17 - Mystery of Christmas, Dec 24, 2017

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Hebrews 11:9-10, 17-23, 32-40

Matthew 1:1-25

Beneath the trappings of Christmas as beneath a veil, hidden from worldly eyes, is the mystery of God hidden from the ages and generations but now made manifest to His saints (Col 1:26-27). Those who lift the veil by faith see that the origin of the world and of man lies not outside of us aeons ago in some cosmic process, but in the eternal Spirit of God.

The LORD says: “The Kingdom of Heaven does not come by observation, however meticulous, of the outside world (parateresis). It is not here or there (outside of you as some worldly entity), for the Kingdom of Heaven is within you.” (Lk 17:20-21) Nor is the you the Kingdom of Heaven is within something you can grasp by scientific observation. There is something about us that is much more than a collection of moving atoms. Holy Scripture calls it the “heart”. Says the prophet, Jeremiah: “The heart is deep, beyond all things; and it is the man” (Jer 17:5/9 LXX). Our heart, our true “self” is beyond our body and soul, beyond our “mind”, beyond our conscious and unconscious, beyond our thoughts and reasonings. The biblical heart is of theology, not physiology. It is that irreducible “point” in which you begin to be and to exist. And, it is the man, the prophet says; it is who we really are, our real “I am” underneath all the masks we live in.

What the bible calls the “heart” is called, in the philosophical precision of Christian dogma, the hypostasis: the who that “stands underneath” what we are. Its dogmatic context is Christology. It designates in a philosophically precise way the Three “Persons” (Hypostases) of the Trinity, “those in whom the divine nature exists” (St Gregory the Theologian). One of these divine Hypostases, the Son of God, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and came to exist in the totality of our flesh – body, soul, mind – as in His Holy Temple. We heard this dogma at the Ninth Royal Hour: “He who (this is His divine Hypostasis) in essence none can touch is wrapped in swaddling clothes as a mortal.” He is the “Who” standing underneath the body, soul and mind of His human nature, so that we confess the Virgin to be Theotokos, for the One who was born of her is not a “man” but God the Son, who, in her womb, came to be man and dwelt among us (Jn 1:14).

It is in our heart, in our hypostasis, where we “stand underneath” our body, soul and mind, where we are “deep beyond all things”, that we enter the spiritual essence of Christmas as the shepherds and wise men entered the Cave of Bethlehem. And so, when the Church calls out to us: “Raising our minds on high, let us go in spirit to Bethlehem!” she is not waxing poetic. She is not calling us to a sentimental good feeling produced by the mind’s pious remembrance of some event outside of us way back when. The call is to the divine mystery of “Christ within you!” (Col 1:27), of God Himself in the Cave, the hypostasis of your heart!

If we were to “raise our minds on high” in the way of the Church, “and go in spirit to Bethlehem” with the shepherds and wise men, and enter the Cave of our heart to “look upon the Virgin as she hastens to the cave to give birth to our God” (Festal Menaion 201), we would come upon the LORD of all in whom the world and we were created. The holy fathers and the liturgical texts of the Church all bear witness: Christmas is not a poetic, discarnate religious idea in our heads, but the LORD incarnate, in the reality of our flesh and blood. And, this Jesus Christ of the Church we would know immediately and directly as the divine Source of the Beauty and Goodness our soul longs for. Catching but a glimpse of Him in the deep, our heart would burst into a flame of longing, wonder and joy for it His Image that is stamped indelibly on our body, mind and soul as the very shape of our heart. If we could but see Him as He is, the heart immediately would see the lie of all the caricatures and distortions of Him the world is ever feeding us. I think we would viscerally desire the divine Nobility we see in Him, for His divine Nobility is our nobility by nature. It is the only Robe that fits us! To be like Him: this is who we are. To exist in intimacy with God: this is what we are made for, wearing His uncreated Beauty as our own perfectly fitting garment.

Note that when the shepherds and wise men enter the Cave, they do not draw near to squeeze the Christ Child’s chubby cheeks, or coo and goo over Him! They fall prostrate to their knees in worship, in fear and trembling, in inexpressible joy! This is not the cute little baby boy you find in the creches of worldly Christian piety! He is, to be sure, born of the Virgin as a little Child, but even as a babe, He is the God “who holds the whole creation in the hollow of His hand!” (FM 245)

The Book of the genesis of Jesus the Christ (i.e., Jesus the King of Israel), says St Matthew. See how the mystery of God, the WORD of God incarnate, was hidden throughout the generations within Israel’s history, within the “cave”, if you will, of the loins of Abraham, all the way back, if we turn to St Luke’s Gospel, to Adam and Eve. But, see how the genealogies of both St Matthew and St Luke trace Jesus’ lineage through the “fathers”, until they come to Joseph. Note that Joseph is not the father of Jesus; he is the husband of Mary, and it is from her, not from Joseph or the fathers, that God is born as a man and given the Name – not by Joseph but by God; for God, not Joseph, is His Father – of Jesus, “the LORD (God) saves!” But, who is Mary? Where did she come from? We find out from St Luke that her ancestry is from Aaron the priest and King David (Lk 1:5, 1:32). But, there is something about her that is not ordinary. “O Virgin most pure,” we hear at the Feast of her Entrance into the Tempe, “beyond understanding are thy wonders! Strange and most marvelous are all things concerning thee, O Bride of God, beyond the telling of mortal man!” (FM 182) She is the Virgin of Isaiah’s prophecy; she is the “Bride of God the Father,” and, in the Holy of Holies of her womb, in the mystery of God hidden from the ages, which caught the angels by surprise God becomes one with us and is born of her as a little Child – and even the Mother of God cannot comprehend it: She “held Him in her arms and without ceasing she kissed Him. Filled with joy, she said aloud to Him: ‘O Most High God, O King unseen, how is it that I look upon Thee? I cannot understand the mystery of Thy poverty without measure!’” (FM 200)

The Book of the genesis – the coming to be (genesis is built from geno, the root of gignomai) of Jesus Christ, then, is the Book of the Incarnation; it shows the mystery of God hidden in the loins of Abraham, even of Adam, from the ages and the generations (cf. Col 1:27), coming forth from the womb of the Most Blessed Virgin as a “precious rose” in the Cave – in the heart of man where we are deep, beyond all things. Christmas shows the flowering of our nature, its coming to life in the WORD of God incarnate. For, God is with us, and He makes the desert of our soul to blossom like the rose!

But, if it is the Book of the genesis of Jesus Christ, it is the Book of Life (cf. Jn 11:21), even the Tree of Life. This is the biblical vision I so want you to see: the Tree of Life has come down from the top of the Mountain into the roots of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, into the hidden depths of our heart where we are dead in our sins and trespasses (Eph 2:1). The call of the Church is real; it is calling us to a real place, the interior deeps of our own soul; and, the journey, the Exodus, it calls us to, is real. It is the inner Exodus of the Gospel that leads into the heart where we are deep, beyond all things, and to the Kingdom of Heaven that is within us.

How do we follow the call of the Spirit and His Bride to come to the Feast that is within us? Whoever would be my disciple, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me, that he may find his life not in the world but in the Tree of Life. It is the work of the Church’s ascetic disciplines, taken up voluntarily for the sake of Christ and His Gospel (His Holy Resurrection) that takes the call of the Gospel out of the realm of discarnate sentimentality or pious ideas and makes it incarnate, real, in us. Christmas is where the inner Exodus begins. Its immediate destination is the Tomb of the LORD’s Pascha in the Garden, where we are born from above as children of God in hearts made new, to be led up to the top of the mountain of Eden in the real joy of the LORD’s real Resurrection! Amen!