Sun, 13 January 2019
Sunday after Nativity - Matthew 2:13-23
Many of us are still glowing from the joyous celebration of our Lord’s Nativity this past week. And for good reason! It is a time to celebrate with family, sharing stories, laughter, good food, and gifts. But mainly we celebrate the Incarnation - the Nativity of Christ - the birth of God in the flesh as a newborn child. The results of this event are enormous for us and a great cause for elation. Our Redeemer, the One who has come to save us from death, has been born. What could possibly be more worthy of celebration? There is a Romanian priest back in Rhode Island who, upon entering any gathering at any time of year will sing: Joy to the world!! We share his joy at the coming of Our Lord at Christmas.
On the day of Nativity, during the Divine Liturgy, the Gospel tells us about the wise men bringing gifts and offering them to the Christ child. We understand this as the proper way to respond to our Savior’s birth. We continue the tradition of giving each other gifts to this very day.
Yet today, on the first Sunday after Nativity, the Gospel strikes a very different tone. Herod doesn’t respond to Christ’s birth in quite the same way as the Magi, or as we do today. Instead of elation and joy, his response to the news of the Christ child’s birth is jealousy and murder. We hear of Rachel weeping inconsolably because her children are no more. Many of us are parents and can, or possibly can’t, imagine how Rachel felt. And let’s face it, you don’t have to be a parent to feel the gut-wrenching horror of this event. This is a devastating story.
Why, after celebrating one of the most sacred and joyous feasts of the year, and of all human history, does the church give us this story today?
The answer may be found in some of the names we use to refer to Christ:
One of the hymns we sing during the Nativity season describes Christ’s birth poetically:
“Our Savior, the Dayspring from the east, has visited us from on high. And we who were in darkness have found the truth.”
Christ is the light that reveals what was once shrouded in darkness.
Now then, how many of us are afraid of the dark? Maybe when we were kids… It’s not hard to figure out why. Darkness conceals. It hides the unknown. Darkness is where scary things can lurk. Even if no actual evil is present, we imagine the worst when we are surrounded by darkness: the monster that lives under the bed, the mugger that waits near the ATM at night, and the judgment that we keep hidden within ourselves or that we fear others secretly hide from us.
And when you shine a light on the dark places it can be a harsh awakening for those who desired to remain concealed. Think of the way interrogators shine bright lights into the eyes of their suspects. That light can be blinding. For Herod, the light of Christ entering into the world had the same effect - the darkness within Herod was revealed in his murderous jealousy, and resulted in the slaughter of thousands of innocent children.
You might being thinking, “I am not Herod!” Indeed, we would never murder thousands of children in a jealous rage to preserve our own authority and power. But as with everything in Scripture, we are challenged to discern how this story DOES apply to us. In what ways do we act like Herod, rebelling against the light which would reveal the darkness within us?
Met Anthony Bloom once said “God can save the sinner that you are, but not the saint you pretend to be.”
Allowing the light of Christ into the deepest, darkest crevices of our hearts and minds, into our very souls, is hard. Making ourselves vulnerable by admitting our failings can be painful. But that pain is only the result of God’s healing energy. As with the stinging antiseptic we spray onto our fleshly wounds to clean them and prevent infection, God’s healing can initially feel even worse than the spiritual disease that has metastasized within us: our jealousy, our judgment, our hatred of people who disagree with us politically, the way we belittle people and gossip about them, our lack of patience, our covetousness, our lust, our greed, and our pride. And it is only through repentance and confession that we can be made well.
If we are truly open to receiving that light, this can’t only be done secretly in our own private prayer. While this is a good start, it is not enough to secretly acknowledge our fears and sins. Confession with a priest we trust is where we can truly open the doors to our heart and welcome Christ and His forgiveness in, and be restored to spiritual health! Even opening ourselves just a little bit can let enough of that light in to dispel the darkness lurking in our hearts.
