While Americans commonly dream of being rich or winning the lottery or having an abundance of wealth, many Christian writers in the early Patristic period accepted scriptural warnings that wealth, or the desire for it, often caused spiritual shipwrecks and disasters for people because the wealth itself caused them to become more self centered, more concerned about self preservation, and actually turned them away from loving others. In the Pauline corpus of writings we find these strong words:
But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evils; it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs. But as for you, man of God, shun all this; aim at righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. … As for the rich in this world, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on uncertain riches but on God who richly furnishes us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good deeds, liberal and generous, thus laying up for themselves a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life which is life indeed.(1 Timonty 6:9-11,17-19)
Despite such warnings, the lure of wealth, a life of ease and leisure, of buying power have continued to be Greek Sirens to our hearts. [Many would deny they want to be rich but would insist they only want enough to live comfortably. But of course by comparison to the ancient world, our ideas of a decent standard of living are way above what most people in the ancient world could ever have dreamed of having.] We are sure that we can serve mammon and God (Matthew 6:24) even if Jesus said that is not possible.
The Patristic writers were convinced of something that easily gets twisted and distorted in the minds of those who imagine religion as solidifying the oppression of the poor by the ruling class or, conversely, who imagine the prosperous are always enemies of the poor. What the Patristic writers thought is that wealth and all natural resources are gifts from God given so that humanity can learn to care for one another, to share with one another, to maintain civilization, to nurture one another, and to help each other prosper. In their thinking, the poor of the world should be seen by those with goods as opportunities to practice being human – to share with, to love, to give generously to, to be charitable towards and with whom one can demonstrate mercy and compassion. In the Patristic Christian mindset, the poor and needy are not threats to those with goods, but opportunities for each of us to practice being god-like with [“be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45)] . We are to be merciful as God our Father is merciful (Luke 6:36). Those blessed with some wealth are those who are given extra responsibility in society to help others prosper. Civic duty calls for all to respect each other and to serve each other. As some Fathers pointed out, if we relied on the rich to actually do the physical labor of building roads, bridges, buildings, nothing would get done. We are dependent on all kinds of people to have cities, services and civilization.
So St. John Chrysostom writes:
“Do you see the Lord’s loving kindness, how he arranges everything with our salvation in mind? So when you consider that it is for you and your welfare that that person is beset with want and perishing from starvation, don’t pass him by heartlessly, but prove a faithful steward of what had been entrusted to you by the Lord so that by alleviating the poor person’s needs you may win such favor from on high. And praise the Lord for allowing that person to live in need for the sake of you and your salvation in order that you may be able to find the way to be in a position both to wash away your sins and by managing properly what has been entrusted to you by the Lord to be accorded that commendation which exceeds all thought and description. You will hear, in fact, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant, you have been faithful in a few things, I will set you over many; enter into the joy of your Lord.’ Understanding this, let us look on the poor as our benefactors, able to afford us the basis of our salvation, and let us give with generosity and a joyful spirit, never being tardy in our offering, but conversing with them with great restraint and showing great meekness. ‘Incline your ear to a beggar,’ remember, ‘and respond peaceably to him in meekness’ so that even before your gift, you may lift his spirit from the dejection of great need with the gentleness of your words. Scripture says, remember, ‘a kind word is better than an offering’; so speech is able both to lift the spirit and bring it much comfort.” (Homilies on Genesis 18-45, pp 293-294)
Chrysostom acknowledges the truth that the Lord Jesus affirmed: as long as human society exists, the poor will always be with us (Mark 14:7). Since this is the case, we need to see what opportunity to practice mercy, generosity, charity, is always before us. We humans are created to love one another, which includes protecting those who cannot defend themselves, caring for those in need, sharing with those who lack sufficient goods, alleviating suffering when we can, assisting those who need help. Chrysostom does not envision some utopian state where there are no needs or no poverty. Rather, he envisions that we as Christians will strive to help the poor who will always be with us. Chrysostom did think poverty and inequality were the result of sin, and as long as the world of the fall exists, poverty and inequality will be in the world. Therefore we always have opportunity to practice mercy, charity, ministry, service, grace, healing, lifting of burdens, generosity and love. The opportunities will not end because we practice these virtues, for love is for Christians always a choice we make in dealing with others.
