Dear brothers and sisters, Christ is Born! Glorify Him!
Greetings to you as on this Christmas night in which we have celebrated the vigil of the Nativity and look forward to crowning our services with the Divine Liturgy of Christmas morning.
During the litia of Great Compline, we chanted:
“Heaven and earth have now joined together today, since Christ hath been born. Today God hath come to earth and man hath ascended to the heavens. Today, He Who is invisible by nature is seen in the flesh for mankind’s sake…”
“…man hath ascended to the heavens.”
For those of us who were raised outside the Orthodox Church, where did we ever hear such a profound and shocking truth? Were we ever taught that Christmas is the synaxis, the joining of the heavenly and earthly as God becomes a child and lies in a manger?
Yes, we were taught that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and that God became man, but where, in western Christmas carols did we encounter the Nativity being celebrated as the ascension of mankind into heaven?
The western earthbound view of Christmas often sees the heavens opening as the angels appear to the shepherds, but such is the ‘downward’ focus that perspective and vision hardly look up, failing to appreciate that heaven has opened not simply to allow the descent of the herald angels, but for the ascent of humanity.
In my homily for the Sunday of the Forefathers, I spoke of the Gospels of the genealogy of the Saviour being Gospels of ascent (despite their seeming stasis and inertia), as humanity ascended towards the birth of the Redeemer.
Through the generations of the righteous, God prepared Israel and the whole world for the birth of the God-Man, in whom heaven and earth meet and through whose salvific life, death and resurrection mankind is truly called to ascent into the heavens.
This historical unfolding of the generations was the true ascent of man, not through scientific, economic and social progress and advance. To where has that brought us? To a world torn apart by war, plagued by poverty, disease, starvation and ecological crisis; a world in which governments erode rights and liberties and brainwash millions of people to not only believe, but to actively embrace the loss of their own liberties.
The great ascent was that of humanity to the cave of the Nativity, where pilgrims have venerated the place of Christ’s birth since the earliest Christian centuries, and in the babe laid in the manger in that cave, we see not only the restoration of Adam and Eve, but their ascent together with the other righteous ones we have commemorated so recently – among them, the Righteous Abel, Seth, Enos, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the Twelve Patriarchs, Jesse, David and Solomon. The babe laid in the manger was their child, their flesh and their blood, and through each succeeding generation the forefathers and foremothers had journeyed and ascended to this unlikely birth-place and wondrous birth.
Though Christ raised them to the eights of heaven in the Harrowing of Hell, the fulfilment of this ascent (for all but Enoch and Elijah), will be in His Second Coming at the end of time.
Yet, by His first advent and coming in the flesh, this very ascent was made possible as heaven was opened, expectantly awaiting the return of the New Adam born of the New Eve, whose Incarnation was to raise up the children of both the Old Israel of the Circumcision and the New Israel of the Church to the glory of the Kingdom.
Each year, as we celebrate Christ’s Advent and Nativity, we are challenged to ask ourselves how we and our spiritual lives fit into this calling to the ascent of humanity into God’s Kingdom.
As the years pass and we return to the rich and deeply theological hymns of the feast, have we become any closer to the Lord and made any ‘upward’ progress towards the Kingdom that the Nativity has opened to us?
Indeed, just in the forty days of Advent, have we made any progress towards the heavenly calling of the baptismal mystery at the nativity of our lives in Christ?
Have we made any progress laying aside the worldly things which weigh us down, allowing us to mount upwards towards Christ?
Have we made any progress in casting off the spiritual shackles that hold us down?
Have we made any progress in cultivating the virtues by labour in prayer and fasting, in asceticism, renunciation and non-acquisitiveness?
Have we become any more like the fleshless angels who proclaimed the glory of Christ’s birth, or does the flesh weigh us down to the earth?
Have we – in the terminology of St Seraphim – spiritually-traded and invested wisely and well to obtain Divine Grace – the gift of the Holy Spirit?
As we celebrate the Nativity, each of us should be asking ourselves such challenging questions.
Also, will we be any different after this yearly celebration, with the Holy Days joining the celebrations of the Lord’s Nativity and Baptism, or will we remain unchanged after the spiritual focus of these festal days has faded?
The magi travelled from afar, and having fallen down and worshipped the Child laid in the manger, they went home ‘a different way’, not simply by an alternative route, but as changed people, celebrated by the Church as some of the first to be touched by the Light of Christ.
What of the shepherds who received the witness of heaven itself in the wonderful words of the angelic host – “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, goodwill to men…”?
How can they have not been changed after witnessing such a wonder and being led to the unlikely Messiah lying in an animals’ feeding trough? They must have been profoundly affected and changed, not just for a few weeks, but for the rest of their earthly lives through the wondrous mystery that came to pass.
Let this feast challenge us to change our lives, to wake up and act – calling us to the heights of heaven, to progress from glory to glory, so that we may ultimately glorify God in His Kingdom.
May God bless you, and may your celebration of the Lord’s Nativity be filled with joy and the fervent desire to struggle for the heights of heaven.
In Christ – Hieromonk Mark