|13 - December 16, When Christ Our Life Appears!|
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“When Christ, our life, appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory!” says St Paul in our epistle reading this morning. The presumption is that St Paul is speaking of the LORD’s Second Coming when He will appear in the glory of His Resurrection. Why, then, are we reading this epistle this morning on the Sunday of the Forefathers, when we are preparing to celebrate Christmas, the LORD’s First Coming?
The glory of the LORD’s first appearing was veiled in lowliness, the wonder of His birth from a Virgin was hidden in a cave, and His extreme humility in the humiliation of His death on the Cross. When we receive Christ, we do not receive Him in glory but in the repentance of a broken and contrite heart. And when we receive Christ in faith and desire to become one with Him, we are united with Him in baptism first in the likeness of His death and only then in the likeness of His resurrection.
Then, when we approach the cleansing and sanctifying Chalice of Holy Eucharist to partake of Christ’s Body and Blood as our food and drink, we proclaim, says St Paul, not His resurrection, as one might expect, but “His death until He comes [again]” (1 Cor 11:26).
Here is the biblical context in which to interpret this “Great Supper” to which all are invited in this morning’s Gospel, but to which none of those invited want to come. The Great Supper is the Feast of Christmas that celebrates with the angels, the shepherds and the wise men, even with the beasts of the field, and the stars in the sky, the birth of God’s Son in the flesh.
It is a most glorious birth, for it is the wonder of the Virgin giving birth to the Transcendent One, the mystery beyond words of the “eternal God born as a little child.” In this glorious birth from the Virgin, hidden wondrously in the cave, earth receives heaven, time receives eternity, humanity, in the person of the Blessed Panagia, receives divinity in the person of the Son of God, Jesus Christ, King of Israel, King of the Ages, the divine WORD by whom all things were made, begotten of the Father before all ages, Light from Light, true God of true God. He Who Is true God, receiving from the Most Blessed Virgin our human substance, becomes true man of one essence with us in His human nature even as He remains of one essence with the Father in His divine nature.
Why, then, do none of those invited in this morning’s Gospel accept the invitation? But, are we accepting the invitation if we treat Christmas as though it were, in effect, a fairy tale and do not contemplate the wonder of the eternal God born as a little child?
To come to the Cave of Bethlehem in its sacred reality is to come to the Tomb of the crucified LORD on Golgotha. To worship the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes is to give one’s heart and soul to the corpse of God wrapped in fine linens. To celebrate with joy the birth of God from the Virgin is to accept the invitation to make His death on the Cross the substance of our life.
Here’s the irony of this life: like those in this morning’s Gospel, we give our youth, our good looks, our creativity, our talents and skills to the acquisition of the riches of this life that passes away, and we think we are living. But, we give little if any energy to the acquisition of the Holy Spirit because we think that is to stop living. Yet, if we are not putting to death the fornication, impure desires, greed, anger and deceit that are moving in if not animating our soul beneath our cultured sophistication and our pursuit of worldly acquisitions, we are living in what’s killing us. If we are not living to become one with Christ in the likeness of His death, we are not living in what gives us life.
For, the Cave of Bethlehem opens onto the Tomb of Golgotha. A body was laid in that Tomb. The Scriptures are very clear that it was a corpse. And so, it was the darkness in which the Light shines now, Today. And, the Tomb in which that body was laid as a corpse is empty.
Thus, when we go “in spirit” to the Cave of Bethlehem, we enter, in the same mystery, the Tomb of the LORD’s Pascha. And, we find in the Cave, born as a little child in the flesh, the God who, in the flesh, has trampled down death by His death. And, in the Tomb of the LORD’s Pascha, we find a marvelous birth that is “in the beginning”; not the beginning as a point way back when; but, the beginning as that spiritual center where earthly life on this side of the grave has received the divine, eternal life of the resurrection from the other side of the grave.
You have entered into this Mystery, you have come into the banquet hall of the Great Supper in your Holy Baptism. You entered the sacred Font on this side of the LORD’s Empty Tomb. You rose from the Font on the other side of the LORD’s Empty Tomb. Born from above in the Font, you are now “dead”, says St Paul, “and your life is hid with Christ in God” (Col 3:3). The Glory of Christ’s Resurrection, or rather, the Glory of Christ Himself, is hidden in the death of the LORD’s saints; or rather, it is precisely in our death that the Glory of the Life of Christ that is in us appears—if, in fact, we deny ourselves, take up our cross, and lose our worldly life that is killing us, so that we may find the life that now lives in us, the Life of Christ, that was sown in our hearts in the empty Tomb of Christ, the Font of our Resurrection.
We carry in our bodies the death of Jesus, writes St Paul, so that the life of Jesus might be made manifest in our bodies (2 Cor 4:10). How on earth so? Because, if we are carrying in our bodies the death of Jesus we are carrying in our bodies that which puts to death what’s killing us, leaving us cleansed of the true death, the death of the soul, and alive in the true life, the life of Christ; and, it “appears” to us in the joy, the peace, the humility, the kindness and gentleness of the healing of Christ’s Cross that begins to live in us, deep down, in the core of our soul, our heart. The Glory of this Life of Christ living in our union with Him in the likeness of His death “appears” in its power to transfigure the trials and tribulations of this world into a purifying fire that makes our faith more precious than gold, pure and adamantine, radiant in the uncreated, eternal Glory of the Life of Christ that is in us!
Perhaps we could say that the shepherds and wise men are those whom the LORD’s servants found in the hedges, and in the highways, the streets and lanes of the city, who answered the invitation to come to the Cave and to the Empty Tomb on Golgotha. Can you see? They came out of Egypt and from all that was enslaving them in the bonds of death. They came into the wilderness, into the Glory of God hidden in the mystery of His death in the flesh; His death by which He has destroyed death is destroyed and given life to those in the tombs, so that the Light in whom is the Life of men (Jn 1:3) shines now in the darkness. Far from being extinguished, it turns the darkness into light; it turns death into the death of death and the beginning of eternal Life. They made their way onto the inner Exodus of the soul and to the Promised Land, Christ Himself, to follow Him—is He not the true Star of Heaven?—into the cave and tomb of the heart that is deep, beyond all things, deep in the Life of God Himself, deep into the Christ who is in you, the Hope of Glory!
How do we join them on this inner Exodus? St Paul is telling us this morning. Put to death what is earthly in you. How? By uniting yourself to Christ in the likeness of His death and resurrection. How? By putting on the wedding garment of your baptism. How? By coming to the services of the Church; by receiving into your mind and heart the words, the teachings, the images of the Church and not those of the world! By doing the commandments of Christ in the grace and power given to you in the sacramental worship, the words and teachings of the Church’s prayers. By giving your mind to the contemplation of the LORD’s mysteries; by giving your soul to the love of the uncreated Light of God that shines in the Life of God given to you in the mysteries of the Church. For, the energy of the world is the energy of death that disintegrates and decomposes. But, the energy carried by the prayers and sacraments of the Church is the energy of the Life of Christ that destroys death and makes all things new! Live in that energy. Live in the death of Christ and you will appear with Him in the Glory of His Resurrection. Amen!