Monday, December 28, 2015

Celebrating Christmas in a World that Still Needs the Prince of Peace: Homily for the Protomartyr Stephen the Archdeacon and the Sunday After the Nativity of Christ

Acts 6:8-7:5, 47-60
Matthew 2:13-23

Christ is born!  Glorify Him!
            With all the beauty, glory, and majesty of the birth of the Son of God that we celebrate in this blessed season of Christmas, it is easy to overlook aspects of the story that are quite disturbing.  It is tempting to view His appearance as the Babe of Bethlehem through rose-colored glasses in a sentimental way, as though all were sweetness and light in the world that He came to save.  Today’s gospel and epistle readings will not let us remain in that naïve state for long, however, for they remind us powerfully of the tension between the our Lord’s Kingdom and the kingdoms of the world.  In doing so, they show us why the world needed, and still needs, a Savior Who is the Prince of Peace.
             For even as an infant, He was perceived as such a threat by the wicked King Herod that he wanted to kill Christ.  Herod ruled Judea under the authority of Rome, and he was certainly not looking for a Messiah to threaten that arrangement. Like most everyone else, he must have thought of the Messiah as a political and military leader who would deliver Israel from Roman occupation.  He was surely terrified to hear that Persian astrologers had traveled so far to worship a newborn King of the Jews. When St. Joseph took the Theotokos and the infant Christ to Egypt in order to protect them from Herod, the bloodthirsty tyrant had all the young male children of the region of Bethlehem slaughtered.  He reminds us of the Egyptian Pharaoh who ordered the midwives to kill all the newborn Hebrew boys in Exodus.  
            That is a horrible and shocking detail of the Christmas story, but also a note of realism that the Savior was born in a world every bit as dangerous as the one in which we live, as dangerous as at even the worst moments of human history.  In contrast with the Prince of Peace, Herod’s furious rage of murder serves as an icon of the bitter depravity from which Christ came to save us.  Even from His birth, some rejected Him and would stop at nothing to protect their power. If we ever need a reminder of how far human beings can fall away from our calling to become like God, we need only to remember Herod’s crime of mass murder in response to the news of the Incarnation.
            One of the saints we commemorate today is St. Stephen, who is first on the list of the deacons ordained in Acts for serving the poor in the Christian community.  He also preached so powerfully that opponents brought false charges of blasphemy against him.  St. Stephen did not back down and was stoned to death by those who, like Herod, were threatened and enraged by the good news of Jesus Christ.  We remember Him as the very first Christian martyr.  He made the ultimate witness for the Lord as he accepted a Christ-like death, saw Him in heavenly glory, commended his soul to Christ, and even prayed for the forgiveness of those who killed him.
            From the time of St. Stephen to this very day, God has called and empowered some to make the unique witness of martyrdom, of literally laying down their lives out of faithfulness to the Savior.  Throughout history, the martyrs have been charged with blasphemy of one form or another for refusing to abandon Christ and worship false gods of whatever kind.  In the 20th century, millions of Christians died for their faith at the hands of the Ottoman Turks, Communists, fascists, and other oppressive groups in various countries.  As we know all too well today, Christians continue to die as martyrs in Iraq, Syria, and other places, especially in the Middle East and Africa, at the hands of extremist Islamic factions.
            Many others follow the example of St. Joseph in fleeing with their families to other countries simply in order to survive.  Some fear that before long there may be no Christians left in the Middle East at all, which would be a terrible tragedy for the part of the world in which Christ was born and where the faith has been present since its origins. We must pray for our brothers and sisters in these troubled lands, continue to give generously for their relief, and do what we can to call their situation to the attention of others who also can help them.  The websites of our Antiochian Archdiocese and of IOCC contain several articles, statements, and other resources on how to respond to the terrible crisis in Syria and the Middle East.  I commend them to you for your prayerful consideration.
            In a world in which many still suffer and die for the Lord, we must remember even during the glorious Christmas season that there remains severe tension between our Lord’s Kingdom and the ways of earthly kingdoms.  The ways of the first Adam are still too much with us, whether in our own souls or in corrupt social orders and political regimes. So when we celebrate the birth of the Second Adam, we are celebrating a new way of being in the world, a new way of living that challenges the hatred and division that come so easily to us.
            It is unlikely that many of us will be called upon to make the witness of actual physical martyrdom, but the God-Man born for our salvation calls us to make His life our own in stark contrast to ways that are comfortable, popular, and easy.  Our martyrdom surely includes bearing witness in our daily lives that something new and holy has come into the world with the birth of the Savior.  It includes fleeing from sin and corruption—in all their forms-- in order to unite ourselves as fully as possible to the One born for our salvation.  Too many in our society view Christmas as simply a quaint cultural festival that provides only an excuse for parties and days off from work or school without any deep spiritual meaning.  Too many think that the birth of the Savior requires nothing of us other than buying presents and visiting family.  It is a good thing to share the joy of the season by socializing and feasting, but we must never reduce the glory of the Incarnation merely to life as usual with a vague festive spirit.  If we do so, we will lose the reason for the season and become so weak spiritually that we will be unable to make a credible witness to the good news of  Jesus Christ.  
            In contrast, we will enter more fully into the joy of Christmas by being faithful in what we believe and how we live. We probably are not called literally to lay down our lives for Him as martyrs, but we must embody His love even for those with whom we are odds, even for those who have wronged us for no apparent reason.  Unlike Herod, we must not be obsessed with worldly power or politics to the point that we demonize those whom we perceive as threats to our agendas.  That is true both in our personal relationships and in our attitudes towards groups of people in our own country and around the globe.  The world already has more than enough of the ways of the first Adam, of those who turn religion, politics, or self-interest in any form into false gods.  We know where that path leads, and Jesus Christ is born to take us in a very different direction to a Kingdom in which martyrs, not blood-thirsty tyrants, receive crowns.  He is born to make us participants in that glorious Reign.   
            Of course, faithfulness to the Lord born at Christmas forbids throwing stones—literally or figuratively--at anyone who criticizes or disagrees with us about religion, morality, or anything else.  Remember that St. Stephen witnessed powerfully for the Savior by dying like Christ did, literally praying for mercy for those who were killing him.  Recall the Lord’s words from the Sermon on the Mount:  “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.…” (Matt. 5: 44-45)  Christ is born so that we may “be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48), so that we may radiate God’s holiness and love as those who are “partakers of the divine nature” by grace.  (2 Peter 1:4)   Let us celebrate the Christmas season by becoming living icons of our Savior’s love, mercy, and forgiveness.  That is why “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” (John 1:14)  He entered in our life so that we could enter into His.  That is why we celebrate this joyous season in a world still so desperately in need of a Savior.

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