16 - The Sunday Before Christmas, Dec 19, 2010

On the feast of Christmas, the Orthodox Church does not see Jesus as a sentimental, cute little baby born of the Virgin Mary. The prayers of the feast keep coming back in awe and wonder to the mystery of the Christ Child as the union of God and man. “Sharing wholly in our poverty, Thou hast made our clay godlike through Thy union and participation in it.”[1] “Though He was rich, for our sake He became poor that you might become rich.”[2]

I honestly think that for all practical purposes, the way we understand salvation is little different from a heresy that was condemned in the fifth century under the name “Nestorianism”. We tend to think of salvation as God overlooking our sins and letting us into heaven anyway through the sacrifice of His Son, Jesus Christ. This understanding actually implies that there is no union of God and man in Christ, only a “conjunction” of “good pleasure” in the way the 5th century heresiarch, Nestorius, taught it: i.e. the human nature, according to this Nestorian teaching, is the personal subject, Jesus, personally distinct from God the Son and joined to Him by a kind of adoption in which God considers Jesus to be His Son by a condescending “good pleasure”. This teaching was condemned at the Third Ecumenical Council (of Ephesus) in 431 AD because it implicitly denies the apostolic doctrine that God the Word Himself became flesh. It understands salvation as God “considering” us righteous or of adopting us as His sons and daughters by His “good pleasure”; not as the union of man with God by which we become one with God – as Christ Himself prayed in the Upper Room – or partakers of the divine nature; because, in this heretical teaching of Nestorius, there is no real union of God with human nature in Christ; only a conjunction of two personal subjects somewhat loosely conjoined by God’s “good pleasure”.

Rejecting this heretical religious teaching, the apostolic doctrine of the Church teaches that the union of God and man in Christ is a personal or hypostatic union; i.e., the divine and human natures are united without confusion and without division in the Person, the hypostasis, of God the Word. Christ is not Jesus joined to the Son of God. Christ is the Son of God who Himself became flesh and dwelt among us under the name, Jesus. And therefore, the Church looks on the Virgin Mary with not a little fear and love as the Theotokos, the Mother or “Birth-giver” of God; for the One born of her is God the Word who has Himself become flesh to dwell among us. That makes His mother the Mother of God, for Jesus who is born of her is God incarnate.

I think if we could understand this dogmatic teaching of the Church’s Holy Tradition even a little bit, it would begin to change everything for us, both how we view the world and ourselves, and how we conduct our lives in this world as Christians.

For example, the significance of the genealogy, which shows that this Child born of the all-holy Virgin has human grandparents and great-grandparents, isn’t just that God has become man, so that He now has a human mother, human grandparents and great grandparents, and a lineage that goes all the way back to Abraham, even all the way back to Adam. The significance of His human ancestry is in how it shows that God has become man so completely that He is now personally “united” by His human nature, which is our human nature, to the whole human race, to every human individual all the way back to human origins. He “shares” with us, writes St Paul – the word in Hebrews is that He has “communion” with us (the same word we use for Holy Eucharist) – in our flesh and blood, partaking of our very same nature for the purpose of sharing in our death, so that through His death, He could destroy Him who has the power of death, viz., the devil, and thereby deliver all of us who through the fear of death have been enslaved to the fear of death our whole life long,[3] all the way back to the beginning of human history and pre-history in the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise.

The answer to the riddle of life is not to be found in the religious wisdom of the sages of the world’s religions, nor in the philosophy of the philosophers, nor in the knowledge of science. It is found here, in the mystery of the incarnate God born of the Virgin Mary lying in the manger. There is in the Svetasvatara Upanishad, a sacred text from the East, which the Three Wise Men very likely knew well, a passage that speaks of Brahman as the unmanifest beyond the unmanifest. But, the “unmanifest” God who Christ is, is even beyond that. He is, according to St Maximus the Confessor, so far beyond the essential principle of the cosmos – “Brahman” in Far Eastern religion – that He is infinitely beyond even the attribute of “beyond being-ness”. Indeed, according to the vision of Christian dogma, God in His nature is altogether what we are not – He is uncreated, we and everything in the world both visible and invisible are created – so that, again according to St Maximus, if we say that we are, we must say that God “is not”, and if God “is”, then we are not. In His uncreated nature, God is altogether incommunicable, unknowable and inaccessible to the human mind even in its essential principle. This would mean that He is inaccessible, unknowable and incommunicable even to “Brahman”, the “unmanifest beyond the unmanifest”. And so when the “stars” taught the wise men of the birth of the Christ Child, these wise men versed in the religious philosophy of the East, how would they not want to journey days and nights to come with the shepherds to worship the unspeakable Word of God who infinitely transcends even the “unmanifest beyond the unmanifest”, and yet in an ineffable condescension, has united Himself personally to our nature without confusion and without division to become flesh and to dwell among us and to have communion with us in the same nature of our own flesh and blood and even in our death as the Christ Child born of the Blessed Virgin Mary?

