Monday, December 22, 2008

2008 Nativity Epistle

Archbishop Lazar,
Abbot of New Ostrog


“Ye rich and ye poor...enter ye all into the joy of the Lord.”

This year, as we approach the Feast of the Incarnation of God, we might reflect on the beloved Paschal Sermon of Saint John Chrysostom. In it, he invites all, those at every level of society and in every spiritual condition, to “enter into the joy of the Lord.”
Let us recall that the proclamation of Christ’s birth came first to the poor, the disenfranchised and humble of this world. The shepherds in the fields often had no better place to take shelter and sleep than in the manger caves at the edge of the hill upon which Bethlehem stands. It was these lowly outcasts who came first to venerate the Christ, the creator of heaven and earth Who now took upon Himself their lowliness and humanity. Only afterward did the Magi come. They were among the elite and wealthy of this world, and Christ came for them also, yet their journey was longer and more arduous, for they had first to learn humility and patience in order to be able to recognise in the child in this poor manger the King of Glory.
He received the lowliness and humility of the shepherds, and took upon Himself their passions and sins. He accepted the gifts of the Magi, and also accepted upon Himself their struggle and spiritual burdens. Both the one and the other were in a condition of alienation. The Magi were gentiles, men born without the promise, outside of the Covenant. The shepherds were on the fringe, among the poorest and most dispossessed of Judean society.
Throughout His earthly healing ministry, Christ would embrace the alienated, the sick and suffering and the sinful, while in no wise rejecting the rich and the powerful, who might respond to the call to humble themselves and come to a true understanding of the Covenant and the Law. From the blind beggar bar-Timaeus to the noblemen Joseph of Aramathea and Nikodemus, Christ would take upon Himself the sins and passions of all, bear them to the Cross and restore man’s unity with God. Even there on the Cross, He embraced the outcasts of this world, dying the death of the most wretched, in the company of two brutish bandits.
So often in our North American society, we approach the Christmas season in the spirit of a saccharine sentimentalism. Christ is portrayed as a cute, freshly washed infant in a tidy manger with well-groomed animals round about. His mother is a pretty, neatly coiffed young woman, and a handsome, strapping young father – Joseph — stands attentively nearby.
Far too often, we do not find a sense of awe and reverence at this event which shook all creation, interjected into the symmetry of the cosmos, and seized the universe, impelling it onward toward its final destiny of transfiguration and glory. Yet, the very purpose of the Nativity Fast is to prepare us spiritually to open our hearts and become truly present to this great mystery. But there is still more. The fast itself and the message of the Incarnation of God in the midst of the humble and outcast is intended to prepare us to open our hearts to the same. We think of the charity and giving of this season, but forget that the giving of gifts and the distribution of food at the mid-winter solstice and New Year predates Christianity and is common to believers and unbelievers alike.
I would like to call upon Orthodox Christians, during this season, to add a perspective to their charity and to their contemplation of the Feast. Preparing ourselves through fasting and prayer, let us with a spirit of awe and repentance, offer to those in need not only because of Christ’s warning preserved for us in the 25th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. Let us offer what we can, remembering that Christ was received first of all by the poor and the dispossessed of this world. Christ’s ministry was carried out primarily among such as these. Neither with condescension nor pity nor condemnation did Christ walk in their midst and break bread in the homes of sinners and outcasts. Rather with His presence he acknowledged their humanity, restored their human dignity and invited the attention of all to the image of God in each person on all levels of society and in every nation. He invited the hearts of those who would be His followers to love their neighbour and to open with love to “the other.”
But to recognise “the other” as our neighbour, as “equal to me” in human dignity and God’s love, to see in the lowest and most downcast, a reflection of our own “self,” I must first clothe my own ego in the robe of humility. Training ourselves in self-discipline and self-control, “decentring” our world view from focus on ourselves, are necessary in order to attain to a loving understanding which makes room for “the other” in our hearts. Of what benefit is it so say that we follow Jesus Christ but pay so little heed to how He lived His earthly, Incarnate life? We are called upon as Orthodox Christians to make the principles of Christ’s life incarnate within each of us.
Brothers and sisters, let us be cautious that we do not allow our periodic charity and goodwill, our seasonal good deeds to become a substitute for a life in Christ. If we have sincere joy in the celebration of His Incarnation — the dawning of our own salvation — let us also find true joy in affirming the dignity and worth of the dispossessed and alienated in our society so that we can be followers of Christ in truth as well as in words. In this, we shall truly fulfil the will of the Father, acknowledge the Gospel of the Son, receive the comfort of the Spirit and inherit everlasting life.
Christ is Born! Glorify Him.

1 comment:

Ephrem Gall said...

Vladika, bless. I have noted how several of your most recent posts do address means other than Personalism whereby Orthodox Christians may share God's love for the world. An ideology or stance other than the Faith itself is unnecessary.
I hope you don't mind that I shared this homily on my blog "Arms Open Wide: Orthodox Christian Disability Resources," for the Nativity Season.
Many years, Master. Ephrem Gall