Saturday, December 30, 2006

The Gospel of Jesus Christ

+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen.

Today is the Leave-taking of the Feast of the Nativity of Christ and appropriately our gospel lesson from St. Mark announces “the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”. From this point on, the Church will jump quickly through the early years of Jesus’ life, commemorating first His circumcision as a Jewish infant and then His baptism as an adult. Over the next several weeks our lessons will follow Jesus through certain highlights of His ministry and then in just about a month we will join Him on the long Lenten road leading to Jerusalem and to His crucifixion, death, burial, and glorious third-day resurrection.

With Christmas now behind us and Great Lent just around the corner, I’d like to pause for a moment this morning to reflect on the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ itself. We Orthodox Christians are blessed to witness this gospel unfold in its entirety before us every year in the lessons and liturgical celebrations we observe. One of the things that this experience helps us to understand and appreciate is that the gospel is so much more than just “Jesus died for you”. We certainly do not minimize the importance of Jesus’ death upon the Cross, but neither do we isolate it from every other vitally important event in Jesus’ life, or present it as if it were the only thing He accomplished that actually saves us. To do so creates both an imbalance and a distorted understanding of the gospel.

There are many Christians today who do focus almost exclusively on Jesus’ death as if it were the single saving work of God. I mentioned last week that there are many believers who refuse to celebrate Christmas because they do not recognize any particular benefit in Jesus being joined to our humanity. “Jesus took a body merely to die upon the Cross” they will reason. Any one of these people hearing this homily might likely scoff and reply, “OK ‘Preacher,’ tell us how we are saved by the baptism of Jesus, or by His multiplying the loaves to feed the five thousand. And we can’t WAIT to hear you explain how we are personally saved by His circumcision!”

Well believe it or not, all of these events as well as everything else Jesus ever did are a part of the saving work of God. You see, there is one significant detail that the scoffers seem to overlook here, and that is that Jesus is God incarnate. Does God ever accomplish any work or utter so much as even a single word that is useless or in vain? Every action of God toward mankind is meaningful, and ultimately aimed at and connected to our salvation.

The circumcision of Jesus, besides being the very first place that His precious and life-giving blood was shed by the hand of man, was also the action by which He was joined to the Church of the Old Testament. As that Old Testament Church began to be transformed into the New Testament Church, we see Jesus baptized at around the age of thirty to initiate the “new circumcision,” the means whereby we can now be joined to Him and thus receive in our flesh all the benefits of the works divinely-wrought in His flesh.

In the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand, we see Jesus multiplying a few loaves at the hands of His apostles to feed a great multitude. This is clearly a prefiguring of the Holy Eucharist in which the priests, acting in the place of the apostles, who themselves were acting in the place of Christ, now feed the people of God the true food of Christ’s body which He gives “for the life of the world”.

Every action of Christ is done to complete some aspect of our salvation. His death would hold little meaning to us if it had not been followed by His resurrection. His resurrection would not have completed our salvation had it not been followed by His ascension into heaven, which allows us also to ascend with Him into heaven. There is nothing that Jesus did that was incidental or simply “filler material” in the work of our salvation.

As Orthodox Christians going through the cycle of the liturgical year, the reality of this is witnessed again and again, for in every case in our various festal celebrations we enter anew into the timelessness of Jesus’ work. When a mere man performs some action, it is captured by time and eventually fades into annuls of human history. But when the God-man Jesus Christ performs some action, it transcends time and stands above it, never growing “old” or becoming merely historical, but remaining eternally “now”.

For example, we know that there was a time and a point in human history in which the Son of God was crucified in the flesh. And yet we also find in Revelation 13:8 the description of Him as “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world”. How can this be? How can He be both slain in time, and yet slain outside time? The answer is that the actions of the Son of God, even if done in His flesh and within human time, are not limited to flesh or time but stand eternally and always remain fresh and new.

The Church understands the eternal nature of Christ’s actions, and this is why we always speak of His work, not in the past-tense, but in the present tense. We sing, “Christ is risen from the dead!” not Christ was risen, for example. All of the Church’s liturgical language in describing Christ’s work is framed in the present-tense of the eternal “now”.

Thus when we celebrate these various feasts portraying some aspect of Christ’s saving work, it is never a merely historical remembrance, but always an active participation in something that is eternal and “now” accomplished for our sakes and for our salvation. This is why we stress the importance of coming to Church and celebrating these feasts, and not simply staying home because you’re tired or don’t like mid-week services. This is your salvation that’s being remembered, revealed, and re-actualized. You shouldn’t allow yourself to miss these opportunities during the year, lest your salvation itself fade into little more than a distant past memory.

And so the gospel of Jesus Christ, while certainly containing historical elements, is definitely eternal in nature and is presented again and again fresh and anew within the Church until the Day that He returns to fulfill it. And if Christ should return at some point in the coming New Year, I pray that He will find each of us in Church, awaiting Him, expecting Him, and not at all surprised by His appearing.

+To the glory of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.


At 12/31/2006 5:22 AM , Anonymous Bruce said...

Again, I am amazed that this is something I have never considered in my entire Christian life of more than 45 years!! I will say that I have just loved embedding myself into the "Church calendar" over these past ten years in the Orthodox Church. After a decade of being Orthodox, I can feel the seasons coming. I hear the choir singing songs, and similar to the feeling one gets when you hear "an oldie" on the radio-that warm feeling hits me and reminds me what season I am in!

Thanks be to God for His Church!!

At 12/31/2006 11:04 AM , Anonymous handmaid leah said...

Fr. Bless!
Everytime I read something like this I think, 'that is what I love about Holy Orthodoxy! and that is exactly what I have trouble articulating to my loved ones' about the Church of Jesus Christ. Wow! Thank you and Happy New Year!
Glory to God for all things!
the handmaid,

At 1/02/2007 12:12 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fr. Bless.

What a wonderful articulation of the way of salvation. While I am not yet Orthodox (I wait upon my wife to become ready) I have drunk deeply from the well for these last 10 years. Thank you Fr. for this reflection on the life of Christ revealed through the faith of the Church throughout the year!




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