Sunday, December 25, 2016

The Good News of Christmas: Christ is Born! Glorify Him!

Christ is Born!  Glorify Him!

          The glorious feast of Christmas is finally here, and what a mysterious blessing it is.  For the Eternal Word of God becomes a human being, a helpless babe born in a barn with a manger for His crib. Angels sing in His honor.  The lowly shepherds and the foreign wise men worship Him.  A young virgin becomes a mother, not simply of a son, but of the Son of God.   And kings tremble, for this baby brings to earth a Kingdom not of this world.

          The good news of Christmas is that Jesus Christ is born this day, not to judge or to destroy us, but to save and bless us.  He is the Second Adam in Whom the diseased decay of the first Adam is healed.  By becoming one of us, He brings us into the life of God.  We are made holy, we are fulfilled, we are raised to life eternal in Him.

          Our Lord brings His great joy to the world humbly and peaceably.  He does not arrive in the earthly splendor of a king, with the military power of a conquering general, or in the material comfort of the rich. Instead, He takes the lowest, most vulnerable place for Himself:  born in a cave used as a barn to a family that lived under the oppression of the Roman Empire and the cruelty of Herod.  Soon Joseph would take the Virgin Mary and the young Jesus to Egypt by night, fleeing for their lives from a wicked, murderous king.      What a difficult, lowly way to come into a dark and dangerous world, not unlike how refugee children are born in war-torn regions to this very day.

          But when we pause to consider the glory of our Lord’s Incarnation, we should not be surprised at all.  For what does it mean for the Immortal One to put on mortality?  What does it mean for the One Who spoke the world into existence to become part of that creation?  What does it mean for the King of the universe to become subject to the kings of the world?  It means humility and selfless, suffering love beyond our understanding.  For our Lord, God, and Savior is not a rational concept to be defined, but a Person Who mercifully shares His life with us.   So that we could enter into His life, He entered into ours, sanctifying every dimension of the human person.

          The wise men show us how to respond to the unbelievably good news that God has become a human being:  they worship Him.  Let us follow their example this Christmas season by worshiping Him as we open ourselves to the glorious transformation that the Incarnate Son of God brings.  For Christ is born, and the peace and joy of God’s kingdom are ours as we forgive and love even our enemies.  Christ is born, and we welcome Him especially when we serve the poor, needy, and outcast.  Christ is born, and He calls all to participate in the blessedness for which He created us in His image and likeness.

          The only limits on the joy of Christmas are those that we place on ourselves.  For the One Who comes as a humble, meek, peaceable baby in a manger never forces us or anyone else.  He is the Mystery of Love made flesh for our salvation.  We celebrate this great feast by becoming participants in the deified humanity that the God-Man Jesus Christ has brought to the world.  That means living in this world in ways that manifest the deep truth of the Incarnation.  That means being united to Him in holiness from the depths of our souls.

          So throughout this Christmas season, let us become like the Theotokos who received Him with joy, like the elder Joseph His steadfast protector, and like that strange combination of lowly shepherds and Persian astrologers who first worshiped Him.  Let us welcome Him into our lives by how we live each day, for now nothing but our own refusal can separate us from the holy joy that He was born to bring to the entire world. That, my brothers and sisters, is the good news of Christmas.

Christ is Born!  Glorify Him!

Sunday, December 18, 2016

The Scandalous Good News of Christmas: Homily for the Sunday before the Nativity of Christ in the Orthodox Church

