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.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!

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

Today is the Sunday before the Nativity of Christ, also known as the Sunday of Genealogy. The long list of names which were just read from the first chapter of St. Matthew’s gospel trace the lineage of our Lord back to the patriarch Abraham, to demonstrate that Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of God’s promise to him that from his seed would be born One through whom all the peoples and nations of the world would be blessed.

The genealogy of Christ is a very interesting list, comprised of both saints and sinners, kings and harlots, Jews and even a Gentile or two. There’s an old saying that you can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family. That doesn’t hold true here, however. God certainly chose each and every member of Christ’s family tree, and He included all manner of people, both good and bad, to give us ordinary folks great hope.

None of the people on this list were quite what we might call “perfect,” not even the great king David, whose infamous tryst with another man’s wife and his subsequent arraignment of the man’s death to hide her pregnancy constituted a definite black spot on his career. Yet his later confession to Nathan the prophet and the heartfelt repentance that followed, renewed his communion with the all-merciful God and secured his position as an Old Testament saint.

Those of us today who are in the Church seeking salvation may indeed have a few blemishes in our own lives. Yet we draw hope from the many examples of people, both in this list and throughout the history of the Church, who picked themselves back up from their personal falls and failings and steadfastly continued their repentance to find life eternal in the kingdom of God.

When our Lord Jesus began His earthly ministry, the earliest message He preached was, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” When I first read this verse as a new Christian, I really didn’t understand what Jesus meant by these words. To begin, my understanding of repentance was very incomplete. I tended to think of repentance as a kind of apology; something you did after you sinned to ask God’s forgiveness. Apparently, many Christians view repentance in this way, and some in the so-called “grace movement” even insist that it is unnecessary for the believer to repent more than once. By their logic, all your sins--past, present and future--have already been forgiven once you have accepted Christ, and so it is both useless and wrong to ask God to continually forgive you when He has already forgiven all your sins through the Cross of Christ.

The error of this view is that it only identifies sins as offenses to God, and not as wounds to us. Sin is not merely a debt needing payment, but a spiritual condition of sickness and injury that requires healing. In fact, the Greek word translated as “salvation” throughout the New Testament literally refers to being healed or made whole and healthy. Salvation is not simply a one-time, courtroom proclamation removing only the penalty of sin, but an ongoing therapeutic action and process that gradually removes the cancer of sin itself and brings healing to our humanity.

In light of this more biblical view of salvation, we can better understand repentance as representing our choice to participate with God in the healing of our souls and bodies. The major Greek word for repentance is metanoia which implies a reversal of orientation in the noetic faculty within man. Much more than a mere apology, repentance is the redirecting of the nous--the spiritual heart of man--away from sin and death, toward God, the Giver of Life. By definition therefore, repentance must be continuous; we must perpetually choose to die to our sins and passions and turn toward God to find the life and healing that is true salvation.

The other thing that I didn’t understand about Jesus’ words, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” was what exactly He meant by the phrase “at hand”. That seemed to imply a sort of immediacy, as if the kingdom of heaven was right there or was about to be. I didn’t see how that was possible, since at the time I tended to think of the kingdom of heaven as a distant reality, the eventual reward of the saved, but nothing that had to do with our present lives.

Of course, since the vast majority of Jesus’ teachings centered on the kingdom of heaven, my view meant that most of what He had to say was of little value to me. After all, if I believed that I was already saved and going to the kingdom of heaven, then why did I need to keep hearing about it? It was obviously preaching intended for the ears of others; those not yet saved.

What was missing from my early understanding of these things was the Church. Yes, the kingdom of heaven will be revealed in fullness at the end of the age when Christ returns visibly. But as Jesus taught and the fathers have affirmed, the kingdom of God has already been established on earth with power at the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and the founding of the Church.

The kingdom of heaven truly was the focal point in all of Jesus’ teaching and preaching. How strange this would be if He did not think that men and women could live in that kingdom now! In the Sermon on the Mount He introduced a new set of values to mankind that are very other-worldly in nature. He taught us not to celebrate worldly wealth, well-being, and the praise of men, but instead embrace self-emptying, the mourning of sins, and the patient enduring of persecution for righteousness’ sake as signs that one is truly living in the kingdom that “is not of this world” and does not depend upon this world. In His many instructions He taught how we could begin to live in the kingdom of heaven without delay by forsaking the deceitful pleasures of the flesh and imitating Him in meekness, humility, and devotion to God. His parables often spoke of people who made great discoveries--a treasure hidden in a field, a pearl of great price, a lost coin, a father’s house once despised but now valued as a place of salvation--to speak of the Church and the kingdom of heaven as the greatest treasure a person can find on this poor planet of ours.

My brothers and sisters, above all else, Jesus taught that God loves us and has established His kingdom on earth that we might enter in now and begin to live that life of repentance and salvation that brings the greatest joy, both in the present age, and in the age to come. Because of His goodness, let us not be indecisive, standing on the threshold with one foot in the Church and the other still in the world. Let us come all the way into His house and embrace the life of His kingdom. Let us not be unworthy partakers at His table because while we dine here, we secretly crave the bitter morsels of sin, though they poison our souls and leave us sick and empty. Neither let us be slothful, unwilling to be faithful in the labor of repentance because it seems boring to us or too hard.

In both the genealogy of Christ and in the lives of our precious saints we have so many examples of people who found their way into the eternal kingdom because they chose to turn their backs on this fallen world with all its deceitful enticements, and sought the kingdom of God and His righteousness above all else. We too can choose to do this, and must choose it. Or to put it another way, we can choose daily to truly repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.

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