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 na├»ve 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.

Friday, December 25, 2015

A Gloriously Strange and Mysterious Feast: Homily for Christmas in the Orthodox Church

Christ is Born!  Glorify Him!

          Today we celebrate a feast that is gloriously strange and mysterious. For the Eternal Word of God, Who spoke the world into existence, becomes part of that very world as a helpless baby born in a cave used as a barn. As angels sing in His honor, the humble shepherds and the wise men from a foreign land worship Him.  A young virgin becomes a mother, not simply of a son, but of the Son of God.   She gives birth to a child both fully human and fully divine.
            Jesus Christ, an unusual and unexpected Messiah, is born this day to save and bless us.  He is the Second Adam in Whom all the corruption of the first Adam is healed.  He brings us into the life of God by entering into our life in this world of sin and death.  He is born to raise us to the holy, eternal life for which He created us in the first place in His image and likeness.
       The Savior comes to us humbly and peaceably.  He takes the lowest, most vulnerable place for Himself:  born to a Jewish family that lived under the oppression of the Roman Empire and the cruelty of King Herod.  Soon Joseph would take the Virgin Mary and the young Jesus to Egypt by night, fleeing literally for their lives. He was born like the children today whose families flee from war and persecution in troubled nations in the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere. 
            He is King of Kings and Lord of Lords, but in way totally different from the high and mighty of this world.   He is the Prince of Peace Who comes to restore and heal His creation without brutal domination or physical violence. He makes all who believe in Him the sons and daughters of the Most High—not as slaves, but as children and heirs who share in His divine glory by grace. That is something no earthly ruler or mere religious teacher could ever accomplish.  Only the Incarnate Son of God can make us participants in the divine nature, for He Himself is truly divine and human.   
            In the good news of Christ’s birth, we encounter the deep mystery of the Immortal One Who put on mortality.  Out of humble, selfless love beyond our understanding, the Son of God lowered Himself to become a human being, “born of a woman, born under the Law,” as St. Paul wrote to the Galatians.  He is not an idea to be defined or debated about, but a Person Who shares His life with us.   So that we could enter into Him, He entered into us, sanctifying every aspect of our humanity from the womb to the tomb that could not contain Him.  Nothing human is foreign to Him, and nothing is rightly human that is not healed, transformed, and fulfilled by His holiness and grace.
          Let us take the foreign wise men as models of how to respond to the great mystery that God has become a human being: namely, let us worship Him by uniting ourselves to Christ as fully as possible in faith and obedience.  That is how we will share personally in the wondrous transformation of the human being that the Incarnate Son of God has made possible.  Because Christ is born, the peace and joy of God’s kingdom may be ours even as we live and breathe in the world as we know it.  Because Christ is born, we may encounter Him in every human being, especially the poor, the needy, the stranger, and the outcast.  Because Christ is born, we may participate already in the eternal life for which we were created in God’s image and likeness. 
          The only limits on the blessing of Christmas are those that we place on ourselves.  For the One Who appears as a baby in a manger never forces us or anyone else.  He is the Mystery of Love made flesh for our salvation.  We welcome Him into our lives by choosing to live in ways that reflect the deep truth of the Incarnation.  We welcome Him into our lives by becoming living icons of the good news of this season.   We welcome Him into our lives by becoming participants in the deified humanity that the God-Man Jesus Christ has brought to the world. 
          As we celebrate this great feast, let us live as those who have become the sons and daughters of the Father through Him, for now nothing but our own refusal can separate us from His love.  Yes, my brothers and sisters, that is the deep spiritual mystery of the Incarnation.  By uniting humanity and divinity in His own Person, Jesus Christ has fulfilled our original calling to become like God.  The door to the Kingdom is now wide open and leads through our own souls, through our own existence as human beings.  In Him, we find the holy joy for which we were made.  There could be no greater cause for rejoicing this day or any other.      

Christ is Born!  Glorify Him!

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Perfect Members of a Scandalous Family: Homily for the Sunday Before the Nativity of Christ in the Orthodox Church