Hebrews 11:9-10, 32-40; Matthew 1:1-25
            Some things are so familiar to us that we no longer take them seriously.  We can become so accustomed to thinking about people, events, and ideas in the same old way that we become blind to their true character and significance.  When that happens, they lose their ability to shock us. 
Unfortunately, it is very easy to view Christmas in precisely that way.  For too many, this is a time of year primarily to become obsessed with buying and receiving gifts, with socializing, traveling, and otherwise trying to meet cultural expectations.  The danger with this attitude is that it distracts us from preparing to enter into the mystery of our salvation as the eternal Word of God takes on flesh and becomes one of us as the God-Man. If we have become so used to a merely commercial and cultural Christmas that we neglect to welcome the Savior into our lives in a new way at the celebration of His birth, we will have missed the point entirely.
Sometimes it takes something really shocking to wake us up, to get us to reexamine our perspective and priorities.  Today’s lengthy gospel reading should do precisely that, for it is not simply a list of who begat whom to be rushed through or skipped over.  Instead, it is a reminder that the One born at Christ had the right family tree to be a very surprising kind of Messiah.  Of course, the family tree shows that He is a descendant of Abraham and David in Whom the promises to the chosen people of the Old Testament were fulfilled.  But the genealogy shockingly includes four women:  Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheeba.  They stick out like sore thumbs in this list of Jewish fathers and sons because they were women, Gentiles, and involved in situations involving such scandals as the intermarriage of Jews with foreigners, prostitution, adultery, and murder.  For St. Matthew to have gone out of his way to include them in the family tree of the Messiah must have surprised many who first heard this account.
To mention their names is also to remind us that our Lord’s salvation is not a fulfillment of anyone’s expectations on their own terms.  His blessing is not a reward for our righteousness or limited to those who have a certain ethnic or national heritage or who have spotless reputations in any time or place. This genealogy reminds us that even the great figures of the Old Testament, such as King David, fell into the most serious sins.   To mention these names is to destroy the assumption that there is anything conventional, customary, or expected about the One born at Christmas. 
Things get even more complicated at the end of the family tree when we are reminded that the Theotokos is a virgin who became pregnant while betrothed to the elderly St. Joseph.  He was selected against his will as her guardian when she left the Temple where she had grown up in purity and prayer.  When he first learned of her pregnancy, he was horrified and wanted to divorce her quietly.    He obeyed, however, when the angel told him in a dream that this Child was conceived of the Holy Spirit and would be the Savior.  Of course, others remained as skeptical then of a virgin conception as they would be today.  The Theotokos’ situation appeared to be as scandalous as those of the other women in our Lord’s genealogy.  To say that this household made up of an old widower, a young virgin girl, and the incarnate Son of God is an unconventional family would be an understatement. By any normal human standards, it is truly outrageous and unbelievable.  No, there is nothing customary about how the Savior comes into the world.
Likewise, His ministry does not fit with the cultural expectations of first-century Palestine, for this Messiah was neither a legalist out to condemn the unrighteous nor a military leader ready to destroy Israel’s foes and set up an earthly reign for the Jews.  His family tree shows that He fulfills God’s purposes to draw all people, including Gentiles and scandalous sinners, to a Kingdom not of this world.  The circumstances of His birth demonstrate that God’s ways are not our ways and that holiness is not the same thing as cultural respectability. Imagine the courage and humility of the Theotokos and St. Joseph in playing their unique roles in bringing salvation to the world, despite the risk to their reputations and even to their lives.
That really should not be surprising, for Christmas is about the One Who spoke the universe into existence becoming a human being in order to heal and restore our fallen world in holiness.  The Savior is not born to make us socially respectable or successful or even happy according to the standards of our, or any other, culture.  His Kingdom is radically different from even the best of earthly realms and challenges what we have come to accept as the way things are. 
Unfortunately, there is much in our society that encourages us to approach Christmas as just another cultural celebration that is not really about God, but simply about various unrealistic social expectations.  For example, only the wealthiest people can afford to buy all the latest and most expensive items that advertisements tell us are the key to the happiness of our loved ones.  But even if we go into debt to purchase them, possessions will never truly fulfill those created in God’s image and likeness.  Those who get accustomed to receiving more than they could possibly need or use in a healthy way are also at risk for developing the expectation that those who love them will show that primarily by spending a lot of money.  For both the giver and the receiver, there is the danger of becoming so accommodated to the commercial aspects of the season that we neglect and weaken our relationships with one another, not to mention our relationship with God.  And if we spend all our resources indulging loved ones with expensive presents they they do not really need, we will not be able to give to the poor what they truly need in order to live.  When we serve them, we serve the Lord Himself.   
 The way that our culture observes Christmas also tempts us to unrealistic expectations about our families.  What we are told should be the most wonderful time of the year is often one in which whatever tensions and problems exist in our families will be highlighted and brought out into the open.  And given all the focus on happiness and warm feelings, it is also the time of year when we are most likely to feel the loss of loved ones and mourn for the better days of years past. If our life circumstances do not fit with what we have learned to think Christmas is about in our culture, we may want these weeks to pass as quickly as possible.  At the very least, we all know people who think of the season in this way.  We have an obligation not to abandon them to their despair, but to reach out to them as brothers and sisters whom Christ also came to bless and save.
Our Lord’s family line was not full of people who were rich, powerful, and happy by earthly standards.  When you read the Old Testament, you will learn about some terribly broken family relationships. Today’s epistle passage mentions Hebrew saints who suffered greatly as they waited in hope for the Messiah.  As that reading concludes, “And all these, though well attested by their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had foreseen something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.”  In the next week, let us turn away from all that would distract us from embracing the good news that God’s ancient promises are fulfilled and extended to us, and to the entire world, in the birth of Jesus Christ.  Our salvation is not in striving to meet unrealistic cultural expectations or any other merely human standard, but in the great mystery of the Word made flesh.  He comes to save broken, imperfect, and sometimes scandalous people like you and me who have a lot in common with His ancestors.  Use this next week to recognize from the depths of your souls how shocking the true meaning of Christmas really is.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

