Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Sunday After the Nativity of Christ

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

"Christ is born!”

Today we have come to the Sunday after the Nativity of Christ and the commemoration of the Proto-martyr Stephen. The word proto means “first,” and has been connected to St. Stephen as the first recorded martyr of the Church era. Although he is the first official Christian martyr, St. Stephen is far from being the very first person to die for Jesus Christ. As we heard from our gospel lesson from St. Matthew’s account (Matt. 2:13-23), that terrible distinction is shared by the estimated 14,000 innocent young boys--two years of age and under--who were slaughtered by King Herod in his mad search to find the Christ Child.

I have a friend who claims to be an atheist. He’s a good person, as all my friends tend to be, but he has it stuck in his head that a truly good and merciful God would not allow human suffering to exist in the world. Imagine how he might react to a story like this from the gospel! (“14,000 children dead? How could a good God allow that?”). People often look at tragedy as a sign that something must be wrong with God. They seldom seem willing to consider the problem from the other side, namely that something just might be terribly wrong with us human beings and with the world as we have made it.

The Holy Scriptures tell us that God created the world as a Paradise, void of suffering and death. Man was created in perfect communion with God, Who was also the source of our life and peace and blessing. These same ancient writings also record the dark story of mankind’s rejection of God, how we broke communion with our Life-giver, to bring death and every terror into our world, completely altering and effectively destroying what God meant for us to experience. This world, as we know it today, bears little resemblance to the world as God originally made it. Our Creator never intended for His creation to be filled with the many evils that we see and experience today, and perhaps inflict upon others. It is we human beings who have made our world what it is. And what we have done, cannot be undone by us. The broken vase cannot be repaired by the careless hand which broke it; only by the Master’s hand which first created it in its beauty and perfection.

All people have a sense that something is wrong with this world, but most don’t seem to understand that the world itself is fallen and that the sins of man are responsible for making it that way. Instead, people blame God for apparently creating an “imperfect” world. Many, like my atheist friend, assume that if God is truly loving, nothing bad should ever happen to people--at least not to so-called “good” people. In their minds, God should remove all suffering from the human experience and allow us to at least pretend that we are still living in a kind of Paradise.

But if God did so, it would not address the deeper problems of our brokenness. It would not restore our communion with God, with one another, with creation itself; it would not cure the consequences of our sins or undo the power of death. It would not redeem our fallen world. Such an action on God’s part would be like medicating a curable patient to mask his pain, without operating to remove the fatal disease which is slowly yet certainly taking his life. Because God is good and the lover of mankind, He allows the terrible symptoms of our disease to be felt and experienced by us in order that we might come to our senses and turn back to Him to find our healing and restoration to full communion and everlasting life.

In the Nicene Creed we recite together every Sunday, there are two tiny little words, so easy to overlook, which nevertheless contain the answer to all human pain and misery. Those words are found in the section which tells us that Jesus Christ was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and suffered, and was buried. Perhaps unexpectedly, those two, all-important words are “and suffered”. Why did our Ecumenical Fathers consider it so important to tell us that Jesus suffered at His crucifixion? We might think, “Well, yeah, I suppose crucifixion is painful, so Jesus probably did suffer. But come on, He only suffered for three hours; my suffering has gone on my entire life. There’s really no comparison.” And we would be right to say there’s no comparison. But once again, we have looked at the problem from the wrong perspective.

You or I possess only a human, and thus a limited, capacity for suffering. A single human being can only suffer so much, even over an entire lifetime. But Jesus Christ is divine, and thus possesses a divine capacity for suffering in Himself, which is entirely without limit. Jesus therefore, in His crucifixion, took upon Himself the sufferings of the entire world and of all human beings who ever did or who ever will live. In those three short hours, He took all the sufferings of our entire race upon Himself in order to redeem those sufferings and turn them from a meaningless horror into the path to our salvation.

He bore our sufferings upon the Cross. What does this mean except that every tear ever shed has been shared by Him, every injustice, cruelty, or pain suffered by anyone, anywhere has been borne by Him, and every bitter, fearful, or lonely moment of our human existence has been conquered by Him and transformed into a grace-filled encounter with the power of God to help us overcome this fallen world and persevere with Him unto glorification in the world yet to be revealed. Although the world we have made is still a dark and terrible place, our suffering goes no longer unanswered, and we are no more alone. No single drop of blood falls without a God who takes note of it and redeems it to make it into yet another stepping stone into heaven. Jesus Christ, by His divine suffering, has made our sufferings into an open door to Paradise once again.