Hebrews 11:9-10, 32-40
Matthew 1:1-25
            Whether for good, bad, or somewhere in between, our families shape us all decisively. We cannot tell the story of our lives without them.  So many of our traits, quirks, and other characteristics reflect those who raised us and those who raised them.  Though we are free to make our own choices in how we live our lives, we cannot pretend that it all started with us.  There is always a back-story or a prequel about those who went before.    
            The Old Testament certainly provides a realistic account of the importance of family life in human history, as most of it concerns the many generations of the offspring of Abraham and Sarah.  So it is not surprising that Matthew begins his account of the good news of Jesus Christ with the family tree of the Lord, with His genealogy. He does so in order to show that He had the right heritage to become the Messiah, the anointed One in Whom all God’s promises to Abraham would be fulfilled. So Matthew traces the Lord’s ancestry back to Abraham; through David, the great king who was viewed as a model for the Messiah; and through all the generations up to Joseph, to whom the Virgin Mary was betrothed when she became the Theotokos, the one who carried the eternal Son of God in her womb and gave birth to Him in a cave used as a barn.   
            We usually tend to rush through genealogies in the Bible, for we think of them of them as unimportant lists of who begat whom.  But we will miss the point entirely if we pass over Matthew’s account of Jesus Christ’s family tree so quickly, for it is not what we would expect.  It contains surprises that prepare us for a Messiah quite different from the conquering hero most of the Jews expected.  They wanted a new King David to defeat the Romans and make their nation strong and free. Some, like the Pharisees, hoped for a Messiah to interpret the Old Testament law strictly and to bring blessing upon the righteous and condemnation upon the sinners, including Gentiles and also Jews who did not obey the law.    
            We would imagine that such a messiah would come from the most righteous and upstanding family imaginable, from one above suspicion or embarrassment of any kind.  But a careful reader of Matthew’s genealogy will notice the unexpected presence of women in what was conventionally a listing of fathers and sons.  Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and the wife of Uriah, Bathsheba, stick out like sore thumbs.    In addition to being women, they were Gentiles and involved in scandalous relations with Jewish men.  Tamar dressed as a prostitute and gave birth to the children of her father-in-law.  Rahab, who hid the Hebrew spies in her home in Jericho, was a prostitute.  Ruth was King David’s great-grandmother and a Moabite woman. The Old Testament repeatedly warned Jewish men not to marry Gentile women like Ruth.  King David committed adultery with Bathsheba and then murdered her husband.
            Let us be honest. We would never draw attention to such scandalous stories in our own families.  Just imagine how shocking these figures were in the genealogy of the Messiah, especially for those who thought in legalistic or nationalistic terms.  Jesus Christ was a very different kind of Savior than what was commonly expected in that time and place.  This unlikely cast of characters reminds us that God’s promises are not only for righteous Jews, but for everyone with faith, including foreigners and strangers,  repentant sinners, and those whose lives and families are profoundly broken.  Matthew introduces us through the genealogy to an unusual Messiah Who blesses the humble, the outcasts, the hated foreigners, and those who genuinely hunger and thirst for righteousness.  He came to call not the righteous, but sinners, to repentance and was not afraid to speak harshly to the Pharisees and others who trusted only in themselves.         
            Right after the genealogy, Matthew describes the Lord’s birth under circumstances apparently even more scandalous than those we have described so far. A virgin girl becomes pregnant by the Holy Spirit.  Her elderly guardian and protector Joseph was horrified by what he assumed was her immoral behavior, and was ready to end their betrothal.  But he believed when an angel told him of the miracle of the Child’s conception, and old Joseph became the adopted father of the Lord.
            The Christmas story is so familiar to us that we tend to ignore how shocking, embarrassing, and unconventional our Lord’s conception and birth were.  Many probably judged the Theotokos and St. Joseph and refused to believe.  It could not have been easy for the young girl or the old man to change the course of their lives, and to put their reputations and physical safety at risk, in order to play their unique roles in the coming of the Savior.   
            And when we remember that this is the story of the union in Jesus Christ of God and humanity, of the fulfillment of all God’s promises beyond even the greatest expectations of the Old Testament prophets, of the Incarnation of the Son of God for our salvation, it becomes even more shocking.  For we usually expect that God’s ways are like our ways, that His kingdom is like the kingdoms of earth, that He must love the respectable, wealthy,  and successful more than He does the scandalous, the poor, and the downtrodden.  We usually think that holiness is pleasant, respectable, and for people with whom we are comfortable, not embarrassing and scandalous.  
            Today’s gospel texts call us to accept that the mystery of our salvation in Jesus Christ is not an extension of the accomplishments of our families or of our own virtues or abilities.    It is not a reward or a punishment for anything that we have done or refrained from doing.  It is not about the politics, culture, or the strength of any nation, party, or group, whether past or present.  Instead, it is simply the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham, now extended to all who have faith in the true Messiah, the One who is anointed to bring light and life to the world, to be the second Adam in Whom our fallen, corrupt humanity is brought into the very life of the Holy Trinity. 
            Those promises were not fulfilled in the lifetimes of even the most righteous people of the Old Testament.  As today’s epistle reading states, “since God had foreseen something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.”  As hard as it is to believe, we are all grafted into the family tree of the Messiah by faith.  He is the vine and we are the branches.   
            With all our sins and brokenness, we are unworthy and unlikely members of such a glorious family.  Like those who prepared for the coming of Christ and those who have served Him since, we are also scandalous sinners—even if we have learned how to hide the shocking details from other people.   Perhaps that is why the Son of God chose a family full of imperfect people who so often got it wrong; perhaps that is why He was born in miserable circumstances unfit for any human being, much less the Messiah; perhaps that is why the Old and New Testaments do not even try to conceal the sins of both the Jews and the early Christians.

            The Lord’s genealogy contains a lot of people who are a lot like us, for that is who He came to save.  In the coming days before Christmas, let us prepare to embrace more fully the promises made to Abraham and fulfilled in our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ.  He comes to make us—with all of our outrageous problems and imperfections-- members of own His family.  Our inclusion is part of the perfection of that ancient heritage of faith and expectation.  So let us kneel before Him in humility this Christmas with a profound sense of gratitude and joy. And let us never, ever give up in believing that His mercy extends to people like you, me, and the members of our less than perfect families.  That is precisely whom He came to save. 

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Preparing to Appear with Christ in Glory: Homily for the Sunday of the Holy Forefathers in the Orthodox Church

