Sunday, November 19, 2017

Preparing to Welcome Christ like the Theotokos by Entering into the Nativity Fast: Homily for the 24th Sunday After Pentecost and the 9th Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church

Ephesians 2:14-22; Luke 12:16-21
            It is now 36 days until Christmas, and there will soon be much in our culture trying to convince us that the season is really about indulging ourselves in food, drink, and whatever else money can buy.  Consequently, we will all face temptations to live the next several weeks as though there were no higher purpose to our lives than to find pleasure in the things of this world.
That, of course, is precisely what the rich man did in today’s gospel reading.  His only concern was to eat, drink, and enjoy himself because he had become so wealthy.  But when God required his soul, the man’s true poverty was revealed.  The possessions of this life pass away and cannot heal our souls.  His horizons extended no further than the large barns he planned to build in order to hold his crops.  So before the ultimate judgment of God, he was revealed to be a fool who had wasted his life on what could never truly fulfill one who bore the divine image and likeness.
Though we are not as rich in the world’s goods as he was, we will face a similar temptation in the coming weeks to ignore the spiritual gravity of the birth of our Savior for the sake of the annual round of parties, presents, and other earthly cares associated with the holiday season.  If a good Christmas is defined for us simply by the quality of our food and drink, our presents, and our reunion with family members, then we are fools in the sense of thinking that the passing pleasures of this life are more real, more important, and ultimately more satisfying than is the salvation brought to the world by the incarnation of the Son of God.  Food, fellowship, and a desire to give to others are not, of course, wrong in and of themselves; they are certainly God’s good gifts.  The problem is that, due to our spiritual weakness, we so easily make them idols instead of remembering that they are blessings to be received and offered back to God in holiness.  Our challenge is to keep them in their proper place as signs of our joy at the birth of the Lord; they themselves are not the reason for our celebration.
That is why we all need an extended period of spiritual discipline in order to prepare ourselves to behold the true glory of Christmas. The Church calls us to use these blessed weeks of the Nativity Fast in order to get ready to enter into the great joy of Christ’s birth, which we will begin to celebrate on December 25. We devote ourselves to fasting, prayer, and almsgiving for forty days in order to gain the spiritual clarity to celebrate His Nativity as the salvation of the world. In order to do that, we must refuse in this time of year to settle for a pleasant cultural celebration when the eternal blessedness of God’s Kingdom is fully open to us.  Unless we prepare our hearts in a disciplined way to receive Christ at His birth, we will easily become distracted by indulgence in pleasures that fuel our passions and weaken us spiritually.  When that happens, we will become like the rich fool who let his desire to eat, drink, and be merry blind him to the ultimate meaning and purpose of his life before God.
This Tuesday we celebrate a feast that helps us avoid that error, for we commemorate the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple.  Her elderly parents Joachim and Anna offered Mary to God by taking her to live in the Temple in Jerusalem as a young girl, where she grew up in prayer and purity as she prepared to become the Living Temple of the Lord in a unique way as His Virgin Mother.  The feast obviously points to the good news of Christmas, as it is the first step in Mary’s life in becoming the Theotokos who gave birth to the Son of God for our salvation.
Joachim and Anna had a long and difficult period of preparation to become parents, as they had been unable to have children until God miraculously blessed them in old age to conceive.  They knew that their daughter was a blessing not simply for the happiness of their family, but for playing her part in fulfilling God’s purposes for the salvation of the world   Their faithfulness throughout their years of barrenness prepared them to offer her to the Lord.  They knew that their marriage and family life were not simply about making them happy on their own terms, but were blessings to be given back to God for the fulfillment of much higher purposes.
In becoming the Theotokos, the Virgin Mary followed the example of her parents.  She was prepared by a life of holiness to agree freely to become our Lord’s mother, even though she was an unmarried virgin who did not understand how such a thing could happen.  When she said, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word,” this young Palestinian Jewish girl bravely made a whole, complete offering of her life to God.  She did not ask what was in it for her, how this would fit into her life plans, or whether she could count on financial support.  Unlike the rich fool in the parable, God was more real and more important to her than any of those things.   She did not think of her life in terms of acquiring enough possessions to enable her to eat, drink, and be merry.  Instead, she acted as a true temple of God, offering every dimension of her life to Him.  She found her joy in personal union with the Lord in a unique way, in opening and offering herself to Him in every dimension of her being.  The Theotokos did not lay up treasures for herself on earth, but was unspeakably rich toward God.
St. Paul taught the Gentile Christians of Ephesus they too were part of a holy temple “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the chief cornerstone…”  Though they had been “strangers” to the heritage of Israel, they are now “built into” the living temple of Christ’s Body, the Church, by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Here is a reminder that, through His great Self-offering on the Cross, our Savior has enabled us all to enter even now into the blessed joy of eternal life through personal union with Him. Absolutely nothing holds us back other than our choice to remain more like the rich fool than like the Theotokos.
So in the coming weeks of the Nativity Fast, let us remain squarely focused on becoming more like her in welcoming Christ into our lives fully and without reservation.  We will do that by attending to the Lord each day in focused prayer and Bible reading.  We will do that by fasting from rich food and other forms of self-indulgence that threaten to weaken us spiritually.  We will do that by denying ourselves in order to help others with our attention, service, and resources.  Through these disciplines, as well as through Confession and repentance, we will prepare ourselves to embrace more fully our true identity as His living temple when we celebrate His birth at Christmas.  That is how we will learn not to be so consumed with the outward trappings of the season that we end up missing the point.
For Christ was not born to give us a reason to have a massive cultural celebration of self-indulgence, but to unite us to Himself in holiness.  He came to fulfill the deepest desires of those created in His image and likeness for sharing in His eternal life.  He came to make us rich toward God. During the blessed weeks of the Nativity Fast, let us dare to do something countercultural by rejecting the temptation to use the season as an excuse to gratify our self-centered desires and instead focusing on living faithfully as His holy temple like the Theotokos.  That is how we may avoid the error of the foolish man in today’s parable as we prepare to welcome the Savior into our lives more fully this Christmas.

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