|15 - Forefathers of Christ, Dec 11, 2011|
The Savior told this morning’s parable on a Sabbath, a Saturday (Lk 14:1); and it was told following another healing the Savior had done on that Sabbath day. We always read this Gospel parable on this the second Sunday before Christmas. While the Nativity Fast directs the eye of our mind to the Feast of the Savior’s Nativity lying ahead of us, the reading of this morning’s Gospel on this the Sunday of the Holy Forefathers of Christ tells us that at Christmas time we are in the spiritual setting of the Savior’s tomb on the Great and Holy Saturday of Pascha. As we behold Him lying as a babe in the cave, wrapped in swaddling clothes, born of the Virgin, we also see Him lying in the tomb of His Holy Pascha dead and buried, wrapped in the fine linens of a burial shroud. The cave of Bethlehem is the tomb of Pascha. The babe lying in the manger on Christmas morn is the crucified God lying in the tomb on Great and Holy Saturday.
So, listen to what the Church proclaims to us on Christmas Day: “Bethlehem has opened Eden. Come, let us see. We have found joy in secret. Come, let us take possession of the paradise that is within the cave.” (Festal Menaion, 278) For, by the coming of Christ in the flesh, what separated us from God – death, the fruit of our sins and trespasses – “is now laid low and destroyed, and the flaming sword [that prevented entrance to Eden and the Tree of Life] now gives way before all who approach. And, I partake in faith of the life-giving tree in Eden, becoming once again a gardener of immortal plants.” (FM, 207)
Bethlehem opens Eden because it is the Lord’s Paschal tomb of Great and Holy Saturday. The death that separates us from God is laid low in the cave of Bethlehem and the flaming sword gives way because the Christ who is born of the blessed Virgin in ways past nature as a precious rose in the lowly cave (FM, 218) is Himself the Resurrection and the Life. (Jn 11:25) By His victorious death on the Cross on Great and Holy Friday He has transfigured the tomb into the bridal chamber. Great and Holy Saturday is like Christmas, and Christmas is one with Great and Holy Saturday; for by death and burial in the tomb of Pascha He makes the cave of Bethlehem into the mystery of our regeneration as children of God. And so already by His birth of the Holy Virgin, the whole creation is made rich (FM, 214); for He who is born in the cave is the Great King Himself who has come to us as to His own. Sharing wholly in our poverty, He has made our clay godlike through His union and participation in it. He has clothed Himself in the substance of our flesh, subjecting Himself in obedience to the Father to death on the Cross that He might clothe us with Himself, and make us rich with Heaven, even making us to be partakers of His own divine nature. (FM, 271; II Pt 1:4)
This is the mystery of Holy Eucharist. We draw near the Chalice in the fear of God, with faith and love, and we draw near to the Tree of Life that is now open to all who approach. This is the Great Supper of the King to which all are called that we hear of in this morning’s Gospel parable. It is the wedding banquet of the Lamb. St Paul writes in his letter to the Hebrews that the world is now in the Last Day. This is the Great and Holy Sabbath, Saturday, of biblical time. Christ has come. He finished the creation on the cross and Great and Holy Friday, the Sixth Day of Genesis, the Sixth day of the world’s “beginning”. The calendar time of the world now moves in the biblical time of Great and Holy Saturday, the Last Day of the world’s creation. Those who answer the call of the Great King to come to His great feast, offered in the cave of Bethlehem that is the tomb of Holy Pascha, draw near in the fear of God, and with faith and love they cross the threshold of calendar time and enter the holy mystery of biblical time. In the Great and Holy Saturday of this biblical time in which the world now moves, the faithful draw near to the Tree of Life on the Sundays of calendar time; and lo, like the cave of Bethlehem, the Sundays of calendar time open onto Eden. They open already onto the Day of the Lord’s Resurrection and into the First Day of the New Creation. The faithful, having been crucified with Christ in the likeness of His death in Holy Baptism, have entered into the likeness of His Holy Resurrection. They have “passed over” already into Eden, for the life that now lives in them is not the life of this world, subject to death and corruption. It is the Life of Him who is the Resurrection and the Life, who has destroyed death by His death and has made the creation rich by His birth of the Holy Virgin in the cave. In the divine, eternal, uncreated life of Christ, the faithful live in this world in the mystery of Great and Holy Saturday, even as they live, in Christ, already in the mystery of Pascha Sunday, to the degree that they live, in Christ, in the mystery of Great and Holy Friday; that is to say, to the degree that they unite themselves to Christ in the ascetic life of the Church and are crucifying the flesh and its lusts with Christ on His Holy Cross.
