Preparing For the Nativity: Drawing Near to Bethlehem

Dear brothers and sisters, warmest greetings to you as we celebrate the memory of St Spyridon the Wonderworker, as so many of you are also marking the western Christmas celebrations with non-Orthodox family and friends.

We also greet them as they celebrate the Lord’s Nativity, and hope and pray that this will be a time for reflection upon eternal values and truths, far from the ephemeral frippery that sums up what has become little more than a mid-winter festival for many people.

As a youth I loved –  and continue to love – the homely poems of Sir John Betjeman, particularly appreciating his poem ‘Christmas’, now rather old-fashioned, but with eternal questions that must still challenge us to today…

And is it true? And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me?

And is it true? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.

As we continue our Advent journey, when the baubles and tinsel of western Christmas are put away, we will hopefully have a little space and time to reflect upon the wonder beneath the questions that Betjeman asked – “And is it true… that the Creator of heaven and earth and all that is was born and laid in the manger, and that each time we celebrate the Divine Liturgy, the God-Man, our Saviour Jesus Christ continues to be Emmanuel – “God With Us” – in His self-sacrifice and self-giving of the Holy Mystery of His Body and Blood?

In our Orthodox liturgical culture, we are reminded of this by the melismos icon in which it is the Christ-Child Who is worshipped on the diskos of the eucharist, with either angels or St John Chrysostom and St Basil the Great in supplication on each side – for it is the very Christ-Child laid in the manger in the Cave of Bethlehem, and who received the gifts of the magi Who gives Himself as His Gift to us.

We are reminded of this at the covering of the Holy Gifts at the end of the proskomedia, as the priest takes the metal star-cover, and placing it over the Lamb (and the commemorative particles) says the words,

“And the star came and stood over the place where the Young Child was.”

At the melismos of the Liturgy – the fracturing and dividing of the Lamb before communion – it is the One Who was the Young Child Who is divided for the Communion of His children with His Most Pure Body and Most Precious Blood:

“Broken and distributed is the Lamb of God: broken, yet not divided; ever eaten, though never consumed, but sanctifying them that partake thereof.”

With this in mind, as we enter the last fortnight of the Nativity Fast, culminating in the Nativity Liturgy on Sunday 7th January – according to the Civil Calendar – we should seek to partake of that great wonder – that He Who is equally the Child of Bethlehem and the Risen Saviour and Victorious Conqueror of death and hell calls us and invites us to His supper:

“Take, eat, this is My Body which is broken for you for the remission of sins… Drink of it, all of you; this is My Blood of the New Testament, which is shed for you and for many, for the remission of sins.”

In today’s Gospel for the Sunday of the Holy Forefathers, we hear of those who were to busy to come to the supper that a certain rich man arranged, and to which they were invited…

“The first said unto him, I have bought a piece of ground, and I must needs go and see it: I pray thee have me excused. And another said, I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I go to prove them: I pray thee have me excused. And another said, I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.”

Though our prime understanding of this is the refusal of the Old Israel to respond to God’s persistent and determined call for their return to Him, through His servants, the Holy Forefathers and Prophets, we should not be complacent as the New Israel and children of the Resurrection, but also see it as a cautionary warning to us.

Christ has given us the feasts of the Church and the perpetual feast of His Mystical Supper as a foretaste of the Kingdom, as a token of His love, and as the Banquet of His Church, to which all are called, regardless of age, social status, learning or knowledge, as the very ones who were called from the highways and hedges by the servants seeking new guests to bring to their master’s supper.

Like the Passover lamb of the Exodus, we cannot partake of Christ the New Passover UNLESS we partake of the Lamb of God Who takes away the sins of the world: the Lamb of God worshipped by the shepherds in the cave, Who is the Word Who became flesh and dwelt among us on that first Christmas night.

In these last days of the Fast, we prepare to meet the New Born Saviour as that very Lamb of God, Who was born and laid in the manger, to take away the sins of the world; clothed in Adam’s flesh to carry the Cross and to defeat the power of death and hell through the very flesh which He had put on; and in the coming feast of the Nativity He calls us to Himself, to each of us to worship and adore, but also to be joined to Him and have Him abiding in us through the Holy Mysteries.

