Sent: Sunday, January 01, 2006 2:25 PM
2005 NATIVITY EPISTLE
of Archbishop Lazar Puhalo
Today we proclaim the Birth of Jesus Christ - the Incarnation of God. We make this great proclamation in an era and a society which is either hostile to it or indifferent to its meaning.
Let us reflect together about the meaning and results of this indifference and hostility. We could ask whether our society has been improved by this rejection of Christ, or has it suffered loss? But let us ask first whether the secularization of the holiday we call Christmas is really so surprising, for secular society is almost always faithful to itself. The problem is that Christians are not always faithful to their own calling and witness to secular society or "the world." The culture and society of "the world" is functioning in exactly the manner that Christ told us it would. No, the world and society are not at fault, they are remaining faithful to themselves. Can we say the same about Orthodox Christians today? The Orthodox Church is intended to be a sacred society in the midst of a secular society. The fact that so many Orthodox Christians are not being faithful to the concepts of this sacred society is all too clear.
Let us begin our reflection by looking at the meaning of the commemorations that are celebrated two Sundays before the Nativity of Christ. On that day, we commemorate those great Saints of the Old Testament about whom Apostle Paul says, "the world is not worthy" (Hebrews 11:38). We could recount them all, but as Paul again says, "time would fail us" (Hebrews 11:32). Let us therefore recall only one great moment of the faithful from the Old Testament. This day is really an Orthodox Christian version of Hanukkah, for amongst those whom we are celebrating on this day, none are more memorable than the Maccabean martyrs. Indeed the Maccabees are a great symbol of why we commemorate the Old Testament faithful. It is true that we remember the faithful of the Hebrew Scripture because they believed the promises of God and lived in the anticipation of the coming Messiah. More than this, however, they strove above all to maintain spousal faithfulness to God. They understood the calling of Israel to be a sacred society in the midst of the profane. Many of them laid down their lives rather than betray this revelation and the true worship of God, even though many, rather than live close to the Holy, had opted to step outside of closeness to the Holy into what the ancients called the profanum, the outer court of the temple, as a way of ignoring the obligations and blessing of living close to God.
In the time of the Maccabees, King Antiochus Epiphanes, a successor of Alexander the Great, set up a pagan image in the Temple of God in Jerusalem. He proclaimed the worship of this idol that so typified the worldly culture and society surrounding Judea. It was a profane society, but not secular; it had its own form of religion which was alien to God and to the hope of Israel. Not only was the pagan idol set up, but the religious practices of God's people were forbidden. The keeping of the fasts was prohibited, and the king, in order to prevent the liturgical worship by God's people, had the oil used for the temple lamps polluted so that it could not be used. Led by the Maccabee clan, many in Judea, imitating the holy prophet Daniel and the three holy children, refused to disobey God and yield to the demands of "the world." They preferred to lay down their own lives and remain faithful to the concepts of the sacred society God had established in Jerusalem. God gave His seal to the testimony of all these martyrs with the miracle of the "Eight Days' Oil." One small vessel of unpolluted oil was found and, by God's miracle, this tiny amount of oil became sufficient to light the liturgical lamps for the required eight days.
This event is at the very core of the feast which we celebrate two Sundays before the Nativity of Christ, when the Light of the world appeared in Judea. Is it not clear, therefore, that the feast of the Nativity of Christ is not just about Christ, but that it is also about us? And yet, we in the Orthodox Church cannot even claim steadfastness to the very foundation of our purpose in this world! We constantly hear complaints about the secularization of Christmas and the Christmas season; we also hear many people complain about secularism in the Church. The problem is that secularism has not invaded the Church, rather we invited it in. The Church cannot remain a sacred society in the midst of a secular and profane society if we abandon those practices and symbols which have defined it and amplified its meaning to the faithful. As an example, we now find whole parishes in which the people no longer celebrate their name-days, and in which many of them do not even realize they have a patron Saint and name-day (or Slava). Yet the celebration of the name-day is directly tied to the understanding of the meaning of the Incarnation - the Nativity of Christ. This is significant, because the celebration of name-days affirms the sense of transformation and regeneration that is at the heart of the Feast of the Incarnation. Each person's name-day accents their being called into a new existence by the Creator of all, their nativity as sons and daughters of the one Lord of Life. The Incarnation has overcome the failure of our fleshly birth, our "birthday," and replaced it with the possibility of such a newness of life, a rebirth in the Spirit, which our name-day speaks of so eloquently.
This loss of meaning about the Nativity Feast, "Christmas," is grave precisely because it is a loss of the meaning of life itself. It is not enough to say, "Let's put Christ back into Christmas," when we ourselves do not even grasp the fullness of the meaning of the event it is supposed to celebrate. We cannot begin to "put Christ back into Christmas" until we first put ourselves back into the Feast of the Incarnation which has made it possible for us to claim the name God has called us by in and through our coming into being.
Instead of the faithful celebrating their sacred rebirth into God's kingdom, which is symbolically defined by their baptismal name - the saint for whom they are named - we teach them to continue celebrating only their secular birthday. Even among the clergy we find some who refuse to use their own saint's name and prefer a secular nickname. Our secular birthday commemorates our birth into the fallen human nature, our birth into a life which must end in death. Our name-day (or Slava), on the other hand, announces our rebirth into the new human nature restored by Jesus Christ, a rebirth into a life that is everlasting. It is this realization that is directly connected to our understanding of the Nativity of Jesus Christ. The fact that secular birthdays are announced in churches (sometimes even liturgically) rather than the Orthodox Christian tradition of singing "Many Years" at the end of the Liturgy for the parishioners' name-days already tells us that we have entered into the secularization of not only "Christmas" but of the Church itself. We appear to no longer have an awareness of the meaning and implications of the Incarnation, and have lost our connection with the actual message of the Feast. We no longer understand that the Incarnation of God is the re-creation of humanity, a new birth, a new beginning, and the establishment of a new sacred society in the midst of the secular and profane, that it reveals to us the restoration of creation in its fullness and the presence of the Commonwealth of God. The feast is not just about the "birth of Jesus," but about the rebirth of mankind. In place of such an understanding, we now sow indifference and usher secularism into the Church with open arms and closed hearts that dull our awareness of, and attention to, the centrality of living in and through the presence of God's commonwealth.