On Getting Ready for the Banquet: Homily for the Sunday of the Forefathers of Christ in the Orthodox Church

Colossians 3:4-11; Luke14:16-24

It is easy to accept illusions about ourselves when we have not been tested, when there is no crisis to which we must respond.  We usually think that all is well until we find ourselves falling short of meeting a goal that we thought we could achieve.   Great challenges judge us because they reveal the true state of our ability and character.  They often open our eyes to our weaknesses in surprising ways.
Christ’s birth certainly provided unexpected challenges to the leaders of first-century Israel, many of whom were so obsessed with their power and self-righteous legalism that they rejected their own Messiah.  He spoke of them in today’s gospel reading as those who excused themselves from the great banquet of the Kingdom of God, claiming that other concerns were more important.  They judged themselves by how they refused to accept the invitation to such great blessing.  As the Lord said, “Many are called, but few are chosen.” They chose other things before God and turned away from life eternal.
In the remaining weeks before Christmas, we must prepare to be judged by how we respond to our Savior’s birth.  We must get ready to enter into the deep mystery of the Son of God becoming a human being.  He does so for our salvation, to invite us to share in the heavenly banquet of His Kingdom. As members of His Body, the Church, we have no excuse not to be prepared.  We have no excuse not to accept this great blessing. He certainly calls us. And if we do not accept, we will judge only ourselves.
As we commemorate the Holy Forefathers of Christ today, we remember all those who foretold or foreshadowed the coming of our Lord, all the way from Adam to the Theotokos.  Perhaps part of the reason that it took so many generations to get ready for Him is that there could be no greater challenge than to be prepared to embrace with joy the good news that the Son of God has become the Son of the Virgin, that He has truly become one of us.  Remember that many of those who had the benefit of the Old Testament Law and the Prophets failed that test during the earthly ministry of the Savior.
St. Paul reminds us of the gravity of the situation that we all face. He writes that “when Christ, Who is our life, appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory.”  Our Savior is born to make us participants in His divine glory by grace so that we will become perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect.  That is ultimately what it means to share in His banquet as partakers of the divine nature. That is why the Second Adam is born, to fulfill our vocation to become like God in Whose image we are all created.
We cannot achieve these great spiritual heights by ourselves, of course, which is precisely why Christ is born to save us.  But the One Who enters our world as a helpless baby in a barn does not force us to do anything.  He calls us, but we must choose to respond by cooperating with His grace in doing all that we can to accept His invitation for the healing of our souls.  St. Paul instructs us to do that by dying to all that stands in the way of preparing ourselves to receive Him.  He lists especially “fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.”  Then he mentions “anger, wrath, malice, slander, and foul talk from your mouth.”  He follows that up with a warning not to “lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old nature with its practices and have put on the new nature.”
The recent Gentile converts to whom St. Paul wrote needed these reminders about how to live lives pleasing to God.  We need them just as much today in a time when many celebrate lust for material possessions, violent hatred of those they consider to be their enemies, and unrestrained sexual pleasure.  And just like those to whom St. Paul first wrote, we are also susceptible to these and other powerful temptations.  If we do not recognize that and stay on guard against them, they will seem much more appealing to us than truly preparing to enter into the Kingdom.