The incarnation of Christ is ineffable; yet, we still can see how awful and terribly glorious is this mystery of Christmas. Sentimentality must give way to fear if we are ever to find the courage to enter the cave made terrible and sacred by the presence of the Christ Child. Warm, fuzzy feelings must give way to the sobriety and humility of true faith in the brokenness of a contrite heart that lays aside every excuse if we are to hope to endure the brilliance of the uncreated light streaming forth from the holy face of the Christ Child. But as terrible as it is, we can endure it because we long for it; for, its essential character is love and compassion and mercy in the forgiveness of sins and in the cleansing of our impurities; so that, if we draw near in the fear of God, with faith and love, we will not be able to stand before the manger. It has become the altar of the crucified and risen God incarnate. We will fall on our face in worship with the shepherds and the wise men before this Child. Let the angels sing their praise, for all of our words will be swallowed up in the unspeakable terror and majesty of the Word of God who in His ineffable love for mankind has condescended to become flesh that He might dwell among us and raise us up to His own immortal, divine life.

But this is only the preface of what I wanted to convey to you this morning. With these reflections, I have hoped to pierce the fog of our spiritual stupidity, so that we may look up to behold the wonderful meaning of Christmas and fall in love with the Faith of the Church. I would now direct you to reflect on the glorious Good News that God the Word has become flesh so that He is truly called in the deepest and most profound way Immanuel, “God With Us.” When He became flesh, the Son of God united Himself to the whole of our nature; not just to our “flesh”, but to our soul and our mind as well.

The mind according to Orthodox Christian teaching is centered in the heart. In our falling away from God, our mind has become separated from our heart so that we suffer a profound spiritual schizophrenia. The heart is the source of life, so the Proverbs teaches; but, separated from God, our heart has become a tomb and so our life is rooted in death. In the life of this earthly flesh, we live either in our emotions or in our head, seeking, in fact, to stay out of our heart because there we come upon the dread of our dead-ness, our inner emptiness, our spiritual darkness. Here, again, we come upon the Good News of Christmas. For, I believe it is true to say that the Cave of Bethlehem, as well as the tomb of Pascha, represents, on the spiritual plane of the mystery of Christ, the human heart in the same way that the ark of the covenant and the temple of Jerusalem represent the Theotokos. Christ is born! means, therefore, that God has not just joined a man, Jesus, to Himself. He has Himself become flesh. He has united Himself to us at the core of our being, in the principle of our nature, in the cave of our hearts.

The “crèche”, then, which shows Christ lying in the manger at the center of the Cave of Bethlehem is an icon of the profound Good News of the Gospel. In becoming flesh to dwell among us, Christ has united Himself with us all the way to the core of our being, in our “intellect”, our “mind”, our “heart”, in the “manger” at the center of the “cave” of our being. At Holy Pascha, Christ will again on the spiritual plane be laid in the human heart when He is laid on the physical plane in the tomb of Gethsemane. But, at Christmas, He already has made Himself the new root of human nature. Already, He is beginning to make our nature spiritually alive again by breathing life into us from inside of us at the principle of our being, from within our heart whence, according to the wise Solomon, flow the springs of life.[4] 

Do you begin to see, now, why the proclamation of the Church, “Christ is born!” is such Good News, and why we say “Glorify Him!” in response? It is Good News because it means that God has penetrated our humanity all the way to our heart. He has united Himself to us not by some “good pleasure” by which He remains personally outside of us in our nature, but He has united Himself to us inside of us, within our nature, at the core of our being, in the “cave” of our heart. In becoming flesh, He has united Himself to us so deeply and so intimately in our heart, in the principle of our nature, that He can be said to be closer to us than we are to ourselves.

All of this means that to be saved is much, much more than being forgiven – as profound as that is – or being considered righteous by God according to some kind of “good pleasure” through the merits of Christ. To be saved is to be united to God. In the salvation of the Church, we are so united to Christ that we become members of His body and He becomes our life not in “theory” but in concrete reality through our acquisition of His Holy Spirit. In the salvation of the Church, we are united to God in Christ not just on the outside of our flesh, but on the inside of our flesh, at the core of our being, in the bridal chamber of our mind and heart. And so, united to Christ in the salvation He bestows on us, we are made to be truly alive because at the core of our being, in our heart, we are now rooted in the death of Christ, and so in Him we are united to His Holy Resurrection, alive in God and no more in ourselves.

We are saved and united with God in the sacramental mysteries of the Church; and in Holy Eucharist, we eat and drink the body and blood of Christ. We receive His Holy Spirit into our bodies, our mind, our heart. We become partakers of His divine nature, members of His crucified and risen body, united to God in Christ in the totality of our nature, body, soul and mind.

Through confession, Holy Baptism and Holy Chrismation, through prayer and fasting, through sobriety and inner attention, and through the observance of Christ’s holy commandments which are the light of God on the earth, the Church prepares us to draw near to the altar of Christmas in the fear of God, with faith and in love as the shepherds and wise men drew near to the manger so that we can be saved and become one with God who has become one with us in the ineffable mystery of His Holy Incarnation. To Christ Jesus Our Lord, God and Savior be glory and praise, honor and worship, together with His Father who is from everlasting and His all-holy, good and life-creating Holy Spirit, always now and ever and unto ages of ages. O most Holy Theotokos, save us! Amen.

[1] Festal Menaion, p. 275

[2] II Cor 8:9

[3] Heb 2:14-15

[4] Prov 4:23