that nets out to well over a thousand times. And yet this morning, one of the prayers that I've been staring at for all these years veritably leapt off the page at me:

Thou hast smitten me with yearning, O Christ, and by Thy divine love hast Thou changed me. But with Thine immaterial fire, consume my sins and count me worthy to be filled with delight in Thee, that leaping for joy, O Good One, I may magnify Thy two comings.

Who ever said religion was boring, or prayers were dull? We have big action verbs going on here! Smiting, yearning, leaping -- and immaterial fire!\*

I am smitten with yearning for more.

This prayer is from the lovely Prayerbook for Orthodox Christians from Holy Transfiguration Monastery in Brookline, Massachusetts.

----------
\*Note that this immaterial fire is not the fire of purgatory, the Roman Catholic doctrine of which the Orthodox do not hold. I rather suspect the reference is to the Holy Spirit, Who descends upon the Apostles on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2) in the form of tongues of fire, resulting in delight, joy, and magnification (praise) of Christ in His first and (anticipated) second comings.

Sunday Dec 26, 2004

The Sunday After Christmas

Silent Night, Holy Night;
All is calm, all is bright.
Round yon Virgin Mother and Child,
Holy Infant so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace;
sleep in heavenly peace!

Silence, calm, peacefulness: the marks of a night where all is quiet, everyone sleeping, nothing stirring. But on this night, the silence is a cover, a disguise, to hide from prying eyes the beginnings of a radical plan to rescue us from a trap we had fallen into so long ago.

"In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." (Gen. 1:1) And of all the things He created, man was the pinnacle: created in His own image and likeness, he was intended to live in free and perfect communion with his Creator, sharing His dominion over the creation: "Out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to Adam to see what he would call them. And whatever Adam called each living creature, that was its name." (Gen. 2:19) God wanted to share everything with him, His very life, offering him the possibility of becoming, by grace, what He is by nature.

It did not take long for God's plan to go awry. Seduced by the one whose bitterness and envy and despair now infect the whole creation, man tasted (experienced, in the biblical metaphor) the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The serpent promised him that "in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil". (Gen. 3:5) God wanted man to be like Him, but in His own way and His own time. Man wanted it his way, to be like God without God, and the result, sadly, is our alienation from Him and from each other since that day. We were deceived, duped -- trapped, and unable to save ourselves.

So on this silent, holy night, thousands of years later, God took it upon Himself to save us. He sent His Son, "who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross." (Phil. 2:6-8) But He sent Him in disguise: as a baby, in meekness, humility, even mortality (for God, the ultimate act of humility!). He did this out of respect for our freedom, the freedom with which He endowed us in creating us, the freedom which makes us like Him. We had freely chosen to go our own way; we had freely (though unwittingly) enslaved ourselves to the deceiver. And now He, Himself, submitted to the deceiver's rules:

1. Every man sins;
2. Sin, because it separates us from God, the source of our life, brings about our death;
3. Therefore every man dies.

Now he, the deceiver, knew that something was going on.

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying "Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him." When Herod the king heard these things he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. So they said to him, "In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet: 'But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are not the least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you shall come a Ruler Who will shepherd My people Israel.'" (Micah 5:2) Then Herod, when he had secretly called the wise men, determined from them what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, "Go and search diligently for the young Child, and when you have found Him, bring back word to me, that I may come and worship Him also."

-- Matthew 2:1-8

Of course, Herod's plan was not to worship Him but to kill Him. The wise men were warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod, so they returned to their own country in secret.

Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, was exceedingly angry; and he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying: "A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted, because they were no more." (Jeremiah 31:15)

-- Matthew 2:16-18

Silent night? Holy night? Hardly! Jesus escaped this first of many attempts on his life when his foster-father, Joseph, being himself warned in a dream, fled with Him and His mother, Mary, to Egypt, until the death of Herod. Even then, they could not return to their home in Judea, but settled in the city of Nazareth, in the region of Galilee. The deceiver did not give up trying to destroy him. Thirty-three years later, he succeeded -- even though he did not grasp, until it was too late, what would be the result. For in "humbling Himself and becoming obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross", Jesus shattered his rules -- and thereby, his rule over the creation:

1. Every man sins -- but Jesus did not sin, ever;
2. Sin, because it separates us from God, the source of our life, brings about our death -- but Jesus, being God, was never and could never be separated from God, and being immortal, could not be held captive by death;
3. Therefore every man dies -- and in submitting to this unjust death, Jesus, the one son of Adam who should not have been subject to death, breaks death's hold on us!

He destroys its power over us; he frees us from our enslavement to the deceiver whose lies caused us to die in the first place. He traps, in his own rules, the one who entrapped us! Silent night? Holy night? Ho ho ho! It marks for us the beginning of the end of our enslavement to bitterness and envy and despair, our alienation from God and from each other, and ultimately from our true selves and all we were created by God and intended -- with great love! -- to be.

If today marks for us the beginning of the end, then the end of the end comes at Easter, when Christ's victory over death is celebrated and proclaimed. Each year, on that holy night, we hear these words from the Paschal sermon of St. John Chrysostom:

Let no one fear death, for the Savior's death has set us free. He that was held prisoner of it has annihilated it. By descending into Hell, He made Hell captive. He embittered it when it tasted of His flesh. And Isaiah, foretelling this, did cry: Hell, said he, was embittered, when it encountered Thee in the lower regions. It was embittered, for it was abolished! It was embittered, for it was mocked! It was embittered, for it was slain! It was embittered, for it was overthrown! It was embittered, for it was fettered in chains! It took a body, and met God face to face. It took earth, and encountered Heaven. It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen. O Death, where is thy sting? O Hell, where is thy victory? Christ is risen, and thou art overthrown! Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen! Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice! Christ is risen, and life reigns! Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave! For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep. To Him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages! Amen.

Amen -- Christ is Born! Glorify Him!

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