We can remember the narrative in Acts 3:1-8 –
“And a man lame from birth was being carried, whom they laid daily at that gate of the temple which is called Beautiful to ask alms of those who entered the temple. Seeing Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked for alms. And Peter directed his gaze at him, with John, and said, “Look at us.” And he fixed his attention upon them, expecting to receive something from them. But Peter said, “I have no silver and gold, but I give you what I have; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” And he took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. And leaping up he stood and walked and entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God.”
Even the lack of material possessions or wealth does not prevent us from being charitable, merciful or compassionate. The Apostles Peter and John had no money, yet they were still willing to give to the beggar what they could. All of us can look into lives, into our hearts and souls to see what it is we may have to offer to those in need.
As Bill Withers sang in “Lean on Me“:
You just call on me, brother, when you need a hand We all need somebody to lean on I just might have a problem that you’ll understand We all need somebody to lean on
Lean on me when you’re not strong And I’ll be your friend, I’ll help you carry on For it won’t be long ‘Til I’m gonna need somebody to lean on
My episcopacy will be built upon my weakness and not my strengths. This is where the work of the Cross continues as I experience another new baptismal moment in my life. Saint Paul speaks of this reality in 2 Corinthians 12: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and calamities, for when I am weak, then I am strong.”
For me to be a “successful bishop,” I must make those words of Saint Paul my own and live by them. What is the fruit of carrying my cross, which is really His Cross? What should it look like in the life of a Bishop?
By the Grace of the Holy Spirit I need to carry this Cross with joy! People have enough burdens and difficulties to deal with in daily life. They need to see in the example of their Bishop one who sees the Cross not as a heavy burden that is carried with resentment, but as the light yoke for which Christ wants us to come to Him and give to us, so that we might find rest. In His ultimate voluntary act of self-surrender, the Cross, Christ was motivated by the joy set before Him: He offered Himself on behalf of everyone and everything to call us to repentance and to bring us into His Kingdom. That was His Joy!
Bishop Paul also on the eve of his consecration said:
People need to see in their Bishop someone who is transparent and has the courage to admit his failings and ask forgiveness when he is in the wrong. I can continue to go on with many attributes, but they all bear witness to one unifying reality. People need to see in their Bishop someone who is truly humble, where his yes means yes and his no means no. The ministry of the Bishop is not his ministry, but it is the ministry of Christ Incarnate!
“O womb, in which the decree of our liberation was composed!
O belly, in which were forged weapons to oppose the devil!
O field, in which the cultivator of human nature, without seed, made grain spring up!
O temple, in which God became a priest, not changing our nature, but reclothing it, in his mercy, with that which he is, according to the order of Melchizedek![…]
When he appeared in the Virgin’s woman, he clothed himself in condemnation. There occurred the tremendous exchange: he gave the Spirit; he received flesh; he was both with the Virgin and from the Virgin; with the Virgin in overshadowing her; from the Virgin in taking his flesh from her.” (Mary and the Fathers of the Church by Luigi Gambero, pp 254-255)
In Matthew 2:13-23, we encounter a Christmas story not much celebrated commercially: the slaughter of the Holy innocent children by King Herod.
Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, “Arise, take the young Child and His mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I bring you word; for Herod will seek the young Child to destroy Him.” When he arose, he took the young Child and His mother by night and departed for Egypt, and was there until the death of Herod, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, “Out of Egypt I called My Son.”
Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, was exceedingly angry; and he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had Then was fulfilled what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying: A voice was heard in Ramah, Lamentation, weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, Refusing to be comforted, Because they are no more.”
Now when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, “Arise, take the young Child and His mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the young Child’s life are dead.” Then he arose, took the young Child and His mother, and came into the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea instead of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And being warned by God in a dream, he turned aside into the region of Galilee. And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, “He shall be called a Nazarene.”