Colossians 3:4-11
Luke 14:16-24

          In our time of so many distractions and worries, it is easy for forget why Christ was born, why He came among us a helpless baby in a cave used for a barn with an animal’s feeding trough for His crib.  As St. Paul wrote in today’s epistle lesson, He appears so that we may appear with Him in glory.  Both the first coming of His birth and the second coming of His return are so that we may share in His salvation.  But to encounter Christ at either of His appearances is also to undergo a kind of judgment, for the truth about ourselves becomes evident when we enter into His presence.  How we respond to Him reflects the state of our souls.  The same is true of how we prepare to receive Him during this blessed season of Advent, of the Nativity Fast.   
            Throughout the history of the Old Testament, there were those who ignored both the Law and the Prophets, who did not prepare and were not ready for the coming of the Messiah.  That was also true at the time of the Savior’s birth when the wicked Herod tried to kill Him. On this Sunday of the Holy Forefathers, we commemorate those who did prepare, all those in the Old Testament who foretold or prefigured the coming of Christ.  The first coming of our Lord at His Incarnation did not simply occur one day as a random event, but was the fulfillment of God’s plan to bring us into His divine life, which took many generations to fulfill.  No one was forced to get ready for Him, and today we honor those who accepted the invitation to prepare for the coming of the Messiah.  We want to use this season of prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and reconciliation to become more like them. 
            That is difficult because we constantly face temptations to focus on other things.  Like the guests invited to the great feast in today’s gospel, we often think that we have more appealing things to do.  They turned down the invitation because they had land to inspect, oxen to test, or family responsibilities.  In other words, they were normal human beings with everyday obligations. So their places at the banquet were taken by the most unlikely guests:  the poor, the maimed, the blind, and the lame.  Strangers from the highways and hedges came to the celebration, but none of those who were originally invited bothered to show up.
            The Lord often used the image of a great feast for the Kingdom of God and this parable reminds us that many of the Jews were not prepared to accept Him as the Messiah, while many disreputable people—such as tax collectors and others of low standing, even Gentiles—did receive Him.   Whether they did so or not judged them in a sense, for it revealed the state of their souls.
            Unfortunately, we often act like those who refused to attend the great banquet in the parable because we use the common concerns of life as excuses not to appear with the Lord in glory, not to participate in the healing and blessing that He comes to give to all those created in His image and likeness.  Instead, of making everything from our daily work and family relationships to our health or sickness opportunities to find greater healing for our souls, we so often make them false gods in ways that judge us, that make clear the weak state of our spiritual lives.  That is how we shut ourselves out of the great banquet and turn away from the glory that is ours in Christ Jesus.  
            St. Paul told the Colossians to prepare to encounter Christ by putting their sins to death, for they are all forms of idolatry that exclude us from the holy joy of the Kingdom. Everything from anger and slander to sexual immorality and covetousness are symptoms of the “old nature” that He came to heal as the Second Adam.   The weeks of Advent call us to prepare intentionally to welcome the Savior at His birth, for if we do not we risk being so distracted and weakened by our sins that we will have as little interest in being in His presence as did those guests originally invited to the banquet. 
            It is very easy to fall prey to such temptations because there is much in us that does not want the truth about our souls to be revealed by encountering Christ.  Unlike the guests in the parable, we should know that the cares of life in no way hide the state of our souls from God.  The more we make false gods out of other people,   our daily responsibilities, and whatever life circumstances we happen to face, the more that we turn away from the salvation that Christ was born to bring.   The more we embrace pride, anger, lust, greed, and other temptations, the more we will actually believe that satisfying our desires is more important than loving and serving God and neighbor.  We do not have to appear spectacularly sinful before others in order for this to happen, as there is much in our culture that encourages us to worship our work, our problems, our pastimes, and whatever gives us momentary pleasure.  It is so easy and alluring to become like the people in today’s parable who really believed that they had better things to do than to share in the great joy of the Lord’s banquet.  But to live that way is to shut ourselves out of the glory that Christ came to share with all He created in His image and likeness.  It is to sentence ourselves to misery and decay that are not fitting for those who dare to call God their Father. 
            Christmas, of course, is a banquet, a great feast.  It is a celebration of our salvation in the God-Man Jesus Christ, Who in Himself united humanity with divinity, Who brings us from mortality to immortality.  No matter whether we have observed the Nativity Fast so far, we all have the ability to use the next several days to prepare to enter more fully into the great glory of our salvation.  Our preparation is not about legalism, but about opening ourselves to the healing mercy of Christ as we prepare to encounter Him at His birth.  For how we receive Him will reveal the true state of our souls.
            Because we all weaken ourselves by sinning, we all need to confess our sins and repent in the Sacrament of Confession.  Because we encounter the Lord in our suffering neighbors, we all need to give generously of our resources, time, and attention to those in various kinds of need. Because we are all enslaved to self-centered desires in one way or another, we all need to fast or practice self-denial in a way appropriate to our strength and life circumstances.  Because we are all shaped by what we give our attention to, we all need to focus our hearts, souls, and minds on God—deliberately and regularly-- in prayer.  Because we are all so easily distracted, we all need to be mindful, keeping a close watch over our words, thoughts, and deeds.
            During these weeks of Advent, we may accept the invitation to the great banquet of the Lord by embracing these spiritual disciplines.  As difficult as we probably find them to be and as bad as we are in doing them, they are powerful means of opening our souls to the glory that He has brought to the world through His appearance at Bethlehem.  They are how we humble ourselves before Him, fighting our passions, resisting our temptations, and doing what we can to prepare to welcome Him at Christmas for our salvation.    They are what Advent is all about.

            Christmas will be here soon, and how we respond to the Lord as His birth will make clear the state of our souls.      Will we be ready to welcome Christ into our lives at His birth?  Will we be ready to accept the invitation to the feast?  I certainly hope so, for the good news of Christmas is that in our Lord the fulfillment of all God’s promises is extended to people like us, those poor, blind, and lame with sin, who suffer from the pain, weakness, and corruption of life in the world as we know it, and who are nowhere near perfect.  The good news is that, in the Babe of Bethlehem, even unlikely people like you and me are invited to take our place with the Holy Forefathers and Foremothers of Christ in the heavenly banquet and to shine with the light of heaven, to appear with Him in glory.  That is why our Savior was born. 

