|16 Sunday Before Christmas - December 24, 2006|
Hebrews 11:9-10, 17-23, 32-40
The Church has prepared us for the feast of Christmas by assigning for our daily readings this last week the words of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark that have to do with his teaching on marriage and adultery. What have marriage and adultery to do with Christmas?
The prophets liken the covenant of God and Israel to a marriage. Such imagery in itself is prophetic of God’s purpose in his election of Israel. Through the covenant of Abraham, God betroths himself to Israel as his bride with the intention of marrying her to become one with humanity. But Israel plays the harlot. She does not draw near in her heart to the sanctuary of the temple, the image of Paradise according to the fourth century saint, Ephrem the Syrian. As did the first Adam and Eve, Israel turns away from Eden and eats from the serpent’s tree by worshipping other gods. She is not faithful to the Law of Moses: the terms, if you will, of her betrothal to God.
In his letter to the Hebrews that we read this morning, St Paul reviews for us all the faithful of the OT, the faithful few who did not play the harlot, who choose not to eat from the serpent’s tree, indulging in the pleasures of the world, but who choose to live a life pleasing to God in the belief and hope that God will reward those who diligently seek him. These are the true children of Abraham. Their devotion to God is from the heart. With their forefather, Abraham, they dwelt in this world of the serpent’s tree as in a foreign country, waiting for the promise of that city which has foundations and whose builder and maker is God and in whose inner court grows the Tree of Life that carries in its branches a divine fruit like a cluster of grapes full of life, giving to those who partake of it in faith and in love the very life of God in his Holy Spirit.
We learn from our liturgical texts that the city of promise is the Theotokos. She is the icon, the face, of the Church. She is Paradise that has appeared on earth. She is the embodiment, the perfection, the crown of the OT and of the true Israel. On the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross, the Tree of Life appears mystically to those who have eyes to see. It bids the faithful to follow the Theotokos into the Temple on Nov 21. In the feast of her Entrance into the Temple, we hear the Church proclaiming to us that the Blessed Virgin is herself the Temple of God who is entering the sanctuary of the Temple to prepare herself to become the bride of God the Father and the Mother of God the Son through the Holy Spirit. She who is the personal embodiment of Paradise enters the sanctuary of the temple, the icon of Paradise. The Bride of God mystically enters the Garden of Eden as the Second Eve to prepare herself for the great event inherent in the very terms of the Abrahamic Covenant. This is the event of the Great Supper that we heard proclaimed in last Sunday’s Gospel. The Father calls all who will to forsake the business and pleasures of the world and to come to the Great Event that completes and perfects all the ages. This is the consummation of his marriage to his loving Bride in the person of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the birth of his Beloved Son, the Lord Jesus Christ as the Second Adam, even the Second Isaac, fully God and fully man, in whose conception and birth of the blessed Virgin is accomplished the union of heaven and earth in the humble cave of Bethlehem to found the heavenly city in the lowly places of the world, in the humble and meek hearts of those who love God.
Therefore, if you look closely at the Scriptures assigned for our daily reading this last week, you will see them speaking of two covenants, two marriages, two different unions. These different unions are not the Old and New Testaments. They are rather the covenant or marriage with the devil, consummated in those who seek to indulge themselves in the pleasures of the flesh and the values of the world, and the covenant or marriage with God, consummated in those who faithfully observe Christ’s commandments and diligently seek after God.
The covenant of the OT is not at all opposed to the covenant of the NT in the bible. It is distinguished from the NT as the betrothal is distinguished from the marriage, or as the Mother is distinguished from her child. The OT is the Virgin Mother from which the Christ, the NT, is born. And so we see in this light that in the OT we come upon the mystery of the Theotokos and upon the anticipation of the birth of her Son, Christ our God.
Sarah was empowered by God to conceive seed and to bear a child when she was past the age of child-bearing, and she gave birth to Isaac. Isaac is called the child of promise because he was conceived in a manner beyond nature. He was conceived of a mother and father who were as good as dead, and so his birth is the prophetic promise of another birth. Liturgical texts tell us that this other birth is that of the Blessed Virgin Mary who was to become the Bride and Mother of God. She, too, was conceived in a manner beyond nature. Her parents, Joachim and Anna, were barren until they were visited by God. In the birth of the blessed Theotokos, the rod of Aaron, the branch of Jesse, springs forth from the soil of the OT. The faithful remnant of Israel, the remnant of those who have diligently sought after God in all the generations of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, gives birth to a daughter, the Second Eve, who of her own free will, and in her love of God, says no to the serpent and turns herself heart, mind, soul and body toward the East. She who is herself the Garden of Paradise enters the Garden of Paradise in the sanctuary of the Temple. There, she waits for the coming of the Holy One of Israel in order to do his will.