Nor does the problem end at this: having begun this process of secularization within the Orthodox Church, many proceed to undermine the Orthodox Christian life and struggle. In place of Church order, a kind of confusion arises. Egotism rises even in the face of the Divine Liturgy and the structure of the temple, a thoughtless egotism that works without understanding. No longer do people care to dress in an appropriate manner for entering into the presence of the King, and with respect for themselves and others. Instead, we have a self-centred and self-loving arrogance. We have people proclaiming, "I do not care about others, I care only to please myself in the way that I dress and present myself before the presence of God." This is the very opposite of the Christian message, of the necessary struggle against egotism and self-love. The sin in the Garden of Eden was precisely a self-forgetfulness that led (and still leads) directly to egotism and self-love, and Jesus Christ was Incarnate in this world to overcome the power of this delusion. Our salvation depends upon our conquest of this condition, acquiring instead an unselfish love which can arise only from a deep and profound remembering that we are created in the image and likeness of God. This struggle requires a radical change in perspective and a breaking of the patterns of our secular society. We have secularized God's house by encouraging carelessness, indifference and the "spirit of this world" in the way people dress when they enter the temple. More and more, we encounter the sectarian idea of self-affirmation, rather than worship of God combined with a love of neighbour that should lead us to accept the Scriptural injunction to modesty of dress. There is, in place of modesty, an idea of a self-actualization as if one can become who one is through the instruments of fashion instead of the awakening of a regard for and claiming of our nativity as sons and daughters of God. It is not sufficient to say, "We do not care how they dress so long as they appear in church." We welcome them, of course, but our responsibility as clergy is to teach them and lead them upward; to lead them to rise above the passions of the day, and toward the new life in Christ. Yes, we can receive them "just as they are," but it is our responsibility not to leave them just as they are. Christ was not Incarnate in order to leave mankind unchanged, but to effect a radical transformation in humanity. He receives us "just as we are," but only those who reject Him remain "just as they are."
This is a tragedy for the whole world. If we Orthodox Christians cannot maintain the most basic symbolic elements of the faith which help define its purpose, how can we possibly reach out to the world and offer a healing for the loss of meaning that is the great illness of the worldly society around us? If we cannot recapture a full understanding of the meaning and implications of the Incarnation, with its call for a transformation of life, a newness of life and a rebirth, we cannot even offer healing to Orthodox Christians.
Now, let us return to that celebration which we observe two Sundays before the feast of the Nativity of Christ and let us pay attention to the texts that we are reading from the Holy Scripture and the divine services. Can we dare to compare ourselves with those great heroes of the faith who lived and offered their lives in the hope of a promise which had not yet been fulfilled, while we claim to believe in that same promise that has been fulfilled, and yet regard it in a more and more superficial manner?
Beloved brothers and sisters, can we not restore our regard and love for those elements and powerful symbols, so dear to Orthodox Christians over the centuries, which serve to proclaim the true and full meaning of the Incarnation of God - the Nativity of Christ? Has our ego and indifference so consumed us that we must continue the secularization of the Orthodox Church in order to satisfy our own passions and self-centredness, rather than allowing the Incarnate Christ to enter into our hearts and transform us, to create in our hearts a sacred space in place of the secular and profane space that now reigns in them? Shall we continue to criticize secular society for being secular, while we ourselves keep our hearts secular and profane, constantly falling into secularism ourselves? I call upon all of you, clergy and laity alike, to pause and think deeply and prayerfully about all these things. Let us restore amongst ourselves the full awareness of the meaning of the Incarnation, and heal ourselves of our ego and secularization so that we can offer this healing to the world around us - so that we can help replace the depression of meaninglessness with the hope of everlasting life! The Feast of the Nativity is a revelation speaking at numerous levels, including its unveiling of what it means that we are each reborn into the world anew, from the secular into the sacred, in and through our baptism and, like Christ, are given the capacity to live the anointed life close the heart of God's love. In this season of joy each of us is called by name because each of us is restored to the image in which we were created.
CHRIST IS BORN! GLORIFY HIM!
[Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
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Having panicked my sister into acting, I'm going to the doctor tomorrow. I tell myself that it's part of my Grand Scheme to get healthier, but the truth is I've already fallen off *that* wagon so fast that I bounced. Well, hell..keep going I guess. And go. Because I can't not go. I don't want to go. I don't want to get yelled at, and no, thank you I won't go into the details of why he'd yell.
I actually heard my mother discussing surgery. Which freaked me out. I can't even consider it. I dont' have the coverage. But I guess it's that extreme.
No..it is. And I know it is. I just have to figure out what to do, how to stop what I'm doing and turn things around. I told myself that I wasn't going to hide posts, because that was just another way to hide *me*, but I'm tempted to hide this one.
God please give me the strength to do what has to be done. No matter what that turns out to be.
The New Martyr, The Grand Duchess Elizabeth.
I wish I had one one-hundredth of her courage and her ability to forgive those who wronged her.