Sunday, December 6, 2015

St. Nicholas the Wonderworker: An Extraordinary Model of Ordinary Holiness

Hebrews 13:17-21
Luke 13:10-17

It is all too easy to fall into despair over the violence, hatred, and depravity that we see in the world today; if we are not careful, these dark forces can easily inspire a paralyzing fear in our own souls. In these weeks of the Nativity Fast that focus on joyful preparation for the coming of Christ, it is a temptation to lose hope that the Prince of Peace is really coming to bless, save, and heal us.  Part of our challenge this Advent is to recognize that temptation for what it is:  a temptation not to entrust ourselves, our loved ones, and this world to the only One Who can deliver us from the worry, pain, and loss that we know all too well, and that can easily overwhelm us.  
Today’s gospel passage introduces us to a woman who had been overcome physically by illness, being stooped over for eighteen years.  Just imagine how tempted she must have been to abandon hope; perhaps she had wondered many times how she could go on from one day to the next. People have certainly lost faith and grown bitter over much less. But she had come to worship in the synagogue on the day when Christ was there teaching.  We do not know if she knew that the Messiah would be there, but when He saw her, He healed her and she praised and thanked God. In response to those who criticized Him for healing on the Sabbath day, the Lord noted that people routinely take care of their animals on the day of rest.  So how could it not be permissible to free a daughter of Abraham from her bondage of so many years on the Sabbath?  He did not come to add to the burden of suffering people or to sit idly by due to a technicality, but to set us free.  
 The good news is that we are all the sons and daughters of Abraham by faith in Jesus Christ. He is born to loose us all from the various forms of slavery, sickness, sin, and death that hold us captive. Perhaps that is why He was born in a time and place of violence and hatred, with His life at risk even as a small child from a jealous and bloodthirsty ruler.  Perhaps that is why He lived in a world where people of different religions, political affiliations, and ethnic backgrounds despised and tried to kill one another.  That is certainly why He accepted death on the Cross at the hands of both Jews and Gentiles in order to reconcile all humanity to God and to one another through His glorious resurrection on the third day.  He came to loose the entire creation from its bondage to corruption and to bring us all into the new heaven and earth of His blessed and eternal Kingdom. He is truly the Second Adam in Whom all the sorrows and divisions of the first Adam are healed, set right, and restored.   
 That is our faith and hope, but sometimes we may wonder what it has to do with us who live in a world that often looks much more like a realm of corruption than an icon of salvation.  Perhaps that is part of the reason that the Holy Spirit has led the Church to recognize some people as shining examples of holiness, as great models of what it means to be set free from bondage to sin and death in the world as we know it.  For when we see that great cloud of witnesses who have finished the race and who are praying for us around the heavenly throne, we realize that, yes, it is possible to participate personally in God’s salvation even for ordinary people who live in a world still captive to sin and death in so many ways.  In the Orthodox Church, we call those great witnesses saints, for the root meaning of the word “saint” is holy.  The saints have entered into the holiness of God through their faithfulness in the same darkened world in which we live.
 Today we commemorate St. Nicholas the Wonderworker, a saint so beloved that he is the basis for the figure of Santa Claus.  Living in the 4th century in what is now Turkey, St. Nicholas had a sizeable inheritance from his family, which he gave away in secret to the poor.  He is particularly well known for throwing bags of gold through the open window of a poor man in order to save his daughters from being sold into the slavery of prostitution.  Though he had wanted to live in seclusion as a monk, the Lord told him that he was to minister among the people, which he did after being providentially identified as the new Archbishop of Myra.  By his prayers, ships were saved, sailors were rescued from drowning, and a famine was adverted. His zeal for the faith was shown when he struck the heretic Arius at the Council of Nicaea, for which he was briefly jailed and stripped of his position as bishop.  But several fathers of the council had the same dream that night in which they saw the Lord and the Theotokos restoring Nicholas as a bishop.  So he was released and returned to his ministry the next day.
 Fr. Thomas Hopko wrote that St. Nicholas is not known for anything particularly extraordinary in and of itself.  He was simply a man of prayer and generosity who taught the truth, opposed error, and guided his flock as best he could. But in his ordinariness, he became extraordinary in simple goodness.  He became a living witness to the healing and fulfillment of the human being that Jesus Christ has made possible for each and every one of us.  His calling was that of a monk who became a bishop, but the signs of his virtuous character are applicable to everyone.  Perhaps that is why, even in our increasingly post-Christian world, he is remembered and loved to this day.
 It is unlikely that any of us will ever be as famous as St. Nicholas.  It is God’s will, however, that everyone of us live as holy a life as he did by faithfulness to Jesus Christ in the ordinary details of our lives.  He never sought to do anything other than what all Christians are called to do in one way or another.  Most of us simply need to go about our humble lives from one day to the next, doing what we know we should do in order to participate more fully in the healing that Christ brings to our souls. In other words, our daily task is to live as those who are loosed from bondage to our sins, who are healed from our infirmities.  Like the woman in today’s gospel lesson, we must straighten up and give thanks to God.  We are able to do that because Christ has become one of us, uniting humanity to divinity in Himself.  In Him, we may fulfill our original vocation as those created in God’s image and likeness.  By the healing energies of His grace, we may become participants in the divine nature, shining with the light of the heavenly Kingdom even in our world with all its problems and temptations to despair.
Remember the troubled and dangerous times in which Christ brought salvation to the world.  Recall the trials and tribulations of the prophets, apostles, martyrs, and confessors from biblical times to today.  Think about how the ordinary way of St. Nicholas required daily commitment, sacrifice, and the acceptance of sorrows.  A religion the main symbol of which is the Cross is not one that looks at the world with rose-colored glasses. And if we allow ourselves to be shocked by the world’s problems or our own personal struggles to the point that we fall into despair or simply embrace the darkness out of fear, we will have no part in the One born at Christmas for our salvation. 

We simply face the same temptations and difficulties that fallen humanity has always faced in one form or another.  It is through such difficult circumstances that faithful people come to shine with the light of the heavenly Kingdom.  That was true of St. Nicholas, and it will also be true of us, if we follow his example of daily obedience in the ordinary details of our lives.  If we pray from the depths of our souls, love and serve our neighbors, forgive our enemies, hold fast to the truth, call on the Lord’s mercy when we fall short, and then get back on track, we will grow in holiness to the point that we will be ready to welcome our Savior at His birth this year with joyful and hopeful hearts.  That is the simple way of St. Nicholas.  Regardless of the world’s problems or our own personal struggles, this must also be our way in the remaining weeks of the Nativity Fast.       

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Walking "as Children of Light" in a Darkened World: What We May Learn from the Rich Young Ruler in Preparation for Christmas in the Orthodox Church