Sarah and Anna were old and past the age of child-bearing when they gave birth to Isaac and the Blessed Virgin Mary. They were an image of mankind that has grown old and barren from eating the serpent’s fruit, and that has fallen back into the darkness that covered the abyss in the beginning. The Blessed Virgin is a young maiden when the Father sends the Archangel Gabriel to her to announce the terrible and wondrous news that she is to become the Bride and Mother of God. The Blessed Virgin is not barren. And so it is all the more significant, I think, that she chooses willfully and freely the pain of saying no to the pleasures of the serpent in order to give her youthful beauty and vitality to the God of Israel. In consequence, she enjoys the ineffable and sacred pleasure of becoming the Mother of God, giving birth painlessly to the Son of God who preserves her virginity. In this, she is herself a prophetess even higher than John the Baptist. For she reveals not in word but in deed, in the painlessness of her mystical child-bearing and in the preservation of her virginity, that union with God is most natural to us. It is not painful but full of joy and wonder. It does not make us old but it renews our youth like the eagle’s. It renews our primordial virginity, i.e. the integrity, honor, beauty and nobility of our human nature as it was meant to be, created as we were in the image and likeness of God.
Through the blessed Virgin Theotokos, the OT gives birth to Christ, the NT, like Aaron’s rod sending forth the blossoming flower as a precious rose in the cave. In the feast of Christmas, the OT is made perfect, complete. The Virgin who shall conceive as the prophet Isaiah foretold is made perfect, complete. She becomes the Virgin Bride and Mother of God. Christ our God is born from the cave of Bethlehem. God the Lord reveals himself to us in these last days not simply in the word of the Law but in the Word made flesh.
But let us understand: if we dare to come in response to God’s invitation to the Great Supper of his Holy Eucharist that celebrates this sacred Event of Christ’s holy birth, we are entering the heavenly city with the faithful of Israel, those who diligently sought after God and who chose to live and die in this life as strangers and pilgrims on the earth. In faith, they saw the promise of God from afar off; and they embraced it and confessed it, but they did not receive it because God was providing something better for us that they should not be made perfect apart from us. That means, if we have dared come to this Great Supper of the Holy Eucharist celebrating Christ’s holy birth, that we have chosen to live and die in this life as strangers and pilgrims on the earth. We have chosen to take up our Cross as Christ commands, and to renounce the ways of the world that we may live in God. If we have come to this Great Event of Christ’s birth, and if we partake of his mystical supper, it means that we are uniting ourselves with him whose path leads to Golgotha. So we do not celebrate the glory of Christ’s birth without partaking also of his suffering on the Cross. If we come to this Great Supper to partake of his holy mysteries, we are uniting ourselves to him who commands us to crucify the passions of our flesh to his Cross, that we may die in him to our sins, to our self-love, our self-righteousness, our impure desires and our love for the pleasures and ways of the world. With the faithful of Israel, we now submit in faith to the ascetic disciplines of his Holy Bride, the Church, and her Heavenly Bridegroom, in the hope that we may be raised with him in the life of his Holy Spirit. Like the faithful of Israel, we conduct ourselves in faith as pilgrims and strangers on the earth, for we are applying for citizenship in the Kingdom of Heaven that is not of this world. Those who come through holy baptism to partake of the Father’s Holy Spirit in the Marriage Feast of the Lamb and his Bride, the Church, do not practice the ways of the world. They do not partake of the spirit of the world. They diligently seek to obey his command to stand in his presence not in the conceit and self-righteousness of the Pharisee, but in the contrition of the penitent thief and in the humility of the Publican, focusing not on the speck in their brother’s eye but on the beam in their own. In the Church of the faithful, each of us stands before God as the first of all sinners.
Those who diligently seek to obey the commandments of Christ God in a broken and contrite heart are the faithful who call out to God from the depths. Sitting in the darkness and shadow of the primordial abyss into which the world fell through the transgression of Adam and Eve, they proclaim to us the vision that they are granted to see on this Great Feast: it is the great light of Christ Our Savior, the Dayspring from the East born of the Virgin. They behold the joyous wonder of the Theotokos Virgin overthrowing the ancient curse of Eve and giving birth to the Savior as the Second Eve, the true Mother of the Living. They behold Bethlehem opening Eden to us, and they cry out to us: come, find joy in secret, in the cave, the bridal chamber of the heart. Come with us and let us take possession of the Paradise that is within the cave of the broken and contrite spirit that is well-pleasing to God and that he will not despise. In Christ God the faithful have found the path established by God that mounts to heaven and that opens onto the wonder of the cave : the union of heaven and earth in the marriage of God with his holy Bride, the Ever-Virgin Theotokos. They hear her rejoicing and weeping as she cries out to her Son and our God: “Shall I give my breast to Thee, who givest nourishment to all the world, or shall I sing thy praise as my Son and my God? What manner of name shall I find to call thee, O Lord whom none can name?” Let us pray God to help us find this sacred joy that comes from forsaking the ways of the world, that with the faithful we may raise our minds on high to go in spirit to Bethlehem, and that with the eyes of our soul we may look upon the Virgin as she hastens to the cave to give birth to our God, the Lord of all. Let us pray God to number us among the faithful that we may look upon the great mystery in the cave. Eden is opened once again. From a pure Virgin God comes forth, perfect in his divinity as in his manhood. Therefore, let us cry with all the faithful: Holy God, Thou Father without beginning: Holy and Mighty, Thou Son made flesh: Holy and Immortal, Thou Spirit the Comforter: Holy Trinity, glory to Thee!”