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.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

The Genealogy of Christ

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

This long list of names from the first chapter of St. Matthew’s gospel is of course the genealogy of Jesus Christ. It is read in the Church on every Sunday before Christmas to remind us that the eternal Son of God has truly been born as a man and has entered forever into our human race. This is the most significant event to have happened to us since our original creation, and if you think about it, it is even more amazing.

Out of love God created the heavens and the earth. He then took not the highest, most sublime element of that creation but indeed the very lowest element, the dust of the earth, and formed that into a man made in His own image. Already we see the humility of God in this action. For men make images of themselves in bronze or perhaps even gold, but God has placed His holy image in a creature made of dust, of mere clay. He then breathed His own Holy Spirit into that man and animated him, making him a living soul.

As further proof of God’s humility He not only made man in His own image, but according to His likeness. This is not a redundancy; these two descriptions of “image” and “likeness” found in the Genesis account of our creation have been understood by the holy fathers of the Church as referring to two different things. Image in a sense is static; we are made in God’s image and remain that way even if that image should become corrupted and distorted by our sin. Likeness on the other hand is dynamic; it implies growth toward whatever it is that we are made to become like, in this case, God.

This means that man was created with the capacity to continually grow in “God-likeness” and by such growth, to gain an ever-increasing share in the very glory of God. In describing the fall of man, St. Paul wrote, “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God”. In this brief description we can see that the apostle mystically understood the original intention of God for man, namely that man might grow toward the glory of God. The fall represents the interruption of man’s theosis or deification; the loss of his very path of growth toward God-likeness and a share in His glory.

To bring man back to that path, God did the most unexpected and incredible thing. Even the thought of what God did should leave us mere creatures trembling with awe and fear.

For what God did was to become one of us.

The eternal and Almighty Creator of all that exists, the One before Whom the heavenly hosts bow down in worship and continually cry out “Holy, holy, holy,” forever joined Himself to the lowly clay of His own making. In the hymn, “With mystic apprehension,” the Church poetically portrays the archangel Gabriel as stunned by this revelation as he exclaims “Lo, He who in His descent didst bow the heavens is housed unchanged and whole” in the womb of the Virgin Mary. He continues, “As I behold Him in thy womb, taking on the form of a servant, I marvel and cry out to thee: Hail, O Bride without Bridegroom!” In another hymn we hear, “Awed by the beauty of thy virginity and the exceeding radiance of thy purity, Gabriel stood amazed and cried to thee, O Mother of God: What praise may I offer thee that is worthy of thy beauty? By what name shall I call thee?” And listen to this, for this portrays the incredible heavenly wonder so well, as the archangel Gabriel exclaims, “I am lost and bewildered.” What amazing words for the Church to place in the mouth of the great archangel! Fearful and speechless before the marvel he beholds, Gabriel can only reply, “I shall greet thee as I was commanded: Hail, thou that are full of grace.”

How earthshaking is this event! And not the earth only, for heaven itself was deeply shaken at the sight of the glorious and Almighty God lowering Himself all the way down to take on our flesh in the womb of the Virgin. Can you see, my brothers and sisters, why this event is even more amazing, even more astonishing than our very creation in the first place?

Have you ever wondered why the Orthodox Church makes such a big deal out of the Feast of the Nativity of Christ—why we fast for forty days, why we have so many services leading up to it and celebrating it—when so many others seem to only observe it on a single day, or else blow it off entirely and make Christmas a stay-at-home “family day”? Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that the incarnation of the Son of God is such an awesome event that the archangels and all the hosts of heaven tremble at the sight of it! How much more should we?

Many years ago a Christian friend whom I once looked up to instructed me that Christ didn’t do anything special by being born. “All men are born,” he reasoned. “What Christ did special was to die on the Cross for our salvation”. Just a year after that, this friend fell away from Christ and became a disbeliever. I was disappointed, but not surprised. If one has no comprehension of the glory of the incarnation and no appreciation for the divine condescension shown by the Son of God in accepting our flesh for all eternity, it is a small step indeed from there to complete apostasy.

It is this marvel of Christ’s incarnation that the Church keeps before us continually, even throughout the entire year, lest we fall into the slumber of disbelief. This is why we constantly call Mary the “Theotokos and Mother of the Light” and honor and glorify her in song. We honor Mary, even as the archangel did and as the heavenly hosts still do, so that we might never forget the wonder of the incarnation or the unspeakable humility of God that it reveals, or the great honor that has been bestowed upon our lowly race by the birth of Jesus Christ.

Christ is born. Glorify Him!

Glorify Him, by never forgetting what God has done for you.

Glorify Him, by your willingness to take on the sufferings of others in imitation of Christ and to become a “little Christ,” helping them to find their own salvation.

Glorify Him, by remembering the self-emptying humility of God and take to yourself that same meek and lowly spirit found in Christ. Serve others and do not seek to be served yourself. Be like the Lord, who served you in this way.