Ephesians 5:8-19
Luke 18: 18-27
            Every once in a while, it is good for something or someone to shake us up, to challenge us to see ourselves as we really are.  Just like our eyes adjust to the darkness, we tend to adjust to whatever we are used to, to whatever has become comfortable or routine.  That is why we need the lights to come on so that we will wake up and see reality.  Though it is not always pleasant, it is necessary if we want to improve in anything or to move forward with our lives.      
            The fellow in today’s gospel passage was certainly not looking for someone to shake him up, for he thought that he had fulfilled all God’s commandments since childhood.  So Jesus Christ challenged him to go well beyond what he was accustomed to.  He told the rich young man to sell all his possessions, give the proceeds to the poor, and follow Him.  That made the man very sad because he loved his money.  It had probably never entered the man’s mind that he had a problem with loving his wealth too much.  He had likely never thought that his riches posed any spiritual problems for him at all.  He was not aware that he was addicted to them.  But because of this hard teaching from the Lord, his eyes were opened to the state of his soul and he did not like what he saw.
            St. Paul told the Ephesians that they too had to open their eyes to uncomfortable truths.  In contrast to the shameful ways of living commonly accepted in their pagan culture, these Christians were to walk as children of light. They were not to be as sleepy as someone who has had too much wine and rich food, but wide awake and alert so that they could respond faithfully to the many challenges that they would encounter.  That is how they would be able to respond prudently to the opportunities that they had to shine with the light of Christ in stark contrast to the darkness of the world’s corruption.
            If we want to follow St. Paul’s guidance today, then we have to hear and respond to a calling from our Lord that is as stark, demanding, and shocking as the one He gave to the rich man.  For we too easily fall into a comfortable routine that keeps us from recognizing the truth about how we stand before Him.  For example, we can all come up with a list of religious activities in which we participate with some level of regularity.  Some we know so well that we could almost do them in our sleep.  We may at times say the words of our daily prayers, read the Scriptures, or attend services while our minds are elsewhere.  We may fast, give to the Church and the needy, or prepare for Communion and Confession by simply going through the motions that have become so familiar to us over the years.  To make matters worse, we may pat ourselves on the back for our religious observances and take pride in presumably being more faithful than other people we know.  If we have dozed off spiritually, it is all too easy to fall into a fantasy about ourselves that is really nothing but an illusion in which we are nowhere near seeing the truth about ourselves in relation to God.  If that is true of us, then we will lack the power to shine with the light of Christ in contrast to our darkened world. 
The Nativity Fast provides us all with a much-needed wake-up call.   For if we are to become fitting temples to receive our Savior at His birth, we cannot simply hide in the darkness and remain as we have been.  Instead, we must enter into the light.  We must shine with the heavenly glory like the star of Bethlehem that attracted the Magi.  They were Gentiles who were drawn to the Messiah of Israel by a shining light.  We must become that light for a world that thinks of Christmas as something between an outdated cultural celebration and an opportunity to improve the economy.  We must become that light for a world that wanders in darkness, looking for every distraction possible from truly encountering the One born for its salvation.  And if we have fallen into such a routine practice of our spiritual disciplines that our lives are no different from what is normal in our culture, then we will fail to make a credible witness to the world that the birth of the Savior really matters.
Christ showed the rich young ruler that he was spiritually asleep by telling him to give up his riches.  He showed us all how spiritually dull we are by how He interpreted some of the Ten Commandments, which He mentioned in today’s gospel reading.  The Lord said that “You shall not commit adultery” prohibits not only physical unfaithfulness to one’s spouse, but also the lust that so easily leads to it.  (Matt. 5: 27ff.)  He taught that “Do not kill” prohibits not only murder, but also the anger and insults that motivate people to kill one another. (Matt. 5:21 ff.)
In a culture which is ignorant of the dangers of lust, we must not been blind to trends that would form us as people enslaved to our desires for physical pleasure.  Scandalous images that not so long ago would have been illegal, or at least highly regulated, are readily available to everyone now through the Internet.  Popular music, films, and television portray depravity of various forms in a positive light and often present chastity, abstinence, and fidelity as unrealistic or oppressive.  Many have replaced any serious discussion of morality with an uncritical endorsement of anything related to romantic feelings or desires of whatever kind.  Our society’s rates of divorce, abortion, children born outside of marriage, and sexually transmitted diseases are sad indications of where these trends have led.  It is not hard to predict that these indicators, as well as their impact on future generations, will become even worse in years to come.       
            Orthodox Christians must be wide awake to the dangers posed for a life of holiness by our culture’s blindness to the moral and spiritual significance of sex.  We certainly must not allow that blindness to take root in our hearts and lives.  Instead, we must “walk as children of light” by identifying and rejecting all that would corrupt us in the relationship between man and woman.  It will not suffice simply to remind ourselves that unmarried people should abstain from intimate relations and that married people should be faithful to their spouses.  For if we are formed by our society’s celebration of self-indulgence, we will lack the strength to resist sexual temptation.  Instead, we must keep a close watch on our hearts and minds, refusing to welcome into them anything that fuels the passion of lust.  At the same time, we must fast, for the settled habit of gratifying the desires of our stomachs weakens our ability to control other desires for bodily pleasure.   We must respond prudently to the challenges posed by our culture, which means doing all we can to grow in mindfulness and appropriate forms of self-denial.  These practices are necessary to wake us up to the dangers of the uncritical celebration of pleasure that our society promotes.     
            The same mindset, of course, encourages the anger and hatred at the root of murder, for they grow from the refusal to let anyone stand in the way of getting what we want in any area of life.  Most fundamentally, we must refuse to be formed by ways of thinking and living that lead us to worship ourselves and our desires as the highest goods.  That was the basic problem of the rich young ruler, which was why He needed Christ’s hard teaching to open his eyes to how weak he had become spiritually, especially in relation to his possessions.

In the remaining weeks before Christmas, we need to take up the disciplines of the Nativity Fast with deep personal commitment and focus if we are to gain the strength necessary to enter into the salvation that our Savior brings to the world at His birth.  Advent is the time to be wide awake and devoted to prayerful preparation to receive the Lord into our lives in new and holy ways.  Now is the time to wake up and shine with light in a world all too comfortable with darkness.  At the end of the day, that is what it means to get ready for the birth of our Messiah.    

