Merry Christmas! Christ is born! Glorify Him!
I do hope everyone realizes that, in the Orthodox Christian world-view that this period — after Christmas — is when we should be celebrating Christmas, not in the days prior to Christmas. In many ways, our American culture has Christmas upside-down. We focus on the material — buying, getting and giving presents. We celebrate Christmas for months prior when we should be preparing and anticipating for the celebration. We see Christmas trees taken down the day after Christmas. We have made it politically incorrect to say ‘Merry Christmas!’ Our children are bombarded with the message that we need to “save Christmas” or find the “Christmas spirit” when the whole purpose of Christmas is to participate in the reality of God becoming a babe in cave for our salvation.
Imagine a world, for a moment, that stepped back from the material world, that fasted for 40 days prior and spent more time in prayer in preparation for a celebration that lasted a week. That is what the Orthodox Christian is supposed to do. In fact, if we didn’t have to get ready for Epiphany, I’m sure the Church would figure out a way to celebrate even longer.
We see this pattern of anticipation and celebration expressed on Sundays with the Sunday before and the Sunday after Christmas. Last Sunday we studied the genealogy of Christ — we were getting prepared for Christ taking on our humanity. Today is the Sunday after Christmas. The Gospel tells us of the Christ Child’s flight to Egypt in the face of Herod’s slaughter of the Innocents. This helps us to answer the question “Now that we have the Nativity of Christ, what are we supposed to do with it?”
In order to help us piece together this answer, the Church also gives us the words of St. Paul in his letter to the Galatians:
When he who had set me apart before I was born, and had called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia; and again I returned to Damascus. — Gal. 1:15-17
Paul, on his way to persecute Christians, gets visited by the Risen Lord and is told that he needs to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles. In response, Paul goes to Arabia and Damascus. He tells us that he doesn’t return to Jerusalem for three years.
In other words, the Church is drawing a parallel between the Christ Child and Paul and therefore between the Christ Child and us. In both cases the world hates us and reacts with violence. Imagine if Paul immediately returned to Jerusalem claiming to be Christian. He would have entered into the teeth of persecution and retribution.
The peace that the angels declare to the shepherds in the field is God’s peace, not man’s. In fact, those who seek earthly power understand and see Christianity as a major threat to their goals. We and our King stand in the way. When we claim a God who is wiling to sacrifice Himself in order to protect and save us, there exists an eternal and unchanging rule of ethics and morality that holds that everybody, no matter who they are, has value. Such an understanding gets in the way of the power-hungry from making up their own version of morality (or lack thereof) that suits their present needs. It doesn’t allow them to determine who has value and who doesn’t. This is why the Church has always been under assault and, until we see the Second Coming, it will always be under assault. This, by the way, is why we are told to say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas!”
In the face of this assault, neither the Christ Child nor the newly enlightened Paul were ready for their appointed tasks. Each had to retreat and prepare. Christ had to allow his humanity to mature. Paul had to gird himself for the trials and tribulations that awaited him on his missionary travels around the Mediterranean.
In other words, celebrate the Nativity of Christ. Glorify the Living God that was willing to be born in a cave for our salvation. Revel in the reality that God so loves His creation; but be prepared for the assault that will come. Each and every one of us will be called to be martyrs — to witness to the reality of the Christ Child, of God Incarnate, of Christ on the Cross and Christ risen from the dead. We will be forced to make choices everyday between the morality of the world and the morality of God. Everyday we will be challenged to see the value in our fellow human being the way God does when the world wants to throw them away and turn their back on them. Someday, we will be called to boldly declare that Christ is our King instead of the politicians of the moment.
This is why the Orthodox Church gives us her services and encourages us to live our lives in anticipation and celebration. It gives us an opportunity to retreat into our own Egypt and Damascus. It gives us a spiritual place to find an internal silence where we can hear God in the stillness. As Elijah learned on the mountain, God isn’t in the business and noisiness of the world outside — the wind, the earthquake or the fire. God is in the stillness. Living in the cycles of the Church gives us the tools to learn to silence that business that invades our internal life. It allows us to fill ourselves with God. It gives the means and the power to return to the world and boldly declare the Gospel with our words, with our actions and with our very lives.
Today I pray that we hold on to Christmas a little longer this year — that we take advantage and celebrate the reality of Christ born in cave for our salvation. Allow that reality find its way into our heart and our inner life so that we find the stillness where we can hear God. Let us find our own Egypt and Damascus to prepare for the tasks that lay ahead. Let us gladly pick up our cross and do His will. Amen.