Sunday, December 28, 2008

Celebrate with Attentiveness

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

“Christ is Born! Glorify Him!”

Today is the Sunday after the Nativity of Christ, and our gospel lesson this morning [Matthew 2:13-23] recounts an event which took place within two years after our Lord’s birth. The event is King Herod’s frantic search for the Child prophesied from ancient times to become the Shepherd and Ruler of Israel. Herod, being of evil intent, did not seek the new-born Christ in order to worship Him, but to put Him to death, thus eliminating any threat to his own kingdom and rule. In a very real sense, Herod portrays the devil, who also feared that the appearance of Christ signified the end of his tyranny as “the prince of darkness” and as “the ruler of the darkness of this age”. Herod also portrays all men who would drive Christ out from their hearts, rather than allow Him to take His rightful seat as King.

After finding the Christ, the wise men were warned in a dream of Herod’s treachery, and thus returned to their own country without reporting back to him. It is at this point that our gospel lesson picks up the story. When Herod discovered he had been tricked by the wise men, in a rage he ordered the slaughter of all male infants two years of age and under in Bethlehem and in all the surrounding area, in an effort to kill the Christ. Some 14,000 “Holy Innocents,” as they have come to be known by Christians, were slaughtered during this campaign. The Church has always regarded these children as saints and martyrs, glorified in heaven, and indeed the very first of untold millions of saints who would be put to death for Christ’s sake over the next 2000 years.

Today we find ourselves in the midst of one of the great festive periods of the Church. Having fasted for forty days and having celebrated the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ only three days ago, we now suspend all fasting until January 5th and enjoy the traditional “Twelve Days of Christmas” until the Feast of Holy Theophany on January 6th. On the first Sunday of this wonderful time of feasting and celebration and of greeting one another with the joyous words, “Christ is born! Glorify Him!,” we read this most terrible and shocking story of the brutal murder of those beautiful and innocent baby boys who died because of a hatred for Christ held by the powers and rulers of this world.

We might be tempted to think that this depressing reading simply doesn’t belong with the festivity of the Christmas season. But there is no mistake; it is here for a reason. Our Mother the Church wants us to understand a very important reality, namely that this fallen world hates Jesus Christ and all those even remotely associated with Him. The devil incited violence against these children simply because they were the same age as Jesus and were born in roughly the same region. How much more must his hatred burn against those of us who are actually called by His name and seek to follow Him in truth! Herod’s outrageous action against these “holy innocents” was only the beginning of the long and bloody war against God’s saints that continued in the early Church and will continue until the return of Christ Himself at the end of the age.

It’s as if, by placing this reading in the midst of our Christmas holidays, the Church is telling us, “Go ahead, children, celebrate the birth of your Savior and rejoice in the glad tidings of great joy. But do not let your celebration lead you to carelessness. Remember that you are aliens and sojourners in a land that is hostile to your faith. Be attentive and on your guard, lest in folly you follow after this world in rejecting your Lord”.

You see, this is where the danger lies for us. We understand celebrating. We enjoy it quite a bit. We like to eat whatever we want and kind of let slip a bit in our discipline and self-control. In fact, it is the whole concept of discipline and self-control that we have a problem with, if the truth be told, and especially spiritual discipline and ascetic self-control. We know that prayer and fasting, church attendance and tithing, bible-reading and attentiveness to our repentance and to our spiritual life are all good for us, but they are also hard for us and are things that we more or less have to force ourselves to do. These things are always a struggle for us, and I’m not sure if the struggle really ever get any easier. But the mature Christian is one who has come to realize that they are simply necessary for the health of his soul, and must be attended to, no matter how great the struggle.

I’m sure we realize that if we simply lived as we pleased, we would tend to live for pleasure and not for spiritual gain. We would make certain that we were well taken care of physically, but neglect the formation of an interior life with God, and allow our souls to atrophy. Perhaps we would even continue to be Orthodox on the outside, filling our beautiful churches on Sundays and enjoying the company of good friends at coffee-hour, while allowing ourselves to remain completely empty on the inside and strangers to God.

Yes we live in a that is world hostile to our faith. But that hostility does not always come from the outside, in the form of persecution. It often has come that way for the Church, and it certainly will come that way again before the scroll of time is rolled up. But just as often the enemies of Christ are found within the Church and even within ourselves, in our neglect and indifference, in our spiritual sloth, and in our reluctance to fully embrace Jesus Christ and form a place for Him to dwell within our hearts as King.

In putting this shocking reading right at the beginning of the Christmas season, it would seem that our Mother would remind us to enjoy ourselves, but not to take too much ease. We can celebrate Christ’s birth with great joy, but at the same time we must be attentive to the ongoing work of preparing our souls to meet and receive Him.

Thus while we sing, “Christ is born. Glorify Him!” and the Church clothed in radiant purity cries in joy, “…The Truth has come! God is made manifest! He is born of the Virgin, enlightening those who sit in darkness, for the salvation of the world!” let us not forget that our work is far from done and over. We must still pay attention to our souls and fight even our own inner hostility toward the light of Christ and our reluctance to give ourselves wholly and completely to Him. We must always labor to make a fitting place within our souls for Christ to dwell, that from there He may reign as true Lord and King of all creation, beginning with us.

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

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