          In the weeks before Christmas, we must focus on embracing the healing and restoration of our humanity that Christ is born to work in us.  We died to the corruption of the first Adam in baptism and now we must live intentionally as those who have been restored to a new and holy life through the Second Adam.  He makes it possible for us to share in the true humanity that He has healed as the God-Man.  That is why the Savior is born at Christmas.
          Contrary to what the religious and political leaders who rejected Christ believed, our human ancestry and national identity are totally irrelevant in the Kingdom of God.  As St. Paul wrote, “Here there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free man, but Christ is all, and in all.”  In our world of corruption, people use many excuses not to accept the great invitation of our Lord to the heavenly banquet.  Some are more concerned with political parties, racial or ethnic groups, or national identity than with true holiness.  Even as we can easily fall into idolatry by covetousness or being enslaved to a desire for material possessions that others have, we can shut ourselves out of the Kingdom by giving our souls to the false gods of worldly power in whatever form we encounter them.   Remember the chief priests who shouted “We have no king but Caesar!” to Pilate as they encouraged him to have our Lord crucified. (John 19:15) We certainly do not want to become like them.
          During the remaining weeks of the Nativity Fast, we should each recognize that we are preparing ourselves for a kind of judgment that will reveal our true spiritual state.  At Christ’s first coming at His birth, He does not come as our judge.  No, we judge ourselves by how we respond to Him.  Contrary to popular opinion, there is much more at stake here than whether we have warm, sentimental feelings about a baby born long ago or the cultural trappings of the season.  If that were the standard of judgment, we would need no preparation at all.  But if the standard of judgment is whether we will be prepared to turn away from all that distracts us from being united with Christ in holiness, it is an entirely different matter. For just like the people in today’s parable, we routinely become so burdened and obsessed with daily cares that we disregard prayer.  Instead of mindfully turning our attention to Christ, we become paralyzed by worry and fear.  Instead of making our marriages icons of the fulfillment of the man-woman relationship for the salvation of the world, we so easily fall prey to resentment, selfishness, and neglect.  Instead of living within our means so that we can share generously with the poor and support the ministries of the Church, we become addicts to desire for more and more possessions that will never satisfy us.
          The problem here is not that we have families, possessions, and jobs, and have to deal with whatever other circumstances we face.  The problem is that we use them as excuses to fall back into the ways of our old nature, the ways of corruption that disorder our most basic human desire to be united in holy love with God.  All sin is a form of idolatry, of putting our devotion to a false idol before our worship of the Lord.  That idol is ultimately ourselves, and our slavery to any particular passion is a symptom of that deeper disease.  
           The good news is that Christ is born at Christmas to restore us to the blessedness for which He breathed life into us in the first place.  He calls us all through His birth, but now we must choose to lay aside our obsession with earthly cares in order to accept the invitation to His great banquet.  He is coming, and we will judge ourselves by how we respond to Him.  Now is the time to prepare as did the Holy Forefathers of our Lord by confessing and turning away from our sins, opening our hearts and minds to Him in humble prayer each day, and giving generously to the needy in whom He is present to us.  The point of this way of life is not simply to obey laws for their own sake, but to find the healing and strength that we need in order to respond to the birth of the God-Man with great joy.
          So in the remaining weeks before Christmas, let us devote ourselves daily to getting ready to enter into the great mystery of our salvation by prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and repentance.  For the Son of God becomes the Son of the Virgin and truly one of us.  What could be more important than to refuse to be distracted from welcoming Him into our lives at His birth?