“Herod, the slave of all the God-hating passions on earth, was wroth and, in his fury, sent his executioners to slay all the children in Bethlehem and all the surrounding region, of two years old and under. This, that Pharaoh had done to all the children in Egypt, Herod now did to the children in Bethlehem. It often happens with us that we commit the sin we condemn in others. It is not said that the executioners slew the children but that Herod did. The Evangelist means in this way to place the whole blame for this bloody act on him who ordered it – on Herod, and not on those who carried it out. Herod was responsible before God for it, not the executioners. Such a satanic plan was not likely to have occurred to the executioners – to slaughter so many innocent children in order to kill the One who was in their way. Herod alone was guilty. The Evangelist seeks by this to teach us to beware of doing evil through others. If we incite anyone to kill, we have killed, and not he; if we incite anyone to commit adultery, we have done this, not he; if we incite anyone to commit any sort of sin, we are the sinners, not he. Were the Evangelist to record the sin of a man we had incited to sin, he would put our name, not his, as in this case he speaks of Herod alone as the murderer, and not the executioners, not even naming them. Herod sent and killed. He did not say whom Herod sent, but only that he sent. It is immaterial whom he sent because, at God’s judgment, it will be Herod alone who is summoned to answer for this crime.” ( Homilies, p 56)
“Giving birth is arduous, as we see in Mary’s reclining figure, resting after labor – and so is the labor to believe. Mary has completed this stage of her struggle, but Joseph still grapples with his. The them is not only Joseph’s bewildered face. The rigorous black of the cave of Christ’s birth in the center of the icon represents all human disbelief, all fear, all hopelessness. In the midst of a starless night in the cave of our despair, Christ, ‘the Sun of Truth,’ enters history having been clothed in flesh in Mary’s body. It is just as the Evangelist John said in the beginning of his Gospel: ‘The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.’ The Nativity icon is in sharp contrast to the sentimental imagery we are used to in western Christmas art. In the icon there is no charming Bethlehem bathed in the light of the nativity star but only a rugged mountain with a few plants. The austere mountain suggests a hard, unwelcoming world in which survival is a real battle – the world since our expulsion from Paradise.[…]We see that the Christ child’s body is wrapped ‘in swaddling clothes.’ In icons of Christ’s burial, you will see he is wearing similar bands of cloth. We also see them around Lazarus, in the icon of his raising by Christ. In the Nativity icon, the manger looks much like a coffin. In this way, the icon links birth and death. The poet Rilke says we bear our death within us from the moment of birth. The icon of the Nativity says the same. Our life is one piece and its length of much less importance than its purity and truthfulness.” (Jim Forest, Praying With Icons, pp 90-91)
In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.(Hebrews 1:1-2)
In our parish we encounter the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ on many levels and in various ways. During the liturgical services, we hear proclaimed several Gospel lessons from SS Matthew and Luke giving us the ancient narrative of the events. Our church school performs a nativity play in which they tell in narrative and song the story of the birth of Christ, and they act out the details of the story for us to consider the simplicity of God entering the world He created.
Our choir does a presentation of scripture lessons and carols offering us a retelling of the Nativity in poetry and music, both liturgical and folk. We have icons of Christ, the Theotokos and the Feast to contemplate. And there are the liturgical hymns which proclaim the Feast and reveal its theological depth to us. One of the hymns from the Vespers of the Nativity reminds us why we needed a Savior in the first place, and how the incarnation of God the Word brings to an end so many of the obstacles which separated us humans from God. Human sin had created such barriers between us and our Creator causing an enmity between us. God in His love for us worked to break through that separation in order to reunite us, our humanity, with God. The hymn begins:
COME, LET US GREATLY REJOICE IN THE LORD AS WE TELL OF THIS PRESENT MYSTERY! THE DIVIDING WALL HAS BEEN DESTROYED; THE FLAMING SWORD TURNS BACK,
Genesis 3 gives us the theological narrative in which as a consequence of human sin, humanity finds itself in an unexpected hostile relationship with God and the world. The Christmas hymn describes how with the incarnation of God in Christ the results of human sin – the formation of a dividing wall between human creatures and their Creator, the expulsion and exile from Paradise and the angelic host being tasked with keeping humans out of Paradise – are themselves done away with.
THE CHERUBIM WITHDRAW FROM THE TREE OF LIFE, AND I PARTAKE OF THE DELIGHT OF PARADISE FROM WHICH I WAS CAST OUT THROUGH DISOBEDIENCE.
