|14 - THE CROSS AND THE TOMB, December 26, 2021|
The dismissal blessing for the Feast of Christmas is: ‘May Christ our true God who was born of the Virgin and placed in a manger for our salvation.’ Let’s ponder how Christmas is for our salvation?
The proclamation of the angel brings us with the shepherds into the Cave of Bethlehem and we see the Christ as a babe, wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger in the Cave. But, listen closely: the hymns and prayers of Christmas also bring us into the LORD’s New Tomb to see with St John the LORD’s linen burial cloths folded neatly, placed on a shelf, and the headband in another place nearby. Standing in the LORD’s Tomb, St John saw all of this and he believed the Scriptures that it was necessary for the Christ to die and rise from the dead.
What did John see? And how do the Church’s hymns of Christmas take us directly to the Savior’s Tomb with St John, and how is John’s Paschal experience in the LORD’s New Tomb the substance of the dismissal for the Christmas feast?
At the First Royal Hour for Christmas, we hear: ‘Born of a Virgin, God has appeared to men, formed as we are. Our God and Creator has clothed Himself in created flesh, making godlike the garment He has put on.’ [FM 224 & 238] This means that God has clothed Himself with death, not because death is natural to our created flesh. In fact, it is not (Wisd Sol 1.14 & 2.23), but because our created flesh has become ‘a body of death’ (Rm 7.24), for we are enslaved to death (Heb 2.14-15) as a consequence of the ancestral sin. (Rm 6.23)
Behold the theology of Christmas, of God born in the cave. The shepherds and wise men come into the cave, and they see the body of Christ God as a babe, wrapped in swaddling cloths. The myrrhbearing women on Great and Holy Friday behold how the body of the LORD God, now a corpse, was taken down from the Tree and placed in the Tomb.
But when they return to the Tomb early in the morning on the Third Day, He is not there. Like the angels proclaiming to the shepherds, the myrrhbearers proclaim to the disciples. Like the shepherds coming to the cave, St Peter and John run to the Tomb, and they see no body! They see only the shroud that had wrapped the LORD’s corpse, folded neatly on a shelf, and the turban nearby. John saw, it says, and he believed! What did he believe?
We hear the answer already at Christmas. At the Vespers, we read from Hebrews where St Paul quotes from the Psalm: ‘Thou, O Lord, didst found the earth in the beginning, and the heavens are the work of thy hands; they will perish, but thou remainest; they will all grow old like a garment, like a cloak thou wilt roll them up, and they will be changed. But thou art the same, and thy years will never end.’ [Heb 1:10-12]
St John and St Peter do see Jesus’ body again. But they see it when they see Him in His resurrection and His body is no more a corpse, for it has been raised from the dead. It is now made godlike; it is now become spiritual; it has become living and glorious. In the risen body of His human nature, the LORD Jesus Christ has restored us to our original beauty. He has ‘finished’ His creation to be His living temple, a partaker of the divine nature.
When we come into the Church on Christmas morning, we hear the report of God our Creator having born in the flesh of the Virgin, His body that of a babe, wrapped in swaddling cloths and placed in a manger. But with the myrrhbearers, St Peter and St John, we see no body! For the Christ whom the shepherds and wise men could see in the cave because He was incarnate, His body wrapped in swaddling cloths, is no more to be found among the dead. It is no more to be found anywhere; it is no more to be found at all except in the mystery of the LORD’s resurrection from the dead and His glorious Ascension to Heaven! And this is the mystery of Christ’s Holy Church! The garment of His incarnate body grew old and it perished on the Cross; but it grew old and perished in the LORD God, its Creator and Fashioner who Himself remains the same, whose years never end. In His death on the Cross, deep in the mystery of His Tomb, the God-Man rolled up that body grown old like an old garment, and He changed it for a new garment. We don’t mean that He was raised in another body. We mean that He changed that old body, filled with corruption and death, into a living body incorruptible and immortal.
This, then, is how the Savior’s birth, was for our salvation. His body that was seen in the Cave was no more seen in His Tomb, for in that body, He destroyed our death by His death, and His Body that had grown old was made new and living. He changed our corruptible body for an incorruptible body. He changed our body that was of the dust into a spiritual body and made it godlike. Christmas, then, is the beginning of the Savior’s death on the Cross, and so it is the beginning of our resurrection from the dead. In Christmas, Pascha begins to be made manifest; and in Pascha, we see what Christmas is all about.
Christmas and Pascha are the foundation, moreover, of the Kingdom that will never be destroyed, the Kingdom established by the God of Heaven that will stand forever, the Kingdom of the Stone cut out of the mountain without hands. This Christ Child is that Stone whose birth from the Virgin signals the beginning of this Kingdom of God that shall break in pieces and consume all the kingdoms of the earth, the Stone who in the mystery of His Cross and Burial and Resurrection has filled the whole earth, as the prophet Daniel foretold to Nebuchadnezzar, whose prophecy we also read at the Christmas Vespers.
I feel that this draws for us the spiritual context in which to absorb the unspeakable evil of Herod’s slaughter of the innocents. To belong to the kingdoms of the world means to be subject to the tyranny of human lust for power, the end of which is loss of freedom, complete disregard for and destruction of one’s dignity and eternal value as a person, and finally enslavement to death. This kingdom in its arrogance thought it could destroy God. But when God submitted Himself to the rulers of the world and was voluntarily lifted on the Cross, instead of being destroyed He destroyed the kingdoms of the earth. He destroyed them at their invisible, spiritual root.
The innocents were slaughtered by Herod. But they were slaughtered for the sake of Christ God who, born as a child Himself, already was destroying the evil that had overtaken the human race. And to be slaughtered because of Christ, for them became their entrance into this Kingdom of God that will never be destroyed, that will stand forever, that broke to pieces and consumed all the kingdoms of the earth in the mystery of the Cross and His Three-Day Burial.
To which Kingdom do we want to belong? The kingdom in which life is enslavement to power and greed, whose final end is death, or the Kingdom which death cannot destroy, the Kingdom which, even if one dies, yet shall one live; indeed to die in the Kingdom of God is simply to exchange this corruptible earthly body for the incorruptible spiritual body not made with hands that one was clothed with in one’s baptism when we were united to Christ in the likeness of His death and resurrection.
This Kingdom of God that will never be destroyed begins to become flesh in us as we set out to make the commandments of Christ the structure of our outer deeds, our words and even our thoughts. And it is in the incarnation of this Kingdom of God as it becomes the substance of our life both inward and outward, that we begin to see with St John the meaning of the empty Tomb. The Christ who was born in Bethlehem is risen from the dead, destroying death by His death and giving life to those in the tombs. To this Child of the Virgin let us give all glory, worship and honor together with His Father who is without beginning and His most holy, good and life-creating Spirit. Amen!