Sunday, December 24, 2017

Born to Raise the Image that Had Fallen: Homily for the Sunday Before Christmas in the Orthodox Church

Hebrews 11:9-10, 32-40; Matthew 1:1-25
In spite of what we may like to think, the story of our lives did not begin on the day of our birth, but extends back across the generations to those from whom we have inherited so many traits that make us who we are.  Knowing about the heritage of our families can give us a sense of rootedness, a healthy acceptance that we are not our own creators.  Ultimately, of course, we trace our origins back to the Lord Who created us in His image and likeness by breathing life into our first parents. 
            As we all know from personal experience, not everything passed down in families is healthy or holy.  That is because we all participate personally in the consequences of humanity’s refusal to become more like God in holiness.  Due to their disobedience, Adam and Eve were cast out of Paradise into the world of corruption that we know all too well.  We have followed them in serving our own self-centeredness instead of God.  We have followed them into slavery to the distorted desires that we call the passions.  Instead of freely becoming more like God in holiness, we suffer the consequences of being held captive to sin and death. 
            On this Eve of Christmas, we must remember that Jesus Christ “is born now to raise the image that had fallen aforetime.”  In other words, He is the New Adam Who fulfills our original calling to become like God in holiness.  Indeed, He is truly God and truly human, and thus able to restore us to the sublime dignity for which He breathed life into us in the first place.  In Him, we inherit the blessedness of Paradise, for He comes to heal every dimension of our corruption and to unite us to Himself in holiness.
            We may wonder, however, if there really is healing for us who suffer the effects of our own sins and of the brokenness of others.  We may despair of ever experiencing the fulfillment of our calling to become like God because pride, anger, lust, and other passions seem so deeply rooted in our souls.  We may lose hope of ever finding peace amidst the battles that rage in our minds, hearts, and relationships.
            If our struggles were simply about us as isolated individuals left to our own devices, we would have good reason to despair.  Today, however, we remember that God worked across the generations from Abraham to the Virgin Mary and Joseph, her betrothed, to prepare for the birth of the New Adam.  Since King David served as a model for the Messiah, he figures prominently in the Lord’s family tree.  Remember, however, that he was guilty of adultery and murder, which the genealogy indicates by listing Bathsheeba as “the wife of Uriah.”  Along with this reference, the names of Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth are surprising because they are all women who bring to mind scandalous episodes involving matters such as prostitution or intermarriage with Gentiles. 
            Our Lord’s family heritage was certainly not comprised of perfect people.  They experienced all the spiritual and moral brokenness common to humanity in our world of corruption.  Nonetheless, they looked forward in faith to the coming of the Messiah.  Despite their sufferings and imperfections, God worked through them to prepare for the Virgin Mary to become the Theotokos when she accepted the outrageous calling to become the Mother of God, the living temple of the Savior.  In a manner beyond understanding and not tainted by passion of any kind, she conceived and gave birth to the Son of God as a virgin.  Joseph, her elderly protector, turned away from his earlier doubts and faithfully played his unique role in caring for both mother and Child.
In the God-Man born at Christmas, we have received the fullness of the promise for which the Old Testament saints longed in faith.    By becoming one of us, He has raised the fallen image and made us “partakers of the divine nature” by grace. The disciplines of the Nativity Fast have helped us to know why we need a Savior Who comes to us in this way.  By devoting ourselves for forty days to intensified prayer, fasting, and generosity to the needy, and by preparing conscientiously for Confession, we have come to see our own spiritual brokenness a bit more clearly.  These practices have shown us that we need more than a set of rules or a good example to follow.  Like all those enslaved by the fear of death and our own distorted desires, we need to be born again in the New Adam.  We need to be healed from the spiritual maladies that have taken root in our souls so that we will participate personally in the fulfillment that Christ works when He becomes a human being for our salvation. 
None of  us, however, is yet fully healed.  We all have a long way to go—an infinitely long journey—in order to become like God in holiness.   Instead of becoming discouraged at how far we are from fulfilling this high calling, we should remember that we fit right into the Lord’s family tree.  Those who prepared for His coming often fell short, even to the point of committing murder, adultery, and idolatry.  If He can work through such people to prepare His way, then it should not be surprising that the Savior came to call, not the righteous, but sinners to repentance.
Who needs to be reborn except those who are spiritually dead?  Who needs to be set free from captivity except those who are enslaved to sin?  Who needs a New Adam if not all the children of the first Adam, all human persons who have fallen short of the glory of God and earned the wages of sin, which is death?  Christmas is not a feast focused on rewarding the righteous, for who could possibly have merited or deserved the unbelievable miracle of the Son of God becoming a human being?  He fulfills the ancient vocation of all people to become like God in holiness not because any of us have somehow earned that astounding blessing, but instead on the basis of His love for sinners.
Even before the Incarnation, King David found forgiveness for committing murder and adultery.  If already before the promise of the coming of the Messiah was fulfilled, God was so gracious to a repentant sinner, how much more must we trust that the mercy of the Savior born at Christmas will extend also to us? Many people struggle with a prideful form of shame that paralyzes them when they catch a true glimpse of their own spiritual state.  When they do not live up to their own illusions of perfection, they cannot accept that—like everyone else—they  have sinned and need the Lord’s healing mercy.  So instead of humbly repenting and trusting in His grace as they stumble forward in obedience, they insist on relying on their own power and ability.  That results in worshiping a god of their own imagination, not the Lord Whose family tree included scandalous sinners of all kinds. 
The Son of God was born “to raise the fallen image,” which means to restore our beauty as living icons radiant with His holiness.  No matter the present shape of our souls, the New Adam makes it possible for us to be fulfilled in His likeness, to become truly human as He always intended us to be.  Nothing but our own prideful will has the power to keep us from entering into the divine joy of Christmas for our salvation.  In Christ, we have all inherited by faith the fullness of the promise passed down for so many generations through the children of Abraham.  As we prepare to celebrate the Nativity of our Savior, let us all receive Him into our hearts with humility, knowing that He came to save us who were lost.  If you think that you do not deserve that great blessing, then you are absolutely right.  No one does. That is why the Savior was born.

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