Sunday, December 11, 2016

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

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

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

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