Thursday, January 07, 2010

The Beginning of the End

English: Augustus of Prima Porta, statue of th...Image via Wikipedia

The most powerful nation on the face of the earth has ordered that a census be taken, so that everyone who a subject of that nation could be taxed.  Little did they know that at that very moment in time something was taking place that was going to transform the world; and they were powerless to stop it.  Truth was, they never saw it coming; and once it was underway, there was nothing they could do about it, although they certainly tried their best to eliminate it.  In the end, they were defeated; their empire crumbled into nothing; but what started then continues today, and the world remains powerless against it.

This is the scene for us in the reading of the birth of our Lord as described in the Gospel according to St. Luke, and today, from the Gospel according to St. Matthew.  The nation, of course, was Rome; and St. Luke tells us that Augustus had ordered the taking of a census as a prelude to the story of our Lord’s birth.  There is that stark contrast between the two stories.  On the one hand, the might and power of Rome, symbolized in their Emperor; on the other, a newborn baby, of humble parents, for whom there was no room at the inn, and so he was born in a cave that was being used as a stable.  One the one hand, a military power that had conquered much of the world, against whom few other nations dared to stand; on the other, one helpless child who possesses all the power in heaven and on earth.

In one part of that world, a province of that Empire, someone did recognize that something was happening, and he did his best to destroy it.  Herod, made king by the Romans, did all he could to destroy this new power coming into the world.  But his efforts failed, though the battle was costly: the innocent young boys slain in his attempt to retain his title, the King of the Jews.  These were but the first of the hundreds, and then thousands, and then millions who would be killed for their allegiance to this child, rather than to the princes and powers of the world. 

Now we live in what is arguably the most powerful nation on the face of the earth, one against whom few dare stand.  That nation, in ways far more subtle than those of Herod, does not seek to destroy those who today proclaim their loyalty to the King born in a stable by killing them outright.  Rather, it seduces, it teases, it promises, and it misleads – and any of the flowers of this newborn King must battle their own passions, lest these be turned against them and lead them to degradation and destruction.  Yet the world remains powerless to those who embrace the life of this King, for He has defeated the last enemy – death – something no power in the world can achieve.  He promises the victory to those who will stand with Him in faith, even at the passing away of the world.

Brothers and sisters, with the birth of the Son of God wrapped in our humanity as He was wrapped in his body with swaddling clothes, our victory is assured; but the battle must be fought, and the battleground is within us, in our hearts and minds and souls and bodies.  To succeed, we need only follow what the victors who have gone before us have done:  pray; fast; give from the wealth God has entrusted to us; love; forgive, being patient and humble, and seeking heavenly things rather than earthly gains.  The time of our liberation is at hand; and if we will live as Orthodox Christians, the world is powerless to stop us.

Christ is born!

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Wednesday, January 06, 2010

A Tale of Two Kingdoms

The Reading today from the Gospel according to St. Matthew describes how King Herod responded to the news that a King of the Jews had been born.  He was, of course, unpleasantly surprised, inasmuch as he had been made king of the Jews by the Romans, on who behalf he ruled Judea.  Although not read today, we have the advantage of knowing the next part of the story:  how he sends his troops to Bethlehem with orders to kill all the male children in the region aged two years or less, according to the time when the magi told him the star they had followed to find him had appeared.

This is an instance of how the world responded to the news that God was setting in motion the completion of the promise He had made to Adam and Eve even as they were forced to leave Paradise, no longer able to dwell in the intimate presence of God.  He said that there would be enmity between the seed of the woman (that is, all her offspring, including us) and the serpent, that is, Satan, the deceiver, who led Eve astray, and through her, Adam.  By their action, Adam and Eve delivered the world, which had been given to them, into the hands of Satan, the power of the prince of the air, the ruler of this world.  But the prophecy was that one of the seed of the woman would crush the head of the serpent; and now that child has come into the world.