Glorify Him finally, by allowing Him to glorify you. We must not resist the Holy Spirit whose work it is to guide us into a pure and faithful life as Orthodox Christians, by which we are destined to gain a share in the glory of God. Glorify Jesus Christ in your life, for He came ultimately to glorify you.

Let us forever praise the divine humility! In our celebration of the Feast of the Nativity of Christ tomorrow, let us glorify the God Who entered our human race and eternally joined Himself to us for our salvation!

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

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Remember me?

Howdy, folks! A few concerned neighbors have been shouting down the “mind shaft” and tossing a few rocks into the darkness to see if anyone is still down here. Yep, I’ve been out of my mind for the better part of a month and haven’t posted for awhile. Before somebody gets creative and tosses down a stick of “Dynie-mite” on my head, I thought I should holler up that “I’m back!”

The Missus (She who must be obeyed) and I have been off celebrating our 30th wedding anniversary. Ain’t that sweet? But of course it’s much more than just a sentimental experience. Important events like birthdays and milestone anniversaries should be celebrated. I’ve never understood why some puritanical religious groups consider it “more spiritual” not to celebrate such events, or even important religious observations such as the Nativity of Christ.

Every year at about this time, the various Christian internet forums are abuzz with the chat of deeply-concerned people insisting that true believers should not celebrate Christmas because of all it’s supposedly “pagan accretions”. They point out that December 25th is not the actual date of Christ’s birth (as if the Church fathers who chose that date to preempt a pagan winter holiday weren’t already aware of that!), that the “Christmas tree” is of pagan origin (I thought God was the Creator of trees. If the Christians took the evergreen tree as a symbol of eternal life away from the pagans and gave it a new and fuller Christian meaning, this is a bad thing? I guess even God is powerless to redeem His own creation), and let us not forget that images of “Santa Claus” encourage the veneration of “dead saints” (Isn’t that an oxymoron? If you are a saint, you are eternally alive in Christ and one with the undivided Church in heaven and on earth). In the rigid thinking of such folks, all of these “pagan influences” cannot possibly be redeemed by the power of God or incorporated into a truly Christian celebration.

I don’t know whether to laugh, cry, or wind my watch when I hear such things. Some religious sects do indeed condemn the celebration of all birthdays and anniversaries on the strained logic that such events place too much attention on the humans involved and thus supposedly detract from the worship of God. God is a jealous God you know, and apparently gets huffy when someone else receives any attention.

What utter nonsense! When my wife and I recently celebrated our 30th anniversary, we were both acutely aware that the whole thing was made possible entirely by the grace of God. It was God who brought us two kids together and made us “one flesh” to pursue our mutual salvation in Christ. It is God who gave us the grace to face the many challenges of life and deepen our love and commitment to each other over the years. The celebration of 30 years together was very much a celebration of God’s grace and mercy toward us. God is glorified in His saints! This must be what people forget when they object to such “human celebrations”.

When people focus on the so-called pagan influences in today’s Christmas celebrations to claim that these “pollute” the holiday and make it an offense to God akin to Israel worshipping Baal, I have to wonder if they haven’t forgotten the grace of God themselves. Are we to believe that a Church-selected date and a few incidental symbols adopted to teach the true meaning of Christ’s birth to a pagan culture completely overshadow the Church’s celebration of the Incarnation of the Son of God and render it an abomination to God? Have these “true believers” forgotten that through His incarnation, the Son of God joined the entire material creation to Himself, making possible the redemption of all? The world is no longer divided into the “clean” and the “unclean” as it was in Old Testament times, but now all things have the possibility of redemption through the incarnation and of showing forth the glory of God as they were originally created to do.

The god of the “true believers” is too small, too petty, and too powerless. He apparently has no ability to take back even something as small as a Christmas tree from the clutches of the pagans and make it into a new symbol of eternal life in Christ. No wonder he feels insecure when people celebrate even such things as wedding anniversaries.

The God whose incarnation the rest of us celebrate at the Feast of the Nativity of Christ is a mighty God indeed, and the Savior and Redeemer of the whole world! He is so powerful that He has even granted to His Church the authority “to loose and to bind” upon the earth. So the Church has used Her authority wisely to loose the date of December 25th and the evergreen tree from the darkness and ignorance of the pagans and bind these to Herself as newly-illumined symbols of Her glorious victory in Christ. Of course, the “true believers” can’t even accept that such a Church still exists upon the earth as a sign of God’s eternal and all-powerful presence. Their god is so powerless that he let that slip away to the pagans too.

I don’t feel like laughing, and my watch is digital and doesn’t need winding. So I believe I will shed a tear for so many “believers” today who have forgotten the power of God, the promise of Christ that “the gates of hell would not prevail” against His Church, and the incredible glory brought into all creation by the incarnation of the Son of God.

Christ is born! Glorify Him!