The hymn moves from the general negative effects of sin on humanity, to the personal experience of salvation and “my” restoration to Paradise. Note in the hymn it is not Adam’s sin, some “original sin”, which is the problem. I have disobeyed God and it is my personal disobedience which has caused my alienation from God. Thus I am in need of salvation, not just because I am human or because I belong to the human race, but because Ihave sinned. I need to take personal responsibility for my separation from God. This is the beginning of repentance, of the fear of God, of love for God. This is the beginning of my participating in my salvation, of cooperating with God, of divine-human synergy.
FOR THE EXPRESS IMAGE OF THE FATHER, THE IMPRINT OF HIS ETERNITY, TAKES THE FORM OF A SERVANT, AND WITHOUT UNDERGOING CHANGE HE COMES FORTH FROM AN UNWEDDED MOTHER.
Jesus is “the express image of the Father.” In Genesis 1, when God creates us humans in His image and likeness, we are made in the image of the Son of God. The “image of God” that we bear is not some abstraction but personal; we are created in the image of the person of the Son of God. The very person in whose image we each are created reveals that image when He becomes incarnate as Jesus Christ. Christ is the icon, the image, the pattern or type, for each of us human beings. At Christmas, in the birth of our Savior, in the person of Jesus, we come to see God’s image in which we each are created.
FOR WHAT HE WAS, HE HAS REMAINED: TRUE GOD, AND WHAT HE WAS NOT, HE HAS TAKEN UPON HIMSELF, BECOMING MAN THROUGH LOVE FOR MANKIND.
The Word of God, in whose image we are each created, become Himself human. The mystery of Christmas is how Christ, now a human being, remains God. All separation and alienation between God and humans caused by sin is destroyed. Humanity is raised on high with divinity. And so we proclaim our salvation in the birth of Christ our Lord.
UNTO HIM, LET US CRY ALOUD:// O GOD BORN OF A VIRGIN, HAVE MERCY ON US!
The Feast of the Nativity of Christ is celebrated at the time of year, the beginning of winter, when the days begin to reverse the autumn-long trend toward shorter days with longer and colder night time hours.
We now will enjoy more daylight each day through spring into summer. Christmas comes as a glowing light into the cold darkness of winter. Many cultures ancient and modern keep some kind of feast for the winter solstice, and the reawakening of the sun, longer daylight hours and the retreating of darkness. We Christians see the season as a sign of the Creator God’s own activity in the world. We do not hope only in the sun to warm our hearts, h0mes and lives. For Christmas celebrates the birth of God’s Son in the world – born of the Virgin Mary, born for our salvation. We have the warmth of faith, full of the Holy Spirit.
CHRIST IS BORN, GLORIFY HIM; CHRIST IS FROM HEAVEN, RECEIVE HIM. CHRIST IS ON EARTH, BE LIFTED UP. SING TO THE LORD ALL THE EARTH, AND PRAISE HIM WITH JOY ALL PEOPLE, FOR HE HAS BEEN GLORIFIED!
Whatever hope the winter solstice can give us in those longer, better, warmer and more light filled days are ahead, we have the greater hope:
Christ is born!
The joys of earth will be far exceeded by those in God’s kingdom. May we all continue to move toward that Kingdom now and in the New Year to come! I thank each of you for being sources of hope in the world In each of you Christ is born, and so you become daily sources of Christmas in our lives.
“…The Incarnation identified as the moment when the love of God for human being reveals itself to the highest degree and when human beings are called, in turn, to respond to the love of God with their own love for God:”
Metropolitan Hilarion goes on to quote St. Isaac the Syrian, who makes for us the connection between God’s incarnation in Jesus Christ and Christ’s own voluntary death on the cross for the salvation of all mankind:
“God the Lord surrendered his own Son to death on the cross for the fervent love of creation…Yet this was not because he could not redeem us in another way, but so that his surpassing love, manifested hereby, might be a teacher unto us. And by the death of his Only-begotten Son he made us near to himself. Yea, if he had had anything more precious, he would have given it to us, so that by it our race might be his own. Because of his great love for us it was his pleasure not to do violence to our freedom, although he is able to do so, but he chose that we should draw near to him by the love of our understanding. For the sake of his love for us and obedience to his Father, Christ joyfully took upon himself insult and sorrow…In like manner, when the saints become perfect, they all attain to this perfection, and by the superabundant outpouring of their love and compassion on all men, they resemble God.” (The Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian by Hilarion Alfeyev, pp 49-50)