Sunday, November 22, 2015

On Becoming a Holy Temple like the Theotokos: Homily for 25th Sunday After Pentecost and the 9th Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church

Ephesians 4:1-7
Luke 12: 16-21
            It is sadly ironic that the time of year leading to the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ has become for many a time of great distraction from the spiritual life.   Shopping, decorating, parties, and social gatherings of various kinds—and figuring out how to pay for them-- so easily turn our attention away from the blessed opportunity given us in the weeks of Advent.  There is nothing wrong with any of these activities, but they often take on a life of their own and take precedence over true spiritual preparation for the great feast of Christ’s birth in the flesh.  By seeking to grow in holiness through the disciplines of the Nativity Fast, we do something very strange in a culture that “is not rich toward God.”
            Of course, being distracted by worldly cares is nothing new.  That was the problem of the man in the parable from today’s gospel lesson, for he saw the meaning of his life simply in his material possessions.  When he thought that he had enough to sustain him for a long time, he decided to relax and indulge himself in pleasure:  eat, drink, and be merry.  But that night God required his soul and he lost everything, including himself.  As Christ said, “So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”
            The tragic terrorist attacks, wars, and humanitarian disasters that have been going on for years in the Middle East and elsewhere should remind us all that true security and salvation are not found in the wealth, power, or politics of this world.  No earthly regime is capable of ushering in a realm of perfection, and even the strongest and most developed nations and societies are not immune from struggles as old as Cain and Abel.  Wealth and power never have and never will conquer sin and death, and we must refuse to allow worldly agendas of any kind to distract us from finding the meaning and purpose of our lives in our Lord, God, and Savior  Jesus Christ, Whose Kingdom is not of this world.  To do anything else is to follow a path that leads only to despair, as the rich fool in today’s parable discovered.
            Even as we are horrified by the grave problems of the world and want all the nations to protect the innocent, uphold justice, and establish a lasting peace, we must remember that what we as Orthodox Christians have to offer the world is not an opinion or an agenda about anything, but most fundamentally our example of a holy life in union with Christ.  St. Paul urged the Ephesians “to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another with love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”  We must treat one another, and indeed everyone with whom we come in contact, in ways that show visibly what our Lord’s salvation means for a world in which people so easily hate, fear, and harm one another.  We must provide an example in our own lives that shines like a candle in the darkness, drawing others to a way of life worth living and dying for.  If we do not, why should anyone care what we have to say?  If we do not, can we really proclaim with integrity anything different from what is said by the rich and powerful fools of the world who ultimately worship themselves?  
            Yesterday, we began celebrating the Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple, which commemorates the three-year-old Virgin Mary being brought there by her parents Sts. Joachim and Anna.  She entered the Holy of Holies and grew up in the Temple in prayer and purity as she prepared to become the living temple of the Lord by accepting Christ into her life in a unique way as the Theotokos, the Mother of God.  This feast calls us to follow her blessed example by intentionally preparing to welcome the Lord into our lives at Christmas.  Because of His birth as the God-Man, as the Second Adam, we are all able to become His living temples by the power of the Holy Spirit.
            Doing so requires, however, that we follow the example of the Mother of God, who opened her entire life to Him.  Temples are places of offering and sacrifice, and who offered and sacrificed herself more to the Lord than His Mother?  Imagine her courage in freely consenting to the message from the Archangel Gabriel that God had chosen her for this unique role and ministry.  She was prepared to accept that unbelievable challenge by those years in the temple in which she laid aside distractions in order to focus on the one thing needful of hearing and obeying the word of the Lord.  The calling of this feast, as well as of the season of Advent, is for us to follow her example in turning away from all that diverts our attention from becoming ever more holy temples of God, for we want to receive Christ as fully as possible into our lives at Christmas.           
            An initial step in doing so is to ask in what ways we have refused so far to join our lives to His.  For like the rich fool, we have all viewed at least some of our blessings as ends in themselves. If we have made our money, possessions, and pleasures the measures of our life, we will begin to find healing from this sin by giving to the needy of our time, talents, and treasure.  The way to combat a settled habit of self-centeredness is to get in the habit of serving others, of taking tangible steps to reorient our lives toward our neighbors in whom we serve and encounter the Lord.  Especially in a season so corrupted by commercialism and selfishness, we should all find ways to show Christ’s mercy to others by generously sharing our attention and resources with those who truly need them.  Of course, that includes the members of our own families whom we so often neglect and take for granted.
            In order to become faithful temples of the Lord, we must also pay attention to what we allow into our hearts and minds.  Some things, of course, simply do not belong in a holy temple.  In our world of round-the-clock entertainment, news, social media, and video games, it is so easy to fill our eyes and ears with messages and images that inflame our self-centered desires and fears, and which encourage us to view ourselves and others in unholy ways.  The problem is not simply with pornography, but also with so much media designed primarily to get us to consume more of it.  These messages are ultimately intended to make money for those who sponsor them, not to make us holy.  Think and pray about what you fill your eyes and ears with on a regular basis because you can be sure that it is shaping your soul one way or another.  If it fills you with anger, lust, envy, pride, fear, or despair, hit the off button. And if it does not help you become more like the Mother of God in welcoming Christ more fully into your life, then it would be better to turn your attention elsewhere.
            Above all, we must devote ourselves to prayer during the weeks of the Nativity Fast.  Most fundamentally, that is how we welcome Him into our souls.  That means turning our attention to the Savior in humility, opening our worries, fears, weaknesses, and failures to Him. The same Lord Who was born in a barn wants to be present in our broken lives, healing and blessing us so that we will shine brightly with His holiness in a dark world.  He wants to make us His living temples, brilliant with the divine glory.  For that to happen, we must set aside time and energy each day to turn away from distractions and center our lives on Him.  That is how His strength will empower our weakened souls.       
            Now is the time to follow the Theotokos’ example of becoming a living temple of the Lord.  Most of us have decades of experience in foolishly worshiping ourselves and the things of this world.  Let us use the remaining weeks of Advent to stop following the bad example of the rich fool and instead to become more like the Mother of God.  Surely, there is no better way to prepare for the great feast of Christmas. 