Sunday, December 4, 2016

The Unique Beauty of His Daughters and Sons: Homily for Sts. Barbara the Great Martyr and John of Damascus and the 10th Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church

Galatians 3:23-4:5; Luke 13:10-17
            When I look around our parish community, I am thankful that we are not all alike in our personalities, our backgrounds, our interests, and our gifts.  Our distinctiveness enriches us and helps us realize our dependence upon one another as members of the Body of Christ.  It also keeps us from falling into the common error of thinking that growing in holiness means losing our personal characteristics.  In fact, the opposite is true.  The more we become like God in holiness, the more we become our genuine selves as His unique sons and daughters.  That is why our Savior was born at Christmas:  to restore us to our true identity as His beloved children. And as every parent knows, children are distinctive characters.
            In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus Christ healed a woman who had been stooped over for eighteen years, saying “Woman, you are freed from your infirmity.” When a legalist complained that it was wrong to heal someone on the Sabbath, the Lord pointed out that even oxen and donkeys get water then.  So how could it be wrong for a daughter of Abraham to be healed of her affliction on the Sabbath?  He treated her not as an anonymous bundle of disability or an impersonal legal case, but as a unique person whom He loved and wanted to restore to the holiness for which He created her in the first place.  He cared for her as His own daughter.
            We do not have to look very deeply into our own souls to find what keeps us all stooped over, what steals our personal distinctiveness in freely becoming more like the Lord Who created us in His image and likeness. Instead of embracing the joy and holiness that are ours through Christ, we remain slaves to disordered desires and habits of thought, word, and deed that diminish our personal distinctiveness, that make us more like anonymous bundles of corruption than His unique children.  When anger, pride, envy, lust, selfishness, and other passions control us, we become pretty much like anyone else under their domination. Like pigs feeding at a trough, we become obsessed with gratifying our desires and act as those with no calling higher than to get what we want at the moment.  That is not a very pretty picture, but we can all see ourselves in it.
            The Savior is born at Christmas to set us free from such demeaning slavery.  As St. Paul wrote, “in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.”  In Him, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.”  No matter what categories we fit into based on human divisions, we share fully in the healing and restoration of our true dignity as His sons and daughters.  Our true distinctiveness shines all the more as we overcome our self-imposed slavery to everything that holds us back from becoming brilliant icons of Christ.
When the Lord said, “Woman, you are freed from your infirmity,” He was speaking to us all as members of the Church, the Bride of Christ.  Having been baptized into Christ, we have all become His Bride, united intimately with Him in holy love and called to grow eternally in our participation in His life. The Members of the Holy Trinity are united in love as distinct Persons, and the same must be true of us all as members of His Body, His Bride, the Church.
Today we commemorate great Saints whose examples show us that such blessedness is truly open to all.  The Great Martyr Barbara was a young virgin who died at the hands of her pagan father for refusing to deny Christ in the early fourth century.  He had originally kept her in seclusion due to her great beauty, but she discerned on the basis of reason that the pagan gods were false idols.  When Barbara later professed the Christian faith, she openly defied her father, who handed her over to be tortured.  Seeing her steadfastness in suffering terrible abuse, a Christian woman named Julianna joined her in enduring horrible treatment.  They were both beheaded when they steadfastly refused to deny their Lord.
We also remember today a very different person.  St. John of Damascus was an administrator under Muslim rulers, and he composed many important theological and liturgical works that remain integral to the life of the Church.  His right hand, which was cut off due to his powerful defense of icons, was miraculously restored by the Theotokos. After retiring to a monastery, where he was an example of obedience, asceticism, and humility, he departed this life peacefully in the eighth century at the advanced age of 104.
            The example of these Saints shows us that it does not matter whether we are young, old, male, female, or face this or that set of challenges.  We may still grow in personal union with the Lord regardless of any such details.  The door to holiness is fully open to us all.  Christ Himself is the Door (John 10:9) through Whom we may all enter into the fulfillment of our unique personalities in Him.  The stories of the Saints are quite diverse, and their personal uniqueness shines brightly through their particular circumstances.  They saved their lives by losing everything that separated them from God, and we will find our salvation by dying to everything that mars and distorts the unique beauty of our souls.  That is another way of saying that we become free by being loosed from slavery to our sins.  It is another way of saying that we will no longer be stooped over with spiritual disability when we rise with Christ from death and decay to the life and strength which are ours as beloved sons and daughters of the Most High.
            The Church gives us these biblical passages and Saints as we prepare to welcome Christ at His birth.  Contrary to what is popular in our culture, there is more to welcoming Him than having a nice cultural celebration of the season.  There is also more to welcoming Him than having warm feelings about the Lord for a couple of days and then returning to life as usual.  If we are truly to welcome the Savior into our lives in a new way this Christmas, then we must actually straighten up from being stooped over in sin.  We must actually find a measure of healing for the corruption and infirmity that have taken root in our souls.  We must become more fully our true selves by growing in personal union with Christ, being transformed by Him for a life of greater holiness. Even as Saints like the Great Martyr Barbara and John of Damascus became living icons of God’s salvation, we must also.  That is truly what it means to welcome our Lord at His birth.
            Fortunately, we do not attempt to do that simply by our own power, but by cooperating with the infinite mercy and grace of our Lord.  The woman who had been stooped over for eighteen years could not have healed herself, but Christ did.  Gentiles could not have made themselves heirs to the promises to Abraham, but Christ extended those blessings to us through faith.  Sts. Barbara and Julianna could not have endured their sufferings simply by will power, and John of Damascus could not have restored his own severed hand.  You and I will not become more fully ourselves in God’s image and likeness simply by our own efforts, but by uniting ourselves to Christ in humble faith and repentance.  We must open ourselves to Him and embrace His holy life so that the healing power of His salvation will become evident in us.  That is what it will mean for us to welcome Him into our lives this Christmas.
We must take the small steps that we are capable of this Advent in order to prepare to receive our Savior.  That means embracing fasting and other forms of self-denial.  It means sacrificial generosity to the poor and lonely.  It means confessing our sins and turning away from them.  It means apologizing to those we have wronged and offended, and doing what we can to heal broken relationships.  It means praying for our enemies and going out of our way to help them. The more that we devote ourselves to daily prayer and reading the Scriptures, the lives of the Saints, and other spiritually beneficial writings, the more strength we will have for embracing all these spiritual disciplines. 
            If we will have such a Nativity Fast, then we will rise up from being stooped over with sin and become more truly the beautiful and unique sons and daughters whom our Lord created us to be in the first place.  There is no better way to prepare to receive Christ with joy at Christmas.