That power and that promise are still active in the world today.  That the world does not understand what is taking place can be seen in the efforts, sometimes laughable, of many scientists who try to find a way to make a celestial object – a star – behave so as to be able to lead people across hundreds or thousands of miles, not only to a specific country, not only to a specific city, but to a specific location in a specific city – to the cave where the newborn child lay in a manger.  All they need to do is read the fathers, and find that the wise men were led their by an angel, shining with the light of the glory of God.  That angel and that light remain in the world today, through our guardian angels, and the Angel of Great Counsel, who is Christ Himself.  When we embrace the life of Christ born within us when we are baptized, the world will try, as Herod tried, as Satan tried, to destroy us; but if we embrace that life and light, the world may come against us, but it cannot overcome us. 

Brothers and sisters, let us embrace that light, let us allow the life of Christ to be seen in us, in what we do, in what we say, in who we are, so that others may be drawn to the light, and join chorus with us in praising the God of our salvation.

Our King and Savior is drawing near.  Come, let us adore Him!

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Sunday, January 03, 2010

Preparing for the Coming of Christ

Florentine mosaic Last Judgement of about 1300Image via Wikipedia

Today is the Sunday of the Holy Fathers of our Lord Jesus Christ.  It is also the Sunday before the Nativity of our Lord; so this season of preparation for the celebration of His coming in the flesh is drawing to an end.  Has everyone finished their shopping? 

Unfortunately, that seems to be the highlight of this holiday – actually, we should say, “holy day,” which is the origin of the word, “holiday”:  feasting, parties, decorations, presents – and let me say that there is nothing wrong with any of these things.  But it is easy for us to lose sight of what we are celebrating, and lose our connection to the holy with our focus on the earthly side of the holiday.  We need to remember first that Christmas – again, more properly called, the Nativity of our Lord – is not the culmination of the Christian life, or faith, or message.  You wouldn’t know that if you look at how the various holidays are celebrated here in this land, in this culture.  But the Nativity, as important as it is, pales in comparison to the celebration of Pascha.  Now, it’s true:  No Nativity, no Pascha.  But Pascha is the pinnacle, the completion; and the Nativity isn’t even really the beginning of what is finished at Pascha.  The beginning of the work of bringing about our salvation is the feast of the Theophany, which we’ll celebrate in a few weeks, some twelve days after the Nativity.  Until that time, there was no public ministry on our Lord’s part.  After that time, He begins to proclaim that the kingdom of God is near, gathering followers and disciples, working miracles, healing the sick, and starting down the road that will lead to Gethsemane, death, and resurrection.  If that is the story from beginning to the end, the Nativity is the prologue, the introduction, letting us see how the story itself is set in motion.

The setting in which the Nativity is the highlight, the completion, is the feast celebrated today, the Holy Fathers of the Lord.  From Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the patriarchs whose trust in God led them to a new land, the Holy Land, to Moses the Lawgiver, and Joshua and the judges who ruled Israel guided by God, to David the King and the other rulers, to Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, Hosea, Amos, and the prophets, God is at work fulfilling His promise to Adam and Eve and all their descendents.  God made things ready for His people to receive One Who would be prophet, priest, and king:  His Son, whose birth in a cave we celebrate this week.  We see in the Holy Fathers Faith, the Law, and the Prophets, all needed for us to understand Who Christ is, and to receive Him as Lord and Savior, as we should.  We should not lose sight of this, either, even as we make our plans and carry out our celebrations.

Finally, as we celebrate Christ’s coming into the world, for which celebration we have been preparing ourselves in this season, we should always keep in mind that He has promised to return.  We should always be preparing at least as much for His second coming as we do to celebrate His first coming – for unlike the time when He was born in that cave, and laid in a manger, He will return in glory, with His angels; and while this time after His birth is a time of mercy, a time for repentance, a time for the transformation of our lives, then, when He comes again, He comes to judge the living and the dead.  Does anyone want to come to that great and terrible day of Judgment without making some preparations?  I think not; but can we truthfully say that our preparations for that day are even close to being equal to the time and energy and attention we put into the celebration of the Nativity?

Brothers and sisters, it’s later than we think; the time is drawing closer, even if we do not know the day and hour of His return.  As we give thanks to God for the gift of love He has given us by giving us His Son, let us also ask for the grace we need to be ready to rejoice in His presence when He comes again to judge the world.

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