Sunday, November 15, 2015

"Christ is Our Peace": On Learning to See Enemies as Neighbors and Fellow Citizens of the Household of God

Ephesians 2:14-22
Luke 10: 25-37

         The recent terrorist attacks in France, Lebanon, and Baghdad, as well as the crash of the Russian airliner likely due to a bomb, are horrible reminders of how hatred and spiritual blindness keep many people from seeing those of different beliefs and heritage as their neighbors or even as human beings. That was certainly a common attitude in the time and place in which Jesus Christ was born for the salvation of the world.  For example, the Romans thought that they alone were civilized humanity, the human race itself, in a way that justified their occupying Palestine and oppressing the Jews (and many others) in cruel ways.  The Jews thought themselves superior to the Gentiles and especially hated the Samaritans.
            When Christ followed His first sermon in Luke’s gospel with the reminder that great Old Testament prophets at times had blessed Gentiles and not helped Jews, the crowd literally tried to kill Him.  And if that were not enough, Luke also provides us with the parable of the Good Samaritan, which concept was to the Jews a shocking contradiction in terms.  If there was any group of people whom they did not view as their neighbors, it was the Samaritans. From their perspective, there could be nothing good about any of them.  Unfortunately, such ways of thinking are all too familiar to us today.  
            In these dark times, we must remember that our Savior was born to overcome such hatred and division.  As St. Paul wrote “Christ is our peace.”  He unites Jew and Gentile—all humanity-- in Himself, for He fulfills the ancient promises to Abraham, the law of Moses, and all the teachings of the prophets, making it possible for all peoples and nations to become truly human through faith in Him as the God-Man. He destroys the pathetic competing definitions of who is worthy of being treated as a human being, as someone who bears God’s image and likeness.  He does that through the Cross by which He conquers sin and death.   These are the consequences of our estrangement from the Lord and the cause of our estrangement from one another. Our alienation from other people is a sign of our alienation from God.  Through Christ’s victory over the grave and Hades, those who had been strangers and foreigners to the spiritual heritage of Israel—and bitter enemies of one another-- are now made “fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.” 
            Ancestry and nationality are irrelevant in His Kingdom. When St. Paul wrote that Jew and Gentile “both have access in one Spirit to the Father.” and are “members of the household of God,” he was referring to people of all nations and cultures who have faith in Christ. Regardless of who we are by worldly standards, we join together in the Orthodox Church as the building blocks of a holy temple with Christ as the chief cornerstone and the apostles and prophets as the foundation. We are “built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit” along with all the other members of the Body around the world, from generation to generation.  That is the perspective from which our worldly divisions are shown to be ultimately meaningless.  As those who have died to sin and risen to new life in Christ, we must be vigilant in refusing to define ourselves or anyone else by the petty rivalries over which our Lord has triumphed, or to harbor hatred in our own hearts even for those who commit terrible crimes.  For if we do so, we abandon the way of Christ and risk losing our own souls to the forces of darkness.  “Christ is our peace,” and His Church must be a light of reconciliation shining in the darkness of bitter hatred.  The same must be true for each of us as members of His Body.         
That is a message that many people do not like to hear because it destroys the basis of our prideful inclination to build ourselves up by putting others down, by defining our worth in contrast to other people’s worthlessness.  That is precisely what the lawyer in today’s gospel lesson was trying to do by asking “And who is my neighbor?”  He was trying to justify himself by narrowing down the list of people whom he had an obligation to treat as human beings.  That was a very self-serving question that he probably expected to be answered in a way that would encourage him to think of his own people as worthy and everyone else as unworthy.  Of course, the Savior shattered those expectations by telling a story in which righteous Jewish leaders disregarded the obvious and profound needs of one of their own nation, while a hated Samaritan cared for the man with extraordinary generosity.
Of course, this parable shows us that whoever is in need is our neighbor, no matter who the person is.  There are no boundaries to our obligation to love, even as God’s love knows no limits. If we ourselves as Gentiles and sinners have become heirs to the promises to Abraham through Christ’s mercy, who are we to say that anyone is not deserving of our care, attention, and forgiveness? The parable also shows us that true righteousness is not limited by nationality or ethnic heritage.  In this parable, it is also not limited by religion, for it is the Samaritan who loves his neighbor as himself.  He obeyed God’s law more faithfully than did the Jewish priest and Levite.  Perhaps he reminds us of those in the parable of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25 who are surprised to learn that they served Christ when they served those in need. 
As we begin the Nativity Fast, the 40-day period of preparation for Christmas, we want to become more like that Good Samaritan who cared so conscientiously for someone who thought of him as a hated enemy. Even as Christ was born to save the entire world, including those who tried to kill Him from infancy, we who are in Christ must become icons of His humble love that knows no bounds.  We especially must abandon all attempts to be like that lawyer in the parable who wanted to justify himself by narrowing down the definition of a neighbor. There may well be people in our families, workplaces, neighborhoods, and schools who view us as their enemies. There are others whom we probably view as our enemies, including those we do not know personally.  That should be no surprise, as Christ Himself had enemies and told us to expect to be treated as He was. And when that happens, we must follow His example. Remember that when they nailed Him to the Cross, the Lord prayed “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”  The leaders of the Jews and the pagan Romans collaborated in His crucifixion, and He prayed for them all. 
Most of us have lots of room for growth in forgiving our enemies, treating everyone in need as our neighbors, and overcoming the many divisions that separate us from others.  If being faithful to Jesus Christ were a simple matter of receiving a commandment and obeying it perfectly, we would not need the spiritual disciplines of Advent to help us gain the spiritual strength to welcome Him anew into our lives at His birth.  Preparing for the Nativity requires much more than simply observing the American holiday season or even going to late-night services on December 24.  It requires deliberate, intentional steps that will open us to the strength necessary to manifest Christ’s life in our own, to be so united with Him that we shine with His holiness, love, and mercy for a broken and distorted world.  He is the healing and restoration of what it means to be a human being in the image and likeness of God.  He invites us to participate in Him as the God-Man, calling us to become like an iron left in the fire of the divine glory.     
             Let us do that by finding ways to help those we view as strangers, foreigners, and enemies in our own lives.  Let us do that by mindfully refusing to accept even our own thoughts about who is worthy of our time, attention, and service.  Let us do that by reaching out to someone this Advent who needs our friendship, support, and encouragement, as well as by struggling to cleanse our hearts of hatred toward anyone. When nourished by prayer and fasting, these acts of forgiveness and service will become blessed channels for preparing our souls as mangers for the Prince of Peace.  And then, by God’s grace, we will grow in our ability to love and forgive, and bear witness to the salvation that our Lord has brought to a world that still knows hatred and division all too well. 