As we approach the coming feast, we do not travel as magi, with costly gifts, but in our journeys of Faith many of us have travelled a very long way; far from the people we once were; far from the ideas we once held or the lives we once led; far from the things that we once thought to be the priorities of life, signs of success, well-being or achievement; far from the attachments and earthly things that once held us; and during that journey we have encountered much, perhaps changed much, and hopefully learned much – but not in terms of intellectualism and worldly knowledge, but in the simple and true wisdom that Christ has revealed and gives us, for we know that “God is the Lord, and has revealed Himself to us”

This revelation is the great gift of Christmas – God’s salvific gift of Himself to us and for us – and for those of us who preserve and live the Orthodox, Catholic and Apostolic Faith, this gift is one which is never exhausted as the Holy Mysteries of the Church are continually given to us, for our renewal and transformation, with the Eucharist as the greatest sign of Christ’s Gift to each of us, as precious individuals Whom He loves and cherishes.

To return to St Spyridon – his life as a simple rural shepherd, turned shepherd-of-souls after the death of his wife, when he was chosen and consecrated as bishop of Tremithus in Cyprus, reminds us that it is God “Who hast revealed the fishermen as most wise by sending down upon them the Holy Spirit.” It is in God that all Truth and all Wisdom is to be found, and that Truth and Wisdom was incarnate, and entered the world as a Person.

St Spyridon could almost be one of the simple shepherds who were in the hills tending their flocks by night. Unlike the Cappadocian Fathers, this simple soul did not receive a great classical education; he did not study grammar, logic, or rhetoric… mathematics, philosophy or theology; he did not know the classical Greek educational traditions or the great places of learning – and yet he was enlightened and made not only a TRUE theologian (who knows God rather than only knowing about Him), but also a wonder-worker, whose innumerable miracles never cease.

In him, divine-love, truth and wisdom made their dwelling, because his heart became the cave and the manger in which Christ found a home.

We are each called to approach the coming feast of the Nativity, like the simple shepherds, and with the simplicity and faith possessed by St Spyridon, knowing that the human heart and even the most complex and complicated lives, opened and surrendered to the New-Born Saviour in humility, faith, hope and love, can be transformed and the greatest of places, in which all things become possible through the love and mercy, and the in-dwelling of the Grace of God.

Let us approach the coming feast with awe, faith and love, desiring the Saviour to change us, banishing darkness, confusion and fear, and bringing us light and life.

In seeking Him as Light and Life, let us fast and pray, beseeching the Lord 

”…as Thou didst consent to lie in a cave and in a manger of dumb beasts, so consent also to lie in the manger of mine irrational soul and to enter into my defiled body.”

– daring to approach when we see the Deacon present the Holy Gifts at our Nativity Liturgy, hearing those familiar but ever awesome words,

“With the fear of God and faith, draw near – Со стра́хом Бо́жиим и ве́рою приступи́те.”

And, we know that our drawing near is only possible because the Love of God and God of Love did not simply draw near to us, but came searching for us when we were lost, reconciling us with Him, making peace between earth and heaven by becoming like unto us in the scandal of the Incarnation, in the seeming impossibility of the birth of the God-Man in the Cave of Bethlehem, in the shocking dereliction and suffering of the Cross, and in the glory and victory of the Life-Giving Resurrection.

This is the promise of the coming feast, hiding within the New-Born Child, the whole economy of salvation.

Troparion of the forefeast, Tone 4: Make ready, O Bethlehem! Be thou opened unto all, O Eden! Adorn thyself, O Ephratha! For in the cave the Tree of Life hath sprung forth from the Virgin. Her womb is shown to be a noetic paradise, in the midst of which is the divine Tree, whereof eating, we shall live, and not die as did Adam. Christ is born, that He might restore His image which fell of old!

Posted in Homily/Sermon, Pastoral.