Surely, we recognize this ascetic life of the Church, by which we unite ourselves to Christ on His Cross, as the way of the Cross. It is the way Christ commands those who would be His disciples to follow. It is clear, then, that this is how we answer the invitation of the Great King to His feast and approach the joy of the Tree of Life that is found in secret in the cave of Bethlehem that opens onto Eden, that we may become partakers of the divine nature in the sacred mystery of the Church’s Holy Eucharist. And, it seems to me to follow that this taking up of the Cross, this taking up of the Church’s ascetical disciplines in obedience to Christ’s command, is how we enter the mystery of the Great and Holy Sabbath, when Christ, when He was on earth, performed so many of His healing miracles. Performed on the Sabbath, on Saturday, these miracles of healing surely were not simply the restoration of physical health, for it was the Resurrection and the Life Himself who was healing them. And He was healing them on the Sabbath, anticipating already the Great and Holy Sabbath rest of His victory over death on Great and Holy Friday, the Great and Holy Sabbath Rest that dawns on the Day of the Lord, the Day of His Holy Resurrection in the New Heaven and the New Earth of Paradise. The healings He performed on the Sabbath, then, surely were the healing of soul and body, a healing that gave life to those who were dead in their sins and trespasses, and strength to those who were weak and infirm, sight to those who were blind, hearing to those who were deaf, so that they could answer the invitation of the King and take up their cross and follow Him to the Great Feast of Holy Eucharist, the proclamation of His victory over death in the glory of His Holy Resurrection.
He comes in haste and enters the small cave of Bethlehem so that He may make us great who had grown small, and that, as transcendent God, by His poverty without measure, He may enrich us who had grown poor.” (FM, 211) The That is why His birth in the cave is one with the mystery of His death and burial in the tomb of Holy Pascha. The cave has opened Eden, and so the tomb of Pascha has opened Eden by His Resurrection.
Brothers and sisters in Christ; it is not yet Christmas Eve, and yet the Church in this morning’s Gospel parable is already sending out the call to us to come to the Great Feast of the King, the Feast of Christmas. Already, the call of the Church on Christmas Eve is sounding in our ears: “Raising our minds on high let us go in spirit to Bethlehem; and with the eyes of our soul let us look upon the Virgin, as she hastens to the cave to give birth to our God, the Lord of all.” It is a call to come behold the mystery of the world that was hidden in God before the ages: the mystery of Him who is Himself the Resurrection and the Life becoming flesh and being born of the Blessed Virgin in ways past nature as a precious rose in the cave, that He might dwell with us, even abide in us, and clothe us in His divinity, by His second birth as the Child of the Virgin granting to us a second birth as children of God, raising us from death to life, refashioning us by sharing even in our death and so restoring us to our first beauty, clothing us once again in the garment of His own uncreated light to replace the garments of skin, the garments of suffering, death and corruption with which we have clothed ourselves in our sins and transgressions.
My prayer is that the Lord will open the ears of our hearts that we may hear the call of the Great King to come to His Holy Church as to the cave of Bethlehem and the tomb of Pascha, and take up our Cross that we approach in the fear of God, with faith and love the Resurrection and the Life Himself who has taken our form so that He may bestow on those who love Him the joy of becoming like Him in the glory of His Holy Resurrection. (FM 279) Amen.