Sunday, December 27, 2015

Sweet tinged with bitter

Christ is born!

The joy of our feasting is always tinged with a bit of sorrow. There’s always a bit of bitter mixed in the with the sweet – like a clove of garlic dipped in honey at our holy supper on Christmas Eve – or like the chrin we make for our baskets on Pascha – horseradish and beets, maybe with a bit of sugar. When St. Nicholas visits in some cultures he always leaves both goodies and a switch – because no child can be reduced to either naughty or nice – every child is good and yet also inclined to evil.

I think we can relate to these symbols, which express the paradox of our condition. God does not force us to stop hurting ourselves and each other, but out of the evil we bring into the world by our sins, he brings a greater good – like actually a greater good. Our attempts to do harm not only fail, ultimately (though they may succeed temporally) – they fail spectacularly. The greatest evil anyone ever tried to do, I believe, was kill Jesus. And out of that murder, death itself is defeated – the cross becomes the tree of life. God’s good will is always done in the end. It’s pointless to keep sinning – which really is trying to be what we are not and to do what we are not made to do. So let’s knock it off, shall we? And submit ourselves to the good Lord. “That this whole day be perfect, holy, peaceful, and without sin, let us beseech the Lord.”

As we pray at the Lamp-lighting Psalms of Vespers, “the wicked fall into the traps they have set.” Our sinful designs cannot succeed against the designs of God. The very effort we use in sinning, God turns toward some good. “If the Lord does not build the house, in vain do its builders labor.” Allowing our vain and pointless efforts to unmake the goodness he has created for us, he uses these efforts instead and even against our vain, sinful, and corrupted wills, to build his kingdom. Though we suffer and cause to suffer, through our suffering, he brings healing. Though we die, in Christ we live forever.
And so, while we yet feast, we remember that the struggle is not done. The light of Christ is shining – but he is shining in the darkness – like the star shining over Bethlehem in the night.

Today we hear of sorrow coming quickly on the heels of joy. Joy came to the holy family by the birth of their new baby, who is our Lord and God and Savior, Jesus Christ. But Herod does not share their joy. He does not rejoice at the news that the true king of Israel is born. And so, vainly, he tries to do him in – by ordering the indiscriminate massacre of the babies in those environs. These are holy innocents whom we will commemorate on Tuesday. This tragedy is a sign – pointing back to Moses, through whom God delivered Israel, and forward to our deliverance from sin and death in Christ.

Of course Herod’s efforts are vain. Of course he fails. Sin is always vain. Sin always fails. When it seems that sin holds sway, be patient. It will fail. In this case, our Father did not mean for his Son to die in this way or at this time and so an angel visits Joseph in a dream to warn him to escape into Egypt. Another Joseph once narrowly escaped murder by being forced into Egypt – Joseph, the son of Jacob. These things are all connected – both to what has gone before and to what is yet to come.

Our Lord’s incarnation, his conception, his birth, his baptism, his ministry all point toward his ultimate sacrifice, death, and resurrection for our salvation. The sacrifice of the holy innocents in the gospel today points to this – to the kind of death he would die. He is hunted and despised by some of his own people from the moment of his birth. Already the prophetic gifts of the Magi pointed to this also – Gold was for the King, frankincense for the Priest. Myrrh, however, was used to anoint the dead and so signifies that this little child was not only the priest but also the sacrifice.

 Our Lady of Perpetual HelpByzantine, 13th or 14th century
The icon of our Lady of Perpetual Help, which we venerate in our annual pilgrimage to Uniontown, beautifully illustrates the infant Christ’s premonition of his passion as angels display to him the cross and the instruments of his torture and death. He clutches his mother’s hand for comfort.

Even the date of Christmas, in a labyrinthine way, is connected to the passion of Christ. There was a common belief in the early Church that Jesus was conceived and died on the same date – which may be one reason we make such a big deal now when the Annuciation falls on Good Friday. The date of Jesus’ death, about which the gospels give much more information that his birth, was worked out by some to be March 25th, therefore this was reckoned to be also the date of his conception, therefore his nativity was reckoned nine months later: December 25th – this is one of the theories anyway, that the date for this festival of Christ’s birth is actually derived from the date of his death. The connection between his birth and death was keenly understood. Christ’s conception and his birth come with the promise of our salvation through his death and resurrection.

And so we reflect on this, even as we continue to celebrate his birth. He was not born into a world in which there was no pain and he did not choose to simply erase our pain, but to enter into it himself, to join us in it, even to use it as a means of sanctification.  

St. John Chrysostom writes about today’s gospel, “Even as He came in swaddling clothes we see a tyrant raging, a flight ensuing and a departure beyond the border. For it was because of no crime that his family was exiled into the land of Egypt. So do not be troubled if you are suffering countless dangers. Do not expect to be celebrated or crowned promptly for your troubles. Instead you may keep in mind the long-suffering example of the mother of the Child, bearing all things nobly, knowing that such a fugitive life is consistent with the ordering of spiritual things. You are sharing the kind of labor Mary herself shared. So did the Magi. They both were willing to retire secretly in the humiliating role of fugitive.”

In Christ, God is now inside our troubles and our pain and our sacrifice. "God is with us, understand all you nations, and submit yourselves for God is with us."

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