Sunday after Feast of the Nativity – Orthodox Homily on Keeping the Feast of Christmas

Christ is born! The Nativity of Christ has never been a one day celebration for the Orthodox faithful. Since the day of God’s Incarnation-in-the-flesh began to be celebrated by the Church in the mid-300’s A.D, it’s been recognized as a season of worship, celebration, and great joy because the Word is made flesh and has dwelt among us. The light of the world has shown in the darkness and the world is forever changed and re-oriented toward God. It’s important for us as Orthodox in this land, so dominated by Protestantism and Catholicism, which has reduced Christmas to a one day event, and secularism, which has reduced Christmas to a consumeristic shopping spree, to keep the Feast with Christ in the center. We do so that we may be filled with Christ, that we may ‘feast’ on Him. We do so remembering that we are called to ‘baptize’ the culture with the light of the truth of Christ and His Church. In doing so, we set ourselves apart.

So, on this Sunday, we celebrate the Divine Liturgy remembering that this is a special day liturgically because it’s the Sunday After Nativity, a day to which the Church assigns special readings and reminds us again that we are in the midst of our celebration of Christ’s holy Nativity. The Christmas story is full of light, joy, and renewal: the shepherds receive the message of angels “with great joy.” The pagan magi who worshiped the stars come, bearing their gifts and follow the star to worship Him who made the stars and who is the Light of Light and the King of Kings, as we sing in the troparion of the Feast.

At the same time, the story of Christ’s Nativity is also a story of the disparate, of being separate—alone but not lonely. Where God is, there is always fullness. All that would otherwise appear as empty or lacking from a temporal perspective, is filled to overflowing with the eternal. Joseph and Mary find no room in the inn, but they are welcomed by the animals in the cave that becomes Christ’s manger, and which foreshadows His burial in the tomb at which time He harrows hades and raises the souls (and some of the bodies) of the faithful to eternal life.

Soon after Christ is born, as we read in today’s Gospel, Joseph receives word from an angel that he must flee with the Holy Child to Egypt. Imagine! From their harrowing journey to Bethlehem with Mary in travail and unable to find a place to rest and give birth, now, they must also flee. Jealous Herod has all the infant boys under two slain in his prideful fear and ignorance concerning the nature of Christ’s Kingdom. Then, after several years, after their return to Israel, Joseph and his adopted family flee again: this time to Nazareth. You could say that Christ’s early years were spent “on the run.” What courage and faith Mary and Joseph demonstrate to us.
Christ God Himself tells us, that if any man would come after Him, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Him. From His birth, to His early childhood, to His ministry, the cross, the grave, Christ goes before us in His example. He changes us from within to equip us for life with Him, eternal life.
There’s one aspect of our struggle to live out our faith in Christ that I hear more than any other in this regard: People tell me how hard it is to be a Christian these days; many often feel like they’re going it alone. So many around them: family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, fellow students are all living largely secular, even godless lives. Even as many still consider themselves more or less ‘Christian,’ the research shows us that this number is in decline in our culture; what Christianity remains is often on their terms and superficial, and, therefore, of minimal impact on how they live their lives, how they stand out as witnesses in the hedonistic culture at large. This leaves those who truly strive to live out the life in Christ, to deny themselves, to take up that cross, in a seeming lonely place—in their families or among their neighbors or classmates—in possessing the fear and love for God that others scoff at, in submitting themselves to the Gospel and the Orthodox Faith, which is, in so many ways, so counter-cultural and politically incorrect.
What secularism gives people is an ‘excuse’ (at least, to themselves) to not believe, to not be accountable, an excuse to not examine their lives, of doing battle with sin and seeking healing from their sin-sickness. But, let’s recognize that this is not the only generation where it’s easier and more popular not to be a Christian, let alone to be an Orthodox Christian: we think of the persecution in the pagan era and that in the Communist era. Many before us have bravely testified and lived the faith and died for their life in Christ in the face of great adversity.

