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.