St Porphyrios famously said, “Do not fight to expel the darkness from the chamber of your soul. Instead open a tiny aperture for light to enter and the darkness will disappear”
But we must be willing to open that door and acknowledge our brokenness, the ways in which we, like all, have fallen short of the glory of God. We must allow Christ’s birth to reveal the effects of sin and death in our hearts, just as His birth revealed the broken and distorted effects of sin and death in the world.
The Dayspring from the east is not just an infant who has the potential to grow into our Lord Jesus Christ. He IS Our Lord, and his incarnation sent shockwaves through the world. We often attribute the beginning of Christ’s earthly ministry to His baptism, which we will celebrate this coming Saturday. However, His incarnation, His appearing on earth, in every way possible announced the beginning of an assault on sin and death. The coming of the Christ child is at once a cause for celebration by those who wish for salvation, and a call to arms against the forces of evil. When we hear of a “call to arms” we likely picture soldiers heading to the armory to grab their swords, bows and arrows, shields, rifles, and cannons. But how can this possibly relate to our celebration of Christmas?
Think about the names we heard for Christ earlier: they revolved around the theme of Christ being the Light of the world. There is another time of year when we here a Gospel message that describes Christ, the God-man, as the light that shines in the darkness. Does anyone remember when we hear this?
From the beginning of the Gospel of St John, on Pascha.
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. 4 In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not [a]comprehend it.
This is the Gospel the church puts at the center of our Liturgical celebration on Pascha, the feast of feasts. The culmination of our Liturgical worship for the entire year occurs on Pascha. The culmination of our entire understanding of salvation is revealed at Pascha. And the culmination of God’s plan for all of us and for each of us is made a reality on Pascha.
Christmas is ONLY relevant because of Pascha. All the feasts of the church, all of the events of Christ’s life, of Mary, the Birthgiver of God’s life, of the saints’ lives, and of OUR lives, derive their ultimate meaning from Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection. And herein lies the answer to the question of how Christmas is a call to arms: it is not the call to equip ourselves with physical metal and fire. Instead, Christ calls us to sacrifice ourselves, as He did. The call to arms is a call to surrender myself, my ego, my fear, my self-justification, my lustful desires, my pride, NOT to double-down on those things in the vain hope that they will protect me from losing my identity. If I am a Christian, my identity is contained within Christ, who destroyed death by His death. Christmas is a declaration of war against death. And we already know who wins!
So, my brothers and sisters. I don’t know where each of you are on your spiritual journey. But I encourage you - if you go to confession frequently, God bless you! If you haven’t been to confession in the last year, make a point to go before Pascha. If you have gone to confession and been afraid or embarrassed to admit something that has been weighing on your heart, allow yourself to be vulnerable - trust your priest and trust in God - that by surrendering your pride and letting the light shine into your heart, you will not be destroyed, but instead you will destroy your sin.
Let us have the courage to emulate Christ, surrender ourselves to the warmth of His healing light, confess our sins, receive His forgiveness, and rejoice in His birth, baptism, and ultimate Resurrection as we proclaim CHRIST IS BORN! Xhristos Razhdayetsya!
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Sun, 13 January 2019
Paper presented at the International Orthodox Theological Association on 9-12 January 2019 in Iasi, Romania., 2019.
What is the relationship between ritual actions and moral development? How does Orthopraxis mold believers into virtuous people? More specifically, what role do common Orthodox practices like prostrations, prayer rules, fasting, and kissing the hands of priests and bishops play in the strengthening of certain "conservative" moral instincts (i.e. sanctity, respect for authority/tradition, and loyalty)? Answering these questions is of more than just academic interest: it can help us more successfully foster a parish and family life that creates authentic and well-rounded saints. This paper uses findings from the field of psychology and examples from parish life to discern the link between Orthodox rituals and Orthodox morality, making the case that Orthodox rituals play a role in training all three parts of the mind, but that it plays a special role in training the instincts or gut.