The Feast of the Nativity of Christ is about God, the invisible, the undepictable, becoming visible, becoming incarnate and walking among us. But there is another side to this feast that we often forget.
St. Athanasius describes it best, “God became man so that man could become god.” We must reflect on this fuller meaning of the feast. God becoming man requires a response from us.
The secular world around us, even here in our own country has so totally distorted the meaning of this feast that it has actually become the exact opposite of it’s real meaning.
God has taken on our material body, so that He might give us the greatest gift, His eternal, heavenly, immaterial life. But instead of being moved by His gift with responsive gratitude and love, we respond to His gift by engrossing ourselves in the desire for material wealth, seeking not the immaterial beauties which Christ offers us, but earthly comforts, security and glory in this life, giving no thought to our God-like souls, and their communion with God.
Our response to the incarnation has become a materialistic frenzy of buying. Our national economy is built around Christmas buying starting on Black Friday until Christmas Eve. And the romantic fantasy of a snowy Christmas with a fireplace and a glowing Christmas Tree captures the imagination of most people.
But what does all this have to do with the Incarnation of the God-Man Jesus Christ … Nothing! Absolutely nothing! How cleverly the demons have slowly and gradually over the past century changed this feast that they hate so much, into a celebration that is much more to their liking. Instead of celebrating the spiritual transformation of the world, this feast has become the celebration of materialism, commercialism and hedonism.
In almost all of the traditional Christian countries of the western world, Christmas, the Feast of the Nativity of Christ is in danger of becoming a totally secular winter holiday celebrating Santa Claus and gift giving. In America there is an increasing vigorous effort to remove all mention of Christ from the celebration of Christmas.
Recently at the University of Tennessee a ruling was made that no Christmas music could be sung at school events that mentioned Christ or the Virgin Mary. All Christmas music had to be secular. The traditional greetings of “Merry Christmas” is being replaced with “Happy Holidays” so that no one is offended.
Our country is seeing a tremendous change occurring right before our eyes. Within my own life time, our country has gone from seeing itself as a Christian country to seeing itself as a totally secular country. And this secular view of America is being rigorously enforced at the highest levels of our government today.
Just a few days ago someone sent me a copy of President Truman’s Christmas Message of 1949. In his address to the nation which was broadcasted to the whole country by radio, the President of the United States said:
We miss the spirit of Christmas if we consider the Incarnation as an indistinct and doubtful, far-off event unrelated to our present problems. We miss the purpose of Christ’s birth if we do not accept it as a living link which joins us together in spirit as children of the ever-living and true God. In love alone—the love of God and the love of man—will be found the solution of all the ills which afflict the world today.
This was the President of the United States speaking to the American people … unthinkable today.
How far is this spiritual message from our government today. How difficult it is for us to watch as our nation descends into darkness, turning it’s back on God and relying only on our wealth and technology to save us.
How should Orthodox Christians respond to this secularization of the Nativity of Christ?
We Russian Orthodox Christians are blessed that we can celebrate the birth of Our Saviour on January 7, after all the commercialism of Christmas is over. But we have something to fear too. We must not be smug about this and think that our celebration of the Nativity of Christ on January 7 is purer and better. That we are free from the distortions of this feast that we see all around us. We must ask ourselves if we are really celebrating this feast as it should be? Is our understanding of this feast correct?
We can thank God for our Orthodox Faith and that our Russian Orthodox Church has resisted the commercialism of this feast. But for us, the profound message of the Feast of the Nativity of Christ, can easily be overlooked in our celebrations.
God became man so that man could become god!
For us Orthodox Christians there must be two parts to our celebration. We celebrate the birth of the Son of God but are we also celebrating the possibility of our own deification? Do we realize what Christ is offering to us?
It is easy and even pleasant to celebrate the Nativity of Our Saviour on January 7, but we Russian Orthodox Christians can’t feel satisfied with just that. We will be missing half of the spiritual joy of this important feast.
We are being called by Christ Himself to partake of His life. To be united to Him. He is inviting us to enter into union with Him and asking us if we will allow Him to enter into us, to take up His abode in us.
So what is our response to the message of this great feast? Shall we just celebrate the birth of Christ or shall we actually try to respond to His birth? Shall we really try to be united to Him?
The easy response to this invitation is to think that I must become more virtuous, strive to be good, to be kind and loving, patient, forgiving, chaste, truthful and trustworthy, all this is good but is Christianity really just about acquiring these virtues? Is this the goal of our spiritual life as Orthodox Christians? Is our response to the Incarnation to be nothing more than behavior modification?
Not at all. This is not true Christianity. The virtues are not to be sought out as the goal of our spiritual life. The goal of our spiritual life is to be united to Christ in this life and the virtues are simply the natural expression of this union, the flowering of our being united to Christ.
We can try with all our might to be kind, patient, loving and forgiving and maybe we can sustain this for awhile. But eventually we will burn out! The strength to posses these virtues comes only from our union with Christ. If we have truly tried to seek Christ above all else, if we have prayed from our heart daily with tears and sincere repentance then we are indeed on the narrow road to union with Christ which is salvation.
This feast we are celebrating, invites us, it beckons us to seek Christ above all else, it calls us to unite ourselves to Christ, it offers us only the invitation to this union. It does not force us. That would not be the way of love because love can only be given where there is freedom to accept or reject the beloved.
So my dear brothers and sisters, what shall be our response to this great Feast of the Nativity of Christ? Shall we just celebrate the great mystery that God has become man or shall we respond to the invitation of Christ? Shall we enter into that mystery and really seek to be united to Him?
The answer for our secularized, godless society is not to be found in arguing in the political arena. What we see during Western Christmas is a symptom of a society that is seeking to live without God. What our society and our world today needs more than anything is for us Orthodox Christians to really live our faith. For us to focus all our energy on seeking Christ above all else. To have Christ living within us. To witness to the saving truth that God has become man, so that man could become god.
As my beloved patron St. Seraphim said, “acquire the peace of God in your soul and a thousand souls around you will be saved”. This has to be our response to the secularization of our country and the feast of Christmas.
There is great hope for our country and our world, but it has to begin with each one of us realizing what we are called to and responding to that.
What our country and our world needs so much today is for us to realize what we are being called to and to respond to this invitation.
My dear brothers and sisters, Christ is born!
On this Sunday we celebrate the Synaxis of the Holy Unmercenary Healers, or, as they are also called, the “physicians without silver.” They are those saints who, out of pure love of God and neighbor, healed the sick and mended the souls of others while asking nothing in return. It was a pure self-sacrifice born out of love. Today we remember the great saints Cyrus and John, Tryphon, Artemius, and the others, as well as Cosmas and Damian, who lived and were martyred in Roman times. And of course, we also remember and honor our great patron, the martyr and healer Panteleimon.
In the Gospel of the Rich man and Lazarus which is appointed for this Sunday, there is a very pertinent message for all of us modern American Christians. The Gospel begins by saying, There was a certain rich man, who was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day.
This is the American dream isn’t it? To have all the money that you could possibly want, to wear the best designer clothes and to dine on the finest gourmet foods. This great American dream … is described so well by Our Saviour in this Gospel Parable thousands of years ago.