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Getting Ready to Get Ready: Preparing for the Nativity Fast in the Orthodox Church

Hebrews 2:2-10
Luke 8:41-56
            Some good things are a long time coming.  We know that in our own lives, relationships, and accomplishments at work, school, or elsewhere.  The best things in life are worth waiting for and require our patience and preparation.  
            That is true of how salvation has come to the world through our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ.  The many generations of the Hebrew people in the Old Testament prepared His way.  God’s messengers, the angels, instructed them through the Law and other announcements and actions.  His prophets called the people to faithfulness in anticipation of the Messiah, the One anointed for the fulfillment of all the promises to Abraham both for his descendants and all the people of the world who respond with faith to the Lord.
            Today we are one week away from the beginning of our time of preparation for the coming of the Messiah, for the birth of Jesus Christ.  Neither merely an angel nor a prophet, He is truly God in the flesh. The Nativity Fast, which we often call “Advent,” begins on November 15, forty days before the great feast of Christmas.  The weeks leading to the Nativity of the Savior do not have the bright sadness of Lent, as they are a joyful time of getting ready to celebrate Christ’s birth by receiving Him anew into our lives as we take our place with angels, shepherds, prophets, and generations of righteous people from all over the world who have rejoiced that the Son of God has become one of us, bringing broken and suffering human beings into the very life of God, Who made us in His image and likeness.   
            We will fast, pray, confess our sins, give to the needy, and forgive our enemies during the coming weeks so that we will have the spiritual strength to celebrate Christmas properly, which means welcoming the Savior into our lives at His birth.  Of course, anyone can make a cultural observance of Christmas.  But something as profound as the Incarnation, the joining of divinity and humanity in the Person of Jesus Christ for our salvation, requires more than putting up a tree or going to a party.  It requires that we unite ourselves personally with the One Who comes to save us, that we prepare the way of the Lord in our own souls.    That is what the Nativity Fast is all about as a season of joyful anticipation, a time of getting ready to enter more fully into the salvation of the world.
As we all know, the world in which Christ was born was not a place of perfection where all was sweetness and light.  Some sought to kill Him from His birth, and St. Joseph had to lead the infant Jesus and the Theotokos to Egypt for their physical safety.  Christ was born as a vulnerable baby in the same world of suffering and pain that we know all too well.  It is the world experienced by Jairus in his grief and by the woman with the flow of blood in her chronic illness.  It is the same world filled with war, terrorism, hatred, strained marriages, broken homes, and every sort of depravity, decay, and loss.  And in a season when our culture tells us to shop, eat, drink, be merry, and pretend that all is well, many will experience these pains even more powerfully than usual.  We will soon be in what many people find to be the most stressful and difficult time of year.  
There is, of course, no magic solution to the problems of the world or our own personal struggles.  But the weeks of Advent lead us back to today’s epistle reading:   “As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to Him.  But we see Jesus, Who for a little while was made lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone.  For it was fitting that He, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the Pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering.”
 The Savior entered fully into the corruption and danger of our world, voluntarily suffering so that our path of struggle would not be in vain, but become a blessed entrance to eternal life.  His unimaginably profound love is manifested through the humility of His birth, life, and death—through which He conquered all the corruption and pain of our fallen humanity in His glorious resurrection.  That is how He brings us into His glory when we endure suffering faithfully and obediently.  That is how we participate in His glory as we share in His life, which requires dying to sin, taking up our crosses, and serving Him in our neighbors, especially “the least of these.”  
Who in the Church would not praise this way of living?  Talk, however, remains cheap; truly to prepare our hearts and souls to receive Him at Christmas requires much more than pious words and warm feelings.  It requires actions that grow from a courageous mind and a humble heart.  The woman with the flow of blood certainly had the courage to confess openly that she had touched the hem of Christ’s garment and found healing for her illness, which had made her unclean and isolated for many years.  She fell down before Him trembling and said out loud what she had done and revealed the deep pain and embarrassment of her life. The Lord said that her faith had made her well and then she left in peace. Courage is not the absence of fear, but doing the right thing in spite of our fears.  And sometimes the greatest courage is shown not by superheroes, but by perfectly ordinary people who simply reach out to God for mercy and healing as best they can one day at a time.
  We must be courageous in refusing to be overcome by the fears and doubts that may fill our minds this Advent.  Perhaps difficult circumstances of whatever kind seem more real to us than the new life of Christ.  Maybe we despair of ever finding health for our bodies, healing of broken relations with others, the strength to reorient our lives toward God, or hope for a world with so many problems.   When done with humility, the spiritual disciplines of the Nativity Fast help us to remain focused on our Savior, Who entered into more suffering and pain than we can possibly imagine for our salvation.  Because of Him, even our most difficult struggles may become pathways to share more fully in His victory over all evil and corruption. He was born to sanctify every aspect of human existence.  No dimension of our life in the world is a stranger to Him or His salvation.  We must have the courage not to despair because He is born truly to save and bless us in our much less than perfect world.
In addition to courage, we also need humility as we begin to prepare for Christmas.  Did you notice the humility of Jairus in today’s gospel reading?  This upstanding leader of the Jewish community humbled Himself by falling before the Lord and asking for His help in healing his daughter.  And even when all was lost and others were laughing at Christ, Jairus and his wife had humble faith and were amazed at the miracle.
The spiritual disciplines of the Nativity Fast are tools to help us grow in the humility that we need in order to be amazed at the birth of our Lord in a world that often laughs at those who view Christmas as anything other than a mere cultural celebration or a season of shopping and socializing.  Fasting from the richest and most satisfying foods is a way of humbling ourselves before God, gaining some strength in resisting self-centered desires, and freeing up resources to share with the needy in whom He is present to us.  Confessing our sins is at the heart of humble repentance, of acknowledging how we have fallen short and receiving the strength to heal from our self-inflicted wounds.  What could be more fundamental to true humility than taking the time each day to call to Him from the depths of our souls?   That is the discipline of prayer.  And there is surely no greater opportunity for humility than forgiving our enemies and asking forgiveness of those whom we have wronged.
For many of us, life will soon get very busy all the way to New Year’s and Theophany. Now, in this week before Advent begins, is the time to prepare to cultivate the courage and humility that we need to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ by welcoming Him anew into our lives. Now is the time to get ready to enter more fully into His life, for He is the salvation of the world.