15 - The Christmas Banquet, December 12, 2010

Colossians 3:4-11

Luke 14:16-24

As the light of the sun fails at the winter solstice, the Church calls out the Good News of Christmas: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. Those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.” [1] These are words from the prophet Isaiah. He is writing of the coming in the flesh of the Word of God, the meaning of the world hidden from the ages in the counsels of God and revealed to the world on Christmas Day in the Savior’s birth of the Holy Virgin. “In the beginning was the Word,” writes St John the Evangelist. “All things were made through Him; without Him was not anything made that was made. In Him was Life, and the Life was the Light of men. The Light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot put it out. And the Word – Light from Light, true God of true God – became flesh, and dwelt among us”[2]

Given the injustice and cruelties that are all too common in the world, and the many misfortunes, the ever present threat of disease and catastrophe, the many forms of adversity that fill this earthly life, only one who is hopelessly naïve or blind would dispute that this life is as darkness, and this world is as a land of shadow. The prophet, Job, laments in the midst of his suffering: “For we are but of yesterday, and know nothing; for our days on earth are a shadow. My eye has grown dim from grief, and all my members are like a shadow.” Surely the Psalmist is right when he says: “Man goes about as a shadow! Surely for nothing are they in turmoil; man heaps up, and knows not who will gather.”[3]  “My days are like an evening shadow; I wither away like grass. I am gone, like a shadow at evening; I am shaken off like a locust. Man is like a breath, his days are like a passing shadow.”[4] 

You who are of the faithful know why life on this earth is not unmixed with grief; you know why we are subject to suffering and misfortune of all kinds; why it is truly said that we dwell in a land of shadow and deep darkness. It is because “all we like sheep have gone astray. We have turned every one to his own way.”[5] None of us is righteous. According to Isaiah, we have all become like “one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.”[6] Even so, we do not love God with all our soul. We love money. We pursue lust and pride before we pursue the things of God. We place our hope and our trust in our own wisdom; we seek security in our own resources.[7] Beneath our religiosity, we are vain, proud, selfish. We are like Pharisees; we draw near to God with our lips but our hearts are far from Him.[8] We have fallen away from God who dwells in light unapproachable and we dwell in darkness and death. Exiled far away from the Kingdom of Heaven, we are in this life as in a prison enslaved to lies, calumny, theft and infirmities of every kind.

I think that as we grow older, we come to know this from our own life experience. The idealism and optimism of youth slowly gives way to the hard exigencies of life and is replaced by a growing sobriety moored in a certain sadness, even heaviness of heart from what we have seen and experienced over the years of our life. We look out on the world, on our loved ones with not a little fear and anxiety. Our grey hairs bear witness to what we have seen from our own life experience: hardships and sorrows are the lot of everyone who passes through this life. They will darken the naïve idealism of youth with disappointment and sooner or later, everyone will come to know from his or her own experience that we dwell in this life as in a land of deep darkness.

But I think that the more the faithful know this, the more their hairs turn grey, the more they see the divine love and goodness that are expressed in the Lord’s invitation to come to the great feast He has prepared for us. This is not an invitation to a worldly feast of stuffed turkey or crown roast or ham and barbecue ribs. It is an invitation to, the Holy Eucharist that is given to us in the mystery of Christmas, the mystery of God the Word becoming flesh to dwell among us. It is the gift of God by which He grants us to become partakers of the Divine Word incarnate in whom is the life that is the light of the world. He is the Light of God in whom there is no darkness at all.[9] He is the great Light that shines on those who sat in darkness; He is the uncreated light of God that shines in the darkness that the darkness cannot put out. He is the Light who has clothed Himself in the poverty of our flesh to illumine the path that leads from this land of darkness to the Kingdom of the Father’s marvelous Light.[10] 

The faithful accept the invitation to this great feast and in the fear of God, with faith and love, they come to the Church on Christmas Eve as to the Cave of Bethlehem. In the iconographic beauty of the Church’s liturgical worship, they see how the darkness of this world has been illumined by the heavenly Light of Immanuel, God With Us, to reveal the cave of Bethlehem, the human heart, as a gate that opens onto Eden.

For, by His coming in the flesh, Christ has destroyed that wall of enmity that separated earth from heaven, and us from God. The flaming sword that blocked entrance to the Garden now gives way before all who accept His invitation to His Holy Eucharist, to approach and draw near in faith to the life-giving tree in Eden, to partake of it and to become once more gardeners of immortal plants, sowing in their bodies and in their souls the seeds of the Holy Spirit, seeds of light and life given to them in the living bread and living cup of Christmas.

In the mystery of Christmas – the mystery of God the Word becoming flesh to dwell among us, the mystery of the Light descending to earth to shine on our darkness with a brilliance the darkness cannot put out – Christ clothes Himself in the clay of our flesh. He cleanses us and illumines us from within by His union and participation with us, even to the point of sharing in our death for the purpose of delivering us from the power of death. In the mystery of Christmas, Christ becomes Himself the divine garment of Light and Life that we can put on even in this land of shadow to become children of God, citizens of light making our way through this land of deep darkness as pilgrims to the Kingdom of Heaven. To be sure, we still endure suffering and hardship so long as we are in the life of this flesh. But united to Christ, we have put on Christ. All of our sorrows, all of our hardships, our misfortunes, all of our darkness are united to Christ. Even in the darkness of our deepest grief, the light of Christ shines, the light that the darkness cannot put out.

As the eyesight fails and the hairs turn gray, it is faith rooted firmly in the cave of Bethlehem illumined with the radiant beams of heavenly light that stream forth from Christ’s holy face that turns the eyes of old age into sober pools of compassion and renders them into silent witnesses to the light of the Savior that shines in this land of deep darkness.  We can be sure that behind the fading old eyes of the faithful there is unceasing prayer of intercession being poured out to the Savior on behalf of all and for all in a spirit of thanksgiving.

I think it fair to say that it is in those old eyes of the faithful, and certainly in the eyes of the saints, of the Blessed Virgin and of the Savior as they are portrayed in their icons, that we can see the hand-written letter of the Savior’s invitation to come to His Holy Feast. That invitation is going out to all of us. The Blessed Theotokos comes bearing Christ in her womb. The cave is making ready for her. Soon its darkness will be illumined by the gift of God’s grace, and its walls will be made to open as gates onto the Garden of Eden. The manger waits expectantly as an image of our intellect to accept into the warmth of its hay, the darkness of our worldly thoughts, the holy new-born Child who by His Word has loosed us dwellers on earth from the curse of old. Soon, the feast will be ready. Let us therefore redeem the time of our life on this earth and take up our cross to put to death everything in us that is dark and earthly, and in the joy of the feast, let us raise our minds on high to catch sight of Christ our life who appears in the glory of Christmas, and let us come in spirit to the Church as to Bethlehem; and with the eyes of our soul, illumined by the light of faith, let us look upon the Virgin as she hastens to the cave to give birth to our God, the Lord of all. [11] Amen.

[1] Isa 9:2. See Festal Menaion, p. 276

[2] Jn 1:13 & 1:3-4

[3] Job 8:9 & 17:7; Ps 39:6

[4] Ps 102:11, 109:23, 144:4

[5] Isa 53:6

[6] Isa 64:6

[7] Prov 11:28

[8] Isa 29:13

[9] I Jn 1:5

[10] I Pt 2:9

[11] Cf. Festal Menaion, p. 201-202.