Think of it this way: If suffering and death are the two inescapable realities of this fallen world, then what could a good God do except to remake suffering and death into the very means of man’s salvation? Suffering and death still retain their outward forms, but they both have been changed dramatically by the power of God. Suffering, instead of merely wearing us down, now has the capacity to unite us to Christ, who redeemed all our sufferings upon His Cross. And death, instead of being the end of all things, now transports us into the glorious presence of Christ in heaven, where there is no longer any suffering, nor tears, nor sorrow.

As long as this world remains fallen, suffering and death will also remain. But they have lost their teeth. Their effects have now been rendered temporary, while their benefits have become eternal. This is the good news that all the saints and confessors and holy martyrs understood so well. They joyously endured the most dreadful sufferings to become one with their suffering Savior. And they happily laid down their lives for one brief moment in time, in order to take them up again forever and ever.

Could this be why we commemorate the martyrdom of St. Stephen and the slaughter of the 14,000 Holy Innocents a mere two days after our celebration of the Nativity of Christ? These horrible stories seem way out of step with the spirit of Christmas cheer. Yet the truth is that they--and every other tragic story in human history--have everything to do with why the Son of God took flesh and joined Himself to our race. It was impossible for us to escape the forces of suffering and death in this world as we have made it, so He entered into our world and changed these forces from within. He took away their power to destroy and equipped them with the power to save. They will still catch and overtake us eventually. But if we place our hope in God, we will find that their bitterness has been replaced by a gentle sweetness and a spiritual joy beyond all measure.

One day all suffering and death will be removed and God will completely restore all creation to beauty, along with all those who love Him and desire their salvation. In the meantime, in this our present time, life is still marred by the forces we have brought into it. But our good God has seen fit to impart even to those forces the power of redemption. Even in the shadow of suffering and death, we celebrate His mercy and kindness toward us sinners. Christ is born! Glorify Him!

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


At 1/15/2010 2:19 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've been thinking alot about suffering and had a few thoughts I'd like your opinion.

It seems to me that existance is based on aspects with opposing positions at the ends and transition in between for the most part. Black, white and grays; Good, evil and in between, temperature, motion, eating food, drinking, matter anti matter, etc..

You cannot distinguish somthing if it doesn't ahve an opposite meaning.

One cannot experience goodness without evil and cannot experience love without suffering.

Genisis states that prior to the fall God didn't want man to experience the fruit from the tree of good and evil. This passage make no sense unless to experience good means man had to experience the opposite in evil.

At 1/15/2010 11:47 PM , Blogger Fr. Michael Reagan said...

Thank you for reading my blog, Anonymous.

Since you are asking my opinion, I don’t think Orthodox Christian tradition would support the idea that it is necessary to experience evil in order to know good.

Evil does not have a literal existence, since all things that truly exist were made by God, and all that God has made is “very good”. Our First Parents lived in a Paradise absent of evil, yet they were still able to know and experienced the goodness of God and His creation. Evil is a condition or state of being brought about by the rejection of God, including any action that seeks life or knowledge apart from the life and knowledge that God imparts to His beings.

In the Orthodox tradition, even the “Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil” is identified as something essentially good, created by God and intended by Him for mankind to partake of when it had reached the proper level of maturity. To partake of this tree at the proper time by God’s direction would not have been an evil action, nor would it have introduced evil into the world. It would have been a beneficial action, granting to man a higher wisdom at a time when he was ready to receive it, and gain from it. Our First Parents jumped the gun and partook of the tree at the suggestion of the Serpent, in direct violation of God’s command, and long before they were prepared to deal with the results. Realizing their error, they lied to God and tried to conceal their violation. Their arrogant desire to gain knowledge apart from their Creator and quite on their own--and the deceit which followed--constituted an outright rejection of God and broke their life-giving communion with Him. Apart from God’s life, mankind was introduced to death and every suffering; not as a punishment from God, but as the natural result of being separated from His life. This condition, and the actions which lead to it and further it, could be characterized as “evil”.

This understanding, which comes from the Holy Fathers of the Orthodox Church, demonstrates that the presence of evil as a predominate force in God’s creation is still an anomaly, never intended by our Creator. We were meant to experience good, and still can if make the choice to draw near to God and depend upon Him alone. Although all of us now know evil, such knowledge in its present form or in our present condition is neither useful to us, nor essentially necessary to know and experience the goodness of God.

I hope that helps.


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