Tomorrow, New Years, we celebrate the Feast of St. Basil, known as one of the great Fathers of the Church of the 4th century. We remember that when the pagan emperor, Julian the Apostate, passed by Caesarea, where St. Basil was bishop. There was a great famine in the land. All they could offer the great emperor was three loaves of bread. The insulted pagan emperor returned the bread with a hand full of dry grass and a promise to destroy Caesarea upon his return from battle. St. Basil instructed the faithful to offer up all their gold and jewelry and to join him in praying for a miracle, asking the holy Theotokos to intercede. Just as the service of the Paraklesis had finished, word came to St. Basil that the Emperor had been killed in battle. Caesarea was saved because her inhabitants feared God more than man.

Similarly, the Israelites were taunted by the Philistine giant, Goliath. All feared him and refused to fight against him except the shepherd boy, David, whose trust was not in his size but in the one, true God. David loved God and could not bear to hear Him mocked by the godless. With one pebble, God enabled him to fell the Philistine giant and save God’s people from slavery.

Another Cappadocian, St. John Chrysostom openly challenged the opulent living of the Empress Eudoxia and was sent on a ‘death march’ in the Caucasus; he alone was willing to speak out to her excesses, to be faithful to the truth of Christ, whatever the consequences. Likewise, St. Athanasius remarks, that he woke up one day and found that the world had turned to the heresy of Arias, who blasphemously insisted that “there was a time when Christ was not.” Four centuries later, those who kept the Orthodox Faith in the time of the iconoclasts faced great persecution for the sake of the Truth “once delivered to the Saints.” The three holy youths, like Daniel, refused to worship the golden image of Nebuchadnezzar. They withstood the tyrant and his fiery furnace rather than comprise their faith in the one, true God.

What God teaches us in His call to deny ourselves and take up our cross, in the countless examples we have in the martyrs, is that this world is not, cannot be, our true home, if we are to become inheritors of eternal life. Just as there was no room for Christ in the inn, so too, this world makes no room for Him in their hearts. So too, they will reject you who have Christ.
But the Good News is that those whose identity is grounded in Christ and His Church, who have put on Christ through baptism and become His adopted sons and daughters, who have rejected the hold of the world, are never alone. The Good News brought by the Archangel reminds us of this truth: “You shall bear a Son and His name shall be called, ‘Emmanuel’ (God with us). “God with us” is manifested in and through our life in the Church. When you and I avail ourselves of the Church, we’re assured that in our striving and struggling to follow Christ faithfully, we too will be victors over this world for, as Christ reassures us, “the gates of hell shall not prevail against her” (Matt. 16:18). The holy icons remind us of this truth that Emmanuel is with us, even now; Christ is reflected in the faces of the Saints, and, as He is seen and experienced in the Holy Gifts of His precious Body and Blood, the abiding Gift of Himself to His Bride, the Church.
This is why, brothers and sisters, that it’s so important that we make time to worship together; that we make Saturday evenings and Sunday mornings, as well as the feast days of the Church, sacred time, set aside time, to worship the Holy Trinity together, as the Body of Christ, as this church family. To be victors over the world and find our identity in our new life in Christ, our “second birth,” we need more of Holy Church and not church on the periphery, or on our own terms. Otherwise, we may find “we have gained the whole world, but forfeited our souls.”
Every time you walk through our church’s doors and light a candle, I want you to remember, that you are not alone in your struggle to live out your faith in a culture or family or work or school environment of disbelief, skepticism, confusion. Emmanuel is here! Christ God was born in a lonely cave for our salvation. Joseph and Mary had no one else. But God provided a family to share in their joy: the shepherds in the field who received the news from the angels and the magi who came in their own due time to worship the new-born babe, Jesus, Emanuel.
This is where the Feast of the Nativity leads us: not you or me, but we, Christ and the Church which He’s entrusted to us, which communes us with Him, Emmanuel, so that we may always find the strength and courage to bear witness to the light and truth in a world that walks in darkness. Christ is born!

Fr. Robert Miclean
Holy Archangels Orthodox Church
Sunday After Nativity, 31 January 2017

Epistle: Gal. 1:11-19 Sunday After
Gospel: Matt. 2:13-23 Sunday After